Generally speaking, it’s hard to go wrong with a voice like Feist’s. But what is it that I hear in her that seems so sad and fragile all the time? Even her poppiest numbers have always sounded like she’s on the verge of just chucking the day and having a nap. I have no idea if she’s been audibly varnished or whatever the opposite of that is, but it certainly sounds like the damages of her young life are being amplified in every note she sings. I find her music most successful when it’s supporting and creating a showcase for that voice. On Metals, I really dig the “boring” tracks like “Anti-Pioneer,” which doesn’t do much but give her a chance to croon, really slowly and really expressively. Her mega-hit, The Reminder, certainly was full of pop gems, infectious melodies, and plenty for her great touring band to do. But is it a crime if I found the final four somewhat dour, perhaps much less memorable tracks of that album to be the most compelling by a long shot?

All of which is to say that I’m greeting her latest as it deserves to be welcomed, in chilly weather, with a bottomless cup of coffee, and a long, lonely novel with a bird on the cover. The album was recorded in Big Sur, home to centers of contemplation, zen and otherwise. Go ahead and let that be a little clue to what it feels like to have the record on in your home. The album generally ignores the very possibility of radio play in favor of small, transcendent, organic moments of exultation. When the band and the choir join in halfway through “Comfort Me” or when the delicate “Bittersweet Melodies” finds its weight with a little help from the string section, you’ll know exactly what I mean. This one was worth waiting for.
Matt Slaybaugh

Comet Gain
Howl of the Lonely Crowd
What’s Your Rupture?

Comet Gain has been creating indie-pop anthems for the fringes of the British working class for almost 20 years. During that time, they’ve been through a lot of changes, both internal and external, but what has remained consistent is their affinity for the underdog and love of literary references. Indeed, their latest release, Howl of the Lonely Crowd, is heavy in both the former and the latter. Drawing inspiration from a multitude of musical genres, Comet Gain has tried to utilize Howl as a means to distill those offshoots into one tangible, practical amalgamation. Though they don’t quite succeed with this, that doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly enjoyable.

Howl begins with a bang and doesn’t let up. The opener, “Clang of the Concrete Swans” expresses youth unrest within the confines of a five-minute song and does so with the passion of a pre-electric Bob Dylan. Though strange at first, it’s ultimately refreshing for an album to run the musical gamut, skipping seamlessly from raucous folk ballads (“She Had Daydreams”) to garage rock (“Yoona Baines”) to jagged pop-punk (“Working Circle Explosive!”)—and that’s just a mere three consecutive songs. The obvious advantage of this well-crafted unpredictability is that the album is never boring. Though difficult to pin down, there are multiple peaks and very few holes. The apex of these is, arguably, the jangly pop number, “An Arcade from the Warm Rain That Falls.” With a title borrowed from a line in Burroughs’ The Soft Machine, the song’s cleverly crafted lyrics are effortlessly and unexpectedly set amidst a soundscape of shrill strings and upbeat guitars.

Perhaps the only downside to such an erratic tracklist is that Howl never quite comes together into one tangible, coherent piece. Frontman David Feck can’t seem to decide whether he wants to be Lou Reed (and really, the band does a pretty convincing VU impersonation on “Herbert Huncke Pt. 2”) or Alex Chilton or Mick Jagger. But hell, does it really matter in the end? They’re all legends in some respect, and with this album, Comet Gain proves it’s headed in that direction as well.
Jennifer Farmer

MP3: “An Arcade from the Warm Rain That Falls”

Prince Rama
Trust Now
Paw Tracks

Prince Rama is the sonic equivalent of the Hipstamatic app on your iPhone. The pictures the program creates are lamp-lit and a little underexposed at the edges, almost always vignette, are never actually square (and calculatedly so), and are undeniably more interesting that a normal iPhone picture. They’re mystical and pretty, almost nymph-like, as is Prince Rama. This isn’t a bad thing, of course, because if Indian-flavored art-pop is trending, I’m onboard. A crowd dancing to this music would look like a post-Krishna hipster aerobic class, though Trust Now is much more than some freaky workout video soundtrack mashed up with a raaga (though Prince Rama would pull that off too). There needs to be more to drumming than kick-snare-crash, and here, the rhythms work as the glue that holds together this pastiche of low-end, psyched-out synth lines and trebly brain-bending chants. Drummer Nimai Larson sited (on The Agit Reader) Panda Bear as an inspiration for her drumming, but this album is far from an Animal Collective tribute. While it might seem forced at times—like maybe all their reference points are a little too current and obvious—looking past that will be rewarding. Trust Now is good advice; just put the record on, ignore the hype and the image, and let it play through like it’s just one song.
Michael P. O’Shaughnessy

