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    Arcade Fire (Musical group)

    After the slight stumble of 2017's Everything Now, Canadian indie rock heroes Arcade Fire re-center themselves on their sixth album, WE. Produced by Nigel Godrich, Win Butler, and Régine Chassagne, the pensive set captures the whirlwind of emotions felt during the first years of the pandemic -- and not just because of COVID-19 itself, but also from the drastic social shifts and interpersonal adaptations made across the globe -- and soundtracks that melodrama with a tightly sequenced journey that plucks from every era in the band's catalog. Timely and relevant, WE works best when experienced in a single sitting. Split into two parts, Side "I" comprises the two-part "Age of Anxiety" and the four-part "End of the Empire" suite, picking up steam for Side "WE" and "The Lightning I, II," "Unconditional" parts one and two, and the title track finale. The thematic split creates a thoughtful progression from the isolated and fearful first-person singular to the warmer, hopeful plurality of the second half, slowly unfolding from the persistent synths and dystopian feel of the aptly titled "Age of Anxiety I" and "Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)" into the nearly ten-minute epic "End of the Empire I-IV." Essentially four songs for the price of one, this climactic centerpiece is the turning point where fear and loneliness give way to personal rediscovery, togetherness, and setting our sights on what matters. As the piano-driven, "Imagine"-echoing dirge "Last Dance" bids farewell to American global dominance, the energy builds with the sax-punctuated, Queen-esque "Last Round" and the sweeping beauty of the string-backed "Leave the Light On," wherein Butler laments, "We've got one life and half of it's gone." Finishing with "Sagittarius A*" (the name of a supermassive black hole), he contemplates modern life and technology, pulling listeners into the now with references to social media, streaming services, and clothes that don't fit anymore. The emotional catharsis and thought-processing of the first half is a necessary exercise that forges a deeper connection with each successive listen, but when Arcade Fire finally lock in on "The Lightning I, II," it's off to the races for longtime fans starved for the urgent, band-driven sound found on Funeral and Neon Bible, especially on the gloriously rousing latter portion of the track. The patient "Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)," a touching lullaby to Butler and Chassagne's son, is another earnest highlight that forgoes the production tricks and sheen that defined much of the group's sound in the 2010s, returning them to a pure and nostalgic time when they were just a young band from Montreal. Meanwhile, "Unconditional II (Race and Religion)" places Chassagne at the fore, backed by the neon synths and island percussion of Reflektor and a surprise appearance by Peter Gabriel. While not as immediately accessible as the all-star run of their first three albums, WE will at least be a course-corrector for fans still alienated by Everything Now and the underrated Reflektor, a satisfying journey that realigns the band's heart and soul. ~ Neil Z. Yeung (syndetics)

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  • Dance Fever

    Dance Fever

    Florence + the Machine

    Just as nature blossoms to life during springtime, so do Florence + the Machine with their triumphant fifth album, Dance Fever. This vernal revival is patient to reveal its full scope, but once these songs settle in, it's a transformative journey that's spiritually on par with 2009's Lungs and 2015's How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful in emotional depth and uplifting power. At first glance of the title (and eyeing producers Jack Antonoff, Glass Animals' Dave Bayley, and Kid Harpoon), fans might expect a disco-kissed, dancefloor romp, but Dance Fever is more pure and pastoral in its interpretation of the titular movement: a primal act of ecstasy that takes inspiration from the choreomania phenomenon, where groups of people burst into dance frenzies to the point of exhaustion or injury. With that in mind, Florence Welch and company invite listeners to their sacred ceremony to find healing, empowerment, and catharsis through song and physical response ("Heaven Is Here" could conjure an entire army of spirits). The most immediate expressions come with "Free" and "My Love." The former track is an urgent, synths-and-guitar pop thrill that sounds like Antonoff's band Bleachers taking on an early-aughts Bloc Party or Strokes number, while the latter is one of the band's best singles, the closest this album comes to nailing the expected level of mainstream "dance" energy with its shimmering production, heaving beat, and festival-sized chorus. "Choreomania" percolates to life with Welch's confessional spoken word delivery and a sparse, skittering beat, slowly building to an explosive, euphoric end packed with strings, pounding percussion, and joyous cries of "I just keep spinning and I dance myself to death." "Cassandra" is similarly rapturous, swelling with church organs and Welch's trilling vocals that recalls the dramatics of Ceremonials. The shiver-inducing "Daffodil" follows a similar route, a showstopping highlight that sways and stomps with cinematic might, clattering to a close with a cacophony of drums and heaving breaths. Meanwhile, the bold "King," the threatening harps-and-horns "Girls Against God," and the seething "Dream Girl Evil" empower with some of the strongest lyrics and personal insight on the album. While this effort may not be Welch's surprise transformation into a full-on pop diva, Dance Fever is a generous offering to the goddesses of dance and restorative energy. ~ Neil Z. Yeung (syndetics)

