There’s a lot of music out there. To help you cut through all the noise, every week The A.V. Club is rounding up A-Sides, with some recent releases we think are worth your time. You can listen to these and more on our Spotify playlist, and if you like what you hear, we encourage you to purchase featured artists’ music directly at the links provided below.
Sufjan Stevens thought “America” was “vaguely mean-spirited” when he wrote it six years ago, but those concerns faded as the country it indicted spiraled further into absurdity. An inverse of sorts to Age Of Adz’s climactic “Impossible Soul,” the sprawling, 12-minute song carries a single phrase—“Don’t do to me what you did to America”—through movements both muted and grand. A plaintive, synth-driven intro evolves from solid to gas, the singer’s ghostly harmonies ushering the track into an intergalactic expanse of whirring and clanging satellites as the refrain becomes more and more desperate. Unlike “Impossible Soul,” “America” ends not with communion, but a sorrowful ambient wash and some light piano flourishes—it’s lovely, but lonely, and not without anger. It also, per a press release, sets the template for Stevens’ upcoming The Ascension, a “lush, editorial pop album” that’s described as “a call for personal transformation and a refusal to play along with the systems around us.” Happy Fourth of July, indeed. [Randall Colburn]
The cover of British singer-songwriter Nadine Shah’s fourth album Kitchen Sink pictures a garish spread straight out of a vintage cookbook, conjuring up disgusting images of tuna and Jell-O salad that, conveniently enough, also capture the discomfiting spirit of this 11-song set. Combining jarring post-punk with seductive exotica and haunted, Gothic vocals à la PJ Harvey and Nick Cave, Kitchen Sink is the sound of a midcentury housewife experiencing a psychotic break at a dinner party. “Shave my legs, freeze my eggs, will you want me when I’m old?” Shah sings on “Trad,” one of several songs on the record that speak to the existential emptiness of marriage and partnership in a sexist world. She overlays these bleak lyrics with sinuous rhythms and fuzzed-out guitars, combining the alluring and the horrific to kitschy, sexy, thrillingly wicked effect. [Katie Rife]
Chicago outfit Twin Peaks is nothing if not prolific, churning out an album every year or two since 2013. The band explains this new four-song EP with a handwritten note: “At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we realized our recording efforts would be waylaid, so we worked to finish the songs that were closest to completion remotely,” with the band’s multiple singers sending in individual vocal tracks. The result showcases a 1970s FM radio sound, which is typically in the TP rearview: Legend Of Zelda-inspired kickoff “What’s The Matter” settles fans right back into the band’s familiar, mellow groove, punctuated by high-hat percussion. While “Whistle In The Wind (The End Of Everything)” has a bleak title, it shows that there’s nary a soul that can’t be soothed by sax solos and twinkly keyboards. Irrepressible countrified pop song “Any More Than You Want” lures the listener in with loopy, twangy guitars. Only last track “Above/Below” falls prey to indulgent six-plus minute noodling, which is like the dark side of ’70s rock radio. The band promises a followup vinyl 10” in the fall. [Gwen Ihnat]
Like a group pulled out of time, Little Kid deals in the ageless Americana and folk sounds that have returned over and again since the ’60s and ’70s, returning to the roots of these styles and instruments to uncover the soul of the music. And on Transfiguration Highway, the band’s songwriter, Kenny Boothby, takes the listener on a tour of the big philosophical and spiritual questions, employing Christian imagery and themes to investigate the possibility of enlightenment and hope for a better future. The oft-made comparisons to Neil Young and The Band are apt and obvious, but what Boothby and company are after fuses the hushed confessional intimacy of Elliot Smith, the stark severity of Will Oldham, and much more to the ambling gentility of the rhythms and guitars. It’s a record of sonic and soulful exploration, looking at the time-worn patterns of both to uncover the value in what’s come before. And it does so beautifully. [Alex McLevy]
Sure, it’s easy to label Khruangbin a “jam band”—after all, their intoxicating blend of soul and psychedelia feels destined for wide-open festival fields where each groovy bass line is like a cool breeze to fans baking under the sun. But the Houston-based trio is out for more than good vibes on their third album Mordechai; they’ve crafted an ode to the journey that got them to those festival stages in the first place. In their pursuit of influences from outside the American mainstream, Khruangbin ushers in a new kind of “world music,” which references Asian surf-rock, Persian funk, and Jamaican dub, to name a few. And while their discography is historically instrumental, Mordechai takes Khruangbin in a fresh direction by introducing vocals, which—fittingly—dabble in non-English languages. Standout single “Pelota,” for example, uses Spanish lyrics and a gleeful clapped beat to create the perfect summer escape. Khruangbin’s not just a band to zone out to—they want you to get lost in the music. [Cameron Scheetz]