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Million to One, the new album by Mike & Ruthy (a.k.a. Mike Merenda and Ruthy Ungar), is a confident collection that brings the energy and warmth of their live shows into the recording studio, without losing any of the charm which makes the duo (and their band) so much fun.

Mike & Ruthy somehow manage to walk the fine line between celebration and contemplation without ever coming off as uncomfortable or forced. The music on Million to One is sometimes so delicate and intimate, as on the gently picked “As My Eyes Run Wild,” it’s as though you can feel the breath of a lover on your cheek. “Rise” would be perfect coming through the speakers of a car as it hugs the curves of a back road somewhere in the Catskills. On the other side of the spectrum is the staggering “Goodbye,” as heartbreaking a song as you’re likely to hear this year.

“Who’s Who” effectively evokes mid-period Dylan, with Merenda’s song-and-dance man vocal delivery and Ungar’s slashing fiddle. “Summer Sun,” which closes out this set, is almost a whisper from Ungar, as though sung alone on a darkened road to keep from wondering what might be buried in the shadows.

Million to One is largely acoustic, and probably also falls mostly under the folk umbrella. But with so many textures beneath so many layers, Mike & Ruthy have covered a lot of ground here, all of it organically. And all of it satisfies. —crispin kott


“Tinman”—the elegiac instrumental that opens Hell Broke Loose—is a red herring, one which might leave the uninitiated wholly unprepared for the electrifying power pop which immediately follows on “No Fizz Outta My Soda,” a number far less clumsy and far more propulsive than its own title might imply.

Even mentioning the terms “power pop” or “pop punk” requires a bit of clarification, because with all the cruddy emo stuff which stakes some hazy claim on either title, it’s important to differentiate between corporate assembly line claptrap and what a band like By Land or Sea—formerly Frankie and His Fingers—is doing. The latter, a trio where each musician clearly knows how to move the music forward in concert with its own energy as well as each other, might not sound out of place alongside the Cars or the Buzzcocks. But they’re no mere revisionists; rather they are a modern band with a modern sound, every bit as vital to 2010 as those other artists were then and now. Call it timeless, if you will.

Whether by egalitarian design or a reflection of three voices laboring over every clever twist and turn, By Land or Sea’s songwriting is credited to the band on Hell Broke Loose. That simple bit of information works well with the concept of a band as a gang taking on the world, and it’s one which By Land or Sea wears comfortably. Frank McGinnis plays the guitar and sings all the lead vocals, but there’s nothing to suggest Adam Stoutenburgh (bass) and Samantha Niss (drums) aren’t equal partners.

Much of the music on Hell Broke Loose is tense by design, cutting a jagged path through a Hudson Valley music scene which is often reflective and quaint. That’s not to suggest it’s all amps turned up to 11, as “The Whole Thing” is a forlorn lament on piano and vocals, with crickets chirping throughout.

Hell Broke Loose is one of those rare treats, which feels contemporary and classic all at once. —crispin kott

REBECCA MARTIN—WHEN I WAS LONG AGO(Sunnyside Communications)

Credit Rebecca Martin for recording an album of standards in a time when Rod Stewart’s own covers albums have all but rendered the concept as powerful as a fistful of wilted celery.

When I Was Long Ago sees Martin step back from her own comfort zone and into a world of cramped jazz bars, where the closeness of the music somehow warmly works its way through the smoke into every corner of the room. Martin’s voice is as rich and full as a jar of honey, carried along by the acoustic bass of Larry Grenadier and the varied saxophones of Bill McHenry. The 11 tracks feel like a labor of love, not only for the material but for the interplay between the musicians.

Among the tracks is a pair of songs by George and Ira Gershwin, whose music has recently been given a blast of California sunshine by former Beach Boy Brian Wilson. But while Wilson opted to explore the “Fun Fun Fun” in the Gershwin tunes, Martin honors their inherent melancholy, recognizes that even if there really is “Someone to Watch Over Me,” there’s no certainty that they’re within reach.

That’s not to suggest that there’s no joy to be found here, as “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” is offered as a map to find one’s way out of the darkness, and “Cheer Up Charlie” might even actually cheer up the saddest of sacks.

There’s always been something comforting in the clicks of an upright bass, or the tingles up the back of your neck the first breath through a saxophone can render. Add to that Martin’s voice, which could easily fit somewhere between the bombastic cheer of Ella Fitzgerald and the loneliness of Billie Holiday. When I Was Long Ago may represent a departure for Martin, but it’s a good one.

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