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.

Deep Cuts

Dannii Minogue – “Everybody Changes Underwater”

On Deep Cuts I highlight notable album-only/non-single tracks, especially if they differ from someone’s usual style.

This lengthy suite should surprise you if you figured Dannii’s music boiled down to a more generic/’b-grade’ Kylie. With the downbeat aquatic synths, dramatic whispers and chilly title refrains, it’s closer to a lost Impossible Princess b-side.

More from Dannii Minogue: “Xanadu”, “Do You Believe Me Now?”

Favorite new wave-inspired albums

Tesla Boy – The Universe Made Of Darkness, 2013

synth pop / synthwave / dance-pop

More like this – Tesla Boy’s Modern Thrills, Betamaxx’s Lost Formats, Tommy 86′s “Back To Basics”, Glass Candy’s Warm In The Winter

With most of their output gaining such little traction outside Russia, Tesla Boy deserved far better than they got. This album has almost everything a synth-pop fan could want: melodic and flexible synths decorate every corner like a gloss, nearly every song has a stylish, radio-friendly urgency, and the vocals adapt the flamboyant charisma of classic synth-pop groups like a-Ha and Visage. Their detailed production adds just the right amount of extra glitter.

Special mention has to go to “M.C.H.T.E.” for its ecstatic, gigantic chorus that addicted me from first listen, “Paraffin”’s dizzying electro-funk riffs, and the beachy xylophone accents of “Undetected”. As the whole, this is one of the most consistently impressive and fun albums I’ve heard in this niche.

♥︎ – “M.C.H.T.E.”, “Split”, “Fantasy”, “Undetected”, “Paraffin”
Favorite new wave-inspired albums

Soft Metals – Lenses, 2013

synth pop / dream pop / minimal synth

More like this – Glass Candy’s Beatbox + “I Always Say Yes”, Robert Gorl’s “Mit Dir”, Pink Industry’s Low Technology, HTRK’s “Chinatown Style”, Nouvelle Phenomene’s “Caresse”, Depeche Mode’s A Broken Frame

Some cliched 808 aside, Soft Metals show a great ear for that colder edge of analog synths the minimal wave fans crave without getting obvious. Like their own name suggests, it’s all about the contrast of softness (as in airy/gentle) and metal (as in sharp/gritty).

Thankfully, they’ve cut out most of their debut’s repetition for a subtler and more flexible sound here. Hypnotic arpeggios in the vein of a lost sci-fi OST merge with a slick bass pulse and immersive pads to find a middle ground between EDM’s energy and space music’s weightlessness. The occasional hint of Glass Candy is another plus.

The 100% synth setup is a great balm for Patricia Hall’s already elevated vocals. She has a bit of a dream-pop approach that gives even uptempo moments like the acid-house “In The Air” a sense of flight. Not the most distinct singer of this kind, but refreshing to hear in a minimal synth context.

♥︎ – “Lenses”, “When I Look Into Your Eyes”, “Hourglass”, “Tell Me”
Favorite new wave-inspired albums

Javiera Mena – Mena, 2010

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synth pop / dance-pop

More like this – Prissa’s Ni tú ni yo, Bertine Zetlitz’ “Girl Like You”; Annie’s “Greatest Hit” + Endless Summer EP; Sally Shapiro’s ”I’ll Be By Your Side

Thanks to a lack of English information, I knew little beyond the title of ‘Chilean queen of electro-pop’ the evening I first heard Javiera Mena, but I was right to trust the album’s shower of acclaim. “No Te Questa Nada” (a divine cross between sophisti-pop and Cocteau Twins) proved the perfect match for the fading sunlight outside my window that day, and the grandiose energy of the album’s second half kept me engrossed until the end.

Other highlights include the fierce climax of strings in “Hasta la Verdad”, the endlessly soaring choruses of “Luz de Piedra de Luna” and an A+ Miami-freestyle resurrection in “Aca Entera”. The latter is adorably kitsch but topped with affirming light and sincerity.

As “Aca Entera” demonstrates, there’s something genuine about Mena that sets it apart; like Nite Jewel and Twin Shadow, I get the impression Javiera’s approach comes more from respect for her synth-pop roots than any kind of mockery. Her strong ear for melodies and glittery synths make this a satisfying album.

♥︎ – “Hasta la Verdad”, “No Te Questa Nada”, “Luz de Piedra de Luna”, “Sufrir”, “Aca Entera”

Unique samples in electronic music

Lukid – “Bless My Heart” (sample of Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King – “Shame”, 1977)

Part of a new column highlighting creative uses of sampling in electronic context.

Lukid’s Lonely At The Top is an example of the huge potential lying in modern electronic music and it’s never-ending connections, through sampling or otherwise, especially when we avoid cliches. Like a mutating creature, it shifts gradually from ferocious water-splashing rhythms (”This Dog Can Swim”) to techno synths shrouded in fog and shattering like glass (“Southpaw”).

One of it’s more emotive songs, “Bless My Heart” makes a distinctive opening by morphing this Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King hit into something both robotic and soulful, emphasizing the shimmer of the e-piano and adding a number of strange (but subtle) down-pitched voices.

Favorite new wave-inspired albums

Lumeet – Lucitania, 2014

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electro-disco / synthwave

More like this – Lumeet’s “Metacharm” + “Lyonesse Zero” + “The Lucidist”, Cyber People – “Void Vision”, Laser Dance – “Power Run”, Explorer – Explorer

Finnish synthesist Lumeet’s music is what I hoped Lindstrom’s would be. I’ve tried listening to so many Lindstrom projects yet somehow each failed to excite me. Lumeet, meanwhile, takes a similar cosmic disco style and condenses it into something more melodic and exciting. I do adore a handful of tracks on his first album, but I found the sadly forgotten Lucitania more consistent.

