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First Listen

First Listen: Thao & The Get Down Stay Down, 'We The Common'

Listen to Thao & The Get Down Stay Down's third album, We The Common, streaming now via WFUV and NPR Music, prior to its release on February 5 on Ribbon Music.

Quirky but cutting, playful but forceful, controlled but ragged, Thao Nguyen is one of the most commanding and distinctive young singers around. She infuses everything around her with electricity and mischievous boldness, from her live-wire concerts to the way her songs gallop and clamor, picking up intensity as they go along. With her band The Get Down Stay Down, Nguyen is about to release her third album — We the Common, out Feb. 5 — and it's full of tense, clattering folk-rock.

Produced by John Congleton, your go-to studio hand for musicians who stuff their songs with surprises, We the Common finds room for a fellow iconoclast in Joanna Newsom; in the shuffling "Kindness Be Conceived," the two find middle ground between Nguyen's hookiness and Newsom's eccentricity. But there's always been room for both of those qualities in any given Thao Nguyen song, where playful punches to the upper arm so often turn into body blows at a moment's notice. — Stephen Thompson

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

 

First Listen: Pantha Du Prince & The Bell Laboratory, 'Elements Of Light'

German producer Hendrik Weber, a.k.a. Pantha du Prince, teams up with Norwegian percussionists The Bell Laboratory to make a sweeping, mutating composition on the upcoming album Elements of Light, out on January 15 on Rough Trade. Listen to Elements of Light streaming now via WFUV and NPR Music.

Last year, dance music continued to experiment with performance and production styles that go beyond gazing at a laptop. Some artists embellish computer music with organic instruments, while others improvise using hardware rather than software, as Juju & Jordash and the Moritz von Oswald Trio do. Hamburg's Hendrik Weber, better known as Pantha du Prince, dives deeper into the former approach on his fourth album, Elements of Light, a collaboration with Norwegian percussion group The Bell Laboratory. Performing at European festivals since 2011, the pairing is apt, even obvious: Chiming bells, treated with delay to form dashing kaleidoscopic patterns, are well established as the producer's signature sound.

Weber perfected a singular sound on his second LP, This Bliss, a wintry but suavely melodic outgrowth of the style established by hometown label Dial. Although formally dance music, Pantha du Prince's productions get by on emotional rather than physical tension, an organic flux that's not exactly floor-friendly but impressive to behold; it's majestic and intimate at the same time. His next album, Black Noise, gained wider notice thanks to its release on Rough Trade and a collaboration with Panda Bear, but was even moodier — at times dense and knotted.

Elements of Light, out Jan. 15, is introduced by the imposing tones of a carillon — three tons of bells played with a keyboard, typically found in bell towers rather than on techno albums. The overtone-laden sounds produced by The Bell Laboratory's real-world percussion and Weber's digital counterpoint take turns as the center of attention, with long stretches mixed together seamlessly. There are only five tracks, but the album's two lengthy centerpieces, "Particle" and "Spectral Split," are so sweeping that the album ought to be experienced as a single, mutating composition, part DJ mix and part Music for 18 Musicians.

Elements of Light broadens the scope of Weber's project at a natural pace, displaying a sense of dynamics indebted to classical music. At times, it's more overtly sweet and even bombastic than any previous Pantha du Prince material: On the cresting waves of "Spectral Split," the carillon can't help but sound triumphant. At other points, it's all understated ambience, a few glassy notes circling in space. Listening to Elements of Light is about absorbing the gradual, swelling transitions by which Weber and The Bell Laboratory get from point A to points B–G and back again. The ensemble setup plays up Pantha du Prince's talent for arrangements, a way of braiding electronic and acoustic sounds into a richly imagined whole. Without underplaying his accessibility or taking the path of least resistance, Elements of Light illuminates Pantha du Prince's music from within. — Brandon Bussolini

Copyright 2013 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

 

First Listen: Indians, 'Somewhere Else'

On his first full-length album, Danish singer and multi-instrumentalist — and WFUV/TAS CMJ showcase alumnus —  Søren Løkke Juul, who goes by Indians, masters a kind of quiet adventurousness.  Listen to Indians' Somewhere Else, to be released January 15 on 4AD, streaming via WFUV and NPR Music.

