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First Listen

First Listen: Smith Westerns, 'Soft Will'

Listen to Smith Westerns' Soft Will streaming via FUV and NPR music prior to its June 25 release on Mom + Pop.

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. — Stephen Thompson

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First Listen: Primal Scream, 'More Light'

Listen to Primal Scream's More Light streaming now on WFUV and NPR Music before its US release on June 18 (the album has been out in the UK since May 6) via the band's own First International label.

Some bands survive decades by locating a sound and sticking with it, giving fans what they want the entire time. But the Scottish group Primal Scream has survived a remarkably lengthy and tumultuous existence through relentless zigzagging and reinvention. At times, that's meant chasing trends — it's been a dance-pop band, a group of psychedelic wanderers, a garage-rock throwback and many points in between, depending on the cultural winds at the time — but Primal Scream has shown remarkable doggedness in staying alive for more than three decades. Throw in the group members' battles with heroin addiction, and it's remarkable that they're still alive, let alone recording albums.

Out June 18, More Light was five years in the making, but it sounds like the product of a band that took its time. Positively overstuffed at 69 minutes — and bursting right out of the gate with a nine-minute epic in "2013" — the album plays out like a larger-than-life celebration of survival. Like a more political and less grand (but no less ambitious) companion piece to Spiritualized's masterful 2012 album Sweet Heart Sweet Light, it's the work of musicians who've got every reason to feel lucky to be alive.

As if the sheer volume of lush, chugging rock 'n' roll weren't enough, More Light also features guest appearances by Robert Plant (singing in "River of Pain") and My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields, both of whom have collaborated with Primal Scream in the past. But this is a Primal Scream record through and through: erratic and given to excess, but still reaching for transcendence — and vital enough to find what it's looking for. — Stephen Thompson

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First Listen: Jagwar Ma, 'Howlin'

Listen to Jagwar Ma's alternately dreamy and propulsive hybrid Howlin, streaming now via FUV and NPR Music prior to its June 11 digital release on Mom + Pop Records.

Does Jagwar Ma make rock music or dance music? It's genuinely tough to tell. A duo from Sydney, Australia, Jagwar Ma combines rock 'n' roll signifiers (electric guitars, psychedelic vocals) with pristine dance-music production. The band's full-length debut, Howlin (out June 11), references The Stone Roses one minute and space disco the next, and neither approach feels the least bit forced.

Guitars and drum machines don't make for uncharted territory in 2013, obviously, but it's important to note that Jagwar Ma isn't a "dance-rock" band. This is the 1960s British Invasion re-imagined with today's digital audio software, which has some comparing Jagwar Ma to the Manchester, England, scene of the late 1980s, when rock bands took cues from the country's burgeoning rave culture.

The electronic impetus in this case is Jagwar Ma producer (and partial namesake) Jono Ma, who recorded much of Howlin with singer Gabriel Winterfield in a barn in northern France. Ma sounds like a producer coming into his own after years of collaborating; he has an impeccable feel for when Winterfield's anthemic delivery should give way to an 808 drum machine. The hybridization peaks in "Uncertainty," one of the year's best songs so far.

Those barn recordings eventually made their way to Ewan Pearson, one of the premier British remixers of the past decade; he put the finishing touches on most of these songs. It's unclear how much he added to the mix, but his sharp production style is all over this album.

Of course, just because you can mix rock and dance music, that doesn't necessarily mean you should. But Howlin largely nails that sweet spot between singing along to a song and losing yourself in it. — Otis Hart

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First Listen: Jon Hopkins, 'Immunity'

Listen to Jon Hopkins' Immunity streaming now via WFUV and NPR Music prior to its release on June 4 (June 3 in the UK) on Domino Records.

For composer, remixer, producer, prolific collaborator and multi-instrumentalist Jon Hopkins, sound is a three-dimensional medium: It billows out in every direction, mixing artful throbs and animalistic thrusts that can be felt under the skin. But as driving as his beats can be — and on his new album Immunity, out June 4, they're plenty driving — Hopkins retains a gift for tear-jerking melody that takes an expressway to the listener's emotions.

