22 November 2010

AMG review round-up, volume XXII: 2010 third quarter, -ish

gotta wrap it up. here's a bunch of records, mostly from july-september 2010 (with a few secret stragglers, including some a year or two late), roughly in order of what they're like and how much i like them.

Allo Darlin': Allo Darlin' review

Allo Darlin' are a quintessential, dyed-in-the-wool twee pop band (and a pedigreed one at that – frontwoman Elizabeth Morris plays in Tender Trap with twee icon Amelia Fletcher, while bassist Bill Botting is a member of Darren Hayman's Secondary Modern) but their potential appeal extends far beyond the typically homespun, insider-y indie pop scene, since their music conveys all the genre's sweetness and enthusiasm without (or at least without too much of) the sappy infantilism and amateurish shambling that turn off most listeners of the genre. On the basis of their self-titled 2010 debut, it's not hard to imagine this London outfit finding the kind of widespread devotion enjoyed by leading lights like Camera Obscura, the Lucksmiths, or even Belle & Sebastian. Certainly, Allo Darlin' is most reminiscent of these artists' earlier, scrappier efforts, but the sophistication is there, most crucially, in Morris' songs, which strike just the right balance of clever and heartfelt, wittily specific, and broadly relatable. And, without exception, magnificently tuneful. Vocally, she's got all the charm of, say, Camera Obscura's Tracyanne Campbell, but with a much more upbeat, outgoing personality (and her Aussie-via-London accent – even just her pronunciation of the word "telephone" – is worth melting for). The band never stray far from the Platonic template of crisp, vibrantly produced '60s-style guitar pop, with tinges of soul, country, and Afro-pop, generous use of ukulele and lap steel, and a healthy sprinkling of ba-bas and sha-la-las. The playing is consistently strong and, with a few tender-hearted exceptions, briskly bouncy and grooving – particularly apt for the first three songs, which are about going out dancing (though they're also about heavenly embraces, Polaroid photographs, and youthful cash deficiency, respectively.) Other pivotal topics covered include falling in love (in an amusement park; whilst making chili) and listening (and making references) to pop music. In the time-honored tradition of the Pooh Sticks, Morris fills her songs with canny cultural nods: lifting lines from Weezer, quoting Johnny Cash and Doris Day, citing fellow twees the Just Joans. (Meanwhile "Woody Allen" – which switches to film references for a change – is melodically reminiscent of the Magnetic Fields' "Strange Powers," while the blissfully lovely "Let's Go Swimming" lyrically echoes their "All the Umbrellas in London.") Maybe best of all, "My Heart Is a Drummer" reps for Paul Simon's Graceland: "we know it's everybody's favorite/deep down in the place where music makes you happiest." Clearly, that's a place that Morris and Allo Darlin' know extremely well.

The Books: The Way Out review

"Welcome to a new beginning" declares a voice at the start of The Way Out, and this album does indeed mark a fresh new chapter for the Books: a return to record-making five years after the fantastic Lost and Safe, on a new label, with a newly open-ended, wide-ranging approach to their work. It may not initially sound that way: opener "Group Autogenics I," one of several pieces that draw on guided meditation-style self-help recordings, feels almost like Books-by-numbers, with a gently humorous, disorienting oddness, juxtaposed with genuinely deeply relaxing sonics, that will be immediately familiar to fans of their past albums. After that, though, the duo stretches beyond its comfort zone in multiple directions at once, pushing at the boundaries of an already utterly singular style. The acoustic strings (primarily guitar and cello) that dominated their earlier output are still present, but they share space with a dizzying array of instrumental and quasi-instrumental sounds, from twinkling music boxes to a full-scale sample-generated orchestra of archaic brass and woodwinds. And while scavenged spoken word samples remain the most defining element of the Books' music, anchoring each of these cuts save for the four sung, lyric-based "proper songs" (including the gloriously geeky, math-worshiping chorale "Beautiful People," which announces, slightly disingenuously: "We genuflect before pure abstraction"), they're less concerned with constructing linguistic puzzles out of their samples here – cleverly editing them to evince a sublimely witty illogic and absurdity – than with exploring their emotional nuances and often surreal humanity. Most tracks focus on a small number of voices, creating a sense of context and resonance without necessarily allowing for full comprehension. Hence, we get a tentative, intimate series of answering machine messages; a nonsensical bedtime tale about a Peter Rabbit-like character named Hip Hop; an inexplicably prickly grammarian vehemently insisting that "I Am Who I Am." "A Cold Freezin' Night" is a hilarious, slightly chilling tour de force built around a battle of (increasingly violent) words between a young brother and sister, set to a thumping disco beat. "I Didn't Know That" is even more striking musically – the closest thing yet to a Books pop hit, and definitely the funkiest they've ever been, recalling Squarepusher's nimble bass playing and Akufen's micro-sampled funk barrages. The stated intention for The Way Out was for each track to be "its own rabbit hole," and the album does indeed manage to survey an impressively disparate set of worlds and modes. Still, each one remains readily recognizable as belonging to the Books' own unique, unequivocal universe, which, happily, seems to be expanding at least twice as rapidly as our own.

