There's definitely something vaguely dystopian about the tone and tenor of Let England Shake, but that's not the discomforting part. On her eighth full-length album, PJ Harvey chronicles a dark and morally ambiguous history of England as a present-tense proposition: In other words, the dystopia is now. Of course, Let England Shake is not as much a polemic as it is a meditation on what it means to be English, so while this album has already found itself positioned as Harvey's first truly outward examination, the internal conflict still plays a role in its narrative: On "The Last Living Rose," Harvey mourns, "Take me back to England!" before noting its "grey, damp filthiness of the ages," while the narrator for "The Words That Maketh Murder" helms a first-person wartime lens for a truly relevant consideration of the personal cost of nationalist rhetoric. But the extent of Harvey's pop acumen is most clearly demonstrated by her seemingly effortless ability to convey these criticisms without the oppressive trappings of a so-called Serious Album, and it is, perhaps, that lack of explicit navel-gazing that makes it all the more profound. On some level, it could be argued that the rigorous introspection of Harvey's previous albums may have inevitably led up to this one — because you can't make sense of the world around you unless you know your place inside of it.
Bright EyesThe People's Key (Saddle Creek)
In the almost four years since Cassadega, Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst has become equally as recognized for his progressive political activism and newfound interest in spiritual mysticism as he was for being "the new Bob Dylan" when he was only 22. At 30, Oberst has clearly outgrown the comparison, and with The People's Key, he introduces a newly liberated version of his personal and musical identity: "I take some comfort in knowing the wave has crested," he sings on one song, "knowing I don't have to be an exception." On the surface, this is a deceptively complex album that draws from the wide spectrum of Oberst–related collaborations that have surfaced over the last several years — his electro-tinged work with The Faint, that shamanic folk of the Mystic Valley Band, and the fuzzy punk chaos of Desaparecidos among them. But instead of resigning itself to pastiche, The People's Key teems with a sense of cohesion that even his strictly acoustic records often fail to muster, and if there's a Conor Oberst album less maudlin than this one, I've never heard it: It's psychedelic, but crisp; rife with metaphor, but still sometimes hazy. Which — when it comes from a songwriter whose tendency to be literal once inspired him to write songs called "It's Cool, We Can Still Be Friends" — turns out to be a refreshing, game-changing surprise.
In preparation for the March 29th release of their fourth album, Something to Die For, Sweden's best-known new wave exports The Sounds are offering Towleroad readers a free download of their first single in over a year: "Better Off Dead" largely strips the band of its guitars for a dynamic, unambiguous four-to-the-floor club track which probably won't quell those persistent Dale Bozzio comparisons any time soon. But in my book, that's not a comparison you'd necessarily want to shake.
Rihanna went through a bit of a censorship controversy this week when the BBC began airing a version of her latest single, "S&M," that had been edited of any references to "sex" or "chains and whips" and renamed as "Come On." Rihanna took to Twitter to express her displeasure, stating that she was "absolutely not" OK with the change, and really, she shouldn't be — especially when it was only a year ago that BBC Radio aired this rendition of the Velvet Underground's "Venus In Furs," as performed by Gary Numan and Little Boots. Sample lyric: "Kiss the boot of shiny, shiny leather … Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart." Rihanna's lyric is a cute metaphor in comparison.
Radiohead announced surprise details for a new album yesterday, and true to form, they're only giving us five days notice:The King of Limbs is being called "the world's first Newspaper Album," and will feature two 10-inch records on clear vinyl, a compact disc, digital downloads of all the music, and over 600 pieces of "tiny artwork." (You also have the choice to just download the digital album by itself.) The music will become available on February 19.
Nanna Øland Fabricius — better known as Oh Land — was discovered by minimal techno producer Kasper Bjorke in her native Denmark, but the singer eventually moved to America where she released an EP last fall that went criminally underrated. Apparently, Sony Music thought so, too: The label quietly rereleased Sun Of A Gun last week and they slipped in an extra track: "We Turn It Up" is the first collaboration between the Brooklyn–based singer and the Neptunes' Pharrell Williams. Is it too early to talk song-of-the-summer?
Before tragically losing his battle to AIDS in 1992, Arthur Russell had become one of the most respected and influential musicians of his century — leaving an indelible mark on avant-pop, disco, and even modern classical music. Earlier this month, a group of Russell's friends and collaborators released an album under the name Arthur's Landing featuring new arrangements of some his best work — including the Loose Joints classic "Is It All Over My Face?" — but for those unfamiliar with the originals, Strut Records has enlisted DJ/producer Pocketknife for an 80-minute mix of Arthur Russell classics available for free download HERE.
