RATING: ** 1/2 out of 4 It’s common for a funk-jam band to accumulate a following -- or a “flock,” as the Baltimore quartet Pigeons Playing Ping Pong lovingly refers to their fanbase -- through live shows. The audience is typically there to appreciate the showy musicianship, follow improvised whims and generally soak up the vibes. Pigeons, which began nearly eight years ago in a University of Maryland dorm room, took two years to record their second album, “Psychology” (released last Thursday), because the band was busy winning over crowds via a grassroots campaign. (It worked: Pigeons have more than 12,000 fans on Facebook, and played nearly 200 shows last year. Their current schedule shows no signs of slowing down.) Now comes the hard part for any jam band: capturing the live essence to tape. The band’s first attempt, 2010’s “Funk EP,” was effective but admittedly thrown together quickly (singer Greg Ormont said recently it was recorded in one night). Knowing that their star had risen considerably in a short time (the band headlined 9:30 Club last week), Pigeons were determined to give fans a more refined collection. Of course, a listener’s enjoyment of “Psychology” will depend heavily on his or her penchant for prolonged jam sessions. Pigeons clearly know their audience; why else would they stretch (sometimes unnecessarily so) four-minute songs into six or seven minute pieces? When it works -- say on the album’s nearly 10-minute centerpiece “Horizon” or toward the exuberant end of “Time to Ride” -- the group shows its ability to crescendo in charged harmony. There are moments of overextension, though, which cause the more-relaxed sections to veer into Muzak territory. Members of the flock will argue the ebb and flow of Pigeons’ music is essential to the composition, since energized peaks are dull without calm valleys. That’s fair and easier to swallow because the music here is often technically impressive. So perhaps “Psychology” falls a bit flat because of the lyrics. Ode-to-funk opener “F.U.” (which includes the Hornitz, a duo of horns from Boston who enliven the track and are missed later) believes it’s more clever than it actually is. “Sunny Day,” with its cheesy heavy echo effect on the vocals, whines about “how my smiles can turn into frowns.” It comes across as empty rhetoric. It’s telling the most exciting song here, the danceable disco update “Schwanthem,” lacks lyrics all together. It’s also the shortest. -- Wesley Case
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Baltimore album reviews [Pictures]

RATING: ** 1/2 out of 4

It’s common for a funk-jam band to accumulate a following -- or a “flock,” as the Baltimore quartet Pigeons Playing Ping Pong lovingly refers to their fanbase -- through live shows. The audience is typically there to appreciate the showy musicianship, follow improvised whims and generally soak up the vibes.

Pigeons, which began nearly eight years ago in a University of Maryland dorm room, took two years to record their second album, “Psychology” (released last Thursday), because the band was busy winning over crowds via a grassroots campaign. (It worked: Pigeons have more than 12,000 fans on Facebook, and played nearly 200 shows last year. Their current schedule shows no signs of slowing down.)

Now comes the hard part for any jam band: capturing the live essence to tape. The band’s first attempt, 2010’s “Funk EP,” was effective but admittedly thrown together quickly (singer Greg Ormont said recently it was recorded in one night). Knowing that their star had risen considerably in a short time (the band headlined 9:30 Club last week), Pigeons were determined to give fans a more refined collection.

Of course, a listener’s enjoyment of “Psychology” will depend heavily on his or her penchant for prolonged jam sessions. Pigeons clearly know their audience; why else would they stretch (sometimes unnecessarily so) four-minute songs into six or seven minute pieces? When it works -- say on the album’s nearly 10-minute centerpiece “Horizon” or toward the exuberant end of “Time to Ride” -- the group shows its ability to crescendo in charged harmony.

There are moments of overextension, though, which cause the more-relaxed sections to veer into Muzak territory. Members of the flock will argue the ebb and flow of Pigeons’ music is essential to the composition, since energized peaks are dull without calm valleys. That’s fair and easier to swallow because the music here is often technically impressive.

So perhaps “Psychology” falls a bit flat because of the lyrics. Ode-to-funk opener “F.U.” (which includes the Hornitz, a duo of horns from Boston who enliven the track and are missed later) believes it’s more clever than it actually is. “Sunny Day,” with its cheesy heavy echo effect on the vocals, whines about “how my smiles can turn into frowns.” It comes across as empty rhetoric. It’s telling the most exciting song here, the danceable disco update “Schwanthem,” lacks lyrics all together. It’s also the shortest. -- Wesley Case (Handout)
RATING: *** out of 4

LISTEN ON SPOTIFY: Ed Schrader’s Music Beat, “Party Jail”

The words of Ed Schrader have delighted and perplexed audiences for years. When he moved to Baltimore from his hometown of Utica, N.Y., in 2006, Schrader quickly made a name for himself in Dan Deacon’s Wham City arts collective for reasons other than music. Schrader was, in fact, an aspiring solo musician, but he was more known for hosting an offbeat, and oftentimes surreal, monthly talk show at Metro Gallery.

At least that was the case until Schrader teamed up with Devlin Rice in 2010. Two years later, the duo released “Jazz Mind,” a brooding debut album that presented their noisy formula plainly and confidently: Drummer and vocalist Schrader shouts and bangs on a lone floor tom as Rice played bass.

On Tuesday, the minimalist punk duo returns with “Party Jail,” a second full-length album that finds Schrader and Rice embracing and refining their pop sensibilities while keeping the pace sugar-rushed. On standouts like “Televan” and “Radio Eyes,” the duo attacks tracks with a deliciously bratty confidence that bubbled underneath the surface of “Jazz Mind,” but now exists at the forefront here. The players remain fully committed to their short, punchy delivery, and now seem in complete control of when to twist and when to turn. “Laughing,” for example, cleverly plays with a listener’s expectation of when a crescendo should hit.

“Party Jail” is an intoxicating record, partly because of its brash musical dynamics (Schrader and Devlin can play their instruments, but they enjoy pounding them to a pulp, too) but even more so because of Schrader’s unpredictable lyrics. The album is full of non-sequiturs that shirk logic (“brittle candy skull made of mints” on “Pink Moons”) or provide descriptive-but-fleeting snapshots (“regal Pariah dogs share their little bit with hogs” on “Cold Right Hand”).

The approach will understandably frustrate some, but there is simple pleasure in following Schrader’s lyrical whims and strange combinations of verbs, nouns and adjectives. On “Pilot,” he sings, “Pious priestess pull your eyelids / Candlelit vigil for the gilded siren / God save kings!” The brain asks, “Is this brilliant? Is this nonsense?” Maybe it’s both.

Most impressively, Schrader and Devlin know when to exit. With 13 songs clocking in at 26 minutes, “Party Jail” is over before you know it, and that seems to be the point. (The record is strong and satisfying, but when it ended, there was no wishing it was longer.) Schrader and Rice know brevity is essential to the charm, and they’re wiser for sticking to it.

-- Wesley Case (Handout)
RATING: *** 1/2 out of ****

“Before,” the opening track to Wye Oak’s fourth album (out Tuesday), is about an awakening. The first words are “This morning I woke up on the floor, thinking ‘I have never dreamed before.’” The song is gorgeous and unsettling -- a common trait of most tracks made by the indie-rock duo of Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack -- but it also marks a new chapter for one of Baltimore’s most popular bands. “I am brand new, and also old,” Wasner sings.

Although 2011’s “Civilian” was the band’s most celebrated album, the intense touring schedule that followed left the duo mentally and physically exhausted. Wasner infamously told the Village Voice in 2012, “I feel like a glorified jukebox.”

More than three years later, the members have changed. Stack lives in Texas now, while Wasner remains in Baltimore. She made music as a solo act (the project Flock of Dimes) and in collaboration (the ‘80s-pop-influenced Dungeonesse with Jon Ehrens). But in terms of Wye Oak, the most significant change came when Wasner ditched her guitar and replaced it with the bass. “The decision, in turn, provided Stack with new opportunities to explore different grooves and dynamics."The result is “Shriek,” a concise and engaging 10-track record that keeps the most intriguing elements of Wye Oak -- Wasner’s lush voice, Stack’s sophisticated drum and synth work -- and strips away the old guitar-driven formula of quiet intensity ending in crescendo that had seemed to bore the band.

It is obvious these changes rejuvenated the duo’s approach to songwriting, even as they wrote portions of “Shriek” in different time zones. (They would email each other home-recorded parts for the other to add to.)

On “I Know the Law,” Wasner’s voice floats above the faint, sustained synthesizers until she reaches the emotional payoff of the song’s title. When she sings, “I know the law,” her voice flutters quickly, in and out of focus. It is a different kind of crescendo than Wye Oak did before, and the impact is richer and more disorienting. “Schools of Eyes,” a standout with a funky bassline, has a genuine swing that the old band might have struggled to achieve as naturally. And Stack flourishes as a drummer and most significantly as a keyboardist, especially when he explores more idiosyncratic touches (the off-kilter soloing on the last minute of “Glory,” for example).

But amid the changes, it is Wye Oak’s ability to write sturdy, continuously rewarding songs that remains its strongest asset. On “Shriek,” the route to get there has changed, but the effectiveness of Wasner and Stack’s compositions has not.

-- Wesley Case (Handout)
RATING: *** 1/2 out of 4

LISTEN ON SPOTIFY: Sun Club, “Dad Claps at the Mom Prom”

If there is an appropriate record to celebrate spring’s anticipated arrival in Baltimore, it must be this instantly engaging six-track EP from local indie-pop quintet Sun Club.

Technically, “Dad Claps at the Mom Prom” was released in January by Brooklyn, N.Y., label Goodnight Records, but its enthusiastically bright pop songs -- all filled with dynamic flourishes, high-in-the-mix alternating vocals and a jovial looseness more indie-rock bands could use -- feel like the audio equivalent of salt on slick sidewalks. As the weather warms, “Dad Claps” emerges as a welcome soundtrack to sunnier days.

The group, formerly known as Pandomonia, shows its hand from the outset. Opening track “Beauty Meat” establishes what to expect over the EP’s 18 minutes: chiseled melody lines, major chords, uplifting crew vocals and a palpable sense that these guys are not only talented but have a great time showing it.

It’s as if Sun Club -- whose members’ ages range between 19 and 22 -- cherry-picked the most viscerally rewarding aspects of music site Pitchfork’s most championed acts in recent years, and used them to craft a rollicking record that never weakens its grip on the listener. You will hear elements of Vampire Weekend’s nimble guitar work, Animal Collective (the vocals on “Repulsive on Chocolate” recall those of Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox), and even the less-dystopian moments of Arcade Fire.

Intriguingly, the EP -- like the band that made it -- contains a humorous streak that borders on absurd. The nonsensical title track is 29 seconds of what sounds like a male playing video games. He repeats the “life advice” from the band’s Facebook biography: “If it ain’t heatin’, it’s oversweetin’.” If the joke went over your head, you are not alone.

Yet there is something refreshing about a band of friends unafraid to make one another laugh, even if a joke is impenetrable to outsiders. It reminds me of the humor ushered into Baltimore by Dan Deacon and the Wham City collective years ago. Just like the artists from that era, Sun Club knows its charm shines through clearest with a bit of levity included. Besides, these “dirty sunshine pop” songs (in this case, the label’s description of the band’s sound fits well) are so sure-handedly well-crafted that there is no question Sun Club takes songwriting -- what ultimately counts most -- seriously.

-- Wesley Case (Handout)
DOWNLOAD: Starrz, “Live Forever. Die Dope” (DatPiff)

RATING: *** out of 4

“Live Forever. Die Dope,” the new album by Baltimore rapper Starrz, spends its first few tracks building a case that the 26-year-old born Colby Hall can rap. The true test comes on “G.O.A.T.,” a rumbling, lyrical exercise between Starrz and King Los, the dexterous Baltimore-born rapper signed to Bad Boy Records. While Starrz fails to outshine his syllable-stacking guest, he more than holds his own through sneering confidence and alliteration.

So yes, Starrz can rap, but that was already established on his eye-opening 2012 project “Best Mixtape Ever.” The follow-up once again finds Starrz flexing his versatility, as he shifts like a chameleon from track to track, but more significantly, it tells his story as an artist making it from a tough environment to Relumae Records, the label owned by NFL player Tamba Hali that signed Starrz last year.

“Live Forever. Die Dope” showcases why Hali is betting on Starrz -- specifically, his polished approach to songwriting. Approachable rhymes and sticky hooks take precedence here, and it does not take long to realize why the single “Dope Trilla aka Baltimore” found airplay on 92Q. More than any Baltimore rapper today, Starrz sounds ready for a national stage.

