The former Walkmen frontman leaves us swooning on his solo debut. Backing away from the post-punk of his former band, Black Hours sees Leithauser focusing on digging his gravelly voice through chamber pop environs, singing heartily among stirring strings and vibes on “The Silent Orchestra.” Little the Walkmen did had the vibrant energy of a song like “Alexandra,” with Leithauser smiling his way through an irresistible jig. But Leithauser also throws a bone to those who miss the Walkmen’s nocturnal musings with songs like “11 O’Clock Friday Night,” a kind of New York at night drinking song with some clanging percussion amid the CBGBs guitars to keep it tied to the orchestrated feel of the rest of the album, and the lonely piano ballad “St. Mary’s County.” Throughout, Leithauser’s voice has never sounded better, growing further into a manly howl like a young Rod Stewart. He sounds as terrific crying into a pool of whiskey and reverb on the countrified “I Retired” as he does returning to his roots on the defiant “I Don’t Need Anyone.” While we’ll always miss the Walkmen, the thing we were gonna miss the most was that voice. Black Hours makes their departure sting less, as it’s opens a triumphant new avenue for Leithauser.
Sharon Van Etten's new release takes the sound she's been carefully crafting over four albums and injects it with a dose of drama, billowing out her songs until they threaten to overwhelm you with emotion. Ambition looks good on her—and the songs on Are We There even seem to address this change. Opener "Afraid of Nothing" gives her voice enough room to belt, shedding some of the modesty of her previous work. "Even I'm taking my chances" she sings knowingly over an electronic beat on "Taking Chances," that foray into electronica carrying over to songs like the delicate, Beach House-ish "Our Love." On showstopper "Your Love Is Killing Me," Van Etten gives it her all, imbuing the chorus with such emotion in her low vibratto, it's impossible not to get goosebumps. Yet even as she's clearly reaching for the brass ring on Are We There, Van Etten still sounds tastefully restrained when need be, never losing her cool. It's a win-win—new listeners will undoubtedly be taken with Van Etten's powerful voice and immaculately crafted songs, while longtime fans are bestowed her best album yet.
Beloved Warp Records duo Plaid return with their eighth album, a perfect apotheosis of the IDM sound they helped pioneer. Plaid excel at extrapolating emotional material out of whirling synthesizer landscapes, thanks to a reliance on simple melodies beneath the surface of tracks like the melodic “Hawkmoth” or synth-poppy “Matin Lunaire.” Songs like “Nafovanny” and “Wallet” seem to tell a story as the band layers extensively over singular lead synths, perhaps inspired by their recent soundtrack work (including the anime Tekkonkinkreet), whereas songs like “Slam” create mini-epics of house-inspired beat work. Though Plaid never rose to the level of fame of contemporaries like Squarepusher, their remarkably consistency should encase their legacy as IDM greats, as their work on Reachy Prints is nothing short of inspired.
It feels like summer’s already here, but there are still plenty of great releases lined up for the tail end of this spring. Here are 10 we’re looking forward to that you can preorder now.
Out May 19
Before they were Jimmy Fallon’s house band, The Roots were one of the most dynamic and socially conscious groups in hip-hop. “When the People Cheer” reminds us of how great they are as pure rappers, and it’s got a cool stop-motion video to boot.
Swans - To Be Kind (LP, Two-CD Set, Deluxe Two-CD/DVD Set, Download)
Swans records are more like happenings, unforgettable experiences you have to sit down and pay attention to. The two-hour To Be Kind, released 21 months after the similarly epic The Seer, is no exception. Sounds wriggle, writhe and heave on the hilariously titled “Screen Shot,” but Swans also seem to have more control than ever—these sounds are speaking to one another, albeit in some unspoken language, not creating a cacophony. The effect can be paralyzing. Listening to “Just a Little Boy (For Chester Burnett)” feels like staring into the darkest night, accompanied by a country sway and Michael Gira’s chants, which grow suddenly violent—“I’m just a little boy!” he cries repeatedly, while the guitars bellow and sigh with increasing pronunciation and sampled laughter ups the creep factor into Lynch territory. Gira growls “I need love” like it’s a threat. Meanwhile, “A Little God in my Hands” is Swans’ version of a pop song—thumping percussion (think Tom Waits) meets multiple voices singing over each other, while eerie backwoods instrumentation and sudden noise explosions burst out of nowhere but somehow still leave you bobbing your head along as Gira repeats evocative adjectives (“forever hateful, forever beautiful, forever needing, forever reaching”). It’s easy to attribute pagan imagery to Swans’ music and say it sounds like a sÃ©ance or something, but the 34-minute “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Overture” really does sound like the soundtrack to a sacrifice, or at least some wicked feast. Its slow, long build demands patience, but Gira’s always charismatic voice makes it worth the trip.