The Danish singer and multi-instrumentalist who goes by the name Indians, a.k.a. Søren Løkke Juul, makes music that retains its intimacy even as it seems to sprawl out into space. On his first full-length album, Somewhere Else (out Jan. 29), he masters a kind of quiet adventurousness; it's remarkable headphone music that reaches both the heart and the loneliest reaches of the heavens.

Juul began performing as Indians in February 2012, and put out his first single even more recently than that, but he's already cultivated a delicate and distinct sound. He hits a few familiar indie-pop reference points as he works his way through Somewhere ElseBon Iver's wounded melancholy, The Shins' sweetly soaring grace — but Juul still finds a way to swirl them all together, seal the mix in a time capsule and send it hurtling into the cosmos. — Stephen Thompson

Copyright 2013 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org, or check out Indians' performance at our 2012 CMJ Showcase.

 

First Listen: Sufjan Stevens, 'Silver & Gold'

This week, NPR Music and WFUV present favorite new holiday records (even if they have already been officially released). Listen to Sufjan Stevens' latest collection of tinsel-draped tunes here.

Holiday music is often the domain of musicians who do the bare minimum. Available shortcuts abound: So many standards reside in the public domain, the arrangements write themselves, and expectations for the work as a whole generally hover somewhere in the neighborhood of "This could be nice, I suppose."

By contrast, part of what makes Sufjan Stevens' contributions to the Christmas canon so enduring and remarkable is that they're almost overpoweringly effort-intensive. He views the holidays as a labor of love — worthy of creativity and care, hard work and an ocean of ideas. Silver & Gold, his second five-disc box set of holiday music, almost literally overflows with gifts, from dozens upon dozens of songs to sheets of temporary tattoos, photos, art and other doodads. The package is overstuffed in virtually every way; decadent and lovely, reverent and silly, crafted with painstaking consideration but spontaneous enough to follow an AutoTuned "Good King Wenceslas" with an inexplicable cover of Prince's "Alphabet St."

Best doled out over the course of days, Silver & Gold contains nearly three hours of music, and impeccable grace never strays far from playful ridiculousness. The first disc, Gloria, would make a marvelous 25-minute holiday mini-album on its own, in the spirit of Low's Christmas and other essential modern-day entries in the holiday canon. But from there, Stevens sends listeners panning for treasures amid loopy indulgences; he rewards those who endure a nine-minute "Do You Hear What I Hear?" with one of his prettiest songs, "Christmas in the Room," before soon plunging headlong into the aforementioned Wenceslas-Prince abyss.

But of all the descriptions that apply to Silver & Gold, the one that fits best is that it's deeply felt. By definition, you don't release Christmas music five discs at a time if you don't mean it, or if you're just phoning it in for a quick buck. Sufjan Stevens goes all in for his favorite season, and his reward is beautiful and bonkers, and a work of wonder. — Stephen Thompson

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

 

First Listen: The Evens, 'The Odds'

On The Evens' third album, The Odds, husband-and-wife duo Ian MacKaye and Amy Farina confront what it means to be a grown-up punk. Stream The Odds now via WFUV and NPR Music prior to its November 20 release on MacKaye's label Dischord.

"Our audience is your clientele," goes the stickiest line on The Odds. It appears in one of the album's few moments of brightness: a twinkly interlude in "Competing With the Till" which blooms out of that song's grimness like a flower through a crack in the sidewalk. "Till" is a story to which any touring band can relate, in which a venue's broken equipment and indifferent staff leave the musicians wondering why the place hosts live music at all. When the owner needles them during sound check, asking why the patrons are out front socializing instead of inside buying drinks, they get their answer. Bands and bars both have bottom lines to worry about, but only one knows the difference between a good show and a profitable one.

It's easy for a teenager to champion sharing and inclusion over shrewd self-preservation, and that's what Ian MacKaye and Amy Farina were when they started their first bands. Times change. MacKaye, who founded Dischord Records and played in its flagship bands, and Farina, who spent years drumming all over the Washington, D.C., rock scene, are now the married parents of a 4-year-old. MacKaye turned 50 earlier this year. On their third album as The Evens, the two confront what it means to be a grown-up punk: how to question authority while accepting adult responsibility.

