ibeyi – ibeyi

steeped in spirituality, themes of personal loss, and an intricate interplay between piano and afro-cuban hand drums, the self-titled debut from ibeyi should read as the definitive album from a pair of seasoned veterans.  that lisa-kaindé and naomi díaz are instead just twenty years old and only beginning to hone their craft is stunning, and speaks volumes about the body of work they’ve created with ibeyi.

the parisian-born díaz sisters have deep ties to the afro-cuban religion santería – their moniker means “twin” in the religion’s language of yoruba – and many ibeyi songs contain titular references to various santerían spirits, collectively referred to as orishas.  on “oya,” lisa-kaindé intones the spirit’s name in an almost chant-like fashion over a bed of droning, close-knit vocal harmonies bolstered by subterranean synthesizers.  naomi’s percussion eventually kicks in, and the sisters harmonize for the duration of the song in a mixture of english and yoruba.  “oya” almost seems to test the waters of the duo’s musical boundaries before coming to the conclusion that any restrictions are few and far between.

ibeyi is largely an amalgamation of old-school jazz and contemporary r&b, but it’s the personal spin put on each genre by the duo that makes the end result so invigorating.  the díaz sisters’ father was renowned cuban percussionist anga díaz, whose premature death was the primary catalyst for his daughters’ foray into music.  naomi’s almost-exclusive use of the cajón and the batá as rhythmic forces are a nod to him, and “think of you” is a stuttering, eerie elegy for their father, its title delivered repeatedly in meaningful harmony.  lisa-kaindé’s smoky alto and plaintive piano playing are indicative of the french jazz clubs of yesteryear, and serve as a foil to her sister’s emphatic drumming, particularly when she’s fully exposed on tracks like “behind the curtain” or effortlessly interlocking with naomi on “ghosts.”

this embracement of personal and cultural history bleeds seamlessly into a fascination with contemporary musical elements.  equally commonplace throughout ibeyi is a bevy of synthesizers and samples, largely provided by producer richard russell.  on “river,” an early standout in the duo’s catalogue, piano and cajón are downplayed in favor of muted drum programming and a choir of vocal loops while “stranger / lover” inserts a slithering bass line and de-tuned synths into the typical sonic palate.  these enhancements are often subtle, never dramatically shifting ibeyi’s sound, yet they add an incredible amount of depth and maturity to the young duo’s music.

nestled towards the back end of ibeyi is “yanira,” a second familial elegy for their older sister of the same name.  it’s indicative of every characteristic found in the duo’s sound, from lyrical themes of spirituality and personal loss to the interplay of piano and cajón, yet the song seems to transcend the notion of merely being the sum of all of ibeyi’s parts.  the triplet-based motif winds up like a music box, perhaps evoking childhood nostalgia as lisa-kaindé sings “all my dreams lead to you, queen of my thoughts” with a heartbreaking tone of emotional vulnerability, but the song’s simple chorus toes the line between lament and celebration of life.  at the very least, “yanira” is a collective demonstration of deeply profound songwriting, and that the díaz sisters chose to bury their best and most meaningful piece of work so deep into their album speaks volumes of their self-awareness as musicians.  ibeyi is certainly best-experienced in full; artistry this nuanced cannot be confined to a lead single.

8.5/10

viet cong – viet cong

viet cong’s self-titled may be their debut album, but it plays through like an effort of music industry veterans.  which makes complete sense; the calgary post-punk quartet rose from the ashes of women, a band bassist matt flegel and drummer mike wallace contributed to before its untimely dissolution in 2012.  totaling just seven tracks yet clocking in at around forty minutes in length, viet cong straddles the line of art rock experimentation and the maudlin sentiments of their post-punk forefathers.

concussive floor toms reminiscent of an old military documentary usher in the album on “newspaper spoons,” and slowly solidify into something coherent as a mixture of flegel’s chanting and dissonant, buzz-saw guitar feedback is layered over the top.  it’s a telling use of disconnect and tension, and viet cong expertly flirts with its resolution over the next ten minutes of the album.  not until flegel begins his vocal lament on “march of progress” does viet cong bear any semblance to musical consonance, but then the band makes up for lost time with haste.  guitar arpeggios pan fervently from channel to channel in anticipation of the album’s first memorable melody, one propped up by wallace’s drumming which suddenly becomes resurgent in its meticulous and gradual subdivision.

