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The record release schedule hardly took much of a break for the holidays, hitting the ground running in 2013 with a surprisingly strong slate of eagerly anticipated albums coming out as soon as the calendar flipped. In lieu of our regular monthly overview, this edition of “Listening Ahead” offers up an early 2013 preview with sneak peaks of some of the best and most intriguing albums that the coming months have to offer, featuring legendary performers, up-and-coming acts, and under-the-radar bands. (For a partial list of January 2013 releases, see the December 2012 entry of “Listening Ahead” here.)


 

January 2013


 



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Yo La Tengo

Fade

(Matador; US: 15 Jan 2013; UK: 14 Jan 2013)

Review [13.Jan.2013]
Yo La Tengo
Fade


Fade, Yo La Tengo’s thirteenth proper full-length, is more of a welcome back than a return to form for the beloved band, if only because the esteemed Hoboken trio has never not been at its best. So Fade is really a misnomer in every way, whether you’re talking about the goods these indie heroes deliver or their perpetually unflagging energy, as they kick up as much of a tuneful ruckus here as they ever have in the last three decades. While YLT has said that it looked to rein in its more expansive arrangements this time around—and, indeed, there are elements of Fade that are more streamlined—keep in mind that most of the ten tracks still zoom past the four-minute mark, giving the threesome more than enough room to stretch out and explore. So even if leadoff track “Ohm” would feel quite comfortable churning on a few more minutes, it’s still a vintage Yo La Tengo epic as is, with crackling guitars, driving rhythms, distorted effects, and Ira Kaplan’s earnest vocals layered on top of each other. Likewise, “Is That Enough” gussies up Kaplan’s folksy charms with buzzy feedback and noiseplay, while the insistent coda “Before We Run” manages to hold its own up against the sprawling soundscapes that typically close out Yo La Tengo albums on a high note. Fade is another example of how Yo La Tengo makes living up to expectations feel exciting and wondrous. Arnold Pan


 

 



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Foxygen

We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic

(Jagjaguwar; US: 22 Jan 2013; UK: 21 Jan 2013)

Foxygen
We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic


For such a young band, Foxygen seems surprisingly self-assured and poised. Maybe that’s because Sam France and Jonathan Rado banged out a dozen or so albums together by the time they left high school. Now, following their shot-in-the-arm debut Take the Kids Off Broadway comes the delightfully eccentric and perfectly scattershot sophomore record, We Are 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic. The album is as grand and tongue-in-cheek as the title implies. It drifts from the smudge, ‘60s-pop of “San Francisco” to the electro-soul of “Shuggie” to the fiery garage-pop of the title track without skipping a beat. These are brilliantly toned songs, but despite their art-pop leanings, they never take themselves too seriously. Nor do they, however, rely on pretension or irony. In fact, at their best, on “On Blue Mountain”, you may find yourself wondering how the Velvet Underground might have been better if they didn’t take themselves so seriously. But they didn’t, and they’re gone. Foxygen doesn’t, and they’re here with a great new record. Go get a copy already. Matthew Fiander


 

 



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Speck Mountain

Bad Water

(Carrot Top; US: 22 Jan 2013; UK: 21 Jan 2013)

Speck Mountain
Badwater


Speck Mountain—centered around “musical soulmates” Marie Claire-Balabanian and Karl Briedrick—has quietly released two of the more beautiful hazy pop records in recent memory in 2007’s Summer Above and, especially, 2009’s Some Sweet Relief. Now they’re back for a third offering with Badwater, and the mix of Americana dust and dream-pop gauze has never sounded this strong. Claire-Balabanian’s voice ripples out in massive space over swaying guitars on “Flares” or drifts over melting guitar tones on “Young Eyes”, and yet—while both haunt—they also feel rooted on terra firma. As does the rest of this record. If there’s bad water, it’s surrounding their turf, unwilling to soak into the dry expanse they’ve built around them. They can lull you into a bittersweet bliss on the narcotic “Slow So Long” or dig into Crazy Horse swampy tones on the title track, and they never lose the thread. There’s a surprising breadth to Badwater, and a surprising energy for an album happy to wander, to drift, to sneak up on you. It’s unlikely you’ll find a genre Speck Mountain easily fits in, and that is just one of many charms at play on Badwater. Check it out. Matthew Fiander


 

 



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Local Natives

Hummingbird

(Frenchkiss; US: 29 Jan 2013; UK: 28 Jan 2013)

