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The Franklins
Stairs
Drowsy Records

There’s a quiet craftsmanship to Chris Gemkow’s debut release with The Franklins. Gemkow, who provides lead vocals and guitar and also wrote nine of Stairs’ 11 songs, is augmented by Gary Jimmerson on percussion, Kyndal Lamping on bass and a guest appearance by Cash for Junkers’ John Rosett on lap steel and electric guitar. The tunes are simple singer/songwriter fare, rough around the edges but full of good intentions, aspiring for the sound of early Uncle Tupelo.

“Living in Indy” leads things off with a promising campfire chorus; “Naming Jennifer,” which accompanied the recent documentary of the same name about the questionable death of Jennifer Pate, is an elegant instrumental highlighted by Gemkow’s acoustic plucking, and “Waiting Here” is a welcome changeup of loud, three-chord garage rock.

There’s not much happening on a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Baby Blue” and Stairs similarly drags on slower offerings like “Down” and “Six of One.” While producer Doug Smith provides admirable work in the album’s subtle nooks and crannies, his screeching feedback in “Not Feeling Alright” is annoyingly misplaced.

Still, Gemkow and The Franklins hit more often than they miss with this homegrown, low-key release. (Skylar Browning)

The Franklins’ Stairs is available locally at Ear Candy.

The Clumsy Lovers
Smart Kid
Nettwerk Records

The Clumsy Lovers have spent much of their adult lives rocking the pants off audiences with their carefree Celtic/Bluegrass/Punk/Reggae/Pop blend, and Smart Kid, their latest studio effort, nearly captures the kinetic vibe of the band’s popular and prolific live shows.

It took the band six albums to accept that certain elements of live music don’t translate so well onto recordings, but with their seventh, they’ve gained the serenity to know the difference between the recipes for a rowdy bar concert and a quality studio recording. With that self-actualization in mind, the band succeeds at making a record to take home after the live jam.

Optimistic lyrics contribute to the overall peppiness of Smart Kid, but instrumental prowess and savvy arrangements are the album’s twin backbones. Banjo player Jason Homey performs three-finger acrobatics alongside fiddler Andrea Lewis in perfect sync. Trevor Rogers’ acoustic guitar solos are worthy, but at times drowned out by the brawny low-end that bassist Chris Jonat and drummer Gord Robert create. Jonat, Rogers and Lewis take on varying vocal roles for each tune, creating all kinds of combinations.

With all of that inspired vivacity, the Clumsy Lovers are now just as accessible at home as on stage. (Caroline Keys)

The Clumsy Lovers play The Other Side Thursday, Aug. 4, at 10 PM. Cover TBA.

Kaze and 9th Wonder
Spirit of ’94: Version 9.0
Brick Records

On their latest album, hip-hop producer 9th Wonder and MC Kaze yearn to take hip-hop back to its golden era, circa 1994. For them, that was a time when MCs, DJs, breakdancers and graffiti taggers respected their predecessors and worked hard to make a name for themselves.

Because of the retro infatuation, their album doesn’t break much ground lyrically or musically, coming off as nostalgic rather than a modern update. It seems as though the duo is only trying to embody sounds of the past and channeling the most popular groups of the era, like Gangstarr, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest.

There’s no doubt Kaze has talent when he raps about subjects ranging from racism to his love for ganja and his enthusiasm for the spirit of yesteryear. He just doesn’t add much lyrical twist to his flow, leaving listeners wanting more than a literal narrative rehash. Maybe his delivery would be more compelling if he mixed up his storytelling with more off-kilter word play and varied his cadence, like those he strives to honor.

Version 9.0 is worth a listen for underground hip-hop heads keeping a beat on the scene and looking for a trip down memory lane—just don’t expect it to blow your mind. (Ira Sather-Olson)

Fruit Bats
Spelled in Bones
Sub Pop Records

I tend to approach melodic, creatively produced folk-pop through a cyclical, reformative, multi-step process that starts with my being head-boppingly smitten with the infectious sound to meekly embarrassed about its imminent play on “The O.C.” to angrily turning my back, appalled at having fallen for something so cute and smart and accessible before ultimately slinking back to where I started—secretly reaching for the guilty pleasure on a day when I need a soundtrack for storylines as hopeful and romanticized as a coming-of-age television drama. And then the process repeats with the next folk-pop band, churning through Iron & Wine to The Shins to…

Welcome to the Fruit Bats, the Chicago-based trio founded and fronted by Eric Johnson (formerly of Califone). Spelled in Bones, the band’s recently released third album, offers 11 consistently congenial tracks that fall into familiar categories. What makes this album good is that it’s easy to digest, competently produced, smartly written and much better balanced than their first two releases. “Legs of Bees” and “Silent Life” are both upbeat singles with great hooks, and “The Earthquake of ’73” is a catchy, thoughtful strum. All in all, a satisfying listen and good enough—until the next pop-folk offering comes around. (Skylar Browning)

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