The xx, “I See You” (Young Turks)
The xx’s tricks are two. Singers Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim talk to each other in song, carrying on a musical conversation like a postmodern Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner or anxiety-ridden Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. And ever since their self-titled debut album in 2009, they’ve made the most of minimalism, getting maximum emotional impact out of restrained arrangements that communicate unease while almost always opting to hold back rather than cut loose.
However, it’s the third wheel — keyboard player and producer Jamie xx (real last name: Smith) — who’s the difference-maker on the British band’s third album. Smith stepped out as a solo artist with 2015’s “In Colour,” and on “I See You” he fills out the band’s sound in inventive ways throughout, starting with the pitch-shifted sample of Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” that takes the album’s superb lead single “On Hold” by surprise.
Madley-Croft and Sim have always been skilled at conveying unresolved sexual tension that’s best suited to the dark corners of the chill-out room. Here, they brighten up and get moving to the dance floor.
DAN dELUCA, Philadelphia Inquirer
Natalie Hemby, “Puxico” (GetWrucke)
Hemby has spent most of her career helping others tell their stories. One of Nashville’s most in-demand songwriters, she co-wrote Miranda Lambert’s “Only Prettier,” Little Big Town’s “Pontoon,” as well as songs for Kelly Clarkson, Maren Morris, Kacey Musgraves and others.
But when it came time for Hemby’s debut album, the inspiration was all her own — the small town of Puxico, Mo., where her grandfather grew up and where she spent plenty of time.
Hemby’s brand of Americana is sweeter than most of her cohorts.’ The gorgeous “Ferris Wheel” shows off her delicate voice, balanced simply by pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz, as she uses the amusement park ride as a symbol and a metaphor. “Time Honored Tradition” shows how her vocals can lead something more rocking, even as she champions the importance of listening. But it’s Hemby’s storytelling that shines brightest on “Puxico,” which also provides the soundtrack to her documentary about the small town.
“Lovers on Display” spends plenty of time on the details of a young romance, riding the Tilt-A-Whirl, marching bands and holding hands. And it’s that lyrical voice that will make Hemby an artist to watch.
GLENN GAMBOA, Newsday
The Flaming Lips, “Oczy Mlody” (Warner Bros.)
Recent albums from the Flaming Lips have been confrontational in their psychedelic wildness, whether 2013’s abrasive “The Terror,” 2014’s bizarro cover of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Fwends,” or their surprising collaboration with Miley Cyrus on 2015’s “Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz.” Coming after that string, the melodic and relatively sedate “Oczy Mlody” is a relief that recalls the more placid moments of high watermarks “The Soft Bulletin” or “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.”
It still offers heavy doses of psychedelia, but the songs are less likely to invoke nightmares than to be reveries about frogs and unicorns. It’s a keyboard-and-electronics-based album, so when a guitar takes the lead for a moment, for instance on the closer, “We Are Family” (with a Cyrus cameo), it evokes nostalgia. Wayne Coyne’s melodies drift like dreams — or trips — but “Oczy Mlody” is the most grounded and accessible Lips album in a long time.
STEVE KLINGE, Philadelphia Inquirer
• AFI, “The Blood Album”
• Foxygen, “Hang”
• Kid Koala, “Music to Draw To: Satellite”
• Mick Harvey, “Intoxicated Women”