Qua – ‘Silver Red’

August 31, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: The Vine, August 27, 2008.

Qua
Silver Red
(Someone Good)

There’s no other artist who sounds even remotely like Melbourne-based composer, instrumentalist and laptop extraordinaire Cornel Wilczek. His densely fragmented, hyper-melodic sound worlds whir and buzz and glimmer with a rare, startling sense of dichotomy – they resonated with intimate proximity; they echo with sprawling spaciousness.

While the post-millennium electronic community grappled with such reductive notions as ‘Folktronica’, over two masterful records as Qua – 2002’s stunningly fragile Forgetabout debut and 2004’s wondrous Painting Monsters on Clouds – Wilczek forged his own utterly unique, skittering sonic vernacular. New mini-album Silver Red – the first of two Qua records to be released this year – is equally ambitious, though all the more fleeting in its scope.

Over four extended tracks Wilczek plies flutters of instrumental motif and live percussion (courtesy of Pivot’s Laurence Pike) to a burbling underlay of electronic texture and rhythm. It’s a gorgeous shift. Where previous works found their central bearing in micro-melody and beautifully disjointed laptop beats, Silver Red is all about flow, drawing its character from nuance, repetition and gently oscillating rhythm. There’s a looseness here, an improvisational quality. Rather than four individual vignettes, this feels very much like a singular work; it comes as little surprise that the opening three cuts (‘Silver Red 1’, ‘2’ and ‘3’) were recorded in three live passes.

It’s an intriguing sensibility. While these works feel less abstract in an aesthetic sense, their structure and various ebbs and flows also make them less definable and less obviously striking. Their poignancy arrives via their gradual resonance. The opening ‘Silver Red’ suite takes some listening to fathom the extent of its flourishing, psyche-riddled span. Final track ‘One Second’ is the exception, its blocky rhythm and blinking, string-plucked melody making for an immediately vivid finale.

It may only be four songs and 24 minutes in length, but Silver Red is another enthralling oeuvre from Cornel Wilczek. He has ditched micro-management for well-informed fieldwork. It equals yet another stirring chapter in the canon that can only be known as Qua.

Dan Rule

Pivot – ‘O Soundtrack My Heart’

August 31, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: The Vine, August 25, 2008.

Pivot
O Soundtrack My Heart
(Warp/Inertia)

It’s no secret that Pivot are on the cusp of something huge. Having signed to luminary London imprint Warp Records earlier this year, the Sydney and Perth-born trio have been fed back into the Australian indie market with all the bells and whistles attached – verbose press releases, arty video clips and a suite of promotional band portraits to die for. Whether or not their much-hyped second album O Soundtrack My Heart was any good seemed almost incidental; this was a band that suddenly had prestige.

It wasn’t like they came out of nowhere. Back in 2005, long-awaited debut Make Me Love You – released through boutique Melbourne imprint Sensory Projects – was the talk of various Australian towns. The then quintet’s fabrics of subtle texture, melody and instrumentation pealed with all the measured precision of Chicago-era post-rock and avant-jazz, garnering glowing press and sitting atop best-of lists country-wide.

But within a matter of months, brothers Laurence and Richard Pike – the drummer and guitarist who comprise the creative core of the group – had lost three members and gained one, in London-based Perth laptop kid Dave Miller. Pivot had been turned upside down.

With or without the Warp calling card, it only takes two tracks for O Soundtrack My Heart to reconcile the group’s recomposition. While opening overture ‘October’ creaks and echoes to life with a kind of spectral tension, first single ‘In the Blood’ explodes – shattering with menacing synth lines, razor-sharp guitar hooks and hammering live and programmed percussion intricacies. It’s a happy dichotomy, and one that – the further you delve into O Soundtrack My Heart – comes to embody Pivot’s redefinition. Indeed, where Make Me Love You shimmered with instrumental exactitude and subtle throws of tension and release, O Soundtrack basks in something much more slippery and ephemeral: freedom.

