01 May 2008

AMG review round-up, volume III

Still running about two months behind myself with these; not that that's a problem. A large chunk of my AMG output for February was on the artists of Gothenburg, Sweden's excellent, eccentric Sincerely Yours label. Much of the rest of it was on low-key, and even ambient, music of somewhat indeterminate genre, mostly electronic hybrids of some sort or other (jazztronica, folktronica, kindertronica...?) look-see:

The Tough Alliance: bio, The New School, Escaping Your Ambitions, and A New Chance reviews

"The Tough Alliance's first album is a pure joy; a decidedly summery, nearly perfect pop album. It doesn't sound overly much like anything else of its time, or any other time for that matter, partly thanks to the duo's oddly unrefined, amateurish (but enthusiastic!) singing style, although its day-glo sheen and abundance of synthesizers hearkens knowingly to the 1980s, the first golden age of electronic dance-pop. (In many ways the goofily charismatic duo uncannily resemble a two-decades-younger version of Wham!, with their equatorial overtones and hedonistic irreverence recalling, in particular, the satirical "Club Tropicana.") Theoretically, there's some sort of high-minded aesthetic and political concept behind the Tough Alliance's work - it's gestured at in the dramatically worded pronouncements on their website and sometimes vaguely confrontational interviews, and alluded to here in a spoken word sample of Situationist thinker Guy DeBord - but it's hard to discern, or at least care much about, when they're making music this blissfully melodic and carefree... there's an unambiguous and vital positivity running through its grooves, making The New School a celebration of humanity and life that's about as powerful a political and aesthetic statement as you could hope for."

"Through [their] label [Sincerely Yours], whose web site assigns a catalog number not only to actual releases, but also to every music video, MP3 post, blog entry, and unique, limited-run article of clothing or other merchandise (including spray-paint stencils), the Tough Alliance cultivate a childlike aesthetic of simple beauty, travel, and exploration (including frequent maritime motifs) and, of course, sincerity. Somewhat at odds with this image (though perhaps just demonstrating another sort of "childishness"), their flippantly audacious live performances -- which sometimes include the duo lip-synching to pre-recorded music and swinging baseball bats on-stage -- project a devil-may-care disposition that has resulted in accusations of glorifying violence and hooliganism (not unrelated to their love for and self-conscious appropriation of hip-hop culture)."

A New Chance: "Awash in balmy, neon grooves and exultant, kaleidoscopic scraps of melody, The Tough Alliance's U.S. album debut and second proper pop full-length is neither a dramatic change of direction nor an astounding leap forward from the already quite excellent The New School - but it is a revelation nevertheless. As effortless, and effortlessly enjoyable, as it is perplexing to define, its remarkably fresh-feeling fusion of dance music and classic pop has all the omnivorous eclecticism, bright-eyed playfulness, and epic emotional earnestness of St. Etienne's Foxbase Alpha and Primal Scream's Screamadelica.

It's also more than a little reminiscent of those landmark albums in sound and style, grounding its blend of (among other things) dub, sixties pop, reggae, new age and synth-pop in a foundation of early-90s club beats and hip-house. Those dusty grooves, along with the preponderance of '80s-style synthesizers (though by this point they ought to be as strongly associated with the '00s as the '80s) and an outmoded production gloss, give A New Chance a curiously faded, antiquated quality, one that doesn't feel tired so much as refreshingly anachronistic, though it might be more accurate to say it feels removed from time entirely."

The Honeydrips: bio and Here Comes The Future review

"Here Comes the Future is a succinct, engaging effort that establishes the Honeydrips - essentially a one-man project centered around Mikael Carlsson - as proud proponents of the indie pop tradition, in the most classicist sense; inheriting the lineage that originated in 1980s Britain and includes Orange Juice, Felt, The Field Mice, St. Etienne, Belle and Sebastian, and, more recently, many of Carlsson's fellow Swedes and particularly fellow Gothenburgers like Jens Lekman and Sambassadeur. It may not introduce much in the way of innovation to separate him from his fellows and their forebears - if the title is to be credited, the future will mostly consist of more of the same - but that's not necessarily a shortcoming in a genre founded on fidelity to the timeless principles of melody, sweetness and simple, sturdy, songcraft."

Air France: bio and On Trade Winds review

"This all-too-brief debut release from the mysterious Swedish electronic duo Air France distills the vaguely Caribbean good-vibes of fellow Gothenburgers (and label heads) the Tough Alliance into a smooth, streamlined confection of impressionistic, almost imaginary pop. Imaginary, particularly considering that although it arrived in the heart of Scandinavian winter, it's an indelible evocation of balmy, equatorial summers. There are words to these songs, most of them appropriated...but they're subtle enough not to distract from the lush whirlpools of sound at the core of the tracks; hazy blends of washed-out synths, reverb-drenched pianos, tropical percussion, and summery sound effects."

