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First Listen

First Listen: Cults, 'Static'

Listen to Cults' new album Static streaming now via WFUV and NPR Music prior to its October 15 release.

For Cults' Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion, reinvigorating '60s-style girl-group pop means embracing both light and darkness; it's about deceptive sweetness and a haunting quality that makes the songs linger after they're gone. Like Cults' self-titled 2011 debut, the duo's new album Static (out Oct. 15) keeps its sound rooted in a kind of plaintive shimmer — Follin remains approachable even as her words tap into the mystery and desolation wired into many of the arrangements.

It's no accident that Static closes with a song called "No Hope," in which Follin yearns to "burn down the bridges," "burn down the town" and "forget tomorrow." For Cults, as it was for many of the band's forbears and influences, buoyant pop simply provides a mask for self-doubt and the eternal fatalism of vulnerable youth. That tension is far older than pop music itself, but on Static, Cults' members understand it, tap into it and bend it to their will and considerable skill. — Stephen Thompson

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First Listen: 'Red Hot + Fela'

Listen to Red Hot + Fela, featuring tUnE-yArDs, Jim James, Questlove, Alabama Shakes' Brittany Howard, TV on the Radio's Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe and more, streaming now courtesy of WFUV and NPR Music before its release on October 8 via Knitting Factory Records. Proceeds from the collection benefits local, national and international AIDS awareness organizations.

Weed-puffing folk hero, energetic polygamist, political rabble-rouser and all-around badass, the late Nigerian bandleader Fela Anikulapo Kuti is one of the few figures to near-singlehandedly concoct an entire musical genre — in this case the magnificently propulsive, polyrhythmic Afrobeat. He was also a potent, prolific composer, so it makes sense that the not-for-profit Red Hot organization has followed its 2002 multi-artist Fela tribute, Red Hot + Riot, with this second volume. (Another reason is that Fela died of complications from AIDS, the disease Red Hot was created to fight.) The group has released 18 uniformly impressive benefit albums since 1990; the Cole Porter-themed debut Red Hot + Blue and 2009's eclectic Dark Was the Night, the latter curated by Bryce and Aaron Dessner of The National, are good starting points. Fela Kuti is the only artist to serve as the subject of two Red Hot sets.

But the biggest reason behind this latest collection, no doubt, is the success of Fela! — the unlikely but spectacular musical that's seen multiple runs on Broadway and around the world, and helped make the man's sound more popular than ever. Afrobeat is part of Western pop vernacular, not uncommon as a backdrop for soul and rock singers or as bedrock for hip-hop samples. (And some may recall that Talking Heads took plenty of inspiration from Fela's music for 1980's Remain in Light.) In fact, many young bands devote themselves specifically to Afrobeat — most famously Brooklyn's Antibalas, which was eventually tapped by the producers of Fela! for the musical's on-stage pit orchestra.

This backdrop may explain why Red Hot + Fela sounds both more faithful to, and more inventive with, this music than Red Hot + Riot, which sometimes forced connections between Afrobeat and other styles, particularly hip-hop. One of the new set's highlights is a strikingly straight reading of a 1972 deep-catalog cut, "Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am," by an unlikely trio: My Morning Jacket's Jim James, Alabama Shakes' Brittany Howard and tUnE-yArDs' Merrill Garbus. Given James and Howard's feel for vintage southern R&B (Fela was profoundly shaped by James Brown) and Garbus' feel for African styles, it's not as big a stretch as you might think. They nail the song's delicious, slow-motion soul groove, stretching it out for 14 minutes — two minutes longer than the original, for no apparent reason other than that it feels so damn good. In "Lady," tUnE-yArDs and ?uestlove tighten and loop the original groove, magnifying its hypnotic muscle, while Benin's Angélique Kidjo and globetrotting MC Akua Naru complicate the song's provocatively sexist lyrics.

