Monday, May 27, 2013

May 2013 reviews

The following reviews ran in the Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury this month.
Highly, highly recommended, worth every penny of your hard-earned money: Jim Guthrie, Headstones (!), Kobo Town, Majical Cloudz
Well worth your while: Mikal Cronin, Daft Punk, Savages, Colin Stetson, Rachel Zeffira

Arts and Crafts: X - Various Artists (Arts & Crafts)

Now this looks promising in ways that the label’s rote recent compilation of previously released tracks did not: to celebrate the powerhouse Canadian indie’s 10th anniversary, they had their artists cross-pollinate for new recordings. But it’s hard to tell how Broken Social Scene collaborates with Years, which is the solo project for its own guitarist Ohad Benchetrit. And it’s hard to tell mumblers Hayden and Jason Collett apart on their track together. It’s even harder to tell what exactly is happening when Apostle of Hustle and Zeus attempt to cover New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle”—bizarre doesn’t begin to describe the incoherent mess.

The bright light here is the Hidden Cameras and Snowblink reinventing Duran Duran’s “The Chauffeur,” giving the song not only far superior vocals than it ever did (not that hard), but a haunting, magical arrangement. Feist joins Timber Timbre for a ghostly duet that, unlike most of the other original songs here, sounds like it was actually written and rehearsed before recording. Dan Mangan and Amy Millan give the Johnny Mathis chestnut “Chances Are” a late-night, synth-laden and lethargic makeover that would be a lot more appealing if it didn’t conclude such a collection of missed opportunities. (May 30)

Download: “The Chauffeur” – Hidden Cameras and Snowblink; “Homage” – Feist and Timber Timbre; “Chances Are” – Amy Millan & Dan Mangan

Mikal Cronin – MCII (Merge)

A garage rocker from San Francisco with a taste for psychedelia and a B.F.A. degree in music, Mikal Cronin is much more than another shaggy-haired guy with a distortion pedal, power-pop melodies and a love of folk-rock harmonies—though he’s all that too, like a next-generation J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. Cronin is a much better songwriter than most of his contemporaries—including Kurt Vile and Ty Segall, two peers he’s often compared to (he also plays in Segall’s band)—and switches easily from wistful country rock to summer anthems to acoustic ballads to heavy shredding, and leaves room for the occasional violin solo. Though the recording is raw and live, there’s nothing remotely sloppy about this; Cronin proves to be a master craftsman in every aspect. Fans of B.C.’s Yukon Blonde should pay close attention, as should everyone else looking for the great guitar rock album of summer 2013. (May 16)

Download: “See It My Way,” “Shout It Out,” “Peace of Mind”

Daft Punk - Random Access Memories (Sony)

Who makes albums with a million-dollar budget anymore? Furthermore, how many electronic acts make albums with a million-dollar budget anymore? Daft Punk have done exactly that, and it sounds like, well, a million bucks. It’s the Rumours for the rave generation.

Their first album in eight years is not for the Skrillex tweakers they spawned: this is by two guys pushing 40, with two kids apiece, who finally moved their laptops out of their bedrooms and entered a real studio with musicians who made some of their favourite records. Their French countrymen Phoenix may have bought the sound console that Michael Jackson’s Thriller was recorded on, but Daft Punk hired Jackson’s actual rhythm section (bassist Nathan East, drummer John JR Robinson, guitarist Paul Jackson, Jr.) to get a far superior sound. Other studio all-stars on hand include drummer Omar Hakim (Sting, Dire Straits), Chic’s Nile Rogers and Canadian pianist Chilly Gonzales (Feist).

And then Giorgio Moroder shows up. Moroder, who single-handedly brought the synthesizer to disco, doesn’t even play an instrument here: his adoring disciples give him two virtually unaccompanied minutes of the man speaking about his entry into music, before the track becomes a Moog disco song with a jazz-fusion electric piano solo, followed by an orchestral breakdown, then a bass and turntable showdown, and culminates in a scorching harmonized guitar solo punctuated by laser sounds. It’s nine minutes long. Who needs the rest of the album? And yet.

