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First Listen

First Listen: 'Sweetheart 2014'

Listen to the Sweetheart 2014 collection streaming now via FUV and NPR Music before its February 4 release by way of Starbucks' Hear Music/Concord Music Group.

 

Compiled by Starbucks every few years, the Sweetheart compilations adhere to a simple concept in which well-liked contemporary artists cover well-liked classic love songs just in time for Valentine's Day. But, more importantly, the collections revolve around a refreshing and consistent mindset: There are no arch piss-takes, no goofs, no skirting sincerity with a wink and a sneer. Even when an effort feels like a minor pairing or a failed experiment, goodwill carries the day.

Some of the artists on Sweetheart 2014 — the fifth installment in a series dating back a decade — sync up naturally with the source material they've chosen. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings and Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours" fit together seamlessly, for example, while Valerie June serves up a brief but terrific take on the Carter Family classic "Happy or Lonesome." Other pairings are more surprising, in a your-methods-may-vary sort of way, as Ben Harper attempts a faithfully drowsy take on Mazzy Star's "Fade Into You" and Vampire Weekend sings in Italian for "Time to Say Goodbye (Con Te Partirò)," a song popularized by Andrea Bocelli.

Nothing here quite matches the highs hit on 2004's Sweetheart: Love Songs — seriously, track down Iron & Wine's take on The Marshall Tucker Band's "Ab's Song" if you've never heard it — though it's awfully nice to hear Fiona Apple offer a light take on "I'm in the Middle of a Riddle," performed with her sister Maude Maggart. The words "Starbucks" and "Valentine's Day" may or may not sound like two strikes against Sweetheart 2014 (again, your methods may vary), but the music itself transcends both institutions nicely. — Stephen Thompson

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

 

First Listen: Hospitality, 'Trouble'

Listen to Hospitality's Trouble streaming now via FUV and NPR Music before its release next week, January 28, on Merge Records.

On its self-titled debut, the charming Brooklyn pop-rock band Hospitality burst out of the gate like a batch of 4.0 GPA indie-rock students, not unlike their forerunning New York City bros in Vampire Weekend. With songs that crushed out on coworkers and wrapped heartache in cheap dresses, frontwoman Amber Papini managed a balancing act of post-collegiate insouciance and soul, channeling The Velvet Undergound's prettier moments with knowing, Belle & Sebastian-style naivete. More than one observer described Hospitality by invoking a cardigan.

By comparison, the band's second album is more of a leather jacket. Listen to "I Miss Your Bones," whose muscular staccato suggests a geekier version of The Who circa The Who Sell Out, with Papini's minimalist New York City guitar blowing smoke rings alongside bandmate (and husband) Nathan Michel's Keith Moon-y drum outburst. The subject matter — aching for someone you hope will remain true in your absence, delivered with sexy petulance — is still pretty much the same, though: love and its inevitable, integral disappointments.

Along with a greater toughness in Papini's singing, there's also a wider tonal palette at work. The single "Rockets and Jets" conjures the sweet brooding of The Smiths and that band's handsomely dour North England '80s post-punk kin over a dark scrim of synthesizers and guitar shimmer. "Inauguration" is also draped in synths, with Papini playing the sort of girl whose heart breaks hardest when she's watching C-SPAN solo. Is she pining for Nate Silver? A recent Kennedy Center honoree? Whoever it is, they're jerking her chain. The song, like much of the album, is about taking back her emotional agency.

Ultimately, though, Papini doesn't front on the fact that love's bliss is largely about the trusting swoon, the letting go. "My lock and door, left open," she sings in "Sunship," the first of two acoustic-guitar-centered tracks that close the record. It recalls the way Syd Barrett combined joyous whimsy with the scariness of vulnerability. It's about love as divine madness, and it's a beauty. — William Mebane

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

 

First Listen: Warpaint, 'Warpaint'

Listen to Warpaint's self-titled second album streaming now via FUV and NPR Music prior to its January 17 release.

A few years back, the band Low sold T-shirts emblazoned with a fine unofficial motto for its music: "I don't like cool, I like beautiful." For the four women who make up Warpaint, those two qualities aren't mutually exclusive: The L.A. group's swirling sound is full of mysterious buzzes and coos, and there's a sense of everything-in-its-right-place grace and impeccability to it, yet the songs themselves never feel icy or distant. Warpaint's self-titled second album feels fashionable, sure, but not at the expense of approachability.

