This Month's Picks

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. 

More
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.

More
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.

More
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.

More
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.

More
Genre: Rock

another eternity (CD)

Purity Ring

Canadian electronic duo Purity Ring push their dreamy sound outward on their second album, dialing up the hooks and production value for a more straightforward pop release. Songs like “push pull” sound cleaner than the booming tracks of their debut, Shrines, yet they’re still percussively fascinating, possessing the same kind of odd time meters, space, and layered percussive noise that make FKA Twigs such a hit. Megan James’ vocals move further from ethereal to real, particularly on “begin again,” a bass-heavy ode to breaking up and making up. James' lyrics aren’t the kind you parse for concrete detail—dream-R&B ballad “repetition” has lines that make your head spin, like “watchin’ me is like watching a fire take your eyes from you.” But it’s all part of the mesmerizing spell Purity Ring are so adept at casting, utilizing Cocteau Twins-style wordplay and vocal manipulation to seemingly set off digital sirens and synths that shoot like fireworks on “heartsight.” Other than the goth-tinged “dust hymn,” they’ve mostly ditched the witch house thing to dig into a more all-embracing sound. Despite its title, another eternity almost ends too soon, proving that adage that it’s better to leave fans wanting more. It’s a confident sophomore effort that plays up to the band’s melodic and percussive strengths while remaining just elusive enough to keep us as intrigued as ever.

More
Genre: Rock

Uptown Special (CD)

Mark Ronson

Uptown Special picks up where the funk and soul of the (now seemingly long) past left off: fuzzy guitar, crunchy keyboards, punchy horns, and funky bass make an album that is jamming, and I mean jamming like roller skating in a tracksuit while rocking a gold chain on a neon lit city street.

More
Genre: Rock

Rebel Heart (CD)

Madonna

Faithful Madonna followers, rejoice. Rebel Heart is the return to form we were hoping for. It’s a classic Madonna album that keeps up with modern trends without chasing them in the way MDNA did, calling to mind Like a Prayer-era Madonna in the way it commands the dance floor. “Living For Love” is her best single in years, as Madonna delivers a confident lead vocal over a gospel-infused Diplo house production. On powerhouse “Iconic,” Madonna steps into the ring with a Mike Tyson intro and delivers some inspiring lines that move into a huge chorus of pounding beats and funhouse synths. She still courts controversy, of course. “Devil Pray” sees Madonna reciting a laundry list of intoxicants. “Illuminati” has her turning a favorite hip-hop subject into a nasty club banger that calls out everyone from Lady Gaga to Oprah. “Unapologetic Bitch” takes its vocal cues from Beyonce and M.I.A. and sees her delivering kiss-off lyrics over swaying dubstep that can’t help but read as missives to ex-husband Guy Ritchie (“You never knew how much you loved me ‘til you lost me, did you?”). It doesn’t always work—Nicki Minaj barely saves the jarring “Bitch I’m Madonna”—and there are some throwaways here and there that could’ve been trimmed for length. But it’s great to hear her being a firebrand once again, experimenting and trying different things out. With Rebel Heart, Madonna proves that musically speaking, she’ll never go gentle into that good night—she’d rather flip us off, have a good laugh and entertain us all the while.

More
Genre: Rock

Escape From Evil (CD)

Lower Dens

These indie rockers drew comparisons to their Baltimore brethren Beach House with 2012’s excellent Nootropics, but they get synthier and catchier with this follow-up.

More
Genre: Rock

Cry Is For The Flies (CD)

Le Butcherettes

I caught Le Butcherettes as the opening act for Melvins last fall, and I was completely blown away. I can’t get enough of Teri Gender Bender’s vocals. Her voice mixed with punk-tinged mangled circus organs make for a driving, yet dark, record.

More
Genre: Rock