LYKKE LI: Youth Novels [LL Recordings]

As if her name wasn’t an obvious clue, Lykke Li is Scandanavian through and through. Her debut could be mistaken for a covers album where Stina Nordenstam and Hanne Hukkelberg sink their teeth into songs by bubblegum favorites Robyn and Annie, with Peter Bjorn And John as the backing band. Björn Yttling, in fact, produced and co-wrote Youth Novels, bringing his love of reverb-heavy pop classicism, populated by slightly off-kilter juxtapositions of glockenspiel, pianos, lo-fi synths, primitive drum machines and rich backing vocals. “Dance Dance Dance” is driven by a basic acoustic-guitar rhythm, a chugging horn section, minimal percussion and found sounds, with a female chorus shipped in from Soweto. “Let It Fall” is a bouncy, early-’80s pop ditty about being reduced to a blubbering mess of tears. Elsewhere, Li indulges her melancholy on both sides of the music/lyrics divide. For all the inventive whimsy of the arrangements, however, there’s no mistaking the slight lyrical content. “I think I’m a little bit in love with you/But only if you’re a little bit in love with me,” she sings in a too-cutesy girlish voice, playing the part of a passive-aggressive narcissist. The arrangements easily mask any youthful shortcomings by keeping the listener guessing, alternating between ’50s revivalism, Euro folk pop and electro. Li is ready to be all things to all people, and as she says, “If you want to complain, I’m not the complaint department.” []

—Michael Barclay

JENNIFER O’CONNOR: Here With Me [Matador]

Things have never been better for Jennifer O’Connor—career-wise, at least—but you wouldn’t know it by listening to her ruminative fourth record. Nothing if not brutally honest, the Brooklyn singer/songwriter tips her hand early on Here With Me. “I’m gonna go back where I started/It’s gonna be so brokenhearted,” she bellows on “Daylight Out,” the lustiest of several tracks that try to break up the pervasive heartache. Despite finishing in a dead heat (Here With Me contains six up-tempo and six down-tempo songs), the sad, slow numbers act like an anchor. (More offerings such as opening salvo “The Church And The River,” a marshaled, genuinely eye-welling march, would’ve helped.) The mid-album burst of energy—highlighted by the insistently strummed, immaculately voiced “Highway Miles”—feels like a mirage by the petering finale, where one acoustic weeper bleeds into the next. O’Connor’s clarion vocals still impart a kind of damaged authenticity, but instead of the bruised tones of 2006’s terrific Over The Mountain, Across The Valley And Back To The Stars, too much of Here With Me just sounds beaten down. []

—Noah Bonaparte Pais

THE WALKMEN: You & Me [Gigantic]

As an attempt to move beyond the post-punk noisiness of 2006’s A Hundred Miles Off, the fourth proper Walkmen album is a success. Snaking through You & Me is a hard-to-miss blues vibe—part of it was cut in Oxford, Miss., with John Agnello (Hold Steady, Dinosaur Jr)—and even though no one’s going to mistake the Walkmen for old bluesmen tearing up a juke joint, it’s an approach familiar to anyone who’s ever heard the Delta in, say, the Bad Seeds or PJ Harvey. The brooding, waltz-time “Dónde Está La Playa” is powered by a recurring blues guitar riff, while the distant, mournful trumpet of “Red Moon” performs a similar function. Throughout, the band takes a delicate approach to the arrangements, injecting space and light with a jazz-player-like precision. But there’s a lot that’s vexing about You & Me, too. For instance: frontman Hamilton Leithauser, admittedly an acquired taste and often described as having a “raspy croon” by critics. But there’s a difference between “affecting” and “affected,” and in Leithauser’s swooning, operatic tics, Dylanesque flourishes and deliberately off-key moments, you hear someone playing a role, and not all that convincingly. Equally problematic is You & Me‘s production. The bass was sheared off in the mix, thereby rendering the songs annoyingly shrill. Loads of echo and reverb rescue the album from this potentially fatal flaw, but overall, You & Me is a mixed bag. []

—Fred Mills

SHANNON MCARDLE: Summer Of The Whore [Bar/ None]

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, especially if she happens to be a songwriter with the means to release her fury. Summer Of The Whore isn’t just a break-up album, it’s a vivisection. In brutally frank terms, it outlines the betrayal and dissolution of Shannon McArdle’s marriage to Timothy Bracy, her creative foil in the now-defunct Mendoza Line. From the outset, you know things aren’t good. “Poison My Cup,” though sonically lush and jangly, is lyrically toxic: “Don’t open that good wine, no honey, just fuck me up.” Things get darker from there, as song titles “Leave Me For Dead,” “I Was Warned” and “He Was Gone” suggest. Yet with words as her catharsis, music becomes McArdle’s salve, unspooling strings-laden Americana, ethereal dream pop, upbeat indie rock with a ’60s girl-group flavor, strummy folk rock and more. That her inviting murmur—a cross between Tift Merritt, Jenny Lewis and Chan Marshall—is so warm and not iced over from her ordeal makes Summer Of The Whore all the more intoxicating. In hindsight, the Mendoza Line was, despite its decade-long tenure, a combination of alt-rock influences in search of a firm identity. It’s worth noting, however, that a recurring theme in the group’s songs was personal/sexual politics, so it’s difficult not to imagine that whatever tension was brewing behind the scenes was mirrored on its albums. On Summer Of The Whore, McArdle takes that tension and pulls it until it snaps violently, leaving both artist and listener more than a little stunned. []

—Fred Mills

DAFT PUNK: Electroma DVD [Vice]

Those wondering where Daft Punk’s creative juices went during the period between 2001’s Discovery and 2005’s Human After All might find the answer in Electroma, the French duo’s entry into the burgeoning cinematic niche of robotic quests for humanity. The mostly silent film features none of the band’s music (or words) but all of the pretension the aforementioned plot description implies. Then what, if anything, makes Electroma worth trudging through its 70 minutes of mind-numbing tracking shots, which test the limits of even the most patient cinephile? The absurdity of two robots in rhinestone leather Daft Punk jackets, for starters. One innovative shot comes when the robots (played by actors, not the members of Daft Punk) undergo plastic surgery in their desperate pursuit to become human. As the two patients are sterilized, they become enmeshed in a whitewashed background projecting a visually magnificent, Rorschach-like image. Its serene beauty passes quickly, however, leaving you to bask in neo-realistic walking shots that linger far beyond intentional pauses in action. More daunting than moving, the dour Electroma lacks the levity required for its midnight-movie aspirations. []

—Matt Siblo