Across eleven sketches, the trio visit hook-heavy experimentalism, searing electronic abrasions, and plaintive post-rock-referenced arrangements. There are highlights aplenty. The interstellar synth dynamics and guitar dramatisations of the epic title track, the wondrous melodic layers of ‘Sweet Memory’ and the rugged sonic assault of ‘Didn’t I Furious’ all make for powerful moments. The masterful rhythmic undercurrents of ‘Sing, You Sinners’, arcing melody and jittering percussion of ‘Love Like I’ and atmosphere-drenched hooks of ‘Nothing Hurts Machine’ add another more contemplative flavour.

It’s a thrilling collection, engendered with a kind of raw looseness, personality and emotion that so many instrumental records – including Make Me Love You – manage to snuff with an overemphasis on technique and navel-gazing cleverness. There’s a distinct and crucial thematic and emotional conduit running through this record.

While musically dextrous, O Soundtrack My Heart is never verbose for its own sake. Accomplished sound scientists like Battles could learn a thing or two.

Dan Rule

Tujiko Noriko – When the sound is the synthesis

August 25, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: The Age, A2, August 23, 2008.

Tujiko Noriko’s music echoes with the contradictions of contemporary Japan, writes Dan Rule.

THERE IS SOMETHING INHERENTLY disconnected about the music of Tujiko Noriko. The Japanese electronic musician’s delicately looped and layered avant-pop meanderings seem to float in cultural and historical ether.

Rendered via laptop, synthesiser and voice, her music whispers with evocation, with hint, with trace. Nonetheless, it remains void of solid, immovable context.

“I think maybe it’s like a drug,” she offers in her sticky Japanese accent. “I think the brain remembers the process and it just comes again and again.”

Noriko’s craft is neither directionless nor vacant. There are echoes of traditional Japanese musical forms; skeletal melodic and tonal strands weave and entwine among sparse, decelerated rhythmic structures. But also present is the distinct syntax of the contemporary; moments of opaque electronic texture underlay the crackle, crunch and pop of computer-birthed beats, the elegant hooks of more sophisticated Western pop. Noriko’s fluttering voice – “the Japanese Bjork” she is often called in passing – adds another ephemeral layer to schema.

For Noriko, speaking over the phone from her home in Paris, where she lives with her two-year-old daughter, musical process is less about articulation then intuition. “I might just be looking out the window, be in the train – you know, when you’re spaced out – or just thinking of memories and things,” she says.”The brain remembers to capture those moments. Most people don’t. I didn’t ever want to resist it. It’s normal for people in Japan to kind of resist this creativity, especially if they have a job or are in school. All of my friends were like that, but I didn’t even think that what I was doing was strange. I just did it.”

For Noriko, who is completely untrained and didn’t begin composing until she was 24, music is without a conceptual base. Since her earliest experiments – which she undertook on a boyfriend’s synthesiser that was “just lying around in his apartment” – her attraction to music has been its strange tactility, the way in which it could directly affect the mind and physiology of the creator.

“Music is very easy in a way,” she suggests. “You don’t have to think so much when you make it. You just start and you feel and you finish.”

With singing, it’s really physical, so you just feel really good inside. It feels natural and if you’re out of tune a bit and out of rhythm a bit, it’s not a good feeling. That is how I find where I am going. It’s very basic and natural and kind of physical.”

Having released a staggering 12 albums in just eight years, not to mention two experimental films – Sand and Mini Hawaii and Sun – the 32-year-old has become one of the signpost artists of Japan’s experimental electronic landscape.

It’s a movement that – at least to Western ears – has seemed to aesthetically intimate the cultural and generational push and pull of contemporary Japan, of globalised idiom and inherent tradition.

While electronic music has defined itself by forging new and progressive musical languages, since the turn of the millennium, a proliferation of young Japanese artists have put forward their new vision with an ear for the past.

The spacious melodic fragments and rhythmic configurations of artists like Kobe’s Radicalfashion (aka Hirohito Ihara), Tokyo’s Chib (aka Yukiko Chiba) and Berlin-based Lambent (aka Akira Inagawa) have established a strain of electronic minimalism that is both wistful and forward-thinking, reticent and expressive.

But Noriko is unsure of her work’s direct linkage. “I didn’t ever try to have an atmosphere that was Japanese,” she says.”

