intro: This week, indie rockers Modest Mouse return after a six year absence, Marina and The Diamonds offer their third dose of electro-flavored, ethereal pop, Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield pays tribute to Elliott Smith, former Dire Straits leader Mark Knopfler drops his latest album, country singer Allison Moorer gives us her first record in five years and experimental act AWOLNATION gives us a risky and eclectic record. Once again, there is a lot to discuss.

quicklist: 1title: Modest Mouse’s “Strangers To Ourselves” **1/2text: Early on in their career, the members of Modest mouse released some real classics. “This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About,” “The Lonesome Crowded West” and “The Moon & Antarctica” should all rightfully be considered indie-rock triumphs. When the band achieved bigger success 11 years ago with their album “Good News For People Who Love Bad News” on the strength of the huge single, “Float On,” it looked as if they were finally going to get what they deserved. That album’s follow-up, “We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank” from 2007 ended up being just all right, with nothing truly astounding.

“Strangers To Ourselves” is the band’s first release in six years following 2009’s leftovers EP, “No One’s First and You’re Next.” It’s not a bad album, but it is a disappointing one. “Lampshades On Fire” seems like an easy attempt for another hit, without the compelling melody of “Float On.” It feels like it is Isaac Brock working by the numbers. The “ba-ba-ba-ba-ba” vocalizing during the song’s main refrain doesn’t make the song stick. It just annoys. And the dirty, disco-funk feeling was achieved better on previous single “Dashboard.” While this song again isn’t terrible, it feels like a watered-down, forgettable version of what the band has done before.

The album isn’t without high points, but in all it feels like something is missing. Where they used to have songs that you’d want to hear on repeat, like the Pavement-esque classic “Polar Opposites,” the expansive and spacey “The Stars Are Projectors” or the off-beat, Pixies-esque “Bury Me With It,” this album feels like the band is still in warm-up mode. It offers few surprises and when it does surprise, it is usually in a negative way. While this is album has some capable moments, it feels like the band members have lost a considerable amount of momentum.

Focus Tracks:

“The Ground Walks, With Time In A Box” This six-minute, expansive jam is more akin to the band’s best work as the band pairs layers of guitars with strings and a horn section. There’s real drive on this track and if feels like it is effectively pushing towards something bigger. One question. Is that a touch out Autotune I hear on Isaac Brock’s voice?

“Pups To Dust” This song is a highlight mainly because of that warm, watery guitar riff that really sticks with you. Again, this would have made a better single than “Lampshades On Fire.”

“The Tortoise And The Tourist” The band does a lot of experimenting on this record and this sludgy, warped jam again finds them hitting a nice sweet spot, effectively recapturing both a sense of weirdness and greatness.

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quicklist: 2title: Marina And The Diamonds’ “Froot” ***1/2text: “Froot” is the third album by Marina and the Diamonds, the act led by Welsh singer and songwriter Marina Diamandis. It’s a mixed bag of a record. The opening track, “Happy” is a beautifully sweeping ballad, but soon afterward the title track offers up a smothering take on Kate Bush-like mysticism and drama without Bush’s distinct knack, making the track sound like garish disco-muzak.

The album on the whole is coated with a stately sense that differs sizably from the kitschy, cheeky electro-pop sheen of the group’s last effort, 2012’s “Electra Heart," which was in itself a study in the obnoxious side of a pop star’s life. For that album, Diamandis put herself into a character and surrounded herself with “hit-makers” like Diplo, Dr. Luke, Greg Kurstin, Rick Nowels. Here, it feels like a step is taken back into more natural terrain which is a plus, even if it doesn’t always work completely. She does manage to have the Cure’s Jason Cooper playing drums on all but one of this album’s tracks.

Songs like the “Solitaire,” “Immortal” and the before-mentioned “Happy” set this album in a quieter, more introspective light than its predecessor. This is still very much a gleaming pop album, but it is less in-your face about it and actually at times more poignant than its predecessors.

Diamandis has a lot of quirks to her delivery style and she occasionally employs an operatic flare. At times, it seems that she comes from the same school of showmanship that gave us Florence + The Machine’s Florence Welch, only she doesn’t quite possess (or actually need) Welch’s often larger-than-life persona.

"Froot” does hit a few bumps along the way, but at its best points it shows some significant signs of Diamandis’ growth as both a writer and a performer. It shows her at her most personal and her most vulnerable. It feels like an honest statement, which at this point in the pop world seems like a rarity.

Focus Tracks

“Happy” The stark, tender beauty of this opener makes it immediately stand out as the best song on the record. It’s a pop ballad in the very best sense.

“I’m A Ruin” Again, like “Happy,” this track shows Diamandis’ softer side and builds itself into a really effective mid-tempo marvel. This deserves to be a hit.

