Kate Havnevik – Melankton

Kate Havnevik - Melankton (2006)

Kate Havnevik - Melankton (2006)

Melankton is for those who pride themselves on having a refined taste. Elegant, sober and nearing the perfection on almost every aspect. And I say that without fear of being labeled as a music elitist, because this album invites to be enjoyed by everyone, as it is not a pre-requisite to like certain genres or know X amount of artists in order to be able to fully appreciate it.

It’s nice to see a then-newcomer (back in 2006) featuring songs full of string arrays giving that orchestral sensation, being careful enough not to throw those elements into her songs just for the sake of doing it, it is completely the opposite actually. In top of that, those elements are well used, so well that it is not the central point of attention, and this manages to not feel like a movie soundtrack. In fact, the point that got my attention was how easy is to relate with this music if you have some previous experience with the likes of Sigur Ros, even there was a brief amount of time where I would regard Kate Havnevik’s music as a Sigur Ros album with a female vocalist.

Comparisons aside though, this album does have some brilliant songs: Unlike Me features challenging lyrics with a slow paced melody. You Again is a delightful song, subtle and intriguing, without becoming a soft monologue though. However, once you pass those songs is when the most interesting songs start to appear. Kaleidoscope feels like a statement coming from someone determined to start new again, and the string array in the background makes a beautiful combination. Sleepless is the most emotional song, feels almost like downtempo at moments, so easy to get carried away with it. Se Meg is the song I blame for the comparison between Kate Havnevik and Sigur Ros, not much to add, if you haven’t listened both, read this review again once you’ve done it.

There’s something I would like to say here though. I’m not sure if it is the presentation of the album as a whole (not the physical package, of course), or the personality that Ms. Havnevik communicates with her voice, but the point is that I’ve always felt that this album manages to feel a little cold. Not a cold feeling like this is soul-less and meaningless music, not the cold feeling that something is missing, but rather a cold and impersonal sensation. Except for very brief moments (Kaleidoscope and Sleepless), I feel like that during rest of the album we are not actually sharing the experience, we are just merely invited to see it from a distance. Is this on purpose, or am I just not fully understanding the situation here? I might never know that.

This is a very well done effort though, and regardless of my impressions about it, if you are into female vocalists, scandinavian influenced tunes, or just good music overall, give Melankton a chance.

Samantha James – Subconscious

Samantha James - Subconscious (2010)

Samantha James - Subconscious (2010)

A while back I reviewed Samantha James’ first album, and since I liked it so much, I decided not to review Subconscious on a rush right after it.  After all, it’s been around two months since I finally could get the chance to listen the complete album, and still I feel like I’m walking on thin ice here, because I’m sure that another six months from now I might discover new ways of understand what Subconscious is all about.

But the truth is that I could not wait any longer, this album demands to be reviewed, so here’s my humble attempt to make it justice.

Right before embarking on listening to this, I took the time to research about Mrs. James’ background information, something I didn’t bother with her first album.  I did it merely out of curiosity at first, but what I learned is the force and inspiration behind her.  With all the new information I decided I was ready to give this a go, and that’s just what I did.

It was clear to me from minute one, that she refuses to carry the pop artist label, and instead we are witnessing here the attempt to fuse brilliant song writing with experimental electronic / dance elements spread through a handful of songs that don’t differ much from each other, providing a much appreciated uniform experience across the entire album.  And this experience refers to not only solid dance oriented songs, it also includes the combination of her beautiful. well trained voice, and of course, decent lyrics, that tend to deepen when the situation demands it.

As usual, something that has identified Samantha James’ music is the elegant presentation of her songs.  I have yet to feel that any of the songs included here are merely fillers.  Yes, some songs are more moving or shine a little bit more than the others, but overall this speaks wonders of the maturity and self determination to produce something this good despite the emotional storm that must have been going on during the writing of this album.

And while Waves of Change was the lead single, I believe that some of the better songs from this album won’t ever see the light of day, at least not from mainstream channels.  Anticipating this, let me recommend some other songs you might like.

Veil is probably the best indicator of what Samantha James’ sound is like.  Easy, not complicated and still have a sensuous appeal to it, although much more electronic oriented than what you might have listened from her before.  Amber Sky is the ultimate soft and mellow experience for those looking for female vocalists, wrapped into a trip hop evoking instrumentation.  Find a Way on the other hand is what can only be described as a breath of fresh air, featuring a pristine and refined touch, an elegant ballad that surprises due to how easy it is to fall in love with it.

Again and Again, however, is truly a gift.  It is a heart-tearing song, which undoubtedly was written in the middle of a sea of emotions, something that anybody can relate to.  A gift, because this is about someone opening up his heart, looking for the much needed healing process that comes with it, and since most of us don’t have the ability to do something nearly as beautiful as this in similar situations, we at least have the chance to be carried away with it.

To be honest, I was not expecting to like this album the way I did.  I’m just starting to discover that whenever I feel like I’m finally getting over one song in particular, there’s another that starts to get my attention.  When you are caught in a situation like this, embrace it, because this does not happens very often.  Hopefully this album will produce the same effect on you.

