Friday, October 09, 2009

In Praise of Progress

Sian Alice Group – Troubled, Shaken Etc (Social Registry, 2009)
HEALTH – Get Color (City Slang, 2009)
Tara Jane O’ Neil – A Ways Away (K, 2009)

Such is the heavy pressure to produce easily promoted, mind-blowing debuts these days, that it’s easy to let those acts that manage to develop slip under the radar. I admired ‘59’59”’, the debut album from Sian Alice Group, for its comfortable assimilation of various genres, for its attention to detail and for its hypnotic, repetitive moods. ‘Troubled, Shaken Etc’ really is a massive leap on from that record though. Here, the band return to some of the concerns they only fleetingly addressed on their debut, and explore them in greater depth, with far greater confidence.

It’s immediate from the opening ‘Love That Moves The Sun’ that Sian is allowing herself to stretch out a bit, her voice given a great deal more prominence. A lot of the lyrics remain indecipherable, but there’s a combination of assertion and melancholy that establishes her as a reedier, sleeker PJ Harvey. The song has some elements of a traditional song – arpeggiated guitar chords and a reverb-laden sound – but the unpredictable shape of the melody, playful textural variation and the informed looseness of the ensemble take it somewhere far less familiar. Something similar can be said for ‘Grow, Again, Repeat’, which starts out as a straightforwardly haunting ballad, before moving towards something more unsettling.

The album’s highlight is the shimmering, pulsating ‘Close To The Ground’, which unfolds lengthily over seven minutes, its motorik pulse underpinning a labyrinth of menace and sinister intent. The vibraphone introduction owes a considerable debt to Steve Reich, but the main body of the track has its own steely ebb and flow. It’s an enticing combination of grace and danger, austerity and charm.

Bizarrely, a review on Pitchfork accused Sian Alice Group of ‘avoiding rhythm’ on this album. Some of the tracks certainly have a gentle lilt, or a sense of freedom (the gorgeous closing ballad ‘Salt Water’ or some of the interludes), but then there’s the percussive drive of ‘Close To The Ground’ or the marvellous ‘Vanishing’, which is built on what is effectively a breakbeat. The all-too-brief ‘Longstrakt’ sound like the basis for a Kompakt-esque piece of minimal techno. Rhythm is certainly not absent from these tracks, and the result is that they provide a pleasing contrast with the group’s more aquatic moments. In fact, the use of sophisticated percussion arrangements strikes me as one of this album’s key characteristics.

‘Troubled, Shaken Etc’ is every bit as minimal, economical, cautious and restrained as its predecessor. Yet there’s a more concentrated focus on texture and effect here that adds a sense of tentative adventure. Skeletal templates are developed into haunting, elaborate mood pieces. The effect, particularly on the near-empty title track, is both disorientating and enchanting. This strikes me as a high achieving album, both challenging and enjoyable, and near-perfectly sequenced, which will no doubt go completely unnoticed by the increasingly conservative UK music press.

I can’t say the rather scattershot first album from HEALTH made much of an impression on me, but a firm recommendation of their second ‘Get Color’ (sic) from Three Trapped Tigers’ Tom Rogerson has to carry some weight. So, indeed, it transpires, on listening to this colossal combination of abrasive noise and soft, detached vocals. For all its sonic assaulting, this is also extremely artful music. Although it often explodes into brutality and savagery, it also seems carefully regimented and constructed. Rather than a series of random lurches, these tracks seem like plotted maps for difficult terrain. After a few listens, it becomes clear that we should expect the unexpected.

Importantly, on ‘Get Color’, the band has developed a distinctive and coherent sound, working independently without the use of a producer. Some of their wilful obscurities have been restrained and the template seems to work whether at its most furious and insistent (the double punch of ‘Severin’ and ‘Eat Flesh’) or on something approaching relative tenderness (‘In Violet’). Loud drums are a constant characteristic, and they serve both to anchor the music (with a regular quarter note kick drum pulse) and to stretch it (with elaborate rapid fills and phrasing).

Set against this are barrages of distorted synths and guitars, in carefully orchestrated bursts of noise, both visceral and energising. More important than all of this though are the weirdly androgynous vocals, heavily disguised and distant, but somehow still providing an element of warmth and feeling. It’s a strange, heady mix, but the results are subtly melodic on ‘Before Tigers’ or even arguably anthemic on the insistent, almost industrial clang of ‘Die Slow’. The album is just long enough to state its case and short enough to leave us wanting more.

Tara Jane O’Neil might best be categorised as a folk singer, but such commonplace terminology doesn’t really do justice to the strange and unnerving space her music occupies. This is actually her fifth album as a solo artist, but it’s the first time I’ve ventured into her weird and wonderful world, thanks largely to a positive and intriguing review over at Mapsadaisical.

The songs here are simple, often built on drones and unhurried chord changes, but the devil is most definitely in the details. O’Neil’s production is exquisite, from the layered harmonies on ‘In Tall Grass’ that add to the sense of awe and beauty, or the shaking bells on ‘Dig In’ providing an underlying sense of creepy unease (a consistent factor throughout the record). Perhaps most impressive of all is ‘Howl’, where a sense of personal vulnerability is allowed to seep in, its circular theme getting progressively more intense with each reiteration.

‘A Ways Away’ sounds like a coherent set of music rather than a gathering of isolated songs. It subverts our traditional expectations of singer-songwriters by capturing both a sense of worldly beauty and a sense of fear. This distinctive world is not something that could ever be described as twee. O’Neil realises it through her delicate balance between acoustic vulnerability and an odd kind of distance through fuzzy electric intervention.

By all accounts, this seems to be quite a development from earlier albums and it’s the sort of music that could easily reach a much wider audience in light of the success of Bon Iver. Sadly, the lack of mythical backstory probably means that few will pay attention. Also, there’s something significant in what O’Neil holds back. Whilst this is a frequently intimate and poignant album, it’s not a heart-on-sleeves backwoods confessional in the Bon Iver mould. It’s a good deal more mysterious and ghostly.

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