• Wild Beasts, 'Smother' (Domino)

    Wild Beasts, 'Smother' (Domino)

    Surprisingly hot to the touch, Wild Beasts' third album does more with less, paring down the quartet's groove-inflected chamber pop to expose raw burning desire. Between Hayden Thorpe's eerie falsetto and Tom Fleming's huskier sensuality, Smother expertly captures lust's unsettling urgency, equating it with fire, electricity, and predatory behavior. After "Bed of Nails," where Thorpe sighs, "I want my lips to blister when we kiss," and "Plaything," when he purrs wickedly, "Take off your chemise / And I'll do / As I please," you may be in the mood for a tamer kind of romance.

  • An Horse, 'Walls' (Mom + Pop)

    An Horse, 'Walls' (Mom + Pop)

    An Horse singer Kate Cooper is a relentless whirlwind who doesn't know when to stop - and that's a good thing. On their second album, this Aussie duo's buzzy guitar pop is more hyper and gripping than ever, as she breathlessly spews dramatic tales that have the immediacy of crazed Twitter posts. "My head is bleeding from banging it against this wall?/ What's it all for?" Cooper sighs on the title track, then shouts, "Just please wake up!" at a hospitalized friend in "Brain on a Table." She's exhausting, but never dull.

  • Sonny and the Sunsets, 'Hit After Hit' (Fat Possum)

    Sonny and the Sunsets, 'Hit After Hit' (Fat Possum)

    Sonny Smith sings like he just fell out of bed, and his Sunsets follow suit with cheerfully casual garage rock that mixes surf, punk, soul, and '50s teen pop, yet never panders to nostalgia. While the San Francisco quartet's second outing is only slightly more polished than its first, don't mistake them for a crew of hapless amateurs. The playing is deceptively forceful, and the songs cut surprisingly deep. After the hilariously cartoonish bravado of the funky "Girls Beware," the pitiable "Pretend You Love Me" will break your heart.

  • Alela Diane, 'Alela Diane & Wild Divine' (Rough Trade)

    Alela Diane, 'Alela Diane & Wild Divine' (Rough Trade)

    Death, madness, heartbreak: It's all in an album's work for Alela Diane, who can lend an attractive glow to the most devastating subjects. While superficial comparisons to Natalie Merchant or Tarnation's Paula Frazer wouldn't be wholly misplaced, Diane's spellbinding voice, tender and flinty at once, casts a more quietly dazzling spell. Following up the mesmerizing, occasionally grave psych-folk of 2009's To Be Still, Diane seems to be craving a wider audience. Alela Diane & Wild Divine -- referencing the backing band that includes both her husband and father -- sports brighter, sunnier textures, thanks to producer Scott Litt (R.E.M., Nirvana), who keeps the quaint splotches of mandolin and steel guitar to a minimum.

  • Morning Teleportation, 'Expanding Anyway' (Glacial Pace)

    Morning Teleportation, 'Expanding Anyway' (Glacial Pace)

    Yelping and shouting like a genuine mental case, frontman Tiger Merritt rides a joyously chaotic wave on this Portland, Oregon-based quintet's dizzying debut. Though coproduced by Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock and signed to his label, Morning Teleportation possess their own wacky identity, lurching from avant-garde mischief to pop operatics to folky sweetness. Their energy can be so overpowering that it takes a minute to notice the adeptness of the musicianship -- Merritt's exciting prog guitar riffs make the nine-minute "Wholehearted Drifting Sense of Inertia" feel too short.

  • Middle Brother, 'Middle Brother' (Partisan)

    Middle Brother, 'Middle Brother' (Partisan)

    Drenched in longing and verging on self-pity, Middle Brother unites singers John McCauley (Deer Tick), Matthew Vasquez (Delta Spirit), and Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes) for an entertaining country-rock summit that evokes touchstones from Kris Kristofferson to the Replacements, whose Don't Tell a Soul outtake "Portland" is rousingly covered here. McCauley's boozy "Daydreaming" and Vasquez's charming '60s pop homage "Someday" vividly evoke desperate men disappointed by life. But Goldsmith makes the strongest (albeit negative) impression. His love laments hint at a nasty streak that erupts on "Blood and Guts" when he howls, "I just wanna get your arm in a cast." Ladies, consider yourselves warned.

  • Malachai, 'Return to the Ugly Side' (Domino)

    Malachai, 'Return to the Ugly Side' (Domino)

    Cheerfully ignoring stylistic boundaries, Brit duo Malachai (formerly Malakai) polish their cut-and-paste skills on this follow-up to last year's tantalizing Ugly Side of Love. Wistful singer Gee and subtle sampler Scott incorporate psychedelic electronica, sleepy funk, and clattering garage rock, crafting a surprisingly unified piece that drifts through your subconscious like a pleasantly odd dream. It's fitting that Malachai are championed by Portishead's Geoff Barrow (who released their debut on his Invada label); they could be the friskier offspring of that revered group.

  • Loch Lomond, 'Little Me Will Start a Storm' (Tender Loving Empire)

    Loch Lomond, 'Little Me Will Start a Storm' (Tender Loving Empire)

    Elegant yet uneasy, this intriguing Portland sextet echoes the nervous grace of Arcade Fire and the New Pornographers, minus the electric charge. Frontman Ritchie Young can sing delicate and high or mournful and low, and while his dense chamber-pop songs employ clarinet, violin, mandolin, and marimba, they never feel overwrought. Little Me reveals a variety of textures over time, and when you can decode the lyrics, memorable scenes emerge: "Blue Lead Fences" evokes an eight-year-old at play, and "Earth Has Moved Again" presents a chilling vision of death by natural disaster.

  • Faust, 'Something Dirty' (Bureau B)

    Faust, 'Something Dirty' (Bureau B)

    Talk about confusing: Original members of this German band, which dates back four decades, have split into two groups -- both operating as Faust. Regardless, the quartet on Something Dirty spews a wonderfully nasty barrage of grubby industrial noise and mangled pop that's oddly thrilling. Anchored by Geraldine Swayne's grungy keyboards, "Herbstimmung" is a spooky psychedelic drone, while the wistful "Lost the Signal" belongs in a David Lynch movie. Throughout, the mood swings from tender to violent and back again, marking this Faust as a vital enterprise, not nostalgia fodder.

  • Lia Ices, 'Grown Unknown' (Jagjaguwar)

    Lia Ices, 'Grown Unknown' (Jagjaguwar)

    Don't be deterred when Lia Ices coos solemnly, "We know that magic is a part of life." Whether you consider her mystical lyrics transformative poetry or airhead jabbering, there's nothing silly or lightweight about the accompanying music. Ices' lush melodies and dreamy voice will convert skeptics and mesmerize supporters of Kate Bush and Joanna Newsom. Pick hit in another universe: "Daphne," a majestically haunting duet with Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), recounting the Greek myth of a woman transformed into a tree.

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