Howe Gelb, "The Coincidentalist" (New West)
Over 30 years and nearly as many albums, Arizona songwriter Howe Gelb has walked a singular path, one that has drawn a cultish following devoted to his guitar- and piano-based wanderings. He got his start as part of L.A.'s country punk scene with Giant Sand in the early '80s but hit the desert and has since released a string — nay, a rope — of underappreciated curios. "I'm a Vortexan at heart," he explains in "Vortexas," and he's right: Twang-accented but structurally cubist, the songs on his new album often travel wormholes few songwriters dare.
To admire Gelb is to fully expect, for example, that a song like "Triangulate" will begin with a basic structure — only to spin into an utterly baffling chorus and tunnel elsewhere. Featuring guest appearances by guitarist M. Ward (She & Him), Bonnie "Prince" Billy, KT Tunstall and Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, "The Coincidentalist" may be an angular first listen, but spending the time to adjust to its environment is well worth it, and you may soon realize how warm and inviting a realm it can be.
White Night, "Prophets of Templum CDXX" (Recess Records)
Fullerton rock band White Night makes some hard, tight punk, but the music on its recent album travels far beyond the three-chords-and-a-scream tropes of the genre. Rawly delivered and underproduced but structurally curious, "Templum" features odd psychedelic accents, circuitous freakout diversions and isn't afraid to toss in a trumpet solo if the need arises (the awesome "Anywhere").
"Phil" kicks off like some classic Thin Lizzy jam, and then, lo, White Night dives straight into a scene in which the singer is drinking whiskey from a jar and honoring that band's founder, Phil Lynott. I'm late to this particular party — "Templum" came out in the summer — but among the 10 songs there's not a dud in the bunch, and, despite production scuffiness, the record deserves a bigger audience.
Brandy Clark, "12 Stories" (Slate Creek)
The oft-desperate souls that inhabit country songwriter Brandy Clark's assured debut album, "12 Stories," are so real that you can nearly see the lines on their faces. You feel like you know the woman, for example, who, sitting at her kitchen table smoking a joint, "hates her job, loves her kids" and is "bored with her husband" in "Get High." The heavy-beated twang of "Stripes" is set in a bedroom where a wife has just caught her husband "wearing nothing but a goofy little grin" with another woman. She's pointing a gun at him but is hesitant to pull the trigger. Not, though, because she'll mourn his death. "The only thing keeping me from losing my head/ Is I hate stripes and orange ain't my color/ And if I squeeze that trigger tonight/ I'll be wearing one or the other."
Clark's got the résumé to back it up. Her songs have been recorded by artists including Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert, Darius Rucker and the Band Perry. Clark's solo debut officially announces a remarkable voice.
Nick Lowe, "Quality Street" (Yep Rock)
Nick Lowe knows his way around a song. As writer of classics including "Cruel to Be Kind," "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" and "The Beast in Me," the English songwriter on his new holiday-themed "Quality Street" delivers a dozen songs that strive to inject into the repertoire some fresh essentials. Featuring three new songs written by Lowe (one with guitarist Ry Cooder) and a Ron Sexsmith gem penned expressly for the project, "Quality Street" is a warm and witty holiday album.
The Cooder-assisted "A Dollar Short of Happy" is written from the perspective of a beggar looking for a buck: "City sidewalks, busy sidewalks/ Turn a darker gray/ Than any Russian playwright would allow," sings Lowe. He then quotes a line from another Christmas gem, "Although it's been said many times, many ways" before turning the line into a blues by adding, "I'm a dollar short of happy now." Looking to celebrate the season but avoid the dull standards? "Quality Street" is the avenue.