(Eyeball Records)

recommendedrecommendedrecommended 1/2

Two minutes into Pomegranate, and a baby's already dead. Seattle rapper Astronautalis opens his third album with a gravelly, singsong murder yarn—like Edward Gorey tackling The Great Gatsby—while a live band contorts the burlesque, string-and-piano dirges of Nick Cave into a guitar-driven hiphop track. It's a bewildering collision, this catchy hiphop that converts a symphony of instruments into shameless, poppy hooks, and these strange stories rumbling under the dust of a history-obsessed bookstore.

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But Astro's killin' it here. The former battle-rapper and Jacksonville, Florida, native has spent the past few years refining his musical perspective, and here he reaches a new rap-rock pinnacle, more aggressive and poppy than Why? yet darker and deeper than the Beastie Boys. Astronautalis's voice is the secret—deep and drawl-tinged, capably switching from Aesop Rock–ian speed-flow to prolonged singing passages often and seamlessly. There's nothing nasal or timid about this white boy, and even while shout-singing about drowning divers on "Secrets of the Undersea Bell," he still has a rapper's emphasis on flow: "The sea swelled like the ribcage of lions breathing/They pulled till you swore that the rope was bleeding/Ichor poured from the palms of gods and heathens."

Storytelling about the Opium Wars and courtroom sagas allows Astro to both flex his lyrical muscles and let loose on anthemic shouters—quite a few here, none better than "Trouble Hunters," a rumination on Southern pride that recalls "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" as a wild fist-pumper. But Astro can't help pointing the light back at himself and shining on the beautiful hidden track, which closes the album, fittingly, with rebirth: "She gave birth to my only son, a smokin' gun, blue-eyed, block chip/On the first warm day to end the ice age, frostbit." recommended