Pharrell Williams (N.E.R.D.), Julian Casablancas (the Strokes) and Animal Collective’s Panda Bear lend vocals. Most stunning, however, is the appearance of Paul Williams, the ’70s songwriter (“The Rainbow Connection”), actor (Phantom of the Paradise) and perpetual TV guest (The Love Boat). He sings the album’s other eight-minute-plus epic, which opens the sound of him being strangled inside a machine, intoning, “Touch, I remember touch … I need something more in my mind.” It closes with a children’s choir singing “You’ve given me too much to feel / you’ve almost convinced me I’m real.”

Tangibility is what sets Random Access Memories apart from everything else in Daft Punk’s ice-cold catalogue—and indeed from much electronic music today. That might be the most retro element of all here. There’s a live drummer on every song—even pedal steel on more than half of them. There are several sad-robot ballads, some of which miraculously transcend inherent cheese to be emotionally affecting.

“Let the music of your life give life back to music,” they sing (through Vocoders) on the opening track, a mission statement for their new direction. (May 30)

Download: “Instant Crush,” “Giorgio by Moroder,” “Doin’ It Right”

Agnetha Faltskog – A (Universal)

The same week that an ABBA museum is opening in Stockholm, one of the As in ABBA releases her fifth solo album—only her second one in 25 years (its predecessor came out in 2004). It’s impossible to fault Faltskog for appealing to her own demographic, but it seems impossible that anyone who is not a 63-year-old Swede would enjoy a song called “Back On Your Radio,” which inexplicably finds the legendary singer using AutoTune and features a peppy melody that would embarrass Doris Day. Yes, this is an ABBA alumnus we’re talking about here, but even ABBA was never this sappy—and that’s saying something. (May 23)

Download: “I’m the One Who Loves You Now,” “I Should Have Followed You Home” (feat. Gary Barlow), “I Keep Them On the Floor Beside My Bed”

Flaming Lips – The Terror (Warner Brothers)

Those shiny, happy people are gone. Singer Wayne Coyne split up with his wife of 25 years. Steven Drozd had a brief drug relapse after 10 years of being clean. And after releasing a variety of strange projects—including an underrated all-star album with Nick Cave, Jim James, Erykah Badu and Ke$ha—the Flaming Lips sound like they’re wiping their slate of everything except their synthesizer banks. Drozd has said that after 20 years with the band, he didn’t feel like he could do anything more with chords and melodies. And so The Terror is largely an extended sound art piece, full of the psychedelic keyboards that have been central to their sound in the last 15 years, and Coyne moving from his role as carnival barker to more of a lonely astronaut singing unintelligibly to the cosmos. Considering the band’s prolific output, fairweather fans have every right to question whether this is just more Flaming Lips fuckery—like, say the soundtrack to Christmas on Mars—or whether it belongs alongside the band’s best-loved work. It’s clearly the latter, although anyone expecting peppy pop songs is best advised to steer clear. (May 2)

Download: “Be Free, A Way”; “Try to Explain”; “The Terror”

Folly and the Hunter – Tragic Care (Outside)

What if Sufjan Stevens recorded with Fleet Foxes in Montreal? Wonder no more. Banjos, pianos, minimal percussion, pump organ and glorious harmonies dominate in this earnest anglo trio, who write quiet anthems that show a touch of Arcade Fire on Quaaludes. Though lovely, the album gets weary over the course of its 43 minutes; maybe some hard touring will put some spring in their step. (May 9)

Download: “Ghost,” “Moth in the Porch Light,” “Vultures”

The Good Family – The Good Family Album (Latent)