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  • Wet Leg

    Wet Leg

    Wet Leg (Musical group)

    In the middle of 2021, Wet Leg's Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers came seemingly out of nowhere and dominated popular culture, or at least a part of it, with their single "Chaise Longue." Its combination of in-jokes, Mean Girls quotes, fancy furniture, and warm beer -- all served up with deadpan irony, nagging guitars, and shout-along choruses -- sounded like instant summer. Somehow, the music Wet Leg wanted to make also happened to be what everyone else wanted to hear; "Chaise Longue" racked up millions of streams and reached number 27 on the Billboard Alternative Airplay chart, no small feat for a previously unknown act. It's rare that a band is so fully formed at the start of their career, but on their self-titled debut album, Wet Leg deliver more of those immediately memorable hooks and relatable, witty retorts. Unlike many of their post-punk-influenced contemporaries, Teasdale and Chambers laugh at the world's absurdity (and their own) instead of despairing at it. That sense of humor is a powerful weapon in their hands, and they're most confident on Wet Leg when they're taking aim: On "Oh No," they skewer twentysomething existential dread and hipsters in increasingly chaotic, social media-sized bites with such accuracy that it borders on sketch comedy. When they cut an ex down to size over spiky guitars and handclaps on "Wet Dream," the way Teasdale sneers "what makes you think you're good enough to think about me when you're touching yourself?" echoes the way Elastica and Sleeper put a sardonic, distinctly female stamp on Brit-pop's oh-so-laddish style. Decades later, it's still liberating to hear Chambers and Teasdale tear down someone who doesn't "motivate" them with a well-placed "why don't you just suck my dick?" on "Ur Mum." Though the band completed Wet Leg before the world even heard "Chaise Lounge," they knew there had to be more to their music than whip-smart singles. As a whole, it's remarkably well-rounded, spanning slight tweaks to their sound as well as drastic leaps. Teasdale and Chambers strip away their cool on songs as emotionally varied as "Being in Love," which captures the giddy gut punch of romance with a rush of guitars, synths, and knowingly cooed vocals, and "Loving You," which uses its frothy melody and instrumentation to couch the sting of its heartbroken lyrics. When Teasdale sings instead of using her usual sprechesung delivery, as on "Convincing," it adds another level of cheek to their music, one that they take to drolly rocking heights on yet another standout, "Angelica." While Chambers and Teasdale are still discovering what they can do, they're having a lot of fun finding out, and Wet Leg more than delivers on the promise of their viral beginnings. ~ Heather Phares (syndetics)

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  • Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers

    Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers

    Lamar, Kendrick

    As early as his first official studio release, 2011’s Section.80, Kendrick Lamar’s albums have been intricate and conceptual, constructed more like ambitious theatrical narratives than mere collections of songs. Fifth album Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers follows this trajectory as a double-album’s worth of interconnecting statements that are relentlessly complex, emotionally dense, and sometimes uncomfortably raw. Unlike the lush, spacious sonics of DAMN. or the life-affirming funk of To Pimp a Butterfly, Mr. Morale is scattered both in terms of musical approaches and lyrical perspectives. The album’s first half is particularly messy, with themes of trauma, grief, society, and Kendrick’s own uneasy relationship with fame all overlapping. His technical abilities are stunning and versatile as ever, but the frantic flows and jarring beat switches of “United in Grief” begin an angsty catharsis that runs throughout many of the tracks. “N95” is a seething cultural critique where Lamar spits bile in multiple directions over a bleakly catchy, bass-driven instrumental. Issues with lust addiction and infidelity are put under a microscope on the tense and minimal “Worldwide Steppers,” and Lamar depicts his troubled relationship with his father in painful detail on “Father Time,” which features a gorgeous vocal performance by Sampha on the hook. There’s further exploration of deeply personal family history on “Auntie Diaries,” which chronicles Lamar coming to understand the experiences two of his relatives had with transitioning gender identities. Throughout the album he funnels all of these experiences inward, seeking to grow through his own changes and the changes he sees around him. This shows up as a dismissal of celebrity on “Rich Spirit” or as striving for self-acceptance on “Count Me Out.” The album’s quick musical and thematic shifts can make for an uneven flow. The floating R&B instrumental and tender introspection of “Die Hard” come just a few tracks before cacophonous swirls of piano on “Rich - Interlude” and the jagged cosmic hip-hop of Ghostface Killah and Summer Walker collaboration “Purple Hearts.” The album’s intensity reaches a full boil on “We Cry Together,” a song that sounds like live audio footage of the most vicious couple’s argument imaginable, and reaches the same levels of ugliness as Eminem’s “Kim,” a clear reference point. As always, the production is immaculate and Lamar is joined by a host of industry giants, with contributions coming from Baby Keem, Thundercat, and even a vocal cameo from Portishead’s Beth Gibbons on the stunning sadness of “Mother I Sober.” While not as immediately accessible as some of the work that came before it, there’s value in both the harrowing and enlightening moments here. Lamar puts everything on the table with Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, trying to get closer to his unfiltered personal truth, and creating some of his most challenging, expectation-defying work in the process. While not always an easy listen, the album shows more of its intention as it goes, and ultimately makes sense as the next logical step forward in Lamar’s increasingly multi-dimensional artistic evolution. ~ Fred Thomas (syndetics)

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  • Dropout Boogie

    Dropout Boogie

    Black Keys (Musical group)

    Dropout Boogie follows quickly on the heels of Delta Kream, the 2021 blues covers album by the Black Keys, which itself wasn't far removed from Let's Rock, the 2019 LP that announced their return to action after a half-decade hiatus. Such a flurry of activity is not uncommon for either member of the duo, whether together or apart, yet it does suggest guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney have revived the spark that waned somewhere in the mid-2010s. Certainly, Dropout Boogie feels open and lively in a way the Black Keys haven't in a while. Maintaining the lean, efficient contours of Let's Rock -- once again, nearly all of the songs clock in well under four minutes -- the Black Keys jam a bunch of sounds and ideas into these tight spaces, finding fresh spins on their blues boogie, throwback soul, retro-pop, and arena psychedelia. The band also have found space for a number of collaborations, too, inviting ZZ Top's Billy F. Gibbons to lend his signature snarl on "Good Love" and enlisting Greg Cartwright of Reigning Sound and Angelo Petraglia of Kings of Leon to round out "Wild Child." Ironically, "Wild Child" is one of the few songs that feels relatively self-contained on Dropout Boogie, as if they were consciously channeling the spirit of "Lonely Boy." Elsewhere, the Black Keys have figured out ways to open up their trademarks, such as when the Delta shuffle of "For the Love of Money" gives way to swirling vocal harmonies, or how "Baby I'm Coming Home" flips a nod to the Allman Brothers Band's "Midnight Rider" into AOR territory, or how the mellow groove on "How Long" gets accentuated by gently psychedelic flair. As the record swiftly spins through these production and melodic hooks, it gives the impression of a jukebox filled with a bunch of excavated gems, and that's not a bad comfort zone for the Black Keys at all. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine (syndetics)

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  • Big Time

    Big Time

    Olsen, Angel

    On the heels of the ambitious All Mirrors, which featured a 14-piece chamber orchestra, and its stripped-down, solo companion album, Whole New Mess, Angel Olsen headed to the studio with first-time collaborator Jonathan Wilson in 2021 to record her sixth full-length, Big Time, at his studios in Topanga, California. With components that span brittle acoustics, fuzzy rock textures, and swelling strings, it revisits some of the mournful alt-country that marked early albums like Half Way Home, at times with a stronger mid-century feel. There's no solitary approach to Big Time, however, an album that was written as Olsen was coming out as queer and which reflects on endings, regrets, and loss as well as hope, love, and acceptance -- if all with a yearning, apprehensive touch. The track list's country-heavy first half begins with a drum intro followed by a retro-shaded arrangement of organ, lap steel, concert bells, and horns on the ambling "All the Good Times." Although Olsen's sleepy, circular questioning defines much of this song, it reaches overdriven, full-band heights about two-thirds of the way through, as she asserts, "So long, farewell, this is the end/And I'll always remember you just like a friend." While tracks like "Go Home" and "Through the Fires" also address letting go and the notion that you can't go home again (Olsen also lost both of her parents during the making of the album), many of the songs look to new beginnings and learning to trust. Perhaps the closest thing to a musical smile on a restless set, "Big Time" matches lyrics like "Pull back the curtains, show me the sunshine" and "I'm loving you big time" with a midtempo seven-piece led by a confident drawl that makes use of Olsen's multi-breath-way vocal technique. At the other end of the spectrum, wispy tearjerker "All the Flowers" amplifies its disappointment and gratitude with acoustic guitar, strings, piano, and harpsichord. Somewhere in between -- or triangulating -- is "Right Now," a song whose plaintive vibrato and acoustic strums morph into full-band country-rock and finally a dark, buzzy alt-rock. Rather than offering something for everyone, Big Time wrangles complex, overwhelming emotions with a broad palette that's commanded by its lyrics and tormented vocal performances. ~ Marcy Donelson (syndetics)