That may be the product of an essential contradiction at Warpaint's core: It's a band that both feels new — its full-length debut, The Fool, came out in 2010 — and has 10 years of shared experience behind it. Far too many artists get served up to the public before their sound has matured fully; in a time of instantaneous worldwide distribution, even good ones often get heard before they've recorded more than a handful of songs. But the women of Warpaint are veteran pros, and they sound like it.

The result is an album that captures both discipline and seemingly easy creative sprawl. Its songs smear together seamlessly and often beautifully, with real craftsmanship and artistic ambition: At 51 minutes, it feels like a complete album more than a loose assortment of MP3s. (Though "Biggy" and the slinky "Love Is to Die" have already served the latter purpose nicely.) Warpaint is indeed both cool and beautiful — an awfully formidable combination from an awfully formidable band. — Stephen Thompson

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

 

First Listen: Damien Jurado, 'Brothers And Sisters Of The Eternal Son'

Listen to Damien Jurado's Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son streaming now via FUV and NPR Music prior to the album's release on January 21 via Secretly Canadian.

It's a testament to singer-songwriter Damien Jurado's versatility that he's made nearly a dozen albums of largely inward-looking folk and rock music, and yet has never made two records that sound the same. He's released collections of sad solo acoustic music, hard-charging up-tempo rock, subtle psychedelic wanderings, and even painfully intimate messages he'd found left behind on thrift-store cassette tapes — and they all either sound like him or, in the case of the answering-machine tapes, perfectly reflect his sensibilities.

Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son is intended as a sequel to 2012's Maraqopa — both were produced by the terrific Richard Swift, who's made fine records of his own — but it's far from a rehash of old ideas. Both records reflect on ideas of alienation, disappearance and the pursuit of self, yet Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son takes them further, while enshrouding Jurado's voice in arrangements that alternately sparkle and search.

Jurado isn't one to provide a linear path to easy answers, but he does let Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son coast to a landing on the strength of a few surprisingly light and lovely songs. In contrast to the billowy and mysterious arrangements that preceded them (both here and on Jurado's most recent records), "Silver Katherine," Silver Joy" and "Suns in Our Mind" close down the proceedings with moments of straightforwardly quiet grace. "Suns in Our Mind" even injects a bit of humor, complete with playful snoring noises — yet another unexpected wrinkle from an artist who never stops surprising. — Stephen Thompson

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

 

First Listen: Shearwater, 'Fellow Travelers'

Listen to Shearwater's Fellow Travelers streaming via WFUV and NPR Music prior to its release on November 25.

Shearwater's new album, Fellow Travelers, is built around a neat gimmick: Each of its 10 songs pays tribute to an artist with whom the band has toured. Given that musicians tend to tour with like-minded peers, it's no surprise that Fellow Travelers provides a reasonably natural extension of Shearwater's stormy but hooky, prettily dramatic sound.

But a list of the artists covered sprawls in a surprising number of directions. It's tough to sketch a through-line that intersects with both the tortured artiness of Xiu Xiu ("I Luv the Valley OH!!") and the stridently soaring accessibility of Coldplay ("Hurts Like Heaven"), and yet there they are, back to back near the beginning of Fellow Travelers. Elsewhere, the album houses a faithfully propulsive cover of Folk Implosion's "Natural One" — a song that requires and receives precious little tinkering — as well as work by artists that fit more seamlessly alongside Shearwater, like Wye Oak ("Mary Is Mary") and St. Vincent ("Cheerleader").

It's telling, though, that Fellow Travelers' best song is one of the band's own: A beautifully brooding Shearwater original, "A Wake for the Minotaur" pairs singer Jonathan Meiburg with the great Sharon Van Etten for a languid, entrancing ballad. It's fascinating to hear Shearwater function as a skeleton key that opens up the works of Xiu Xiu and Coldplay and St. Vincent alike, but nothing sounds quite like Shearwater itself. — Stephen Thompson

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

 

First Listen: Public Service Broadcasting, 'Inform-Educate-Entertain'

Listen to Public Service Broadcasting's Inform-Educate-Entertain streaming now via WFUV and NPR Music prior to its Stateside release on November 19.

