This Month's Picks

Brill Bruisers (CD)

The New Pornographers

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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Genre: Rock

Strangers To Ourselves (CD)

Modest Mouse

It’s been eight years since the last Modest Mouse album, so forgive Modest Mouse if they have a lot to say. The sprawling, 15-song Strangers to Ourselves has a lot to offer both fans who’ve been with Modest Mouse’s since the ’90s and those newer to the fold. The soft opening of the title track actually feels quite revolutionary in the band’s catalog, wearily beautiful in its dreaminess. Single “Lampshades on Fire” feels closer to classic Modest Mouse, a stomping singalong that sounds downright gleeful in its cutting social commentary on how we’re screwing up our planet—“Well we’re the human race/We’re goin’ to party out of this place.” The more somber, mature-sounding tracks still pack snarls and growls and song titles like “Shit in Your Cut.” The band stretches into new territory on songs like “Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996),” whose digital beat, suggestive lyrics and vocal manipulation makes it sound like the band is collaborating with The Knife, or, more simply, on the ragtime-style “Sugar Boats” and new-wave ballad “Wicked Campaign.” Even when they’re being more predictable, Strangers to Ourselves is still a lot of fun to listen to, laying interesting percussive elements and spiderlike guitarwork into single-worthy post-punk jam “The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box,” while the more subdued songs, like “Pups to Dust,” are worthwhile for Isaac Brock’s ever-remarkable voice and lyrics, which move from folksy to obtuse and obscene at the drop of a hat. After such a long hiatus, it’s wonderful to hear them still in fine form and doing what they do best.

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Genre: Rock

Yawn Zen (CD)

Mndsgn

Luscious, mind-bending synth music comes to us from Mndsgn, the latest signee of the ubercool Stones Throw Records. Taking synth-funk jam “Message From the Stars” by The Rah Band and filtering it through a cavalcade of analog effects on “Txt,” Ringgo Ancheta creates a new cult classic of his own. Tracks like “Homewards” sprawl out on chilled out beats and landscapes that sound like they’ve had acid sprayed across them, gently disintegrating over you like melting ice cream. It’s not all dayglo synth jams though, as some of Yawn Zen’s dark corners are equally intriguing, like “Sheets,” with an introspective vocal that gets chopped up by a death-march lo-fi beat, and “Frugality’s” strange, spaced-out gurgling sounds. Trippy and odd yet lively and playful, Yawn Zen makes for a magical introduction to an intriguing new artist in the Stones Throw fold

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Genre: Hip Hop

Fresh Blood (CD)

Matthew E. White

The singer/songwriter/producer and Spacebomb Records founder returns with a second album that re-creates the American songbook D.I.Y.-style, moving from classic R&B to country-soul to gently orchestrated romantic indie pop.

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Genre: Rock

Wonder Where We Land (CD)

SBTRKT

SBTRKT is modern music's demagogue. Is he electro weirdness? R&B bedroom jams? Dancey club hits ready to get turned up at midnight? He's everything and it's why he has such an audience! Three years since his debut album, he returns to unleash a new series of jams that are ready to chew you up with cathartic lyrics and music sculpted by syrupy-thick bass lines, electronic ambiance and vocalists like A$AP Ferg who can keep up with the intense beats.

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No Cities To Love (CD)

Sleater-Kinney

It’s tough to come back after a nearly decade-long hiatus, especially after your band’s best album (the combustible The Woods). But Sleater-Kinney succeed with aplomb on No Cities to Love, which scales back on Woods’ volume without dialing down the ferocity. Cities roars right out of the gate on “Price Tag,” as Corin Tucker gives a scathing indictment of American greed over Carrie Brownstein’s tuff gnarled riffs. Janet Weiss also gives a typically dynamic performance, switching between off-kilter punk-funk and straightforward rawk on “Fangless” and giving “No Anthems” and “Gimme Love” their pounding swagger. There’s a sense that Tucker, Brownstein and Weiss are growing comfortable with one another again, and appropriately, No Cities to Love is curt at 10 songs (thankfully trimmed of any fat whatsoever, really). When the trio fits together perfectly, as on “Surface Envy,” it’s a marvel to behold, its acidic riffs swaying and bursting at the seams while Tucker gives her band a worthy rallying call (“We win, we lose, only together do we make the rules”). Decidedly, No Cities to Love is yet another win for the returning rock titans known as Sleater-Kinney. 

