hidden treasure · new music

Hello Seahorse! – Disco estimulante, 2020

synth pop / indie electronic / dream pop

More like this – Hello Seahorse!’s Lejos. No tan lejos., Reni Jusis’ “Motyle”, Goldfrapp’s Black Cherry, Rajie’s Espresso

Denise Gutiérrez’s voice makes this band stand out, mixing rich velvet-like lows with powerful falsetto choruses in each song. Their synths come in many colors but the vivid, reflective atmosphere they create is a perfect fit. Synth pop is my closest guess here, but maybe not the kind you expect. This is more of a modern cocktail party in slow-motion with moonlight peeking in from the balcony.

Sadly, synth pop keeps falling victim to cliches these past few years, leading HS to use the same old 808 beats. Beyond that, I think their ears for melody are getting a lot tighter here. This is a great kick-off for the new year’s music if you’re obsessed with synth pop and/or dreamy falsettos like I am.

Anniversary

Toro Y Moi’s ‘Causers Of This’, ten years later

In the early tens, DIY artists like Toro showed me you don’t need endless synth rigs to make creative electronic music, and that the best inspiration can and will come from the solitude of home. He helped kick off a chillwave take-over that inspired many artists to come, whether or not ‘died’ within a year like countless articles claim, but it doesn’t end there. For one thing, Toro came early to the trend of seeking the 80s funk vaults for inspiration and gleaning the weirdness out of them. Without vocals, “You Hid” could pass as vaporwave. I begin to lose count with the motifs Causers Of This mirrored, if not pioneered, and this was the decade’s first month. Hypnagogic pop, future funk, our latest nu-disco crop, lo-fi house, synthwave, Carly Rae, alt R&B’s groovier corners. I won’t say he invented all this, of course, but it’s hard to deny he helped shape the decade’s indie electronic music. As his most hyped, ambitious electronic album, Causers represents these many facets best.

That electro-funk attitude became a staple for Toro, but in this case? Imagine french house doused in the ocean and ascended to space. He achieves this through hypnotic EDM pulses and murky synth ambience. His interest in glitches and grandiose samples distinguish it further, nodding to Brainfeeder shortly before Cosmogramma blew up. It was this taste for surrealism and natural variety that set Toro apart from other chillwavers. He defined a new genre while expanding it’s formula.

Like the best ‘bedroom’ e-music, Causers immerses you in the artist’s musical psyche, taking even a shy persona like Toro’s beyond it’s size. With it’s mutant synth licks making way for a disco fanfare, “Lissoms” suggests he brought an inner clash between earworms to reality, and it makes sense as a song. Each sound manages to blur into this delirious, weirdly calming vortex. Like the ocean itself, it flows along at differing speeds, one element to the next, coming and going. These changes feel instinctual rather than random. I’m not sure I know any other chillwave so in-touch with the ocean. When this is an arguable goal for the whole genre, that’s saying something.

With most songs fading to the next, Causers can sound more like a suite or spontaneous DJ session, making more abstract tracks like “Freak Love” work better in album context. Even so, a finale as joyous and straightforward as “Low Shoulder” shows Toro was already developing an ear for elaborate hooks. The title track loses some punch through it’s odd shape, but each riff has an authentic funk edge too much chillwave lacks.

In this ‘vortex’, Toro’s everyday sentiments will distort however he wants them to, yet staying in excellent sync with the music. Many lyrics resemble scraps from a letter to a friend with the odd metaphor mixed in (’Turn those fans away from me, they only dry my eyes out / Ever since I was born I couldn’t see’). ‘Sorry I couldn’t name the color of your eyes’, he mutters on “Fax Shadow”, proceeding to loop and obscure it as a sample yells ‘BABY!!!’ to the beat. What began a plain, if odd, apology becomes a broken rerun, where that old song he was playing last night got stuck.

As he begins on “Blessa”: ‘Come home in the summer / Live the life that you miss / It’s alright / I’ll fill you in / don’t you wait / for me to call your name again’. This wouldn’t surprise me over an indie rock sound, but the way he drenches it in filters and tops it off with his most angelic falsetto adds a whole new dimension. It’s like a hug from under a swimming pool. Despite his reference to trying hard with a job he doesn’t favor, or feeling reluctant to ‘let you in’, “Blessa” could make a great lullaby. It captures chillwave’s bittersweet nostalgia like few others.