Dallas and Travis Good of the Sadies grew up in a musical family: their father and uncle were ’70s country giants the Good Brothers, a fact that rarely gets mentioned now that the Sadies have spent 15 years as Canada’s most beloved roots band and sidemen to the stars (everyone from Neko Case to Neil Young). They’ve often invited their parents, aunt and uncle on stage with them, and occasionally on a song or two in the studio, but this is the first time the whole family sat down to make a record. Sadly, it doesn’t live up to a generation of expectation; instead, it sounds like what perhaps is all it has to be: eavesdropping on an insanely talented family trade songs and licks. Which is what you can do when the Good Family play the Starlight Lounge in Waterloo tonight, May 30. (May 30)

Download: “Taller Than the Pines,” “Outside of Saskatoon,” “Paradise”

Jim Guthrie – Takes Time  (Static Clang)

The year was 2003: a Montreal band called Arcade Fire put out their first EP. The label Arts and Crafts was launched to promote Broken Social Scene and its various offshoots. And yet at the same time a Guelph-Toronto label called Three Gut was wrapping up a flawless 10-album opening salvo that concluded with the third album by the label’s inspiration, Guelph’s Jim Guthrie. Titled Now More Than Ever, it was the sound of a bedroom recording genius realizing his full potential as a popsmith and lush arranger, the melancholy sound of a nascent musical scene growing up, and the sound of Montreal and Toronto’s music scenes falling in love with each other and blowing up worldwide. It featured Owen Pallett’s string arrangements; that directly led to Pallett’s gig on Arcade Fire’s Funeral album (and subsequent tour). It was nominated for a Juno in a category alongside Arcade Fire, Feist and Stars. Guthrie then found work writing jingles and acclaimed soundtracks for films and videogames. He put out one folk-pop album where he shared the spotlight with Nick Thorburn of Unicorns and Islands, called Human Highway, but fans had reason to wonder if Now More Than Ever was a summation and conclusion rather than a launching pad.

Ten years later, Guthrie has suddenly re-emerged with an album that recalls the innocence, the uncertainty and the longing of 2003 and raises the bar with maturity, wisdom and optimism: like an old friend who suddenly shows up on your doorstep, reminds you of all your past glories together, and in so many words tells you to buck up and prepare for all the greatness ahead. “Ran out of time making time machines,” he sings: best not to dwell on the past or worry about the future, but make the best of today.

Ten years in the studio tailoring his music for other people’s demands has only deepened Guthrie’s own production aesthetic. Rich California harmonies, synths bleeding into strings and horns, and surprisingly funky drumming underneath folkie indie rock songs all coalesce with a light psychedelic touch and filtered through a man who “eats, sleeps melody.”

His supporting players are fantastic: Pallett returns to arrange the stirring “Wish I Were You”; Randy Lee of the Bicycles handles most of the violin work; Jordan Howard (The Acorn, Tusks) pulls off a ripping guitar solo on “Don’t Be Torn”; the rhythm section of drummer Evan Clarke and bassist Simon Osborne are exemplary throughout. Guthrie mixes and matches influences effortlessly throughout: “The Rest is Yet to Come” matches a Bonham beat with doo-wop vocals, Edge-like textural electric guitars, R&B-style acoustic guitars, orchestral bells and strings that shift from soaring to disco stabs, all underneath Guthrie’s sing-song melody. 

Most importantly, the songs are fantastic. Just as one masterpiece ends, another takes its place. Only an album that took five years to make could hope to achieve the perfection Guthrie attains here. The denouement is a folkie acoustic cover of Nina Simone’s “Turn Me On”; it’s lovely enough, but considering the tour de force Guthrie has just dropped in our lap, it’s little more than exit music while leaving the theatre. If a Nina Simone track is your throwaway number, you know you’ve got something good going on. (May 9)

Download: “Don’t Be Torn,” “The Rest is Yet to Come,” “Wish I Were You”

Headstones – Love + Fury (FrostByte/Universal)

Dear dudes. Hugh here. It’s 2012 and look, I’m itchy. Flashpoint is about to wrap up. It was a blast. And, honestly, a sweet paycheque. But let’s be fucking frank here. Even an action-packed TV show involves standing around for inordinate periods of time in a monkey suit waiting for action to actually begin. I did that for five years. People kissed my ass. Now I’m sitting around waiting for voice-over work for insurance company ads. So like I said, I’m itchy. Twitchy, even. I miss you fuckers. Those reunion gigs were a good time. Got the blood pumping. Got the juices flowing.

