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First Listen

First Listen: Grizzly Bear, 'Shields'

Grizzly Bear is back with its fourth album, Shields. Stream the album now, via WFUV and NPR Music, prior to the record's release on September 18 (September 17 in the UK/EU) on Warp Records.

For a band with a firm grasp on pristine, precise production and immaculate vocal harmonies, Grizzly Bear can be inscrutable at times: Its members have been known to use their formidable studio chops in the pursuit of what can sound like puzzles waiting to be solved.

Take "Sleeping Ute," the lead track from Grizzly Bear's fourth album, the follow-up to its 2009 breakthrough Veckatimest. With its lush flourishes and strange psychedelic side roads, the song lurches in about six directions at once, testing listeners who like their songs to travel in straight lines. Shields (out Sept. 18) can be hard to latch onto in spots, but it rewards the effort — with both strange sonic surprises and a few hooky, expansive ringers.

With vocals that recall the choirboy-in-a-cavern anthemics of My Morning Jacket, "Half Gate" and especially "Yet Again" find a catchy, agreeable compromise between experimentation and soaring grace. In other spots, Shields gets spare and quiet — particularly in "The Hunt" and "What's Wrong," both of which drift into airy, barely there minimalism. By the time it winds down, the album has found an effective way to fuse its gentle and majestically booming sides in the seven-minute knockout "Sun in Your Eyes."

Sometimes delicate and eccentric, at others grandiose — and always many steps beyond the Brooklyn band's beginnings as a home-recording project for singer Ed Droste — Shields rarely sounds like a bid for greater commercial success. But it does showcase the considerable gifts of four guys willing to hover patiently through the detours, without sacrificing the beauty that makes the journey worthwhile. — Stephen Thompson

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

 

First Listen: Dinosaur, Jr., 'I Bet On Sky'

Listen to Dinosaur Jr.'s 10th studio album, I Bet On Sky, streaming now via WFUV and NPR Music prior to the record's release on September 18 on Jagjaguwar.

Many bands have performed more concerts than Dinosaur Jr. in the last 27 years, but have any done more damage to the hearing of fans foolish enough to show up without earplugs? Dinosaur Jr. has three members — including original bassist and occasional singer Lou Barlow, who rejoined the group in 2005 — but it gets a more-than-able assist from stacks of amplifiers set to pulverize. Ever seen singer-guitar J Mascis perform a solo show? It's just a single, bespectacled, white-haired gnome and his guitar, and the volume is punishing.

I Bet on Sky, Dinosaur Jr.'s 10th studio album, knows where its strengths lie: namely, in volume, particularly when Mascis lets his guitars speak and shout on his behalf. The album tosses in more than enough surprises to stave off monotony — keyboards in the album-opening "Don't Pretend You Didn't Know," Barlow's lead vocals in "Rude" and "Recognition" — but it's still bound to please Dinosaur Jr. fans accustomed to a vital, wiry sound built on guitars, Mascis' distinctive whine, and more guitars.

I Bet on Sky channels the best of Dinosaur Jr.'s lethargic fury, as Mascis continues to wrap words of alienation and ennui in wiry energy, not to mention guitars that shred and shred some more. The result still feels fresh, 27 years on. Just don't skimp on the earplugs. — Stephen Thompson

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

 

First Listen: David Byrne And St. Vincent, 'Love This Giant'

David Byrne and St. Vincent's Annie Clark brassily collide and collaborate on Love This Giant, an album that took the pair three years to make. The record won't be released until next Tuesday, but listen to it now via WFUV and NPR Music.

There's essentially no way for a collaboration between Talking Heads' David Byrne and St. Vincent's Annie Clark to exceed the sum of its parts. Each artist is distinctive enough, and dominant enough over the work on which he or she appears, that their sensibilities can't be blended so much as stacked in such a way that they coexist simultaneously. Still, Love This Giant (out September 11) brings Byrne and Clark together in provocative and frequently exciting ways, thanks in part to a slyly funky horn section and an overarching sense of brainy boldness.

