hidden treasure

Djavan – Lilás, 1984

More like this – Elza Soares’ “Lá Vem Você”, “Marcos Valle’s Marcos Valle

One reason I adore sophisti-pop is it’s SUPREME breeziness. Albums like Lilas have such a luscious yet steady groove that I lose myself in a blissful fantasy of the most refreshing morning walk. It’s something about the way the glittery keyboards shimmer over the smooth bass and such clear, idyllic pillows of harmony. On a song like “Esquinas”, the saxophone gets me lost in the image of endless cities or candle-fit cocktail parties. Music for having an easygoing Good Time, but the wistful way it frames the vocals leaves room for deeper thought without disrupting things.

I’d say the only thing that can enrich this further are some strings.. oh wait, they’re here, and they have a gorgeous way of flourishing into the arrangement just enough.

Well then, how about some Brazilian flavor? Evocative, romantic singers like Nascimento or Jorge Ben are sophisti bait, are they not? Having a past in samba himself, Djavan brings plenty of that, and the result is true ear candy if you like it smooth and don’t mind some subtle eighties-isms. (I don’t, of course.) As you may guess, the elegance of Portuguese and the samba-like atmosphere makes a breezy genre like sophisti even more breezy. For one, “Obi” brings a bossa nova vibe and the album’s richest strings, meaning Lilas has about anything I could ask for in a sophisti album.

This stuff is like gourmet strawberry pie as music; I’m sure my ears will always have room for that.

hidden treasure

Elizabete Balcus – Conarium, 2016

art pop / folktronica / chamber pop / synth pop

More like this – Glasser’s Ring, Tess Roby, Danielle Dax

When I play this I feel I’m wandering the misty forests and castles, maybe even at Elizabete’s home of Latvia. On the other hand, her electronics morph that into a kind of vortex with their surreal, uneasy character. This is no shock since Elizabete calls her dreams a major inspiration. Not long before she sings “is the castle real?”, I’m sensing a computer behind the courtyard. Yes, this is yet another album where folklore and synths make a fascinating pair.

The same song can flip from churchy vocalizing to hectic techno beats in seconds. A simple feather-weight ballad like “Vienīgais ceļš” has me swaying, but something as flat-out bizarre as “Monument” makes me giggle. Beyond that, her lyrics go for abstract ideas like ‘following the shape of butterflies’ and forgetting her name. The memorable ‘it is not yet a forest’ repeats until the last song fades.

For all the synth shenanigans (she triggers them live with fruit) it’s the way she mixes it with her flute and distinct voice that stands out. The flute has a way of twirling around just so like a ribbon, while her voice has this deep, rosy richness. The two Latvian songs make good showcases for the latter, plus an uncommon language (“Vienīgais ceļš” again, while “Negribas Iet Gulēt” could pass for a lullaby). Like a wise mage, she’s discreet, focused; conducting some kind of research, but a song like “They’re Coming” shows her more playful instincts. With a colorful arrangement like that (flute, mallet, synth, horns) it could fit a parade.

hidden treasure

Thomas Newman’s score for Desperately Seeking Susan, 1985

Thomas Newman’s knack for synths surprised me seeing he got his fame later on through classical Pixar scores. Susan doesn’t get much talk beyond “Into The Groove”, but the score is ear candy if you enjoy Vangelis or the mid-80′s digital gloss in general. (Dare I say vaporwave too?)

Within a minute, each piece reflects the movie’s wide metropolis and/or the lead character’s curiosity. While keeping with the film’s playful mood, it subtly counters the hijinks with a strong atmosphere unique to the era’s shimmering textures. His use of echo, reverb and high notes leaves a gorgeous panoramic effect. “Leave Atlantic City” demonstrates with it’s bubbly sequencer and subtle bass echoes that hit like a cool breeze. “Port Authority” continues the formula with a more tender mood and a sweet new-agey flute. “Key And a Picture Of” mixes it up with it’s murky slow tension and “Rain” adds some elegance with it’s thoughtful piano.

The closest to a ‘theme song’ is “New York City By Night”, a catchy synth-pop tune capturing the glitz and glamor of Prince’s Revolution era. One year after Purple Rain after all!

hidden treasure

Purple Pilgrims – Eternal Delight, 2016

dream pop / hypnagogic pop / hauntology / folksy

Sounds like ghosts haunting the farmhouse of your past. What was once warm and nostalgic is now dusty, sinister, hard to believe. The wildlife isn’t frolicking anymore, it’s lurking! My ancestors’ rusty portraits took on a weird new energy since this time away, so much that I’m hearing voices. The Pilgrims suggest they’re enamored or pleased in some way, but it doesn’t feel right. Are they playing tricks?

This is one of those precious few albums which filter that special oldtimey, farm-life kind of spook through electronics and ‘heavenly voices’. As on their newer album, I love the way they frame their otherwise folksy voices with dream pop effects. Imagine a lost folk siren from the 60’s time-warped to today’s ‘hypnagogic’ scene and you get the idea. Felt Mountain fans rejoice.

