Album review

REVIEW: Thanya Iyer - Do You Dream? Mixtape

Raquel Dalarossa

Montreal's Thanya Iyer calls her music "future folk." It's an apt categorization, not least because the future is, by definition, full of endless possibilities. Iyer—a vocalist, composer, producer, and bandleader—crafts music that is fanciful and roaming, incorporating bits of soul, jazz, electronica, and pop to build her own version of the future.

Formally, her band includes friends Daniel Gélinas and Alex Kasirer-Smibert, but the trio recruit plenty of contributors to complete their ambitiously lush sound. The experimental group will put anything at their disposal in an effort to enhance the textures in their music; on Iyer's debut album, Do You Dream?, released two years ago, Gélinas is credited for playing "dried clementine peels," but the percussionist can also be seen in a live video using two bowls of water for instruments.

Now, in a cassette mixtape put together for Topshelf Records, the band has revisited their album with fresh minds and fresh appetites for ever more exploration. The result includes three thoughtfully reimagined tracks and two new ones that dial back Iyer's orchestral tendencies in favor of something more intimate in character. Aided by the "Mawmz" choir (Brigitte Naggar, Shelby Cohen, Sarah Rossy), the tracks here have an especially dreamlike, ethereal quality when compared to their original album versions, but Iyer’s vocals remain the anchor to the constantly expanding and evolving landscape of sounds. 

"Daydreaming" gains a full minute of gauzy, sleepy rumination, while "Bridges" becomes an after-hours jam, the hushed vocals, atmospheric hums, and heartbeat-like drumming blending together like muted, watercolor tones on a creamy canvas. “Not Warm / Not Cold” jumps between choral a cappella sections and noisy maximalist ones before nestling into a warm nook, where Iyer’s honeyed, soulful vocals sit atop a bed of gently played keys and hi-hats. Finally, the two new tracks, "Water" and "Solace," round out the collection, the former full of inviting intrigue and mystery, and the latter a space-age lullaby.

With the tracks all bleeding into one another, they feel more like vignettes than fully formed songs per se, which means the mixtape is best enjoyed uninterrupted. But who would want to interrupt this all too short and tender ride through Thanya Iyer's imagination anyway?

REVIEW: Triathalon - Online

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Raquel Dalarossa

It’s been nearly three years since Triathalon’s last full-length release. Since 2015’s Nothing Bothers Me, the Savannah trio moved to New York City, recruited a new band member, and changed their sound entirely. Though they’ve always traded in slacker-tinged soundscapes, the new album, Online, sees them move decidedly away from their psychedelic surf rock towards R&B pop.

Those who tuned into the band's 2016 EP, Cold Shower, would have already seen the change coming. Those four tracks introduced an expressly sultry side to the band that hadn’t been spotlighted in either of their two previous full-length efforts. Online is a bit less lusty but just as smooth, with lead vocalist Adam Intrator moving comfortably between an energized falsetto and a lower register, rap-like flow. There’s a catchiness to each of the thirteen tracks on here, though it’s distinctly an after-hours sort of record—hazy guitar chords, synths, and piano keys float above the kinds of beats you’d hear at an apartment party that’s winding down. The more upbeat tracks, like “Sometimes” and “Plant” (the latter being a real highlight for its jazzy instrumentation), stand out from the languid, even anodyne quality of the rest.

Tracks like “Pull Up” and “Deep End” might register as seductive at first, but soon become sedative, especially in light of the album’s lyrics. In the former, broken sentences slowly put together a picture of a dreary routine: “I’m doing / My work outs high / I’m floating by.” And again in the latter, we hear Intrator struggling through the day-to-day: “Go back to my room and watch another show like everyone / Lately I can’t focus, work too much and deal with bullshit.” Online depicts a life of feeling overworked and out of touch, with relationships and substances serving as passive pastimes.

In light of this, the album’s title becomes intriguing. Though cynical takes on internet culture are overdone and overblown (see, for example, those videos that your aunt shares on Facebook, darkly portraying kids on their iPhones as the voiceover talks about how “disconnected” we all are), I think we all recognize, from time to time, the truism in the cliches. Being online is like switching our brains to a channel of white noise, our thumbs scrolling in absent-minded habit. How often do we find ourselves in that mental mode even when we’re not necessarily staring at a screen?

