Alex Cameron ‘The Comeback’ is a melancholic masterpiece set in 80s soundtracks

Ok, before I start talking about why this album is amazing, I want to talk a little about its context. Alex Cameron (on stage usually together with Roy Molloy) is an Australian musician who released this record in 2013 for free on the internet. So far, so Radiohead. However, eventually he found the perfect label with Secretly Canadian because of course they napped him. The album was re-released last year in August and was only now discovered by me through Spotify’s scary accurate playlist algorithms.

The album itself is sort of a concept album with Alex miming a washed-up entertainer mourning the breakthrough he never had. However, according to Wikipedia, he didn’t just create this character and make up lyrics for it but wrote the lyrics based on his own (and Roy’s) experiences, therefore lending real life to an otherwise already fantastic concept.

He even dressed the part.

Ok, to the album now: since I am not as deep into the numerous album releases as I was maybe 5-6 years ago, I am not the best judge but from my point of view, the darker, melancholic new wave-revival (or newer new wave) of bands like Interpol, the Editors and the like has a bit dried up lately (in favor of awesome female garage punk, it feels like).

Maybe it’s for the best, though, that I haven’t heard that much retro 80s wave in the last years because that way Alex Cameron’s beautiful ode to 80s soundtracks, Jim Kerr/Bruce Springsteen vocals (I will not be told otherwise) and introspective lyrics can fully excite me in its weirdly unique loveliness.

Add Cameron to my list of awesome dancers (joining Father John Misty and Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath)

Cameron hits the 80s synth nails right on the head. There is a clarity to his melodies that really rings true and his vocals keep their control most of the time, only to break emotionally to give this amazing Springsteen impact (that Louis C.K. talked about in a way that is 100% accurate and will be referenced by me forever and forever).

Funnily enough, I nearly instantly thought about the music video for Faith No More’s cover of “I started a joke” and David Hoyle as majestic and sad nightclub musician. Somehow I can imagine Hoyle’s character as the protagonist of Cameron’s album. It feels right.

Anyways, the album itself is not a one note spiel on the 80s nostalgia because even though style and instruments set it in the 80s (which fits to the old artist whose heydays probably have been in the 80s), it’s not just an homage but a truly amazing singer/songwriter album.

Laura Marling ‘Semper Femina’ – musings about muses

The muse is an interesting concept in (mainly Greek) mythology. Originally goddesses, the muses turned into beautiful women that gave the spark of inspiration to mainly male artists. Even though one could see the role of the muse from a feminist standpoint – after all, the male artist is and can create nothing without the female input – it still stings as soon as you think of all the creative and scientific achievements of men that were created on women’s backs or even stolen from women.

In her newest album, Laura Marling thinks about these fickle creatures aka women (if you translate “semper femina”, you get this meaning) and those women that inspired her on her way. Laura Marling is not only a great artist. She is also conceptual in a way that goes beyond music. In the least few years she released a charming podcast called “Reversing the Muse” which covers interviews with women in music and especially women behind the music, e.g. sound engineers, producers, etc. Inspired by these women, she dealt with the topic of the muse on her album, finally reverting the male-female-story of the muse and recreating the muse as an equally artistic woman who inspires other artists.

Together with the podcast and the album, we also get a visual in form of three music videos directed by Laura Marling herself. Since I really loved Jesca Hoop’s lovely miniature thriller-drama (thrama, thrima?) for “Memories are now”, I immediately compared the music videos and eventually the albums as well.

Just as with her music, Jesca Hoop draws you in immediately with a powerful story (and her incredibly alluring melodies). It doesn’t take more than 5 seconds to fall in love with Jesca Hoop’s album. It took me a little longer, however, to really dive into the often subtle and highly symbolic nature of Laura Marling’s music. Her music videos are equally mystifying at times and work more with a hard to describe feeling and very strong color-schemes than a storyline or real characters. Laura Marling feels a little more sensual, tender, whereas Jesca Hoop has strong ideas that immediately grip you. And guess what: there’s no need to pit them against each other. For me, the comparison is interesting not to find out “who wore it better” but how different styles and ways and inspirations can still have a strong emotional impact and result in such strong pieces of art.

Btw, this is also the main reason why I don’t do “places” on my best of lists. If I like an album, I like it, I don’t need to make it fight with another album to prove its worth.

Jay Som ‘Everybody works’ – this retro 90s singer songwriting debut is so chill!

Initially, Jay Som thought how much it sucks to have so little money just to keep on making music, hence the title “everybody works”. As all the glorious music hit stories of today, she didn’t have to wait till forever (like some wannabe-authors, *cough cough*) to make it big. With her incredible debut, Jay Som – originally Melina Duterte – encapsulates the Zeitgeist of creating nostalgic sounds that she never really experienced. If that sounded snarky, it’s not. Let me explain but first…the Bus song.

While talking about “Everybody Works” on my radio show I came to an epiphany: the time for detached irony is over. This generation (is it still millenials?) finally got over the “oh, this is so shit/tacky/gross/awful, I love it” and discovered that old, vintage things can actually have an emotional impact and be amazing completely without irony. Even more so, it’s finally cool to watch lovely, touching tv shows like “Steven Universe” or “Adventure Time” without blushing in front of your friends who only watch “Venture Bros” and “Archer” and love to snigger at heartfelt truths and feelings.

I might be totally off with this (I am quite sure I am) but young artists like Jay Som beat the constant irony of the Britwave of ca. 2008 and the irk of neon coloured shirts singing about cool things without ever getting close to what they really thought about when they went off stage and into the sweat-smelly tour bus to drive for hours to the next location.

This is an album that is honest, modest even, and rings true.

The whole thing sounds like it comes from a band but Melina-Superstar did everything on her own in her bed room. For comparison: I do puzzles on long weekends.

The result reminds me at times of the lighter Modest Mouse (with this chill guitar sound) and at times of the fuzzy 90s alternative that in hindsight seemed to be a real rebellion against the grungy moping of too many bands of the time (I re-watched early “Buffy”-seasons in the past weeks and boy, so many drab bands with really bad grunge music AND lyrics).

Jay Som, however, creates light, lovely and fresh songs with fantastic guitar-gniedelei and lyrics that are – quite frankly – humbling the selfish arrogant person that I was at Melina’s age. She talks about how everyone has their burden to bare and how sometimes you have to give up some things to help out others. And all that sounds a lot less like motivational posters when she writes and sings about it:

I know you know

If I leave you alone

When you don’t feel right

I know we’ll sink for sure

I’ll play your game once more

If you don’t feel right

(Baybee)

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.