If he makes it there, let’s hope he continues to make songs like the Ghost-produced “Angel$ & Demon$,” a clear standout. It’s a bleak, unflinching look at Baltimore’s streets and finds Starrz rapping lines such as, “Welcome to hell, home of the death / Where they scared of two things: books and a pregnancy test.” The song is sharp and smart because Starrz rebukes the notion that people are either angels or demons, and that dire economic circumstances are the result of right and wrong decisions. Life is not simple that way, and “Live Forever. Die Dope” succeeds most when viewed from that wide scope.

But like “Best Mixtape Ever,” this 16-track album is far too long, clocking in at nearly 80 minutes. Losing a chunk of the skits, which seem to end and begin each song, would work wonders. They’re used here as connective tissue for the narrative, but many times they are unnecessary, and worse, not entertaining. Starrz rightfully has the mainstream in his sights, but he should realize that his impact would be greater if he learned to trim the fat. -- Wesley Case (Handout)
LISTEN ON SPOTIFY: Diamond Youth, ‘Shake’ EP

RATING: ** 1/2 out of 4

Is “Shake,” the third EP from the alt-rock quartet Diamond Youth, a 15-minute detour or the future sound of the Baltimore band?

The question is at the center of this half-cohesive, half-scattershot record. And the fact that Diamond Youth approached its label this past spring about recording songs that were, as Topshelf Records’ website says, “totally random and might not make sense entirely,” only complicates the matter.

What’s clear is “Shake” finds Diamond Youth moving even further from the brighter and poppier sounds of its first EP, 2011’s “Don’t Lose Your Cool,” and more toward a forceful sound driven largely by chunky guitar riffs. Diamond Youth has always been part Weezer, part Queens of the Stone Age, but the latter is noticeably more dominant on “Shake.”

The shift feels swift and immediate on “Red Water,” a feedback-drenched opener that feels indebted to surf rock, Foo Fighters and the stoner-rock phase of Arctic Monkeys. “Can’t Shake the Feeling” -- with its repetitive, earworm hook and screeching, reverb-heavy guitar solo -- sounds plucked from an episode of the ‘90s MTV show “Alternative Nation.” And anyone who has ever loudly jammed with friends in a garage will appreciate the brash punk burst of the 49-second-long “Maryland Ice Cream.”

The four members -- singer Justin Gilman, guitarist Sam Trapkin, drummer Brendan Yates and bassist Daniel Fang -- are spread out across the country, including Baltimore, Chicago and Los Angeles. (The band was first known simply as Diamond before the act changed the name for legal reasons.) While the band reportedly writes songs by sending one another partial recordings over the Internet, the distance is not detectable here. And “Shake,” which was recorded locally with producer Brian McTernan over two weeks, benefits from cohesive production.

But there is something unsettled about “Shake” as a whole. The issue is Gilman’s vocals, which are technically strong but missing the grounded, melodic punch of the band’s previous records. Too much of his singing on “Shake” occurs in a floating falsetto that could draw comparisons to Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley. After three years and three EPs, Diamond Youth sounds like a band with a clouded sense of identity. The talent is apparent on “Shake,” but the direction is not. -- Wesley Case (Handout)
DOWNLOAD: Ellis, “The Education of Ellis”

RATING: *** 1/2 (out of 4)

Four days before Christmas, Baltimore rapper Ellis released an early gift for free: “The Education of Ellis,” his excellent fourth album that not only solidifies him as one of the city’s most gifted MCs, but also raises the bar for future rap projects released here. And halfway through the record, as Ellis stacks syllable upon syllable on the lyrical exercise “Best Kept Secret,” it becomes clear he knows it: “That B-more boy, he making magic again / And these hardbody bars don’t break nor bend.”

The 16-track “Education” is the densest Baltimore rap project in recent memory, and the scrutiny it requires ultimately rewards listeners richly and repeatedly. Ellis, the 31-year-old who was born Ellis Marcus Hopkins Jr., packs the album to its seams with vivid stories that range from plaintive (the intro, “Blessed With the Gift,” finds Ellis’ head spinning over a friend who was murdered in a foolish fight) to sobering.

The latter is most obvious on “Original Manz,” a frank track that samples the old Nas lyric, “It’s elementary they want us all gone eventually.” Although the line was first rapped in the early ‘90s, it clearly rings true to Ellis today. “Education” constantly -- and thoughtfully -- reminds listeners of the cyclical struggles disadvantaged black Americans still face. Ellis raps about a friend’s dilemma between selling drugs and a “workforce that won’t let him compete,” before beautifully widening his scope:

“Can’t find a hustler across the map and the trap that want to sell crack
But self-preservation is the first law of nature
So we ‘bout that paper from Jamaica to Decatur
Or kill ya before we graze ya
Inheriting slave blood comes with hostile behavior”

Eloquent and unapologetic, Ellis works as a lyrical triple threat on “Education.” First, he pulls stories from his life: On the Styles P-assisted single “Misled,” Ellis intricately raps about playing college basketball in Elkins, W.Va., or the “one place on the planet a black man should not be,” and the interracial hookups it led to. Second, he ponders larger issues: On “Yellow Brick Road,” he considers using pending fame as a platform to express his suspicions of the U.S. government. Thirdly, Ellis, a natural braggart, often injects levity to tracks with effortless wit, never allowing a subject matter’s heaviness to bog down the overall experience. In other words, he talks that talk.

A focus on lyrics can lead to other shortcomings, but “Education” arrives fully formed, from its enriching samples of the 1974 film “The Education of Sonny Carson” to the soulful production by Legin, Oh Genius and Sir Henry J. Stuart. At the helm is Ellis, an observant, clear-eyed rapper who specializes in realism, not cynicism. “This generational gap make them see us an uncouth / Call me crazy for trying to save the world from a booth,” he raps on “I Know Why.” Ellis may not succeed, but we’re better for his trying. -- Wesley Case (Handout)
LISTEN: The Federal Hillbillies, ‘Whiskey to Wine’

RATING: *** out of 4

The best song on “Whiskey to Wine,” the EP from relative Americana newcomers The Federal Hillbillies, is also the saddest. The midtempo “Invisible Man” finds frontman Justin Ahmanson wrestling with regret.

It begins with tears falling in the narrator’s hands, but Ahmanson beautifully captures the end of a relationship when he sings, “My heart has fallen as far as she ran / Wish I was an invisible man.” No matter the genre, that is economical wording that packs a punch. “Whiskey to Wine” is full of similar eye-opening moments that declare Ahmanson’s abilities as a songwriter, and in particular, lyricist.

Throughout the EP, the band -- which also includes Justin’s older brother, Josh Ahmanson (pedal/lap steel guitar), Chris King (drums) and Dan Walker (bass) -- plays Americana that’s mostly folk and country but with a touch of the blues. It’s a serviceable backdrop that is averse to risk taking but services the real star of the project, Ahmanson’s lyrics. The music never gets in the way of the narrative, and “Whiskey to Wine” is better for it.

With its aching slide guitar and harmonica, “Punch Drunk Love” transports listeners to a slurred-but-promising exchange between two strangers at a bar. Naturally, on an EP as thematically melancholy as this, the ballad begins with promise (“I don’t recall just what she said / But I thought she could turn a phrase” is another excellent line that accurately captures hours of drunken flirting in 15 words) but ends in sadness. Their moment passed, and the man is left only with “this cold, dark, lonely floor.”

The closing title track is familiar territory: The narrator has lost his love, and in the absence has replaced her with a tried-and-true bottle of whiskey. Ahmanson’s word choices connect broken hearts and alcohol consumption, natural companions, in an obvious way, but the effect is no less felt: “But the only warmth I have now is whiskey / It feels cold to split a bottle alone,” he sings. The song ends with the vague optimism -- or is it wishful thinking? -- that the two will reunite one day. In the hands of The Federal Hillbillies, you can’t shake the sense that the day will never come. -- Wesley Case (Handout)
DOWNLOAD: OG Dutch Master, ‘Blue Light District’

RATING: *** out of 4

At the end of “3Ms,” a regal banger produced by D-Prince that comes early on “Blue Light District,” 20-year-old rapper OG Dutch Master makes it clear where he views himself on the Baltimore hip-hop totem pole.

“I’m the king of my city, Los never had the crown,” he raps over swirling strings before comparing himself to a “shark in the water.” Los, the Baltimore-raised MC now signed to Diddy’s Bad Boy Records, is considered the city’s best rapper in many circles, but OG Dutch Master clearly aims to surpass him. On a much smaller scale, it’s similar to Lil Wayne deeming himself the “best rapper alive” in 2005 after Jay Z momentarily retired.

Lil Wayne, a workaholic, ignored the nonbelievers to turn his boast into reality. OG Dutch Master is not the king of Baltimore yet (if anything, the throne has long been vacant), but “Blue Light District,” his strongest mixtape to date, shows he’s on the right path.

Here, OG Dutch Master, born Toney White II, is at his best looking inward. “Tired of these piggies dressed in blue / I can’t trust my surrounding, I can’t even trust my crew,” he raps on the strong introduction, “Dirty Diamonds.” Later, on “In Disguise,” he reveals the brutal familial struggles that led to inner conflict: “I stopped selling drugs when my cousin started buying,” Dutchy says before acknowledging that the situation hurt his head and his wallet. And yes, he’s a hustler often driven by his bottom line (“Money can’t buy happiness? That’s a lie / I crack a smile when thinking of G5’s,” he raps on “3Ms.”).

He’s less effective when he leans too heavily on sex-and-money boilerplate, like when he raps, “Eating crabs and shrimps, I’m so lavish” on “Done It All.” “Paper” is an aggressive single that recalls Travis Scott’s full-throated brashness, but its impact is dulled with too many mentions of imported belts and Ralph Lauren. On that song, he’s mining a style that emphasizes visceral reaction over wordplay, but the result leaves a desire for more balance.

Dutchy is not too far off, though. “Knuckleheadz,” the mixtape’s most encouraging track, proves the rapper is challenging himself to back up the best-in-the-city claim. The sparse beat, by Virtuoso the God, is alien without obvious pockets for rapping. Through sheer charisma, he transcends mill-of-the-run lyrics to create a song of triumph unlike any I’ve heard from a Baltimore rapper this year. If he sharpens his pen a bit more, the city could be on notice. -- Wesley Case (Handout)
LISTEN: Blind Man Leading, “Swords”

RATING: ** out of 4

In late August outside the 8x10 in Federal Hill, the members of the Baltimore indie-rock trio Blind Man Leading filmed a short video explaining the intentions of their second EP, “Swords.”

“There are things that happen to us in life that kind of pierce us and can cause us to feel uncomfortable pain, feel all of these struggles we all go through. And when we’re pierced like that, we’re kind of reminded of how our lives aren’t all together,” said guitarist and singer Dave Wentz.

Judging from the lyrics of “Swords,” unrequited love is the culprit. On the mostly somber ballad “Lighthouse,” Wentz uses an extended metaphor to describe the pain that seems constant throughout “Swords.”

“You were a lighthouse, now a sharp coast, and you’re spending nights wrecking boats / That night wasn’t dark from the sky but from your eyes,” Wentz intones over barely-there instrumentation. The six-minute song eventually builds to a musically exciting intensity, but it’s bogged down by Wentz and his repeating of the mawkish line, “But I can’t risk the danger of your arms.”

“Lighthouse” illustrates the main problem of the five-song “Swords.” The music -- a straightforward brand of indie-rock influenced by Coldplay ballads and math-rock -- is played well enough, but the lyrics keep it from ever rising beyond banal complimentary words like “pleasant” or “nice.”

The best song here is the opener, “Sword in a Stone,” because the musicianship does the heavy lifting. In comparison to its first release (last December’s “The Bostonia EP”), the band -- which also includes bassist Tyler Wheeler and drummer Paul Mercer -- spent more time working together as a unit in the studio. The result included vocal harmonies that add brightness to the EP’s monochromatic feel.

But even when the band’s execution is locked in, the lyrics limit the songs’ potential. “The rumblings of your unrest have set your teeth on edge,” Wentz sings. Like plenty of lyrics on the EP, it’s a line that’s too wordy and too confident in its own cleverness. The adage “It’s not what you say but how you say it” applies too often to “Swords.” -- Wesley Case (Handout)
DOWNLOAD: Rome Cee & Greenspan, “Cee-Span” EP

RATING: *** out of 4

From the opening song of “Cee-Span,” the six-track collaboration between Baltimore rappers Rome Cee and Greenspan, it’s clear the two deserve each other.

Over “The Harvest’s” soulful production by August Flight Gordon -- blissfully anchored by a sample of J.O.B. Orquestra’s “Only Faith and Hope” -- Rome Cee announces it’s “time to enjoy the fruits of the harvest for everything we’ve been through.” The 30-year-old, born Jerome Carrington, hasn’t become a household name, but in recent years he and Greenspan, born Brian Dawkins, have been recognized as two of Baltimore’s most talented MCs. At least on “The Harvest,” that recognition seems like enough.

