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First Listen

First Listen: Okkervil River, 'The Silver Gymnasium'

Listen to Okkervil River's The Silver Gymnasium streaming now via FUV and NPR Music before the album's release next week, September 3

It's human nature to romanticize a specific time and place in the past — a moment when everything felt just right, or opportunities were laid out like a banquet. For Okkervil River's Will Sheff, it's been impossible to let go of Meriden, N.H., circa 1986: That tiny town is where he spent his childhood (he turned 10 that summer) and where his parents taught at an area boarding school. Meriden is where Sheff's visions of youth and innocence reside, even as he's gone on to live in Austin and Brooklyn, and to tour the world.

Sheff sets Okkervil River's seventh album, The Silver Gymnasium, square in the heart of his own childhood; in the specific spot that produced his most sepia-toned memories. As such, the record captures not only his own autobiographical details, but also musical cues from the era. Like all Okkervil River records, The Silver Gymnasium showcases Sheff's uneasy warble, but this time it's set amid subtle synthesizers and the hallmarks of Bruce Springsteen's mid-'80s material. "Down Down the Deep River," for example, has an ambitious story to tell, but it's also wittily arranged, complete with an opening synth line that could just as well have been lifted from, say, ABC's "Be Near Me."

Even as it evokes the distinctive spangle of '80s pop and rock — the album's producer, John Agnello, has been active for more than three decades, having produced both Kurt Vile's most recent record and The Outfield's "Your Love" — The Silver Gymnasium sounds personal and specific, as it floats warmly in the soft spots that separate childhood from adolescence. Naturally, given the themes, the group tucks in plenty of era-specific cultural references (Atari cartridges, cassette tapes, et al), but Sheff and his collaborators aren't just waxing nostalgic; they also take care to surround the iconography with what function as free-standing Okkervil River songs.

The sturdiness of Sheff's songwriting ought to help The Silver Gymnasium resonate beyond the subset of listeners who themselves romanticize small-town life in the '80s; that and the fact that American pop culture has been romanticizing the '80s to some degree since about 1991. But even for those who romanticize other times and places — or eschew romanticization altogether — the album is too lovingly crafted to dismiss. Sheff is so invested in this world, he's commissioned an interactive map of Meriden (by the similarly named and otherwise remarkable artist Will Shaff), as well as an era-appropriate online adventure game, complete with 8-bit renderings of Okkervil River songs. It all adds up to a project in which nostalgia isn't the end result, but rather an engine that drives artistic ambition to a degree that's almost overwhelming. — Ben Sklar

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First Listen: Volcano Choir, 'Reprave'

Stream Volcano Choir's Repave now via FUV and NPR Music before its release on September 3 on Jagjaguwar.

As leader of Bon Iver, Justin Vernon has been extremely sparing with new material, releasing maybe two dozen songs in the six years he's been on the cultural radar. But it's hard not to goggle at the sheer quantity of his creative output in 2013 alone: He's released an album as the singer of a fine blues-rock band called The Shouting Matches, dropped vocals all over Kanye West's Yeezus, produced Blind Boys of Alabama's new record, and reissued a beloved early Sarah Siskind album on his own label. Yet another Vernon project, his second record as singer and lyricist for the experimental band Volcano Choir, comes out Sept. 3.

Titled Repave, it marks a fairly astounding leap forward for Volcano Choir, whose first album (2009's Unmap) layered fragments of Vernon's voice over the frequently abstract arrangements of the Milwaukee group Collections of Colonies of Bees. That record was oddly gorgeous and consistently mysterious, but it's a distant cousin to Repave, which fleshes out Volcano Choir's sound to late-period Bon Iverian proportions. If Vernon never releases another record under the name Bon Iver — and he's publicly suggested that that might be the case — more albums like Repave would render the issue largely irrelevant. It's that good.

