Austra: Habitat


Austra- Habitat

Summer is slowly on its way out and many of us are trying to make the most of it. While many of us in Chicago were busy at festivals and concerts, I had the opportunity to check out Austra’s latest release, Habitat. It begins immediately with the titular track, introducing several synths over a two-chord progression accompanied and driven by clean, mid-range female vocals, the only acoustic element in the piece. The vocals add a very ghostly and dark quality to the song’s mood which is made even more apparent after the first minute of introductory melodies, whereupon the pace is developed into a dance beat with metronomic kicks and snare hits predominantly on beats 2 and 4. Though it is very repetitive, the piece has many moments of musical statement where certain instruments will drop out and the vocals will take up more of the foreground space.

‘Doepfer’, a nearly five minute long instrumental track, has the drive and pace of a scene in a spy movie, and I don’t mean like a fight scene but more like a snooping-around-the-enemy-lair-and-gathering-intel moment. In order to complete their mission, our spy has to dodge the glaring cameras and avoid the various sentries which patrol the chrome plated halls of a maze-like facility. Though the tempo and pulse remain constant throughout, the mood and action shift organically to create contrasting moments of intensity. This is a really cool piece, rich in detail and yet minimal in nature.

As the title suggests, ‘Bass Drum Dance’ is very heavy in the low end. It takes a little while to get rolling, nearly a minute until the high-range instruments make their appearance. After two minutes the sense of time is being played with by many delaying instruments overlapping each other and generating a disorienting effect. The main melodic line, an arpeggio that seems to lazily glide into each note’s obvious rhythmic destination, is especially maddening. At 3:20, dissonant female vocals briefly feature themselves amid the swelling synth pad and booming sub-kicks. Talk about creepy.

And finally, Habitat wraps up with ‘Hulluu’, similar to the second track, this song is mainly a percussion-driven loop with deep bass kicks, and industrial midi-instruments. It has some cool moments, particularly when the whispering vocals come in at the middle and end of the song, beyond that, it’s not very imaginative, and that goes for the rest of the album. It’s not bad, but it’s not very gripping.


Stems: Polemics


Stems: Polemics

I know I’ve mentioned it before, but, you know that moment when you witness a work of art so incredible that it discourages you and yet inspires you at the same time? Of course you do, especially if you’re an artist, you probably have it all the time. This week I learned that that same moment is also prone to occur when faced with mediocre art. Despite its good intentions, Stems’ debut release, Polemics, has the quality of a rough demo tape which, admittedly, gives it some charm. These instrumental compositions, consisting of drums, string instruments, and electric guitar, have enormous potential– too much actually.

Like many an after-school jam session, these songs tend to find a comfortable spot and stay there while gradually embellishing the music and ultimately coming to a slow close at some point. Apparently the desired effect is “to create music with the energy of rock music but with elongated and intense structures of Western and Indian classical music.” This becomes more apparent in songs like ‘Reverence’, a light-hearted 7/8 tune with a guitar laying down the looped riff and strings moving harmoniously overtop. This has to be the positive highlight of my sampling of Polemics.

And then there are songs like ‘Connery’ which utilize trite chord progressions–the kind often heard in climactic scenes of epic movies in which troops rally for a final battle–that repeat for five minutes from beginning to end with melodic instruments playing on the surface layer. While listening to this song I pictured myself at a high school coffeehouse surrounded by fellow students in the dim atmosphere of color-shaded lamps and Christmas tree lights, and at two minutes into the performance I politely made my exit from the cafeteria in search of something as-of-yet undiscovered. It took only a measure of listening to the fifth track, ‘Shadows’, for me to name the artist most likely responsible for influencing the piece, and a few more measures to confirm that it was indeed a dangerously close rip-off of a Yann Tiersen tune. The novelty of strings had worn off long before reaching this track.

All this is not to judge the music as something bad, rather, lacking thoughtful care. There are noticeable recording mistakes such as imprecise looping, unintentional dissonances, and poorly micd drums tracks throughout. A majority of the time this may be overlooked or regarded as part of the musical aesthetic, but when the composition tends to be too predictable and/or repetitive these qualities become even more noticeable and detract from the overall sound.

To wrap this up, Polemics is, in a word, juvenile. With time and practice I’m sure that Stems can grow into something amazing and entertaining, but as of now it fails to hold interest.


The Heartbreaks: We May Yet Stand A Chance


The Heartbreaks- We May Yet Stand A Chance

Have you ever had the feeling of being disillusioned with life?  At first, you feel awful, like How could I not have seen this before? But then you realize, with open eyes and a clear heart, that you are better off knowing the truth and that you should keep moving forward.

