It took years of live work to settle in on the series of experiments that make up Holly Herndon’s debut release on RVNG Intl. Years of plugging away in front of crowds toting only a laptop and a microphone, a bolder move in today’s musical climate than it has any right to be. There’s this unwillingness to accept the computer as an actual instrument, but Herndon makes a pretty compelling case for it on Movement. Spanning from traditional electronic lurch on “Fade” to the stabbing gasps that make up the entirety of “Breathe,” Herndon treats Movement as a sort of treatise on what the human (and more specifically the female) voice means in the context of music. While male producers (and even songwriters to some degree) are content to place the pretty coo of a female voice on top of thumping beats, to pitch it up enhancing that sexualization, Herndon uses her voice to shock and to inspire fear. The snipped vocal that drives “Terminal” is a total spine-chiller, and even on “Fade” – the most accessible of the tracks – Herndon’s voice functions as a Karin Dreijer-Anderson take on the pop vocal, something dark and murky, designed to nauseate rather than to titillate. It’s experimentation on the meaning of gender within the context of electronic music, you try wringing that sort of expression out of a guitar, bass, and drums combo.
– Colin Joyce
Mesita is a generous and fast-working musical soul. His third album, The Coyote, came to the world a year after his previous effort, 2011’s Here’s To Nowhere, and his fourth album is already coming together – all in time for an early 2013 release. But as efficient as Mesita – aka James Cooley – is when creating, performing, producing, and releasing his music, he’s anything but hasty and The Coyote is perfect evidence of this. In retrospect, Here’s To Nowhere sounded like Cooley was getting comfortable and few could have predicted how mature The Coyote would be.
It sounds like it a giant leap forward, but without leaving behind what made his music so special and likeable in the first place. Gorgeous, chirpy melodies; staccato cut and paste construction; affecting and revealing lyrics; and drumming that would tangle up the minds of many other great percussionists are all back in full force on The Coyote, and they’re set to a deeper, developed, and distinguished sound. Like the animal in the title, it might look appealing on first glance (opening track “Ken Caryl”), but there’s a viciousness hiding beneath (“Search For Meaning,” “Out For Blood”). And Cooley is similarly surviving by himself in a harsh, challenging environment all by himself, however, his future is anything but bleak, and he’s at no risk of becoming endangered.
– Ray Finlayson
Assimilating The Shadow
Hailing from Brazil by way of Boston, Ricardo Donoso’s second LP for Digitalis is less abstract and gurgling than 2011’s Progress Chance and more in line with the melodically inclined Kosmiche synth music of 1970s Berlin. Tracks like “From Sterling to Snow,” “The Bow and the Lyre,” and “Probing” recall Klaus Schulze’s breathless arpeggios while giving them a 21st-century cybernetic update. And like Schulze, Donoso doesn’t rely on actual percussion to guide his rhythmic pulses; instead, synth lines weave around each other in ever-growing layers. Thus, for instance, the throbbing intro to “Renunciation” gives way to a higher-flying cascade of minor-key mysticism which in turn is bolstered by a smooth tier of sci-fi synth strings. Similarly, the rather dense drone that begins “Shadow Aspect” effortlessly morphs into a cinematic dystopian fantasy sequence that would make Jean Michel Jarre proud. Digitalis trades in retro synth records, but rarely do they ring out as clearly and satisfyingly as does this one.
– Josh Becker
Music For The Quiet Hour
[Woe To The Septic Heart!]
Shackleton’s Music For The Quiet Hour is a concept album. It might be worth noting that it’s also the British producer’s first honest-to-goodness solo LP. Sure, you have Three EPs, his seminal Fabric mix which might as well count as an LP, and last year’s excellent collaboration with Bristol dubstep guy, Pinch & Shackleton. But Music For The Quiet Hour is an appropriate full-length debut for the experimental-leaning sorta-bass music, not-quite-techno producer. The record is basically one single long ambient piece, journeying deep, deep into Shackleton territory–Middle Eastern and African rhythms, tribal sonics, handdrums, organo-synthetic synth textures, spidery percussion loops, handdrums, haunting, malevolent atmospheres–abstracting the lines between ambient and beat music far more than he ever has before. But then there’s vocalist Vengeance Tenfold who acts as narrator as Shack explores a decayed, futuristic shell of a crumpled society. The spoken word passages are surprisingly compelling and specific. Technically, the composition is breathtaking in its complexity and subtlety, but there’s a tangible core to latch onto that pushes the power of Quiet Hour all the more.
– Will Ryan
I have never heard a car announce that “Your engine temperature is about normal. Please check your fuel level. Your charging system is malfunctioning. Your headlamps are on. Your keys are in the ignition.” But I guess Johnny Jewel’s isn’t any ordinary sedan. Bypassing any boring old highways or dimly lit side streets, Jewel aims his decidedly vintage ride – I’d be surprised if the dashboard we glimpse on the cover even included a CD player – straight for the gently swelling hues of a starry horizon just before dawn. It’s been assumed that this 2-hour behemoth was originally meant to soundtrack last year’s greasy/glitzy action flick Drive, but whereas that movie was a throwback to the neon-tinged romanticism of the 1980s, Themes For An Imaginary Film seems to be looking a few years earlier than that. Again, the cover gives us a clue: on what’s probably supposed to be the radio dial, we see “1974.5.” Indeed, the way this album wafts between softly rhythmic yet suspenseful downtempo and beatless ambient interludes – the kind that seem quiet… too quiet – reminds me of those 70s Italian horror movie soundtracks, like Goblin’s work for Profondo Rosso and Suspiria. In both Goblin and Symmetry’s cases, whatever cheesy connotations such music conjures are outweighed by the strength of their melodic arrangements and their keen sense of pacing. Jewel doesn’t beat us over the head with synthetic revivalism; instead, this album unfolds with patience and consideration, which is appropriate for a supposed soundtrack to a film. I guess Italians really do it better after all.
