NPR is streaming brand new albums this week from Jeremy Messersmith (who performs February 21 and 22 in the Mainroom) and Robert Ellis (who opens for Jason Isbell February 8 in the Mainroom). Click through the links below to check out each band's latest before their upcoming shows at First Avenue:
NPR First Listen: Jeremy Messersmith - Heart Murmurs
Minneapolis singer-songwriter Jeremy Messersmith sings sweet, timeless songs about love, desire, death and grief — not, it would seem, the stuff of grandiose artistic ambition. And yet Messersmith stands out by trying harder, doing more and always reaching farther than it seems. This is a guy who, whenever possible, tours with an eight-piece band that includes a string section, and who once released a tremendous album (2010's The Reluctant Graveyard) in which the songs were written from the perspective of the dead. His work brings to mind some of the kindest voices in modern pop — David Mead, Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard, Fountains of Wayne's Chris Collingwood — but it also finds room for surprising twists and strange turns.
As its title suggests, Heart Murmurs mostly traverses the terrain of love, but Messersmith scrutinizes it from as many angles as possible: The album traffics in thwarted desire ("It's Only Dancing"), stubborn devotion ("Tourniquet") and bad-boy self-flagellation ("Bridges") before 15 minutes have passed. Along the way, Messersmith tries on any number of perspectives — never more effectively than in the deceptively titled "I Want to Be Your One Night Stand." In a ballad worthy of Fountains of Wayne, another act with a gift for giving voice to stubborn strivers just trying to get by, Messersmith crafts a perfect two-minute ode to modest expectations. But for the singer himself, that's where the modest expectations end: With its subtle strings and sly infectiousness, Heart Murmurs is no less than an attempt to craft a new batch of pop standards. Whether Messersmith succeeds depends mostly on how many people are lucky enough to hear him.
NPR First Listen: Robert Ellis - The Lights From The Chemical Plant
The quality of mystery is undervalued in music these days. It's often mimicked via indecipherable lyrics, mumbled vocals or spooky sound effects, but that's not the real stuff. Rarely does anyone touch upon that delicate, open-ended state of unknowing that can descend on any given day, whether you're locked in a lover's embrace or just sitting in front of the television. Robert Ellis is pursuing that kind of mystery. Since moving from Houston to Nashville in 2012, the 25-year-old has further cultivated an approach that was always a little more elegant than that of the average guitar strummer. On his third album — and best so far — Ellis incorporates what he's learned from elders across genres. His own contribution is an imaginative grace that lends his stories of difficult romance, hard living and occasional redemption the depth of ambiguous possibility.
There are no trucks or Solo cups on The Lights From the Chemical Plant. There's also very little banjo. Ellis eludes categorization within either mainstream country or Americana music by going the route of both formats' greatest maverick craftsmen; you'll hear Merle Haggard here along with Willie Nelson, and a bit of Rodney Crowell's sparkle. Producer Jacquire King, who worked with Tom Waits before becoming one of Nashville's most sought-after category-busters, sets Ellis' tenor (he also plays multiple instruments) within clean, colorful arrangements. Members of Deer Tick and Dawes join Ellis and his touring band, and Jim Lauderdale gives his blessing by way of a guest backing vocal. Together, these mostly young talents have made a set that pays respect to the past but becomes contemporary through Ellis' dedication to those elusive feelings, painful or exquisite or both, that tickle us with the reminder that we are alive.