Skip to main content

First Listen

First Listen: Brian Eno & Karl Hyde, 'Someday World'

Listen to Eno and Hyde's Someday World streaming via WFUV and NPR Music now before its release on May 6 via Warp Records.

Ever since his days as a feather-boa-wrapped synth strangler in Roxy Music in the early 1970s, Brian Eno has — beyond his own solo career — been a sonic abettor and collaborator. After leaving Roxy, Eno conspired with Talking Heads to infuse the band's wiry punk with Fela Kuti's Afrobeat on 1980's Remain in Light. (He also helped frontman David Byrne craft twitchy, sampledelic dance music with their collaborative My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.) Eno then enabled a fierce Irish post-punk band to embrace stadium rock and stardom, producing U2 classics like The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. More recently, he added an edge and a sense of cool to the likes of Coldplay.

That collaborative spirit continues with Someday World — recorded with Underworld member/vocalist/guitarist Karl Hyde — which includes 12 other players, including Roxy Music's own Andy Mackay. For some U.S. listeners, Underworld is best remembered for the raging techno of "Born Slippy" from the Trainspotting soundtrack. Yet Hyde not only crafted dance tracks and populist techno with Underworld partner Rick Smith, but also folded in traces of indie rock and ambient tones, suggesting an omnivorous appetite similar to that of Eno. Eno and Hyde have joined forces before; the former worked with Underworld for 2011's "Beebop Hurry" and last year remixed Hyde's solo single "Slummin' It for the Weekend." Most significantly, they worked together as part of an improvisational supergroup, Pure Scenius, performing in Sydney and Brighton. But the nine songs here make for a more satisfying symbiosis.

In a standout track like "Daddy's Car," both men draw on a lifetime love of African highlife. Over an ebullient and skittering polyrhythmic backbeat worthy of Remain in Light, Eno adds sun-bright horn lines, bubbling synths and piano, clearing just enough room for Hyde's vocals. Elsewhere, Hyde's soft delivery evokes memories of Talk Talk's Mark Hollis, and when the music gets jazzy and slippery (as in "When I Built This World"), Eno and Hyde bring to mind the U.K. band Level 42.

A maximal spirit informs Someday World, so that even in a song whose chorus commands "Strip It Down," the isolated synth bass undulating at the start soon dovetails into arpeggios, jittery percussion, guitar glissades and a subtle yet stunning piano line. The piano is handled by a newcomer named Fred Gibson, who also contributed to the album's production alongside Eno. Only 22, Gibson offers input here that suggests a new talent who might someday make for a great collaborator himself. — Andy Beta

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

 

First Listen: Wye Oak, 'Shriek'

Listen to Wye Oak's Shriek streaming now via FUV and NPR Music before its release on April 29 on Merge Records.

At some point, even babies who bask in the warmth of attachment parenting need to learn to self-soothe — to regulate their emotions without their parents' guidance or even a hug. Often they do it with a thing: a blankie, a binky, a stuffie. Adults are expected to be free of such fixations, but the truth is, inanimate enablers still fill our lives. Musicians bring them right onstage. Why do you think guitarists name their stringed companions? Electricity makes these toys speak.

But what if your serious toy, your amanuensis, stopped listening and responding? Wye Oak's new album Shriek was inspired by such a crisis. Exhausted after a punishingly long tour to support the duo's breakthrough album Civilian, Jenn Wasner returned to Baltimore feeling depressed and unable to write. Her trusty Reverend Jetstream only seemed to mock her. Wasner finally found solace and new inspiration in other instruments, especially the bass. Her bandmate, Andy Stack, mostly a drummer in the past, put his talismans partially aside in favor of synthesizers. Then, physically separated by the miles between Stack's Texas home and Wasner's on the East Coast, but connected by the technology their analog synths anticipated, they wrote a bunch of songs that explore existential uncertainty, yet sound like comfort.

Comfort might be too solid a word. It conjures images of pillows, and Shriek's songs are more like thick atmospheres made for floating and falling, cloud covers built of shifting emotions. They could be called synth-pop, but their meanings unfold in slower-moving, subtler gradations than that label implies. The album's contemplative tone recalls New Wave sophisticates like Japan or Talk Talk — groups who made music for dreaming more than dancing. The insular spaciousness of '90s R&B savants like Aaliyah and TLC also make a mark. But the story is Wasner's, a struggle she has described as an "intense journey" that "happened in the confines of my own skull." Wasner's lyrics often mention the sleep cycle, and describe elusive, cruel objects of fear and desire who could be real lovers, but seem more like aspects of her own confused psyche.

