#NowPlaying: Best New Songs From NPR Music Today's essential songs, picked by NPR Music and NPR Member stations.
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#NowPlaying

Today's essential songs, picked by NPR Music and NPR Member stations
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Band breakups don't actually exist — never say never, even though they always do. But it's also true that you can never go home; more often than not, reunited bands return diminished, a little wan. (Mission of Burma was a surprising exception to this tendency.) There's a lot of life that happens, for the audience and the artist, during the intermediate of breakup and reunion. We're usually not on the same page anymore.

So, here we are – it's 2022 and Noah Baumbach, director of supple and sensitive films like Frances Ha and Marriage Story, has adapted Don DeLillo's beloved and paranoiac novel White Noise for the screen. It sounds promising-ish on paper, but what worries me is this: "new body rhumba," the first song from LCD Soundsystem since 2017's American Dream, is on the film's soundtrack. When the cowbell began to clank, we knew we were in trouble.

It's no crime for a song to be anodyne, but LCD Soundsystem made a career out of barely skirting that line — and the rule of diminishing reassembly we mentioned earlier still applies. The peaks and valleys LCD Soundsystem built so many six-minute songs around have, it seems, flattened into cornfields. There's a tiredness here that wasn't so forefront last time, no classic LCD sustain and release. Just a jog across the prairie, for whatever reason. As Delillo wrote in White Noise, describing the looming, infamous airborne toxic event: "The cloud still hung in the rearview mirror."

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The art of spoken word hasn't often intersected with one of this country's first original music genres: old-time acoustic music, heard first in an explosion of string bands in the 1800s. Almost two centuries later, though, Jake Blount infuses spoken word into "The Downward Road." At turns both spoken and sung, the song revives a Weird Old America standby, accompanied by the hypnotic drone of instruments like banjo and fiddle, as well as a modern, looping percussion technique courtesy of producer Brian Slattery.

Lyrically, Blount and guest Demeanor tell an Afrofuturist story set in a world devastated by climate change: "The water rising, surrounding everybody that's in it / And little Silas wanna come home / All he got is a cot that he drum on." The song becomes part of Jake Blount's larger thematic arc of climate refugees migrating north, with parallels to his own ancestors' historical flights from slavery and Jim Crow.

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For anyone concerned with the beauty and expressive possibilities of the human voice, you must hear this song sung by Julia Bullock. While she's in demand in opera houses the world over, the St. Louis, Mo. native has chosen a deep cut from left field as the first single from her much anticipated debut recital album due this December.

This simple and yet profoundly moving love song is by Connie Converse, the pioneering singer-songwriter whose brilliance flickered for but a brief moment in New York in the 1950s before, in 1974 at age 50, she disappeared, never to be heard from again.

Bullock, accompanied only by a piano, gives the song a hushed, almost prayerful tone. Listen to her stretch out the ends of the lines with exquisitely sculpted phrases. It's an intimate interpretation that, along with Converse's deceptively naïve wordcraft, you might mistake for Schubert in one of his most bittersweet moods.

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Since releasing his smoldering 2017 breakthrough, Green Twins, the psych-soul singer-songwriter Nick Hakim has steadily blurred his sound. His 2020 follow-up, Will This Make Me Good, was uninhibited and sometimes amorphous, and on his collaboration with jazz saxophonist Roy Nathanson, Small Things, the performances he delivered were often even fainter, as indistinct as the faces in a crowd on a rainy night. "Vertigo," from the forthcoming COMETA, leans all the way into his progression, using the warped dimensions of his songcraft to enter a space where a moment lasts a lifetime.

The title gives away the sensations at play. The song's slo-mo, out-of-focus appeal only enhances its lyrics about a lovestruck encounter so tender yet intense that it seems to distort time itself. The quiet patter of the drums and the whirring arrangement of guitars and synths create a sort of carousel effect — incandescent and swiveling; disorienting if you zone out. Hakim's music often has this dizzying, punch-drunk quality, but here he verbalizes the reaction ("Can't tell if it's me or the room that's moving"), playing off of the action. It might be difficult to reorient if not for the echo. There isn't a hook, but there are repeated phrases to latch onto: "Slow down," he pleas. "Make this moment last." Yet as they repeat, they, too, start to feed into the cyclical excitement of an endless romp. The harder you try to pull away, the deeper you sink.

Initially inspired by the Cocteau Twins and A.R. Kane, twin brothers Danny and Daniel Chavis have made soul-shoegaze for over 30 years. There were major-label signings and shake-ups in the '90s, an early 2000s name change and then a long hiatus — but they never gave up on their aesthetic mission, which they describe as "if Luther Vandross put something out with guitars." After a few return EPs, Entropy Is the Mainline to God is The Veldt's first album in 24 years, featuring fuzzed-out versions of Curtis Mayfield and Mobb Deep classics.

