music reviews

Published Feb 21, 2014 at 12:06AM

Sun Kil Moon

“BENJI”

Caldo Verde Records

There may be no such thing as narrative honesty in a song, but Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon represents the idea, at least, in large canvases and deep, oily hues. On “Benji,” he writes from a tunnel of self-absorption, casual and graphomaniacal and sometimes sour. Hear 15 minutes’ worth, and you know, roughly, his age (mid-40s); his areas of interest (his family and his own past, rock ’n’ roll, serial killers); where he’s from (near Canton, Ohio); his morality and class preoccupations; the story of his learning guitar, and exactly what he liked about the Led Zeppelin movie “The Song Remains the Same.”

Kozelek has been at it since the late ’80s, when he started the band Red House Painters. He has a slouchy, marble-mouthed vocal delivery that tails off into a glottal fry or rises to light, soft, long notes, and he gravitates toward Neil Young tempos. In his six records as Sun Kil Moon, and especially since switching to nylon-string guitar a couple of years ago, he’s grown musically softer and narratively more intense.

“Benji” is strong, cultish stuff, full of its own stink, full of stories about death and much, much smaller things; the stanzas are long and the yarns circular. They can sound like — and sometimes actually are — variations on things he has said in interviews.

It’s a rambling, repetitive, loose-form record that lacks a melody as strong as that in older Sun Kil Moon songs like “Carry Me Ohio” or “Salvador Sanchez.” But what sometimes makes it remarkable is Kozelek’s will to put the narrowness and ungainliness of daily life and work into his music.

— Ben Ratliff, The New York Times

Tinariwen

“EMMAAR”

ANTI-Records

Tinariwen sure have come a long way in a short time. Although the band has been making music in its native West Africa for decades, it’s only since the release of 2001’s “Radio Tisdas Sessions” that it has captured the attention of the West, thanks in part to some big-name fans like Robert Plant, Peter Gabriel and Bono.

Since then, five more albums have been released, along with a live DVD, and the outfit’s reputation has grown.

Sadly, due to domestic unrest back in Mali, the band currently finds itself unable to return home. The latest album, therefore, was recorded not in Algeria or Mali but in Joshua Tree, Calif. Utilizing a custom-built studio, the band-recorded tracks live together in an attempt to recreate the fluid chemistry and big-sky vibe of live performances under the stars.

The experiment worked. “Emmaar” is arguably Tinariwen’s strongest album since 2005’s landmark “Amassakoul.” “Emmaar” is a record that perfectly balances urgent rhythms with languorous, spaced-out sounds, with a few carefully chosen guests chosen to contribute to the overall vibe, rather than drowning in its ill-advised collaborations as on 2011’s “Tassili” (um, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band — really?). It’s tempting to call “Emmaar” a “back to basics” album, except that that makes it sound as if the band is doing nothing new, when in fact their sound is more refined and focused than ever; it’s just that the extraneous experiments of the last couple releases have been cut away, revealing the lean, sinewy musical machine underneath.

ON TOUR: April 15 — Aladdin Theater, Portland; www.ticket fly.com or 877-435-9849.

— David Maine, PopMatters

Robert Ellis

“THE LIGHTS FROM THE CHEMICAL PLANT”

New West Records

Robert Ellis is an exacting songwriter. On his third album, the Lone Star State native, now living in Nashville, goes to work with Tom Waits and Kings of Leon producer Jaquire King. He presents his detail-oriented narratives in a variety of settings, from bossa nova to bluegrass. As he flirts with jazz and honky-tonk, and faithfully covers Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years,” Ellis is musically promiscuous but narratively precise.

His nasal vocal delivery recalls Willie Nelson, but there’s nothing casual about it; he’s not the kind to leave a word or a note out of place. Is he “Texas’ next great singer-songwriter,” as Texas Monthly magazine recently declared him to be? Time will tell on that one.

For now, he’s a disciplined and demanding young talent, an old soul of 25 years whose best songs — like the title cut and especially the closer, a self-critical, non-sentimental and, frankly, depressing tune titled “Tour Song” — point to a promising future.

ON TOUR: March 26 — Mississippi Studios, Portland; www.mississippistudios.com or 503-288-3895.

— Dan DeLuca, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Neil Finn

“DIZZY HEIGHTS”

Lester Records

Neil Finn has written effortless pop songs since the 1970s, both in Split Enz and, especially, in Crowded House. He also has a penchant for working with family: with brother Tim in Split Enz and the Finn Brothers; with wife Sharon in the Pajama Club; and, on “Dizzy Heights”, his third solo album, with sons Liam (a successful singer-songwriter in his own right) and Elroy as well as his wife.

“Dizzy Heights” steps away from the perfectly crafted guitar pop that has usually been Finn’s specialty. At times, it’s more abstract and experimental (the grandiose, falsetto “Divebomber” and the ominous “White Lies and Alibis,” with its disruptive electronics), and these tracks display the fingerprints of producer Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev). Elsewhere, Finn tries his hand at blue-eyed soul (the slinky, string-kissed title track and the Hall & Oates-like “Flying in the Face of Love”). The latter style works better than the former, but Finn too often sounds like he’s working hard to stretch outside of what he does best.

— Steve Klinge, The Philadelphia Inquirer