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It’s the Indie-Rock Time of Year: Five Great Albums to Check Out

Rocking out: Helen Marnie of Ladytron; Christopher Owens of Girls; Carrie Brownstein of Wild Flag.

Early September! It's that lovely time of year when big pop stars aren't yet releasing the albums they'd like you to be talking about come Christmas, but college kids are back on campus asking one another what's good — in other words, a terrific time to put out a great indie record. Today brings a whole stack of such records, with at least five of them distinctly worth hearing.

Ladytron, Gravity the Seducer
When your band makes cold, stylish synth-pop, there are generally two places you can wind up: Either you record the kinds of songs people play at parties and put in makeup commercials, or the kind teenagers obsess over in dark bedrooms at night. Ten years ago, when they released their first album, the Liverpool act Ladytron seemed like a particularly great version of the former. At some point, though — somewhere before releasing the incredible single "Destroy Everything You Touch" — they shifted decisively into the latter category, attracting the same kind of devotion fans gave Depeche Mode in the late eighties. So what comes after that? Chilling out, apparently. Gravity the Seducer is softer and hazier than usual, into pillowy textures and slow-moving coos instead of the sharp-lined electro-pop of the group's early days. It's as if someone's put them in a capsule and shot them up into a very empty patch of space. The album's a little too content to ease around gently and pad things out with instrumentals, as if it's tentative about making a big go of any new directions — but singer Helen Marnie's voice still has its delicious clarity, and its wondrous resemblance to a prerecorded announcement or phone tree.
Recommended If You Like: Partially spoiling your appetite for the M83 album that's coming in October.

Wild Flag, Wild Flag
The first track on Wild Flag's self-titled album is a love song about music — "the thump in your chest," the way it makes you move, the way it might save you. "Sound is the blood between me and you," says the chorus. It's a good mission statement, especially given what the women making it have already done with music: Wild Flag contains two thirds of Sleater-Kinney (drummer Janet Weiss and guitarist Carrie Brownstein), Rebecca Cole of the Minders, and singer-guitarist Mary Timony, whose work with the nineties band Helium has aged better than almost all its peers'. There's nothing on their self-titled debut that's so shockingly new (or panderingly nostalgic) as to explain the rave reviews it's gotten so far. But there is a whole lot of that "thump in your chest." Wild Flag throws out scads of ideas, and tears through them with real commitment (and plenty of muscly guitar solos) — the same sense of verve Sleater-Kinney fans fell in love with. And where that band always had a sense of desperate urgency around them, Wild Flag tends to sound like its members are just enjoying the hell out of what they're doing.
Recommended If You Like: Being over 30, arguing with people about what indie-rock used to mean, Sleater-Kinney, that wonderfully affected hiccupy voice Carrie Brownstein uses.
Related: Wild Flag Discuss Their New Album [NYM]

Das Racist, Relax
Relax is the first official release from these Brooklyn rappers, following two terrific mix tapes on which they were (a) exceedingly funny, (b) big rap nerds, (c) sharp-eyed chroniclers of the weirdnesses inherent in being South Asian or biracial in places like Brooklyn, (d) gleeful smart alecks about rap itself and the things you expect from rappers, and (e) pretty good rappers, actually. And since Relax is the kind of pop-music product you pay money for, as opposed to a free online mix tape, they've constructed it accordingly. The result could be the most fun and unexpected record you listen to this year — one of few on which you honestly lose your sense of what might come next, and get consistently delighted when you find out. There are colorful, danceable productions that dissect the idea of "pop rap" into something surprising, funny, and righteous; there's also plenty of hyped-up, dead-serious hip-hop. Typically there's a bit of each going on at any given moment, but good luck untangling the difference. Das Racist have always been good at putting duality into their lyrics — jokes that aren't jokes, taking hip-hop very seriously but not so seriously at all — but Relax is their first release that completes the package and gets that duality into the music itself.
Recommended If You Like: Laughing, reading about rap music on the Internet, finally hearing a "where I'm from" rap verse that involves Indian immigrants in Queens and the trip "from ESL to YSL."
Related: Das Racist Discuss Their New Album [NYM]

Girls, Father, Son, Holy Ghost
The music made by this (male) San Francisco band has approximately nothing in common with the aforementioned Das Racist record, but I get the same feeling of delight out of it; it just keeps swaying in funny directions. This is because Girls are what you might call eccentric. For their second LP, they seem to have gathered up all the things most modern bands would consider just a tad too goofy or obvious to try — a classical guitar interlude, a quaint song that sounds like something Ricky Nelson would have sung in the fifties, slow-burning eight-minute ballads, a stretch that sounds like sleepy Led Zeppelin — and tied them all together in a bundle; it's like coasting through the It's a Small World ride at Disneyland, only with different varieties of pop-rock instead of different nations. Front man Christopher Owens also specializes in lyrics so doggedly literal and real-world that they're un-ignorably affecting. (See, for instance, a song called "Saying I Love You.") There's always the temptation to explain this sensibility by pointing out that Owens grew up in the Children of God cult, cut off from popular music and left to discover it in his own way. Something about that explanation seems wrong — the music feels too savvy, too good at communicating for it to be true — but it paints a great picture of what this record's like: all these familiar parts, stuck together in a way that sounds anything but.
Recommended If You Like: Sunshine, shrooms, weird beardy guys in college dorms who think they're pretty deep and can sell you shrooms, the Beatles, "Ventura Highway."

St. Vincent, Strange Mercy
Last May, at a concert organized by writer Michael Azerrad, Annie Clark's project St. Vincent took up the task of covering two songs by the legendarily grim eighties band Big Black. By the time they were done, half the room seemed to have temporarily forgotten how to breathe. Clark's performance was alarmingly powerful, her guitar like a virtuosic rendition of glass shattering, her stage presence intimidatingly fierce. And the funny part was that despite the dashes of acid and cruelty all over St. Vincent's first two records, despite the level of technique that goes into everything Clark does, plenty of people were surprised — surprised that she could summon that level of dark intensity, that she could be so searing and visceral. Didn't she normally make nice ballads, the kind with woodwind arrangements?

And there were those who listened to her first two albums, with their gorgeous orchestrations and icy poise, and imagined they were somehow repressed — as if there were something rawer and less controlled in there, something like those Big Black covers, that Clark was reining in.

Here's hoping this new LP will settle these questions once and for all. Strange Mercy roves freely in every direction it wants, from steamy cooing to keyboards straight-out-of-the-seventies funk records; it doesn't sound the least bit clenched. It's just that the directions Clark likes to rove in are terrifically sly ones — full of perverse subtleties, not big explosions. She's a Hitchcock, not a Michael Bay. She's not afraid of burying tricks and barbs in her lyrics (even if you might not catch them), or letting her stellar guitar work jab in from the sidelines (even if you don't notice how good she is). She sets up expectations, then coyly disarms them, and leaves you ... unsettled. Her best work feels like it's inviting you into a luxurious room and then gradually letting on that it's all a very dangerous trap. And the best songs here — rich, aloof, and faintly sinister — are every bit as powerful as they'd be if she always came out with her guitar cranked loud and her guns blazing.
Recommended If You Like: Theater, heavy curtains, sitting in the dark, art-rock, the vast number of modern female artists who are reflexively compared to (or like to compare themselves to) Kate Bush.
Related: Annie Clark Discusses Her New Album

Photo: Simone Joyner/Redferns, Roger Kisby/Getty Images, Douglas Marshall/WireImage