Eisley returns with I'm Only Dreaming , another polished heartfelt LP full of indie pop gems. Album standouts include "You Are Mine," a slow-burning, yearning ballad and "Defeatist," a sweetly vulnerable and very catchy radio-friendly track. Sherri Dupree-Bemis's dulcet vocals sound like honey, linger in the mind, and punch you in the gut -- make no mistake, the melodies here are lovely, but the emotions beneath the tracks have a quiet, intense power. This is an album brimming with passion, earnestness, and beauty.
Portland’s Grails continue to blur the hazy line between post-rock, world music, new age, and indie rock on their sixth album. The four-piece approach their songs as detailed tapestries, weaving in intricately detailed guitar lines, synthesizers, horns, and slow-burning beats, but with melodic intent, as the heaving melodies of songs like the title track burn into the back of your mind. Fans of gothy stuff like This Mortal Coil and the Twin Peaks soundtrack will groove to this just as well as fans of post-rock groups like Tortoise and world-blending rock acts like Calexico, especially on windswept, cinematic tracks like “After the Funeral.” Though vocal-free experimental rock might not sound like everyone’s cup of tea, Grails ensure their sound pieces are memorable, in the way the throbbing, deep synth of “Pelham” helps the band build to a satisfying climax, for instance. On Chalice Hymnal , Grails’ aching horns, swelling strings, and guitar crescendos do all the talking needed.
With an opening track like "Do You Still Love Me?" it's hard not to make the connection between Ryan Adam's new album, Prisoner , and his recent, fairly public, divorce. But regardless of the gossipy context behind it, Adams has constructed a heartfelt and entrancing record, full of subtle production nuances and an undeniable earnestness. While breakup albums run the risk of becoming redundant and self-absorbed, Prisoner joins the successful ranks of records that show an artist laid bare, honest and trying to work through the confusion. Rather than asking for your pity, Adams essentially paints differently toned vignettes of the same subject matter. While the Springsteen-esque"Shiver and Shake" evokes the fragility and withdrawal of broken love, "To Be With You" brings to mind the somberly resilient honkey tonk, folky country tunes of the '60s and '70s. With the exception of the first track, which feels almost like a Pat Benatar power ballad, the album is even keeled, mid-tempo-ed, and filled with shimmery, watery, beautiful guitars that bring to mind the tones of Morrissey or The Stone Roses.
Lupe Fiasco returns with the uniformly-strong Drogas Light , which features guest turns from Ty Dolla $ign, Rick Ross, and Big K.R.I.T. There are a few down-tempo, low-key party jams but the rapper is at his best when he comes out with guns blazin’ on standout tracks “Tranquillo” and “Made in the USA.” The production and instrumental tracks are silky smooth, innovative, and very easy on the ears — Lupe’s rhymes are solid, but these elements really kick the LP up a few extra levels. This is Lupe’s first independent release after parting ways with Atlantic; the level of creativity here is all the evidence fans need of the rapper’s newfound freedom.
The long-reigning kings of globally-influenced downtempo electronica are back with The Temple of I & I , another clear step forward in their evolution. This time around, Rob Garza and Eric Hilton found inspiration in Jamaican rhythms and settings. (The album was recorded at the island’s famed Geejam Studios.) Standout tracks include the Mr. Lif-starrer “Ghetto Matrix” and “Letter to the Editor,” which features ultra fresh Kingston MC and singer Racquel Jones. Fans of intelligent, jet setting trip-hop vibes won’t want to sleep on this one.
Post-punkers from across the pond White Lies are back with an album that can only be described as elegantly catchy. Since forming in 2007, the band has successfully married the neo-new wave of bands like The Killers and Interpol with the more anthemic rock normally associated with American acts like Kings of Leon and Mumford & Sons. Having ridden the wave NME -fueled hype there and back again, the band now hones its sound even further, dishing out perfect sounding synths, quickly clipped guitars a la The Cars, and Harry McVeigh’s Ian Curtis-esque intonations. Though it may be well-trod territory, the band sticks it out by writing memorable tunes throughout. The album’s first three tracks could all easily be radio hits, while songs like “Is My Love Enough?” dig deeper as McVeigh admits “I overthink all my thinking” over a fluttering synth tapestry. Mostly, White Lies give you the kind of tracks you want to hear while poolside sipping a martini—or dreaming about being there, as songs like “Don’t Want to Feel It All” alternate between silky synth lines and lighter-waving moments that beg to be heard from festival speakers. With the band’s strongest set of songs yet, Friends should be the album that finally wins White Lies the U.S. fanbase it deserves.
