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JoAnna James
Desire
self-released

She’s been out of her teens for only three years, yet JoAnna James’ voice conveys decades worth of wisdom, defeat and, finally, optimism on this sophomore album. After her bare-bones, singer/songwritery first album pleased Minnesota-based listeners, James invited an impressive cast of Twin Cities musicians to join her on Desire. These musicians provide a creative and quirky cushion for the artist, who herself is fluent on acoustic and electric guitar, as well as the accordion. Most notable among the guests is Jessy Greene (responsible for the sublime fiddle hook on Wilco’s “Jesus, etc”), who lends her sultry violin to three tracks.  

Vocally, James is a freak of nature. At one extreme, she rasps like a pajama-clad Nora Jones ironing waffles on a Sunday morning, and at the other her wail rivals the late Jeff Buckley, liquored-up under a full moon. While there’s no doubt James sports a remarkable set of pipes, on occasion she hits both poles of her ability within a single four-minute track and exhausts the listener. Her dense lyrics, all included in the liner notes, artfully tackle mature subjects. It’s enough to leave an audience wondering how such an old soul could be trapped in this youngster’s body. (Caroline Keys)

JoAnna James plays Sean Kelly’s Thursday, Aug. 4, at 9 PM. Cover TBA.

Henkensiefken
The Howler Tone
Redtronic Records

Jamie Henkensiefken has an ear for the sort of simply crafted, sincere pop vocals that endeared songstress Liz Phair (during her early years) to numerous indie fans. The new EP from Seattle-based Henkensiefken’s eponymous band proves that she, unlike the now over-produced Phair, hasn’t lost touch with the ragged and edgy craftsmanship that gives independent music its refreshing power.

Intertwined with candid lyrics is Henkensiefken’s mathy guitar rock. Like her previous EP, A Familiar Assortment of Demons And Dreams, her newest is rich in both heavy chordage and ethereal string picking. It’s unfortunate that two of the six songs on The Howler Tone (“Orange Aurora Sky” and “Hardcore for the Housewife’s Soul”) were already on A Familiar Assortment, and are almost replicates of their originals. Still, it’s easy to like the new versions since they showcase the newest members of the once one-woman project—bassist Rob Kruy and drummer Rey Guajardo, who seem to tighten up the rhythm section without destroying the homemade feel of Henkensiefken’s appeal.

“Activating Diane” is by far the most aurally vivid track with an accelerated rallying cry of “We have it so easy!” and a bone-to-pick attitude that thoroughly haunts the album. (Erika Fredrickson)

Henkensiefken plays the Elk’s Lodge Saturday, Aug. 6, at 9 PM. The Tremula, Purrbot and Helmut Tag open. $6.

Federation X
Rally Day
Estrus Records/Wäntage USA

The sleazy side of humankind is said to be understood both by those who indulge in it and those who actively work against it. Somehow, Federation X manages to illuminate the world’s grittiness by doing both. On their newest album, Rally Day, the Bellingham/Brooklyn-based band (who against geographical odds manage to record and tour together) displays a love for lurid, sludgy rock ’n’ roll, with an insistence on lyrically attacking social and political issues.

Unlike typical punk, Federation X bathes in a blend of smoky stoner rock and churning guitars. The album brims with entertaining song titles such as “In this Sad Room, In This Dark Gloom, We Live Like Beasts,” and provides intriguing, almost antique-sounding lyrics like, “To say I never ran when the bells they rang/to know I loved you when I was gone/oh how hard I tried/even though my victories were few.” And the raspy vocals of Bill Badgely are perfectly wed to the bow-legged strut of a song like “Nightmare Nation.”

Despite the shadowy tone, Rally Day is an invigorating, optimistic listen that confirms Federation X’s talent for seeing the sleazy side of humankind from both sides of the fence. (Erika Fredrickson)

Soilwork
Stabbing the Drama
Nuclear Blast Records

Once upon a time, not so long ago, most metal bands delivered straight-up, ball-breaking rock assaults without a moment of mercy. Even the slower, orchestral breakdowns of Nordic black metal somehow embodied that same evil, unyielding aggression.

Stabbing the Drama, the newest album by Swedish band Soilwork, has all the ingredients to be as strong and black as Copenhagen coffee: the rapid-fire double kick drumming, repetitive hammering of power chords with the occasional grandiose solo and the wicked growl-scream of frontman Bjorn “Speed” Strid give proper reason to bang your head.

What plagues this album is the melodic pop-metal that infiltrates every song and virtually negates the pile-driving guitar mastery. It’s what Pantera might sound like if they were trying to interface the quiet angst of U2. Why, for the love of Oden, is it necessary to add sugar to something so deliciously bitter?

Highlights include the reckless adrenaline booster “The Crestfallen” and “Stalemate,” which showcases Dirk Verbeuren’s breakneck drumming and Speed’s vicious barking. Nü Metal fans will covet this album because it balances the hard with the harmony, but those who like their metal straight-up will find Speed’s meandering into melodrama a teaspoon too saccharine. (Erika Fredrickson)

Soilwork plays at the Wilma Wednesday, Aug. 10, with Killswitch Engage and As I Lay Dying. Tickets are $19 in advance from Rockin Rudy’s and Ear Candy. $21 at the door.

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