Rock

Singles (CD)

It’s a gutsy move to call your album Singles, but in the case of Future Islands, their fourth album and first for 4AD, it’s appropriate. The album is packed with songs that are both immaculately written and catchy as hell, as Future Islands mine new wave and pop-rock for all they’re worth. Just as lead singer Samuel Herring’s dynamite performance style and swingin’ dance moves have won people over (David Letterman, famously), the band gives it their all on songs like “Seasons (Waiting On You).” Herring’s emotional, throaty tenor, which can warp into a growl in an instant, is given the perfect backdrop of stargazing new-wave rock that should bring together fans of everyone from Bruce Springsteen to The Cure to The Killers with lighter-waving glee. The synths of “Spirit” bring up memories of B-Movies “Nowhere Girl,” but Herring’s unique voice keep Future Islands from ever veering into purely nostalgic territory. “A Song For Our Grandfathers” is dreamy yet packs an emotional punch. Herring seems to get more and more insistent over the sprightly “Light House,” almost completely out of step with the band, yet it works so much better than it would have if he played it straight, getting in your face and making it impossible to merely have the song on in the background. On “Like the Moon,” a sexy, pulsating groove gives Herring the chance to kill it vocally, crooning romantically. But his best vocal performance comes next, on “Fall From Grace”—over a simple waltz, Herring goes deep into the bowels of his voice to deliver a performance somewhere between Tom Waits, The National’s Matt Berniger and a black metal singer. Charisma like his doesn’t come around all the time, and as a band, Future Islands are smart enough to stay out of the way while crafting terrific songs that stand on their own. Before you know it, you’ve listened to Singles like five times and still can’t wait to hear it again.

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How to Dress Well’s What Is This Heart? is still plenty idiosyncratic, even as it sits among the likes of The Weeknd, Miguel and the last Beyonce album in terms of future-thinking R&B that gives equal footing to adventurousness and hookiness. Free of the lo-fi aesthetic of his early work,What Is This Heart? is a bold-faced record about love, placing Krell’s gorgeous voice front and center on songs like “Face Again,” in which he sings “kiss me on my face again and tell me what love’s supposed to be.” Krell’s voice gets cut up and digitally pitch shifted amid nighttime synthesizers, minimalist funk beats and light touches of acoustic guitar, strings and piano, and the resulting songs sound like whispered promises, quiet declarations of love given musical form. Impossibly sexy and staunchly idealistic, What Is This Heart? looks like the love album of the year.

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Jungle (CD)

On their self-titled debut, U.K. duo Jungle craft low-key, immediately likeable and unexpectedly soulful electro-pop in the mold of The Beta Band, Miike Snow and Hot Chip. On songs like “The Heat,” scattered city sounds like children playing or police sirens, taken together with bright synthesizers and classic R&B songwriting, feel like a stroll through a city park, colors and sounds bleeding into one another. “Busy Earnin,’” which presents updated Philly soul through the eyes of British knob twiddlers, has the feel of a socially uplifting AM radio classic, while “Time” is hazy slice of synth-funk that feels inspired, taking familiar influences but building out their own sound. It’s the rare act that can pull off this sort of thing without seeming superficial or disingenuous—Jungle make it work by including quieter passages like “Smoking Pixels,” an contemplative instrumental recalling prog-pop of the past like 10cc or Godley & Cream. And songs like “Julia” can’t help but feel cinematic with their implied street drama and spacey synths, soundtracking some imagined sci-fi cop movie. With their solid debut LP, Jungle capture an updated cosmopolitan sound that should land them on every cool movie, TV show and festival show bill from here to across the pond.

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After The End (CD)

If you like post-punk music at all, your favorite new band will probably be Merchandise. With a bit of Pulp’s swagger, the Cure’s emotional yet economical guitarwork and the dramatic grandiosity of Morrissey’s solo work, Merchandise nail every nuance on their new album, After the End. Big, shimmering chords on “Enemy” announce their arrival with the kind of bravado that leaves you a little breathless, incredulous that this isn’t a song or band you’ve heard before. Singer Carson Cox’s throaty tenor fills the space that isn’t carved out by his bandmates nicely, on ballads like the stunning “Life Outside the Mirror.” It’s a solid listen, but After the End particularly shines on its singles, like “Little Killer,” the riff of which is catchy enough to leave you tracking back again and again to get that feeling all over again. While After the End is an immensely enjoyable album, the elephant in the room is that, however immaculately made, it’s not the most original thing you’ve ever heard—“Green Lady” is great, with its stuttering beat, big guitar riffs and sure, why not, some sitar, but it could easily be a Morrissey outtake. No matter. Originality will come in time. For now, Merchandise reach a very specific itch, that youthful feeling of discovering a new favorite band who just flat out gets it. No trickery, nothing too out of the ordinary, just some of the best pop music you’ve heard in ages.

