Sound advice 

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Esben and the Witch

Violet Cries


Buy if you like: Siouxsie and the Banshees, Cocteau Twins

Violet Cries is a very spooky, very smart record from a Brighton trio pegged as another of those Next Big Things from England. Only this one's more than just hype. Although named after a dark Danish fairy tale, Esben and the Witch avoid most of the genre's cliches, even if this debut album could serve as the soundtrack for a haunting. On the drifting "Light Streams," singer Rachel Davies rants away, promising to "hunt the one that burnt out the beacon." On "Marching Song," she hammers out a drumbeat, leading the way to some kind of warfare, while "Hexagons IV" rumbles then relents, with Davies sounding a lot like Siouxsie Sioux. On other songs, like the opener "Argyria," her voice floats away, almost disembodied. Violet Cries doesn't come close to instant accessibility. There are no pop hooks to speak of, no ultra-catchy songs. But give it time, and you'll be pulled into its gorgeous darkness. — L. Kent Wolgamott

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Jessica Lea Mayfield

Tell Me


Buy if you like: Emmy the Great, Lucinda Williams

Production credits for Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys tend to lead off much of Jessica Lea Mayfield's press coverage — including this review — which is kind of a disservice considering that the 21-year-old indie folk rocker stands plenty strong on her own. Older brother and collaborator David Mayfield of the bluegrass outfit Cadillac Sky is actually a bigger influence on her sound, which blends a mild country twang with a compelling, matter-of-fact flatness. Tell Me thankfully doesn't venture far from the Ohio native's essential 2008 breakout album, With Blasphemy So Heartfelt. Slower, bass-rich tracks like "Sometimes at Night" and "I'll Be the One You Want Someday" are moodier, heartsick standouts, while "Blue Skies Again" hits more optimistic notes. "Grown Man" stumbles with cheesy synth and drum machine beats, but it's a slight fault considering Mayfield's continuing musical allure. — Matthew Schniper

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Amos Lee

Mission Bell

Blue Note

Buy if you like: Bill Withers, James Taylor

On his fourth album, Mission Bell, Amos Lee channels the spirit of '70s singer/songwriters into a collection of personal and expressive acoustic soul songs. This time out, he's accompanied by band Calexico, legendary R&B drummer James Gadson, and a host of stellar guest vocalists that includes Sam Beam of Iron & Wine, Pieta Brown, Lucinda Williams and Willie Nelson. Through it all, Lee succeeds in bringing pop, folk and country flavoring to his laid-back R&B, adding the occasional horn arrangement as needed. On tracks like the shimmering single "Windows Are Rolled Down," the talented Philadelphia native captures a musical richness that goes beyond previous works. The Withers influence is especially clear on the song "Flower," while "Hello Again" is a relatively biting reunion song that proves Lee can throw in some bitter along with the sweet. All in all, Mission Bell is a softly soulful album that's consistently satisfying. — L. Kent Wolgamott


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