Hopkins' gift for warm textures helped make a masterpiece of Diamond Mine, his 2011 collaboration with Scottish singer King Creosote; he used largely organic instrumentation to help paint an audio portrait of a coastal town full of dreamers and lost souls. Two of Immunity's eight songs — the 10-minute title track, featuring an ethereal guest vocal from Creosote, and the gorgeous "Abandon Window" — carry on in Diamond Mine's plaintively lovely tradition, while Immunity's remainder is given over to intense dance music that thumps and wobbles with insistence, aggression and grace.

For those who strongly favor one approach to the other, the juxtaposition can be jarring; Immunity is intended to mirror the feel of a night out, and it captures both highs and lows. But in Hopkins' living, breathing world of sound, beauty and beats are always free to commingle in ways that move, in every sense of the word. — Stephen Thompson

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First Listen: Camera Obscura, 'Desire Lines'

Listen to Camera Obscura's Desire Lines, which also features My Morning Jacket's Jim James and Neko Case, streaming on FUV and NPR Music prior to its June 4 (June 3 in the UK) release on 4AD.

Early in her band's career, Camera Obscura's Tracyanne Campbell won constant comparisons with Belle and Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch, and rightfully so. Both singers held merit badges in restrained pop aesthetic and deadpan delivery: Tentative romantic encounters were described and sung in a way that hid whether Campbell and Murdoch were sympathizing with the fumbling sexuality of their subjects or laughing behind their backs, or — probably — both. (It didn't hurt that Murdoch produced his fellow Glaswegians' debut, Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi, and shot the photo on the cover of their breakout album, Underachievers Please Try Harder.) In the last decade, while Murdoch's Belle and Sebastian explored the more direct romantic sounds of '70s AM pop, Camera Obscura has quietly refined its grab-bag of arm-swinging brunette soul, swaying country and lite disco.

It's been a slow evolution, but the new album Desire Lines — which arrives four years after the band's last, My Maudlin Career — shows how far Camera Obscura has come. The band sometimes looked backward; videos for past singles "Lloyd, I'm Ready to Be Heartbroken" and "French Navy" were winking re-creations of a 1960s French pop aesthetic. Campbell's singing voice echoed the deadpan wit of the ye-ye girl: inscrutable and, perhaps because of that mystery, alluring. She can still do deadpan, but there's more feeling on Desire Lines.

Some credit is due to producer Tucker Martine, who recorded and mixed the album in Portland, Ore. His touch is warm, light and crystal-clear. The sighing, swinging beat tapped out on a muted cowbell less than a minute into the first song, "This Is Love (Feels Alright)," sounds like it should have been on every album Camera Obscura has ever made — but if it was, it was lost in the mix. Same with the hazy shimmer of keyboards in "Every Weekday" and the gently plucked guitar line in "Cri Du Coeur." Even with bolder elements competing for space, Martine knows how to foreground the band's strengths. Neko Case sings backing vocals in four songs and My Morning Jacket's Jim James sings in one, and, amazingly, neither overwhelms Campbell, who has always sounded like she's singing from behind a veil of schoolgirl's bangs.

If there's been a legitimate gripe against Camera Obscura, it's that it pulled punches in the service of a caricature of emotion. Desire Lines is more confident and direct than anything in the band's catalog. In "Do It Again," it's clear what the "it" is: "You were insatiable / I was more than capable," Campbell sings. "Turn down the lights now / let's do it again." This from a woman who once sang, "I drowned my sorrows, slept around / when not in body, at least in mind."

Not that she's turned her back on cataloging minor moments that feel significant. Campbell's modesty is intact in "I Missed Your Party," in which she apologizes to a suitor for declining an invitation in favor of staying home to watch Flashdance, listen to Billy Joel and attempt to read Walt Whitman. On this album, lust and chastity sound like equally honest parts of the same whole. The combination makes Desire Lines sound like a career best. — Anna Isola Crolla

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First Listen: Mount Kimbie, 'Cold Spring Fault Less Youth'

Listen to Mount Kimbie's Cold Spring Fault Less Youth streaming now via FUV and NPR Music prior to its release on May 28. 

