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Tag: electro-pop

Album Review: Bjork – Biophilia [Nonesuch]

You’ve got to admire Bjork’s courage. She is consistently looking for new ways to innovate and challenge her fans, the same of which can’t be said about almost anybody else. Perhaps the closest and most recent example of forward-thinking technology mixed with music was when Damon Albarn composed an entire Gorillaz album, “The Fall”, on an iPad. Not much has been done since then, either due to lack of ambition or in more likely cases, lack of money by which to apply and use these new technologies. Music may be on an ever-increasing path towards digital distribution methods, but taking it beyond that realm is scary, unexplored territory for most. Bjork wallows in the scary and unexplored though. That not only goes for her eccentric outfit choices, but everything in and around her music too. Back in 2008 and essentially just before the start of the “3D craze”, Bjork released a 3D music video for her track “Wanderlust” off her last record “Volta”. That was highly interesting in itself. Now in 2011, she’s once again trying something innovative. You can get her new record “Biophilia” through traditional means such as CD, vinyl and mp3, but if you’re more adventurous you can pick up an iPad application that features interactive digital elements for each individual track. If you’re wealthy, there was also a super-fancy “Ultimate Art Edition” of the record that you could have ordered (it’s no longer available for sale) that featured an lacquered and silkscreened oak box filled with 2 discs of music, a 48-page cloth-covered book with thread-sewn pages, and 10 chrome-plated tuning forks that are each adjusted to the tone of a track off the album. That bad boy would have run you $800 if you so desired to spend it, and it was yet another way to explore the unique world that Bjork has created around herself.

For all the intricate and forward-thinking ways you can engage with “Biophilia”, it’s all no good if the music is crap. With so much energy being put into developing iPad apps or special colored tuning forks, have the songs lost their top priority in this arrangement? Or as a counterpoint, does the creation of an entire universe around a record deepen and enhance what’s already there? Admirable as her past efforts have been, Bjork hasn’t had an especially great record since “Vespertine” ten years ago, and there’s a certain sense that while the way she distributes her music is ever-changing, the songs themselves aren’t. The titles themselves tell you a lot of what you need to know, most of them single-word environmental elements such as “Moon” or “Thunderbolt” or “Virus”. Yes, the lyrics keep that same thread going, casting broad strokes to match the broad concepts. “To risk all/is the end all/and the beginning all,” she sings on opening track “Moon”. What exactly it means is for you to figure out. She makes more sense on “Cosmonogy”, telling the many different stories about how the universe came into existence, from the Big Bang to God emerging from a black egg. At least she uses some of the Earth and space motifs as metaphors for more relatable things such as life and love and intimacy. Destructive as “Virus” may be, it’s ultimately a love song seeking connection. “Like a virus needs a body/As soft tissue feeds on blood/Someday I’ll find you/The urge is here”, she sings amid the music box melody. The hope is simply to avoid becoming completely devoured as she “feed(s) inside you”. Meanwhile “Mutual Core” takes the movement of tectonic plates, those that are responsible for the global shifting of countries as well as disasters such as earthquakes and volcano eruptions, and tries to push two people into an emotional Pangaea. We can shift our own plates around to try and clear a space to our hearts to link up with another, but we all have personal volcanoes that erupt from time to time, and those can do serious damage to two bodies linked by one core. Not everything on “Biophilia” is blatant symbolism for something else, but the tracks that do push that angle tend to be better off than the ones that don’t.

Lyrics aside, the backing instrumentals on “Biophilia” have their own issues as well. There’s plenty of engaging moments, such as the super repetitive and naturally addictive single “Crystalline”, which starts off delicately enough with some innocent chimes but eventually descends into a heavy drum’n’bass rhythm in the final minute that’s simply killer. The mellotron on “Mutual Core” keeps the track firmly grounded, until the volcano eruptions occur, at which point the pace and tension builds as some gritty electro beats explode outwards and upwards before it all settles down once again. Twists and turns like that help to make the song one of the finest moments on the record. And though it fails to push into another gear, the customized gravity harps that populate “Moon” create the right atmosphere even as the lyrics are something of a failure. After a remarkably interesting start to the record however, there’s a certain stagnation that begins to permeate most everything from “Dark Matter” onwards. There’s organ and strings and a number of electronic beats that show up on “Hollow”, but the whole time it just drifts along completely formless and seemingly unaware of where its headed or when it might stop. A number of things were thrown at a wall in the hopes something would stick, but ultimately nothing did. For tracks like “Sacrifice” and “Thunderbolt”, it feels like a basic melody was created and then held for most of the duration, leaving Bjork’s vocals to do any sort of heavy lifting. She’s more than capable of hitting whatever notes she likes with those incredible vocal chords, but there are moments where it feels like she’s trying too hard to make a song more engaging by showing off that range. The more organic she can make it feel, the better.

