As at this time every year, we’ve been pondering candidates for our album of the year gong and its been a rather difficult process. Yesterday though the process got a little easier with the release of Art Angels, the intensely cerebral pop wonderland created by Canadian pop experimentalist Claire Boucher, aka Grimes. If anybody has been wondering what Boucher has been up to to since Visions, her acclaimed last effort in 2012, the blood, sweat and tears dripping all over Art Angels will leave you in no doubt.
The kaleidoscopic album comes across as almost a pop encyclopaedia as Boucher effortlessly glides through a myriad of pop stylings with insightful and sometimes caustically honest lyrical accompaniment. Witness the smackdown on all things fake on the country tinged back hander to 'California' and the vocal hook driven pop stunners 'Flesh Without Blood' and 'Belly Of The Beat'. 'Kill V. Maim' and 'Pin', are radically different rough edged nods to bubble gum pop and the understated, uber smooth and reworked 'Realiti', released in different form earlier this year thankfully made her ruthless cut. Utilising Taiwanese artist Artistophanes on the the confronting industrial rap of 'Scream', is her first foray into producing without being front and centre.
The stunning dexterity of and within each track underlines her undoubted production chops, bringing guile and muscle to her creations. See, Boucher does it all. From writing, performing and producing the music, producing and directing her own videos right down to designing album cover art. It's worth remembering that this is the first time Boucher has made a record that has been widely waited for, highly anticipated and to so completely triumph in such circumstances is never easy.
For us, she can take all the time in the world if she is going to create music this thoughtful, this exhilarating. And if anybody was in any doubt as to her almost manic search for intellectual pop perfection twinned with her humble honesty, two things stand out right at this minute - the fact that she culled an albums worth of tracks in the making of the record for not coming up to her impossibly high standards and that she posted this on twitter last night. We'll leave the final word to her.
James Stocker - November 7, 2015
Art Angels is out digitally now through 4AD while the vinyl and other physical versions will be released on November 11. Pre-order one of the albums of 2015 here. 'Scream (feat. Aristophanes) is below.
Norwegian experimentalist and self admitted “outsider artist and writer”, Jenny Hval takes on everything from religion to politics, sex and sexuality and employs surrealist images to represent her representation of complexity and the indefinite on her fifth full length and third under her own name, the brutal, Apocalypse, Girl. It’s an intensely thoughtful and intelligent collection of tracks that won’t be easy for many to digest, the heartfelt honesty piercing through in stark fashion.
Hval also employs visual art like vignettes which appear on the record as dreamy like soundscapes, and noise like visions, ‘White Underground’, ’Some Days’ and the ten minute closer ‘Holy Land’ cases in point. But the aforementioned surrealist complexity is represented by some most easily accessible moments, on the surface anyway, the sassy, noir like, yet withering social commentary of ‘That Battle Is Over’ and the electronically celestial, yet ascerbic like ‘Heaven’.
The production work of producer Lasse Marhaug and instrumental contributions of the likes of Håvard Volden and Kyrre Lasted come through in intimate fashion complementing Hval’s intensely personal style. Percussionist Thor Harris (Swans), jazz pianist Øystein Moen, cellist Okkyung Harpi and harpist Rhodri Davis contribute their collaborations seamlessly and with great care.
In a musical sense, Hval and co. wander effortlessly employing elements of folk, pop, trip-hop and drone and it’s arguably the best her vocals have sounded representing the cerebral like lyrics in recognisably emotive ways. You can sense the feeling of foreboding, the sense of nostalgia and the intense interest of watching from outside herself in those tones. Indeed, Hval has made the point that how to express her writing through song presents a serious challenge, one she almost agonises over. That hard work comes through very clearly throughout the record.
