El Oso

"The biggest surprises come from the smallest armies," sings El Oso front man Jim Hanke on "Country Radio," one of several insightful cuts on the band's complicated but catchy debut. The Milwaukee quintet channels diverse influences such as the Minutemen and (prime) Buffalo Tom into a heady, driving and demanding brew of new rock. Odd and affecting, tracks like "Mt. Iceburg" and "Tonight's Now Tomorrow" present a band adept at juggling divergent personalities and styles while keeping a keen eye on the final product. Refreshingly, it's all about the songs--and they're damn good.

Hanke gets special credit for distinguishing himself as a recognizable (and powerful) voice among the grand anonymity of today's vocalists. Neither aping Eddie Vedder nor Jack White, he and the rest of El Oso create music that is challenging and approachable, a rare combination at a time when most seem content to gravitate to one side or the other.