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First Listen: Sleater-Kinney, 'No Cities To Love'

Listen to Sleater-Kinney's No Cities To Love streaming now via FUV and NPR Music before the album's release on January 20 on Sub Pop.

Reunion mythology is a powerful force in the music industry. It can artificially preserve overripe bands past their sell-by date, or rob stellar releases of thoughtful criticism in favor of tireless gossip. Former bandmates pursuing other projects have to shout louder than their own histories to be heard in a new context. The lionization and dramatization of reunions ignores the fundamental alchemy of all music-making, regardless of chronology: that artists find each other and choose each other, out of all the artists in the world, to create something new every time they interact.

Sleater-Kinney didn't announce any reason for a hiatus that began in 2006, and did nothing to stoke the fires of reunion-mongering in the years since. One member of the group — writer, actor and former NPR Music blogger Carrie Brownstein — touched on the importance of getting a band back together for the right reasons in 2008, saying that Sleater-Kinney would release new music only when she, singer-guitarist Corin Tucker and drummer Janet Weiss "felt like there was more of a story to tell ... with each other." All three have experienced tremendous productivity and success in the past eight years: Brownstein formed a new band, Wild Flag, and created the popular IFC series Portlandia; Tucker started the Corin Tucker Band and released and toured two albums; Weiss drummed for The Shins, Quasi, Wild Flag and Stephen Malkmus And The Jicks. The logistics alone of telling new stories as Sleater-Kinney seemed improbable.

And yet the band's eighth album, No Cities To Love, is finally here. It sounds as fresh and vital as a debut, but also as nuanced and skillful as the work of three players with a decade-long, inimitable report betwixt them. This album is a story no one but Sleater-Kinney could have told, and now is precisely the right time to tell it. Tucker's voice is one we need to hear from female musicians­ — confrontational, attention-demanding, feminist and strong as hell. Brownstein, who also contributes powerful vocals, plays so energetically and with such a palpable sense of fun, it's easy to miss that she's one of the most skillful rock guitarists working today. Weiss, too, is a technical giant, giving Sleater-Kinney its punk backbone and the stability to experiment with harder rock or breezier pop, angled over the years and over the course of No Cities To Love. The classic-rock slant to 2005's The Woods is less prevalent here — though the first seven seconds of "Fade" nod to Guns 'N Roses — but the accessible, pop-adjacent punk of 2000's All Hands On The Bad One is audible, particularly in the chorus-centric title track.

Ten years and eight albums in, Sleater-Kinney still experiments with and expands its instantly recognizable sound profile with irresistible results. Higher production values, paired with musicians at the top of their game, have added shine to the group's Pacific Northwest-rooted, riot grrrl-influenced rock without changing its irrepressible heart.

If No Cities To Love is typecast as a reunion record, it might lose its poignancy as a portrait of a beloved band growing fully into itself. Yes, the world needed a new Sleater-Kinney record. "Bury Our Friends," with its grownup vulnerabilities, and "Price Tag," with its post-recession anxiety, couldn't have been made any time but now, and exhibit new depths of thematic maturity. But, more than anything else, Sleater-Kinney needed a new Sleater-Kinney record, and its members chose each other all over again to make it. What truer, simpler reunion mythos is there?—Katie Presley

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First Listen: Hookworms, 'The Hum'

Listen to Hookworms' The Hum streaming via WFUV and NPR Music before the album's release on November 11 on Domino.

Music that spins itself around in circles is likely to end up right where it started. This notion is both the driving principle and the curse behind the motorik beat, the precise refinement in rhythm production made possible by German drummers like Jaki Liebezeit (Can) and Klaus Dinger (Neu). A clean, exacting beat in 4/4 time, it mirrors rock 'n' roll's emphasis on the third beat in the count. But stripped of any combustibles, it was made to power a transcendental rhythm, a dream machine. There's not too far the drummer can stray from this beat without losing its meaning; it's a system set up so that the rest of the band can carry itself along gleaming rails. It's beautiful and it works, but apart from the occasional fill, nothing about it has changed, or can change. It's only as good a setting as what's built on top of it.

