MALLU MAGALHAES, by Highly Sensitive, Sony Brazil
There’s no immediate tipoff that Mallu Magalhaes is Brazilian on her United States debut album, Highly Sensitive. Magalhaes, who is 21, sings the opening songs in American-accented English, casually slurring words and not worrying unduly about exact pitch. Most of her music is 1960s-loving indie rock that can lean toward folk-pop or make room for a distorted lead guitar, and she has a gift for writing lightheartedly affectionate ditties with a personal skew. “I’m messy but I’m totally yours/My clumsy hands will hold you,” she promises in Lonely.
So when Magalhaes switches to Portuguese in the opening verse of Highly Sensitive — a tune that lands somewhere between skiffle and the Strokes — an American listener’s first reaction might well be a double take: What’d she say?
Highly Sensitive is actually a compilation from the three albums she released in Brazil in 2008, 2009 and 2011, mostly from her 2011 album, Pitanga. Even as a teenager, she showed a sensibility of her own: winsome, sly, glancing northward.
Her debut, released when she was 16, was produced by Mario Caldato Jr., a Brazilian-American who has worked with Beck and the Beastie Boys, and it included songs in both English and Portuguese. The producers on her next two albums, Kassin (who emerged from the collective called the Plus 2s) and Marcelo Camelo, kept her music lean and playful. In the Morning, from 2011, accompanies her sleepy singsong with little more than plinking piano, an occasional glockenspiel, a few buzzing guitar notes and what sounds like the ratcheting of a windup toy.
Of course, Magalhaes’ knowing nonchalance also eases nicely into bossa nova, low-key samba or retro Brazilian pop when she sings in Portuguese. Although she’s a star in Brazil, she sounds as if she’s singing just to herself, and maybe a friend. It makes her a charmer.
— JON PARELES
LILY & MADELEINE, by LILY & MADELEINE, Asthmatic Kitty
Search purposefully through the endless supply of homegrown cover songs on YouTube, and you’ll find clips of Lily and Madeleine Jurkiewicz of Indianapolis singing faithful emulations of Fleet Foxes and Adele. In these videos, uploaded early last year, they furnish their own spare accompaniment — usually either Madeleine on piano or Lily on guitar — and face the camera with a casual but serious air. They’re teenagers, and the thing that flags them as extraordinary is their sibling vocal blend, deep and seamless and relaxed.
That same medium-amber blend sets apart their self-possessed, self-titled debut album, just as it did an EP released in June. Lily & Madeleine, produced by Paul Mahern, fleshes out the sisters’ sound with modest touches: a cello, an electric bass, a muffled kick drum, a snare. Stylistically, it’s cannily in sync with the recent boom in retro-leaning folk-rock, especially as exemplified by First Aid Kit, another sister act with a predilection for supple, earnest-sounding vocal harmonies.
But there’s cause not to dismiss this duo as precocious also-rans. The songs on Lily & Madeleine, openhearted and bittersweet, are jointly credited to the sisters and Kenny Childers, a veteran singer-songwriter from Bloomington, Indiana, who also contributes some guitar and faint background vocals. The subject matter is plain-spoken and wholly credible: romantic yearning, adolescent languor, eager trepidation at what lies ahead.
“We’ve been pining,” goes one passing refrain in Devil We Know, and if the delivery feels too quiet for the sentiment, it sits nicely with the idea of reverie. (Many of these songs dwell in the first-person plural, which can be intriguingly tricky to parse.) Come to Me is an entreaty carefully framed as a hypothetical; the invitation to run away on “Paradise” seems more direct, until it begins to feel like a dream. There are missteps — like I’ve Got Freedom, with the kind of twinkle-lilt that feels pitched to the marketing arm of Apple — but far more common are the minutely scaled successes.
Among them is Disappearing Heart, a minor-key ballad with some of the album’s most soulful singing, and a take-it-or-leave-it conceit. “I’m not you,” goes the start of the chorus. “You’re not me.” It’s a simple truth that feels a little less simple in context.
— NATE CHINEN