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Queen Of The Clouds (CD)

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.

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Encyclopedia (CD)

Conceived by its members as the fusion between a synth take on The Sound of Music and amelodic No Wave, The Drums craft compellingly tumultuous music on Encyclopedia. Thrilling opener “Magic Mountain” is about as far from The Drums’ first album and its sunny Cure-at-the-beach vibe as you could get, its highwire vocal doing battle against fraught guitars and theramin. You can hear that Sound of Music thing on songs like “I Hope Time Doesn’t Change Him,” a girl-group-style ode to drifting apart with shooting-star synthesizers and misery-laden guitars. “Kiss Me Again” feels a bit like The Drums’ earlier work, particularly the more frantic Portamento, but the newness comes in how adventurous founding members Jonathan Pierce and Jacob Graham allow themselves to be melodically while remembering how great they are at writing hooks like “kiss me again” sung out into infinity. Encyclopedia is definitely more of a bummer record, but there are some really nice classical melodies buried under the mopeyness and experimentation—“Break My Heart” is a great Brian Wilson-style lament, even as it slowly struts off the pier. And when they go full force on the “Face of God,” it’s like a surf song about a tidal wave, as its vocals suggest tragedy and its bassline and synths creep too far upward to tingle at the back of your neck. It’s like the aural equivalent of losing your innocence and becoming bitter, reminiscent of Weezer’s evolution from The Blue Album to Pinkerton, full of catchy tunes that are chewed and spit out. So Encylopedia stings a little, but in a good way.   

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Too Bright (CD)

Aptly named third album from Seattle based Mike Hadreas. With his previous output Hadreas had depended heavily on his lyrical prowess to shine through his sparse piano compositions. With tracks like “Queen” and “My Body” the lyrical dependence of dealing with his place in society as a gay man remains, but the self-effacing and fearful panic is barely contained. Instead, it is let out in focused evanescent bursts. Aided by the production of Portishead’s Adrian Utley, Too Bright is a perfect example of an artist catching up with his thoughts and being able to express his deeper feelings through his craft.

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Angus & Julia Stone (CD)

It’s been over three years since folk darlings (and siblings) Angus and Julia Stone joined forces to put out a record. The two of them have been enjoying successful careers independent of one another and had no intention of working musically together again. That was until legendary producer Rick Rubin (Metallica, Adele, Red Hot Chili Peppers) contacted Julia out of the blue about wanting to work with the duo. The result is their most compelling release to date. Working collaboratively on songwriting for the first time, this new self–titled album is a departure from the siblings' folksy MOR pop of the past. It’s more dynamic and blues influenced. Leading track “Heart Beats Slow” sets the tone for the entire album with sweet harmonies and rich instrumentation while “Death Defying Acts” showcases the powerful fragility of Julia’s voice channeling Billy Holiday.

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Nikki Nack (CD)

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 is Garbus’ best album because she’s able here 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.

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Brill Bruisers (CD)

The New Pornographers are back in a big way with Brill Bruisers. While the band’s past couple of outings have struggled to match the energy of their roof-burning early work, Brill Bruisers comes roaring out of the gate right away with AC Newman’s School House Rock-style title track. Neko Case takes the lead on a few sublime tracks, like the scenic “Champions of Red Wine,” while Destroyer’s Dan Bejar’s songs carry just that right amount of oddity to make the whole album a bit more magical, as on the swirling new wave of “War on the East Coast.” Songs like “Family Fools” are some of their best Fleetwood Mac-style aural dreamscapes of layered vocals and lush synths, and gorgeous harmonies abound, as on the pretty “Backstairs.” Occasionally New Pornographers fall into the trap of their songs being more clever than emotional, but even still, those songs keep you interested by finding new ways to approach the same old power-pop, using vocal aerobics on “Hi-Rise” and giving a lovely sentiment some quizzical melodicism for added depth on “You Tell Me Where.” It’s perhaps their strongest work since high-water mark Twin Cinema, a return-to-form that longtime fans will no doubt find to be a perfect end-of-summer gift from the gods.

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