Elsewhere, young African artists retool Fela's music. The Belgium-based Congolese rapper Baloji and his band L'Orchestre de la Katuba weave heady Congolese guitar lines between chortling Afrobeat brass ("Buy Africa"), while Johannesburg fusionist Spoek Mathambo views two vintage tracks through the lens of modern club music ("Zombie," "Yellow Fever").

The most radical arrangement here also serves as the record's high point: a version of "Sorrow, Tears, and Blood" by Kronos Quartet with vocals by Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio. The guitar lines of the original become pizzicato strings — the woody plucking sounding a little like mbiras — and the electric keyboard lines are transformed into lonely whistling. What's striking is how legibly the music is transformed while stripped to its bones; the melody and rhythm lose no power. The performance becomes a 21st-century blues, as well as a testament to the durability of Fela Kuti's music. — Will Hermes.

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First Listen: Haim, 'Days Are Gone'

Listen to Haim's Days Are Gone streaming now on WFUV and NPR Music prior to the album's release on September 30.

Geoff Barrow of the revered English band Portishead recently maligned the fast-rising Los Angeles sister act HAIM with a snippy tweet: Hiam [sic] sound like Shania Twain ... When did that become a good thing? To which this critic replies: Who said it isn't? HAIM's song "The Wire" does bear traces of Twain's 1999 hit "Man I Feel Like a Woman," one of many inspirations hidden in plain sight on the trio's debut album, Days Are Gone. And that's good thing right this minute: HAIM's thoughtful, playful music is good for the radio, good for rock, and good for music lovers of all ages who need to carve out a little space to dream.

Sisters Danielle, Alana and Este Haim grew up playing music with their parents in the amazingly named cover band Rockinhaim, and tried several music-business career moves (Nickelodeon cameos, Este's ethnomusicology degree, Danielle's apprenticeship playing guitar with Julian Casablancas and Jenny Lewis) before breaking through as a trio in 2012. Getting serious as a band, they found a drummer, Dash Hutton, and sought out eclectic collaborators. HAIM has toured with Mumford & Sons and been remixed by the EDM DJ Duke Dumont, written songs with the British singer Jessie Ware and the Swedish soundtrack composer Ludwig Goransson, and found a favorite producer in Ariel Reichstad, whose own portfolio includes work with Usher and Vampire Weekend, playing in a ska-punk band, and writing "Hey There, Delilah" for the Plain White T's.

Diving into so many different musical wellsprings, HAIM discovered its specific superpower: the ability to channel influences most listeners recognize within a fresh, personal sound. It's easy to play the game of references on Days Are Gone. "Honey & I" re-imagines Fleetwood Mac as a duo with just Lindsey and Christine; "The Wire" throws its Shania Twain guitar riff against a wall built by The Bangles. The wonderfully moody "My Song 5" imagines a perfect union of Nirvana and TLC. "Running If You Call My Name" runs up that hill in the Kate Bush song and finds Tom Petty free-falling on the other side. And so on, until the jukebox is exhausted.

But the Top 40 machine that HAIM loves and elevates is never exhausted because it's powered by the dreams of generations of boys and girls — especially girls, so many of whom figure out what they think of love, loss and independence by absorbing and developing their own reinterpretations of the songs the radio feeds them. The lyrics on Days Are Gone are all about the trial and error involved in realizing that dreams designed by others (parents, boyfriends, songwriters) may not fit your growing individual frame. Danielle Haim's lead vocals always sound like a thought process, interrupted by sighs and guttural stops and starts; her sisters shore her up with harmonies and funky rhythms, but even within the sleek production, their playing has an imperfect edge that makes it all the more accessible. Days Are Gone brings the revenge of the listening girl, the one whose passionate engagement made pop possible in the first place. In front of the microphone, these sisters retell pop's central stories in a language that's true to actual young women like themselves. — Ann Powers

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First Listen: Oneohtrix Point Never, 'R Plus Seven'

Listen to Oneohtrix Point Never's R Plus Seven streaming now via WFUV and NPR Music prior to its October 1 release on Warp Records.