“Savages” This is a disturbing track that covers everything from war to rape. It is Diamandis’ reflection on the darker side of human behavior. It is as bothersome as it is thought-provoking.

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quicklist: 3title: Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield’s “Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith” ***1/2text: The union of the Avett Brothers’ Seth Avett and singer-songwriter Jessica Lea Mayfield to pay tribute to legendary singer Elliott Smith is obviously a labor of love. After all, Smith left a lasting legacy and his still somewhat mysterious death in 2003 (possibly a suicide) from knife-wounds in his chest still lingers alongside Kurt Cobain’s as one of rock’s most tragic losses in memory. Smith was endlessly talented and was able to pack so much pain and tension into his often quiet, Beatle-esque numbers. In fact, there will never be another Elliott Smith and each one of his albums is a classic in its own right.

So what is to gain from releasing a complete collection of covers? Not much. In fact, in a way, it is sort of a lose/lose equation for Avett and Mayfield. The good news is, they do these songs justice for the most part. The bad news is, no matter how hard they try, their versions will never be as powerful as Smith’s originals. That being said, this collection is not about them using Smith’s songs for their own glory. This is about the love of Smith’s work and nothing more. They are both succeeding very well on their own. Mayfield released her excellently, grungy, sludgy “Make My Head Sing…” last year and the Avett Brothers have released a string of excellent records over the years.

The two mostly keep their arrangements somewhat safe. Their version of “Let’s Get Lost” is very faithful to the original as is their version of “Baby Britain,” even if it does substitute the original’s piano part for a guitar part. With the exception of the upbeat reading of “Somebody That I Used To Know,” the banjo-plucking version of “Pitseleh” and the fact that they chose to rock out “Roman Candle,” this record takes very few risks. Considering that Smith’s songs don’t really need to be altered, this is probably the right call.

Then there is the song selection. A large number of these songs come from Smith’s final album, the posthumously released “From A Basement On The Hill.” With surprisingly few songs coming from “XO” and “Figure 8." Smith’s three best-known songs, “Needle In The Hay,” “Waltz #2 (XO)” and “Miss Misery” are all nowhere to be found. But still, this is a well-made collection and a fitting tribute. It still will probably make you want to go back to the original source, but if it opens up more listeners to Smith’s body of work, it has done its job.

Focus Tracks:

“Fond Farewell” This Mayfield-led reading gives this song a new sense of light, even with lines like “vomiting in the kitchen sink” and its potential suicide-note-like quality.

“Roman Candle” The duo fills this early classic with appropriate amounts of discontent and sonic sludge. Again, Mayfield shines.

“Between The Bars” Perhaps his most commonly covered song, this track’s sad, drunken tone and rich imagery still packs a gut-wrenching punch.

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quicklist: 4title: Mark Knopfler’s “Tracker” (Deluxe) ***1/2text: If you are familiar with the work of former Dire Straits leader, Mark Knopfler, his latest album “Tracker” will give you more of what you expect. Knopfler's work has always been an acquired taste. He rarely sings above an earnest mutter and he has a tendency to stretch his songs to their limits. The majority of the songs on this album clock over five minutes with a few of them stretching over six. Knopfler has probably earned to majority of his fan-base on his true musicianship. His songs usually play like carefully crafted textbook studies, which means they take close listening to understand their nuance.

"Tracker” mixes songs that sound downright celebratory by Knopfler’s standards with reflective ballads. He is after all, at his core a storyteller and the lyrical details on the funky “Broken Bones” and the starkly lit “Basil” show him at his best. In many ways, throughout he comes off like a much lower-key answer to latter-day Van Morrison. Morrison is and has always been a more overtly gripping songwriter than Knopfler, but on this album, it is often an apt comparison.

If “Tracker” proves anything, it is that Americana and the blues still really resonate with Knopfler. The album in its deluxe form is packaged with four bonus tracks including the campfire-ready “My Heart Has Never Changed” and the ethereal “Terminal Tribute To.” Knopfler seems to be writing haunted anthems for the American west, which is interesting considering he is Scottish-born.

Focus Tracks:

“Laughs And Jokes And Drinks And Smokes” There’s a Dave Brubeck, “Take Five” quality to this spritely opener that also has a bit of an Irish lilt. It shows Knopfler at his happiest and most animated. It’s a stellar track.

“Broken Bones” This is a dose of hand-clapping, funky blues about knowing how to survive and fight. Knopfler approaches the topic with an essayist’s pen.

“Skydiver” This sounds like a muted hybrid somewhere between the Kinks and Electric Light Orchestra. It is very effectively lighthearted.