Her lyrics tend toward poeticism, with images that could at times be apocalyptic. "Even as I stand, is the ever after," she sings in "Paradise." "See it as it lands, fire over water." That's pretty Biblical, but Wasner's gentle alto, made stronger by voice training, persuades the listener to stay with her. "I fear no information," she sings over Stack's birdsong dreams in the title track. "I'm following how it seems in present dreams." Her willingness to gaze inward encourages the same in others.

The contained but deep lushness of Shriek makes the album itself an ideal tool for calming the old thought machine. The album itself could become your talisman, treasured and well-used after many repeated listenings. The process of making this music, Wasner implies in the mystical, impeccably modulated "Before," made her "brand new." Getting lost in this music could have a similarly healing effect on others. — Ann Powers

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

 

First Listen: The Afghan Whigs, 'Do To The Beast'

Listen to the Afghan Whigs' Do To The Beast streaming now via WFUV and NPR Music prior to its release on April 15 on Sub Pop.

A lover's obsessiveness may charm at first, but it can soon turn frightening. For an artist, the relentless pursuit of one object — a sound, a memory dragged up and reshaped, a fantasy that makes the long hours of work feel intimate — feeds creativity or freezes it. Greg Dulli has been chasing the same seductive nightmare since he was 22, when his band The Afghan Whigs formed. Next year, he'll turn 50. He's spent a long time, in his mind, sitting in a darkened car in front of the same house.

Maybe that's why the first Afghan Whigs album in 16 years starts with such a door slam. "Parked Outside" features a solid-steel riff powered by four guitarists, with Dulli's old friend Clay Tarver (of Chavez) adding a lead that's like a key scratching through urethane. Any Afghan Whigs fan will be impressed by how the song refreshes Dulli's big theme: sex that's inseparable from need and greed and hate. "Allow me to illustrate how the hand becomes the fuse," Dulli screams. And that scream, like all of Dulli's vocalizing since he quit smoking several years back, is freer and more musical than the ones that made The Afghan Whigs' music so cathartic in the '90s. This is a sophisticated crash.

If "Parked Outside" serves to justify calling Do to the Beast an Afghan Whigs record, what unfolds afterward makes clear that for Dulli, the name is a frame more than a solid unit. Stalwart Whigs fans have already noted that because original guitarist Rick McCollum didn't play on this album, it isn't strictly a return; that's true in the conventional sense. The absence of McCollum's playing, based in harmonically driven guitar riffs and the use of pedals to induce sonic chemical burns, separates Do to the Beast from the band's other six albums. In its glory, Afghan Whigs was a band of players locked in with each other. The anchoring presence of founding bassist John Curley, Dulli's best pretentiousness detector, doesn't make McCollum's absence less notable.

But Afghan Whigs has also always been an idea, or really a vehicle for Dulli's ideas about what rock, specifically, can say (and make listeners feel) about love, sex and loneliness. He's both expanded upon and sometimes abandoned those ideas on his other main project, the loose conglomeration The Twilight Singers, which has always had a more down-tempo, electronic bent and a cinematic sense of space. (Dulli has used the phrase "shot on location" to credit the studios where he records for years.) He used the Twilight Singers approach to make Do to the Beast a big, de-centered thing — writing the music first to make sure it was a multilayered enough to let his stories breathe; inviting many guests, from Usher's musical director Johnny "Natural" Najera to Emeralds auteur Mark McGuire and longtime pals like Joseph Arthur and Queens of the Stone Age's Alain Johannes and Dave Catching — to augment the Whigs core, which was already expanded to a five-piece. (Drummer Cully Symington deserves special notice for finesse and whomp.) But its core depictions of erotic dread and reckoning are what The Afghan Whigs' records have always been about.

Running with the album's cinematic feel, Do to the Beast is in many ways Dulli's True Detective. It conjures the 1990s in flashbacks, but its voices belong to men who've outlived the youth they had then. Dulli uses murder metaphors in "Matamoros" and "The Lottery," and the supernatural enters into "Lost in the Woods" and "Royal Cream." The real reason Do to the Beast resembles this year's television preoccupation is that it gives us the voice and vision of a solitary, brilliant man in a constant tug-of-war with evil, as he imagines it — and as it still runs, though quieter now, in his veins. "My only cover was a con," Dulli moans in the dusty ballad "I Am Fire." He's not undercover anymore. — Ann Powers

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

 

First Listen: EMA, 'The Future's Void'

Listen to EMA's The Future's Void streaming now on WFUV and NPR Music prior to its release on April 8 via Matador.