"Sweeter" is one of many original gems that captures The Veldt's unique MO: guitar effects swirl around a psychedelic R&B groove that shimmies and shimmers with beautiful bluster. True to the title, Daniel Chavis whispers sweet nothings in your ear, but under distorted and wavy bliss, they could just as well be sinister.

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"God, make me good / but not quite yet," Karly Hartzman – lead singer of the Ashville, N.C., rock band Wednesday – snarls in the band's new monster of a single, "Bull Believer." The line is an incendiary nod to what comes next: Hartzman's guttural release as she repeats, "Finish him" over the sounds of MJ Lenderman's explosive guitar and Xandy Chelmis' distorted lap steel for the last four minutes of this eight-and-a-half-minute track.

"This song is an excuse for me to scream on stage," says Hartzman, who sings with a bloody tampon hanging from her nostril in the song's sublimely turbulent music video. She adds that it's "an offering to myself of a brief moment of release from being tolerant of the cruelty of life: feels like cutting my hair to let go of the history it holds."

Matthew J. Rolin's characteristic patience returns with newfound clarity. From the upcoming album Passing, his 12-string guitar playing on "Shingles" — presented here in its best production yet — shimmers in stasis, then spins in its rollicking chord changes. There's a kaleidoscopic sense of motion always in play, leaving you guessing where the next turn leads. While frequently heard in group settings (most notably in the ecstatic folk-drone of Powers/Rolin Duo, with dulcimerist and wife Jen Powers), alone his stylistic prowess has a clear and welcome chance to shine. Rolin's deft hands on his instrument display an assured sense of composition, and a bright present for the state of guitar soli.

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Depending on your vantage, Tom Skinner is best known either as the beat wrangler in The Smile or as a volcanic force in Sons of Kemet. He's the sort of drummer who always locates the pivot point between chaos and clarity, and he brings that shifting insight into focus on a solo album, Voices of Bishara, due out on Nov. 4 through a joint agreement between Nonesuch, International Anthem and Brownswood Recordings.

"Bishara," the opening track, affirms a spiritually searching tone on the album, along with a rhythm ideal that favors breath and pulse. Nubya Garcia provides the feverish incantation on tenor saxophone, and Shabaka Hutchings (Skinner's old compatriot in Sons of Kemet) is the murmuring voice of assent on bass clarinet. They're joined by Kareem Dayes on cello and Tom Herbert on bass, creating an astral hallucination that forms at ground level.

A poignant blend of chamber music and drone set to an ocean of emotional energies, "Till Margaretha" is a standout from Funeral Folk, a recent collaboration by Swedish experimental artists Maria W Horn, on synths and pipe organ, and violinist Sara Parkman. The opening shimmer of acoustic instrumentation here evokes earlier, side-stream traditionalists — in particular the spellbinding music of early-'70s U.K. group Comus — at least until Horn and Parkman set the cathedral ablaze with a blast of metallic drone, peeling away the steeples and revealing the pair's true intentions through a vortex of cascading vocals, strings and keyboards.

With "Till Margaretha" and Funeral Folk in total, the pair generate music born from lamentation and rites of loss. Like their peers Kali Malone and Anna von Hausswolff, the Horn and Parkman are fearless in making grandiose, vulnerable music.

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It seems the equinic quartet Horse Lords has elevated its captivating rhythmic pocket worlds to new heights: With the single "Mend Mess," from the upcoming Comradely Objects, the group's steadfast repetition is still there, but with a sharper lock on its interplay – Owen Gardner and Max Eilbacher's microtonal guitars and electronics dance around each other with constantly shifting phrases and fragments, while Sam Haberman and Andrew Bernstein build an unceasing wall of percussion, keeping everything in check.

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Ray Meezy and D~collins are small town rappers with ambitions and skills to take them much farther than their hometown of Greenwood, S.C. These two cousins released their first project together this month, Same Difference — a title and mixtape Ray Meezy says is meant to showcase their ability to transcend the boundaries of any one specific style of rap. A song from the tape that embodies this is "Ain't Never" — an electronic, rhythmic trap hit. This song blends both artists' similar yet distinct styles into one cohesive sound, tapping into another meaning of the mixtape's title. "Ain't Never" is a techno-pop instrumental filled with bars far from the carefree cookie-cutter lyrics that accompany similar beats. "Ain't never ran from no n****, always stood ten toes / Ain't never pillow talk on no n****, ain't never f****** told," raps D~collins. "Ain't Never" depicts the realities of the value system that Ray Meezy and D~collins live by, as the cousins rattle off the personal ethics that define their actions.

