Years ago it was called "alternative rock" or "indie rock." Now it has become so marginal in the marketplace that rock itself seems like an alternative.
Still, there are some artists who fit the style championed by college radio stations and record store clerks.
"Port of Morrow," The Shins (Columbia)
The Shins have been at it since 1996 when the band formed in Albuquerque, N.M., and developed a cult following on the indie scene. In the ensuing years, the group has risen to become one of the most beloved.
The group's newest album, "Port of Morrow," is a good example of why. Lead singer-songwriter James Mercer leans on pretty melodies and the band creates an easygoing vibe. The sound references dreamy Brit-pop acts and post-psychedelic late 1960s rock. There are no fist-shaking anthems here, just good music that's maybe not best experienced driving in your car so much as hanging out at home.
"Strange Land," Yellow Ostrich (Barsuk)
For something a little louder look to Yellow Ostrich, led by singer-songwriter Alex Schaaf. A Wisconsin native, Schaaf moved to New York in 2010 and recorded "The Mistress" on his own.
Now with multi-instrumentalist Jon Natchez and drummer Michael Tapper, Schaaf is going for something bigger and grander. "Strange Land" bristles with youth, enthusiasm and self-reflection that doesn't become self-important. The guitar riffs can be repetitive but they're delivered in just the right way.
On tracks including the sometimes abrasive "Marathon Runner," the group knows how to create a sense of drama. The trio also appreciates that a good drum beat can make all the difference in a great pop song. Yellow Ostrich is one of those acts you want to catch early on so you can enjoy the band's journey as it develops.
"Beware and Be Grateful," Maps & Atlases (Barsuk)
On the new disc "Beware and Be Grateful," Chicago's Maps & Atlases only have hints of the band's math-rock beginnings. Peculiar and complex rhythms still crop up (with actual drums and guitars delivering what another act would use electronics to achieve), but the band is almost reminiscent of 1980s new wave or punk acts — heavy on catchy hooks and a real sense of fun.
Still, the vintage feel is only one shading of the group. The frenetic track "Bugs" with its fast picking and electronic smears sounds like nothing from the past.
Vocalist Dave Davison's quirky voice is one of those instruments that at first is off-putting, but quickly becomes lovable.
Maps & Atlases makes smart music, but the group is smart enough to make its music thoroughly listenable.
Wayne Bledsoe may be reached at 865-342-6444 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He also is the host of "All Over the Road" midnight Saturdays to 4 a.m. Sundays on WDVX-FM.
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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