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”

 

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) / #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”

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”