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Interpol's new album, El Pintor, comes out on Sept. 9. (Courtesy of the artist)

First Listen: Interpol, 'El Pintor'

Aug 26, 2014

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Stephen Thompson

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Interpol once seemed like a candidate for a quick post-debut flameout. Its 2002 debut, Turn on the Bright Lights, broke through with seemingly instantaneous intensity, setting the band up for an equally ferocious second-album letdown. So many bands in its fickle New York scene were playing a variation on Interpol's sleek, stylish, darkly driving post-punk that success was bound to be difficult to sustain.

And yet here's the band, back a dozen years later, on the eve of a heavily anticipated fifth album. El Pintor follows a tumultuous four-year gap, during which Interpol toured with U2, went on hiatus, and saw bassist Carlos Dengler leave for good while singer Paul Banks released two solo records (one under the pseudonym Julian Plenti). Thankfully, the resulting album wears turmoil well: Interpol has aged into its polished sound nicely, maintaining its influences — Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen, et al — while sounding more distinct from them than ever.

Interpol often tiptoes on the fine line separating consistency from sameness. El Pintor treads that same line, but keeps finding Interpol on its better side. Twelve years after its debut, it's a band that knows what it wants to be — and, just as importantly, knows how to get there every time.

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Sinkane's new album, Mean Love, comes out Sept. 2. (Courtesy of the artist)

First Listen: Sinkane, 'Mean Love'

Aug 24, 2014

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Tom Moon

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"You know I love you, but you're mean."

Here's one of those eternal refrains. Nobody owns it; it's been in the air since forever. Maybe it was initially uttered by a songwriter toiling deep in the Brill Building, or first sung by a girl group.

Because it carries the essential DNA of the done-me-wrong song, such a familiar sentiment can be a test: Whomever is singing has to sell the slight, and the hurt, and the story behind it. Ahmed Gallab, Sinkane's singer and leader, understands this mission. In the title track of his suave and eclectic third record (his second under the Sinkane name), Gallab brings a slight quiver to the verses — and then, gathering all the resolve his thin and perfectly rounded voice can muster, he delivers the tagline as a straightforward declaration. It's like he's resigned to his plight and no longer cares about editorializing it by appearing too vulnerable. He sings about it plainly, with little in the way of garish ornamentation. His voice offset by weepy steel guitar, he repeats the line, sometimes adding the words "mean to me" as punctuation, and by this point any hint of contrivance is erased: To the Sudan-born, Ohio-raised, Brooklyn-based Gallab, this is less about singing a pop song than telling a truth.

It's an art, being believable in this way, and Gallab has it nailed: Whether riding the waves of a brisk African dance ("New Name") or working through a tightly wound Curtis Mayfield-conjuring funk vamp ("Hold Tight"), he infuses the vocals with unusual intimacy, the desire to be felt first and understood later. Even if, as happens throughout Mean Love, the refrains start out simple and veer toward the blunt. At first, this seems like lowballing, but there's wisdom in the approach: As on Sinkane's previous album Mars, the backdrops are a thick stew, with elements of both East and West African music, James Brown, free jazz and shoegaze. Gallab recognizes that Sinkane's broad range of influences can come across as busy — or, worse, muddled. So he places the focus on terse, easily repeated catchphrases, many written by his lyricist collaborator Greg Lofaro. These cut to the core message of the (often love-minded) narratives, and their simplicity contrasts with the oscillating, ever-changing mix-and-match accompaniment schemes in the background. The result is a formidable type of persuasion: Clear, earnest voice meets memorable hook over wickedly inventive groove.

This streamlined approach to songwriting is one of the ways Sinkane has grown since Mars first broke through. There are moments when Sinkane lunges in the direction of recent exotica-spiced hits by Bruno Mars, and moments when the glances are all in the rearview, toward the volcanic soul of the '60s and '70s. There are also more overt and confident evocations of African music — Gallab served as the musical director for a star-filled celebration of Nigerian iconoclast William Onyeabor earlier this year. The most gripping of these include the last song, "Omdurman," named for Gallab's hometown in Sudan. Unfolding with a calm, hymn-like grace, it expresses the universal frustration of the young and rootless with likes like, "Where, if I should settle down, will I finally settle?" But the refrain that's likely to get the most attention appears in "Son." It's a vow, sung with extraordinary resolve: "I will not forget where I came from." Gallab again doesn't do too much with it, and he doesn't have to: As happens frequently on Mean Love, the music around him echoes and affirms those words in quietly breathtaking ways.

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First Listen: Zammuto, 'Anchor'

by Andy Battaglia
Aug 24, 2014

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Zammuto's new album, Anchor, comes out Sept. 2. Cover art

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Andy Battaglia

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In a way that proves surprisingly joyous and endearing, Nick Zammuto knows how to make his fans feel lazy, stunted, uninspired — certainly a lot less quick, by comparison, to jump on a surplus of exciting ideas and actually make them real. For the video of his new song "IO," for example, he built a catapult in his yard at his house in Vermont. Not just a catapult, but a massive catapult that features different component parts made from wood and flings munitions as big as computers and guitars great distances.

