Jenny Wilson
Gold Medal

If you search the interwebs, you can find a video of pre–blog love Robyn doing a cover of Saul Williams’ “List Of Demands.” While Robyn rocks the beats on a cheap portable keyboard, Jenny Wilson joins her on piano and vocals. It’s a bizarre song to cover, particularly on piano, because the original is so un-melodic. At the time, Robyn wasn’t even a faint blip on anyone’s radar and who the hell is Jenny Wilson? Nothing about it seemed like a good idea. So it was quite a shock when not only did it work, but stood on its own feet. A year or so later Robyn Carlsson (as she’s credited on the video) became ROBYN and Jenny Wilson moved on to work with the Knife, but most fans of that video were left to wonder if solo Wilson would ever reappear. It seems that for American fans patience is a virtue, as Wilson has re-emerged with Hardships!

Wilson’s first solo record had a limited release in her home country of Sweden, but Hardships! is the first of her records to get an American release. While it’s been around five years since “List Of Demands” was shot, it still serves as a perfect introduction to Wilson. Her contribution showed a type of deadpan soul, and Hardships! subsequently reveals Wilson to be a cabaret singer at heart. You can imagine these songs being sung in a smoky bar, with the dominant piano as the only accompaniment. Yet there are also enough beats to steer the album away from adult contemporary land.

In recent years, Swedish musicians have consistently put out slightly tweaked versions of pop music and Wilson is in that tradition. Wilson keeps it interesting with a shifting lilt of sonic and lyrical quirks, at times a Laurie Anderson–Björk hybrid (“The Path”), while other times a winking R&B songstress (“Only Here For The Fight”). She has an uncanny ability to sing the most leftfield lines with such a matter-of-fact delivery that it makes them seem almost normal. It’s a neat trick and serves Hardships! well. If you’re due for a taste of Sweden, Hardships! is the easiest choice to make.
Dorian S. Ham

MP3: “Only Here for the Fight”

Dirt Bell
Safety Meeting

Titles play indie pop for rainy days, but not thunderstorms. Their hearts are broken, but not shattered. They’re a little peeved, maybe a tad disillusioned, but they keep their eyebrows cocked and their demeanor dry, never letting the hurt get the best of them, particularly on the charmingly refrain of Dirt Bell’s fifth track: “Fuck it. I’m gone.”

Like the classicists they are, Titles are predominately influenced by the immortal Beatles more than anyone else. The band makes their bread and butter on studio-locked art pop: earthy guitars, Clientele vocal filters and courtyard drums. At its best, there are songs like “Pillowcase,” a sleepy, lazy-eyed love song about robbing a late lover’s grave. It’s creepy and obsessive, but somehow still kind of sweet through a backwards, Halloween-town logic. It has the charming, peculiar, and subversively fucked-up nature that defined the late, drug-addled period of, say George Harrison. The rest of Dirt Bell might not hit that same level of good-natured quirk—the record has a definite tendency to space out in the midst of some of the song’s dreamy bits—but it’s still a remarkably original album from a band that wasn’t on anybody’s radar.

In fact, the one modern band Titles bring to mind is San Francisco’s Morning Benders. They both have a penchant for lethargic lead vocals and pre-rock melodies, while blending adeptly and currently. Titles are by no means recreating the wheel, but they fill a specific need for lush, ignorable (but not to a fault) room-filling pop-rock that sacrifices none of its hipness for listenability. Mom, dad and maybe even grandpa and grandma might like this one along with the music journalists. They just might not like the curse words.
Luke Winkie

MP3: “Pillowcase”

Film School

Coming together at the dawn of the millennium, Film School is a five-some mostly for the shoegaze fusion of their first LP, Brilliant Career, in 2001. Though plagued by line-up changes and perhaps hampered by the fact that their music was used in the marketing campaign for Windows’ extraordinary Vista flop, the band is back with their fourth album, Fission, their first full-length since 2007’s Hideout.

Fission is a collection of songs that, with a few exceptions, sound vaguely familiar. At the album’s heart are dreamy soundscapes dotted with hints of electronica, but slow-moving cuts like “Distant Life,”, which showcases bassist Lorelei Plotczyk’s wistfully gorgeous vocals, keep the album at a hair-dangling pace. Then there are those exceptions, the infrequent, yet blissfully upbeat moments that make Fission worth a whirl. “Distant Life,” an out-and-out toe-tapper of a rock song, is a highlight, with the synth-laden, bass-heavy “When I’m Yours” following a close second. The clear-cut peak of the album, however, is the catchy opener, “Heart Full of Pentagons,” which is an searing embodiment of the band’s melodic best.

