Now in its seventh decade, Mavis Staples' career has taken her through chart-topping hits with the gospel-soul family band The Staple Singers, performances for Martin Luther King Jr., enshrinement in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a recent string of highly regarded solo albums. One of Staples' many high-profile fans, Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, produced and plays on Staples' 2010 album You Are Not Alone, and he returns to steer its fine follow-up, One True Vine.
Out June 25, the new album finds Tweedy playing virtually every instrument — that's his 17-year-old son Spencer on drums — but, as Jeff Tweedy often does on records he produces, he tends to hang back, eschew showy flourishes and stay out of the way once the tape is rolling. This is Staples' showcase, and rightfully so, though Tweedy clearly had a hand in picking the songs, from "Holy Ghost" (by Low, whose new album he produced) to pieces by Funkadelic and Nick Lowe, to the three tracks he wrote himself.
Though Staples remains a gregarious and approachable live performer, One True Vine as a whole is a more darkly solemn and deliberately paced record than You Are Not Alone. But even at its slowest, in the tentative search for salvation in its first half, One True Vine doesn't drag to a slog so much as radiate reverence, while summoning a slow burn well-suited to Staples' rich, dusky voice. Then, as the album blooms into something more celebratory — as Staples begins to find salvation and comfort — the joy in One True Vine peeks through like slivers of sunshine.
Given that Smith Westerns' first record came out when its members were teenagers, it makes sense that the Chicago band has evolved from a garage-y pop-rock outfit — all shambling T. Rex-isms and impeccable hair — to something sweeter, dreamier, slicker and sunnier. Just in time for the season to begin officially, Soft Will finds Smith Westerns fully perfecting a summery jangle that's hugely ingratiating.
The follow-up to Smith Westerns' 2011 breakthrough Dye It Blonde, Soft Will (out June 25) is the sound of weaponized agreeability; a band whose songs are so catchy, even wistful ballads like "White Oath" have a shiny sheen that practically glistens. Given a brisk pace to match, songs like "Idol" and the appropriately titled "Glossed" practically roll the car windows down for you.
Lyrically speaking, it can be hard to parse what an individual Smith Westerns track might be trying to impart at any given moment — a product, in part, of a mix that tends to prioritize clean, chiming guitars over Cullen Omori's vocals. But that doesn't cool off Soft Will's softly sparkly charm offensive for a minute.
Listening to Bosnian Rainbows' first album made me think of the paradox about unstoppable forces and immovable objects — as in, "What happens when Omar Rodriguez Lopez (At The Drive In, The Mars Volta) leads a band alongside Teri Gender Bender (Le Butcherettes)?" Both powerful and iconoclastic performers, the two somehow join together without crowding each other out.
Lopez is known for being prolific and brilliant, but he also has a reputation in the industry for being brooding, controlling, even dictatorial. He himself has gone on record saying, "I don't want to be a dictator all my life," and said his greatest challenge and desire is to be able to collaborate with band members. If so, then his best move was deciding to play with a singer who is not to be bossed around.
Born Teresa Suarez, Teri Gender Bender fits into the category of "unstoppable force." Funny, weird, sick and furious, her live performances are mesmerizing, terrifying and exhilarating. I've had the chance to speak to her and can attest that she's a lovely, thoughtful woman, but on stage she's another story: part Iggy Pop, with a helping of Siouxsie Sioux and a splash of David Bowie from his Ziggy Stardust era.
No Latina rockers are doing anything as powerful as her: Her voice is commanding and majestic and, true to her moniker, oddly devoid of gender, though completely sexual. She's the opposite of quirky hipster femininity; she will eat cuteness alive.
Every song on Bosnian Rainbows is catchy and anthemic, with frequent nods to the '80s work of Simple Minds and Bowie. Lopez, who can get too tangled in his own head, here finds a way to package his ideas in a succinct and digestible way. Songs like the bouncy "Torn Maps" and the wistful "Turtlenecks" are easy to enjoy, but not too reduced — they're full of rich narratives, unusual musical progressions and cryptic, Tori Amos-esque lyrics to keep listeners feeling both included and intrigued.
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Lemuria's The Distance Is So Big opens with 40-odd seconds of droning, which gradually reveals itself to be a collage of human howls. It's cold and weird; even as the voices grow louder and clearer, they still feel vacant and remote. Closer and closer they come, until you can practically feel their breath on the back of your neck.
Like a Monty Python cold open, the scene is set and promptly abandoned for something completely different. Lemuria's third album really begins with "Brilliant Dancer," a song so warm and friendly, it feels familiar the first time you hear it. But the preamble serves a purpose, setting us up for a pop record as prone to hard lefts as it is to hooks, by a band that has made an art of interrupting itself.
Nearly a decade into its history, Lemuria remains powered by the chemistry of its core members, guitarist Sheena Ozzella and drummer Alex Kerns. (Max Gregor, the latest in a series of bassists, joined in 2010.) Ozzella and Kerns share singing and songwriting duties in the truest sense, trading the spotlight on a line-by-line rather than song-by-song basis. The Distance Is So Big continues in the band's tradition of songs that unfold like mini-suites, hopscotching from one melodic figure or time signature to the next with a playwright's sense of structure.
Of the two singers, Ozzella has the surer voice, taut and bell-clear. What Kerns lacks in vocal power, though, he makes up in daring behind the drum kit, as he pulls off rhythmic tricks that dazzle without distracting. During an instrumental break in the gorgeous "Chihuly," the relaxed beat switches to a rigid triplet pattern that pushes hard against its surroundings. It's the briefest of detours, and Kerns lands right back in the groove when it's done — but even on repeat listens, the effect makes your stomach drop. It's as though Kerns is a tightrope walker who made it halfway across the line and decided to try a cartwheel for kicks.
Lemuria excites the most when its lyrics rise to the focus and precision of the music. Ozzella nails that side of the equation in "Congratulations Sex," which details the icky emotional commerce that rears its head in even the most stable and healthy relationships: "Tired of tragedies being trumped / Tired of romance being sung / Tired of the past being hung around my neck / like a cinder block, covering my heart up."
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Everything in Austra's music is painstakingly engineered to maximize drama, from its relentlessly pulsing arrangements — performed by a live band, no less — to Katie Stelmanis' sweepingly grandiose, Siouxsie-sized vocals. Stelmanis is a classically trained veteran of the Canadian Opera Company, so her soaring Gothic swoops are second nature by this point, but Austra's music still mixes the accessible hooks of electro-pop with the stubborn drive of house music.
Over time, Austra has expanded from a core trio — with bandleader Stelmanis joined by percussionist Maya Postepski and bassist Dorian Wolf — to a sextet, and its sound has naturally become bigger and busier. In the process, that's meant letting some of the spare, arty mystery of 2011's Polaris Prize-nominated Feel It Break give way to the bombastic throb of Olympia, out June 18. But the new album still showcases Stelmanis' massive voice and increasingly personal lyrics in style, keeping one foot in the conservatory even as both are occupied on the dance floor.