If you’re paying attention to Bjork only for her music, “Biophilia” is yet another in her string of releases these last several years that doesn’t quite deliver on the excitement of her earlier records. Technology junkies willing to fork over the $10 for an album’s worth of iPad apps may enjoy this record quite a bit more thanks to the interactive element, because playing around with lightning bolts and colorful balls carries a certain degree of satisfaction along with it too. The whole thing is very well put together and is visually gorgeous as well, akin to many of Bjork’s music videos. Keeping the songs and the apps together places limits on the ease of which you can hear the music, which we may need to remind ourselves comes first and foremost. Actually she may also need to remind herself that the music comes first and foremost. Yet it remains a challenge to separate Bjork the person, all of her visually striking costumes and futuristic ways of applying her music to new formats, from the songs she creates. If she were to strip away all the dazzling bits from her persona and were to simply release a record like any other artist, might that be the spark she requires to get her songwriting and composing mojo back? There’s only one way to find out, and unfortunately there’s no app that can do it for her.

Buy “Biophilia” from Amazon
Buy the Biophilia app from iTunes

Album Review: Twin Sister – In Heaven [Domino]

Most bands arrive at our doorsteps fully formed. That is to say, lead-in single or not, the first major release from a majority of bands is their debut full length. The material on it is often culled from years worth of early demos, the tracks that got the band noticed in the first place. Most artists live or die based upon how that first record is received. Yet there are a select few that choose to forego releasing a full length right off the bat, instead dipping their toes in the proverbial musical waters by unleashing a smaller EP first. If you’re a band like Voxtrot, you put out two EPs before getting around to a whole album. There was a lesson to be learned from Voxtrot’s example, where they earned loads of hype via by releasing small sets of songs at once, but then fell flat on their faces when it came time to extend that out to something bigger and more traditional (even if the album is a “dying format”). The EP just works much better for some bands. Enter Twin Sister, one of those bands solely defined by the EPs to their name. The first was “Vampires With Dreaming Kids”, unleashed in 2008 right on the verge of the “Twilight” craze. It did earn the band some healthy buzz, but last year’s “Color Your Life” EP served them even better, boosted by the band’s best track to date “All Around and Away We Go”. That last EP also brought them interest from some larger indie labels, and they struck a deal with Domino to release their debut full length “In Heaven”. So does the band come away clean in their transition from EPs to albums? To start, they’re certainly faring better than Voxtrot did.

Technically speaking, Twin Sister were never a lo-fi band, but the audio quality of their EPs was far from perfect. They were most likely working on a shoestring budget both times. With decent financing for “In Heaven”, there’s a notable difference in quality that reflects positively on the band. Such crispness brings out qualities in the music you wouldn’t have caught before, and that’s particularly true when synths are one of your main instruments. Singer Andrea Estella’s vocals get the biggest boost out of it, her high-pitched and lush songbird pipes get pushed to the forefront and take the reins, keeping you invested in every song even when it might not be prudent to do so. The band also learned a thing or two about economy, stepping away from any of the longer 6 and 7 minute space out sessions on the “Color Your Life” EP and instead averaging out around 3-3.5 minutes across the entire album, never making it to the 5 minute mark once. That’s perfectly fine, actually – they use most of the tracks to experiment just a touch while the more manageable track lengths give them greater commercial viability. That they’re able to add a few more quirks to their more traditional bedroom pop sound helps them to stand out just a bit more from their peers, even if not everything they try works. Still, you can hear the influence of a band like Broadcast in the bombastic “Spain”, while “Bad Street” goes almost straight for the 80s electro stylings of Blondie. Sprinkle a little 80s R&B in with the duet “Stop”, a little alternatve universe shoegaze via “Kimmi in a Rice Field” and a touch of Sterolab-ish odd pop courtesy of “Gene Ciampi” and you’ve got a record filled with fascinating curios.

Delightful as it may be to listen to, the one thing that “In Heaven” truly lacks is any sense of consistency. They happily journey from a more spacey dark wave number like opener “Daniel” into the sensuous R&B of “Stop” without blinking an eye or caring how well the two blend together. Truth is, that doesn’t make for a bad combination, nor does much on this record feel markedly out of place, but that’s probably due to the effortless but key vocals from Estella and bandmate Eric Cardona. Also the instruments stay largely the same, often some form of synth-guitar combination with beats that tend to be more programmed than performed. Think of Twin Sister as if they were this really great cover band, running the gamut with a mixture of popular favorites across four decades, every attempt accomplished with the same set of tools. Not everything works out to perfection, but 8 or 9 times out of ten they birth something far more impressive than it has any right to be. What is Twin Sister’s sound then? If you consulted their first two EPs, they were relatively well-defined and cohesive statements pushing a spacey, retro electro-pop aesthetic. “In Heaven” breaks away from that mold save for “Luna’s Theme” and presents a whole lot of other avenues the band might take. Given how well they tackle that spread of ideas, the band is now faced with the challenge of regaining focus on their next effort. Any number of stylistic doors have been opened for them as a result of this record, and which one they’ll choose to step through is anybody’s guess.

Twin Sister – Bad Street

Twin Sister – Gene Ciampi

Buy “In Heaven” from Amazon

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