COT is a testament to the potential solo artists can unleash with our growing access to music software. With a single app and enough dedication, you can create a world in your head, even from disparate interests. If you’re lucky, you’ll set the tone for an era. At this point I’m wishing chillwave wasn’t such bait for jokes; maybe then, influential albums like these would get the respect they deserve.

 

hidden treasure

Pat Moon – Don’t Hide From The Light, 2016

ethereal wave / dream pop / synth pop

More like this – Molly Nilsson’s “The Lonely” + “Wounds Itch When They Heal”, John Maus’ “Tenebrae”, Grimes’ Halfaxa, Anna Von Hausswolfe, Ioanna Gika

Imagine swimming in a cathedral with those windows. They’re the only light source, so you have these brilliant colors flashing through the dark. You hear a familiar song from the other room that brings up memories you haven’t thought of in years. That’s this album.

Pat Moon shows an excellent understanding of ethereal wave’s potential, and this is her debut. She brings all the romantic soul-searching this genre needs while giving it a promising synth makeover. From the first seconds she submerges her voice in murky pads that perfectly capture the ocean’s depths. The harmonies she builds are so fluid they could melt.

I can detect the confines of a keyboard-based home project, but the sound and scenes are big. She’s walking alone in the moors, she’s drifting along the river. Completing this imagery is a synth-organ echoing hallways and chambers from centuries past. This is the kind of isolated surrealism that gives the best ‘bedroom’ music it’s unique appeal.

I love how she titled this Don’t Hide From The Light. It’s gothic for sure, but more grey than black. This isn’t all-swallowing doom, it’s longing and unleashing emotions with a bit of hope. She writes on the Bandcamp page: ‘thank you kyle for helping me get here and reminding me that I could do this during those times I didn’t think I could’. She’s emerging from her shell and this translates really well to the songs.

See also – “Medieval Spells” from Romantic Era

Mix

Thinking Of Christmas Past

🎄Listen on Youtube❄️

Are you up to set the Christmas mood but wanting something a bit different? Here I’ve gathered songs that remind me most of Christmas season without necessarily being about the holiday: icy, magical sounds with plenty of twinkling and moods ranging from jovial and nostalgic to mysterious. As a theoretical ‘stocking’ I include two Christmas covers and three themed originals.

Track listing

camera lucida – robin guthrie / dreamers tied to chairs – ashrae fax / dazzle + il est ne le divin enfant – siouxsie and the banshees / modigliani (lost in your eyes) – book of love / cut down the tree – ice choir / world 5: snow land [kirby’s epic yarn OST] – tomoya tomita / march of the dawn – the mummers / love to stay – altered images / winter wonderland – cocteau twins / nightingales – prefab sprout / espresso – rajie / latitudes – ollano / limpidite – robert viger / la petite fille de la mer – vangelis / red wrapping paper – the creatures / christmas reindeer – the knife / virgin blue-eyed – lovesliescrushing

Photo credit: Christmas With Southern Living, 1984 https://palmandlaser.tumblr.com/post/189715654560/palmandlaser-from-christmas-with-southern-living

Favorite new wave-inspired albums

Errors – New Relics (2012) & Lease of Life (2015)

 

More like this – Laurel Halo, GAMES, Washed Out’s Within And Without

Bored of all the interchangeable synthwave? I’d suggest listening to Errors.  As former ‘post-rockers’, I figure the little hype around these albums is a lack of the right crowd. It’s a shame they didn’t find one, since I know it’s not every day I hear synth-pop this expansive. Their songs deviate from verse-chorus structures, building as they go with relentless, hypnotizing progressions. Even shorter songs like “Putman Caraibe” turn a semi-normal verse into a mini-symphony. Meanwhile, “Pegasus” evolves from 4AD dream pop to Tangerine Dream in six minutes. They have me wishing ‘progressive synth-pop’ was a genre.

Both Relics and Lease use many trademarks like Linndrums and FM bells, but it’s all about how they arrange them. They center on weirder, extra-kitschy tones over the obvious Com Truise gloss. Without reducing their color, Errors find the danger in these sounds and take them to a metaphysical space. Songs like “Relics” and “Ammaboa” wield bubbly arpeggios like a plant’s thorns.

 

The way they process vocals enhance this effect. Most songs fill them with reverb, fading them in until the lyrics only come in shards. “Slow Rotor” and “Dull Care” show this best with guest singer Bek Oliva repeating cryptic, sometimes tragic omens like ‘if nothing I can think about is real’ and ‘I’ll never get to sleep again’. The meanings aren’t clear, but they know how to stick around and keep me guessing. Their singing along with voxes and bells adds a cyborg-like contrast of feeling v.s. unfeeling.