In ambition and in quality, Repave sits closer on the spectrum to 2011's Bon Iver than it does to Unmap, and both of those records were terrific to begin with. Vernon's lyrics, while characteristically oblique, are largely decipherable here, as the players around him — guys he's admired since well before he broke through himself — work wonders in arrangements that swell and boom. Where it loses some of Unmap's dreamy, nonlinear ambiguity, Repave gains Bon Iver's tendency toward impeccably fussed-over majesty. As the grandiosity of "Byegone" gives way to the enchantingly delicate "Alaskans," it's clear that chunks of Repave could have been plopped into Bon Iver without seeming out of place.

Justin Vernon isn't the first unlikely rock star to express an uneasy relationship with Grammy-winning success; Kurt Cobain famously pined for the career of Sonic Youth, which made great, uncompromising music at a level of fame that allowed for a semblance of calm comfort. Thanks in part to a label eager to indulge his whims and side projects, Vernon has had a comparatively easy time whittling down expectations by singing lead in projects with lower-profile names. But make no mistake: The cast of marvelously talented musicians around him may have changed, but Repave is, for all intents and purposes, a Bon Iver record in Volcano Choir's clothing. Act accordingly. — Stephen Thompson

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First Listen: Franz Ferdinand, 'Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action'

Listen to Franz Ferdinand's Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action streaming now via FUV and NPR Music before its release on August 27.

Almost 10 years after "Take Me Out" helped the band break through commercially, win a Mercury Prize and craft a zeitgeist-defining sound — and two years after a rumored breakup — Franz Ferdinand returns with its first new album since 2009. It's the Glaswegian dance-rock ambassadors' best work since their 2004 arrival: Confident and freshly energized, Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action captures the ease of pressure that comes with knowing that a decade-old band can't be co-opted as a cool new thing.

Out August 27, the album is worthy of its title, a mantra for Franz Ferdinand's expertly executed sound. Singer Alex Kapranos once said the group would make "music for girls to dance to," and the propulsive bass lines and immediate drumming align on Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action to fulfill that statement. The provocation to move feels especially resounding in standout tracks like "Bullet" and the disco-dripping single "Right Action."

It's a sound that should never go out of style. So here's to a Cher-like run of triumphant returns, in which Franz Ferdinand comes back each decade with hits engineered to remind us of the joy of rock n' roll. — Amy Schriefer

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First Listen: No Age, 'An Object'

Listen to No Age's An Object streaming via FUV and NPR Music prior to its release on August 20 on Sub Pop.

The L.A. duo No Age got its start playing weird, bruising, arty punk and noise, but its sound keeps morphing into something trickier to describe: Its fourth full-length album, An Object, finds No Age withholding bruising rushes of power and blistering payoffs as often as it doles them out. In their place is a compact but searching 30 minutes of music that seethes stubbornly when it could have far more easily opened up at full blast and stayed there.

Singer-drummer Dean Spunt and guitarist Randy Randall spend a good deal of An Object (out August 20) lurching along amid ominous dissonance, with only optional outbursts of catharsis, and as a result the album takes a few listens to fully cohere. Its fussy, jagged, periodically droning noise-rock often forgoes both halves of that equation — which is to say: not always noisy, not always rocking — in favor of a vaguely disagreeable and disquieting rumble.

Still, Spunt and Randall remain relentlessly in command of their craft, and each still knows exactly what he's doing: Whether in the woozy scrape of the guitars in "C'mon, Stimmung" or in the unexpectedly pretty violins that crop up as "An Impression" progresses, the pair hammers and wanders while keeping one eye on upsetting and upending expectations. Fortunately, the other is invariably trained on something artier, airier and farther-reaching. — Stephen Thompson

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First Listen: Ty Segall, 'Sleeper'

Listen to Ty Segall's Sleeper streaming now via FUV and NPR Music before its release on August 20 via Drag City.