– Josh Becker
Reading Too Much Into Things Like Everything
“Perfect pop” (or, if you prefer “pop perfection”) is a phrase that gets liberally thrown around pretty much any time a promising buzz band or perennial favorite puts out a song that happens to hit a particularly catchy or accessible chord, but let’s take a step back and think about what that phrase really means – what does pure, undiluted, flawless pop music sound like? I’d wager that it sounds something like Reading Too Much Into Things Like Everything, a record that managed to fly under pretty much everyone’s radar despite being a serious contender for best pop album of the past 5 years. Might seem like hefty praise for a band that comes across at first as the latest in the long line of chamber pop occupied by Belle & Sebastian and Camera Obscura, but there’s a genius to the way these songs unfold. Boasting 12 tunes over the course of only 29 minutes, Reading Too Much is an unfettered, economical record that still manages to cover a lot of ground – credit has to be given to a band that can jump between the propulsive “Never Thought I’d See The Day” and the Shangri-Las-esque “It’s Not The Same” without ever feeling scattered or unfocused. All tied together by the album’s stellar production and Liz Hunt’s beautiful vocals, each of these songs manages to unravel in ways that constitute something truly magical. Call me crazy, but in a year full of gimmicks, visionaries, and enormous landmark albums, almost nothing blew my mind as much or as often as a little pop band from Cardiff.
– Ryan Stanley
The Tallest Man On Earth
There’s No Leaving Now
There’s No Leaving Now marks several significant developments in the career of Kristian Matsson. Matsson, after touring the world many times over, finally has the life experiences to match his world-weary persona, not to mention a weightier voice with which to describe them. Yet neither represents the biggest change for Matsson, who has once and for all shed the “indie’s Bob Dylan” label. That baggage had weighed down the Swedish troubadour for over half a decade. Mattson’s work, while still rooted in folk, is poppier than ever. Take the multi-layered “1904,” which features beautiful splashes of electric guitar over Matsson’s rhythmic acoustic work. Only a few years ago, such a gorgeous, balanced composition would have been impossible for Matsson. Yet this is a changed man and a stronger artist, and There’s No Leaving Now is a testament to these achievements.
– Jason Hirschhorn
Architecture of Loss
Icelandic composer Valgeir Sigurðsson has an impressive list of friends that ranges from Bjork to Nico Muhly (whose career Sigurðsson helped launch via the label he started: Bedroom Community). In that way, it’s immensely satisfying to see the astoundingly talented Sigurðsson step out of the shadows for Architecture of Loss, his third record.
Architecture of Loss is an incredible feat of craftsmanship. It winds viola lines with delicate piano melodies (played by Muhly) in elegant conversation. It takes its time but never feels boring. It makes abrupt turns but never feels needlessly random. It combines disparate elements but never feels fractured. Instead, Sigurðsson finds cohesion through carefully considered arrangement of the variety he has at his disposal. At no point during Architecture of Loss does a choice of instrument, a shift in tempo or timbre, or a pivot from organic to electronic feel anything but necessary. Sigurðsson may still be under-heralded, but Architecture of Loss is a towering compostional achievement that deserves every bit of attention it steals from Sigurðsson’s more well-known cohorts.
– Chris Bosman
Theories of Ageing
Sounding like the quieter, more contemplative cousins to grand orchestrators like Stars of the Lid or Sigur Ros, Villages constructs delicate, though oddly connective, electronic memories from layers of subtle distortion and a mixture of acoustic and synthetic instrumentation. Clanging percussion and an assortment of apparent found-sound samples bump up against piano and banjo in an odd conglomeration of influence and spatial aestheticism that has its roots in half a dozen musical genres. But far from sounding sterile or lacking any measure of warmth or feeling, Theories of Ageing may be one of the most welcoming and inclusive electronic records of the year. Whether it’s the incrementally devolving synths and banjo plucks on “Temper of the Age” or the simple acoustic guitar and tambourine base of “Reclining Figures,” Theories of Ageing wraps its songs in a thick gauze of malleable textures and ever-changing hiss and corrosion. And as these songs unspool and fall apart and eventually reconstitute under entirely new and exciting pretense, there is always a sense of discovery and of reformation that gives this album an enduring sense of revelation and nostalgia — a sense that there is something you just have to hear waiting patiently around the corner of the next song.
– Joshua Pickard
After four years working together as P.S. Eliot, twin sisters Katie and Alison Crutchfield split musical ways each taking with them a particular side of P.S. Eliot’s sound. Alison took the upbeat poppy minded guitar heroics from her previous band and created the nimble terse Superchunk-indebted pop-punk of Swearin’s self titled debut. Katie went the complete opposite direction trading in the fidelity and fullness of P.S. Eliot for sparse, cracked, acoustic recordings under the name Waxahatchee. Crutchfield’s first full-length under that name, American Weekend came out way back in January on Brooklyn’s venerable Don Giovanni records. Taking P.S. Eliot’s commitment to stunning songcraft and funneling it into homey acoustic folk, Crutchfield’s debut effort does well on a sonic level, but the true triumph of American Weekend lies in the immensely emotive lyricism. Crutchfield is zeroed in on the tragedies of love, of rejection and learning to live again after that love is lost. Album closer “Noccalula” functions as a sort of an emotional epilogue playing up the virtues of learning how to “let someone in and back out” of her life. Absolutely tragic, but it’s a Perfume Genius-esque bit of emotional defiance. The heart of American Weekend deals with figuring out how to cope with a life without love and “Noccalula” is Crutchfield’s ultimate decision that no matter how much it hurts sometimes its necessary to leave town and not look back.