First Aid Kit
The Lion’s Roar

First Aid Kit is comprised of the Söderberg sisters, Johanna and Klara, from Sweden. The duo has been around since 2007, when they first drew attention covering Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song,” perhaps better than Fleet Foxes played it themselves. This was followed by their equally beautiful, if a little too reserved, full-length, The Big Black & the Blue. This time around, the sisters create a depth of sound well beyond their years on Earth with their blend of affecting, harmony-driven folk.

The album leads with the title track, which begins with a few quaint strums of the guitar, but quickly expands with a surge of evocative harmonies. It’s clear from this first track on, with the exception of a few snoozers (“Emmylou,” “In the Hearts of Men”) that this album is the culmination of a (relatively short, but more articulate than most) lifetime’s worth of observation and feeling. That is manifest in the sparsely sweet “To a Poet,” on which the sisters’ lovely innocence is so heartbreakingly honest that you start to believe that everything really is as simple as when they sing, “There’s nothing more to it. I just get through it.” These young women give this advice and provide a whimsical, musical background for hope, which, philosophical arguments aside, is really all that matters in this case. On songs like “Dance Another Tune” and “New Year’s Eve,” the sisters pour their heart and soul into a stripped-down format, with crisp, clear vocals that are affecting and beautiful as well. Lion’s Roar, as a whole, seems to reflect some perfect, pristine magic winter in the woods. If there was any doubt that these former youngsters were just a one-time YouTube sensation, this album should quell the naysayers for good.
Jennifer Farmer

Pop. 1280
The Horror
Sacred Bones

As evidenced on their first couple of EPs and their rods and cones crushing live shows over the last two years, all the earmarks of gutter grime cool have been on Pop. 1280 like skidmarks on black jeans, meaning you can make them out best if you look close. Because at first it’s easy to tag this Brooklyn band as the regurgitate of very late-80s Bowery-area sludge-punk, a la Black Snakes, Pussy Galore, Honeymoon Killers, et al. There hasn’t been a band around these parts this soaked in noir-grease guitar, alley knee-dragging, Birthday Party–crashing since the Chrome Cranks called it a day around the late 1990s. (Come to think of it, they’re back with a new album coming soon...)

But on The Horror, their first full-length, Pop. 1280 is a little more Bewitched than Pussy Galore, as they’ve decided to take a more focused recording tract, letting slightly less dissipated distortion seep all over the place, saving singer Caleb March’s vox and those endless floor tom gurgles from the nasty, sometimes nearly buried-under ooze of their previous releases.

If the lyrics on “Burn the Worm” sound like “Surfin’ Bird,” it ain’t just the syntax. It’s like the boozy backbeat of the early Cramps is reclaimed after all these years. “Dogboy” is a Doc Marten stomp, and “Crime Time” has cracked disco synth and bass buzz like the dancier No Wave wonders circa 1982. On “Nature Boy,” they’re even “Doin’ a dance and their shakin’ their hips,” only with “guns on their hips.” So don’t look for the Jersey goombas to bring their mall trophies to this particularly creepy dance.

“Cyclotron” is not the Electric Eels cover that it used to want to be, but instead smelted down into a rolling, rumbling, spent psyche pound. Next tune, “Beg Like a Human,” is an even slower rumbling pound. There was that “wha’appen?” moment in the early grunge era when “industrial” turned to “goth” and/or vice-versa. But with the Lower East Side garbage having all been picked up and re-bagged again for a decade, Pop. 1280 is kicking over a few cans in Bushwick before they too get recycled.
Eric Davidson


Sumach Valentine, a.k.a. Gonjasufi, is a yoga teacher, and it will help to that keep in mind as you try to get your head into the right timeframe to absorb his new mini-album, MU.ZZ.LE. Aside from “Nikels and Dimes” (sic), there’s hardly a moment of propulsion anywhere in its 25 minutes. On “The Blame,” the only track that’s anywhere near as explicitly hip-hop-oriented as 2010’s A Sufi and a Killer, Sumach exhales a hazy line about dread, and that’s another good clue. It’s dread that hangs over this record, a mood and a sound more than a little reminiscent of Lee Perry tracks like “Dread Lion,” “Jah Jah Ah Natty Dread” and others that showcased the darker shades of dub.

