Baroque Pop

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.

REVIEW: Howard Hello - Election Year

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Phillipe Roberts

Every year, the next crop of older indie bands rides the latest nostalgia wave back into relevancy. Some never escape the cash-grab label, but others are lucky enough to collide with the arc of collective memory at a rare moment, old ideas reinvigorated by a timely historical synergy. The recent reunion of the Breeders absolutely comes to mind. Howard Hello, a duo composed of songwriters Marty Anderson and Kenseth Thibideau, retreated from view nearly ten years ago after a short run of records that aimed to “craft music inspired by the American Zeitgeist,” taking the form of lavish baroque pop arrangements that occasionally flirted with ambient washes of sound. Released approximately one year after the end of the 2016 presidential election, their reunion album, Election Year, takes the latest flashpoint year as a signal to renew that initial mission. Sidestepping appeals to nostalgia to turn in a therapeutic protest album, Howard Hello return eager to tackle old themes through the lens of a noticeably darker era.

Lyrical content aside, the soundscapes that dominate Election Year take their cues from the lush orchestration that characterized their earlier work. The sound is slathered with a heavy coat of reverb that gives it a melancholy, pastoral feeling, echoing the folk-oriented post-rock of Do Make Say Think and the lighter moments of Broken Social Scene. Finger-picked guitars meander across delicate plinks of piano and drums thud or simmer at a marching pace. There’s a state of constant ascent, with the tracks blooming and growing to swooning crescendos, aided by the addition of strings and horns. The expansion of the instrumentation is a massive benefit to their overall sound, and Howard Hello treat the viewer to a constantly evolving sonic landscape to match their lyrical ambitions.

Lyrically, the tracks attack the despair and opportunism springing from the election with equal fervor. “Simon Say” takes a stab at naming the callous forces arrayed against them—“DOD, NRA, Goldman Sachs”—melting them down with a heavy dose of vocoder on the vocals. Howard Hello have always used electronic elements, but letting this touch extend to the human voice reinforces the ominous atmosphere of Election Year to a wonderful degree, especially when paired with more organic instrumentation. The chanting of “mass civil disobedience” on “MCD” sounds both inviting and terrifying against the airy cascade of acoustic guitar. “Out” continues this mantra pattern with a plea to externalize despair into positive action, grooving along to tambourine and shuffling drums as it builds to a crescendo of frantic trumpet soloing. “Vote” forsakes percussion entirely except for a distant clatter, building a gently unfolding dirge of strings instead.

By taking the risk of making a deliberately political record, Howard Hello are constantly wrestling with the possibility of sounding overly earnest. Initially, the direct naming and shaming of a track like “Simon Say” felt grating in its directness, and similar moments crop up elsewhere on the record at first pass. But allow yourself to sink into the melodies and bask in the emotional swells of instrumentation, and it starts to sound and feel appropriate on the second pass. “Greenhouse” does it best the first time, its climate change-focused lyrics playing a majestic back and forth with the evolving landscape. The effect is a dazzling post-rock anthem that both soothes old wounds and galvanizes you toward direct action.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Stolen Jars - Gone Away

Will Shenton

With their phenomenal sophomore LP, Kept, Stolen Jars established themselves with one of the more distinctive sounds we'd come across in 2015. Their follow-up, glint, is a similarly unique EP, comprised of five tracks that explore "themes of loss and renewal ... finding hints of memory in the present and trying to keep sight of them just long enough to let them go." On top of all that, it's a video album, each song accompanied by evocative visuals.

The fifth and final video, "Gone Away" (directed by Marissa Goldman), is a vignette from the end of a marriage, depicting the moments when familiar places become abruptly foreign in the wake of emotional upheaval. Against the backdrop of a somewhat fantastical apartment (made even more so by liberal use of green screen), we watch as a woman suddenly grows too big to fit in her living room. Stolen Jars' signature percussion and gorgeous male-female duet scores the scene, which concludes with our protagonist calling to tell her boss she's going to be late for work—presumably admitting for the first time that she needs to grapple with her loss.

"Gone Away" is brief, but nonetheless powerful. Like the rest of glint, it's a story of pain and the hope that springs from its depths. In that vein, 25% of all sales of the EP will benefit the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a legal aid organization that "works to guarantee that all people are free to self-determine gender identity and expression, regardless of income or race, and without facing harassment, discrimination or violence." So if it resonates with you as much as it did with us, we highly recommend picking up a copy.

REVIEW: Caitlin Pasko - Glass Period

Laura Kerry

For the better part of a decade, Caitlin Pasko has performed under the moniker Lacrymosa. For the first time, though, she has released an album under her own name, a move that signals the intimacy of the new work. Comprised of subdued piano-based folk- and baroque-pop songs, Glass Period is as fragile and transparent as its name suggests.

Written after the death of her father and a difficult breakup that occurred shortly after, Glass Period is a meditation on loss. In the course of six songs, Pasko explores the varied scope of grief, moving from monumental reflection in the first song, “Barking Dog” (“You're born alone / And you die alone / But what about the time in between?”) to the small but achingly difficult act of throwing out the shampoo bottle that a loved one left behind in the second track, “Favorite Dessert.” In the third song, she remembers her subject as she has seen him and pictures him as she hasn’t.

