The most recent record review from 13Strings
– 17 May –
Kiss My Apocalypse
– (Independent/MGM) –
By the sound of her guitar slashing 2011 debut, Design Desire, Abbe May seemed ready to unleash 70’s rock/sex hell on the world. Influential blog Popmatters declared that she was “ready to destroy the rock world”, and she snatched up a nomination for the Australian Music Prize. She seemed ready to take up the mantle of modern rock heroine.
Which makes the screeching U-turn of her followup intriguing. Or perhaps not to her, at least: “I’m bored with standard rock”, May states in the press release, “I’m bored with the standard cool.” That probably explains why Kiss My Apocalypse eschews rock in favour of minimalist, pulsing R&B and laptop driven synth-pop.
Produced by May and Sam Ford, It’s an oddly incoherent collection – tracks are stitched together with quiet interludes that often only contain a throbbing drum machine (opener ‘Hurricane Heartbeat’), or screwed up vocal harmonies (the aptly named ‘Cyberpunk Choir’).
When the songs do take form, often they’re more like imprints than actual structures, ‘T.R.O.U.B.L.E’ exists on a pumped up vocal hum with some doomsday synths providing the backbone, and ‘Want Want Want’ doesn’t go much beyond the same formula.
May described her new style as ‘doom-pop’, and even beyond the world-is-ending song titles it’s a curious description. May revels in darkness and sensuality, the lyrics full of post-coital cigarettes and sexual imagery. Singing of betrayal and heartbreak, May definitely resembles the victor, and the songs burn with a distinct ‘screw you’ mentality.
The better cuts on the record play to this strength: single ‘Karmageddon’ is built on a hellish synth shudder and thick vocal lines, and the title track is a slow, sonic kick in the teeth to her foes.
As a slinking pop experiment, it excels, the songs belonging to the kind of late night meet ups that it so describes. As a contemporary pop release, it’s also interesting, owing as much to The xx as it does to Frank Ocean. Whether or not it’s the successful genre cross over that May desires may remain to be seen.
Kiss My Apocalypse is in stores now.
– 6 May –
Half Moon Run
What goes on up there in Canada?? For such a polite, chilly country they’ve managed to turn out some of the most prolific and successful artists of the last 50 years (Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Alanis Morisette, Tegan and Sara…), completely altering the musical landscape in a thoroughly unreserved and un-Canadian way.
From this great bed of influences, it’s not surprising that Canada still cultivates some of the most interesting music around. Emerging from Montreal with debut record Dark Eyes, indie rock outfit Half Moon Run have created one of the most impressive albums of recent years. In just under 40 minutes, the group have cut 11 tracks that balance skittered percussion with dreamy vocals, intricate guitar lines with bouncing keyboards, and three part harmonies that the Dixie Chicks would kill for.
It’s this profound ear for balance that gets the mind humming. Songs that manage to hold down atmospheric soundscapes with danceable grooves at their base work so well you wonder why nobody does this all the time. As a bewitching case in point, opener ‘Full Circle’ is a cold piece of folk – a thumping percussive beat with Devon Portielje slip sliding his way through the lyrics atop a crisp acoustic. On the jittery ‘Call Me In The Afternoon’, the harmonies touch down momentarily before leaping to the next line, spurred on by the clacking drum sticks.
They’re alright on the slower stuff as well. ‘Need It’ is perhaps the obligatory love song, but luckily the pillow soft harmonies will get you through. ‘Nerve’ may just be the standout, a twisting mid-tempo groove with a softly pawing hook. Sure, they may shamelessly channel Radiohead on cruisers ‘Drug You’ and ‘Give Up’, but it’s still viewed through their own prism. And it’s that distinct, complicated prism that make Dark Eyes such a sonically arresting record.
– 23rd February –
Atoms For Peace
Thom Yorke has never gone for the emotional jugular. Ever since Radiohead launched into the stratosphere with Ok Computer in 1997, his aim was for the cerebral, not emotional.
The debut from Atoms For Peace is like James Joyce in a world of Stephanie Meyer. Lose attention for a moment and the skittered rhythms and swooping bass lines will dissolve and shift into something else. Thom Yorke’s laptop science is brought to life and given legs and arms to flail.
Far from being Yorke’s solo debut under a different name, Amok is clearly the creation of a band. Loose and spontaneous, the melodies cartwheel around Flea’s driving grooves and the percussive power of Joey Waronker and Mauro Refosco. Chopped and flipped by keyboardist and producer Nigel Goodrich, the end result is a psychedelic mix of African rhythms and Blade Runner technology.
The ride isn’t always easy – the out of key spike notes in “Before Your Very Eyes” are fingers down a chalkboard and the intricate cross rhythms can be clawing instead of caressing your throat. Often it sounds as if everyone is on a separate tangent, like they recorded deaf and blind in different rooms. It’s not a ‘sum of its parts’ situation though: tracks such as ”Judge, Jury and Executioner” flow around the central Flea bass line and “Reverse Running” has an unusual focus – on Yorke’s often hidden vocals.
Unlike Radiohead’s beat driven and coldly distant The King Of Limbs, Amok is warm- the sound of Thom Yorke starting to finally ease into the sound and enjoy the rave.
– 8 February –
Tegan And Sara
There are usually only two scenarios that emerge when a band dramatically changes their sound. One, they are widely criticised, their fans flee and they get dropped from their label. Two, they are widely criticised, their fans flee, but they somehow manage to barrel through and pick up other fans, thereby attaining the rare status: the ‘crossover band’.
On Heartthrob, Canadian duo Tegan and Sara’s seventh studio record, the seismic shift towards bombastic synth pop seems, at first, to place them in the former category. Luckily, their penchant for clever hooks and silky harmonies pulls them through. Enlisting mega producer Greg Kurstin (whose clients include Ke$ha and Kelly Clarkson), they’ve touched up the indie angst and readied it for the dance floor.
Radio friendly tracks like lead single “Closer”, “I’m Not Your Hero” and “Drove Me Wild” gleam with eighties synths riding the thumping drum track. Huge, lush, and unashamedly pop, they land somewhere between the madness of Passion Pit and the coolness of La Roux. Despite lyrics about crushing heartbreak, self-loathing and regret, the songs feel and sound amazingly euphoric. It’s the change from the maudlin to the joyous that asks the question: who would rather cry when you can dance?
When they try to go down tempo, though, the fun quickly dries up. “How Come You Don’t Want Me” contains a killer hook, but lacks the necessary churn. “Love They Say” works much better, layering up the harmonies well and good. The structure rarely varies from “Closer”, except on “Now I’m All Messed Up”, where they opt for a glitchy, slow jam.
What anchors every song (and by extension, the whole record) is their overwhelming ability to craft a catchy hook. They are the Taylor Swifts of indie pop, every note expertly placed and timed and ready for the screaming sing -a-long. And when you’re dealing with intense, gut punching emotional baggage, sometimes a massive chorus is just the remedy. If only every band’s angst was this fun.
Heartthrob is released today.