Jesca Hoop album ‘Memories are now’ – the here and the now and the break

Jesca Hoop’s new album is out since roughly a month now and don’t think that I didn’t listen to that record already a hundred times. I did. But listening and writing are always so different, because one involves manual labor and the other doesn’t. Continue reading

Lucy Dacus ‘No Burden’ – let’s put some warmth on

When Lucy Dacus describes how caring about other people is a beautiful burden (source: Interview Magazine), it gives great insight in who she is as an artist. Her music is lovely alt-pop with a little grunge and a lot of singer/songwriter magic (but with a band! My favourite singer/songwriter magic!) but her lyrics are full of empathy and optimism without ever sounding naive.

“I don’t wanna be funny anymore” for example is about the need to step out of the role or persona that we get stuck in, how trying out other roles (without ever not playing one) is the weird conundrum we place ourselves in. How much do we really need to influence other people’s perception of us? And what happens when “that funny girl doesn’t wanna smile for a while”?

Dacus’ lyrics and her music reflect her age in a beautiful way without the clunky lyrics or the overbloated ego that I for example dealt with when I was 21. She reflects on herself and on the world without every judging anyone. She acknowledges her own happiness and luck (it took her next to no time to get an album done and get swarmed by labels) and even questions whether an always guarded life is healthy for oneself. In interviews as in songs, Lucy appears as a person who is always wondrous, open and fascinated by the world and other people without being oblivious to its and their problems. This is someone who is not as world-weary as early Laura Marling sounded like occasionally and this is definitely someone who is not as dumb as I was back in my days.

“No Burden” is such a beautiful and generous album that it’s no wonder that she and her band could choose from around 20 labels until they finally went with Matador (good choice, right?). And to hear that she already has big plans for her second album and wants to involve her band more in the process makes my heart jump a little, in a metaphorical, non-life-threatening way, of course.

Jenny Hval Blood Bitch’ – high highs amongst known territory

I admit, I am not one of the early admirers of Jenny Hval, in fact, I got into the game only last year, at the behest of my boyfriend who loves quirky female singer/songwriters with high, frail voices, and I was thoroughly impressed with “Apocalypse, girl“, I bought it, even.

Her new album is now and then a lot more courageous when it dares to delves into pop. She previously taunted listeners more with the beginnings of a pop melody, only to destroy it within seconds, a beauty lost to her message (which was – lyrically – often as much in your face as your own nose). However, this time around, there’s a few songs that Jenny allows to grow melodically.

“Female Vampire” as well as “Period Piece” are absolutely endearing because whereas a lot of the other songs are new interpretations of the same old same old of sound experiments, heavy breathing and spoken word with strong 80s feminist notions, these tempestuous pop tunes are like mutations within the rest of the music (just as “Don’t hurt yourself” is a mutation within the sleek pop production of Beyonce’s “Lemonade”).

Truth to be told, I didn’t listen to “Apocalypse, girl” as much as I could have, because the album is quite exhausting. It’s brilliant but it’s exhausting. The same can be said for “Blood Bitch”. Those somehow trodden experimental songs (sound collages, q’uelle surprise) act like a maze you wander through whereas the pop sparks act like those small patches of open space within, a little bench, a pretty hedge with pretty flowers. There you sit and wonder about the intimidating walls, those dark, ugly corners (geez, “The Plague” is as much cliché as it is amazing in its horror movie screams) and these weird noises beyond the hedge.

In this way, “Blood Bitch” is yet again highly impressive in its concept and effect it has on the listener. I might not listen to it that often (again), but it will stick with me and probably more so than “Apocalypse, girl” because it feels like wandering through an art installation and even if you might raise your eyebrow at the lack of subtlety pretty much everywhere, there’s a real art in its execution.

Haley Bonar ‘Impossible Dream’ – Can we change? Can we stay who we are?

I first heard Haley Bonar’s impossibly powerful song “Last War” which really blew me out of the water. I recently read that she got this kick in the butt-sound after she had her child and I have to admit, I was like ‘whaa?’ because I always think of all those former aggressive rappers who became fathers and suddenly release one shmonzy song after the other. But then I thought of Shara Worden who is a mother and whose recent album features some of the most powerful today, so I guess it’s just dudes that get all soft and all the ladies are like: I MOTHERFLIPPIN’ PUSHED A HUMAN BEING OUT OF MY UTERUS, FEAR ME NOW!

Anyways, “Impossible Dream” is a masterwork. I talked about Bat for Lashes’ concept album last week and although Bonar’s album is more of a short story collection than a novel, there are definitely themes interwoven that create a certain nostalgic atmosphere that is very endearing. In the middle of it is Bonar, telling stories about her youth, her parents and the kind of stories you hear, experience and mingle until they are universal stories of everyone of us.

