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Tag: Portishead

Horizon: Jane Hunt

That’s a new tag up there. “Horizon” is the label that I’m going to be putting in front of artists that have both promise and a lot of work yet to do. These are bands to keep in the back of your mind; not recommendations or raves, but bands that could be great with some more time and sweat invested. Some people may be uninterested in reading about works in progress, which is why I’ve decided to tag them appropriately. But new, young artists matter to Independent Clauses, so I’m allotting space for them in this new feature.

Not every band that submits to Independent Clauses will get featured in Horizon; I am but one man with time constraints, and I have to hear some promise in a work. Nor will Horizon articles be on any type of schedule; they’ll just be in the mix of things.

Quick Hits, stuff I’m interested in but don’t have that much to say about, will still exist. That has nothing to do with Horizon.

Jane Hunt is an apt first Horizon artist because she’s about as immensely talented as she is confusing. Her four-song EP Violin Venus features an orchestral piece (“Melia Dream”), a Portishead-style trip-hop piece with vocals (“Vasene”), a gorgeous acoustic guitar/piano instrumental (“Flying High”) and what sounds like a film score (“Sahara”). Her desire is to merge the classical and pop worlds together.

Her violin skills can’t be knocked; she can definitely play. But this EP has little to nothing in the way of cohesiveness. “Flying High” is absolutely gorgeous; “Vasene” sounds kitschy, especially without more songs in the same style around it to sell the idea that she’s not just appropriating the style. “Melia Dream” is pretty, but not near as polished as Olafur Arnalds’ work; “Sahara” is a great concept marred by odd percussion and unnecessary electric guitar.

Jane Hunt needs to better integrate her ideas so that listeners can understand what she’s going for. She has the technical chops and the songwriting skill, but her Violin Venus is a confusing, unfocused release. But man, “Flying High” is gorgeous.

Siriusmo's electronic tunes expand his boundaries and maybe yours

I listen to some, but not a large amount of, electronic music. It’s safe to say I enjoy it, although I may not be the best guy to parse the ever-mutating strands of dubstep.

I do know this, though: I ended up with a Siriusmo track called “Let Me In!” somewhere along the way, and I love it. It has a playful attitude toward electronic music without giving in to being cheesy, as well as megatons of bass. On the strength of those two characteristics, I checked out his debut album Mosaik.

From the very get-go, he flexes his playfulness; the intro to the album is him false-starting on a synthesizer, with an audience becoming less and less enthused (even to the point of booing by the end of the intro). Then he launches into the opening track, and it gets real.

The all-encompassing bass is still present here, as well as his overlay of synths. The percussion element is toned down throughout the album, giving Siriusmo more room to play around with his melodies. And there are a lot of melodies here; there’s not as many samples as I expected, nor did I miss them that much. There are a lot of moments here that transcend mere club-thumping electronic music and just are solid pieces of music.

This is an up and a downside; by venturing out of the expected zones, he subjects himself to peers outside the normal set for music of this type. If you’re an electronic fan just recently branching out to other moods and feels, you’re going to love this. Moody downtempo gets its due, as well as some pensive indie-rock (if you replaced the synths with guitars, of course). If you’re looking into electronic music from outside it, you may be a bit underwhelmed. The sounds are solid, and the moods are right; but it’s missing a human element that makes Portishead more than just a slow, dark band.

It does help, however, that the album is 67 minutes long. If there are parts in Mosaik that you dislike, there’s bound to be more parts you enjoy. While no track here catches my attentions the same way that “Let Me In!” did, that really wasn’t the purpose. Siriusmo set out to make an album here, not a collection of singles. And in that, he succeeded. It’s up to your particular set of musical tastes to determine whether it will fit into or outside of your palette. But Siriusmo has held up his end of the deal in making a solid album with a personality, divergent moments from said personality and good flow throughout those bits. I like it.

Fadeout's female-fronted trip-hop speeds up the formula

Yesterday’s Kings and Queens review referenced Portishead heavily. Then I came upon Fadeout, whose sound draws on Portishead’s to an even greater degree. I knew I had to put the two reviews back to back, or people are going to start thinking I only listen to four bands, one of them being Portishead.

But it’s really an unavoidable comparison. Both bands play downtempo, moody, atmospheric rock that has a strong emphasis on groove, rhythm and female vocals (this is where Kings and Queens diverge, as Rich Good is a dude). Portishead is much more minimalist than Fadeout, in that they use space almost as another instrument in their way-slowed-down music. But both bands seem to be aiming for a similar musical space.