That beat is also a signifier, a groove in which to get lost. The resurgence of psychedelic music in underground circles has brought many drummers back to its reliable presence, and has tested their mettle in terms of how accurately they can play it. On its second album The Hum, the Leeds band Hookworms is beholden to that beat and the pulse it leaves behind. More than any other current group, however, it's intent on exploring the energy and chaos that such a solid anchor can provide. Bass guitar and droning organ sounds connect the beat to the tendrils of noise and ripcurls of guitar feedback and synth sounds that skim across its surfaces, before flying upward and outward, adjoining headier sounds with the sonic terror of heavy shoegaze.

There are essentially six songs here, connected by instrumentals named in lowercase Roman numerals (a carryover from 2013's Pearl Mystic). But in the songs' relative brevity, Hookworms can't waste a moment, providing shrewd transitions between the droning single "On Leaving" and the restless "Radio Tokyo." The focus on concision pays off; The Hum is meant to be consumed as an album, with no breaks, and the band lets you know that upfront. It clearly intends to bang heads with "The Impasse," which drags solemn instrumentation into the burning furnace of rock 'n' roll, in the process paying tribute to the Stooges and At The Drive-In. The beat underscoring The Hum might run in circles, but it's as much an effort to disorient as it is to keep Hookworms tethered to Earth. One false move, and these kids would blast through the roof of any venue foolhardy enough to think they could be contained.—Doug Mosurock

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First Listen: Deerhoof, 'La Isla Bonita'

Listen to Deerhoof's La Isla Bonita streaming on WFUV and NPR Music before its release on November 4 via Polyvinyl.

For 20 years, Deerhoof has found special and exciting ways to make you feel as if your head might explode. Between Satomi Matsuzaki's confounding lyrics, brittle screeches of bone-shattering guitar and Greg Saunier's spastic drumming, listening to Deerhoof can leave listeners reeling. As Saunier said recently, "The Deerhoof fan is a thrill-seeker."

On La Isla Bonita, its 12th album, Deerhoof abandons none of the thrills while still sounding more relaxed than ever. If much of the band's catalog has the power to overwhelm you like a colossal Thanksgiving feast, then La Isla Bonita is by comparison a tapas dinner of musical ideas. Bold guitar licks shoot in and out, never staying past their welcome, while Matsuzaki's vocal quips hang deliciously in the air. The shrill lead-guitar part in "Doom" sounds like a flock of dying birds singing "La Bamba," while the epic riff in "Exit Only" is a monolithic monster that comes ripping through headphones. In "Mirror Monster," Saunier adds gentle drums to help place the spotlight on an elegant bass solo.

Saunier has always been a manic drummer; when he performs, a shower of drumstick shrapnel erupts overhead, and he has a tendency to hit his kick drum so violently that the whole thing leaps forward. On La Isla Bonita, he reins in his unhinged fills and polyrhythmic spasms, opting instead to focus on satisfying, steady grooves that give these 10 songs a more controlled pace. By dialing down, he throws the occasional glorious freak-outs into sharp relief, like the out-of-left-field fireworks explosion of synchronized voice, drums and guitars in "Last Fad."

Deerhoof has always toyed with the whimsical, but La Isla Bonita feels like the band's most playful album yet. Recorded live in guitarist Ed Rodriguez's basement over the course of a week, it wonderfully exemplifies a band that still packs its music with surprises 20 years into its career. One of the biggest twists arrives at the very end of La Isla Bonita: The hypnotic bass line in "Oh Bummer" wouldn't sound out of place on Thriller. But in typical Deerhoof fashion, it doesn't stay still for long, and the album ends with an agonizing, extended shriek of feedback. Don't get too comfortable, Deerhoof seems to be saying. And with a big grin, no less.

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First Listen: Thurston Moore, 'The Best Day'

Listen to Thurston Moore's The Best Day streaming via WFUV and NPR Music now before the album's release on October 21 on Matador Records.

It's been a busy few years for Thurston Moore, not all of which has to do with his art. The dissolution of Sonic Youth, triggered by Moore's separation from Kim Gordon, sent that band's members in their own separate directions, sparking murmurs of personal unrest — and the occasional blurt of insensitivity — in interviews. All of which is a natural response to the rupture of a beloved band, where all the members are nearby and have ties outside the group holding them together. Everyone winds up taking a side.

