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.
Swans - To Be Kind (LP, Two-CD Set, Deluxe Two-CD/DVD Set, Download)
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.
Sometimes you need a change. Baltimore duo Wye Oak have been at it for a few years, producing great albums like 2011’s Civilian, but touring for that album left the band exhausted, and they were living in different cities. With new synthesizers in the place of guitars and drums, Wye Oak’s sound is reimagined on the stunning Shriek. Jenn Wasner sounds revelatory on opener “Before,” singing over dreamy synth washes and retro computer loops. Every instrument seems to occupy its own perfect space on the title track, creating a lovely little syncopated groove, while Wasner sings beautifully with high-flying abandon. That gorgeous opening makes way for Wye Oak to experiment a bit. “Tower” sees the band employing an R&B-inspired, stuttering groove, drawing influence from the spacey krautrock of Can as well as Timbaland and Missy Elliott’s work with Aaliyah. The changes sound so thrilling because Wye Oak clearly thrive in their new territory, moving freely through the sexy, Fleetwood Mac-inspired “Glory,” in which they sound like wise, older siblings to recent pop group Haim. And in the album’s loungier second half, the band produces robotic, poolside glamour (“Despicable Animal”); intricate, jungly noise (“Paradise”) and lush, adult pop (“Logic of Color”). Playing new wave sophisticates suits Wye Oak quite well, giving them new life with brilliant results.
Fear Of Men - Loom (LP or CD)
Fear of Men pull some of the best bits of shoegaze and alternative together to create a slick (but not too slick) and immensely enjoyable debut record. Singer Jessica Weiss has a smooth, exacting voice that calls to mind ethereal singers of yesteryear, from Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser to The Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan. The band plays muscular indie-rock that can move in graceful lockstep (“Tephra”) or set a pretty, yet never sappy backdrop over which Weiss can breathily intone, as on the lovely “Seer.” On the album’s most thrilling moments, Weiss will stretch her voice into territory that goes beyond the expected, singing into a lo-fi mic on the gorgeous “Descent” or looping into dizzying layers on standout “Waterfall.” There’s still a bit of room for Fear of Men to come into its own, but it’s difficult to argue with their sound when Loom sounds so immaculate. It’s definitely one of the most promising debuts of the year, and sets up Fear of Men as a band to watch this year and long after.
Thee Oh Sees’ perhaps final LP encapsulates what the band has done so well for the past decade while still forging new territory. The album balances songs that thump around in dark corners with those that bang out brilliantly. “Penetrating Eye” explores spacey moog sounds even as it unleashes an unholy howl of Sabbath guitars. “Put Some Reverb on My Brother” has a terrifically snarling little riff and sneering performance by John Dwyer, with saxophones that add extra pop. The title track has great, big Who-style guitarwork, making it one of the band’s most all-embracing rock tracks yet. “The King’s Noise” tries on some regal riffs and strings for a bit of proggy psychedelia. But for all of Drop’s catchiness, it’s the band’s ability to warp garage-rock guitars into something truly strange and unnerving that gets us every time, as on the spacey, scary “Transparent World.” If this is truly the end of Thee Oh Sees, they’ve gone out with a bang on one of their strongest albums yet.