viet cong certainly didn’t emerge from obscurity, and were in fact birthed from a mixture of animosity and tragic loss.  not long after women’s acrimonious split, former guitarist christopher reimer passed away in his sleep, another untimely end that seems to have profoundly impacted flegel and wallace throughout the writing of viet cong.  guitarists scott munro and daniel christiansen contribute admirable amounts of dissonance to the record, particularly on the cascading “bunker buster” and the triumphant post-punk microcosm “silhouettes,” but the two former members of women arguably constitute the more formidable duo in viet cong.  both have risen above their rhythm section duties to contribute to the forefront of the band’s sound, flegel with his commanding turn at lead vocals and subtle-but-integral bass lines, while wallace’s drumming often matches or exceeds melodic instruments in the album’s mix.

viet cong ends with “death,” an eleven-minute funeral pyre ostensibly dedicated to reimer.  the song is neither eulogy nor commentary, but instead falls somewhere in between, a distillation and union of the musical and personal ideas that resonate across the album.  on their debut, viet cong have married chilly experimental soundscapes to equally-chilly post-punk essentials with aplomb, resulting in a stunningly cohesive album that is a decidedly unique and welcome alternative to the usual winter musical fare.  spin it multiple times.

8.1/10

alvvays – alvvays

– featured image courtesy of the artist –

the marriage of jangle-pop and post-punk has been a fruitful union; the latter sort of embodies the pessimistic outlook so often attributed to millennials while the former crusades against that preconceived notion, placing melodies and hooks in the foreground of an angsty wasteland.  a classic yin and yang of music.  

nestled somewhere in the midst of this movement is alvvays, a toronto quintet whose riffs long for sunny beaches (presumably on the west coast, but maybe not) yet whose lyrics are full of melancholy, self-doubt, and regret, creating somewhat of an apparent identity crisis.  on the band’s self-titled debut, however, they prove time and again that this is a carefully calculated method of expression.

standing at the center of alvvays is molly rankin, her bored demeanor and slightly sullen lyrics often tracing the very riffs she chimes out on guitar.  the album hits hard with the one-two punch of “adult diversion” and “archie, marry me,” its opening number demonstrating how effortlessly rankin and fellow guitarist alec o’hanley are able to weave their guitar parts around one another.  

supported by tongue-in-cheek lyrics with blunt questions that would leave the recipient sputtering, “adult diversion” segues into the mid-tempo, chord-crunching “archie, marry me,” a song that finds rankin enhancing her wry delivery by immediately conceding “you expressed explicitly / your contempt for matrimony” but trivializing the sentiment in the same breath with “you have student loans to pay / you will not risk the alimony.”

amidst the quick wit and humorous jabs lies a sense that rankin is grappling with darker, perhaps more pertinent emotions.  the subtle drum programming and wandering guitar riffs on “ones who love you” precede “next of kin,” a first-person narrative detailing the drowning of a boyfriend.  while the subject matter and its metaphor are morose, rankin manages to maintain some of her light disposition, and the duality of the song is further augmented by an earworm of a guitar riff (probably the album’s best) that crops up between chorus and verse.

the rest of alvvays finds the band trying on various identities for sides, usually with varying results.  the intervallic leaps throughout the chorus of “party police” get a bit repetitive and mundane, but the bare, ominous synth introduction to “dives” showcases a decidedly more delicate side of alvvays, one that is enhanced by the passive triple meter of the drum machine and the simple guitar arpeggios that stumble into the mix alongside rankin’s voice.  

“red planet” closes out the album on the opposite end of the spectrum from “adult diversion,” allowing rankin’s vocals to provide the melody while synthesizers and a bass guitar provide harmonic motion.  for the first time on the record, rankin and her lyrics are put squarely in the spotlight, and she shines as this wonderful summer soundtrack drives off into the sunset.

