Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Review: Lady Lamb the Beekeeper - After (The 405)


Despite the flowing, stream-of-consciousness style she sings in, Ally Spaltro, or Lady Lamb The Beekeeper, has remained resolutely quiet when it comes to any press interaction around her new album After. It’s as if the uncompromising honesty displayed on record has left no room for the kind of arbitrary, arm’s length conversations that come with interviews. Spaltro has always been a fiercely candid songwriter, incorporating the kind of disturbing imagery in her lyrics that can make you wince, groan, but spin round and round in your mind, making you feel every syllable.

‘After’ follows her debut Ripley Pine; an ambitious, frantic first album that had all the raw, insecure kind of energy that you’d expect when you consider she wrote most of it as a teenager. It sounded imperfect and uncensored, like she had dotted the last ‘i’ on her lyric sheet and ran straight into the studio. This was mirrored musically as well, with frequent time signature changes and rash instrumental breakdowns contributing to a feeling of restlessness and agitation. Spaltro is 23 now, and whilst these issues might not have gone away, she is tackling them from an older, wiser perspective.

Opener ‘Vena Cava’ focuses further on the kind of visceral, bloodied imagery that she explored previously. ‘I still need your teeth round my organs’ she sang on Ripley Pine track You Are The Apple, and here she sings ‘the vena cava… / bringing blood into the chamber’, using the physical functions of the human body as tangible symbols of emotional movements and trauma. Spaltro’s voice is blessed with these natural dramatic properties, where every crack can be a moment of vulnerability and every grunt a statement of defiance. It can veer out of tune, like as it does in the sweeping finale of ‘Arkansas Daughter’, but these small imperfections and idiosyncrasies are all part of the story, providing colour to every line and heart to every note. ‘You build a nest of yellow yarn / you hope to God the yellow yarn / is soft enough to break your fall’ she sings on ‘Violet Clementine’, repeating it over and over again, her voice slowing turning into this venomous growl as it stops sounding like a warning and starts sounding like a threat.

There’s an unpredictability to these songs, as she interchanges even the most disturbing lyrical phrases with the mundane and the ordinary. ‘Now I’m sitting on a train / and I’m peeling an orange’ she starts on ‘Spat Out Spit’, before continuing ‘Will I awake to find I’m deep in the woods / And I’m snarling on all fours’. Even when she’s tackling these complex, existential issues, she sounds resolutely calm, as if a lifetime of answering the same question has desensitised her to their effect. And it’s this juxtaposition between the fragile and the aggressive that underpins Spaltro’s writing and delivery, creating these images and stories within her songs before pulling the rug out from the listener at expertly timed moments.     

There’s a moment in opener ‘Violet Clementine’ where the song suddenly changes key. It’s innocuous enough, as a solo bass guitar slightly bends out of place before reintroducing the second phase of the tune at just a step down, like Spaltro and her band have quickly changed their minds but can’t bring themselves to start the song again. There’s a point being made here, that we are listening them in the purest and most primal stages of musical expression, playing as if every note and chord is pumping directly from their bloodstreams. And throughout the album, Spaltro regularly dodges convention when it comes to structure and form, creating these long, sprawling opuses that can change between jangly folk intros into Paranoid Android style breakdowns. The excellent ‘Penny Licks’ starts as a sparse folk number as she sings ‘Maybe when we’re gone / you can have our bedroom’, before erupting into this rousing, chest beating coda as the backing choir stands up to sing ‘we will crane our necks’ in unison. It’s an obvious nod to Crane Your Neck on Ripley Pine, where she once sang “And if you’re crying by the moon / In the sun you better lift up your chin” as if she knew the sort of strength that was required but was still unable to show it. Now though, she’s standing taller, and there’s a feeling of optimism that hangs beneath After that she might not have been capable of before.

Performing is clearly a very purifying process for Spaltro, as if a song or an album can be used as a box to organise the complexities of her mind and her life. On ‘Sunday Shoes’, she confronts the death of her sister with images of her ‘eating dirt in the flower bed’ before being ‘chased by wolves’. It’s the simplest song on the album, with her vocal sitting cleanly above a noodling guitar. This moment of calm is disarming; almost as if we are getting a private glimpse into the first time she’s had a chance to truly reflect on the event. Spaltro’s lyrics are often wild and chaotic, but despite the gut wrenchingly sad nature of this song, she remains firmly in control this time as we are left with this gorgeous ‘you will become your most favourite colour’ refrain.

