Sheffield, England — the setting for The Full Monty and part of the British equivalent of the Rust Belt — seems an unlikely spawning ground for the wistful pop of this duo with a deceptively static name. But from the youthful, acoustic-and-harmony-based pop of their early material to the more elaborate arrangements of 2011's Paradise, Slow Club's music has always had an upful sheen that's sometimes belied by melancholy lyrics and melodies.
For Complete Surrender, their third full-length, singers and multi-instrumentalists Charles Watson and Rebecca Taylor have moved on from their earlier releases, streamlining and refining their songwriting while hauling in a truckload of R&B influences from several different eras. Northern soul has been a strong tradition in the north of England since the 1960s, and here the duo has brought a crate-digger's expertise to their soulful sounds.
There's a heaping spoonful of Motown in "Suffering," some Supremes/Bacharach flourishes on the title track, Philly soul strings in "Not Mine to Love" and a giant Stax Records/Otis Redding influence and a bring-the-house-down vocal from Taylor on ... er ... yes, a song actually called "The Queen's Nose." (The title, which comes from a children's book and 1990s BBC TV series, will be baffling to anyone who isn't a Brit of a certain age; the song's lyrics address heartbreak, music and, apparently, pregnancy but not the book or show, at least not overtly).
While not a retro album, there's definitely a silky '60s groove to much of Complete Surrender.
"We wanted to make a straight record — drums, bass, organ, guitar, maybe strings," Watson says. "The idea behind it was to be a bit more reserved." Indeed, Taylor is a singer of rare subtlety and skill. She doesn't bowl you over with showboating and Aguilera-style pyrotechnics. You just suddenly realize, wow, she's killing it on that chorus.
The duo has already released a pair of videos from the album: the title track, which finds Taylor unexpectedly glammed up and dancing, and the Rocky-themed "Suffering You, Suffering Me," where she's anything but.
The group — which has toured with Mumford and Sons, KT Tunstall and Florence and the Machine, among others — did a quick Stateside run last month but will be back for a full tour in September. Slow Club expands to a quartet (and sometimes more) in a live setting, and while the group's show is dazzling for any number of reasons, the sight of Taylor playing the drums in a cocktail dress while belting out a soulful ballad is particularly not to be missed.
Too much sugar is unhealthy — and it's easy, in today's world, to get too much. Sugar is empty calories, it causes decay, it implies a lack of substance, and yet we crave it. But our brains also run on it, and it's critical in energy production. For better and worse, sweetness is intoxicating. So how do we find balance? On its latest album, Hello Memory, the Brooklyn trio Little Daylight offers a sort of nutritional road map.
First, there are different kinds of sugar: sugars created in labs, sugars found in nature, sugars that combine the two. Little Daylight throws in its lot with naturally occurring fructose, capitalizing on what surrounds the sweetness. Hello Memory is synth-driven, youthful electro-pop, but there's fiber in the pith. Nikki Taylor's vocals are anthemic and fun, while her lyrics veer into darkness ("Overdose") and are paired with mercurial instrumentation by Matt Lewkowicz and Eric Zeiler; their work helps swing the record from Toni Basil's bubblegum ("My Life") to Imogen Heap's ethereality ("Be Long") to M83's ambient post-rock ("Nothing to Lose").
Naturally occurring sugar isn't a lack of substance; it's a reward for substance. Fruit is sweet, but its sweetness belongs to a package that includes vital nutrients. Little Daylight sounds both breezy and grounded, heady and cerebral, with its feet on the ground even as it soars. The superficial appeal of Hello Memory is immediate and endorphin-driven, but repeat listens reveal sophisticated production and impeccable delivery. This record masters the art of a balanced breakfast: It's a treat without sacrificing density, substantial while still ebullient and, perhaps more than any other single thing, delicious to the last bite.
Luluc writes songs for late-night drives and uneventful mornings — stuff to slow the blood and the world outside. Bred in Australia but partly based in Brooklyn, ZoŽ Randell and Steve Hassett traffic in gentle, disarming simplicity, rarely allowing their music to speed up past a gentle lope. But for all their consistency of tone — and quality — Passerby's 10 songs never congeal into a blur or feel like a slog. Like the duo's labelmates in Low, Luluc uses calm as a medium unto itself.
Though not technically a debut album — Dear Hamlyn came out in 2008 — Passerby provides a tremendous introduction to a band whose deliberate impeccability never feels staid or fussy. It helps that The National's Aaron Dessner, who knows a little something about impeccability, leaves his fingerprints all over these songs: He produced Passerby with Randell and Hassett, and he provides a good bit of the rich but spare backing instrumentation throughout. Dessner and Luluc both know how and when to let a song breathe.