Maggie Rogers has one of those music industry dream stories; the young dance/pop singer’s excellent “Alaska” intrigued Pharrell Williams when he critiqued student work at NYU’s Tisch School of the Art and buzz ensued. And for good reason — Rogers’ Now That the Light Is Fading EP delivers on the promise of that first single. The tracks are shimmering, sunny, and organic, a far cry from the manufactured, generic pop sheen that seems to be radio’s fodder of choice. Rogers is definitely an artist to watch, especially if you’re keen on catchy tunes with intelligence, beauty, and heart.
Jens Lekman’s witty way with detail won him fans the world over with albums like Night Falls Over Kortedala . But the long wait for his next album was rewarded with the so-so I Know What Love Isn’t in 2012. Now, after another five-year wait, Lekman returns with his best release in a decade. He still shares the same sardonic wit as before, on songs like “Our First Fight” (“Another discussion about some TV show that never ends/No I haven’t seen Season Three/God I wish that you would just look at me”). But his occasional sour mood is tempered by a vibrant travelogue of worldly sounds, and as a result, Life Will See You Now sounds like a nomadic diary, full of sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking tidbits. From a stately crisis of faith in the late ’90s (“To Know Your Mission”) to a Balearic beat-laden ode to fucking up a carnival (“Hotwire the Ferris Wheel”) to a folksy unrequited bromance (“How Can I Tell Him”), there’s no shortage of vivid scenery. And the music has never been more inviting, on the island-dance fun of “What’s That Perfume That You Wear?” and nu-disco of “How We Met, The Long Version.” Similarly to Belle & Sebastian in their later years, Jens Lekman has learned to let loose. The result is one of his best releases yet.
The last two years have seen artists like Ariel Pink and Julia Holter step away from their roots of making ultra low-fi albums, instead turning to more polished, carefully produced tracks. As these avant-pop weirdos of the highest degree move into new directions, Homeshake's Fresh Air fills the void that they left. Previously part of Mac DeMarco's band, Peter Sagar split to focus on his solo career as Homeshake. Crafting cartoon sounds, digital bare synth riffs, and R&B vocals, Fresh Air deviates from the indie rock vibe of his previous albums and goes into full funk deepness with riffs trying their best to sound like George Clinton jamming out on a children's Casio. Homeshake removes the corny stigma from "smooth" as his complex, artsy take on funk is taken into mellow depths that feel like a contact high upon first listen. "Khmlwugh" opens up with tinny, drum machine samples with synths that sound like they're being processed through a Commodore 64. When Sagar's vocals come in, his calm, cracking voice is almost antithetical to R&B virtuosity, but it works perfectly to create a psychedelic, computerized landscape. And as quickly as the song starts, it suddenly ends on a minute long drone that sounds more like Terry Riley than Parliament. "Call Me Up" gets as close to the private press, electronic weirdos of the '80s than anything else on the album. The instantly catchy melody is perfectly suited to the raw, unprofessional audio quality and creates a hypnotic jam that feels like a stoned, late-night drive. It's strangely sexy and romantic, but almost too crazy to be a mood setter. Homeshake is the perfect continuation of the future-looking, groundbreaking electronic artists who created unique worlds and sounds with the bare minimum equipment. Spacey and crazy.
Surfer Blood are back with the very strong Snowdonia . “Six Flags in F or G” is a potential ear worm with a slight tinge of melancholy, employing a Smiths-like relish with a veneer of surf rock rumble. The title track is a mellow, beach-y love song that instantly evokes the golden days of youth. Taken as a whole, the album is a pleasant throwback to ’60s sunshine pop and garage, plus a steady helping of ‘80s jangle pop and paisley underground thrown in the mix. This latest release is an immersive, enjoyable experience.
Continuing in the tradition of sentimentally hardened troubadours, Timothy Showalter's raw and candid songs on Hard Love paint vivid portraits of turmoil and introspection, while being served on a full course platter of sound. What starts with unbridled, chaotic noise soon turns into a dark syrup of a guitar melody in "Radio Kids," which combines the sonic textures of My Bloody Valentine with the upfront, nostalgic vocals of Bruce Springsteen. On "Rest Of It" Showalter infuses his beer-soaked, dive bar vocal chords with the glam sounds of Diamond Dogs Bowie and Electric Warrior T-Rex, while title track "Hard Love" starts with a more intimate and bare arrangement, showcasing his unabashed directness.
Alison Krauss alternates between Americana, bluegrass, and lounge-y torch songs on her latest, Windy City . The singer’s haunting, divine voice is complemented well by her very talented fellow travelers, which in the case of this album include her band Union Station, plus Hank Williams, Jr., and Richard Bennett (Mark Knopfler, Neil Diamond), among other equally skilled folks. The album is quietly beautiful, its strength in the hope and yearning Krauss’ lyrical turns and vocal stylings evoke. Windy City confirms yet again that Alison Krauss is one of the most consistently strong songstresses in contemporary music.