Spaltro was young when she wrote Ripley Pine, and with its raw, blood and guts energy, it felt like she had thrown everything she had into this insoluble liquid where the parts could move around and bounce off each other, but never quite connect. You’d be pushed to find any sort of thread that flows across this record, and the lack of cohesion here might prove too distracting for some. But even if After is an altogether neater album, where the vocals are more in tune and the guitars in time, you can still feel the blood pumping through it. She lives inside her songs, creating these pulsating, breathing vessels for her fraught and restless spirit. And for anyone willing to stick around long enough to listen, they are richly and endlessly rewarding.


Thursday, 12 March 2015

Review: Lotic - Heterocetera (The 405)


Lotic grew up in Houston, Texas, studying music before moving permanently to Berlin with his boyfriend in 2012. It’s a journey many electronic musicians make, with the German capital being a much more fertile ground both for inspiration and experimentation than the more immediate, instant gratification culture of North American dance music scene. After several months, J’Kerian Morgan started the regular clubnight Janus as a response to the city’s dominant and overwhelming techno scene, using the dancefloor as a stimulant for his brooding, menacing take on R&B.

‘Heterocetera’ is Morgan’s first Release on Tri Angle Records, sitting comfortably alongside the likes of Evian Christ and oOoOO at a label moving further towards the darker corners of electronic music. And these kinds of sharp, abrasive beats lend themselves naturally to hip-hop. I mean, if you look at recent collaborations like Hudson Mohawke and Kanye, Rustie and Danny Brown, as well as label mate Clams Casino’s three instrumental mixtapes, it’s clear that this kind of heavy handed, low bpm production works well with an aggressive, emotionally charged rap vocal over the top. With this in mind, EPs like this can sometimes be in danger of sounding like a glorified beat tape, incapable of commanding your full attention because it feels incomplete.

Lotic avoids this on ‘Heterecetera’ by not sticking to any sort of form, adding these small, but crucial idiosyncrasies that act as valuable checkpoints across the EP. On opener ‘Suspension’, these rolling 4/4 ticks are punctuated by a harsh, industrial crash, almost like an old, rusty metal door being forced closed. There’s a sharp, high pitched synth drone crying above throughout, gradually rising and sounding more and more anxious until it’s almost unlistenable. Similarly on the title track, some otherwise conventional synth and percussion movement plays second string to a frantic sample from Masters At Work’s The Ha Dance, swirling around like thousands of flies trapped inside a jar. On the slower, brooding ‘Phlegm’ the work is done at the deeper end, with a robust kick drum clearing the way for some short, intense percussive interjections. These dark, specific motifs all feel very considered and deliberate, providing instant and memorable signposts for these songs that allow them to standalone in their own right. It’s clear that Morgan had a good idea of how these songs were going to sound before he stepped into the studio, and despite the uniformity in terms of textures and mood, his skill as a producer and as a songwriter is in his ability to look at every song as a separate idea, making ‘Heterocetera’ feel like a fully formed, cohesive body of work.

Emotionally, this kind of electronic music can often operate within quite tight parameters. Morgan approaches his productions in the more traditional sense, though, with songs that aim to provoke deeper and more specific emotional reactions and attachments. Throughout the EP he manages to create and then sustain a narrative by adding an unswerving sentimentality to the technical mastery. There’s a moment on ‘Stay’ where a fragile, ethereal female vocal is introduced above another sprawling, metallic beat. It almost sounds too clean, or too angelic, like one of those default sounds you get on those cheap keyboards in college. It’s a jarring moment of vulnerability, especially in the context of these very clinical and confident soundscapes. After moving to Berlin, J’Kerian Morgan experienced an almost debilitating loneliness and anxiety, as the unfamiliarity of a new country threatened to detach him from his creativity and sense of self. “It was very tough. I was depressed for six months straight, basically”, he told Pitchfork last month. You can absolutely feel this sense of loneliness and alienation throughout the EP, which in turn makes it confessional, like a privileged, moving window into Morgan’s own emotional space.