That struggle takes many forms on The Odds. The music isn't explosive, the way MacKaye's Fugazi and Farina's The Warmers often were. It's ruminative, down-tempo, with more singing than shouting and hardly any crunch on MacKaye's baritone guitar — all of which leaves plenty of space around the lyrics for listeners to fill in. "I Do Myself" profiles a rebel without a cause, bored stiff by comfort and stability; "Wanted Criminals" examines powerful people who harass the underclass for sport. The two tracks appear back to back, offering an uneasy parallel between the layabout and the plutocrat. The dots might never be explicitly connected, but the message is there: If it's in your power to effect change, doing nothing can be just as destructive as doing ill.

Elsewhere, the struggle is internal. "Sooner or Later" paints a fraught picture of the creative process, pointing out the mental traps and misleading impulses that await anyone trying to make something cool: "First comes illusion with its well-laid plans / The strategy so detailed / Then comes denial, with its outstretched hands / Failing is not failing 'til the failing has failed." We live and die by knowing whom to trust, and we thrive creatively by applying the same rule to the little hobgoblins in our own minds.

There's a great old photo of Fugazi performing on the National Mall, with the Washington Monument looming behind the crowd, higher than anything in sight. The cover of The Odds is almost identically composed — but in the monument's place, MacKaye and Farina's son Carmine stands in silhouette, appearing to tower over tourists, trees and even the Capitol building. It's a nice distillation of how growing older shifts your priorities, whether or not you feel ready. For The Evens, that might mean fighting smaller, more quotidian battles, but it hasn't meant abandoning the values that led them into music. You can slow down without giving up. -- Daoud Tyler-Ameen

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

 

First Listen: Cody ChesnuTT, 'Landing On A Hundred'

Listen to Cody ChesnuTT's new album, his first full-length release in a decade, Landing on a Hundred, streaming now via WFUV and NPR Music, prior to its release on October 30.

Cody ChesnuTT has never lacked hubris: This is, after all, the guy who called his first album The Headphone Masterpiece and stuffed it with three dozen songs. The Southern soul singer's breakthrough track from that frequently brilliant record, reworked as "The Seed 2.0" on The Roots' 2002 album Phrenology, finds ChesnuTT fantasizing about his legacy by envisioning procreation as a metaphor for the birth of rock 'n' roll. This guy thinks big — about his life, his history, his place on a musical and historical continuum, and his hope for salvation and growth.

But most of ChesnuTT's bold moments are confined to that big year, and a full decade has passed since The Headphone Masterpiece; aside from an EP and a self-released live record, ChesnuTT hasn't surfaced much in the many years leading up to Landing on a Hundred, due out Oct. 30. Thankfully, though the new album trims the singer's ambitions to a comparatively lean 12 songs, it fleshes out and enriches his sound in every way, while showcasing a powerful voice that still conjures Stevie Wonder and countless other influences and antecedents.

ChesnuTT demonstrates his considerable ambition at various points on Landing on a Hundred, but what he really celebrates is audacity — particularly in the form of adherence to one's cultural inheritance, whether he's standing on the shoulders of African nations in "I've Been Life" or living out his mother's dreams in "That's Still Mama." For all the album's grandiosity, aided by production miles beyond what ChesnuTT pulled off in his bedroom on The Headphone Masterpiece, Landing on a Hundred keeps coming back to the humbler pursuit of redemption in the face of demons and temptation ("Everybody's Brother," "Don't Wanna Go the Other Way"). From the grandly appreciative "Til I Met Thee" on, it's a dynamite collection of timeless, celebratory soul music that yearns for meaning, views life as a circuitous journey, and finds cause to seek hope and give thanks along the way. — Stephen Thompson

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

 

First Listen: 'REWORK_Philip Glass Remixed'

Listen to REWORK_Philip Glass Remixed — featuring remixes from Beck, Dan Deacon, Tyondai Braxton, Efterklang's Peter Broderick and more — prior to the album's release on October 16, vIa WFUV and NPR Music.

