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First Listen: Morrissey, 'World Peace Is None Of Your Business'

Listen to Morrissey's World Peace Is None Of Your Business, his tenth solo release, streaming now via WFUV and NPR Music before the album's release on July 15.

The rhetorical essence of punk is the decision to say what others believe should not be said. It points out the "no" lurking within or near every "yes." It demands an ongoing reckoning with true outsiders, and with what remains wrong in society despite everyone's best efforts, simply because people and the structures they make are flawed.

By this definition — more philosophical than musical — Steven Patrick Morrissey is the greatest punk rocker ever to spit in a queen's eye. Morrissey would likely be horrified that a critic would call him a punk at 55 (or at any age, really); his music with The Smiths and throughout his long solo career is so much more melodic and eclectic than what that term often invokes. Yet with his 10th solo album, World Peace is None of Your Business, he reasserts punk's impropriety as the force that makes his music inimitable.

World Peace is sweepingly powerful and effortlessly transgressive. Morrissey is in fine mature voice, belting with gusto and going gentle without strain. His touring band provides wide-ranging support in arrangements that incorporate everything from Portuguese fado to lounge-music cool to rock grandiosity. Longtime guitarist Boz Boorer is the anchor; Gustavo Manzur, on keyboards and percussion, is the utility player pushing the sound. Producer Joe Chiccarelli makes it all cohere, giving Morrissey room to emote within the wash of musical elements.

The title track of World Peace is a directly political song, an angry shout of empathy for those suffering in hot spots from Egypt to Ukraine. But it also decries the value of protest, or any kind of engagement with the system as it stands. "You poor little fool," he hectors kindly at those who would hold signs or even cast ballots. Pop protest songs usually offer uplift, dwelling in alternate realities. Punk ones like this say: No future, as things stand, for you.

This is Morrissey's way — demolition through critique. The Smiths-like "Staircase at the University" depicts the suicide of an academically overpressured student. "The Bullfighter Dies" celebrates human loss in the name of animal rights. "Kick the Bride Down the Aisle" passes (arguably too-cruel) judgment on its female subject within a critique of wedded bliss. The Burt Bacharach-like "I'm Not a Man" lists everything Moz finds execrable about masculinity, ending with a bitter cri de coeur: "I'd never destroy this planet I am on! What'ya think I am, a man?" But wait: To those who say we can transcend such roles, Morrissey offers the sweet heartache of "Earth is the Loneliest Planet," a Latin-flavored lament for someone stuck within gender dysphoria, feeling like a failure as both a woman and a man.

His character sketches prove Morrissey's commitment to real human diversity — not the shiny rainbow kind, but the sort that gives voice to irredeemable misfits, to mean people, to criminals. "Mountjoy" reflects on the history of one of Ireland's best-known prisons from the perspective of an anonymous prisoner who can "only cry when I see the sky." The equally devastating "Istanbul" captures the guilt-ridden voice of a father who has lost his son to gang violence. These portraits, like so many Morrissey has written, stay where it's painful, and in doing so are profoundly compassionate.

In middle age, Morrissey may feel the need for some compassion himself. "Oboe Concerto," the album's closing set piece, brilliantly blends pique at the human condition — the oboe in the lyrics (musically represented, eccentrically, by Boorer's clarinet and sax) represents unsettling thoughts, like a hated song "stuck in my head" — with a rueful awareness of mortality brought on by the recent loss of close friends. A feisty drum solo leads not to catharsis, but to Morrissey muttering, for half a minute, "round, round, rhythm of life goes round." He's not affirming anything. He's just being realistic, saying what has to be said. —Ann Powers

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

 

First Listen: Cloud Boat, 'Model Of You'

Listen to Cloud Boat's Model Of You streaming now via FUV and NPR Music before the album's release on July 15 via Apollo Records.

"The madness runs in cycles," Tom Clarke sings forebodingly in "The Glow," one of the highlights of the U.K. duo Cloud Boat's second album. The music rushes along, propelled by the high-efficiency tick of a drum loop, but there's no trace of madness or even anxiety in his voice. Instead, Clarke radiates priestly calm as he gives listeners a set of vague, odd instructions: "Take some of these candles," he intones darkly, as if calling from some Middle Ages theater. "The glow will guide you."

