Art Pop


Phillipe Roberts

To hear them tell it, there’s a star-crossed quality to the collaboration between Miles Francis and Charles Billot, a meeting of complementary dreamers that quickly became apparent when the three of us met at Greenpoint’s BÚÐIN cafe. They had been introduced a year earlier after admiring each others’ work from afar, and a chance message from Charles happened to slide Miles’ way just as the musician was sitting down to mix Swimmers, his solo debut.

“All I said was, 'Hey... what’s up?'” Charles told me, laughing at the words that launched the six months of planning that brought the EP to life as a visual album.

“'What have you been up to?'” Miles corrected. “As soon as he reached out to me, I knew: he’s the guy. I made Swimmers totally alone, played all the instruments, but when he reached out, I knew that this was what needed to happen to it. I needed to interface with him to take it to where it needed to go.”

On its own, Swimmers is a gripping work of psychological storytelling, an unveiling of Miles Francis’ vast talent for arrangement and songcraft beyond the confines of his longstanding band, EMEFE. It’s fitting that the record’s conception truly began at its final song, “Overthink,” an encapsulation of Swimmers’ themes of self-doubt and the desire to escape from its constricting paralysis. “I’d been writing songs for a potential solo album, but that was the 'level up.' I realized that there was potential there,” Miles explained. “I found my voice through that song, and the rest of it just flowed.” From there, he worked improvisationally, setting up a studio environment conducive to the freeform experimentation that birthed “Overthink” and ended up with eight completed tracks. Done and done.

photo: Charles Billot

photo: Charles Billot

Or so he believed until Charles returned to the picture. “I think the two of us work together well because we can dream together,” Miles said, eliciting a knowing chuckle from his creative partner. “We initially wanted to do three videos, but as we started working on the video proposals, the thought of it being one interconnected experience took over.” That meant making a few cuts, narrowing down the vision to five tracks to match their growing list of visual ideas, which in turn influenced the final version of the EP itself. “As we were making the videos, we decided the order of the songs as well. I had a different idea, but it shifted because I realized that the end video and the end song, 'Overthink,' was really the realization at the end.”

Swimmers is a surrealist adventure, stuffed with visuals that externalize those emotional conflicts, but it dives in with candy at the forefront. “The first thing that came through was the Starburst,” Charles explained. “He was playing 'You’re A Star' and threw them into the audience as a gimmick. I thought it was a cool idea, and that’s where we started. They eat the Starburst and things start to change.” In the video for the same song, Miles slips downstairs and into a dreamworld. Dancers in colored jumpsuits swarm him in rapid cuts to the ocean. Miles enters the water and the sea sweeps over him.

Visually, Charles initially described the videos as conveying a kind of psychedelic drug trip, but Miles pushed back on that explanation, tying the word “tripping” back to the feeling of being emotionally bent out of shape. Charles pounced to tie the conceptual knot: “You make shit up when you’re in love. Your brain goes crazy.”

“Complex,” the following song, is a slice of electronic pop cruising somewhere between R&B and funk. Miles cited D’Angelo’s Voodoo as one of his favorite albums, an influence that definitely shows in the intimate, homespun grooves of the track, and the gentle posturing infused into the lyrics. “What would you do if I left you down?” he asks, taunting, “I’m busy and I’m strong / And nothing’s going to stop me now” in the face of a disappointed lover.

The corresponding video was actually the least intentional of the bunch. “It came out of having shot things that didn’t necessarily fit with what we intended them for," Miles said. "Charles experimented with them in other songs, but when we played around with stringing them together it worked perfectly.” The seeming simplicity of the shots, featuring Miles swimming just beneath the surface in colorful fabrics as smoke piles up above him, works well with the tossed-off, soft flexing of the track. This is Miles in a moment of power and control. Emerging from the pool with the fabric barely clinging to him, that confidence is established just before it all starts to tear away.

photo: Charles Billot

photo: Charles Billot

And tear away it does on “Deserve Your Love,” the emotional centerpiece of the record. Though it starts with hushed strums, it grows into a soaring chorus, followed by a free-falling psychedelic descent of pounding drums and distorted strings that's explosively cathartic. The video is a favorite of both Miles and Charles, particularly a scene in which dancers pummel him as they circle menacingly.

“Choreographing a fight but also making it dancey was really inspiring,” Miles said. “It was great because it hurt a little bit, so I was feeling that energy. Just getting beat up over and over but getting to be part of the dancers, even though I’m not exactly popping and locking, was fun.” Charles put him through his paces though, apparently going a little bit overboard in the excitement of getting such great footage. “I think I made you run after that car for an hour and a half, and honestly it probably could’ve been done in twenty minutes,” he admitted to Miles with a laugh. “But you looked so good and I couldn’t stop.”

