KJ Sawka
Synchronized Decompression
Wax Orchard Records

KJ Sawka is the type of drummer who’ll leave audiences awestruck during a live performance. Watching the Seattle-based musician work behind his intricate kit with former bands like Siamese, it’s impossible to fathom how he manages to bang out such incredibly fast, syncopated drum breaks. So it comes as a pleasant surprise that his live mix of down-tempo, breakbeat and drum ’n’ bass rhythms translates so well into digital form on Synchronized Decompression.

Sawka’s talent is best expressed on the drum kit, but at the computer he’s crafted a seamless combination of dreamy grooves in line with early Portishead and Massive Attack and soul-infused aggressiveness that’s a cross between the ethereal soundscapes of LTJ Bukem and the beat-mangling madness of Enduser. For example, the outstanding “For Oily to Normal Skin” comprises a dizzying up-tempo workout featuring perfectly panned drums, a floating, atmospheric melody and snarling bass tones. On “Rage in Me” he switches to a somber trip-hop sound emphasizing the bleak but flirtatious vocals of Miranda Rose.

Synchronized Decompression treads a delicate balance between soothing, at-home listening and the ass-shaking intensity of the dance floor. But Sawka marries these two disparate genres deftly, creating a cohesive work of forward thinking electronic music. (Ira Sather-Olson)

KJ Sawka plays The Loft Thursday, Jan. 25, at 10:30 PM. BluestoneJones and Emilia open. $7.

Drew Emmitt Band
Across the Bridge
Compass Records

Leftover Salmon’s eclectic newgrass sound—self-described as “Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrass”—could be called gaudy. The Colorado jam band, which broke up in 2004, often experimented in genre-bending extremes and, in doing so, rarely spared the kitchen sink. There was little understatement or subtlety to their all-everything approach.

Drew Emmitt, the band’s mandolinist, has turned things down a notch since going on his own, but without losing the experimentation. On his sophomore effort, Emmitt collaborates with a host of guest musicians and seems to let each of them dictate the album’s subtle switches in style without ever losing an overall old-school bluegrass appeal.

The cameos include Sam Bush, Stuart Duncan, Del and Ronnie McCoury, John Cowan and Jim Lauderdale, and each add to Emmitt’s own raw vocals and virtuoso picking. Perhaps the largest contribution is from Little Feat’s Paul Barrere, who sings his own “All That You Dream” in one of the album’s fuller, more brooding productions.

Despite the help, Across the Bridge is definitely a showcase for Emmitt. His originals are well-crafted pieces of songwriting (especially “Cross That Bridge”) and he leaves himself plenty of room to noodle without ever vamping. It’s not as over-the-top as Leftover Salmon, and not as high-profile as fellow picker Chris Thile (Nickel Creek), but it’s worthy of honorable mention alongside both. (Skylar Browning)

Drew Emmitt plays The Loft Wednesday, Jan. 31, at 9 PM. Cover TBA.

Gob Iron
Death Songs for the Living
Legacy Records

In the days before Son Volt began recording Okemah and the Melody of Riot, frontman Jay Farrar and multi-instrumentalist Anders Parker laid down 10 tracks of reworked folk songs. Those numbers, along with nine nameless acoustic interludes, make up a repeat-worthy collection of newly released modernized Americana.

For Gob Iron (British slang for “harmonica”), Farrar and Parker (formerly from the Steve Earle-endorsed Varnaline) choose mainly darker material from the early days of recorded country music. Their approach: take the lyrics, separate them from their original melodies, then Frankenstein the disembodied songs back together. Here, “Silicosis Blues” is sung to the tune of “Paul and Silas in Jail” and the Carter Family’s “East Virginia Blues,” traditionally a 4/4 song, becomes a waltz.

Understanding the major surgery these songs go through, listeners might expect to find spots where fissures gape wide, but Parker and Farrar use sparse instrumentation and keep a keen focus on the original spirit of the songs they’ve chosen. The selections endure contemporary treatment and come out closer, perhaps, to the authors’ original intent than the alt-countrified Woody Guthrie songs of Wilco’s Mermaid Avenue hits. (Caroline Keys)

Ultramagnetic MC’s
The Best Kept Secret
DMAFT Records

It’s tough to say, but the members of legendary hip-hop act Ultramagnetic MC’s ought to stick to their solo projects. Or, at the very least, they should stop dwelling on past success.

There’s no doubt the group—comprising Kool Keith, Ced Gee, TR Love, Moe Love and Tim Dog—helped pave the way for what hip-hop is today, but the best their latest can do is show how obsessed they are with re-creating their late-’80s and early-’90s glory. The majority of this effort amounts to lots of trash-talking (about other MCs, the state of current hip-hop, etc.) mixed with doses of bald machismo and tongue-in-cheek sexist imagery. While at times this equates to slightly funny lyrics—as long as you don’t take the misogyny seriously—the novelty wears off quickly.

The Best Kept Secret is a mediocre comeback album that does little to revive Ultramagnetic’s history as trailblazing rappers. Diehard fans owe it to the group to decide for themselves, but newbies should stick to classics like Critical Beatdown and The Four Horsemen. Perhaps the group should have as well. (Ira Sather-Olson)

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