“Sanctuary (Transposed edit)” is the closest Fadeout comes to channeling the aforementioned forefathers, as the tune plods along with a desperate vocal line accentuating washes of synths and forlorn, high bass notes. But from there, they take a more energetic tack. “Homeless” features a driving drum beat to accompany the dreamy synths. Standout track “Time” pairs the desperate vocal mood of “Sanctuary” with a snare-heavy drum beat, ethereal background vocals, and stabbing guitar. “What’s All About” has a restrained energy that lets the female vocalist showcase her pipes, and she displays a tone very similar to Stevie Nicks. It’s another highlight.

Where Kings & Queens were able to make each track a distinct entity, the same is less true of Fadeout. Because so many of these songs fall in the same mood and style, it’s hard to distinguish one from another. When listening to the album as a whole, it becomes similar to one big song. To some, this is a statement of quality. To others, it’s a problem. I’ll leave you to decide which side of the fence you fall on.

Fadeout’s aesthetic is honed pretty tightly, in that they don’t have much that I can rag on. Their one problem that I noted might not even be a problem to some people. If you’re a fan of downtempo, girl-fronted, trip-hop/indie-rock, Fadeout is a good bet.

Kings & Queens create an engrossing, entertaining trip-hop album

It’s kind of amazing how much Portishead has affected modern music. Their landscape-altering output only consisted of two LPs and a live album, but much of the downtempo, trip-hop electronica going on today can directly trace its roots back to the Bristol threesome (or Massive Attack, but I like Portishead more, so I name-check them more often). Kings & Queens is no exception to the downtempo family tree, and Jet in Carina owes much to its British forefathers.

But this is no mere tribute. Although Kings & Queens’ oversaturated emotions and massive beats are common to both artists, the direction of the tunes is entirely different. Portishead made/makes (if you count their new album as part of their groundbreaking work) paeans to solitude, disenchantment and discomfort musically and lyrically; they use emotions as a weapon to get points across. Kings & Queens does no such thing. Instead of making hollowed-out, icy-cold tracks, the members of K&Q layer on the sounds, coming to a sound that often evokes the morose glee of The Arcade Fire.

The permanently buzzing guitar, pulsing bass, vibrant keys and precise drumming propel the sound forward, not leaving any space to lag behind. Songwriter Rich Good makes sure that the tracks all have some element that the listener can hang on to, whether it be a line of lyrics, a hummable vocal fragment, or a distinctive instrumental moment. Even with the energy devoted to making these songs unique, the whole album flows in an incredibly satisfying way. Other than occasionally weird guitar work on opener “Who’s Thinking,” this is a chilled out, cerebral, deeply grooving album that commands attention and does not let go. When played in a room, the songs have the ability to change the whole atmosphere of a situation (and did several times while I was listening to review this).

Any song can be picked at random and extolled as a highlight. For example, “Signs” has a propulsive bass line that is contrasted by a heavily reverb-laden guitar line, creating a fascinating mood and tension. “Hold Your Fire” ratchets up in intensity from nothing until it sounds like the aforementioned Arcade Fire’s sweeping rock. “Origins of Things” has an incredibly tight interplay between bass and drums that excites like a lost Bloc Party song, circa Silent Alarm. Closer “Examples” turns a consistent four-on-the-floor bass drum beat into an eerie tune, which is harder to do than it sounds.

In terms of mood control, Kings & Queens Jet in Carina is one of the most engrossing records I’ve heard this year. The sound that the band crafted doesn’t just reside on CD; it gets into your head and into your mood. It’s gorgeous at times, heart-pounding at others, and morose at still other times, but throughout it all, a consistent mood is retained. If all trip-hop sounded like this, I’d be way more interested in the genre beyond Portishead. Highly recommended to fans of electronic music, downtempo, or soundtracks.

Wallscenery Demos melds beats, indie, pop and folk into an excellent whole

Wallscenery DemosWallscenery DemosCheck This! is exactly the type of release that I love covering in Independent Clauses. James Hicken,  the mastermind behind Wallscenery Demos, is a gifted songwriter who combines disparate genres and seemingly incoherent elements into one seamless album. Hicken’s reach extends from rap to indie dance to Beach Boys-esque pop to modern folk, and yet the songs never sound kitschy or amateur.