And don’t confuse the overt song titles for any sort of religious fervour. They simply record Hval’s connection to Norway’s bible belt when she was young. She’s far too intelligent to be of a religious bent and anyone familiar with her past work would render the need to say that impotent. She is a voyeur in every sense of those subjects aforementioned but at times embraces her subjects, like Mette Moestrup's metaphorical banana as soft dick that straddles the first two tracks, in intimate, yet still distant ways. And on the subject of politics, Hval states those who are outsiders or of a left bent have their own personal reasons for finding that reassurung space but that doesn’t mean we aren’t weak when it comes to the witheringly powerful commercialism and consumerism that is omnipresent.
Apocalypse, girl, despite Hval’s aversion to calling herself an artist is a true work of art in every sense, lyrically, musically, visually and intellectually. One that makes us truly ponder the insides and outsides of living with our simultaneous certainties and uncertainties. The album is out next week on Sacred Bones. One of the best of this year. Of that there is little doubt.
James Stocker - June 9, 2015.
This video for 'That Battle Is Over' directed by Zia Anger and featuring Cornelia Livingston and Melissa Auf de Maur is the perfect representation of not only the subject matter of the track but the surrealism that abounds on the record. Watch it below and enjoy another track, the beguiling 'Sabbath'.
Nashville based singer/songwriter Liza Anne Odachowski released her exquisitely beautiful and personal second album this week, simply named Two. It quickly follows up her debut album from last year, The Colder Months and sees just seven tracks, all of which rest of precision and delicate arrangements, no waste, no wallowing in self-indulgence here. Liza Anne and her backing band aim for immediacy and connection and although each track is clearly deeply personal in a writing sense, their accessibility and virtuosity are readily clear. The accompanying guitar work by Julian Dente (YØUTH), Alex Edwards and producer Zachary Dyke is pivotal as are the harmonies in the back up vocals from Sam Pinkerton, Molly Bush and Molly Parden, not to mention to the intricacies of her percussion and rhythm section (Jason Kollar and Dyke).
Those of you familiar with this site will have already familiarised yourselves with the gorgeous vibes of ‘Take It Back’, currently number two in our Top 30 chart. To think the album rests on that would be misleading however, as in totality its a diverse affair with that example of pop gold mixed with tracks of quiet and deep introspection, bookended by the banjo based atmospheric opener, ‘Lost’ and closed by the spartan like piano laden long distance ode, ‘Ocean’ (listen below). ‘Low Tide’ is the perfect accompaniment to ‘Take It Back’ and both illustrate her ear for an infectious tune. ‘Room’ positively glides by while the melancholic darkness that envelops ‘Overnight’ illustrates the diversity on display. You would be hard pressed not to be deeply affected by this all too brief album. Two is self released and out now. Highly recommended.
I must admit I was a little underwhelmed upon first hearing the latest album from Trento electronic trio Casa del Mirto. My initial reluctance stemmed from the fact that its so different from the band's previous works but that, as it transpired, turned out to be its greatest asset. Still was released late last month and it wasn't long before this gem of a record began yielding its sparkling secrets. I first came across the work of band leader Marco Ricci upon the release of the superb 1979 back in 2011 and have been keenly following his progress through albums, 'The Nature', 'Love Inc.' and his flourish of singles and EP's since.
Among the most impressive aspects of Still, and there are many, is Ricci's songwriting growth. The variety he and his two bandmates bring to bear is equally stunning. The child-like collaboration with L.A artist Avalon Omega, 'Invisible' is the ultimate of slow burners. It may be off-putting at first but with repeat listens it blooms. The hypnotic ballad like 'Reflex' oozes a sense of wonder while 'Where You Stand' will carefully launch you into the ether. We posted about first single 'Pressure' last year which is arguably closest to the swagger like 1979 sound.
The otherworldly 'Last Blue Wind' and the two speed 'A Picture Of' middles out the record nicely while the laconic and meticulously constructed 'Butterfly' and the seven minute "stomper" 'What I See Inside Of Me' serve to remind how diverse this work is. The title track closer serves to bring the whole set together with its understated piano sitting neatly underneath its swirling synth.