“There was this wrinkle in time and now they pressed like linen / with pressed grapes in the wine cellar that’s older than my great-grandma,” Rome Cee raps. These wordy, ping-ponging details are a trademark of Rome Cee’s rhyming style, and he remains consistently sharp here.

With his comparatively higher voice, Greenspan plays the eager foil to Rome Cee’s steely confidence. He raps with a vigor that indicates he has something to prove, which is fitting since Rome Cee is the more talented rapper. At times, Greenspan crams even more words per bar than his partner, but he’s still learning how to craft memorable lines that inspire rewinding.

Greenspan should take notes from Al Great, the excellent Baltimore rapper best known for his 2012 mixtape “Summer Nights.” On “Journey to the Stars,” Al joins the fold, injecting some needed humor into the EP through a delivery smoother than even Rome’s.

“Yellow Camaro, say hello the Pharaoh / If you ever out of line, I’ll pull your card like a Tarot / My tunnel vision’s narrow: family, rhyming and money / Your flow Jay Pharoah, I’m barely finding it funny,” Al Great raps.

This effect is what we hope for in collaborations -- artists forcing each other to elevate their talents. That sense of competition is one of hip-hop’s everlasting traits, and “Cee-Span” continues in the tradition with often winning results. -- Wesley Case (Handout)
RATING: ** out of 4

Rap was first built on bragging about being the best and having the best. The veteran Baltimore rapper Wordsmith brags a different kind of way.

“Never hear a curse, play this in your crib / You can play it around your kids, to your neighbors, where you live,” Wordsmith raps on “When in Doubt Give It Your Best.”

Wordsmith, born Anthony Parker, is a dying -- or at least an increasingly ignored -- breed of MC. He frequently raps about positivity and the lack of it in mainstream hip-hop, and on his recently released third album, “The Blue Collar Recital,” the 33-year-old rapper continues down a similar path with mixed results.

As a rapper, Wordsmith is technically efficient but rarely shows flashes of intricate wordplay or memorable turns of phrase. On “Recital,” he too often preaches a message many might agree with but won’t give a chance because of its public service announcement attitude.

When Wordsmith pauses from the numbingly positive (“When Your Faith Is Tested,” “My Brilliance Shines”), he’s much more effective. On “Living Life Check to Check,” he offers charming glimpses of self-deprecation (“10 hours of driving, arriving so soon / The way I hit the stage you’d never know it was an empty room”). The best song here, by a wide margin, is “Traffic Jammin’,” an ode to blasting rap in the car as an escape. Wordsmith, throughout most of the album, seems so preoccupied with changing the world for the better that “Traffic Jammin’” comes as a welcome respite.

As a father of two and full-time government contractor, the hard-working, non-swearing Anthony Parker seems to possess qualities a role model should have. (He often recorded tracks for the album in his bedroom after a long day of work and putting the kids to bed.) But as Wordsmith, he makes the mistake of using morality as the main pillar to “Recital,” and the album suffers because of it. -- Wesley Case (Handout)
DOWNLOAD: Weekends, ‘New Humans’

RATING: *** 1/2 out of 4

The first vinyl release from Baltimore’s Friends Records came in December 2010. The record was “Strange Cultures,” the sophomore album from Weekends, a guitar-and-drums duo consisting then of two recent college graduates, Adam Lempel and Brendan Sullivan.

In the time since, Friends Records has become one of the city’s most prominent and consistent labels. Fittingly, Weekends’ third album, “New Humans,” mirrors its label’s exciting, upward trajectory while marking a significant leap forward for the band.

Loose, loud and seemingly bursting at its seams, “New Humans” is a welcomed reminder of how much fun a two-man band can create. Fans of Kurt Vile’s poignant guitar riffing and Japandroids’ carpe diem attitude should have no problem finding things to like about Weekends.

But “New Humans” is about progress. Where as 2008’s self-titled debut and “Strange Cultures” sounded like reverb-drenched sketches, “New Humans” is noticeably more confident and sure-handed. Instead of only turning the amplifiers to 11 and banging the drum kit to paste to make their point, Lempel and Sullivan - who share singing and playing duties on a song-by-song basis - also wrote more engaging guitar parts and pushed the vocals closer to the front of the mix, both marks of a band embracing its identity.

The key is the dynamic one-two punch of Sullivan and Lempel. Besides stronger singing, the duo has improved its guitar playing as well. The album’s poppiest song, “Soaked,” finds Sullivan alternating between heavy, exaggerated up-and-down strokes and frantic, invigorating strumming. On June Echo, the players switch positions, and Lempel builds the track around a memorable, high-pitched guitar riff.

Both players had no experience playing drums before Weekends, and the rhythm section remains the least remarkable aspect of the band. Here, drums are asked to keep the beat and little else. But the anthemic guitar parts more than make up for the shortcomings. Even with louder vocals, Weekends still aims to tell its stories through its guitars.

Lempel and Sullivan seem aware of this, and even poke fun at their difficult-to-decipher lyrics. On “Sinking Vibes,” Sullivan sings, “What are the words to all of your songs / Tell me now so I can sing along.” Deep down, he knows the words are simply a means to an end. -- Wesley Casea> (Handout)
DOWNLOAD: Jay Wyse, “Wyse Thoughts Wise Journey 2"

RATING: ** 1/2 out of 4

Almost halfway through “Wyse Thoughts Wise Journey 2,” 23-year-old East Baltimore rapper Jay Wyse decides it’s time to brag a bit. Over a pounding beat by Paul Magnet, Wyse raps, “Don’t usually do tracks like this but they asked for it so I flexed a bit.” The track is filled with empty, steal-your-girlfriend boasting. It’s an ill fit for the MC who was born Javon Shipley, and he seems to know it.

He’s much more at home, and interesting, on the following song, “3 A.M.” Wyse’s problems are relatable: He wants to be a good father to his son, to have money to feed his family and to see success beyond the city limits. Some of these things are in his control and others aren’t, which is enough to weigh heavily on him. When he repeats the line, “I need to clear my mind, dog,” there’s a lonely sense of searching and desperation that cuts through J. Gramm’s mournful backdrop. Some rappers sound most comfortable bottle-popping in the club, but Wyse is at home in his own mind.

When Wyse isn’t playing his own psychiatrist, “Wise Journey 2" (a follow-up to Wyse’s 2012 debut mixtape) works best when he addresses the people closest to him. “Letter to My Man 3" is an affecting tribute to Wyse’s best friend, Timothy Gaskins Jr. aka Biscuit, who was shot and killed over Memorial Day weekend in 2010. “Mama,” which samples Boyz II Men’s hit “A Song for Mama,” is a familiar hip-hop trope that proves it still has legs when Wyse raps, “Everything is not perfect, I won’t lie / But you gave me some of the greatest things / like three sisters, three queens.”

Like many young rappers, Wyse’s problem is trying to be everything to everyone. He’s a generic motivator on his grind (“Dear World”) and less convincing as a ladies’ man (“Girl Like You”). But when Wyse tackles real-life events head on, he’s a compelling voice. “Five years ago in June my life changed forever / Something more to live for, motivation to be better,” Wyse raps about his son on “Outro.” Here’s hoping he continues to document the process, while sharpening his skills. -- Wesley Case (Handout)
RATING: ** 1/2 out of 4

DOWNLOAD: Height with Friends, ‘Versus Dynamic Sounds’

Hip-hop nostalgia is a tricky thing. Despite the annual Forbes list of the usual elder statesmen (Jay Z, Dr. Dre, Diddy), rap thrives as a young person’s game, with veterans often taking cues from up-and-coming artists. And even when rap fans get nostalgic for old times, it’s often for dazzling lyricists such as Rakim and ‘Illmatic'-era Nas.

Baltimore indie-rapper Dan Keech is digging even deeper in the crates for inspiration. ‘Versus Dyanmic Sound’ is a 30-minute homage to the live hip-hop tapes of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. There are 12 songs, but really they’re short vignettes (half the tracks are under two minutes) of Keech, who raps as Height, and his Friends (including frequent collaborators Emily Slaughter, Eze Jackson, PT Burnem, DJ Secret Weapon Dave and more) loosely interacting and rapping with spirited silliness.

As a tribute, it’s an endearing, well-executed tip of the hat to a pioneering era that is rarely recognized. As an album without context, it’s a passion project that lacks replayabillity. Its effectiveness will hang on how much you cherish hip-hop lineage and the purveyors of the time -- the Cold Crush Brothers, Spoonie Gee and Fab Five Freddie, to name a few. It’s a modern recording made to sound like a relic, for better or worse.

“Pleasure Club Disco ’79" captures the album’s essence: Early on, the music cuts out and an announcer comes over a loudspeaker to instruct a rowdy (and imaginary) crowd to “back away from the ropes” because they’re tripping over the MCs’ microphone wires and affecting the “performance.” A breakbeat returns and Height, who delivers his lines as if he was auditioning for Run-D.M.C., raps, “Up in the sky, a booming voice said you will soon be the MC choice / to give the people a great delight / from west to east, they’ll call you Height.”

“Versus Dynamic Sounds” is a novelty that will sound refreshing to old school rap fans who remember when an MC’s job was to brag about his DJ and his own party-rocky abilities. There’s nothing “new” here, and that seems to be the point. -- Wesley Case (Handout)
DOWNLOAD: Holy Ghost Party, ‘Weather Channel’

RATING: *** out of 4

In the abrasive, post-hardcore Baltimore act Dope Body, drummer David Jacober and guitarist Zachary Utz wildly contort their instruments to create skull-rattling backdrops. The results are often sweaty, exhilarating and exhausting, so it makes sense the two players would head in a less violent direction for a side project.

Holy Ghost Party, the duo’s atmospheric pop act, released a self-titled debut album in September 2011 that threw countless genres against the wall and benefited from a relaxed unpredictability. The band’s latest EP, “Weather Channel,” is more refined than its predecessor, and it proves Jacober and Utz are just as talented at crafting tropical chillwave as they are making brash punk songs.

After a spooky, nearly two-minute interlude that sounds like ghosts communicating, “Treasure Chest” quickly establishes “Weather Channel’s” tranquil mood with a smooth, danceable groove. On many tracks here, Rod Hamilton, a featured guest, plays vibraphone, which adds brightness to Jacober’s ethereal vocals. Utz’s understated guitar playing -- which slinks its way onto tracks without taking up all of the air -- adds a necessary heft to songs that could have been too lightweight without it.

This is experimental pop music that is sure-handed even as it retains mysterious qualities (closer “Keep Coming Back” sounds submerged, thanks to guitar picking reminiscent of Minus the Bear and distant vocals). By trimming the fat from their all-over-the-place debut, Jacober and Utz prove they’re smart songwriters who are still improving.

The best moment is “Dad Vibes,” which pushes its longing vocals to the front of the mix. There’s a dreamlike, hazy quality to the song that would have been fine to milk for all its worth. But toward the end, a forceful, reverb-heavy guitar comes through like a thunderstorm, elevating the short song to greater heights. As the instrumentation gets busier, Jacober keeps singing because it feels right in the moment, like running into rain to feel alive. -- Wesley Case (Handout)
DOWNLOAD: Raindeer, “Tattoo”

RATING: ** 1/2 out of 4

The video for “Tattoo,” the title track of Baltimore indie-pop act Raindeer’s second album, presents the quartet in close quarters, something resembling a basement party with no other guests. The members -- singer Charlie Hughes, bassist Devin Byrnes, keyboardist Liz Vayda and guitarist Nicky Smith -- seem content playing their understated synth-pop, lighting each others’ cigarettes and shooting each other silly glances. Confetti, for some reason, fills the air, but the band doesn’t seem to care.

Raindeer’s music -- which has elements of the Smith Westerns’ wide-eyed glam indie-rock, synth-heavy chillwave and Animal Collective’s experimental-pop moments -- feels contained, as if its members are most comfortable in small spaces. There are pockets of pop ambition on “Tattoo’s” 10 tracks (Vayda’s short, high-pitched singing on “Tune Out,” the chantlike buoyancy of “7th Avenue”), but mostly, this is an insular, headphones album.

New listeners might struggle to connect with “Tattoo” because the majority of its vocals are obscured or processed through filters. There’s also a sense of timidity in the singing from Hughes and Vayda, which undersells the stronger phrases and attempts to gloss over the forgettable ones. Raindeer seems to consider vocals simply as another instrument, and the results are inconsistent. This type of blending can be powerful (the hypnotic “By the Way”) but also drag (“Tattoo II”).

