FKA Twigs is the stage name of singer/songwriter Tahliah Barnett, who together with a team of some of the best producers working in pop music (Blood Orange’s Devonte Hynes, Clams Casino and Paul Epworth of Adele/Coldplay fame, among others) come up with one of the most brilliant debut records of 2014. What at first sounds like icy, alien R&B ends up feeling amorous, empathetic and intriguing to no end. Songs like “Lights On” at first sound not so out-of-time, fitting in nicely with the adventurous alt-soul stylings of The Weeknd or current Beyonce, but the songs are continuously chewed up and breathed back out into wondrous concoctions that bear little resemblance to anything else out there. Vocally, Barnett calls to mind someone working to effect change within the mainstream like Aaliyah once did as much as she does weirdos like Yma Sumac and Bjork (especially on the bold “Preface”), her airy voice warping into new dimensions yet latching onto reality on the touching “Two Weeks” and suddenly coming through clear as day as she pleads with sexual abandon through classic soul phrasings for a would-be lover amid analog-sounding robotic textures. As much as FKA Twigs is a product of a time in which introspective artists who allow for empty space to permeate their music are the norm, from The XX to How to Dress Well and James Blake, Barnett’s music feels more fun to listen to and not at all dreary, even if mostly downtempo. “How would you like it if my lips touched yours?” she suddenly entreats in the laser-streaked “Hours” and it’s hard not to think of some fantastical Janet Jackson comeback. “Video Girl” is more direct, asking “is she the girl from the video?” (Barnett has a background as a backup dancer in music videos) as Barnett goes on to prove she’s a lot more than that through stunning lead and layered vocals while the song’s lush, post trip-hop music sways and lurches sensuously. But “Pendulum” will no doubt be her entrÃ©e to most audiences, as the Epworth production literally knocks on your door with its stuttering beat and introduces a girl capable of delivering a Prince-level combination of heartache and confidence while keeping sly pop hooks on the backburner right until they’re ready to sizzle. It makes you happy to be listening to pop music in this day and age when something so exciting as this will bubble to the top.
Producer David Fridmann (The Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev) ends up being the perfect collaborator for Austin’s Spoon on their excellent eighth album. His unmistakable stamp helps the drums explode on rock stomper “Rent I Pay”; he augments the band’s lean indie funk-rock sound with harps and synths on the lovely “Inside Out”; and “Do You’s” loopy spaceiness helps make it the best Britpop song that never was, like late-era Blur on a country kick. Of course, none of the album’s majesty would be possible without the band itself, who co-produce (along with early producer Joe Chiccarelli) and write some of their catchiest tunes to date, and that’s saying something, given that this is the band responsible for earworms like “The Way We Get By.” The band stretches itself to the limits here without straying too far from its core appeal, as songs like the slinky, dark “Outlier” sound unlike anything in the band’s catalog but (pardon the pun) don’t stick out in a bad way. The melodies and arrangements are ace throughout, and frontman Britt Daniel becomes more versatile, engaging in a kind of beatnik singspeak on “Let Me Be Mine” while still unleashing those great, sandpapered pipes to their fullest potential on the chorus of “Do You.” It adds up to one of the best-ever releases from one of the solidest bands in indie rock, a total triumph and utterly welcome return. Spoon will be playing live at Amoeba Hollywood Wednesday Aug. 6 at 6 p.m.!
Shabazz Palaces 2011 release Black Up is undoubtedly one of the best, most exciting hip-hop releases of the new millennium. So we waited with bated breath for this second release from Ishmael Butler (one of '90s alt hip-hop greats Digable Planets) and Tendai Maraire, and Lese Majesty does not disappoint. The album is a sweltering blur of chilled-out beats, sparkling synthesizer tapestries and spacey rhymes that echo through your head. The 18-track album has a prog-like massivity to it, making it fun to get lost in—you can listen to Lese Majesty three times in a row on repeat and never get sick of it, nor will you fail to discover something new. But if you need a good entry point into their weird, wonderful world, I'd recommend the bizarrely catchy beats that hook you in "They Come in Gold" or the funny and fast-paced "#CAKE," with its layers of vocals and strange diversions. Now all I'm gonna do with the rest of my day is eat cake and listen to Shabazz Palaces. I wish! Back to work ... but honestly, this is one of the best things anyone's put out this year. Shabazz Palaces play Amoeba SF tonight at 6 p.m.!
Somewhere between the sunny melancholia of Best Coast, earnest alt-rock of The Cranberries and the college rock of bands like Talulah Gosh lie Toronto's Alvvays. Their debut record is a delight of heartfelt naivete spun out in catchy indie-pop nuggets. Molly Rankin's lovably untrained voice pleads irresistibly on the charming "Archie, Marry Me" amid a four-chord, minor-key jangle. "Don't leave ... we can find comfort in debauchery" Rankin sings with the requisite mix of winking irony and legitimate feeling; taken with the songs lovely synth strings and gently rambling nature, it comes off like future nostalgia for a time that's currently being experienced. Youth may be wasted on the young, but Alvvays make young sadness sound pure and sweet on their debut.
World Peace Is None of Your Business might be Moz’s angriest album yet. Full of bitter political cynicism and social commentary, the album has the feel of a knowing screed by someone who’s seen it all and whose attitude mostly feels justified. Whether he’s detailing the death of a beat poet (“Neal Cassady Drop Dead’s” “everyone has babies, babies full of rabies” line is priceless) or bemoaning the futility of human connection (“you fail as a woman and you lose as a man” he sings in “Earth Is the Loneliest Planet”), Morrissey’s in classic sardonic mode, while musically the band lays on touches of flamenco guitar, a digitized beat here and a harp there, to form a more lush version of the hard-hitting rock sound he’s employed for the latter half of his career. I can't say that I love the title tracks, in which Morrisey's frustration is understood, but its “each time you vote you support the process” seems insensitive to the places and people that have fought long and hard for this right. Still, it’s hard to resist when he’s in his finest form, on tracks like the extended “I’m Not a Man,” in which Morrissey places his militant vegetarianism and pacificism front-and-center as a new form of manhood, reminiscent of his classic line “it takes strength to be gentle and kind,” (from The Smiths’ “I Know It’s Over”) amid glittering synthesizers and glam stomp. For anyone who’s unfairly labeled Morrissey a miserablist in the past, World Peace shows Moz as an elder statesman with his fists clenched and plenty of piss ‘n’ vinegar left in his system. Also, don't forget—Morrissey just had one of his best albums, Vauxhall & I, re-released last month, get that shit.