Online hardly mentions the internet outright (except for a couple of references to social media) but its portrayal of the everyday—sleepwalking through life and trying to fill our time—feels like the online ghost worlds we create for ourselves, spilling over into real life. Even on the most enamored and alive track (“I haven’t felt this way in a minute,” Intrator says), he’s still, at the end of the day, stoned and just sitting in his living room. “Couch” is a love song for the disengaged, eyes glossed over but dick somehow still hard.

There’s something odd about listening to pop that’s so depressing (particularly, for its relatability). Triathalon successfully explore a new genre without losing their talent for a conversational kind of lyricism that upends our experience of their music, putting escapism into a harsh light that reflects back on us.

REVIEW: Alexia Avina - Betting on an Island

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Raquel Dalarossa

Alexia Avina is a Montreal-based artist whose full-length debut, Betting on an Island, feels a bit like a mirage—at first, a cozy refuge from the stress of the everyday, but the more time you spend in it, the more it seems to feel like a sad settlement. The eight-track collection sees Avina’s signature dream pop come alive in high definition, without losing the ethereal softness that defines her music.

On Facebook, Avina writes, “These songs have been with me for the past 3 years, sometimes as a burden, other times as a source of relief and renewal.” Whatever the reason for the delay in releasing these tracks, the time invested in getting them just right feels obvious from the first listen. Compared to some of Avina’s earlier EPs, Kind Forest and Surrender, this feels like it's been dusted and polished. In the opening instrumental “I Don’t Want All Your Money,” it's as if a curtain has been pulled back to reveal an entire microcosm of textures and sounds that we can explore over and over again. Amid gently plucked strings and insect-like buzzing, Avina’s vocals seem to meander like some kind of ethereal creature.

Those vocals, layered and whimsical, often act as another instrument in her little orchestra, rather than as a verbal tool per se. But although the lyrics don’t immediately jump out at us, following them offers a striking counterpoint to the album’s serene and secure exterior. We get glimpses into a relationship that seems antagonistic; in the title track, Avina sings, “I wish I had a better knack / For letting it all slide off my back,” and as though sitting across the poker table from her partner and adversary, watches him “raise an island that I won’t match.” Despite the song’s gentle optimism, she is doubtful, tense, and defeated. One has to wonder: is the island they bet on a sanctuary, or exile?

Elsewhere we find more stark juxtapositions between the tranquil nature of the music and the conflict unfolding beneath the surface. Avina seems to float from a resigned, defeatist attitude (“It may hurt a little but not enough / And I knew it would” on “Glove”), to a more confrontational stance. Closing track “Don’t U Give” is her most defiant, and it’s also one in which the sonic characteristics finally rise to match the words, with moody electric guitar and percussion galvanizing the emotion.

Avina’s parting words are the most interesting on the album: “Do you think I’m stupid? / I’m not all of the things I want to be / But now I’m not the only / The only one of us who can’t relax.” There’s no real sense of catharsis here, merely one of resentment. In a way, the album becomes an island in and of itself by the time it’s through, holding all of Avina’s isolated feelings and her inability to escape.

REVIEW: Yaeji - EP2

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Raquel Dalarossa

Yaeji is the undisputed rising queen of underground electronic music in New York City and beyond. Née Kathy Lee, the Seoul- and Brooklyn-based producer, vocalist, DJ, and visual artist has practically exploded overnight, frequently headlining some of the best parties in town and enjoying glowing little features in every outlet from The Fader to The New Yorker. If, somehow, you haven’t heard of her yet, then I suggest you look her up. 

Though she’s now signed with L.A.’s Godmode, her sound sits within a more global movement: lo-fi house. Yaeji’s output shares commonalities with other up-and-comers like DJ Boring, Ross from Friends, and Mall Grab, but her cover of the latter’s “Guap” from earlier this year is a great illustration of what exactly puts Lee in a league of her own. Yaeji’s work circumvents many typical house trappings—like, say, repetitiveness to the point of making your eyes gloss over—thanks to what feels like a signature playfulness. She has a minimalist’s ear, curating the details in each of her songs to an impeccable degree, but she also knows how to keep things interesting with ornamental textures, layered vocals, and a hip-hop- and R&B-inspired touch. Altogether, it’s no wonder she’s able to capture the attention of those well outside the EDM scene. 

