14 March 2009

AMG review round-up, volume X: smalltown vacation edition, or, balearic ballywho

i spent a good portion of last year continuing to track down various strains of so-called "cosmic disco" (some of which is documented in this installment), along with the related electronic sub-genre of balearic, a hazy but buzzy style which is on the mellower, less actually-danceable end of the same continuum. these records don't necessarily all fit into those categories, but they're mostly somewhere in that vicinity. the first five are on the rather stylish norwegian label smalltown supersound (also home to dominique leone and diskjokke whom i covered here), though the first several of those are slightly older releases that are more IDM/abstract than disco/psychy. the first four are norwegian artists, the next three san franciscan and incestuous, studio are swedish, and the last two are comps on the very like-minded permanent vacation label, which is based in germany.

Toy: bio and Toy review

Rarely has a band been so well named as Bergen, Norway's delightful Toy, but take note, children: the sparkling playthings heard on the group's eponymous debut offering are no mere gaudy baubles, but rather are intricately handcrafted future-retro gizmos and whiz-bang gadgets of the finest quality. Though they share a similar wistful sweetness and winsome naïveté with gentler electronic regressionists like Plone and ISAN, Toy pack a good deal more wallop into their tunes, stuffing these 44 minutes with a dizzying range of musical ideas, merry melodies, and goofy sounds. Things start out on a particularly giddy note with "Grass Beatbox"'s whirlwind of Looney Tunes-ish xylophones and "Don't Be"'s screwball vocoder fantasia, though it's not all a madcap sugar rush; the "kid in a candy store" approach occasionally settles down for midtempo fare which is considerably mellower than your average rambunctious toddler. Throughout, the duo's arrangements balance multi-layered complexity with electro-orchestral lushness, but they never feel overly electronic -- although it certainly sounds like plenty of vintage synthesizers are involved, it's tempting to imagine their recording studio as a sort of Santa's workshop, filled with curious trinkets and cobbled-together scraps culled from rummage sales and grandparents' attics. It's not too hard to think of parallels and precursors, electronic and otherwise, for this kind of kitschy but sophisticated novelty music (Luke Vibert's work as Wagon Christ and parts of the High Llamas' Cold and Bouncy come to mind, though there are certainly more vintage referents as well, from Raymond Scott on down), but Toy have an extensive bag of tricks and a sense of delicious fun all their own, and their retro-inspired 21st century vision of Toyland is well worth exploring. Recommended for ages one to 101.

Kim Hiorthøy: bio and My Last Day review

Like many of his electronically inclined Smalltown Supersound mates, longtime label associate Kim Hiorthøy approaches his work with a decidedly offbeat sensibility and a fair amount of humor. My Last Day is Hiorthøy's first proper full-length since his 2001 debut Hei, and its prevalent quirkiness is immediately apparent in the nutty songtitles ("I Thought We Could Eat Friends") and head-scratching cover art (which is not by Hiorthøy, though he is a noted graphic artist and designer.) It's evident in the music as well, but the general effect isn't so much overtly goofy as it is curious and off-kilter in a naïve, almost accidental-seeming way. This is an album of abstract listening electronica (for want of a better term), but it's presented with none of the sense of purity, in sound and form, that the genre often entails: neither immaculate inhuman precision nor lush organic warmth, but a rough-cut bushwhack between the two; deliberately messy and faltering. With few exceptions, these pieces are primarily built around simple melodies picked out on somewhat out of tune pianos and other tarnished-sounding instruments, which are surrounded with all sorts of sonic detritus (scraps of ambient noise, found-sound percussion, stray notes from other sources, distant vocal fragments), frequently yoked to choppy, hip-hop-inflected beats, and cut and pasted into casual but careful assemblages which feel purposefully unfinished, but not incomplete. It's as though Hiorthøy is attempting -- at times successfully -- to find a relatable form of musicality which is resistant to compositional conventions (though he does occasionally fall back on stock beats and pieces), driven not by willful absurdity but blithe happenstance.

