Passion Pit

Passion Pit’s sophomore album, Gossamer, is one large, synth-drenched study in contradictions. Musically upbeat, the album is ensconced with subject matter ranging from self-loathing and troubled relationships to substance abuse and mental instability. The driving force behind Passion Pit, multi-instrumentalist Michael Angelakos, has always been a relatively mysterious figure, but he’s finally lifting the veil, letting us into his frenetic, periodically troubled mind.

Gossamer is given life with an ode to missed opportunities, wasted efforts, and hapless circumstances; “Take A Walk” reminds us c’est la vie, with lines like, “I swear tonight I’ll come home, and we’ll make love like we were young.” It’s a quintessential YOLO-pop anthem. “Carried Away” and “I’ll Be Alright,” like the bulk of the album, are happy apologies of sorts, rife with layered vocals and intricate, jaunty synth lines. These songs and tracks like “On My Way” and “It’s Not My Fault, I’m Happy” communicate a sadness that’s belied by catchy hooks and sunny melodies. Similarly, “Constant Conversations” isn’t exactly a radiant dance tune, but it’s got a slippery, smooth groove accented by Angelakos’ soulful falsetto.

While metaphors and allegories are often effective songwriting devices, it is Angelakos’ frank, matter-of-fact lyrical approach to Gossamer that makes his storytelling intriguing. But despite the serious subject matter, not every song on the album is mired in melancholia. One discerns some hope during “On My Way” when Angelakos pleads, “Just believe me Kristina, all these demons, I can beat ’em,” and in the chorus of “Hideaway,” when he states that “someday everything will be okay.” While Passion Pit’s music, much like Angelako’s omnipresent falsetto, can be bombastic and off-putting to some, there’s no denying that Gossamer is a smart, introspective album that’s refreshing for its sheer (pun intended) sincerity.
Jennifer Farmer

Purity Ring

An electric guitar riff, middle C, reverb—no genre holds propriety on these building blocks of sound. But as radio-friendly R&B becomes increasingly minimal and weird and art students are encouraged to experiment with hip-hop beats, there is a swath of music being produced today that hovers in a nondescript void. The artist’s voice, and its carotid attachment to biography, becomes the ultimate decider insofar as how a particular work is compartmentalized. Prior to the vocal track, such gonadal pop sounds could birth either R&B or indie-bound electro-pop. The splintering of genres, a homogenized generational sound, the democracy of production—are these good problems? Probably too soon to tell, but Purity Ring’s Shrines is a timely case-study.

Shrines is chop and screw with sparkles, brought to you by Corin Roddick and Megan James of Canada. Dark, undulating bass tones are ornamented with hopeful synth lines and melodic asides as scintillating tangents. Everything is hyphenated, with James the cherubic narrator that mends the abbreviated songscape into a post-apocalyptic tome on how to make someone love you. She succeeds rather casually, as if the whole thing was miraculously captured verbatim from a hypnagogic state, and it sounds just as it did in the half-dream. The lyrics engender a state of play. Picking up small household objects, all within reach, James details anatomical procedures that affix obsession to truth. With such imagination, metaphors revert back to a literal state.

But Shrines is far from the literal, expository confessionals of artists like Drake, The-Dream and The Weeknd. While James, 24, and Roddick, 21, are a bit too old to have been conceived during The Postal Service’s Give Up or The Knife’s “Heartbeats,” their existence is owed more to these bands than any go-to quiet storm. And to align them with everyone’s favorite songs of 2003 is not a disservice. Shrines does resonate as the work of students, but nothing is haphazard, too precious, or “dark” just for the hell of it. Purity Ring are the conscientious ones, capable of carving an emotively keen place for you to hideout for awhile.
Elizabeth Murphy

Susanna Hoffs
Baroque Folk

Despite a lack of recent hits or much of a live presence, The Bangles never really quit. They switched up a bassist, started playing casinos and the occasional theater gig here and there, and in fact put out a couple of fine albums over the last decade—2011’s Sweetheart of the Sun and the better Doll Revolution from 2003—that stand up to their best ’80s stuff. But apparently Bangles co-founder Susanna Hoffs wants to put more miles on her Rickenbacker. With her third solo record, Someday, released on her own Baroque Folk imprint, there is no pretense at all. Hoffs has crafted—probably over many months of laidback, Chardonnay-sipping afternoon sessions—a solid folk-pop effort that is all the better for the lack of gloss that made her previous solo albums so superfluous.

You’d want to say that age has rounded the edges and added some depth to Hoffs’ voice, but no. It is uncanny how exactly the same she sounds after all these years. Instead, the wizened lessons of age come through the general muted rhythms and lilting mood of each tune. But it’s not like Hoffs used to front Hüsker Dü, so if you were alright with The Bangles’ airiest moments, you’ll like this.

This is “weather-folk” stuff: you know, songs of rain, wind, sun, cloudly hearts, etc. But luckily the instrumentation is mostly sparse, jangly and horn-sprinkled—more late-60s Mamas and Papas than their pretentious, narcoticized suede-fringed ’70s sons and daughters. During most of the songs, where the music hangs back (“Always Enough,” “All I Need”), one has to acknowledge that a woman mainly known for her incredible ability to freeze a roomful of guys with that side-glance thing she does in videos can, in fact, really sing. Like most good pop singers, she ain’t Maria Callas. Instead, she knows where she can go, and has an incredibly distinctive sound (one of the most instantly recognizable female pop-rock voices of the ’80s, when you think about it). She could’ve used a couple more upbeat numbers like the shuffling “Raining,” but she can leave that to the next Bangles album in three years or whatever.