Daft Punk caused a stir earlier this year when its members announced that they'd recorded their new album, Random Access Memories, without drum machines or computer programs. Thomas Bangalter recently told All Things Considered's Audie Cornish that he'd wanted to glorify the "magic of human performances and possibly do a little bit of dance music at the same time."

The British beat-making duo Mount Kimbie takes a similar, if less publicized, approach on its second album, Cold Spring Fault Less Youth (out May 28). Dominic Maker and Kai Campos fell in love with performing live during the past two years and wanted to record an album that would transfer to the stage more easily than their critically acclaimed Crooks & Lovers. (Though those songs did work pretty well at the Tiny Desk.)

The first thing that stands about Cold Spring Fault Less Youth is the traditional drum kit. Sticks, snares and cymbals pop up in several of these tracks, usually in a low-key fashion that recalls Four Tet's early post-rock act Fridge. The addition of languid vocals, including two appearances by young British crooner King Krule, is even more jarring yet works nicely, particularly in the album's first single, "Made to Stray." Of course, given Mount Kimbie's objective — a sound that translates live — the full effect of all these traditional instruments won't be felt in these parts until the band embarks on its upcoming North American tour. — Otis Hart

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First Listen: Tricky, "False Idols"

The latest release from the enigmatic producer, Tricky'False Idols is streaming now via FUV and NPR Music prior to its release on May 28 (May 27 in the UK). Tricky plays New York's Webster Hall on June 13.

Listening to a new Tricky album for the first time can be a, well, tricky experience. Anyone who lived through the '90s trip-hop bubble is going to spend that initial spin comparing it to Maxinquaye, the Bristol producer's canonized collaboration with Martina Topley-Bird. Obviously, that's setting the table for disappointment — nothing released today is going to hit as hard as that album's nascent perfection.

So, once you've made your first pass through False Idols (out May 28), go back to the beginning and listen to the album again on its own terms. You'll be surprised how contemporary Tricky's signature mix of menace and seduction sounds after his more than 20 years in (and out of) the spotlight.

With help from young British vocalists Francesca Belmonte and Fifi Rong, Tricky deftly balances sexy sighs and dub-influenced basslines. Each time through the album, different highlights surface. First, it might be "Nothing's Changed," the quasi-cover of his own "Makes Me Wanna Die" from Pre-Millennium Tension. Then the timpani and pungi vibe of "Tribal Drums" stands out. The third time through, the refrain from "Does It" is a grabber: "I wouldn't be caught dead in love."

Tricky's best album since the halcyon days of the mid-'90s, when he could do no wrong, False Idols is one of 2013's most pleasant musical surprises so far. — Otis Hart

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First Listen: She & Him, 'Volume 3'

Listen to She & Him's Volume 3 now, streaming courtesy of WFUV and NPR Music prior to its release on May 7 in the States and May 13 in the UK and Europe.

For what was once a fairly mysterious project, She & Him has stuck to a straightforward formula. The "She" is actress Zooey Deschanel, the "Him" is M. Ward, and there's a pecking order: The occasional cover aside, these are Deschanel's songs, sung almost entirely in Deschanel's voice, and Ward is no longer viewed as some sort of Svengali. Where he once lent a certain amount of cachet and cover to She & Him — back when Deschanel was often presumed to be a carpetbagging actress slumming in the studio — it's now understood that he functions largely as an arranger. He's crucial to She & Him's sound, but he's a background player.

