Posts tagged: indie pop

She & Him – Volume 3

By , May 6, 2013 12:00 pm


She & Him – Volume 3

Merge Records 2013

Rating: 5/10

It’s hard to tell whether She & Him have moved past the point of novelty or remain tarnished by it. On the one hand, the group’s collection of records has had nary a “bad” song on it. Forgettable, at times? Yes. Uninspiring, at others? Almost certainly, but throughout Volume 1 and Volume 2 and now Volume 3 the pair have maintained a reliable pop professionalism that has occasionally created sparks of black-and-white brilliance, an unerring portrait of a time when “I could’ve been your girl / you could’ve been my four-leaf clover,” was all that was needed for one starry-eyed girl to tell the heartbreaker in his varsity jacket. Few artists have recreated (and, arguably, mastered) a specific sound as lovingly as She & Him. The playful pop instincts of the Beach Boys rub shoulders with the wistfulness of ‘60s girl groups; doo-wop meshes imperceptibly with Brill Building melodies and hints of Nancy Sinatra sass; sweeping Phil Spector symphonics unfurl like a velvety blanket next to carefree fingerpicking and aw-shucks guitar pop. At their best, She & Him transport you to somewhere else, where Zooey Deschanel isn’t a star and M. Ward is just the man behind the curtain, another in a long line of faceless studio hired hands. It’s a place where the magic is in the simplicity of the songs and the everyday romance they conjure, effortlessly and innocently. But, shit – a Christmas album? And now Volume 3, a record so tightly and painstakingly circumscribed by its period sounds and M. Ward’s polite production that it loses any mild sense of personality She & Him have managed to acquire in the past few years, just at a time when Deschanel should be staking her own artistic identity loudly and firmly.

Here, M. Ward indeed becomes that man behind the curtain, his signature blues touch only a faint whisper among the carefully manicured jazz inflections and retro indie pop tailor-made for a summer Sunday – preferably spent down at the local soda fountain. When things are spiced up, as on the faux-disco of “Together” or on the rumbling cover of Blondie’s “Sunday Girl,” it barely registers a notch above the rest of Volume 3’s flawlessly produced, entirely inoffensive sounds, lest Ward disturb the neighbors. Previous records reveled in these same sounds, true, yet they did it with some vigor, a certain punchiness and spice that kept them bouncing around in your head far longer than they rightfully should have. Volume 3 prefers to keep the focus on Deschanel, and while the melodies remain, they too often seem like just another part of the tapestry, not the selling point. Yet where Volume 3 might have been picked up accordingly by a more prominent performance by Deschanel, the singer remains just as suppressed by the strict adherence to this genre exercise as Ward. Deschanel has never had trouble sounding wounded, but her voice here rarely jumps out at you – she prefers to just play the role rather than live it. Even when she’s obviously having fun, as she does on the whimsical “Sunday Girl” or the quintessential torch song (“Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me”), it inevitably feels rote, a certain tastefulness that is pretty and nostalgic, yet largely uninteresting.

It’s unclear whether this is a result of Ward’s unusually subdued production or Deschanel’s own limitations as a songwriter, but this is where She & Him’s self-imposed restraints tend to sabotage their artistic growth. Deschanel writes fine pop songs, but at this point, the tired ‘50s tropes and Grease-styled romantic calamities unfairly handicap her palette and diminish her talents. As a result, Volume 3 can’t flourish under the force of her considerable personality or Ward’s craftsmanship, because the latter has been deadened and the former is unwilling to break the illusion. Until one or the other makes a change, it seems doubtful that She & Him will ever become more than a particularly well-credentialed homage.

While I was going about my life recently, sipping fair-trade coffee, reading Yelp! reviews of the latest artisan food truck in my neighborhood and listening to the dulcet tones of Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward’s latest, a tragedy befell my otherwise perfectly acceptable and entirely ordinary day. Horror of horrors, my speakers’ power supply failed. Forced to listen to the rest of Volume 3 on my laptop, a poorly treated device at best, I had an epiphany; perhaps this is how She & Him were always meant to be enjoyed. Tinny, occasionally distorted, as if I was hijacking an AM signal under my bed sheets while trying not to wake my parents, who very much believe in a young boy getting a good’s night rest.  Alas, this remains the biggest problem with She & Him, a band more than capable of writing a great tune that nevertheless has a hard time engaging in anything resembling forward progress: no matter how many steps they take, you’re almost always guaranteed to end up with them, at the end of it all, right where they started.