Being a swell lazy, late-summer soundtrack, there’s not much need to go fishing lyric-wise, though an interesting bit coos out during “One Day.” “One day,” Hoffs sings. “I’m gonna make everybody love me. I’m gonna etch my name on top of all of their hearts, just to have that feeling surround me. Another chance and a brand new start.” So even with the endurable Bangles career, her critical fave duet albums with Matthew Sweet, and having a hubby who makes successful Hollywood flicks, it would seem Hoffs still has an itch to scratch. In addition to her voice and striking looks, she’s held onto every good pop artist’s core desire: that need for audience affection. And she’ll get a little more with this sweetly satisfying disc.
Eric Davidson

John Maus
A Collection of Rarities and Previously Unreleased Material

You need an open mind to approach John Maus’ work, there’s no question about that. But if you like tunes that walk the fine line between Ariel Pink’s weird pop and They Might Be Giants’ silly visions, you’ll feel right at home. A meticulous combination of propulsive bass, eerie harmonies, disco beats, and atmosphere makes the best of the tunes on this pragmatically titled disc into addictive curiosities. In that list, I’d include the standout tracks from 2008: “No Title (Molly),” “My Hatred Is Magnificent,” and the magisterial “I Don’t Eat Human Beings.” I’d also toss “Rock the Bone” in there. You’ll be stuck singing “Rock the bone, rock the bone, we’re not calling on the phone. You better rock the bone,” all day, despite yourself.

A healthy handful of this odds and ends collection do fall on the more ridiculous side of the line, including “Castles in the Grave,” and “Angel of the Night” is either love-lorn and emotionally wrought or a long lost Phantom of the Opera demo. “Bennington” manages not to be funny while taking you from paranoia to pretty and back again. Remarkably, the oldest track by four years, “Fish With Broken Dreams,” lays out Maus’ mission statement with telescopic vision. Like his 2011 breakout album (“breakout” being a relative term in this case), We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, it’s filled with with baroque synths, strange voices, and lyrics that make almost no sense whatsoever. And it’s entrancing.

This compendium is as much a revealing look at what an artist of peculiar taste leaves on the table as it is an examination of the steps he needed to trace in order to get to his best works. What’s perhaps most surprising is how closely his early visions resemble his eventually released results. But what’s most clear from this collection is how delicately Maus must be tip-toeing in order to keep from constantly falling on the wrong side of the weird line. Strangely, it’s almost as much fun when he trips.
Matt Slaybaugh

MP3: “Mental Breakdown”

Laetitia Sadier
Drag City

Judging from her solid dream-pop pedigree, one might expect former Stereolab singer Laetitia Sadier to throw all the bleeps and bloops, chimes and bells, and drum sounds she could at her second solo release in order to build upon what is an undeniably listenable back catalogue. Silencio, however, is decidedly more stripped down than much of her past output. If one thing has been a constant in her work, though, it’s that she knows what she wants to sound like and how to make that a reality. It’s a reliable bet that when you pick up a record that has Laetitia Sadier on it, everything she touches will fit well into her canon and it won’t be some wackadoo attempt at rap or a skittish dip into medieval folk.

Still, there are plenty of moments on Silencio that harken to Stereolab, notably “Next Time You See Me” and “Find Me the Pulse of the Universe.” There is, however, a startlingly stilted, politically confused screed called “Auscultation to the Nation” that takes the G-20 and the Eurozone financial mess to task for screwing up the workaday citizen’s participation in democracy. It starts off with a driving beat and a Built To Spill–esque chord progression, but then devolves into a poorly metered lyric with awkwardly stressed syllables and a myopic narrative. On further investigation, it turns out Sadier translated a caller’s rant on a French call-in radio show for the song. This explains why it sounds like a suddenly politically aware teenager wrote it. Sometimes it stinks when artists delve into the political—not that I’d prefer she just shut up and act pretty. Just the opposite is true, actually. But picking throwaway issues that will be forgotten in a year and writing overly specific songs about them is the job for boring punk bands, not timeless dream-poppers. It almost cheapens the rest of the album to mix that junk in there. Fortunately, though, the rest of the album makes up for any lyrical missteps. Opener “The Rule of the Game,” inspired by Jean Renoir’s film of the same name, shows Sadier at her best, weaving personal and timeless themes around a haunting melody and sparse percussion. The highlight of the record, “There’s a Price to Pay for Freedom (and It Isn’t Security)” features Jim Elkington’s duet vocal over probably the dreamiest song in Sadier’s catalogue. It’s like Air came into the studio to add aether to the track. There are some Gainsbourg-esque, weirdly melodic ditties and some kooky lounge numbers; Silencio might make good background music at a restaurant the same way Dots and Loops did in ’97. Just don’t play it if any investment bankers come in.
Michael O’Shaughnessy

MP3: “Find Me the Pulse of the Universe”