Fans of Björk and Sigur Rós will likely appreciate this beautifully shot 30-minute documentary about the Icelandic music scene, quite literally titled Iceland: Beyond Sigur Rós. The film features interviews and video clips from classical-electronica artist Ólafur Arnalds and longtime indie-pop advocates Seabear, among others.
Following the departure of Billie Joe Armstrong from his featured performance on Broadway with American Idiot: The Musical, it has been confirmed that AFI's Davey Havok will bring his gothic glam to the role of St. Jimmy for a two-week run. Also set to star with Havok: American Idol alum Justin Guarini.
When news of Teena Marie's death surfaced in December, many Americans remembered her primarily for "Lovergirl" — the 1984 hit that signaled the second phase of her career following an acrimonious split with Motown two years earlier. But that first phase was incredibly significant, and Icon, which comes out today, celebrates Marie's tenure at the label with a comprehensive collection of material that leaves little doubt to the legitimacy of her "Ivory Queen of Soul" status — as if "I'm A Sucker for Your Love," featuring her late mentor, Rick James, or the truly unforgettable "Square Biz" couldn't do that on their own.
For their new EP, Derealization, The Forms recast a handful of songs from their 2007 self-titled debut for a considerable upgrade. The songs themselves do most of the heavy lifting — the swirling and rhythmic "Steady Hand" is a clear standout — but members of The National, Pattern is Movement, Shudder to Think, St. Vincent, and Dirty Projectors all lend a hand to make this revision truly necessary.
Trax Records is to house music what Sun Records is to rock 'n' roll: Founded in 1984, the label didn't just release pioneering house records as much as it actually guided the genre's progression from American post-disco to Chicago acid and underground house. Trax Re-Edited harnesses 21 of the label's most classic tracks and hands the masters over to contemporary producers like Ray Mang, Toby Tobias, Swag, and Freaks' Justin Harris for a near-perfect compilation of modern dancefloor edits.
A couple of years back at the Merge Records anniversary festival in North Carolina, I watched Telekinesis leader Michael Lerner find out that his band was too sick to play, assemble a new band on the spot, practice once, and then go on stage and totally kill it with the kind of precision reserved for veteran artists — all within the span of a four-hour window. To say that his second album for Merge, 12 Desperate Straight Lines, is a virtuosic display of power-pop, then, may be an understatement. Also, it never hurts to have Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla on production duties.
For the third single from New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh), Erykah Badu enlists the video tricknology skills of Flying Lotus — whose own experimental hip-hop career on Warp Records likely informs the Jetsons-on-blueprint-paper aesthetic of this clip.
Mirrors — "Into The Heart"
They call what they do "pop noir," and there might be something to that: "Into The Heart" is particularly memorable as far as 21st century synth-pop goes, like a young Orchestral Manouevers in the Dark in need of antidepressants.
Toro Y Moi — "New Beat"
When your real name is already Chazwick Bundick, I'm not sure why you'd need a pseudonym. Whatever the case, Toro Y Moi's first single from the forthcoming Underneath The Pine reminds me of those lo-fi disco records that DJs used to play off of reel-to-reel machines back in the 1970s. This is, by the way, a ringing endorsement.
Sanso-xtro — "Hello Night Crow"
Australian ambient electronic artist Melissa Agate returns with Fountain Fountain Joyous Mountain, her first new album in five years. The gorgeous glitch of "Hello Night Crow" serves as a perfect soundtrack for this visually stunning exercise in stop-motion video.
Modern Tonic — a free daily email delivering gay-approved pop culture gems before they get co-opted by everyone else — presents a weekly music update here on Towleroad. TODAY’S FEATURED NEW RELEASES:
Maybe it’s just us, but we were underwhelmed by Rated R, Rihanna’s 2009 release after her domestic abuse travails with Chris Brown. It was described as dark, but it wasn’t dark enough — she just couldn’t seem to get her head around the experience. Her fifth release LOUD is a relief — a return to the pop pleasures of a good-time girl with attitude and beats to spare. Honestly, how serious can you get when you launch your record with a jumpy club banger about the delights of "S&M"? LOUD’s already produced two hit singles — the pulsing "Only Girl (In the World)" and the hip-hop "What’s My Name?" with Drake. She follows up her recent Eminem smash with "Love the Way You Lie (Part II)" and jams with the ubiquitous Nicki Minaj on the synthetic reggae of "Raining Men" (alas, not the gay classic by the Weather Girls). Nine producers worked on the record, but it’s one singular vision that prevails: Rihanna’s. Now that’s something to get loud about.