Bjørn Torske: Feil Knapp review

In the six years between his 2001 album Trøbbel and this 2007 follow-up, the Norwegian electronica scene that Bjørn Torske helped to pioneer has gone international, thanks mostly to a number of his friends and collaborators, among them Röyksopp, Lindstrøm, Prins Thomas, and Erlend Øye. Given that context, the album has the makings of a major comeback statement, but the reality of it is a good deal more down to earth; Feil Knapp is nothing more or less than ten tracks of thoroughly personable, unassuming electronica encompassing a considerable array of styles -- house, ambient, psychedelic disco, dub reggae, instrumental pop -- while maintaining a distinctly lighthearted, amiable sensibility. In less subtly charismatic hands, this degree of eclecticism could come off as glibly chameleonic, but Torske approaches each track as an opportunity for unconstrained, good-humored exploration -- and often, gentle subversive juxtaposition -- rather than rote genre exercise. Hence, the stately serenity of opener "Hemmelig Orkester," with its warm ambient tones and wash of constantly billowing synths, is slyly undermined (though not disrupted) by a meek, unceremonious harmonica; the breezy disco-funk of "Hatten Passer" finds room for bongos, spry clavinet and vibraphone noodling, and a sprightly, faintly preposterous whistled refrain, as well as a few minor explosions (nobody harmed, evidently). Torske's greatest gift here is his lightness of touch; neither his irreverence nor his reverence comes off as forced, and neither seems to exist for its own sake. Though it initially comes off as a novelty, even the album's most overtly humorous moment -- when "Spelunker" sets video game splutters and a snaky, Eastern-tinged eight-bit melody against a slow-cooking dub reggae groove -- ends up feeling surprisingly, unsurprisingly, natural.

Lindstrøm: It's A Feedelity Affair and Where You Go I Go To reviews

In this post-millennial age of anxiety about the continued relevance of the album format, Hans-Peter Lindstrøm has handily established himself as the king of neo-future-retro-disco without ever bothering to release a "proper" album of his own material. Technically speaking, Where You Go I Go Too marks the Norwegian's first full-length foray, although his zealous, literal-minded approach to the format hardly makes for a more conventional "album" than the 2006 singles comp that was his solo CD debut, It's a Feedelity Affair. Where You Go has but three tracks -- roughly 30, 10 and 15 minutes long, respectively -- which play as the movements of a single, epic, hour-long work rather than as individual pieces. While each has its own distinct set of constituent material (motivic polyrhythmic patterns, melodic riffs, arpeggiator settings), they tend to be developed in similar ways, none of which should be new to Lindstrøm's followers: constantly growing and kaleidoscoping layers of instrumental texture, lovingly teased and tweaked electronic filters and effects, unexpected and dazzling harmonic shifts, and occasionally spacy synth swooshes that come along to tear everything down, only so it can be built back up again. This is unquestionably music about exploring and relishing the process of change and mutation itself, rather than advancing any specific, tangible musical content. Even the 29-minute title piece contains only as many discernible musical ideas as your average five- to seven-minute techno track, but its luxurious length lets those ideas stretch out gloriously and (for both artist and listener) indulgently, allowing a slow, fluid evolution that gestures towards a cosmic infinity.

Arp: bio and In Light review

In Light's opener, "St. Tropez," the simplest and sparsest piece on an album notable for its simplicity and sparseness, consists entirely of a single two-note figure in a pure-sounding electric piano tone, repeated continuously while a second voice in the same timbre meanders sympathetically, soloistically around it. It firmly and economically establishes a sense of stillness and contemplative calm: not quite the warmth and contentment suggested by the piece's Mediterranean title or the album's grainy cover shot of a sunset (presumably, Arp being Californian) over the sea -- though certainly far from the opposite of those things -- but a gentle, hopeful quietude with the slight air of clinical detachment. A similar sense carries, somewhat less deterministically, throughout In Light, whose title accordingly seems to connote the figurative light of clarity and reason more than the tender, comforting light of the sun, but that doesn't mean that this is a sterile or foreboding listening experience. The gradually mutating analog textures that Alex Georgopolous has synthesized here often have an engagingly natural quality, as does his fluid, intuitive approach to composition, particularly on the indulgently expansive 16-minute "Odyssey," which was recorded in a single, unedited, improvised take. As inviting as these pieces often are -- five of them were initially conceived for an installation wherein listeners would lie in a cozy featherbed nook -- several of them do come off as subtly, unexpectedly unsettling, with vague traces of instability and unease -- barely perceptible discordant flute overtones gilding the lush piano ambience of "The Rising Sun"; woozy high-pitched warbles floating atop the lusciously buzzy "Fireflies on the Water"; and insistent, dizzyingly jaunty arpeggios underscoring the Baroque "Premonition of the Sculptor Steiner." Meanwhile, the striking "Potentialities," which appears first as a wholly synthesized piece with a steady percussive pulse, and then in a largely organic arrangement featuring a string trio and acoustic piano, has a tense, restlessly searching quality. None of this is overtly off-putting, to be sure, but it does create a slight, constant edge that belies and complicates the straightforward simplicity of Arp's minimalist premise, serving as a reminder that light can be cold and stark as well as warm and reassuring, and that neither is necessarily any less revealing, or less beautiful.

