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Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., Okkervil River, Sebadoh 

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click to enlarge Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.

The Speed of Things

Warner Bros.

File next to: Chvrches, M83

The dreaded sophomore slump has settled on and around Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. The follow-up to the Detroit duo's excellent It's a Corporate World is loaded with synths, beat machines and other '80s-era pop staples. But The Speed of Things also suffers because too many of the songs sound indistinguishable from each other. "Beautiful Dream" is hazy old-school pop, but so are the fairly morose-sounding "Don't Tell Me Now" and beat-heavy tracks like "A Haunting" and "Gloria." The result is that large chunks of the record feel tired, boring and lifeless. Among the few exceptions is the subtle "I Can't Help It." With its hand claps and tambourine, the track is decidedly more organic in its build-up than the rest of the album, a sad hint at what might have been. But the overall lack of creativity ultimately dooms this release. — Brian Palmer

click to enlarge Okkervil River

Okkervil River

The Silver Gymnasium

ATO

File next to: Beirut, Magnetic Fields

Okkervil River's Will Sheff is known as a matchless surrealist story-teller, and each of the band's albums could be dubbed a concept album of sorts. With The Silver Gymnasium, Sheff has stopped writing about imaginary people, and instead described his teenage years in Meriden, N.H. (A paper map is included with the CD and LP for reference.) He uses the type of cryptic code to describe concrete circumstances that Donald Fagen of Steely Dan often employs. While previous Okkervil River albums feature lush yet stark acoustics, the new album adds layers of piano and guitar that turn songs like "Walking Without Frankie" and "Down Down the Deep River" into riff-heavy, big-rock masterpieces. Purists might say Okkervil River has bloated itself into over-production, but the album really sounds like a well-honed tale of adolescence in the Quadrophenia tradition. — Loring Wirbel

click to enlarge Sebadoh

Sebadoh

Defend Yourself

Joyful Noise Recordings

File next to: Pavement, Hüsker Dü

Lou Barlow formed Sebadoh in the late '80s after being ousted from Dinosaur Jr. Since Dinosaur Jr. reunited last year for several shows, it seemed only natural that Barlow would resurrect Sebadoh. And it remains clear that Barlow is twice the musician and lyricist that Dinosaur Jr. frontman J. Mascis ever was. Barlow proved his nasal tenor could handle plaintive folk with his Folk Implosion side project, but Sebadoh's new Defend Yourself rocks with mathematical passion. Standouts such as "Final Days" place the new album in league with Bakesale. Even the bonus single ("Imminent Emergency"/"No Wound") that comes with the vinyl ranks among Sebadoh's best, and the 13 songs on the standard album are all keepers. Barlow and Mascis have reconciled, and play together in a 2013 version of Dinosaur Jr., but who really cares now that Sebadoh is back in business? — Loring Wirbel

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