After a brief segue of Miles brushing seaweed out of his teeth, it's on to “Take It,” a high-energy dance track with a buzzing synth lead reminiscent of house maestros Justice. In a black box theater, Miles confronts a dancer, Lukasz Zieba, who contorts and twists in a powerful routine. Watching Lukasz express himself so freely had a tremendous effect on Miles, and helped him unravel some of the inner conflicts that had subliminally played into the album’s creation—particularly a deeper understanding of and reckoning with his own masculinity.

“The short really brought out something in the music that I hadn’t considered while writing the songs, and it was showing the decomposition and faults of a man. What it is to be a man, and how that role can become a default, going through relationships,” he explained. “When I reflect on my own experiences with love and relationships, there’s definitely something personal to it, but so much of it is dealing with the social programming of that experience.” It’s a theme that Miles wants to explore more deeply in other subject matter, but the film, and particularly “Take It,” is a clear stepping stone in contextualizing those thoughts.

The crowning visual of Swimmers, the climactic moment that seems to quite literally crash back into reality, is a shot of Miles in a white suit plummeting into the water. The cover art shares the same image, also shot by Charles, but it took hours of practice to perfect the jump. “I practiced that with a wetsuit on, just to get comfortable so that I wouldn’t flinch at the impact,” Miles said, with a hint of exhaustion in his voice. “It was hard,” Charles explained, “because I didn’t want you to bend. And every take, hearing you hit the water straight with that slapping sound, I was like, 'Sorry, Miles, but we need it again.'” The end result is stunning, this perfect sigh of relief at the end of a long road.

Clichéd as it may seem, Swimmers concludes with Miles walking off into the sunset, barefoot and drenched, somewhat directionless but clearly changed. And that’s much how Charles and Miles left the project, with ideas still overflowing. One of Charles’ dreams is to do a musical, in the vein of West Side Story. “They take you somewhere that’s surreal,” he said. “It’s supposed to relate to reality, but someone snaps their fingers and they just disappear. We don't have West Side Story in Europe.” Miles has some different ideas: “I don’t want to do a musical, but I do want to do a show where I’m singing the songs, there’s a set, there’s dancers... and it tells a story,” he managed before erupting in laughter.

“So maybe I need to rethink my definitions.”


Catch Miles Francis on tour:

5/31 - Brooklyn NY - C'mon Everybody (with Spirit Twin, Ora Cogan)

6/19 - Winooski VT - The Monkey House **

6/20 - Montreal, QC - Brasserie Beaubien **

6/21 - Toronto, ON - The Garrison **

6/22 - Hudson NY - Half Moon **

6/28 - Brooklyn NY - Elsewhere Rooftop **

**supporting TEEN

REVIEW: Clebs - I'm Here


Phillipe Roberts

At core of Clebs’ debut EP is the question looping through every recording since the first wax cylinder: what here is human? Recording is an exercise in artifice, a selection and compression of real-time events into an endlessly repeatable fantasy. With their first foray into the art of sonic distillation, vocalist Emilie Weibel and drummer/producer Jason Nazary go for the jugular with a particularly violent approach; I’m Here quite literally feels like a mutilation of their personalities into a unitary, Frankensteined sound-beast, flexing its reconstructed muscle in an exploration of these newfound capabilities. Though some moments gesture towards sunnier pastures, the most surprising element of I’m Here is how firm its footing feels in the long stretches of abstracted body horror, slicing apart familiar rhythms, melodies, and sampled sound into something that feels truly alive, twitching with a dangerous curiosity.

From start to finish, the organic, pulsating fusion that is I’m Here manages to sound painstakingly labored over without overworking the ear. Every second is brimming with immaculately designed easter eggs and microscopic detail. Pitched-down voices buried under fuzz on closer “Light Spectrum” combine with bubbling, randomized arpeggiations to eerie effect; as a whole—and this is meant as the sincerest of compliments—it comes off as the soundtrack to a late-night infomercial from another dimension, a peek behind the static curtain into a mundane glimpse of the beyond.

Truly, Clebs’ finest gift may well be in creating trancelike environments that feel as if you’re observing them from a distance, or from a bubble of relative safety. “Bass Chrysalis” (WHAT A TITLE) is a shining example. The glitched-out voice breakdown in its latter half, where thumps of bass pound against the sharply pitched gliding melody, doesn’t so much consume you as linger, tantalizingly, just out of reach. Clebs are masters of the experimental tease.

When the duo branch into immersive, pop-like territory, they never quite let themselves run wild or become too consumed by rampant emotionality, preferring instead to constantly tweak and tune their creations like a pair of obsessive technicians. Though it emerges chopped and crushed, leaking a trail of vocal teardrops from Weibel, opener “Homemade Bread” is the record's most out-and-out danceable excerpt. Its central beat flails and flops with a drunken urgency. Nazary weaves a staggering polyrhythmic collage, populating it with buzzing snippets of Weibel’s voice placed deep into the mix. The track leers with a frightening intensity, threatening to break out into some form of “drop,” some kind of sustainable, emotive four-on-the-floor chug, but never does.

