March was female. Fact. Julia Holter returned with “Ekstasis” (RVNG Intl.), just a year later after the word of mouth success of her debut “Tragedy” and keeping on her own personal research of ancient Greece iconography, field recordings and world music. The surprise effect may be gone (and hopefully so will the constant comparisons to Joanna Newsom) but the songwriting is more focused and accessible. Recalling both Broadcast and Laurie Anderson, it’s avant-pop but with the stress on pop. The earthy Marienbad, the vocal experiments of Four Gardens, the open structure of This Is Ekstasis are glimpses of the Los Angeles musician’s creative impatience and exquisite constructions. Don’t let it pass by unnoticed.
Another striking release was surely Hanne Hukkelberg “Featherbrain” (Propeller). We have already praised and devoted a few lines to her eccentric musical world, so we’ll just say that this fourth album, described as “antique pop music”, keeps on surprising at each spin, complex in its arrangements, nocturnal in its tone, everchanging in the Norwegian singer’s vocal approach. A dreamlike roar.
No release was however more extreme than Carter Tutti Void’s “Transverse” (Mute), a collaboration between Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti of Throbbing Gristle and Nik Void of Factory Floor. “Transverse” is a live record, recorded by the label as part of the Roundhouse festival series, which is not so much a live record, as it feels almost devoid of any audience involvement. But its “live” quality is in the ability of capturing a moment of creation, where the trio semi-improvise on top of pre-defined rhythmical structures, each of its four parts, running for no more than ten minute, built up on the effort and effect of the previous one. Equally brutal in its conception and clinical in its rendition, the sharp guitars, the metallic internsity of the percussions, the groans and the guttural vocals make an uncomfortable yet awe-inspiring listen. In the hope of a possible second round.
The most talked about record was, inevitably, Grimes’ “Visions” (4AD), as Claire Boucher had been already the object of press and internet hype thanks to her two previous efforts (“Geidi Primes” and “Halfaxa”) and the signing to 4AD just incresed the buzz. While the hipsters’ jury is still out on this one, we’ll remark that in her first “post-internet” record Claire shows what the internet generation can do with music, as Prince is as contemporary as techno, and Aaliyah can sit next to Cocteau Twins. But rather than mantaining the same “will this do?” approach of “Halfaxa”, on “Visions” she finds her true voice, more determined and focused, whether it involves creating sugary future pop (Oblivion) or slightly menacing atmospheres (Nightmusic). Her talent shines better at her most challenging, though, which is when she drops the synth effects and goes for the simplest, most serene tunes (Skin). That’s when Claire shows she’s in for the long haul.
The return of The Shins with their fourth album “Port of Morrow” (Aural Apothecary) is a mixed bag. James Mercer is still centre (and rest) of the band, but new members and different producer (as well as label) remind us that it could well be a solo record; whichever the case, it’s no Oh Inverted World and it would be foolish to wait for another one. Aimed clearly at a bigger market, songs like Simple Song are a statement of intent: the lyrical punch is still there but this time it sounds a tad forced, and the glossy musical sheen ends up working against the songs. The Shins used to have depth to stand apart from late 90s vapid american indie rock bands, now they come close to sounding like one. We’ll keep and cherish The Rifle’s Spiral and September and hope it’s a minor incident.
It’s still a million times better than The Magnetic Fields “Love At The Bottom Of The Sea” (Domino), 38 minutes which sound like years, drowning in saccharine electro-pop and tropical sounding experiments. There’s a fine line between art and artifice, but the album is a triumph of the latter, so that only a few songs actually end up sounding like heartfelt and gifted with Merritt’s usual spark (listen to I Don’t like Your Tone next to Andrew In A Drag and it is all too clear). If you have a mate whose annoying habit is making mildly amusing observations in a funny voice,then you know already know what this record sounds like.
We have waited a couple of years for London collective Breton to deliver their debut. “Other’s People Problems” (FatCat) sound exactly like what you’d expect from a bunch of musicians who are videoartists who are remixers: complex and paranoid, urban and heady, in its spirit it recalls the glorious days of early Massive Attack undergoing an electric shock. The only drawback is that when it gets really good, it’s plain terrific (Edward The Confessor, The Commission) and not all of the songs can sustain that level. It’s early days though, and the fact that they have left another album worth of songs already released on e.p.s out of their debut is only further proof to how profilic and thrilling they can (and surely will) be.
