Payroll Giovanni (Image: Big Bossin Vol. 2 album artwork), Aaron Bruno of AWOLNATION (Photo courtesy of Willful Publicity), and Milosh of Rhye (Photo: Geneviève Medow Jenkins)

Rhye turns in another half hour of immaculate R&B with Blood, while Payroll Giovanni & Cardo’s Big Bossin Vol. 2 feels like liquid summertime, and Hookworms pull themselves back from the abyss on Microshift. These, plus AWOLNATION and The Soft Moon in this week’s notable new releases.


Rhye, Blood

[Loma Vista Recordings]
Grade: A-

Rhye’s 2013 debut, Woman, was just over 30 minutes of spare, barely breathed-into-being pop, not so much “inspired by” Sade as possessed by the otherworldly sensuality of her music. Half a decade later, here comes… another 30 minutes of absolutely immaculate music, with minimalistic arrangements that nevertheless sketch out Daft Punk-worthy grooves, keening midnight yearnings, and heart-wrenching climaxes. Now essentially a solo act, Rhye’s music is defined by the mononymous Milosh’s spectral, androgynous vocals, with sighs that play like stringed accompaniment on the low-key funk of “Count To Five” or “Phoenix.” It’s music that rewards close attention—your ears sort of adjust to the quiet on a song like “Please,” until Milosh’s softest whimper lands devastatingly—but just as easily glides by in the background. Taken as a whole, it’s a darker record than its predecessor, but no album this unashamedly beautiful is ever truly depressing. It’s more minimal than The xx, more romantic than the most heartsick R&B, with drums pulled straight from ’70s studio sessions. In other words, it’s a lot of things, while still sounding like nothing else out there. If Milosh stays at the pace of one hour of music every 10 years, it’ll be worth the effort.

RIYL: Sade. The xx. Any of the excellent forward-thinking R&B of the past few years.
Start here: This is mood music worth sinking into for as long as you can—so, again, 30 minutes—but “Count To Five” moves a little faster than the rest of the stuff here, and is a fine primer to the Rhye “thing.” [Clayton Purdom]


The Soft Moon, Criminal

[Sacred Bones]
Grade: B

The cover of Luis Vasquez’s fourth album as The Soft Moon features a close-up of his (somber, slightly abashed) face. Unremarkable, perhaps, but symbolic: After three records in which his serrated post-punk became increasingly less shrouded in noise and more centered on Vasquez’s vocals—with cover art dominated by geometric abstractions—Criminal finds Vasquez more exposed than ever, singing on nearly every track about his violent childhood, his hatred for his absentee dad, his cocaine abuse, and his guilt over letting these things eat him up inside. With Vasquez, adopting a vintage Trent Reznor whisper, seething self-flagellating lines like “Hell is where I’ll go to live” and “How can you love someone like me?” through an industrial blur of guitar and synth, all over a gloomy, chorused bass sound lifted from Pornography-era The Cure, Criminal evokes all of those classic, angry goth teen touchstones. And while that poetry-journal melodrama grows a tad exhausting by album’s end, there are plenty of deliciously bitter pleasures here for anyone who similarly loves brooding in that blacked-out, candlelit bedroom of the mind.

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RIYL: Nine Inch Nails. The Cure. Skinny Puppy. Dressing in all black. Hating your dad.
Start here: Lead single and album opener “Burn” is Criminal’s most immediate track, with Vasquez repeatedly gasping, “I can’t control myself,” over an intense, industrial throb. [Sean O’Neal]


