Pinback, Donald Fagen, Jamey Johnson, and A Fine Frenzy release new albums

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Pinback released its fifth studio album in five years, Information Retrieved, Tuesday. The San Diego-based band was formed in 1998 by Zach Smith and Rob Crow (Photo Courtesy of Pinback).

Ricky Stein

Pinback, Information Retrieved

Artist name: Pinback
Album title: Information Retrieved
Record label: Temporary Residence LTD.
Songs to download: “Drawstring,” “True North”

Over the last decade and a half, San Diego indie rock ensemble Pinback has carved out a small but highly regarded niche for itself in the underground music scene. It has done this by meticulously crafting a distinct sound whose influences are not apparent. Imagine the agoraphobic vulnerability of Deerhunter somehow fused with the hopeful brightness of the The Postal Service and add a slight shade of the better aspects of ‘90s alternative acts such as 311 and you get a general idea of its musical approach.

This approach continues seamlessly in the Pinback’s fifth studio album Information Retrieved, its first release in five years. The band, which consists of a nebulous arrangement of musicians around the singing/songwriting talents of  Zach Smith and Rob Crow, presents an offering of 10 new compositions that demonstrate its singular penchant for melancholy melodic song craft. Although its sound is highly distinctive, it is limited somewhat by a lack of variability.

Leadoff track “Proceed to Memory” quickly sets the tone, beginning a wistful melody above chiming electric guitars, a propulsive Radiohead-esque drum pattern and intermittent dream-like organ sounds. The song’s climax and resolve give way to the head-nodding charge of “Glide,” a song that showcases the band’s trademark use of layered vocal and guitar lines, plaintive melody and spiraling fifth harmonies that have made the band critical favorites over the years.

Other standouts include the wintry piano and lyrics of “Drawstring,” a song that suggests the icy Northeast rather than the sunny beaches of Southern California. The album loses a little bit of steam by the time the second side rolls around, but it picks up nicely with the pleading arpeggios of “True North” and the fatalistic shrug of closing track “Sediment.”

Like many of today’s indie rock bands, Pinback’s lyrics take a back seat to melody and production. Often the individual words are hard to discern. Instead of memorable “hooks,” the band focuses on creating an ambience capable of grasping the listener’s interest through the album’s 38 minutes.

There are no songs on Information Retrieved that are as instantaneously memorable as the achingly gorgeous 1999 paean “Loro.” Fans of intelligent sincere indie rock, however, will be happy to find that, despite the length between albums, the band has maintained its high standard of artistic integrity.

Donald Fagen, Sunken Condos

Artist name: Donald Fagen
Album title: Sunken Condos
Record label: Reprise
Songs to download: “Out of the Ghetto”

Master pop songsmith Donald Fagen displays his virtuosic talent for meticulous, clean, jazz-inflected pop rock that helped to make Steely Dan one of the most successful bands of the ‘70s. Eight new compositions and a cover of Isaac Hayes’ “Out of the Ghetto” comprise the album, his first since Morph the Cat in 2006.

Jamey Johnson, Living for a Song: a Tribute to Hank Cochran

Artist name: Jamey Johnson
Album title: Living for a Song: a Tribute to Hank Cochran
Record label: Mercury
Songs to download: ”Make the World Go Away”

Acclaimed country singer/songwriter Jamey Johnson follows up 2010’s Grammy-nominated, gold-selling album “The Guitar Song” with a tribute to Nashville songwriting legend Hank Cochran. Johnson keeps the focus on his subject matter, enlisting the help of an unbelievable roster of cameos: Allison Krauss, Merle Haggard, Vince Gill, Leon Russell, Emmylou Harris, Ray Price, Ray Benson, Elvis Costello, George Strait, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, just to name a few. The result is a bold and commendable album that sheds a well-deserved portion of the spotlight on one of the lesser-known but widely influential driving forces in the last half-century of country music.

A Fine Frenzy, Pines

Artist name: A Fine Frenzy
Album title: Pines
Record label: Virgin
Songs to download:”Winds of Wander,” “Riversong”

The third studio album from 27-year-old folk-pop singer/songwriter Alison Sudol, aka A Fine Frenzy, consists of 13 original new songs that reflect the Seattle native’s passion for environmentalism. All of the numbers revolve around the central topic of ecology, with song titles such as “Winds of Wander,” “Riversong” and “Dance of the Gray Whales.” While this could come across as trite to some, Sudol’s engaging voice and inventive arrangements put the music on level with its worthy cause.

Printed on Tuesday, October 16, 2012 as: Underground bands release new albums