Lilies on Mars – Wish You Were A Pony (avant-pop/ dreampop)
ELSEWHERE factory, 2011, CD & DD album, 41m 39s
£7 DD £10 CD
There’s more than a nod to dreampop and shoegaze in this music, but Lisa Masia and Marina Cristofalo are clearly too in love with the raw and ragged sound of a distorted electric guitar to tame it to the extent that might imply. Some of Wish You Were A Pony is downright heavy! This is pop music, but not lowest-common-denominator, mass-market pop; it’s pop because it’s all about simple, accessible melodies, infectious, danceable rhythms, lush, inviting soundscapes, and, well… fun. And that’s not to say it isn’t serious art: in fact, if I had to sum this up (and I hate summing things up, because it always leaves important stuff out) I might describe Lilies on Mars’ work as serious art about fun. Sonic craftsmanship is a central feature of their creative practice: they paint with sound colours, in bold strokes, with rollers even, and then draw cartoonish but recognisably human figures running through the resulting scenes. There’s a lot of psychedelic swirling, a lot of warmth, a lot of fragile delicacy, and also (which sets this apart from much dreampop and shoegaze influenced work) a lot of meaty oomph. It’s very easy to listen to this music: it’s very pleasing to the ear, but it packs a sucker punch. Lurking beneath that accessible, complex but unchallenging surface, is a streak of sharply intelligent experimentalism, which makes this album a real treat for the repeat listener. There’s always another detail to hear, another subtle departure from the obvious, and it’s always informed (as in the echoes of first wave Bossanova in ‘La Mattina Prima Di andare a letto 2’) by a literate pop sensibility.
suus – Happy Birthday To Me (hip-hop)
Killamari, 2011, DD album, 35m 37s
suus is not a gangsta. He brushes his teeth twice a day, helps his dad unload the shopping from the Honda Civic, and wears his seatbelt because otherwise he’d be told off. He likes Green Day. He does his homework. So he informs us in the song ‘That’s Why They Call Me Gangsta.’ In other words, like most artists, he’s a normal person who happens to have the talent and motivation to get good at doing something. In his case, it’s playing around with words in a rhythmically compelling manner. He says he’s sixteen, which is a good bit younger than most rappers with flows this solid and lyrics this witty. The thing that I like the most about the rap that I like (other than the obvious qualities of rhythmic dexterity and skillful wordplay), is the same thing that I like about any writing that I like: it’s a sense of the specific and particular. It’s the little details, the turns of phrase and the seemingly minor observations, that tell us the author is speaking from a specific, individual perspective, rather than adopting a generic one to appeal to a generic response. suus does that, and does it well. He has great flows, humour, verbal agility, excellent collaborators, both on the mic and producing, all bases covered, but it’s that specificity that (by definition) makes this album different from all the other ones that also have all bases covered. If it’s self-expression you want, suus is doing it; he’s not setting out to revolutionise his genre, or to forge a radically new sound, he’s just putting some beautifully crafted words to some banging beats, and staying true to his own experience.
Heidi Harris – In The Lee (freak folk)
self released, 2011, DD album, 38m 12s
When Heidi Harris makes music, everything seems simultaneously casual and careful. Her gestures, vocal or instrumental, seem as natural and organic as breathing, as though they were simply inevitable, but they also sound as deliberately positioned as jigsaw pieces. This effect is partly due to her approach to production, which focusses on the creation of an ambience above all else. There is a very spatial sound to these recordings, with a very natural sounding reverb, but also an aleatory feel to much of the orchestration, which reinforces the sense of objects positioned in space. The result of this is that her recordings encode silence, in a way that most do not. Sure, when there’s no sound there’s no sound, but with the perfection of digital recording silence is often too complete to register as such, reading instead as an absence of playback. The occasional background sound, and the general ambience of a space, on the other hand, gives music a silence to break, and a context to return to: so Harris’ sounds feel like interventions in, and invitations to, her soundworld, rather than simply intrusions into ours. Furthermore, she phrases with a care, and a specific attention to each musical sound, that helps us to hear every element, rather than simply interpreting its meaning within the whole. She uses a variety of instrumental, mainly acoustic resources, her own strong-but-fragile voice, and a vocabulary largely drawn from American folk idioms, but there are also electronic elements (as in ‘ok (featuring Smithtown)’), with a knowledgeable eclecticism at work throughout. Harris has developed a coherent method for arranging seemingly inconclusive fragments and half phrases, continually handing off the baton between them in a kind of relay: environmental sounds pick up the listener’s attention from a vocal phrase, and pass it on to a simple guitar figure, which sends it somewhere else. The effect is both thought provoking, and curiously calming: there’s a gentle humour in many of the ‘noises off’, and an austere beauty in the koan-like simplicity of the sound.
Wounds – Collected (drone/ ambient)
self released, 2011, DD album, 1hr 8m 7s
£name your price
When the coherence of an electronic sound source is broken down sufficiently, when its timbre becomes subject to the random perturbations characteristic of ‘noise’ rather than the regularities of ‘tone’, it can paradoxically become more organic in its character. The history of musical instrument design (in the West at least) has been one of the ongoing project to achieve a purity of tone, and to eliminate the random; yet the distinctive quality, the beauty, the musical value if you like, of every instrument, is in the very random distortions and noise elements that instrument makers have worked so hard to minimise. Electronic synthesis offers that holy grail of sonic purity, yet the pure sine wave, while it has its uses, is essentially impersonal, and frankly boring. The recent history of electronic music has been one of a growing intentionality regarding the kind, form and degree of distortions that give each sound its timbre, and Wounds makes this kind of timbral exploration its primary field of endeavour. Whether a piece is directly structured around the development and transformation of timbre, as in the drone compositions collected here, or takes timbre as a compositional element within a more rhythmically structured context, this music takes sound quality as its central subject. Collected is not a single large work, but (as the name implies) a compilation of pieces recorded in different times and places, but there is nevertheless a coherence of artistic vision. Verbal content is minimal, but where it is present it’s incredibly arresting, as in the dialogue riffing on Philip K. Dick and ambiguities around dream and reality in ‘Wake Up’. I’m too lazy to find out where it comes from but it’s pretty mindblowing, and the more you think about it the more you realise that its discussion of time, dreams and waking, mortality and subjectivity relates directly to the sonic explorations that surround it. This is a fascinating and rewarding piece of work.