There’s been a huge hype surrounding Kindness (aka producer Adam Bainbridge) debut “World You Need A Change Of Mind” (Female Energy), and after a few listens we have to admit it is entirely justified.Bainbridge best skill resides in manipulating sounds which have already been over used (early 80s funk and minimal r’n'b) and still making them sound fresh, like in the radical reinterpretation of The Replacements Swinging Party, or the single Gee Up which ending too soon leave us wanting for more, and the out and out disco of the closing Doigsong. Joyful rhythms with a hint of sadness in the singing make an oblique yet accessble record. The british Ariel Pink, if you like.
Vince Clarke and Martin Gore idea of getting together after 30 years for a record of uncompromisig techno should have looked, on paper, as either a cash-in or a nightmare. The result, under the VCMG moniker, “SSSS” (Mute) is thankfully neither of them. Few seem to remember that before Depeche Mode became electro-goths and Vince Clarke made the most soulful pop synths could play, the pair had conjured some perfect pop songs and some heavy futuristic vignettes which may sound a little dated but still powerful. “SSSS” retains the spirit and sense of adventure of “Speak &Spell” (minus, the perfect pop songs) for a tour-de-force of robust instrumentals with titles like Bendy Bass, which does exactly what it says, or Skip This Track, because there’s also a certain carelessness at play. And the sheer confidence of showing their younger alumni a thing or two.
On their third record, School of Seven Bells become a duo (Alejandra Deheza and guitarist Benjamin Curtis) and discover the notion of concept albums: “Ghostory” (Full Time Hobby) is in fact the story of “a young girl named Lafaye and the ghosts that surround her life”. Not that you could tell the narrative from the hushed vocals, anyway. The good news is that, while still remaining a victory of style over substance, they are finally channeling the shoegazing influences into hypnotic headrush of tunes and, when Alejandra’s lyrics become clearer (as in The Night’s refrain of “devour me/devour me”), moving into realms of abandoned sensuality. On the closing track When You Sing they even manage to recreate My Bloody Valentine’s Soon. We definitely are not going to complain about it.
Talking of indie gods, we are sure that a certain Bob Mould would be very proud of The Men third album, “Open Your Heart” (Sacred Bones), with its clear knowledge of punk and hardcore american heritage however willing to defy any pigeonholing. It’s not just loud guitars, as this time the Brooklyn band explore space-rock (Oscillation), fuzzy quasi-pop (Please Don’t Go Away) and even acoustic balladry (Candy). Their former brutality gives way to a calculated ferocity and effortless weirdness, placing The Men along with Fucked Up in the (short) list of the literate and ear-splitting. You can only wonder where they’ll go next.
After playing with Dum Dum Girls, Vivian Girls and Crystal Stilts and releasing a debut with the backing band the Outs, Frankie Rose shed the ’60s girl-group and garage-pop influences to embrace UK new wave. “Interstellar” (Slumberland) would be the perfect soundtrack to a John Hughes movie with its crystalline melodies, its glimmery keyboards and lucent guitars. But rather than soundtracking the “big” climax moment or the punching-the-air end titles, it would perfectly match the ongoing romance, the surprise of a kiss, the sweet melancholic goodbye, such is the intimate and coy nature of this album. As with the best pop, Know Me, Nightswim and Moon In My Mind are damn catchy and after a dozen of listens, still welcome.
March also saw the release Lee Ranaldo‘s “Between The Times and The Tides” (Matador), a more melodic and classical effort than any Sonic Youth fan might have expected, La Sera’s “See The Light” (Hardly Art), a more confident second effort from Katy Goodman going from bittersweet lullabies to rockier even punkier fast numbers, and Tanlines “Mixed Emotions” (True Panther), which marred house and club rhythms to afropop melodies, like an electronic Vampire Weekend. Which is no bad thing in our book.