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McIntosh's moody brood

Songwriter/cellist/guitarist Heather McIntosh is currently one of the busiest musicians in Athens. In the past few years, her haunting cello has graced over two dozen albums, many connected to the now-fragmented Elephant 6 clique of bands. Late last year, the prolific musician gathered a gaggle of her fellow townies to record a collection of her songs as a loose ensemble dubbed "The Instruments." The resulting album, Billions of Phonographs (Orange Twin), is an oblique look through a cracked and stained funhouse mirror.

McIntosh's often heart-tugging lyrics sail over dense seas of murky instrumentation. As many as a dozen musicians stack mournful melodies on top of the basic cello and vocal tracks. Participants include Orange Twin co-founder Laura Carter, and Elephant 6 statesman Will Hart, and appearances by members of Elf Power, Of Montreal and many other similar communal units.

In this respect, the Instruments resemble Japancakes, an Athens band that has often featured McIntosh's melancholy melodies and a myriad of members. Unlike that band, however, the Instruments have real — albeit non-formulaic — songs. The loose and often wandering arrangements used here allow for subtly controlled improvs from each participant, floating the dreamy theme of each song on an ominous cloud of doom.

Album highlight "When the Stars Shine" sounds as if the Instruments are hopelessly adrift in a rickety old ship. Sheets of stormy and wobbly unison vocals rain despair throughout the gloomy scenario. The Instruments' aching dirges, performed with often glacier-slow precision, are the perfect soundtrack for a chilly winter evening.