L’Altra – Different Days

L'Altra - Different Days (2005)

L’Altra – Different Days (2005)

Since the first days of this reviewing adventure I’m in, I always said that indie music wasn’t exactly my cup of tea. That seems a little contradictory under the light of the sheer amount of albums belonging to the genre I’ve reviewed this far, I know. And here comes yet another indie album, so bear with me.

This Chicago-based indie band has been around for some years now, and I’m ashamed to admit that even though I’ve had this album in my possession for at least 5 years, I have never been curious enough to pursue the chance of getting some of their more recent material. Shame on me.

Different Days is sometimes labeled as indie rock, and that might be a little odd for someone who is more used to the usual “dirty” and kind of messy sound (almost like a cliche) associated to indie rock. Truth is, Different Days sounds and feels way more sophisticated than what you would usually get on your favorite indie rock radio. I’m almost tempted to discard the indie rock label and classify them as just contemporary adult melancholic pop… Ah screw it, I’ll refrain myself from even mentioning the indie rock tag on this review.

The fact that the vocal work is shared between Lindsay Anderson and Joseph Costa through the entire album gives Different Days an interesting touch, because not only they seem very comfortable sharing the microphone duties, each one features in their very own set of solo songs, which seems very appropriate after hearing the end result. Anderson’s songs are a reminiscent of any good trip hop, female-vocalist driven music, while Costa tends to go for some more melancholic effect. In either case I can safely assure you that they were careful enough to focus on what suits their individual styles the better.

Lyrically and musically speaking, this album shouldn’t be regarded as an uplifting experience, as it tends to wander through some melancholic moods (without getting into mellow territory though), so if you are in the mood for an introspective session and want to have something to go along with that, Different Days is a very good choice for that. I’m not warning you against this album if you are in a brighter mood though, this could also be very helpful if you’re looking for something elegant to rev you down a little bit, or if you are already on a slow and quiet state of mind this album might even actually provide some reassuring company.

It has been many years since I wanted to talk about this particular L’Altra album, because in a personal level it does have a special meaning due to everything that was happening around me at the time. I would like to point out that besides my personal attachment to it, this would have been reviewed anyway, so don’t pay attention to my feelings here. And even after all those years, this album still evokes the same set of emotions and feelings, so yeah, you could say that it has passed the test of time… is there any greater feat for an album?

There’s just one thing I can’t promise though… and that is stop reviewing indie albums, seems like lately I just can’t get enough of them. Might as well be on my way to get some other L’Altra albums while I’m on it.

 

Stripmall Architecture – We Were Flying Kites

Stripmall Architecture - We Were Flying Kites (2009)

Stripmall Architecture – We Were Flying Kites (2009)

There’s no point in hiding the fact that I absolutely adored Halou and its fair share of incredible albums leading to their break up back in 2008. Unfortunately I got to that party a little late and when I was starting to discover just how amazing they were, they ceased to exist… Funny how life works sometimes.

But at the same time, just as almost everything else in life, there are second chances (strong emphasis on that almost), and Stripmall Architecture can count as a second chance for all of us that somehow came up short with Halou. However I can’t stress enough the fact that we shouldn’t regard Stripmall Architecture simply as Halou with another name, even though it is basically the same people behind it.

At the very beginning I was genuinely hoping for they to just pick up where Halou left off and I’m pretty sure I would have loved that album just as much, but deep inside of me I know that the right choice was to follow the natural evolution that We Were Flying Kites represents. Of course, you just can’t discard your loyal fanbase and come up with something radically different, and naturally this album retains the unadulterated essence of the good old days, but is subtle enough to introduce some new elements to the formula and the result is that you get to enjoy something very familiar and at the same time feeling like you’re actually listening to something new.

From this transition I reckon that some of the trademark whispering voice and somewhat dreamy sound seems to be gone. It still sounds like the good old Halou, but it is somehow a little bit bolder and still carrying a confident attitude towards their music. And that’s probably what I’m enjoying more about Stripmall Architecture, the fact that the blurry line between trip hop and dream pop is no longer that blurry and this truly is dream pop at its best. Those almost whispering, magical moments are still there, not in the same fashion and probably for not that long as you remember, but still worth checking out.

The vocal part has always been and will continue to be the highlight in any record Rebecca Coseboom performs, and this new era, starting with this album is not the exception. However I’d like to point out that it’s not just the voice, the instrumental performance adds a lot and it does a little more than just “being there”. I mean, it’s not like it is going to blow you away (or maybe it will, who knows), but there will definitely be  some moments when you will want to crank the volume up just to enjoy how good everything fits together.

