Sunday, July 25, 2010
Two months back, I mentioned that SCQ was cooking up a new feature that would spotlight under-the-radar labels that are, in fact, quite awesome. Well, it didn’t take very long to realize that column idea was nearly identical to Embers From the Underground, the young feature that interviews artists and discusses their recent work. So here SCQ presents a mammoth edition of EFTU that focuses on Fixture Records, the Montreal-based imprint that helps beat the heart of true indie music.
Catch up with Tessa Smith and Conor Prendergast, co-founders of Fixture Records, who tag-team SCQ's interview and don’t forget to check out some of their fine releases courtesy of Omon Ra, Cresting, Postcards and Dirty Beaches (reviews and links below)…
SCQ: Where were you and what were you doing when you decided to form a record label? Why Fixture Records?
Tessa & Conor: In the summer of 2007, we started talking about a cassette project where we would pair visual artists up with bands. That was the initial idea. Later that year, our band, Brave Radar, finished a record. We were working on the CD cases for that and researching what to do with it after we made the CDs. The cassette thing hadn’t happened, and we realized that what we were doing then was being a label anyway. After that, we helped some friends with their first albums, Dirty Beaches and Postcards. It sort of just went from there.
For the name, we wanted something that sounded classy, like Atlantic or Stax, something like that. We googled Top Notch and it was already taken. Probably for the best. Fixture was a suggestion by our roommate at the time. I think he was lying on his back looking up at a light fixture in his room when he said it.
SCQ: Peaking in on Fixture Records' tumblr is a particular treat, where you frequently post pictures of late-nights spent crafting record/download sleeves, live videos or basement studio-sessions and lots of audio streams. How crucial of a role has the internet played in the growth of your label?
Tessa & Conor: The internet lets us sell our records without having distribution or a brick-and-mortar shop. It's much easier to find a small international audience and be sustained by that while promoting things in a way that feels natural to us, i.e. not having to release huge numbers of things or do big ad campaigns or anything. That small audience could grow in the future and we could still keep doing things our way.
SCQ: What were your ambitions when Fixture Records first started out? Have any of these goals changed over time?
Tessa & Conor: In the beginning, we thought of the label as a first base kind of step for bands we liked and friends to make records and have somewhere to put them. That’s still really important. Deciding to release something for us is like making a commitment to that recording and saying it’s just as legitimate as anything.
It’s always been important for us to put care into the packaging, digital design, and promotional materials on a handmade, small-run scale. We’ve gotten better at the physical production stuff, so now we’re thinking more about fun and weird projects that we can develop using those skills.
With every release we seem to re-evaluate our ideas. Everyone’s thinking about what’s happening to records and we think a lot about those kinds of questions. For us, we really have nothing to lose, so it’s a really exciting time to be putting stuff out and experimenting with formats.
SCQ: Although creating wildly diverse records, most every artist who calls Fixture Records home shares a certain experimental/lo-fi aesthetic. Is it your intention to maintain a roster that boasts a distinctly “Fixture sound” or do you plan to expand into new sonic directions?
Tessa & Conor: Initially, we put out a bunch of records in a row that were the first albums of our friends` bands, so there was probably a social aspect to any sort of similarity in sound. But generally, what we both like is pop music. That’s what we’re drawn to, stuff with hooks and melody and a certain immediacy, no matter what the genre.
We have no real allegiance to any aesthetic or scene, so to speak, which makes it really easy to decide what to release. We just put out what we like.
Someone wrote us a while ago after buying a few of our records to say it sounded like the artists were making music they wanted to make, rather than what they should or could. We like that.
SCQ: What’s on Fixture’s agenda for 2010?
Tessa & Conor: We just finished a double cassette, Volumes I & II, by an Ann Arbor band, called Telephone Callers (Myspace). They`re our first non-Canadian band. Next up, we’re working on a 7inch by Bernardino Femminielli, an EP by Mavo, a mixed media sci-fi compilation, and we’ve got a few other things on the back burner.