“Tattoo” is the quartet’s second album in less than a year. The growth between projects isn’t leaps-and-bounds territory, but it’s there, mainly in composition and the players’ abilities as musicians. The new album’s title track is the strongest song here, and it highlights the band’s strengths and weaknesses best. It retains the band’s quirky, almost shy attitude, but goes all-in for the memorable call-and-response chorus. If Raindeer ever releases its great indie-pop album -- and it could -- “Tattoo” will be the album that revealed the potential. -- Wesley Case (Handout)
RATING: ** out of 4

DOWNLOAD: Mobtown Moon, ‘Mobtown Moon’

Tribute albums are often awkward affairs. For one, the original source material remains a constant presence, looming over the proceedings like an adored mythical creature. And then the inevitable questions: Are we supposed to compare the two? Are these reinterpretations achieving something new through old songs? What, exactly, is the point?

“Mobtown Moon,” a tribute to Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” conceived by Baltimore musicians Sandy Asirvatham and ellen cherry which culminates with a Sept. 28 concert at Goucher College, shows its appreciation for the landmark prog-rock album while unifying a sizable, diverse group of the city’s artists. As is often the case with tribute albums, the intentions are good, but the results are uneven.

The most obvious example is “Money,” which features vocals from Cris Jacobs, formerly of the Bridge and current lead singer of the Cris Jacobs Band. Covering one of Pink Floyd’s most recognizable songs could tempt a singer to deliver a hammy performance, but Jacobs is smarter than that. His restrained, bluesy vocals match the track’s re-imagined dive bar band vibe, and the result is the album’s best track.

But right after “Money” comes “Dream/Counterfeit,” an upbeat, hip-hop-meets-jazz song that features local spoken word group the 5th L rapping about greed. The song is meant to be a modern coda to “Money,” but it feels uncomfortably shoe-horned onto the tracklist. It’s thoughtful that Asirvatham and cherry wanted to incorporate members of Baltimore’s hip-hop scene, but a Pink Floyd tribute album does not set them up for success.

“Mobtown Moon” has promising moments, including Asirvatham’s wordless vocals on “The Great Gig in the Sky” and Lea Gilmore’s molasses-like singing on “Brain Damage.” But more often than not, “Mobtown Moon” suffers from a lack of urgency. Some songs (“Breathe,” “Time”) are given the lounge treatment, which might work for a listener with a bassline fetish, but not for those wishing the songs carried a stronger punch.

The lasting beauty of “The Dark Side of the Moon,” which turned 40 in March, is how it wonderfully floats in the ether. “Mobtown Moon” strips the work of its surreal reverie, which remains the album’s most mesmerizing aspect. The result is a love letter -- to Pink Floyd and Baltimore -- that is more endearing for its purpose than its sound. -- Wesley Case (Handout)
RATING: *** out of 4

Wale’s third album, “The Gifted,” is not a hip-hop game changer, but it is a game changer for the 28-year-old rapper -- not in the sense that it will make him a superstar but in that he finally sounds confident and comfortable as a musician.

Or at least as comfortable as Wale can allow himself to be. He’s still a petulant worrier too concerned about everyone’s opinion of him, but he’s now expressing those thoughts in a way that sounds true to him.

The best moments on “The Gifted” sound like nothing found on a major-label rap album in 2013. “LoveHate Thing,” a breezy single sonically inspired by Marvin Gaye, details Wale’s up-and-down relationship with his birthplace, Washington D.C. He remains the biggest rap star in a go-go-obsessed city that was slow to embrace him. His passion -- both love and hate -- for his home makes for his most compelling topic. “Sunshine” sounds sunnier than its title, with its marvelous-sounding backdrop for Wale’s brags about “packin’ out 9:30,” a reference to the D.C. venue.

Wale has a strong fan base because he portrays a rapper who thinks harder than his peers about everything: fame, love, women and personal struggle. For listeners exhausted by Top 40 party-rap, he’s a welcomed respite. As a lyricist and songwriter, his over-thinking works in some places (“Heaven’s Afternoon”) and falls flat in others (“Golden Salvation,” a track written from the perspective of Jesus that sounds like the type of misguided concept song Nas used to make). He has a lot to say, and he’s still figuring out the most effective way to present it all.

As a rapper, his slippery flow can be impressive, especially to those who put a high premium on the craft of stringing together lines (closer “Black Heroes” is an exercise in breath-control). But he’s rarely economical. A line like “Although I’m never slippin’ like student parent permission” is meant to display wordplay, but it’s too clunky to resonate.

Still, “The Gifted” is Wale’s best album by a wide margin. His 2009 flop of a debut “Attention Deficit” sounded as if label executives constructed it. On 2011’s “Ambition,” we heard his growing pains while assimilating to Rick Ross’ flashy Maybach Music Group. But here, Wale finally seems to have figured out his lane as an artist. There’s room for improvement -- bragging less about rare sneakers would be a good start -- but at least Wale finally sounds sure footed. -- Wesley Case (Handout)
RATING: ** out of 4

The build-up leading to “The Earth Pushed Back,” the debut album from Baltimore emo quartet Have Mercy, placed the young band in a favorable position. The group had recently signed to Topshelf Records, the Boston-based label currently releasing records by some of the best acts in the wide-spanning genre (Into It. Over It., Baltimore’s Pianos Become the Teeth).

Even more promising was the producer named for “Earth”: James Robbins, better known as J. Robbins, the former lead singer of Washington’s Jawbox and a forefather of Have Mercy’s brand of melodic emo. With the right label and producer in place, the rest was left to the band to deliver.

It came up short. Have Mercy has written a serviceable album here, but it’s also heavy-handed and far too reminiscent of older bands that executed the sound with more precision and refinement. The quartet joins the countless number of acts following the Jimmy Eat World blueprint first established with 1996’s “Static Prevails.” Songs abruptly shift from pretty, hushed tones to full-band, distorted assault and back, often multiple times in the same song.

It’s a dynamics-driven formula meant to keep listeners on their toes, but instead, the results quickly become monotonous and predictable. Tracks such as “Ancient West,” “The Gates” and “Weak at the Knees” (the last of which was first heard on the band’s 2012 EP, “My Oldest Friend”) all blend together because they lack distinct characteristics.

Singer Brian Swindle does something similar with vocals: Most of his lyrics are delivered in a comfortable, generic tone, until he explodes with a guttural bark that recalls The Early November’s Ace Enders -- rough-edged but surprisingly harmonious. It does not help that the lyrics are mostly trite cries of post-breakup neediness (“I still listen to your favorite songs / wishing you were in my arms,” Swindle sings on “This Old Ark”).

When Have Mercy matches the right hook (“Let’s Talk About Your Hair,” another rerecorded EP song, is the best example) with its familiar sound, the band’s potential and appeal are most evident. But most interesting is the understated alt-country ballad “Living Dead,” the most affecting song on the album. It’s no surprise that it comes when the band drops the formula completely. -- Wesley Case (Handout)
RATING: ** 1/2 out of 4

After Double Dagger called it quits in the fall of 2011, its members moved on to different projects. Singer Nolen Strals fronts the ferocious band Pure Junk, while drummer Denny Bowen now takes center stage as the lead singer of the fiery quartet Roomrunner.

While his former bandmates have continued thrashing away, Bruce Willen (Double Dagger’s bassist) has gone the opposite direction with Peals, a two-man instrumental band with William Cashion, bassist of Future Islands. “Walking Field,” the duo’s debut album, is a small but charming record that sounds like an appropriate soundtrack for a lazy summer night by a fire.

There’s a gentle, hazy touch to all of the album’s eight tracks. Even when the pace quickens -- as it does on the dreamy opener “Floating Leaf” and when the bursts of intricate guitar picking kick in on “Tiptoes in the Parlor” -- “Walking Field” remains firmly grounded in its languid approach.

Most of the album plays like the sonic equivalent of riding a tube down a slow river. It relaxes and calms a listener to the point where a nap could be in order. That’s not always a bad thing, but the extended lulls -- such as the mostly feedback-and-atmosphere “Believers” -- could use less cerebral meditation and a hint of more muscle and melody.

On “Pendelles” and the closer “Koan 1,” Peals wisely injects cello, played be Kate Barutha (a member of Adam Lempel and the Heartbeats and Soft Cat), for a welcomed new dynamic. The drama added by the cello elevates “Walking Field” from a pleasant, monochromatic album to something more complex and emotionally resonant. It also hints that Peals is capable of more. --Wesley Case (Handout)
RATING: *** out of 4

With an endless supply of sludgy riffs and soloing theatrics, “Ideal Cities” -- the debut album from crusty Baltimore quartet Roomrunner -- is the best guitar-driven album of the year.

The singer/songwriter responsible for the relentless six-string work, on top of the deceptively catchy melodies, is Denny Bowen, drummer of the defunct post-punk trio Double Dagger. “Ideal Cities” is the group’s debut album, and its potent onslaught of ‘90s-inspired alternative rock could make a listener wonder if Bowen should have emerged from behind the drum kit sooner.

Running just over a half an hour, “Ideal Cities” works quickly to solidify the band’s identity as a loud, blue-collar quartet while providing enough twists and turns (the bouncy, Washington Capitals-inspired “Wojtek,” the swirling, loud-and-soft dynamics of “Duno”) to avoid predictability.

Roomrunner members have been labeled grunge revivalists by fawning national outlets, including Pitchfork and Spin. There’s no denying “Ideal Cities” has a sense of nostalgia to it -- Bowen has cited influences that range from the Jesus Lizard to Sebadoh to Sonic Youth -- but this is not the work of a band pantomiming in flannel. Roomrunner’s members may have a soft spot for the DIY bands they listened to in high school, but they’re old enough, and clever enough, to create something new here. The result is a compulsively listenable mash-up of sticky hooks and riffs that could inspire a new generation to pick up a guitar.

While there’s a lot to instantly like about “Ideal Cities,” it’s Bowen’s lyrics that might take longer to parse. Closer examination reveals a lyricist uninterested in linear storytelling. Instead, we get non-sequiturs tangled in malaise: “Be aurally Oedipal, be orally edible -- it’s not interesting,” Bowen sings on “Apse.” Where Bowen’s lyrics lack clarity, the music he and his band made here does not. -- Wesley Case (Handout)
RATING: *** out of 4

The debut album from Dungeonesse -- the Baltimore duo of Jenn Wasner (Wye Oak, Flock of Dimes) and Jon Ehrens (White Life) -- comes with high expectations. Their previous work in other bands has established their reputations as potent songwriters, but Dungeonesse is a new challenge. Can these two pull off unabashed pop?

For the most part, the answer is yes -- as long as you’re not expecting these songs to fit comfortably between Bruno Mars and Selena Gomez on the Billboard Hot 100. This is solid, if not slight, music filled with nostalgia for a simpler time: Namely, the ‘90s, when strong melodies and hooks -- and not social-media presence or TMZ headlines -- were enough to win fans.

This album won’t shift the course of modern pop, but its best songs could turn a quiet gathering of friends into a full-on dance party. “Drive You Crazy,” the first single and most effective song here, captures what Dungeonesse does best: fast-paced and propulsive electronic music that ping-pongs in all directions, with Wasner acting as a sturdy anchor. Her voice, being pushed in new directions, never overwhelms these tracks. Instead, it adds human texture to synthetic backdrops.

Wasner’s ability to excel isn’t shocking because of her increasingly excellent work as Wye Oak’s lead singer and as a solo artist. But it’s Ehrens, a prolific Baltimore songwriter, whose production work pleasantly surprises most. His cascading beats shimmer while his canned drums keep songs moving forward. “Private Party,” with its layers of major-chord synthesizers, works in harmony with Wasner’s playful flirtations.

“Dungeonesse” makes its most significant strides when the tempo is highest. Slower tracks such as “Nightlight” and “Wake Me Up” are serviceable attempts at showing range, but they also stop the party in its tracks. (They would work for the tail end of the party, when the sloppy slow dancing enters.) But they are minor hiccups. The album, which could be described as a sugar rush, proves Wasner and Ehrens are a duo capable of writing pop songs that stick in a listener’s brain after they’re over.

Perhaps best of all, Dungeonesse included two of Baltimore’s most promising rappers: TT the Artist and DDm. The latter uplifts “Cadillac” with an appropriately old-school (and on-topic) verse (“When you see high beams and you hear loud pipes / know that it’s DDm, I’m all right!”). But it’s TT the Artist and her injection of Baltimore Club chant-like shouts that remind everyone where these artists all live and create. It’s a winning marriage, appropriately titled “This Could Be Home.” -- Wesley Case (Handout)
DOWNLOAD: Los, ‘Becoming King’

Rating: ** 1/2 (out of 4)

Los is probably the most technically gifted rapper to claim Baltimore as his hometown. His ability to stack words and syllables on top of each other -- and make it sound effortless -- probably explains why Sean “Diddy” Combs re-signed the Liberty Heights native to his Bad Boy label after initially releasing Los in 2008.