With fourteen songs 11 Deschanel originals and three covers Volume 3 is an effortlessly effervescent, bleached-in-the-sun pop record. The album features some of the most dynamic, complex songs Deschanel has ever written, allowing for tempo shifts, disco grooves, string arrangements on multiple tracks, and horn flourishes that perfectly suit the She & Him sound. Produced by M. Ward and recorded in LA, Portland, and New York City, Volume 3 features guest contributions from NRBQ's Joey Spampinato, Mike Watt, Tilly and the Wall, Pierre de Reeder from Rilo Kiley, and Tom Hagerman from Devotchka.
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Release date May 7, 2013.

Shout Out Louds – Optica

By , February 27, 2013 12:00 pm


Shout Out Louds – Optica

Merge Records 2013

Rating: 6/10

Our late, great Robin Smith called Our Ill Wills “a collection of songs that captured whatever they wanted to capture in their fleeting minutes,” an album “sung delicately and beautifully” and “a sugar hit even at its saddest,” and that’s about as compelling a summary of Shout Out Louds’ wistful, sunset-streaked romanticism as I could ever hope to muster. Smith called them cute and irrelevant, too, but mixed messages aside, Our Ill Wills was a highpoint for Swedish indie pop, for a genre and culture that dominated the blogosphere back when getting a song on an iPod commercial meant something. The craftsmanship and melodicism that made Shout Out Louds the Great Northern Hope has never really abandoned them, but the emotional nakedness that singer Adam Olenius used to drag us through the dirt with him appeared to be left out in the cold after “Hard Rain” ended with thunder in 2007. That’s a shame, too – their last effort, Work, was a pristine, efficient model of indie pop, sparkling in its harmonies and immediate in its hooks but with a production that was cold to the touch. It was the wrong kind of icy northern beauty.

Shout Out Louds’ core aesthetic has always been wrapping up the heartbreak and the grief and the nostalgia, all those pesky human frailties, around a wonderfully warm tapestry of bright, impeccably produced pop. It helps that Olenius yips like the Swedish Robert Smith, but the weight of the world – or the weight of the collective critical shrug that greeted Work – has had its effect. That spirited yelp is more controlled and conversational, a happy voice only on its face but still game; the lilting, Shins-y “Sugar” and the measured disco-rock of “Illusions” start Optica off on the right clog. Even when Olenius is little more than a withdrawn mumble on “Glasgow,” the band’s golden ear for production pays off, bringing in the lovely Bebban Stenborg for some backing vocals that shoots the melancholia through with a vibrant bit of whimsy. Despite doubling down on an electronic sound that pays homage to New Order and washed-out ‘80s dance, Optica feels more lived-in than its uber-professional predecessor, earnest and inviting despite the voluminous, cold soundscapes it inhabits. Glacial first single “Blue Ice” has no right to sound as interesting as it is – a warmed over midtempo ballad, one of many that swoon along to expansive synths and indulge in lyrics cribbed from your high school’s worst closeted romantic – but that lush production is a cosmic joy, painted in the same glorious Technicolor swathes the band’s video for it evokes.

The choruses are huge, the production immaculate, the vocal performances an adequately torn mix of regret and heartbreak and sugary climaxes, yet Optica never really latches on in any meaningful way. The closest it comes is when dissonance threatens to break through and rip that carefully woven tapestry just a little. Stenborg’s brisk turn on the creepy “Hermila,” the hot-blooded “14th of July,” and the antagonistic guitar squawks and discordant synths that twist through closer “Destroy” like the ghost in the machine all stand out mainly because they demand the facade let its guard down for a second, to let those emotional cracks reveal themselves in more than just the lyrics. It’s a paradoxical situation for Shout Out Louds – the better they’ve gotten at refining their craft, at writing the perfect chorus and combining them seamlessly with organic, vivid sonics, the further away they’ve gotten from the wounded empathy that drove their earlier records. At least ice burns. Optica too often feels like nothing at all.

