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Album Review: M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming [Mute]


90% of double albums are failures. In more recent years, everyone from Foo Fighters to the Red Hot Chili Peppers have attempted to show off creatively by unleashing multi-disc efforts. Some claim the music is all thematically sound, tied to a concept or something else, and therefore entirely necessary to extend beyond your traditional single album length. Others say they went into the studio and got far more recorded than anticipated, and because everything was so great, instead of cutting tracks they just left it as-is, bleeding it out into dual records. You’ve also got a band like Radiohead, who made “Kid A” and released that, then followed up 8 months later on with “Amnesiac”, essentially more new songs from those same sessions but contextually different. A staggered release schedule forming two separate albums tends to be the smarter move, particularly in this day and age when albums are largely down for the count and singles reign, the attention span of music fans growing increasingly shorter by the day. Still, there is the occasional double album that works, generating enough positive response to go down with the status of “legendary”. We’re talking Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” or the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness”. It was reportedly that Pumpkins record which served as the main inspiration for M83’s main man Anthony Gonzalez to craft his own double album “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming”. This may be one of the worst times in music trends to unleash 73 minutes of music intended to be heard in one sitting, but let’s just be thankful somebody has the balls to keep trying anyways.

The first thing you look for in any double album is filler. Instrumental tracks? That’s typically the first sign of filler, but if you know M83 then you also know they do a fair share of instrumentals on their single disc records. Their electro-synth sound is built to where instrumentals can be not only welcome, but sometimes encouraged. One listen to “Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts” will teach you all you need to know about M83 and instrumentals. There’s somewhere around a half dozen instrumentals spread across the 22 total tracks here, and almost all of them are wholly engaging or serve a particular purpose other than apparent filler. This isn’t a record with an overarching theme or concept holding it all together, outside of just a generalized dream state it otherwise seeks to achieve. Yet there are so many big pop songs and dramatic ballads that transitional pieces and more minor moments are almost required as balance. “Train to Pluton” or “Fountains” may not be the most exciting or brilliant pieces of music, but they are fully functional set-up pieces and never really hurt the overall pacing that gets established. You can also look at moments like “Where the Boats Go” and “When Will You Come Home?”, the former which aids the adjustment from the red hot “Reunion” into the massive drift that is “Wait” and the latter which serves as the start of a trio of songs that effortlessly blends the first disc with the second.

Long time fans of M83 should automatically feel comfortable with “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming”, as the 80s synth-pop motifs continue to permeate everything Gonzalez touches. That’s his thing, crafting a soundtrack to an imagined version of his teenage years. The last record “Saturdays=Youth” felt like musical accompaniment to a long-lost John Hughes film, and while there’s still some resemblance to that on the new double album, it comes across as far less cinematic in nature. That doesn’t mean it’s any less expansive or epic though, as it’s tough to call 74 minutes of music minimal or small. But those bigger, arena-style melodies were explored in a similar fashion on “Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts”. To bring out the full M83 past album retrospective, fans of “Before the Dawn Heals Us” will find the darker, more urban pop of that record bearing an influence here as well. Darkness would be a theme on this record, as any record with the word “dreaming” in its title hopefully implies sleeping and night time. Despite all this looking back providing a “complete picture” of what M83 has been all about, there’s still the future to be concerned with. In response to that, Gonzalez has taken to expanding the number of instruments on this record to include the occasional saxophone (“Midnight City”) or flute (“New Map”) while pushing his own vocals into entirely new territory.

Past singles like “Kim & Jessie” or “Don’t Save Us From the Flames” provide great reference samples featuring Gonzalez keeping his vocals restrained at an almost whisper-like level. It becomes apparent from the very first track on the new album, the aptly titled “Intro”, that those days of calmly reserved, passive singing are over. Gonzalez’s voice may not be the most impressive thing when he’s belting out songs at full volume as his newfound range and key reveal some limitations, but you’ve got to give him credit for laying it all out there. He sounds a full octave higher than he used to, now fully up-front and brimming with confidence, taking the reins like he’s ready to conquer the world. For once his singing matches the scope of his arrangements, which is probably why cuts like “Midnight City” and “Steve McQueen” also make for some of M83’s best songs to date in a catalogue dense with highlights already.