It makes sense that Philip Glass' 75th-birthday festivities would stretch out as long as they have, his work subjected to celebratory tributes, re-examinations and performances more than eight months after the big day back in January. For as often as Glass is pigeonholed as a minimalist, his real trademark is his work's malleability and sheer volume: Glass writes operas, film scores, theater pieces and everything in between, stretched out over the course of untold archived hours. So, while many tribute-album projects draw from a limited and fairly predictable archive of greatest hits, an album paying tribute to Glass — in this case re-envisioning his work as a series of 12 remixes in 80-plus minutes — could head in virtually any direction imaginable.

REWORK_Philip Glass Remixed usually meets somewhere in the middle between calming ambient pieces and kinetic electronic contraptions, with a frequent emphasis on pastiche that suits both its subject and its highest-profile guest participants. Beck, for example, stitches together more than 20 Glass works in as many minutes, living up to his stated desire to present a distillation of the composer's entire career as a continuum; the result moves through many phases, with frequently gorgeous results. Dan Deacon, who knows his way around compositions that swirl and clatter hypnotically, constructs "Alight Spiral Snip" around repetitive dissonance before letting the piece give way to smeared-out beauty. Tyondai Braxton gives "Rubric" a toy-box peppiness redolent of his own compositions, while Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson — who knows his way around works both orchestral and experimental — crafts what sounds like an especially inventive bit of portentous film score in "Protest."

It's a testament to Glass' distinctive genius that these 12 varied approaches — and remix artists as diverse as Pantha Du Prince, Cornelius and Efterklang's Peter Broderick — hang together collectively as well as they do. And, of course, REWORK doesn't stop there: It's getting its own interactive app — designed by Scott Snibbe Studio, which worked on Bjork's Biophilia project — that gives these songs a visual stamp and lets users emulate Glass themselves. Which is, of course, an appropriate way to give these second-generation pieces yet more lives beyond what Glass himself envisioned. Why should the music stop breathing and evolving once these folks are done with it? — Stephen Thompson

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

 

First Listen: Tame Impala, 'Lonerism'

Not a collection of psychedelic freakouts so much as a collection of controlled psychedelic slow-burns, Tame Impala's Lonerism makes alienation and introversion sound both alluring and, ironically, inviting. Listen to Lonerism streaming now via WFUV and NPR Music prior to the album's October 9 release.

On the surface, Tame Impala is another big, brash, psychedelic rock band, with lots of fussy studio tricks and grandiose solos — even on disc, a light show is implied. Kevin Parker's vocals can seem almost secondary to guitars that buzz and fuzz compellingly, but his emotional distance serves a thematic purpose: For Tame Impala, Parker writes songs about solitude, and about maintaining distance from others that needn't be literal.

Both of the Australian band's album titles tell the same story: Innerspeaker. Lonerism. The latter's songs, even when only fragments of a given lyric can be discerned, convey a sense of walls being built; of an arm's length being extended. Not a collection of psychedelic freakouts so much as a collection of controlled psychedelic slow-burns — though the fat, swirling guitars in "Endors Toi" would make Swervedriver proud — Lonerism (out Oct. 9) makes alienation and introversion sound both alluring and, ironically, inviting. — Stephen Thompson

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

 

First Listen: Flying Lotus, 'Until The Quiet Comes'

Flying Lotus' new album, Until The Quiet Comes, drops next week, October 2, and you can listen to it streaming now via WFUV and NPR Music.

For nearly a decade, electronic composer Steven Ellison, a.k.a. Flying Lotus, has churned out living, breathing collages of hip-hop, dubstep, jazz and blues. A disciple of the late beatmaster J Dilla, Ellison is the current king of the beat scene in Los Angeles.

Both his own music and the music of the artists on Ellison's Brainfeeder label have turned what started as instrumental hip-hop into a sound of his own. It's a wonky bundle of skittering beats, bass-heavy bottoms and delicate, melodic tops. Over the years, FlyLo has added to and refined this voice, and Until the Quiet Comes (out October 2) plays like it comes from a tunesmith intimately familiar with his toolbox.

Ellison wends his way through a wide, dizzying canyon of sounds and sensations, all while keeping his cool. The result is intricate enough to make listeners scramble to dissect every little flourish in the mix, but it's also so sonically brash and powerful that it's hard not to let the whole body of sound wash over you. Until the Quiet Comes operates as a continuous thread of music, with a coherent flow of transitioning moods.