So let’s bottle that shit. Let’s kick over some chairs. It’s been 20 years since the first album. It’s been 10 since we called it quits. Let’s show these whiny, pampered emo kids what’s the what. I’ve got some tunes. I’ve got some shit to get off my chest. I’m old. I’m cranky. But I’m ready to rumble and I can still kick the ass of punks half my age.

And you know what? I ain’t got time to waste. This will be 10 songs, all under four minutes long, recorded as live as possible. No studio tricks. No artistic maturity, whatever that is. No grunged-to-death Nickelback bullshit. If radio doesn’t want it, fuck ’em. I want those guitar solos to be breathless and last no more than eight bars. We can drop the tempo here and there, but Jesus Christ, no fucking ballads. (Note: I may break that rule once. And the four-minute one. So that will make 11 tracks. Sue me.) And—now hear me out—I want to cover ABBA’s “SOS,” because that song makes me fucking weep, and we’re going to do it like the Ramones on amphetamine. Don’t worry, though, my new songs are as good or better, so nobody’s going to think it’s a cheap novelty trick to get on the radio.

Yeah, this might be like a fool’s game and we’ll still end up playing shitholes called Cowboy Ranch and Toronto critics will think we’re nothing more than a soundtrack to a bar fight. But you know what? We’ve been written off before. We can do this. I’m ready. I’m fucking ready. I’m hungry. Are you? Fuck yeah.

Love, Hugh. (May 23)

Download: “Bin This Way For Years,” “Change My Ways,” “Far Away From Here”

Iggy and the Stooges - Ready To Die (Fat Possum)

Iggy Pop, who just turned 66, still fronts the loud, obnoxious punk band he founded 45 years ago, and here he reunites with guitarist James Williamson, 40 years after they last played together on the Raw Power album. (Original guitarist Ron Asheton had been playing with the reformed Stooges for the past 10 years, until his death in 2009). Williamson, who was a Silicon Valley executive for most of his post-Stooges life, sounds fantastic. Of course, Pop sounds timeless—he has for decades now.

Unlike, say, the Rolling Stones, Iggy and the Stooges still sound like they have the potential to be a dangerous, exciting band. Except that they’re not. Playing old classics is one thing; writing new ones is an entirely different challenge. The only half-decent rockers find Pop drooling over double-Ds and singing about how “nipples come and nipples go.” Titling your new album Ready to Die helps the jokes write themselves, but it’s downright strange when the album ends with a country-ish ballad called “The Departed,” featuring Toronto musicians from Mary Margaret O’Hara’s band that fades out with an acoustic take on the riff from “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” Huh? (May 2)

Download: “Sex and Money,” “DDs,” “Gun”

Kobo Town – Jumbie in the Jukebox (Cumbancha)

“If I had the choice, I would choose to live back when calypso brought the news,” sings Trinidadian-Canadian singer/songwriter Drew Gonsalves. And while Kobo Town’s music owes a large debt to traditional calypso—indeed, the name of the band comes from the area in Port-of-Spain where the genre was born, and original calypso star Lord Kitchener was a childhood neighbour of Gonsalves’. But he’s not locked into set patterns: Jumbie in the Jukebox is a thoroughly modern recording, owing debts to Western pop and Jamaican dancehall, all a delivery method for songs that would be just as effective with just Gonsalves and his acoustic guitar. He says he hoped this album, Kobo Town’s second and their first in six years, would be “a contemporary expression that said something about Caribbean music, our heritage, and the potential for a new voice that resonates with people today.” Mission accomplished. And with an American record deal and an international touring schedule, Gonsalves is ready to take his take on Trinidad far beyond Toronto. (May 16)

