First Aid Kit delivers more ’70s folk-rock mastery with Ruins, while Porches sputters out on The House and Belle & Sebastian go deeper and darker on the second How To Solve Our Human Problems EP. These, plus Tune-Yards, Shopping, and more in this week’s notable releases.
First Aid Kit, Ruins
Swedish sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg have been at it for a while now—the siblings released their first EP as First Aid Kit almost a decade ago—but their songwriting chops have been so consistently strong throughout these 10 years that you’d be hard-pressed to note the passage of time. Listening to it, you’d have a tough time guessing what decade their music hails from in the first place. Ruins is a natural progression from 2014’s Stay Gold, with the Söderbergs’ reverently ’70s folk-rock sounds—gentle guitars paired to soaring harmonies, aided by routine pedal-steel appearances (supplied here by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck) and laid-back drums—restlessly moving across a variety of song styles. While tracks like “It’s A Shame” and “Postcard” have an old-school country twang and ambling rhythm, “Hem Of Her Dress” is all strumming intensity and anthemic vocals, impassioned and rising, until an entire choir of harmonies joins in for the transcendent coda. They’re not reinventing the wheel, and nothing stands out as a bold evolution of the band’s sound. Still, it’s another satisfying and fully realized entry in a canon full of moving melodies and throwback charm. It’s a very familiar take on Americana, full of heartbreak and yearning, but a damn reliable one.
RIYL: Emmylou Harris. Early Linda Ronstadt. Later Joan Baez. Crossover Dolly Parton.
Start here: Single “It’s A Shame” is a distillation of some of the sisters’ finest elements, blending folk-country rhythms and melodies as harmoniously as their voices. [Alex McLevy]
Porches, The House
Aaron Maine has never stuck to a single sound for very long, going from a rock band playing self-described “grunge tunes” to a more nuanced, subtle approach by the first Porches album. With 2016’s Pool, Maine remade Porches once again—this time as an electro-pop band, finding more inspiration in sultry R&B than the scene that bred him. The House goes further down that road, with thick drum beats, swirling keys, and synthesized horns all making an appearance. Here Maine turns in some of his best songs yet, with “Country,” “Now The Water,” and “Find Me” all showcasing his skill as a crooner, but around its midpoint, the album starts to sag. The House’s three interludes feel less like connective tissue and more like unfinished filler, and the album’s back half ends up seeming rote. “Anymore” is a prime example, with Maine’s vocal melody sounding so similar—and so blasé—that it sparks immediate déjà vu. Maine’s vocals become even more lackadaisical as The House wears on, causing the album to sputter out like a dance party coming to a screeching halt in its first 15 minutes.
RIYL: Twin Shadow. Underworld. Moody raves.
Start here: “Country” is truly the standout, showing Maine at the peak of his power, if only for a flash. [David Anthony]
Tune-Yards, i can feel you creep into my private life
In 2014, Tune-Yards delivered their most distinctive and widely acclaimed album to date with the synth-fueled sensory overload Nikki Nack. Follow-up i can feel you creep into my private life jumps off from that point but takes Merrill Garbus and Nate Brenner’s rhythmic experiments deeper into electronic territory, incorporating thumping dance-floor beats into their joyous cacophony of rock, funk, R&B, jazz, and African influences. Garbus’ voice sounds bigger than ever as she wrestles with political and social issues like race and intersectional feminism, and many of the melodies on i can feel you rank among her best (“Now As Then,” “Hammer”). Above all, it’s an album preoccupied with freedom—political, mental, and physical—and committed to examining and subverting assumptions, and it walks the walk in pursuing both fronts. It may lack the punch of Nikki Nack, but for those willing to hang around and appreciate its jammier approach, it’s a cathartic, worthwhile stop along the Tune-Yards catalog.
RIYL: Prior Tune-Yards releases. Dancing your ass off. Interrogating white privilege.
Start here: “Heart Attack” is probably most representative of the many high-energy dance tracks within, and of how incredibly dynamic Garbus’ vocals are throughout. [Kelsey J. Waite]
Shopping, The Official Body
Shopping’s sound is a familiar one, a minimalist art-punk breed of rubbery bass lines, single-string guitar plucks, and spiraling chants that recall late-’70s forebears like the Au Pairs and Delta 5 (and more recently, all the bands worshipping at their altars a decade ago). But The Official Body proves why it’s remained durable over so many iterations and, for the London trio, across three albums. There’s a directness to its pleasures that’s unflagging for all 10 tracks here, which find the band—after two records of interrogating power dynamics, personal and political—“amping up the party vibe,” or so they say. Sure, you can party to the spindly propulsion of “The Hype” or pogo to the buoyant “My Dad’s A Dancer.” But the former also finds singer Rachel Aggs and drummer Andrew Milk trading interlocking denouncements of some vaguely oppressive Other (“They teach us procrastination / They teach us / Indecision”), while the latter finds Aggs examining the prejudice she faces as a gay woman of color (“This is such a simple thing / You don’t like me, I don’t look like you”), before shrugging it off with a defiant refrain of “ha ha ha.” It’s barbed stuff, but throughout, Shopping sidesteps any heavy-handed politicizing in favor of such danceable catharsis—all closing with Aggs singing, “Think I finally found a way out,” on “Overtime,” as her band locks into a transcendent groove behind her.