The dance floor is both the lungs and the trading floor of music. New sounds and structures are breathed in and out on the dance floor, in a rich exchange of ideas that are disseminated on a global scale. It's a space that allows for new shapes — no, demands them — because bodies need new lines to trace and new energy to feed off. This is new territory for Daniel Lopatin, a.k.a. New York avant-garde musician Oneohtrix Point Never.

That isn't to say R Plus Seven is a dance-music album — it's not — but that it's alive with vibrations from the dance floor. It's Lopatin's most colorful record to date, almost delightful at points, as well as delighted with itself. To say it's a curve ball would be to miss a trick, though. While form-wise his early albums skirted the drone and noise worlds, earning him hyperbolic descriptors like "synth lord," his approach has always been about excavation. 2011's Replica was concerned with memory and media; with how the two obstruct and abstract one another. For R Plus Seven, Lopatin's debut album on new home Warp Records (out Oct. 1), Lopatin focuses in on the act of listening itself.

Which is where the dance music comes in, via super-specific and sometimes startling references. "Inside World" features synths that recall the cool allure of Fatima Al Qadiri, while "Zebra" opens with a hyperactive rush evoking Gold Panda. There are moments in both "Americans" and "Problem Areas" that evoke Far Side Virtual, James Ferraro's 2011 masterpiece that wove sinister and saccharine works from tones loaded with consumerist signals. "Still Life" features background-vocal sighs that scream Orbital and Opus III. What's more, Philip Glass and Steve Reich's footsteps can also be heard on R Plus Seven. It would be hard to believe that these references weren't intentional; instead, it's tempting to see the album as an architectural survey of this most contemporary of compositional realms. A listener's digest, if you will.

Lopatin uses sound like brushstrokes: stippling it here, dabbing it there, splattering the canvas at will. Any semblance of traditional melodic or rhythmic structure is shunned, for both would swallow up the gleaming sounds he's labored to build monuments to. And, boy, do they gleam. In "Problem Areas," pointillist tones line up to do somersaults in your inner ear, while in album highlight "Chrome Country," a soft synth patch called Japanese Boy Choir is manipulated to a metallic liquid, flipping from angelic to anguished with a wink. 

R Plus Seven is both celebratory and reverential, excited and excitable. In zooming in on the material nature of the sounds to which he pays homage, Lopatin directs focus to the individual voices taking part in dance music's ever-evolving conversation. His role — as indicated by "Still Life," which could be the album's tagline — is of enamored observer: the artist enchanted by the changing light in the sky, painting it to forever capture the feeling for all to see. — Ruth Saxelby

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First Listen: Au Revoir Simone, 'Move In Spectrums'

Listen to Au Revoir Simone's Move In Spectrums streaming on FUV and NPR Music before its release on September 24.

In 2009, the year Au Revoir Simone released its third album Still Night, Still Light, it felt like every band came from Brooklyn. At the height of the original MySpace's brightly burning last hurrah, there were acres upon acres of New York hopefuls peddling coy synth-pop. If you weren't careful, you could overdose on the saccharine.

Already a seasoned band, Au Revoir Simone stood out because its members offset the lushness of their keyboard melodies and faultless vocal harmonies with serrated melancholy. There was an insular quality to the trio's music, as if the the three of them had made a triangle with their synths and you were in the middle. Then they did the smart thing and jumped off the music-industry merry-go-round just as dream-pop melted into chillwave and everything sounded as if it were being broadcast through the hyper-nostalgic filter of Hipstamatic, Instagram's precursor.

Four years is a lifetime in pop, a musical space that moves like a cyclone, sucking one sound in only to spew another out. Pop fell out of love with hazy, woozy and fuzzy emoting and instead fell for churning dubstep theatrics. Like us humans, though, it's a fickle beast, and the signs for Au Revoir Simone's return could've been called at the precise moment Ryan Gosling sealed his pin-up status. "Real Hero" by French producer College — featured on the soundtrack to Drive in 2011 — owes much to Au Revoir Simone: that plaintive melody, the heavy-hearted chord changes, the dream-like vocal.

