Manchester Orchestra, Cage the Elephant, Sleeper Agent

Manchester Orchestra have always possessed the balls, beauty and ambition to create a great album. Their first two albums, 2006's I'm Like a Virgin Losing a Child and 2009's Mean Everything to Nothing, had the right elements and fine songs, but overall they struggled to balance the bombast, extravagance and pretense implicit in their approach. Perhaps their influences have always just been too broad; frontman Andy Hull's a talented songwriter whose dark, troubled tone recalls Nirvana while the cinematic scope and texture hint at the more muscular pre-Soft Bulletin Flaming Lips.

But, with this year's Simple Math, the 23-year old artist has reached for the gold ring, producing music whose elegance complements its heft while displaying real emotional poignancy. The band's third LP is an anthemic concept album about a rock star surveying the crumbling state of his mind and career. Fueled by regret and bitter self-realization, it ranges from the punchy ego-driven grunge of "Mighty" to the haunting slow-burn ballad "Pale Black Eye," reminiscent of Final Cut-era Pink Floyd, and the title track's dreamy baroque-psych ode to self-doubt, where Hull seeks "a perfectly constructed alibi/To hush the violent guilt that eats and never dies."

Simple Math's brash swagger and beguiling grace coalesce in the kind of big rock album nobody makes anymore.


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