Sincerely, Severely

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Gainesville, FL, art rock band Morningbell used to be the trio of singer/songwriter/guitarist Travis Atria, his bass-playing brother Eric Atria, and Eric's wife, Stacie Thrushman Atria, on keyboards. As of the group's fourth album, Sincerely, Severely, however, they have become a quartet with the addition of a drummer named Chris Hillman (not, of course, the Chris Hillman of Byrds/Flying Burrito Brothers/Desert Rose Band fame). What a difference those drums make. Morningbell's previous disc, Through the Belly of the Sea, was billed as a "Choose Your Own Adventure" album on which the listener was expected to interact with the watery story line by re-sequencing the CD to rearrange the plot. If Sincerely, Severely had any instructions, they might be reduced to one: "Let's dance!" The leadoff song, "Let's Not Lose Our Heads," begins with Hillman's drums before the rest of the band kicks in, and kick in they do. Not only does the drummer anchor and organize the sound (Eric Atria locks in with him, making for a tight rhythm section), but this sounds like a group that has put some gigs under its belt since last time and learned that playing music is about getting an audience excited and moving. That's not to say that Travis Atria has abandoned his art rock eclecticism, by any means. On "Marching Off to War," he sounds like he's been listening to Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie, while "Hello, Dali" takes the band to Memphis for some funky playing. The slinky "Stay in the Garden" is reminiscent of Swordfishtrombones-style Tom Waits, that is, with a breathy high-tenor vocal instead of Waits' gravel-filled basso. Atria continues to make like a blue-eyed soul man on the title song, recalling Simply Red's Mick Hucknall. But whatever his explorations, the music never strays far from the beat, a point that is emphasized in the final track, "It Was All Mondays," in which Atria mopes through a tale of broken romance to his acoustic guitar strumming, only to be interrupted by a fast, rhythmic section that won't allow him to wallow in self-pity for long. Sincerely, Severely is both a big step forward for Morningbell and a calling card for what sounds like a hot live act.

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