I implore you to spend some time with Ricci and friends (Luigi Segnana and Raffaele Ricci). There's a real humility behind these tracks and true quality only ever reveals itself over time. Patience is indeed a virtue and should you elect to exercise it here, Casa del Mirto will reward you in spades.
The self titled debut long player from Calgary noise/post-punk quartet Viet Cong is our first album of the week for 2015. The intelligently crafted seven tracks employ the best elements of a myriad of approaches and sounds that personify the experimentation of the immediate post punk era but in terms of the fruits of that employment produce something truly original. Abrasive, yes, alienating, no.
The menacing factorised march of 'Newspaper Spoons' opens proceedings followed by the deadpan vocals, pulsing bass and skeletal guitars of 'Pointless Experience' mirroring its title. The inexorable industrial whirr of 'March Of Progress embeds itself easily into the subconcious.'Bunker Buster' boasts a Women sounding high pitched guitar riff and thumping beat before a dose of pop drama enters proceedings to offer the light to the shade. Such texturing is hard to engineer but the songwriting chops of this foursome are of the highest order.
'Continental Shelf' is as close to industrial pop that you'll get while the fast paced manic nature of the synth laden 'Silhouettes' plays a vital role in the album's tracklisting. Closing monster 'Death' packs more into its 11 minutes that some bands have mustered in their whole careers.
For anybody, like me, who has been lamenting the tragic demise of Women, the former band of bassist and vocalist Matt Flegel and drummer Mike Wallace, the getting together of Flegel and guitarist Scott Munro and the further enlistment of Daniel Christiansen has produced an entity even better - and that's definitely a statement.
James Stocker - January 22, 2015.
The video for second single, 'Silhouettes' is below. Viet Cong is out now through Flemish Eye in Canada and Jagjaguwar internationally. The vinyl is already on its second pressing. Get it here.
Viet Cong (CAN)
From the album, 'Viet Cong', Flemish Eye / Jagjaguwar.
I woke up a couple of weeks ago and decided to spend some time as I was readying myself for work with Mark Kozelek's latest full length as Sun Kil Moon, Benji. I knew of the emotional intensity of the record from reads about it beforehand but nothing could prepare me for what was about to happen next.
As opening track 'Carissa' progressed and I loaded up the espresso machine, the heartbreaking story about the tragic death of Kozelek's second cousin, a salt of the earth 35 year old Ohio mother of two, unfolded before me. I suddenly begun to sob uncontrollably, and I mean uncontrollably. Standing at the kitchen bench crying my eyes out. It wasn't necessarily because I was listening to such a tragic story, that's definitely part of it, but it was more to do with being reminded about how helpless we all are set up against the randomness of what life dishes out and how in a split second, we can be rendered heartbroken by things completely out of our control - the brittle nature of fate. Now Kozelek hadn't seen Carissa for over 20 years and had left her and his native rural Ohio behind like so many before him looking for more creative and intellectual pastures; leaving behind a 15 year old second cousin pregnant and at the crossroads. Despite not having really giving Carissa a second thought since, her life and death suddenly haunted him - that her life might turn out to be just a life, just an existence. Determined, he wanted it to mean something and by penning this he has succeeded.
Kozelek goes on a diary like journey full of musical poignancy to tackle subjects like his complete love and devotion to his mother and his love hate relationship with his father as well as his mild disgust for his racist uncle, who died virtually the same way as his grandaughter Carissa. Outside the family, other experiences abound; his litany of sometimes awkward, sometimes ordinary experiences with ex-lovers in his youth is covered as is America's prediliction with mass murderers, the arrest of a friend of his father's for a mercy killing as well as the tragic eventual death of a childhood friend, perhaps from the effects of an brain aneurism that left him with a disability years back
Benji is such a direct ride where death surfaces with regularity but that's not to say it is a depressing experience, far from it. As Kozelek processes his life in song, the best way to sum up Benji is that... it just is.