Musically, Zammuto has taken a similarly crafty, hands-on, spirit-forged approach to sound since his early years as part of the beloved art-music duo The Books. But where that band favored the dictates of electronic experimentation and cerebral collage, Zammuto's new project tacks toward a more conventional premise, with musicians moving strings and banging and pressing on things in a band-like arrangement. Still, in Zammuto's world, convention exists mostly to be upended — or at least tweaked.

Anchor, the second album for Zammuto (actually a group with its namesake as leader), opens in a pensive mood; it lays a foreboding bassline and suspicious electronic rhythms beneath ethereal vocals by Daniela Gesundheit of Snowblink. The song is slow and considered ("Got to get inside my good graces," she sings), but the pace takes a more madcap turn in "Great Equator," which spins out figures on electric guitar and weird riffs played on what sounds like a Speak & Spell. "Hegemony" evokes the cracked art-rock/R&B band Dirty Projectors with its smart harmonies and its air of complication. (See: the drummer's insane sense of time signature and a chorus that's basically just the word "hegemony" sung over and over.)

Anchor flits around a great deal, sounding different with more or less every song. Elements of chilly, elegiac electronic music turn to wild-eyed prog-rock, with a yen for propulsion underlying the most assured-sounding highlights ("Need Some Sun," "IO"). The range could be a signal of a songwriter still trying to find his way, or it could be the mark of a boundless mind — or, even more intriguing, some engagingly strange mix of both.

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Blonde Redhead's new album, Barragán, comes out Sept. 2. (Courtesy of the artist)

First Listen: Blonde Redhead, 'Barragán'

Aug 24, 2014

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Stephen Thompson

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You can't really apply just one catch-all adjective to the New York band Blonde Redhead, which just entered its third decade and will soon release its ninth album, Barragn. When it began, the group fit somewhere in the literal and figurative neighborhood of Sonic Youth, as its free-jazz-inflected noise-rock kept one foot neatly planted in art school. But the last decade or so has seen a marked softening in Blonde Redhead's sound, to the point where the quietest moments on Barragn don't sound like songs so much as vapors infused with tunes.

Within the framework of its gentlest album yet, Blonde Redhead still finds room to sprawl and play, and for all three members — singer Kazu Makino, guitarist Amadeo Pace and his twin brother, drummer Simone — to assert their individuality. Makino remains the band's strongest presence, but Blonde Redhead still lets the spotlight move around: "Mine to Be Had" putters and chugs amiably for more than three minutes before Simone Pace pops up with the song's first verse. It's as if Blonde Redhead wrote a more conventionally catchy pop-rock song and opted to stretch it as far as it would go — in this case, for nearly nine minutes.

Plenty of bands are weirder than Blonde Redhead 21 years into its career, but you'll have a tough time finding one that's subtler about it. As a result, on both Barragn and its 2010 predecessor Penny Sparkle, the band makes music that's both peaceful and endlessly adventurous — a rare combination worth emulating, both in music and in life.

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The Gotobeds' new album, Poor People Are Revolting, comes out Sept. 2. (Courtesy of the artist)

First Listen: The Gotobeds, 'Poor People Are Revolting'

by Doug Mosurock
Aug 24, 2014

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The Gotobeds' members come from Pittsburgh, Penn., a place notorious for keeping great local bands to itself. But the racket these guys kick up on their first album, Poor People Are Revolting, might be too strong for the city to contain.

Guitarists Eli Kasan and Tom Payne spent the last few years as part of the local hardcore band Kim Phuc. Joined by bassist Gavin Jensen and drummer Cary Belbeck, they bring that energy to The Gotobeds, a rowdy, ramshackle party house of a band, built on the intersecting bedrock of post-punk and indie rock. On Poor People Are Revolting, there's something crazy going on in every room, the front porch and the backyard: a party that never dies down or seems to stop, even as the neighbors complain and the cops drive past. Working from the spirit and fundamentals of a small handful of influences — the design sense and intellectual rowdiness of The Fall; the constant evolution and masterful poker faces of Wire, from whose drummer these guys borrowed their name; the sturdy, heroic melodic sense and layered tape-loop production of Mission of Burma — The Gotobeds' members paint a dirty, driven, vulgar portrait of Rust Belt restlessness.

Poor People rockets out of the gate with "Fast Trash," a great intro to The Gotobeds' boundless energy. Two-parter "Wasted on Youth/Melted Candle" starts out with a tuneful riff that ratchets past pandemonium. Every song here is an honest-to-goodness anthem, ready to sweep you up in the throttling, last-call anxiety that permeates the band's work — even through all 10 minutes of the single repetitive riff that makes up "Secs Tape."

Were these guys from New York City, they'd probably be too tired and broke to play with this level of fevered, feral inspiration. With no fear of being priced out, they launch one of the greatest arguments against Big Apple living with their single "NY's Alright." Like the album's title, the song is a double-edged sword, couching the relative excitement of New York (and hearing all about it from everyone who's moved there) against the reality of people staring into their cellphones on crowded sidewalks, constantly trying to maintain a standard of living that The Gotobeds can enjoy for next to nothing. The sentiment is hammered home in the video for the track, as the band drops a Parquet Courts LP out of its sleeve, only to see it shatter on the floor.

One of the strongest American rock debuts in years, Poor People Are Revolting is an obscene gesture hoisted toward anyone who'd claim that the genre is dead.

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