Monday, 24 October 2011

Sandro Perri - Impossible Spaces album review

Throughout the myriad works of Toronto-based musician Sandro Perri, the exploration of melodics have been a constant. This new album, Impossible Spaces, picks up on the minimalism of his solo debut- but frequently has more in common with Perri's 2005 release, the 28 minute electro cover of Arthur Russell's 'Kiss Me Again'. And while initial listens may find you put off by some melodic imprecision, multiple spins reveal Impossible Spaces to be an album rich with composition and nuance, one that draws from Perri's dance-past as much as his avant-folk leanings. The result is a smashed palette of an album, one that zips and collects as it does so.

After a four year composition and recording process, Impossible Spaces is by far Sandro Perri's most technically accomplished work. Whereas previous albums under the Glissandro70 or Polmo Polpo monickers have been interesting, rounded wholes- their aesthetics (the reinvention of disco and a meditation on drawn-out melody respectively) seem smaller than the statements laid out here. This is an album that is musically and thematically broad, contradictory, abundant with varying voices and styles that over the records seven tracks find a unifying sense of itself. The album title hints at something conflicted and a call/response structure to many of the song duos and transitions between play off the sense of dichotomy very well. Album opener 'Changes' exemplifies this dualistic structure, its first half comprising ambling song, the second relenting to dance-prog noodlings that build and build. The album is sequenced wonderfully, as demonstrated by the pained and awkward musings of 'How Will I?' - the kind of track that Flaming Lips might have used to end an album, here used to round off the first epoch before moving into the beautiful simplicity of 'Futuractive Kid Part 1'.

That's a phrase I keep coming back to, for while the composition is rich with detail- the instrumentation and recording is just sublime in its simplicity. A limited scope of three or four base instruments are accentuated by the subtlest and most precise of studio effects. Impossible Spaces sounds low-fi and high-tech all at once, and beneath the albums semantics there are some stunning pieces of musicianship here. There's a lot to take in, a broad scope for styles across the record's 38 minutes- fans of Hot Chip and Nick Drake's Bryter Layter may find a lot to enjoy distinctly here, but those are but approximations. Impossible Spaces is the sound of an artist making his most crucial statement yet. For those who have followed Perri from his days inaugering Constellation, this album feels like the artist stepping beyond his own back catalogue. For newcomers, this marks an ideal point of entry, but there's a wealth of recordings that have led the artist to this very accomplished moment.


First published in the405

Esmerine (live at Electrowerkz) live review

Esmerine would play their first London gig at Electrowerkz, an idiosyncratic venue renowned for its goth nights and clubbing. Given their hiatus, it was perhaps a wonder that the band were here at all- but Esmerine enjoyed the breath of new life in 2011 when expanding from a duo to a five piece. Here, perhaps suitably, the material found an appropriate embellishment in the fuller ensemble. The tour came on the back of a new record, the excellent and indeed surprising La Lechuza- an album which became a personal favourite this year. Drawing from chamber music as much as ballad and folk, the record moved Esmerine's sound beyond the 'post rock lite' and into a more rounded whole. Lyric and vocal contributions (including a performance from the late Lhasa De Sela, for whom the record is dedicated) tinged La Lechuza with bittersweet, knowing memories, a sense of time and place and loss. If the record is sad, then it is also profoundly beautiful.

We'd gathered in the dark second chamber and were sat cross legged on the floor before Esmerine walked through us from the venue's rear and took their instruments. There was no 'backstage' area to speak of, and it was lovely to meet the group before the gig, hustled by the merch stall. I've long been of the belief that a band should never employ roadies, that in doing so you kiss goodbye to any punk rock sense of authenticity, and there was a similarly unpretentious atmosphere here. Between songs, cellist Beckie Foon (also of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, formerly of A Silver Mt Zion) would speak to us without a microphone, and in truth the stage setting seemed more of a formality than a theatrical necessity.

Esmerine played for just under an hour, a set comprised of numbers taken mostly from La Lechuza but the group pleasingly paid dues to their strong back catalogue too. Indeed, their debut album If Only A Sweet Surrender To The Nights To Come Be True was represented well, the stunning drawn out beauty of 'There Were No Footprints In The Dust Behind Them' given an early recital in the billing. But it was the material from La Lechuza that resonated strongest, in particular the absolutely joyous 'Trampolin'. A jangly ditty; centred around harmonised marimba and harp notes and underpinned by rising, trembling cello chords- 'Trampolin' is by far the most uplifting moment on La Lechuza and it lost none of its power in the live setting. Elsewhere, harpist Sarah Page gave an excellent sung performance on the Lhasa De Sela cover 'Fish On Land'.