My music is very slow and sometimes out of rhythm, because I’m not really into building rhythm, but I think maybe that is just me.

Maybe that’s a female thing.”

Interestingly, she has actually produced the majority of her output since moving away from Japan in late 2002. Indeed, the last six years have seen eight new records, including 2005’s brilliant collaboration with Brisbane sound artist Lawrence English, Blurred In My Mirror, and 2007’s stunning Solo.

Mind you, Noriko’s relationship with Japan is a multi-layered one. Having grown up the youngest of three sisters in the hills outside Osaka, she recalls feeling great isolation as a child. “No friends come to our home,” she says. “We didn’t have any friends in the neighbourhood.” Like so many children of her generation, she couldn’t wait to leave the family home for the bright lights of Tokyo.

She managed to move to the bustling Ikebukuru area as a late teen, studying philosophy at Waseda University and juggling jobs as a hostess and waitress at night. The era was formative.”

Tokyo was like heaven!” she gushes. “The first one year I was lonely with no family, but I was happy, and after nine years it was really heaven to be in Tokyo. “I miss Ikebukuru so much. It is not an elegant place, but it is a really nice place.”

But Tokyo also engendered a mounting sense of fissure.

As she fell into music and became increasingly uninterested in her studies, she also began to feel alienated from her family and her childhood experience of Japan.

“My sisters and my family never understand what I do,” she says. “They know that I’m making music, but they don’t really enjoy it or understand it. It’s a bit of a shame. My mother tells me often that I am lazy in life,” she laughs. “France is much easier for artists than Japan.”

But after six years away from her homeland, Noriko is becoming more and more conscious of her intrinsic connection. “For me, the last album that I released, Solo, was really Japanese and maybe closer to old Japanese music,” she offers. “I didn’t make any kind of art before music,” she continues. “Even now I’m not really a person who is really looking for something in art all the time. I’m not intellectual,” she laughs. “Music just came from feeling.”

And for Noriko, that “feeling”, at least in part, hails from a life much different to the one she lives today. “More and more, I don’t listen to Japanese sounds, but of course, I have memories of melodies from Japan, most, I think,” she says. “I think because I’ve never learned music, I will maybe always return to this in my mind.”

Tujiko Noriko performs at the Toff in Town tomorrow. Doors open at 8pm.

Beach House – Like smoke and mirrors

August 25, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: The Age, EG, August 22, 2008.

Beach House bring their low-fi pop to Melbourne, writes Dan Rule.

VICTORIA Legrand has a wonderfully cryptic way with words. Like the arcane analogue vignettes she crafts as one half of Baltimore boy-girl pop duo Beach House, her conversation twists and flows with ornate metaphor and oddity-riddled analogy.

She speaks of creative impulses as “uncultured pearls”; she likens her relationship with bandmate Alex Scally to a “volcanic core”, a “very fortunate lightning bolt”.

“Certain sets of words just fit together like beads on a string,” she says, chatting from Baltimore on the eve of the duo’s first Australian tour.

“It’s just like, ‘that has to be a lyric!’ I’ve often used things people have said to me as lyrics because I just couldn’t get over how, you know, crushing or romantic or lonely or just simple the words fitting together were. Kind of like certain objects, there’s just so much more to them than their appearance.”

It’s a sensibility that informs Beach House’s low-fi pop sketches. Since they drifted on to the American indie scene in 2006, their languid organ and guitar-based compositions – not to mention the smoke-brushed hues of Legrand’s vocal – have come to recall the dreamy lilt of Nico as much as the narcotic psychedelia of Mazzy Star.

But Beach House’s sound, captured in their hazy self-titled 2006 debut and this year’s shimmering follow-up Devotion, is well and truly their own.

The operatically trained Legrand, 27, niece of French composer Michel Legrand, doesn’t speak in a vernacular of influences, but rather, that of a very intimate and visceral connection: “The part of you that writes and the part of you that hears a melody in your head – that approaches a keyboard and doesn’t know what’s going to happen when you put your fingers on there – that’s a very different part of you to the one that is trained and the one that listened to music of kinds.”

