The Band Perry, "Pioneer" (Universal Republic)
Thoughts of death have been good to the Band Perry, the three Perry siblings: Kimberly (vocals), Reid (bass) and Neil (mandolin). In "Better Dig Two," the banjo-centered single that opens its second album and has already sold 1 million copies, Kimberly Perry sings that she's "gonna love you 'til I's dead," and that either her husband's "divorce or death" would kill her: "If you go before I do/ I'm gonna tell the gravedigger that he better dig two."
That song follows through on the band's first No. 1 country hit, "If I Die Young" from 2010, about a girl's life cut short. Not that mortality is the band's only fixation; it also has a gift for sad and angry kiss-offs, which fill half of "Pioneer."
That awareness of irreparable change separates the Band Perry from more treacly Nashville rivals like Lady Antebellum; so do Kimberly Perry's smoke-edged voice and her determinedly spunky persona. The song "Pioneer" builds from a folksy tribute to U.S. settlers to a first-person vow: "Send the dark but it won't break me/ You can try but you can't change me." And in one of the album's kiss-offs, the emphatically capitalized "Done," Perry taunts: "You play with dynamite, don't be surprised/ When I blow up in your face."
"Pioneer," produced by Dann Huff (Rascal Flatts), enlarges the trio's sound. Its self-titled 2010 debut album was country-rock with a string-band core; "Pioneer" is well aware of 1970s West Coast rock and the arena-folk foot-stompers of Mumford & Sons. The band has learned from Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles and Heart how to segue acoustic picking and strumming into electric guitars and tiered vocal harmonies. In "Forever Mine Nevermind," written by the Perrys with Brad Paisley, they push even further; once they've worked up to a vigorous chorus of "Na na na na," the tempo suddenly halves, guitar parts and voices stack up and the Band Perry briefly turns into Queen as Kimberly snarls, "You piece of dirt/ I trusted you."
She's not always so combative. "Pioneer" also includes a loving parental tribute, "Mother Like Mine," and happier love songs. But Perry is in her element with goodbyes, whether she's taking a "Chainsaw" to a tree where she and a sweetheart once carved their names or contemplating separation in "Back to Me Without You" and "End of Time." A sense of loss keeps these polished songs from getting too sweet.
JON PARELES, New York Times
Marnie Stern, "The Chronicles of Marnia" (Kill Rock Stars)
"Don't you wanna be somebody/ Don't you wanna be?" So sings Stern on her fourth album overall, and her second on which you notice the lyrics more than the guitars. It's a sarcastic, exhausted, justified statement from an artist who fights the urge to try conventional singing and songwriting when her own universe of frenetic, two-handed guitar tapping — a style she singlehandedly introduced to indie-rock — is right in the palm of her hand. Stern loves stretching her abilities into the unfamiliar, be it backward pop songs or merely restrained rock numbers or Deerhoof-inspired prog. She won't make the same album twice, and she'll hit upon a great one someday. Meanwhile, she's an openhearted, funny weirdo who's still mastering her sound — and figuring out what it even is.
Dan Weiss, Philadelphia Inquirer