Throughout the concert, Esmerine seemed perfectly enthused to be here touring, and delighted with the warm responses their performances would elicit from the crowd. Smiles abounded, and although the stage was small and the band hustled in between each other- there remained a closeness between the musicians that was evident in the reflected expressions between them onstage. For such meditative music, Esmerine made for a charming spectacle as a band. This visual impact was accentuated by the work of visual artist Clea Minaker, who resided side stage broadcasting live graphics and images on the rear stage canopy. These deserve a special mention, as they were performed live and with good grace. An overhead projector made for a canvas as Minaker blew leaves and feathers across the light, or patchwork translucents- all making for a beautiful real-time animation that would adorn the music. A live reaction to it, then- painted in colour and mood, occasionally awkward but endearing throughout and a lovely element to accompany the band on tour.

Esmerine left once, but quickly returned- an unending torrent of applause humbling the band into performing two encore pieces. A sense of humour and eccentricity pervaded their stories throughout, Sarah and Beckie frequently introducing the lengthy chamber pieces as 'pop songs'- but it was the concert closer that perhaps played the biggest double-bluff of the night. Entitled 'Glock Rock', it was perhaps exactly that- an otherwise out-of-character foray into high-tempo glockenspiel action, ramped to eleven and accompanied by some frenetic drumming. If you've never heard glockenspiels used as rock instruments before then you're missing out. This was Esmerine's first UK tour, and for many in the crowd it marked an opportunity to see a beloved band- this much was clear from the response and by the number of people who hung around afterward to converse with the group, who were clearly taken aback by the warmth in the crowd.

First published in the405

Esmerine / Beckie Foon interview

Esmerine played their first European tour recently, performing material from their acclaimed third album La Lechuza. The 405 was afforded the opportunity to speak with founding member Beckie Foon and we jumped at the chance. As a member of Godspeed You Black Emperor, Set Fire To Flames and A Silver Mt Zion- Beckie Foon has been at the centre of some of my favourite music and has consistently upheld a recording and publication ethic that puts localism and creativity above profit making and careerism. It was a real pleasure to sit with her and have this conversation before Esmerine played at the Electrowerkz venue in London.

the 405: Evening Beckie. It's lovely to meet with you.

Beckie Foon: You too. Hope you enjoy the show tonight!

405: I'm looking forward to it a great deal. Esmerine has gone from being a duo to now incorporating many members. How has that evolution been?

BF: Bruce and I were very interested in exploring the world of melodic percussion and cello when we started, especially based with our groups, our punk rock groups and also because we were in loud bands. And so it was nice to think about stripping it down and really thinking collaboratively about using these wooden beautiful instruments that we might not have got to fully explore their potential in our loud rock bands, so initially it was borne out of that- we wanted to try something different. And so that's kind of how Esmerine was born. For this album, well- we were never actually planning on recording a third record. Not that we 'weren't planning' a third record, we just hadn't thought through it, or were too busy with everything else going on in our lives- even though we'd always stayed vaguely active, doing performances in Montreal.

405: And jamming yourselves, as well?

BF: Yeah. But we would actually do a lot of shows in Montreal, we just never took Esmerine on tour before. It was all Silver Mt Zion or Godspeed, the other commitments. So what happened was that we'd started playing live with Lhasa De Sela, she'd asked us to open up for her as a duo in Montreal. So we did that show, and we met her band and we all really connected. And from there, Bruce and I became more and more interested in the some of the instrumentation that she had in her band, drums and harp for example. We all got on, so we just started playing together. We played a show and Lhasa sang with us- it became this very natural evolution. It's a little difficult for Bruce, I mean- we still play duo shows- because for us, it's kindof this whole new world to have harp and drums and these extra musicians, because certainly on record, Bruce has always overdubbed the marimba and drums, playing them both. So now we can have all of those parts live.

405: It's interesting to hear that you still play duo shows. When I think of how A Silver Mt Zion has grown and grown over the years, I wonder if it would be nice to take that back to a three-piece, and play some shows as the first album had been recorded.

BF: Yeah, I totally agree.

405: I guess you have that with different incarnations of bands though, right. And Mt Zion isn't your thing anymore! Have the extra members here influenced or changed the way you write songs?

BF: Yeah, it's definitely more of a band thing now, we're more collaborative. It can be a bit more complicated at times writing music with more people, or easier when things evolve naturally. There's different people, more minds, more energy and opinion to deal with.

405: How did this album come about then? You mentioned that it wasn't planned, but not not planned either.