Even the title track, whose looped, bumping beat comes the closest to providing the sturdy bedrock necessary for a pop song, can’t help but inject blasts of howling noise, roaring in at jarring volume to keep you awake and aware through the haunted nursery rhyme chanting of “If the bomb explodes, then you come back home.” I’m Here is not for the faint of heart, nor for the faint of head. But if you’re looking for a brief detour into stranger waters or a peek into the grizzly unknown, look no further.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Isaac Vallentin (and Trails) - Loudest in the Universe

Will Shenton

At first glance, the understated folk of Canadian art-pop musician Isaac Vallentin's "Loudest in the Universe" might seem better-trod territory than his usual brand of inventive, experimental synths. But with the interplay of Trails' wistful croon and Vallentin's own resonant baritone, the restrained bandstand setup, and the short but captivating songwriting itself, it's clear that this track is rife with his creative touches.

The second single from his forthcoming LP, Amateur, "Loudest in the Universe" is an achingly beautiful entreaty—seemingly to humanity itself—to calm our innermost fears and conflicts. Avoiding the saccharine pitfalls common to that sort of theme, Vallentin couches the lyrics in the intimate language of love songs: Trails' voice soars into the first cloud-parting chorus, "I love you / Stop crying / There's nothing to fear about dying / Everything is all that you are and ever will be."

The latter half of the song takes on a bleaker tone, and the second chorus seems to reprimand the listener ("Good riddance / Be silent / There's nothing inside you but violence"), but concludes with an offer of forgiveness ("Everything that you're fighting is a part of you and a part of me / But I love you babe / So stop crying for a second"). Coupled with the neutral expressions of Vallentin, Trails, and drummer Pascal Delaquis throughout, the resulting tone is thoroughly unique. At once eminently familiar and just a touch alien in its delivery, "Loudest in the Universe" is a song that will haunt you long after its two-minute runtime.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Slow Dakota - Cherry Mary Michigan

Will Shenton

On "Cherry Mary Michigan," director Britta Lee's second music video for Slow Dakota (and, somewhat unbelievably, her second music video ever), we return to the dreamlike Midwestern landscape she explored in last year's "The Lilac Bush." Once again featuring Lee's younger siblings in costumes that place them somehow out of time, the video's impressionistic narrative serves as both a vessel for and foil to PJ Sauerteig's lyrics.

Where Lee's imagery is decidedly rural, "Cherry Mary Michigan" is a song about urban isolation. At its climax, Sauerteig laments, "Why on earth do I live in this prison / Solipsistic overstimulation / Every day, twenty-two blocks of cat-calls / Every night, twenty bills I can’t pay." We're invited to synthesize the two scenes, recognizing alienation in both the bucolic and the metropolitan. It's a conclusion we'd do well to remember: much as we may want to escape, there's no running from ourselves.

PREMIERE: Indira Valey - No Me Tengas Miedo

Indira Valey.jpg

Will Shenton

No Me Tengas Miedo. Do not fear me. The title of Portland artist Indira Valey's new EP is an admonition that might seem unnecessary given its quiet, mesmerizing character. Yet, in progressing like a dream, it exposes the listener to the subtle anxieties of introspection, inviting us to see ourselves reflected in its fluid soundscapes—and in the end, imploring us not to shy away from what we discover.

The first three tracks on the EP are primarily impressionistic, each taking its time to build layered textures that undulate and sprawl. Indira Valey's voice phases in and out of earshot throughout, at times melding with the instrumentals entirely as the mantra-like lyrics unfold. The sparse percussion and washed-out guitars give the sound an organic warmth, especially on "Wideopen," which evokes images of sunset plains and endless skies.

On the fourth and final track, "No Me Tengas Miedo No Me," the vocals come to the forefront, slightly modulated, speaking from a place of seemingly mystical power. "Watch as the islands of my eyes ride waves / Of hiding the whole body," the artist chants, further erasing the lines between nature and self that have been blurred by the preceding songs. We are beseeched yet again, in Spanish and English: "No me tengas miedo / No me ... Do not fear me / Do not / I come from higher places."

No Me Tengas Miedo feels in many ways like an exercise in surrender. It lulls us into an uncertain serenity, not tranquilized but clear-headed, before pulling us into a strange world with unfamiliar boundaries. It's a transportive work, and one that you'll find calling you back when you least expect it.

Pre-order No Me Tengas Miedo, out tomorrow (3/28) on Antiquated Future and Spirit House.