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.

 

 

Top 5 Albums of 2019 (so far)

Top 5 Albums of 2019 (so far) / #2/3. Karen O & Danger Mouse – Lux Prima

indie rock / art rock / neo-psychedelia

More like this Karen O’s “YO! My Saint”, Arctic Monkeys’ “One Point Perspective” + “American Sports”, U.S. Girls’ In A Poem Unlimited

Imagine my shock when Karen O, one of my favorite singers for ten years, drops a 9-minute song-suite with Danger Mouse in November. Despite a new producer, “Lux Prima” sounded like a sci fi film-theme evolution from her ghostly psych-pop torch song from January, “YO! My Saint”, one of my favorite songs of 2018, so the idea of an entire album piqued my curiosity. Hard to guess how it would sound, but this was part of the excitement.

Beyond the expected indie pop/rock element brought by Karen, Lux Prima revolves around a warm, groovy surrealism in a similar fashion to Italian film scores of the 70s. For example: the filtered strings building on Karen’s underwater balladry in “Reveries”, the smooth bass lines and the uneasy synth+guitar melody in “Nox Lumina”. Like those soundtracks, Lux Prima doesn’t stick to 2-3 common formulas, so we have misty dream-folk in “Ministry”, one minute and twangy disco-pop in “Turn The Light” the next minute. Yeah, that one’s… weird.

As a result, Karen sings like she’s trying on new hats. With a voice as adaptable as hers, capable of riling a punk party and wooing everyone to sleep in the same twelve minutes, most songs gives her space to shine. Her wordless wailing on the title track and her wistful hum in “Ministry” come to mind. However, some of DM’s stylings (while often impressive) aren’t the best fit for Karen, dulling her spark. Other times the melodies aren’t as interesting as the lavish arrangement, like with “Drown”, a great song in theory but melodically plain.

The Lux Prima/Nox Lumina suite has me wishing they engaged more with their space themes, but what’s there is compelling. Lux Prima feels like a proper solo debut and a promising step forward. As much as I miss Yeah Yeah Yeahs, I’m glad to know Karen O is still open to experiment in her solo career.

♥︎ – “Ministry”, “Lux Prima”, “Leopard’s Tongue”, “Reveries”, “Nox Lumina”

Top 5 Albums of 2019 (so far)

Top 5 Albums of 2019 (so far) / #2/3. Ioanna Gika – Thalassa

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art pop / darkwave / synth pop / ethereal wave / chamber pop

More like this Susanne Sundfor’s The Silicone Veil, Goldfrapp, This Mortal Coil’s It’ll End In Tears, The Changelings’ “Season of Mist”, Anna Von Hauswolff’s Ceremony

This new Greek artist taps into so many of my favorite things here. Thalassa sweeps over your ears with dramatic strings as Ioanna swoons like a lost 4AD siren-singer, all backed by a gothic synth pulse. A few cliched electro-beats (as on “Messenger”) dull some of the personality in this delicious fusion, but her choruses and melodies are dense enough to keep out of potential dryness. Shout-out to “New Geometry” for her entrancing chant-singing (“Hesitation / I found the answers in your / Hesitation…”) and the crumbling urgency of “Roseate”.

♥︎ – “New Geometry”, “Roseate”, “Out of Focus”, “Swan”, “Ammonite”

Top 5 Albums of 2019 (so far)

Top 5 Albums of 2019 (so far) / #4. Voyage Futur – Secret Earth

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new age / electronic / ambient

More like this – X.Y.R.’s Reflections, New Atlantis Volume 1, Emerald Web’s Nocturne, Michel Genest – Crystal Fantasy

Secret Earth has many of my favorite new age hallmarks: rich synth pads smearing everything in a calming gauze, traces of the subtlest and prettiest synth bells, the lack of dubious ‘world music’ themes and getting that serene v.s. mysterious balance I love to hear in the genre.

Like Vangelis and Emerald Web, Voyage Futur proves excellent at creating moody nature portraits, suggesting stately mountains and dreamt-up forests frozen in time. The marimba+synth pad combo on “Eternal Dawn” is most appealing for me as a keyboard/mallet fanatic. Although there’s a few dull moments, Secret Earth is an ultimately rich and immersive experience. Recommended if you’re curious about the recent crop o electronic new age.

♥︎ – “Eternal Dawn”

Top 5 Albums of 2019 (so far)

Top 5 Albums of 2019 (so far) / #5 – Nonlocal Forecast – Bubble Universe!

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electronic / video game music / new age / sequencer & MIDI / synth pop

More like this – Eyeliner, New Atlantis Volume 1, Ecco: The Tides of Time SCD soundtrack, “Aquatic Ambience” from Donkey Kong Country, “Dire Dire Docks” from Super Mario 64

One in countless Angel Marcloid creations, Bubble Universe! displays her gift for dense, oceanic synths. Song-wise the album flips between beatless new age glitter and jittery drum+synth suites. The latter nears a chaotic pace, but Angel unites it all through the gleeful virtual sheen of 90s video game music. Imagine such a soundtrack fused with guitar cameos and some modern computer polish (best shown on “Triangular Format”) and BU! is the result.

Some of the best VGM is water-themed, so I applaud Angel for making her own album in this vein. Now I’m wanting to play the made-up water-metropolis fantasy game she’s conjured here.

♥︎ – “Triangular Format”, “Cloud-Hidden”, “The Evolutionary Game”, “Classical Information”, “Conscious Agent Combos”

Playlist

Favorite Songs of 2019 – ½

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Listen on Youtube here

Here are (most of) my favorite 2019 songs at the halfway mark. I’ve ordered them by their mood, style and/or tempo to make the transitions semi-fitting despite the variety. I’ve limited all but one artist to one song each.

Look out for my favorite albums list coming very soon!

Track list

1. Rainbow Chan – Oblivion
2. Weyes Blood – A Lot’s Gonna Change
3. Tamaryn – Angels of Sweat
4. Adonis – Z Chmur
5. Glass Candy – Naked City
6. Noname – Song 31
7. DAWN – Spaces
8. Kelsey Lu – Due West
9. Kelsey Lu – KINDRED I
10. Elsa Hewitt – Pop Tuna
11. Solange – Beltway
12. Helado Negro – Fantasma Vaga
13. Bibio – Curls
14. Nonlocal Forecast – Triangular Format
15. Ioanna Gika – New Geometry
16. ioannalee – Some Body
17. Hello Seahorse! – Incendio
18. Jai Paul – He
19. Carly Rae Jepsen – Happy Not Knowing
20. Bananarama – It’s Gonna Be Alright
21. Lizzo ft. Missy Elliott – Tempo
22. MC Tha – Clima Quente
23. Brothertiger – Prideland
24. Karen O & Danger Mouse – Nox Lumina