What it tapped into was territory that Au Revoir Simone knows inside out: our innate love affair with the fragility and fallibility of life. Sometimes, feeling sad feels good. "I don't care where we're going / I feel so far away / In the backseats of emotion / We exonerate," the band sings in "More Than," the opener to Move In Spectrums, out Sept. 24. While there is much mining of backseat emotion on Move in Spectrums, as stingingly illustrated by the largely instrumental "We Both Know," there's also plenty of sass and snap. "Somebody Who" is full-beam '80s electro-pop with just a hint of a Bangles wink to it, while "Crazy" matches Yeah Yeah Yeahs chords with Beach Boys harmonies while throwing kisses over its shoulder.

Move in Spectrums is so much more awake than Still Night, Still Light; it's older, wiser and more comfortable in its own skin, and there's less wistful wallowing. Even in somber numbers like "Boiling Point" and "Love You Don't Know Me" acceptance's embrace is what sings loudest. Excitingly, in the album-closing "Let the Night Win," there's even a move to shrug off nostalgia altogether. Sonically, it's the weirdest Au Revoir Simone's members get on the record, with didgeridoo-like wails, crunchy percussion and that defiant sigh of "Can't relive the moment." The resolution suits them. — Ruth Saxelby

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First Listen: Chvrches, 'The Bones Of What You Believe'

Listen to Chvrches' The Bones of What You Believe streaming now via WFUV and NPR Music prior to its September 24 release on Glassnote Records.

In the span of roughly a year, the Scottish electro-pop group Chvrches has secured all the trappings of Next Big Thing-dom — a flurry of MP3s on all the requisite blogs, a cloud of acclaim floating in from Europe, a string of highly regarded performances at SXSW, and so on — without a full-length album to go on. It's a familiar trajectory, but Chvrches feels more warmly accessible and chart-ready than most bands to have taken that ride. If the trio were to score a string of giant pop hits upon the release of The Bones of What You Believe, it would hardly qualify as a surprise.

Though it can be ominous, even aggressive, Chvrches' music maintains a disarming fizziness. Its sound and approach aren't arch or unapproachable; this is, after all, a band that frequently covers Prince onstage, including a version of "I Would Die For U" recast as "I Would Die For V." It's toured with Depeche Mode, which says a lot about both its aesthetic — though Chvrches opts for sprightly melancholy over the dour seriousness of its heroes — and its ability to draw on synth-driven '80s pop sounds for inspiration. Singer Lauren Mayberry, a former music journalist who's toiled in local bands around Glasgow, has an idiosyncratically lovely voice to match her understanding of what builds a frontwoman's mystique; she knows how and when to project charm, vulnerability, guts and grit.

Out Sept. 24, The Bones of What You Believe does a fine job gathering up all of Chvrches' charms into one diverse but cohesive collection of brightly rendered buzzy wonders. Those who've followed the band's rise closely will recognize roughly a third of these songs: "The Mother We Share," "Lies," "Recover," and "Gun" have already surfaced as singles in the run up to this, a big moment in its short but eventful history. But those fully vetted highlights don't overwhelm the eight lesser-known tracks here — even those in which Mayberry cedes the spotlight to capable bandmates Iain Cook (a veteran of Aerogramme) and Martin Doherty (a touring member of The Twilight Sad). Instead, all 12 songs help paint a picture of Chvrches as a band ready for the world; one that bridges styles and eras on the strength of its own charisma. — Stephen Thompson

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First Listen: Sebadoh, 'Defend Yourself'

Listen to Sebadoh's Defend Yourself streaming now via WFUV and NPR Music prior the the album's release on September 17 on Joyful Noise (Domino in the UK).

