First impressions

Teebs – Anicca (2019)

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downtempo / indie electronic / folktronica / wonky

If you missed my first Teebs post, know I became a huge fan last year. Think back to FlyLo’s gentlest moments but more earthy. You’re dozing in a surrealist painter’s garden, filled with chimes and bird houses, where the difference between his world and the real world is fading. Sound good? Read on and recap yourself with my Teebs playlist while you’re at it.

Imagine my thrill when I hear he’s back from a five-year silence. How much changed since then? I’ll say a ‘moderate’ amount. Anicca settles between warm acoustic sounds, chill-out music and toned-down wonky elements. The calmer sound will let ‘glitch hop’ fans down, but it’s a natural change given his eyes for painting. As usual with Teebs, looking for Banging Beats misses the point.

I welcome this evolution, but Anicca tends to give guitar too much focus, ending in a paler sound. Beyond a few straight-up flashbacks, I want more of those chimes and synths; more variety. His sound is distinct and beautiful like before, but it’s lost some vital color. I began to miss the signature fuzz and grain as well thanks to the clearer production.

Anicca has many great highlights that show his ideas are still varied. “Studie” lets his cloudy synth chords shine, ending in the audio equal to an afternoon nap. “Universe” is similar, using DayDream Masi’s front-and-center guest vocal like a harmonious beam of sunlight. He graces “Marcel” with gorgeous bells and flute that would fit right into his last album. In a welcome surprise, “Mirror Memory” gets me thinking about FlyLo with it’s spaced-out violin; it sounds like old Teebs meeting new Teebs. He gives the Sudan Archives feature “Black Dove” a similar vibe. Given their unique styles and mutual skills for fusing spiritual and organic sounds, I’d love to hear a full EP by these two.

The crucial thing is how Anicca is still that breezy flower-field music at heart. Teebs continues to soothe like few others in e-music and I applaud his will to stick to his own path. I worry for his palette but I can savor Anicca for what it is and it’s great to have him back.

♥︎ – “Studie”, “Black Dove”, “Prayers i”, “Mirror Memory”, “Threads”, “Universe”, “Daughter Callin”, “Marcel”

 

Favorite new wave-inspired albums

Be Forest – Earthbeat (2014)

dream pop / post-punk / ethereal wave

RIYL – early Cocteau Twins, 4AD, post-punk guitars, Chelsea Wolfe, Tamaryn, Them Are Us Too

Be Forest have a truly haunted and forlorn guitar sound that smolders over their songs like embers and fireflies. It sounds like an update or even the ghost of the usual eighties guitar twang. They manage to call on classic post-punk while finding their own ground within it.

Earthbeat is my favorite BF album since it doesn’t lose itself in the fuzz like Cold. or a bland, formless void like Knocturne. Earthbeat leaves some room for true songs and melodies to unravel. They merge gentle acoustics and thorned, distorted edges for an ideal autumn-campfire mood piece. Erica’s organic rhythms are the wooden logs and trees, Costanza’s bass lines are wolves and old memories lurking in the distance; their singers hum quietly like they’re telling you a secret about their past. In classic dream pop fashion, they create strong images and feelings without clear lyrics.

Earthbeat is one of the most evocative albums I’ve heard in this decade’s post-punk scene. Be sure to check out “NTR” from their debut too.

5-Song Gateways · Artists you should know

5-Song Gateway: Keep Shelly In Athens

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This column highlights favorite genres, scenes and artists with the intent to make it quick and easy to get into them or decide if they’re ‘for you’. I’ll focus on obscure and/or prolific projects.

The huge (as I would argue, overblown) taboo surrounding the ‘chillwave’ sound left many talented groups like this forgotten. I’m thinking another reason for Keep Shelly was their silly name, and how their vocals and lyrics get cheesy. Still, I wound up endeared by this factor more than annoyed. This is shimmery water-fairy music at heart, and as long as you aren’t pulling an all-out ‘bananis and avocados’ with your voice, I won’t complain. These ‘fairies’ have soothing voices and fabulous scenery is everywhere, so I can’t help but enjoy the ride. Beyond that, they’re one of the most ambitious groups I’ve heard in this decade’s synth-dream pop genre/scene/thing.

