The singer for hip smooth jazz purveyors Rhye, Milosh, has an otherworldly, feminine voice that has helped make that band a favorite of many a music fan. On his solo album Jet Lag, Milosh employs many of the same dynamics Rhye does on their debut, Woman, only with a somehow even more intimate sound, using laptoppy sounds and his own swirling, looped voice to create small, sexy atmospheres. The effect is to pair down Rhye’s already intimate sound even further, akin to how Thom Yorke used The Eraser to approach a more electronic, solitary sound than with Radiohead. Jet Lag’s electronic textures are appealing, yet it’s always Milosh’s voice that keeps us hooked, and he uses it to great effect on “Slow Down,” one of his strongest compositions yet, using little more than his voice and piano to sell a pretty broad sentiment—“can we all just slow down?” he sings in his breathiest tone. With that voice, you’ll do just about anything he says.
In Gang Gang Dance, Brian DeGraw helps make screwed up electronic music that is still somehow danceable and hooky. In his bEEdEEgEE project, he expands on the dancier side of things, weaving expansive electronic tapestries rooted in house and new wave, with the help of a couple of awesome guest singers (CSS’s Lovefoxxx, Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor, among others). Douglas Armour’s yearning voice makes “Empty Vases” into ace emotional electro-pop. His GGD bandmate Lizzi Bougatsos lends some of her ethereal coo to the jittery “Overlook,” which feels as close to their band as anything on this album. And Taylor makes “(F.U.T.D.) Time of Waste” a great, hedonistic party jam about having lots to do yet getting nothing done—“all I wanna do is fuck up the day” has to be one of the great all-time slacker lines, while Lovefoxx’s turn over the big, dreamy beats of “Flowers” has got to be the highlight of the entire album. Yet even with these high-profile guest spots, DeGraw is still just as dazzling on his own, spinning various distorted percussive elements into a dizzying stew on “Bricks” and creating a distinctive early house homage with “Like Rain Man.” It’s late in the year, but bEEdEEgEE is making a bid for year-end-list relevance with the stunning Sum/One.
Shearwater’s latest is a set of covers and one original that pay tribute to bands they’ve toured with. It may seem like a strange way to round up a set of covers, but it mostly works, and serves as a nice follow-up to last year’s Animal Joy before the band regroups to record new material. It’s a kick to hear them take on Xiu Xiu’s “I Luv the Valley OH!!” and hear Jonathan Meiburg intone “my behind is a beehive.” They make Coldplay more tasteful on their rendition of “Hurts Like Heaven.” And while some covers remain faithful, like their version of Folk Implosion’s mid-’90s rock radio hit “Natural One,” they take a different melodic tack to St. Vincent’s “Cheerleader,” making the song their own, and give a more humanistic sense to Clinic’s “Tomorrow” while retaining that band’s rhythmic thump. Fellow Travelers pulls a neat trick for Shearwater, a band who is distinctive in its own right but whose moody indie-rock sound is difficult to pinpoint, by showing how that sound applies to the music of others. And it ends up a nice showcase for the bands they cover, highlighting some of the lesser-known bands they’ve toured with, on lovely renditions of David Thomas Broughton’s “Ambiguity,” for instance, while shedding new light on bigger bands like Coldplay. It’s a winner, all-around.
Wooden Shjips have always been one of the coolest psych-rock bands on the block, one that gives a good name to the concept of jam bands. But their latest, the aptly named Back to Land, reins in some of the jams in favor of more concrete songs. It’s a bold move, as the band has relocated to Portland from SF and seems to have re-energized the band, but it’s a move that likely won’t upset their fans. Songs like the great title track still are allowed to drift past the five-minute mark, utilizing simple, repeated chord structures built on fuzz guitar and organ drone, encircling the proceedings with tasteful improvisation, while frontman Ripley Johnsaon’s Alan Vega-esque drawl fades in and out, directing things like a super chill camp counselor. While the songs lengths may be shorter, there’s no shortage of variety on Back to Land, making room for fuzzy Velvets-style ballads like “These Shadows” and the kind of driving, power-chord romp they do so well on songs like “Other Stars.” Wooden Shjips may pick up a few more seafairers with the friendlier Back to Land, but there’s plenty to like for longtime fans as well. Dock up and listen.
Worldwide stardom hasn't softened M.I.A. one iota; if anything, it's made her resolve to be the planet's most provocative pop star that much stronger. Following the all-over-the-map Maya, by comparison Matangi is laser-focused, utilizing harsh industrial noise much in the same way Kanye West's Yeezus did, though she fuses it with a worldbeat touch and heavy EDM nods. Most of all, Matangi succeeds because it sounds like an M.I.A. album, even if it's been digitally chopped up and reassembled more so than previous releases. Her opening tracks come on hard, dropping names of wartorn nations in the title track amid a digital grenade of atonal sounds, while "Warriors" drills with a minimalist hip-hop beat. "Come Walk With Me" starts like a love song, quiet with a reggae sway, before jumping off the rails with a hyperactive dancehall-house beat. Though these tracks touch on her typical subject matter of empowering the global masses, she's also having a great time, rapping like a cocky hip-hop star and subverting the formula. And the second half of Matangi is loaded with ass-shakers. "atention's" twisted beat makes it one of her sickest dance songs since "World Town." The previously released "Bad Girls" makes an appearance in all its bhangra-beat glory, and "Bring the Noize" is the album's instant classic, unleashing a brutal beat that makes most EDM sound like kid's music as M.I.A. pulls off sounding disaffected while spouting rhymes at an impressive tick. Matangi is a welcome comeback after a troubling period for M.I.A., proving her once again to be one of the most forward-thinking pop music entities around.