Erika M. Anderson appreciates the flickering quality of meaning. She likes the sparks that fly off sounds, igniting constructive confusion: the buzz that makes an old synth sound like a guitar, or the way an acoustic beat can crash into an electronic one to make a whole nervous system of rhythm. She's also into wordplay, starting with the name of her ongoing project EMA — an acronym that could stand for a government agency but, read another way, is a feminine name. Then there's the title of her second album, The Future's Void, with its odd, homonym-like instability. It could refer to the deep, blank space of a dehumanized tomorrow, or it could imply that no tomorrow will greet us at all. Or it could just be a new spin on an old, cathartic punk threat: No future for you.

Anderson's music submerges the listener within such uncertainties as they resolve and spin out again through new misfiring synapses. Sex and love fed the central confusion on EMA's raw, heartrending first album Past Lives Martyred Saints. The Future's Void is as emotionally intense, but its concerns are more foundational: the nature of the self, enabled but also limited by being a body, in ways now challenged by technology that replicates, enhances and possibly destroys individual identities. You know, cyberpunk stuff. But what's great about The Future's Void isn't its frame of reference, which hearkens back to William Gibson's novels, Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation, PJ Harvey and the just-post-Cold War mood of The X-Files. It's the fearless dexterity Anderson and her producer/main musical partner Leif Shackelford employ while making this vintage-'90s worldview resonate right now.

Anderson wears an Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset on the album's cover, but we don't see the vivid images she's experiencing. We see her torso, solid in all black, her face veiled by the device's plastic as she plays. She embodies opacity in a fluid world. In the Gibson-inspired "Neuromancer," a circular beat deeply grounded in Shackelford's bassline shapes a trance, while Anderson mutters and wails, seduced and violated by the digital demon stripping away her boundaries. "Smoulder" plays with the language of pop hits to explore how being a performer in a screen age requires both nakedness and a cyborg's strength. "Feel like I blew my soul out across the interwebs and streams," Anderson sings in the melancholy "3Jane," also inspired by Gibson's imagined (and increasingly realistic) world of sad clones and shattering identities. Blending the expansive vision of speculative fiction with the often personal approach of gender-troubling indie rock, The Future's Void is not so much a concept record as a sonic alternate universe through which many elements float, some familiar and some weird. Musically, it blends the digital and analog in uncanny ways that unsettle any one interpretation. 

Not every song on The Future's Void radiates science-fiction vibes. "So Blonde" and "When She Comes" are both enticingly hooky punk-power anthems depicting characters we've seen before, in songs by The Velvet Underground or Hole. But "When She Comes" could also be about the singularity — its heroine might be pure consciousness — while the dangerous babes of "So Blonde" would be utterly comfortable in Bladerunner. The future's void because the future's now, EMA tells us. Might as well dream electric. — Ann Powers

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

 

First Listen: Cloud Nothings, 'Here And Nowhere Else'

Listen to Cloud Nothings' new album Here And Nowhere Else streaming now via WFUV and NPR Music before its release on April 1 on Carpark/Mom+Pop.

The word "maturation" and the word "punk" don't often coexist easily: For a band like Cleveland's Cloud Nothings, whose sloppily aggressive songs channel slackerdom and frustration, growing up would seem antithetical to its mission. But the group's third album, Here and Nowhere Else, threads the needle just right, tightening and brightening Cloud Nothings' sound in ways that never numb its blistering, careening forcefulness.

In the spirit of Japandroids' instant classic Celebration Rock from 2012, Here and Nowhere Else captures the sound and spirit of guys who've learned over time how to best harness their own vitality. On both records, that includes a periodic willingness to embrace joy in ways Cloud Nothings rarely attempted before. The snarling ferocity of past records hasn't been muted so much as channeled and streamlined.

It's telling that Here and Nowhere Else closes with Cloud Nothings' best song yet, "I'm Not Part of Me" — an irresistible anthem that keeps accelerating and intensifying as it barrels along. It's a microcosm of the album, and of the band's career as a whole: Given time and accumulated wisdom, all three find new and ever more exhilarating ways to make celebration rock.— Stephen Thompson

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

 

First Listen: Liars, 'Mess'

Listen to Liars' Mess streaming on FUV and NPR Music prior to its release on March 25 via Mute Records.