Shout Out Louds took their time with these songs, recording for about 1.5 years in a small Stockholm studio and producing themselves for the first time with help from Johannes Berglund. A theme emerged and Optica was born, an album celebrating color and light from a band confident in its sound.
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A Fine Frenzy – Sailingsong

By , October 17, 2012 10:00 am

Alison Sudol aka A Fine Frenzy has changed in her red locks for blonde ones, and with that comes a third album that is far more ambitious than anything the singer-songwriter has ever attempted. Pines is an imposing record, coming in at over an hour and ostensibly an overarching story where each song leads into the other, like “chapter[s] that lead into the next,” as Sudol herself described it. It also comes with a companion book and a short animated film, and although I don’t know how Pines works with those, I can confirm that the album lives up to its grand concept, more contemplative and folky than her previous works. Whether its the strong thematic threads or just a greater focus, Pines is definitely her most engaging work. “Sailingsong” is the catchiest thing here, a welcome up tempo burst that pops up optimistically at the midpoint of the record.

A Fine Frenzy – “Sailingsong”

A.C. Newman – Shut Down the Streets

By , October 16, 2012 10:00 am

A.C. Newman – Shut Down the Streets

Matador 2012

Rating: 7/10

At this point, it’s hard for Carl Newman to defy the expectations automatically placed upon any album bearing his name. There are the two albums with Zumpano, a ‘90s power-pop outfit (see: Sloan, also of the Great White North, who did it better). The five eerily consistent albums with the New Pornographers, a Canadian power-pop “supergroup” who reasonably could only fall under that term if you were a fervent follower of obscure ‘90s indie acts or in tune with mildly popular transplanted alt-country singers. Now, with Shut Down the Streets, three albums of sparkling solo work, releases that tend to weigh heavily on the side of (surprise!) power-pop, while leaning ever so slightly towards the ‘70s singer-songwriter tropes that Newman has long worshipped and bolstered by a seemingly endless bag of hooks and melodies that would make Costello and McCartney proud. It’s perhaps a tragedy of the digital age that for over the course of all these songs Newman has cultivated a distinct identity that, in a different time, may have made him one of a generation’s truly great songsmiths; as it stands now, this consistency has nevertheless marked him as “that guy from the New Pornographers.” He is the straitlaced pop scholar to Dan Bejar’s schizophrenic genre outlaw, the driving engine behind the success of one of indie’s biggest millennial bands but never the kind to pull on any heartstrings, to really stand up and beg to be noticed. Shut Down the Streets is an album that longs to defeat that perception, to go onward into some brave new territory – hell, Newman seems to already be there on the album cover – but it can’t help but keep one foot in the past.

Easy signposts to point to for the album are the much-reported death of his mother and birth of his son, two seismic life events for any person, much less in such close proximity to each other and in the midst of that person recording an album. It’s easy because Newman has never been so heart-on-his-sleeve with his songwriting as he is here, holding forth on grief and newborn love with equal, unusual candor. The gradual triumphant swell that bubbles to the surface in album centerpiece “Strings” is far less deliberate than past major-key jubilations like Get Guilty’s “There Are Maybe Ten Or Twelve,” utilizing this album’s wider palette of sounds and instruments to a pronounced, organic effect. With it, the song’s understated chorus of “we’ve been waiting for you” is a heartbreakingly simple depiction of a father’s love rather than a bombastic, orchestrated declaration.

The album has a more bucolic tone than anything in Newman’s past work, a pastoral hue that calls to mind John Wesley Harding-era Bob Dylan and the work of New Pornos associate Neko Case (who is on board for some typically lovely harmonic contributions). Mixing elements of misty blue-eyed folk with his more typical baroque pop arrangements, that Americana edge that Newman has always tended so carefully yet shown so sparingly bears some pleasantly surprising fruit in tracks like “You Could Get Lost Out Here” and the rural jig of “The Troubadour.” Indeed, it’s the tracks that call to mind the past that tend to distract from the album’s overall feel. “Encyclopedia of Classic Takedowns” is a prototypical New Pornographers single, right down to that rollicking backbeat, clink-your-PBRs-together chorus and Case’s howling backing vocals, while “There’s Money in New Wave” is just the kind of carefully enunciated twee ballad Newman can’t help but writing at least once an album. At other times, the album’s distinct style detracts from the song’s themselves: the woodwind that skips about merrily introducing “Hostages” is one such example, gone as abruptly as it is introduced until a brief reemergence in the second half, an outsized distraction in an otherwise unremarkable pop-rock tune.