ceo: White Magic review

ceo is Eric Berglund, one half of the Tough Alliance and co-CEO of Gothenburg's Sincerely Yours label; his first solo venture is another clear winner from that inscrutable but highly dependable camp. While its brightly colorful melting pot of indie pop, ersatz tropicalia, chintzy new age, and electronic dance-pop doesn't stray far from the distinctive, neon-hued sound of TTA, White Magic feels tighter, lusher, and more polished (especially vocally) than most of the duo's output, with an earnest, romantic emotional outlook far from TTA's typically enigmatic, performative sneering. Berglund wastes no time announcing his ambitions here, starting with the swaying orchestral expanse of "All Around," over which he declares: "I'm coming home to face the demons on my own." It's a grand opening statement, but it's only one part of the ceo equation: alongside weightier material like the ruminative "Oh God Oh Dear" and a solemn, churchy rendition of "Den Blomstertid Nu Kommer" (a hymnlike ode to summertime that's traditionally sung at the close of the Swedish school year) that ends the album with the same string figures that opened it, the balance of White Magic's eight tracks consists of cheerfully melodic dance-pop. "Illuminata" and "Love and Do What You Will," in particular, are about as buoyant as they come, and "Come with Me" is widescreen Balearic pop at its glistening, tuneful best. The title track shades slightly darker, with its vaguely sinister, pulsing tribal techno punctuated by jungle noises, steely guitar flourishes, and percolating pan flutes, while TTA's recurrent hip-hop-inflected fascination with violence rears its head on the otherwise blithe-sounding "No Mercy" with an excellently deployed knife-sharpening sample (the song also features offhand lyrical references to bondage, incarceration, and smoking crack). Without shortchanging Berglund's melodic abilities and his knack for sharp, effective mood juxtapositions, ceo's greatest attribute is his fearlessly inventive, highly detailed approach to arrangement, bringing together an unpredictable assortment of sounds on nearly every track, and somehow making these largely synthetic productions feel dynamic and vibrantly alive. Phil Spector and Brian Wilson come to mind – the baroque strings and clip-clop percussion of "Oh God Oh Dear," specifically, suggest discreet nods to each – and, indeed, pace Wilson, the whole affair might be aptly summed up as a "quarter-life symphony to God." At under 30 minutes, White Magic could feel painfully brief, but it's so dense with creativity, melody, and life that it seems churlish to want more.

Clubfeet: Gold on Gold review

At first blush, Clubfeet seem like yet another of the countless faceless bands plying the intersection of rock, pop, dance, and electronic music in the early 2010s, but this Capetown-via-Melbourne trio is slightly more of a puzzle than its "sounds like" list suggests. For one thing, despite the band's floor-friendly moniker and appearance on the dance-oriented Plant label – and despite its sleek, synthy sheen and plethora of electronic beats – Gold on Gold feels too restrained and contemplative to really come off as a dance album. You could probably dance to most of these tracks if you had to, but on the whole it's more of a mood-setter than a floor-filler, recalling fellow Melburnians Cut Copy at their less vigorous (but still lushly anthemic), suggesting a sprightlier, fleshier take on the xx's darkly stylish veneer and updating the epic romanticism of early U2 (specifically their guitar textures) and early Stars. For a band so centrally concerned with tone and texture, Clubfeet's most impressive feat here – and what sets them apart from many of their contemporaries – is the amount of personality they're able to convey while maintaining a consistent dominant mood. It operates in subtle ways – never overbearing, nearly genteel – but their distinctive charm is nevertheless apparent throughout, often in the touches of humor and lightness they bring to what's largely a sober-minded affair: an oddly chipper tropical beatbox undercutting the lavish melancholy of "Fall from Up Here," a sweet, simple piano figure running through the achingly languorous "Six Days," or the spoken word group chants in both "Teenage Suicide (Don't Do It)" (which, Heathers-referencing aside, seems essentially straight-faced about its titular subject, making for a noble message of perhaps dubious utility in a dance-pop song) and "D.I.E. Yuppie Scum" (which, contrarily, is pretty plainly a gag). The latter two songs are the album's most immediate, attention-getting standouts and most likely dance jams, mostly by virtue of those chanted hooks, but ultimately neither one measures up to "Count Your Lovers," which gets by on pure melody and prettiness. Another highlight is a candy-sweet synth pop rendition of James' "Say Something" which, in addition to being a well-chosen and beautifully executed cover, is one of few moments where Clubfeet set aside their guitars entirely, meaning that perhaps the most electronic thing on the album is a version of a rock song. Who needs pigeonholes anyway?

