File next to: Kinks, Hüsker Dü,13th Floor Elevators
For many listeners, concept albums are a gamble, implying extended prog-rock noodling, and oblique lyrics that aim for the cerebrum rather than the viscera. With The Argument, former Hüsker Dü drummer Grant Hart uses no less a concept than Milton's Paradise Lost, with extra inspiration from William Burroughs. The melodic garage-rock is sprawling and ambitious, yet surprisingly concise and listenable. An economy of phrase suits its musings on Satan and the fall of humanity, making each of the 20 songs a polished, self-contained gem. Hart's haunting, weathered voice only accentuates the ominous grandeur of tracks like "Awake, Arise!" and the hypnotic "Morningstar." Elsewhere, he touches on autoharp-driven folk-rock, Beatles-inspired pop, and swanky, Kinks-esque music hall. Smart, heartfelt, and continually engaging, The Argument is a stunner. — Collin Estes
Dead Oceans Inc.
File next to: Nick Cave, Depeche Mode, OMD
Denver duo Gauntlet Hair probably wouldn't mind being anointed as purveyors of an ambient-experimental pop genre, since that description can cover multitudes. But Craig Nice and Andy Rauworth tie their fortunes too tightly to a certain form of '80s synth-pop: the minor-key moping of a baritone voice over slow synthesizer pulses. We've all been to Bunnymen-land already. Tracks like "Simple" and "Heave" show a real talent for developing melody, but if Gauntlet Hair must be retro, why not mix in a few tunes with a Galaxie 500 dream-pop style? One could argue that Stills at least has more defined beats than the band's first muddy album, but the uniformity of rhythm masks the quality of the best songs here. If Gauntlet Hair wants to move to the next level, it needs to shake the disease of a mid-'80s sound we've all heard before. — Loring Wirbel
Explosions in the Sky and Dave Wingo
Prince Avalanche soundtrack
Temporary Residence Ltd.
File next to: Rachel's, Kronos Quartet
Movie soundtracks crafted by a single artist or team can be problematic. For every Dylan or Tindersticks soundtrack that trailblazes, a dozen fall flat. Some critics would say that Explosions in the Sky suffers a second strike against success, since the band often is accused of following the instrumental math-rock style of Purkinje Shift or Godspeed You! Black Emperor a little too closely. What a surprise, then, to hear an album of simple chamber music — with clarinets in the mix, no less! That may have more to do with veteran movie scorer Dave Wingo, but the members of Explosions still had to stretch for this approach. Once in a while, the band's familiar wall of sound breaks through in tracks like "Alone Time." Long-time Explosions fans may moan that Prince Avalanche does not rock, but at least that keeps the band from repeating itself. — Loring Wirbel