Hatchback: bio and Colors of the Sun review

Some albums sound just the way you'd imagine them. It's only natural and fitting that a record called Colors of the Sun, by an artist (from San Francisco) named Hatchback, with song titles like "Carefree Highway," "Open Valley," and "Horizon," would be warm, wistful, vibrant, hazy, summery, autumnal, and evocative of free-spirited road trips and nostalgic bliss. What's impressive about this particular album is how simply and sweetly it satisfies all of these distinct yet impressionistic expectations suggested by its nomenclature -- so aptly conveyed as to seem almost inevitable, but not nearly so readily achieved -- resulting in a gorgeous, glowing journey that is at the same time sublimely relaxed and restful. The pieces that make up these pieces (oodles of analog synths, loping drum loops, fluid streams of electronic-sounding, organic-feeling melody, guitars and pianos and horns that might be sampled or synthesized or played) fit together so seamlessly, yet in such subtly shifting combinations, that one begins to wonder whether the effortlessness they project reflects an unusually intuitive, ingenuous creative approach, or if it masks a deliberate, painstaking, no less ingenious process of integration and formulation. To be sure, Hatchback is not without an extensive range of precursors and influences. Producer/composer Samuel Grawe has listed a wide array of inspirations for his work, both musical (1970s Krautrock -- particularly the namechecked Neu! -- and prog rock, vintage film soundtracks, Italo disco, Herbie Hancock, Stereolab...) and experiential (travel, friends, sunsets, windy roads, romance...) Which set of reference points is the more useful may depend on the listener, but the truth is that Colors of the Sun somehow manages to lives up to all of them. It will inevitably get lumped in with the Cosmic Disco movement (although little of it is remotely danceable) and the Balearic revival of the late 2000s, but this is a lovely and transporting listen regardless of times and trends, and one of the finest album statements that these loosely defined scenes have yet produced. Dig it.

Windsurf: bio and Coastlines review

One gets the sense that a lot of careful work went into making Coastlines the immaculately shimmering creation that it is, which is sort of a shame considering how difficult it is to concentrate on while it's actually playing. You could say that that's precisely the point, that this is music deliberately resistant to concrete awareness, its soft-focus surfaces designed to deflect attention away from itself and from anything else that might be going on. But there's a fuzzy line between getting lost in the music -- something these luxuriously extended grooves seem to invite -- and the music itself getting lost. Anyone who's enjoyed the solo work of Hatchback and Sorcerer (the two producers who make up Windsurf) will know what to expect here, and they are likely to be satisfied, as their collaborative material is very much cut from the same cloth: slow-moving, '70s-inspired semi-electronic tracks that blend Krautrock, disco, soft pop, and jazz fusion in a soothing, sun-dappled synthesis. A couple of tracks add understated, undistinguished vocals in a manner reminiscent of Studio (the Swedish fellow travelers whose music is among Coastlines' closest stylistic relatives), while a couple (synth-flecked "Pocket Check," goofy tropicale "The Big Island") boast beats bouncy enough to make dancefloor viability slightly more than a passing daydream. Otherwise, loungily lush widescreen epics are the order of the day, be they chugging ("Moonlight Sun"), tech-tonic ("Windsurf"), or amniotic (the shapeshifting, nearly beatless apotheosis "Crystal Neon.") To be sure, there is bliss to be had in these suspended moments, whether they come to you in a desk chair or a deck chair. But while artistic affect (as opposed to aesthetic qualities and craftsmanship, both of which are very finely defined in Windsurf's work) is especially difficult to assess in music that's so much about evoking emotional atmospheres, it's hard to shake the feeling that these California boys aren't glowing quite as warmly this time around.

