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(Jade Tree)

Just about the time I think I've got Jade Tree all figured out and dropped into a the genre of "emo," they throw a group like Denali my way and blow that theory all to hell. For a long time now, it's the sensitive boys who have been hogging the spotlight, but with the ace-in-the-hole singer of Maura Davis, Denali breaks loose of any associations that being on Jade Tree may bring their way and offer up a varied and interesting debut release.

Over the course of 10 tracks and almost 45 minutes, the four-piece group pull little influences from all over the musical map, augmenting their primarily straight-ahead rock sound with touches of trip-hop, a bit of jazz, and a enough fuzzy layers of guitars to appeal to shoegazers everywhere. Produced by Mark Linkous, it's a diverse album in terms of textures, and those extra layers help give the band a developed sound beyond most debut releases.

After a bit of an atmospheric beginning of muffled beats and guitars, the track "French Mistake" takes hold with a super grimy bassline and chiming guitars before building up to a loud chorus. singer Davis makes her introduction on the track in a big way as well, going from quiet and sultry during the quiet beginning to pouring out enough emotion to keep up with the building song. After "You File," which is an even more straight-ahead rock track, the group slows down a bit with the smokey-lounge feel of "Lose Me." Working an organic, trip-hop feel, Davis again takes the spotlight with her absolutely stunning torch-song vocals. Sounding a bit like Beth Gibbons of Portishead, she sounds like she could fit right into the great jazz heyday had she been born 50 years earlier.

The group is actually at its most interesting when it's working the different sounds into the routine and adding the rock as an afterthought. "Function" is a haunting track in which only a piano and some waves of guitar feedback provide an eerie backdrop to Davis, while "Relief" begins with some distorted drum kicks and vintage synth sounds before layering in guitars verse by verse for a big finale. It's a little too often that the group relies on the quiet-to-loud crescendo on tracks, but they still manage to pull it off nearly every time, adding subtle atmospherics or another instrument until the track unleashes. Of course, while it may be strange that such a release found its way onto a label like Jade Tree, it's a an excellent breath of fresh air on a label that made its name on punk rock, then boys in bands with tear-stained shirts. With enough variety to keep the listener interested, and not dragging any tracks on for too long, it's a great little debut record for the band and definitely makes them someone to look out for.

Rating: 7.25