Review [28.Jan.2013]
Local Natives
Hummingbird


Local Natives had no business being as good as they were on their last record, Gorilla Manor. They just seemed to come out too polished, too put together, too something. And yet that singing. Those harmonies. Those hooks. Those elephantine/serpentine fucking drums. If they took us by surprise the first time out, Hummingbird might not shock us, but what is surprising is how it ups the ante without tipping the scales. Songs get bigger here—even if the formula feels much the same—and the new size suits them. The synths that lead us into “You & I” dump us into a dream world rumbling with drums, but filled to its borders with pitch-perfect melodies and gliding chords. “Breakers” thumps on jagged breaks of guitar and stop-on-a-dime percussion that both tilts you off-kilter and invites you into the song’s bleary-eyed, muscled layers. There was something scrappy about the energy of Gorilla Manor, but Hummingbird is a more carefully built album, one both more nuanced and confident. It’s not a shift away from what made them so popular, but a refinement and expansion of that sound. And if it’s not reinventing the wheel, good. Because these tunes roll along, down their own unpredictable paths, perfectly. Matthew Fiander


 

February 2013


 



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Thao & the Get Down Stay Down

We the Common

(Ribbon; US: 5 Feb 2013; UK: 4 Feb 2013)

Thao & the Get Down Stay Down
We the Common


In an aside on her 2009 breakthrough Know Better Learn Faster, Thao Nguyen demurs, “Sad people dance, too,” a fitting enough sentiment for an artist who was still learning—though faster, better—how to come out of her shell. But there’s no need for any such caveats to Thao’s latest, We the Common, a bold, richly composed effort that reflects the confidence of a songwriter who really knows what she wants to say and how to say it. Gone completely is the cutesy folk shambling that got Thao noticed with her endearing debut We Brave Bee Stings and All, as she and her band the Get Down Stay Down take the basement party vibe of Know Better to the big stage on We the Common by souping up their new-school take on down-home charm. It’s evident that there’s a place for everything under Thao’s big-tent approach to indie-folk on such numbers as the title track, with its balance of singer-songwriter immediacy and colorful electronic textures, and “City”, which booms with propulsive rhythms and electrified blues guitar. Better yet is “The Feeling Kind”, which starts as a folk-rock romper and turns into a brassy ragtime procession that just begs you to follow along. At her most inviting on We the Common, Thao’s embracing all comers this time around, the sad and the not-so-sad alike. Arnold Pan


 

 



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Richard Thompson

Electric

(New West; US: 5 Feb 2013; UK: 11 Feb 2013)

Review [3.Feb.2013]
Richard Thompson
Electric


Being considered a living legend—a benighted one, no less—can tend to imply that you’re past your prime and that your best work is behind you, especially for someone with the kind of catalog that Richard Thompson has built over the past four decades. Yet the accomplishments that have made Thompson who he is shouldn’t overshadow what he’s doing now, especially since Thompson’s new disc Electric finds him sounding as vital as ever, both musically and lyrically. At the top of his game in a way that can only come with experience and wisdom, his new songs are biting and perceptive, whether it’s the dead-on 99-percenter lament “Stuck on a Treadmill” or the love-gone-wrong plaints of “Stoney Ground” and “Good Things Happen to Bad People”. And it goes without saying that Thompson’s virtuoso guitar playing is, well, virtuoso, be it working through intricate folk patterns or digging deep into soul-searching blues licks or ripping off an electric guitar solo like it’s nothing. The title of the set’s closing number says all you need to know about Electric: “Saving the Good Stuff for You”. Arnold Pan


 

 



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Unknown Mortal Orchestra

II

(Jagjaguwar; US: 5 Feb 2013; UK: 4 Feb 2013)

Review [24.Feb.2013]
Unknown Mortal Orchestra
II


Psychedelic-pop tropes come so effortlessly to Unknown Mortal Orchestra that it’s easy to assume that the group’s laid-back sound comes straight from its subconscious. Yet an album as well crafted as the sophomore outing II can only be the product of not just an active imagination, but hard work too, no matter how go-with-the-flow it seems. Continuing to hone an aesthetic that’s like the handiwork of a stripped-down Elephant 6 band nobody knew about, UMO conjures up a trippy, subliminally catchy vibe that seems like something you’ve already heard, only you haven’t. II boasts a bevy of tracks that manage to corral free-form melodies into tidy pop songs, some almost Beatles-esque in their feel, like the opener “From the Sun” and “Faded in the Morning”, with its sitar-y guitars. Yet II never becomes a glazed-over daze because of its diverse textures and moods, like when UMO pushes its groove further with the winning ‘70s soul-pop of “So Good at Being in Trouble”, only to follow it up with the Hendrix-lite wah-wah that intros “One at a Time”. Arnold Pan