Music runs deep for the pair. While 26-year-old Scally grew up playing bass and guitar in Baltimore before moving to Ohio to study geology, Legrand remembers an inherent will to sing throughout her childhood, which, after short stints in Paris and Maryland, was spent predominantly in Philadelphia.

“I never intended to become an opera singer,” she says. “But I just loved singing so much that it seemed like the right thing to do. I learned a great deal about how to manipulate and breathe and use muscles, and those things have helped me greatly.”

Conversely, the birth of Beach House was as much about luck as good management. Legrand had been studying theatre in Paris but became disillusioned with acting. She moved to Baltimore on a whim – “a weird gut feeling” – in late 2004, where she was soon introduced to Scally. The pair felt an immediate connection and spent the summer of 2005 cooped up in Scally’s basement, creating the outline of what would become their 2006 debut.

“Everything about it was easy and was very natural,” recalls Legrand. “It was just like two friends being around one another and talking about music and loving music and loving organs and loving pianos and loving four-tracks, and this kind of intense baby was born. We were two people who had very similar colours in their minds.”

With its dense, fog-like, analogue textures, rudimentary synthesised percussion and pealing guitars, Beach House was championed by critics, including influential website Pitchfork Media, and the duo was soon the talk of the indie community.

Devotion is a huge stride forward. The woozy guitars and floating vocals of Heart of Chambers and the swaying melodies of Some Things Last are two of the band’s finest moments yet. Legrand’s lyrics, meanwhile, portray the idea of devotion as both entrapment and romance.

“It’s kind of a game with ourselves,” she muses. “The things we want; the things we can’t have; the things we shouldn’t be thinking about but we do think about them all the time. It’s like a game of smoke and mirrors, you know.”

It’s also the place in which Legrand finds the beauty of making art.

“When you can use the confusion of infatuation and personal conflict to create something that has light and dark to it and can move and affect other people, then it’s not just something that’s a deep poison inside of you,” she says.

“It’s a growth and it’s alive and it’s beautiful.”

Beach House play tonight at Roxanne, city, , Tuesday at Northcote Uniting Church (tickets – Northcote Social Club) and Wednesday at the Toff in Town. Devotion (Mistletone/Fuse).

Luluc – ‘Dear Hamlyn’

August 21, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: The Big Issue, # 310, August 2008.

Dear Hamlyn
Luluc
****

Zoë Randell is rarity in an increasingly crowded indie music coterie. Her voice is of such simple and inimitable qualities – such rich timbre and hue and evocative depth – that it renders notions of era and place all but frivolous.

Best known as Paddy Mann’s vocal foil in Melbourne ensemble Grand Salvo, Randell steps to centre stage on Dear Hamlyn, she and instrumentalist Steve Hassett’s debut oeuvre as Luluc.

The results are delicately breathtaking. Over 11 austere sketches, Randell weaves a narrative of memory and departure and love lost – Hassett’s understated, wood-toned acoustic arrangements deftly entwining her time-faded, heart-rending imagery. There are several highlights. The angelic vocal and stunning guitar and double bass melody of ‘I Found You’ and the lilting downcast of ‘The Blue Queen of the Deep’ make for wonderful moments, while the glimmering minor key verse of ‘The Wealthiest Queen’ is one of the most untainted and beauteous you’ll ever hear.

Randell may not possess the song writing nous or adroit eloquence of her Grand Salvo collaborator, but she more than makes up for it with sheer candour and tone. As Luluc, she and Hassett have crafted a startlingly pure, subtly transcendent debut.

Dan Rule

Beach House – Collectors’ Items

August 21, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: The Big Issue, #310, August 2008.

Baltimore-based duo Beach House have channelled their interest in all things kitsch and quirky into a collection of beguiling and ethereal pop songs.

For Alex Scally, the most alluring facets of life are void of definition and articulate rationale. Like the ageless musical craft of Beach House – the band he shares with kindred Baltimore spirit Victoria Legrand – Scally finds beauty in hints and traces from times past, in the evocations of the otherwise prosaic.

“Since a very young age I’ve always been like an obsessive collector,” he muses, pausing for a time. “When I find something that I like, I just keep collecting things akin to it.”

