All Songs Considered

Columbia House (actually, the company that has owned Columbia House since 2012) filed for bankruptcy this week, which will mean a great deal to those who were music lovers in the 1980s and '90s, and probably close to nothing to listeners under the age of 30. Columbia House was a mail-order music warehouse, which used cheap (or free) LPs, then 8-tracks, then cassettes and CDs to rope customers into its full-price subscription service.

The inimitable harpist and singer/songwriter Joanna Newsom released new music this week, her first since 2010's Have One On Me. Every aspect of Newsom's work is precise and impeccable: her intricate harp work, her striking, delicate vocals and her sweeping lyrics. It's no wonder her records come out four to five years apart — a tapestry as rich as the one she weaves takes time.

David Wax and Suz Slezak, the married couple who form David Wax Museum, have put an extraordinary amount of research and work into their sound.

This week, the All Songs team picks songs that sound like revolutions. Bob Boilen is out, so co-host Robin Hilton is joined by Katie Presley in D.C. and Timmhotep Aku in New York. The trio shares big, smashy music that lets Robin engage in his once-yearly purge of emotion.

In 1998, Unwound was closing in on the height of its powers. Two years earlier, the Olympia band had released the career-defining Repetition, which dug into Unwound's weirder grooves with a muscle-constricting tension that, when released, made it feel as if the world was opening up. Challenge For A Civilized Society explored that mode with more studio experimentation, as the band added synths, saxophone and samples. The result was pulsing, ecstatic.

LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This song contains sexually explicit language.

Singer-songwriter Amy Bezunartea's latest single, "Oh The Things A Girl Must Do" is gently sung, but it's not an easy listen. Bezunartea's voice and her soft guitar play in stark contrast to her frank, razor-sharp lyrics about the pressures put on women. A shocking turn for the NSFW (not safe for work) reveals the simmering frustration undercutting this deceptively straightforward piece of acoustic folk rock.

I savor the moment of finding a band to love. I relish those first singles and EPs, and hearing their live sound take shape on record. And then they release their debut album.

Look, we all have work to do. But it's Friday, and this drum fill puzzler isn't going to quiz itself. So put down whatever you're doing, put on your headphones and see how many of these fills you can match to the right song. I'd give this week's Drum Fill Friday three out of five for difficulty.

Good luck, careful listeners, and as always, if you have a drummer or a fill you'd like to see featured in these weekly puzzlers, let us know in the comments section or via Twitter @allsongs, #drumfillfriday.

Brooklyn disco house group Escort always sounds like a party, and that's only partially because they have up to 17 musicians onstage at once. More vital to the vibe is the band's seamless blending of deep house beats and disco glitter, the product of co-founders and producers Eugene Cho and Dan Balis, plus buttery R&B singing by Adeline Michèle. This song, "Animal Nature," is sexy and fun — a perfect marriage of homage and invention.

Boston's Guster has been together for almost 25 years, and released its seventh record in January. But it hasn't forgotten its roots as a college band playing parties at Tufts University, angling for opening slots when other, bigger bands came through town.

A cover song need not be a revolution. Singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin approaches her latest single, a Tom Waits cover, with a light enough touch to please her fans and Waits followers alike.

Seattle hip-hop duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis released a new song today, their first since 2012 blockbuster The Heist. "Growing Up" is not being marketed as a lead single for any upcoming project; according to the pair's publicist, it's "a personal moment of expression" from rapper Ben Haggerty and producer Lewis. (The chorus is sung by Ed Sheeran.)

Gloom can be thrilling. No, really. Rev up a morose guitar riff swirled in reverb with a mean rhythm section, and suddenly a dank basement show throbs. That's where Cleveland's Pleasure Leftists thrive, with former members of the hardcore bands 9 Shocks Terror and Homostupids joined by vocalist Haley Morris.

After a series of singles and EPs, "Protection" comes from the post-punk band's debut album, The Woods Of Heaven. It's a moody, relentlessly driving track with some glammy, palm-muted flair, spun out of orbit by a warbly bass line and vocals that wail sky-high.

