This Month's Picks

Chaos And The Calm (CD)

James Bay
Earnest, big-hearted singer/songwriter material comes to us from James Bay, the U.K.’s latest hot export, who sounds much wiser and better than his 25 years should allow. More
Genre: Rock

Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance (CD)

Belle & Sebastian
In the latter half of their career, Belle & Sebastian have consistently tried to balance the desire to appeal to a wider audience with more outward-facing pop songs alongside the bookish indie pop that netted them a cult of worshipping devotees in the first place. They’ve never done it quite as successfully as they have here on Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance . Opener “Nobody’s Empire,” with its marching beat, glowing synths and gospel choir backup vocals comes off like a statement of purpose: This will be a richly produced pop album (courtesy of Ben H. Allen III, who’s worked both with the indie-pop elite and hip-hop artists), so gear up. The band comes up with one of its most radio-ready singles to date on “The Party Line,” a disco-rock track with typically clever lyrics and a booming synth riff that won’t quit. The best Stevie Jackson-led song in years comes on the bittersweet beatnik funk of “Perfect Couples.” “Play for Today” is synthy and light, with ace guest vocals from Dum Dum Girls’ Dee Dee Penny. And it’s safe to say Belle & Sebastian have the only ABBA-esque synth-pop track that name-checks Sylvia Plath. But Belle & Sebastian want to do more than make us dance. Several tracks hue closer to their ’90s incarnation while still retaining the fuller production present on the album’s more immediate moments. The European folk-flavored “The Everlasting Muse” is rich with mandolin, horns and clap-along breakdowns. The slow-rolling, string-laden “Ever Had a Little Faith” is reminiscent of early B&S highlight “The Boys of Track and Field.” And Sarah Martin gets to sing lead on both the swoony “The Power of Three” and rollicking “The Book of You,” with some ripping guitarwork to boot. So it’s not the introverted Belle & Sebastian of yore. But this edition of Belle & Sebastian manages to help them evolve without losing what made them special. It’s a win-win for fans new and old, on one of Belle & Sebastian’s best albums in years. More
Genre: Rock

Multi-Love (CD)

Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Unknown Mortal Orchestra continue their transition into the best funk band from another dimension with  Multi-Love . The title track sounds like Stevie Wonder on a space-rock kick, as frontman Ruban Nielson raspily sings of polyamorous affairs over proggy movements and danceable beats. “Like Acid Rain’s” disintegrated R&B dazzles and melts in your ears. “The World Is Crowded’s” lockstep groove accompanies lush soul vocals singing quizzical lyrics, asking “did she blow my brains out?” like a robot waking up from a one-night stand. And “Ur Life in One Night” takes the psychedelic-leaning funk and soul of the ’70s and making it sound truly interstellar, as though Curtis Mayfield and Funkadelic records were transmitted via satellite to an alien galaxy, and this was the responding message. But however proudly UMO wave their freak flag,  Multi-Love  is still rooted in reality. “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone” begins on a film-noir opening, with cinematic horns, booty-shaking jungle drums and 007 riffs growing into curious melodies that curl into an earworm chorus on perhaps their best song yet. Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s particular universe is perplexing only until you get your footing; then you’ll never want to leave. It’s truly one of the best things we’ve heard all year. More
Genre: Rock

In Colour (CD)

Jamie xx
Producer and member of The xx Jamie Smith has just released a game-changing debut LP. Favoring melody and atmosphere over simply having a nice beat,  In Colour  is able to wrangle a wide variety of sounds into a living, breathing whole. Tracks like “Gosh” layer found sounds and field recordings underneath appealing synth lines. Mellower tracks like “Sleep Sound” and “SeeSaw” are terrific after-hours jams, like passing out outside a rave and letting the beats pulse through your dreams. The xx member Oliver Sim shows up to lend his narcotic vocals to the noirish “Stranger in a Room,” while fellow xx singer Romy Madley Croft smears black mascara all over the heartbreak beat of “Loud Places,” which makes wonderful use of a sample of Idris Muhammad’s “Could Heaven Ever Be Like This” on the song’s rousing chorus. Though it’s a bit jarring to hear rapper Young Thug and dancehall artist Popcaan on the following track “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times),” the song itself is a worthy hip-hop crossover that enlivens the album as a whole. It may sound cheesy, but  In Colour  really does prove that trip-hop, post-punk, house and hip-hop can call reside under the same roof, as Smith expertly strings these sounds together into new nocturnal anthems. It’s not too soon to call this a new electronic masterwork. More

