Album reviews: Spiral Stairs, Alison Krauss and The xx

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Album reviews: Spiral Stairs, Alison Krauss and The xx

Spiral Stairs

Doris and the Daggers (Domino)

After eight years, Scott Kannberg, aka Spiral Stairs, sounds rested and rejuvenated. Doris and the Daggers kicks off with “Dance (Cry Wolf),” a flashing ’80s glam jam. When Kannberg’s baritone comes in like a countrified Ian Curtis, it’s a little startling, and on the chorus he sounds like Bowie circa “Let’s Dance.” While a vocal range of approximately six notes undercuts Kannberg’s hypothetical elegance, it also prevents him from crossing into pompous Killers territory. And the band—which includes members of Broken Social Scene and The National—doesn’t stint while pushing meaty grooves to the fore, with elements of folk rock, heartland rock and good ol’ alt rock. “Emoshuns” is the dumb kind of title Kannberg used to write in Pavement, and, lo and behold, the song could be late Pavement. “Dundee Man” sounds like sunny ’80s Aussie rock—chirping guitar and melodic bass, with Kannberg repeatedly intoning the title for a stupid-funny chorus. “AWM” mixes things up with a pretty lead acoustic guitar and piano; it comes off like R.E.M. crossed with Tom Petty. Doris and the Daggers is no masterpiece, but passes for a modest tour-de-force.

Alison Krauss

Windy City (Capitol)

With her 1987 debut, Alison Krauss burst into view as a prodigy—and, in male-dominated bluegrass culture, a bit of a rebel. She won bluegrass album Grammys at 19 and 20, with a voice that was a little wild and fiddling that was straight killing. Over the next few years Krauss shaved the edges off of both, broadening stylistically and becoming a superstar. She settled into a reliably high-quality Americana career, cementing her prominence with the tastefully sedate 2007 Robert Plant collaboration Raising Sand.

It’s a testament to Krauss’ versatility and talent that upon seeing the Meg Ryan-meets- Courtney Love imagery on the cover of Windy City, one could imagine a rock or soul crossover. But the album works from a countrypolitan base, adding elements of Tex-Mex, calypso and Western swing—there’s no banjo, but there’s a credit for tuba arrangement. The material includes a slew of covers, from “Gentle On My Mind” to “You Don’t Know Me,” and while Krauss’ croon holds sway, it’s the backing band that really shines, especially on a joyous honky-tonk/Dixieland version of “It’s Goodbye And So Long To You.”

The xx

I See You (Young Turks)

The xx is back with its third record, and for fans of the band, it’s time to rejoice; I See You is replete with the same casual motion and languid melodies from its self-titled debut (2009) and Coexist (2012).

For newcomers, it’s time to rejoice if you prefer your darkness to be harmless. Members of The xx are meticulous master crafters of atmosphere. Fittingly, the music has been used in copious TV settings, and there’s nothing here that would alienate even the most timid network exec—“A Violent Noise” contains neither violence nor noise. The tunes here are slow, sweeping, synthetic, seductive and lead nowhere. Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim don’t sing so much as exhale suggestions of standard feelings: “When my heart it breaks / I’ll put on a performance / I’ll put on my brave face.” “On Hold” builds up a bit of steam, abetted by some Hall & Oates samples, and “I Dare You” maintains the momentum, but still drifts by like the landscape from a train. As pop music, I See You never rises above ambience. On the plus side, it’s less expensive than an aquarium.

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