It's folly to pin down the precise narrative intent, but the measured delivery suggests there's grieving going on, and/or attempts to comfort some devastated soul. After a bit, a hollowed-out spirit voice appears from a faraway corner of the mix, reminding, "This is not the end."

The air is solemn, the mood reinforced by monk-like voices echoing through vast, empty stone chambers. It's as if we're eavesdropping on the nocturnal rituals of some secretive ancient church — except this one uses deftly arranged electric guitars and thrumming backbeats as pathways to enlightenment. The British duo of Clarke and multi-instrumentalist Sam Ricketts ventured into similar electro-dreamscapes on 2013's Book of Hours, but now, with help from producer Andy Savours (Sigur Ros, My Bloody Valentine), the two have greatly expanded and deepened the sound palette and, more crucially, the atmosphere. If the first record outlined Cloud Boat's general coordinates, this one offers a detailed view of the topography, with sharply rendered peaks and riveting, if typically disquieting, valleys.

The album opens with the mostly instrumental "Prelude," which features neatly interconnected guitar arpeggios stacked atop each other — one among several devices that derive directly from Ricketts' classical composition training. The guitar-chorale chime continues into the dramatic "Hideaway," which carries more pattern pulse, and also proud traces of the Cure. The verses move at a thoughtful pace, swelling up and gathering intensity until they crest in an astonishing widescreen refrain. It's cinematic stuff, but not in the usual rock-anthem way; even when Cloud Boat goes big, there's refreshing post-rock doubt bubbling beneath the fervor.

Here and elsewhere, Clarke augments his callow, detached vocals with unusual washes of harmony and ghostly contrasting counter-lines. These big, often majestic vocal arrays sometimes recall classic pop, but more often occupy their own shadowy airspace. It's possible to compare the vocals in a tune like the brisk "Thoughts in Mine" to those Brian Eno used circa Before and After Science, or the similarly consonant ones of The National, but that only puts you in the general vicinity — this duo has developed its own distinctive dreamspace. It centers on the massed and collaged voices, and from there extends through unusual combinations of acoustic and electronic instruments.

That mix is uncannily suited to Cloud Boat's favorite lyrical themes: the exploration of spirituality, connection, the search for meaning in an alienating world. Rather than make absolute pronouncements with flag-waving conviction, Cloud Boat dwells deep inside some otherworldly, mysterious, metaphysical murk, an aura that's inviting and impenetrable at the same time. — Tom Moon

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

 

First Listen: Strand of Oaks, 'Heal'

Listen to Strand of Oaks' Heal streaming now on FUV and NPR Music before the album's release on June 24 via Dead Oceans.

Philadelphia's Timothy Showalter has never been one to shy from a complicated metaphor in conveying his pathos. Take "Daniel's Blues" off his 2010 album made as Strand of Oaks, Pope Killdragon, where he voices actor Dan Ackroyd after the death of John Belushi, exacting revenge on the drug dealer responsible for his friend's death with a shotgun and signing on for Ghostbusters. All of this gets told in Showalter's dark yet ethereal folk. Another album featured songs set in a post-apocalyptic world.

From the title to the bracing opening moments of "Goshen 97," Strand of Oaks' latest album, Heal, is decidedly more direct and immediate. With blasts of overdriven guitars (courtesy of Dinosuar Jr.'s J. Mascis) and drums, "Goshen 97" is a glorious paean to teenhood. Furtively smoking menthols in his bedroom and singing Smashing Pumpkins in the mirror, Showalter also sings a song of himself, of how he came to love his muse via his dad's old tape machine. "That's where the magic began/I was lonely/but I was having fun," he howls.

Rather than rely on fantasy and the fantastical for his songs and sound, Showalter's gaze here is a sober (and sobering) one. The ten songs that comprise Heal had their genesis in personal crisis, with Showalter's marriage crumbling apart while he was thousands of miles from home on an endless tour. Upon his return home, he took a personal inventory, using the songwriting process as catharsis.