Though they swap lead-vocal duties, Byrne's jittery, globe-trotting eclecticism tends to overshadow Clark's efforts, in part because the horns' volume forces her guitar work out of the foreground. But Byrne sounds more invigorated than he has in years, and as one of the best young singers, arrangers and guitarists in the business, Clark possesses a craftsmanship-intensive oddness which meshes nicely with his.

Besides the considerable talent on display here — in addition to the headliners, the album features the work of producers John Congleton and Patrick Dillett, as well as guests Antibalas and The Dap-Kings in the horn-flooded "The One Who Broke Your Heart" — the key ingredient on Love This Giant is energy. There's a funky, live-wire, anything-goes feel throughout the record, as it honks and soars through strange ruminations on aging, culture and nature, while showcasing a persistent flair for movement and mayhem. — Stephen Thompson

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

 

First Listen: The xx, 'Coexist'

Listen to the xx's new album Coexist here, courtesy of WFUV and NPR Music,  prior to its September 11 release.

The word "dynamic" gets tossed around a lot when listeners talk about music — as a way of acknowledging diversity, unpredictability and, often, a keen ability to execute the transition from tense quiet to pummeling release. For the deliberately paced likes of Sigur Ros and Mogwai, on past a zillion quiet-loud-quiet rock bands whose inspirations lead back through the Pixies and beyond, dynamism is a core ingredient and a central strength.

The xx is not a dynamic band. Particularly on the new Coexist, out Sept. 11, the Mercury Prize winners' songs play like introductions to longer pieces that will eventually explode into bludgeoning catharsis — and yet instead merely whisper, shimmer and seethe some more. Unlike Low, whose slow-moving music varies in volume rather than pace, The xx simply lets its songs billow out softly and quietly, with only achingly pretty guitar lines to lessen the tension. At times, the follow-up to The xx's more fleshed-out debut feels experimental in its minimalism; in "Reunion," the distant, vaguely otherworldly pinging of a steel drum jumps out as if it were a Neil Peart solo. Even in Coexist's most percussion-intensive moments ("Swept Away," "Sunset"), the beat often sounds as if it's drifting in from space.

Still, Coexist's chilly quiet shouldn't be mistaken for aloofness. The London band invests these 11 songs with real, bruised emotion, whether Romy Madley Croft is exposing her lovesick nerves in "Angels" or she and Oliver Sim are exuding wounded regret in "Sunset." In "Missing" — not to be confused with the classic song by The xx's more dance-minded spiritual ancestors in Everything but the Girl — Sim brings his ache to the front of the mix, singing, "My heart is beating in a different way" as Croft's voice swirls behind him.

In the months and years to come, Coexist's songs are bound to be reworked, chopped to bits and remixed around ever more insistent dance beats. So now is a perfect chance to soak them up in their purest form: delicately crafted so that every softly ringing note, and every aching second of dead air, hits like a cymbal crash. — Stephen Thompson

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

 

First Listen: Stars, 'The North'

Listen to Stars' new album The North, released next week, via WFUV and NPR Music here.

The Montreal pop band Stars has always kept several sensibilities in rotation: Its arsenal includes fizzy pop, melancholy dance music, boy-girl ballads that flesh out the painful realities of modern romantic life, and anthems that address war, politics, gender dynamics and even the meaning of life. As such, Stars' albums tend to jump around a bit — rarely more so than on The North, the group's sixth full-length record, out Sept. 4.

Any given Stars fan ought to find something to like on The North, whether it's the springy pop-rock song "Backlines," the gorgeous balladry of "The 400," the over-the-top dramatics of "Do You Want to Die Together?" or the grandiose mission statement of "Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It." As always, singers Amy Millan and Torquil Campbell bring distinct personas to the equation: He's the sort of self-styled truth-teller who can be achingly open-hearted or a bit of a cad (or both), while she's winsome but practical, conveying wounded nobility without fully disguising a distinct edge. Throughout The North, Millan and Campbell sing together often, most effectively blending their voices in the lovely album-closer "Walls," in which she answers his "Do you love me?" with a heartbreaking "What am I supposed to say?"

