By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
Pretty Little Empire, Sweet Sweet Hands: Striking a balance between weary bedroom folk and well-orchestrated chamber pop, Pretty Little Empire's debut album, Sweet Sweet Hands, is calm, quiet and utterly addictive. Singer and guitarist Justin Johnson has a hangdog drawl that doesn't take up much space but never fades into the background, and the band's ragtag orchestrations cloak his tunes in a rootsy fog. The sleepy group vocals clash with a blaring trumpet in "Good Morning Early Riser," and sharp acoustic guitar strums bisect the atmospheric slide guitar lines on "Winter Blues." Occasionally Pretty Little Empire isn't that pretty at all, and that Sturm und Drang creates healthy tension within the band's often unadorned folk songs.
Sheila Shahpari, What Is Real: Like a mellower Fiona Apple — or a less retro-minded Nellie McKay — Sheila Shahpari treats her first record as a C.V. of her many talents. A singer-songwriter fond of coffeehouse folk, jazzy elegance and avant-rock stylistic diversions, Shahpari never settles into one mode throughout these eleven songs. An artful string section guides "Until I Find" with occasional traces of atonality and drawn-out, resonant drones, while those same strings add pizzicato flourishes to the next song, the summery "Italian Sky." It's hard to know where Shahpari will go from here, but if What Is Real is any indication, she has no shortage of options.
So Many Dynamos, The Loud Wars: The Loud Wars is the record that So Many Dynamos has waited years to release — literally. After a long, scattered recording process and an ever-changing street date, well-respected indie label Vagrant Records finally released the disc this summer. With crisp, everything-in-its-right-place production by Chris Walla (Death Cab for Cutie), the band sounds right at home unleashing disjointed drumbeats, bottom-heavy synth bursts and prickly guitar counterpoints. Lead single "New Bones" pulsates with an accelerated trip-hop backbeat and eight-bit sound effects, while "The Formula" adds more stitched-together samples, along with touches of Afro-Cuban percussion, to close the disc in fine fashion.