For the 25-year-old, it’s about loosening focus, about peeling back a layer. “You can find something so important in an object that so many people find to be completely valueless,” he says. “You can love it like a little kid does.”

“You know how little kids just love the weirdest things?” he laughs. “For some reason they’ll just love some object, some shape, and they’ll just play around with it and always have it near them. It’s wonderful.”

The covers of Beach House’s two records – 2006’s enveloping self-titled debut and this year’s shimmering follow-up Devotion – bear such artefacts. They are adorned with tangles of costume jewellery, with pearls and shells and feathers and figurines.

Scally and his 26-year-old musical partner, who tour Australian for the first time in late in August, bonded via collecting such seemingly innocuous curios. “I think one of the first things we really liked doing together was going to thrift stores,” he says. “We like the same weird stuff, you know. We have a similar way of seeing the world.”

It’s a sensibility that echoes throughout Beach House’s narcotic, downbeat pop. Crafted from strange old organs, antiquated four-track tape machines, gentle peals of guitar and Legrand’s wondrous, smoke-inflected vocal, their music is of a quixotic, all-enveloping ether.

“A lot of our instruments are like weird old organs and discarded sound-makers of different kinds and it very much feeds into that thing of the object,” says Scally. “I mean, there really wasn’t ever any question. We never questioned what we were doing or questioned the songs; we just kind of made them.”

“We’re both very confident people, I think, and we knew that they felt right and I don’t think we ever really imposed any limitations on that. I think more than anything, music brought us together. We have a real musical kinship, and it’s really pretty simple.”

The pair met and formed Beach House in 2005, six months after Legrand – the niece of French composer Michel Legrand – had arrived in Baltimore following a stint studying opera and theatre in Paris. Scally himself was rediscovering the city. Despite growing up in Baltimore, he’d been adrift for years studying geology at university in Ohio.

Returning home was a blessing. “I’m just really glad I came back here,” he says. “When you’re young, you only see this little fragment of the city; you don’t fully understand a place. Going away and getting that perspective on it was just great.”

“I never intended going back to Baltimore until it was right about time to make the decision, then I started to think about these other places and how wonderful Baltimore really was,” he continues. “It doesn’t have that really cosmopolitan thing; it doesn’t have people telling you what is in style or what is cool. It just has this incredible independence from the rest of the east coast and it doesn’t really have the job economy to support fair weather fans.”

The pair began writing and tracking songs in Scally’s basement, never with any real intention of starting a band proper. Before they knew it, they had the majority of the songs for their bare-boned debut. “It was very, very instinctual and very, very organic,” says Scally of the process.

“We recorded the bulk of it without knowing we’d have anyone putting out our record. It was like, ‘Now that we’ve got all these songs, let’s record them’, so we recorded them in two days in my basement.”

Suffice to say, once people began to hear the record’s beauteous melodies and opaque, Mazzy Star-esque atmospheres – not to mention Legrand’s sultry voice – it was only a matter of time until Beach House’s gently swaying psychedelia came to the world’s attention.

Devotion represents another luminous, wondrously intoxicating oeuvre. Glimmering with a new sense of sharpness and instrumental dynamics, the record adds sparkling flashes of clarity to their opaque musical aesthetic. The drunk guitar line and soaring vocals of ‘Heart of Chambers’ and the sunken melodies of ‘Some Things Last’ are two of their finest sketches yet. Legrand’s lyrics have also evolved wonderfully. Her take on devotion is one of both entrapment and romance.

“The feelings and the meanings of those songs are so much in the sounds of those old instruments,” says Scally. “I think it’s really hard to attach exact meanings or emotions to songs, and I think that’s why Victoria’s lyrics are so large and so amazing – they’re really a mystery and so non-specific. They just draw up these feelings and memories.”

“A song can be like sexy one night, or it can feel really depressing one night, or it can feel almost ecstatic – it can feel really old or new.”

And it’s within this mysterious, timeless schema that Beach House feel so at home. “It’s at its best when we feel completely lost,” muses Scally.