With so many sounds and styles to run through, The North takes a little while to unpack, and its thematic intentions are generally a little cloudier than on its greatest albums, 2005's Set Yourself on Fire and 2007's In Our Bedroom After the War. But, like all the band's work to date, it rewards exploration with moments that alternately swoon, seethe, swing and paralyze. — Stephen Thompson

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

 

First Listen: Animal Collective's 'Centipede Hz'

Animal Collective's upcoming Centipede Hz will be released in the States on September 4 (the day before in the UK/EU) via Domino Records. Listen to the album streaming now, courtesy of WFUV and NPR Music.

It says a lot for Animal Collective's eclectic career that the new Centipede Hz could have headed in virtually any direction imaginable. After 2009's smash Merriwether Post Pavilion — a frequently beautiful exercise in hypnotic, psychedelic rock bliss — Avey Tare and Panda Bear might have explored ever-denser harmonies, or washed-out 21st-century beach-pop, or any flight of fancy they've yet devised or thought of devising. What they chose may be the least expected option of all: They decide to remind listeners that they still lead a rock band.

Sure, Animal Collective muddies the waters with electronics, samples, and blips and burps of varied and indeterminate origin. But Centipede Hz, out Sept. 4, is jagged and assertive; it snarls and heaves, supported by electric musculature. The first single, "Today's Supernatural," makes that mission clear, as Avey Tare hollers "Let let let let let let let go!" over what sounds like a sonic car crash.

At times, Centipede Hz seems almost deliberately alienating, as if Avey Tare, Panda Bear and their collaborators felt the need to tone down commercial and artistic expectations — say, back to a level someplace beneath "reinventing music as we know it." But, more to the point, the album captures the sound of studio wizards who are once again ready to unleash some sweaty savagery on the live stage. — Stephen Thompson

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

 

First Listen: Cat Power With 'Sun'

Cat Power returns with a powerful new album, Sun, out on September 4, which you can stream now via WFUV and NPR Music.

Chan Marshall, the creative force behind Cat Power, has long been indie rock's standard-bearer for melancholy navel gazing. In a career spanning nearly two decades, she's produced a large catalog of mostly moody confessionals, mixing blues, folk and arty punk with a swoon-inducing, transcendent voice. She could sing random figures from her tax returns and convey more heartache and angst than many other artists could match in their deepest moments.

But on Sun, Marshall's first full-length collection of new songs in more than six years, the Georgia native has taken a surprising turn from her long-established themes and sound to produce her most joyful, sonically adventurous album to date. Sun, out Sept. 4, is also the best record she's ever made.

Fans hoping for another rainy-day companion won't find much comfort on the appropriately titled Sun. The delicate guitar and piano lines — and the wispy, introspective poetry of earlier Cat Power recordings — have been obliterated by propulsive synths, drum machines and urgent, densely layered vocals. It's a bold, sometimes epic and thrilling sound Marshall crafted and produced entirely on her own, playing every instrument and singing every part at her Malibu studio. The songs were later mixed by Philippe Zdar.

Marshall didn't arrive at this point in her music easily. After releasing her soul-inspired album The Greatest in 2006, the singer was crippled by debt, went bankrupt and was briefly hospitalized for stress. She eventually began writing again, but abandoned everything she'd done after a friend told her the songs were too sad and familiar. So Marshall took time off to reevaluate her approach to music. After an extended hiatus, she returned to the studio with a new game plan that relied heavily on the electronics and driving dance beats heard on Sun. Marshall calls it her "rebirth."

It can be hard for longtime fans of an artist to embrace changes as dramatic as the ones Marshall makes here. Sun may alienate some listeners who prefer to snuggle under a heavy blanket with Cat Power's sadder, older sound. But the album is also likely to draw in a new batch of fans struck by its power and triumphant beauty. Either way, it's one of 2012's biggest surprises and best records: an irresistible collection from an inspired, fearless and curious artist. – Robin Hilton

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

 

First Listen: Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti's 'Mature Themes'

Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti returns with a second album, Mature Themes, on August 21 via 4AD. It's a record that Steve Thompson of NPR Music calls an "alternately strange and sweet surprise." Listen to the album streaming now, courtesy of TAS sister station WFUV and NPR Music.