Dragonette: Fixin' To Thrill review

It's telling that Dragonette titled their second album Fixin to Thrill, and not just straight-up Thrillin', even if it absolutely makes good on that stated intention. Notwithstanding the band's uber-stylish panache and the dangerously glitzy, fabulously sordid rock & roll lifestyle their music projects, there's no denying that the frequently fantastic fun and giddy thrills to be found here are the upshot of some serious craftsmanship. Dragonette are, above all, pop perfectionists, carefully culling all the shiniest bits from '80s new wave (from Duran Duran to the Go-Go's), '90s alt pop (they bear a passing resemblance to No Doubt, a more striking one to the sweet 'n' dirty electro-rock crunch of Garbage), and full-throttle '00s teen pop to concoct an obviously familiar but still effortlessly modern sound to match their punky-spunky energy. But that wouldn't count for much if not for the earworm-y melodies this album boasts in spades, with almost every cut packed full of naggingly catchy synth riffs, vocal hooks, and guitar lines. Fixin may lack a clear, massive standout to match Galore's "I Get Around" (the title track's a decent attempt, but it falls a bit short) but otherwise it marks a slight but noticeable improvement on the band's already-pretty-great debut, a more consistent batch of songs paced so that the highlights keep on coming. For the most part, the odd-numbered songs tend to be the strongest, including the sinuous, sinister "Liar," the goofy, superhero-themed "We Rule the World," and the irresistibly bouncy "Okay Dolore," quasi-cheerleader pop with enough (synthetic) handclaps to do Toni Basil proud. While the band's tendency for oddball stylistic detours is toned down here next to Galore's unscheduled excursions to Bollywood and Tin Pan Alley, the peppy banjos on "Gone Too Far," the kids choir breakdown on "Stupid Grin," and gentle cabaret stylings of "You're a Disaster" keep that sense of playfulness alive in a somewhat more integrated fashion. But the most striking and promising new development here may be an emotional one. "Easy," by some margin the album's best song, is an unusually tender expression of doomed, devoted love with a slinky, sparsely funky electro groove that drops out partway through for a rare moment of vulnerability from the normally all-sass Martina Sobrara: a sweetly harmonized, awkwardly phrased plea imploring her lover not to play games with her fragile heart. It's a total sucker move coming from these guys, an arresting, affecting moment regardless of whether you hear it as unfettered emotionalism or simply a top-notch example of how true pop greatness is to be found in the small details, a lesson that these crafty popsters have definitely taken to heart.