The goal is stated right there in the title (Inform - Educate - Entertain), and that's just what Public Service Broadcasting does. Not to be confused with the Public Broadcasting Service, the British duo makes music using clips from old British government propaganda and information films as narratives for songs engineered to inspire dancing and general chaos. On stage, J. Willgoose Esq. is as likely to play a banjo as he is to manipulate sound and sequences and MIDI controllers. Known for wearing a dapper bow-tie and corduroy sports jacket, he never says a word.

Then there's Wrigglesworth on drums; he's key to keeping this music fun, danceable and enduring. Together, the duo explores the past as it looks into the future, with music meant for clubs that doesn't fit neatly into some EDM subgenre or nightlife cliche. It doesn't force you to dance; it isn't incessant so much as bouncy. it's more Kraftwerk than Disclosure, reminiscent of The Books in its detailed crafting of collages from found sounds. Still, it all sounds fresh, if old footage can sound fresh. Be ready to be informed and educated, sure, but above all entertained. — Bob Boilen

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

 

First Listen: Cate Le Bon, 'Mug Museum'

Listen to Cate Le Bon's third album, Mug Museum, streaming now via WFUV and NPR Music before its release on November 12.

 It's amazing how quickly Cate Le Bon's new third album, Mug Museum, has come to feel like a new best friend: Just looking at the play count, I've already listened to the first two tracks a combined 40 times. Of course, new friends often remind you of old ones, and for me, Le Bon's music conjures a lot of Tom Verlaine and his band Television in late-'70s New York City.

The comparison especially holds in the guitar lines — some of which come from Le Bon and some of which come from her partner H. Hawkline — but where Television could feel angry, the Welsh singer sounds sultrier, with a bit more resignation to her voice. Nico of The Velvet Underground is another more obvious comparison, and one that may well exhaust Le Bon by now, but it's a good place to start; Le Bon's Welsh accent sets her phrasing apart from other singers the way Nico's German accent did.

For all the comparisons, though, Le Bon is no follower: She's a strong songwriter of often-sad songs about place and family and pets — dead ones in particular — and, of course, relationships. And, though the songs are sad, her music doesn't bring me down; produced by Noah Georgeson, who's known for his work with Joanna Newsom, Mug Museum lulls and sometimes rocks. It's not out until Nov. 12, but it's already become one of my new best friends. — Bob Boilen

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

 

First Listen: Cut Copy, 'Free Your Mind'

Listen to Cut Copy's Free Your Mind streaming now via FUV and NPR Music prior the the record's release on November 5.

An acid house-influenced album from Melbourne is not something that one imagines writing about in 2013. A knee-jerk response would involve some reference to our internet-addled times but for Australian band Cut Copy the seed for their fourth album, Free Your Mind, out Nov. 5, was altogether more analogue. It involved the spirit of the UK's second summer of love, circa 1988, evoked the old-fashioned way: a DJ spinning records in Melbourne's burgeoning underground dance music scene.

Not that acid house is new to these guys — they've long counted KLF as an influence — but a few lost nights out rekindled the flame. While there's not a scrap of the seminal London duo's radicalism on this record, there is clear evidence of acid house's rallying call to let your hair down — albeit filtered through Cut Copy's pop kaleidoscope. After 2011's somewhat introverted Zonoscope, the Melbourne foursome's return to the bounce of their breakthrough second record, 2008's In Ghost Colours, is welcome.

"We Are Explorers" is the closest to that album, its melody evoking the innocence and verve of their most well-known song, "Hearts On Fire." The biggest props on Free Your Mind are paid to the more rave-focused side of Manchester's Factory Records. "Take Me Higher" guns for the Balearicism of late-'80s New Order, providing a mellower moment of plateaued ecstasy before finding a second wind in gospel-tinged piano house. Similarly, "Let Me Show You Love" tips its hat to Welsh house music crew K-Klass (who were born on the dancefloor of Factory Records' legendary club The Hacienda) and their 1993 single "Let Me Show You."

Occasionally the unerring abstract positivism gets a little too much ("Walking In The Sky" could've been turned down a notch or 10, for example) and I have to wonder how much sense music born of Chicago's inner-city poverty and raised in Manchester's grim, unemployment-riddled past makes in the context of Melbourne's beach and coffee house culture. Thankfully, a number of evocative interludes — "(into the desert)," "above the city" and "waves" — provide countering calm.