The album plays out not as individual songs, but a full album.  This is encouraged by Hicken’s prominent use of interludes, which range from twelve to fifty-five seconds. A recording of rain, a voice sample clipped from an advertisement and crowds cheering are just some of the elements he uses to segue one song to the next. And the segues are important, because of the aforementioned genre span that Hicken creates. Folk guitar-led gem “I’m Not Around” would butt up against the low-end thump of the downtempo, Portishead-esque piece “Ain’t Got Nuthin to Say” unless the low-fi buzz of “[one of these days one]” wasn’t a transition.  Similarly, the stuttering beats of “Watch Your Back” would overrun the gloriously sedate “My Highest Regards” if the messy dissolution of “[one of these days two]” didn’t intervene.

The best part about Check This! is that there’s not a quality distinction between Hicken’s various genre choices. He makes everything flow perfectly; he knows when to combine genres, and when to leave well enough alone. “My Highest Regards” is a straight-up melancholy indie-pop song, and it is great. Adding anything else to it would have made it kitschy. Hicken’s solid decisions as a songwriter and incredibly strong control of mood make this album into the great piece of music that it is.

There are some problems; Hicken’s voice is often the weak point in his music. He knows it; he often covers his voice in reverb or distortion, drops it low in the mix, and even sings about it. It’s not the fault of his songwriting skill: the compositions are solid, and the vocal parts he writes for himself are good. It’s just that his voice is often unsuited to pull off the things that his brain creates. This is unfortunate, as several songs here are not as good as they could be simply because of a poor vocal performance. But at points he shows that he knows how to use his voice to his advantage, as “My Highest Regards” is excellent because of the way his vocals work within the music.

Check This! is an incredibly interesting album. It plays like a downtempo indie-rock band (like Pedro the Lion) collaborating with a downtempo producer (like Danger Mouse or Portishead), guesting the indie-fied pop skills of MGMT. There’s enough energy to keep the album from dragging, but the thing revels in being morose. And because Hicken doesn’t try to hide who he is behind slick studio production, Check This! becomes a unique and interesting album that could not have been made by anyone else. I sincerely hope that Hicken keeps writing under the Wallscenery Demos name, or finds a collaborative foil or two to enhance his songwriting prowess with vocal expertise. Either way, there’s gonna be a lot more interesting music from James Hicken, because his songwriting vision is unique.

Conchita Campos' dusky voice leads a great collection of genre-spanning songs

I hate funk. The wah-pedal guitars and syncopated bass note  sound cheesy to me. It is a deficiency in my music criticism that I will freely admit: I don’t get funk, and as a result I hate hearing it. The fact that Conchita Campos is able to make “Lately” an enjoyable funk song for me is a testament to her songwriting skill. The fact that she placed it as lead-off on the album is a show of guts, especially considering the rest of No One Really Knows has little to nothing to do with funk.

But Campos shows that she has guts all throughout the album, from artwork to songwriting and back. The solid-black CD case features nothing but the words “no one really knows” on the cover and the spine, the titles of the songs, her website and copyright information. That’s it. It’s pretty attention-grabbing. It’s that stripped-down, raw aesthetic that carries over to the music on the album. The attention-grabbing part carries over pretty well too.

Other than the funkadelic “Lately,” No One Really Knows is a largely subdued affair in mood and tempo. There are tons of genres features here, but it’s all held together by Campos’ excellent low voice. Her clear, dusky voice rings true on the let’s-get-it-on R&B slow-burner “Now and Then,” which eviscerates other “soul” singers who smack of cheesiness. “Silverline” adds a distinctly Spanish feel to the proceedings, resulting in a Bossa Nova-esque track. “Not Today” is a Jack Johnson-esque, head-bobbing beach pop song.  “Ease My Mind” is a downtempo song reminiscent of Portishead, while “On and On” is a little more upbeat but still evokes the Bristol-based threesome.

There are tons of genres represented here, but Campos pulls them all off effortlessly. The album flows, almost inexplicably at times, due to the strength of the compositions and the underlying themes and moods that tie the songs together. Campos has an amazing voice and a songwriting gift, making No One Really Knows an incredibly mature and solid release. If you’re a fan of female vocalists, downtempo music, or the next big thing, you should get acquainted with Conchita Campos. I see no reason why she shouldn’t be highly lauded in the near future.

Night Flowers displays a multi-faceted sound

A snarling, devil-may-care attitude used to be one of the defining characteristics of rock’n’roll. When that attitude folded into post-grunge’s misogynistic machismo (in approximately 1995, when grunge’s rebellion had completely metamorphosed into radio-readiness), indie-rock picked up the emotive banner, effectively abandoning the gritty bad boy image for an excess-is-rock’n’roll mentality or emotions-are-rock’n’roll ideology.

All this to say, I was really pleased to hear Night Flowers‘ snarly attitude. It’s dangerous, sexy and attractive (not about being dangerous, sexy and attractive).