The title track echoes fellow singer/songwriter Sharon Van Etten's "Give Up" (from her 2012 album Tramp) as he details his own struggles with alcohol and the other perils of life on the road, finally reaching the catharsis on the chorus of "You gotta heal!" And while Showalter's lyrics have peeled back to the most raw and elemental of details, now he adds more musical layers. Gone is the skeletal American folk of previous Strand of Oaks' albums. Heal instead favors a hefty classic rock sound, full of thundering drums, glints of synthesizer and soaring guitar lines that lead into anthemic hooks.

Showalter namechecks not just his peer Van Etten but also the late Jason Molina of Songs: Ohia and The Magnolia Electric Co., who died from complications due to alcoholism last year. In interviews, Showalter says he met Molina just once, but the heart of Heal resides in the brooding seven-minute ode to him entitled "JM." It's a slow burn that brings to mind Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer," careening from hushed reverence and remembrance in the verses to searing guitar cri de coeur at the chorus. By song's end, Showalter gleans that defiant aspect of Molina's songcraft: "I won't let these dark times win/We got your sweet tunes to play." In considering the excellence of Strand of Oaks' Heal, it's easy to hear how it might serve as curative to a new generation of songwriters.—Andy Beta

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

 

First Listen: The Antlers, 'Familiars'

Listen to The Antlers' Familiars streaming now, courtesy of the artist, FUV and NPR Music, before the album's release on June 17.

The 2009 album Hospice sparked a major breakthrough for The Antlers, but it's not the sort of success a band would want to duplicate, even if it could. As the title suggests, Hospice was built around a dark unifying theme — an examination of the events surrounding the slow death of singer Peter Silberman's friend — so the record comes by its desolate, life-and-death intensity honestly. But it was hard to imagine at the time how the Brooklyn trio would make another record, let alone carve out a long-term career.

Burst Apart, from 2011, did its job surprisingly effectively, maintaining the swelling melancholy while letting its subject matter sprawl out beyond grief. Familiars is even better: Each of its deliberately paced songs sprawls to between five and eight minutes, and each takes a thoughtful journey in the process. Ever more sure-handed and ambitious in its arrangements, the band crafts gorgeous backdrops for Silberman, whose soaring falsetto periodically brings to mind Jeff Buckley.

For all its bruised grace, Hospice isn't an easy record to revisit: Its rawness isn't the stuff of everyday moods. Familiars takes many of that great record's strengths — its emotional openness, its rich sound, its mix of subtlety and grandiosity, its funereal beauty — and expands on them in a more approachable, less punishing setting. It's still informed by loss, but also by the fact that life has been going on ever since.—Stephen Thompson

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

 

First Listen: First Aid Kit, 'Stay Gold'

Listen to First Aid Kit's forthcoming album Stay Gold streaming now via WFUV and NPR Music before its release on June 10 on Columbia Records.

Swedish sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg first made their names with feather-light chamber-folk confections that echoed the soaring sweetness of Fleet Foxes. A cover of that band's "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song" even helped launch the then-teenagers to YouTube fame back in 2008. But in 2014, styles have changed and so have the Söderbergs: First Aid Kit's major-label debut, Stay Gold, moves well beyond the portentous prettiness of the pair's 2012 breakthrough, The Lion's Roar.

The music is lighter on its feet and less haunting, but the lyrics have picked up some additional heft along the way: "I'd rather be broken than empty / I'd rather be shattered than hollow," the Söderbergs sing in a particularly barren moment from "Shattered & Hollow." Their vocals still ring out sweetly, but there's a welcome edge to their delivery throughout the record that digs deep. Even when a song like "The Bell" never accelerates beyond a lightly lilting amble, there's potency to it.

First Aid Kit could have easily gotten stuck in a sullen rut, opting for stately beauty over the versatility showcased here. But Stay Gold is a statement of staying power; a collection of bright, smart, substantial songs that stick around. By the time the Söderbergs rustle up a bit of countrified rowdiness in "Heaven Knows" — a sure set-closer at the band's concerts for years to come — they've fully reset expectations. First Aid Kit's music has always been charming, but the duo has found the capacity to thrill, too. — Stephen Thompson

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

 

First Listen: Parquet Courts, 'Sunbathing Animal'

Listen to Parquet Courts' Sunbathing Animal streaming via WFUV and NPR Music before its release on June 3.

