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First Listen

First Listen: Kurt Vile, 'Wakin On A Pretty Daze'

Listen to Kurt Vile's new album, Wakin On A Pretty Daze, streaming now via WFUV and NPR Music prior to its release on April 9.

There's something about Kurt Vile's voice that transcends whatever comes out of his mouth. He's not classically trained (not even close), and has no traditional range to speak of, but the laid-back Philadelphia guitarist is transfixing all the same. His mumbled words resonate with dogged determination. It's one of the reasons Vile has become something of a patron saint for the Great Recession's legions of accidental bohemians, who work hard while hardly working.

Wakin on a Pretty Daze, out April 9, is Vile's fifth album and arguably his best yet. He's still mumbling epiphanies as only he can, but his guitar work has taken a real step forward — he reaches Mark Knopfler heights here. Six of Daze's 11 songs surpass six minutes, thanks to extended guitar passages that burn slow-motion spirals in your brain. It's not often that you're left wanting more from a nine-and-a-half-minute song, but it's actually a little sad when "Wakin on a Pretty Day" finally winds down. And you won't hear a better eight-minute song all year than "Too Hard," a shambling tearjerker that sounds like a promise to love and protect his infant daughters.

No matter the length, every song on Wakin on a Pretty Daze feels like a ride on one of those moving walkways, when for a few wonderful moments life passes you by just a little slower than normal. That's a credit to Jesse Trbovich and Rob Laakso, Vile's crack backing players in The Violators, who never let their leader's feet touch the ground. — Otis Hart

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First Listen: Caveman, 'Caveman'

Listen to Caveman's self-titled second album, out on April 2 on Fat Possum, streaming now via WFUV and NPR Music.

Bands are often described as coming "out of nowhere," as if they'd sprung into existence fully formed and hadn't spent years writing songs and polishing their collective voice and sound. The New York City quintet Caveman only entered the national consciousness last year, but its searching, dreamily rendered, deftly executed pop-rock is the stuff of painstaking craftsmanship and creative relentlessness.

Occasionally recalling a more languid incarnation of The Shins — singer Matthew Iwanusa often channels the sweet-voiced yearning of that band's James Mercer — Caveman smartly weaves in new-wave touches for shading, alongside hooks that linger without ever becoming overbearing. What Caveman's self-titled second album lacks in overt grabbiness, it gains in inviting, atmospheric warmth; this is a band that, only two albums into its career, already understands the art of the slow burn and the subtle build. Caveman is the epitome of a grower: a moody, cohesive, expansive set of songs that reveal their complexity, and unveil their surprises, quietly over time. — Stephen Thompson

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First Listen: Low, 'The Invisible Way'

Listen to Low's masterful new album The Invisible Way streaming via WFUV and NPR Music before its release on March 19 on Sub Pop.

In 20 years, Low's basic ingredients haven't changed much: Guitarist Alan Sparhawk and drummer Mimi Parker swap and sometimes layer their vocals, with a third member joining the married couple on bass. The pace, for the most part, is kept deliberate, even glacial, with strategically deployed silence hanging between notes in order to enhance their power. Low songs don't often change tempo noticeably, instead achieving tension through variations in volume.

But that seemingly limited framework still provides ample room for experimentation: Low can be a sweetly chiming pop band, or it can seethe and unsettle with an almost industrial buzz. It can express emotion by drawing out the barest fragment of a phrase, or it can expound thoughtfully on life, death, secrecy, war and the way humanity collides with itself.

Low's 10th full-length studio album, The Invisible Way, was produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, who avoids any temptation to radically stretch the Minnesota band's boundaries. But he wisely dials up the interplay between Sparhawk and Parker — who's too often underutilized on Low records — while letting bits of piano and spare percussive rumbles provide the portent. "So Blue" and "Just Make It Stop" give The Invisible Way a bit of a jolt by laying Parker's vocals atop unusually jumpy arrangements, but most of these songs land squarely in that sweet spot where darkness and worry are swathed in pristine beauty. — Stephen Thompson

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First Listen: Suede, 'Bloodsports'

Listen to Suede's Bloodsports streaming now, prior to its March 18 release, via WFUV and NPR Music.

We're just two months into 2013, and it's already been a huge year for living legends of British pop. David Bowie bucked the exaggerated reports of his decline with The Next Day, his first album in 10 years. Kevin Shields and My Bloody Valentine created an Internet frenzy by posting their 22-years-in-the-making m b v online on short notice. Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr released a solo album almost 30 years after we first fell in love with that shimmering black Rickenbacker.

Next to those names, Brett Anderson may sound anonymous, especially to American audiences. But make no mistake: Twenty years ago, there was no bigger band in Britain than Suede, a.k.a. The London Suede in the U.S. Some even credit Anderson's sinewy glam jams with kicking off the Britpop era. The band's first album topped the charts and took home the 1993 Mercury Prize; the rest of the decade didn't turn out so bad, either, with two more No. 1 albums and a handful of Top 10 singles.

