Short Cuts
Quick Reviews of Five Great Records

We have a backlog of great new releases that I need to get through before the September To Beat All Septembers begins.

We’re up to 32 new releases next month that I’m interested in, and the following month is shaping up to be just as good. Here’s what’s hitting in just the first few weeks of October: Deltron 3030, Dr. Dog, Tired Pony, Blind Boys of Alabama (produced by Justin Vernon), Fates Warning, Moby, Justin Timberlake, the Field, Soulfly, Aaron Sprinkle, Of Montreal, Panic at the Disco, Cage the Elephant, Paul McCartney, the Dismemberment Plan, Pearl Jam, the Head and the Heart, the Avett Brothers, Flying Colours, a new collection from Jellyfish, an acoustic live record from Alex Chilton, and the first Kitchens of Distinction album in 19 years.

So yeah, the flood is coming. This week, I thought I’d offer short takes on a few of the albums I’ve been enjoying lately, in the hopes that they won’t get lost in the deluge. I’m not spending a lot of space on these records, but don’t let that fool you. They’re all very much worth hearing and owning.

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Earlier this month, I got a chance to see the Congregation rock a particle physics laboratory.

That’s right, this Chicago eight-piece soul outfit played Fermilab, my place of employment. The connection isn’t as daft as it seems – Congregation guitarist Charlie Wayne is, in real life, astrophysicist Dan Hooper, and he works at the lab. I’ve been hearing about Dan’s band for a long time, but I’ve always missed out on seeing them. I realize now how silly I’ve been – the Congregation put on a tremendous show. You might think it would be easy to rock a particle physics laboratory, but the band gave us sweat and tears and joy.

Naturally, I bought their album, Right Now Everything, and I’m happy to report that it’s great. The Congregation plays vintage-sounding soul-rock with sweet horn lines and a full-blooded rhythm section. But the big draw is vocalist Gina Bloom – she has a voice that can shake mountains. When it needs to be full of love, as on “You’ll Always Be Alright With Me,” it is, and when it needs to be overflowing with pain and anger, as on “You Always Told Me (Terrible Things),” it’ll put you through the wringer. I’m not sure how she sustains such full-throated, glorious singing over an entire record (or show), but she does it, and it’s a wonder to behold.

The Congregation takes its cues from old-school soul, and the songs are about love and leaving. The opening title track sets the tone, with Chuck Sansone’s deft electric piano, the band’s handclaps and Bloom’s room-filling voice. The drums kick up to double time, the horns drip honey over everything, Wayne rips out a solo, and the band drops some big band-style backing vocals, shouting the title phrase. It’s just a great little song, and this album is full of them. Check out the lovely piano piece “Darlin’,” or its flip side, the rollicking “High Class.” The arrangements are consistently crisp and dynamic, particularly the horn lines, and the off-kilter ending to the album-closing “I Will Forget You” will leave you wanting more.

Throughout Right Now Everything, the Congregation finds new ways to breathe life into old soul music. They feel to me like a band on the verge, and with the songwriting and musicianship on display, and especially the voice of Bloom front and center, they could be a household name. But that’s the future. Right now they’re just a damn good band, one I’m glad I finally got to check out. You can do the same right here.

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Speaking of new discoveries, here’s Typhoon. This 11-member band from Portland certainly lives up to their name – their fourth album, White Lighter, crashes over you in a torrent of sound.

This is the first Typhoon album I’ve heard, so perhaps they built up to this sound over a series of smaller, more timid records. But this one just launches itself at you, and dares you to move. This band writes tricky yet threadbare songs, and then fleshes them out with a non-stop parade of instruments, flickering in and out. Horns, strings, banjos, ukuleles, keys – it’s huger than huge, and yet, at times, quiet and placid. The album is restless, darting through sections and arrangements, picking them up like shiny objects and then dropping them back to the floor. Opening epic “Artificial Light” packs in a dozen smaller pieces into a cohesive 5:35 – it moves from indie rock to orchestral swells to mariachi to something approaching math-rock in 38 seconds, and then it really starts.

If that sounds confusing, like music that requires you to take notes, trust me that White Lighter is an enveloping experience from first note to last. The band dresses up even the slightest of songs, like folk ditty “Morton’s Fork,” in coats of many colors, and songs segue together – the transition from “The Lake” to “Dreams of Cannibalism” is particularly dramatic. The songs are all fairly simple indie rock, but it’s the arrangements that make this thing – if you don’t like what you’re hearing, wait a few moments and it will change.

White Lighter demands repeat listens, but rewards them. I feel somewhat embarrassed that this is the first time I’m hearing of Typhoon, but as the last strains of the gorgeous, string-laden “Post Script” fade out, I find myself determined to hear more.

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From White Lighter to White Lies.

I first heard this London band courtesy of Dr. Tony Shore, who evangelized about their debut album, To Lose My Life. Shore loves anything that reminds him of the ‘80s, and White Lies certainly fit the bill – their dramatic, synth-y rock recalls Duran Duran and other new wave bands of the era. For me, though, they’ve never quite flipped the switch. That is, until now – the third White Lies album, Big TV, is unquestionably their best.