The Best Day, no matter how distant, seems to be Moore's first real shot at addressing some of these issues. Retreating from both woodsy, mature folk (2007's Trees Outside The Academy, 2011's Demolished Thoughts) and the wild punk/noise bombast of last year's Chelsea Light Moving album, The Best Day is almost calming in its familiarity, particularly as it recalls a minor-key update of SY's well-loved late-'90s salvo A Thousand Leaves. Even-handed and steady, repetitious and assured, these eight songs encourage the listener to peer inside, where the details of his decisions lie in wait.

A two-bar calibration between Moore and guitarist James Sedwards kicks off "Speak To The Wild," and is repeated right before the coda, almost like a test tone to bring the song's lengthy buildup and considerate construction into the greater focus required to unpack the development of "Forevermore." Opening up over the course of 11 minutes and change, Moore crafts The Best Day's longest piece around romantic, possessive lyrics shot through with Catholic imagery. Is this an arch burndown of a love song, written to exorcise his past, or a 30-year reminder that love and its dark underbelly exist on opposite sides of the same alluring plane? As "Forevermore" plows forward — anchored by longtime collaborator Steve Shelley on drums and My Bloody Valentine's Deb Googe on bass — keys change, melodies are copied, mutated and withdrawn, and certainty is winnowed down to what listeners can count within themselves.

Elsewhere, the post-punk rocker "Detonation" could pass for Moore's clearest response to rumors and hearsay about his personal life; it's couched in metaphors regarding social protest and informants that break it all up under the guise of what he calls "clandestinity." The decaying autumnal duality of "Tape" (more closely hewing to Led Zeppelin's epic "The Battle Of Evermore" than anything in Sonic Youth's past) and the ever-darkening "Vocabularies" (chugging along in a tricky time signature) make The Best Day a record of the windy season, as Moore finds new life amid the dried thorns and dead leaves. "Start a fire, stop a fight," Moore barks in "Germs Burn," and for the first time since his debut solo album Psychic Hearts, he's made one to celebrate the post-harvest, pre-winter chill. The anger of similar efforts like SY's Bad Moon Rising has been burned off in a brush pile, leaving only the sweet smoke of longer nights and colder climates. As a statement of purpose, Moore sounds ready to move forward into the next phase of his life.

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First Listen: Foxygen, '…And Star Power'

Listen to Foxygen's  ... And Star Power streaming now via WFUV and NPR Music before the album's release on October 7.

When LPs and cassettes gave way to compact discs in the late '80s and early '90s, many bands seized on the format's 80-minute time limit as a challenge: If a disc can hold that much music, the thought process went, then why shouldn't it? This led to some legendarily bloated albums, as well as an increased tendency to tuck in tossed-off bonus tracks after 20- and 30-minute blocks of silence, until cooler heads and quality control (mostly) prevailed. Now, as more and more music is released digitally — theoretically untethering future albums from any restriction on length at all — new releases have, for the most part, become geared toward ever-shorter attention spans.

All of which helps make ... And Star Power, at an overstuffed and at times seemingly unedited 82 minutes, feel like a throwback in every way. For all its title's talk of star power, the real subject here is excess in all its forms: the unhinged vocal performances, the worship of '70s power pop, the way experiments are both embraced and quickly, unceremoniously discarded. Renowned for its shambolic early live shows, Foxygen's Sam France and Jonathan Rado know how to keep one foot on each side of the line separating barely contained genius from undisciplined indulgence.

Foxygen also knows how to blur it, obscure it, and cross it at will. Ostentatiousness comes easily to guys who titled their first album We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace And Magic, and their M.O. here appears to be, "We've had a lot of ideas since our last record. Here are all of them." There's a because-we-can quality to Star Power — particularly in its second half, where "Cold Winter/Freedom" sounds like the sort of sludged-out goof you'd hear in one of those early-'90s bonus tracks — as Foxygen delights in letting its loosest threads unravel.