It's hard to keep up with Ty Segall. The garage-rock revivalist is just 26, but has already released more than a dozen full-length albums, either under his own name or with the eight or nine (we've lost track) other bands with which he plays. (Sic Alps, White Fence and Epsilon are just a few of them.) Last year alone, he put out three stellar albums, then promptly kicked off 2013 by announcing in January that he'd formed yet another new band called Fuzz.

A lot of musicians might be ready for a break, but Segall is back again this month with yet another full-length album under his own name. Out August 20, it's called Sleeper, and it's deeper, darker and more emotional than anything the singer and guitarist has released so far.

Segall wrote the 10 mostly acoustic tracks for Sleeper after losing his father to cancer last year and relocating to Los Angeles to be closer to his younger sister. He's since had a falling-out with his mother, with whom he says he's no longer on speaking terms.

Segall works through this emotional upheaval on Sleeper, and while he trades his normally scorched electric noise for gently strummed acoustic guitars, he doesn't indulge in mopey confessionals. The songs are introspective, but more curious and comforting than the teary poetry the themes might suggest. In the Donovan-inspired "Crazy," Segall seems to recall his father, while singing to his sister: "Oh, little one / don't forget where you come from / You and me, we are one / you the little one / 'cause he's here, he's still here."

Clocking in at a perfectly paced 36 minutes, Sleeper is raw and sometimes frayed, but not ragged. With few exceptions, Segall plays all the instruments and keeps the mix spare. His greatest strength, as always, lies in his gift for arresting melodies and hooks, drawing inspiration from late-'60s and early-'70s folk and rock. In "She Don't Care," a possible kiss-off to his mother, Segall sounds like a less ornate Moody Blues. "Come Outside" recalls the playfully strange solo work of Pink Floyd founding member Syd Barrett, while "Sweet C.C." digs into the sort of psychedelic acoustic grooves popularized by T. Rex frontman Mark Bolan.

Sleeper closes with "The West," a jubilant, folky romp with the album's sweetest harmonies. "Where do I go home? / Is it in the west, to my father's house?" Segall sings before closing the cut with a joyful holler. It feels like a final farewell, perhaps to the previous year's grief and loss. But this isn't the last we'll hear from Ty Segall: That new band he announced in January, Fuzz, will release its self-titled debut in October. — Robin Hilton

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First Listen: Superchunk, 'I Hate Music'

Listen to Superchunk's I Hate Music streaming now via FUV and NPR Music prior to its release on August 20 via Merge.

For Superchunk, of all bands, calling a record I Hate Music is too on-the-nose ironic to be particularly provocative: Its members have been immersed in music, and clearly in love with it, for virtually their entire lives. Singer Mac McCaughan, in particular, has made a huge string of vital albums with Superchunk and Portastatic — ten with the former, six with the latter, plus countless odds and ends with each — and runs Merge Records when he's not jumping around and hollering like a kid one-third his age.

I Hate Music follows 2010's more appropriately titled Majesty Shredding, which itself followed an agonizing nine-year hiatus — and, like its predecessor, it finds the band bleating and blaring with giddy vitality. McCaughan may sing, "I hate music, what is it worth? / Can't bring anyone back to this earth" (in the terrific "Me & You & Jackie Mittoo"), but he clearly understands the countless gifts it's given him during his own time here.

Infused with winning, strident energy, I Hate Music still fits in darker ruminations on age and aging — Superchunk's sound remains versatile enough to accommodate both a 75-second whiff of brash punk ("Staying Home") and a six-minute album-closer ("What Can We Do") in which McCaughan reflects on nearly 30 years of adulthood with shrugging wisdom. Most importantly, I Hate Music is the sound of a veteran band with its vitality intact, for which fun and fury are essential components of a life thoughtfully lived. — Stephen Thompson

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First Listen: Typhoon, 'White Lighter'

Listen to Typhoon's White Lighter streaming via WFUV and NPR Music prior to the album's release on August 20 on Roll Call Records.

