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Good Brother Earl is back with new album Fiction 

It's been more than two years since the band's previous release -- and a decade since it started out -- but a new Good Brother Earl album is worth the wait. Listening to the brand-new Fiction, I'm struck, as usual, by how well the band stacks up against other roots-infused Triple-A bands. The album kicks off with "When I Come Around," whose dark twangy hook recalls classic Tom Petty and Wilco, supporting singer Jeff Shmutz's top-shelf, radio-ready vocals.

Although Fiction took awhile to complete -- partly because several members recently had children -- Good Brother Earl's hardly been idle. For the past five years, the band -- -- Shmutz, guitarist Paul Fitzsimmons, keyboardist Skip Sanders, drummer Dave Throckmorton and bassist Dan Paolucci -- has held down a weekly residency at Rock Bottom at the Waterfront, playing its own material alongside carefully chosen cover songs. Shmutz has also performed occasionally under his own name, but says he'd "much rather hide in the safety of a band."

Recorded by Sanders at his home studio, Fiction is truly a band album, even though Shmutz brings largely finished songs to the table. He describes the recording as a group effort -- "production by committee" -- with members transforming the basic materials into more dynamic music. "That's the cool thing about having ringers in the band," he chuckles. On more rock 'n' roll tracks, Shmutz's vocals can sound like a grungier Rhett Miller, while on bittersweet ballads like "End of the World" and "Pieces of Me," he soars into Chris Martin territory.

Overall, Good Brother Earl sounds more exploratory now than on 2006's straight-ahead Perfect Tragedy; "it feels more relaxed," Shmutz agrees. The record also includes some firsts: "Hotel #9," for example, is the group's first song to feature horns. "This one, we really got in there and thought about strings, arrangements and keys," Shmutz says.

While the group has found enviable local success over the years, apart from some television and film placements, it hasn't really broken outside the city yet -- perhaps partly because it hasn't toured much of late. Schmutz says the band will be sending copies of Fiction to A&R and other contacts it's made in the music industry.

Good Brother Earl's release show is at 7 p.m. Sat., Dec. 12, at Diesel, on the South Side, with guests Stateless; the $10 tickets include a free copy of Fiction. Early birds can also catch the band performing on the KDKA morning show Thu., Dec. 10, and on the WDVE Coffeehouse broadcast on Fri., Dec. 11. For more info, visit www.goodbrotherearl.com.

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