Monday, November 28, 2011

Dive - Tycho


Ghostly International.

SCQ Rating: 83%

As an umbrella word used to pigeonhole tastes, “independent rock” has always garnered the same crooked brow as when someone utters the term “electronica”. They’re both spineless indicators of underground leanings and loaded with presumptions; it was only a matter of time before they got in bed together. And as many indie-rock bands continue to flock toward electronic production techniques (not to mention major labels), the purpose of distinguishing between genres shrivels further. Many champion this congealing effect as though we listeners are breaking down stale and rigid markers of taste but it seems just as viable that the indie-rock-slash-electronica zenith reached maturation well before its commercial swan-dive, with everything that followed building toward a point of homogenous over-saturation.

Scott Hansen’s long-awaited full-length successor to Sunrise Projector restores walls that existed for a reason and bridges back to the aforementioned peak that gave us true hybridized marvels like A Strangely Isolated Place and Up In Flames. Arriving at the tail end of a year that has seen chill-wave written off yet secretly infiltrating independent pop music with its maximalist’s euphoria, Dive seems an unlikely enema; its songs composed of shimmering guitar tones and modern synth swells, its cover-art steeped in the sun-drenched nostalgia every laptop artist has been musing after. But Dive distinguishes itself on a song-by-song basis, whether it’s something explicit (like the tumbling melodic bubbles that accumulate over ‘A Walk’’s heart-racing arc) or an apparent detail (like how the drums in ‘Daydream’ act as both break-beats and real, lived-in rails of percussion). Throughout it all, Tycho remains sonically indebted to the original haze-makers Boards Of Canada but his songwriting approach rarely drifts into ethers; the atmospheric acoustics of ‘Coastal Brake’ latch onto a gorgeous dance pulse while the title track playfully adds then negates layers for a weaving, epic triptych.

Dive treads the grey area dividing a great many certainties, existing somewhere between Helios’ gentle electronic compositions and Cut/Copy’s rave-up anthems, at the fringe of Four Tet’s nostalgic moments and Ulrich Schnauss’ rock-inspired pushes. It would be wrong to call Dive an IDM album – let’s face it: it’s wrong to use the term IDM in the first place – but one can hear why people might choose to associate Tycho with that slice of electronica still unspoiled by the mainstream. Over optimistic cloud-surfing jams like ‘Hours’ and couch-melting beats as on ‘Adrift’, Dive’s palette remains a sparkling but insular one which builds a sanctuary for its listener over the course of fifty minutes. Perhaps that secluded feel is due to Tycho’s stable equilibrium; a discipline largely displaced by today’s trends which utilizes tasteful guitar on occasions that invigorate Hansen’s electronic-based mood.

Call it what you will: chillwave, “indie-tronica”, you name it. Attempting to classify Dive has been, for this writer, more of an appeal to understand what sets it so gloriously apart from the homogeny implicit to those genres. Because Dive has wits about it, not to mention a way of luring you on its starry-eyed, late-night cruises. It may have taken Hansen eight years to finish but his tardiness rewards with a modern record that brings back all of the magic and possibility inherent to his scene's once futurist ambitions.

Tycho - Coastal Brake by Tycho

Our Own Dream EP - Keep Shelly In Athens

Our Own Dream EP

Keep Shelly In Athens
Forest Family Records.

SCQ Rating: 74%

Too few bands embrace the idea of anonymity these days. Interacting with fans has not only become as easy as clicking a mouse; some enthusiasts would swear it has become a requisite for bands to engage their followers on some sort of real-time platform. What’s marginalized amid the Twitter tweets and Facebook likes, however, isn’t the bands’ personality or opinions, it’s the music which should speak for itself. Keep Shelly In Athens is doing it right on several fronts; from their unenviable band-name to their bare-boned blog, the duo seeks only to share their creative pursuits.

And the best part of Our Own Dream EP being left to fend for itself: Keep Shelly In Athens says a thousand different things. After opener ‘Lazy Noon’ sends us on a throwback to lounge’s millennial hey-day, replete with crashing waves and female vocals in the far-off distance, we’re confronted by expansive walls of synth and processed beats which fuel the title track’s percolating drama. Tonally, these two tracks sum up a 180’ change in direction but, compared to what follows, ‘Lazy Noon’ and ‘Our Own Dream’ may as well be siblings. Such variety, including hip-hop beats and some intense guitar on ‘a) the rogue superhero (b) ready to pay the price’, may turn off electronic fans uninterested in dodging one curveball for another, but some of these surprises constitute the EP’s top moments. A remixed take on ‘California Birds’, which pits the duo against ABADABAD, proves captivating in the track’s tortured Robert Smith-esque delivery and moody low-end, while ‘DIY’ employs some punchy horns that mix well with its trance-like mass.