It's telling that, when veteran producer Joe Boyd was assembling an album and tour paying tribute to his former collaborator Nick Drake, he specifically sought out Luluc, which lent two performances to the 2012 tribute record Way to Blue. Comparisons to Drake's work are natural and inevitable; just listen to the stunning "Winter Is Passing," which recalls the late singer's music in title, tone and form. But where many Drake acolytes fall prey to sterility and blandness — choosing to emulate only the soft vocals and intricate acoustic guitars — Luluc locates the shadings and subtleties that allow songs, and artists, to endure.
The bluegrass-based Minnesota folk-rock band Trampled By Turtles knows how to play at extreme speeds, to the point where its careening compositions can seem downright unhinged. But its last two records, 2012's Stars and Satellites and the new Wild Animals, mostly move at a deliberate, even graceful pace. In tracks like "Hollow," Wild Animals even works up a hint of The Low Anthem's echo-chamber spookiness — a far cry from the fiery freneticism of Trampled by Turtles' live performances.
As with The Avett Brothers, another band whose roots-punk/slamgrass roots have given way to a gentler and more ruminative sound, Trampled by Turtles' records nowadays use speed and aggression only as seasoning. Though "Are You Behind the Shining Star?" works its way up to a briskly lovely mid-tempo pop-rock arrangement, Wild Animals doesn't fully open the throttle until midway through, with "Come Back Home," before settling back down for all but one of the remaining songs.
Produced by Low singer and fellow Minnesotan Alan Sparhawk, who knows a little something about delicate deliberation, Wild Animals makes the most of Trampled by Turtles' supple strings and considerable restraint. This is a thoughtful, stately grower of a record, made all the more enticing by the idea that future live shows will harness the energy coiled just beneath its glimmering surface.
The rhetorical essence of punk is the decision to say what others believe should not be said. It points out the "no" lurking within or near every "yes." It demands an ongoing reckoning with true outsiders, and with what remains wrong in society despite everyone's best efforts, simply because people and the structures they make are flawed.
By this definition — more philosophical than musical — Steven Patrick Morrissey is the greatest punk rocker ever to spit in a queen's eye. Morrissey would likely be horrified that a critic would call him a punk at 55 (or at any age, really); his music with The Smiths and throughout his long solo career is so much more melodic and eclectic than what that term often invokes. Yet with his 10th solo album, World Peace is None of Your Business, he reasserts punk's impropriety as the force that makes his music inimitable.
World Peace is sweepingly powerful and effortlessly transgressive. Morrissey is in fine mature voice, belting with gusto and going gentle without strain. His touring band provides wide-ranging support in arrangements that incorporate everything from Portuguese fado to lounge-music cool to rock grandiosity. Longtime guitarist Boz Boorer is the anchor; Gustavo Manzur, on keyboards and percussion, is the utility player pushing the sound. Producer Joe Chiccarelli makes it all cohere, giving Morrissey room to emote within the wash of musical elements.
The title track of World Peace is a directly political song, an angry shout of empathy for those suffering in hot spots from Egypt to Ukraine. But it also decries the value of protest, or any kind of engagement with the system as it stands. "You poor little fool," he hectors kindly at those who would hold signs or even cast ballots. Pop protest songs usually offer uplift, dwelling in alternate realities. Punk ones like this say: No future, as things stand, for you.
This is Morrissey's way — demolition through critique. The Smiths-like "Staircase at the University" depicts the suicide of an academically overpressured student. "The Bullfighter Dies" celebrates human loss in the name of animal rights. "Kick the Bride Down the Aisle" passes (arguably too-cruel) judgment on its female subject within a critique of wedded bliss. The Burt Bacharach-like "I'm Not a Man" lists everything Moz finds execrable about masculinity, ending with a bitter cri de coeur: "I'd never destroy this planet I am on! What'ya think I am, a man?" But wait: To those who say we can transcend such roles, Morrissey offers the sweet heartache of "Earth is the Loneliest Planet," a Latin-flavored lament for someone stuck within gender dysphoria, feeling like a failure as both a woman and a man.
His character sketches prove Morrissey's commitment to real human diversity — not the shiny rainbow kind, but the sort that gives voice to irredeemable misfits, to mean people, to criminals. "Mountjoy" reflects on the history of one of Ireland's best-known prisons from the perspective of an anonymous prisoner who can "only cry when I see the sky." The equally devastating "Istanbul" captures the guilt-ridden voice of a father who has lost his son to gang violence. These portraits, like so many Morrissey has written, stay where it's painful, and in doing so are profoundly compassionate.
In middle age, Morrissey may feel the need for some compassion himself. "Oboe Concerto," the album's closing set piece, brilliantly blends pique at the human condition — the oboe in the lyrics (musically represented, eccentrically, by Boorer's clarinet and sax) represents unsettling thoughts, like a hated song "stuck in my head" — with a rueful awareness of mortality brought on by the recent loss of close friends. A feisty drum solo leads not to catharsis, but to Morrissey muttering, for half a minute, "round, round, rhythm of life goes round." He's not affirming anything. He's just being realistic, saying what has to be said.