We Were Flying Kites took me some time before it started to grow on me, it did felt a little bit cold and not very personal at the beginning, but it gets all warm and very enjoyable towards the end. It is not an acquired taste, that’s for sure, and maybe some others will find it extremely enjoyable right from the beginning, for me it just took some time but in the end it actually delivered. One of the most exciting bands from the San Francisco musical scene I’ve had the chance to explore so far.

If you are anything like me, you will find this genre a little bit tricky to explore. Sometimes mislabeled as trip hop, the dream pop scene has some very interesting acts, and if you fancy the likes of Stripmall Architecture (or Halou for general purposes), most recommendations of similar artists tend to point you back to trip hop. But now that I think about it, it also works the other way around, I started with the trip hop, and ended up landing in dream pop terrain.

It’s a good thing that this group of musicians is still around. Never mind the name, they are still around and that’s all that matters.

 

The Album Leaf – In a Safe Place

The Album Leaf - In a Safe Place (2004)

The Album Leaf – In a Safe Place (2004)

Before I say anything at all, all of the Album Leaf albums are puzzling pieces of intricate, mysterious, introspective and even mellow moments. Pristine music interpretation in nature, this solo project by Jimmy LaValle is probably the epitome of the quintessential indie artist concept. But never mind the concept, In a Safe Place goes beyond the simple realization of a concept and it becomes more like a collection of living images and memories.

The similarity and obvious comparison to Sigur Rós is not a coincidence, as members of the latter are credited as collaborators for some of the tracks found here. And while there might be a fair share of similarities, The Album Leaf has its very own arguments and the trademark sound and approach to their art is simply unmistakable.

It won’t take you a while to notice that In a Safe Place features a well-defined structure and as a result, things tend to land not very far from the tone that is laid from the very beginning. However all of those details pale in comparison when you discover the single most important feature that this album has to offer: intimacy. At first I wasn’t able to pinpoint what was exactly that warm sentiment that seems to invade whenever I left myself go with this album, but one day I realized that it was due to the simple fact that In a Safe Place let us witness a personal and intimate interpretation of tunes as if we would be there in the same room with the band, but not as in a private concert fashion, more like a private gathering just for the sake of enjoying the music they love to play for themselves.

And once we established that, we need to check our higher expectations at the door for a glamorous indie experience with The Album Leaf. Let me explain that, because for a moment it might sound like I’m warning to expect a sub-par performance when in reality the performance is top-notch. I’m rather talking about the expectations for things to take off to surreal heights, when in reality In a Safe Place and even beyond that, The Album Leaf in general is a very down to earth concept and very aware of what their music is trying to achieve, and as a direct result we get a very honest performance, without attempts at something that simply isn’t there.

A strange reminiscence of a calm and peaceful place you might know, and yet puzzled by the unexpected, intense (and let’s not forget intimate) experience that awaits within In a Safe Place, this is an album that should be enjoyed not just by those indie music enthusiasts, but also for those outsiders to the genre, it is not an exaggeration when I say that this album has a lot to offer even if indie music is not your cup of tea.

 

Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago

Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago (2008)

Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago (2008)

It is difficult to approach an album with a reputation for being one of those critically acclaimed by the press and yet totally unexpected back in the day. One of my rules is to avoid as much as possible reading before I do my listening on a particular album, but Bon Iver is one of those few exceptions where inevitably I stumbled upon rave reviews about it.

And truth to be told, this album is as bare-bones as you can get, and while I love that isolated, almost distant evoking sensation mixed with a genuine indie / folk sound that you might have heard before, trust me, this is the real deal, it’s not an expensive recording made in a fancy studio trying to emulate it, this is as authentic as you will ever get from indie recordings. For those who like to do some background checking on their music, the recording process for this album is an interesting reading.

Recording process and genres aside though, it is very easy to listen two or three songs and then convince yourself that the entire album will be basically the same exercise repeated over and over. Let me tell you, the songs might sound very much alike, but if that’s your impression of this album, you got it wrong. As I said earlier, the album might be made of the same basic premises, but there’s a great deal of personal immersion to happen here before you start to notice how your own mental images, evoked landscapes and situations merge in a very subtle way with the music. The day that happens, you can be sure that you will always be coming back from time to time to revisit those borrowed memories.

I have to warn new listeners though, For Emma, Forever Ago is not the kind of album that you can pick up and get into at any given time, as I believe it fits very specific moods. In my particular case, it is a must when I’m looking for some peaceful moments, looking for something unobtrusive enough but with enough texture as to don’t slip past my subconscious.