While decidedly uneven and lacking in the sheer number of hooks a regular dose of Newman provides, Shut Down the Streets does have two of the best songs of his long career in opener “I’m Not Talking” and closer “They Should Have Shut Down the Streets.” The former is a master class in songwriting, something that sounds like it was lifted wholesale from some glen in the ‘60s, and the subtle percussion and even the damn woodwind build to something truly magical, that affecting assurance, “No, I’ve never been close, but I’ve never been far away.” The latter is a slow burning recollection of his mother’s death, as quiet and contemplative as “I’m Not Talking” is soaring and rhapsodic. Both are fundamentally melancholy but at opposite ends of the spectrum in tone and the feelings they engender. With two bookends like these, it’s perhaps too easy to write off everything in between as not up to snuff, and while that may be unfair, it’s also inevitable – it’s these scattered moments of brilliance that make everything else seem so inconsequential. Shut Down the Streets is no doubt a flawed record, but the more I listen to it the more I see not just A.C. Newman the preternaturally gifted power-pop auteur in its failures and its successes but also Carl Newman the person, more relatable than he has ever been before.

A.C. Newman may best be known as the leader of The New Pornographers, but he has also made much-loved solo albums. These show a more personal and intimate side to Carl's songwriting, and on Shut Down The Streets, recorded in Woodstock in Upstate New York, he is joined by longtime colleague Neko Case to make one of his most gorgeous, wide-ranging records yet.
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Earlimart – U&Me

By , October 15, 2012 10:00 am

Blissed out indie pop duo Earlimart release their seventh album tomorrow. Entitled System Preferences, the record continues down the slow burning path that 2008′s Hymn & Her laid out. With Ariana Murray’s vocals now firmly entrenched alongside founder and Elliott Smith-worshipper Aaron EspinozaSystem Preferences is a meticulously produced collection of midtempo singer-songwriter pop, with a focus on gorgeous melodic inflections and haunting lyrics than any captivating hooks. Opener “U&Me” is a fine example, never rising above more than a druggy mist but percolating together pleasantly enough in that hazy guitar and piano motif near the end. Music easy to get lost in.

Earlimart – “U&Me”

A.C. Newman – Strings

By , October 9, 2012 10:00 am

My favorite ginger is releasing his third solo album today, entitled Shut Down the Streets on Matador Records. A.C. Newman has always been the driving force behind the New Pornographers‘, the more straitlaced pop scholar to Dan Bejar’s crazy, off-kilter firebrand, and his solo work has always polished those pop instincts, oftentimes more contemplative and bucolic than his work with the New Pornos. Shut Down the Streets is probably his most mellow work yet, working in a wider palette of sounds and instruments than usual and keeping things at a steady, pastoral midtempo for much of the record. “Strings” is a perfect example, weaving slowly up through that plucked melody and booming percussion and some always welcome harmonies from fellow New Porno Neko Case, all accompanying a melody that keeps rising to a fulfilling, horn-drenched apex.

A.C. Newman – “Strings”

Ben Gibbard – Bigger Than Love

By , October 4, 2012 10:00 am

So, the long-awaited breakup album came not via a new Death Cab for Cutie but frontman Ben Gibbard’s first proper solo album. Death Cab’s 2011 release Codes and Keys waffled around atmospheric synths and songs that preferred to stretch out rather than get to the point. Gibbard’s new record, Former Lives, is a much more simple affair, rooted in a holy trinity of guitar, piano, and Gibbard’s preternaturally lovely voice. It’s all the better for it, allowing the music to center around the classic melodies and the lyrics (always Gibbard’s strongest talent). The underrated Aimee Mann joins in on “Bigger Than Love,” the album’s surging centerpiece.

