Howie Beck / Adem

Like his frequent touring mate Josh Rouse, Howie Beck excels at pretty, mid-tempo ballads designed to make listeners feel wistful. On his third album, the modestly titled howie beck, the singer-songwriter practically provides a model for his sound with the easygoing "Sometimes," which backs Beck's airy voice with bells, thick bass, buzzing synthesizers, and distorted guitar, yet never sounds overly busy. But "Sometimes" is an exception on an album where, by and large, the production seems to be propping up the songs. On the silly "Zombie Girl" and the earnest "The Books Beside Her Bed" alike, the sophisticated instrumentation only masks the songs' basic shallow minimalism—a flaw exposed when Beck goes stark, as on the banjo-backed, derivative "We Waited." Then again, the soft netting that surrounds howie beck does sound nice in and of itself, especially when Beck wraps it tight around a song like "Floating," where the string section flattens the bounce with notes of menace.

Similarly, London's Adem Ilham—who goes by his first name professionally—does best with his oddly lovely alt-folk sound when he goes darker. On his second album, Love And Other Planets, Adem starts shadowy, with the fitful, baroque "Warning Call," and even when he moves to a peppier place on songs like "Something's Going To Come," an undertone of sadness keeps the music from floating into fluff. Adem's devotion to Radiohead leads to some unnecessary noise-making, but also to some highly necessary exploration of disjointed song structures. And his affinity for Jeff Buckley has Adem exploring long melody lines and gradually feeling his way around the vast open spaces he leaves for himself. When Adem makes it through safely, the stunt can be breathtaking.

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