Lou Barlow has been reuniting with old bandmates left and right in the last decade or so, even as his personal life has broken apart. In 2005, the rock veteran rejoined Dinosaur Jr., having long since moved past the acrimony surrounding his departure, and he's now back with Sebadoh for the first time since the turn of the century. But the last few years have also seen the dissolution of Barlow's 25-year marriage — a process traumatic enough to have anyone seeking solace in the past.

Barlow chronicles that collapse and its aftermath on Defend Yourself; it's the first album in 14 years from Sebadoh, the band he once again shares with multi-instrumentalist Jason Loewenstein and drummer Bob D'Amico. (On-again, off-again bandmate Eric Gaffney has participated in reunion tours, but isn't on Defend Yourself.) Given the circumstances informing Barlow's songwriting these days, Sebadoh is a perfect vehicle for his new material: The band's '90s classics frequently revolved around a mix of caustic energy and heartsick earnestness. That mix often made for jarring unevenness, and Defend Yourself is no different, but the new album once again lands in fertile middle ground: miserablism made vital by gritty forcefulness, scabrousness harnessed in the pursuit of beauty.

Out Sept. 17, Defend Yourself doesn't sound as if 14 years have passed; though Barlow's divorce informs and adds bite to his lyrics, he's been writing exquisite breakup songs for decades now. The heartbreak here does feel more specific than the generalized ache of songs like Sebadoh's 20-year-old gem "Soul and Fire," but the music that surrounds him feels especially lively. Outside of "Let It Out," a frank and lovely dirge about life pre- and post-divorce, Defend Yourself rarely lets gloom dominate entirely. In "Inquiry," Sebadoh even returns to the scuzzy punk that dotted its '90s output.

In a year packed with unlikely indie-rock reunions — including new material by everyone from Pixies to My Bloody Valentine to The Dismemberment Plan — it's a thrill to hear Sebadoh return, sounding as all-over-the-map glorious as ever. Even as Barlow offers up clear-eyed postmortems of a wrecked marriage, Defend Yourself exudes the live-wire energy of a vital band brought back from the brink. — Stephen Thompson

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First Listen: Grouplove, 'Spreading Rumours'

Listen to Grouplove's Spreading Rumours streaming now via WFUV and NPR Music prior to the album's release on September 17.

Many members of the L.A. quintet Grouplove have had their bodies emblazoned with "Grouplove" tattoos, so they're nothing if not committed to the project. That full-bore, all-in approach comes through in their songs, too: Like Grouplove's ingratiating debut (2011's Never Trust a Happy Song), the new Spreading Rumours positively brims over with scrappy, happy, sinewy little earworms.

If there's a watchword for Spreading Rumours, with its dollops of Sunset Strip gregariousness and sweet boy-girl choruses, it's not so much excess as abundance: Forty-five minutes into the record, where most bands would be burying deep cuts, Grouplove is still dispensing impossibly infectious would-be hits like the unshakeable "Raspberry."

At times, the hookiness can border on overbearing; the insistent "Ways to Go" even ventures perilously close to the cloying territory once mined by Barenaked Ladies' "Two Weeks." But on balance, the candy-coated craftsmanship and joy on display throughout Spreading Rumours makes the record ludicrously easy to love — a welcome dose of summertime, just in time for fall. — Stephen Thompson

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First Listen: The Weeknd, 'Kiss Land'

Listen to The Weeknd's Kiss Land streaming now on WFUV and NPR Music prior to its release on September 10.

After his first songs appeared on the Internet in late 2010, The Weeknd's Abel Tesfaye slowly crept under the sheets between Drake's brokenhearted bravado and the confessional cynicism of Frank Ocean with a series of free mixtapes of increasingly dark, brooding pop. He was the hermit gone wild, a lonely boy from Toronto with Michael Jackson's fragile tenor and a hard drive full of Portishead B-sides who suddenly had his pick of worldly women, but quickly became disillusioned by the paradox of choice. Tesfaye's new album, Kiss Land, is a glass-clad monolith to his jaded misogynist fantasies and melodramatic jet-setting, fascinating for both its futurist sonic template and its emotionally stunted hypersexuality.