On his long-awaited and oft-delayed “Becoming King” mixtape -- which has more than 100,000 streams and 225,000 downloads on datpiff.com -- Los is mostly concerned with dazzling listeners with his flexible flow and his wordplay. We only get quick glimpses of Los beyond the standard boasting about women, money and the finer things. Over a bloated track list of 17 songs, that’s not nearly enough.

When Los is locked in, he’s a lyricist who demands attention. On “Becoming King,” he’s most successful on tracks without guests. “Hard Life” captures the hustle-by-any-means attitude of Baltimore through Los’ double-time rapping. He overcomes a cliched concept on “OD” (money is his drug) by doing lyrical doughnuts all over a sinister Sonny Digital beat. “Why You Mad,” produced by Baltimore’s J. Oliver, addresses jealous foes with a technical proficiency that detractors can’t deny.

But Los is becoming a major player at Bad Boy, and the features on “Becoming King” set out to prove it. He’s sharing tracks with Ludacris, Wiz Khalifa, Pusha T and Juicy J (not to mention his boss Diddy). Too often, Los sounds like he’s adapting to his guests’ sounds and styles, when it should be the other way around. He’s a chameleon in that sense, which shows his versatility but does little to establish his own voice.

If “Becoming King” proves anything, it’s that Los could be too in love with his own skill, with many lines that will only impress fellow rappers and people obsessed with wordplay.

Wordplay is an important facet to rap, but it’s not everything. Currently, Los may have the best chance to break through for Baltimore, but his depth needs to catch up with his talent. “Becoming King” is obsessed with regality, but it tries to place Los on a throne before he’s ready. -- Wesley Case (Handout)
RATING: *** 1/2 out of 4

Baltimore got a little quieter on Oct. 21, 2011. Make that a lot quieter.

When post-punk trio Double Dagger stepped off The Ottobar’s stage that night, the loud-and-proud local DIY heroes were no longer a band. After almost a decade of intense live shows, three full-length albums and countless guttural yells, singer Nolen Strals, bassist Bruce Willen and drummer Denny Bowen had retired Double Dagger.

“333" is the last audio document of the band -- a documentary about the group’s final tour called “If We Shout Loud Enough” will show next month at the Maryland Film Festilval -- and it’s an excellent, often bittersweet, final goodbye.

Based on the six songs, which clock in at 24 minutes, it seems Double Dagger didn’t end because its players were out of ideas. Instead, they’re leaving as the Barry Sanders of Baltimore music. Just like the legendary Detroit Lions running back, the band walked away after nine years, still performing at a top level but with nothing else to prove. We could speculate on how much more they have to offer, but it won’t matter.

So let’s appreciate “333,” which was released Saturday, for what it is: Six extremely confident songs from a Baltimore band that will be greatly missed. As is often the case with Double Dagger, the band covers a lot of ground on “333" with only bass, drums and Strals’ commanding voice. Opener “The Mirror” expertly plays with loud and soft dynamics for more than six minutes. Bowen’s muscular drumming drives “Foreign Bodies.” “Supply/Demand” is a cathartic, 80-second blast of concentrated aggression.

But it’s the quieter, clearer moments, such as “Space Dust,” a showcase for Willen’s bass playing, that make a listener realize the amount of talent Double Dagger possessed. The unhurried “Heretic’s Hymn” is the final song, and it fittingly finds the band comparing the DIY scene it loved and thrived in to a spiritual experience.

“If this is my last song, if these are the last words I ever write, I hope you won’t forget: You’re only free making art outside,” Strals says, waving the flag for DIY, punk and his band one final time. -- Wesley Case (Handout)
RATING: ** out of 4

“Key,” the eighth album from Baltimore singer-songwriter Victoria Vox, took an unconventional path to completion.

In 2011, the 34-year-old singer challenged herself to learn 52 cover songs, mainly as an opportunity to study how other writers craft songs. The next year, Vox took what she learned and upped the ante by writing and recording an original song each week. She and producer Geoff Stanfield then chose the 11 songs that make up “Key.”

Vox, a graduate of Boston’s Berklee College of Music, has a degree in songwriting, so her approach is not a surprise. There’s a veteran’s touch to the songwriting on “Key,” which probably explains Vox’s confidence in taking on the “52 Original Song Project.” She is not one to suffer from writer’s block.

And yet there’s something missing here, despite Stanfield’s quality production and Vox’s always-pleasant voice. Some songs drag a bit -- such as the opener, “Daffodil,” and “Guarded Heart” -- while others feel bogged down by cliches. “Let It Go,” with its welcome rollicking pace, might have been one of “Key’s” strongest tracks if not for generic lyrics such as, “Sometimes you gotta let it go / ‘cuz it’ll hurt more if you don’t.”

Vox succeeds when telling specific stories. “Mama’s Lullaby,” which was inspired by her stepfather’s death, gives the listener a setting, multiple characters and even a song-within-a-song, all while resonating emotionally. “Out the Back Door,” the best and breeziest song here, is a song about shoplifting that finds a kleptomaniac explaining himself to a rookie. There’s no right or wrong, just clear-eyed storytelling.

With eight albums finished, there’s little doubt of Vox’s talent as a singer or songwriter. (Another example of her skill: She primarily uses a ukulele, without it ever coming off like a gimmick.) But “Key” feels uneven, and it’s hard not to wonder if it could have been better had Vox -- and not the calendar -- dictated the pace. -- Wesley Case (Handout)
DOWNLOAD: Al Rogers, ‘Almost’

RATING: *** 1/2 out of 4

Seemingly out of nowhere, 23-year-old rapper Al Rogers has released the strongest album from a Baltimore artist this year. “Almost,” in the making for the past 2 1/2 years, is also Rogers’ first project ever, which makes the accomplishment even more impressive.

Similar to ASAP Rocky’s self-released mixtape, “Live. Love. ASAP,” “Almost” succeeds as an introduction to a new voice because of its cohesiveness. Rogers doesn’t rap like Rocky, but both MCs know the importance of a signature sound. The beats on “Almost” vary enough to keep things interesting, but overall, the woozy production -- mostly handled by local producers 713 and Millz Douglas -- sounds interconnected through warm tones, sustained synthesizers and a sense of melancholy underneath the surface.

Rogers does right by the beats. With an unhinged, enthralling delivery, he could remind listeners of Kendrick Lamar, the virtuoso Compton, Calif., rapper. Rogers doesn’t possess the same jaw-dropping ability as Lamar, but both rappers use their voices as expressive instruments that can sound frighteningly forceful one moment and high-pitched like a child the next. Rogers’ voice alone could carry a song, although it never has to here.

Rogers uses “Almost” as a disarmingly honest, 47-minute venting session. On “Inside (to Pops),” the emotions surrounding his absent father (“maybe busy pill-poppin’”) drain Rogers down to a whisper. On “Baltiwar,” which appropriately samples a Tupac Shakur interview, Rogers depicts his city bleakly: “We mastered the art of war / Sun Tzu coulda come through without a gun or two / or him, too, would end up dead.”

The best song on “Almost” is the soulful but knocking “U Must Luv Me.” After mourning the loss of his cousin and lamenting the fact that his uncle is doing life in prison, Rogers snaps his purpose as an artist into focus. Tellingly, he name-drops Lamar in the process: “And Kendrick just might be the best / At 22 [his age when Rogers recorded the song], I’m second to stepping on his neck.”

Rogers has a long journey ahead of him before coming close to rap’s heights like Lamar. But “Almost” shows we should hear him try. -- Wesley Case (Picasa / Handout)
RATING: *** out of 4

There are still “rock” acts on the Billboard Hot 100, but none will remind listeners of Clutch, the veteran Germantown quartet. Songs from popular, non-offensive acts such as the Lumineers and Mumford & Sons sound like sheepish lullabies compared to “Earth Rocker,” Clutch’s 10th full-length album.

On “Earth Rocker,” the members of Clutch seem aware that their brand of rock ‘n’ roll -- the old-fashioned kind that thrives when played loud, fast and with a ton of attitude -- isn’t in fashion now, and hasn’t been for a while. But rather than chase the charts, the band has sharply regained focus. In the process, Clutch has created one of its best, and most straightforward, albums to date.

Before “Earth Rocker,” Clutch had a penchant for traveling down rabbit holes (jam-band rock, metal-funk fusion, quieter blues) with mixed results. Working again with producer Machine, the act stripped away the excess and honed in on the riff-heavy, muscular bar-band rock. And “Earth Rocker” succeeds, for the most part, because of the shift.

Even more brazen than the music are the lyrics. The overriding theme is defiance -- to the government (“D.C. Sound Attack”), the music industry’s major-label system (“The Face”), war (“Mr. Freedom”) and watered-down rock (the opening title track). When singer and lyricist Neil Fallon sings, “If you’re gonna do it, you better take it to the stage / Or don’t do it at all,” he sounds like an angry man reaffirming his core beliefs. It’s a message Fallon revisits often, and it is to his credit that he never sounds like he’s whining.

The white-knuckled rocking only slows down once. “Gone Cold,” a subdued existential meditation, signals the end of Side A and works as a palate cleanser from the amplification and distortion.

The respite also builds anticipation for the album’s best track, “Book, Saddle and Go.” The band was inspired by recent tour mates, and ‘70s hard-rock legends, Thin Lizzy, and here it shows most. The call-and-response hook and gritty riffing are proof Clutch doesn’t need to pander to fans or a major label (Weathermaker Music is owned by the band).

“I will suffer no evil / my guitar will guide me through,” Fallon sings on the title track. As usual, he sounds like a man who doesn’t need convincing. -- Wesley Case (Handout)
DOWNLOAD: Rickie Jacobs, ‘Songs for High School Kids’

Rating: *** out of 4

There’s a heightened sense of purpose on Rickie Jacobs’ latest album, “Songs for High School Kids.” Beats are slicker, concepts are smarter and the stakes seem higher. It’s as if the 26-year-old Park Heights native knows he’s never had more eyes on him than right now.

He’s been building a presence online for a while, but last May’s “Live Epic” saw Jacobs’ name on national rap websites such as The Source and 2 Dope Boyz. His rise has led to Jacobs’ strongest effort yet -- ‘Songs for High School Kids,’ a peculiar title for someone who will be receiving a 10-year reunion invitation sooner than later.

Head-scratching name aside, Jacobs mostly plays to his strengths here. His flow is conversational and lacks flash, similar to Wiz Khalifa’s, but it’s elastic enough to give life to Jacobs’ near-constant barrage of boasts. It’s solid enough to overcome an audible lisp, which would normally sink lesser MCs.

His main problem is indulgence. A penchant for vocal tricks -- random chopped-and-screwed lines, Drake-style crooning, Auto-Tuned dramatic speak -- distracts from his flow, Jacobs’ most dependable asset. These bells and whistles (most noticeable on “We$TSide” and “Ride With Me”) come off as over-reaching, and remind us that bigger doesn’t always mean better.

Still, the flow, which can shift from staccato double-time to a sing-songy cadence with ease, saves him. “Songs” has only two features (“Intimate Friends” with Al Great and “My N-----" with Starrz), and they are instant standouts. Adding arguably greater talents to the fold forces Jacobs to rap with purpose.

But remove the guests, and Jacobs still succeeds more often than not. Closer “’86 Draft” and “Seven 57 High” prove he’s dexterous enough to carry a track alone. On the project’s best track, “Aiden,” Jacobs pauses from the sexual conquests and chest-puffing to pen an endearing tribute to his son.

“Being No. 1 is something I wanted badly / But you gotta understand nothing comes before your family,” he raps. Maturity isn’t often associated with high school, but everyone graduates, and grows up, at some point. -- Wesley Case (Handout)
RATING: *** out of 4

The relatively quick evolution of the Baltimore indie-rock six-piece Secret Mountains has felt swift and well-guided.

The band began as a solo singer-songwriter project for guitarist Jeffrey Silverstein in 2008, and became an avant-folk duo when Silverstein met singer Kelly Laughlin while waiting for the light rail. A year later, Secret Mountains ballooned to six players. Since then, they’ve recorded EPs and played hundreds of shows, all while developing a distinct sound and voice.

“Rainer,” the sextet’s debut full-length album, is the group’s most accomplished record yet. At only seven songs, “Rainer” makes for a surprisingly dense listen. It’s also challenging -- stop paying attention and the lush psychedelia melds with Laughlin’s alto, resulting in a sound that washes over rather than engages or intrigues.

But given full attention, “Rainer” rewards listeners with moody, slow-building songs that accelerate without notice. The unpredictable direction has aimless moments (“Golden Blue,” which finds Laughlin pushing her voice upward with mixed results), but for the most part, the twists invigorate the project before things get too stagnant.

Secret Mountains is at its best -- subtle, longing and even sexy -- midway through the 43-minute album. The potent trio of “Coasting,” “Make Love Stay” and “High Horse” finds the band relishing quieter, less-aggressive moments.

