Whole Heart is likable for a variety of reasons. Most of it has a calm folk vibe, and there is something refreshing about the way Koch gives equal weight to relationships with lovers, strangers, and God. The Americana track “Journey to Unfold” is noteworthy for its focus on living life intentionally and the acoustic guitar and echoing whistling on the romantic ballad “Trusty Branch” showcase the album’s predominantly earthy sound (everything from harmonicas to hand claps appear on the record). “Being Broke” is arguably the album’s most soulful moment, then the pace picks up with the lively, funny bluegrass number “Celebrities,” the rollicking, swampy blues of “Sweet Release,” and the gritty live sound of “Keepin’ On.” Koch demonstrates his comfort with singing ballads as well as belting out soulful tracks in a fantastic display of musical vitality.
Black Bear/Elm City Music
On Black Bear, the follow-up to his critically-acclaimed album, The Ladder, Andrew Belle reminds us that he has a gift for combining great melodies with insightful lyrics. But the sonic quality is very different this time around. Gone is this singer-songwriter’s signature acoustic sound and in its place are heavy doses of ambient piano pop, synth rock, and electronic alternative music. Relationships are at the core of this album’s content, and whether it’s about wanting someone who may not be good for you (“Wants What it Wants”), or something stronger and more familial (“Sister”), Black Bear is loaded with dramatic material. Belle warns against the temporary beauty of this world in “Details” and when he sings, “I love, I love you, and all of your pieces” on the first single, “Pieces,” he paints a picture of an all-encompassing love. Black Bear is filled with gorgeous lyrical and musical moments.
Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon/Blue Note Records
Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon is destined to be one of the biggest curve balls of 2013. Forget what you think you know about KT Tunstall based on her previous albums because you’d have to be clairvoyant to see this one coming. Tunstall has ditched the rock ‘n’ roll theatrics and pop song structures, and instead has filled this dazzling record with subdued material that makes her sound like a different artist. The Americana-tinged opener “Invisible Empire,” mirrors this creative re-
imagining of herself and the country folk track “How You Kill Me?” is performed with the skill of a seasoned veteran. “Yellow Flower” is a soft, romantic piano ballad, but “Crescent Moon” is the album’s standout track featuring subtle, lush piano and spine-tingling orchestral flourishes. This is a bold career move for Tunstall and it pays off in spades.