For a band originally slotted under the postpunk "angular guitar" descriptor, Liars threw plenty of curveballs in their 2001 debut, 2001's They Threw Us All In A Trench And Stuck A Monument On Top. There was the ESG sample midway through, then came closer "This Dust Makes That Mud," which turned into a 20-minute loop of noise. With each subsequent Liars album, there was a stylistic swerve, from the tribal drum ethno-wave of 2004's They Were Wrong So We Drowned to the Jesus and Mary Chain garage rock of Liars (2007).

So when your oeuvre is built on left turns, how better to throw your fan base for a loop than by going straight ahead? For 2012's WIXIW, Liars sloughed off the black leather of Liars and instead explored clammy electronic pulses that suggested the ambient purgatory of albums like Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works II and U.K. producer Actress's R.I.P. And in some aspects, Mess finds the trio of Aaron Hemphill, Angus Andrew and Julian Gross continuing to investigate the electronic textures of their previous album.

Yet the new album embraces the type of electro-pop that underpins the catalog of the band's parent label, Mute. Throughout the early 1980s, Mute Records built its brand on the likes of Depeche Mode, Erasure and Yaz. On songs like "Vox Turned D.E.D." and "Can't Hear Well," Andrew uses his baritone to mimic the icy intonations of these hallmark acts, the gothic synth chord changes of Hemphill and Gross following suit. "I'm No Gold" even finds Liars doing Adult.-esque electro.

Some of the Europop moves on Mess are so spot-on that one gets the feeling that Liars are taking the piss. When Angus Andrew screws his voice down on opener "Mask Maker" to croak "Take my pants off / use my socks / smell my socks / eat my face off," he sounds less like Dave Gahan or Andy Bell and more like Gibby Haynes of Butthole Surfers. While known for their psychotic take on psychedelic rock, the Butthole Surfers also delivered stylistic U-turns of their own in the '80s and '90s, delivering skewered takes on Europop and electronic music. So Liars are at once paying homage to their forebearers and moving forward. There's been an underlying sonic mischieviousness in Liars' music over the last decade, and on Mess, the band finally foregrounds it. — Andy Beta

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

 

First Listen: Kevin Drew, 'Darlings'

Listen to Kevin Drew's Darlings streaming now via WFUV and NPR Music prior to its release on March 18 via Arts & Crafts.

Back in 2007, Kevin Drew (of Toronto's baroque-pop collective Broken Social Scene) gazed longingly at a woman and pronounced her too beautiful for the carnal escapades swirling inside his brain. That song, "Tbtf," was among the wondrous creations on his solo debut Spirit If — a worship-dream set in a sleek, gliding tempo, and sung in a mood of melancholy wistfulness.

Now Drew returns with the exceedingly direct "Good Sex," which looks at vanishing romantic ideals in the age of the Tinder hookup. "Good sex should never make you feel hollow," he sings, skipping up to a giddy post-coital falsetto for the last syllable. "Good sex should never make you feel clean."

Is this progress? Going from a nuanced, image-rich reverie like "Tbtf" to a repeating series of blunt observations on the art of sex?

In Drew's case, yes. We often measure artistic growth by focusing on the big strides, but the evolution that defines Drew's second solo album, Darlings, is most apparent in the fine print — and, notably, in what he's trimmed away to make hyper-streamlined, tightly edited songs. The songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who helped guide Broken Social Scene through several gorgeous, lushly orchestrated albums is thinking differently about the scale of his songs, pruning back whatever is unnecessary. "Good Sex" works in part because it aims to express a simple idea, and uses few words juxtaposed against BSS-like widescreen music to do it. At the song's start, Drew's declarations seem oddly prescriptive and blunt, the mantras of a free-weekly sex columnist. But as the accompaniment gathers steam and eventually arrives at a full anthemic thrum, the tone changes, and a more personal refrain — "I'm still breathing with you, baby" — takes over. Just like that, what began as a cheap device sprouts dimension, registering as intimate, romance-novel heroic and just a touch sarcastic all at once.

This kind of distillation is an art, and Darlings suggests that Drew is becoming a master of it. Many of the songs spring from stray ideas and single moments; rather than seize and analyze the component parts of some fleeting rush, Drew just follows its path, then figures out what sorts of sounds best convey its essence. Some songs, like "It's Cool," amount to a series of vibey Lou Reed-ish whispers; others, like "You Gotta Feel It," use the propulsion of a basic four-on-the-floor bass drum to power a brave search for what matters in life. Where other songwriters obsess over the details of story, Drew zooms in on a moment and chases the full sensory experience of it — to hear perhaps the most crystalline of these freeze-frame moments, check out "First in Line."

