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Cory Branan, Dead Fingers and Imogen Heap 

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Cory Branan

The No-Hit Wonder

Bloodshot Records

File next to: Ryan Adams, John Fullbright

Cory Branan is a terrific songwriter and expressive singer who makes country music with just enough punk to avoid Nashville's mainstream. So Branan is hit-free — just like the guy he sings about on the rollicking title tune, "The No-Hit Wonder." Still, he gets by with the help of some well-known friends, among them Craig Finn, Jason Isbell, Tim Easton and Caitlin Rose, who adds her beautiful vocals to the steel-drenched, can't-wash-you-out-of-my-mind "All the Rivers in Colorado." Branan's lyrics are also in top form: "While she sleeps I trace the places where your tattoos used to be." The No-Hit Wonder was recorded in just a couple days, and it has an immediacy that connects, all the way from the opening chords of "You Make Me" through the old-timey accordion-tinged "Daddy Was a Skywriter" to the closing finger-picked "Meantime Blues." — L. Kent Wolgamott

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Dead Fingers

Big Black Dog

Communicating Vessels

File next to: The Weepies, John Murry

Dead Fingers is singer-songwriter Kate Taylor and her husband Taylor Hollingsworth, a guitarist with Conor Oberst's Mystic Valley Band. The two Taylors previously released an EP and album featuring bluegrass of an almost self-deprecating variety. But Big Black Dog displays a surprising maturity that calls to mind sincere folk duos such as The Weepies or even Ian and Sylvia. Hollingsworth's natural voice may still dwell somewhere between Donald Duck and Deer Tick's John McCauley, but Kate provides a perfect foil with her smooth and plaintive vocals on "Pomp and Circumstance" and "Feet Back on the Ground." Musical styles and arrangements are also light years beyond their previous work. Dead Fingers have quickly graduated from novelty bluegrass to serious folk-pop. Now we just need Kate's sister, chanteuse Maria Taylor, to join in, and we'll have a Taylor Family supergroup. — Loring Wirbel

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Imogen Heap

Sparks

RCA

File next to: Laurie Anderson, Regina Spektor, Tori Amos

Imogen Heap takes the "go big or go home" slogan seriously, both in terms of recording her latest album in Hangzhou and the Himalayas, and for encouraging fan participation in the recording process to a level rarely seen outside Björk. Does that imply that the sprawling monster of Sparks lacks focus? That may depend on the ADHD level of the listener. Heap rivals Laurie Anderson in her adoption of technology and her density of ideas, but this new album accomplishes much more than her three previous outings. This can leave the listener breathless but occasionally overwhelmed, in a manner similar to Kate Bush's Aerial, on songs like "The Listening Chair" that suggests genius of high order. While some might long for the simplicity of Heap's earlier songs like "Hide and Seek," those who devour Joyce and Pynchon novels will be bowled over by Sparks. — Loring Wirbel

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