Queen Of The Clouds [Blueprint Edition] (CD)

Tove Lo
Swedish singer-songwriter Tove Nilsson, better known as Tove Lo, has been gaining momentum and mainstream attention since 2012. In her debut EP Truth Serum the pop phenomenon unabashedly admits, “I eat my dinner in my bathtub, then I go to sex clubs/Watching freaky people getting it on.” It wasn’t until that track “Habits (Stay High)” off Truth Serum was remixed by experimental hip-hop producers Hippie Sabotage that Tove Lo received international attention. Now that she has received the attention of the masses, her true confessional has begun. Much like her debut EP, Queen Of The Clouds remains brash and earnest, although it now takes on a narrative style that the full-length has afforded her. The album is split into three different segments: “The Sex,” “The Love,” and “The Pain.” “The Sex” culminates in an almost hyper-dance orgasm “Timebomb.” The climactic triumph of which is only made realistic by Tove recounting, “You’re not forever, you’re not the one.” Her playful lyricism becomes more of a self-effacing tool during her love song “Moments” where she lists all of her faults and explains, “…but on good days I’m charming as fuck.” The pain of this awareness is overshadowed by her hit single “Habits (Stay High)” which is a shockingly deep portrait of a personal relationship and the effects it had on her. The synergy between this open-book mentality and out and out club beats make this debut a lyrically dark dance charmer. More
Genre: Rock

B'lieve I'm Goin Down... (CD)

Kurt Vile
The crown prince of stonery folk-rock and onetime War on Drug returns after breakthrough album  Wakin On a Pretty Daze . Big-time production hasn’t dulled Vile’s touch one bit; it’s merely given his stellar songs their appropriate due, as he moves from chatty rockers like “Pretty Pimpin” to Western-tinged tunes like “I’m an Outlaw” and his bread and butter — cerebral, spacey folk songs like “That’s Life, tho (almost hate to say).” Vile’s willingness to switch it up a bit, on the ’70s art-pop-style “Wheelhouse,” for instance, makes for a more dynamic listen. And his surrealist wordplay comes throw more clearly than ever before, revealing evocative imagery within Vile’s Neil Young-ish ramblings — on “Pretty Pimin,” Vile doesn’t recognize his own reflection, singing, “I proceeded to brush some stranger’s teeth/But they were my teeth, and I was weightless/Just quivering like some leaf come in the window of a restroom.” Wherever Vile lands, we’re apt to follow. More
Genre: Rock

Dark Bird Is Home (CD)

The Tallest Man On Earth
The Tallest Man on Earth aka Swedish troubadour Kristian Matsson can make the most seemingly typical thing—a white guy with an acoustic guitar—sound extraordinary, thanks to his earnest voice and unbridled passion. On his fourth album, Matsson takes another cliché—the road- and world-weary album that follows the breakthroughs and touring—and makes it work like a charm, adding additional players and generous instrumentation to the fold. The full-band sound, with jangling guitars, tambourine, mandolins, woodwinds and ethereal choral harmonies, makes the darker lyrics go down smoothly ("I'm sure I'll sleep when all this goes under/but now, will I sleep alone?" he sings on “Darkness of the Dream”). It’s a balancing act: When Matsson sings of “all this fuckin’ doubt” in a cracking voice on the glorious “Sagres,” declaring “I could drink until I sleep through all the scarier times,” the sentiment is tempered by holiday orchestration that, vice versa, could sound treacly on its own. Matsson’s directness is appreciable; “What if we never see through cryin’?/Tomorrow’s wailin’ alone,” he sings on “Fields of Our Uncertainty,” and though he never answers that question, he seems at peace with the uncertainty.  Dark Bird is Home  may be lyrically gloomy, but its festive instrumentation and surfeit of passion offer comfort to anyone who takes his words to heart. More
Genre: Rock