With EP2, her second release this year (and ever), she gives us five great tracks that add further credence to her dominance and show off the versatility in her music. Like the bowls of Japanese-style kare (curry) that she serves at many of her live shows, her music feeds the soul, offering an opportunity for both connection and introspection. EP2 opens with the sleepy “feelings change,” a short track that sets the tone for a late-night collection that takes you from pensive moments straight into the party. Though “drink i’m sippin on” found popularity as the EP’s first single, “raingurl” is no doubt the standout banger on this set, with bongo-style percussion floating around the slapping main beat. Like in all her songs, Yaeji switches seamlessly from Korean to English lyrics; she’s quickly becoming a face for Brooklyn’s Asian Americans just as much as a staple for women seeking to break into the male-saturated electronic scene. 

The second half of EP2 follows you as you make your way home at the end of the night. “after that” would fare just fine on the dance floor, but Yaeji’s whisper-quiet vocals seem designed more for your cans at home than for the club’s sound system. The track is simultaneously understated and catchy, hazy and foot-stomping. It leads nicely into closing number “passionfruit,” a nightcap that puts a warm, poignant spin on the already softly rendered Drake song. Here, the vocals are so tender that they bring new emotional weight to lyrics like “I think we should rule out commitment for now / ‘Cause we’re falling apart.” 

There’s a sad undercurrent to the EP that comes to the fore right as it ends, but this subtle sentimentality is part of what brings Yaeji’s music to life and makes EP2 a mesmerizing release. Most of all, what’s most evident here is that Yaeji’s reign is just beginning.

REVIEW: Colleen - A flame my love, a frequency

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Laura Kerry

A flame my love, a frequency, the new full-length by Colleen (AKA Cécile Schott), is an album of transformations. A composer who has favored the viola de gamba (and other baroque instruments) with touches of electronic processing in her previous six albums, she makes the leap in her new work to fully electronic instrumentation.

Her seventh album emerged out of another shift that occurred over the course of a single day in Paris. Now based in Spain, Schott had returned to her former home in France for a visit in November 2015, where she saw a lovely scene of people enjoying the afternoon. Later that night, the same scene transformed into a scene of terror with the coordinated attacks that took place at cafes, bars, and a stadium and concert venue.

Though a heavy, despairing sound might seem a natural response to such an event, Colleen’s A flame my love, a frequency is remarkably light. Delicate and based on suggestion rather than profusion, the album seems to capture the ominous glow of the afternoon before the terror more than its mournful aftermath. It opens with “November,” the briefest and sparsest track, built on a single, twinkling synth voice that flutters forward for a phrase, then pauses. With that, the album promises a space for reflection.

It delivers throughout the seven spacious and beautiful songs that follow. “Separating” smolders with an eery intensity as Schott’s quiet, patient vocals echo over dainty synth lines that form a full orchestra in the gaps between them. “Another world” subtly radiates sadness and surprise as a low, resonant synth pulses and brighter voices dance in the foreground. In “The stars vs creatures,” a warm synth waltzes in pretty arpeggios, haunting with simplicity and a touch of otherworldly delay, before making way for a muted drone later on. Though the artist has replaced classical instruments with Critter and Guitari synthesizers and a Moog filter, she hasn’t completely abandoned them; from the piano sounds on “November” to the mallet-like voices on “The stars vs creatures” and string tones on “Winter dawn,” Schott draws so much warmth and depth out of her electronic palette that it’s easy to forget it comes from a series of circuits. For an album voiced by machines, A flame my love, a frequency maintains an abundance of human feeling.

And for an album influenced by loss, that human feeling maintains an impressive degree of levity. Instead of focusing on the shock of terror itself, Schott seems more concerned with the dissonance between beauty and horror. As she sings in “Winter dawn,” while a low synth pulses in an almost cheery rhythm, “The world had nearly ended yet the sky was blue.” Even after the worst event, beauty can persist. Anyone who listens to Colleen’s new album can attest to that.