It’s also their biggest, eschewing the dark minimalism of Joy Division for the lush expanses of Echo and the Bunnymen. It’s still pseudo-‘80s new wave, but it’s very good pseudo-‘80s new wave. Songs like “There Goes Our Love Again” pulse with life, and with bold melodies. Harry McVeigh has a voice that hearkens back to the new romantics, but he can make it soar, as he does on this song, rising above the oceans of keyboards and the buzzing guitars. The album remains consistent, sounding like something that could have come out in 1985.

To be clear, this remains pastiche, but for the first time, it’s convincing, thoroughly committed pastiche. “Mother Tongue” is massive and dynamic, McVeigh occasionally bringing Roland Orzabal to mind, while “Getting Even” is a burst of me-decade electro with a tremendous, catchy chorus. The band’s songwriting has improved measurably while their dedication to this musical form has deepened. You could file this right next to Crocodiles and Seven and the Ragged Tiger and barely notice the difference.

My biggest complaint with White Lies has always been that they aren’t delivering anything original. They’re still not, but Big TV is such a good, knowing imitation that it casts aside those concerns. For the first time, they sound like I imagine they’ve always wanted to, and that makes all the difference.

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And speaking of ‘80s-inspired dance bands, Franz Ferdinand is back.

It’s been four years since we’ve heard from Alex Kapranos and his merry men, and if you thought they were perhaps undergoing some intensive musical transformation, spinning a cocoon to emerge a new beast, well, go to the back of the class. Franz sound exactly as they always have – like Morrissey’s disco band, slinky and sexy and full of stomping attitude. But this time, they’ve honed their focus to a razor-fine point.

Franz’ fourth album, Right Thoughts Right Words Right Action, is a mere 10 songs in 35 minutes. But they’re the right songs, in the right order – the opening trilogy of “Right Action,” “Evil Eye” and “Love Illumination” is the sharpest one-two-three punch any band has delivered this year. The grooves are tight, the riffs memorable, and Kapranos brings his finest sneer. “Love Illumination” is a perfect Franz song – “We can love you if you need somebody to love you while you’re looking for somebody to love,” Kapranos snarls, while Gus Asphalt’s saxophone darts in and out.

Right Thoughts is a quick record, and it may fly by without calling attention to how well-made and detailed it is. You have to listen closely for Owen Pallet’s sweet strings on “Stand on the Horizon,” or the complex backing vocal arrangement on “Fresh Strawberries.” But that’s all right – there’s enough right up front here, like the bass and guitar attack on “Bullet,” to carry you from one end to the other. Franz has somehow managed to make a headphone album that sounds like a scrappy garage-rock stomper.

The band does slow things down a little on “The Universe Expanded” and the trippy “Brief Encounters,” but not enough to drag them to a halt. And the buzzing “Goodbye Lovers and Friends” finishes things off in fine style. Perhaps it’s that Franz Ferdinand has been absent for so long, but Right Thoughts Right Words Right Action sounds fresh and vital, without much having changed. It’s terrific, and proof – if you needed it – that Franz is no trendy fly-by-night. Yeah, they helped create the dance-band craze of the 2000s, but they outlived it, and here they still are, kicking ass.

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And finally, someone who does the exact opposite of kicking ass.

Many musicians claim to be unique. Brooklyn’s Julianna Barwick actually is – there is no one like her. Over four EPs and one dazzling full-length, Barwick has refined her one-woman-choir sound, finding new ways to loop and overdub her ethereal voice into heavenly clouds of gossamer. I have often described her work as what Enya would sound like if Enya were awesome, but that doesn’t even remotely do her unbelievably, inhumanly beautiful music justice.

Barwick’s second full-length, Nepenthe, somehow takes her sound and makes it exponentially more gorgeous. For the first time, she didn’t work alone – the album was produced by Alex Somers, of Jonsi and Alex, and includes contributions from members of Icelandic bands Amiina and Mum. The focus is still Barwick’s voice, layered and looped and unfolded into lovely new shapes, but behind that voice now sits pianos and strings and subtle guitars. The songs are still ambient wisps, falling like soft sheets over you, but they’ve taken on new dimensions.

I could go on about how soul-stirring a song like “The Harbinger” is, or how startling (in a good way) it is to hear Barwick sing distinct lyrics on “One Half,” or how well the Icelandic teen girl choir fits in with the fabulous “Pyrrhic,” or how final track “Waving To You” turns Amiina’s strings into the loneliest sound in the world. But this is music you have to hear, music you have to experience. I’m not going to be able to sum it up – it’s too vast, too intimate, too heart-stoppingly wonderful. You need to hear it. Like the very best music, it speaks for itself.

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Next week, the flood. Expect reviews of BT and NIN, and maybe more. Leave a comment on my blog at Follow me on Facebook at, and Twitter at

See you in line Tuesday morning.