Fresh off SXSW, we all have far more than five albums to sort through. But these five stand out amidst an exciting bounty of spring releases. One woman or several helms each act, in part or in whole, and each album takes something old — an instrument, a genre, a theme — and says something new about it.
Joanna Newsom – Have One on Me
There’s something for everyone on the captivating harpist’s long-awaited third album, technically a triple release of six tracks each. The Newsom of Ys cloaked her subject matter so heavily in the natural world that the lyrics, packed into songs long enough to be concerto movements, were sometimes too obscure. Her songs remain lengthy and dense with symbols, but from the locomotive, Joni Mitchell-flavored piano-pop song "Good Intentions Paving Company" to the spooky, Hindu-inspired dreamscape "Go Long," there are glimmers of something familiar, old, and dear, despite the compositions’ baffling sophistication. It may simply be that the melodies are memorable when they’re not addictive, echoing the album’s theme: home.
White Hinterland – Kairos
Casey Dienel had the impetus to record the piano-pop songs she started writing a few years ago, but it was a friend who sent the recordings to a label. Miles away from those early songs is Kairos, Dienel’s more studied and intricate second release as White Hinterland. Though it’s full of watery atmospherics, breezy harmonies, and slow-brewing climaxes, Kairos doesn’t feel showy or calculated. "Cataract" is an ethereal love song; "Begin Again" is a ruminative, slow-brewing Aaliyah send-up; and "Magnolias" is a haunting showcase of Dienel’s honey-sweet voice, which meanders adventurously around the scale, always choosing dexterity over force.
Laura Marling – I Speak Because I Can
The British songwriter and guitarist proved she had chops on her debut, but this album oozes the wisdom and confidence of a matured, well traveled musician. Marling’s language evokes a simpler past, but her perspective can be witty, unapologetic — even bitter. The accompaniments here are more sprawling than in her past work, but they never overpower the woman at the center. Her songs become far more than the sum of their metaphors and allusions.
Dum Dum Girls – I Will Be
The dizzy, frothy summer sounds of bands like Girls and The Drums are here to stay, but Dum Dum Girls’ music adds a few important elements to the formula: punk inflections, beautiful harmonies, infectious pop structures, and surprising, sometimes dark melodies. This debut album has familiar ’60s pop rhythms in spades, but like The Magnetic Fields, Dum Dum Girls add clever lyrics and instrumentation to songs that might otherwise sound like pastiches. The sound is full of reverb, but it doesn’t sound like a murky mess; every guitar strum and backing vocal has its pretty (or dirgey) place in the mix.
Slow Club – Yeah, So
Coming off a string of gigs at SXSW, this British female-male folk-rock duo has a nice buzz going. Their debut has been floating around since it was released in the U.K. last summer, and it finally came out in the States yesterday. The pair shares vocal duties, giving us two perspectives and two unique tones: Rebecca Taylor sounds undeniably like a folk singer, with a feathery but strong, vibrato-filled voice that reaches up in the scale for emphasis, while Charles Watson is a pop-punk singer willing to let her lead. The collisions can be cute and surprisingly harmonious, but the band really shines when it cuts loose, giving up the sweet acoustics in favor of vocal layering, bold electric guitars, a thumping kick-drum, and a tambourine, as in "I Was Unconscious, It Was a Dream" and the delicious "It Doesn’t Have to Be Beautiful."