Avant 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: Pollens - Mister Manufacture


Phillipe Roberts

Scrunched between commuters and bucking wildly to the clanging percussion of the morning J-Train, Pollens are throwing an existential dance party right here, right now. And unlike on Facebook, they’re not taking “interested” for an answer. With a sound that floats between the mathematical groove sorcery of Battles and the acid-fried screech of Animal Collective, Mister Manufacture is a joyful romp through the pleasures and pitfalls of an overconnected, overcrowded modern life.

“I tell you what you want / I tell you about what you want / But why do I like it?”

“Computers won’t change anything … I don’t see my future in the crystal screen.”

If you’re still browsing social media after being barraged by think pieces about how it’s eroding the moral fabric of the youth, lyrics like those might send your eyeballs spinning in their sockets—it’s a knee-jerk reaction to a tide of curmudgeonly fear-mongering.

Thankfully, Pollens are having none of that; if anything, they’re just as tired of that old man yelling at you to get off the digital lawn as you are. “J-Train,” the centerpiece of the record, is a convincing parody of overheard millennial conversations: “I look at art on the internet,” “Some very famous people are still in high school,” and, a personal favorite, “I attended a workshop once.” It could honestly pass for a field recording.

But there’s a healthy dose of DEVO-like irony baked into those squishy synths and warped drums, and a soft-hearted sympathy for obsession with technological escapism. The back half of that line about famous people in high school? “And others are waiting for those ten years after high school to go away.” We’re all that crabby old man shouting at teens from time to time, and Pollens isn’t afraid to call you out on it.

Don’t skimp on the headphones when delving into Mister Manufacture; laptop speakers won’t do justice to the complex ecosystem of sounds that Pollens have engineered to accompany their psychedelic sloganeering. Although the songs do have a loop-based character to them, their consistent rhythmic attack feels all-encompassing. Warm, slippery bass and ping-ponging snares curl delicately around guitar licks that glitch in and out, giving rise to an effect reminiscent of Talking Heads’ “Born Under Punches.” The deja vu doesn’t stop there, either—keep your ears open on “Looks,” a stomping cry for recognition amidst the brick backdrops of the city on “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody).”

That one riff is the singular moment of sustained vocal melody on the album, and it’s a surprisingly fantastic look for Pollens, a band that sticks to robotic, half-rapped delivery for most of its output. It’s a moment of strangely naked vulnerability on a record that deals mostly in quick-witted, tight-lipped jabs. Because as much as we love to laugh at “Dinosaurs’” creationist caricature, who “doesn’t believe in the ocean floor” or “outer space,” and won’t be convinced that “math is cool,” Pollens knows as well as we do that unmasking our deepest intimacies is the antidote to our anxious fumblings for the nearest screen.

Mister Manufacture is out this Friday, 10/27.

REVIEW: Land Lines - The Natural World

Will Shenton

Minimalism might be the most powerful technique in all of music. I don't necessarily mean the cyclical, hypnotic contemporary classical of Philip Glass and David Lang (though that's pretty great in its own way), but more the general philosophy of using subtle, spare instrumentation and vocals. Perhaps "restraint" is a better word.

Regardless of what term you want to use, Colorado-based trio Land Lines are masters of it. On their sophomore LP, The Natural World, every beat, lyric, and bowed string is presented against such a minimal background that you can't help but give it your full attention. Every move is profoundly intentional, and demands appreciation.

The problem with minimalism is that it can often feel unfinished or emotionally flat. Not so with these guys. While their songs are generally sparse, they certainly don't shy away from some explosive choruses. "Etiquette," for example, simmers its way from little more than pizzicato cello and percussion to a passionate, arresting yell from vocalist Martina Grbac. It's dramatic and powerful in a way that you wouldn't normally expect from this type of reserved music.

The album vacillates between simple, unadorned tracks like "Logic," "Matter," and "Will + Worry" and driving, up-tempo pieces like "Limb From Limb" (my personal favorite) and "Plans." There are even a few, like the opener "Rivers + Streams," that take a few pages from more traditional chamber pop. They're able to keep things moving, vary their sound, and somehow never lose that tonal thread that ties everything together.

I could probably wax lyrical about The Natural World for a thousand more words, but I think the music speaks for itself. I'm amazed that Land Lines haven't gotten more attention, and this latest release on Misra seems poised to be their national breakout—I know it's on my shortlist for the best of 2015. This is clearly a group that's at the top of their game.