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Sonny & The Sunsets, Gang of Four, and the Juliana Hatfield Three 

Sound Advice

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Sonny & The Sunsets

Talent Night at the Ashram

Polyvinyl

File next to: The Magnetic Fields, Beck

Sonny & The Sunsets have a knack for building airy walls of sound using unlikely instruments. Talent Night at the Ashram opens with the pleading a cappella vocals of "The Application," to which the California band then adds shuffling acoustic guitar and a menagerie of toy keyboards. On paper, that may sound too precious for its own good, but these carefully orchestrated arrangements are grounded in Sonny Smith's evocative, slice-of-life songwriting. The left-field, exotic chord changes of "The Secluded Estate" invoke the spirit of The Kinks, arpeggiated piano flourishes elevate the Pixies-lite "Secret Plot," and the twangy electric guitar workouts on the title track are the perfect soundtrack for a Wes Anderson film. Overall, this altogether likable collection of baroque pop thrives on its contradictions. It's lo-fi yet polished, opaque yet breezy, familiar yet strangely magical. — Collin Estes

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Gang of Four

What Happens Next

Metropolis Records

File next to: Wire, Mission of Burma, Au Pairs

Andy Gill has been paying penance of sorts since a reunited Gang of Four released 2011's Content, its first collection of new material in 16 years. The starkly minimalist album earned Britain's most strident Dadaists solid reviews, but otherwise went largely unnoticed. Shortly afterward, lead vocalist Jon King departed the band, leaving Gill to carry on for the first time without his longtime collaborator. What Happens Next foregrounds newcomer John "Gaoler" Sterry's vocals, which have a certain Tom Verlaine quality, while Dead Weather/Kills frontwoman Alison Mosshart steps in to take the lead on two tracks. The result is an album as grimly political and nihilist as 1979's Entertainment. This may not be the Gang of Four listeners know and love, but it is the Gang of Four that a near-apocalypse 21st century offers us, intriguing in its own right. — Loring Wirbel

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The Juliana Hatfield Three

Whatever, My Love

American Laundromat Records

File next to: Kristin Hersh, Belly, Liz Phair

Because Juliana Hatfield tends to misfire every few albums, many forget that the '90s "it girl" is responsible for such minor masterpieces as How to Walk Away and There's Always Another Girl. Whatever, My Love is billed as only the second Juliana Hatfield Three album, even though Hatfield's sound has remained largely consistent ever since she founded Blake Babies back in the '80s. And consistency definitely works to her advantage here. The familiar echoing guitars on tracks like "Now That I Have Found You" have a certain '90s quality, while the lyrics on songs like "Blame the Stylist" suggest a middle-aged cynicism that belies many of the songs' otherwise bright and upbeat sound. Overall, Whatever, My Love stands as Hatfield's best party album, even if it dwells somewhere between masterpiece and misfire. — Loring Wirbel

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