Beach House -- 7

While Beach House's sound has always focused on hypnotic melodies and Victoria LeGrand's rich vocals -- and likely always will -- they've found different ways to explore this potent combination on each album. LeGrand and Alex Scally delivered some of their most dramatic experiments on 2015's Depression Cherry and Thank Your Lucky Stars, which presented a surprising amount of sides to their music even as they stripped it down to the basics. If possible, they're even more committed to change on their aptly named seventh album. To make 7, Beach House opted to work with Sonic Boom instead of longtime producer Chris Coady; brought their live drummer James Barone into the studio; and recorded songs as soon as they were done writing them instead of waiting to record all of them at once. This creative liberation resonates on every track, whether Scally and LeGrand build up the instrumentation or pare it back, touch on their familiar sounds or invent new ones. 7's sequencing spotlights just how wide its range is, juxtaposing songs that sound wildly different, but equally like Beach House. The galactic whoosh of "Dark Spring" -- a key example of Boom's influence -- sounds all the more vast next to "Pay No Mind," the band's warmest, most down-to-earth love song yet. Similarly, "L'Inconnue"'s blissful call-and-response contrasts nicely with the edgy "Drunk in LA," where the beats and synths evoke rain-slicked streets and city lights. Throughout 7, Beach House feel more concerned with capturing moments fully rather than conforming to notions of what a cohesive album is. That these songs sound like they came from different albums is ultimately more refreshing than disorienting, and the excitement that courses through each track is palpable. Scally and LeGrand could have only made 7 at this point in their career -- not only do they have the skill to change things up, but the wisdom to know how and when to do so.~ Heather Phares,


Calexico -- The Thread That Keeps Us

The need to find -- and sometimes fight for -- moments of joy and truth during hard times resonates on every track of Calexico’s The Thread That Keeps Us. Calexico have never shied away from social commentary, and they express the urgency of the late 2010s on unflinching songs like "Eyes Wide Awake" and "Dead in the Water," a snarling, stomping portrait of consumption and destruction. The band conveys this devastation more subtly -- and even more artfully -- on "Thrown to the Wild"'s hazy ruminations and on "Voices in the Field," where their outrage smolders rather than blazes.
Fortunately, Calexico spend as much time enjoying the world as trying to save it on The Thread That Keeps Us. Northern California's mellow beauty seeps into "Girl in the Forest" and balances its ecological concerns with a peaceful vibe. Elsewhere, the band's flair for vivid imagery comes to the fore on "The Town & Miss Lorraine," which combines an old woman, a book of stories from a sunken ship, and plenty of rum into a haunting vignette. However, Calexico sound the most joyous when they're exploring the eclectic mix of sounds at which they've always excelled. The album's midsection is frequently thrilling: "Flores y Tamales" is an equally funky and majestic update of the band's earliest days; the gritty beats and brass on "Under the Wheels" hark back to Feast of Wire; and the restless percussion and squalling trumpets of "Another Space" make it one of the band's most rewarding experiments. By turns gentle and bold, traditional and boundary-pushing, The Thread That Keeps Us is another fine example of Calexico's ever-broadening horizons.~Heather Phares,

Leon Bridges -- Good Thing

In sound and look, the Grammy-nominated Coming Home replicated one style from a bygone era with such perfectionist accuracy that Leon Bridges risked being typecast as a malt-shop soul man. Some of Bridges' subsequent featured appearances fulfilled that role, but others indicated that he was primed to break out and loosen up a bit. The singer and songwriter's second album similarly displays different approaches that skillfully build off and depart from the previous release. Bridges displays some hard-fought assurance on the call-and-response soul-jazz groove "Bad Bad News," where he asserts "I hit 'em with the style and grace, and watch their ankles break." "Shy," a mellow number with appealingly awry likenesses to Al Green and the Isley Brothers, quickly pulls Bridges back to his modest, chivalrous self. Bridges later clearly aims to reach a broader audience, though he only briefly approaches Bruno Mars territory with a little uptown funk laced through "If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be)," the effervescent bounce of which is rooted in the Whispers' "It's a Love Thing," and "You Don't Know," a second slice of sophisticated, feel-good post-disco. All these deviations, including the one that sounds like it was written for an early-'70s Rod Stewart album, seem natural for Bridges, who evidently had much more to explore and express than what was shown on Coming Home. What's more, there is no pandering. Most suggestive of the singer's bright future is album closer "Georgia to Texas," a stunning and ultimately affecting tribute to his mother delivered in front of an acoustic jazz quartet. ~ Andy Kellman,