In the latter half of Glass Period, Pasko starts to move beyond grief. In “Me Alone,” she repeats, “If you want to be alone then be alone, be alone” in different phrasings and tones—from a legato elegy to a dainty staccato—as if experimenting with the notion of being on her own. Throughout the whole album, Pasko maintains a similar sense of immediacy, perhaps the inevitable result of working through real events through her art. When she addresses her fears in the past tense in the “The Still” and intensifies the song after declaring, “I want to walk up to the tracks, hold my arms up, tilt my head back,” it feels like genuine catharsis, both on the part of the listener and the artist. As the song settles again, she sings, “I'm not that bad / I just want my feeling back,” and, answering her own wishes, the next song begins with a snippet of laughter from a recording session. “I’m going to keep going,” Pasko says after inhaling and before launching into a the final song in which she asks, “How lucky am I?”

Despite all of the immediacy, however, Glass Period also exhibits restraint, as well as a cleverness that requires critical distance. Though the compositions are mostly minimal, made up of sparse vocal lines, loose-sounding keys, and accents of saxophone and a few other effects, Pasko experiments with structure throughout the EP. None of the songs follow a typical verse-chorus pattern. In “Barking Dog,” for example, she returns to an anchoring phrase, “There’s a reason why the dog is barking,” but wanders around it, and in “Me Alone,” the refrain itself wanders. “The Still,” in contrast, has three distinct parts that build to a peak in the form of forcefully played piano chords with a low hum effect.

In a gorgeously delicate album, the one component that seems to be lacking is a rise in the vocals; even in the emotional climax of “The Still,” Pasko still sings relatively softly, as she does elsewhere in Glass Period. Because of this, though, the album favors subtlety. The listener follows as the vocal melody quietly descends on the phrase “float down” and in the slight wavering on in the repetitions of “I’m right” in the last song, attuned to the small variations that arise in the quiet. Muted and exquisite, Caitlin Pasko’s album is a testament to the beauty that can arise even in the most painful of circumstances.

REVIEW: Jacco Gardner - Hypnophobia

Kelly Kirwan

Whether or not you filed into a Psych 101 class at some point in your academic career, you can probably reiterate its stock image—the tip of the iceberg. It’s become the unsubtle icon of the conscious mind, attached but maintaining a coyly distant relationship to the gargantuan subconscious hidden below. As I listened to Jacco Gardner’s new album, Hypnophobia, I kept coming back to this—the iceberg—psychology’s favorite metaphor.

A large reason for this was certainly the title, plucked straight from a psychiatrist’s manual: the irrational fear of sleep or hypnosis. (And, let’s face it—I was drawn to the double entendre of Gardner being hailed a “baroque psych-pop prince”). But more than that, the entire album feels like a dreamy exploration, one in which the synapses of the mind are a kind of smoky maze Gardner tries to navigate. This isn’t afternoon sunshine daydream material, it’s pensive nighttime reverie.

That much is conveyed by Hypnophobia’s cover, a slow-motion array of disembodied eyes and hands that could pass for a 60s horror film poster. It’s more of a statement than it is legitimately scary, just like the dark tones of Gardner’s album, which lull listeners instead of putting them on edge. That Gardner manages to pull off this dichotomy is a testament to his musical prowess, and he puts in the legwork to earn the badge of “solo album” by picking up nearly every instrument that layers his tracks.

His repertoire includes  harpsichords and throwback electric pianos like the Wurlitzer and mellotron—and if that wasn’t enough retro quirk, Gardner recorded the album in his home studio to the north of Amsterdam, a place known only as “The Shadow Shoppe.” On Hypnophobia’s first track, “Another You,” Gardner uses his vintage pianos to create an electric-tinged organ effect. It’s a spooky few moments, but once we pass the 28-second mark the song picks up into a repetitive, even catchy tune. It’s this melodic complexity which provides a counterpoint to his occasionally thin lyrics.

Take “Outside Forever,” with Gardner’s far-off delivery of, “I’ve been traveling / Through the changes I’ve been having / Skies are brighter more than ever / And remind me I don’t have her…” On paper they seem revealing, but Gardner’s ethereal delivery only vaguely floats over his chords. It's not exactly a bad thing. Hypnophobia is what I’d call a mood album, conveying the fluidity of a dream where the mismatched makes sense.

It’s no surprise that Gardner cites Syd Barrett and early Pink Floyd as his musical inspirations, along with The Zombies and an outside comparison to Brian Wilson. As Hypnophobia and his debut album Cabinet of Curiosities have demonstrated, he is deeply entrenched in the psychedelic revival of late. However, true to the ethos of multi-instrumentalism, Gardner doesn’t shy away from pairing retro conceits with modern technology. It’s this hybrid of analog sounds and digital effects that give him a touch of originality and set him apart from the crowd. There's a lot going on beneath the surface, and Gardner's psychic iceberg certainly warrants some repeated listens and analytical exploration.

 

Hypnophobia will be released on Polyvinyl Records May 5, 2015.