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Braids

Native Speaker

Kanine Records

Buy if you like: Cocteau Twins, Lush

The critical consensus that Braids sound like Animal Collective is seriously undermined by the fact that no one in Animal Collective, to the best of my knowledge, can actually sing. That's definitely not the case with Raphaelle Standell-Preston, whose luminous vocals hover above the dreamy, atmospheric pop of Braids' debut album, Native Speaker. On tracks like "Lemonade" and "Glass Deers," whose combined running time falls just short of 15 minutes, her beguiling soprano conveys both the serenity of the Cocteau Twins' Elizabeth Fraser and the intensity of the Knife's Karin Dreijer. The latter track even closes with an apparently conscious nod to Pete Townshend's falsetto vocal on the Who's "The Punk Meets the Godfather." The only misstep here is "Plath Heart," which despite its name, has a strange sprightliness to it that seems ill-suited to this band. But six out of seven is just fine for a first album, especially one this brilliantly executed. — Bill Forman

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Iron & Wine

Kiss Each Other Clean

Warner Bros.

Buy if you like: The Decemberists, the Beach Boys

The press release for Kiss Each Other Clean, the latest from Sam Beam (otherwise known as Iron & Wine) keeps mentioning its "masterful storytelling." But if anyone out there can decipher what Beam is getting at in these 10 aural pastiches, please clue me in. The Updikian, Paul Simon-meets-the-Decemberists "Rabbit Will Run" references blood, guns and Alice in Wonderland-style imagery, and "Big Burned Hand" and "Your Fake Name Is Good Enough for Me" (oh, the irony) address some fairly serious themes (lion and lamb having sex, for instance). But if there are storylines here, they're cleverly hidden. These tracks are full of shiny Beach Boys vocals laminated over Afro-pop, R&B, sunny tropicalia and whatever else Beam feels like conjuring. Impressively, this kitchen-sink approach doesn't sound false or inappropriate. That alone is an art or, at least, a good trick. They're all lovely. But memorable, or even hummable, they're not. It's frustrating. The end. — Lynne Margolis

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Fergus & Geronimo

Unlearn

Hardly Art

Buy if you like: Syd Barrett, Box Elders

Fergus & Geronimo's debut album starts out crap, and then, in its own weird way, gets pretty great. Skip Unlearn's lifeless lo-fi opener, "Girls With English Accents," and move on to the catchy snark of "Wanna Know What I Would Do?," the concisely tripped-out "Baby Boomer/Could You Deliver?" and the oddly beautiful "Forced Aloha." Texans-turned-Brooklynites Jason Kelly and Andrew Savage don't sing or play particularly well, but that's more or less beside the point, in the same way you wouldn't expect precision from Ariel Pink, complexity from Jonathan Richman or sanity from Syd Barrett. Instead, we get memorable tunes full of off-kilter charm and genuine unpredictability. "Blind Muslim Girl," the group's Little Deuce Coupe-era Beach Boys homage, didn't make the cut — released only as a single — but the title track compensates, juxtaposing full-spectrum doo wop with the is-that-all-there-is ennui of Elyse Shrock's guest vocals. Unlearn may be uneven, but you could learn to love it. — Bill Forman

  • Braids, Iron & Wine, Fergus & Geronimo

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