MP3: “Rest in Peace”

Loney Dear
Hall Music

Surely Emil Svanängen could think of some way to let us know he’s sad other than singing “so sad, it’s so sad,” as he does on “Young Hearts,” one of a number of Hall Music’s unchanging meditations on vague melancholy. What’s the difference between something truly engaging and something that’s just pretty? I really wish Loney Dear knew. He’s really very passionate, very earnest—sincere even. But in this case that doesn’t translate to actual songs to which you want to listen. He piles sound upon sound and synths upon strings upon epic trills in an effort to build up some tense expression of how much emotion he’s just barely able to hold at bay. Unfortunately, it’s all potential with almost no satisfaction—for Svanängen and the listener. In general, he fails to express much of anything besides his desire to express it.

The second and best track on the album, “My Heart,” has an actual bassline and some vocals that sound like he might have been shaking his head or straining a bit as he sang. Other than those few moments, though, there’s almost nothing remotely surprising or intriguing for about 30 minutes. The entire sentiment of “I Dream About You” is summed up by the title. That’s really all he has to say about it, as if he’s looking at a potential lover and asking, “Isn’t that enough?” In his past work, Svanängen has been able to win fans by creating songs that took you away from your present moment and creatively evoked places, moments and a flood of emotions. But even with all the toys at his disposal here, Emil’s painfully unable to simulate the real thing.
Matt Slaybaugh

MP3: “My Heart”

VHS or Beta
Diamonds & Death

VHS or Beta have undergone more than one transition since their last album, 2007’s Bring on the Comets. Hailing originally from Louisville, Kentucky, they recently moved to the music mecca of Brooklyn. They also switched labels, opting to release the self-produced Diamonds & Death via Krian Music Group rather than Astralwerks. The sometimes-duo (additional members join for tours) of Craig Pfunder and Mark Palgy are known for their techno-infused brand of dance-punk, and in the past, this earned them comparisons to a cavalcade of ’80s bands, including Duran Duran and Depeche Mode. But this time around it seems as though they’ve forsaken much more than a city and a label: they’ve abandoned all pretenses of utilizing actual musical instruments, succumbing instead to the thrill of technology.

Gone are those earsplitting guitar riffs swathed among layers of rich synths and juxtaposed with Pfunder’s suave vocals. The bulk of Diamonds is comprised of computer-generated beats and choppy synth hooks. This wouldn’t be awful, except that none of these so-called hooks are very memorable. In fact, if you space out long enough, VHS or Beta actually start to sound like yet another crest in the wave of electronic bands that came up at the same time: Cut Copy, Chromeo, Crystal Castles, Cymbals Eat Guitars, to name a few. Disappointing? Yes, but what they’re doing isn’t entirely unlistenable. The album should at least appeal to leftover new wave disciples. With Pfunder’s impeccable impression of the notoriously nasal Roland Orzabal and the Depeche Mode–clone, “I Found A Reason,” there’s still something to grasp, no matter how drowned in electronic devices.

As for the rest of the album, well, it’s best to take one song and run with it. The bouncy, electro-popped “Breaking Bones” is kind of like Tears for Fears on ecstasy. Granted, I’m probably the last person you’ll ever run into at a dance club, but unless you’ve ever spent time dissecting the subtleties between chillwave and synthcore, you’ll be hard-pressed to detect marginal differences between the tracks here. While certainly buoyant, Diamonds & Death is just not that interesting. Not that challenging the listener is a requirement for every album—it’s nice to sit back and listen passively sometimes—but it should at least strive to for something. Frustratingly, VHS or Beta seem comfortable to use technology as a mask for their lack of ambition.
Jennifer Farmer

MP3: “Breaking Bones”