Cheap Girls
"Giant Orange"
Rise Records
3 stars

No, there are no girls in the Lansing, Mich., trio Cheap Girls, but its third album does contain bucketfuls of driving riffs and naggingly catchy choruses.

For "Giant Orange," the band traveled to Florida and enlisted Against Me! leader Tom Gabel as producer. Gabel has punched up the band's chief strength, those blazing guitars, and wrapped them around Ian Graham's distinctive high-pitched vocals.

Not many indie bands these days come at the listener with these kind of uncluttered, energetic blasts, with nary a synth or drum machine in earshot. One has to reach back a few years to the likes of Minnesota's Husker Du in its poppier moments to find a suitable comparison for powerful tracks such as "Manhattan on Mute" and "If You Can't Swim."

Graham acquits himself well on the album's few slower numbers, singing "Cored to Empty" with a matter-of-fact dejection that makes the song even more effective. But it's undiluted rockers such as the storming opener "Gone All Summer" that showcase Cheap Girls at its best, effortlessly integrating its electrifying playing style and indelible melodies into a fiery whole.

Todd Snider
"Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables"
Aimless Records
3 stars

Over the course of a career stretching back to 1994, Portland, Ore.-born troubadour Todd Snider has sharpened his observational skills considerably. "Good things happen to bad people," he notes in taking on unscrupulous investment bankers in "New York Banker," the strongest - and hardest-rocking - attack yet on the subject.

The all-acoustic "Precious Little Miracles" frets about "these kids today," pairing a happily innocuous melody with biting lyrics about drive-by shootings and the like.

Snider's character-based storytelling side comes to the fore in "Digger Dave's Crazy Woman Blues" and his mordant theological history, "In the Beginning."

Amanda Shires' superb violin playing and harmony vocals add much color to Snider's acoustic blues style. She enlivens his clever wordplay on "The Very Last Time," a seemingly simple song that masks complex emotions of bitterness and regret.

"Agnostic Hymns" is quintessentially Snider, meaning the listener gets clinkers such as "In Between Jobs" along with the good stuff. Throughout it all, the stories he tells - from the amusing to the sarcastic to the heartbroken - are well worth hearing.