Copy: bio and Hard Dream review

Though he restricts himself to a palette of retro-sounding synths and straitlaced, reasonably dancefloor-friendly drum programming, never straying too far from the distinctive (if hardly earth-shattering) instrumental techno-pop vibe he's made his signature, Copy (alias Portland beatmaker Marius Libman) still covers considerable ground, emotionally, and stylistically. Hard Dream, Copy's third full-length, is titled after and loosely conceived as a score for an unrealized horror movie concept – for a flick about mysteriously televised nightmares – and, fittingly, it has its share of dark, moody, and menacing passages. But it's got plenty of pep and sweetness too, thanks to Libman's unrepentant tunefulness and full-color approach to composition; his synthesizers, which often manage to sound gleaming and gritty at the same time, are just as likely to sparkle and soar as to burble and brood. At the album's frequent best, he's often got multiple synthetic strands of melody going at once, layered into a dense, satisfying analog stew, as on the eight-minute opener "One Less Time"– a slow-building, slow-motion disco epic which might not quite live up to its Daft Punk-baiting title, but still finds some frothy, intoxicating territory to explore – or the sunnier, rather ornate "Breakfast." Copy also does well in sparser settings – "Real Scared," juxtaposing music box arpeggios and archly Baroque synth leads against a spare, swaggering, hip-hop beat – is a clear standout (and one of a few tracks to blatantly recall sometime-confederates Ratatat), while "Stay Away from It"'s herky-jerky, 8-bit bleep-thrash closes the album on a particularly fun, frenetically chirpy note. Only a few tracks are functionally devoid of melody, and they're the weakest links here: the murky, fairly generic dubstep foray "I Didn't Know" and the jittery, Kraftwerk-ian autopilot chase scene music of "It Could Have Been More" make for fine-enough mood shifters in the context of the album, but mostly they seem like rote genre exercises whose failings can be summed up by the latter's title. Generally, though, Libman's compositional gifts don't steer him wrong, and Hard Dream is much more nuanced and engagingly listenable than its stylistic trappings initially suggest. Deliberately or not, Copy's music tends to come off as primarily party fodder, well-crafted but essentially superficial, trading heavily on novelty and kitschy '80s nostalgia, but it's equally possible to see it in the tradition of thoughtful, palatable electronic "listening music," of the sort once peddled by µ-ziq and Plaid, and lately revived by Copy's West coast peers like Eliot Lipp and Nosaj Thing.

Restless People: bio and Restless People review

Restless people indeed, the members of this Brooklyn foursome cycled through several permutations and projects together – as three-quarters of dance-punk second-stringers Professor Murder; as the neotropical production/remix duo Tanlines – before emerging with this concise but emphatic statement of purpose, which can be seen as a synthesis of all that came before it. Taking Tanlines' lighthearted, percolating electronics as a jumping-off point, Restless People add an equally upbeat, accessible pop/rock songwriting slant, arriving at a very 2010 middle ground between the poppy, globe-trotting indie dance of Delorean, Cut Copy, and El Guincho, and the danceable, globe-trotting indie pop of Vampire Weekend, Foreign Born, and Yeasayer – think of them, perhaps, as Williamsburg's answer to the Very Best. At first blush, the album feels even slicker and poppier than any of the above, bursting out of the gate with the Day-glo synths and air horns of "Days of Our Lives," a glossy, euphoric club cut with a relentless stream of simple, continually recycling vocal hooks. "Constant Panic" is even more insistently kinetic – high-NRG neo-disco with a Caribbean lilt, canned handclaps, chopped vocals, and a couple of well-placed percussion breaks. Even the relative breather "Little Sky," which brings down the pace with a nostalgically poignant lyric ("I was born under a great big sky/Now I look up and see a little sky"), is a gleaming, widescreen synth epic that would've been a sure-fire radio staple were it released 25 years earlier, in the age of Peter Gabriel and "In a Big Country." Even with considerable rhythmic variety – "Don't Back Down" crossbreeds new wave piano pop with hiccuping ska; "Practical Magic" shapeshifts from half-time reggae to a frenetic soca jump-up – Restless People has a tendency toward sonic samey-ness: it might all seem like so much faceless, peppy prettiness if not for Eric Emm's enthusiastically earnest vocals. Though not a conventionally great singer, Emm sounds clear-eyed and charismatic, urging on the crowd with a motivational energy pitched somewhere between dancehall toaster and positive hardcore frontman. His intermittent shouts of "Ay, Restless people! Okay!" comes across as both a rallying cry to his bandmates and a sincere, if slightly lackadaisical, life-affirming call to arms for anyone within earshot. That mostly latent punkish energy comes to the forefront on closer "Victimless Crime," the album's only serious misstep (or at least misfit), whose cheerful mess of synth squiggles and incoherent chanting atop a crunched, chugging groove can hardly keep pace with the streamlined pancultural effervescence that preceded it.