Payroll Giovanni & Cardo, Big Bossin Vol. 2

[Def Jam Recordings]
Grade: B+

Yes: Look at that fucking cover. The boxy red convertible, permanent-blue morning skies, rows of palm trees, Payroll Giovanni gazing out knowingly, Cardo’s eyes glassy on the horizon. This record is liquid summertime, all sparkling West Coast synthesizers; velvety ’80s R&B hooks, saxophone solos; and slow-motion images of beaches fading into mountains of cash and cocaine. Detroit emcee Payroll Giovanni’s relentless Scarface obsession is at its best when rendered glossy by Texas producer Cardo, but this new collaboration is an unexpectedly refined bounty of bouncing drug rap and upward mobility. The tracks are airy, with Payroll splashing around stories, hustling know-how, and easy boasts amid broad stretches of funk-bass squiggles and soft keyboards. The chemistry between the duo is intoxicating, and made better by the album’s brief diversions, whether it’s a slate of characterful guest verses (from E-40, Jeezy, and more) or the moments when Cardo reassembles his sonic touch points. Giovanni lays into the competition on the proud, almost dissonant “In Me, Not On Me,” a brief foray into darker territory that feels like the same neon city at a different hour. Then they get right back to sex raps and champagne on the gazebo, never breaking the mood or their stride.

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RIYL: DJ Quik. Houston rap. Nostalgia. Expensive cars. The magic hour.
Start here: “Dopeman Dreams” is as smooth as the record comes and features a fun, burly Jeezy verse between all Payroll’s earnest ambition. [Clayton Purdom]


Hookworms, Microshift

[Domino]
Grade: B

In 2015, floods destroyed the studio of Matthew “MJ” Johnson, frontman of Leeds psych-poppers Hookworms and an in-demand producer. Being forced to rebuild your sound is a good origin story for a record as transformative as Microshift. But perhaps a better one is that Hookworms rebounded in 2016 not as themselves, but as an LCD Soundsystem cover band, playing a charity gig for clubs also ravaged by the waters. The osmotic influence of James Murphy is evident all over opener “Negative Space,” which similarly turns neurosis into something danceable and euphoric, driven by a disco beat and synth bloops toward its several stacked climaxes. And despite some typically ruminative, mournful lyrics, it’s a far cry from Hookworms’ usual motorik drones. Not every track sparkles with such synth-pop clarity: “Static Resistance” and “Opener” fall closer to that old organ-blanketed, Stereolab-meets-Loop churn; “The Soft Season” and “Reunion” both have an ambient, space-gospel swell akin to Spiritualized; “Boxing Day” (named for the day those floods descended) is corroded by no-wave blasts of atonal horns. But overall, Microshift is the sound of a band pulling itself out of the abyss on the back of its most buoyant music yet.

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RIYL: LCD Soundsystem. The Antlers. Hot Chip. Stereolab. Spectrum. Dancing the pain away.
Start here: “Negative Space” is Microshift’s swing-for-the-fences pop moment, but “Ullswater” is the better, more distinctive fulcrum between the band’s new and old tendencies: A persistent, arpeggiated synth pattern and New Romantic vocals give way to a concentrated blare of psych-rock organ and guitar as MJ wails, “Stay strong,” with convincing conviction. [Sean O’Neal]


AWOLNATION, Here Come The Runts

[Red Bull]
Grade: B+

AWOLNATION’s Aaron Bruno is a newlywed now, and his besotted state for his bride is all over AN’s third album, Here Come The Runts. The first half of the album stays right in the band’s so-far-successful wheelhouse: angry orchestral electronica, whether tooling around with some beats on the kickoff title track, pronouncing profound decrees about ideals like “Passion,” or just declaring oneself a “Jealous Buffoon.” Bruno breaks up the album halfway through with a strange ode about how all of his friends have kids and dogs that have made their lives wind off into a different direction from his (“A Little Luck And A Couple Of Dogs”) before kicking into what is less electronic and more a straight-up rock record. Fizzy surf guitar steers “Cannonball,” while the pared-down whistle of “My Molasses” depicts the all-too-familiar quandary of showing up too early at a party. The variety of genres here impresses the most; as Bruno gets even more adept in the studio, he’s learning that a minimalist, acoustic-led song like “Seven Sticks Of Dynamite” can be more effective than a cut boasting 64 tracks.

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RIYL: That forlorn guy who has moved into his studio 24/7 just to write highly emotive songs about you.
Start here: Bruno’s openly vulnerable wail of “I don’t want you to leave” on the straight-up lovelorn pop song “Table For One” proves that underneath all of the electronic gadgetry, he is still a shockingly solid songwriter. [Gwen Ihnat]


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