Here’s the thing: KSIA never were your average ‘chillwavers’.  Unlike this scene’s generic corners, Keep Shelly aren’t ones to rehash old ideas. It doesn’t boil down to some woozy synths and pale guitar tones from a nerd writing gushy love songs about his GF. Like Royksopp, they stay adventurous at the same time as having a ‘chill-out’ appeal. They vary a lot from the structures and influences you come to expect from this music. Not every experiment works, but I appreciate their ambition.  Their one constant member RΠЯ decorates and transforms the songs as much as he wants (on lesser songs, maybe too much!). If this is chillwave, it’s a bold and shiny update. He has a great taste for expanding on chillwave’s water fixation, so give these songs a good listen if you fawn over aquatic sounds like I do!

1. “Cremona Memories” – In Love With Dusk, 2010

One running trope I love about KSIA is their taste for spontaneous ‘weirder’ or kitschy touches. This song has a throbbing sci-fi synth one moment (1:21), and a Tina Turner sample or vinyl scratch the next. Results will depend on how wild they are, but I love the way it expands songs like this. RΠЯ relies on a fairly simple groove here but throws everything he has over it to keep you engaged. KSIA don’t get too serious, and make things fun when they see fit.

2. “DIY” – Our Own Dream EP, 2011

Film scores aside, this has one of the most epic piano lines I know. A few chords and that’s it, but they play in such enormous and stomping fashion that it doesn’t matter. And those horns! Another great ‘what if’ move from KSIA.

3. “Flyway” – At Home, 2013

Relies on this one fluttery synth, but adds all these subtle riffs to bounce off of it and a weird yet awesome vocoder cameo. Another one where you have to ride the adrenaline rush. The best kind of repetition: purposeful, not too much, addictive, doesn’t take forever to evolve.

4. “Fractals” – Now I’m Ready, 2015

I don’t know, I have a soft spot for well-done wishy washy bittersweet pop songs. That is, if the right people make them, and of course Keep Shelly qualify. Really pleasant melodies, and the hopeful spirit is sweet. I love the way the chorus busts in with that Robin Guthrie guitar (guth-tar?) from the gentler verses. That little chiptune-y solo toward the end makes it even more satisfying.

5. “Hollow Man” – Now I’m Ready, 2015

This is where their ambition shines. The layers, the intensity, the oceanic textures, the twists, the synth soloing, it’s all there. You have break beats, gorgeous synths, windy vocal effects, huge build VS sad, hushed cooldown; vibraphone [!!!] fade-out… An exciting mixture in the end. Thumps like a thunder storm; when it’s music, that’s a good thing.

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”

 

new music

Maria Usbeck – Envejeciendo, 2019

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synth pop / art pop

Using more synths this time, Maria Usbeck’s second album emulates a digitized canopy. It’s another one where cold synths prompt human feeling despite their origins. Skeptics will claim they lack feeling but Maria’s music hasn’t lost any of that.

Which brings me to what stuck from Amparo: her incredible talent for calming the listener. Her travels in Ecuador to reconnect with her past continue to influence the effect of her songs. Like home, or what feels like it, Maria’s music relaxes with it’s everyday air. As she composed by herself, everything sounds filtered through her perspective. That is, besides the odd speech from Siri (!) or her grandmother. Envejeciendo is a traveling laptop’s creation.

What struck me about her ‘chill-out’ effect is that it feels so grounded. It doesn’t assume everything is or will be perfect. She doesn’t aim for escapism, as much as that works for other music. Instead, she uses this space to ask questions. Yet she does this without getting bleak; some songs veer on humorous. She seems to find comfort in more realistic conditions. Her lyrics concern aging (the album’s English name) and how new tech changes our thinking. I’m glad to see her explore these themes when few others do and when the cult of youth stays strong.

Envejeciendo peaks at the end with “Retirement Home” and “Nostalgia”. With the album’s richest synths and her own tender voice, they form a compelling mix of cathartic and relaxed tones. “Retirement Home” imagines ideal senior living, with metallic synth-bells adding a spa-like hypnosis. “Nostalgia” matches the title in seconds with breezy synth chords glowing like fireflies. As intended, it’s perfect for those fleeting daydreams of the past.