RIYL: The Au Pairs. Delta 5. Bush Tetras. ESG. Warehouse dance parties. AdBusters. Naomi Klein.
Start here: Lead single “The Hype” and its accompanying video are an encapsulation of everything Shopping is about: prickly, fuck-the-system funk-punk soundtracking a wild and welcoming pool party. [Sean O’Neal]
Belle & Sebastian, How To Solve Our Human Problems (Part 2)
Belle & Sebastian’s How To Solve Our Human Problems series follows standard trilogy protocol: Delve deeper and go darker in chapter two. It’s still Belle & Sebastian, so “darker” is relative, and never anything gloomier than the overcast sky hanging above the opening track, “Show Me The Sun.” Nor does it imply a lack of liveliness, as evidenced by “The Same Star,” an anthemic stomper that represents new pinnacles for Sarah Martin-led numbers and guitar heroics within the band’s discography. “Show Me The Sun,” “The Same Star,” and its part-two companions stand to be the most heavily rotated songs of How To Solve Our Human Problems, with the stickiest melodies and, in the ballads “I’ll Be Your Pilot” and “A Plague On All Other Boys,” the most tender lyrical sentiments. “A Plague On All Other Boys” is the EP’s other all-timer, a coming-of-age story in the tradition of “Expectations,” “If You’re Feeling Sinister,” and other Belle & Sebastian classics about lonely, tongue-tied, mixed-up kids.
RIYL: Belle & Sebastian. The Empire Strikes Back and The Last Jedi more than A New Hope and The Force Awakens. Making soundtracks for imaginary, stylish heist movies—which “Show Me The Sun” would fit like a glove.
Start here: “A Plague On All Other Boys” sounds like a title Stuart Murdoch would’ve used long ago (assuming Morrissey didn’t beat him to it); but if he had, it’d lack the emotional sophistication, poignant breadth of perspective and “10 years later” epilogue of the version heard here, which gives Part 2 its perfect not-so-happy ending: “There’s a roped-off part of every human heart / For the first one you loved.” [Erik Adams]
They Might Be Giants, I Like Fun
Since 1986, the prolific Brooklyn duo of John Flansburgh and John Linnell has never gone longer than a few years without an album release, recently swaying from kids’ albums to grown-up ones. They Might Be Giants’ latest is decidedly in the latter camp—even though there’s still plenty of goofiness in songs like the title track, “McCafferty’s Bib,” and “The Greatest.” From light to dark, day-job diatribe “Let’s Get This Over With” offers a gospel-esque opener with cheery 4/4 handclaps, while “By The Time You Get This” is about as bleak as the band ever gets, even as the song looks toward a hopefully idyllic future (“We’ll no longer be alive / When the evils that we faced will at last be laid to rest”). “Lake Monsters” gives rocking sci-fi tribute to mysterious beasts that should please longtime fans, “The Bright Side” borrows from the ’60s British Invasion, and “Push Back The Hands” also turns sweetly nostalgic—though there’s no need for looking backward just yet, as the TMBG song machine is still operating at full force.
RIYL: Accordions. Quirk. Mythological creatures. The ’90s.
Start here: The surreal anthem “I Left My Body” is as hooky as “Birdhouse In Your Soul,” with the added advantage of some incredibly catchy guitar. [Gwen Ihnat]
The Go! Team, Semicircle
With 2015’s The Scene Between, it looked like Go! Team ringmaster Ian Parton had decided to set aside the inspired, but often creatively uneven style of previous records. Instead he settled wonderfully into a new groove of old-school ’60s beats and Brill Building hooks, largely shorn of the hip-hop and cheerleader rave-ups of the past. But with Semicircle, not only does he make a full-fledged return to the chant-along celebrations of youthful exuberance, but he does it with some actual youths—specifically the Detroit Youth Choir, who lend their pipes to multiples tracks. While the results are undeniably bubbly and uplifting, they’re also less distinctive, with the choir’s contributions often more fun in theory than execution, as with the uneven “Semicircle Song.” While some tracks are more focused and memorable than others, like the midtempo groove of “The Answer’s No—Now What’s The Question,” the crowded samples and live instrumentation are so overwhelming that it intermittently loses steam. It’s a rousing party record, but when the music stops and the lights come on, it all blurs together into a fun but forgettable time.
RIYL: The Go! Team of years past, only more scattershot. Funky horns and retro soul beats.
Start here: “She’s Got Guns” is one of the only tracks featuring longtime MC Ninja at the mic, but the sing-along refrain is one of the best distillations of the celebratory sound the rest of the album tries to encapsulate. [Alex McLevy]
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