Then there's "You in Your Were," an unsettling reverie punctuated by vaguely math-rock guitar arpeggios. It's a look at the power of lingering memories, and what it means to hang on, perhaps obsessively, to a memory — a topic that has doomed many songs to the high-concept dungeon. Drew avoids this fate through inventive, continuously unfolding guitar and synth textures. The song is one long rousing crescendo; its surging rhythm, which recalls Neon Bible-era Arcade Fire, gathers momentum like a plane on the runway. Everything is hurtling forward, except for those words Drew is singing about looking back, and the contrast is just strange enough to sound like genius.

There's a lot of that disarming stuff on Darlings. Though he's thinking in simpler, more earthbound terms as a lyricist, Drew can't help but write music that sprawls in satisfying, sometimes bone-rattling ways. He's on the hunt for atmospheres that allow for the expression of profound intimacy and massive sonic grandeur all at once, and when he finds one, it's a glimpse of a rare and beautiful euphoria. —Tom Moon

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

 

First Listen: St. Vincent, 'St. Vincent'

Listen to St. Vincent's self-titled album streaming now via FUV and NPR Music before its release on February 25 via Loma Vista.

The word "eccentric" pops up often in descriptions of Annie Clark and the music she performs as St. Vincent. It's a word attached to trailblazers of many kinds. Often though not always, there's a degree of respect wrapped up in the idea of eccentricity — and intrigue, certainly — but there's also a gentle admonishment, a "we both know you're breaking the rules" eyebrow-raising inherent in that descriptor. A more apt word for St. Vincent, written into every inch of her self-titled fourth album, is fearless.

Clark credits David Byrne, her collaborator on 2012's Love This Giant, with teaching her fearlessness. While it's true that she started work on this record 36 hours after returning home from a tour with Byrne, and while that project (particularly its irrepressible horn section) is writ large upon this one, Clark doesn't give herself enough credit. She's been making unapologetically individual music since her 2007 debut Marry Me, and she continues to rewrite the boundaries of contemporary indie rock with each of her projects. That, too, is where eccentricity as a concept fails to capture Clark's quiddity. It's not strangeness that dominates her music, but a sense of exploration, experimentation and artistic discovery, executed with impeccable production instincts. Every defiant growl, jaded vocal fry and distorted guitar lick on St. Vincent flirts with the avant garde, yet uses an accessible, if inventive, musical vocabulary to do so.

For female performers, the tactic of toeing the unnerving/alluring line has political weight behind it, and Clark doesn't lack predecessors. Immediately and most persistently audible on this album is a nod to Tori Amos, who's also made a career of crafting sexy, startling, vital music via unimpeachable technique and a deceptively sweet voice. (Amos, even more than Clark, has been labeled "eccentric" throughout her career.) "Digital Witness" sounds like a polished, millennial-savvy counterpart to Amos' From the Choirgirl Hotel, and Clark's quicksilver vocal transformation from smooth, vulnerable coo to deconstructed, visceral snarl in "Huey Newton" has both an ancestor and a colleague in Amos' entire discography. It's impressive company for both artists to keep.

"Eccentric" falls short as a descriptor for St. Vincent's music, but it may be a necessary fumble; art this big isn't doing its job if everybody warms to it. One listener's eyebrow-raising rule-breaker is another's genius. Annie Clark, more than many, is both. — Katie Presley

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

 

First Listen: Lost In The Trees, 'Past Life'

Listen to Lost In The Trees' Past Life streaming now on FUV and NPR Music before its release on February 18.

Lost in the Trees founder Ari Picker studied film composition at the Berklee School of Music — an alternate career path that couldn't be better suited to the music he makes now. A film composer, even more than a bandleader, creates work with a constant awareness of the audience's reaction to it, and thus has a keener sense of how to craft that reaction. The music Picker makes with his Chapel Hill collective is masterful at eliciting sweeping emotional responses, and at ensuring that a single emotion never dominates any one piece. That's what Lost in the Trees' new album, Past Life, is made of: pieces. Compositions. Studies. There isn't a catchy, single-ready song to be found, which roots Past Life solidly in the "orchestral" third of the band's oft-used "orchestral folk-pop" descriptor.