It starts off busy: "All In" is an introduction spun from bells, snares, shakers, harps, guitars, basses, kicks and a lilting voice in the background. The temperature cools as a voice wafts into the mix and seduces the ear into another barrage of thumping drum patterns. It's a method Ellison has mastered: lulling listeners with intoxicating melodies, then smacking them upside the head with a sobering bass kick.

This is far from the only trick in FlyLo's bag. Take, for example, "Sultan's Request": Forceful from the outset, the bending synths romp through the track as though they could rip holes through a dance floor. That is, until the low end comes in: an absurd drop of snaking bass that dwarfs the monster sounds preceding it. Then, Ellison jumps out of this low-frequency swamp back into the upper register, by bringing in helium-huffing samples that bounce beneath a steady string of hand claps. He moves from low to high, dense to sparse, mellow to frantic, dark to light, and almost always hits a sweet spot somewhere in between.

Ellison also possesses a knack for bringing in talent, whether as head of the exquisitely curated Brainfeeder or as an artist in search of featured guests. Featured on Until the Quiet Comes are past collaborators Erykah Badu and Thom Yorke. In "See Through to You," layers of Badu's voice are woven into loose, overlapping patterns that function as fibers in FlyLo's sonic quilt. Elsewhere, Yorke's voice haunts "Electric Candyman" with a reverb-thick roll. The Brainfeeder bassist Thundercat is here, too, making an appearance in "DMT Song," a swirling bag of vocals and plucked strings. Niki Randa and Laura Darlington's contributions exemplify Ellison's penchant for using vocals with a ghostly quality to them.

At just more than three-quarters of an hour, Flying Lotus' new album beats with a heart unique to its creator. With each release, FlyLo adds to his palette of sounds without cluttering his arrangements. Until the Quiet Comes is Ellison's most sonically adventurous and least muddled journey yet, as well as a trip worth taking over and over again — the quiet can come later. — Sami Yenigun

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

 

First Listen: Melody's Echo Chamber, 'Melody's Echo Chamber'

Melody's Echo Chamber, the self-titled debut album by Paris-based musician Melody Prochet, is a retro-sounding record that nods to many traditions (glam, hard rock, psychedelic rock, folk) without ever adhering to one. LIsten to Melody's Echo Chamber streaming now via WFUV and NPR Music prior to its release next Tuesday, September 25 on Fat Possum.

The album's opening song, "I Follow You," sounds like Best Coast, if you transplanted Bethany Cosentino's sunny California beach anthems to a cloudy day on the Brittany coast. "You Won't Be Missing That Part of Me" and "Mount Hopeless" wobble into line behind Broadcast and Can — the rhythms on Melody's Echo Chamber split time between rock and jazz — but the album recalls psychedelia-inflected rock the same way so much of chillwave is based on dance music. The elements are all there, but they're muddier, moodier and meant to trigger the feeling or the memory of the thing rather than incite the thing itself. Listening to Melody's Echo Chamber is like plugging into the analog Matrix.

"Some Time Alone, Alone" follows the album's basic formula: The instruments whip up a hazy atmosphere inside which Prochet's vocals suspend. The words are often hard to pick out. Prochet sings in English on some songs and in French on others, but there are times when you can easily lose track of which until a word or two peeks out from the reverb. In both "Snowcapped Andes Crash" and "Crystallized," she abandons vocals for extended periods that feature noisy but controlled experimentation. The melody and the atmosphere are the key ingredients; they keep the songs intriguing, but a little distant. The album sometimes has the effect of making you feel like you've happened upon a person in the middle of an intensely private moment, before you notice that they're posed perfectly to be caught.

That sounds like a dig, but noticing doesn't make it less attractive. Music like this requires careful layering: Prochet recorded the album with Kevin Parker of Tame Impala, and his fondness for grooves with crunch around the edges rather than bounce makes him a good fit for her misty vocals. Besides, there are too many hooks in Prochet's songwriting for Melody's Echo Chamber to get predictable, even when she's combining familiar elements from rock's past. The CD itself features a yin-yang symbol combined with a smiley-face. You can read that as jumbled pastiche or a knowing joke — a symbol reflecting Prochet's willingness to tweak her musty but beloved relics. The 45 minutes of music on Melody's Echo Chamber suggests she knows what she's doing. — Jacob Ganz

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

 

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