By maintaining such a loose grip on their sound and playing wildly outside of expectations, Keep Shelly In Athens can’t help but embody a less thrashing Crystal Castles. And just as that Toronto outfit’s first LP paved a thousand directions for the band to explore, Our Own Dream EP affords Keep Shelly In Athens a lot of wiggle room for future releases. Let’s hope this duo knows how to fill it out over the course of a full-length.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Next Stop: Tasseomancy (December 3rd, Ritual Nightclub)

Ottawa, 2011: I’d just found a seat among First Baptist Church’s rows of pews when the stage darkened. I’d arrived to see Timber Timbre perform but moving in the manufactured dusk were two young women, each building fragile melodies from their guitars. Their surprise set couldn’t have suited Timber Timbre better. Not only did the duo dress the part –in black garb positively out of time – they summoned arrangements that authenticated the scene as more than rock and roll shtick. This was my first Tasseomancy experience; a display of tender but vaguely sinister songwriting that felt entirely timeless, as though sisters Sari and Romi Lightman were singing conduits from the days of medieval witchcraft (when Tasseomancy, a method of fortune-telling, was first established).

Currently on tour with Austra – whose debut Feel It Break was recently shortlisted for the Polaris prize – and Young Galaxy, Tasseomancy will be returning to our nation’s capital on December 3rd to play Ritual Nightclub. As if that stacked bill wasn’t enough, Sari and Romi will be lending their supernatural mood to Austra’s performance as backing vocalists in their tour band.

Check out the eerie video of Tasseomancy’s single ‘Heavy Sleep’ (from Ulalume) and get your tickets to the Ottawa show before they're sold out!

Hysterical - Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

V2 Records.

SCQ Rating: 85%

Although I wouldn’t go so far as to say that every Clap Your Hands Say Yeah fan spent four years anticipating a new record, I will argue that every fan spent four years reevaluating what sent the Philly five-piece off the rails. Some Loud Thunder and, more specifically, its reception made mincemeat of the first tried-and-true blog-band. And while that sort of terrifyingly quick rise and fall is deemed commonplace for bands here in 2011, the harsh dive brought on by Some Loud Thunder in early 2007 was unfairly embellished. A hiatus was announced, Ounsworth put out a solo album and certain members took to soundtrack work; the band splintered into different projects and years passed.

Of those four years, I’ve spent probably ten minutes in varied social circles either defending or confirming the existence of a second CYHSY record called Some Loud Thunder. A few rough cuts aside, the sophomore worked in nudging die-hard fans toward an even quirkier shade of pop than anything on 2005’s self-titled debut. Hysterical, perhaps unsurprisingly, finds the band offering refunds, backtracking on their erratic alleyways in favour of a full-blooded and comprehensive indie-rock record. The soaring synth and glimmering guitar filling opener ‘Same Mistake’ are no lark; Clap Your Hands Say Yeah have chosen to assimilate themselves to the whims of a musical climate still knee-deep in 80s pomp. It suits them quite well. A pretty nostalgia may cloud ‘Idiot’ and ‘Misspent Youth’ in thick production but the songs beneath maintain enough muscle to fend for themselves. Ounsworth crests his signature warble with impressive stateliness over ‘The Witness’ Dull Surprise’’s multitracked climax while ‘Into Your Alien Arms’ contains the most enjoyably discordant guitar solo of the entire CYHSY catalog.

The anxiety of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s bumpy ride informs Hysterical’s polished approach, sure, but Ounsworth and Co. have stepped up with some of their best material yet. Although the disc verges on the odd synth overdose, it’s the bands’ longstanding trademarks that ensure plentiful highlights. By the time the epic ‘Adam’s Plane’ crashes to a halt, it’s worth considering the weight and longevity of trends. The band’s debut was hindered by neither expectation nor trends; it simply popped up from the ether. Hysterical, on the other hand, shows up on the unfavorable side of time and buzz but proves every bit as thrilling.

To Destroy A City - To Destroy A City

To Destroy A City

To Destroy A City
n5MD Records.

SCQ Rating: 74%

Even as an infant, post-rock earned its reputation through sheer force; a pulverizing instability that not only countered any safeguarded delicacy but assembled its own frightening beauty in the process. It’s natural that anything with a rising esteem should embrace its pop elements and, in that arc, post-rock was no different; greats like Mogwai and Sigur Ros culled their melodious accents, trimmed their sprawl and contracted once organic dynamics into muddy alt-rock choruses. Yes, the genre hadn’t a chance of surviving beyond its incubation period without such changes but it’s worth looking backward to ascertain how we ended up with To Destroy A City.

Since the mercurial rise that spawned Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven and Young Team, post-rock seems like it’s perpetually stranded at a crossroads; a junction that To Destroy A City doesn’t concern itself too much with. And I hardly blame the Chicago-based trio. Operating on the flipside of boundary-pushing bands like Tortoise or The Pattern Theory, To Destroy A City makes sweeping electronic post-rock with the shimmering beauty requisite for n5MD’s approval. Electronic keys create syncopated codas that are swiftly swallowed by the guitar growl of ‘Before the Outside’s Gone’ while piano drifts elegantly over some teasing shoegaze textures on ‘March’.