Benji is our current album of the week out now through Caldo Verde. I've decided to feature the bookends of the record below, the aforementioned 'Carissa' and the swooning 'Ben's My Friend'. Please spend some time with this record. While you may start sobbing or even, like I did, become a momentarily hopeless emotional mess, through Kozelek's personal and direct take on life and death you will, in turn yourself, feel very much alive.
Spiderwebbed, the debut record from Bristol producer Stumbleine is quite simply and effectively a chilled out atmospheric creation. There's no real high and lows as its ten tracks wash over creating a consistent dreamy collage of downtempo electro mixed with hints of dubstep and shoegaze. The album comes on the back of a series of releases, including two digital mini-albums and an EP, during 2012 for the Swarms member, all indicative of his determination to step outside the approach that characterises that dubstep oriented trio.
Opening track 'Cherry Blossom' rests on a swinging four four beat and manipulated female vocals. 'If You' saunters along with its chiming synths and clattering rhythm while the simple yet emotive 'Capulet' is dominated by three evenly spaced chords that layers are added to as it progresses. Album standout and first single, 'The Beat My Heart Skips' is a triumph with its two step beat, shoreline effects and powerfully warped synths. The vocals of Nicole Briggs come to the fore more than any on other track as she exorts us to exhale over and over again. 'Honey Comb' continues the trajectory of songs two and three while 'Solar Flare' loop pulses away underneath a dubstep shuffle.
The erstwhile and seemingly everywhere Steph Thompson's fragile vocals sit as perfect counterpoint to the sparkly, yet spare take on the Mazzy Star staple 'Fade Into You'. It is a welcome diversion from the originals before and after it. 'Kaleidoscope' follows and fizzes along with its restless busy yet understated beat and looped electronics. 'The Corner Of Her Eye' centres on its pop disposition and laid back beat while Waikato's Alicia Merz, the mastermind behind the ambient minimalist project Birds of Passage lends her support to the ultra-hypnotic closing track 'Catherine Wheel'.
Music is meant to ultimately be enjoyed. Those who want more intellectual rigour may have to look elsewhere. Stumbleine's aim is to create a mood, an image, a feeling. Spiderwebbed's dreamy disposition takes you places, places that don't overwhelm and rarely challenge. But that's the point. The album doesn't exist to challenge and confound; it exists to reassure and confirm.
2010 saw a little-known band from Perth, Western Australia, named after a medium sized antelope, make one of the biggest debut impacts the land down-under had seen in a long time. Headed up by Kevin Parker, (who began his ascent into music in 2005 with the blues / jazz / psychedelic outfit, The Dee Dee Dums), Tame Impala came together in 2007 and just a year later saw them signed with the progressive label, Modular Recordings. Their first recording soon followed, a self titled EP, firmly cementing their style and showcasing their considerable skill and talent. Supporting acts such as Aussie pop-rockers You Am I, and The Black Keys, MGMT and Yeasayer, Tame Impala were soon selling out their own national tours and touring the UK to much acclaim.
Innerspeaker was released to massive critical acclaim, with Rolling Stone naming it album of the year. Thus much pressure, as is the way it goes, has been placed upon this second LP, and the final product is something that stands tall and holds its own against the huge amount of indie pop out there and also Tame Impala's own back catalogue. Parker has said of the pop elements in Lonerism; "For me I love everything; every kind of element available. I would never do a pop melody just to sell more records or anything. I genuinely love the emotion that a pop song can use to touch me. Pop music is in a way so much more pure than all other types of music - there's no intellectual level; it's just pure feelings."