Errors mutated synth-pop into a sinister, strangely beautiful vortex with these albums. They’re another group that show how emotive this music can be no matter how virtual it sounds. I’m hoping they can return soon given how long it’s been since Lease of Life.

Mix

Is It A Crime?

red

🌃 8TRACKS  🔎 YOUTUBE

High-drama pop songs and sinister instrumentals channel the big cities of eighties thrillers and neo-noir.

Track list

bella d’estate – mango / empire + expose – luxury elite / devil’s ball – double / byłaś serca biciem – andrzej zaucha / balade de lisa + blueser – viktor lazlo / kisses and tears (my one and only) – bad boys blue / do you really need me – k.b. caps / amour combat – tangui / johnny johnny – jeanne mas / theme from lily was here david stewart and candy dulfer / deserted streets + illusions – match music library / vision 1 – alan hawkshaw / psychose + champs elysses 2 – robert viger / nothing has been proved – dusty springfield, pet shop boys and angelo badalamenti / vibraphonoid (d) – laszlo bencker / white collar crime – grace jones / granite – anne dudley / hand to mouth – george michael / is it a crime? – sade / weakling heart – haircuts for men / only for one girl – alan shearer / rain [from miami vice] – jan hammer / pictionary – eyeliner / this city never sleeps – eurythmics

For more like this, check out Sophisti-Pop Summer!

5-Song Gateways · Artists you should know

5-Song Gateway: Keep Shelly In Athens

Screen Shot 2019-11-05 at 11.10.33 PM

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.

Mix

HALLOWEEN MIX II: Scary But Fun

scary but fun edition

🎃 8Tracks

🌑 Youtube

A sequel to my first Halloween mix from four (!) years ago. Expect urgent and thrilling vocals from new wave/goth icons and a cross of grim, sinister atmosphere with pulpy fun.

Track list

love bites + devil in my life – GRACE JONES / el diablo anda suelto – ALASKA Y DINARAMA / face to face [batman returns soundtrack] + the double life – SIOUXSIE AND THE BANSHEES / out on my own – ROMEO VOID / heads will roll + isis – YEAH YEAH YEAHS / whirlpool – DEAD OR ALIVE / spirit – BAUHAUS / obsolete – TOYAH / nosferatu – MIRO MIROE / vampires – BAT FOR LASHES / to get over heartbreak – THE BEDROOM WITCH / astrid – THE LEGENDARY PINK DOTS / love crime – SIOUXSIE

Songs that got me into music

Glass Candy – “Computer Love” (Cover of Kraftwerk)

Few albums show me the range of colors and emotions in a synth like Glass Candy’s B/E/A/T/B/O/X. Johnny Jewel seems to pry out the richest analog tones possible here. It’s a masterful dance album that fills each corner with glitter, but never without melody or feeling. If you wonder why I got so obsessed with synths, look no further than here (and The Knife, but that’s another story).

“Computer Love” demonstrates with a heaven-sent take on my favorite Kraftwerk classic. You’d think seven minutes would wear it out. Instead, Johnny makes decadent variations on their melodies over and over, finding new sweet spots in the harmony. I could listen to that same echoing synth for much longer; it’s like a magnet. The almost operatic fluttering later on takes it to a whole new place.  B/E/A/T/B/O/X is a decadent album already, but “Computer Love” is a true journey. When I listen, I’ve entered some haven of digitized bubbles and flowers.

With this fountain of synths backing her, Ida No could douse her face in it. She gives that falsetto title-drop the pure frozen longing it needed. Critics labelled her goofy and ‘detached’, but songs like this show a warmer, gentler side to her that’s just as prominent. She has a barbie-doll glamor that makes a closer fit for a song like this. Ralf Hutter has his charms, but he’s not a big love-song type.

Something about this cover takes the loneliness further. With how they sequenced B/E/A/T/B/O/X, “Computer Love” provides a refuge in the face of paranoia (see “Candy Castle” and “Digital Versicolor”). The way I hear it, this version doesn’t wish for love alone, but for relief in general. It searches the ends of Earth, science, and fantasy for this.

new music

Maria Usbeck – Envejeciendo, 2019

Image result for envejeciendo maria

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.