Taiga is a pop album, but its creator has made that way intentionally while retaining, and perhaps improving upon, her artistry. Rather than cashing in, the album finds Zola Jesus (aka Nika Rosa Danilova) returning to her roots of sorts, as she largely wrote Taiga on Washington’s Vashon Island, as though returning to the rustic forests where she was raised in Wisconsin, singing “do you wish you could go back to it all?” on the creaking opening title track, which erupts into a jungle beat. From here, we head into powerful pop songs like “Dangerous Days” that find Danilova singing clearly and boldly over dance-pop beats, but with the same paralyzing strength her voice has always commanded. “Go (Blank Sea)” is a little sultrier, built on a slower beat that swells into big, booming pop chorus and disintegrates into fluttering synthesizers, while Nika Roza Danilova’s voice rises and falls with soul and precision. “Hunger’s” hyperkinetic beat and incisive synth riff make for some of the album’s most grabbing moments. And though “Lawless’,” beautiful melodies sound buried under the ice, they’re still firmly pop. Perhaps because of the way in which it was written, the album has a certain isolation to it that comes through on tracks like “Ego,” in which Danilova undergoes thorough self-examination (she pairs similarly painful reflections “I fought against the ego, I know it brought me closer to losin’” and “I fed into the ego, I knew it brought me closer to hubris”), while synthesizers and strings quietly battle around her, sounds creaking cavernously in the background. On Taiga, Danilova sounds as though she’s faced her inner demons and come through on top with an album of powerfully moving pop music.
Electric Youth broke out in a big way with “A Real Hero,” a song that came to define the sound of the film Drive and its corresponding soundtrack. The duo double down on that impossibly romantic synth sound on Innerworld, their long-awaited debut album. That slow-burning pulse is back in songs like “Innocence,” perfectly capturing the romantic ideal of first love with synthesizers that at first sparkle like eyes being rubbed awake and then dazzle with gentle orchestration. Subtly enough referencing the soundtrackers of ’80s proms like Yaz and Alphaville, Bronwynn Griffin’s breathy voice sometimes floats by as a dream and other times catches onto a lighter-waving sentiment, like “we are the youth, we like to sing” (on “WeAreTheYouth”). Though Electric Youth may lack a bit for originality, Innerworld pretty skillfully avoids sameyness by appealing to current Europop-indebted dance music on tracks like “Runaway,” though they’re at their comfortable best on songs like “Without You,” building from their favored digital throb into a lovable freestyle couple. Griffin and her partner, Austin Garrick, have been a couple since the 8th grade, and thus their ability to make every synth stab feel like a dizzying first crush rings authentic. It doesn’t matter if you’ve heard some of the sounds here before, or that they even include the three-year-old “Real Hero”; Innerworld’s swoony romanticism makes you feel like it’s the first time.
In a rare double-blessing, the last two years have given us not only a new album by My Bloody Valentine but another artist iconic of the ’90s, Aphex Twin. Syro plays as a collection of just about everything Richard Davis James does best, fusing jungle beats to gorgeous ambient tapestries on stunning opener “Minipops 67 [120.2][Source Field Mix],” taking us through dense synth explorations on tracks like the 10-minute “Xmas_Evet10 [Thanaton3 Mix]” and vibing off hip-hop and synth funk on “Produk 29 .” Vocals appear now and then (from James and his family), offering skewed, incomprehensible chatter that adds to the liveliness of “Produk 29 ” and giving “Minipops 67 [120.2][Source Field Mix]” its grabbing human element, pulling you into the rest of the album. Though he used some 138 pieces of equipment and shifted his set up every few minutes while recording Syro, that seems to have had an energizing effect on James, and the result is a sharp, if varied piece of work that hangs together beautifully, flowing from scenic but heady pieces like “4 Bit 9d Api+E+6 [126.26]” to hard-hitting bass tracks such as “180db_ .” There aren’t many shocking moments on Syro like, say, “Come to Daddy’s” shrieking wail, nor does it push listeners to their extreme limit like the challenging Drukqs did, but accessibility doesn’t mar Syro. Rather, even despite their straight-off-the-hard-drive titles, tracks like “Papat4 [Pineal Mix]” are really breathtaking pieces of music, designed for immersion rather than to filter listeners out. Just like mbv, we had no right to expect Syro would be this good, much less that it would be released at all, which makes it all the better. Simply put, it’s one of the most instantly enjoyable collections of music James has ever released.
Onetime Sufjan Stevens collaborator and now a formidable art-pop songstress in her own right, My Brightest Diamond (aka Shara Worden) pushes her songs further into accessibility with This Is My Hand. The sound of the record finds Worden singing over playful orchestrations, wielding her operatically trained voice slowly like a great and powerful weapon. “Pressure” begins with a drumline cadence and marching band horns, drawing soul out of her sometimes austere vocals and layering them over the song’s sexy strut “Before the Words’” huge, propulsive drum beat and jazzy bassline pair nicely with her hauntingly cooed vocals. Though she mines gold at playing the witchy vamp, it’s great, too, when she climbs out of her shell. “I am a lover and a killer” she sings with growing ferocity over a muscular groove on “Lover Killer,” finding inspiration in Prince and kinship in St. Vincent. “This is what love feels like!” she sings before unleashing a desperate wolf cry in “I Am Not the Bad Guy,” with a throbbing menace reminiscent of Radiohead, or a more friskier version of Third-era Portishead. Tracks with more open space, like “Looking at the Sun,” offer a chance for her divaesque vocals to come through beautifully, even as her words are foreboding (“wrestling with a double mine like two horses pulling both sides,” she sings creepily over Disney-level orchestration). “You never know minute to minute where I’m going” she sings tantalizingly on “Shape.” True. But that’s what makes listening to This Is My Hand so thrilling.
Long Beach’s Avi Buffalo comes back after four years with a great new album, At Best Cuckold. Opening track “So What” reveals gleaming guitars and casually brattiness that shows Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg and his band cleaning up some of the psych clutter from their still excellent debut in favor of a streamlined sound, but they’re still weirdos at heart. Serpentine lullaby “Memories of You” softly jangles with country-rock guitars, proggy touches and funny lyrics like “bitch I’m on fire…I’m a cheeseball on fire.” It speaks to the band’s ability to reference classic bands while putting out their own vibe. It’s hard to pull off a “Here Comes a Regular”-style vulnerable acoustic-guitar song like “Two Cherished Understand,” and Avi Buffalo does it by keeping it short, sweet and ultimately unique. Part of that uniqueness comes from Zahner-Isenberg’s way with a non sequitur—“I ran over two dogs, then I ate them after,” he admits amid a fizzy Western backdrop on “Think It’s Gonna Happen Again.” And he gives the best breakup line of the year on “Oxygen Tank,” singing, “A man carrying an oxygen tank is gonna come kill me and my family too if I don’t stop seeing you.” The Flaming Lips comparison still haunts them a bit, yet these songs still have personality for days, so who cares, ultimately. “These birds seem so fucking free/they're nothing compared to me” Zahner-Isenberg sings faux-sweetly on “Overwhelmed With Pride,” and it’s tough not to believe him. Avi Buffalo will be at Amoeba SF Sept. 12 at 6 p.m. and Amoeba Hollywood Sept. 17 at 6 p.m.