POP/ROCK

Mark Eitzel, “Hey Mr Ferryman” (Merge)

Though Eitzel has always had a reputation for looking at things from a skeptical if not downright cynical perspective, he also has a wicked sense of humor. On his 10th solo album, mortality hangs heavy, but he’s refreshingly nonchalant about the whole Grim Reaper thing, like what’s the big deal?

On the opening “The Last Ten Years,” which presumably looks back on a decade in which he survived a heart attack, he’s on a boat to the afterlife. But he’s not particularly concerned if he’s headed to heaven or hell. The narrator just wants to make sure he can get a drink before closing time wherever he winds up. The music, most of it performed by producer (and former Suede guitarist) Bernard Butler, is almost buoyant, and there’s a skip to Eitzel’s voice. Death has rarely sounded so matter-of-fact.

Back in his days with indie-rock cult favorites American Music Club, Eitzel indulged melodrama — the strained voice, the words drenched in pathos and rage. But his sharp images and the band’s wide-ranging music made for some transcendent albums, “Everclear” (1991) and “Mercury” (1993).

Eitzel’s solo albums have been more constrained, and he’s gradually developed a more nuanced and mature approach as a vocalist. On “Hey Mr Ferryman,” he avoids the emotive leaps of his early days, opting for a subtlety that splits the difference between a bossa-nova balladeer and subversive lounge crooner.

Butler provides dramatic orchestrations and guitar solos. At times he goes too far — “Let Me Go” encourages Eitzel’s excesses and the tragic “La Llorona” gets swept away in an avalanche of guitar histrionics. But in a sparser framework, the singer and his songs flourish. Eitzel’s spite and self-deprecating humor rub shoulders on “The Road” and “In My Role as Professional Singer and Ham.”

Amid the casual carnage of everyday life, there are moments of tenderness. You keep waiting for the other shoe to drop in the slow-dance “An Answer” and “Sleep From my Eyes,” but it never does. Eitzel instead delivers two of his most vulnerable pieces. And in the sad decline of the never-say-die thespian “Mr. Humphries,” there is a moment of levity and self-awareness: “You can’t calm the savage beast, but you can make him less of a bore.”

GREG KOT, Chicago Tribune

Jesca Hoop, “Memories Are Now” (Sub Pop)

This album brings the idiosyncratic nature of Hoop’s individual artistic design to the forefront with as much grace and freneticism as she has always borne, although to a newly expanded audience and with a bit more production polish, to boot. Comparisons to First-Aid Kit are unavoidable, all said, given that right out of the gate, Hoop showcases her penchant for making vocal harmonies altogether outré and palliative on the album’s title track. Angelic and peculiar, “Memories Are Now” highlights Hoop’s masterful abilities as a songwriter to make the unusual feel comforting and familiar.

Jonathan Frahm, PopMatters.com

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