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Bambara's second release on Wharf Cat Records isn't a radical departure from the first, 2018's Shadow on Everything, but it is most certainly a refinement. Active for over a decade, the Brooklyn-based trio's sound has evolved from shadowy noise rock to a much more focused, direct sort of gothic post-punk, foregrounding Reid Bateh's bitter, brutal lyrics about seedy characters who constantly seem to be one wrong move away from a horrible, unforgiving tragedy. Stray is the band's longest album to date, at 43 minutes, but it actually feels more concise. The ten-song outing is more developed than the group's previous records, and the songs seem to have more bite to them. Bateh is clearly coming into his own as a writer of brilliantly evocative miniature street dramas, and his pacing and delivery are sharper and more charismatic than ever. Even when he sounds like a stoned rambler, there's so much conviction to the way he describes filthy city scenes and despicable back-room antics that it drives the narratives rather than derails them. He punctuates many of the verses with an exuberant "Huh!," and it sounds like he's casting demons outward. One can just imagine him performing these songs, bashing around and projecting sweat everywhere, yet maintaining a cool sense of composure. Bambara seem more versatile, effortlessly moving from the woozy, low-down noir of opener "Miracle" to the twangy death-surf of songs like "Heat Lightning" and "Ben & Lily." The production gives everything a hazy, ethereal glow, but it makes all of the blazing guitar riffs and pounding drums resonate, rather than washing them out. Easily the band's most accomplished album to date.

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