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In a time when happiness seems like an endangered species, Tenci brings us music that dares to cry out for nothing short of elation. Front and center are Jess Shoman's vocals, bending notes just shy of a yodel, and complemented by the Chicago quartet's fuzzy, warbled guitar interplay. With a steady, marching rhythm for its foundation, and lyrics that straightforwardly avow, "I didn't know I had to wait / To fill my cup / I won't wait, I won't wait, I won't wait / To fill my cup," Tenci shows no pretense in driving home the theme of unbridled joy. Overall, "Two Cups" delights with a sound that is as quirky as it is charming.

Strength in unity is a guiding light for the music of tenor sax quartet Battle Trance, and their latest work "Green of Winter I" is a wind-powered, tour-de-force. Unlike a string quartet, with different parts of one musical family, group members Jeremy Viner, Patrick Breiner, Matt Nelson and Travis Laplante concentrate on a single instrument, creating a unique opportunity to explore all the sounds it contains through Laplante's compositions. From lilting chorales to surging clouds of noise, from carving different paths to converging as one unit, the group pushes its one instrument to all its extremes — revealing worlds of possibilities beneath keys and reeds.

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In a delicate elegy with cinematic scale, Old Fire succeeds in both evoking the desolation of frontman John Mark Lapham's West Texas homeland and punctuating a tragedy as old as human history. "Don't You Go," which features Bill Callahan, is a cover of a John Martyn song that laments a son who goes off to war, leading to universal misery.

Lapham employs cello, piano and synthesizer, adorning the melody with an atmospheric, careening wail, while finding anchor in the depths of Bill Callahan's half-spoken basso profondo. "The proud and the powerful / In whose hands we lie / Never will be pleasured / 'Til all our women cry," Callahan sings, as the song winds inexorably towards its fateful resolution, which is made plain in its video depicting a father being buried alive by his guilt.

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The bassist from The Walkmen opens "Miracles" with lone acoustic guitar before the tune springs to life with Peter Matthew Bauer's lead vocal bathed in shining delay and reverb. A wistful and introspective song, "Miracles" is a meditation on life, regrets and the inevitable passage of time. The song's melody and its bright horn section from NYC-based brass ensemble The Westerlies are uplifting, while the lyrics are heartbreaking; "If you could do it all over again, would it pass so fast? / Would you change a thing?" Like adulthood itself, "Miracles" is bittersweet. You may be happy to survive and grow older, but with time, regrets and mistakes inevitably pile up and part of life's journey is moving forward without letting the baggage weigh you down.

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Botch will break your brain and inevitably cause you to break stuff. In the '90s and early 2000s, the Tacoma, Wash., band turned metallic hardcore into a dangerous game of daggers — sharp angles, twisted riffs and ferocious barks all somehow contained within moshably mathy grooves. Now, 20 years since its breakup — with several bands since formed (Minus the Bear, These Arms Are Snakes, Narrows) and joined (Russian Circles, Sumac) — Botch has returned with an absolute bruiser of a track.

Included on an upcoming reissue of We Are the Romans, the entirely new "One Twenty Two" feels like an old muscle car revved back to life. Dave Knudson's spindly-but-burly guitar riff anchors the chaos as the rhythm section (bassist Brian Cook and drummer Tim Latona) gives the anthemic stomp swaggering purpose. But it's that combination with Dave Verellen's fiery maw that returns Botch to its proper pioneering stead.

August 17

Theoxenia, 'Continental Breeze'

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"Continental Breeze," the closing track from Theoxenia's new album (Adventures in) Stasis, blends classical antiquity and 21st-century sonic experimentation. The song and album are a solo project of David Shuford, who employs an arsenal of traditional and contemporary instrumentation including bouzouki, kanjira, mandole and synthesizer. Since the early 1990s, the New Yorker has been a founding member of No-Neck Blues Band, Egypt Is the Magick #, Enos Slaughter, D. Charles Speer & The Helix and Rhyton. Shuford has used that impressive roster, and now Theoxenia, to pick through the sinew and bone of psych-improv, roots music and drone, with each group encased in a skin of homespun folk-gnosticism.

The languid "Continental Breeze" expands that search over a bed of electronic hums and a repetitious four-note fingerpicked motif. Shuford delivers a call-and-response to himself as plucked arpeggios explore, reconfigure, attack and decay throughout the song's patient buildup and closing cascade. Over the course of "Continental Breeze," Shuford meets and exceeds the challenge of balancing reverence and radicalism.

His technical fluency and evident passion surely stamp Shuford's passport with the vast itinerary of fellow travelers John Fahey, Sandy Bull and Sir Richard Bishop. Yet on the level of sheer aesthetic, the Georgia-born Shuford is arguably tuned closest to the music of fellow Southern-roots-to-NYC expat/visionary Henry Flynt and his ongoing blending of ancient microtonality, ghostly strings and electronics.

