Club 8's seventh album —titled, winningly, The People's Record— serves as a reinvention. Where the Swedish indie-pop pair's past LPs tended towards twee meekness, lilting melancholy, and barely-there bossa nova, their latest is a blaring blow-out of Afro-Cuban percussion, highlife guitar, and balearic sway. Any cynics who'd dare suggest that Club 8 are trend-chasing will be silenced once they cop an earful of cuts like "Isn't That Great?" and "Back to A" and "Shape Up!"; utterly joyous pop-songs delivered with irrepressible energy. The People's Record is no better symbolized than by the giddy "We're All Going to Die," where Karolina Komstedt carols the refrain with unrestrained joy; Club 8 dancing in the face of their imminent demise.
Wildbirds and Peacedrums employ those most ancient of instruments —just percussion and voice— but their music normally doesn't sound ancient. That changes on Rivers, a twin-disc set whose first half, Retina, marshals military drums, a grim sense of crusade, and the Schola Cantorum Reykjavík Chamber Choir's heavenly voices into near-medieval reverie. The second stanza, Iris, is just as stripped down and solemn, but, here, Andreas Werliin dabbles solely with dappled steel-pan drums and shakers, sending soft showers of polyrhythm down on Mariam Wallentin's bruised crooning. Taken together, Rivers may lack the emotional peaks of 2009's The Snake, but it hardly dents Wildbirds and Peacedrums' reputation as one of indie's most individual duos.
Initially written for a one-off live performance, this collision between two of modern music's unstoppable forces-of-nature —Dave Longstreth and Björk— plays just as well as a play-at-home 21-minute suite as it did as a singular operetta. Here, Longstreth takes the titular mammal of his 2009 opus Bitte Orca and makes it a veritable totem. This song-cycle finds Björk 'playing' the matriarch of a pod of whales, with the cascading harmonies of the Dirty Projectors' dames her children. It's very much a composition for voices; a simple, unobtrusive rhythm-section sitting behind the host of caroling singers. Sure, it doesn't quite measure up to the respective regular-works of its star-cross'd collaborateurs, but, then again, what does?
Ólöf Arnalds' debut, Við og Við, kept things pared to bare bones: her ancient-sounding folksongs delivered, in a sharp Icelandic tongue, over brittle pluckings of guitar and violin. Whilst it's not surprising that the follow-up, Innundir Skinni, would build bigger arrangements, the way they totally change the tenor of Arnalds' songs is unexpected. Here, the cold, flinty, icy sounds of yore melt into a glowing warmth. Not just in the big gestures, either (like the caroling campfire chorus of "Vinur Minn," or the Celtic embrace of "Jonathan"), but in smaller ways; like the quiet breath of woodwinds that fog up "Madrid." Innundir Skinni even wears a wailing Björk co-vocal, on the slow-building "Surrender," with a sense of simple grace.
Sam Amidon's voice is best described as 'strangely effecting.' A strapping, banjo-plucking Vermont folkie, Amidon has a casual, unadorned, slightly froggy croak that never seems entirely in tune. And, yet, it's that quality that makes it hugely moving. There's something amazing —something utterly human— about hearing Amidon's vocal chords stretch, creakily, to match up to the swirling orchestral grandeur plotted by his pal Nico Muhly. On the biggest moments of his third album —like his astonishing R. Kelly re-write, "Relief," all Beth Orton harmonies, celesta sparkles, piano filigrees, and string swells— Amidon pitted against his orchestra sounds like a man genuflecting in the face of the awe-inspiring beauty of nature.
Where Sharon Van Etten's impressive debut album, Because I Was in Love, was a suite unbroken in its sorrow, her follow-up, the half-jokingly titled Epic, presents a more varied mood. The songs are still, uniformly, about navigating a destructive relationship —from the girlfriend-as-captive catharsis of "Love More," to the barbed conflicts of "Save Yourself," to the breezy ultimatum of "One Day"— but Van Etten dresses them in different threads; from Nico-esque harmonium gasps, to Nashville-ish dollops of sinuous pedal steel and saloon piano, to Laurel Canyon-like languour, respectively. The result is a record that finds Van Etten stepping into her own artistry; the bowed, bashful songstress of yore now steeled with conviction and confidence.