The drum machine beats are my main gripe as with too many recent albums. And I say this as a synth-pop fanatic! The issue is, no matter how classic the 909 is, the novelty wears after decade-long overuse.

I prefer Amparo but this is a worthy album with it’s own great ideas. It’s very digestible at 27 minutes. Maria’s solo career keeps taking refreshing turns and deserving a closer look.

 

 

Favorite new wave-inspired albums

George Clanton – 100% Electronica, 2015

synth pop / chillwave

RIYL – Brothertiger, Eyeliner, Luxury Elite’s With Love, Esprit Fantasy – virtua.zip

George Clanton’s past making eccentric vaporwave as ESPRIT Fantasy informs his pop songs in interesting ways. He may sing and arrange his songs into verses and choruses now, but vaporwave’s neon shades plaster themselves all over just as they did before. He developed a great ear for that glittery pastel side of eighties synths on the part-composed, part-sampled ESPRIT album virtua.zip, and that stays his strong point here. His tones resemble sea creatures jumping from digitized sea in euphoria; it’s a hugely endearing effect.

George’s vocal style gets overbearing on occasion, but he does bring a lot of energy to these songs. As on Brothertiger’s new EP, it’s refreshing to hear a ‘chillwave’ vocalist this dramatic. Instead of drifting along a shore, he reaches for the stars, bringing this album to metaphysical peaks even at a slower pace (“Wonder Gently”).

By far my favorite is “It Makes The Babies Want To Cry”, where adorable peaks of synth propel his easygoing melodies into pure bliss. The momentum he builds toward the first hit of the chorus makes it so much more exciting.

♥︎ – “It Makes The Babies Want To Cry”, “Never Late Again”, “Keep A Secret”

Top 5 Albums of 2019 (so far)

Top 5 Albums of 2019 (so far) / #1. Kelsey Lu – Blood

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art pop / chamber pop / folktronica / chamber folk

More like this – Kelsey Lu’s “Shades of Blue”, Goldfrapp’s Tales of Us, Kate Havnevik’s “Unlike Me”, Weyes Blood’s Titanic Rising

As you could guess from a cellist, keyboardist, guitarist and singer who’s worked with Solange and Blood Orange, Kelsey Lu’s solo debut isn’t easy to box. The quiet cello-and-vocal reserve of her Church EP has evolved to a bolder statement with an upfront personality and a much wider palette, the electronics among the most promising. In Lu’s case, though, the album sounds like the natural culmination of what she’s absorbed over time. She isn’t going eclectic for the sake of it. Even when she goes from warm folk (“Too Much”) to a 7-minute synth-enhanced 10cc cover, she unites every sound through the gentle shivers and hums of her flexible vocals, the warm wooden tremble of her cello and a clear-cut sound design.

Blood enters with a pair of striking cello-accented folk songs, the sinister warning of “Rebel” and the uneasy sleepwalk of “Pushin Against The Wind”. In the first big shift, Lu dives into pop-ballad catharsis with “Due West”, setting her decadent vocals to a blanket of synth chords and a harp so fragile someone could’ve sewn it together. When I think it’s over, a cello pluck enters and cross-fades into what sounds like Grouper making ethereal wave in a cathedral (“Kindred”). Unlike the rest of Blood, Lu sounds truly weightless as she sings like the ghost of an opera singer, possessed yet appeased. Not long after, she kicks into 70s disco with “Poor Fake”, where the big beat+bassline threatens to start a party. And we’re only halfway in by that point.

Blood is the most a new artist has impressed me in months. Her awe-inspiring musical scope combined with such clear passion and creativity to match means there’s enough here for me to process for months, but I’m immensely curious to know what sound she’ll pursue next. Will she do more pop, guitar folk, classical cello, will it follow the steps of this album or will she do a 180? Blood tells me any of these and more could work for her.

♥︎ – “Rebel”, “Pushin’ Against The Wind”, “Due West”, “Kindred I”, “Poor Fake”, “Foreign Car”, “I’m Not In Love”