Cass McCombs
Humor Risk

Humor Risk is an album that plays with a vintage “low-fi,” DIY pop-rock feel, in the tradition of Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville or Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend. As for McCombs’ (a dude, not a lady) own effort, the album maintains a cool originality in its trancey, well-arranged compositions, existing in that limbo between modern music and ’60s retro fare and sounding like the offspring from some orgy attended by John Lennon, Leonard Cohen and David Bowie.

The guitars are generally fuzzy and the drums sound like they were recorded in your garage, banged out Beck-style between hits off the bong, but executed well enough. Melodies sometimes walk parallel harmony lines and reverb is generally in abundance; lyrics hover between cynical and psychedelic, and a relaxed, California slacker vibe pervades throughout. Perhaps most notable is the album’s superb use of stereoscopic aural imaging. —Tom Sturm


Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
Mirror Traffic

Produced by Beck, the latest release by Malkmus and company sees the former slacker king retaining much of the lyrical absurdity and lackadaisical style that came to define his time with indie icons Pavement. Standout track “Senator” mixes lines about politics, chemical warfare and blow jobs with equal aplomb, while the instrumental number “Jumblegloss” plays like a too-short outtake from Wowee Zowee.

Yet for all the nods to the past, the one adjective that could best describe the current work is mature. Having already cut four albums with the Jicks, Malkmus uses this newest one to let the band build on all the progress made on 2008’s jam-inspired Real Emotional Trash. Though some fans may become skeptical upon noting the album’s 50-minute-plus running time, most concerns can be checked safely at the door.  —Michael Cimaomo


Reid Paley and Black Francis
Paley & Francis
(Sonic Unyon)

It’s been about six months since Black Francis (aka Frank Black) released an album, and as sure as fall follows summer, the former Pixies front man is at it again. This time around it’s a collaboration with rocker Reid Paley. The 10 songs were written in tandem, and each track is performed as a duo, with the artists alternating lead vocals between songs. Their voices and dark humor blend wonderfully—Francis’ mid-range singing lifts Paley’s deeper, more resonant sound, and the former’s wit and word play are anchored by the other’s irony and sarcasm.

The album is certain to satisfy hungry Black Francis fans, but it’s Paley who, as the less well-known half of the duo, is the revelation. His style is a mix of Tom Waits’ gravelly grumble and Sinatra’s jazzy swagger. Coupled with a topnotch backing band—David Hood on bass and Spooner Oldham on piano—every song’s a gem.  —Mark Roessler