FACES ON FILM | "The Troubles"
Is it possible to contract and expand at the same time? The Boston band Faces on Film has achieved just such an unlikely transformation. Formed by a few college pals in 2004, the band has been scaled back to just one member - singer and songwriter Mike Fiore - who this week released online an emotionally sprawling second album called "The Troubles."
Toggling between warm meditations and carefully managed chaos, the album is built around an uneasy but elegantly executed juxtaposition - the collision of the intimate and the epic - and it colors the collection in a million shades of gray. Fiore's words are beyond gray; they're nearly inscrutable. Damaged domesticity seems to be a theme. Wives and children materialize with dark and alarming frequency.
But after countless listens, lyrics in hand, most of the meaning on "The Troubles" is still conveyed through the ebb and flow of the music. And move the music does, in mysterious and often gripping ways. The plucked guitar and simple melody that creates a homey mood on "I'll Sleep to Protect You" are sucked into a dissonant riptide, resurfacing near the song's finish as bruised shadows of their former selves. "Surra" evolves from mild-mannered to pummeling, mirroring a story line (such as it is) that moves from candy-flavored leaves to rape machines. Set in a thicket of jingle bells, drum fills, and droning guitars, "Friends With Both Arms" is all verse, one unresolved musical thought from beginning to end.
But Fiore, who sings in a brittle, plaintive tenor, also finds power in a subtler musical math. "Natalie's Numbers" is a folk song haunted by what seems to be a simmering tea kettle, the very sound of "the breath that whistles in my chest." A pair of scruffy waltzes ("Famous Last Words" and "The Medical Mind") transcend their murky messages to become soulful slices of Americana.
On the album's sort-of title song, "The Troubles at Last," Fiore dispenses with words altogether, conjuring the fleeting nature of clarity in the clearest terms possible when he allows a minute of random plinking and plucking to gel, briefly, into a song.
"The Troubles" is available as a $9.99 download at myspace.com/facesonfilm. Faces on Film performs at the Middle East Upstairs on July 9.
CROOKED STILL | "Still Crooked"
When flamboyant cellist Rushad Eggleston left the Boston-based bluegrass and roots outfit Crooked Still after five years and two albums, there was some concern about the evolution of the group's sound.
Any fears are laid to rest immediately on the quintet's virtuosic third album, released earlier this week and winkingly titled "Still Crooked." Two new members, cellist-fiddler Tristan Clarridge and fiddler Brittany Haas, slide into place on this set of traditional and original tracks that easily equals and often betters the group's previous releases.
Each brings new flavors. Clarridge's playing on "Undone in Sorrow" takes the lament to a shiver-inducing level of mournfulness. In addition to her expressive fiddle work throughout, Haas also contributes as a songwriter, providing the music for the airy, old-time mountain jam "Oh, Agamemnon."
Recorded quickly in a live setting, "Still" crackles with verve and energy, thanks to playing that is uniformly impressive but rarely showy. Vocalist Aoife O'Donovan's husky soprano remains a marvel of nuance and emotion.
Even though death, broken hearts, and soul-searching are all on the menu, the moods vary from funereal to jubilant. "Low Down and Dirty" is so chilly and fog-shrouded you might want to put on a jacket as O'Donovan elucidates a murder in a graveyard by a woman twisted by a toxic love.
The playful church social rhythms of "Tell Her to Come Back Home" are light and bright, while the true love at the heart of "Oh, Agamemnon" is tinged with melancholy.
The group still manages to be metronomic in its grooves without the aid of percussion as Corey DiMario's propulsive double bass and Gregory Liszt's rolling and tumbling banjo set the pace on a set that offers pleasures both familiar and offbeat.
Crooked Still performs at Club Passim July 17-18.
PONIES IN THE SURF | "See You Happy"
Two little kids grace the cover of "See You Happy." They could be twins, with their mouths agape and the same mop of hair and choppy bangs we all had when we were 5 or 6. It's hard to tell who's who.
Turns out, it's Alex (on the left) and Camille McGregor, the brother and sister who perform as the local indie-pop band Ponies in the Surf. The photo, circa 1981, is from when the McGregors still lived in Colombia, before the family settled in New England.
From the sound of the duo's new album, not much has changed since then. They're still in synch and still seem to be having a good time together. Except now they're making music that's joyous, infectious, and occasionally delicate (OK, many would say twee).
"See You Happy" is the Ponies' debut for Darla Records, a follow-up to the superb "Ponies on Fire," released in 2005 on an even smaller indie label, Asaurus. "Ponies on Fire" allowed the McGregors to stretch out on off-kilter little pop songs drenched in reverb and adrift in their own orbits.
"See You Happy" isn't quite the jukebox that album was, but it branches out in other ways, notably in the instrumentation and song structures. No one will mistake it for "Barracuda," but "Another Mind" charges with an urgency the band has rarely approached.
Older songs ("Ventricle" and "See You Happy") are recast with a bit more oomph, but the new material is the real draw. "Walkin' in the City" bounces along to a jangly guitar melody. On "Johnny Rebel," Alex cops an inscrutable accent and narrates a twisted tale that comes off as a B-side to the Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack."
A limited-edition bonus disc includes a handful of demos and covers, including the Talking Heads' "Heaven." Their entwined vocals soar and glide on the chorus, reminding you yet again that the McGregors are all about the power of two.
Ponies in the Surf play a CD-release show at P.A.'s Lounge tomorrow night with Windy Smiles and Baba Yaga. Music starts around 9.