If you’re not prepared for it, “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming” might seem like a chore to listen to from start to finish. There’s so much material to digest that it can be a little overwhelming at times, making it that much harder to become enraptured with important moments because there are quite a few. To Gonzalez’s credit he spreads them out fairly evenly to continually engage the listener for the duration, though the first five tracks of each disc can feel like a pileup of pure sonic delight. There may not be a storyline or abstract concept linking these tracks together, but like the two halves of “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness”, each separate disc has a sonic counterpart on the other. Consider them then like fraternal twins – different, but inextricably linked to one another. The more carefully you listen, the more obvious it becomes. It would seem then that going the double album route has worked out remarkably well for M83. Count this was one of those rare cases where a multi-disc effort is worth the time and money you invest in it. There are not really any bad songs in this bunch either, and even the child’s spoken word moments of “Raconte-Moi Une Histoire” can’t derail the momentum this beast generates for itself. Will it go down in history as one of those rare double albums that still gets talked about 5, 10 or 50 years down the line? Probably not, if only due to technology. Up until the early 00s, album releases were regarded as events, and people’s options were confined to physical mediums such as vinyl, cassette tapes and CDs. You couldn’t really skip any tracks on The Beatles’ “White Album” because at the time that luxury didn’t exist. With the advent of the digital era, not only are people skipping or cherry picking, but access to music itself has become so fluid there’s far more music to take in than any one person can even begin to digest. Hence the rise of the single, so we can listen to that song and get on to the next artist. But here’s a piece of work that while created today is distinctly 80s in sound and scope. If you’re a child of the 80s or earlier decades, that’s something you can understand, even as you may have a hard drive filled to the brim with other music. Calm yourself down and set aside 74 minutes to take in “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming” at least once in full. Hopefully it will speak to you and maybe even reinstill a faith in the long player. The death of the album (single or double) has been greatly exaggerated, and M83 makes for some great evidence in support of that. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to try and find the exact time when this album and the film “The NeverEnding Story” sync up perfectly.

M83 – Intro (ft Zola Jesus)

M83 – Midnight City

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Album Review: Neon Indian – Era Extra├▒a [Mom & Pop/Static Tongues]


Of the many chillwave/glo-fi acts to emerge out of that hype cycle a couple years ago, Neon Indian was easily one of the most unique. Sure, the Alan Palomo-fronted project had that distinctive 80s washed out bedroom electronica feel to it, but there haven’t been a lot of artists that incorporate 8-bit video game noises and distorted guitar lines. Throw Palomo’s overly soft-on-the-ears vocals in as well, and Neon Indian’s debut “Psychic Chasms” turned him into a proverbial indie star. Last year he did a one-off single for Green Label Sound called “Sleep Paralysist”, and a couple months back he recorded a psychedelic freak-out EP with The Flaming Lips. Both of those things marked shifts in direction for Palomo and Neon Indian, yet none of those things quite encapsulate what is going on with his second long player, “Era Extra├▒a”. Then again, if you’ve been paying attention to how things are going with other chillwave artists these days, you’re surely aware that like any hype cycle, it’s lifespan is running short. Changes are all but required to survive, and it’s fascinating to hear how the artists within the genre are reacting individually. If you’re Palomo, you go to Finland by yourself and see what sorts of batshit ideas fly out of your head. Rather than putting him in a straightjacket though, “Era Extra├▒a” actually winds up bringing a greater focus to his unique sound.