From the album's first line ("It's ideal, you need someone to tell you how to feel") to its last ("She forgot the good things about me / She let it slip away"), an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and dissociation sets in. Tesfaye's delicate voice, often breaking into a desperate whimper, constantly echoes off towering synthetic minor chords and spare, hydraulic drum patterns. He is truly lost in the machine. More than any of his contemporaries, Tesfaye personifies the anxiety, narcissism and ironic disconnect of the digital generation. His version of modern love is no fun; it's one built around blame, numbing overindulgence and cold sexual transaction.

It's telling when the marquee Drake guest spot halfway through the album feels jarring and disruptive for its champagne-toasting banality. There is very little nostalgia or perspective here, just a claustrophobic sense of someone bewildered by access. Every song explores this theme, the lyrics reading like a series of unrequited sexts, and Tesfaye delivers them with such tension — and surrounds them with such heartless machinery — that the listener can't help but feel a little trapped in his matrix. It is an uneasy feeling, but also genuinely provocative. Everyone is listening; no one is paying attention.

With Kiss Land, Tesfaye has created a compelling case for the artistic relevance of current pop music. Compared to the ruling kings and queens of pop — Drake, Ocean, Gaga, Rihanna, Timberlake, Perry, Cyrus, et al — Tesfaye is a downright misanthrope. He is not asking the 14-year-olds who follow him on Twitter to twerk or roar or be like him. He's not even acknowledging them. Kiss Land is his manifesto against seeking fame and living your dreams. Whether the somewhat contemptible character speaking in these songs is Tesfaye or a figment of his imagination, it's at least poignant, and it's not easy listening. — Peter Macia

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First Listen: Factory Floor, 'Factory Floor'

Listen to Factory Floor's self-titled debut album streaming now via FUV and NPR Music prior to its release on September 10 on DFA.

"Did it feel like you were going to fall on the ground?" On paper (or screen, even) there's a level of concern to the question. But in the mouth of Factory Floor singer-guitarist Nik Colk Void during "Fall Back," a seven-and-a-half-minute acid banger at the heart of the London trio's debut album, it exudes a seductive air of braggadocio.

While the band counts Joy Division/New Order's Stephen Morris and Throbbing Gristle's Chris Carter as early fans and collaborators, Factory Floor's self-possession springs from something more primal: the almost-animal magnetism that flows between Colk Void, drummer Gabe Gurnsey and synth player Dominic Butler. Threads can be traced to post-industrial, disco and acid, but it's the performers' sheer conviction to frisson that startles. Theirs is industrious music, enslaved to repetition, but it also heaves with harsh funk that makes sense to the fragility of the body: flesh, bones, sinewy muscle and all. Refreshingly devoid of polish, they find human rawness in machine music — and, in doing so, emphasize the base mechanical aspect of being alive.

It was the unapologetic urgency of their early singles, including 2010's "Wooden Box" and 2011's "Two Different Ways" (the latter of which makes a visceral appearance on the album), that first knocked people off their feet. A former colleague, texting from a live gig, once said he'd die for them. The heat of the moment might have gotten to him, but the emotion was pure.

While there's plenty to get melodramatic about on Factory Floor's self-titled debut, out Sept. 10 in the U.S., there's also much that surprises. At a time when noise bands look to techno and dance music is obsessed with bass, Factory Floor retreats ever further into brutal simplicity. The album-opening "Turn It Up" is as sparse as they come — drums, high hat, vocoder-enhanced vocal snatches — but its tone is organic, like the warm, elastic patter of skin on (animal) skin. Elsewhere, "Here Again" evokes sweat flying off jerking bodies on a pitch-black dance floor, while even the relentless "How You Say" has innate sensuality to it.

The group members' real skill lies in their handling of sound: No matter how hard they pummel, each stroke feels tenderly intended. Factory Floor is deadly serious about having fun, but the release it facilitates comes at the cost of submission to its unblinking rhythm. Blink and you'll miss it.

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