BF: There were some Esmerime songs that we'd reworked together, after a show in Montreal we played as a four piece. And as we reworked the songs, Sarah and Andrew also had some ideas, sketches of songs, that they brought to us, and we incorporated those into the set. And then when Lhasa passed away, we wanted to write a special lullaby for her as she'd brought us all together- so the entire composition really came about very organically.

405: You really breathed new life into the band with the album.

BF: Yeah, and it's fun to do that, shake it up and grow as musicians and people.

405: So your first two records, put out on Resonant and Madrona respectively...

BF: Yeah, Madrona was the label Bruce and I started.

405: I think I bought the Aurora vinyl direct from the Madrona mail order. How did working again with Constellation come about?

BF: I guess we have a long term history with Constellation. We gave them the record and they were amazed by it. Bruce and I had retired Madrona! We were very happy to work with Constellation.

405: It's led to collaborations with label artists like Colin Stetson (

BF: Yeah, that was from our opening show in Montreal. And Clea Minaker, who did the projections, will be with us tonight.

405: How does this LP compare to the first two?

BF: This record has a completely different meaning behind it, due to where we are with our lives and the history we have together, and so there's a different element in it. There's a lot of symbolism in it for us, and musically where we are now is so different to where we were five or ten years ago. We're older, we have kids. We've grown as artists and as human beings. The first two Esmerine records are still very close to my heart though.

405: It's nice when you get to a stage and think, well they could only have made this record with a certain level of experience and maturity, at a certain point in their career.

BF: Yeah, I agree- it's a very strange thing, but also quite a beautiful feeling.

405: How does it feel to be part of such a now-noted and successful community of musicians?

BF: I learn a lot from the musicians around me and am very happy to be a part of this community. I've had the pleasure of playing music around the world, and that's something I can never take for granted.

405: What does the future hold for you as a group, or indeed as an individual?

BF: For Esmerine, this is our first European tour and we were excited about trying this out. I also don't play in Silver Mt Zion anymore and I'm excited to see where this goes, and I'm also working on a solo record built from looped cello and singing. I've just finished that record. It's totally different to everything I've done so far, it has electronic percussion! That maybe should be out, hopefully in the Spring, but we'll see.

405: I have to ask, will we ever see another Set Fire To Flames record?

BF: (laughs) Who knows, man. We worked on a soundtrack for a short animation film, and that was the last thing we did. I would love to, but there's 13 people in that group!

405: And I imagine you all have to be in a similar, very particular mindset while recording.

BF: Exactly! But thats how Bruce and I met, and how Esmerine came about initially.

405: Thankyou so much for your time, Beckie.

Evangelista - In Animal Tongue album review

Some people live and breathe their music, as if they could be recast against any environment, any colouring particulars- the only constant their necessity for compelling music's making. Carla Bozulich is one such artist, her career having spanned 3 decades now and reincarnated in upwards of seven bands. Whilst her back catalogue is as diverse as it is long (dig out some Ethyl Meatplow if you can find it), it was pleasing to see her picked up by Montreal-based label Constellation in 2005. After flirting with success after covering Willie Nelson's Red Header Stranger in it's entirely, Bozulich largely fell off the radar until, quite out of the blue, she announced her new project on an entirely new label. Better known for it's work with the city's then-blossoming avant-garde scene, 2005 saw Constellation move beyond both its city wall and the genres it had pioneered. Carla, from Los Angeles, represented a canny move: In Animal Tongue is her fifth album for the label, her fourth under the Evangelista banner that has allowed yet another artistic and critical reinvention, as well as offering Bozulich a creative renewal.

The Evangelista band, comprising bassist Tara Barnes (formerly of the excellent thrash-nihilist Duchesses) and sound-artist Dominic Cramp, was itself borne of the road. Having released her debut for the label, also titled Evangelista, a touring band was formed. Herein, Barnes and Bozulich set upon a creative unity that would last to today and bear its increasing influence on the music. Gone are the dream-set, ominous samples that would mark her Constellation debut with an unruly tension- throughout this band's existence, their has almost been an insistence on it resonating exactly as such: a band. People in a room, playing instruments through amplifiers.

On album opener 'Artificial Lamb', you can hear the crackle of guitar leads and electricity. Clean recordings and few (if any) overdubs- the track's timid instrumentation gently imposes itself whilst Bozulich moans with desperation- it's final lines delivered with a cracked, aching high pitch. Its a telling introduction to what is a very restrained and at times sombre album. 'Black Jesus' barely awakens, the vocal delivery passes off like a spoken word against which the music, the repeated riff, picked from a sea of reverb. On the title track, as the track reaches a climactic moment with chorus and thumped drums, repeated calls of “she sung in animal tongue” are delivered at once with pride and sadness.