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Genre: Rock

This Is My Hand (CD)

My Brightest Diamond

Onetime Sufjan Stevens collaborator and now a formidable art-pop songstress in her own right, My Brightest Diamond (aka Shara Worden) pushes her songs further into accessibility with This Is My Hand. The sound of the record finds Worden singing over playful orchestrations, wielding her operatically trained voice slowly like a great and powerful weapon. “Pressure” begins with a drumline cadence and marching band horns, drawing soul out of her sometimes austere vocals and layering them over the song’s sexy strut “Before the Words’” huge, propulsive drum beat and jazzy bassline pair nicely with her hauntingly cooed vocals. Though she mines gold at playing the witchy vamp, it’s great, too, when she climbs out of her shell. “I am a lover and a killer” she sings with growing ferocity over a muscular groove on “Lover Killer,” finding inspiration in Prince and kinship in St. Vincent. “This is what love feels like!” she sings before unleashing a desperate wolf cry in “I Am Not the Bad Guy,” with a throbbing menace reminiscent of Radiohead, or a more friskier version of Third-era Portishead. Tracks with more open space, like “Looking at the Sun,” offer a chance for her divaesque vocals to come through beautifully, even as her words are foreboding (“wrestling with a double mine like two horses pulling both sides,” she sings creepily over Disney-level orchestration). “You never know minute to minute where I’m going” she sings tantalizingly on “Shape.” True. But that’s what makes listening to This Is My Hand so thrilling.

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Genre: Rock

Primrose Green (CD)

Ryley Walker

Chicago-based folkster Ryley Walker has taken a leap from the primitive to the profound in his sophomore album. Primrose Green weighs in with less hero worship homage to the likes of Fahey, Basho, and Jansch in favor of a more spontaneous original flighty groove anchored by a truly savvy and tight band. The playful finger picking of the titular track, “Primrose Green,” bounces along piano keys as Walker’s soulful vocals corral the melodies into an elaborate '60s folk garden. Much of the work of the record is left to the seemingly reborn vocal style of the 25-year old singer/songwriter. When infused with the fuzzed guitar of Brian Sulpizio on “Sweet Satisfaction” Walker ably wails like a man experiencing a pain way beyond his years. On “All Kinds of You” drummer Frank Rosaly leads the band in a jazzy jam session where the poetry of Walker’s words remain hidden in the crests and valleys of every beat. The only place on the record where Ryley’s voice may have to take the backseat is the elegant piano work of Ben Boye. That being said the interplay of Walker’s guitar and Boye’s keys on “Love Can Be Cruel” is a showstopper. Walker’s band sound rounds out with some heartbreaking string work led by Fred Lonberg-Holm and Whitney Johnson. Primrose Green is a lush charming '60s folk record made by excited musicians in 2015. Ryley Walker, being the most excited and exciting of the bunch.

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Genre: Folk

Carrie & Lowell (CD)

Sufjan Stevens

“Death With Dignity” opens Carrie & Lowell as a touching elegy to Sufjan Stevens’ mother, yet it also could describe his relationship to his own music. “I don’t know where to begin,” he sings, and “I’ve got nothing to prove” over a familiar bed of bluegrass-inspired folk. Stevens was like the A-plus student of indie pop, turning out album after album of perfectly manicured orchestral folk-pop, but lost his way a bit with The BQE, an album and project that felt unwieldy, as well the hectic electro-folk of The Age of AdzCarrie & Lowell, by comparison, is one of his most stripped-down albums to date. That’s not to say it doesn’t have his trademark fixation on detail— songs shift halfway through, like “Should Have Known Better’s” turn into stuttering, laptoppy acoustics and choral touches, or “Drawn to the Blood’s” extended string finale; “you checked your text while I masturbated,” he sings casually, telling a girl she looks like Poseidon in the sexually turbulent “All of Me Wants All of You.” Lyrically and musically, Stevens remains a curious tinkerer, but Carrie & Lowell never feels busy in the slightest. It’s an intensely focused work, one that places Stevens’ voice and songcraft over bells and whistles. Whereas locations and history seemed to hold Stevens’ interest in the past, here he’s death-obsessed (and still spiritual as ever). “Fourth of July” feels romantically morbid and carries the happy refrain “we’re all gonna die,” and on “The Only Thing,” he sounds stricken with grief to the point of barely being able to keep going on. Stevens’ way with language, drawing on mythology and Christian imagery, and ascendant voice keeps the songs from wallowing too deeply, even as they describe an immense sense of loss, allowing those moments when he does break—“No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross’” “Fuck me, I’m falling apart”—to land all the more effectively. Without the filter of a state’s history or the heavy religiosity of Seven SwansCarrie & Lowell finds Stevens turning his studious eye inward to fully explore his own grief, and the results are never short of breathtaking.

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Genre: Rock

Ebb & Flow (CD)

Judith Owen

Owen writes songs that are emotional and timeless, recalling the golden age of avant-storytellers like Joni Mitchell & Elton John in their heyday, effortlessly combining jazz, folk, and rootsy rock into an exquisite blend of classic songwriting and musicality. The Welsh singer's technically gifted piano playing and strong, smooth, smokey voice ensure a musical experience of exceptional quality and depth as she directs a truly all star band of session players (Russ Kunkel, Leland Sklar, Waddy Wachtel) through her repertoire. Fans of Carole King and Joni Mitchell will find not an imitator but a new and growing voice making good on that legacy.

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Genre: Rock