Besides that haunted feeling, it’s the emphasis on synths that sets this apart from Perfumed. Like with the Ghost Box label, this adds a distinct space-age kitsch. The knack for eerie mantras wind up muffling this into a drowsier shape not far from a mangled library record.

hidden treasure

Metal Mother – Ionika, 2013

electropop / gothic / art pop

More like this – Grimes’ Halfaxa & Visions, Fever Ray’s self-titled, Zola Jesus, Gazelle Twin’s The Entire City, Drab Majesty

I only got to know Metal Mother seeing Pastel Ghost promote her on Twitter. As much as I love PG, I didn’t expect this to floor me given the er, Hot Topic flavor of her other peers. I was wrong. MM ticks countless boxes in my taste, and the same goes for most people who love their moody electronic ‘avant-pop’. I know you’re out there. Ionika knows just what I want from this stuff: an amorphous fog of synths, elaborate vocal layers, thundering rhythms and an ear for adventure. I can’t decide if it takes place in a magical glade or some dark future world. You could call those opposites and I’d agree, but this makes no difference to her!

What gets to me is how MASSIVE Ionika sounds. Let me get this clear: Mother’s production values are amazing. She gets an orchestra’s impact from vocal, synth and computer alone. With each song I’d give up with trying to count the layers as I tend to; I was too busy riding the adrenaline rush. This deserves to soundtrack a movie, not gather dust on Spotify! (It had two ratings total on often thorough Rateyourmusic by the time I listened.)

I had many pleasant callbacks to my other favorites (Fever Ray vocals in “Windexx’d”; early Grimes vibes in “Tactillium”) but it’s gloriously hard to box as a whole. It can fit so many contexts: a goth club (“Doomdome”), a cathedral performance (“Little Ghost”), a forest celebration (“Mind_off”). Tempo and volume flex to Mother’s whim, sometimes within the same song, yet nothing sounds misplaced.

Her vocals have a way of gliding around like a gust of wind. She adapts to both light and dark, from a fairy’s soul-searching mantra (“Prism”) to a creeping siren song (“Iona”). With something as dense as “Tactilium” she could be weaving spells around crumbling mountains. As I hoped, her music matches her name.

For all the wacky witch-house aesthetics, Ionika has a lot more going on than doom and gloom. MM likes to explore, even combine various emotions; something I wish more modern goth music did. It’s closer to a powerful exclamation from a cliff. You’re in touch with your spirit etc. and the waterfalls, releasing something deep inside. It has such a wonderful sense of harmony, freedom.

hidden treasure

Alif – Dakamerap (2004, OutHere Records)

I found this all-female trio by chance back in my hip hop phase (Thanks to this HUGE list of female rappers, sadly inactive now). Outhere says they’re the first of their kind in Dakar’s rap scene. ‘[…] their first cassette Viktim caused a big stir in a country where traditional authorities like parents, religion or age play a big role.Dakamerap is a play on words: Dakar, camera and rap; saying they’re the camera watching their city. This refers to their lyrics’ focus on social issues. According to Afropop, this focus is common in the scene.

‘Musically the album goes full circle, reconnecting hip hop with its roots in Africa. Songs like Dakamerap, Taspe, Joolaa and Bataxal combine traditional sabar rhythms and the music of the griots with a contemporary blend of african hip hop.’ – Outhere

Written about mistreated house servants, “Proces” caught my ear right away with it’s haunting melody. The addition of spacious dialogue makes it especially evocative.

They’re convincing singers too. Behind a boom bap flavor in the drums, Alif have an almost instinctual knack for hooks. This finds it’s way into most songs and yet, they don’t break the rap flow more than twice. One example is “Bataxal”, complete with a Hollywood-ish string sample. Most surprising is “Thiou”, where they ride a poppy mbalax-like groove with a surging synth as if it’s a breeze. I love the balance here.

I wanted to hear more Alif, but no such luck since this is their only album with a wide enough release. On the upside, there are easier ways to dig into Africa’s various hip hop scenes, very much worth a closer look.

hidden treasure · new music

Hello Seahorse! – Disco estimulante, 2020

synth pop / indie electronic / dream pop

More like this – Hello Seahorse!’s Lejos. No tan lejos., Reni Jusis’ “Motyle”, Goldfrapp’s Black Cherry, Rajie’s Espresso

Denise Gutiérrez’s voice makes this band stand out, mixing rich velvet-like lows with powerful falsetto choruses in each song. Their synths come in many colors but the vivid, reflective atmosphere they create is a perfect fit. Synth pop is my closest guess here, but maybe not the kind you expect. This is more of a modern cocktail party in slow-motion with moonlight peeking in from the balcony.