Still, Foxygen doesn't squander its gift for impeccable, vintage-sounding Technicolor studio pop: For all their shagginess, "How Can You Really," "Star Power III: What Are We Good For" and others hit giddy, playful highs. But on ...And Star Power, Foxygen mostly exhibits self-control as a means of demonstrating a willingness to loosen its grip. The result cracks open a fire hydrant of ideas meant to tantalize and frustrate, dazzle and baffle. Mission accomplished, all at once.—Stephen Thompson

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First Listen: Electric Youth, 'Innerworld'

Listen to Electric Youth's Innerworld streaming now via WFUV and NPR Music before the album's release on September 30 on Secretly Canadian.

The romance shared between the L.A. and Toronto-based couple Austin Garrick and Bronwyn Griffin is almost too good to be true: The two have been betrothed since they were in eighth grade. Garrick got his start producing hip-hop for the likes of Ghostface Killah, Redman and Foxy Brown in the mid-'00s, and as a duo, Electric Youth has been making dreamy, '80s-indebted synth-pop since 2009. As Garrick told Rolling Stone earlier this year: "How could we not be reminded of the past when every day, we see the person we had a crush on since seventh grade?"

There's a good chance that Garrick's narcotic synth washes and Griffin's melancholic vocals will feel vaguely familiar. In 2009, the duo collaborated with French musician David Grellier (a.k.a. College) on a song dedicated to Captain Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who safely landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River. Titled "A Real Hero," it was used to devastating effect in two pivotal scenes from the 2011 film Drive. After the worldwide success of that song, Garrick and Griffin decamped to a studio to make their debut full-length, Innerworld, including "A Real Hero" as the fitting album climax.

Crafted in the image of nu-romantic synth-pop acts like Soft Cell and Yaz, Electric Youth's Innerworld is awash in '80s earmarks. In fact, Yaz's Vince Clarke lent a hand (and a Yamaha CS80) to the album. The arpeggiated melodies and programmed drums that course through Innerworld evoke memories of lost '80s hits, hinting at the likes of Berlin, Nu Shooz, Scandal and Regina, especially in tracks like "Without You" and the slower ballad "If All She Has Is You." Electric Youth operates with a sense of remove, though, evocative of icy Italo hits of that same era. It's no surprise that one of Electric Youth's earliest tracks was a cover of Clio's "Faces."

Rather than just reference a bygone era, there's a sense of wistfulness; of childlike splendor in danger of succumbing to the ravages of adulthood. The soaring melody and Griffin's hook in "Runaway" — "Maybe we could just run away for good / 'Cause we're both misunderstood" — references Peter Jackson's 1994 film Heavenly Creatures, about two teens and their intense fantasy life. Judging from the cover painting of two kids in a landscape untouched by mankind, the same holds true for Garrick and Griffin. They sound at play in their music, as if they're still young kids laying eyes on each other for the first time.—Andy Beta

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First Listen: Perfume Genius, 'Too Bright'

Listen to Perfume Genius' Too Bright streaming via FUV and NPR Music before its release on September 23 on Matador Records

For two albums, the essence of a great Perfume Genius song has been musical simplicity and lyrical depth. Mike Hadreas, the Seattle songwriter behind the project, excels at writing memorable but sparely arranged melodies designed to highlight his compact, hard-hitting phrases. His topics are often isolation and estrangement — from society, as a gay man, and from his own body, as a sufferer of Crohn's disesase — and his brief, touching songs tend to act more like photographs than stories.

Too Bright, Hadreas' third album as Perfume Genius, opens with one of these perfect miniatures. "I can see for miles / the same old line / no thanks ... I decline," Hadreas sings with resigned sweetness over slow, ringing piano chords and vapor trails of harmonics. The music is richly recorded, stirring and beautiful. Hadreas lets the theme linger rather than building a crescendo, and the song is over in just two minutes. This is a familiar accomplishment in his young career: a slender slice of humanity that refuses to be less than realistically complex.

But in the next song, "Queen," Too Bright turns a corner, and Hadreas sheds his humanity altogether. Over a grinding, glam-inspired bass line and a glittering synth, Hadreas snarls, "Don't you know your Queen? / ripped, heaving, flowers bloom at my feet" — and, later, "rank, ragged, skin sewn on in sheets." It's a theme song for a gay supervillain; the gruesome, imagined offspring of Miss Havisham and Buffalo Bill from The Silence Of The Lambs as a haggard demigod on the prowl.

