Music reviews for Jan. 2, 2014

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Thursday, January 2, 2014

Joey Sweeney, “Long Hair”

For the last two decades, Joey Sweeney has created some of Philadelphia's most literate and snarky rock 'n' roll, starting with the Barnabys in the early '90s and then with The Trouble With Sweeney around the turn of the century.

After 2004's “Fishtown Briefcase,” he set aside his music career for other things. He returned to the stage in late 2011 with the brash and glammy “Arctic Splash.” “Long Hair” is his first album in way too long.

It's a good one. Always an Anglophile, Sweeney has absorbed the character-driven storytelling practiced by the Smiths, Belle & Sebastian and Pulp without succumbing to simple imitation. Songs might be heartfelt and sincere or sarcastic and unrepentant, and sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.

“Long Hair” includes gently orchestral ballads such as the title track (with string arrangements by Lushlife), galloping rock 'n' roll such as “When You Say My Name” and shuffling tracks that fall in between, including “Records and Coffee.” That last song is about a character who finds solace from his bad behavior and loneliness in records and coffee. It's a mark of “Long Hair's” success that it sounds like one of those records that could provide that kind of refuge for that kind of person.

—Steve Klinge, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Bottle Rockets, “Bottle Rockets” and “The Brooklyn Side”

Falling somewhere between Lynyrd Skynyrd and Merle Haggard is not a formula for popular success. But that too-rock-for-country, too-country-for-rock approach is part of the charm of the Bottle Rockets, who at their best tell sharp-witted stories of working-class life without a trace of condescension or irony.

The Missouri band was certainly at its best on its first two albums, from 1993 and 1994, back in print on this two-disc set.

The self-titled debut established singer-guitarist Brian Henneman, a former roadie for Uncle Tupelo, as a refreshingly unaffected songwriting voice that to this listener holds much more appeal than those of Tupelo's celebrated Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy. Is there a more plaintively devastating song than “Kerosene”? With “The Brooklyn Side,” the Bottle Rockets really delivered on the promise of its predecessor, as grabbers such as “Welfare Music” and “1,000 Dollar Car” highlighted a masterpiece.

Each disc comes with numerous bonus tracks, including demos, outtakes and covers.

—Nick Cristiano, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Xiu Xiu, “Nina”

Mainstream vocal-competition programs from “American Idol” to “The Voice” regularly host contestants these days singing Nina Simone's haughtiest blues. And it takes someone with Simone-level confrontational crankiness to attempt her most stirring material.

Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart fits that bill, a 21st-century avatar of noise-pop and experimentalism whose voice and music are of a drama comparable to Simone's. Stewart brings in several avant-jazz heavies on “Nina,” mightily benefiting his voice and choice of Simone songs. Musicians on this CD include drummer/arranger Ches Smith, accordionist Andrea Parkins, saxophonist Tim Berne, bassist Tony Malaby and guitarist Mary Halvorson.

The mixed bag of mood musics find Xiu Xiu touching on film-noirish sleaze (“Don't Explain”), passionate pleadings (“Just Say I Love Him”), jerky Afro-funk (“See Line Woman”), to soft, even faithful balladry (“Wild is the Wind”). Xiu Xiu is best when channeling the complex Simone spirit. Stewart's voice is inconsolable and majestic in the blistering “Don't Smoke in Bed.” The angst of “Four Women” and the soft, agonizing beauty of “The Other Woman” are bittersweet icing on the cake.

—A.D. Amorosi, The Philadelphia Inquirer

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