It's been 11 years since the last Suede record, so when Anderson announced last year that the band (alas, still without guitarist Bernard Butler) was returning to the studio, there was no reason to expect anything along the lines of Suede or its incredible follow-up Dog Man Star. So it's frankly a little surprising how great Bloodsports sounds — perhaps even better than the comeback albums by Marr, Shields or Bowie, Anderson's thin white role model.

Anderson's New Romantics redux sounds as melodramatic and persuasive as ever on Bloodsports (out March 19), and he can still belt out choruses with the best of them. The opening one-two punch of "Barriers" and "Snowblind" is greatest-hits material, and the rest of the album doesn't lag far behind. "For the Strangers" is raised-lighter-worthy, while "Faultlines" closes Bloodsports on a deliciously defeatist note: "Celebrate! / There is no feeling / for us to feel."

That sentiment isn't entirely true, because for Suede fans, Bloodsports will likely evoke a powerful feeling of relief. It's the best kind of comeback album: one you'll actually want to come back to. — Otis Hart

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First Listen: Phosphorescent, 'Muchacho'

Listen to Phosphorescent's Muchacho streaming now courtesy of WFUV and NPR Music before the album's release on March 19.

An Alabama native now based in Brooklyn, Phosphorescent's Matthew Houck sings with wryly weary raggedness to suit his late-at-night laments. Even when their arrangements feel grand and fleshed-out, epic and searching, Houck's best songs come off like intimate conversations with a confidante — wise and soft, and warmed by experience.

The gorgeous new Muchacho, out March 19, finds a way to aim heavenward while still hitting nerves closer to home. In a series of humbly soaring ballads that drift and bloom over five, six and even seven minutes, the band's sixth album captures a bit of the grandiose loveliness of Phosphorescent's choirboy-folk peers in Fleet Foxes and My Morning Jacket. But even as it aims for celestial bliss in songs with titles like "Sun, Arise! (An Invocation, An Introduction)," Phosphorescent remains rooted in dusty, personal, earthbound concerns, thanks in large part to the winningly roughed-up, beautifully human voice at its core. — Stephen Thompson

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First Listen: Cloud Cult, 'Love'

Listen to Cloud Cult's Love streaming now via WFUV and NPR Music prior to the album's release on March 5 via Earthology Records.


For the long-running Twin Cities band Cloud Cult, uplift is earned. The group's bighearted and life-affirming concerts feature a large ensemble, complete with strings, horns and two artists who create paintings for auction over the course of each night's set. Cloud Cult's recording, touring and manufacturing process is painstakingly engineered to leave the tiniest possible carbon footprint. And, most tellingly, singer and bandleader Craig Minowa sings about love, hope, community and beauty through the prism of a tragic past; in 2002, he and his wife lost their 2-year-old son unexpectedly, an event that led him to intensify the soul-searching in his music. For Cloud Cult, the ecstasy in its songs is forged in pain, and that journey helps give its albums real weight.

Quite possibly the least ironic — and least cynical — band in existence, Cloud Cult will release its ninth album, Love, on March 5; characteristically, it's packed with optimistic theories about how we connect to each other and the world around us. Also true to form, the music that surrounds those messages bursts with warmth, whether in spare examinations of faith or in big-hearted explosions of ecstatic celebration.

At times, Cloud Cult's music recalls the larger-than-life, sing-along reverie of The Polyphonic Spree; it's no coincidence that both bands grew out of personal tragedy. But in many ways, the music on Love feels more personal and fragile, as Minowa and his bandmates aim to construct music that radiates outward from a single, deeply held philosophy: that in order to make sense of the world, we must embrace it and its occupants with everything we have. — Stephen Thompson

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First Listen: Youth Lagoon, 'Wondrous Bughouse'

Listen to Youth Lagoon's Wondrous Bughouse streaming now via WFUV and NPR Music before its March 5 release on Fat Possum. 

Youth Lagoon's second album, Wondrous Bughouse, is one of the most arresting headphone records you'll hear this year. Trevor Powers, the band's sole member, layers strange but alluring synth textures under quirky melodies and simple pop beats, in the process creating an expansive and endlessly engrossing world of sonic curiosities.

As with Youth Lagoon's 2011 debut, The Year of Hibernation, the songs on Wondrous Bughouse are moody but not melancholy. Thematically, Powers finds himself in an existential spiral, as he asks grand questions about mortality, the spiritual world and his own mental state — which he describes as "hyperactive." Weighty subjects ripe for pensive introspection, sure, but the music is uplifting, if a bit dysphoric, like an awkward hug for all that is light and beautiful.

Powers, who says he controls his busy mind with music, offers no illuminating epiphanies or profound discoveries on Wondrous Bughouse, out March 5; he says he hasn't had any. But the songs allow him to assume the identity of Youth Lagoon and sort through all the emotional and mental baggage he, like so many, carries with him everywhere. The album opens a window into our odd little world, with the understanding that life is a baffling mystery, but also a wonderful ride. — Robin Hilton

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First Listen: Atoms For Peace, 'Amok'

Listen to Atoms for Peace's official debut, Amok, streaming on FUV and NPR Music prior to the album's release on February 26 in the States and February 25 in the UK/EU.