It’s been a long time since I gave a hint about highlights within an album, because I phased that out in favor of personal discovery within the music, but in this case I thought it was worth mentioning the most rewarding moments happen in a succession starting with the touching and yet fragile The Wolves (Act I and II), followed by the incredibly agonizing (lyrically speaking) Blindisded. Since I got the version without bonus tracks, my album ends with Re: Stacks, which in my opinion wraps up the experience rather nicely, although I might be missing something… Who knows, I’m perfectly satisfied with that ending.

If it is a matter of confession, I have to say that I doubted that this album would live up to the reputation it has. I was almost certain that it wouldn’t be more than a lukewarm effort hyped to dizzying heights by reviewers avid to show the world of an otherwise unremarkable indie artist. But Bon Iver proved me wrong, there’s enough substance to those claims, and now I’m one of those reviewers praising For Emma, Forever Ago.

This is not the sound of a new man or crispy realization…
It’s the sound of the unlocking and the lift away,
Your love will be safe with me.

 

The Analog Girl – Sometime Next Galaxy

The Analog Girl - Sometime Next Galaxy (2007)

The Analog Girl – Sometime Next Galaxy (2007)

I remember back then when I first heard of The Analog Girl, I thought it was pure and absolutely genius. I knew right there that I needed to experience the whole thing, so I went on with my business as usual until I finally managed to put my hands on a copy of Sometime Next Galaxy.

Self labeled as laptop-rock (whatever that might be), this Singaporean lady has one of the most driven and unique attitude towards her art. It’s like when you know that certain artist has a peculiar way of doing things, but for some reason you know that deep within them they are not even believing 100% in what they are doing. That’s not the case with The Analog Girl, it’s that belief and self-confidence in what she is doing that keeps the things moving, but is actually a little more than that, things not only move, things gravitate smoothly and fit perfectly in place when needed as well.

I want to be completely honest, and I won’t suggest that Sometime Next Galaxy is some sort of masterpiece and the world needs to stop in order for you to listen to it, but I honestly believe that this album has its fair amount of surprising elements that makes it more than worth listening, even if you’re not fan of whatever the genre this is.

I’m seriously having a hard time trying to describe exactly what genre this should be labeled as you can see, and for those unfamiliar with this album might probably think that this has to be the most bizarre album this side of the milky way, but actually it isn’t. Think of this as some sort of semi-professional, homegrown sound taken to the next level. It’s completely electronic in nature, achieving what I would describe as a rough, darker and underground approach to urban electronic music. There are some rough edges that’s for sure, but instead of looking it as a flaw, it kind of legitimizes those elements as part of the music itself.

The vocal work might not be that consistent through the length of the whole album, I have to admit that it is not one of my favorite aspects of the album, but towards the end of the end you start to get used to it and suits the general tone the album is going for. It is all part of the experience, the feeling the voice imprints on everything might not be brightest, but it sure does a good job matching the difficult to decipher sound. Now we have two things to decipher.

Whoever said that the best music and the most enjoyable experiences come only from the biggest budgets and well-known names is definitely missing on the beauty and unexpected surprises that diversity has for us. Sometime Next Galaxy was unexpected back then, but still keeps surprising me today.

 

Boards of Canada – Trans Canada Highway

Boards of Canada - Trans Canada Highway (2006)

Boards of Canada – Trans Canada Highway (2006)

I believe that my liking and attachment to Boards of Canada is a very well established fact around here, so bear with me. Trans Canada Highway has puzzled me for at least 5 years and I’m starting to suspect that I’m on my way to finally making some sense about it. Of course, that is a very subjective assertion but for me making that conclusion is reaching the point where after countless hours of listening and several altered mental states it has come to this.

The first thing that might turn a couple of warning lights on is the fact that this EP starts with one of the most easily recognizable songs from the previous full length album. Keep in mind that this was during a time when I was barely starting to know Boards of Canada, and as a newcomer to this massive, elusive, bizarre and abstract catalog was making little sense to me, let alone understand Trans Canada Highway in the right context.

I’m sure that those who have already listened and are familiar with The Campfire Headphase will have a much better time with this. This isn’t a requirement of course, and this EP can be fully enjoyed by itself, but since Dayvan Cowboy was first born as one of the highlights of The Campfire Headphase, you might want to check it out if you haven’t.

Truth is however, that Trans Canada Highway feels almost like what would happen if you ask the Sandison brothers to pick a particular song and fully expand and explore it. Dayvan Cowboy was absolutely brilliant when it first appeared in 2005 and for some reason they believed that it deserved a special treatment with its very own EP, and the end result is this enigmatic and somewhat short collection of songs (it’s an EP after all).

