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Oberst, Gilbert and Esso albums hit different marks.

Conor Oberst

"Upside Down Mountain'' (Nonesuch)

"There are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of ways to get through the day -- just find one,'' Conor Oberst counsels on his new solo album, "Upside Down Mountain.'' Oberst may not have hundreds of styles, but he's multifarious enough. His hugely prolific career now extends more than two decades: through solo albums and various bands, including Bright Eyes, the protest-minded Desaparecidos and the songwriters' alliance Monsters of Folk, among others. And his songs have manifested themselves through introspection and noise, acoustic and electronic sounds, folk-rock and punk and an approximation of soul, the unguarded and obscure and artful; there have been brilliant ones, competent ones and throwaways.

All of Oberst's gifts align on "Upside Down Mountain'': his empathy, his unassumingly natural melodies, the quavery sincerity in his voice, the plain-spoken but telling lyrics that he's now careful to deliver clearly. His new songs are focused and aphoristic, earnestly reflecting on life without getting too precious. He offers advice: "Freedom's the opposite of love,'' he decides in "Lonely at the Top,'' while in "Kick,'' he notes, "Pleasure's not the same as happiness.''

Through the album, he contemplates the meanings of home, connection, solitude and mortality. "When I lost myself I lost you by extension/I don't know who would stand to gain,'' he apologizes in "Night at Lake Unknown,'' and continues, "Your silly dreams aren't worth a mention/But they keep collecting in my brain.''

"Upside Down Mountain'' was produced by Jonathan Wilson, who's a songwriter and studio musician himself. He has made it his vocation to recapture the sound of Laurel Canyon in the early 1970s, when singer-songwriters enfolded sensitive thoughts in radiant, hand-tooled arrangements. Wilson has rediscovered how to make a lone guitar sound like a true companion, how to blend and layer acoustic and electric guitars, and how to make a vocal sound simultaneously intimate and substantial; he can also deploy horns, backup singers and glockenspiel.

Oberst exploits those aural comforts, and he allows some direct references: to the confidently cluttered guitars and voices of George Harrison's solo hits in "Kick,'' to the pedal-steel-topped Neil Young of "Harvest'' in "Enola Gay.''

"Upside Down Mountain'' isn't a final destination for Oberst. He may or may not revisit the sound and approach of this particular album. That's all the more reason to savor it.

-- Jon Pareles

Brantley Gilbert

"Just as I Am'' (The Valory Music Co.)

Country songs don't come much slinkier than "Bottoms Up,'' the recent hit by Brantley Gilbert. Gilbert comes on like a revving monster-truck engine, backed by heavy rock guitar, but there's a slyness to his singing. Beneath his boxy exterior, there's an active intelligence about melody and texture, which makes this song, built of industrial-scale parts, almost soft.

Gilbert is a unique sort of brute. In a country era where hardness isn't valorized in the least, he's unapologetically rough, singing with the tenderness of a chain saw. And on this strong album -- his third in a row -- he betrays no shame about his creatine-fueled version of country music, which has more in common with 1980s arena rock than with the rest of Nashville.

But just when the bulk threatens to become suffocating, Gilbert shows that he has much more than that. The gentle reminiscing on "Lights of My Hometown'' has moments of striking feeling: "Light a flashlight on the tombstone/Let your best friend know he ain't alone.'' And "I'm Gone'' works a neat sleight-of-lyric. "I'm not going/I'm gone,'' he sings on this tender yet resentful song. "What you're seeing is a ghost/I'm just dust that hasn't settled.''

Gilbert has a writing credit on every song here, and certainly an intimate understanding of how his hard exterior allows him to flaunt softness when it's called for. He is a lunk with poet dreams, a bodybuilder cradling a newborn.

-- Jon Caramanica

Sylvan Esso

"Sylvan Esso'' (Partisan)

The quick take on Sylvan Esso, a prepossessing new synth-pop duo, involves a bucolic impulse met by an industrial process.

Of course it's tricky, this balancing act. On the tune that started it all, "Play It Right,'' Meath's vocals are multitracked in emulation of the arrestingly stark Mountain Man sound, and the electronics gingerly frame them. Some of the album's less artful moments can recall Moby's dalliances with Alan Lomax field recordings; some of the stronger moments evoke Bjork's work with Matmos. But Sylvan Esso also makes a virtue of the fact that electronic dance music, in most of its myriad forms, uses vocals as an organic accent on a synthetic canvas.

Meath has a calming, lightly quavery singing voice, and she's canny about its uses. "I'm covered in soot,'' she sings in "Could I Be,'' rounding out the vowel sound in "soot,'' and milking a whole-step slide up a minor scale. The abbreviation in the title "H.S.K.T'' stands for "head, shoulders, knees and toes,'' a children's song she half-incorporates in her lyrics.

-- Nate Chinen
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Title Annotation:Living
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Article Type:Sound recording review
Date:May 22, 2014
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