It's common to spot blues influences in rock music, but they're still fairly new in the music of Brooklyn's Parquet Courts. The band's third album, Sunbathing Animal, functions as a modern retelling of rhythm and blues: It's reminiscent of when British bands of the '60s embraced the form with energy and passion, with pressure that looms and haunts, rhythms that activate, and a call for listeners to move. Parquet Courts' previous record, Light Up Gold, addressed concerns about youth in modern society, but Sunbathing Animal draws on the band's own experiences of touring ceaselessly in the wake of growing popularity. This means addressing feelings of being tethered to something else while it happens — an existential blues, to be sure, but with relevance to 2014 and beyond. Parquet Courts' members clearly believe that it's time to start thinking about the biggest picture of all.

For a band that went from humble Brooklyn warehouse spaces to Late Night With Jimmy Fallon in the span of 12 months — with more than 100,000 miles logged in between — the lessons learned are reflected in the bittersweet (and just plain bitter) nature of this new material. Parquet Courts' approach hasn't changed; if anything, Sunbathing Animal finds the band sounding tighter than ever. Wired energy arcs over the title track's single-chord blowout, let loose to the tempos of hardcore punk. But the end results show a clear evolution, with songs that sound more aggressive and more melancholy than anything the band has attempted before.

Each song here has a story behind it: tales of leaving the spirit behind as the body moves on, odes to regret, memories of errors in conduct, notions of freedom and fear, the cost of physical absence. The band still wind-sprints with deadly efficiency, but the slower moments on Sunbathing Animal (like the aching "Instant Disassembly") still locate the essence of heartache, as if the band had been writing songs like this all along.

Sunbathing Animal locates dark places scarcely explored in Parquet Courts' past work. "Is the solitude I seek a trap / where I've been blindly led? / Tell me: Where, then, do I go instead?" Andrew Savage asks in "Black and White." For all the song's confident strutting and almost cheerful, beachy demeanor, he's still found fresh new ways to sing the blues.—Doug Mosurock

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

 

First Listen: Owen Pallett, 'In Conflict'

Listen to Owen Pallett's In Conflict streaming now via FUV and NPR Music before the album's release on May 27 on Domino.

It's been a good half-year for Owen Pallett. He was nominated for an Academy Award, alongside Arcade Fire's William Butler, for the score to Spike Jonze's Her. And in March, Slate published Pallett's brilliant, highly shareable essays on tunes by Katy Perry, Daft Punk and Lady Gaga. When it was announced that Brian Eno would join the Canadian singer, composer and multi-instrumentalist for the In Conflict sessions, Pallett's stock as one of indie rock's best ambassadors to pop music reached a new high.

On his fourth full-length album, Pallett makes the most of those opportunities. In Conflict finds his bright tenor and even brighter arrangements at their most assured in years. Not since 2006's Polaris Prize-winning He Poos Clouds (recorded under his Final Fantasy alias) has Pallett sounded this confident in his dual abilities as a composing singer-songwriter. "You let, you let yourself believe," he stutter-coos in the chorus to the title track, a glorious four-minute mélange of synth and strings. "There is nothing to lose."

Likewise, Pallett's arpeggiated lines and canned-but-insistent percussion in "Song for Five & Six" are chock-full of this new-found conviction. There's a certain elegance at play, too, something that previous projects of his might have lacked. Of course, Pallett has always had the compositional chops to realize whatever sounds he wanted; his gifts just sound effortless here. As for new timbres hitherto unexplored, the warm and sumptuous brass featured in "Chorale" — courtesy of Prague's FILMharmonic Orchestra — lends an organic ground to Pallett and Eno's studio trickery. If there's any conflict at all throughout these 13 tracks, then it's purely an internal one for Owen Pallett, a legit composer who also possesses the instincts to craft brilliant pop songs. —Logan Young

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

 

First Listen: Conor Oberst, 'Upside Down Mountain'

Listen to Conor Oberst's Upside Down Mountain streaming this week via WFUV and NPR Music before its release on May 20.