Check us out at: www.fixture-records.com
SCQ Rating: 82%
Omon Ra may be another songwriting duo who record lo-fi folk songs with the occasional freak-out, but Daniel Miller and Zachary Fairbrother possess a particular X factor that distinguishes their work. It’s audible straightaway on ‘Wabbi Sabbi’ and ‘200 Miles’, an opening couplet that plays up their shaggy mid-tempo folk and softly atmospheric balladry. These songs seek no revolution; they’re undemanding without sounding the least bit conservative and their aura – what differentiates them from any band I’ve heard before – lies in the unabashed freedom inherent to these songs. The country-hued ‘Watch Me Start Fires’ and rustic ‘Don’t Be a Tack’ steer casually over the yellow-dotted line, wallowing in their own sadness while taking nimble turns toward opposing traffic.
That Monolith 1 never crashes head-on into conflict is a wise move by Omon Ra; they taunt these low-key but full arrangements to dance along the brink of despair but always know when to pull back. Jettisoning slightly is ‘Rice In a Bag On the Counter’ which borrows slightly from the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s tuneless advance but gathers steam over its expertly measured two-in-a-half minutes. Monolith 1 isn’t lacking upbeat numbers so much as suppressing them, and its optimism shines through even the longest dirge (the cusp of morning stroll that is ‘At Martinique’).
It would be easy to congratulate Fixture Records for the aura seeping through Monolith 1, given this generous re-issue that includes six bonus tracks, but it’s the performances of Omon Ra that deserves noteworthy attention. Bringing the original material to a close on ‘Simorgh’, a garage-rocker that falls comatose into distortion before rebuilding to its feel-good power-chords. As a closing track, ‘Simorgh’ is a wink that celebrates the free will Omon Ra wields over their direction. If Monolith 1 is but the first of many full-length results, we listeners have much to look forward to.
SCQ Rating: 73%
If you’ve ever taken a photograph by accident, due to either a finger slipping or someone brushing the lens away, you might not recognize the power of the shot. Not immediately, at least. Whatever that photo failed to capture doesn’t matter because it catches something else – a scene without a focal point, maybe a corner of a room – that you’d never have documented otherwise. That time-and-place nostalgia which adorns An EP’s cover-art can be found hiding within songwriter Gabriel Ng’s seven-song debut.
Similar to the work of Dirty Beaches, Cresting’s scope is measured in minutia by grabbing a certain instrument or refrain and running with it. If the tracks that comprise An EP feel less organically grown than Dirty Beaches' Bird EP, it’s in no small because Ng doctors these experiments for conflict. It works rather well. Although ‘Variation On a Variation’ battles a noisy give-and-take over its two-minutes, what fuels its progression is definitely narrative-bound. The same double-take depth applies to ‘Sprained Ankle’ which bubbles over aquatic keys like a lost b-side from Finally We Are No One. The most arresting of these sonic endeavors, ‘Squared Feet’, builds a tense piano soundscape that grows outward then dies in a moment of static.
Cresting’s motivations are secretive and designed for thoughtful listeners willing to hear songs for sounds. Having said that, the purpose of ‘Crows Call’ and its series of false starts still eludes me. A sometime difficult collection of experiments, An EP can evoke chains of memories by existing out of focus.
SCQ Rating: 80%
My first listen to Postcards occurred in a neighbourhood not far from mine, and that’s all I could really be sure of. A recent thaw had reduced the snow to loitering puddles as I walked a curbside that I might’ve mistaken for my street mere weeks earlier. Relishing the vague familiarity of these quiet backstreets that were so unlike my Toronto district, I caught a glimpse of a narrow path burrowed between two properties. At the risk of trespassing, I snuck down the beaten lane as Postcards’ opener ushered in and discovered an sprawling field of countless dandelions. If you haven’t heard the song ‘Because’, the timing at work behind this discovery will seem lifeless to you, but the track, titled as if a one-word retort, unbuttons its formalities with a moody guitar and echoed vocals. Lo-fi doesn’t prepare you for a song of this quiet magnitude.
After walking the field’s width to an abandoned bleacher, I settled under an early Spring sun and let ‘Gum’ wash over me like a sprinkler of mid 80s dream-pop. By the time ‘You Won’t Say’ and all its private disclosures fell heavily on my heart, I realized Postcards were operating on a very rewarding tactic of languid post-punk drumming, simple hooks and some cleverly morose vocals. Capping off this debut cassette’s first side with the cool comfort of ‘Debt’, Postcards elicit a vibe that rings true to American Analog Set’s dressed-down charms. And while Postcards’ second half ventures further into indie-rock’s slacker-jam history, a few cuts (the ode-to-surf ‘Ocean’, those annoying loops on ‘Always Busy’) run the risk of alienating their aforementioned highlights. Regardless of how well the Montreal-based outfit channels variety, they’ve certainly found their niche on the gently shambling ‘Sunshine’. Few records can maintain such a leisurely pace and richly melancholic perspective without becoming a drag but Postcards is too cozy to be depressing.