Lucy Dacus -- Historian

After releasing a debut album that led to a contract with and reissue by Matador Records, singer/songwriter Lucy Dacus follows up two years later with Historian. The response to 2016's No Burden took note of the songwriter's velvety voice and thoughtful lyrics as well as the album's mix of catchy indie rock and quieter introspection. For Historian, Dacus returned to the studio with the same production team (Dacus, Collin Pastore, Jacob Blizard), but here, they flesh out the arrangements, contrasting spare reflection with soaring dynamics, often within the same song. The album's epic first track, "Night Shift," is a prime example, opening with a quiet recollection of events over strummed guitar as the singer addresses an ex. It builds slowly, gaining drums and eventually grungy, churning guitars as Dacus moves into her upper range. That conversational midrange is her bread and butter, though, as most of the album seems to acknowledge. Tracks like "Addictions" and "Body to Flame" expand the palette even further with horns and strings. The latter song begins as restrained chamber pop with harpsichord-like guitar and a string quartet before it kicks into rock & roll gear, dramatically, halfway through. Later, the seven-plus-minute "Pillar of Truth," a hymnlike song that appears to play off of "Amazing Grace" with lyrics like "I once had sight/But now I'm blind," likewise rises and falls sharply in volume. Ultimately, the forte passages don't encroach on the songwriting, as they underline emotion, but they do, at times, step on Dacus' voice, when she's clouded by high-volume accompaniment or even vocal processing. Thankfully, those moments are brief and rare, allowing her lyrics and expressive sense of melody to shine. ~Marcy Donelson,


Khruangbin -- Con Todo el Mundo

Texan trio Khruangbin named themselves after the Thai word for airplane, which couldn't be more appropriate for a band whose influences imply heavy passport usage. Of course, the band are inspired by Thai rock and funk from the '60s and '70s -- sounds most easily available to Western ears via releases like the Thai Beat a Go-Go compilations or anything issued by ZudRangMa Records. The group also draw from the bass pressure of vintage dub reggae, the free-spirited haziness of California psychedelia, and the gritty passion of '70s soul, with hints of Iranian pop, Afrobeat, Spaghetti Western film scores, and countless other styles. While this sounds like it could be an impossibly tall order, or something that requires an encyclopedic knowledge of music just to listen to, the band achieve a remarkably, almost effortlessly cohesive sound, and it goes down much more smoothly than one might expect. The group never have a lead vocalist, but most of the songs on Con Todo el Mundo feature distant, shadowy backup vocals, making them seem like proper songs with the lyrics removed. Instead, Mark Speer's reverb-heavy guitar does most of the talking, playing a more ethereal variation on twangy surf or desert blues riffs. ~Paul Simpson,

Jean Grae --Everything's Fine

On Everything's Fine, rappers Jean Grae and Quelle Chris reflect on what it takes to stay normal and sane while dealing with intense personal issues and living in an increasingly corrupt, crazy world that constantly seems on the brink of destruction. The darkly humorous album sarcastically riffs on this sense of false, clich├ęd optimism, as well as stereotypes, the whitewashing of hip-hop (and popular culture in general), and the general sense of anxiety surrounding day-to-day existence. Right from the outset, the album is filled with dense, complex vocal arrangements, with both MCs (as well as their guests) delivering dozens of vicious caricatures of fake rappers and "woke" folks. The couple, who announced their engagement a few months prior to the album's release, have vastly different styles -- Grae, who also moonlights as an actress and comedian, is sharper and more dramatic, while Chris has more of a loose, conversational style and can sometimes be described as a stoner rapper -- but they complement each other well, and both drive the album's concept. Musically, some of the tracks sound like the type of sludgy, lo-fi boom-bap Chris is known for, but they branch off into several other directions, such as the smudged P-Funk vibe of "House Call," the spacy, late-night jazz groove of "Gold Purple Orange," and the grinding industrial drone of "Scoop of Dirt." In addition to guest appearances by underground rappers such as Your Old Droog and Denmark Vessey, several comedians also contribute. The brilliant John Hodgman wearily, reluctantly offers words of encouragement on the Negativland-like interlude "Don't Worry It's Fine," while Nick Offerman cheerfully encourages you to disregard anything that doesn't directly affect you during "Everything's Still Fine." On "OhSh," Hannibal Buress shows up to deliver a numbskulled rap satire while a barrage of samples of the word "shit" fly by at a rapid pace, and it's impossible to imagine everyone involved not cracking up in the studio. The album ends with two of its most cautiously optimistic tracks, the more uplifting "Waiting for the Moon" and the ethereal yet hard "River," which seem to resolve that things are, in fact, quite OK, but you still need to watch out and fight for yourself. ~ Paul Simpson,








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