Dear John Letters

Stories of Our Lives

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Too jittery for emo and too quirky for pop, Seattle's Dear John Letters combine a variety of genres into their difficult-to-classify sound. Although the band works well together and producer/guitarist/engineer Johnny Sangster (Mudhoney, the Posies) certainly had substantial input, this is pretty much Robb Benson's baby. It's his keening voice, often stream-of-consciousness lyrics, and overall vision that make -- or break -- the group's third release. Tightening up their attack and re-recording a handful of songs from their sophomore effort, Unbroken ("Disappointed," "My Volcano," "Sorry to Sorry," "We Could Be Angels"), this is certainly their most focused and cohesive album. Taking lyrics from a variety of sources, including old girlfriends' poetry (hence the band's name), Benson spits and talk-sings songs in a cracked, wobbly, trembling voice, somewhere between the Kinks' Ray Davies, Ian Hunter, and Squeeze's Glenn Tilbrook. Benson's much-noted McCartney-isms have taken a back seat to his minor-key side, which drives vaguely pop tunes like the dark "I Still Scar," an emotionally overwrought song as intense as its title where Benson plays all the instruments, including drums and piano. Thankfully, the open-wound agony of that tune is offset by the generally upbeat music of "The Drowning," whose peppy beat and hooky chorus mask downbeat lyrics such as, "Don't fight the drowning/The struggle makes it worse." "My head is my worst enemy," writes Benson in "Disappointed," and there's plenty of proof of that here. But for those who can feel his pain, Stories of Our Lives is a minor masterpiece. At 14 tracks and just under 50 minutes, Benson proves he's one of his generation's most talented, if depressed, pop voices.

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