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quicklist: 5title: Allison Moorer’s “Down To Believing” ****text: Like her sister, Shelby Lynne and her husband, Steve Earle, Allison Moorer surfs the lines between rock, country and blues with ease. She’s got a soulful voice that conveys a wide variety of emotions. She spent the late nineties and early 2000’s signed to the majors and playing the mainstream game. "Down To Believing” is her ninth album overall and her first in five years. It finds her going further into the “alt-country” realm, even if it has a traditional core. Moorer writes the kind of songs that went out of fashion on country radio a while ago and a track like this album’s “Tear Me Apart” shows her to be just as much of a rock vocalist as she is country. This album isn’t glitzy. It’s just down-to-earth songwriting, delivered without the additional flash.

Sure, there are possible hits here. One can imagine the touching ballad “If I Were Stronger” or the anthemic stomper, “Back of My Mind” getting a decent amount of airplay, but at its core, this is traditional country/pop songwriting that comes from a more natural place than a lot of the manufactured hits coming out of Nashville these days. What this means is that like her husband, Moorer is a bit of a renegade.

This is a record packed with fire and gumption. The banjo-plucking “I Lost My Crystal Ball” shows as much influence from Tom Petty and “Out Of Time”-era R.E.M. as it does from more traditional country. "Thunderstorm/Hurricane” is a bit of a woozy swamp ballad. The title track is a sweeping, reflective piece that reflects on life decisions. Moorer even sticks in a Creedence Clearwater Revival cover onto the record, delivering a nice rendition of “Have You Ever Seen The Rain."

In all, “Down To Believing” shows Allison Moorer at the top of her game. It's a moving and stirring record that demands your attention.

Focus Tracks:

“Thunderstorm/Hurricane” At just 2:48, this song covers a striking amount of ground in a short time. Approaching this brooding ballad with the angst of a jazz chanteuse, Moorer gives this song the gravity it needs with a Neko Case-like sense of lyrical detail. When the song erupts into a rocking boomer, it comes off as a cathartic, cleansing exercise. It leaves you wanting more.

“Mama Let The Wolf In” This bit of down-home country blues tears the roof off of the place. Moorer belts her heart out here to the best of her ability.

“If I Were Stronger” This ballad would be syrupy if it weren’t so well-written and well-executed. It’s a callback to the country cross-over hits of the seventies and eighties and it still has huge crossover potential.

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quicklist: 6 title: AWOLNATION’S “Run” **text: For Aaron Bruno’s second album as under his AWOLNATION moniker, the singer/songwriter takes his experimental approach further, only this time around the album lacks a standout track on par with his debut’s “Sail.” Mostly, what we get is thumping synth belches and odd, off-putting sonic forays.

A track like the oddly-titled “Fat Face” shows melodic promise and is well put together, at least until its Beach Boys-style harmonies are interrupted by Bruno’s screaming. Single, “Hollow Moon (Bad Wolf)” is a disjointed mess with a rambling chorus. It’s a troubling bit of cacophony. "Jailbreak” sounds like an inferior rewrite of “Sail." This is a bothersome album and not in the way that pulls you in. It sounds uneasy and when Bruno goes into his scream-mode he sounds downright terrified. When he sings, “Now I’m living in a dream and I don’t think I’m ever gonna wake up,” he sounds tormented.

To Bruno’s credit, he’s obviously trying to test his boundaries. The manic “KOOKSEVERYWHERE!!!" is rapid-paced digital hardcore that dissolves into a glitch funk. The majority of this album takes a lot of chances. Sadly, it pretty much fails. It may not provide an effective listen, but it is never boring. Bruno shows he has impressive range as he bounces from ballads to screamers and the obvious presence of talent and ambition makes this album all the more frustrating.

Bruno has the heart of an indie rocker, armed with a drum machine. He likes to repeat phrases over and over to the point of oblivion. Most of his songs drill and prod their way into your head with momentary forays into softer terrain. This borders on post-EDM electro-punk. It is unlike just about anything else out there, but just because it is different, doesn’t mean it is necessarily good.

"Run” is a well-meaning mess and a difficult listen even if it does show promise. I respect Bruno for his daring tendencies. I want to like this record very badly. Ultimately though, it ends up being rather a rather punishing listen.

Focus Tracks:

“Jailbreak” As I stated, this is the most effective follow-up to “Sail” and Bruno is able to put a palpable sense of dread into his chorus, like the tormented prisoner he is depicting.

“Fat Face” The first half of this song is better than the end, but at its core, this track shows that Bruno has a melodic sense that is often at war with his raging side. If he can ever find true harmony between these two sides of his writing, he’ll be unstoppable.

Next Week: New music from Van Morrison, Nellie McKay and more.

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