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  • Harry's House

    Harry's House

    Styles, Harry

    Welcome to Harry's House, where host Harry Styles will join you for a drink (or more), lend a comforting ear, and make you breakfast the next day. His third full-length, the smooth set is his most consistent and immediately accessible to date, a craveable experience that comforts with warmth, familiarity, and just enough emotion to make his enviable lifestyle relatable. Once again helmed by Kid Harpoon and Tyler Johnson, the '70s-inspired pop production is a pure Los Angeles vibe, touching down everywhere from hip Hollywood haunts to contemplative Laurel Canyon overlooks. That throwback spirit echoes the work of similarly nostalgic contemporaries like Mark Ronson, Tame Impala, and Bruno Mars, especially on tracks like "Music for a Sushi Restaurant," where joyous horns, thumping bass, and explosive energy are matched by skibbity-boop-bap scat playfulness, and the slowly unfolding "Daylight," which bursts to life with clashing drums, buzzing guitars, and swirling harmonies. "Late Night Talking" is a massive hit-in-waiting, a breezy, synth-heavy dose of fresh love and big promises, while the surprising "Satellite" puts a beautifully evocative spin on getting high with one of the best payoffs on the entire album. Throughout, Styles' charisma is matched by equally alluring production, whether he's charming pants off to the bedroom digi-funk of the horny "Cinema," a John Mayer-featuring highlight that channels Random Access Memories; getting drunk on the good stuff while paying homage to McCartney/Wings on "Grapejuice"; or ramping up the energy on the funky "Daydreaming," which pairs a perfectly executed sample of the "padiya pa pa pa pa pa" from the Brothers Johnson's "Ain't We Funkin' Now" with rousing horns and Pino Palladino's elastic bass. Even on the chart-topping single "As It Was," Styles' bittersweet ruminations on change and growth are masked by driving synths and a propulsive beat. In the softer wing of Harry's House, a trio of tender, guitar-plucked tracks connects the artist to the listener, as if Harry was having a chat with a fan on the sofa. The hazy "Little Freak" drips with bittersweet longing, while the Blood Orange-backed "Matilda" reveals a deeply personal tale of a hard-knock youth, and "Boyfriends" finds Ben Harper on guitar as Styles offers a shoulder to cry on for anyone wronged by a lackluster partner. Beyond the catchy melodies, lines of white powder, and sweaty sheets, he subtly reveals himself in these vulnerable moments, continuing his maturation from boy band survivor to one of the biggest stars of his class. While predecessor Fine Line was all belting dramatics and showmanship fit for the grand stage, Harry's House is what happens when Styles steps out of the spotlight to live his life. And despite the fact that there's nothing as immortal as "Watermelon Sugar" to be found, this album, as a whole, has solid bones and is sturdy enough to last. ~ Neil Z. Yeung (syndetics)