As it has played out with a number of other chillwave artists, “Era Extra├▒a” boasts a marked step forwards in production style. “Psychic Chasms” was crafted and recorded primarily in Alan Palomo’s bedroom, and you could pretty much tell that from the way it sounded. Now utilizing an actual studio and with actual producer Dave Fridmann, the new album sounds cleaner and bigger than ever before. There are still a handful of woozy, fully retro-fied moments, in particular the 3 instrumental “Heart” interludes, but while the era remains firmly entrenched in the 80s, we’re now dealing in technicolor rather than something paler and more faded. If this were the last record, a track like “Hex Girlfriend” might otherwise have vocals buried in the mix and filled with so much lo-fi reverb that the lyrics border on indecipherable. Now better produced and devoid of any vocal effects, the vocals come across as clear and dominant, a positive when placed among shoegazey guitars and woozy synths. In almost direct opposition to that, the album’s title track features highly polished synths and strongly driven bass, a combo that feels markedly M83/New Order-ish, but then the vocals wind up lowest on the totem pole and oozing with so much reverb that they’re nearly pointless. A huge positive is that the song is paired next to “Halogen (I Could Be A Shadow)”, a track that is a spiritual and sonic cousin but does a far more interesting job blending textures and pulling off the M83 style. In fact, the sequencing on the entirety of “Era Extra├▒a” is rather inspired, as the grungy, guitar-heavy shoegaze numbers “The Blindside Kiss” and “Hex Girlfriend” wind up neighbors, while there’s an almost LCD Soundsystem-like quality to “Future Sick” and “Suns Irrupt” even if neither track ever quite gets to that level of brilliance. Palomo even has “Arcade Blues” tacked onto the very end of the record with the word “single” in parentheses because he wanted to include it as a bonus track even though it didn’t fit in stylistically with the rest of the record. He’s right about that, and it makes for a great little addendum to everything that came before it.

Palomo also shows off his expanding skills as a composer, building more creatively stimulating and intricate melodies than ever before and utilizing an army of sound effects to accent increasingly complex choruses. First single “Polish Girl” experiments a little with verse structure, namely by placing a bit of instrumental space between the chorus and verses that serves as its own hook. It’s not noticeable unless you’re really looking for it though, which is one of the reasons why the song works so well. In other spots, it’s little moments that make you sit up and take notice. The static-filled, bubbling synth open to “Hex Girlfriend” and the twinkling synths that bring the title track to its conclusion are just two of the more soberingly beautiful bits that bring an extra dose of charm to songs that are far more expansive and party-oriented than most of Neon Indian’s earlier stuff. Yet it never wanders from the singular path it appears to be on, streamlined and to the point more than ever before. And while some of the textures and approaches to most of the songs have changed on “Era Extra├▒a”, the lyrical topics stay within the ballpark. Yes, there’s the inevitable topic du jour of relationships, primarily failed ones, that Palomo gets down about from time to time. That comprises much of the first half of the album, while the second half is more about distancing yourself from the world at large primarily through disconnection. “Future Sick” is all about falling behind the times technologically, while “Halogen (I Could Be A Shadow)” is about the need to carve your own path in life or risk being left in the dark. The melodies themselves may be uplifting and danceable, but by no means do all of them project positive messages.

If there’s one thing “Era Extra├▒a” lacks, it’s a more lighthearted approach. It’s a big part of why “Arcade Blues” doesn’t fit within the solid structure of the rest of the record. Not that “Arcade Blues” is a single overjoyed moment on this album – from the title alone you can tell it’s not a happy song. What it does right though is through the smart and liberal use of video game samples, remind us of those afternoons after school or weekends in which we’d go to the arcade with friends and have a blast pumping those machines full of quarters. Palomo may have preferred another method of distraction, but there was a certain satisfaction to be gained from everything as classic as Pac Man to putting the pedal to the floor in a driving game or knowing that your parents didn’t want you playing Mortal Kombat. That he only finds sadness in an arcade while simultaneously exploiting video game sound effects is almost counterintuitive. This, coming from a guy that used to perform in his early pre-Neon Indian days while wearing a Nintendo Powerglove. It’s that uncertainty, that push towards something darker as the music itself sounds lighter than ever, that makes “Era Extra├▒a” weaker than its predecessor. For all the advances Neon Indian has made sonically, verbally and psychologically Palomo has run the other way. He’s retreated into this more pessimistic and serious place but can’t even be bothered to try a little sarcasm on for size. The record is still a success, but not nearly what it could have been had the outlook been a little brighter. With big, fun-sounding music, you want to have the artist reflect that back at you with their words. LCD Soundsystem had their fair share of sadder songs (“All My Friends”, “Someone Great”), but those were often balanced out with silly numbers (“North American Scum”, “Drunk Girls”). Once Alan Palomo is able to find that same dichotomy, Neon Indian will truly hit the big time.