I have absolutely no doubt that Samantha James is one of the most talented songwriters out there right now, and Subconscious is way, way ahead of what Rise achieved 3 years prior.  An album to keep on repeat.

Random thoughts: Time for new clothes?

Here’s a timeline of what’s been going on with my iPod’s clothes (namely a skin).  I’ve never been a fan of protective cases, they ruin the sense of manipulating your iPod the way it was meant to be manipulated.

For those unaware, it was a rocky beginning, having to take it to the store to be replaced 2 times, and it was not until the third replacement that I finally was given a good one.  Here’s a picture of those first moments after receiving the replacement:

Shiny new

Shiny new

Things got really interesting when I bought a custom skin from DecalGirl.  The results speak for themselves:

Pretty cool huh?

Pretty cool huh?

However, that was more than a year ago, and unfortunately time and daily use has started to take its toll on my beloved music box’s skin.  Here’s the current state of the skin (as of April 2,011):

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I think it is time for new clothes, and that brings me to the difficult process of selecting the right one, buy it and wait a couple of weeks before it arrives in the mail…  More to come as this story unfolds.

Röyksopp – Junior

Röyksopp - Junior (2009)

Röyksopp - Junior (2009)

Svein Berge and Torbjørn Brundtland might seem like an excentric duo, but the truth is that when it comes to their music, they know exactly what they are doing.  And while Junior was released among much fanfare and expectation, it not only delivered, it exceeded everyone’s expectations.  Sure, it has to be kept in mind that when it’s about Röyksopp there is only one rule, and that one is to never expect more of the same, and certainly this was no exception.

Yes, I hesitated a little bit during the initial moments of Happy Up Here, as it resembled a reworked new version of Eple (for those unaware, one of the earliest and more well known Röyksopp songs back in the days).  It sounded almost like some kind of Eple on steroids, to be honest, but any similarity with anything they have done before ends right there.

Junior is aimed mostly at electronic and dance music lovers, with the inclusion of amazing vocal collaborations by Anneli Dreker, Robyn, Karin Dreijer Andersson, just to name a few.  This gives Junior an incredible good fusion of female vocalist powered songs with energetic songs, and the results are remarkable, because it is clear to me that the intention from the duo was not to let anything to chances, as all of the above impregnate everything with a very professional, high standard production values.  And while downtempo / ambient listeners would have wished for something more in the lines of Melody A.M., there is almost no room for that here.

Something I particularly like is how densely layered every song is, as you can get literally lost in one particular detail, only to discover much, much later the incredible amount of details you were not paying attention to.  This of course should not be a surprise to anyone, since this is something Röyksopp tends to do very often.  Probably it surprised me how amazing they have become with time, and this is me judging by the rather simplistic sound they used to produce back in the days of their earliest songs.  Not saying that their older albums sound less spectacular now than they did in their respective heyday, but more like implying that instead of staying in their comfort zone they are systematically raising the standard with every new album.

I already mentioned the good amount of vocal collaborations featured, but lets examine them in more detail:  The Girl and The Robot features Robyn, swedish pop dance artist.  Solid, uplifting electronic material right there, although a little discrete at moments.  A more prominent collaboration is the one by Fever Ray’s Karin Dreijer Andersson, featured in This Must Be It and Tricky TrickyThis Must Be It became one of my favorite tracks overall from this album right from day one due to its moving and energetic nature, which is no small part thanks to the always refreshing vocals by Andersson.  That track would make a rock dance.

But probably the most prominent collaboration is by German-Norwegian singer Anneli Drecker.  Her voice is powerful enough to give you the chills during You Don’t Have a Clue.  The complete list of songs she graces with her voice is:  Vision One, You Don’t Have a Clue, True To Life and It’s What I Want.  But as good as these collaborations are, the real genius move here is having a song that fits every style, since throwing these names here without actually blending them in would have been a total waste.  I give Röyksopp full credit for that, they did a wonderful job at it.

Thankfully for fans of the old Röyksopp ambient and downtempo side, they were thoughtful enough to throw us two superb songs that serves two purposes:  provide the much needed calm moments in between this electronic dominated album, and to remind us that sometimes you can achieve magical things without any lyrics.  Röyksopp Forever isn’t as spectacular as Silver Cruiser, but it is that moment of reflection much needed in between This Must Be It and Miss It So Much. Silver Cruiser on the other hand is brilliant on its own, you can take it out of its original context and it still will shine for what it is.  My favorite track overall from this album, hands down.

I would have been happy if this album were lengthier than its 50:55, but all things considered, nitpicking even that would be just too much.  This album is definitely still in my Top 10, even 2 years after its release.  Yes, it is that good, and if you haven’t listened it yet, I don’t know why are you still staring at your screen…

Random thoughts: Evolving habits

Remember the audio cassette?

Remember the audio cassette?

