Hear Me Out: Tegan and Sara Embrace Retro Pop

By Chris Azzopardi

Tegan and Sara, 'Heartthrob'

Let the loyalists who like their Tegan and Sara all emo-rocky make a big fuss about the girls' complete shift into super pop, but they're missing out. Only music snobbery stands in the way of completely embracing "Heartthrob," their seventh album led by the irresistible Robyn-esque cuteness of "Closer," an uncharacteristically slight (but totally awesome) first single about the tingles and magic - and even the bedroom play - of a new crush. The feelings don't last, because, well, this is still a Tegan and Sara album. Heartbreak is inevitable, and it doesn't waste time getting there with "Goodbye, Goodbye": "I don't wanna feel the need to hear your voice ... I don't wanna feel the need to see your face." Ouch. Really wanna feel sad? Try "How Come You Don't Want Me." Disguised with stacked vocals, a shimmering sound palette of synth fuzz and a surging drum thump are feelings of futility, loneliness and alienation. Said track and the almost-Prince piano power ballad "Now I'm All Messed Up," a breakup song marked with uncertainty and indecisiveness (and some of their highest notes ever), are two of the strongest cuts in the duo's decade-plus career. Thanks to producer Greg Kurstin, "Heartthrob," at a tight 10 songs, completes the Quin sisters' circle from guitar girls to dance floor queens. Grade: A-

Holly Williams, 'The Highway'

Holly Williams - the granddaughter of country legend Hank Williams Sr. - has admitted that singing the last track off her third album, "Waiting on June," is hard to get through. Hearing it isn't any easier. In just under seven minutes, we have the story of not just her grandparents, but of love, yearning, heartache and loss. All of that conveyed through Williams' real-life minutia of young love and aging, the song comes to a painfully bittersweet climax when the guitar ebbs to an almost lifeless whimper, and so do her relatives. This is the kind of tender, hurts-so-good song that Holly Williams always excels at, but it's not the only one on "The Highway," her third album. "A Good Man," opening to the gentle swell of strings, is an intimate and affecting portrayal of love, cherishing what you have and knowing it might not last. It's gripping from just the first few notes. Even though she can craft a song as well as her daddy, Williams' soulfully strained voice - a distinctive instrument that effectively gets to a song's heart - is the real draw, from the clever done-me-wrong ditty "Drinkin'," taking a more backwoods approach, to the family eulogy "Gone Away from Me." "The Highway" isn't just one of the most personal albums you'll hear this year, but likely one of the best, period. Grade: A-

Also Out

Lifehouse, 'Almeria'

In the 13 years since "No Name Face," Lifehouse hasn't really drifted from their debut's alt-pop/rock blueprint. Until now, that is. They go for something different on "Almeria," launching with "Gotta Be Tonight," a foot-stomper that sounds nothing like the aughts' Lifehouse - until it reaches a refrain that's vaguely like their career-making hit, "Hanging by a Moment." The cowboys on the cover aren't for nothing, either - with Charles Jones and Peter Frampton, "Right Back Home" twangs it up. The quartet's other collaboration - hey, Natasha Bedingfield - is a catchy piece of ethereal pop/rock. Even better is "Aftermath," a divine piano ballad. Not all of it's this good, but at least this new direction is more exciting than anything Lifehouse has done in years.

Josh Groban, 'All That Echoes'

What happens when sap-master superstar Josh Groban and the same guy known for producing Green Day get in a recording studio together? Josh Groban on speed. Now it's not exactly "Basket Case," but the lead single from his sixth album, "Brave," sweeps up a flurry of sound that's unlike anything he's ever recorded. After the low-key "Illuminations," it's a nice change of pace that has the potential to bait new fans without alienating the soccer-mom base. Rob Cavallo and Groban also create poperatic greatness on the mellow guitar ditty "Happy in my Heartache" and a version of "Falling Slowly" that almost reaches a rock-out climax. Watch out, world.

Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service. Reach him via his website at http://www.chris-azzopardi.com.
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