Half of this month comes from New York, and identifies with coming from New York, which I didn’t realize until I caught myself pointing it out over and over again. Anyway, I find it funny that musicians whose work winds up behind car commercials still identify as culturally marginal (Matt & Kim is the best example, but they’re all over the place). Otherwise, it’s the typical rundown — major rock album, great novelty album, mediocre novelty album, godawful rock album, nothing new.

She & Him: Volume 3

She and Him

Merge, 2013 [BUY]

It’s funny to watch card-carrying members of the perceived Brooklyn counterculture sell their songs to Starbucks and Levi’s, but I’m worried about the quality of the product. Conventionally fetching femme fatale Zooey Deschanel and conventionally subtle singer-songwriter M. Ward have stumbled on an engaging synthesis of baroque country and retro-doo-wop, the kind of music that gets played in college coffee shops. Like most supposed counterculture merchandise, it manages to be both willfully insular and glazed entirely in sugar.

Why the contemplative Ward indulges Deschanel’s frisky antics and commercial ambition I don’t know, but they clearly have some chemistry going, even if they’ve only bonded over liking vintage French movies and pre-Beach Boys harmony groups. Their slippery wall-of-sound usages impress and surprise even when they sneak ukuleles and violins into the mix, with many of their tunes sounding impossibly familiar and completely fresh. But they’re also as square as Michael Bublé, who also released a Christmas album in 2011, and more calculating. Like, oh I don’t know, Alma Cogan, Deschanel affects the all-American drawl you never hear anymore outside of black-and-white movies, glossing over vowels and consonants alike in the pursuit of precious domesticity. It’s all too consciously cute, too disingenuously naive, too willfully insular and utterly imaginary, a nostalgic throwback to a previous stylistic era that only ever existed in the popular American imagination to begin with.

Despite all her passes at mall music, which will only increase as her audience gets more accustomed to her authority, Deschanel is basically a girl-next-door type. Only most girls next door don’t keep playing the ingénue at 33. Or slip into French on their cover of “Sunday Girl.” Really, French on “Sunday Girl.” She sounds totally natural doing it, too, as befits the kind of playfully trite cosmopolitan she probably is and has so much fun selling herself as.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Mosquito

Mosquito by Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Interscope, 2013 [BUY]

Unlike most 21st-century New York punk bands, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs aren’t purists, or ironists either. What attracts them to the genre is its brutal potency, its propensity for trashing all bona fides and just immersing itself in raw catharsis. Ten years after their debut, they’re thrilled that they still exist, and their style has just gotten cruder and nastier.

Frontwoman Karen O is rather intimidating, shrieking like she wants to lose her voice, and when she tries to sing normally she sounds hoarse indeed. Why anyone would take this hipster model for a sex symbol is beyond me; she acts like a dominatrix. But the violence translates to the music, which is downright exhilarating. Nick Zinner’s wildly loaded guitar tears up the album, calmly cruising forward for a while, then suddenly detonating with a killer riff veering in and out of nowhere before immediately regaining control, only it won’t be long before he loses it again, and somehow each song manages to follow this unbearably tense pattern. Soaked in hideous distortions and indiscriminate echo, the band rumbles with severe, vaguely gothic muscle you can’t help but admire. At any rate, O earns her proclamation: “Heed the call my slave,” “I wanna be an alien,” “I will suck your, suck your, suck your… blood!”

Even if you’re not invested in sadomasochism or extracting pleasure from pain, not to mention the alternative-rock pose, this band will thrill as long as you like having fun and don’t mind getting your hands dirty. There’s nothing to extract on this jarring album. All the pleasure is right on the surface.

Satinder Sartaaj: Afsaaney Sartaaj De

Satinder Sartaaj

Firdaus, 2013 [BUY]

I thought this Sufi singer had invented a revolutionary new style of international crossover until I realized those weren’t synthesizers at all; this album is mostly if not entirely acoustic, which shocked and impressed me even more. How it’ll go over in India I have no idea, but from the warped perspective of Western pop, always my frame of reference, it’s remarkably unified and singular.

From what I’ve read about the lyrics, they seem pretty preachy, with one song allegedly an ode to all the dead trees in the world. This could be why it’s easy to put aside the language barrier and enjoy the record as sound. Saturated with the cheap waves of the harmonium pipe organ, its smashing sitar/lute/etc figures simply mesmerize, creeping along at their own majestic pace, and the popping hand drums seem ancillary to the motion of the music, as the constant riffs are plucked so relentlessly and rhythmically they churn out a woozy self-contained dynamic. It’s slow and weird; it’s warm and glowing; it tickles and gushes and soars. Every second is plotted out so as to maximize its aesthetic intrigue, and even on the most plodding songs Sartaaj’s calm lightness leads the glimmering backup to swelling, repetitive climaxes. His melodies are simple, circular, and theoretically capable of looping onward to eternity.

With Sartaaj’s calm chant radiating supreme, serene wisdom, this album is a painkiller, meant to help you relax and get stress off your back. Don’t be surprised if it excites you as well.

Lady Antebellum: Golden

Lady Antebellum

Capitol Nashville/Universal, 2013 [BUY]

Ever since 2011, when I took a relatively large number of planes and heard Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” played gently in the background before takeoff on every single one of them (I counted! and on more than one airline!), I’ve thought of this band as the epitome of megacorporation Nashville blandout. Vanilla-smooth, with only regional color separating them from that big, undefined, squishy mass of adult-oriented rock, they truly are the modern Doobie Brothers.

Despite the brightly soulful guitar picking, the drippy pedal steel, the generic-Southern singers, the way power ballads start sounding restrained once you’ve heard eleven of them in a row all steamrollering their way on home, babe, the album isn’t as generalized or homogenized as it sounds at first. In fact, I count two lyrical details in “Better Off Now that You’re Gone” alone. Although they’re another chapter in the timeless tale of inoffensivity as commercial strategy, don’t ever think they’re not offensive. The way they professionally and skillfully appropriate countrified instrumental techniques, decorate them with clichés, scrub them clean with bright production overlay, and serve it all up in a delicious melting pot of banality insults the American public whether the American public knows it or not.

Band members Hilary Scott, Charles Kelley, and Dave Haywood remain faceless the whole way through, nothing wrong with that, might as well buy it, right? And hey, they’re refined, subtle, and tasteful by the standards of egregious overkill. Wouldn’t want to offend anybody, now.

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This week, the world’s lightest paint, Pakistan’s feminist movement, World Puppy Day, and were some of Vermeer’s paintings created by his daughter?

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Lucas Fagen

Lucas Fagen's favorite artform is popular music, and that means popular music—bland corporate trash and faceless functional product in addition to critically respectable touchstones and obscure...

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