Not Afraid To Stand Alone (self-released)
Fusing hip-hop rhymes, soul harmonies, and Middle Eastern rhythms, Baltimore/D.C.-based Native Deen frames its Muslim-centric message with an appealing, cross-cultural groove. Overall, the trio exudes a relentlessly positive image, and their lyrics mix grassroots activism with higher-calling didacticism. To the unconverted, the message may be awkward and off-putting—it's gospel music, but far different than what most Americans are accustomed to hearing—but Native Deen's high-energy performances are convincing and infectious. Throughout the disc, call-and-response vocals, handclaps, multi-part harmonies, and funky percussion echo elements of classic soul, R&B, and DC go-go—you'd need hips of steel and a hardened heart to resist tunes such as "Pray Before...," "Labbayk," and "Be At The Top." Religious groups like this can find themselves preaching to the choir—sometimes, rightly so—but Native Deen deserves a wider audience. In fact, I'd put them on the same mixtape with Mos Def, Ralph Stanley, and John Zorn's Masada.
Arty Hill and the Long Gone Daddys
Bar of Gold (Cow Island)
"I'm goin' down to tore-up junction with a paycheck in my shoe," Arty Hill sings at the outset of this disc, and that line sets the tone for the hillbilly heartache to come. Hill, an Eastern Shore native, writes country songs with a timeless feel, tunes that play particularly well in a worn F150 barreling down a lost highway—preferably towards some watering hole with the church steeple in the rearview mirror. But in Hill's world, the honky-tonk rates as more than just a destination. It's a way of life and functions as a noun (the honky-tonk saved/ruined my life), verb (I'm honky-tonkin'), and adjective (honky-tonk women, honky-tonk nights, honky-tonk music). It's why the Bible thumpers in his songs haven't got a prayer, the lawyers can't pass the bar (without stopping in for a drink), and why Hill, himself, can't resist "Hankin' Around." It's also why the spirit of Hank Williams lives in these exuberant, rollicking, and wry songs.
If Children (Merge)
Baltimore's indie rock ascendance continues with this formidable duo, a group that could be the next Yo La Tengo. Like that enduring Hoboken band, Wye Oak alternates between quivering, shimmering melodies and muscular, feedback-driven walls of noise augmented by rock solid drumming, moody keyboards, and unobtrusive production. Tinged with melancholia, songs such as "Please Concrete," "Archaic Smile," "Family Glue," and "Orchard Fair" hit lofty and majestic peaks that few artists attain; "I Don't Feel Young" exudes a wisdom beyond this young band's years; and "Keeping Company" hints at more sophisticated pop to come.