Jonas Game: bio and ADHD review

"Game stands out as the most musically straightforward act on Sincerely Yours ... hearkening back to both classic British punk -- most notably the Clash -- and big-hearted American roots rockers like Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen, which makes him something like a Swedish version of Ted Leo."

"ADHD is yet again something entirely new for the label: a good old-fashioned rock album. In many ways Jonas Game represents a marked contrast to the rest of the Sincerely Yours roster: he's unassuming and musically organic where the Tough Alliance are perplexingly conceptual and hyper-syncretist, and his songs and lyrics are as vibrant and life-affirming as the Honeydrips' Mikael Carlsson's are wistful, tentative, and resigned. Still, ADHD is rooted as firmly in the Swedish pop tradition as anything the label releases, which is to say it's infused with that spirit even if its substance may veer elsewhere."

Lullatone: Computer Recital, Little Songs About Raindrops, and Plays Pajama Pop Pour Vous

Needless to say, there's a considerable amount of cuteness and whimsy on display here -- but that's not to suggest that this music is simplistic or overly precious. [...] If the song titles and instrumentation make the childlike qualities of Lullatone's music inescapable, and perhaps suggest a whiff of gimmicky novelty, the music itself reveals that essence to be much more fundamental -- even performed entirely on "adult" synthesizers and classical instruments and given banal, non-descriptive titles (which these pieces are both abstract and accomplished enough to accommodate), the music's simple beauty and sense of wonder would remain undeniable."

Psapp: Tiger, My Friend review

"Tiger, My Friend impresses first with its whimsy: it's rife with the sounds of toy instruments (xylophones, pan flutes, accordions, music boxes), toy-like noisemakers (typewriters, door hinges, alarm clocks), and straight-up toys. Actually, who knows where they got all these squeaks and blips and whirrs and burbles and scrapes; the credits list a cat and a beer can, while the album artwork depicts mysterious keyboard-like devices with labels including "strum press wigglers," "surprise noise buttons," and "spectral weasel." For all their imaginatively goofy sound-harvesting though, Psapp's substance lies in their sophisticated and strangely sober songs, which are generally built on fairly traditional foundations -- softly plucked acoustic guitars, parlor-room pianos, stately string arrangements -- with some additional electronic tweaking and trickery, and always buoyed by Durant's honeyed, understated vocals."

Triosk: bio and The Headlight Serenade review

"Triosk continue to wander and explore in a hazy territory that's probably best described as post-jazz. At times, they flirt with the semblance of a relatively straight-ahead modern piano jazz outfit -- opener "Visions IV" in particular evokes the muscularity of the Bad Plus, with only a couple of minor electronic flourishes. More often they sacrifice nearly all of the fundamentals of jazz (and, for that matter, most music) -- melody, all but the most basic chordal harmony, in some cases all but the vague suggestion of rhythm -- in the single-minded pursuit of texture. It's this conceptual minimalism, the absence of jazz-like forms and structures, more than the actual sound of the album, that nudges The Headlight Serenade from jazz toward the ambient/electronic category."

Adrian Klumpes: bio and Be Still review

"A deliberately plotted and executed project involving a combination of intentionality and improvisation, this solo debut recording by the pianist of avant-garde jazz outfit Triosk is the result of a brief three-week compositional period, a single five-hour recording session (it was all the studio time he could afford) conducted with a single piano and microphone setup, and a few months of post-production processing. Comparable in tone and texture to Adrian Klumpes' work with Triosk, his approach here is even more rarefied, with little if anything connecting it to jazz in any coherent sense, and not much more relating it to the classical tradition (though both musics inform the delicacy and expressiveness of Klumpes' playing). Instead, it's largely indebted to the processes and precepts of minimalism. Each piece tends to linger and explore a small number of sonic effects or a single compositional idea; there's very little sense of progression from one end of a track to another (and certainly never in harmonic or melodic terms), which may explain the stillness of the title."

Jim White: Transnormal Skiperoo review

"Jim White tends to take his time between albums -- Transnormal Skiperoo was only his fourth in over a decade, arriving an ample few years after 2004's Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See. By the time of its release, the Southern-souled transplant and perennial wanderer, who was then fifty, had settled down in a backwoods Georgia farmhouse and was reportedly experiencing "a strange new feeling...after years of feeling lost and alone and cursed." His name for that sensation is the endearingly off-kilter title phrase of the album, but judging from his description it sounds suspiciously similar to contentment. And Skiperoo is certainly his lightest, breeziest record to date, a turnaround from the frequently melancholy Substrate, musically as well as lyrically. That's not meant to imply a dramatic alteration in sound or style: since both sorrow and serenity translate into relatively understated, mellow musical terrain; the shift is a subtle one. Besides, White's always been a philosophical sort, the kind to pick up on the lighter sides of life's tragedies and portray the bitter with the sweet -- there's always a glimmer of redemption in his darkest tales of desperation; skepticism and hope commingled in his homespun gospel mysticism."

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