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There has been much written about The Club as an elusive locus of debauchery, excess and, ostensibly, sex. But lately, it feels as if the song-well from which we gave voice to those cringe-filled, crazy nights, has gone dry. Long gone are the days of eschewing responsibilities and taking to the dance floor in pursuit of making out and making the best memories. Going out used to be fun, we say, before we became hungover from our adult responsibilities, a raging pandemic, the weight of the world, etc.

In BZRP's 52nd Music Session, The Club is alive and still swelling with possibility — one beat drop after another. Maybe it's Spanish rapper Quevedo's yearning baritone, or BZRP's meticulous production that distinguishes "Session #52" from its club-hit contemporaries. The track follows those magical moments in the club, but in this summer of longing, it promises a reprieve from that very loss and the fantastic possibility that they — the night, the person — will never leave.

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Megan Thee Stallion has many dismissive modes, but she is often most effective as an intimidator. The Houston freestyler turned Grammy Award winner has maintained an air of presupposed superiority throughout her ascent, and when she uses her lashing lyricism to browbeat ill-wishers (both real and faceless) she reasserts her own star power.

On "Scary," an Avedon-produced standout from her new album Traumazine, she once again embraces presence as a means of intimidation, reimagining Swishahouse as a haunted house in the process. Alongside the ever-flippant Rico Nasty, she presses forward relentlessly like a slasher villain, embodying both connotations of a baddie, as both a heel and a confident, independent woman, each bar enunciated with bite. Rico, like Megan, is usually the alpha within the universe of her songs, but where her Texan compatriot plays the dominatrix, she is a taunter. "He talkin' on my name and we gon' dig a grave with you / Zombie-ass bitch, n**** gave me brain for dinner," Rico snaps. Playing with the horror theme, she zips through references to a little terror kingdom of her own making. As the song's spooky music-box chimes and Halloween synths build out a jam fit for slab music, two of rap's premier smack talkers find a demented glee in menacing those who might otherwise belittle them.

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You're on a desert highway at dusk, windows down with long locks whipping 'round the leather headrest. Endless pavement carves sand, but only an abandoned gas station and bleached skeletons break up the scenery. You barrel towards the unknown with little else besides a Big Gulp (caffeinated fuel) and a bottle of water (gotta stay hydrated) — oh, and the power of heavy metal. You need Randy Rhoads-era Ozzy, you need Dio-era Black Sabbath, you need Scorpions.

Sumerlands leans into heavy metal traditions with a big dang heart. The riff that girds "Edge of the Knife" not only wraps its claws around the moment of crisis, but hugs your neck in solidarity. As with other metal bands that look to the '80s (see: Haunt; High Spirits; Eternal Champion, with whom Sumerlands shares members), there's a battle jacket familiarity here: palm-muted chugging, copious-but-tasteful reverb, guitar solos that extend the melody and sky-high pipes. This is a high-impact power ballad with a heightened sense that every word may be your last.

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Vieux Farka Touré has been associated with "desert blues" ever since he released his self-titled debut in 2007, but he absorbs more styles than this Mali-meets-Mississippi-Delta moniker suggests. Enter Khruangbin, the Texas trio whose sonic alchemy starts with a base of soul and R&B, then adds styles from locales like Thailand, India and Iran to make for a spellbinding musical brew.

Together, they pay tribute to Vieux's father, the late Ali Farka Touré, in the collection simply titled Ali (out Sept. 23). "Savanne" is their first offering, a loping, labyrinthine fusion of dub, blues and Malian grooves. Vieux's vocals, sung in French, add to the simmering, hypnotic effect of the music. Even when translated, lines like "I left my country and my Louisiana / But in other countries, goodbye Savanne" portray a scene of being lost in a parched, strange land while thirsting after the illusion of water in the distance.

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An ode to the heroine spirit braving a man's world, "Dog Eat Dog" by Tommy Lefroy is a confrontation of masculine power structures and the constrictive hierarchies they impose. Featuring garage-grunge flair and layered vocal harmonies, the track is a rallying cry for those who have been made to feel guarded in their otherness. The song unpacks this feeling through medieval imagery in its lyrics and video, conjuring shields, armors and arenas: "​​Looking around the arena / Thinking I'm just like you / But a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do."

The duo — who fittingly adopted its moniker from a real-life love interest of Jane Austen — subverts gender norms in the track, playing with notions of masculinity — the access it offers and the doors closed when you seem to lack it – ultimately aiming to reclaim power in the members' womanhood and queerness.

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Today's essential songs, picked by NPR Music and NPR Member stations