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Brandi Carlile, Modest Mouse, Steve Earle 

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Brandi Carlile

The Firewatcher's Daughter

ATO Records

File next to: Missy Higgins, KT Tunstall, Patty Griffin

On stage, Brandi Carlile works hard to reinforce her traditionalist roots, yet her studio albums have always seemed a bit over-produced. Even her most recent dabble in country music, 2012's Bear Creek, was more lush than downhome. Maybe it's due to her move from Columbia Records, but Carlile has stripped away the unessential elements from The Firewatcher's Daughter, creating a worthy balance of musical styles and rhythms. There are still plenty of amplified instruments — in fact, tracks like "Mainstream Kid" sound like lo-fi rockabilly. But elsewhere she relies on nearly a cappella vocal harmonies with collaborators Tim and Phil Hanseroth. The Firewatcher's Daughter reflects Carlile's desire to incorporate a range of musical styles, and the wild diversity of these 12 tracks ensures that there are few boring moments. — Loring Wirbel

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Modest Mouse

Strangers to Ourselves

Epic

File next to: Pavement, Andrew Jackson Jihad, Built to Spill

If any other band spent nearly a decade apart, one could assume it was either a formal breakup and reunion, or else an intentional hiatus while members work on their own projects. But with Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock, it was just a case of extended writer's block. While Johnny Marr's stint with the band helped win a wider audience, Strangers to Ourselves harks back to the band's late '90s greatness, with a pared-down lineup that includes its first woman, string specialist Lisa Molinaro. The best tracks here, including "The Ground Walks, With Time in a Box," integrate a classic Modest Mouse sound with a Talking Heads dance beat. Others feature its trademark combination of oddly syncopated rhythms and squealing guitars. Despite a few repetitious moments, Strangers to Ourselves is a welcome return to form. — Loring Wirbel

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Steve Earle & The Dukes

Terraplane

New West

File next to: Dave Alvin, Trigger Hippy

Steve Earle's been singing about his old friend the blues for three decades now, yet the alt-country godfather hadn't made a proper blues album until Terraplane. This is not your typical Chicago blues rehash. It's more the swingin' Texas variety, mixed with what Earle calls "Bob Dylan blues." Terraplane is also Earle's most personal record in years, with no politics or social commentary here. Instead, the record is full of break-up songs, triggered by his split from wife Allison Moorer. The shimmering ache of "Better Off Alone" is the somber highlight, but there's also the more upbeat, Stones-influenced psychedelia of "Go Go Boots Are Back" and even a Spinal Tap riff romp down the road on "Acquainted With the Wind." All in all, Terraplane is a solid, instantly accessible album. Earle's got the blues, and he's got 'em good. — L. Kent Wolgamott

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