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  • El Mocambo 1977

    El Mocambo 1977

    Rolling Stones

    Early in March 1977, the Rolling Stones played a pair of surprise shows at the El Mocambo, a 300-seat club in Toronto. The purpose of the gigs, the only concerts they played in 1977, was to generate source material for a live album that turned out to be Love You Live. Only four tracks from the El Mocambo performances showed up on Love You Live, amounting to a side of blues covers on that double-LP. A full album's worth of El Mocambo recordings circulated as a bootleg for years, but the overdue 2022 official release contains the entirety of the second night's show along with three bonus tracks from the first night, amounting to a whopping 23 tracks. Such an exhaustive portrait is welcome as Live at the El Mocambo does represent a bit of an odd moment for the Stones: it captures them caught between the over-sized jam session Black and Blue and the audacious revitalization of Some Girls, a period where Ron Wood was just getting his sea legs. Wood encouraged the group to play a bunch of blues standards and they agreed, balancing these chestnuts with some of their own oldies ("Let's Spend the Night Together," "Brown Sugar," "Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Honky Tonk Women"), a good chunk of Black and Blue and It's Only Rock N Roll, plus "Worried About You," a ballad that sat on the shelf until Tattoo You. This means Live at the El Mocambo presents the Stones as something between a hard-working club band and conquering heroes hawking their latest ware; the set list is very much of its time, lacking such warhorses as "Satisfaction" and "Street Fighting Man," and it's better for it. The Stones often sound as if they're enjoying hunkering down on a smaller stage, giving enthusiastic performances that avoid sloppiness. It adds up to a gas, a record that belongs alongside Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! and Brussels Affair as among the best official live Stones albums. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine (syndetics)

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  • We've Been Going About This All Wrong

    We've Been Going About This All Wrong

    Van Etten, Sharon

    The album title We've Been Going About This All Wrong channels all of the uncertainty floating in the air in 2022, an era distinguished by a pandemic and political tumult. During this period, Sharon Van Etten moved across the country, got married, and started raising a family in an unfamiliar city during the pandemic lockdown. Van Etten is hardly the only person to experience personal upheaval as the world roiled, but the strength of We've Been Going About This All Wrong is how her specific stories have a wider resonance. Some of that power lies in her evocative lyrical sketches, where images of yearning, parenthood, isolation, and love create the impression of difficult but necessary emotional growth; it's the shedding of the skin in preparation for a new stage of life. Appropriately, Van Etten creates a vivid, intense soundscape for this evolution, using the retro-new wave flourishes of 2019's Remind Me Tomorrow as a foundation for a dynamic, dramatic interior epic. Van Etten played nearly every instrument on We've Been Going About This All Wrong on her own in her home studio, and the album, appropriately, has a bit of an insular feel, as if it depicts the tension within her own psyche. This doesn't mean the record is delivered on a miniature scale. Although there are moments, such as "Darkish," where she's accompanying herself with no more than an acoustic guitar, there are also steely rhythms, washes of synths, and squalls of distorted guitar, all elements that give We've Been Going About This All Wrong painterly details along with a sense of momentum. Van Etten isn't wallowing in melancholy, she's accepting the sadness along with the joy, using both emotions to push into a new stage of life. That sense of optimism, no matter how muted it may sometimes be, gives We've Been Going About This All Wrong an air of unguarded hope. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine (syndetics)

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  • Just Like That

    Just Like That

    Raitt, Bonnie

    Five decades into her career, Bonnie Raitt shows no desire to stray from her wheelhouse. The blend of rock, blues, soul, reggae, folk, and pop that fuels Just Like That -- her 18th album and first since 2016's Dig In Deep -- is deeply familiar, evoking memories of her classic 1970s LPs while sounding of a piece with such relaxed latter-day records as Slipstream. Just Like That does sound quite a bit like its immediate predecessors, proceeding at a relaxed gait and bearing a production that gleams yet still contains a hint of grit. Those superficial similarities help highlight the places where Raitt departs from course, notably the quiet acoustic numbers "Just Like That" and "Down the Hall," two compassionate story-songs that owe a debt to John Prine. Raitt doesn't linger on this debt, yet it's clear that mortality is on her mind: "Livin' for the Ones" is a raucous tribute to all those who didn't manage to survive the COVID-19 pandemic, a legion that includes reggae legend Toots Hibbert, whose "Love So Strong" Raitt covers here. All these nods aren't subtle -- neither is the knowing recovery anthem "Waitin' for You to Blow" -- but they're delivered with a casual grace that gives them a deeper emotional resonance. The same sentiment applies to the ample number of love songs here, particularly Al Anderson's "Something's Got a Hold of My Heart" which has a mellow groove that would not have seemed out of place during the heyday of yacht rock. It all adds up to an album that slowly works its way into the subconscious, sounding deeper and richer with each successive play. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine (syndetics) (6/25/2022 4:39:38 PM)

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