Test Spin: The Decemberists

By re-embracing musical simplicity on Always the Bridesmaids Vols. I-III, the Decemberists’ enviable defining traits once more come into sharp focus: the loose-limbed rhythm section, the chiming guitars, the hymnal efficiency of the rise-and-fall melodies and Colin Meloy’s surgically precise lyrics. Meloy’s penchant for sharply-drawn narratives also continues — one is “Valerie Plame,” with lyrics in the shape of a fictional love letter to the outed spy (there is also a Barton Hall-tested, arena-worthy, “Hey Jude”-style outro). “Record Year” and “Raincoat Song” mix desolate rainy imagery with pretty acoustic guitars; the former adds a string quartet and a gorgeous descending vocal melody.

Test Spin: R.E.M.

Accelerate’s 11 songs and 35-minutes indict pundits, Presidents, hurricanes and the apocalypse; frontman Michael Stipe is pissed; he claims victory with his first breath. “The future’s ours, and you don’t even rate a footnote,” he snarls on the surging opener “Living Well’s the Best Revenge.” And he never lets up.