Tanlines: Settings and Volume On reviews

A short list of artists for whom Tanlines have provided remix work – El Guincho, the Tough Alliance, Memory Tapes – gives an almost too-perfect snapshot of the stylistic terrain this Brooklyn duo traverses. Along with their True Panther labelmates Delorean, these acts are at the forefront of a particular late-2000s approach to electronic music that's decidedly poppy and danceable but without the formal rigidity of dance-pop proper, featuring plush, treble-heavy synths, thickly burbling percussion, and warmly layered, tropical-flavored grooves. That's a fairly straight-ahead description of what you can expect to find on Settings, a highly enjoyable release that nevertheless tends to blend into its surroundings (both aurally and stylistically) rather than asserting its individuality. The clearest standouts, or at least the most memorable moments, come with "Real Life" and "Policy of Trust," both enhanced (though not exactly dominated) by Eric Emm's appealingly low-key vocals, which ruminate on life's unknowable roads ("For a minute I was lost/I looked away/My destination was unknown") and make sideways nods to Depeche Mode. The third vocal cut, "Bees," is less melodically engaging, flirting with slightly more aggressive, calypsonian rhythm, while the closing "Z" is a lovely, more electro-leaning showcase for the glassy, wordless vocals of labelmate Glasser. At six songs and 24 minutes, Settings comes off as a reasonably generous EP, not least because it seems like about the limit for what these guys are able to accomplish without in some way broadening the parameters of what they do – any longer and its commendable cohesiveness might start to seem more tiresome. A true full-length effort from these two could be a very appealing prospect; they might just have to vary up their portfolio a bit to pull it off.

Arp: The Soft Wave review

Alexis Georgopoulos' debut as Arp, 2007's In Light, was an almost forbiddingly minimal collection of glacially paced analog synth excursions and sparse, meandering drones. The Soft Wave follows that outing with a set that's equally subdued and nearly as restrained in its compositional approach, yet feels strikingly rich in comparison to the utter starkness of its predecessor. There are a few obvious departures here, including an expanded sonic palette – featuring electric guitars and basses, pianos, beatboxes, and even (on one track) vocals in addition to the expected array of vintage synthesizers (which occasionally veer into patches of fuzz and abstract noise instead of remaining clinically pure) – and the fact that many of these pieces boast what could legitimately called melodies, or at least melodic motifs. But the biggest change is more than anything one of mood: while both albums are calm and contemplative, there's a warmth and restfulness to Wave that was distinctly absent from the sometimes naggingly unsettled, sometimes downright chilly In Light. It's right there in the track list: titles like "Catch Wave," "High Life," and "Summer Girl" evoke a pretty specific vibe, and they're not lying – the latter two in particular offer a hazy tunefulness that makes them, along with the groovily fluid guitar-looping "White Light," the first Arp tracks that could be considered infectious. You're probably unlikely to jam them on your way to the beach, but they're perfect for laying back and dreaming about summer, regardless of the actual outdoor temperature (well, as long as you don't mind the occasional squall). The same is equally true of the lengthier pieces that make up The Soft Wave's two poles: the stately, gently triumphant two-part opener "Pastoral Symphony," which is the closest this album comes to In Light's hermetic analog purity, and the blissfully languid slow-motion bossa "From a Balcony Overlooking the Sea" (the aforementioned vocal number, reminiscent of "rock album" Brian Eno and, curiously, the Sea and Cake), clearly the farthest thing here from Arp's established wheelhouse. Though these two pieces don't sound very much like one another, the feeling they create is surprisingly comparable. Much as Georgopoulos' compositions gradually evolve and mutate out of an initial sense of stasis, he's found a way to vary his approach – if only, in the scheme of things, fairly slightly – that moves it forward, slowly but surely, from simple clarity toward a rare luminescence.

Drivan: bio and Disko review

Norwegian producer Kim Hiorthøy has a knack for cobbling together small scraps of sound and melody in a careful but seemingly arbitrary fashion that can make the simple and familiar seem oddly curious and make the coarse and unexpected feel innocently sweet. Disko, the first output from Drivan – a group consisting of Hiorthøy and three female performance artists who serve here primarily as vocalists and co-architects – is the least overtly electronic recording he has been involved in, although most of its tracks do feature his typically low-key, rough-hewn, hip-hop-styled beats for at least a portion of their running time. For the most part, the album uses the melodic but not particularly song-based linear structures familiar from his solo work. Tracks tend to build from a basic rudimentary riff, melody, or chord progression, typically picked out on acoustic guitar or a slightly out of tune piano, with the vocals – exclusively in Swedish, usually solo or in unison, and tending toward a plain, uninflected tone that sometimes takes on a childlike, singsong cast – layered on top. Beats filter in and out, tracks develop and disintegrate in fluid but unpredictable ways, and Hiorthøy tacks on little bits of incidental noise and sonic detritus: the ambient sounds of talking, laughing, scuffling of papers; spectral, unidentified samples of this and that; whistling and squeaking electronic toys and synthetic strings and cheap-sounding keyboard organ solos. There's one clear standout and centerpiece in the six-minute "Det Gör Ingenting," which is the fullest-sounding and most melodically compelling piece here, its sweetly hypnotic throb suggesting an epic, pulsating dance track as performed by children, or heard from several rooms away through slightly worn-out speakers. (It's the only time the album comes close to the danceability suggested by its devious title, though it's still probably a bit too mellow for that.) Otherwise, it's all gently shambolic, mildly folky, slightly inscrutable, and generally quite likable. One gets the sense that Hiorthøy and his cohorts could easily continue turning out these strange, sweet, and satisfying songs in similar fashion for quite some time, if they so chose, and it would be hard to complain if they did.