Partnerships between well-known musicians often result in unequal collaborations: One voice, usually the singer's, winds up dominating. So it's refreshing to hear "Return To The Moon," the first released song by a project called EL VY.

Look at the liner notes to any record by The Go-Betweens, and every song is co-credited "R. Forster/G. McLennan." Perhaps it was out of mutual respect, perhaps it was out of creative solidarity, but as with "Lennon/McCartney," fans of the Australian rock band could always tell who wrote what song; Grant McLennan and Robert Forster's distinct songwriting, vocal and guitar personalities were always on full display.

Lou Barlow has always been a restless - often anxious - old soul. In three decades of making music, first with Dinosaur Jr., later with Sebadoh and Folk Implosion, the guitarist and songwriter has tried to make sense of his place in the world with a prolific run of spare, emotionally raw, and plain-spoken songs.

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the brick-sized bale of bills that arrived during our recent vacation is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives. This time around: thoughts on how to play DJ from the passenger seat of a friend's car.

Sometimes rock 'n' roll can be a load of bull, gamed by release schedules, promotion cycles and Twitter beefs that turn as tepid as a beer left swimming in a swampy cooler all night. Featuring two guys who've been through the grind — Zak Sally played bass with Low in the '90s and Dale Flattum was in Steel Pole Bath Tub — and Gay Witch Abortion drummer Shawn Walker, The Hand has decided to cut through it all: no records, no tours, no studios, just dirty, full-throttle rock 'n' roll how they want it, when they want it.

"It's all love songs this time," says Mac DeMarco when we connect over Skype (cell reception at his place in Far Rockaway, Queens, is spotty) to talk about Another One, his latest mini-album. Make that love songs with little problems: Each of the songs on this charming, scruffy collection takes on love that's just out of reach, whether it's doomed from the start or just run its course. "It's just kind of like every angle of how somebody might feel if they're having strange feelings in their chest," DeMarco says.

Recommended Dose, our monthly column of the best in underground dance music, took June off while we argued over our favorite tracks of the first half of 2015. (You can see them here and listen to them here.) So we broke the rules and included a few cuts from June that we didn't hear while hunkered down in the NPR Music war room.

Guest DJ: Leon Bridges

Jul 28, 2015

The first line of Palehound's "Cushioned Caging" begins in the middle of a thought. "And when the organ starts a-playin," sings frontwoman Ellen Kempner, whose voice arrives in a crashing wave of sound after a twangy, beachy one-chord intro. It sends a message that resonates through the rest of the too-brief song: This ain't the half of it.

I'd never imagined a great song poet writing "Getting Ready to Get Down," but there we have it. It's a hard and humorous look at religion, sex and a "risky" teenager becoming herself despite Bible school intervention. I talked with Josh Ritter about this song, and you can hear that interview and the song here or subscribe to the All Songs Considered podcast.

The guitars that open "Rider of Days," the first single from folk giant Patty Griffin's forthcoming album Servant of Love, take a moment to come into focus. They swim up from silence and surface just in time for Griffin's unmistakable voice to arrive and settle over them. Everything about "Rider of Days" is a slow burn, in the same way a victory lap is taken slower than the rest of the race.

Sufjan Stevens told the Newport Folk Festival crowd that this was his dream come true. What he never would have imagined in his wildest of dreams was that his performance was to follow a surprise performance from James Taylor. He was humbled to play after "Sweet Baby James," but honestly, his songs carry a power similar to that of Taylor's for a new generation of folk music fans.

The most puzzling musician on the lineup at the 2015 Newport Folk Festival was easily Pink Floyd's Roger Waters. For me, Pink Floyd represents the antithesis of folk music, with the band's psychedelic pulsating landscapes and big rock drums and guitars. Out there and psychedelic, yeah — down home and folky, nope.

A Playlist For Newborns

Jul 24, 2015

On last week's All Songs +1, we shared the songs we think make a great introduction to the world of music for a newborn child.

We also asked you to share the first song you think a newborn should hear. Your picks spanned hundreds of years and nearly as many genres, from stirring orchestral works by Beethoven and Mahler to classics by Louis Armstrong and John Denver and softer songs by contemporary artists like My Morning Jacket and Phosphorescent.

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