SCQ Rating: 67%
Recently, while waiting in line for a show, I was talking about Dirty Beaches when a friend asked what the one-man project sounded like. At a loss for easy descriptors, I started with how I really prefer movies without soundtracks but if I were to ever make a film…- But before I could finish, I realized what a pretentious twit I sounded like, even among a steady line of costumed hipsters. So I shut up. Even two weeks on, though, Bird EP instantly calls to mind the quirky soundtracks of beatnick art films that make aimless driving seem cinematic, and bohemianism into lavish incidental culture. What a film score Dirty Beaches could create.
Perpetually in slow-motion tailspin, Bird EP’s seven tracks pace the footsteps of snippets recited repeatedly until the same fractured melodies fuse into a backdrop that’s as bizarre as it is hypnotic. No arch defines or dramatizes these tracks; they all end where they began. That Dirty Beaches operates such unassuming compositions - only one of which reaches the three-minute mark - should explain why each track behaves interchangeably. The warped organs that deadpan over ‘O’Farrell’’s dirge echo in ‘North East Station’’s serene rumination. Elsewhere the loitering and bored electric piano of ‘West Coast Bird’ takes a more purposeful role in the crawling ‘Tango Tango’. None of these instrumental moments feel stitched into their respective songs, nor are they too dependent upon their confines to mess about independently. Like a student of jazz, Dirty Beaches prioritizes rhythm above all else; every other squeal or buzz is just the negative space breathing.
If Bird EP sounds languid or monotonous, you’re probably listening for familiar genre dynamics. Don’t bother. Dirty Beaches may provoke notions of dub and psychedelia at times but this release truly belongs under imaginary classifications. Indeed, like a soundtrack for your daily life should.
Friday, July 23, 2010
The Chemical Brothers
SCQ Rating: 76%
More than a mere suggestion, “get higher” has been the thesis for the Chemical Brothers’ entire body of work. From the barely disguised ‘H.I.A.’ (try saying it aloud) on American EP to Best-Of compilation single ‘Get Yourself High’, Tom Rolands and Ed Simons have never shied away from referencing narcotics within their hallucinogenic rush of flower-power love and ear-friendly beats. So when ‘Snow’ opens the Chem Bros’ seventh full-length LP with the lone repeated vocal “Your love keeps lifting me higher, lifting me higher”, it further ingrains their catalog’s love affair with 60s psychedelia and early 90s, ecstasy-fueled rave-ups. As a five-minute long glorified introduction, ‘Snow’ defines excessive, but it’s passable not only as a grand summation of The Chemical Brothers’ near two-decade career but as a foreshadowing to what is easily their best record of the past eight years.
Further solves the contentious issue that plagued both 2005’s Push the Button and 2007’s We Are the Night by completely omitting guest-star vocalists. No one can argue the success Noel Gallagher brought to ‘Setting Sun’ or the Grammy nod Q-Tip ensured with ‘Galvanize’ but this compulsion to rope cool kids of a given era began to compromise the flow of Rolands and Simons’ LPs. We Are the Night, for example, didn’t sound like a united set of songs so much as a mixtape of indifferent or failed collaborations. With vocals on Further covered by the relatively unknown Stephanie Dosen or Rolands himself, The Chemical Brothers can finally push their own buttons, crafting songs pure to their muse instead of tailoring them to famous friends.
As a proper, undiluted celebration of their sound, Further also sounds increasingly old-school. It’s more of a compliment than a diss, with ‘Swoon’ boasting some maximized French House and ‘Dissolve’ establishing a coda of life-affirming keys before diving headlong from suspended saw-synths. These are old tricks that, when executed from the masters of the genre, have lost none of their addictive qualities. In fact, the duo take Big Beat to a (dare I say…) higher threshold with ‘Escape Velocity’, a massive dance track that assembles into a few towering, terrifying climaxes. Remember the first time you heard that lengthy bass drop on ‘Out Of Control’? Multiply that moment by about a million.