She’s been a brass disco dominatrix, a feral rock chick and a sensitive solo artist who put some much needed bite in the Adult Contemporary playlist. But no matter the guise, Annie Lennox has always been herself — a playful performer who uses masks and prisms to reflect deeper truths about herself and us. So it may come as a shock to hear her traipsing through the canon of holiday songs on A Christmas Cornucopia. The most traditional songs here — "The First Noel" and "Silent Night" — go to the head of the class on vocal prowess alone. After that, well, she gives us pieces obscure to American ears: an English madrigal ("Lullay Lullay (The Coventry Carol)"), a French lullaby ("Il Est Ne Le Divin Enfant"), a fable ("The Holly and the Ivy"). Her pagan romp through "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" (with a video that’s both beatific and creepy) is a highlight and a beautiful ballad of her own composition — "Universal Child" — will be a welcome addition to her next greatest hits collection. Never let it be said that the woman doesn’t give it her all.
Speaking of greatest hits, it’s that time of year for the holiday parade of best-of’s and compilations. Featuring three new tracks — including the crunchy single "Raise Your Glass" — P!nk’s Greatest Hits…So Far!!! includes her best known tracks since she got the party started at the turn of the century. Also featuring three new songs — including the club-ready "Night Is Young" — Nelly Furtado’s The Best of Nelly Furtado has her biggest tracks, "I’m Like a Bird" and "Promiscuous," as well as selections from her Spanish-language release Mi Plan. Norah Jones …Featuring is a collection of her duets over the last eight years. Though she’s a star in her own right, her collaborations are where she does some of her best work, including a lovely low-key "Little Lou, Prophet Jack, Ugly John" with Belle & Sebastian and a Christmas chestnut with Willie Nelson, "Baby, It’s Cold Outside."
"Stole My Heart," one of Los Angeles-based duo Little & Ashley's three tracks featured on a series of Amazon's Kindle TV commercials, is a gem. These two sometime actors (Annie Little has appeared on Mad Men and Scrubs and Marcus Ashley on Bones and CSI: NY), have a new holiday track coming as well (UK readers will hear it on Amazon UK's Kindle holiday ads). Get a free download of "Stole My Heart" in player above.
Adam Lambert will release a 5-track EP, Acoustic Live!, on December 6. The digital release includes five songs from For Your Entertainment, including "Whataya Want From Me." Pre-orders on his site get an instant download of that track.
Duran Duran's thirteenth studio album, All You Need Is Now, will debut on iTunes December 21 as a nine-track album, followed by the physical release, with four more tracks, in February 2011. The album is produced by superstar DJ/producer Mark Ronson. Lead single (which shares the same name as the album title) debuts December 14 on iTunes.
MORE NEW RELEASES:
After their Brokeback romance video "Shame" turned them into the real backstreet boys, Robbie Williams and Gary Barlow reconvene the original Take That for Progress (import-only), their sixth release and first with Williams since 1995.
The tenth Kitsuné Maison compilation, Kitsuné Maison 10 — The Fireworks Issue, is a double-disc celebration featuring the Mustang Remix of Two Door Cinema Club’s "What You Know," Yelle’s international smash "La Musique" and tons of new discoveries waiting to happen. Download free mp3's of samplers of each of the discs in the player above.
Lucy Schwartz — "Graveyard" The L.A. piano songstress creates a suitably murky, shadowy clip for the sad romantics stumbling through life halfway between this world and the next. From her recently released debut Life in Letters.
Cocknbullkid — "One Eye Closed" Anita Blay — the U.K. genre-hopper known as Cocknbullkid — previews her 2011 debut Adulthood with a spy-guitar raver and this clip featuring a one-eyed plushie monster on the prowl.
Kraak & Smaak — "Dynamite" Vinyl fetishism gets its due in this outlandish, surrealist clip from the premiere Dutch dance trio Kraak & Smaak. Rumors abound that they’re working on a follow-up to the dancetastic Plastic People.
Shit Robot — "Take ‘Em Up" LCD Soundsystem’s Nancy Whang trails herself on a trippy Brooklyn stroll in Marcus Lambkin’s (aka Shit Robot) mid-tempo disco track. From his debut From the Cradle to the Rave.