As the final installment of my unfortunately sporadic rock column I wanted to offer something special for to round out the ’05-’06 year. There have been a fair amount of artists that have warranted some of my musical and/or feeble hipster insight. However, every once in a while an album comes along that doesn’t aim to change the face of music but comes across as even more poignant in its modesty. The blandly named Cities, hailing from North Carolina, just released their self-titled debut of soaring dance-rock that is surprisingly gripping despite its seeming straightforwardness. The recording is extremely unobtrusive without any studio wizardry or auxiliary instruments chiming in and out. Still, Cities boasts some of the most expansive songs heard this year. Front man Josh Nowlan, a former music student from UNC, clearly has the musical facility and vocal strength to stretch beyond the four-piece rock formula, but manages to find an added strength with the group’s typical setup. The interplay between the guitars suggests more complex arrangements than what is actually being played – you would swear there was an orchestra playing beneath them. There has been a recent flood of bands shamelessly toting around disco beats and angular guitar riffs under the guise of indie rock over the past year. Like so many fads amongst hipsters a nice blanket of irony often welcomes the drunken embrace of clichs and gimmicks. Cities utilizes the infectiousness of the dance-rock craze but balances it with strong songwriting that surpasses so much other music pandering for the same fans. The dramatic melodies and thoughtful arrangements warrant a close listen beyond the initial head bounce/foot stomp. The songs move between the more soaring choruses of tracks like “Writing on the Wall” and “Lounge Act,” and the darker worming melodies of “Capitol” and “Lakes.” There is a recognizable intelligence to Cities’ music that demands to be taken seriously and deservedly so. The natural aversion that so many indie bands have toward genres and styles is not always a good thing. The attraction to the quirky and unconventional can easily drift into the “weird for weird’s sake” category, whereas Cities has embraced the warmth of working in a style as though it were a challenge in and of itself. The result is an album that is unmistakably fresh yet completely inviting. Perhaps it’s the music student in Nowlan that has revealed the charm of idioms and conventions when used creatively. Or maybe it’s simply a group of dance-punk addicts who are simply too intelligent for their own scene. Regardless of the reasons, Cities is bound to cause even more of a stir among unsuspecting crowds and judging ears.