The nature of this idea is captured on The Heartbreaks‘  second album,  We May Yet Stand A Chance . The English band is comprised of singer Matthew Whitehouse, songwriter/drummer Joseph Kondras, guitarist Ryan Wallace and bassist Chris Deakin.

Since their formation in 2009, The Heartbreaks have seen some success, especially with the release of their debut album Funtimes in 2012. However, with their album We May Yet Stand A Chance , the band is able to express their views about life and love in a way that is both poetic and honest.

The album starts off with the track, ‘Paint the Town Beige’, a song that has certain elements of the Blues genre woven into it. There are other songs on the album that have the ability to sweep you up and pull you in. The track, ‘Absolved’, is quite cheery and upbeat. Another song , ‘Hey, Hey Lover’, has a bit of a psychedelic vibe, yet it’s the kind of song that you could jam out to on a road trip with your friends, singing the lyrics, “Hey, Hey Lover, we may yet stand a chance” , with every fiber of your being, intense facial expressions and all. It’s definitely a song that deserves to be played on repeat.

The track, ‘Bittersweet’, is another psychedelic ‘60s type of song, but it’s a bit more mellow and laid-back. The smoothness of the track also allows you to actually enjoy the song’s clever lyrics like, “I have all the time in the world for you/ just not right now” and “So, now the stage is set/ for you and I to both get upset”.

The fun continues with other upbeat songs such as  ‘¡No Pasarán!’,  a lively one filled with trumpets, violins and guitar; and ‘Man Overboard’, a particularly rockabilly track with a nice beat that makes you want to move.

There are also many songs on the album that are truly profound. The song, ‘Fair Stood the Wind’, is one of sweet melancholy that depicts a fleeting romance by using the wind as a metaphor for love. This is based on the lyrics, “Fair stood the wind/now it’s blowing again” and the use of the phrase about being in “the obsession of the moment” with someone throughout the song.  It’s a refreshing interpretation of love. To me, listening to this song is like going to the beach on a gloomy day, when you can appreciate the beauty of the ocean, despite the lack of sunshine.

While some songs reflect on love, others tend to act as a wakeup call to those who need to be aware of social issues in today’s society.

The song, ‘Robert Jordan’, is a tale about the singer’s interaction with a man named Robert Jordan, who he meets at a bar. Here’s the catch, Robert Jordan has come from the year 1937 and provides some interesting observations about how people act today, saying “This strikes me as a very strange place/ No politics, no passions or empathy for the human race/You have fun but the sadness never really goes away.”

Another track, ‘This Is Not Entertainment’, reveals frustrations regarding the quality of content in the entertainment industry, while the song, ‘Rome’, focuses on the idea of false hope and accepting when  unfortunate things come to pass.

The album finishes off with the song ‘Dying Sun’. With heavy lyrics such as, “We no longer live/ merely exist/ Do you fear the loneliness of freedom more than the chill from the dying sun?” This track gives you plenty to think about. It’s an interesting way to end the album, with such deep thoughts. These insightful songs truly make you think about the current state of affairs in society, to the point where it makes us ask the question: “Where do our priorities lie?”

We May Yet Stand A Chance, is a great listen for those of you who enjoy a 60′s blues-rock sound. In addition, lead singer Matthew Whitehouse has an amazingly rich, deep and mature voice that is actually quite reminiscent of the late Joe Strummer, the lead singer of The Clash.

For me, listening to this album can be described as waking up from a daze, being surrounded by the rubble that Chaos has left in its path of destruction. With clear eyes, you look off into the distance where Hope awaits and think to yourself, “We may yet stand a chance”. With earnest lyrics and an important message, this album is definitely worth a listen


Tashaki Miyaki: Cool Runnings



Tashaki Miyaki- Cool Runnings

This week I couldn’t do electronic music. I tried, but I just couldn’t. Maybe I’m tired of dance loops? I had to find something quick, easy, and relaxing. I found that and a little more with Tashaki Miyaki’s Cool Runnings EP. Despite the EP being no more than three tracks, including a bonus track (woohoo!), adding up to 10 minutes of music, it’s something to keep your summer vibe alive in these final days of August.

