The National, “Sleep Well Beast” (4AD)
On its previous six albums, the National evolved into a sound distinctly its own: moody atmospherics, confessional baritone vocals, simmer-to-a-boil dynamics.
It led to a consistency that bordered on predictable. But the four-year break since the quintet’s last studio album, in which the band members jumped into various side projects, has brought renewal. “Sleep Well Beast” plays it mostly low-key, but it’s also volatile, strange and a little creepy. It’s an album that works well with the lights turned low, if only to better empathize with the dimming prospects of singer Matt Berninger’s narrators. But within the gloom, the band innovates.
In the mode of latter-day Radiohead, glitchy electronics play nearly as big a role as more traditional rock instrumentation. Static bubbles through and then recedes into darkness on “Empire Line,” a woodpecker keyboard taps at the surface of “Born to Beg,” and a tropical rain forest of sound infuses the title track with things that go bump in the night.
Orchestral touches add a further sense of disruption or subtly underline the light that glimmers from the fringes. Just as inventive is Bryan Devendorf’s drumming. Guitars are more sparingly featured in the mix, but knife through to lift “Day I Die” and “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness.”
This isn’t necessarily new territory for the National, but the album lights up when the band stretches a bit. The relationships Berninger describes aren’t just personal but political. In “Turtleneck,” the band rocks out as the singer rages against the entitled suits who try to pass themselves off as leaders.
“Dark Side of the Gym” is its polar opposite, its tenderness accented by a lovely doo-wop-style arrangement. It’s a nakedly emotional moment tucked at the back of the album, as if the National were trying to hide its love away. But this song and this band are too luminous to disappear into the shadows.
GREG KOT, Chicago Tribune
Gregg Allman, “Southern Blood” (Rounder)
The last albums that great singers labor over before they die share an eerie quality — their voices retain depth and richness, but they substitute weariness for power. Like Alzheimer’s-afflicted Glen Campbell or cancer-stricken Leonard Cohen over the past year, Allman, who died at 69 in May, must have known the time was near, as he canceled 2016 concerts due to illness about when he was recording vocals for “Southern Blood.” That sad acknowledgment haunts this collection of mostly covers: “I can’t tell my pillow from a stone,” he sings on the Grateful Dead’s “Black Muddy River”; “I don’t really care what happens next,” he adds on Bob Dylan’s “Going Going Gone.”
The Allman Brothers Band frontman’s gnarled vocals fit beautifully with a sympathetic band and gospel harmonies on Little Feat’s “Willin’ ” and his own “My Only True Friend.” He lacks the sharp hunger of early Allmans’ classics or the blissed-out soul of his recent work, but “Southern Blood” has a lean, bluesy persistence. .
STEVE KNOPPER, Newsday
• Foo Fighters, “Concrete and Gold”
• Emily Haines, “Choir of the Mind”
• Gucci Mane, “Mr. Davis”
• Prophets of Rage, “Prophets of Rage”
• Lone Bellow, “Walk Into a Storm”
• Yusuf, “The Laughing Apple”
• Wyclef Jean, “Carnival III: The Rise and Fall of a Refugee”
• Ringo Starr, “Give More Love”