Songwriting seems like an intense, all-encompassing process for Morgan, as he channels all the noise that makes up his world into these tight and clinical  productions. It’s an ambitious approach to being a producer, and it’s exciting to see what form it will take within the wider boundaries of a full length album. For now though, even at five tracks, ‘Heterocetera’ is a strong, visceral electronic record that maintains its ambition and intensity from beginning to end.  


Review: Purity Ring - Another Eternity (The 405)


When Shrines, the debut album from Canadian duo Purity Ring came out in 2012, this idea that indie music could be highly digitised and contain all the impulses and immediacies of pop music whilst still sounding indie barely existed. And it’s true, first album treated melody and phrasing in such a distinct way that the term ‘sounds like purity ring’ became synonymous with any new act who dared to write subtly intelligent, infectiously melodic songs with glossy, meticulously programmed electronic sounds. If not exactly inventive, Shrines was certainly impressive in its singularity, which was refined and administered with a surgeon-like precision.

You get the feeling that Purity Ring started to feel suffocated by this specific and unambiguous aesthetic they have created for themselves. When speaking about the writing process for this album, instrumentalist Corin Roddick told Pitchfork: “It was a tricky place to be in because, with a second album, we’re trying to evolve and we wanna be new and exciting with whatever new music we’re releasing. But we also have a fan base that likes us for the first album we put out”. The statement almost sounded like an admission of defeat, and this notion of stifling your creative ideas to cash the same cheque as before seems a little sad – especially for a band only on their second album.

Another Eternity still sounds like Purity Ring, though, yet the synths are louder, the bass thuds deeper, and the songs take a more traditional structure where the verses are more defined and the choruses are bigger. This approach to a sophomore album is certainly well versed – take everything that worked before and just turn it all up. Whilst Shrines certainly wasn’t a minimal album, it showed restraint when it was needed, isolating the hooks so that they resonated with maximum effect. James’ vocals would be left to hang in the air; a wobbing bass pedal note would be cut just at the right time. All these direct and compact parts would be allowed to grow bigger and smaller, twisting and unfolding together like cogs in some brilliant twentieth century machine. The glaring, screeching synth repeated on ‘Flood On The Floor’, ‘Stranger Than Earth’, ‘Dust Hymn’ and ‘Begin Again’ sounds obvious and undeliberate, like simplified signposts for the grandiose and the dramatic, aimed at that kind of festival tent, MDMA tinged euphoria that comes with huge sound systems and bigger ‘drops’.  This maximalist approach to Another Eternity feels indirect and arbitrary, like a child bashing away at his favourite sounds on a toy keyboard.

This regression is mirrored lyrically, too. ‘Cut out my sternum and pull / My little ribs around you’, James sang on Shrines highlight Fineshrine, as she viscerally conveyed all the desperation and abandon that comes with loving someone so much that it feels like an unhealthy, frightening obsession. And there’s still little doubt that Roddick and James are still brilliant at creating these gorgeous, balanced phrases: “You feared a lonely death like a lake / leaves you alone in her deaths, she cries on ‘Bodyache’, or  “You push and you pull and tell yourself no / It’s like when you lie down the veins grow in slow” on ‘Push Pull’. The decision to write less autobiographically makes these sound like empty shells, though, like a stunningly painted sculpture that is completely hollow once you pierce its surface.

With Shrines, Purity Ring sounded one step ahead of the popular music landscape, creating these catchy, compact little songs that sounded just a little bit unfamiliar. And whilst it may seem unfair to keep comparing Another Eternity to its predecessor, it’s troubling to see a band who once revelled in their nuances and their weirdness to completely dilute themselves like this. It’s possible that they underestimated their audience, looking to connect with their more immediate, primal pleasure centres using volume and excess rather than intellectually. James and Roddick clearly have their sights set on mainstream success, but are instead in danger of sounding like one of the many pretenders that their first album spawned, rather than smart, subtly innovative band they once were.


Mike Townsend