'Be Above It' begins Lonerism with a looped whisper that gains momentum, is joined by percussion and warbling synths as the track takes off. Parker recorded ambient sounds straight to a Dictaphone in random locations, wherever they occurred and appealed to him. One of these recordings can be found on this song, that of a person walking as Parker stuck his old-school recording device out of a hotel window; "The street had a weird shape to it and it had a cool reverb whenever someone walked by. You see that run through the album." 'Keep On Lying' fades up straight into Parker's vocals, as if it has been playing and someone has just turned up the radio. He has included ambient Dictaphone recordings here also of people chatting at a party, you can almost see the bell-bottoms, tie-dye and corduroy and smell the fondue. This track is light on the vocals and heavy on the jamming, something that was more prolific on the original cut of the album before editing saw them relinquished to future b-sides. Recording and utilising found sound has been something that Parker has said to be obsessed with. Trains, megaphones, "For me it's like taking photos. I love the idea of recording a collection or a library of weird sounds or stuff".
'Apocalypse Dreams' is heavy on piano chords and thunders along, shifting gears and pace several times highlighting Parker's vocals with loops and layers to great affect. 'Why Won't They Talk To Me?' washes back and forth like a tide, "I'm so alone / Nothing for me / Lonely old me / I thought I was happy". It recalls the album title, the feeling of isolation in a world so crowded with noise, fast paced imagery, and endless ways of connecting through technology; so easy and yet so shallow. Text, tweet, Skype, message, anything but sit down and communicate face to face in the flesh. On 'Elephant' Parker sings "He's got friends but you get the feeling / That they wouldn't care too much if he'd just disappear". People have hundreds, often thousands of so-called 'Friends' on Facebook, who would notice if one of them disappeared indeed? Unlikely. This track is an album highlight with a swagger and hooks that are as strong as anything we have heard this year.
'Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Can Control' has it all, crashing cymbals, layers of reverb, warbling synths, it's the longest track coming in at six minutes complete with false ending. Concluding things is 'Suns Coming Up', much simpler in structure than everything else, and a breath of fresh air after the sonic barrage preceding it. Vocals and piano, that's it, for the most part. The last two minutes introduces electric guitar and the sound of Parker walking down to his local Perth beach finishing up with the sounds of girls chatting with the wind heard in the background. Beautiful. I saw Tame Impala play their very first gig of their world tour off the back of Innerspeaker in Adelaide two years ago. The gig was amazing, and I was left wondering what the tour had in store for them, with so much stretching out ahead of them as they toured the rest of Australia, then North America and on to Europe. Lonerism is a product of that tour and their rise as a band, and of Parker as a singer -songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. Their rise is still ascending, and the future is bright for these young Australians.
As with all work from Chris Ellison, his latest effort and fourth under the moniker of Flying Lotus, Until The Quiet Comes requires a great deal of patience for those without a trained musical ear. The first couple of listens can be quite alienating but subsequent spins slowly release a dreamy dystopia, one that connects the listener with the wee small hours and to concepts involving the futuristic and mystical. The strange yet reassuring time signatures, vocal interludes and alternating sparse yet warm textures and flourishes are all combined within a electronic, jazz and lounge oriented playbook that is Ellison's and Ellison's alone.
Now this shouldn't be taken to mean that Until The Quiet Comes is inaccessible. Quite the opposite actually. As with the sublime Cosmogramma and breakout Los Angeles before it, this record is an inviting listen where Ellison eventually rewards his guests with the earthy and comforting hospitality respectful and respected visitors deserve.
The usual cast of players assist Ellison put on the entertainment. Stephen Bruner's (Thundercat) bass work burns brightly throughout underpinning and adding strength to the complex arrangements while the vocalists that appeared on Cosmogramma, Thom Yorke, Laura Darlington return to play their appropriately subtle parts. Yorke on 'Electric Candyman', just like he was on his effort on Cosmogramma, is reduced to VolumePills a bit player, albeit an important one. Darlington's contribution, 'Phantasm' follows and continues the downtempo trajectory of the album's contemplative second half.