The debut displays a knack for slow-burning narratives that needn’t exploit ear-shredding force but it falters in pinpointing To Destroy A City’s stakes. These songs articulate well the idea that post-rock can be completely functional as emotive, beautiful soundscapes – Hell, ‘Goodbye, Dear Friend’ goes one further by besting Explosions In the Sky at their own game – but To Destroy A City show the most promise when aiming for more than tasteful mimicry. (Don’t get me wrong: sounding like Lights Out Asia is a serious compliment but I sense a greater purpose for this trio.) Interrupting their blank slate with the spoken word assisted ‘Ilium’ and the four-by-four beats on ‘The Marvels Of Modern Civilization’, these seemingly out-of-place tracks eventually deepen the album as a listening experience, while forecasting where this young band may go next. Serene yet suspenseful, To Destroy A City earns the title of an easy-listening post-rock album; with each listen, these songs reveal themselves as more than background tones or ear-candy. Slowly, it awakens like a first step into the unknown.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Letters From the Coast - (The) Caseworker

Letters From the Coast

(The) Caseworker
Hidden Shoal Recordings.

SCQ Rating: 73%

Taking a moment to consider (The) Caseworker’s sonic semblance to the Velvet Underground, I hardly expected the hyperbole (proffered in the press release to Letters From the Coast) to suck me into a troublesome rabbit-hole. Subconsciously, I think I’d expected to retort in the obvious, dismissive manner that most people do when the name of that certain iconic Lou Reed-fronted band gets tossed around. And although (The) Caseworker’s songwriting approach bears no more than superficial similarities to the famed rockers’ gritty output, their sound nonetheless defies concrete association. Despite a strong aroma of 90s indie-rock permeating Letters From the Coast (particularly American Analog Set), the quartet also projects a tidy perfectionism reminiscent of post-millenial faves The Radio Dept and The Go Find.

That insistence on having each beat perfectly measured and each note ringing at the same register leaves (The) Caseworker dangling over a sterile wasteland. Give it a few listens, however, and their exacting nature begins to relax, slouching back and exploring the aural comfort zone they exude. The proof is in Letters From the Coast’s variety; the guitar work behind ‘National Runner’ loiters grumpily behind layers of shoegaze whereas ‘The Slow Track’ employs melodious guitar tones over a synthetic-sounding drum pattern. These two tracks not only outline the record’s opposing poles, they form the record’s opening couplet. Subsequent tracks avoid tampering with volume or stylistic shifts, opting to play with subtle structure changes instead, and that cardinal rule lends songs like ‘Sea Years’ and ‘Sister Song’ an undeniable maturity.

By the end of closing track ‘Little Good It Did You’, I’m no closer to deciding whether (The) Caseworker is garage-rock sans grit or indie-pop with added fuzz. It doesn’t really matter when the whole thing’s so single-mindedly comforting. With its forty minutes thriving on such even-keeled economy, Letters From the Coast rarely challenges or disappoints.

minutestatic - Dalot


n5MD Records.

SCQ Rating: 72%

Released just twelve months after her n5MD debut, minutestatic reads like a sophomore effort looking to expand on Maria Papadomanolaki’s blurred textural experiments – nothing more. Such an ambition might've seemed lackluster had her 2010 release Loops Over Latitude not grappled such a uniquely evasive sound from the get-go. Luckily for us, Papadomanolaki again follows that singular muse, employing heavy sonic layers to increasingly concise, textural washes – some even containing a pop-like pulse.

Dalot’s more invitational approach first jumps out on ‘Missing Pieces’, which uses a metronomic beat to pace out slightly warped keyboard arpeggios, and again over the shimmering guitar tones that paint ‘The Empty Desk’ with a Campfire Headphase-like serenity. Tracks like ‘The Blue Car’ and the contemplative ‘In Silence’ show continued refinement of Dalot’s at times gauzy approach but, in general, minutestatic contains more memorable passages and emotional anchors (meaning “pop hooks” in ambient terms) than Looping Over Latitude expounded. Unsurprisingly it’s Dalot’s talents incorporating electro-acoustic instrumentation into her collages that affords these songs such warm and bewildering nature. Her guitar work gives ‘Cause & Effect’ a winding backbone without forcing a linear reading of the track’s ambience. And it’s that breadth of instrumental knowledge that helps Dalot stand out from so many cloudy laptop artists – many being unaware of what a glockenspiel is, let alone how to play one. Let’s hope future releases continue minutestatic’s progress of weeding out Papadomanolaki’s unique talents from electro-shoegaze obscurity.