In addition to his Sufjan Stevens-esque ability to create songs that seem to have sprung from his mind fully formed — complete with many perfectly synchronized moving pieces — Picker brings to his music beautiful, affecting vocals. His voice floats, which is exactly what a band called Lost in the Trees would want. It's wide-open, it fills empty spaces, it fits anywhere, it lands everywhere. He has the same kind of space in his voice that Sigur Ros' Jonsi does, but where Jonsi's made-up language lends his sound effervescence and a distinct lift, Picker's voice (and the music it joins) is omnivalent. Past Life isn't melancholy, and it isn't upbeat. It's both, and everything else besides.

Lost in the Trees' previous album, 2012's A Church That Fits Our Needs, dealt devastatingly with the 2008 suicide of Picker's mother. Past Life grows beautifully out of the ashes of that record's consuming grief. Here, the songs carry in their most painful moments startling beauty, and in their sweetest notes the space for great loss. Most notable of these juxtapositions is the pairing of band member Emma Nadeau's heart-stopping operatic soprano with her own discordant, eerie piano work in "Night Walker." Even the song's title is murky: Is it a romantic ode to holding hands in the dark, or is it menacing?

Picker said in a recent interview that he wanted Past Life to construct a sound-world with as few ingredients as possible. The number of possible stories each piece on the album could tell is proof of his success. Just because a room (or song) is stark, that doesn't mean it's empty. "All I want is your heart / All I ever want is your heart," he sings plaintively in "Excos." It's a deceptively simple ask from a deceptively simple band. — Katie Presley

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

 

First Listen: Temples, 'Sun Structures'

Listen to Temples' Sun Structures streaming now on FUV and NPR Music before the album's release on February 11 via Fat Possum. 

It makes cosmic sense that Sun Structures, the debut album from Temples, arrives at the height of the current nostalgia wave associated with the 50th anniversary of Beatlemania and the British Invasion. 

Like many young bands before it, the four-piece from Kettering in Northhamptonshire embraces — and proudly plays up — the influence of The Beatles and other '60s legends, notably The Byrds. But Temples' music claims its own place, weaving these inspirations into crazy-beautiful and richly idiosyncratic music. This type of inspiration/innovation circuit ran hot during the 1970s (see Badfinger, Harry Nilsson, et al), and Temples' iteration can be read as more proof of the enduring strength of the Fab Four's foundational ideas. Sun Structures proves that even after all these years, it's possible to reconfigure the songcraft details we know by heart — the graceful and surprising chord progressions, the buoyant close-knit vocal harmonies, the clever middle eights, the tambourines — into stunningly modern arrays of sound.

For Temples, one key lies in "Day Tripper"-style two-measure guitar motifs; though the band's early press notices contain copious references to "new psychedelia" (whatever that is), the strongest musical cues suggest Revolver with buckets of reverb. The opening track, "Shelter Song," is built on a terse, perfectly catchy riff that every School of Rock songwriting teacher wishes he'd written. There are at least seven such guitar-code gems on the album, and each operates in a different way: Some function as recurring punctuation a la the Stones, while others, like the one that underpins "Move With the Season," serve to launch the music into breathtakingly open, spacious refrains. Surrounding these lead lines are blurry synthesizer pads and more commonplace guitar textures; here, the 12-string is used not to outline chords, but to conjure drifts of hazy, high-up-in-the-mountains fog.

The misty, ever-evolving sonics suit Temples' lyrical themes, which tend toward the occluded and the mystic. Sprinkled throughout the verses of "The Guesser," "The Golden Throne" and the title track are metaphysical riddles and meditations on devotion, references to Eastern religion and fantastical stoner-rock nature imagery. Another indication of Temples' songwriting smarts: That woo-woo stuff is usually confined to the verses, and often gets obliterated by the crisp, businesslike focus of the refrains. Temples' sound is hardly nostalgic, but it does exhibit one clear link to the past: the crisp discipline of the classic pop hook.

Temples began as a duo — singer/guitarist James Bagshaw and bassist Tom Warmsley — in the summer of 2012, drawing attention almost immediately with the single release of "Shelter Song." That led to a label contract and appearances on big-time shows (including one with The Rolling Stones), as well as two or three enthusiastically received subsequent singles. Those songs and everything else on Sun Structures were recorded in Bagshaw's house — a mixed blessing. The performances are vivid and relaxed, but the overall sound registers as just a bit blurry, lacking definition. In pure audio terms, Sun Structures doesn't get anywhere near the exacting sound of an album that's been frequently mentioned as similar in spirit, Tame Impala's wonderfully detailed Lonerism. But that shouldn't prevent musicheads from discovering Temples, because, as we learned 50 years ago, pop music this incandescent can overcome just about anything. — Tom Moon

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

 

Pages