Far and above the best track on Free Your Mind is the appropriately titled "Footsteps." Its lush percussion and exotic bird calls trace a line to Italian house group Sueño Latino's imaginatively titled 1989 hit "Sueño Latino," which in turn was based on a sample from Berlin composer Manuel Göttsching's sprawling 1984 opus "E2-E4." It's a salient reminder that repackaging musical history is as old of the hills. Therein lies the potential of Free Your Mind: by providing portals to another time and place, it makes new possibilities for discovery. — Ruth Saxelby

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

 

First Listen Live: Arcade Fire At Capitol Studios 2013

Missed NPR Music's "First Listen Live" with Arcade Fire from Capitol Studios in Los Angeles on Monday night? You can hear the set now in the FUV Vault, featuring songs from the band's new album Reflektor, a couple of nice nods to Lou Reed, and a favorite from the band's last album, The Suburbs.  

Set List

  • Reflektor
  • Flashbulb Eyes
  • Afterlife
  • Perfect Day excerpt/Supersymmetry/Satellite of Love excerpt
  • It's Never Over (Oh Orpheus)
  • We Exist
  • You Already Know
  • Normal Person
  • Here Comes The Night Time
  • Encore: Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)

[recorded: 10/28/13]

 

First Listen: Death Cab For Cutie, 'Transatlanticism (10th Anniversary Edition)'

Listen to Death Cab For Cutie's Transatlanticism (10th Anniversary Edition) streaming now via WFUV and NPR music before its October 29 release.

Life hands us many milestones as we wend our way from cradle to grave. From first teeth to first kisses to first loves and losses, we mark off our crucial firsts as transformative events; we're no longer babies, or children, or teenagers, or dependent on others to get by. One of those milestones, for those of us who so often set our lives to music, is the first time we get to mutter, "That came out 10 years ago? God, I am so old."

Death Cab for Cutie's Transatlanticism played in the background of countless decade-old milestones around the world, especially the ones involving first kisses and so forth, and it's no wonder. The album, and its epic title song in particular, played on an endless loop across popular culture — on movie soundtracks and in dramatic moments from such TV shows as Six Feet Under. The way singer Ben Gibbard channeled youthful confusion, vulnerability and sweetness mirrored universal fumbling feelings of growing up and facing down the complexities of love, heartbreak, long-distance yearning and budding nostalgia. From the first line of its first song ("So this is the new year / and I don't feel any different"), Transatlanticism swims in uncertainty, as if its narrator isn't even quite sure how feelings work yet.

For all its ubiquity and imitators, Transatlanticism holds up as an exquisitely produced, largely flawless record in which every song is bound to serve as someone's favorite. As such, though new would-be fans are born every day, most of its target audience already owns the thing, right? Enter this reissue, out Oct. 29, in which the original album is packaged alongside an identically sequenced but otherwise revelatory set of demo versions.

For those who've immersed themselves in Transatlanticism's studio version over the course of the last 10 years, these demos form fascinating sketches of a great album in progress. Some, like "The New Year" and "We Looked Like Giants," are overwhelmed by a ticky-tack drum machine. The title song, which in its final form blooms into a wondrous slow-motion cataclysm over the course of nearly eight minutes, here peters out in six, with the album's most important line — "I need you so much closer" — rendered flat, repetitive and uneventful. "The Sound of Settling," so zippy on the record, is slowed to a crawl. It's fascinating to take these songs apart in an effort to determine which ideas and production decisions had already formed, just as it is to hear the occasional song ("Passenger Seat," for example) that got left almost entirely as is.

It's a little strange to consider Transatlanticism as a kernel of nostalgia; after all, its cultural impact hasn't really receded into the past. Death Cab for Cutie has made terrific records both before and since, even as Gibbard and producer/multi-instrumentalist Chris Walla dabble in solo projects. Heck, for many, the album has been sitting in iTunes the whole time. But that 10th anniversary and this stack of demos make this a fine time to check in with how cleanly and effortlessly Transatlanticism has aged. We should all be so lucky. — Stephen Thompson

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

 

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