Download: “Kaiso Newscast,” “Half of the Houses,” “Postcard Poverty”

Majical Cloudz – Impersonator (Matador)

If singer Devon Welsh sounds dramatic, he comes across it honestly: his father is the acclaimed Canadian stage actor Kenneth Welsh, best known for playing convicted killer Colin Thatcher in a TV movie and as Agent Cooper’s arch-nemesis, Windom Earle, in Twin Peaks. Among his many other gifts, Welsh the younger has great diction and a commanding presence.

“I don’t think about dying alone,” he sings—but not convincingly. Welsh croons with a sombre seriousness that makes you think he’s contemplating mortal matters every minute of every day. His music is based on lilting synth loops and little else—no beats, minimal chord movement. Welch makes the most out of next to nothing, and the result is meditative, hymnal and often sounds suspended in time. Lots of people make minimal synth music; some people try to croon like a young Scott Walker. Welsh is one of the only people doing both.

Majical Cloudz, which Welsh formed with Matthew Otto, was formed in Montreal and sprung from the same Arbutus Records scene that spawned Grimes, Blue Hawaii, Sean Michael Savage and Doldrums: all fascinating acts, but hardly known for their emotional directness. Welsh, in contrast, sounds like he’s standing on Mont Royal facing Mile End, arms outstretched, eyes closed, calling to his peers to drop their facades and search for spiritual truths. “If this song is the last thing I do, I feel so good,” he sings.

His legacy begins. (May 23)

Download: “I Do Sing For You,” “Mister,” “This is Magic”

Major Lazer – Free the Universe (Secretly Canadian)

This follows up a 2009 tour-de-force dancehall pop explosion spearheaded by superstar DJ Diplo and dozens of collaborators. Diplo’s production partner Switch has since split, and the guest list has—unnecessarily—added some A-list gusts, like Wyclef Jean, Bruno Mars, Shaggy, and Ezra Koenig from Vampire Weekend. What once was a frenetic free-for-all now sounds more like what many feared the debut would be: a big-shot American producer making watered-down, only mildly interesting electronic take on Jamaican music, complete with moments of Eurotrance cheese. Diplo made his name as M.I.A.’s right-hand man; he now schlelps beats for Bieber. Major Lazer is certainly better than his current day jobs, but considering his creativity in the past, this is a big disappointment—mainly because none of the collaborators sound particularly engaged, phoning it in over B-sides, while Diplo sounds like he’s trying too hard to have fun on a cocaine bender. The rare moments of inspiration only make the rest of the album that much more of a major bummer. (May 16)

Download: “Get Free” (feat. Amber from Dirty Projectors), “Scare Me” (feat. Peaches & Timberlee), “Jet Blue Jet” (feat. Leftside, GTA, Razz & Biggy)

The National – Trouble Will Find Me (4AD)

What would happen if U2 all bathed in valerian and insisted on making nothing but dirgey ballads? The National may be the thinking man’s dad-rock band du jour, but with each successive album it sounds like they’re trying to rewrite “One” and “Love is Blindness.” They’ve come close before; they come close again here. In the meantime, the lethargy is suffocating; the appeal, mystifying. (May 23)

Download: “Graceless,” “I Should Live in Salt,” “I Need My Girl”

Saltland – I Thought It Was Us But It Was All of Us (Constellation)

Rebecca Foon is a Montreal cellist who has played with almost everyone in that town—particularly those on the periphery of the scene that spawned Godspeed You Black Emperor, notably Esmerine (with Godspeed percussionist Bruce Cawdron) and Thee Silver Mt. Zion (with Godspeed guitarist Efrim Menuck). Here she performs her own enchanting compositions on layered and looped cello, adding percussionist Jamie Thompson (Unicorns, Islands) and her own languorous vocals. The tone is not far removed from early ’90s 4AD acts (This Mortal Coil, Dead Can Dance), with more drone elements and Thompson adding tasteful punctuation that keeps all the weightless atmospherics from drifting off into the night sky. (May 16)

