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Wuthering Heights

Rapture
Songs for the Withering (Century Media)

One day darkness showed up at my door. . . . For some inexplicable reason, a number of Scandinavian black-metal bands have fallen under the spell of Emily Brontë. With their picturesquely despairing lyrics and gloomy guitars, it’s as if these noisy hatemongers had a change of heart and fled their respective urban hells for some frigidly windswept heath, seeking solace in the fog-enshrouded moonlight (and eventually finding their way to Century Media). Solitary Emily is more than a muse—she’s also art-director-in-spirit, judging by the flow of CD covers made from shadowy photographs of bleak still lifes or deserted interiors. As the title indicates, Songs for the Withering, from Finland’s Rapture, fits solidly in this melancholy milieu, which is slowly but surely growing stateside. Although the band aren’t breaking any new hallowed ground, Songs is a satisfying revel in “the hopeless wreckage of heartbreak,” made memorable by frequent interludes of shivering grandeur.

Rapture’s well-received 2000 debut, Futile, was tagged as a Katatonia clone, so for the follow-up, the band enlisted singer Henry Villeberg to augment Petri Eskelinen’s deathly growl. The contrast in styles is effective, while Villeberg’s plaintive soloing allows Rapture to cover more emotional terrain: “Two Dead Names,” with its harpsichordy guitar and keening chorus, will stir even the most charred sensibility. Lyrically, the disc alternates between Villeberg’s romantic doldrums and Eskelinen’s doleful ruminations, yet as a whole, Songs is unflaggingly uptempo. The surging chug of the rhythm section, the sparing use of double bass and kick drum, and the hooky, down-tuned melodies produce the gloomy exhilaration of a rain-lashed twilight, although it’s the elegiacal guitars that contribute most to the disc’s powerful atmospherics, especially on the smoldering “Gallows.”

Trying to find a distinctive voice in a confined field has its pitfalls, however, and the band’s growing pains are evident on a couple of tracks that accommodate Villeberg to a fault. “The Vast” is dismayingly accessible, even radio-friendly (as in U.S., not Finnish radio); and on “The Great Distance” he pushes his deep funk to the point of singing off-key and contorting the lyrics into awkward phrasings. But as the band acknowledge in the last lyric, “Desolation is a delicate thing,” and they reach that dankly majestical state by the final “Farewell.” Recited instead of sung, the song is a fitting homage to Brontë’s mysterious nihilism, with death-knell crescendos and a dirgey guitar lead that burns like a fever.

—Ann Morrow

Jenny Toomey
Tempting (Misra)

Jenny Toomey has never shied away from bold moves. Underneath a smooth, inviting surface, her music has always had a strong undercurrent of personal activism. Formerly with Tsunami and a few other bands, she’s a whirlwind of noble efforts. Toomey’s the executive director of the Future of Music Coalition, an organization devoted to the protection of artists’ rights. Prior to this she founded Simple Machines, which served as both a record label and clearinghouse of information for other grassroots artists pursuing their own projects.

After Antidote, her 2001 double-disc solo debut of original material, the dozen tracks on Tempting were all written by Franklin Bruno (who, for the past decade has led the band Nothing Painted Blue and recorded as a solo artist). The primarily acoustic arrangements evoke the rich songcraft of the Gershwins, Cole Porter and Noel Coward, yet the album is free of any backward-looking nostalgia, celebrating the traditions of cabaret and art songs and locates them all in the present day. The songs adhere to the conventional themes of loss, longing, and romantic expectations, albeit with a delightful intellectual verve. Toomey has a full, confident sound; her strengths lie in her ability to imbue this material with casual warmth. There’s nothing flashy in her manner, just intimacy and honesty that cut to the heart of the songs.

—David Greenberger

Tim Easton
Break Your Mother’s Heart (New West)

Tim Easton wields great songcraft and compassion in Break Your Mother’s Heart, his third solo album. Its easy-listening, hard-thinking music may remind you of early Eagles and Jackson Browne (the latter’s “The Naked Ride Home” is an overlooked gem from late 2002), but Easton has his own dark, stylish vision. Born in Lewiston, N.Y., Easton grew up in Akron, Ohio, and became noted for his work with the Haynes Boys before going solo with the impressive Special 20 in 1998 and garnering widespread acclaim for The Truth About Us, his 2001 debut for Americana label New West. His voice is small but expressive, his guitar playing powerful, the way he layers a song distinctive. In tunes like “Poor, Poor LA,” and the love songs “Hummingbird” and “Amor Azul,” Easton doesn’t settle for the easy fix. His lyrics are complex and personal and observant: “When the work is over/And it’s just begun/I probably should have told you/That I wasn’t coming back for long/I need you still/Tonight my face could tell the story better/I never meant to leave you,” he sings in “Watching the Lightning”—his longest, eeriest track. Backed by master drummer Jim Keltner, Bonnie Raitt bassist Hutch Hutchinson and Browne’s keyboardist Jai Winding, Easton turns in a remarkable clutch of tunes. Two of the most impressive are by J.P. Olsen, “John Gilmartin” (a dust-bowl ballad for Bush’s America) and the rueful “True Ways.” Experience Easton for power and passion. Track Olsen for promise.

—Carlo Wolff

Howe Gelb
The Listener (Thrill Jockey)

Howe Gelb’s latest lands somewhere between his two solo albums from 2001, the surprising piano set Lull Some Piano and the magically powerful set of songs known as Confluence (which came immediately after his band Giant Sand’s exceptional Chore of Enchantment). Recorded primarily during his recent half-year spent in Denmark, the songs were for the most part written and built around the piano. As with artists such as Dylan and Young, setting aside the six-string for the keys changes the architecture, filigree and pulse of the resulting songs, but not the inherent sensibilities at the core. Even with his new Danish pals on hand (most immediately noticeable in the vocals of Henriette Sennenvaldt on “Torque”), this is a tour through the musical heart and mind of Howe Gelb. His regular gang back in Tucson is on hand for about a third of the album, with new Southwesterners Brett and Rennie Sparks (aka the Handsome Family, formerly of Chicago) on hand for “Moons of Impulse.”

The fact that these dozen songs, recorded at four different locations on two continents, flow as one unified whole is a testament to Gelb’s ability to bring some of the Arizona desert to Scandinavia. A foreign calm pervades The Listener, an album that is equal parts front-porch informal and dreamscape surreal.

—D.G.


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