Plus reviews of The Court & Spark, The Boy Least Likely To, and Sunset Rubdown.



First things first. Twelve-year-old Chloe hits the drums so hard this time around that my downstairs neighbor pounded back the first time I put on Free to Stay, these kids'—literally kids—second album. And the sophomore curse can hardly apply to a group whose oldest member is still a freshman. In high school. Seriously, ladies and gentlemen, Smoosh have grown, and not just in their command of the styles they nod toward (piano-and-drums duo a la Quasi/female singer- songwriter/kidlike singsong) while making a sound of their own. The overamped keys and slamming drums help keep things from veering toward sentimentality, and demand that any doubters take this music on its own terms. Free to Stay's title is reassuring, but Asya, 14, uses her voice to express the worries of a couple of smart, caring girls for whom adulthood is far off but visible. The couple of years since She Like Electric make these songs signify harder. Chloe and Asya are too young to have read, or maybe even heard of, self-help books, so these songs feel unguarded, like one side of conversations between friends. Many express natural empathy; "Waiting for Something" urges a pal (and the CD listener?) to stop "pulling yourself down." "Find a Way" is the overscheduled child's blues ("too much on your hands"), while "Clap On" brings the tuff love: "I don't know why we should continue with this helping." The lightheartedness of "Rad" is gone, which is a loss, but Smoosh still wants to have fun. The playground's just gotten a bit darker. RICKEY WRIGHT

The Court & Spark


(Absolutely Kosher)

San Francisco's Court & Spark seem intent upon wresting the crown of thorns from their hometown's duke of despondency, American Music Club. The first half of Hearts features mournful tempos and an ambience of unremitting gloom. Yet C&S is no AMC copyist— the band has its own style of engagingly uneasy listening. The sardonic "Let's Get High" transitions from a Neil Young/Crazy Horse crunch to a delirium of faraway piano, country-tinged pedal steel, distorted guitars, and M.C. Taylor's offhandedly seductive croon. "Birmingham to Blackhorse We Wandered" is an out-on-a-Western-mesa, 21st-century cowboys' lament—windswept and seemingly foreboding until opening into echoes of wind and coyote, with a brittle banjo riff singing like a steel guitar and a Japanese koto. The second half of the album is a tad more heartening—the instrumental interlude "Smoke Signals" features jaunty John Fahey–like acoustic picking, naively simple piano, and New Orleans vocalized jazz brass, the latter warped psychedelically. Cinematic crests and swells, unsettling percussion, urbane orchestrations, all articulated with tantalizing restraint—it's as if Brian Eno, Van Dyke Parks, and Tom Waits collaborated for their counterpart to Tonight's the Night. Hearts is harrowingly beautiful stuff. MARK KERESMAN

The Boy Least Likely To

The Best Party Ever

(Too Young to Die)

From the rough animal drawings of the cover to the toy Belle & Sebastian-meet-Dexy's sound, the Boy Least Likely To could almost be a knowing parody of a Sarah Records–influenced English indie. Jof Owen and Pete Hobbs, however, put their awareness to work B&S–style on a dozen songs that take the piss out of their own little pop dream in the most likable way. They enjoy outdoor reveries in "Fur Soft as Fur" (which slyly nods to Allen Ginsberg's "America") and "Warm Panda Cola," then admit to being "scared of the countryside" in "I See Spiders When I Close My Eyes." "Monsters" is an anthem for the childless-by-choice of several certain ages; the duo likewise undercut its message with the admission in "Hugging My Grudge" to being "too dumb to settle down." Finally, "I'm Glad I Hitched My Apple Wagon to Your Star" inverts old country-rock on-the-road tropes with Owen's mention that he packed his antihistamines before visiting Nashville. All the while, the music tootles along, irresistible if you're of a mind to follow. It's the sonic signature of two guys tussling with adulthood while trying to make songs that their inner child—who's peering at them from behind a tree, sticking his tongue out—might love. RICKEY WRIGHT

Sunset Rubdown

Shut Up I Am Dreaming

(Absolutely Kosher)

On last year's Apologies to the Queen Mary, the two songwriters in Montreal's Wolf Parade—singer-guitarist Dan Boeckner and singer-keyboardist Spencer Krug—made no attempt to smooth over the differences in their respective styles. The result was an appealingly schizo indie-rock record, one where noise and beauty battled like opposing yet complementary forces. Sunset Rubdown is Krug's other band, in which he's more of a team leader than a co-captain; Shut Up I Am Dreaming is the prolific outfit's second album, following 2005's debut, Snake's Got a Leg, and a self-titled EP from earlier this year. Fans of Wolf Parade (and Frog Eyes, with whom Krug has also played) will find much to love here: There are wobbly piano ballads, denatured glam-rock anthems, and a handful of lovely lo-fi lullabies that sound lifted from an unreleased Tim Burton film. Still, without Boeckner's rootsy yin balancing Krug's arty yang, Shut Up never achieves Queen Mary's vital thrust. MIKAEL WOOD

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