Goldfrapp: Head First (Mute)
I just learned recently that I've been listening to Allison Goldfrapp for longer than I realized: She's on Tricky's 1995 classic Maxinquaye, five years before the debut of her duo with Will Gregory. For a long time they were a reliable source of dancefloor anthems, but last time out found them taking a folkier, less beat-driven tack. Head First finds them back doing what they do best, dance music, but with their most poppy, tuneful batch of songs yet. My friend Mitch Friedland (Springhouse) came in one day when I was listening to this and joked "What is this, the new Olivia Newton John?" It's funny because it's true, but it's also true that this is a better album than ONJ ever made, the strong Italo-disco influence and high-gloss production pleasing the club crowd while the solid songwriting makes it fine home listening as well.
The National: High Violet (4AD)
It's appropriate that after two albums on Beggars Banquet, The National switched to affiliate 4AD, because this album has a little more of a 4AD feel to it -- a little quieter and less brassily anthemic, more concerned with subtler textures. The retooling brings even richer production, and with it a greater variety of instrumental timbres; the group's knack for grand crescendos is only improved by having more instrumental tools with which to build them up. The band is still instantly recognizable, so it's not as though there's been a major reworking of its trademark sound, and the most important one -- Matt Berninger's moody, utterly distinctive singing -- remains the focus.
Kings Go Forth: The Outsiders Are Back (Luaka Bop)
There's been a fair number of soul revival bands lately, but remarkably few of them have been of the vocal group persuasion. This one is, which give it both its variety -- different guys take turns as lead vocalist, including an actual '70s singer, Black Wolf, who's prominently featured -- and a major part of its distinctive style, sort of like Curtis Mayfield-era Impressions with funky early-'70s production and arrangements (with horns and strings where appropriate). Commendably, they distill their sound from a wide enough range of influences that the amalgam doesn't sound like an imitation. This, the band's debut album, draws on several year' worth of singles, with the absolute highlight being "High on Your Love" ("Don't Love You No More" is a close second), though every track is a pleasure.
Seabear: We Built a Fire (Morr)
It hails from Iceland, but on its third album this band's apparent influences seem solidly American: The Sea and Cake, recent Iron and Wine, the Shins. In general, founder and lead singer Sindri Mar Sigfusson's light and breathy tone settles into a sort of casual intimacy that is never overmatched by the backing. Thus, while the elaborate arrangements have also earned comparisons to Canadians Arcade Fire, and the headlong forcebeat momentum of a few tracks supports that idea, they rarely aim for same level of density and melodrama; album-closer "Wolfboy" proves a memorable exception.
Dum Dum Girls: I Will Be (SubPop)
This female quartet plays punky girl-group garage-pop. The leader, who goes by the name Dee Dee, has penned a bunch of ultra-catchy tunes, and recruited Crystal Stilts/Vivian Girls drummer Frankie Rose, whose sharp snare hits are a big part of the band's sound. This album hits all the right buttons: 11 songs in 28 minutes; closing with a cover of Sonny & Cher's "Baby Don't Go"; a bit lo-fi without fetishizing it; co-produced by Richard Gottehrer (wrote "My Boyfriend's Back" and "I Want Candy," co-founded Sire Records, produced Blondie and the Go-Gos); lots of echo and a hint of Jesus & Mary Chain guitar skronk. Think you're tired of the revivalists? This is fresh enough to give you a second wind.
Midlake: The Courage of Others (Bella Union)
On its previous album, The Trials of Van Occupanther, Midlake revived the moody dark side of Seventies soft rock, but without its cheesy aspects (well, okay, with some flutes). Tim Smith and company reprise that sound on this follow-up. In the intervening four years, big lush production sounds have become less rare in indierockland, but Midlake's lovely pastoral style remains utterly distinctive. Smith's mellow vocals and the band's production style would be enough to make this enjoyable, but he also has a knack for gently insinuating hooks and unpretentiously profound and poetic lyrics. While Courage doesn't seem to be a concept album a la Occupanther, recurring themes of man in/vs. nature and melancholy retrospection provide coherence and mesh well with the band's organic sound. Is it as good as Occupanther? No, but hardly any bands make an album that good twice in a row. It's more than good enough.
Zs: New Slaves (The Social Registry)
With so many bands from the Brooklyn noise underground going mainstream (not that there's anything wrong with that), it's nice to hear Zs staying as abrasive as ever. It's amazing how much dissonance you can get away with when you have good beats, and the way the trio cycles its industrial din loops can make you want to boogie and cover your ears at the same time -- hey, I think I just invented a new dance! I think I'll call it The Skronk. Not that many clubs will be programming this stuff, and the rhythms can get rather abstract at times, as on "Don't Touch Me" where somebody does perverse things to a guitar in the background while drums and electronics fight up front. On "Masonry" they actually quiet down enough that it could even be called pretty, though in this context that's a pretty relative term. Needless to say, they follow it up with an asymmetrical post-punk groove -- the title track -- best danced to by people with one leg shorter than the other and incredible stamina (it's 20 unforgiving minutes). RIYL the sound of squealing subway tracks and jackhammers, or if you ever wished Albert Ayler had lived long enough to collaborate with Throbbing Gristle. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who splits his time between editing Culturecatch.com, working at the Williamsburg record store Sound Fix, and editing cognitive neuroscience books for Oxford University Press. No prizes for guessing which pays best.