[DAMAGED CROON] It's hard to avoid the dreaded second-album slump, especially when many of the faults often associated with it—added band members, an expanded instrumental palette—are in play. And on Low Blows, Rex Marshall's sequel of sorts to 2008's bleak, beat-centric Heavy Duty, things have changed. Marshall, who used to perform accompanied only by a tape deck, now has a drummer and plays (gasp!) guitar. His arrangements have gained a sprightly, jaunty step to them, as if Mattress has "found its groove." But at the base of every song is what makes you love (or hate) the man: Marshall's deep, ominous, claustrophobic croon.
Low Blows finds Marshall trafficking in gritty, chunky beats, with an emphasis on his sound's low end and an increasing reliance on guitar stabs on tracks like "Light My Life." Mixed by Jay Winebrenner (31Knots) and Jesse Hall (Experimental Dental School), the record has a homespun, distant feel, but it's warmer than its predecessor—aided by live drums and keys on opener "They Like You" and the dancey "Gone to Waste." Low Blows contains a few certifiable bangers, notably "Roll Roll Roll," which opens with one of Marshall's best lines ("Rock, paper, scissors, gold/ Stuff the pockets in your soul") and includes his most impassioned vocal takes.
And it's that voice—which falls somewhere between the conversational speech of an undertaker and a preserved '50s lounge singer unfrozen during the apocalypse—that makes these songs tick. I guess an instrument this unique is immune to the sophomore slump. MICHAEL MANNHEIMER.
[SINGER-SONGWRITER] Catherine Feeny's reputation precedes her. As a contributor to the O.C. soundtrack and the Hotel Café compilation, the Portland import is a familiar name.
Thirty seconds into new release People in the Hole, as Feeny gently plucks, I have some lingering suspicion about all that. Then the opening track, "Jacaranda," gets a little weird. The distant climb of a slide guitar cuts in, a rattlesnake tambourine pans across the speakers. And Feeny's voice rises unexpectedly with an atmospheric piano chord.
"Jacaranda" turns out to be a gorgeous cut that tries to lend meaning to the vagabond lifestyle Feeny has lived as a songwriter—settling in locales around the globe in recent years. She tackles those concepts in macro on the titular track, an ode to empathy with a half-naive, half-jaded chorus of "If we wanted to learn, could we?"
People in the Hole's topical range is as far-flung as Feeny herself, from the sweetly vindictive "He's Like You, Only Better" to the sentimental "New York in the Spring." And her musical approach is as varied: "The Bell the Anchor" is a waltzing ragtime romp and "You'd Better Run" is believable Waitsian blues. Tying it all together, then, should be a tough task. But Feeny has two things going for her in that department: She's an unreal vocalist (and, having been dropped from EMI, she's on track for the new stardom) and a damn smart songwriter. It may be the former that grabs kids' attention, but it's the latter that makes Feeny truly stand out. CASEY JARMAN.
SEE IT: Mattress releases Low Blows on Friday, Oct. 2, at Berbati's Pan, with Atole, Junkface and DJ E*Rock. 9 pm. $6 advance, $8 day of show. All ages. Catherine Feeny plays Wednesday, Sept. 30, at LaurelThirst, with Woodlands. 9 pm. Free. 21+.