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Lights - Rites

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Artist: Lights

Album: Rites

Label: Drag City

Review date: Jul. 21, 2009

Since their delicately psychotropic debut last year, the Brooklyn art-folk band known as Lights (emphatically not the Toronto singer of the same name) has picked up bassist Andy MacLoed as a permanent participant and, not coincidentally, made a better, louder and more enjoyable second album.

The self-titled had a gauzy, soft-focus to it, as drummer Linnea Vedder and guitarist Sophia Knapp traded the most ethereal of vocal lines. (A fourth member, Wizard Smoke, does the band’s light shows, but doesn’t sing or play.) The singing had a folk gentle-ness, but the music was full-bore 1960s psychedelia. Knapp, in particular, seemed to work with a floor full of pedals, echoey delay shimmering around “Break, Run, Fly,” fuzzy distortion enveloping “For You” and “Lick the Blood,” a maelstrom of static obscuring “Sing It O O O.” The music evoked arcane rituals, head trips, mystery…but dance parties? Not so much.

Fast forward to Rites. There’s a rougher, more celebratory sound. A little bit of soul has crept into the psychedelia, a funk backstop to the slow rhythms. On “Can You Hear Me,” Vedder and Knapp still lock in close-range harmonies, but now sound more Motown than misty isles. And “Hold On,” with its hard-four guitar strum and spoke-sung verses, has the assertiveness of rock, even punk, behind its lush vocals and piano runs. There’s more aggression, more forward movement, less nebulous vibe and more straight-line progression. The band that used to sound like the Roches singing in front of Pink Floyd now isn’t afraid to socialize.

That’s not all due to the new bass player, obviously. Experience, a change in direction, even better production quality contributes to a sound that is both denser and more exciting. Still, you can’t imagine the album’s breakout track, the witchy tripped out disco “Fire Night,” without the low end. MacLoed puts the funk under the girls’ siren-call singing, and mutters its seductions in French. Even when the piece erupts in distorted guitar, in giddy cries of “Dancin’ till the early dawn,” the bass continues to hold it down, a disciplined foil for its hedonism.

Lights’ debut was a strange, beautiful thing, and one of my favorite debuts of last year. Rites is bigger, sharper and in all ways better. Lights just got a good deal brighter.

By Jennifer Kelly

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