Friday, May 22, 2009

Ice and Fire

The Field - Yesterday and Today (Kompakt/Anti, 2009)
Junior Boys - Begone Dull Care (Domino, 2009)
Fever Ray - Fever Ray (Rabid/V2, 2009)

Every so often an album comes along that so perfectly captures a particular sound that it makes it harder to see where the act can develop. I wondered if two of last year’s most acclaimed releases, the Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver albums, might fall into that category. In another musical space entirely, Axel Wilner’s first album as The Field (2007’s ‘From Here We Go Sublime’) so clearly established his brand of hazy, somnambulant techno that any further output would surely just end up repeating the same trick.

Given that techno is founded upon minimalism and repetition anyway, with ‘Yesterday and Today’, Wilner has served up a splendid lesson in how to expand and improve a patented sound. If ‘From Here..’ sounded like seeing the northern lights in the Arctic, a peculiar mix of ice and beauty, ‘Yesterday and Today’ is undoubtedly a warmer, more accessible work. The dreamy ambience is enhanced by the interjection of staccato vocal samples, nimble basslines and, on the excellent title track, by the fearsome, metronomic drumming of John Stanier from Battles. By the end, all of Wilner’s familiar atmospherics have dissipated, leaving just Stanier’s drumming and a vibrant, nimble bassline. It becomes a compelling piece of minimalist disco. It helps that it’s followed by ‘The More That I Do’, another harder, more organic track with vocal and electric guitar samples carefully integrated into Wilner’s sound.

Sometimes the drive for blessed-out euphoria is taken a little too far. I’m a little agnostic about the cover of The Korgis’ ‘Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometimes’ but that might be more because I’m not all that keen on the song itself. Wilner’s interpretation at least transports it to somewhere more mysterious and seductive. It also serves a crucial purpose in at last deviating from the four square house beat that usually defines Wilner’s sound. The stuttering, unpredictable rhythm is an important variation. Less positively, I’m just not sure there’s enough interest in the original source material to justify Wilner’s lengthy exposition.

In fact, duration seems to be a greater preoccupation for Wilner this time around. Whilst he’s made his sound warmer and more ingratiating, some of the track lengths are rather terrifying. This is definitely club music in that respect, although it also works remarkably well on headphones. Close listening reveals subtle details and gradually shifting textures. One of the album’s real highlights is ‘Leave It’, which maintains a consistent mood and dynamic for eleven and a half minutes. Wilner expertly creates tension through the use of a delicate chime sound, which is only just allowed to cut above the basic rhythm track in the mix.

Only the opening ‘I Have The Moon, You Have The Internet’ (a strong contender for worst title of the year) directly reiterates the formula Wilner patented on ‘From Here…’. The basic track for the closing ‘Sequenced’ sounds like a delicious slice of 80s synth-pop but the bizarre sounds Wilner weaves in and out of the mix come from somewhere else entirely. Overall, Wilner has succeeded in crafting something that develops and sleekly modifies his sound, making it more inviting without completely abandoning the rigorous structures that made it so identifiable in the first place.

Including the word ‘dull’ in your album title is probably inviting some carping nastiness from music critics, but Junior Boys have laid down the gauntlet with ‘Begone Dull Care’. It’s especially audacious given the often sleepy nature of their particular brand of downtempo electronica. Some of the reaction I’ve seen to this third album has been a little muted but I’m struggling to understand why. Maybe it’s because it’s their most straightforwardly melodic album to date – closer in spirit to Pet Shop Boys than to any hipster electronic act you could name. This strikes me as no bad thing and it’s made for their most consistent record to date.

The more melodic heart takes a while to push through though. Opening tracks ‘Parallel Lines’ and ‘Work’ are recognisably mechanistic and rather slippery, although the falsetto on the former gives hints of what is to come. With track three, though, the album takes its unexpected turn. ‘Bits and Pieces’ might well be the most exuberant and infectious track Jeremy Greenspan has produced so far. It’s quite some distance from their usual languid, melancholy take on electronic pop. There are some significant changes at play here. Where in the past, the group’s vocals have been characteristically unimposing and usually subsumed within their smooth, languorous sound, they now push out further into the foreground. Not only this, but there’s plenty of Prince-esque light funk flourishes too. These are later revived again on the utterly irresistible ‘Hazel’. It all sounds like a thinking man’s Calvin Harris or, perhaps more accurately, a lot like Hot Chip.

‘Dull To Pause’ may be the group’s ballad – a slower, translucent dream of a track. Similarly pretty is ‘Sneak A Picture’ which has the unfortunate effect of reminding me of Jan Hammer’s ‘Crockett’s Theme’ from Miami Vice. It even has a saxophone part, for heaven’s sake! Don’t let that put you off though, this sleek, insidious pop song is an absolute delight.

There are sounds and approaches here very much borrowed from soul, but they are harking back more to the 80s than to materialistic contemporary R&B. Think about some of the great singles from that era – Shannon’s ‘Let The Music Play’, D Train’s ‘You’re The One For Me’, Loose Ends’ ‘Hangin’ On A String’, The Pointer Sisters’ ‘Automatic’...I could go on for a long time as an unashamed enthusiast for this era of pop music. It’s unfashionable now, but well worth reviving. Junior Boys seem to be putting their own languid spin on it here. The tracks are meandering and protracted, but ultimately also absorbing.

There’s been a lot of love for Fever Ray, the solo project from Karin Dreijer Andersson from The Knife, not without justification. I’ve been living with this record for a while now and its eerie, unsettling precision coupled with some striking vulnerability has made it one of my favourite albums of the year so far.

Numerous comparions have been made with Kate Bush circa The Dreaming and it’s certainly possible to hear all those glacial references to 70s and 80s synthpop, from Kraftwerk through to The Cure. ‘When I Grow Up’ resembles Bjork’s domestic reveries on ‘Homogenic’. Yet there’s something about Andersson that is far less theatrical than Kate Bush or Bjork. Perhaps it lies in her apparent desire to disguise herself. Her voice is peculiarly treated on many of these tracks, sometimes with the effect of making her sound masculine (particularly on ‘If I Had A Heart’ and ‘Dry and Dusty’. When left alone, her voice is something of an imposing monotone bellow and it’s odd to hear it used to voice words about tending to plants. The treatment sometimes allows her voice to become another part of her foreboding atmosphere and when the effects are reduced, she suddenly rises above it and imposes a dominating personality. The contrasts are striking, all the better for being achieved with economy rather than excess.

The music is close to the output of Andersson’s parent group in its sleek minimalism and unsettling impact. There’s much less relentlessness though – house and techno beats are abandoned in favour of a statelier pace. The result is austere but also intimate and involving. It’s like being seduced by someone gently only to then discover that they are a dominatrix. I suspect my personal favourite moments are when Andersson’s true voice cuts through – the melancholy ‘Keep The Streets Empty For Me’ and the strident ‘When I Grow Up’.

The music is often deceptively simple – close listening reveals that the rhythms are interesting without resorting to the conventions of stutters and skips that have now become rather tired. Chords linger for as long as they need to, whilst melodies are kept within a tightly limited range. Within these strictures, though, the music is powerful and imaginative. For all its obvious artifice, ‘Fever Ray’ is a notably nuanced, uncluttered triumph.

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