K-X-P: K-X-P review

A good deal heavier and murkier than the electronic prog-disco fare sometimes associated with Smalltown Supersound – though far from unrelated to that aesthetic – K-X-P is the first fruit of the eponymous project fronted by Op:l Bastards' Timo Kaukolampi. Effectively a synth-bass-drums power trio – with the slight twist that the lineup alternates between a pair of drummers – K-X-P specialize in dark, elemental, monolithic grooves with an obvious debt to your typical slate of gritty, texture-oriented post-punk minimalists (Suicide, Spacemen 3, This Heat) and motorik Krautrockers (Can, Neu!). Each of these eight cuts has its own distinct rhythmic flavor – "Mehu Moments" sports a simple, steady jazz-funk beat; "Elephant Man" rides a hypnotic, herky-jerky tribal pounding; standout "18 Hours (Of Love)" is a stomping T. Rex/Goldfrapp/Battles shuffle – but they maintain a fairly consistent tone and approach, with plenty of groaning, throbbing drones, noisy squalls of synth noodling, and other bits of psychedelic electro-sonic detritus. Vocals crop up occasionally on three or four of the songs, but they're typically too distorted to make much of an impression – the exception being "Pockets," wherein they're intelligible as English and recognizably melodic though fairly grating (after grappling, largely successfully, with conventional song form, the track's second half retreats into an unexpected morass of fluttering, electro-disco synth arpeggios). As the album progresses, it grows more heavily electronic and increasingly spacy, with the gauzy soundtrack synths of "New World" offering a more subdued moment of cosmic reverie and "Epilogue" closing things out with some beatless, meandering organ drones and wispy wordless vocals. Despite its general seedy overtones and occasional moments of harshness, K-X-P is far from an unpalatable or unpleasant record; indeed, its relentless intensity can even feel oddly calming.

Eddy Current Suppression Ring: Primary Current review

Eddy Current Suppression Ring's second album is essentially of a piece with their self-titled debut, meaning here are ten more blasts of direct, primitive, tuneful punk from the bowels of Melbourne. Rough and scrappy but too giddily enthusiastic to come off as snotty or sneering, ECSR tap in to the primal, fun-loving energy of frill-free rock & roll, a spirit that feels every bit as immediate and relevant as it is familiar and timeless. Their sound may be derivative (of any number of past clatter-masters – perhaps most notably the Stooges, but also Wire, the Fall, the Feelies, and on and on), but it's not formulaic, and certainly not monotonous: Primary Colours employs a fair amount of rhythmic and textural variety within its basic template of straightforward lock-grooves and minimalist guitar shredding. So for every all-out skronkfest like "Sunday's Coming" and "Which Way to Go," which maintain a fairly steady barrage of thick guitar noise, there's a sleeker, spindlier cut like "Memory Lane" or the bored anti-media rant "Colour Television" ("Another Wheel of Fortune/Another million tortured") to keep their squalls in check for just the right moment of release. Punk love song "Wrapped Up" is bouncy and infectious with a strong, slinky riff, the Feelies-esque instrumental "That's Inside of Me" finds a herky-jerky funk groove, and "We'll Be Turned On" loosens up even further with some sloppy organ pounding and a righteously bashed-out rhythm track. That song also features a particularly goofy turn from frontman Brendan Suppression who, with his affable Aussie twang and unpretentious reflections on ordinary stuff like relationships and modern life (or, in this case, sex and television), comes across like a far more relatable version of Mark E. Smith.

