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.

 

 

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Deep Cuts

Siouxsie And The Banshees – “Sea Of Light” (”Shadowtime” b-side, 1991)

As mush as I adore synths, my #1 band didn’t actually use them much. Superstition was the one Banshees album to use them beyond cameos. Guitars were their clear specialty, but I do wonder where more keyboard would have led them.

This metaphysical b-side is one in few exceptions. Beyond Siouxsie and one quiet guitar, it’s all misty fairy synths. Believe it or not, “Sea Of Light” sounds like new age Banshee-style. An uneasy mood sneaks in even so via Siouxsie’s vocal as she sings of near-death experiences. The effects on her voice resemble a distant call for help or gathering wind. This results in a unique middle ground between peace and danger.

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”