Patching the sparse lyrics together plays out a lo-fi film of a shadowy man who’s done wrong and doesn’t entirely regret it. Despite his quest for Zion, he knows that life is not without sin. The anti-hero treads heavy-footed down dark alleys, head high, hat low, looking furtively over his shoulder for any sign of the trouble he knows is lurking. The soundtrack to his conscience-clouded mind needs just the slightest of sounds, a chord drawn ever so slowly from a beat-up piano, a murky organ figure repeated until it becomes more atmosphere than accompaniment. The melody stretches and slows as you lose track of the blocks and he keeps questing on. And just when the rhythm of his steps becomes clear enough to grasp, the scene fades to black.
Matt Slaybaugh

Penelope Houston
On Market Street
Devoted Ruins

Singer Penelope Houston has seemingly lived a dual existence over her some 30-year music career. While she began (and is best known in this country for) fronting San Franciscan punk band the Avengers, who opened up for the Sex Pistols at their infamous last show, her much longer solo career has been based in a mix of pop and contemporary jazz sounds that can be best labeled as “adult alternative.”

However horrifying that label might seem (especially to a former punk), Houston’s recording output has never ceased to be adventurous, even while venturing into seemingly conventional styles. Tongue, from 1999, showed a coy approach to pop, while the ’60s-styled folk-rock of 2004’s The Pale Green Girl mixed enough psychedelic touches with smart songwriting to show Houston wasn’t just another fogey milking her reputation. On Market Street positions Houston as an elder—if not a peer—to artists like Aimee Mann, her smokey vocals and endearingly ernest approach hard to dislike. The restrained approach of the title track and “Meet Me in France” reveal her to be more than just a punk mouthpiece, even if they are less jarring then her initial musical forays. On Market Street certainly doesn’t possess the gravitas of the Avengers, but it’s probably no less enjoyable, at least on a surface level.
Stephen Slaybaugh


Timing is everything. It’s an oft-repeated phrase that seems to hold a fair amount of weight in the music world. Sometimes the difference of just a few months can determine whether or not a band captures the zeitgeist. One could argue that Cardinal’s timing was just ever so off. The orchestral pop duo comprised of singer-songwriter Richard Davis (formerly of The Moles) and multi-instrumentalist Eric Matthews released their self-titled album in 1994. At the time, the world was far more interested in loud, fuzzy guitars than meticulously groomed indie rock so the record only made a muted impact. Those who did hear it rated it highly, but that wasn’t enough to boost the fortunes of the band and they went their separate ways a year later. In a bittersweet twist, Matthews struck success as a solo artist doing they very thing Cardinal had earlier on. Yet, the ghost of Cardinal never really went away; Matthews re-issued the album with 11 bonus songs in 2004. Now 18 years after Cardinal, Matthews and Davis have reformed and released their follow-up, Hymns.

One of the most striking things about Hymns is how it manages to seem to be a throwback while also sounding very contemporary. If their guitars had more bite, you could imagine Fleet Foxes tackling a song or two, and if you put this on after The Dears, no one would bat an eye. The production and instrumental style has the feeling of both the late ’60s and early ’90s, but without sounding dated. It’s a neat trick in that you can spot the influences, but they act as a jumping off point rather a slightly twisted carbon copy. Matthews gets to cram as many production tricks and arrangements into the songs as he wants, but they work in service of the song, while Davis knows when to anchor his songwriting and when to soar. What is most striking about Hymns are the songs that play as epic sound journeys while barely clocking in at three minutes. There’s not a wasted moment and the results feel more substantial than the album’s 36-minute run time. While you could say the world wasn’t ready for Cardinal, Hymns shows that it is is now.
Dorian S. Ham

MP3: “Carbolic Smoke Ball”