The Uncluded, "Hokey Fright" (Rhymesayers)
Aesop Rock is a weighty rapper, with loads of ballast to his voice, and his words carry a gothic bite. That's especially true when he's talking about deep excavation of dark corners, as he does throughout this unrelentingly intimate and vivid debut that dispenses with comfort almost altogether. The Uncluded is a 50-50 collaboration between the loquacious Aesop Rock, one of the great finds of indie hip-hop's high tide from the late-'90s/early-'00s, and the nimble post-folkie Kimya Dawson, late of the Moldy Peaches. Together they produced all the music, a combination of noodly folk and cloudy, mildly industrial hip-hop, and they trade verses equitably.
Both have extreme, exaggerated voices — Aesop Rock's froggy churn, and Dawson's cheery whisper — that on their own have been intermittently thrilling and off-putting over the years. But on the affecting "Hokey Fright" these wandering talents find unlikely companionship. The combination of Dawson's wide-eyed wonder and Aesop Rock's grizzled wisdom makes for eerie stuff, like "Organs," a warm rumination on the importance of organ donation, or the genuinely harrowing "TV on 10," about plane crashes.
Aesop Rock has the grimmest moments here; often it's up to Dawson to leaven the mood ever so slightly. She tackles love, with characteristic awkward vim. And she cradles this album in hope, making it safe, after all the confession and tragedy, to come out renewed on the other side.
The Uncluded performs June 30 at Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis.
JON CARAMANICA, New York Times
Fitz & the Tantrums, "More Than Just a Dream" (Elektra)
From Sharon Jones to Mayer Hawthorne, indie labels and rock clubs are chock-full of retro-soul acts now, offering varying degrees of stylish nostalgia and earnest emotionalism in an age when both seem lacking. You would have counted Fitz & the Tantrums, the L.A. sextet fronted by Michael Fitzpatrick, among them. But on its second release, the band has chosen to exchange its former obsession, the Motown 1960s, for an '80s template that incorporates synth-pop and Hall & Oates-style blue-eyed soul.
The impulse to separate themselves from the pack is a good one, and the band's songs are still catchy, but for every experiment that works, such as the opener, "Out of My League," there's another, such as "Break the Walls," in which the human element is swallowed up in a blaring wall of production.
Fitz & the Tantrums performs June 16-17 at the Varsity Theater in Minneapolis.
Dan DeLuca, Philadelphia Inquirer