Like any act unwilling to drastically update their sound over a twenty-year period, The Chemical Brothers occasionally let their age show. ‘Horse Power’, unsurprisingly a favourite among die-hard fans on the band’s official message board, feels torn from Surrender with its call-and-answer robot voices and hard techno rhythms. Toss in a slew of aggravating horse samples and you have a slice of backward-glancing electronica that wilts out of the gate. And while Further occasionally sounds like background music for raver nostalgia, a song like ‘K+D+B’ sounds unusually fresh and modern, even if its lyrics intone something about getting higher, higher, higher.
All of Your Raw Materials
Richard Laviolette & the Oil Spills
You’ve Changed Records.
SCQ Rating: 73%
Beneath his youthful exterior, Richard Laviolette has rare spirits running amuck, some as rightfully vigorous as a man in his early twenties, others weathered and defeated by generations of hardships. That timeless passion is ubiquitous over the course of All of Your Raw Materials, a bluegrass-tinged folk record that should hold honest appeal to country purists and fans of You’ve Changed Records’ recent roots attraction.
Chocked-full of plump arrangements (including lots of banjo, fiddle and pedal steel) courtesy of the Oil Spills, All of Your Raw Materials surpasses the ambitions of a homage album on the coattails of Laviolette’s voice, all ancient yet wound-up. Although slower tracks like ‘Winterbreath’ and ‘Bodymaps’ serve the bittersweet delights, Laviolette’s charisma on ‘Funeral Song’ is possibly the most charming spit in the face to death I’ve ever heard. With a loose choral chanting behind him, ‘Funeral Song’ evokes all that’s proper about real country music, from its blue-collar camaraderie to some unforgettable musicianship. It’s a DIY punk attitude when the power’s out.
Before All of Your Raw Materials was re-issued by You’ve Changed Records and before Standard Form released it in 2009, it’s worth noting that these recordings were actually made way back in the summer of 2008. It has taken awhile for Richard Laviolette and the Oil Spills to get their due, but I can’t deny that now might be the ideal time to check them out. While All of Your Raw Materials is admittedly too laid back for these dog days of summer, the warmth and longing of its songs should afford some great comforts as September comes calling. Prepare thyself now. Old-time folk and country never goes out of fashion, especially when it’s this effortlessly authenticity.
Monday, July 19, 2010
Beast Rest Forth Mouth
Bear In Heaven
SCQ Rating: 79%
Despite Beast Rest Forth Mouth being released to American shores last fall, Bear In Heaven’s successful run is still just catching stride. With another massive tour underway, the Brooklyn-based quartet has also just unveiled a remix album that Hometapes is claiming as “worthy of both headphones and dancefloors”. Featuring contributions from the likes of Studio, The Field and Justin K. Broadrick, the currently untitled companion disc holds considerable promise for a project of this nature. In other words, this project might avert the usual fate of remix records in that it might serve as something better than a beer coaster.
Still, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Their breakthrough is finally getting settled in the UK and, at the risk of negating that remix album’s intentions, Beast Rest Forth Mouth seems worthy of headphones and dancefloors in its natural incarnation. Granted, a gently warped jam like ‘Dust Cloud’ doesn’t scream dancefloor but it is pure euphoria, all fragmented vocals and sleepy synths tumbling over bedsheets before a sweeping climax of psych percussion shakes you from the dream. Cathartic and expansive, I would happily stake a tile of the dancefloor for Beast Rest Forth Mouth. That same scope - think New Wave via 70’s Prog – informs a bevy of early highlights; ‘Beast In Peace’ chugs to life as an exotic lullaby before its mountainous chorus erupts while ‘Wholehearted Mess’ and ‘Lovesick Teenagers’ embrace more hook-oriented synth-pop without abandoning their penchant for bulging compositions. Besides their infectious no-man’s land approach to rock and electronic subgenres, much of Bear In Heaven’s mystique can be pinpointed to Jon Philpot’s vocals, which are androgynous and curiously layered into even the band’s more robust moments.