“It’s like I’m not even there,” he pauses. “Like I become an actor playing a role.”

by Dan Rule

Beach House tour Australia in late August

Devotion is out through Mistletone/Fuse

Muph & Plutonic – Diamonds in the rough

August 18, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: The Age, EG, August 15, 2008

Hip-hop duo Muph & PLutonic focus on details, writes Dan Rule.

Dan Young and Leigh Ryan don’t deal with compliments too well. The pair – known to most as MC Muphin and producer par excellence Plutonic Lab – shift uncomfortably in their seats at the mere mention of new album …And Then Tomorrow Came.

When its glowing reviews are raised, they fall all but completely silent. Young stares mutely into his coffee up, nodding once as way of polite acknowledgement; Ryan averts a uneasy gaze to the window. “Yeah,” he chuckles nervously. “It’s a bit over-the-top.”

There’s very little that’s “over-the-top” about Muph & Plutonic. Spend any amount of time with the intensely personal outer suburbanisms, soul-flecked arrangements and raw beats of …And Then Tomorrow Came – their third long-player as a duo – and you’ll find a work that thrives on nuance and understatement. And while you wouldn’t dare tell Young or Ryan, it’s also one of the most mature and quietly masterful records to rise from the domestic hip-hop ether.

“I almost approached this record from the song writing perspective rather than as a rapper perse, even though they are raps, straight up,” says Young. “Hip-hop’s what I love, but it was really great to get that perspective from another genre and kind of bring it to life in this.”

Ryan concurs. “A lot of the kind of influences for this record weren’t necessarily hip-hop influences,” he says, “despite the fact that it’s very much a hip-hop record. Like, I’d be giving Dan folk tracks to listen to just for the writing and vice versa.”

It’s this unassuming sense of exploration that has come to characterise Muph & Plutonic in the context of a domestic scene that, in it’s search for distinctness, has often tended caricature. Across two acclaimed albums as a duo – 2004 debut Hunger Pains and 2006’s brilliant Silence the Sirens – and several respective solo releases, Young and Ryan have followed an aesthetic conduit based around form rather than geographical location. Indeed, while both have become iconic members of the Australian hip-hop landscape, neither defines themself by it.

It’s little wonder. Music runs deep for the pair. 29-year-old Young learned the MCing trade at the start of the 90s, under the watchful eye of his elder brother. “I was his little apprentice,” he laughs. “Everyone in my class was listening to Nirvana and I felt like I was kind of separating myself from all of that with music because I pretty much always felt a bit like that. It was that kind of outcast thing, you know.”

Ryan, on the other hand, grew up with a father who was a musician and has been playing the drums since primary school. He discovered the world of production through a high school teacher. “He basically had a home-studio and he had an eight-track reel-to-reel and drum machines and all this kind of stuff,” recalls the producer, who has since made beats for everyone from Renee Geyer and local MCs like Pegz to international rappers like Fatlip (of LA’s legendary Pharcyde) and UK MC Lotek. “Sometimes I’d just wag school and go to his house to use the studio and stuff.”

“I was learning how to produce right then and there,” he continues. “I just loved all these machines, you know. You could make a whole piece of music without needing anyone to help you.”

And Then Tomorrow Came shimmers with such an expansive palette. While cuts like the rugged The Damn Truth, swooning Number 45 and Size of the Soul peal with organic soul sensibilities and instrumentation, the tectonic dub of Balloon Heads (featuring vocalist Kye) and psyche-funk of the title track (featuring Pete Lawler, of Weddings Parties Anything and Crazy Baldheads fame) add another inflection entirely.

But the record’s two most striking tracks would have to be the austere fingerpicked guitar and raw, live drum break of Muph’s poignant self-exploratory oeuvre Yesterday’s Basement and the popping electro beat and angular guitar hook of Muph’s extraordinary diary of addiction Sleep.

“Rapping really keeps me sane in a way,” says Young, staring into his coffee cup again. “It used to be an adrenaline rush, but now it’s really a release.”

“I’m no psychologist, but hopefully I can do something for someone,” he pauses, breaking “Maybe I could write a self-help book – Things Not to Do.”

Muph & Plutonic play the Corner Hotel on Saturday, August 23

…And Then Tomorrow Came is out now through Obese

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