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.
tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus has always seemed outright phobic of sounding like anyone else, mangling her elastic voice, drums loops and kitchen-sink instrumentation into a cartoonish assembling of sounds that only slightly resembles other indie pop of its ilk. “On the one hand, there is what sounds good, on the other there is what’s true,” she sings on the relatively low-key “Look Around,” as if addressing any criticisms of her music head-on. However, Nikki Nack's strength comes from Garbus' ability to wrangle her wild ideas into instantly memorable pop songs that are still nonetheless really effing strange. Whether she’s inventing new hopscotch cheers with Busta Rhymes references on “Water Fountain,” skipping along cabaret-jazz vibes on “Real Thing” or creating alien freestyle jams like “Sink-O” and “Wait for a Minute,” Garbus remains definitely tuned to her own frequency. However, these songs are as rife with hooks as they are loaded with tangents and unstoppable energy. The songs that aren’t as concerned with rule-breaking on Nikki Nack are almost more striking in that they reveal the power of Garbus’ incredible voice and her ability to make even a seemingly straightforward song hauntingly unusual, as on songs like “Time of Dark,” which reveal themselves to be highlights upon repeated listens. tUnE-yArDs still isn’t for everyone—there’s a childlike reading called “Why Do We Dine on the Tots?” that’s a bit of groan-worthy performance art—but listeners who may have shied away from tUnE-yArDs bizzaro pop in the past will find lots to feast on here, as Nikki Nack is always more intriguing than off-putting in its otherness. Listening requires plenty of trust, but Garbus makes falling down the rabbit hole with her well worth it on Nikki Nack.