Hadreas has said that the song is his response to feeling like he couldn't walk down the street without feeling like the target of pointed fingers; that it's his embrace of the way he'd felt painted as a freak or a monster. Last week on All Things Considered, the journalist dream hampton spoke about the way her old friend, the late rapper the Notorious B.I.G., occasionally played the role of gangster or "predator" in his songs because he couldn't ignore the fact that, as a young, heavyset, African-American man, some people braced for violence the moment they saw him. As a young, slight, gay man, Hadreas knows some people will see him as an alien, a predator. There might not be a line this year that does its job better than his showstopping, "No family is safe when I sashay."

"Queen" is full of scathing, sarcastic fury, but it unfolds patiently, at a surprisingly slow tempo. Hadreas recorded the album in Bristol, with Adrian Utley of Portishead and the engineer and producer Ali Chant. And, though the arrangements are clean and unstuffed, it feels designed to overwhelm; it sounds amazing played loud out of good speakers. In almost every song, bass is an anchor that allows Hadreas to experiment with form (many songs feature gorgeous or terrifying interludes) or sound. There are more sonic surprises on Too Bright than on previous Perfume Genius albums, from finger-snapping street-corner harmonies in "Fool" to the mechanical pulse and harpy-like screams in "Grid" to the way the second half of "All Along" opens up into a country shuffle.

Let him explore his options; Hadreas never loses his ability to focus on several things at a time. Musical and lyrical themes repeat through the album's 11 songs: "Don't Let Them In" takes the otherness of "Queen" and re-imagines that song's ferocious empowerment calcified into isolating armor. "My Body" matches "Queen" for grotesque self-description and bass-heavy menace. An angel offers Hadreas deliverance in "I Decline"; in "Grid," that same angel is erased from existence. "No Good" and the closing "All Along" are heart-tugging laments for love's fragility.

There's a remarkable confidence here that doesn't feel remotely at odds with Hadreas' penchant for self-evisceration. The album closes with the words, "I don't need your love / I don't need you to understand / I need you to listen." If you're a musician, that attention is the only thing worth asking for, and on Too Bright, Hadreas' awe-inspiring, magnificent arrival, he earns it with every note. —Jacob Ganz

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First Listen: Lia Ices, 'Ices'

Listen to Lia Ices' Ices streaming now via FUV and NPR Music before its release on September 16 on Jagjaguwar.

Singer-songwriter Lia Ices attracted a bit of attention for her 2008 debut, Necima, but it was 2011's Grown Unknown that exposed her to a wider audience. The album featured a duet with Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, yet it was the song "Love Is Won" that generated the most buzz: A simmering ballad that set Ices' stunning if cryptic vocals against a backdrop of elegant electric organ and spare drums, the track was used to devastating effect over the end credits in the first season of Girls.

While Ices' first two albums recalled the work of Cat Power and Tori Amos, on Ices she expands her palette considerably, leaning toward the eclecticism of Kate Bush and Bat For Lashes. Piano balladry gives way to loops and samples, while the uncluttered "live room" sound that infused her previous songs now feels more produced and considered. Ices finds Lia Ices in a more experimental mode, as she makes her rhythms first and builds her songs in light layers atop the beats.

This shift in sound correlates to a geographical shift; Ices recently moved from upstate New York to Northern California. There's also a sense of levity, as Ices writes in the album notes: "Flight became a metaphor for the ignition of the imagination." In moving away from solely acoustic instrumentation, she also reached out to experimental hip-hop producer Clams Casino, who helps give songs like "Love Ices Over" a curiously strong boom-tick.

"Tell Me" and the percolating "Higher" capture an ebullience that brings to mind Paul Simon's Graceland or Panda Bear's Person Pitch. In leisurely paced but lopingly percussive songs like "Thousand Eyes" and "Electric Arc," both Ices and Casino hearken back to a time in the early '90s when winsome pop intermingled with the head-nodding beats of trip-hop. Traces of St. Etienne and Everything But the Girl surface here, but Lia Ices is looking up, not back.—Andy Beta

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First Listen: Karen O, 'Crush Songs'

Listen to Karen O's Crush Songs streaming now via WFUV and NPR Music prior to the album's release on September 9 on Cult Records.