Her themes revolve a lot around change. How much we change when we look back. How we don’t change enough when we’re faced with something tremendous such as parenthood. How much we want to change to become better people and how much we change into the lesser versions of these ideals. How much our faces change and even how much the past changes the more we look at it through the present lens.

Yes, I am getting a little melancholic and cheesy here, but fortunately for you (and me), the music itself is not nearly as drippy as my ramblings.

In fact, songs like “Your mom is right” are the kind of country-infused rock songs that give a new meaning to this music genre with a bad reputation. In a way, this song sounds like the rebellious, dark cousin of Blake Lively’s country. The one that sneers, that knows more and tells more. Oh, it’s so mean but also true, it’s what you need, even if it makes you uncomfortable. And yes, your opinion on what your mother knows has changed as well over the years. That’s why you watch “The Wonder Years” now and side with the parents.

The nostalgia is strong with this album. It’s a timeless piece and it even plays with that notion, because again, this album talks about change. Remember how you dreamed as a teenager what you will become, how rich and famous and smart and popular and amazing you would become? This impossible Dream is now sometimes flitting through your head. But was it ever something that actually would have worked? Is it even that bad that it didn’t work out like that? The redeeming part of Bonar’s stories is the fact that no one really knows whether the past really was that better and whether it is only our own insecurities that make us feel as if we should have done differently. But in the end, the dreams were not only impossible to reach but also impossible to be as fulfilling as back then in our bedrooms at night.

Songs like “Stupid Face” nicely juxtapose the sadness and aggression that all these changes can bring. “How did I get so mean”, the narrator asks, “I miss the heart that does a cannonball into a frosted lake”, the trust and openness that lie in raw teenage emotions. The realization that these are not immune from flaws. “Our future tastes to bright that our teeth are dentyne white”, Bonar sings in “Blue Diamonds Fall”.

It is this humor and the love for the past and present selfs of all the protagonists she creates in her songs that renders this album special. The music is amazing and especially works whenever Bonar goes for the bigger sounds (one heartbeat of silence in “Jealous Girls” right after the line “they burn the sheets while you rest your head”, oh, remember the 80s) and it all gets tied together with these beautiful stories that are full of real people, real emotions, real dreams and real regrets. All of them impossibly possible for the listener.

Bat for Lashes ‘The Bride’: finally, the concept album with a story

With Natasha Khan’s talents for creating atmospheric themes throughout her albums, it was only a matter of time until she released an entire novel of an album. Alas, in the end it took 10 years since the release of her début “Fur and Gold” and even 4 years after the last album.

Now, “The Bride” is here and it is quite beautiful.

The album tells the story of a young bride left at the altar by fate, as her lover died in a car crash on the way to the church they were gonna be married in. Oh, the humanity! The bride then goes on a road trip full of emotions, withdrawal from life, a yearning for her lost love on the very streets she lost him on and finally a step back towards life.

Khan herself describes the story as a metaphor for relationships in general. And yes, it is quite taunting, this tragic romance of losing your partner before your life together actually starts. With this, though, the ideal of a partner who never got to reveal his real everyday, banal self, weighs more, or rather differently on the bride than the loss of someone she already spent her whole life with.

On her fantastic literary blog, Maria Popova quotes Virginia Woolf’s view on love in relationships: “life – say 4 days out of 7 – becomes automatic; but on the 5th day a bead of sensation (between husband and wife) forms which is all the fuller and more sensitive because of the automatic customary unconscious days on either side.”

However, Khan’s protagonist can never enjoy this fulfilling love but is caught in the first love storm of emotions. Maybe that’s why she flees from her emotions, her thoughts of what could have been and traces the steps of her lover. At one point (“Land’s End”) she even seems to consider following him completely, “Past the motorways and city lights, let my soul be free and spirit fly”, the tragic heroine sings.

But in the end she decides to trace back, back into life (“I will love again”) and the last song may or may not be the happy end, considering whether you think that she found someone new to “lay on your bed and dream together” or whether she went back to the ghost in black.

The music is as much Zeitgeist as it can be. Khan uses a lot of synths and her music videos reference 70s, 80s road movies, shlock horrors (I am thinking of 80s vampire movie “Near Dark”) and according to her “Wild at Heart” and “Bambi” (I guess, the loss in this movie is quite haunting for millions of kids). But the music itself is not a reference to the 80s. By now, Khan has cemented her eerily, light and dramatic sound deep into the here and now and “The Bride” is one of those albums that are symbols of their time (like Peter Gabriel’s “So”, like The Smiths “The Smiths”).