Neon Indian – Polish Girl

Neon Indian – Hex Girlfriend

Neon Indian – Fallout

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Album Review: Active Child – You Are All I See [Vagrant]


Last summer, Active Child released the “Curtis Lane” EP. It was a collection of 6 songs that made for a fascinating introduction to Pat Grossi’s pet project, unique in the way that harp, synths and vocals were all blended, chopped and screwed into an electronic filter with dizzying results. The crossroads that EP presented were directional, with Grossi taking a shot at the slow moving and shimmery synth melodies on one side and more beat-driven 80s dance numbers on the other. Everything worked together relatively well, but the dichotomy suggested that he’d need to make a clearer and bolder choice of direction for whatever he chose to record next. It’s been over a year, one mostly filled with extensive touring around the world, but Active Child finally got around to making a debut full length, titled “You Are All I See”. With his harp and a powerful falsetto voice that even angels are jealous of, Grossi has taken a sharper turn towards ethereal beauty and away from the dance floor, and it’s doubtful anybody will disagree with that decision.

Just because Grossi has made the right decision when it comes to Active Child’s overall sound doesn’t mean that “You Are All I See” is automatically a great record. The title track that starts the record begins with waterfalls of harp eventually leading to touches of synth and that heavenly vocal rising above it all, often overdubbed to create soaring harmonies. Those first four minutes are so gorgeous that you get the sense nothing else on the album will be able to top it from a beauty perspective. That’s pretty much true, but beauty isn’t everything, and a number of other tracks come close to that same level of musical splendor anyways. Electronic textures and synths take over on first single “Hanging On”, and the results sound a bit like something that Justin Vernon’s side project Volcano Choir might put out, but with a little more mainstream R&B influence. The R&B aspect goes into full gear courtesy of “Playing House”, Grossi’s team-up with How to Dress Well aka Tom Krell. If you’re looking for an indie version of a sexy jam to “get it on” to, here’s your track. The slow clap looped beat matched against high-pitched synths and Krell’s expressive vocal (with Auto-Tune harmonies) not to mention seductive lyrics create the perfect environment for taking off your clothes and making some sweet love. Go ahead and give it a try. Let me know how it went afterwards.

As “You Are All I See” fully develops, in spite of a few stylistic shifts the majority of it maintains a delicate 80s electro-synth-pop vibe, its closest cousin actually being the last M83 album “Saturdays=Youth”. The main issue is that it’s not nearly as energetic or engrossing as M83, often adopting a more meditative tone that becomes formless and drags after awhile. Even Grossi’s consistent and dynamite voice can’t quite save much of the middle of the record. “See Thru Eyes” and “High Priestess” in particular fail to inspire in the wake of the first third of the album. When “Way Too Fast” shows up, the minimalist electro atmospherics blended with Grossi’s vocals pitch-shifted through multiple filters makes it sound like an outtake from the James Blake record. It actually makes for one of the most fascinating moments on the entire album even if it doesn’t quite equal the high watermark Blake established earlier this year. Almost like a cast off from the “Curtis Lane” EP, “Shield and Sword” brings the tempo to dance club level but stops short of becoming fully fleshed out and engaging. It also feels just a slight bit out of place.

If there’s hope for “You Are All I See”, it comes in the form of closing track “Johnny Belinda”. There are many ways to describe the track, whether it be operatic, cinematic or even symphonic, but primarily it’s just plain epic. The army of violins and cellos create a massive and ominous rumble while harp gets sprinkled in as a bit of extra spice and beauty. Grossi’s voice, backed by some operatic moans, tells the sad tale of lost love. It is the sonic equivalent of a man adrift at sea in a small lifeboat as a storm rages and waves crash on top of him. And it works. To think that one man (with obvious help) could put together an immense track like that proves that this is a project worth keeping an eye on. If every track on “You Are All I See” was this well written and composed, Active Child would have a game-changing album on his hands. Unfortunately a couple clunkers pushes it off the mark and leaves us to wonder what might have been. The record’s primary issue though is virtually the same problem that has plagued Active Child from the beginning – an inability to commit to one particular style or another. Grossi has broadened his horizons rather than reduced them, going from R&B one moment to synth-pop the next, with shades of soul, classical, gospel and a number of other styles in between. Simply having your record sound beautiful doesn’t mean you’re stylistically dialed in. Hopefully from touring around this record Grossi will learn what works best and streamline that approach for the next record.

Active Child – Playing House (Ft. How To Dress Well)

Active Child – Hanging On (White Sea Remix)

Buy “You Are All I See” from Amazon

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