Karen Orzolek is a rock star by any metric. She's an Oscar-nominated musician and fashion icon who made bowl haircuts cool. Her band, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, made its debut in 2003 with a laser-focused vision of arty garage-punk world domination that hasn't strayed an inch in the decade since. Onstage, she's larger than life: a perfect storm of eyeliner and costumes, with a voice built to be heard by 20,000 people at a time. Within 10 seconds of its opening note, her first solo album, Crush Songs, makes clear that that's not her plan this time around. The record sounds less like a rock star unplugged and more like an unknown young singer who records quietly phenomenal music into her computer late at night without knowing she's on the cusp of getting discovered.

When she announced Crush Songs' existence in June, Orzolek included a handwritten note contextualizing what she called "the soundtrack to what was an ever continuing LOVE CRUSADE." She recorded the album when she was 27, afraid she would never fall in love again because she had too many crushes, and she recorded it "in private." For context, Orzolek was 27 the year after Yeah Yeah Yeahs released its second album, Show Your Bones, which eventually went gold. At some point, right as her band was blowing up, Orzolek sneaked into a small room somewhere, armed with a ukulele and a guitar, and recorded these 15 songs. None are longer than three minutes, and most are under two. The announcement she wrote was a perfect microcosm of the finished product: handmade, concise, intimate, ebullient, and instantly relatable.

Everything about Crush Songs is friendly and unguarded, from its mixtape-adjacent title and cover art to its production­ ­— such as it is — which is lo-fi and warmly enveloping. This music is built from moment to wholehearted, unrehearsable moment, even more than it's built from lyrics and strumming. There's the unexpected squeak at the end of "Rapt," the eerie-yet-soothing whispers throughout "NYC Baby," the waver in Orzolek's voice as she coos through "Body," the primal scream four seconds later in the same song, and every giggle and whistle of the joyful album closer, "Singalong," among many others. It's preternaturally compelling, all of it, which is what ultimately marks this as a Karen O creation.

Crush Songs has an immediacy and earnestness akin to Kimya Dawson and a ukulele-driven poignancy reminiscent of Magnetic Fields. But it's powered by a subversive rock 'n' roll heart that only she could have revealed so fearlessly.—Katie Presley

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First Listen: Tricky, 'Adrian Thaws'

Listen to Tricky's Adrian Thaws streaming now via WFUV and NPR Music before the album's arrival on September 9 in the States.

Ever since he made his name as a spectral carnival barker in the trip-hop troupe Massive Attack, Tricky has been a master of creeping, crawling mood music that exudes quiet defiance and makes followers consult their dictionaries every so often to reconvene with the precise definition of "crepuscular." For his 11th album, Tricky stays more or less in line — though with a bit of a new persona in tow.

Adrian Thaws takes its title from Tricky's given name, marking a rare occasion for him to shed even the slightest bit of the mystery he's been nurturing since the early 1990s. The songs, though, are still evasive in intriguing ways. "Sun Down" slinks over a slick, gritty mid-tempo beat with a mix of foreboding bass tones, dirty angelic coos and slashes of electric guitar. Tricky himself sounds pleasingly cadaverous, while soulful singing by Tirzah establishes a desiccated R&B air. "Lonnie Listen" features the beguiling art-rapper Mykki Blanco and regular Tricky companion Francesca Belmonte as they give voice to down-and-out despair ("Exercise every day and I'm still not fit / My kids are hungry and I ain't got s--- / What I'm gonna do, what I'm gonna do, what I'm gonna do?").

Adrian Thaws varies greatly in speed and tone. "Keep Me in Your Shake" skulks, with a slur of acoustic guitar that gives the song an appealingly strange country-blues twang. "Nicotine Love" accelerates greatly by comparison, with some of the swing of house music and club-ready bass bumps. "Gangster Chronicles" seethes with fiery rapping by London grime MC Bella Gotti, while "My Palestinian Girl" pays eerie tribute to a paramour who caught Tricky's leering eye ("I take a trip to Gaza, it's love I'm really after," he rasps).

Consistent throughout Adrian Thaws is a brooding, searching spirit and a cinematic sense of atmosphere. Tricky's cinema, to be sure, is noir and then some, but he also knows how to pan back every now and then for a widescreen fantasia.—Andy Battaglia

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