Melding the vocal stylings of Bill Withers and James Taylor together into a soulful American roots-music mix, Lees latest (his fourth album) includes a wide range of guest musicians and amps up his arranging skills with more complexity than previous releases. He brings Lucinda Williams in for a duet on Clear Blue Eyes to great effect, while Willie Nelson steps in on a secondary version of Lees song El Camino, although Lees Nelson-free version is as good as, if not better than, the collaborative take on the tune. Other standouts include the downtrodden but pretty Out of the Cold, the joyful Violin, the well-constructed balladry of Stay With Me, and the pensive-meets-instructive Learned a Lot.
The Decemberists - The King is Dead - Capitol
Taking a stripped-down approach to their songs as a deliberate departure from the more elaborate, pin-detailed concoctions of years past, The Decemberists have also brought in more of a country-indie-folk influence on their new set, which includes guitar work on several tracks by one of the albums inspirations, R.E.M.s guitarist Peter Buck. Recorded at a converted farm, the band aimed to construct the new tracks in as spare a format as possible, and that idea is showcased on such tracks as the chime-y Calamity Song, the harmonica-laden Down by the Water, the delicate Dear Avery, and the more peppy This is Why We Fight, which pays musical homage to Johnny Marr.
Bright Eyes - The Peoples Key - Saddle Creek
Main Bright Eyes man Conor Oberst has settled in nicely with his mostly-permanent band configuration of himself, Nate Walcott, and Mike Mogis, and that more solid standard shows through here in Bright Eyes latest set of well-anchored songs. Obersts distinctive vocals still float above the proceedings; but of note here is the fact that the entire set is quite a bit more peppy than earlier albums, complete with more direct rawk guitar sounds, a dose of rambling spoken-word, and plenty of wacky samples and loops to add interest. Approximated Sunlight is about as low as it gets; otherwise, tracks like Triple Spiral, Easy/Lucky/Free, and Beginners Mind find Oberst in a much better mood than usual.
Cold War Kids - Mine is Yours - Interscope
Uber-catchy and still firmly in grasp of their indie-rock sensibilities, Cold War Kids worked with producer Jacquire King (Modest Mouse, Kings of Leon) on their latest collection of tunes, and Kings big-budget sound added just enough sheen to the proceedings, but not so much as to take away what CWK do best. The title track is sharply put together, and starts the album off with a nod to the hooks that will follow, from the bass floor of the catchy Royal Blue and the harmony-laden Skip the Charades, to the arena-ready Bulldozer, the equally earwormy Broken Open, and lead single Louder Than Ever. There are plenty of both musically and lyrically-diverse moments here, a great set from a continually growing band.