Eye Contact (4AD)
The New York dance-rock experimentalists' last album, Saint Dymphna, came out in October of 2008, and it felt autumnal: moody and pretty and sometimes a little chilly. So it's maybe no coincidence that they're releasing Eye Contact as spring leans toward summer. Bright and expansive, with most tracks cascading over five minutes and the opener limbering up for more than 11, it is a breezy charmer of an album. The avant-garde rarely feels so friendly.
The key elements are still in place: the insistent, inventive drumming, now courtesy of new member Jesse Lee; the ethereal, edgy, and all-but-wordless vocals of Liz Bougatsos; and the layers of synthesizers and guitars conjured by band mastermind Brian Degraw. But the reference points this time are, on the whole, softer than before—lush R and B, Asian and Middle Eastern motifs, '80s synth-pop (I swear one riff is lifted straight from Howard Jones), licks of yacht-rock guitar. The songs evolve and mutate as they go, so there is rarely an obvious verse-chorus structure, but there are appealing stretches of melody and rhythm scattered all over. Degraw's keyboards and Bougatsos' voice engage in what feels sometimes like a duet and other times like an argument. They are joined by Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip for the dreamy quiet storm "Romance Layers," a neo-soul fantasia of rubbery bass and dubby vocals. It's on the shortlist for my favorite songs of the year so far. And like the rest of this sunbaked, surprising album, it sounds great on a car stereo with the windows down.