Sound advice 

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Amanda Shires

Carrying Lightning

Silver Knife Records

Buy if you like: Neko Case, Eliza Gilkyson

In recent months, Amanda Shires has performed on film with Gwyneth Paltrow (in Country Strong) and hit the studio and road with Jason Isbell. Now comes an album destined to raise her profile even higher. The singer-songwriter-fiddler has one of those quirky voices that's alternately strong and sure or a little long on quivery vibrato, like Dolly Parton or an Appalachian-reared yodeler. But Shires is neither yodeler nor Appalachian; she has the musical blood type of Lubbock, Texas, recently transfused to Nashville. She also has a sweet soprano, hummable melodies and often-arresting lyrics. "She Let Go of Her Kite," with breathy vocals and building drama, could be a folk hit. Other strong cuts: "Detroit or Buffalo," "Sloe Gin" and the delicately mesmerizing "Bees in the Shed," which sounds like a wafting breeze — and sneaks up on you like one, too. The instrumental "Swimmer" coda is a perfect finish. — Lynne Margolis

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Art Brut

Brilliant! Tragic!

Cooking Vinyl/The End Records

Buy if you like: Madness, Buzzcocks

Over the course of three previous albums, Art Brut has sometimes come across as Britain's droll answer to The Hold Steady, delivering plenty of pithy, smart and funny lyrics set to catchy punkish rock. And like Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn, Art Brut's Eddie Argos delivers most of his vocals in a wryly declamatory, semi-spoken-word style. Although the Pixies' Black Francis is once again at the production helm, Brilliant! Tragic! doesn't quite reach the near-brilliant heights of its predecessor, Art Brut vs. Satan. Still, it does have its moments, including "Lost Weekend" (a perennial Argos topic), the artfully brutal "Axel Rose," and the musically thrilling adrenaline rush of "Martin Kemp." But some tracks simply fall flat, which may be why, on "Clever Clever Jazz," Argos mockingly asks, "Can't you see we're doing the best that we can?" Brilliant? No. Tragic? Not really. Let's try "Solid But Not Spectacular." — Alan Sculley

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Joseph Arthur

The Graduation Ceremony

Lonely Astronaut

Buy if you like: Martin Sexton, Jeff Buckley

Like many of our most talented folk musicians, Joseph Arthur has a hushed plaintiveness to his voice, a gorgeously quiet desperation that imbues every elegantly tortured lyric. And there's no mistaking the source of his haunted soul: It's love, baby. When Arthur sings the sweetly delicate "Horses" in his ethereal falsetto, you can envision him floating away on a smoothly galloping creature, as if it could release him from pain. Not likely, though, given the poignant sentiments of the darker, lower-pitched "Almost Blue," the angry directness of "Over the Sun" ("When I cheat on you, you're still all I see / I hope you know I loved you as much as I need to be free") and the cutting, stunning "Gypsy Faded." This is a song cycle of devastation and heartbreak, full of words that will rip at your soul. Arthur is undeniably gifted in his ability to create beauty from such pain. — Lynne Margolis


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