Album Review: Blue Hawaii – Untogether

[Arbutus Records; 2013]

Untogether is the name of the record and it’s a theme the Montreal duo of Alex “Agor” Cowan and Raphaelle “Raph” Standell-Preston, aka Blue Hawaii, have a startling commitment to on their debut LP for Arbutus Records. Untogether is an album about the vast distances between two human beings even in the most intimate of settings. It’s an album that is interested in parsing out and deconstructing metaphysical and emotional geography and where it all fits relative to its tangible counterparts. It’s full of faux-duality, ghosts, and other more incorporeal artifacts. The sleeve of Untogether depicts the duo in a tight embrace, but upon closer inspection, it’s hard to tell if they’re not falling through each other or if they’re even in the same room. The image alone is aching and tragic enough to get you wondering what kind of relationship the two people depicted there have.

The record itself was written apart, both Agor and Raph handling production and lyrical duties separately, which, based on the end result, seems to be as much an artistic choice as a practical one. The duo’s previous releases have more in common with Raph’s other band, left-field folk outfit Braids, with their electronic elements more sidelined than center stage. Here it’s the other way around. On Untogether they’re gleefully exploring and subverting dance music conventions while simultaneously reinventing singer-songwriter ones. Agor’s productions are frigid, spacious, and intricate and Raph’s beautifully illustrious voice alternates seamlessly between human being and textural centerpiece until the distinction is blurred beyond recognition.

Untogether stands on its own as a piece of immaculately produced electronic music, but there’s something deeper going on here too. Its devotion to its themes are apparent enough for almost every production and songwriting choice to feel like an extension of the album’s emotional core. Especially in how the record is sequenced. Almost every track moves seamlessly into the next. And it’s the same with the more lyrical-oriented vs more production-oriented aspects of the album as well. Take the two-parter “In Two” and “In Two II.” The first is a brooding 4/4 piece with the synthetic-naturalism of a Fever Ray track, Raph’s vocals becoming increasingly manipulated as she laments her own shortcomings until “In Two II” slots into place and we’re off exploring some chime-y, handclap-y techno landscapes.

Both sides of the duo bring their own distinct personality to Untogether and it’s in the divided process that birthed the record where the meaning of its title truly comes to life. Somehow it’s both tragic and beautiful. Even the dance music and singer-songwriter aspects can be divided evenly between both parties. Raph’s vocals find a humanity and personalized intimacy in Agor’s productions, while Agor disassembles Raph’s voice to detail the electronic landscapes. The album moves from one whole and un-manipulated vocal centerpiece to the next, finding, unearthing, and piecing together hidden melodies to dot the stretches in between. Raph also delights in wordless folky vocal exercises, which Agor bounces off by further looping, layering, and cutting them up. Then there’s the willful pitch-shifting on songs like “Sierra Life.” The constant vocal manipulations are one of Untogether‘s stickiest and most sonically pleasing elements, but there’s a thematic purpose to them as well, helping illustrate the alternate closeness and far-ness between the two people on both sides of the record.

It’s not hard to find peers for Blue Hawaii on Untogether. It sits comfortably alongside other singer-focused electronic projects from Montreal like Grimes and Purity Ring (I’d even compare it, in many respects, to Holy Other’s Held), but Untogether is one of the more cohesive and aesthetically unique records of its ilk. The duo finds a moving emotional current that dictates much of the album without swallowing everything around it. Yet despite its subject-matter, Untogether is mysterious and unobtainable. It’s not an album that immediately reveals itself, but when it lets you in it’s hard to find your way out.