The Kills and Savages: one has punch, the other a brand

For some reason I felt like comparing the albums by these two bands today and I acknowledge that their music is not 1:1 the same but the use of heavy bass lines, strong female vocals and an air of danger that is at its best sensual, made me link them together quite easily.

Let’s start with The Kills whose 5th studio album „Ash & Ice“ has been just released and…well. I gotta admit, I never was the biggest The Kills-fan to begin with. I think they write amazing singles but their albums never fully excite me. Their new record is most successful when it puts Alison Mosshart’s vocals front and center with a steady bassline and it falls absolutely flat, whenever Jamie Hince takes the mic. It’s not even Hince’s fault, he has a nice enough voice but Alison is such a force that it’s just a bad comparison. Who would go to a Michelle Williams show if Beyoncè played next door?

„Ash & Ice“ starts incredibly strong with „Doing it to Death“. It’s one hell of a sensual and sinister song, a mood that suits the duo. But after the third and fourth variation of a song like this, it becomes hard to stay interested. The Kills are not the biggest melody-makers and it wouldn’t be too bad with their kind of music if it would simply pack more punch. It doesn’t, though. 

As it is, the songs start to meander and smoother, more melancholic tracks like „Days of Why and How“ simply drown instead of being a standout. It might be unfair to assume but I feel like they can’t get out of their brand and comfort zone and seem to be caught in an endless repetition of their „sound“.

It’s a damn shame, to be honest. If you look at a band like The White Stripes – who had their brand down to a ‚T‘ – it’s not impossible. They kept their sound tight as hell but still managed to vary every single song on every single album.

And only to give a more recent example – albeit with a few more band members – Savages just released their sophomore and kind of managed just that with „Adore Life“. Now, the Savages’ sound is more frantic, more dangerous. Where The Kills are charming but sinister, Savages are full-on terrifying, their smile already betraying their intentions. Whereas „Ash & Ice“ starts smooth, cool and catchy, „The Answer“ dives deep into confusion and nearly psychedelic hectic and Jenny Beth’s vocals tell a whole story (oh, and that voice is equally haunting live).

Savages have the punch. The tension is there for the whole length of their album and songs like „Evil“ might give you, dear reader, an idea of why I thought it would be a good idea to compare these two bands. The heartbeat is there, the movement that The Kills have when they’re good is omnipresent on „Adore Life“ and can put you in a trance if you let it. Now, Savages are more ambitious, „Evil“ could have just as well be a lost and forgotten Danzig-song when it comes to the vocal line.  

I would be mad if I wouldn’t mention the words „Post Punk“ and „80s“. Maybe it is the punk that doesn’t even try to be subtle on this album, maybe it’s the fact that Savages have released two, The Kills have already released five albums but personally, one band has released an album that is exciting, fun and dangerous and the other has added a few new (and fewer great) songs to their discography but nothing more.

Lucius ‚Good Grief‘: Good Grief, it took me long to write this

I gotta admit it, the first time I listened to the sophomore album by Lucius, who I lauded as one of my favourite newcomers a few years ago with an album that I loved to bits, I was a little disappointed. Where „Wildewoman“ had hit singles smacked in the front, middle and end of the record, „Good Grief“ (for me) needed some listens to show its true beauty which is the use of the Lucius-vocal harmony-brilliance in combination with a deeper connection of the songs with the lyrics.

One of the early standouts („Gone Insane“) sounds as manic as the lyrics and the video are but quite a few other songs are not as bold and sound more mature. This is absolutely the right step for this band but of course they set the standard impossibly high with „Wildewoman“ which was so incredibly diverse in style and musical genres that the more structured „Good Grief“ pales in comparison (at first).

However, I am fully converted and can’t even believe how I could not find all the joy in the tender „My heart got caught on your sleeve“, the wonderfully classic „Madness“ and the first ingenious single „Born again Teen“. Yes, it grows on you and then it opens up the same incredible pop-genius that Lucius already have shown on „Wildewoman“. Especially the emotions with which they operate (which is hard to do with harmonies anyways but which seems nearly impossible with a song like „Gone Insane“ that is absolutely stunning and shattering in its intensity) is one of the strongest assets of Lucius and I can assure you, it blossoms fully on stage.

So, here it is, late to the game but nevertheless all in and in full mascott-dressage (I chose a squirrel with fake eyelashes, lipstick and a black & white mod-dress): my full approval of this album.

By the way, the video to „Gone Insane“ is absolutely amazeballs! For someone who grew up with a lot of the 80s movies that discovered claymation as a way to freak out young kids, I am all in with this concept. Besides, this was pretty hard work for the girls to who had to pose for an eternity to get this done. I call it the „Sledgehammer“ of the 21st century and I will stick to that description.