“Make Love Stay,” the closest the act gets to a ballad, allows Laughlin’s delicate vocals to shine without pretension. At the same time, the nimble interplay between the two guitarists becomes the highlight of the record’s best song.

Laughlin is the X-factor here. At times, her penchant to overextend notes can distract a listener, especially the type that enjoys parsing lyrics. (Good luck.) But her voice, which never demands the spotlight, can add texture and greater meaning.

On “High Horse,” Laughlin effortlessly turns a beautiful phrase (“Caught yourself laughing while death called your name”) into a complicated image of mortality, humor and self-awareness. It’s moments like this when Secret Mountains reminds listeners the challenge is worth it. -- Wesley Case (Handout)
RATING: ** out of 4

Digging into “The Marriage of True Minds” by Matmos -- the Baltimore-via-San Francisco experimental duo that’s been together for more than 20 years -- can feel like attempting to solve complicated math problems while blindfolded, all while your ears are overloaded with voices and noises. There’s something potentially enlightening to figure out here, but the teachers aren’t providing any answers.

For members M.C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel (an assistant English professor at the Johns Hopkins University on leave this semester), that’s the point. The first page of the CD booklet explains that for four years, the duo conducted the Ganzfeld experiment, “a classic para-psychological experiment” that attempts to “transmit simple graphic patterns into [subjects’] minds.”

In other words, it’s telepathy that drives this record. Test subjects (who included Dan Deacon, Ed Schrader, Jenn Wasner and more than 48 others) wore halved pingpong balls over their eyes, lay on a mattress in a dark room and listened to white noise through headphones.

“Giant triangles, they’re on snowy plains that people don’t normally look at and see, but they know they’re there ... their presence is the presence within the rhythm,” Schrader said during the session that inspired “Very Large Green Triangles.” He is correct because there is no wrong.

“Marriage” is more audio psychological experiment than music. Instruments, and in true Matmos fashion, objects-used-as-instruments abound, but they rarely create a sustainable beat or recognizable melody. This is performance art, and your appreciation of it will depend on how intriguing you find the Ganzfeld experiment.

This concept album is also particularly difficult to critique because it lacks conclusive findings. We never find out why Daniel was inspired to try Ganzfeld in the first place. In the liner notes, he writes that he attempted to “transmit the concept of the new Matmos album” to subjects, and yet Daniel is the only person who knows the concept.

The album ends with “E.S.P.,” a deconstructed Buzzcocks cover that finds Schmidt and Daniel singing together for the first time ever on a record. The relatively breezy finale to the heady adventure ends with arguably the cleanest-sung vocals on the album: “Do you believe in E.S.P.? Well I do and I’m trying to get through to you. So if you’re picking up on me, then you know just what to do: So ... think.” The final command lands more like an intellectual taunt than an invitation to expand one’s mind. It sounds a bit silly when the listener never had a guide in the first place. --Wesley Case (Handout)

RATING: ** 1/2 out of 4

On its latest album, Baltimore indie-rock quartet Mr. Moccasin has placed the spotlight directly on singer Hanna Badalova, more so than in any of its previous efforts. Not only are her vocals pushed to the front but, according to a news release, her “stories, visions and expressions” are on full display, too.

The strong, driving single “Black on Black” seems to justify the decision. Badalova, sounding better than ever, deftly straddles a delicate line of singing with force and keeping the song’s vibe in reverie. It’s a band that sounds confidently locked in, and it’s Mr. Mocassin’s best song since 2010’s “Himalayan Marmalade.”

Finding the balance between abstract storytelling and emotionally resonant lyrics is a difficult task for any songwriter. Badalova fares better than many, but her weightless soprano has a tendency to float into the ether too often. As the album progresses, the excellent moments -- such as when the straightforward “Cabana Boys (Birds of Youth)” surreally brightens with horns -- are overshadowed at times by “XAHA’s” serious tone and Badalova’s aimless melodies. Some of the levity explored on previous albums is missed, too.

The album is a 10-track journey inside the mind of Badalova, a poet born in Azerbaijan. It’s a unique, idiosyncratic view that loses texture one instance (the rollicking “Walk Backwards” gets us nowhere quickly) and vividly comes alive another (the tender “Blue Light”). It’s a promising, uneven record that shows Mr. Moccasin is still learning -- and improving. It wouldn’t be surprising if their best work were still to come.

On “XAHA,” Mr. Moccasin focuses on its lead singer’s “visions,” which may leave the listener with the question, “Is it interesting to hear about a stranger’s weird dreams?” Sometimes, but even when they come from an intriguing mind like Badalova’s, it can get too easy to zone out and forget the point of the story. --Wesley Case (Handout)
RATING: *** out of 4

Before “Oceans Don’t Sing,” the fourth song on Arbourteum’s new album, the Baltimore quartet sounds like a stoned Appalachian bar band fascinated with guitar solos and glacial tempos. Guitarist and vocalist Dave Heumann’s surprisingly delicate tenor nicely balances the heavier tones behind him.

It’s a sound that could be described as vintage, or just sludgy, and the band performs it with precision. This could read as boring on paper, but Arbourteum crafts hazy music that somehow doesn’t come off as sleepy.

But “Oceans,” with its use of pedal steel guitar, dramatically shifts the record. It’s a mournful ballad with a universal feeling: As much as we’d like to freeze the world’s awe-inspiring beauty in time, the universe (a popular topic with this group) simply won’t allow it. Heumann, thankfully, is more poetic in his observations, singing, “I’d spend more days by the sea with waves washing over me, if I could.” It is proof the band can achieve beauty beyond distortion.

Arbouretum, now on its fifth full-length album, is still capable of surprise, even if it hasn’t changed its somber sound much since its 2004 debut, “Long Live the Well-Doer.” The band still shuns levity, too, judging from the album’s stone-faced lyrics. While “Coming Out of the Fog” is the opposite of carefree, and it’s also a rich record that takes time to parse. Listeners who require immediacy and uptempo thrills won’t find them here.

For everyone else, prepare to dig through the album’s trenches. The overall tone sounds appropriately bleak in the dead of winter, and makes a fitting soundtrack for contemplating questions with no answers. It’s also written in Heumann’s typically dramatic prose, which works more often than not. Still, it takes a certain mood to appreciate, “I came in at nine / bedraggled and begrimed / by some poison in the air.”

All of this may not work for everyone, but Arbouretum isn’t a band searching for Top 40 ubiquity. Instead, it’s a band happily creating the type of albums whose rewards can soar with patience and repeated listens. In that sense, “Fog” doesn’t disappoint, but delivers in every aspect, from production to playing. -- Wesley Case (Handout)
DOWNLOAD: Wale, ‘Folarin’

RATING: *** out of 4

When Wale announced he had signed to Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group in 2011, it seemed like a desperate move from a rapper worried about his career. (The concern seemed warranted after the D.C. rapper’s 2009 debut, “Attention Deficit,” flopped, despite a Lady Gaga-assisted lead single.)

Instead, the profile-raising move turned out to be savvy, even if it wasn’t a natural fit. Wale’s first album with MMG, 2011’s “Ambition,” was a noticeable improvement, proving the rapper could credibly serenade female listeners (“That Way,” “Lotus Flower Bomb”) and motivate hustlers (“Bait,” the title track featuring Ross).

“Folarin,” the new free mixtape, continues Wale’s unexpected trend upward. Like Ross’ “Rich Forever” mixtape, “Folarin” sounds like a retail album because of its glistening beats, professional mastering and of-the-moment features (2 Chainz, French Montana and Trinidad James all make appearances). But like his label boss, Wale smartly keeps the spotlight on himself.

If “Ambition” was the sound of Wale gaining confidence and versatility from rubbing shoulders with rap’s A-list, then “Folarin” finds him steadily building on the same foundation. On “Bad,” he’s the observant lover who stole Ross’ hit “Diced Pineapples.” On “Get Me Doe,” he holds his own next to last year’s top braggart, 2 Chainz. And where Ross perpetuates kingpin fiction, Wale takes pride in sidestepping the street life he saw growing up (“Skool Daze”).

But more than anything, “Folarin” is a showcase for Wale’s lyrics. On “Change Up,” he raps, “W’s on my mind, peep what I’m getting at / Attire proper, Bryce Harper, though slightly darker,” which works as a double entendre, a shout-out to his hometown, an athlete-related metaphor and a pretty funny internal rhyme scheme. “Folarin” is filled with lines like these -- though the potency fluctuates -- and half of the fun is unpacking it all.

Wale knows he’s smart, and he can be a brat about it. (In some interviews, he comes off like an unsatisfied only child on Christmas.) This has made him a punching bag in many hip-hop circles, an example of a rapper whose talents were overshadowed by his misplaced sense of entitlement.

On Instagram, he was up to it again, calling out popular blogs for not recognizing “Folarin” as one of the best mixtapes of the year, despite it being released a week before New Year’s Eve. “Been slept on for a minute ... I gotta do something before I get too used to it,” he wrote. It was Wale being Wale. He should hope the chip on his shoulder hasn’t completely turned off his critics, because “Folarin” could go a long way toward changing their minds. --Wesley Case (Handout)
Judging from the influx of new material in recent weeks, many Baltimore rappers didn’t use the holiday season as time to relax. Instead, they’ve given us fresh lyrics to parse, new melodies to hum and more evidence of their continued growth. Here’s a look at five recent and notable songs from local artists. The titles’ links lead to streams of the songs, which contain explicit language.

Starrz, “Visions of Roman 1:29"

Starrz doesn’t rap on tracks; he attacks them. Emerging as one of Baltimore’s most promising rappers last year (thanks to September’s “Best Mixtape Ever”), the 25-year-old rapper kept the momentum moving on Christmas Day, dropping a ferocious freebie produced by Jay Feddy. Using the New Testament as inspiration, Starrz puts detractors on notice by stacking internal rhymes and alliteration (“They boxed in on our block and we’ll burn them up, no fireman”). His next project, “Live Forever, Die Dope,” is one of the most anticipated Baltimore hip-hop releases of 2013.

Los, “Baltimore”

Here’s how it should be done: An underappreciated city’s highest-profile rapper (Los) grabs the best artists from the tier below him and makes a proud posse cut called “Baltimore.” Bad Boy‘s Los and his fellow Baltimore MCs -- including Smash, Starrz, Skarr Akbar, Travis Davon (formerly known as Bossman) and DBoi Da Dome -- all rap a dizzying array of quotable lines, but it’s Caddy Da Don who shines most by getting the biggest laughs (“I’m reppin’ Baltimore like I built it / I’m only one bar in, already killed it / Guess my haters still mad I wasn’t guilty”).

Jay Verze, “David Ruffin”

Things clicked on the 17-year-old MC’s “21117" album from last year when Jay Verze used his crisp, double-time flow over languid, atmospheric beats. (See “Boring Nights & Hiphop.”) Here, he wisely continues down a similar path on a peaceful, almost weightless Scrilla Beats instrumental. With boasts about a fruitful future, Verze seems eager to move on from his past. But he sounds best looking back (“I seen some younguns that I once knew / try to run the streets and got peeled back”). He has time for his lyrics to catch up to his confident flows, but until then, “David Ruffin” serves as an impressive next step.

Rickie Jacobs, “Westside”

The first single from Rickie Jacobs’ “Songs for High School Kids” mixtape -- an odd title for a 26-year-old artist -- works because of its screwed hook and a menacing, dramatic beat courtesy of Keishh. It’s an improvement over anything from Jacobs’ most recent project, September’s “Virgo Season EP,” a messy collection of forgettable backdrops and lazy writing. He sounds more committed here, even if his intentions remain strictly carnal and hedonistic. If Jacobs chooses to stick to such vanilla and well-worn topics (and judging by the Billboard charts, it might be a smart business move to do so) then he must find more interesting ways to describe them. Using beats as monstrous as this one helps, too.

DBoi Da Dome, “Gottem Getem Gone”

Sometimes all it takes is an unshakable hook. Over pummeling drums that could have been programmed by Young Chop or Lex Luger, DBoi Da Dome -- laser-focused on hustling and the realities of the street -- sounds like Young Jeezy from his early (read: better) mixtape days. But it’s the stuttering, instantly repeatable chorus (simply containing the song’s title with an elongated “Yeah!” preceding it) that makes this cold-blooded track an adrenaline-pumping success. -- Wesley Case  (Handout)
Rating: * out of 4

The progressive rock veterans who make up Crack the Sky know their 15th album, the recently released “Ostrich,” is a departure in many ways. On its website, the band quickly dispelled any notions that the new record would remind fans of its ‘70s heyday, when the West Virginia act won many Baltimore fans with songs such as “Surf City” and “Hold On.”

“Writer [John] Palumbo has either hit a manic phase or is attempting to get our attention via the back door,” read the six-piece group’s online message.