Sadly, synth pop keeps falling victim to cliches these past few years, leading HS to use the same old 808 beats. Beyond that, I think their ears for melody are getting a lot tighter here. This is a great kick-off for the new year’s music if you’re obsessed with synth pop and/or dreamy falsettos like I am.

hidden treasure

Pat Moon – Don’t Hide From The Light, 2016

ethereal wave / dream pop / synth pop

More like this – Molly Nilsson’s “The Lonely” + “Wounds Itch When They Heal”, John Maus’ “Tenebrae”, Grimes’ Halfaxa, Anna Von Hausswolfe, Ioanna Gika

Imagine swimming in a cathedral with those windows. They’re the only light source, so you have these brilliant colors flashing through the dark. You hear a familiar song from the other room that brings up memories you haven’t thought of in years. That’s this album.

Pat Moon shows an excellent understanding of ethereal wave’s potential, and this is her debut. She brings all the romantic soul-searching this genre needs while giving it a promising synth makeover. From the first seconds she submerges her voice in murky pads that perfectly capture the ocean’s depths. The harmonies she builds are so fluid they could melt.

I can detect the confines of a keyboard-based home project, but the sound and scenes are big. She’s walking alone in the moors, she’s drifting along the river. Completing this imagery is a synth-organ echoing hallways and chambers from centuries past. This is the kind of isolated surrealism that gives the best ‘bedroom’ music it’s unique appeal.

I love how she titled this Don’t Hide From The Light. It’s gothic for sure, but more grey than black. This isn’t all-swallowing doom, it’s longing and unleashing emotions with a bit of hope. She writes on the Bandcamp page: ‘thank you kyle for helping me get here and reminding me that I could do this during those times I didn’t think I could’. She’s emerging from her shell and this translates really well to the songs.

See also – “Medieval Spells” from Romantic Era

hidden treasure

Eurythmics – In The Garden (1981)

new wave / art rock / neo-psychedelia / synth pop

RIYL – Annie Lennox, Siouxsie And The Banshees’ Kaleidoscope, early Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil, Conny Plank productions

Offbeat, ‘leftfield’ or plain weird early work from soon-to-be chart toppers are a phenomenon that never fails to draw me in. Beyond an already unique path in sound and genre, Eurythmics’ commercial-flop debut was a great example. 1981 had Annie Lennox and David Stewart in an odd spot between their upbeat power pop with Tourists and finding their niche as a minimal synth-pop duo. They had the icy keyboards down by now, but a backing band as well, playing an ambiguous new wave-jangle-neo psych hybrid.

In The Garden is a studio creation first and foremost, but it’s knack for ghostly surrealism isn’t too far from how Goldfrapp recorded their debut in a cottage. Picture Annie as a half-woman half-ghost haunting an old mansion or farmhouse in the English woods, and you have the right idea. She hasn’t sounded so haunted before or since. If the cover is any hint, she tones down her usual powerful belts and soars for chilly falsettos and sinister, abstract poems. They tend to echo off into the music in a way that would do wonders for a 4AD group; now I wish Annie sang in such a band. The lyrics follow suit:
‘I’m never gonna cry again / I’m never gonna die again’
’Dust is collecting / But she doesn’t notice / counting forever / she’s a calculator’
‘Another change of light / The underlying truth / request to pack it in / no solutions’

Combined with the uneasy, resonant wide-open space distinct to a krautrock giant like Conny Plank (“All The Young”), this is an album full of surprises. The result highlights many interesting parallels between krautrock and early new wave.  You’ll hear foresty atmospheric touches, bizarre sound effects, and creeping post-punk twang among other curios Eurythmics left behind within a few years.

For all the weirdness (“Sing-Sing”, filled with samples chattering away and Annie singing in French) and sinister undertones (“Caveman Head” with it’s edgy goth rock tease, the horror-inspired b-side “Le Sinistre”), songs like “Belinda” approach a normal pop-rock sound. Part of me wishes they engaged more with those thrilling goth/experimental hints than these upbeat grooves as a result. Still, you can find some fulfillment for that on the bonus tracks “Le Sinistre”, “4/4 In Leather” and “Take Me To Your Heart”’s live version. As it stands, In The Garden is worthy curiosity for anyone drawn to the oddball early eighties.

hidden treasure

China Crisis – Autumn In The Neighbourhood, 2015

sophisti-pop

RIYL80s China Crisis, Love And Money, Prefab Sprout, Gangway’s Sitting In The Garden

I love fall but I’m not ready for it. For one thing, it feels less fitting to post more of my findings in sophisti, a style screaming ‘cocktail party at the beach’. I meant to do more than my August mix, but that time flew as usual. Thus, a title like Autumn In The Neighbourhood enticed me.

I’m not sure if this is autumnal as much as windy and down-to-earth, but it’s close enough for me. I wish more sophisti had this imagery, I know that much. This being their ‘comeback’ album (2015!), China Crisis perform with more ease and nuance than ever. Decades later, they’ve kept that same elegance that defines sophisti-pop. The subtle keyboards, clean guitars and hints of brass are all here. Add a nostalgic, thoughtful mood and you have a great scene-setter. It’s the kind of British eighties(-styled) pop where you can just feel the busy city and morning breeze. It’s hard to name favorites but this comes from the impressive coherence more than anything else.

♥︎ – “Smile”, “Down Here on Earth”, “Joy And The Spark”, “Tell Tale Signs”