Joshua James: The Sun Is Always Brighter

Like the album’s artwork, Joshua James’ The Sun Is Always Brighter is composed of beautifully muted colors – from “The New Love Song” clear on down to “Commodore,” each track floats along on a quietly melancholy cloud, strung up with plaintively plucked acoustic guitars, tasteful pianos, and – courtesy of ace utility infielder Phil Parlapiano – the occasional organ, accordion, and mandolin. At the forefront is James’ high, husky voice, a deceptively fragile instrument that recalls nothing so much as Ray LaMontagne without the constant threat of suicide. Brighter offers 11 slow pitches down the middle of the plate for fans of hushed backwoods soul with a slight dash of rock – think of the more bucolic moments on early Van Morrison albums like Moondance, and you’re on the right track. Of course, Joshua James isn’t the songwriter Morrison is – hell, he might not even be the songwriter Ray LaMontagne is – but that doesn’t keep Brighter from being a wonderfully easy listen. You may be hard-pressed to remember most of these tracks after they’re done – and if you pay enough attention to the lyrics, you might worry for James’ long-term well-being – but while the record is on, you’ll wish you had a mint julep, a back porch, and a nice breeze blowing through the birches. (Intelligent Noise/Northplatte 2008)

Joshua James MySpace page

Ready Fire Aim: This Changes Nothing

Electronic rock is making a comeback of sorts, and Ready Fire Aim is surely hoping that they can catch the crest of that synthesizer wave to celebrity and success. However, while bands like Does It Offend You, Yeah?, MGMT, and the Klaxons are taking the classic synth-pop sound of the ‘80s and infusing it with everything from intelligent dance music, rave-inspired techno and even punk rock, Ready Fire Aim seems content to play it safe and emulate the stars of the past, with predictably boring results. “Wannabe You,” “Welcome Home,” and just about every track on their debut CD features programmed beats lifted straight from the garbage bin of the Violator sessions, and is full of second-rate retreads of something that’s already been done a thousand times over. Most importantly, lead singer Sage Rader’s (if that’s stage name, he’s an asshole, and if that’s his birth name, then his parents are pricks) bland whisper of a voice is obviously trying to come off as sexy, but instead is just incredibly annoying. Some advice for all you kids with computers and a mixing board: If you want to rip off Depeche Mode, or any of the other great electronic acts of the ‘80s, remember that while they often didn’t have any instruments aside from a drum machine and a high-end Casio, they usually did manage to find someone that could sing. This Changes Nothing is instantly forgettable. Talk about a descriptive album title. (LABEL: Expansion Team 2008)

Ready Fire Aim MySpace page

Toby Keith: 35 Biggest Hits

It’s hard to trash an album while also granting it four stars. There was a time when nobody could touch Toby Keith without getting burned- he was that hot. The big Okie rode an unmatched streak of eight studio releases in 11 years, from 1993’s self-titled debut through the mega-successful Shock’n Y’all in 2003. The past five years, by contract, have produced just two painfully mediocre albums of new material, and now his third greatest hits venture, 35 Biggest Hits. Everything a casual fan needs is included, yet there’s little of anything the harder fan hasn’t already heard. The obligatory new hit “She’s a Hottie” is hardly worth the price tag, but if there are timeline holes in your T.K. collection, this will more than fill those voids. Unfortunately, it’s quite clear now that Keith has chosen to trade in his artist hat for that of record label exec and talent scout. (Show Dog Nashville)

Toby Keith MySpace page

Teitur: The Singer

Somewhere between the time Faroe Islands native Teitur Lassen debuted and sounded like a young Paul Simon (circa 2003) and the time he released his third album, The Singer, he seems to have forgotten how to write songs with mass appeal. Instead of the melodic ear candy on his debut, Poetry & Aeroplanes, or even his sophomore effort, Stay Under the Stars, The Singer is far more experimental. The melodies are different, bordering on off-key, and the sounds and textures of the arrangements are going to lose more than a few of his faithful fans. The one glowing exception is “We Still Drink The Same Water,” which, despite its creepy feel, comes off like a powerful anthem. Despite the oddities, we’ll give Teitur a pass, because we know his amazing songwriting ability is lurking in here somewhere, and he just needed to explore his own depth this time around. (LABEL: Playground)

Teitur MySpace Page

You Me & Iowa: The Adventures of You Me & Iowa

If you champion indie pop with a cool alt-rock undertow, Los Angeles band You Me & Iowa deserves a chance to win a spot in your digital jukebox. The band’s second album, The Adventures of You Me & Iowa, is neatly crafted and features bouncy rhythms and more than a few melodies that will stick in your head for a while. If you remember the ‘80’s band the Housemartins, you’re going to fall in love with the song “Tommy Hall,” easily the best track on this set. But there is a lot more going on, and in the end You Me & Iowa comes off as a more upbeat Death Cab (“Dress the Stage”) or a more mature Daphne Loves Derby (“Margaret Mourning”). We’ll even forgive them for the Barenaked Ladies’ sound-alike, “Goldfish,” because most of this album is full of twists and turns, yet is very easy on the ears. (LABEL: Scrimshaw Jazz)

You Me & Iowa MySpace Page

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