Both routes seem plausible. “Ostrich” is a deeply strange record that will keep your attention for as long as you’re willing to scratch your head at it. It’s also a sonic mess, jumping from funk-fusion (“The Box”) to fidgeting new wave (“Holding My Breath”) to moody ambiance (“Under the Hood”). Many of the vocal takes are filtered through flanges and effects resembling answering machines. These studio tricks disconnect Palumbo from the songs, which might be the point, but it also makes for a mostly joyless listen.

The band confuses up-tempo songs for songs that will get listeners dancing. It’s simply hard to imagine the jittery, ADD-approach of “Ostrich” working at any party, regardless of the ages and tastes in the crowd.

The dated, out-of-touch music of “Ostrich” is less confounding than Palumbo’s lyrics. On almost every song, the singer reaches for biting social commentary, with minimal results. “Pole Dancing at the Hollywood” aims to shame married men for going to strip clubs. With its mentions of BMWs and pool boys, “Your House is On Fire” reads like a dumbed-down Bret Easton Ellis novel, attempting to skewer the oblivious wealthy. None of it works, partly because the music is so distracting and also because the comments feel mundane and dated. We’ve heard all this before, in more entertaining ways, on TV, film or in music.

The album works only when it stops clowning around. “Ali’s Song,” the somber closing ballad, is an earnest love letter to a daughter. Palumbo can’t resist eye-rolling lines (“Life doesn’t stop for anyone, not even us / We’re just passengers on the bus”) but the song at least feels honest, and even emotionally vulnerable. When he sings, “I’m just an old fool, trying to hang on to you,” it’s hard to believe it’s the same guy who sang “Yellowcake, winter flakes, just grab me my bong” just 40 minutes earlier. With the jokes aside, Crack the Sky finally showcases heart instead of scattered mind. Too bad it took until the final song. -- Wesley Case (Handout)
Rating: **1/2 out of 4

If there were a Mount Rushmore for hardcore punk, the D.C. quartet Bad Brains would be guaranteed a spot, likely next to Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys and Ian MacKaye.

The band’s albums from the early and mid-'80s (including a self-titled record from 1982 and 1986’s “I Against I”) are remembered so fondly as touchstones of an impassioned genre that Bad Brains’ more recent, less memorable years have done little to tarnish its overall legacy. We won’t get anything as wonderfully jarring as the debut album’s “Banned in D.C.,” and that’s OK. The band gets a pass because it’s Bad Brains.

“Into the Future,” the band’s ninth studio album and first in five years, arrived late last month as one more brick in the foundation. If it doesn’t exactly jolt you, then “Into the Future” will at least remind listeners that the act can still play loud and blisteringly fast, even if it chooses not to most of the time. Songs such as the 89-second “Yes I” and the 86-second “Come Down” prove the players still have the technical ability and fiery temperament to bulldoze in quick bursts.

There are also the typical Bad Brains diversions, with patient reggae grooves (“Jah Love,” “MCA Dub”) and thrash-metal exercises (“We Belong Together”). But really, “Into the Future” seems most concerned with following frontman H.R.'s ever-changing fancy.

The 56-year-old continues his streak as a stylistic chameleon, mixing in a floating falsetto and stranger, almost alien, tics into his singing. And, as expected, the spiritual presence of Rastafarianism -- best executed on the closing tribute to the late Beastie Boy (and Bad Brains fanatic) Adam “MCA” Yauch -- feels integral to the project as a whole.

Imperfect but increasingly enjoyable the more time you spend with it, “Into the Future” proves Bad Brains can still pummel listeners with flashes of hard-core brilliance, even if those moments feel like appeasements to early fans. Instead, the band sounds most natural cherry-picking varying styles whenever it gets bored. It doesn’t make for the most cohesive listen, but that’s never been the band’s guiding force. And it says a lot that the forays into left field work more often than not. --Wesley Case (Handout)
Rating: ** (out of 4 stars)

Andrew Spencer Goldman, the mostly one-man team making up Fulton Lights, slyly used a rhetorical question for the title of his new album. Whether it was his intention or not, the title, “Am I Right or Am I Right,” represents the reasoning behind the throw-it-all-against-the-wall approach to his third full-length album.

Don’t like a creative decision he made? Well, this is his art and there are no wrong answers. The creator, in this case a recent University of Maryland law school grad, is right even when he’s wrong.

That’s not to say the title track -- and album as a whole -- are overly self-serious. There are brief-but-loose jam sessions and silly lyrics delivered in a playful, high register (“Can’t Take My Love”). But more than anything, “Am I Right” feels self-indulgent, with its confounding and constantly shifting execution. And on a visceral level, it’s rarely enjoyable to listen to.

The problem is Goldman. From song to song, his vocal delivery uneasily changes, making him often sound less than confident. He uncomfortably jumps from a Bruce Springsteen impression (on the solid opener “Baby I"m Tryin’”) to a faceless rockabilly pose (the less impressive “Don’t Go Away Soon”) within the record’s first 11 minutes. When the title track arrives a few songs later, a sassy Goldman does an unconvincing David Byrne (from the early ‘80s) imitation. And the less said about his inexplicable Jamaican patois on “If You Can Make it Through the Dark,” the better.

The album’s biggest achievement is its production. Goldman, who plays five instruments on the record, also produced it, which might indicate where his talent lies. The background vocals, one of Goldman’s strongest assets, sound distant but purposeful. The best songs (“Don’t Let the Animals In” and “The Riddle in Me” both come from the noticeably stronger second half) sound like Arcade Fire demos. They possess palpable energy and gusto, in contrast to the other songs that trudge along in search of direction. Goldman clearly has countless ideas, but there is such a thing as having too many -- depending on whom you ask, of course. --Wesley Case  (Handout)
Rating: ***1/2 (out of 4 stars)

Ellie Beziat has a wicked sense of humor. Some might know this from her raunchy act as a touring member of the Wham City Comedy Tour, but her work as the lead singer of the defunct punk act Sick Weapons can produce just as many laughs.

On “Birthday Gift,” the Baltimore quintet’s long-awaited debut (and only) album, Beziat half-sings and half-shouts self-deprecating, often hilarious lyrics about the afterlife of jerks and awkward interactions with the cable guy. Later, she spews a laundry list of reasons why she wants to have sex (“because I want to have a kid”) before making a tennis metaphor (“I’ll hit you back like I’m Andre Agassi”). Both of these songs have titles that can’t be printed here, which further explains the attitude and spirit of “Birthday Gift.”

The players behind Beziat provide a sturdy backdrop to the singer’s fiery delivery, which is a marvel given the backwards recording process (the band’s original drummer left during the recording process, and they brought in War on Women drummer Evan Tanner to redo the parts around the nearly finished record). The riffs -- twangy and danceable -- drive the songs forward, while the drums bang and clang with muscle.

“Birthday Gift,” mixed by Chris Freeland, is also notable for how good it sounds. Punk records rarely sound this crisp: Guitars warmly resonate, and the drums’ snare hits land with pop. Most importantly, there’s clarity to Beziat’s absurd words. If the record had been purposefully produced in a lo-fi manner or mixed with the guitars as the centerpiece, then “Birthday Gift’s” impact would have been wrongly dulled. But Sick Weapons is a clever band aware of its strengths, namely Beziat’s magnetic personality and showmanship.

While this is undoubtedly a punk album by a punk band, “Birthday Gift” shows the group’s range extends beyond the genre’s boundaries. “Love Me” begins with guest singer Tina Kalakay sounding almost angelic, singing the song’s title a capella repeatedly before Beziat and an angry bass line transform the track into something much more sinister. A trombone shows up on the final song, adding welcome texture to an already rich record. Not all punk bands can pull off moves like these, but Sick Weapons does so seamlessly.

But the star here is Beziat, through and through. On the scathing “Anthony Bourdain‘s Earring,” she gets revenge on the “No Reservations” star, who some thought furthered Baltimore’s reputation as a city on the decline. In her bratty but loveable way, Beziat not only insults the TV host’s fashion sense but also his battle with drug addiction. With her tongue firmly pressed against her cheek, she sings, “Come back when you’re a junkie again and maybe this time we can be friends.” It’s a dark joke, but it’s moments like these where Sick Weapons sound like one of the city’s most promising bands. The fact that they’re no longer together seems like the cruelest -- and most appropriate -- joke of all. --Wesley Case (Handout)
Rating: *1/2 (out of 4 stars)

After nearly a decade of winning over local and out-of-town crowds as the lead singer of Fools & Horses, singer-songwriter Matt Hutchison suddenly became a solo act after the band broke up in October 2011.

Since then, he’s played wherever they’ll have him -- colleges, coffeehouses, the Night Cat in Easton, Joe Squared in Station North, to name a few places -- trying to rebuild the interest his previous band earned.

Consistent gigs are good, but it’s difficult to gain listeners without releasing albums. So “Sell My Heart” is an 11-song album that works as a transitional record for old fans and an introduction to new ones. While Fools & Horses’ final album, a self-titled effort from October 2010, portrayed Hutchison as the leader of a contemporary rock act capable of hitting the gas pedal, this solo effort recasts him as a singer-songwriter still in search of direction and purpose.

That isn’t to say one version is better than the other, at least in a technical sense. In fact, “Sell My Heart” sounds crisper and more precisely played and produced than anything Fools & Horses did. The correct notes are sung, the mix is balanced and the sequencing is seamless.

So then why does this album leave such a minimal impression? Perhaps it’s the aimlessness: Overall, Hutchison sounds like an unshaped artist more interested in imitating others than in presenting his own sound. Upbeat-but-banal opening track “Sweet Emotions I Feel Tonight” recalls Jason Mraz’s carefree, peppy side. “How Do You Like Me Now?” finds Hutchison doing his best Chris Martin impression, singing falsetto over dreamy guitars and slow, steady drumming.

Imitation happens, and when it’s this well-executed, it’s bound to find an audience. The real issue here is the lyrics, which range from preposterous (“Girl Getting Gas” finds the narrator trying to creepily woo a stranger at the pump) to mundane (“And all my friends who know me well / Say I’m an old-timer in a young man’s shoes” from “Junkman Blues”). Even when he injects Baltimore into the scene -- “The sun has turned to showers over Charm City towers,” he sings on “The Lights Will Go Down” -- Hutchison falls back on broad strokes that fail to register.

The album’s high point comes on “Knoxville City (Lazarus),” a pleasant song anchored by fingerpicking on an acoustic guitar. On first listen, it sounds like a Simon and Garfunkel cover without the keen observations, which illustrates the disparity between Hutchison’s abilities as a musician and a songwriter. When he sings, “I am no faker / Looked good on paper,” in the chorus, it rings true, for better or worse. --Wesley Case (Handout)
Rating: ** (out of 4 stars)

Pop-punk bands have had it tough for a while now. It’s been years since the last wave of popular groups (think Fall Out Boy and New Found Glory) made any lasting impression on the radio or record charts. For many of these bands, modest club tours and merchandise sales are their sources of income.

Timonium‘s All Time Low is a rare case in this mostly insular genre. Early on, the quartet showcased promising writing that emphasized sticky hooks, the most memorable being “Dear Maria, Count Me In” from 2007’s “So Wrong, It’s Right.”

Naturally, major-label Interscope scooped the band up, and the results were two disappointing albums (2009’s “Nothing Personal” and last year’s “Dirty Work”), which failed to cement All Time Low as a Top-40 presence, despite strong opening-week sales. It wasn’t for a lack of trying: The group even collaborated with R&B hit maker The-Dream on both albums, proving the band’s goal was to rise rather than just tread water. Failing to become the next All-American Rejects, All Time Low parted ways with Interscope this year.

“Don’t Panic,” the band’s fifth full-length album, is a return home in both label (they’re back on independent Hopeless Records) and execution (no reaching collaborations, just an album that would sound at home playing in a Hot Topic store). The result is efficient pop-punk delivered in predictable and familiar ways. “Don’t Panic” isn’t so much an attempt to gain new fans but to appease the ones who stuck through the major-label efforts.

Fittingly, the album starts with an apology of sorts. Describing a “life on the other side,” lead singer and lyricist Alex Gaskarth sings that he “didn’t hate it, but I didn’t quite relate it to my precious little world” on “The Reckless and the Brave.” Like the opening track, the album’s best moments (“Somewhere in Neverland,” hometown love-letter “For Baltimore”) gently polish the band’s harder edges while retaining enough grit to remind fans of its early work.

But “Don’t Panic” -- which sounds like a half-hearted rallying cry to let-down fans -- is an uneven effort, bogged down by tracks that sound like tired, pop-punk Mad Libs (“If These Sheets Were States”) and face-palm metaphors (“You’re the snake hidden in my daffodils when I’m picking flowers” is an actual chorus).