 

 



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Toy Love

Toy Love

(Flying Nun/Captured Tracks; US: 19 Feb 2013; UK: Import)

Review [8.Apr.2013]
Toy Love
Toy Love


Fans of kiwi-pop—or, shit, just damn good rock‘n’roll—should be frothing at the mouth for the series of reissues due this year from New Zealand label Flying Nun in collaboration with Captured Tracks. The first of these reissues—with classics from the Clean, Tall Dwarfs, and others to follow—is a compilation of 28 tracks from the excellent though short-lived Toy Love. Featuring Chris Knox and Alec Bathgate, who later formed Tall Dwarfs, Toy Love combined the usual jangle-pop leanings of the label’s bands with a smart grasp of ‘60s pop sensibilities and garage-rock ethos. The remasters here—derived from the original analog tapes—take a collection of singles, demos, b-sides, etc. and make them sound like a crisp, cohesive collection. You’ve never heard classics like “Swimming Pool” or “Don’t Ask Me” or “Lust” the way you’ll hear them here. This is a brilliant set from a band that wasn’t with us long enough, and signals great things to come from this reissue series. Matthew Fiander


 

 



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Mount Moriah

Miracle Temple

(Merge; US: 26 Feb 2013; UK: Import)

Review [28.Feb.2013]
Mount Moriah
Miracle Temple


North Carolina’s Mount Moriah seems impossible on paper, driven as it is by Heather McEntire (former singer of hard-hitting rock outfit Bellafea) and Jenks Miller (of psych-metal outfit Horseback), especially since they crank out sweet-as-sour-mash country tunes. But to go back to their previous work is to find a distinctive, if undefinable, Southern-ness to their other bands, so it’s no wonder they shine so beautifully as Mount Moriah. Following a stunning eponymous debut on Holidays for Quince, the band has signed to Merge and is back with an even more stunning (somehow) second record, Miracle Temple. Despite the desolate, burning structure on the cover, this is a lush, deeply layered, sunburst of a record. It’s an album that references place often—“Connecticut to Carolina”, “Swannanoa”, “Union Street Bridge”, etc.—and crafts its own topography to match. It rises and falls on McEntire’s rangy, sweet vocals and forms ridges and valleys in Miller’s impeccable knack for texture. Guitars ring out on, say, “Swannanoa”, but there’s also a driving beat, and the restraint in McEntire’s impossibly powerful voice drives the song home. Rarely is there this much surprise and tension in songs so languid and spacious. Mount Moriah combines texture with airtight songwriting on Miracle Temple and in doing so makes a huge leap forward here. Which, considering they already came fully formed and beautiful the last time out, is saying something. It may be early, but don’t be surprised if this one gets talked about for a long time in 2013. Matthew Fiander


 

March 2013


 



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Marnie Stern

The Chronicles of Marnia

(Kill Rock Stars; US: 19 Mar 2013; UK: Import)

Review [20.Mar.2013]
Marnie Stern
The Chronicles of Marnia


You would never consider Marnie Stern’s prolific axe-wielding gifts a curse, but her status as a bona fide guitar goddess has probably kept her from getting her due as an all-around songwriter. That’s a misconception she dispatches on her new album The Chronicles of Marnia, which puts as much of an emphasis on Stern’s idiosyncratic melodies and lyricism as it does on her claim-to-fame finger-tapping and shredding. More than just offering up awe-inspiring displays of technical proficiency, Marnia builds on the more developed compositions of her eponymous 2010 effort and takes them even further, something apparent right from the start with the catchy opener “Year of the Glad”. It’s hard not to notice Stern’s greater focus on the more harmonious elements of her music, be it on the almost gliding “East Side Glory”—its morse-code mini-riffs, notwithstanding—or the rolling Modest Mouse-y rambler “Noonan”, on which her guitar heroine sleights-of-hand offer the finishing touches to the tune rather than its reason for being. But this being Marnie Stern, you’ll still be thrilled by guitar machinations you’ve never heard until now, even if they’ve moved aside to share the spotlight with the songwriting a bit more. Arnold Pan


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