Download: “Golden Alley,” “Treehouse Schemes,” “Colour the Night Sky”

Savages – Silence Yourself (Matador)

This no-boy band from London are reminiscent of early ’80s British post-punk ala Joy Division and Siouxie and the Banshees—perhaps the last period of rock music to be couched in mystery and actual experimentation with form, owing no debts to either blues or folk music, which endears it to the geekiest of the geeks and black-clad record-store clerks around the world. (For more contemporary Canadian references, this sounds like Katie Sketch of The Organ taking a shot of adrenalin and fronting the D’Urbervilles.)

Which means that because Savages is undeniably retro doesn’t mean they can’t sound fresh: French-born singer Jehnny Beth is an astounding presence, the kind of bone-chilling voice that leaps out of your stereo and stares you down and haunts you, defying you to ignore her. She is also, other than the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O, the only current rock singer who can swoop from scowl to screech and still be pitch-perfect; on top of that, she’s trained as a jazz pianist, and Silence Yourself is surely the only punk rock record with a bass clarinet solo.

This is not a solo act, however. The rest of the band is just as exciting: guitarist Gemma Thompson is full of jagged edges, chugging rhythms and experimental abandon, and the rhythm section is solid and propulsive and raw. It’s all captured expertly by producer Rodaidh McDonald, who treats them the same way he did The XX: provide them with some good mics and a bit of reverb, stand back and watch the magic happen, no overdubs necessary.

That said, Silence Yourself is a good album by a great band; they weren’t together very long before being thrust in the spotlight, and no doubt they have better material in them. The trick will be keeping that initial spark. (May 9)

Download: “Shut Up,” “I Am Here,” “She Will”

Colin Stetson – New History of Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light (Constellation)

No avant-garde saxophonist has had more of a public profile in the last—what, three decades? Since John Zorn?—than Colin Stetson. The associate of Bon Iver and Arcade Fire—who pulls off Olympian feats of physical strength while circular breathing through a baritone saxophone and playing melody and percussion at the same time—records with a lot of contact microphones and no overdubs. Yes, it’s impressive. And yes, it often sounds like an elephant in its death throes on an infinite loop—if you’re into that kind of thing. Which, it turns out, is more people than one would think

His last album catapulted him into headliner status and a slot on the Polaris Prize shortlist. Can he get lucky twice, with an album that doesn’t stray too far from Vol. 2’s limited palette? How much gurgling, pulsing saxophone can audiences take? (Supplementary questions for the sake of argument: how many arpeggiated symphonies can Philip Glass write? How many minimalist techno records can Richie Hawtin make?)

No matter, as Stetson is definitely improving: Vol. 3 expands his bag of tricks, proving that he’s hardly a one-trick pony, and is more melodic than last time out—and not just the tracks featuring Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon on vocals (including a death metal turn on “Brute”), which are actually some of the weakest and distracting here. And once again, the audio engineering—the art of capturing this mysterious thing Stetson does—is what ultimately makes it translate so well into a 40-minute record. Stetson’s music is an immersive experience, one in which acoustic sounds become utterly alien and yet engrossing, one in which the listener is constantly lurching through waves of insistent rhythm and ghostly melodies. (May 2)

Download: “High Above a Green Sea,” “In Mirrors,” “This Bed of Shattered Bone”

A Tribe Called Red – Nation II Nation (Tribal Spirit)

Idle No More isn’t just a political movement. Thanks to this Ottawa DJ crew, it’s a musical one, too. Though native hip-hop has had its own healthy scene for at least the last 15 years, merging Aboriginal rhythms and voices to a pulsing techno beat hasn’t been done as successfully, if at all—and it’s certainly never reached the kind of audience that this DJ crew is doing. A Tribe Called Red has transformed their popular Ottawa club gig into a national, nay international, phenomenon.