listen to a new song from phox

maybe “reworked song” would be a more apt description in the title.  oh well.  it’s been a treat to watch the rest of the world slowly catch on to the true gem that is phox.  there’s traffic here on almost a daily basis looking for the band’s 2013 ep confetti (sorry, they took it down), and the baraboo sextet have been picking up steam, playing sxsw and receiving coverage from npr all while working on their self-titled album, their first for partisan records.  the album is due out june 24th, and the band put up a bunch of pre-order information on their website today.  along with the pre-order comes “slow motion,” a re-recorded version of the opening track off confetti.  the overall structure of the song remains fairly consistent, but subtle nuances like organ swells and a greater presence of percussion make “slow motion” even sharper, building tons of anticipation for the rest of the album.  take a listen below, courtesy of the band’s soundcloud page, and look for phox to come to a city near you this summer.

pillar point – pillar point

pillarpoint-digitalcoverelectro-pop has become a polarizing genre; with a plethora of artists constantly tapping into the popular aesthetic, it’s just as likely for a project to be unceremoniously passed over as it is to be critically acclaimed.  scott reitherman took this risk when he shelved his indie project, throw me the statue, to focus on writing new music as pillar point.  two years of hard work and a relocation back to seattle paid off; pillar point’s self-titled debut album contains a collection of songs that meticulously explore all the nuances of synth-driven pop music.

a taste of pillar point’s dynamic and emotive capabilities was given last summer, in the form of a 7″ single containing “diamond mine” and “dreamin’.”  the single’s a-side would wind up being the lead-off track on the album, with its vintage synthesizers and distorted bass lines working in tandem towards slight reckless abandon.  “diamond mine” announces the presence of pillar point and showcases one facet of the project, but the album really begins to open up with “cherry.”  the third track follows an energetic one-two punch, bolstered by the excellent “eyeballs,” and is comparatively subdued, even slightly sinister in tone.  it’s here that reitherman’s lyrics finally reflect his music; they’re melancholy, but still contain substantial forward momentum created through narrative.

these two established components of pillar point’s aesthetic function as a metaphorical double-helix from this point forward; songs like “black hole” and “touch” are powered by insistent dance hooks that polarize their yearning and even downright sad lyrics, while slower jams like “strangers in paradise” and the aforementioned “dreamin'” place more of an emphasis on the somber words and their delivery.  pillar point was born out of substantial personal turmoil which is unabashedly presented across this album, but reitherman is savvy enough to masquerade behind less depressing sounds akin to lcd soundsystem and washed out.  with a groove that changes in tempo but never ceases to exist, a danceable backbone is built into the record that makes sure the listener never has the opportunity to become too depressed.

pillar point is a rare gift to the synth-pop world.  by blending his knowledge of pop songwriting with an affinity for darker electronic music like suicide, reitherman has created a product that truly stands out.  if you’re not immediately smitten by the analog synthesizers, the combination of pulsating beats and reitherman’s ethereal voice is sure to win you over.  a nine-song track list seems almost criminal, but there’s more than enough depth and emotion to unpack and digest.  pillar point is out via polyvinyl records on february 25th.  don’t miss out on this one.

8.6/10

boardwalk – boardwalk

boardwalk’s music was made for the coastline, but it’s still an accessible listen for those stuck in landlocked states, like me.  after forming last summer in los angeles, amber quintero and mike edge began writing the songs that appear on the duo’s self-titled debut effort.  the album is full of familiar palates and orchestrations, but it’s the blending of those elements that makes boardwalk’s music decisively their own.

the first boardwalk song i heard was “i’m to blame,” and i was immediately drawn to the vintage organ sounds and muted drum machine beats that were so characteristic of beach house’s early output.  while those similarities certainly are prevalent, it would be foolish to write off boardwalk’s music as a carbon copy of a perfected craft.  amber quintero’s vocals are passive and reserved, free of abrasion and able to float above the textures created by mike edge.  appropriately, her hooks are understated, but they’re present; both “i’m not myself” and “as a man” have a lazy, melancholy feel and float in a fairly limited vocal range, forcing their way into every ear that listens.

 

what really sells this record is its guitar work; comparatively crunchy for an otherwise dreamy atmosphere, the lines on “crying” and “oh well” add an assertive characteristic absent from other ethereal music similar to boardwalk.  there’s a delicious blend of retro baroque pop and spacey, atmospheric qualities on boardwalk that deserves a listen or two, and it’s complete with a few left turn surprises that keep the album fresh, despite its initial familiarity.  fans of early beach house and wye oak will eat this up; i’m just happy to have another album to soundtrack cold fall days.

6.8/10