For the man known as Ariel Pink, albums aren't so much collections of songs so much as dump trucks full of ideas: some good, some bad, some ridiculous, some stupid, some disarmingly good-natured, all smashed together in an unpredictable mosaic. Even an individual Ariel Pink song, like 2010's breakthrough single "Round and Round," might alternate between gasp-inducing prettiness and awkward stumbles. As he's moved beyond his lo-fi bedroom-recording roots — and learned how to better control the outcomes of his experimentation — the juxtaposition has only gotten more striking.

Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti project is about to release its first album since the success of "Round and Round," and Mature Themes (out August 21) finds a way to both capitalize on Pink's new-found budget and explore the flights of fancy that made his name. The deadpan double entrendres of "Is This the Best Spot?" would've made it an easy fit on college radio circa 1981 — while, if anything, "Schnitzel Boogie" is more aggravating than its title suggests — but crossover potential peeks through on Mature Themes, especially in singles like "Only in My Dreams" and an album-closing cover of Donnie and Joe Emerson's "Baby."

During "Only in My Dreams" in particular, Ariel Pink locates the closest thing he's got to a hit-making formula: a hard-to-resist mix of the verses' gee-whiz primitivism and the choruses' spangly, breathless lushness. On Mature Themes, Pink isn't foolish enough to run that approach into the ground. Instead, he converts each sensation he cultivates — from swooning all the way to revulsion — into an alternately strange and sweet surprise. — Steve Thompson

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

 

First Listen: Passion Pit's 'Gossamer'

Gossamer is a perfect title for Passion Pit's new record. The long-awaited follow-up to its breakthrough album, 2009's Manners, finds the band spinning shimmering silk from many intricately layered threads: airy synths, warm bass, crisp snares, crashing cymbals, singer Michael Angelakos' expressive falsetto. Each song positively glows.

(Ed. Note: Angelakos announced on the band's website on Monday that Passion Pit will be cancelling the balance of its July dates so that he can "take the time to work on improving my mental health." The cancellations include the band's stop at New York's Apollo Theater on July 23).

Listen to Gossamer here.

Grace and delicacy encompass only part of Gossamer's appeal — at times, the record is bombastic, even brutal. "I'll Be Alright" opens with bass blasting, synths slashing and cymbals exploding in a wash of digital clipping, while snippets of baby-voiced cooing mimic the infectious melody Angelakos is about to introduce. It's daring, powerful and impressively nuanced.

Gossamer stands out for its depth and richness; its variety of textures. In "Cry Like a Ghost," chiseled, sampled squeals cut sharply through whirring keys and fuzzy low-end before opening up into a spectral, synthesized chorus. In "Constant Conversations," the band juxtaposes soft harmonies and concrete kicks to give the slow jam an R&B-style sway.

Gossamer vacillates like a torrid romance: Every moment is touch and go, on and off, quiet as a whisper and then loud as a yell. Angelakos' lyrics suggest a love life filled with ups and downs. "Cry Like a Ghost," for example, finds him remembering a relationship trapped in a vicious cycle: "Sylvia / Right back where you came from you're a pendulum / Heartbroken and numb." But he doesn't wallow in the sadness: Gossamer is pure catharsis. It's all about strength, moving forward, forgetting — and giving life to the party even as it doles out condolences to the lonely. - Austin Cooper

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

 

First Listen: Hot Chip And 'In Our Heads'

The quirky dynamic that defines Hot Chip has served the UK quintet well, but perhaps never as fully — or confidently —  as it does on the band's outstanding fifth album, In Our Heads.  The record drops June 12 on Domino Records (June 11 in the UK/EU), but preview it now courtesy of TAS sister station WFUV and NPR Music.

Jacob Ganz of NPR, who believes that In Our Heads is the most "expansive, universal album" that the band has done, also writes: "Hot Chip's version of dance music, though, is not about tension and release, but the twinned joy and melancholy of being held tight by something you love, whether a perfect dance song or another person. "

[video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1-bgl9JKD0]

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