Part of the appeal, of course, is hearing what may be one of the last “exotic” cultures to be plundered in the name of globalized dance culture, but if that was the beginning and end of this crew’s appeal, their story would be over by now. Instead, their second album (or first, if you don’t count their free-download debut recording, which was long-listed for the Polaris Prize) is brimming with beats designed to excite and send crowds into a frenzy; the one track without Aboriginal vocals, “Sweet Milk Pop,” is squiggly, sweaty and built for Berlin or Brazil more than Brantford. But it is the vocals that make this more than just another solid dance record (see: Daphni’s Jiaolong) and a vital cultural document of a time and place in North American Aboriginal culture. They are joyous, furious and inspired, full of the raw sound of community, trapped inside synthetic machines and yet rising above them to find strength and power.  (May 9)

Download: “Sisters” (feat. Northern Voice), “Tanto's Revenge” (feat. Chippewa Travellers), “Pbc” (feat. Sheldon Sundown)

Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City (XL)

Vampire Weekend open their third album with a downbeat, mid-tempo number: not a good sign, especially for a band whose follow-up to a winning debut was bogged down with soggy synths and AutoTune, which just sounded like awkward growing pains.

And so the opening track here, “Obvious Bicycle,” doesn’t bode well, from the title on down. But Vampire Weekend quickly pull a bait and switch: second track “Unbelievers” is an upbeat, pulsing, pogo-friendly, three-chord sing-song melody that transforms into an Irish anthem in the final of its three minutes. “I’m not excited,” sings Ezra Koenig, “but should I be?”

Well, yes. “Diane Young” owes a large debt to Elvis Presley, of all people—something surely lost on 90 per cent of the band’s audience—as Koenig pitch-shifts his voice across octaves, drummer Chris Tomson delivers machine-gun rolls and multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij delivers a loopy solo that sounds like Thurston Moore doing rockabilly; “Step” matches modern R&B influences with psychedelic harpsichord, synth choirs and dreamy lead vocals; Koenig sounds like a rambling auctioneer on the verses of the march of “Worship You,” before writing a chorus worthy of Coldplay while a Persian female voice dances around in the background. “Ya Hey” manages to borrow from roots reggae without ever emulating it outright (unlike, say the pseudo-controversies over the South African influences on Vampire Weekend’s debut), and even a yelping chorus of what sounds like whining Smurfs can’t detract from a what is an album highlight—the more ridiculous Vampire Weekend decide to be, the better the track.

Modern Vampires of the City isn’t consistent enough to live up to its best moments, but when those moments come they point to a band whose creativity was always greater than they were often given credit for. (May 16)

Download: “Ya Hey,” “Step,” “Diane Young”

Rachel Zeffira - The Deserters (Paper Bag)

Zeffira grew up playing and singing classical music in small-town B.C., escaped to London and then Verona and found herself playing music at the Vatican and forming a band (Cat’s Eyes) with a member of a popular goth-rock British group (the Horrors). Fans of Tori Amos and Lisa Germano should already be perking up, but so should those of the debut albums by Julee Cruise and Goldfrapp: albums that exist in some otherworldly, half-remembered European dream involving trains, mountains and church spires. There’s a My Bloody Valentine cover (“To Here Knows When”), a song that could be a classic Neil Young piano ballad from the ’70s (“Front Door”), and a lushly orchestrated disco song—recorded at Abbey Road studios, and featuring harps—that could be Saint Etienne covering Donna Summer. Zeffira’s piano playing, string arrangements and breathy soprano are all enchanting; no wonder the world is paying attention. (May 2)

Download: “Letters from Tokyo (Sayonara),” “Front Door,” “Break the Spell”