Each song has an endless burst of sci-fi synths, possessing that carefree energy that benefits almost any retro electronic album. A few longer tracks remain but they don’t ramble as much as they did before. “Cloudspinner”, for instance, manages to go for 7 minutes without getting tedious, evolving through dizzying arpeggios and maintaining an entrancing groove through it’s whole length. “Bloom” also stands out by replacing the uptempo rhythms with a mood of calm but whimsical fantasy. I absolutely recommend Lucitania if you have any interest in electronic disco.

♥︎ – “Cloudspinner”, “Bloom”, “Prismweaver”, “EPYX
Favorite new wave-inspired albums

Ice Choir – Afar, 2012

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synth pop / new romantic / synthwave / sophisti-pop

More like this – Ice Choir’s “Unprepared”; early Depeche Mode, Roxy Music’s Avalon, ABC’s Lexicon of Love, Duran Duran’s Rio

Part of a new column on the highlights of my search through the oceans of 80s synth pop-inspired modern music. I give special focus to albums with a creative or genuine approach, along with hidden gems.

Kurt Feldman’s Ice Choir project is one of the most accurate recreations of the original new romantic/synth pop sound I’ve heard, one with a refreshing lack of irony. The synths have a glittery, almost pastel sheen to match the pink of the cover – complete with hints of  fretless bass and Cocteau guitar, Afar’s sound design should be a treat for anyone fond of romantic 80s pop. To top it off, Kurt Feldman’s vocals resemble Martin from Depeche Mode, if having a more refined tone.

 

The resulting songs are incredibly blissful in such a way that fits well with the grandiose luxury of hit albums like Lexicon of Love or Avalon. With both relentless energy and soaring melodies, I’m convinced “Two Rings” is one of the most extravagant synth pop songs to come from this decade. “Peacock On The Tall Grass” brings some of those angelic yacht-like heights of sophisti-pop to mind. The chorus of “Teletrips”, meanwhile, is the musical equal of a utopian morning walk.

♥︎ – “Two Rings”, “Teletrips”, “Peacock On The Tall Grass”, “The Ice Choir
hidden treasure

Gossip – Arkansas Heat EP (2002)

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garage punk / punk rock

More like this – Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Fever To Tell + Self-titled EP + Machine EP; X-Ray Spex, Gossip’s “Fire With Fire

I have a theory that Gossip were the Arkansan equal of Yeah Yeah Yeahs and this EP is the closest they got in sound. There’s the unique and dynamic female singer in Beth Ditto, their later pop era, their indie rock breakthrough phase, and this early, very Fever To Tell EP. This isn’t a negative comparison; I’m convinced we don’t have enough like YYY’s, so I welcome it. After all, it’s been tricky for me to find much else that truly shares Fever To Tell’s special brand of  punk chaos, or at least without overdoing the edginess + noise. This made Arkansas Heat both a throwback and a breath of fresh air.

Through the whole EP the guitar and drums make a persistent racket as Beth Ditto yowls and quivers over them with exciting intensity. It’s the opposite of the more stylish approach in later projects like her excellent solo EP but true to her range as a singer, she pulls it off just as well.

Every song except the 10-minute “Take Back The Revolution” is over within 2 minutes, making it a fun and digestible listen. Even better is how they made it so catchy despite this brevity. “Revolution” drags a little too much, of course, but skip it about halfway through and it’s an addictive 14-minute burst of energy. I just wish they put out more like this in their early days.

Artists you should know · Playlist

Artists you should know / Teebs

teebz

Teebs (real name Mtendere Mandowa) may be one of the most exciting producers to emerge from the ‘wonky’ scene. Some critics dismiss him as a mere ‘student of Flying Lotus’, but his music sounds steeped in earth and nature much more than in space, for example. Mere comparisons doesn’t do his unique sound justice.

What I love is the way Teebs approaches a song like one of his own paintings (which make up the cover art for his releases); he blends all kinds of shades together into a coherent result, from harp to piano to windchimes, effects and mallets. There’s this immediate flourish to the end product that’s so hard to pick apart. I’m reminded of fountains, antiques, rain, ponds, arbors, birds, you name it; the imagery is vague, but always blissful and refreshing. Listening to Teebs is like taking a deep breath and dozing off in some secluded garden during the spring. It amazes me just how well he translates his visual style into the music.

For a long time I couldn’t get into Teebs even if I admired his style. What I later learned was that, for all the links to ‘beat music’, his songs aren’t as much about the rhythm as it is with his peers. The appeal lies much more in texture and setting moods. People like him put a whole new spin on the idea of ‘background music’: it’s all warped through this abstract electronic lens that’s very modern-sounding even now. After all, good ‘subconscious’ listening can be such a cleansing experience, and that’s exactly how I’d describe his music.

Youtube playlist

Like with my Reni Jusis playlist, I intend this as an accessible intro to his music. I’ve also included at least one song from every major release.

In chronological order except for the fan favorite “While You Doooo”

1. While You Doooo (Ardour, 2010)

2. Monterey Park Bells (CD 2009, 2009)

3. Comes To Mind w/ Jackhigh (The Tropics, 2010)

4. Anchor Steam (Los Angeles 6/10 EP, 2010)

5. Long Distance w/ Gaby Hernandez (Ardour, 2010)

6. Verbana Tea w/ Rebekah Raf (Collections 01, 2011)

7. LSP w/ Austin Peralta (Collections 01, 2011)

8. Untitled 5 (Cecilia Tapes Collection, 2012)

9. SOTM (E s t a r a, 2014)

10. Holiday w/ Jonti (E s t a r a, 2014)

11. Sachi’s Chords (E S T Outtakes / Remixes, 2015)