Studio: Yearbook 1 and Yearbook 2 reviews

Studio's second Yearbook compilation is a collection of their remixes for other artists, rather than their own material, but their transformations are so thorough and their distinctive sonic fingerprints so prevalent that this is as good a place as any to get acquainted with the Swedish duo's lush, languorous style. Indeed, if not for the mötley assortment of vocals that occasionally intrude into the mix, ranging from Shout Out Louds' indie pop wispiness (on "Impossible," the most straightforward inclusion here) to Kylie Minogue's glam diva swelter (on "2 Hearts," an unlikely pairing that makes for a scintillating, revelatory high point), it wouldn't be hard to mistake Yearbook 2 as a more or less unified work by a single artist. As with Studio's original work, the agenda here is all about atmosphere. Whether the starting point is Love Is All's scruffy indie rock or Williams' faithful re-creation of Tangerine Dream's ethereal soundtrack work scarcely matters -- it all gets slathered with limpid laser-point guitar lines, washed out, reverberant synths, dubby disco grooves and, most prominently, immaculately crisp acoustic strums. Which is not to say that Studio are insensitive to their source material or that they simply work from a formula, they're just generally more interested in using it as a platform to their own ends. Certainly, they know what sounds they like and they stick with them, but their nuanced complexity and attention to detail, even on a hazy ten-plus-minute instrumental epic like their remake of A Mountain of One's "Brown Piano," is enough to rule out any notion of autopilot. Highest marks, however, go to perhaps the most minimalist offering here: a "version" (really a wholesale refashioning) of Rubies' soul-pop tune "Room Without a Key" which retains only the wordless background coos from the original as window dressing for an airy, hypnotic eight minutes suspended on a drifting, time signature-flouting bassline that feels utterly, impossibly fluid.

[Various Artists]: Permanent Vacation and Permanent Vacation 2 reviews

The inaugural release from Munich's Permanent Vacation label is an eponymous mix CD, compiled by label heads Benjamin Fröhlich and Tom Bioly, which feels very much as the title suggests: unhurried, luxurious, infinitely lush and relaxing, and warmly indulgent. It essentially embodies the spirit of the eclectic, laid-back, post-disco style of DJing and music-making, termed "balearic" in honor of the Mediterranean vacation spots whence it germinated in the mid-'80s, which was resurgently popular in electronica circles around the mid- to late 2000s. The differences between the vintage cuts and the work of the revivalists, while occasionally evident, are often strikingly hard to discern, which makes this both a cohesive listening experience and a decent argument for the cross-generational continuity of semi-electronic, slow to midtempo European disco music. All told, there is a stunning amount of gorgeousness on display here. Highly recommended to anyone curious about balearic or experimental disco, or anyone in need of a good pleasure cruise.

Permanent Vacation 2: On the whole, this mix feels more pedestrian than its inspired predecessor, maintaining a similar lilting spirit (with perhaps a slightly sharper dancefloor focus), but without so many unexpectedly magical selections. Still, it's nice enough stuff, and an admirably direct summation of an undeniable late-'00s zeitgeist.

Alexis Le Tan & Jess/Various: Space Oddities review

As per the subtitle, "a compilation of rare European library grooves from 1975-1984," these nineteen cuts of vintage library music -- that is, stock music composed and recorded for production music houses to be anonymously licensed for film and television -- are united primarily by their focus on rhythm and groove. Given the era surveyed and the fact that this collection was issued on the stellar electronic disco revivalist label Permanent Vacation, it's no surprise that most of the selections are of the funky disco persuasion, quite a few of them boasting some form of electronic instrumentation. Space Oddities was prepared as an evident labor of love by French DJs Alexis Le-Tan and Jess; one can only imagine the copious stacks of generic, hackneyed, and otherwise unfunky soundtrack fodder they must have waded through in order to glean these gems, and all of them are properly licensed and credited, which may well have required just as much effort. This is a true treasure trove of striking, inspired, and compositionally masterful material, selected with a DJ-friendly eye on the dancefloor, but containing enough unexpected twists to make home listening just as stimulating. Much of this material bears an undeniable likeness to the hippest cosmic disco sounds swirling out of Oslo and elsewhere in 2008. It will likely sound hopelessly kitschy to some, but for anyone curious about that recently spotlighted strain of electronica's patchwork heritage, or anyone looking for a freaky, funky good time, Space Oddities barely sets a foot wrong. Sensational stuff.

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