Winter Music Reviews: Chairlift, The Duke Spirit, Crystal Stilts

Hospitality, Hospitality (Merge)
We’re always up for some early ’90s-style indie-pop, and this album’s a charmer. Not every track is a gem, but when these Brooklynites hit their mark, their music is as fun and infectious as it gets. “Friends of Friends” belongs on every college radio playlist worth its salt. And speaking of campus, here’s another standout: “Liberal Arts,” wherein vocalist Amber Papini sings about the futility of pursuing “a B.A. in English Literature / instead of law or something more practical.” The album is perhaps a bit twee for some tastes, but what Hospitality do they do very well: idiosyncratic pop that’s catchy without falling into verse-chorus-verse predictability. (Fun fact: the “Su Chia, Su Chia, Su Chia!” chorus of “Betty Wang” is the title character’s Chinese name).

Chairlift, Something (Columbia)
Remember Chairlift, the twinkly ’80s-influenced pop trio with songs so irresistible they even landed one (“Bruises”) in an iPod commercial? In the three years since their debut album, the group has contributed an ace cover to a Bowie tribute album, and singer Caroline Polachek has lent her vocals to the make-out anthem “You and I” by chillwave chart success story Washed Out. The band—now a duo—also lost founding member Aaron Pfenning to a solo career. But they’ve certainly retained their knack for blending electro, synth, and dream-pop into appealingly off-kilter ear candy. Though Something seems to lack a song with the crossover potential of “Bruises,” the songwriting is better, as is Polachek’s vocal prowess. Leadoff track “Sidewalk Safari” is more propulsive and innovative than anything Chairlift has recorded to date. It might be the crowning achievement of a band that transforms Reagan-era new wave into something fresh and endlessly listenable.
Fionn Regan, 100 Acres of Sycamore (Heavenly Recordings)
Irish folk troubadour Fionn Regan—a former UK Mercury Prize nominee—invites more Nick Drake comparisons after having retreated to a barn in Spain to record his own Bryter Layter, which is to say, a deeply personal singer-songwriter album with voice, guitar, and piano, all dressed up with strings. His subdued vocals, finger-picked guitar, and poetic lyrics occasionally yield lovely moments, like “For a Nightingale,” a gorgeous love song for the NPR set. While there’s undeniable elegance and artistry throughout, the hooks are few and far between. Too little of the album resonates beyond the quiet, melancholy vibe that makes 100 Acres of Sycamore a chore to get through in one listen. Easy to admire, difficult to embrace.
Leila, U & I (Warp)
As ambitious and dynamic as anything she’s ever done, this collection of dance floor avant-pop and aural experimentation from Björk collaborator and Aphex Twin disciple Leila Arab is equal parts playful and menacing. Believe it or not, its stylistic curveballs are even more challenging than those that that filled her 2008 album, Blood, Looms, and Blooms. The unsettling but compelling “All of This” and “Welcome to Your Life” could be classified as fractured haunted house techno pop. Leila seems to be daring us to find beauty within the ugliness; the one-minute, twenty-second “Interlace” is pure speaker–shredding noise. In the context of the surrounding din, the comparatively low-key, hypnotic instrumentals “In Motion Slow” and “Eight” provide some of the album’s unassuming highlights. Rough going as it may seem, adventurous listeners will find U & I invigorating, if also a bit disturbing.
Crystal Stilts, Radiant Door (Sacred Bones)
Crystal Stilts’ previous album, In Love with Oblivion, largely followed the formula that first earned the group darling reviews in 2009: ’60s-inspired garage rock drenched in reverb with droning vocals that sound like they were recorded in a cave. Their new EP is cut from the same cloth, with a few minor variations. Upbeat opener “Dark Eyes” features handclaps and a great sparkling guitar line. Frontman Brad Hargett’s muffled, slightly off-key baritone remains largely buried throughout, except on “Still As the Night,” where he steps into the spotlight just long enough to expose himself as the sonic doppelgänger of Beat Happening’s Calvin Johnson. On the closer, “Frost Inside the Asylum,” the bandmates wear their Velvet Underground influence proudly on their sleeves. Consider this a brief but worthy addition to their catalog.
The Duke Spirit, Bruiser (Shangri-La)
With their third release in seven years, The Duke Spirit continue a run of fine, fierce rock albums that leave you wondering why the British band isn’t better known
stateside. The aptly-titled Bruiser is the leanest, toughest sounding collection of songs yet, without a loser in the bunch. The guitars crunch and squall impressively throughout, while singer Liela Moss turns in another assured vocal performance, by turns snarling (“Cherry Tree”) and sultry (“Homecoming”), sometimes even in the space of one song (“Sweet Bittersweet,” “Bodies”). Perfect music for the gym, car, or bedroom. 
Jonsi, We Bought a Zoo Soundtrack (Columbia)
There’s always been something cinematic about the expansive musical soundscapes of Iceland’s Sigur Rós, so it’s no shock that Sigur fan Cameron Crowe tapped frontman Jónsi to score his forthcoming film, We Bought a Zoo. The album contains several songs from Jónsi’s 2010 solo album, Go—a surprise U.S.
Billboard chart success—plus one of Sigur Rós’ signature songs, “Hoppípolla” and a half-hour or so of new work composed by Jónsi, which will make this of immediate interest to fans. Not to damn with faint praise, but the music on We Bought a Zoo is generally likable and uplifting, which is to say, exactly what one would expect from a soundtrack to a family film.

PETA Targets Matt Damon Flick

No mater what you think of PETA, there is one thing to be said of them: they never miss out on an opportunity for publicity. With rampant headlines of the Ohio farmer who shot himself after letting loose a bunch of exotic animals including a herpes monkey (who by the way, now has an inevitable but still hilarious Twitter account), they’re speaking out against people owning wild animals by targeting Cameron Crowe’s upcoming Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson flick We Bought a Zoo.

The film centers on a single dad who purchases a house out in the country as a way to get his family back together, but doesn’t realize there is a zoo on the property. It’s loosely based on the true story of a man with the most shady real estate agent ever, and in the end, helps bring the family closer together in what we can only expected to be a snuggly warm moment of an animal doing something awwwe-worthy.

PETA’s Vice President said in a statement:

We Bought A Zoo conveys the misleading and downright dangerous message that no special knowledge — just a lot of heart — is needed to run a zoo. As the tragedy in Ohio gruesomely illustrates, wild animals aren’t Disney characters. They have very special needs that all too often aren’t met by people who buy them on a whim because they think it would be ‘cool’ to own a tiger.”

Hmmm…clearly true, but c’mon, it would be pretty cool to own a tiger. Ask Mike Tyson.