Beauty Behind The Madness (CD)

The Weeknd
Alternative R&B artist The Weeknd has gone from underground sensation to worldwide phenomenon, thanks to critical success of albums like  House of Balloons  and his association with acts like  Drake.  Beauty Behind the Madness  steps up the energy from 2013’s  Kiss Land , which wasn’t a bad album but failed to fully capitalize on his indie cred. No such thing with  Beauty , which comes on strong and doesn’t let up. The gloriously hedonistic “The Hills” manages to build a radio-ready R&B slow burner while folding in the more experimental elements upon which Abel Tesfaye made his name—a digitally clawed-up croon, atmospheric backdrop and strange effects, like a sampled horror-movie scream acting as a chorus cue. “Earned It,” used in  50 Shades of Grey , goes the other route, a cool jazz ballad with classy strings and lyrics that are more suggestive than crude. “Often” dazzles with its ghostly production, and Tesfaye keeps the party moving on the MJ-ish “Can’t Feel My Face.” Lyrically, Tesfaye leaves something to be desired in the way he sings about women—he’s better off in the parts of “Tell Your Friends” that just focus on doing drugs and funny wordplay (“I'm never rocking white, I'm like a racist”). Throughout  Beauty , Tesfaye’s sound is flawlessly constructed, and his voice has grown remarkably from its breathy beginnings to a confidence level that would make him appealing even without his estimable songwriting and production skills.  Beauty Behind the Madness  is the album that finally, truly announces Tesfaye’s arrival as an A-lister. It’ll be tough to find a more entertaining (or inventive) R&B album released this year. More
Genre: Soul

Coming Home (CD)

Leon Bridges
From the first notes of his sweet, soulful viral hit, “Coming Home,” you can tell you’re listening to the emergence of a huge new talent. Leon Bridges calls to mind a young Sam Cooke with his heartfelt R&B, produced with analog grit for a timeless sound that feels like a huge breath of fresh air in these days of maximally produced radio pop. You can really here the warmth to Bridges’ voice on the waltzing “Brown Skin Girl,” letting his vocals pour over the guitars and saxes like syrup. But Bridges’ guitars and style are also raw enough for the garage kids, kicking up plenty of dust on tracks like “Flowers” while showing enough restraint to keep things classy. He doesn’t stray much from the template set by his influences, but he doesn’t need to when the resulting music feels so vital. Perhaps more than any other contemporary artist, Bridges makes what was old sound new again on his remarkable debut. More
Genre: Soul

Ibeyi [Import] (CD)

Twin sisters Lisa-Kainde and Naomi Diaz draw upon their Afro-Cuban heritage for their bewitching electro-soul debut. The sisters’ close harmonies and unison chants spill out hauntingly on “Oya,” an invocation to a Santeria spirit built on a digitally scuffed tribal beat. The sisters are the daughters of Buena Vista Social Club percussionist Anga Diaz, who died when the girls were pre-teens, and his spirit (as well as that of their deceased older sister) hangs overhead, but however ceremonial  Ibeyi  can feel at times, it’s rarely funereal—“my ghosts are not gone,” they sing, but “Ghosts” pulsates with lively chants. Only on standout “River” does it feel mournful, the sisters’ minor-key, gospel-influenced harmonies creating gothic atmosphere alongside a creeping piano and knocking beat.  Ibeyi  feels strange, its spare beats, eerily clipped sounds and occasional corroded hip-hop beat jibing uneasily with the sisters’ ritualistic vocals, but that underlying feeling of pain also serves to make the album’s spare landscapes feel oddly soothing in a cathartic sort of way. Perhaps it’s the Diaz’s directness—on “Behind the Curtain,” they sing, “dear audience, sweet spectator, we’re together for good,” and you can’t help but feel the connection. It’s an impressive and endlessly intriguing debut from the 20-year-old Diaz sisters. More