Ben Gibbard – “Bigger Than Love”

of Montreal – Micro University

By , October 2, 2012 10:00 am

Because of Montreal never does anything half-assed, Kevin Barnes and company will be releasing a voluminous rarities compilation on October 23, entitled Daughter of Cloud (sixteen originals and an out-of-left-field Buffalo Springfield cover), just a few months after releasing one of 2012′s weirdest albums. “Micro University” is one of the confirmed tracks, and reminds me a bit of the band’s emphasis on funk on Skeletal Lamping along with the more straightforward pop inflections of Satanic Panic in the Attic.

of Montreal – “Micro University”

Taken By Trees – Highest High

By , September 20, 2012 10:00 am

From east to west – Swedish songwriter Victoria Bergsman aka Taken By Trees has had a hankering for international travels the past few years which resulted in 2009′s lovely, underrated East of Eden. That enchanting album took Eastern music (particularly Pakistani) and welded it to Bergsman’s twee, melodically airtight indie-pop. New album (and third under this moniker) Other Worlds continues the trend, this time inspired from Bergsman’s trip to Hawaii. The album is more clearly in the pop arena than East of Eden was; Bergsman’s talents as seen with Peter Bjorn & John and her time as frontwoman of the Concretes have clearly not deserted her. The island elements are omnipresent, though, although here it is less directly implicated in the instruments and tones than East of Eden. As the album’s press release says, it’s less a representation of the state’s music and more an evocation of “sandy toes, hidden waterfalls, the dreams you have after a long day at the beach.” “Highest High” is a good taste of what you’re going to get from Other Worlds, and it sounds about right.

Taken By Trees – “Highest High”

Wild Nothing – Only Heather

By , September 18, 2012 10:00 am

I never got around to listening to Wild Nothing’s critically acclaimed debut Gemini back in 2010, but that will shortly be rectified. The shoegaze/dream pop brainchild of Blacksburg, Virginia native Jack Tatum just released their sophomore effort Nocturne at the end of August, and it’s a warm, hazy indie pop record with some sparkling production values and the kind of blissed-out melodies that Washed Out would appreciate, with less reverb. “Only Heather” is a succinct representation of just how Tatum can make an unassuming melody sound crisp and full and like you heard it first on one of your parent’s records, on a vinyl forty years old.

Wild Nothing – “Only Heather”

Jens Lekman – I Know What Love Isn’t

By , September 12, 2012 10:00 am

Jens Lekman – I Know What Love Isn’t

Secretly Canadian 2012

Rating: 8/10

I’m probably not quite with it to give Jens Lekman his dues, and for that I thank you, future run-ins with spellchecker, but anyway: of love songs, Lekman pointed I Know What Love Isn’t to break-ups, and speaking to Pitchfork claimed that a record centred around one is made by accepting, hand in hand with its listener, the pain of it all. Up until now, this is hardly the man we’ve known; the You’re So Silent Jens laughed, played maudlin piano trilogies about Rocky Dennis, and then dedicated retro dance songs to himself; the love-song aspect was there, but driving backseat to the witticisms and showy moments. Until now, Lekman has been the perfect performer and the ideal entertainer, to the point where he even pronounced “father” as “fadduh,” as if he was bringing up Camp Granada’s easy-humour on the indie spectrum. What makes I Know What Love Isn’t feel different is that the laughs reveal the romantic twangs a little after, like the joke that dies out to sad sighs; instead of standing by his Stephin Merritt, eye-rolling shtick, Lekman has made an album of sad love prophecies, focusing on the story of two people rather than the remarks of one. “The World Moves On,” his six minute dance anthem- given all its fun rock conventions- isn’t all that fun when you realise it’s genuinely about the world moving on.

What strikes boldest, then, is that there’s nothing particularly weird about Lekman’s music when it’s at its sincerest; these songs are those of a storyteller truly documenting, as well as he can, what has happened; “I Know What Love Isn’t,” the fullest, most conventional Lekman song to date, is based on his experiences of almost proposing to his friend for citizenship and completely non-romantic ideals. And it sums up exactly what I Know What Love Isn’t- I’m talking album, here- amounts to; the serious perspective of Lekman channelled, as per usual, through funny conversations (“do you wanna go see a band? / no I hate bands, it’s always full of men spooning their girlfriends?”) and musical arrangements that sound as funny. Here comes the flute solo! And so Lekman continues to borrow from his own long tradition- that it’s easy to laugh a problem off- but on what he considers to be his first real “album,” he also decides to examine it.