They are joined by Erykah Badu and Niki Randa. Badu becomes intertwined as another musical instrument on 'See Thru To U' while Randa is positvely celestial on 'Getting There' nicely following up the kitchen sink opener and appropriately named 'All In'. Her second effort is the more subdued and ethereal 'Hunger' where dreamscapes abound within a loose eastern framework amidst Thundercat's freeform bass guitar. Other standouts include 'Tiny Tortures', a relentless aquatic sounding percussive wonder and 'Putty Boy Strut' sounds just like its title suggests it should.
Despite all the bells and whistles, stops and starts, Until The Quiet Comes manages to glide effortlessly throughout its 18 track 46 minute journey. Despite packing in the usual plethora of sonic wizardry, electronic and otherwise, Ellison manages to keep this record alternately elevated yet grounded with both something for the beat inspired and the listener with their head in the clouds. Its this ability to simultaneously inspire such different takes on the same sounds that makes Ellison such a special artist.
Tom Krell's unique ability to crossover pop and R & B boundaries largely stem from his determination to eschew style in favour of substance. On his latest effort as How To Dress Well, Total Loss, his intensely personal and poignant disposition is laid bare. The album title and song titles, 'When I Was In Trouble', 'Cold Nites', 'Struggle' are suggestive of what that disposition relates to. Krell has stated that the loss of family and friends and his battle with depression set the tone for his art. On penultimate track 'Set It Right' he names them.
Where as his debut record Love Remains was more of a compilation of disparate tracks with several standouts, Total Loss i much more cohesive as an album. The interlude, 'World I Need You, Won't Be Without You (Proem)' and its later more substantial reprise 'Talking To You' is evidence of this. While darkness and loss are the undoubted themes of the album, there is hope and optimism in knowledge. Knowing oneself and how that relates to those outside.
While an intensely personal record, Krell doesn't wallow in self-indulgent hopelessness in terms of getting to grips with his subject matter. He is too smart for that. He has a theory about alienation, about the false promises that are trotted out daily by the harsh capitalist elite netting a confused populace held hostage to dreams they cannot ever realise. He possesses a social intelligence which he demonstrates through the use of samples to create an atmosphere of dislocation that he well knows exists inside and outside of himself.
His apt choice to sample Martin Bell's 1984 documentary film, Streetwise and the words of Rat, a 17 year old homeless street kid jumping off a Seattle bridge on 'Say My Name Or Say Whatever' is indicative of his understanding that some 30 years later, society still doesn't give a fuck about its underclass; "I love to fly," he laconically states, "It's just you're alone; there's peace and quiet, nothing around you but clear blue sky. No-one to hassle you, no-one to tell you where to go or what to do. Stepping on to railing; "The only bad thing about flying is having to come back down to the fucking world," before launching himself into the river below. Happily, Rat is alive and well in 2012.
Musically, Total Loss is quite a ride influence wise. It undoubtedly possesses a unique take on R & B for the most part from Krell's falsetto vocals but its lush ambience and orchestration take it somewhere else. Elements of pop and soul abound as is evidenced on the four to the floor '& It Was U', which on the surface appears fulsome of sound but when analysed is actually quite stripped back and stark. 'Struggle' couldn't be more different with its ethereal vocals, haunting loops, celestial synth and cut up off kilter beat.
Total Loss is an indication of the continuing growth of the worldly 27 year old. His ability to lay bare his intensely painful personal losses and relate them to the wider world in terms of coming to a understanding on how to deal with them is palpable. Krell is too smart to create a piece of art that is impersonal and inpenetrable. In fact, in a self-accusatory sense, he scrapped his first series of tracks for the album, for being just that. He's also acutely aware that in many cases the genre that he partly trades in is a throw away one, facile and meaningless. Total Loss avoids both pitfalls and forges a meaningful direction not only within itself but connects strongly with anybody intelligent enough to let it.
James Stocker - December 1, 2012.
How To Dress Well (USA)
From the album, 'Total Loss', Acephale/Weird World
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