The spacious quality that permeates Bear In Heaven’s latest album is so convincing, with their ability to throw impossible-to-unravel chords of guitar and keys into echoed chasms, it seems unbelievable that Beast Rest Forth Mouth barely breaches the forty-minute mark. Not because it feels overlong and not because it’s difficult to digest in one sitting; quite the opposite. These ten songs are accessible and yet so warmly intimidating, it’s surprising how a journey this massive can run its course so concisely. So when does this remix album come out?
SCQ Rating: 77%
Wierd Records, who landed a permanent spot on my label-radar earlier this month with Frank (Just Frank)’s disarming The Brutal Wave, is again proving their post-punk affinity with Montreal-based outfit Automelodi. Centered around the dense compositions of songwriter Xavier Paradis, Automelodi shares many attributes with their label-mates, as both acts perform vocals in French and bring a minimal synth approach to contemporary scenes. Where this self-titled LP deviates from standard Wierd releases (and indeed from The Brutal Wave) is in its production techniques, as Paradis equips these songs with a wide range of modern instruments and studio effects. Sticking to one’s principles pays significant dividends on Automelodi, a collection of sticky synth-pop gems that merge the best of New Wave with a post-millennial edge.
How that edge translates amid such retro-but-authentic musings (think Soft Cell) boils down to modern synthesizers and drum-machines that, more often than not, render the material on Automelodi nearly electronic-rock. Early highlights like ‘Rose A.D.’ and ‘Rayons De Rien’ share an 80s pulse that blurs New Wave into what could nowadays be considered a nuanced form of Big Beat, while other songs cross over with increasingly digital back-beats (‘Rentree 3007’). Despite an overly synthesized sound, Automelodi never sounds cold, utilizing heated emotional lyrics and enveloping keys that clothe Paradis’ occasionally bitter sentiments. That Automelodi displays such a contrast between cool and warmth without ever appearing shackled to details or studio effects is doubly impressive. Even at their claustrophobic coldest, you can feel the sweat behind Automelodi.
Interestingly, the album gets stronger as it progresses, forsaking some of the early verse-chorus necessities for unpredictably engaging advancements. After letting go of some tension on ‘Employe Terne’, an upbeat number that might echo as twee if not for Paradis’ forthright vocals, Automelodi unveils the true scope of their sonic aptitude on ‘Limite Malade’, smearing chords over a slow-burning bass groove. Here’s an evolution, caught to tape, that shouldn’t be ignored. This isn’t a case of Automelodi finding their voice over ten songs, it’s a showcase of a band transforming from Francophone radio fodder to something deeper, less tangible and more original. Even on the subsequent CD-only bonus track ‘S’rait Bon D’S’Revoir’, this voice is continually growing into a signature sound, untapped yet wholly addicting. An exciting, if partially unbalanced, debut worth dancing alone to.
Monday, July 12, 2010
Hit City U.S.A.
SCQ Rating: 76%
For a band that reportedly takes inspiration from Kate Bush and The Postal Service (perhaps making them the one-billionth to do so), Superhumanoids boast a sound that is both inviting and inventive. Although the latter muse's Give Up requires no comment, it’s difficult to overlook the trend that every Postal Service-borrowing band since seems to value style well before songwriting. In a market where Owl City can make a fortune on Gibbard and Tamborello’s coattails, maybe that strategy makes sense, but Superhumanoids clearly want little to do with that kind of cash-in mimicry. Urgency EP could make a blender blush with its ability to mix and conceal varied organic and electronic sounds but its focus resides in the power of good songcraft.
Whether the Los Angeles-based four-piece occupy the domain of Krautrock (as on ‘Cranial Contest’) or girl-group swan-songs (‘Contemporary Individual’), Superhumanoids are as likely to own their style-jumping risks as convincingly as they’re capable of shifting them mid-song. That Krautrock workout gathers a glistening surf-guitar vibe before morphing into a groove-based love-song while their girl-group’s coos take on a reverb-ridden humidity last felt during a high school gymnasium-dance in the 80s. The band seems most at home (and most likely to be found after their gentle genre-hops) with post-punk, which propels the minimal-synths of ‘Simple Severin’ and ‘Persona’, although they never sound stretched by any of their material’s transformations.
