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Cassie Morgan & the Lonely Pine, Weathered Hands, Weary Eyes (self-released) Weathered is the first disc to feature Cassie Morgan's backing "band" the Lonely Pine, a group containing only vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Beth Bombara. (The latter's own LP, Wish I Were You, was another standout 2010 local release.) Weathered amplifies the folk overtones of Morgan's earlier release; her acoustic guitar strums are simple, and Bombara's close harmonies and percussive flourishes keep the mood breezy but never lightweight. The bucolic, harmonica-aided "Gonna Be a Long Day" is a snapshot of farm life. In lesser hands, the song would come off as a trite example of rural color. But Morgan grew up in the southern Illinois town of Bonnie — a township of 400 people — which lends credibility to her more folk-derived songs.

Natural Selection, White Picket Fence (Bocumast Records) Singer and keyboardist Samuel Glover's vocals pack plenty of soul for a white boy, though at times he channels Edwyn Collins' straining ache. For all the band's soul affectations, Glover has as much in common with indie-rock singers as he does with R&B crooners, and that grit helps the disc from ever getting too slick. Likewise, bassist Nick Jost's rough-edged funk lines create grooves that are never smooth or smarmy. On the Huey Lewis hat-tip "She's Too Hip to Be Square," the slapped bass, slick guitar strokes and punchy horn blasts interweave over a glitchy drumbeat, offering Glover a jagged rhythm for his kitchen-sink drama. The title track continues the theme of domestic dissonance with weighty piano chords and a nimble (if distorted) drum-machine pattern. Glover's note-hopping, baby-please-don't-go falsetto in the song's bridge is a reminder that, like the best soulmen, he can lay it on the line when it counts.

Pretty Little Empire, Reasons and Rooms (Bellevue Box Records) Reasons and Rooms succeeds by building on the simple but distinct style that the band cultivated on its debut, Sweet Sweet Hands. The rolling drums and circular guitar picking of opener "Now Is not the Time" recall the shambling but affecting folk-rock of the band's earlier work, but a rollicking chorus shows nascent traces of rock & roll grandeur. "Islands (NC)" pairs brokedown balladry with echoing guitar lines and wheezing organ chords, and the breakneck "Dakotas" is a fun, strummy sing-along. A transitional album, Reasons shows a group that's both comfortable in its own skin and fearless enough to shed it from time to time.

Theodore, Hold You Like a Lover (Moon Jaw Records) Theodore's road-tested, singer-songwriter storytelling and tireless sonic experimentation align beautifully on Hold You Like a Lover, the strongest of the quartet's three LPs. Singer and guitarist Justin Kinkel-Schuster's mea culpas have never sounded sweeter or more sincere as on the opening track, "I Won't Be a Stranger." His narrator promises "surely I'll redeem myself someday" and proceeds to spend an album indulging in sins that make redemption seem like a cruel dream. Theodore's instrumentalists reveal the rough grain of Kinkel-Schuster's songcraft in the form of mournful banjos, intuitive percussion and artfully processed guitar tones. These sounds build over the course of the album before swirling into a tempest on "Death's Head," where echoing harmonica and feedback-heavy guitars collide in the band's most fully realized moment to date. 

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