Volume 3, out May 7, adheres to a few formulas in its own right: Playful, soft, sunnily melancholy and springlike, its songs once again subsist on the strength of their own agreeability. Timelessness has long been key to She & Him's charm, and indeed, Volume 3 seems to be floating through AM speakers at all times. But the album also demonstrates that there's more to Deschanel than her doe-eyed New Girl persona would suggest: She & Him is led by a confident singer-songwriter who, on records and elsewhere, knows exactly what she's doing. — Stephen Thompson

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First Listen: Deerhunter, 'Monomania'

Listen to Deerhunter's new album Monomania streaming now on FUV and NPR Music before it's released on May 7 on 4AD.

Bradford Cox's music is the stuff of an obsessive and unquiet mind. Everything about the singer's approach to music — whether he's dumping four discs' worth of home recordings onto the Internet with little fanfare or smearing fake blood onto his spindly, dress-clad body onstage — has a chaotic, haunted quality to it, even in painstakingly crafted recordings that layer his sound with atmospheric psychedelia.

All of which makes Monomania a perfect title for an album by Cox's band Deerhunter: A single-minded obsession with music is so clearly what's kept him intact and whole throughout his adult life. But this particular collection, the sound of which he describes as "nocturnal garage," has a dirtier, wirier, looser and less fussed-over feel than he's often cultivated in recent years. Five studio albums into Deerhunter's existence, Monomania (out May 7) captures Cox's gift for self-laceration and unpredictability, but it moves in a less studio-bound direction, closer to the raw and unhinged spirit of his live shows.

Monomania's gnarly dissonance leaves a bit less room than usual for glimmers of beauty — though they shine through in a few haunting tracks like "The Missing" — as Deerhunter opts more often for the raw, noisy, slurred and basement-friendly feel of "Pensacola." Elsewhere, "Blue Agent" meets somewhere on Deerhunter's continuum between sideways prettiness and the sort of thorniness that ensures arm's-length distance. Even as its sound continues to shift unpredictably, Deerhunter has maintained that balance throughout its fruitful run — no small task, coming from a man whose entire artistic persona is rooted in an understanding that balance doesn't come easy, even on the best days. — Stephen Thompson

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First Listen: The Flaming Lips, 'The Terror'

Listen to The Flaming Lips' new album, The Terror, prior to its release on April 16 on Warner Brothers via WFUV and NPR Music.

After nearly 30 years, The Flaming Lips couldn't be harder to predict or pin down. The Oklahoma band has nothing left to prove — no lofty commercial standard to maintain, no gigantic hit of the variety anyone expects it to re-create, and no core sound whose boundaries and limitations must be pressed against with great care. Immortality is secure, thanks to both a left-field '90s novelty smash ("She Don't Use Jelly") and two albums viewed as unimpeachable classics (The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots). Wayne Coyne and his co-conspirators have long been liberated and encouraged to indulge their whims, especially on their 13 studio records.

Looking over The Flaming Lips' career, those whims have already included some heady, bonkers trips down dark alleys and inaccessible side roads. As playful and crowd-pleasing as the group's live shows have become, its most experimental recordings — as with the rambling indulgences of its early years — are often fiercely uncompromising, even impenetrable. In effect, Coyne and company have come full-circle, because The Terror is, well, terrifying.

Sounding almost post-apocalyptic in its scabrous, searching bleakness — Coyne himself describes the album as "disturbing" — The Terror moans and scrapes ominously from its opening seconds onward. Scorched and frayed, with an almost industrial ugliness to it, "Look...The Sun Is Rising" gets the proceedings underway by capturing the sound of a world (and, it would seem, a band) in distress, even decay. But The Terror still finds a way to reward deeper exploration, as cracked loveliness seeps into moments that soar tentatively; by way of example, "Be Free, A Way" may not be sunny, but it lets light peek through its cracks in unexpected ways.

Still, the overall effect is intense and enveloping; The Terror demands study even as the band clangs and drifts through 13 minutes of menace in "The Lust," or pulsates formlessly in "Turning Violent" and the appropriately titled "You Are Alone." And so it goes throughout 55 loose, sprawling minutes: Alternately thorny and meandering, The Terror presents itself as difficult to love — but then, as in "Try to Explain," doles out bits of bracing beauty as it sprawls into space. — Stephen Thompson

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