As shape-shifting as these compositions sound on paper, Urgency EP’s genius is camouflaged so well it nearly feels conservative. And I suppose it is, in respect to its way-too-short eighteen-minute run-time but a subtle reason for the EP’s easy digestion can be pinpointed to vocalists Cameron and Sarah, who croon boy/girl harmonies so slyly, they stand to fall from the cliff of their synth-y atmospheres. Spaced out and muddled at the same time, Urgency EP presents a quartet capable of merging four distinct tastes into something refreshingly new. What... you didn't expect depth from a band called Superhumanoids? I made the same mistake.
Ernest Jenning Record Co.
SCQ Rating: 65%
New Home revolves around taking geographical conquests in order to gain those small rites of passage from the risk, and it’s a pertinent subtext for Brooklyn’s La Strada. Besides lead-singer James Craft singing through experience – he has lived on both American coasts and a few European countries – the theme is fitting for a band who’ve been musically evolving at such a speed these past few years. Their rites of passage are affirmed through the jovial striving of New Home, their biggest statement yet.
Now while some bands would carry such a tumultuous theme for its burdens – Arcade Fire’s cathartic camaraderie on Funeral comes to mind – La Strada references life’s obstacles only in passing on the anthemic ‘Go Forward’. From that opener of multi-layered vocals all arching over a stirring guitar, La Strada skips forward on friendly indie-rock pastures with ‘The Traveler’ and ‘Wash On By’; both string-laden without sapping the rock outfit’s resolve. Considering their heavily orchestrated productions, the quintet (plus producer Kyle “Slick” Johnson) manages the difficult task of keeping these compositions light and breezy. Even the more wistful ‘Julia’, a comparably bare-boned acoustic strummer, has the ideal mix of orchestral swoon to render each lyric alive.
Too bad, then, that La Strada seems composed of such content songwriters, as a touch of turmoil would really deepen the emotional impact of these arrangements. After a resonating climax of tense strings and distant vocals, ‘My New Home’ slips back into Craft’s humdrum lyrics of relatable daily nuisances and nine-to-five cravings. Musically speaking, La Strada should have more to say to compliment their instrumental prowess. Although worldly in scope, the positivity emitting from this full-length debut becomes tiring, almost as if its can’t-bring-me-down ethos is covering for an absence of worthwhile emotions to chew on. For an album to wear me down with optimism seems like a strange, super-cynical response and yet Craft’s assertion that he tests out material on a subway platform echoes of countless street-performers who lack that same troubled drive. Insatiably upbeat and sociable, New Home shows great potential but as a statement, it’s a bit one-sided.
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
Mind Altar EP
SCQ Rating: 77%
Despite all of Moondagger’s drastic genre-turns and predominantly goofy lyrics, its production qualities kept most astute listeners on the fence. That Deastro, who is known to friends as Randolph Chabot, managed to overcome his debut’s youthful attention span with a veteran’s aptitude for electronics seemed like a saving grace the first time around, and Chabot appears uninterested in risking another half-hearted reception. Gathering songs from a tumultuous, post-Moondagger writing period that initially littered track-by-track onto Deastro’s blog, Mind Altar EP finds the producer going back to the drawing board for a winning formula.
If you’ve heard the title track, a galvanic, soft-focus electro-pop jam that sizzles and menaces like a drugged-out summer sun, you’ll know first-hand Deastro pinpointed the formula to move forward with. Abandoning the hectic hodgepodge of Moondagger for an unfurling utopia of echo-drenched productions, Deastro has reemerged a cagey experimentalist with ‘Pastor Kid Redux Edition’, a fatalistic beat-n-organ mashing, and the snow-crunched dance grooves of ‘Get Frostied’. With the majority of these tracks mixing hyperactive electronic codas with layers of keys and Chabot’s vocals, Mind Altar EP delivers Deastro’s most focused songwriting yet, free from over-thinking but obscured in threadbare clouds of sensation. Such an approach is apparent on highlights like ‘The Concept of Land Ownership’ and ‘World of Shadow’, two vaguely cinematic compositions that wrestle a radical niche (think glo-fi meets shoegaze) out of a massive emotive scope.
Harnessing a more serious-minded set of exploratory songs, Mind Altar EP is rightfully getting the Ghostly treatment, remastered and armed with three bonus tracks. The fleeting promise behind Moondagger has officially landed.