This is not an album for mornings or shining July days, and it is appropriate that Constellation has chosen to release the album in the midst of Autumn. Everything here sounds live, and is cast against the kind of very loud silence that is only present in the very late hours at night. Frequently performative, sung seemingly ad-lib- there's a creeping feeling that pervades In Animal Tongue, only increasing as the record reaches the nostalgia-psychosis of 'Tunnel to the Stars' and the schizophrenia of closing number 'Hatching'. There's an inexplicable beauty to the maddening frequencies and drumming that abounds here, and this is how I feel about the entire record. It is deeply focused, recorded and performed with care- but it sounds like it was recorded in the wood cabin from Lars Von Trier's Antichrist. This album is certainly not for everyone, but unlike that film- In Animal Tongue is, you get the impression, entirely for real, serious and committed to the notion of extraordinary listening spaces. That's enough, for me. Whilst it might not have the strike out value of Hello Voyager (which was, let's face it, largely a pop album)- In Animal Tongue is a profoundly interesting album that I'll treasure in my collection. It's weirded me out frequently and significantly enough to merit the 7 stars I'm giving it, though newcomers to Carla Bozulich might want to start elsewhere.

First published in the405

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah - Hysterical album review

It's hard to know where to begin with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's third album. The conventional narrative up until now reads that the band sprung out of internet fame, a DIY aesthetic almost synonymous with their debut- and seemingly everyone was an overnight fan. The jangly, retro-infused, charming and defiant songs of their eponymous start united the entire indie scene in appraisal, much in the same way a Tumblr-borne artist like The Weeknd aims for now. But in 2005, weren't we all that bit more naïve? The band seemingly second-guessed the audience backlash with their follow up record, the 'difficult second album' monicker being more appropriate of an audience expectation than the band's composition. Some Loud Thunder was to some, unlistenable- but this reviewer found it to be a rewarding album of hidden depths and studio trickery. Yeah, that bass was consistently fuzzing, the drums were awkwardly panned and as far as I can tell, the vinyl and CD have different versions of the title track- but can't some mistakes be deliberate? That it came wrapped in so many interviews, vocalist Alex Ounsworth telling half-believable yarns that he never listened to music produced after 1980, that vinyl was his mantra- the album might have made you work for it, infinitely more than their debut (a record which dared you not to like it)- but it was overwhelmingly composed, its confusing studio mix clearly deliberate.

If Some Loud Thunder led some of their fanbase up the garden path, then Hysterical could be considered an even more disturbing WTF moment. From the moment it starts spinning, you are made aware of something different here. Namely, it sounds fantastic. Not in a compelling, interesting, sucks you in and can't get it out of your head way, but rather in studio sound. Everything is well mixed, well recorded- this is the sound of the professional recording industry, of money and 'maximising' technique behind each note- it could be a Kings of Leon record for chrissakes. This is all down to the hiring of St Vincent producer John Congleton- but frankly it comes across in an instant like a disavowal of everything the band have stood for. So their first record was marked by whimsey and charm, and the second was criticised for being too esoteric and bloody minded- but to my mind, the manner in which to respond to such criticisms is not by becoming the most arena-rock sounding, mainstream version of yourselves that you can be. It's like they're negating all that made them unique in the first place, and in doing so- you're left wondering whether you only ever liked them for their quirkiness, or whether the songs held true.

Fortunately, I firmly believe in the latter. I only have to remember old numbers like 'Tidal Wave of Young Blood' and 'Yankee Go Home' and I'm smiling giddily. Even the stronger moments from this record, like 'Ketamine and Ecstasy' or 'The Witness' Dull Surprise' find themselves drowned out in a sea of mediocrity. It's as if the album's sonic mastery undoes the possibility of anything truly becoming memorable here. It all bleeds together, and the band sound as if they're going through the motions. And I realise that it's unfair to review an album by comparing it to previous works, that an album should be reviewed on its own strengths and weaknesses- but Hysterical sounds so 'post' its preceding works, so conscious of the (unfair) criticisms that followed Some Loud Thunder, that it rarely has opportunity to exist in its own space.

For me, the biggest question is why we ended up here. Clap Your Hands took a five year hiatus, a soul-searching mission, and this album was preceded with the inevitable PR that the band had discovered themselves, found their sound, etc. But if this is the sound of the band being true to themselves, then the album makes it abundantly clear what a dull and disappointing prospect that is.


First published in the405