Perhaps the most telling moment comes on the moody, dynamic “Outlines.” The liner notes explain why it sticks out so much: Patrick Stump, the Fall Out Boy lead singer and arguably the genre’s most talented songwriter, co-wrote it, likely explaining the sturdy writing. It also proves All Time Low still has ground to cover before it emerges as anything more than a B-level version of the genre’s best acts. -- Wesley Case  (Handout)
LISTEN: Heart of Hearts, ‘My Society’

Rating: ** (out of 4 stars)

When Greg Hatem, the Baltimore singer/songwriter who also plays in the indie-rock band Mr. Moccasin, decided to try his hand at a new solo project, his starting point was well-worn territory. In 2010, he recorded a self-titled record to an 8-track tape machine in the warehouse space of the Copycat Building Annex. The result was a moody, atmospheric effort, with vocals delivered under a veil of haze and plenty of reverb.

Two years later, Hatem has doubled down on those incredibly dense layers of sound. “My Society,” a 10-track album seemingly dedicated to his love of birds, is packed beyond capacity with filtered vocals, chillwave synthesizers, echoing drums and noise, noise, noise.

It’s a roller coaster with fleeting moments of fun. For the most part, Hatem seems interested in two types of songs: Droning, patience-testing ruminations and slightly quicker tracks that could soundtrack a drugged-out ‘80s party. The former sets a scene of anguish, or maybe just tedium, but you get the sense Hatem hopes we’ll feel something in our chests, or at the least, brains.

He’s much more effective when the songs actually move, with purpose and rhythm. After sleepy opener “Love of Pearls,” Hatem enlivens on “Owls Grow Up,” forcing his voice above the ascending synths and steady drum machine. But when “Candling” (named after the act of holding a light to an egg to study an embryo) follows, we’re transported back to an insular world. “Feather Fast,” the fourth track, arrives like a relief, adding swing and beats per minute.

This seesaw act makes up “My Society.” What sounds like a road to nowhere to this listener might reveal itself in a devastating way to another. But what seems indisputable is Hatem’s penchant for studio tricks. Each vocal take seems delivered through a different filter (or maybe two or 10), leaving the lyrics difficult to parse and the melodies stilted.

Avian-related albums don’t come along very often, so it’s natural to approach “My Society” with a curious ear. So it’s even more maddening when the final product seems impenetrable, like it’s the artist stuck inside the egg. We’re able to hold a light to it, see and hear the contents, and even make guesses on what’s happening inside. But, content with its solitude, it never hatches. -- Wesley Case (Handout)
DOWNLOAD: Rickie Jacobs, ‘Virgo Season EP’

Rating: *1/2 (out of 4 stars)

Hip-hop’s current climate -- where rhyming style, image and transparent emotions matter more than technical skill -- seems well-suited for Rickie Jacobs, the 26-year-old Baltimore-bred MC who garnered national attention online for his “Live Epic” mixtape in May. He’s Web-savvy, using Twitter to tantalize (“I’m only performing Virgo Season records at orgies”) and Instagram to show off fresh sneakers. He also knows the importance of presentation: Jacobs packages his releases with striking cover art, making his mixtapes feel like free albums.

“I’m the future, and people can clearly see that,” he raps on “Kill Switch,” the woozy opening track to his recently released “Virgo Season EP.” On record and through his image, Jacobs emanates an authentic, down-to-earth personality, rarely puffing out his chest to seem more important. He’s confident, even cocky, but he’s also a guy in his mid-20s mostly concerned with women, vices and late nights. To the many with similar interests, he’s normal.

That relatable, everyman persona is fine, but it places more pressure on the music to deliver something extraordinary. Give “Virgo Season” a cursory listen, and its slick beats and breezy flows might impress. But under any type of scrutiny, it becomes hollow, more concerned with “cool” signifiers -- sex (“20 women in my room, Hugh Hefner”) and drugs (“X, weed / everything you need”) -- than delivering anything worthwhile.

Most disappointing, “Virgo Season” is a regression from “Live Epic,” a much more cohesive and thoughtful effort from only months ago. Jacobs has always rapped about live-for-today hedonism, but on “Drugs N Heaven” from “Live Epic,” he also acknowledged the repercussions of hard living. On “Virgo Season’s” “The Best Orgy,” Jacobs ignores tomorrow’s hangover, instead stating matter-of-fact lines about sharing women with friends with dead-eyed seriousness. It’s an ugly but popular sentiment in rap right now, and Jacobs happily goes along with the status quo. But he forgot an important hip-hop rule: If you’re going to rap about cliches, you better deliver them in new, interesting ways.

This is not to say that Jacobs lacks talent. His thin voice isn’t memorable, but he possesses a gift for melody, delivering smooth verses and hooks with ease. “God is Good” is Jacobs’ refreshingly introspective moment (“I lost my mother to cancer / this my dedication”), but it sounds out of place following a raunchy song called “Gotta Be the Ass.” Being 26 is complicated -- many of us feel torn by the need to mature and the desire to remain carefree -- and Jacobs is no exception. His music should better reflect that. -- Wesley Case (Handout)
LISTEN: Horse Lords, ‘Horse Lords’

RATING: **1/2 (out of 4 stars)

With only two songs but clocking in at nearly 38 minutes, the self-titled debut from rising Baltimore instrumental quartet Horse Lords requires fortitude and patience from listeners. Like any worthwhile journey, it has moments of ecstatic outbursts -- as well as check-your-watch lulls. But more than anything else, it’s a record of restraint and precision from talented players more interested in groove and mood than cheap, sugary thrills.

The members -- bassist Max Eilbacher, guitarist Owen Garden and drummers Sam Haberman and Andrew Bernstein -- are no strangers to the city’s music scene, playing in acts such as acerbic noisemakers Teeth Mountain and Dan Deacon‘s more composed touring ensemble. (The group has become a favorite among the city’s best acts, too: “Horse Lords are the best new band in Baltimore and probably the world,” Wye Oak singer Jenn Wasner told the City Paper in July.) That push-and-pull dynamic is evident on “Horse Lords,” with its moments of freak-out bombast and long stretches of smooth, polyrhythmic drumming.

Side A’s “Wildcat Strike” trudges along for a nine-minute stretch until it subtly accelerates. After a quick, cacophonous detour, a welcome moment of unity appears when a saxophone, synthesizer and guitar find equal footing in a joyous riff. It’s deliriously funky, especially after the half-hypnotic/half-tedious build-up. Fittingly, the band’s most potent weapons -- its drummers -- fade the first half out, concluding an introduction to a sonic world that is at times insular, at times liberated.

But to understand why Horse Lords has become the “it” band of the moment among hip local circles, listen to the second half, “Who Taught You to Hate Yourself?” (The name and intro-sample come from Malcolm X.) Quicker-paced and more rollicking than “Wildcat Strike,” the 21-minute song fools the listener with its ebbs and flows. The near-intergalactic outro sounds as if the members ditched their instruments to slowly float in space, only to eventually find their tools once again for a final exclamation point of cathartic banging and post-punk riffing.

Capturing a complex instrumental band’s appeal to tape is never easy, and what can seem impressively locked-in live can translate to circling the drain on record. “Horse Lords” fails to completely sidestep this pitfall, but this album is a solid attempt to continually surprise listeners without bludgeoning them with piles and piles of sound.

But really, Horse Lords succeeds by never getting too comfortable. These movements are intricately designed, assembled brick-by-brick, note-by-note, and the finished product is something worth revisiting. --Wesley Case (Handout)
DOWNLOAD: Caddy Da Don, ‘Cut the Check’

RATING: *** (out of 4 stars)

When Baltimore rapper Caddy Da Don, born David Rice, was released from prison in 2009 after serving a 2 1/2-year sentence for money laundering, he didn’t waste time re-establishing himself as one of the city’s most promising MCs. Last year, his club-banger “Grindin’ on Me” found a regular home on radio station 92Q. Now, a year later, he’s releasing his anticipated new mixtape, “Cut the Check,” hosted by Maybach Music Group’s DJ Scream.

In hip-hop, timing matters. Caddy seems to acknowledge this when he raps, “Heard they say I sound Ross/ in my city been boss” on “Trap Life.” He possesses a booming voice similar to current mainstream hit-maker Rick Ross. It’s Caddy’s most obvious gift, so he smartly rides it throughout the 17-track tape, bending it for hardcore street anthems (the excellent “Out of Line”) and potential crossover singles (“She Bad”).

As a songwriter and lyricist, Caddy has the potential to do what few Baltimore rappers have done -- break through the Charm City ceiling and enter the national hip-hop scene. (He’s second to only Los, the local rapper signed to Diddy’s Bad Boy Records, as the Baltimore rapper to put your money on.) But he’s not there yet -- “Cut the Check” has stretches of generic trap-music and missed opportunities, such as “Retarded,” which features rapper-of-the-moment 2 Chainz.

Despite the missteps, “Cut the Check” has songs that showcase Caddy’s versatility. “Extra” is a silly track, but it works because of its commitment to its concept (“Long driveway, house extra far”). The undeniable “Counting Up,” featuring a glowing interlude from Ravens star Ray Rice, repeats the “Grindin’ On Me” pop formula with Auto-Tune. “Dear Streets” showcases Caddy’s introspective side over a soulful DJ Toomp beat. But there’s always room for improvement: “Heavy,” the tape’s best song, finds the swaggering D.C. star Fat Trel outshining Caddy, stealing the spotlight with his ice-cold nihilism. --Wesley Case (Handout)
LISTEN: Height with Friends, ‘Rock and Roll’

RATING: ** (out of 4 stars)

In the past few years, Height, aka Dan Keech, has become the biggest white rapper in Baltimore -- musically and physically (he’s a pretty large guy, hence the name). His plodding, deliberate cadence begs a closer listen. You might call him the anti-Busta Rhymes.

Height is the centerpiece of Height With Friends, a group that combines the sharp guitar hooks of rock ‘n’ roll with rap’s heavy beats. The production on their new album, “Rock and Roll,” released last month on the Baltimore label Friends Records, is remarkably crisp. Many arrangements recall ‘60s pop and R&B/soul; the track “Hard Work” has backup singers gingerly cooing “Ahh-oop.”

Two of the album’s nine tracks rise above the rest. On the opener, “I Can’t Stand to be Refused,” Height raps, “You gotta move so fast/ to lose/ these salesman blues” along over pounding drums. It’s a banger. The other standout is Height With Friends’ cover of fellow Baltimore musician Ed Schrader’s song “I Can’t Stop Eating Sugar.” Height’s voice throws sinister shade on Schrader’s lyrics: “I see what it does/ I feel what it does.”

While Height has his moments, he can, at times, struggle as a lyricist. “Dead Motor,” about being stranded after a car accident, has an interesting concept but lacks urgency. Still, “Rock and Roll” should put Height With Friends on many indie music fans’ radar. He’ll soon be touring with experimental Baltimore musician Dan Deacon -- another huge boost. Height With Friends is flirting with the indie mainstream, and “Rock and Roll” is a step in the right direction. --Sam Sessa (Handout)
RATING: *** (out of 4 stars)

If Dan Deacon’s first album, 2007’s “Spiderman of the Rings,” was too cartoonish and short-sighted and his follow-up, 2009’s “Bromst,” was too dense and insular, then the Baltimore indie-pop maestro has concisely melded his split personalities on “America” (ironically his first release for the London-based Domino Recording Company).

Deacon recently said he left D.C.'s Carpark Records for Domino because his growth in Europe had stalled. After hearing the nine-track, 43-minute long “America,” Deacon’s pursuit of success on a larger scale makes sense. These are sophisticated, composed songs bubbling with broader appeal compared to Deacon’s earlier work.

Tracks such as “Lots” and “Prettyboy” are within Deacon’s wheelhouse -- driving percussion, waves of synthesizers and hazily distorted vocals -- while still hinting at his pop sensibilities. The album’s second half, “USA I-IV,” takes what Deacon has learned from recent work with orchestras and ensembles and applies it to his world. But it’s the unabashedly saccharine “True Thrush” that transcends the rest of his album and even his entire catalog, proving Deacon doesn’t need to outsmart the listener with his compositional chops when he’s riding the wave of a potent melody. He simply needs to balance both sides of his extremely busy brain. --Wesley Case (Handout)
RATING: ***1/2 (out of 4 stars)

This 10-track LP is the next logical step for the Baltimore two-piece: a lush, intoxicating trip down a rabbit-hole, with equal parts Alex Scally’s shimmering guitar and vocalist Victoria Legrand’s haunting croon. If “Teen Dream” ushered in their smarter, more robust take on dream-pop then “Bloom” builds on it with unlikely turns and bold songwriting. --Wesley Case (Handout)

Some scenes for 1993’s “In the Line of Fire,” with Clint Eastwood as a secret service agent, were shot in Calvert County.