Escape from Evil (Ribbon Music)
The very first chord: That's where this album hits you. It opens with a hard strum of guitar that quivers, fades, and repeats before Jana Hunter's voice jumps in clear and strong, more confident and, paradoxically, vulnerable than ever before. Beneath it, a steady, new wave beat keeps time, then in come the haunting backup vocals, which warmly permeate a number of tracks. This first one, "Sucker's Shangri-La," sets the tone for the rest of the album, which retains the band's dark, trademark ambiance and moody atmospheres but tempers them with a newfound energy and brightness to create a sort of shadowy synth-pop. The sound is amped up—in volume, speed, and dimension—building on the expansion of their last record with added emotion, detail, and texture. The guitars sear and clash as strongly as ever, but now they meet Hunter's androgynous vocals in the middle, and even let them shine. At times, she comes in high and light, while at others, she falls away in abandon or howls out in despair. The fluctuations are fitting for songs about hope and heartbreak, highs and lows. On either end of the spectrum, they are robust and undeniable. Sometimes, somewhat surprisingly, you find yourself dancing along.
When the Night Unravels (self-released)
Victoria Vox is a young woman of many talents: singer, songwriter, ukulele player, mouth trumpeter. The latter is a vocal technique from the Jazz Age and one Vox has come to master, using her mouth to mimic the sound of brass instruments. The Baltimore artist has recently garnered some attention for this skill, including the front page of The Wall Street Journal, but this album is her ninth. She's no ingénue. She's a pro. A smooth, easy fusion of jazz, pop, and soul, Vox combines sweet lyrics, soft melodies, and four-string strumming with electronic loops and a few friends on the likes of accordion, drums, and sax. Together, they create a full-band sound that harkens back to another era. Vox is an old soul, moving effortlessly between sultry, sexy jazz numbers; sunny, upbeat ditties; and honest R&B ballads, seamlessly weaving her candy-coated vocals through each. At its essence, it's a classic volume of love songs—for broken hearts and open ones—and through it all, her yesteryear style shines.
Seltzer (Thrill Jockey)
It's tempting to listen to this cassette and try to break down all of its elements—try to figure out what's it all about? A side project by Baltimore's William Cashion of Future Islands and Bruce Willen of Double Dagger, it arrives on the scene laden with expectations. Instead, put on the two half-hour tracks and just let them lilt about you. Before long, you'll be transported—relaxed—like listening to wind chimes in a soft, summer breeze. You drift off in the deep blue tones before new sounds purl in and others taper out. The static buzz, the ringing bells, the undulating bass all build but never climax, playing light and pretty and nostalgic, like old memories on a reel-to-reel. The ambient sounds and seamless dissonance create a peaceful space, and when each song ends, you feel as if you've just woken from a deep slumber. That is the greatest achievement of this album: Sometimes it feels good to get lost in a song.