Loquat – It’s Yours to Keep

Loquat - It's Yours To Keep (2005)

Loquat – It’s Yours To Keep (2005)

One of the earlier drafts of my review for this album included an odd comparison between Loquat and some sort of americanized version of Morcheeba. I wrote it ages ago, probably more than a year ago actually… and I discarded it immediately. It’s funny how much your impression of an album can change granted you give it enough time, and that’s pretty much what happened with It’s Yours to Keep.

It’s Yours to Keep blends pop, electronic and trip hop influences under a single package, and the end result is this trip hop / dream pop hybrid that combines the best of both worlds. I know, trip hop and dream pop are pretty much like siblings, and sometimes is difficult to tell one from the other, but think of this as a trip hop influenced dream pop album. It works better that way than the other way around, trust me.

At the beginning I was caught off guard, I honestly wasn’t expecting much of what I found here. And it was not an issue of expectations, the few tracks I’ve had listened before getting the full album were superb, but were going for a completely different attitude and tempo than the rest of tracks that were awaiting for me here. I was pretty much exposed only to the downtempo / trip hop dominant parts of their music, and wasn’t even aware of how versatile they can prove to be. It’s an awesome feeling, and certainly my intention is not to spoil this to everyone willing to listen to Loquat, I’m just trying to let anyone interested know that there’s more than a few melancholic trip hop songs here.

My surprise was even bigger when I found out that not only the music sounds good, the lyrics are awesome too. Sometimes we tend to focus too much on the execution of the idea that we forget to pay any attention to what should matter the most, and that is the idea itself. I’m still not sure if I fully get what Loquat’s music is all about (lyrically speaking), but it seems to me that there’s really a story behind most of the tracks, and even though I can’t say that I can see myself on all of them, my opinion of this album as a whole changed completely. Now these tracks seem more personal to me, and not personal in a sense of false self-appropriation, personal because I reckon they come from someone’s experiences, and to me they become just that… honest music, an honest attempt at recreate someone’s experiences through music we all can somehow relate.

Maybe all of the previous surprises made this album a little bit more difficult for me to understand, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes we want the experience to be as straightforward as possible, and we tend to discard those who aren’t… which in this case would have been truly a shame. I’m not suggesting that It’s Yours to Keep is a specially difficult album, it’s the complete opposite actually, it just doesn’t follow a linear path in order to deliver its cargo. And when it finally delivers it… I hope you’re ready.

I’ve noticed that I’ve grown fond of the San Francisco music scene in the past 3 or 4 years, thanks in no smaller part to the folks responsible for bringing SomaFM to the world. Loquat was one of the nicest discoveries I’ve made while exploring the always vast trip hop territory, and while not completely trip hop in nature, this album makes a very nice and subtle transition from electronic influenced pop and trip hop to a more elaborated dream pop experience.

 

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.

 

Halou – Halou

Halou - Halou (2008)

Halou - Halou (2008)

I wasn’t prepared for what was waiting for me inside this album. The unthinkable happened after just 5 songs or so, because that’s the amount of songs I lasted before going “Wait, there’s something going on here…”. And if you ever listened to another Halou album, you will probably feel the same as me.

And what is exactly that thing that happened while listening to this? Very simple, because while I always considered Halou’s music to be some sort of hybrid between a post-rock band with reminiscences of trip hop and ambient to some extent, this album changed completely my perception about them in a very good way, and not just that, also the dream pop genre in general.

You see, just when you were expecting another marathon of soft, ambient rock and textures that blends with trip hop imagery for moments, you discover instead a much, much heavier post-rock performance that makes us reflect on why wasn’t this formula been brought up earlier. But that’s not the catch, because this album certainly is not about the attempt at being just edgier and rougher than before just for the sake of it, the brightest part is the fact that while this sounds more like an alternative rock album, it never really crosses the line, it stays like the anonymous band that just wants to be recognized by their essence and not because of a stubborn guitar riff that repeats on your head over and over until you pull the plug and shut it off.