Trans Canada Highway is not the same as The Campfire Headphase though, you never get the sensation that one is trying to emulate the other, and although they share the same initials (TCH) and also one of the brightest moments with the inclusion of Dayvan Cowboy, those similarities seem to hint about something is going on between those two. While The Campfire Headphase is described as an introspective experience, resembling the stretching of several hours into a few minutes in a way that only an acid trip does while falling asleep during a campfire, Trans Canada Highway and its more intense use of synthesizers provides a less organic-like experience, and focus on a very distinct direction.

The track titles are scattered like flashback memories from a road trip, but oddly interesting is the fact that once you get past the names, it starts to make sense, somehow your mind starts to fill in the blanks between the titles and what you are listening. Left Side Drive, Heard from Telegraph Lines or Under the Coke Sign become not just allusions to some random trip through a distant highway, they become your very own experience, one that you can reclaim as yours.

All of the above has left me thinking through the years about the amount of material that could erupt from other memorable Boards of Canada well-known tracks. But perhaps the most valuable conclusion we can make out of this is that it might appear that the duo has finally departed from the trademark sound and the structure (or lack thereof) that we’ve been listening through decades, and are moving forward to an exciting and increasingly complex new era.

Starting with The Campfire Headphase we are witnessing the beginning of a new Boards of Canada, one that seem to have evolved from the impetuous, reckless and somewhat basic in nature attitude we knew for years. Now it feels mature, self-contained and much, much richer not only sound-wise. Trans Canada Highway appears to be that confirmation, the glimpse of a door to a whole new level.

2006 seems very distant now, and while it was the last release to date by the Scottish duo, I don’t believe this will be the last time we will hear from them. In the mean time, there’s plenty of material to explore… you might just discover your new favorite place within some Boards of Canada album.

 

Mandalay – Instinct

Mandalay - Instinct (2000)

Mandalay – Instinct (2000)

Another one of those bands that ceased to exist long ago, and still a decade later I can find interesting stuff when going through their albums. Instinctis particularly interesting because of its downtempo nature, the subtle electronic influence and the always fragile and yet powerful vocals by Nicola Hitchcock. The combination of those elements and her voice should be totally trademarked, I mean, it’s a formula I’ve never seen anywhere else and maybe there wasn’t much of an audience for that and hence the reason Mandalay disbanded (although I doubt that was the true reason behind the break up).

This might not be the album you want to hear if you’re on a bright mood, this is the kind of album you put on when you’re looking for an intimate atmosphere or you want to create a mysterious ambient. Yes, this album works wonderful as bedroom music, if you know what I mean… But that’s not the reason why this album has so much going for it, that is just a nice side effect.

I always thought that Mandalay’s music shares a huge resemblance with music from other artists such as Delirium, and I’m sure I’m not alone on that, it is kind of futile to do those comparisons now that the band is extinct. But the truth is that this album should be noted for its consistency all the way through, as it never loses that aura of mystery and still at the same time remains a sensuous, intimate and inciting proposal.

I believe that one of the more intriguing highlights is that you never actually quite end getting all of it. There are always some parts that remain elusive and while you might think that you got used to it, you listen to it some time later and it’s like new question arises, new feelings and emotions start to emerge and you’re back to the starting point again. This isn’t because the experience tends to be random and you got it wrong the last time, it is just the way Instinct tends to be, and that’s what makes it an interesting experience by itself.

The experience, however, wouldn’t be complete without the element that I believe is what glues everything together: the vocals. Hitchcock’s performance might suggest fragility at first glance, but the truth is that there’s not a single moment of hesitation in everything she does, and as a result Instinct feels solid, confident and even surprising once you get the whole picture. Some might argue that the use of double tracking for the vocal performance might diminish the value of the performance, as is evident during some of the songs, but I personally believe that in this case is justified when you consider how extraordinary Nicola Hitchcock sounds while doing back vocals for Nicola Hitchcock… Is evident that the intention was never to create a false sensation of a stronger voice, the intention was to provide the main voice with an effective counterpart that enhances Hitchcock performance even further.

If you don’t like the calm and introspective nature of downtempo, chances are that you will end up skipping this album almost straight away. But if you do like it, this is one of those trip hop albums that age particularly well and that will never sound out of place no matter if it is 10, 15 or 20 years old.

I’m suspicious that you will give Instinct a try, lured by the atmosphere created by the many elements that are present here, but in the end you will stay for the elements that you can’t see but are also there.