You probably haven't been waiting around for some singer-songwriter to update Harry Chapin's inescapable 1974 hit "Cat's In the Cradle," the slightly cloying tune about the changing dynamic between parents and children over time. And if you did happen to be waiting for such a song, you probably wouldn't put Conor Oberst, noted sensitive indie-rock soul, in charge of writing it. Let's face it: Even if you're an obsessive Oberst fan — a follower of Bright Eyes, Desaparecidos and assorted other projects — this wouldn't likely rank high on the list of Songs You Wish Conor Oberst Would Write.

Which is one surprise, among many, in "You Are Your Mother's Child," from Oberst's artful and beautifully realized Upside Down Mountain. Here we have a tired, heartstring-tugging trope from the 1970s resurrected as something lucid and disarmingly poignant. Something that can sneak right inside the most cynical heart and melt the layers.

Singing in the wavering, edge-of-emotion tone that is his trademark, Oberst follows the stages of a young life ("Halloween costume, lookin' real cute") with the fond, measured regard of the cool parent. He knows how to be sentimental — some of the most gorgeous music on Upside Down Mountain comes from the perspective of love's stinging aftermath — but here he attempts restraint, slipping details into the verses the way a documentary filmmaker would. He's all sly and "aw-shucks" in the lyric writing, trusting that the subject matter, and the deft transitions from specific moments to general observations ("fear, that's a big emotion"), will bring the narrative home. It does.

It's a small song, in the scheme of things, but it illustrates a large idea about Oberst as a songwriter: He knows how to work a conceit. Starting from what can seem like a slight kernel of an idea, he draws his listeners patiently into each of his narrative worlds, one curiosity-activating line at a time. The album's opening couplet, delivered over a single fervently strummed acoustic guitar chord, is typical: "Polished my shoes, I bought a brand new hat, moved to a town that time forgot / where I don't have to shave or be approachable / No, I can do just what I want." Fairly stock life-in-transition stuff, right? So what does this wandering soul want? The next line: "I want to walk in a howling wind 'til it scatters all my thoughts..." Just like that, we've gone from an ordinary country-rock rambler scene into something more multidimensional and novelistic. Who longs to be out in a howling wind?

Upside Down Mountain suggests that Oberst is growing, rapidly, as a craftsman. It's the first truly intimate set of songs he's offered in a while — really since his 2008 eponymous gem, though contemplative moments seeped into 2009's Outer South, which he recorded with the Mystic Valley Band. Oberst visits some of the rowdy backbeats of those previous works, but even in the driving rock tracks (the Neil Young-ish "Zigzagging Toward the Light"), he's brokering interior thoughts, choosing clusters of words for the ways they thrive, or sometimes disappear, inside the sonic swirl.

With help from several producers, including Jonathan Wilson, Oberst seeks out vivid and frequently counter-intuitive contrasts between the messages of the songs and the surrounding instrumental atmospheres. One example: On the surface, the riffing horns and striding beats of "Hundreds of Ways" radiate a kind of parade-day joviality. Get inside the song, though, and you realize Oberst is talking about what it means to contend with dark, possibly unwelcome memories when everyone else seems to be sashaying through life. The very next track, "Artifact #1," delves further into the muddy pools and quagmires of memory, examining what it means to hold onto the last glimmer of a great and vanished love. It's a stunning one-two punch, one of those rare album moments where two works grow more profound as a result of their proximity to each other.

Oberst has been at this songwriting thing for a while. He's shown an uncommon knack for observation and, at times, a willingness to funnel those observations into sturdy if perfectly ordinary vessels — songs that teeter toward the generic. What's impressive about Upside Down Mountain is how effortless it feels. He doesn't work overtime trying to reinvent the wheel, doesn't get twisted up in the veteran songwriter's pursuit of a stunning new insight. Instead, he picks a road and follows where it leads, asking all the responsible questions, referring back to haunting asides and bitter refrains from other songs, and looking everywhere for clues about the restlessness that follows him like a stormcloud. He's not looking for a cure, mind you. Just clues.—Tom Moon

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

 

First Listen: Sylvan Esso, 'Sylvan Esso'

Listen to the self-titled debut album from Sylvan Esso streaming now via FUV and NPR Music before its release on May 13 on Partisan Records.