Swung From the Branches
Foxes In Fiction
SCQ Rating: 72%
Haze, being the weapon-of-choice for so many bedroom producers of late, has developed a reputation for being hollow. It’s an understandable skepticism; as much as I’ve tried to narrow the blame to those artists who use haze like a songwriting shortcut, records like Swung From the Branches incite a knee-jerk here-we-go-again upon first fuzzy cloud of keys. Warren Hildebrand, the lone composer behind Foxes In Fiction, deserves little of this skepticism for a number of reasons, the least of which being that strung-out haze doesn’t even figure into his work until the onset of Swung From the Branches’ massive middle-section.
Until then, Hildebrand sets the parameters of his full-length debut around budding tapestries of ambient gauze (‘Basement Window’, ‘Sleeping Building Unsuspecting’) and drifting vocals over half-erased beats (‘Coffee Cups That Won’t Break Down’). Both compositional camps engorge the same moody enterprise, with each track snowballing into a comforting but progressively remote cocoon of electronics. This glacial dissolve of sequencing comes to a head with ‘8_29_91’ and ‘Mialectric’; the former a beautiful soundscape of light beats haunted by a desperate monologue, the latter a lively break of tampered loops and confrontational synths. This couplet of stand-alone tracks may sonically climax Swung From the Branches’ first half but greater surprises await just beyond the threshold.
Announced by a dripping guitar and distant vocals, ‘Bronte Balloons’ defies its slight instrumental status by foreshadowing a serious shift for the second half. The gentle guitar arpeggios of ‘New Panic Cure’ and ‘Jimi Bleachball’ are quick to suggest Atlas Sound, with Hildebrand providing similarly muffled (although less androgynous) vocals. Here’s where the issue of haze – its merits, its cheats – arrives, gently coating these rock-oriented songs with atmospheres that negate the need to arm a song beyond its skeletal mould. And while a track like ‘Ativan (Song for Erika)’ or ‘Snow Angels’ contains no shortage of haze, spread like a varnish over Hildebrand’s vocals and instruments, I’d argue my skepticism lies not in whether his use of haze is a cheat – it isn’t – but how these examples sound insanely too close to Bradford Cox’s solo project. If Foxes In Fiction prove so capable of ambient electronics (to the point of discarding the skill halfway through an album) and alternately accomplished at hazy, vocal-infused compositions (check out ‘Memory Pools’ or the excellent ‘Flashing Lights Have Ended Now’), why pad Swung From the Branches with a few songs that sound so loyal to one of indie-rock’s most prolific artists?
At seventy-one minutes in length, Swung From the Branches suggests I don’t hold my breath waiting for an answer to that pressing question. While accusations that one sounds like Bradford Cox are in no way an insult, these suspect tracks do steal me from Hildebrand’s otherwise unique creation. Stretching over twenty-two tracks, Swung From the Branches deserves its multiple identities and its potent ability to frustrate. It’s a sequencer’s dream to navigate and mentally rearrange, a bipolar record that forces a serious study of haze and its possibilities.
Sunday, July 4, 2010
The Brutal Wave
Frank (Just Frank)
SCQ Rating: 83%
The Cure debuted Faith a year before I was born and, for the life of me, I’ve never been able to get over it. Every shade of grey born out of that evolution called post-punk – a tonal palette that triggered goth-tinged classics from the likes of Joy Division and Siouxsie and the Banshees – provokes me into a naval-gazing swoon but also reminds that I’m a few decades removed from experiencing that scene as it originally developed. Such a timeline fact has bothered me so because this synthesizer-and-drum machine style of post-punk seems to have lost the lifeblood to deliver any innovative bands worthy of challenging the mainstream. It seems I’ve been looking in the wrong places – in other words, not France – because Frank (Just Frank), the Parisian duo of Anthem and KD, have reinstated post-punk’s drive and mystique with The Brutal Wave.
