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New Releases: PJ Harvey, The Civil Wars, KT Tunstall, Annie, The Polyphonic Spree

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PJ Harvey. (Fred Tanneau/AFP/Getty Images)

Every Tuesday, Dan Weiss runs down the week’s new full-length music releases, from charting hits to more obscure depths, the underrated and the overrated, from a critical pop fan’s perspective.

RELEASE OF THE WEEK: PJ Harvey – “Shaker Aamer”
Not an album, but the most important piece of music you’ll hear, internalize, and hopefully reblog this week. For all the disillusioned indie-rockers who think the Knife’s sprawling new album plays political dress-up with disjointed slogans or that Nas’ revolutionary Untitled album was an embarrassment,  PJ Harvey brushes off the last thirteen years of her least direct music to do a protest song right. The lyrics leave no wiggle room for a 1,400-word thinkpiece, they simply detail the facts and horrors of Guantanamo detainee Aamer, like the necessity of depriving one’s body of food to protest being deprived of water, being force-fed and detained for over a decade, having his pad taken away so he can’t become too familiar with his own thoughts — all without ever being charged of a crime. In his voice at the end, Harvey pleads, “don’t forget…don’t forget.” And that’s where the second part of her genius comes in: she imbued this reporting with her best chord progression in years, a glassy, catchy sideways moan of a riff ensuring people will more than get an album’s worth of plays this week and likely a great deal after Aamer’s released as well. It’s so good and simple it could give you hope that every artist is just saving their best rations for a meaningful cause.

The Civil Wars – The Civil Wars (Columbia)
In case the oeuvre-depleting “Safe and Sound” wasn’t enough evidence, Taylor Swift’s been hanging with the wrong crowd. If you thought John Mayer was bad, how about Nashville’s answer to Evanescence? Won’t any emo kids blush when they realized they’re checking out the full-band equivalent of Sting and Alison Krauss’ “You Will Be My Ain True Love”? Because emo kids are for whom Joy Wiliams and John Paul White want to make country cool. Not that they don’t make passes at others in the room; the attractive fuzz-banjo sizzle of “I Had Me a Girl” should diddle Black Keys and Bon Iver fans at once. “The One That Got Away” is pretty good acoustic Paramore, “From This Valley” is a real uptempo one, but they’re rarely so focused on turning a phrase and by the end the melodrama is like Vaseline so thick you can’t see (or hear) what’s inside it. These oversingers are overfeelers and underwriters above all else.

The Polyphonic Spree – Yes, It’s True (Good)
Boy is it easier to hear these guys with ten years removed from their stupid gimmick. Sorry, not the colorful robes, but their willing idiocy—“Follow the day and reach for the sun!” went their previous best song—that made them look more like a “cult” than any sartorial aesthetic. But in the same ten years, the Flaming Lips have grown to Radiohead size and darkened along with it. That left a void in the high-voiced psychedelic mold that Tim DeLaughter can finally fill, the “Blurred Lines” to Wayne Coyne’s “Suit & Tie” if you will. Yes, It’s True is almost certainly DeLaughter’s best album, opening with a swagger ripped wholesale from the Dandy Warhols on “Section 33 (You Don’t Know Me)” and replacing that sun bull with something believers can actually use, “there’s always more to you than there are of them,” over some well-deployed “Tomorrow Never Knows” backward flute-and-seagulls. The next track forefronts booming drums, distorted fanfare and circular air-synth. If that Tame Impala album last year taught all the acid casualties to focus, these types might actually reach the sun sooner than they think.

KT Tunstall – Invisible Empire//Crescent Moon (Blue Note)
Tunstall’s 2004-smothering “Suddenly I See” was one of those complete works of evil so insidious that no one even knows it’s the enemy, the kind of song like Melissa Etheridge’s “Come to My Window” or EMF’s “Unbelievable” with exactly one line in it, a ¼ of a hook written to be remembered out of context in film trailers and product placements and segues to commercial forever because there is no soul to extract. It’s like a Zynga product, enough to keep you drooling but never enough to keep you full. It’s not pop, which is stimulating, or even muzak, which is calming. The Nike swoosh has more soul, the McDonalds arches have more backbone—art’s at least been made of those. Nearly a decade on, this vapoid has matured into muzak, with a palatable duet with Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb on hand to continue shoving it to that hoochie Dido. But she still views pop as a stream that carries her—why else would she cover Don Henley?

Annie – The A&R EP (Pleasure Masters)
Is there a pop star easier to wait for than Annie Berge-Strand? In the near-decade since Pitchfork first assaulted reader’s expectations by naming her “Heartbeat” song of the year, excitement isn’t the word anyone would use to describe this palate-cleanser in between Beyoncé, Kanye, Lady Gaga, Robyn or Taylor Swift to name a few. She’s an interior decorator of beats, and if people say her musical partnership with Richard X is a great one, I’d still rather point them to Saint Etienne, whose excellent Words and Music by Saint Etienne last year this always-innocent five-song EP gently evokes. But her breakout moments—the amazing oral-sex power-flip “Chewing Gum,” the winking yelp-chant “The Breakfast Song,” the coy “I Know UR Girlfriend Hates Me” actually convinced you someone’s girlfriend could hate her.

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