The product of an unlikely pairing of musicians, Sylvan Esso works in equally unlikely ways: Singer Amelia Meath first surfaced as a singer in the largely a cappella Vermont folk group Mountain Man, while Nick Sanborn plays bass in the versatile North Carolina psych-rock band Megafaun.

The two met, however, when each was in solo mode, Meath as a singer and Sanborn as a producer of heady electronic music — and that's where Sylvan Esso combines, highlights and ultimately maximizes their talents, in ways that ought to make them both stars. Taut and tantalizing, the 10 songs on the pair's debut have countless different ways of grabbing and inviting attention; they wobble, seethe and coo with charismatic ambivalence.

In "Coffee," one of the year's best songs, gigantic hooks weave in and out as Meath projects warmth and weary grace while seasons change around her. In the irresistible "Hey Mami," she dissects the culture of catcalls while unleashing a few herself. "Play It Right" lavishly layers Meath's supple voice atop itself as sound shimmers and pops from every conceivable direction.

With the raw materials to both rock dance floors and initiate deep head-bobbing under headphones, Sylvan Esso utterly reinvents the already-promising careers at its core. Together, Meath and Sanborn make pop music with real potential to endure: Equally bright and dark, smart and seductive, it sets a high bar for the title of 2014's most intoxicating debut. — Stephen Thompson

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

 

First Listen: Lykke Li, 'I Never Learn'

Listen to Lykke Li's I Never Learn streaming now via WFUV and NPR Music before its release on May 6.

Lykke Li is a pop star looking to change the pop conversation. The Swedish singer's new third album, I Never Learn, forms the final installment in a conceptual trilogy — and it's extraordinary as both a collection of songs and a tactical re-wiring of her genre's circuit board.

Here, as on any Lykke Li record, the presentation of Li's vocals is the first major site of status quo agitation. The music backing her is often as loud as, if not louder than, her singing, and when vocals take precedent, they're dripping with reverb and echoes that keep them from demanding full attention. Close listening is encouraged and will be rewarded — Li is a poetic, insightful songwriter — but it's a striking first impression of a singer not striving for the spotlight.

Tied into this repositioning of pop vocals is I Never Learn's refusal to sound anthemic. These songs are deeply relatable, but none are poised to be The Big Breakup Song Of The Summer. Instead of belting her way onto empowering mix CDs, Li sings breakup songs as if she's actually just lived through a devastating breakup. Her emotions are far from flattened, though she might sound one-dimensional to Top 40 listeners who've grown to only believe sadness when it's accompanied by vocal runs. A fully expressive singer, she works within the range of earnest melancholy. It's hard to summon a high E above middle C when all you want to do is curl up under the covers.

The track names alone are enough to mark I Never Learn as an album dealing with the end of a relationship: In order, the album closes with "Love Me Like I'm Not Made of Stone," "Never Gonna Love Again," "Heart of Steel" and "Sleeping Alone." But punishing titles are, in this case, misleading: This record is neither overwhelmingly sad nor excruciatingly personal. Li has demonstrated throughout every step of her career that she understands how strangely delicious it is to sing sad songs in the sunshine. We need both, sometimes at the same time. Her music is always going to bounce a little, if her vocals are down, or the harmonies are going to be particularly light and swinging if the melody stays minor. Providing a path out of the darkest places in her music is part of what makes Lykke Li records so special — it's a sweet spot familiar to fans of her fellow Swede Robyn, whose Body Talk (also, coincidentally, a trilogy) became an instant classic for folks looking to take their hurt to the dance floor.

Li doesn't shy away from intensity, vulgarity or the distinctly un-showy variations on gray inherent to depression, and her music is better for it. If all pop music were this well-made and emotionally mature, maybe we wouldn't have so much to fight about.—Katie Presley

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

 

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