Kyle Morton writes songs for Typhoon as if they were the last works he might ever create. His band is big by rock standards, with somewhere in the neighborhood of a dozen members playing mighty, powerful songs whose instrumentation conveys big, bold joy. But underneath it all are the words of a young man living on what he feels is borrowed time. When he was young, Morton contracted a serious case of Lyme disease; he suffered multiple organ failures and required a kidney transplant from his father. Basically, his childhood was taken from him.

For the past few years, I've been following Morton — now 27 — and his big band of horns, strings, drums and guitars from Portland, Ore. They've put out some memorable music, but the new White Lighter takes the promise they've shown and delivers completely. The uplifting melodies and rhythms that sway and swing, mixed with lyrics about hopeless dreams and cold realities, works so well. It's the kind of combination that has me singing words over and over — words that, if laid on paper, might not be ones I'd want stuck in my head. They're dark, but in that darkness can be found a sincere appreciation for the gift of life. — Bob Boilen

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First Listen: Pond, 'Hobo Rocket'

Listen to Pond's Hobo Rocket streaming now via FUV and NPR Music prior to its Stateside release on August 6 on Modular.

From Ty Segall to Tame Impala to Pond, psychedelic riff-rock is in the midst of a major renaissance. It helps that many of its practitioners are prolific and, in some cases, related to each other: Tame Impala and Pond share three members. (Both groups are based in Perth, Australia.)

Pond started in 2008 — less like a band and more like a loose amalgamation of musicians looking to make a lot of noise. At its core lie the meandering psychedelic adventures of artists like Can, whose own roots can be traced directly to The Velvet Underground's minimalism and drone.

But, at the same time, Pond wouldn't attract the mainstream attention it has without its unforgettably blistering pop jams. Out August 6, Hobo Rocket is a near-perfect record — but only if you can crank it up. — Bob Boilen

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First Listen: Weekend, 'Jinx'

Listen to Weekend's Jinx streaming via WFUV and NPR Music prior to its release on July 23 on Slumberland Records. Weekend also plays New York's Clocktower Gallery on July 23 and Music Hall of Williamsburg on August 16, opening for Medicine.

It's hard to imagine a less descriptive (or less searchable) moniker than Weekend — a word so ubiquitous in music, it even spawned its own handy checklist of band names on this website back in 2011. But the San Franciscans' sound is thankfully more distinct than all that, as Weekend finds a way to synthesize countless waves of '80s and '90s college radio into a single appealing buzzy rumble.

Picking out any one influence here isn't easy; at times, Weekend's new second album Jinx calls to mind My Bloody Valentine and Psychedelic Furs simultaneously, with its mix of shoegazy guitar swirl and pretty, ringing gloom. Thankfully, there's a brightness to Jinx (out July 23) that helps stave off any possible descent into miserablism, as Weekend maintains a pitch-perfect blend of sweet and sour, not to mention past and present. — Stephen Thompson

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First Listen: Maps, 'Vicissitude'

Listen to Maps' Viscissitude streaming via WFUV and NPR Music prior to the album's release on July 9 on Mute.

James Chapman, a U.K. musician who records under the name Maps, writes earnest synth-pop songs in the tradition of The Lightning Seeds, Erasure and other artists whose use of machines is incidental compared to the pursuit of thoughtful songwriting. Chapman's charming songs sound fizzy and bright throughout Vicissitude, Maps' third album, but they also convey his thoughtful reflections on transition and doubt.

True to its title, Vicissitude (out July 9) is an album about change: about getting older, staring down an uncertain future, taking stock and finding hope. After two albums of more outward-facing dance-pop music — 2009's Turning the Mind and Maps' Mercury Prize-nominated debut, We Can CreateVicissitude finds Chapman sounding more fully formed as both a musician and a human being. Smart and soaring, it's an album versatile enough for dance floors and road trips alike. — Stephen Thompson

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