Being someone who was born in the mid 80s, I still can recall music back in the days in the form of vinyl records, audio cassettes and all that kind of sorts that someone who was born in the last decade would consider museum material.  I was recently thinking that even those of us who have experienced this huge advent of technology in the last 20 years, still give all of this for granted.

Let me put it this way:  Any given day you jump into your car and plug your iPod with the latest songs you purchased on iTunes the day before, from an artist who lives 7,000 km away.  Or even better yet, you plug your smart phone and you just stream your favorite online radio station while you’re driving to wherever you’re going.  Sounds familiar huh?

Of course, it hasn’t always been like this, and more precisely, we know that today’s standards will also be obsolete within a short period of time.  What can we expect from the future? I would love to have Arthur C. Clarke’s vision to glimpse something so futuristic that wouldn’t be feasible to any John Doe today, but that would be completely normal 50 years later (geostationary satellites, anyone?).

I remember that when music recommendation systems were first launched, there was this general feeling that music could also become the next social experience that would change the way we listen to music today.  Services like Last.Fm or Pandora to name just a few.  But to this day I still have my doubts that these kind of services are the definitive answer.  I, for one believe that music can’t be picked up by a mathematical algorithm, because 90% of the time my Last.Fm recommendations turn out to be not something I like (35,000 tracks listened and it still can’t recognize what I like???).

Maybe the channel we use to listen to our music is just half of the answer?  I mean, we merely swapped terrestrial airwaves for internet connection and added some apps in between, but the rest is pretty much the same.

In the meantime, I’m grateful for not having to carry 30+ CDs with me every time I want to listen some music every time I hit the road…

Trentemøller – The Last Resort

Trentemøller - The Last Resort (2006)

Trentemøller - The Last Resort (2006)

Subconsciously I have the bad habit of assign music I like with a personality.  That must be why sometimes you identify yourself with some genre, artist or song in particular.  I mention that because I found The Last Resort to be an interesting exercise, not only because it can be difficult to assign a personality to this album, but because you end up discovering that this album has something more than just personality.

It took me a while to figure it out though, because the minimalist genre is almost unknown to me.  I came across this album because of Last.fm’s recommendation system, I believe in part because of my predilection for some artists on the electronic genre.  It’s no surprise then that this album blends electronic, minimalist and downtempo in a subtle way, so subtle that it makes it hard to label it in a single word.

An intriguing detail I noticed, and maybe this is just me, but from day one, just by looking at the album’s artwork gave me the impression that most of the journey would be done in a cold atmosphere. To this day I can’t listen to this from start to finish without feeling that in some sort of way I’m walking through the cold forest depicted in the artwork.  Makes sense to me.

Mental images aside, there are songs here that will appeal to a wide range of listeners from different genres.  One minute you are immersed in a dense, fast electronic beat, and the next one you are feeling warm and relaxed with some brilliant downtempo tunes.  This in part is what makes this album a winner in my book, because Trentemøller took the risk to deliver a diverse and yet very well-balanced collection of songs.  Very risky if you consider that this was Trentemøller’s first solo album back in 2006.

For those like me who enjoy looking for new meanings and finding different ways of experience music, this is one of those albums that can gain a great replay value over time.  If you were paying attention, in the introduction I mentioned that this is an interesting exercise, and the reason is that even though this is album is surrounded by a very formal, nearly theatrical finish embedded into every song, there’s consistent evidence of the attempts made by the author to engage you into imaginary scenarios and situations through the music.  Quite an experience on its own, let me say.

Due to my well-known predilection for downtempo, my favorite songs from this album are what I consider to be the best tracks overall.  Of course, this can only mean that someone with a different appreciation for these genres will have a different opinion.  While The Cold Winter Waiting sits right in the middle of the album, and it just irradiate everything with a very calm, warm and serene mood, which I always compare to a moment of peace and intimacy in a shelter, in an otherwise merciless cold place.  Nearing the end of it, it leaves you with a sensation that everything is about to fade and you have to leave the comfort of your shelter and face reality again, but you can’t help but to enjoy it until the last second.

And as a way of saving the best for last, Miss You is the last track of this album, and let me put it this way, what a masterpiece it is!  A gem, not only for its mysterious, almost benign sensation, but because while  it features a minimum amount of instruments it manages to be the most fulfilling track in the entire record.  Whether you like minimalist music or not, this track has what it takes to be considered a fine example that you can build perfection without overdoing anything.

Some other songs that might be of interest are Always Something Better and MoanAlways Something Better is a fine example of how an elegant electronic track should sound any day, while Moan has a somewhat strange way of produce a sensation of anxiety.  These two are biased towards a more electronic nature, so that might satisfy those who are not particularly interested in downtempo.

And this is probably as far as I can go without spoiling the complete album for future listeners.  The rest of the job has to be done individually, as this is just a review based on my personal appreciations.  Rest assured that this will grow on you, and the feelings and thoughts this produces will not only be based on your own experiences, but also you will agree with most of what I’ve said even if you discovered or experienced this album in a different way.