I Know What Love Isn’t is focused on what’s quixotic in the process of elimination- what makes Lekman tick, at this point, is writing big, romantic arrangements and having lines that demarcate: “let’s get married for the citizenship / I’ve always liked the idea of a relationship that doesn’t lie about it’s intentions,” he sings on the title track while it flourishes- the bravado of guitar smacking around verses and choruses, the violin swells and, yes, the flute solos, all celebrating little more than Lekman’s rational peace of mind. Or maybe I Know What Love Isn’t mourns the death of Jens Lekman the romanticist? Apparently, it’s the exact same guy, but using the same tools- marriage, violin swells- as sombre facts of life.

The album is the result of its own thought process, and ultimately becomes the most revealing thing Lekman has written, even if it is his most succinct record. Lines seem less about the big laugh, even in similar arrangements- “Erica America,” for instance, feels sad more than anything, and so a quiet line like “Sinatra had his shit figured out, I guess” is genuinely a quiet line. That’s something- I Know What Love Isn’t doesn’t try to be funny, because at times it really isn’t (a line from the same song: “Erica America, I wish I’d never met you / like I wish I’d never tasted this cheap wine”), and because, ultimately, the album isn’t constructed that way. Lekman isn’t necessarily an entertainer here: he’s a man of music blooming in corners, with the littlest of piano performances on “Become Someone Else’s” or an honest-to-god singer-songwriter acoustic song elsewhere on “I Want a Pair of Cowboy’s Boots.” You can say what you want- it’s the same old Lekman, but only ten songs- but I know different.

And ultimately, a lot of I Know What Love Isn’t is flawed. “The End Of The World is Bigger Than Love” can be dull, and a slight feint at that; it suggests that the end of the world even factors in to Lekman’s mind on album entirely dedicated to love and the loss of love. “Some Dandruff On Your Shoulder” is a conversation first and a song later, so dedicated is it to Lekman’s newfound love of craft. But there’s something in this clunky, structural record that suggests a musician uncaring of where his career peak was or what even defines him anymore. At some point, there’s a musician writing what he believes to be an honest, appropriate break-up album. One that sticks with you quite morosely, that doesn’t look for the upside, particularly, but doesn’t shy away from the serious hilarity of the woman who doesn’t want to be with you but doesn’t actually have anyone else in mind. By peeling away all of love’s non-events, I Know What Love Isn’t is a tragicomedy, not particularly in one mind about what it is, but knowing it’s sort of awful. And so I’m probably in no state to understand Lekman’s album, and probably in the perfect state to overrate it, but as a conventional rock record, and an attempt at the immaculate indie Lekman has been striving to make, this feels right for him: finally, a record he made even in sad and happy. Sinatra may have had his shit worked out, but Jens doesn’t. Or, maybe that, again, is the point. He does, and it turns out his shit isn’t at all romantic.

The album came out of a break up which isn't a new story. He fell in love and it didn't work out. It borrows sparingly from the vast and colorful palette of sounds he created on Kortedala. I Know What Love Isn't has strings but not a string section, an upright piano not grand, a single saxophone, gracenotes from a flute, a lot of tambourine. Combined in exact proportions with Lekman's melancholy abstract lyrics, the songs evoke the classic sound of the Brill Building in it's heyday.
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Tilly and the Wall – Echo My Love

By , September 6, 2012 10:00 am

Arising out of the same scene that gave birth to such indie mainstays as Bright Eyesthe Faint and Cursive, Omaha, Nebraska natives Tilly and the Wall tended to look at the world through more rose-colored glasses than their contemporaries, as you’d expect from a band with a tap dancer fulfilling the primary percussive role. It was a perspective that fit in nicely on Saddle Creek sister label Team Love, which specialized in the kind of jangly indie pop Tilly and the Wall specialized in, and one that continues to this day after a hiatus of four years from 2008 release OHeavy Mood, their fourth album, is more of the same snotty power pop the quintet have been known for, with back-and-forth boy-girl vocals, gang choruses, and the signature tap dancing of Jamie Presnall (wife of singer/guitarist Derek Presnall – so indie of Montreal played at their wedding). Heavy Mood won’t be released until October 2, but for now check out “Echo My Love,” which takes things in a more shoegazey, contemplative (think ’80s teen romance) direction than much of their more sugary material.

Tilly and the Wall – “Echo My Love”

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