NOT OPTIONAL takes a quick weekly look at five essential releases, some recent, some not.

Nataly Dawn, How I Knew Her (in stores now)
How I Knew Her, Nataly Dawn’s debut solo album (assuming you don’t count a disc collecting a bunch of iTunes odds and ends), pitches the Pomplamoose singer as a sort of Venn diagram intersection between Neko Case, Zooey Deschanel, and Sharon Van Etten. She sounds sort of like all of the above, while still sounding nothing like any of them. She’ll veer toward the “sensitive girl with guitar” persona, then shoot just as quickly away in another direction, as on weird folk-stomps “Araceli,” which opens the album, and “Please Don’t Scream.” Dawn has an ear for a great melody, sure, but her real strength often comes from her lyrics, which paint stark pictures of women on the edge of some colossal emotion they don’t yet know how to deal with. That idea can manifest both in flirtatious saunters (“Leslie” and “Caroline”) and in heartbroken ballads (“Counting Down” and “Why Did You Marry”), giving the album a variety that keeps it from feeling played out. [Todd VanDerWerff]


John Dies At The End (in theaters now)
Admittedly, the gonzo-cinema experience John Dies At The End will be optional for a lot of viewers. But anyone who was a fan of The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai or Big Trouble In Little China is likely to consider it essential viewing. And Don Coscarelli’s previous directorial project, Bubba Ho-Tep, can also be considered a solid litmus test for viewer enjoyment. The adaptation of Jason Pargin’s pseudonymously written novel sends two friends on a surreal, unpredictable drug-based trip into other dimensions that might or might not be real, with a significant dose of humor and some Naked Lunch grotesquerie. It’s an ideal midnight movie, the kind of film where monstrous things lurk just out of the characters’ visual range, and a man gets attacked by a disembodied mustache that might want to kill him, or just attach itself to his face. Like Buckaroo Banzai and Big Trouble, it isn’t always cohesive, but it’s giddy good fun. [Tasha Robinson]

Grouper, The Man Who Died In His Boat / Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill (in stores now)
Liz Harris doesn’t create songs so much as moods—or rather mood, as all of the work she’s released under the Grouper name has been colored by a single melancholic haze as gray as her album covers. But it’s a singularly arresting mood, coming off like a sadder, blurrier take on the sort of smeary dream-pop of the Cocteau Twins or Slowdive, but created with just a single acoustic guitar or distorted piano, Harris’ looped vocals, and slowly cresting waves of reverb for a far more vulnerable sound. Grouper’s newest, The Man Who Died In His Boat, was actually recorded concurrently with her 2008 breakout Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill (See? It’s sad), and the excellent drone-purveyors at Kranky have wisely released the former alongside a reissue of the latter. Both reside on the softer, strummier side of Grouper’s sound—Way Their Crept, Wide, and Cover The Windows And The Walls allow washes of unsettling discordance to edge in, while her high-point double-album A I A is far more layered and pretty—but they similarly succeed in creating addictively hypnotic atmospheres. Listen and do whatever the opposite of “bliss out” is. [Sean O’Neal]


Sleepless Night (on DVD and Netflix Instant/Amazon Prime) 
A corrupt cop makes off with a duffel bag full of cocaine. A sadistic drug lord kidnaps his son to get it back. So goes the insta-thriller plot of Frédéric Jardin’s Sleepless Night: Just add water and stir. But whatever the film loses in novelty, it gains in breakneck execution, crafting an impeccably stylized and relentless white-knuckler that puts the majority of Luc Besson productions to shame. Tomer Sisley stars as a cop who, along with his partner (Laurent Stocker), makes off with 10 kilos of cocaine in a bloody daylight shootout, the gangster makes off with his little boy as leverage, and Sisley is directed to a nightclub to exchange the coke for the kid. But there are many, many complications that keep the deal from happening, yet keep the action confined almost entirely to the club, giving the film a Die Hard-like self-containment—to say nothing of an action sequence set to the thump of “Another One Bites The Dust.” [Scott Tobias]

Locke And Key (in stores now)
There are only four issues left of Locke And Key, the stellar horror comics series from writer Joe Hill and artist Gabriel Rodriguez, which means there’s just enough time for new readers to get caught up for the final stretch. The third issue of the story’s sixth and final arc, “Omega,” was just released, and it finds Locke And Key rapidly speeding toward a sure-to-be devastating climax. What was originally a novel but somewhat insular haunted-house story has expanded outward across time periods and dimensions, as the Locke family wrestles with a dark, formidable force whose motives and methods are frighteningly assured. Hill is adept at crafting suspense—aided tremendously by Rodriguez’s somewhat cartoonish art, which makes the book’s sudden bursts of violence all the more effective—but he’s also created a fascinating, occasionally funny world populated by interesting characters of both the human and supernatural variety. It’s well worth getting to know the residents of Keyhouse and the town of Lovecraft, Massachusetts before it’s time to say goodbye to Locke And Key. [Genevieve Koski]