Alas, while the opener show what Film School is truly capable of, nothing else on the album can really compete nor offer anything particularly original. In the end, though certainly a step in the right direction, Fission, seems like slightly contrived, early-century leftovers.
Jennifer Farmer

MP3: “Heart Full of Pentagons”


Those holding stock in ruggedly bearded, gently performed folk rock have money to burn these days. Arguably reignited by Bon Iver, these young lions have combined folk with dashes of indie rock and various other sonic spices. Part of this current wave are the Durham, North Carolina–based Megafaun. Their particular spin encompasses traditional Appalachian sounds, rock and flights of experimental improvisational fancy. Time spent on the road with the aforementioned Bon Iver as well as Akron/Family, Bowerbirds and various avant-garde jazz cats gives an idea of how varied they can go. It’s that type of sensibility that Megafaun have brought to their third release, Heretofore.

Apparently Megafaun don’t consider this “mini-album” as the proper follow-up to their last full-length. Recorded over six weeks in between tours, it’s meant to be seen as an exercise of sorts before they hunker down and start working on a proper record. Thus Heretofore could be anything: odds and ends that didn’t make the other albums, a transition that tried to bridge the old and the new or just an excuse to go totally off the rails. Without knowing where the band may end up, this record stands on it own. There’s nothing tossed-off or half-baked about the record, and frankly if they didn’t add the asterisk, people could take it as their next album.

On Heretofore Megafaun displaya their many moods. There’s the gentle banjo-driven “Bonnie’s Song,” which wouldn’t sound out of place wafting from a back porch while the kids chased fireflies. There’s also room for the sunshine gallop of “Carolina Days,” but you also have moments like the title track where the slow build and tension threatens to overwhelm the harmonies before the band throws a curve halfway through the song and jumps into an extended instrumental tangent before returning to the program already in progress. However, the one song that’s likely to cause the most conversation for those who only know the band as folkies is “Comprovisation For Connor Pass.” The almost 13-minute instrumental is exactly what the title promises: a compositional improvisation. It ranges from freeform exploration to structured jazzy passages before landing on a more straight ahead folk ending. It’s everything and the kitchen sink, but it’s so thoughtfully paced that it avoids the trainwreck it by all rights should be. If Heretofore is the hit-and-run version of Megafaun, they should revisit the approach whenever they go to record because whatever they did works.
Dorian S. Ham

MP3: “Volunteers”

Sonny and the Sunsets
Tomorrow Is Alright
Fat Possum/Soft Abuse

Between his previous albums and his 100 Records project, one gets the sense that Sonny Smith is just as much rock & roll archaeologist as he is practitioner, delivering studied sonic dissertations on the pantheon that many might dismiss as greasy kids stuff. Working with comrades like Shayde Sartin and Tim Cohen (of the Fresh & Onlys), he recorded Tomorrow Is Alright in 2007 on an old Tascam tape deck, once again finding inspiration in the crevices of rock’s sarcaphagos.

Though originally released by Soft Abuse last year (we had some remarks then as well), Fat Possum picked up the album for wider distribution. It seems a good fit, given the label’s own penchant for traditionalists. But while there’s a bit of doo wop dippity-do to be found in “Strange Love” and Troggs stomp on the steamy “Death Cream,” this isn’t just revisionist fodder. No, Smith just lays audial signifiers like bread crumbs, little markers for those who may have lost their way. He keeps things fairly sparse for the most part, evoking more than exploding, favoring a single guitar line and perhaps some snapping (“The Houris”) or maracas (“Stranded”). Even with the voice of Tahlia Harbour (Citay, the Dry Spells) at his disposal, Smith sticks to a minimalist aesthetic, letting the songs resonate of their own accord.
Stephen Slaybaugh

MP3: “Too Young to Burn”

Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs
God Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise

There’s a good chance you’ve heard a Ray LaMontagne song or two, even if you don’t realize it. The famously camera-shy tunesmith prefers to stay out of the public light and let his Southern-tinged songs speak for themselves, as they’ve done in a number of films and countless “very special episodes” of shows like ER and One Tree Hill. At his best, Montagne writes songs that translate universal emotions into specific expressions of love and loss. At his worst, however, his work is little more than technically impressive background music. God Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise, performed with LaMontagne’s newly christened back-up band, the Pariah Dogs, is a mixed affair filled with meticulously constructed, flawlessly performed, yet ultimately unmemorable tracks that inspire about as much excitement as a better-than-average American Idol performance.

The album kicks off nicely with a barnburner called “Repo Man” that, despite its charms, still overstays its welcome. “Beg Steal or Borrow” is another solid track that paints a portrait of a small town kid who would do any of the three titular verbs to fulfill his big city dreams. But slow jams like the title track and “Are We Really Through” are weepy and unconvincing, sounding like the alt-country equivalent of Andrea Bocelli for housewives; I could totally see Carmela Soprano wistfully listening to this over a plate of reheated ziti. On God Willin’ , LaMontagne’s trademark raspy voice sounds like an affectation here, designed to convince the listener that the singer is edgier than he actually is. Undeniably talented, but deceptively predictable and safe, LaMontagne embodies the style, but not the substance, of his classic rock idols.
David Holmes