Whatever Will Oldham's music lacks in Appalachian authenticity, it gets back in atmosphere, and plenty of post-Oldham acts have breathed that atmosphere deep. There's something about Oldham's sound: all Neil Young whine and rocking-chair creak, as mighty as a mountain and as subtle as morning dew. Oldham crony Jason Molina has retired the mumble and drone of Songs: Ohia for the plugged-in shack-rattling of Magnolia Electric Co., but he retains the atmosphere on the band's stirring studio debut, What Comes After The Blues. Magnolia Electric Co. announces its intentions on "The Dark Don't Hide It," a declaration of honesty with a high slide-guitar moan, a skipping rhythm, and the gruff harmonies of Molina and Jennie Benford. Benford takes the lead on the gently rocking lamentation "The Night Shift Lullaby," which could've been bashed out from an outdoor festival stage in the late afternoon, while "Give Something Else Away Every Day" lopes along like a midday walk, unhurried and preoccupied. In the past, Molina has preferred to let his songs sprawl out, but here, he keeps them fairly tight, responding to the urgency of a more rock-oriented sound. He leaves his dark room and steps out onto bumpy roads, to enjoy the sweet heat of a scorching sun.
Centro-Matic frontman Will Johnson explores a frayed, experimental brand of alt-country with his own band, but strays closer to Oldham-land with his side project South San Gabriel, which favors syrup-slow tempos, clanking piano, guitars played for texture instead of melody, and raspy song-poems like "Predatory King Today" and "Sicknessing." South San Gabriel's new album The Carlton Chronicles demonstrates how silence can be unsettling in its nothingness, as on "Affection's The Pay," which sounds like an amplified shrug. Meanwhile, South San Gabriel's labelmate Great Lake Swimmers plunges into quietude with a reverence rarely heard since Cowboy Junkies turned a church into a recording studio for The Trinity Session. Great Lake Swimmers' self-titled debut was recorded in an Ontario grain silo, which allows Tony Dekker's pinched, angelic voice to float high without escaping. The effect is arresting on songs like "Moving Pictures, Silent Films" and "Three Days At Sea (Three Lost Years)," where the mood is so still and the music so pretty that it's hard to move for minutes after the final note.
Will Sheff and his versatile Texas group Okkervil River hew as much to indie-rock and emo as to any frayed alt-country ideal, but the band started in the late '90s with a kind of post-rock Americana style, and it's never fully abandoned it. Okkervil River's expansive new Black Sheep Boy ranges between tracks like the fragile "In A Radio Song"Sheff's recollection of a dream, set to acoustic guitar, pump organ, strings and industrial humand dynamic exercises like "For Real," which shifts abruptly from hush to crunch. The band is least convincing at its straightest, as on the Old 97's-ish "Black," the Wilco-y "A King And A Queen," and the Bright Eyes-esque "Song Of Our So-Called Friend," but Sheff and company make full-on events out of songs like the slow-rolling, eight-minute "So Come Back, I Am Waiting," which sounds like the shadow of storm clouds over an open field.