The line between alternative rock and post-rock is blurred to the point where neither is recognizable as a single entity, and somehow it still manages to subconsciously remind us about Halou’s nearly trip hop roots. And don’t think for a moment that I’m suggesting that this brings the best of all of the above worlds together, because this can hardly be considered a masterpiece in each of those respective genres, but what this album does, it does it brilliantly and it never feels like it is sneaking somewhere it doesn’t belong.

Something I’m thankful for is the fact that even when the alternative rock label is fully on at any moment, the general consensus seems to be stay focused in achieving this even, almost calculated balance between attitude and instrumentation, neither takes over the other at any moment. Somebody might think that this approach just proves that the band didn’t have enough courage to pursue a much bolder sound, or that the variety of songs is just not diverse enough, and I would have bought that argument at first, but at some point you realize that holding up on that temptation and staying with the same structure gives this album the advantage of not burning through all your energies at first, allowing them to be spread more evenly.

For those who haven’t actually listened to this, this description might seem like this is a sour, mucho macho kind of record, when surprisingly is exactly the opposite. Rebecca Coseboom is always an amazing performer, and she completely morphed from previous albums where we were used to her soft and nearly whispering voice. Here, she manages to match the album intentions with a powerful effort, and still retaining that mysterious, dreamy aura that surrounds her vocalization. Also she’s got Robin Guthrie and Zoe Keating doing some vocals along with her on some of these songs.

This album works just great for those days when you need something to keep up with your agitated lifestyle, and will work as well when you are looking for an excuse to enjoy some rock tunes without losing the glamour if someone surprises you listening to much less elaborated and thousands of times less interesting music. I will go further and will recommend this album as an entry gate for those coming from rock and alternative rock backgrounds looking for new and exciting bands and genres. You will feel warm with this.

Halou – Wholeness & Separation

Halou - Wholeness & Separation (2006)

Halou - Wholeness & Separation (2006)

For years Halou rejected the trip hop label to their music, instead they preferred to be considered a dream pop act. To be honest, I never cared for the difference between such genres, primarily because Halou is the only band I know related to dream pop, and for the careless listener the difference is sometimes so subtle that it is somewhat difficult to tell them appart. But the day would come, and I would suddenly realize where that difference lies.

I’m borrowing this from the Wikipedia entry for dream pop, because I’m nowhere near to describe it in a proper way:

… post-punk and ethereal experiments with bittersweet pop melodies into dreamy, sometimes sensual and feminine soundscapes.

And it is that part about sensual and femenine soundscapes that usually confuse us, because you see, that is something that dominates Wholeness & Separation from start to finish. Rebecca Coseboom’s sensuous, nearly whispering voice might be a little tricky to become used to, but once you overcome the adaptation process, it is an absolute delight. Even in those experimental post-punk, alternative rock driven songs when her voice raises to a more powerful and higher pitch, it never loses direction and keeps feeling just like a more energetic version of the more dreamy and sensuous part of the album.

Wholeness & Separation was born originally as two different EPs, Wholeness (2003) and Separation (2006), and if we are lazy we could just say that this was just a copy & paste into a full length album. But there’s more to this than just putting two EPs together and releasing them as one full featured album, as there are substantial changes to many of the original songs contained in those EPs, and also there are new songs not featured in either of them. In top of that, there’s more Wholeness songs here than Separation ones, despite the latter being the more recent.

But more important than where the songs came from, is the fact that it is a little bit difficult to describe properly what this album is about. I already mentioned the conflict between the common assumption that this is a trip hop album and the band rejection of the label, although the truth is that whether the band likes it or not, there is a lot of trip hop involved in many songs (Ratio of Freckles to Stars and Things Stay the Same just to name a few), and the funny thing is that those are not poor attempts at it, they are actually brilliant trip hop influenced songs. Trip hop aside though, the dream pop parts of this album are even better, the fusion of alternative rock with the sensous and whispering female voice counterpart provided by Coseboom is a hell of a deal.

14 songs in total, I’m not exagerating when I say that it feels like they were just 7. It is an engaging experience, mostly because all the strings are pulled at the right moments and with that avoiding any dull situation, or the mere sensation that things are falling into an impasse.

In the end, this is a highly recommended album for anyone who enjoys trip hop, female vocalists or alternative rock. Keep in mind that such elements are not always separated, so you might find yourself with a combination of those.