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.
There’s been a hole in our hearts lately where dance-rock bands of yore used to reside. De Lux fill that hole admirably with immediate, expansive dance rockers that aren’t short on detail or hooks. “Better at Making Time” opens the album subtly, letting its disco bass groove enter four minutes in after giving Sean Guerin’s David Byrne-ish vocals a chance to sink in. “Movements” is a true groover, made up of a bunch of interlocking parts—a simple-yet-effective bassline and guitar lick in lockstep, washy synths and chiming bells—while Guerin’s vocals get wilder and wilder. The duo of multi-instrumentalists Guerin and Isaac Franco let each song breathe and unfold at its own speed, giving it a couple minutes in “I’ve Got to Make a Solid Statement (No More Likes & Ums)” before singing a word so we that Stevie Wonder-style clavinet and spacey effects can soak in. Of course, when they get to it, as on the superb “Love Is a Phase,” the result is a space-disco opus that leaves you head over heels for the band. Though Voyage is stuffed with cool references, they never feel forced or overdone. It feels as though the young band has digested decades of smart party jams and picked the choices parts to make their own thing—though you could compare them to LCD Soundsystem or The Rapture, for instance, on songs like “Make Space,” most of the time De Lux never sound imitative of those bands, as tunes like the interstellar “On the Day” stand completely on their own. It makes Voyage all the more pleasurable, and not at all in a guilty way. Smart disco-punk that makes us dance while satisfying our inner music-snobs? We’ll take it and more, please.