No two words have ever summed up the music of Radiohead's Thom Yorke quite like his band's own song title, "Paranoid Android." It's all there: the unease and suspicion, the weight of worry, the otherworldly quality, the blend of man and machine, the sense that we're all headed toward imminent collapse. At a time when every detail of an artist's life is available in the time it takes to perform a Google search, Yorke still possesses genuine mystique — there's an alien quality to him that feels unknowable, and helps make his music achingly beautiful.

In recent years, Yorke has divided his time between Radiohead and a solo career in which he lends his vocals to fidgety, largely electronics-driven pursuits. But after touring as a solo act with the assistance of some of his favorite collaborators — including bassist Flea and longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich — Yorke's side project has now morphed into another band, Atoms for Peace, named for both a 1953 quote from Dwight Eisenhower and a song title from Yorke's 2006 solo album The Eraser.

On Amok, Atoms for Peace's first official album (out Feb. 26), Yorke lays his weary-but-soaring vocals over an assortment of sounds that whir, clatter, click, twitch and sprawl. To listen on headphones is to get sucked into a game of Name That Sound — is that a ball bearing rolling around in a bucket? — which only enhances the fascination with songs that unfurl confidently but deliberately, usually over the course of at least five minutes.

Thanks to the instrumental help of additional collaborators, Amok finds a way to meet in the middle between a buzzy bedroom project like The Eraser and Radiohead's own full-blooded grandiosity — in part because the new album so effectively blurs the lines between electronics and live instrumentation. But Amok still fits squarely into Yorke's more interior solo sound world: a man pacing worriedly in his basement instead of sending his voice piercing heavenward, but sounding no less vital in the process. — Stephen Thompson

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First Listen: Ivan & Alyosha, 'All The Times We Had'

Listen to Ivan & Alyosha's new album All The Times We Had, streaming now via WFUV and NPR Music prior to its February 26 release on Missing Piece/Dualtone.

Can a debut album really be "long-awaited"? The Seattle folk-pop band Ivan & Alyosha has been percolating for years now, bubbling up with several ingratiating EPs and even performing a Tiny Desk Concert back in early 2011, so even hearing All the Times We Had presented as a "debut" feels strange. These guys have been polishing and tightening their sound — and many of these particular songs — for ages, though this seems like as good a moment as any for a proper coming-out party.

Besides, it's about time Ivan & Alyosha received due praise as a standard-bearer for hyper-accessible, harmony-rich roots music: The band writes gorgeous, swelling, impeccably built songs about love and faith — several of its members are married with kids, and it shows — and performs them with real charm. The sweetly propulsive "Easy to Love" has aged nicely since a bunch of us became smitten with it while preparing for SXSW in 2010; with its wise, graceful look at enduring commitment, it's a Valentine's Day-friendly love song that never gets stuck in sap. Elsewhere, Ivan & Alyosha's songs chug and soar agreeably and kindly; even the album-closing kiss-off "Who Are You" softens its tough words with gigantic hooks.

With so many fresh-faced, sweet-voiced folk-pop bands vying for real estate in the middle of the road, the keys to standing out lie in songwriting, craftsmanship and likability. Ivan & Alyosha's members aren't looking to invent a new form on All the Times We Had, but they sure do come close to perfecting the one they've got. — Stephen Thompson

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First Listen: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, 'Push The Sky Away'

Listen to Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds' Push The Sky Away, streaming now via WFUV and NPR Music prior to its release on February 18.

Seedy and slick, grandiose and intimate, mysterious and matter-of-fact, Nick Cave's songs unfold like short stories from bygone eras — that is, until Hannah Montana and Wikipedia make their jarring appearances. On Cave's 15th album, Push the Sky Away, the Australian singer and writer assembles a string of slow-burning ballads that seethe and surprise, punctuated with Warren Ellis' gorgeous strings and bits of Cave's own grabby, pervy innuendo.

Out Feb. 19, Push the Sky Away may be broken into nine pieces, but the whole is paced like one magnificent 43-minute Nick Cave song: tense and mysterious at first, then increasingly full-blooded and lovely as the strings make their portentous entry at the top of "Water's Edge." Cave even pulls off a neat meta trick, as he crafts a hypnotic six-and-a-half-minute dirge in "Jubilee Street" before returning a few tracks later with "Finishing Jubilee Street" — a song whose fantastical wanderings commence with its namesake's completion.

Of course, writing "Jubilee Street" is itself a feat worth noting: The song captures the essence of Push the Sky Away perfectly. Take this string of words right here: "I got love in my tummy and a tiny little pain / and a 10-ton catastrophe on a 60-pound chain / And I'm pushing my wheel of love on Jubilee Street." As uneasy corniness ("love in my tummy," "wheel of love") collides with haunting and hard-bitten poetry ("a 10-ton catastrophe on a 60-pound chain"), every unselfconscious word commands rapt attention and consideration.

Short of Tom Waits or maybe Greg Dulli, it's hard to imagine many singers perfecting such an unlikely mix. But Cave and his band have always made it sound positively majestic, as their songs conjure a glittering gutter that extends all the way to the heavens. — Stephen Thompson

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