Although to be accurate, Frank (Just Frank) take their muse from Cold Wave, the sound of late 70s/early 80s post-punk filtered through atmospheric possibilities in chilly guitar, prominent bass and minimal synth. While elements of this genre have been appropriated by French metal bands in a hybrid known as Black Wave, Frank (Just Frank) jump from their experiences in that heavier faction with what they call Brutal Wave - a private, emotional take on Cold Wave’s more uplifting aspects. A bloodletting desperation pokes beneath the surface of these overcast guitar-tapestries, translated despite the dull buzz of bass and French lyrics of ‘Jalousie’ or the poetic sympathies on ‘Mr. Itagaki’. With vocals that call to mind Morrissey but eschew the Mozz's showboating, Frank (Just Frank) alternate between languages to communicate separation from friends and lovers who, as related on ‘Coeur Hante’, have been “cradled away by time’s tide”. Never do these songs sound strung-out by isolation; instead The Brutal Wave deepens its metallic drum-machine and retro electronics with a rich loneliness that comforts when we’ve been abandoned by everything else. I don’t think any other song this year will define or romanticize such a temperament as well as ‘Die In Bed’, with its spritely but dense guitar-work underscoring tortured nights that dream of the impossible touch.
Which brings me back to The Cure. Perhaps more than any other track here, ‘Die In Bed’ unfurls like a Robert Smith composition, how it runs an entire verse and chorus before the vocals rise up, how it’ll lurk suddenly into a shimmering, optimistic momentum. Part of me thinks it would’ve fit nicely on Seventeen Seconds, right before ‘In Your House’, but Frank (Just Frank)’s sound is ultimately too modern, which is a good thing. The Brutal Wave shares an undeniable ancestry with these gorgeous movements that wove through post-punk and doesn’t seek to hide from its history. It’s spot-on that their own ‘Wave acts as title since this full-length debut proclaims post-punk's relevance with such contemporary spirit. The Brutal Wave truly sounds like the dawning of a beautiful resurgence.
High Places VS Mankind
Thrill Jockey Records.
No Ripcord Rating: 7/10
SCQ Rating: 67%
Reviewing High Places’ full-length debut with any clairvoyance seemed impossible without accepting a series of inevitable paradoxes, that: (A) its craft would be commended, if not always enjoyed, (B) each song worth complimenting would be negated by a disappointing nemesis-track, and (C) ultimately High Places has to choose you… you can’t play-repeat your way over its hurdles. If there was any consolation to that 2008 review, it was the grim acknowledgement that I wasn’t alone in my indifference. Fan reception offered no easy consensus, with half the camp professing their preference for the singles collection 03/07-09/07, while the self-titled LP’s score on Metacritic showcased a careful tedium that, in most cases, shrugged that High Places deserved the benefit of the doubt.
That doubt, as I pinpointed throughout my lengthy judgment-call with High Places, boiled down to a disconnect; that for all their promising rhythms and clattering collages, the duo of Rob Barber and Mary Pearson couldn’t commit to a hook long enough to imbed emotion into what were otherwise charmingly hopeless curios. High Places VS Mankind, while likely not titled as a rebuke toward their divided fanbase, again faces the task of assembling a full-length capable of matching the high watermark set by their too-good-too-soon singles compilation.
No differently than how 03/07-09/07 supplanted some of the self-titled record’s status, how this proper sophomore settles with you will depend on what you liked about High Places in the first place. If you favoured the structured focus of songs like 'Namer' and 'Gold Coin' that tied their recess-singalongs to fractured pop hooks, High Places VS Mankind offers your kind of progression. And mine, too. Blazing through the opening gates with 'The Longest Shadow' and 'On Giving Up', High Places take their school bus of bizarre electronics clubbing, locking Pearson’s flighty vocals into deep-set grooves of live bass and guitar. When the duo isn’t streamlining its auxiliary percussion into New Wave-inspired heartbeats, they’re treading dangerously close to forming a fluent album with 'The Channon' and 'Canada'; the former a cloud of dense loops and harmonic experimenting, the latter track delivering a speaker-blown melancholy, crawling across gray horizons, post-everything.
When you consider that Barber and Pearson labeled their self-titled record’s genre as “Children’s Songs” on iTunes, the steps taken on High Places VS Mankind can’t help but feel like a graduation of sorts. Recalling only bits of their awkward past-flirtations with electro-pop, this new material feels ripe with a formative momentum that only occasionally misses the mark (the elementary musings behind 'On a Hill in a Bed on a Road in a House', we can do without). This follow-up isn’t quite as quirky, sure, and the same fan-divisions will argue whether the band has strayed toward commercial outlets. To a degree, they have, although not at the cost of their best assets. Unlike previous efforts, High Places are committing themselves to a scene, trendy as it may be, and writing songs that equate to more than electronic whirls and bangs.
(This review was originally published on No Ripcord...)