Kathryn Calder: Are You My Mother? review

The most striking moment on Kathryn Calder's solo debut comes early. Halfway through the prettily subdued opener, "Slip Away," the song bursts unexpectedly free of its gently dappled piano tones and measured calm, the drums kick into rollicking gear, and Calder lets loose a joyous, irresistible, wordless vocal line strikingly like the ones her uncle, Carl Newman, used to write for Neko Case to sing with the New Pornographers. But those glorious, fleeting seconds (the eruption happens again later in the song) are the closest Are You My Mother? comes to the unbridled power pop/rock favored both by that group (of which Calder has become an increasingly active member) and by Immaculate Machine, the band of high-school chums turned indie rock pros that was until recently her primary outfit. Somewhere between a "traditional" singer/songwriter album and an exercise in one-woman popcraft à la Newman's band-based solo records, Mother finds Calder alternating between rhythmically driven uptempo numbers (the peppy, noodly two-step "Castor and Pollux"; the frantic, somewhat slapdash-sounding "A Day Long Past Its Prime") and mellower, more introspective fare. She strikes a happy medium on the folksy, metrically quirky "If You Only Knew," a jaunty singalong complete with handclaps and shambling, desultory group percussion, and on the breezy "Follow Me into the Hills," which manages to suggest both loping acoustic country and tiki-lounge exotica with its mandolin breaks, swaying tropical beat, and big twangy guitar. But by and large, in spite of Calder's rocking pedigree, Mother is generally most effective at its most restrained. With repeated listens, cuts like the autumnal, string-laden "Down the River" and the wistful waltzes "Arrow" and "So Easily" (the former a piano-based lilt, the latter stripped down to the sparsest picked acoustic guitar notes and featuring an understated harmony from Case) stand out as the album's most resonant, if only because their sparer settings allow Calder's finest gifts – the strength of her melodies and the girlish sweetness of her winsome vocals – to shine through most clearly. Despite its poignant back-story – Calder recorded the album at her family home in Victoria while caring for her ailing mother, who died a year before its release – Mother's emotional impact tends to be more indirect and evocative than specific and tangible. Its varied but always thoughtful musical character, as much as its nuanced, sometimes ambiguous lyrics, make it feel like an understated, vital reminder to bring a gentle approach to life's struggles.

Jenny Wilson: Hardships! review

The second album by this acclaimed Swedish songstress largely jettisons the appealing if skewed pop sensibility of her debut, along with most of that album's electronic underpinnings, for a prickly, nebulously political collection of songwriterly art-pop, emphasis firmly on the "art." While Love and Youth wasn't exactly light listening, it could somewhat reasonably be mentioned in the same breath as Wilson's friends and collaborators (and compatriots) Robyn and The Knife; Hardships!, though, plods a portentous path far from the Scandinavian synth-pop superhighway, evoking instead the idiosyncratic likes of Kate Bush and Tori Amos. Wilson's curious, powerfully theatrical soprano has earthy hints of gospel and soul, while the piano-led chamber arrangements offer occasional flashes of levity, particularly in the percussion department – though the album's menagerie of handclaps and xylophones can just as easily sound sinister as cheerful. But most of the interest here (human or otherwise) derives from the lyrics, which deal explicitly with domesticity and motherhood, forming a loose song cycle/concept album that addresses those topics primarily through themes of struggle, escape and disillusionment. Wilson combines narrative details redolent of rural poverty (strong-willed horses, threadbare socks, burnt soup and potatoes) with military, maritime, natural world and nursery-rhyme imagery to create vivid, uneasy juxtapositions, not unlike the rifle she wields with such impassive poise on the album's cover. The dinner-time escalation in "Pass me the Salt" is typical: "Come on now eat your food/cartridges, fried and stewed/this table has become a combat zone." The title song likewise compares the trials of motherhood to the stuff of bloody battlefields, bemoaning the unheralded heroism involved in an implacable, oddly antagonistic tone that reduces a well-reasoned feminist viewpoint to bleak, heartless logic. Wilson adopts a similarly chilly, queasily pragmatic, almost resentful view of family relationships throughout, with partners and children alike: when she wails, by way of a lullaby, "I wanna leave you baby/but our veins are entwined," you get the sense she really does want to leave her infant. The final two songs represent something of a thaw, musically as well as lyrically (one features a loose-limbed sax solo) – tellingly, they're the only ones save for the surreal memoiristic opener "The Path" ("I wanted to be born, so I crawled out of my mother") to contain the word "love." Love does not come easily in a world filled with hardships. And Hardships! is not an easy affair on any level.

No comments: