Paradise pop: Dragonette – Fixin To Thrill

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Lately it’s music from Canada that’s been interesting me; and most recently, taking their place alongside such disparate luminaries as Aaron Funk, Aidan Baker, Elsiane and Paul Dolden (about whom, in due course, much, much more), have been Dragonette, whose second album Fixin To Thrill came out earlier this month. Dragonette have been steadily forging their reputation over the last four years, beginning with one of the best debuts ever, the elusive but immaculate Dragonette EP, after which a clutch of singles and first album Galore have emerged, each revealing a group remarkably assertive and undeniably talented. To describe their music as ‘synthpop’ is to do them a disservice; eighties allusions come thick and fast, but their songs are firmly rooted in the noughties, and to this end they stand out as a truly contemporary act, rather more successful and engaging than, say, New Young Pony Club. Furthermore, there’s also a distinct rock sheen to their music, which in the best way prevents it from being too ‘clean’ a synth sound, akin more to the gutsy rocktronica of The Faint. Out in the limelight is Martina Sorbara, a singer whose voice is capable of a surprising range of characterisations and tone colours. Read more

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Celer – Brittle, Fountain Glider, Poulaine

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My admiration for the music of Celer has grown seemingly exponentially since my first encounter with their work last year, in the form of Mesoscaphe, their collaboration with Mathieu Ruhlmann (subsequently highly-placed in my Best Albums of 2008). The retrospective/obituary that i wrote back in July was a first attempt to say something meaningful about their illustrious output, although i was and remain acutely aware that it barely scratched the surface. In the three months that have passed since that fateful time, as many full-length albums have been released, with yet more announced and coming soon.

All three assume Celer’s most demanding shape, lengthy solitary tracks, the first of which, Brittle, is the longest of all, its single span lasting over 74 minutes. Its title is complemented by the track’s title of ‘Eustress’, a word that embodies the opposite of ‘distress’, referring to forms of stress from which we obtain positive effects. A short essay accompanies the CD, explicating Celer’s intentions in bringing these two evocative words, ‘brittle’ and ‘eustress’ together. And it’s extremely tempting, reading the words that refer to their aim “to demonstrate a feeling of continuation through what sometimes seems like a fragile existence”, immediately to draw connections to Dani Baquet-Long’s sudden death; but this music was obviously made before her passing, and while at the moment it cannot fail to be heard in the wake of that tragedy, it would be a facile mistake to allow that to obfuscate the music contained in Brittle, still less to define it. Celer’s music has sufficient depth and substance to stand on its own two feet, without the need for imposed emotional crutches, despite how keen one may be to impose them; i prefer to allow the music to communicate on its own terms. Read more

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Einojuhani Rautavaara – Vigilia

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On this day in 1928, the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara was born, and to commemorate the occasion, here is a performance of his 1971 work, Vigilia. A complete setting of the Orthodox liturgies of Vespers and Matins, it was broadcast in an edition of Choirworks on Radio 3 in 2001, performed by the BBC Singers directed by Stephen Layton. Layton is a keen advocate of contemporary choral music, particularly in his capacity as director of the vocal group Polyphony.

According to Christian tradition, a vigil commences in the (usually late) evening, with the liturgy of Vespers (the monastic evening prayer service), concluding at daybreak with Matins (morning prayer); Rautavaara’s work is therefore divided into two broad parts, pertaining to these two liturgies. A lengthy Orthodox liturgy sung in Finnish might seem a bit daunting, but Rautavaara’s setting is an accessible one, striking a curious but engaging balance between the stringent demands of Orthodox music and the ingenuity of modern composition. Read more

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Mix Tape #13 : Vox Femina

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Today finds me feeling not at all well, so i’ve kept myself occupied making a new mix tape, with a theme i’ve wanted to explore for a while: female vocalists. At a guess, i’d say i listen to more female singers than male, and the content of this mix reflects a combination of artists with whom i’ve become familiar only recently, and others i’ve loved for many years.

The wonderfully-named Scout Niblett (who sounds as though she ought to stand four feet tall) takes a refreshingly sparse approach to her brand of rock; she also plays both drums and guitar, and her songs have a basic, elemental quality to them; that’s certainly the case in “Hot to Death”, a song that moves abruptly from soft fragility to raging fury. Peaches needs no introduction; her hypersexual songs vary wildly in their ratio of credibility to crassness, but 2003’s Fatherfucker is, i think, her best achievement, with the claustrophobic (and, for once, sex-absent) “Operate” its standout track. Better known under her initials AGF, Antye Greie-Fuchs brings a demonstrably poetic sensibility to her electronic experiments; her most recent release, Dance Floor Drachen, available free (link below), contains some of her most rhythmically engaging work to date; “TURN IMPOTENT” is enhanced further with stomach-wobbling bass pulses. “Hyperballad” remains one of Björk’s best songs, as well as one of her most remixed; this version is courageously simple, eschewing almost any kind of rhythmic movement, allowing the powerful words to attain a hypnotic vividness. No less hypnotic is Fovea Hex‘s Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent trilogy, which must rank as one of the most imaginative song-sequences ever made. “We Sleep You Bloom” palpably betrays the handiwork of Hafler Trio’s Andrew M. McKenzie underscoring Clodagh Simonds vocals; it’s simply exquisite at every moment. Occupying slightly darker but equally dreamy territory is Julee Cruise, the singer particularly beloved of David Lynch; her distinctive voice (with barely a trace of vibrato) is as integral to Lynch’s Twin Peaks saga as Badalamenti’s dark string writing. Her first album, Floating into the Night, dates from the same time as Twin Peaks, and could well be thought of as an offshoot from the series; “The Swan” is the album’s most poignant moment, the melancholic harmonies left without resolution. Deeper melancholy still from Daisy Chapman, whose new album, The Green-Eyed, is launched at the end of this week (more about this soon). “Words in Dirt” is one of her most subtly layered songs, the simple piano writing enveloped in floating additional voices, with Daisy’s own powerful vocals at the core. Read more

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Roads less travelled: Benn Jordan – Louisiana Mourning

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Out this week is the latest release from Benn Jordan, better known as The Flashbulb. It’s high time Jordan’s music was featured on here, as he’s nothing short of a marvel, his music touching on a wide variety of styles, every one of which seems to turn to gold in his hands. In many ways, he has to draw comparisons with Hecq (another Ben, about whom i wrote here), flitting as he also does between the crystalline intricacies of IDM and the warm shroud of ambient.

But there’s a wealth of other inspirations at work in Jordan’s music, and this is palpably obvious in his new 21-minute EP, Louisiana Mourning. Prior to the release Jordan had hinted on his website that ambient and bluegrass would be the defining characteristics of this release, and to some extent that’s borne out in the music. “I” (the titles simply use Roman numerals) is an ambivalent opener, laden with rapid guitar picking early on, before giving way to dreamy tonal waves. “II” immediately returns to fast guitar figurations, whereupon violinist Greg Hirte joins in with a lovely folk-inspired melody, inflected with poignant minor chord shifts; midway, the piano takes over, leading to the music again dissipating into ambience. It’s not the first time Jordan has subdivided a single track into markedly different sections (another similarity to Hecq), and here it’s a highly effective device, creating soft, luscious codettas that contrast well with the sharp hectic twanging of the guitar. Read more

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25 years on: Propaganda – Dr. Mabuse and Bronski Beat – Smalltown Boy

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This year marks the 25th anniversary of two of the most striking songs of the 1980s—as well as being, in my opinion, among the best songs of all time.

The first is “Dr. Mabuse” by German synthpop outfit Propaganda, inspired by the character made famous by Fritz Lang. Released to a modicum of chart success in March 1984 (it reached No. 27 in the UK chart the following month), my first contact with the song was a few months later, on the compilation album Now That’s What I Call Music 3. Propaganda spent much of their time in the shadow of mightier acts; they hailed from Dusseldorf, home to none other than Kraftwerk, and during their time on the renowned ZTT label—formed out of the perfect collision of Paul Morley and Trevor Horn—continuously played second fiddle to Frankie Goes To Hollywood, whose song “Relax”, released a couple of months earlier, had taken the label into the stratosphere of success (aided in no small part by the BBC’s laughable “ban”). This, together with their particularly European (i.e. non-British) sound—crowned by Claudia Brücken’s sharply accented vocals—meant that Propaganda’s popularity in the UK never lived up to their merits. Not that they were the most imaginative band in the world; they certainly weren’t, but “Dr. Mabuse” is an outstanding song, surpassing everything they did after, and outclassing most other songs that year. A feature of the ZTT label—rarely an advantageous or helpful one—was that remixes of songs released as singles were made in abundance. Furthermore, the same version often ended up with a plethora of subtly different titles and accompanying verbiage, which may have been something to do with releases in different territories or even the label losing the plot (clearly the case on some occasions), but was most likely the influence of Paul Morley, someone not exactly known for restraint where words are concerned. “Dr. Mabuse” is no stranger to this melée of remixes and names, but thankfully not to the same extent as Frankie Goes To Hollywood; the number of versions is relatively low. Read more

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Mix Tape #12 : Electronics

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Back, not so much with a vengeance as a new mix tape; the theme this time is simply electronics. Many of the pieces are rather long, so this mix, more than the others, features excerpts rather than complete works.

The mix opens with one of the most exciting electronic works by the duo FURT. Taking Brahms as its starting point, “Rigor” immediately slows, seemingly descending closer and closer upon its surface, the ensuing music seemingly scrutinising the Brahms material at the microscopic level. i was fortunate enough to witness this piece performed live (at the ICA, back in the mid ’90s), and it was thrilling, a truly memorable experience. The complete work can be downloaded free from FURT’s website; link below. “fol4” is Autechre‘s expanded version of “Fol3”, found on the limited double edition of Quaristice. It’s just as mercurial as its sibling, darting between the speakers with nervous, frenetic energy, from which assorted rhythmic patterns obtrude. A brief interruption comes in the form of Alva Noto’s “fontlab4.0”, one of his assorted miniature slews of (presumably) raw data from his superb album Unitxt. i’ve been interested in Ambrose Field‘s work since i heard him give a talk at Birmingham University about 15 years ago; he has a unique and fascinating approach both to sound itself as well as to its relationship to the listener. Included here is an episode from his splendid electroacoustic work Expanse Hotel, “Orient Express”. Next a work taken from an ancient off-air radio recording lurking in my archives, a work titled “Augustine’s Message” by the Welsh composer Robert Mackay. i’ve not heard anything else by Mackay, and sadly this piece doesn’t appear to be available on any releases, but i’ve been able to clean up the recording very well, and it nicely demonstrates the composer’s joint interest in music and drama. Despite its brevity, “Augustine’s Message” is an intense, beguiling listen. Then a lengthy excerpt from one of my very favourite composers, Roland Kayn. Kayn’s electronic works are nothing short of amazing, spanning vast durations with equally vast slabs of sound, slabs that are constantly re-shaping themselves. To my knowledge, few of Kayn’s works have been reissued on CD (the main exception being Tektra), but most of his vinyl releases can be found in high quality rips on the web (particularly here). Included here is a portion from the first part of his 1979 cycle Infra, “Isotrope”. Also conceived on a large scale is Pan Sonic‘s album Kesto (234.48:4), encapsulated in its 61-minute final track, “Säteily (Radiation)”. The excerpt here demonstrates the track’s beautifully radiant, shining character. Read more

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