It starts with the titular track, ‘Cool Runnings’, which has that lazy shoegaze vibe but also the jogging spirit of dream pop. Clean guitars, strings, tambourine, and warm female vocals (double-tracked) are the highlighted instruments of this ensemble which bring life into its sound. The vocals themselves possess an almost hypnotic quality that seems to force the listener into a state of complete chill. Yes, the aesthetic exuded by the arrangement of these instruments brings to mind a many summer vacation; long drives, hanging out in parking lots, and singing songs on the beach.

‘There Was A Light’ takes the excitement of the first track and turns it down several notches into a slow ballad. This is the point in the night where the dance floor is occupied only by several lingering couples and the lights are all dimmed. At 1:44 there’s something pretty mysterious going on instrumentally and I can’t tell if it’s a guitar being bowed or a sting instrument being distorted through an amplifier, but the section is a brief moment of heaviness followed by calm slide guitars. After several listens, this song seems like a beefed-up indie version of Bette Midler’s ‘The Rose’; at least the vocal melodies and the pace are reminiscent. ‘Bonus Track’ is a continuation of this song but without percussion and the heavy distortions, taking the ideas of ‘There Was A Light’ and making them even lighter with just vocals, guitars, and strings.

Although Cool Runnings does not seem like it has anything to do with Jamaican bobsledding, there are two cosmic toucans on the cover artwork that make up for this slight misdirection. In all, I found these three tracks to be enjoyable and soothing, but not so gripping. The music washes over you and it feels like it’s over just as soon as it started, kind of like summer.


Plaisance: Thunder in Paradise

Plaisance - Thunder in Paradise - cover

Plaisance – Thunder in Paradise

I have to admit, I’ve been in a bit of a rut lately. Whatever kind of artist or craftsperson you are, if you’re on any kind of schedule for creating, inspiration is not always easy to come by. Some people find it easily in their daily lives, others hunt and peck for small moments here and there, and sometimes inspiration just drops into one’s lap and the cup that was empty is overflowing with impassioned creativity.

To say that Plaisance’s newest EP Thunder in Paradise is refreshing is to put it as simply as possible. If I had just one word to use, that would be it. TiP is cool and breezy and when I hear it I see Jennifer Beals yanking the chain and a whole bunch of sweet synth pours all over her. In six tracks, Plaisance paints a picture of a storm over the ocean but the city on the shore just keeps on grooving. It’s not a high minded concept in a scene full of sci fi epics and horror narratives but that in and of itself is what makes it so good. Like a strong drink at a tiki bar, it’s easy going down and it gets to the point.

The whole EP is unabashedly tropical beachside Miami afternoon/evening cruise music.  It’s got a lot of solid outrun qualities but with a more easygoing vibe.  Chillrun perhaps? ‘Diving Board’ begins our sunset cruise with nothing too aggressive and even the range of instrumentation and effects is fairly basic but it still achieves a sense of carefree fun. But it would be foolish to ignore the title of the EP, and the titular track brings in rolling thunder and a somewhat more urgent, ominous synth arrangement that wonderfully creates an atmosphere of humidity and gathering clouds.  It’s still shorts and sandals weather, but be prepared for a little rain. The track itself blossoms into a jazzy piano number that is still perfect to cruise to, but probably not in a convertible.

‘Under the Gentle Rain’ continues the downpour but with an interesting, almost kind of cheesy bossa nova beat that one might have heard in Napoleon Dynamite. Masterfully Plaisance shifts the track into a glittering, easy tempo outrun track and those cheesy instruments seamlessly blend into this dusky shift into a higher gear as we look at rain clouds close in over the city skyline. Both ‘Blinded by the Shine’ and ‘Dusty Dancing’ slow down the tempo even more for a more italo, unventilated night club vibe and it fits the overall theme of the EP very well. What better way to get out of the rain than to go inside and create some body heat? The sensuality is turned up a little more with ‘Sweaty Beauty’, and even though I’ve never been to Miami, I imagine I’d listen to something like this if I was on some patio bar, watching tanned, statuesque women stroll by.

‘Summer Love’ featuring Chrissy Valentine is a Plaisance remix of a Vincenzo Salvia track that keeps the italo sounds coming without interfering with the original too much. Overall this is a delectable piece of sunny synth work, with an added layer of heat, humidity, and flirty sensuality. There is nothing dark or ominous here, even with the sounds of rain and thunder thrown in here and there. It says to me that even if it rains now and again, you still have to keep on cruising and keep on dancing, and every dry spell has its end. And when it rains, it pours. Plaisance has a knack for charming, positive, jazzy music and I know what record I’m reaching for next time I’m about to hop in my convertible for an afternoon drive.


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