Album Of The Week: Austra Olympia
Music critics make mistakes all the time, and I made one two years ago, when I reviewed Austra’s debut album Feel It Break for Pitchfork. I gave that album a positive review, but it was one of those wait-and-see positive reviews, like, “They’re onto something here! Let’s see what they can do next time around!” This was wrong. They were not onto something. They did something. Austra was, and is, the group led by Katie Stelmanis, a much-admired fixture on Toronto’s art-punk scene with a voice like a heavily medicated soaring eagle. She’d linked up with a group of synthetic musicians and a pair of unearthly-beautiful twins who sang soft-monotone backing vocals, and together, they’d made an album of miasmic, uncanny synthpop, music that used the grammar of dance music to cast a warm spell that never once invited dancing. The album stuck firmly within a single mode, never varying from its thick and deep central sound, and maybe that lack of variance was why I didn’t entirely trust the spell that the album cast on me. If they expanded that core sound, I thought, maybe that spell would become stronger. This was dumb, because two years later, that album’s spell lingers; it might’ve even gained in strength. But it wasn’t entirely dumb, because now Austra have made an album that expands on their original sound, and it’s even better than the one that came before.
Olympia, Austra’s new one, has the same basic foundation as Feel It Break: the beat and the pulse, to borrow a Feel It Break track title. Austra always make sure that the beat is a pulse, a steady reassuring thump that gives life to the track. Stelmanis never sounds like she’s singing over a track; that icily devastated voice always seems to emit from the center of it. And the difference, this time around, is that the beat is thicker and more complex. Every track still has that steady 4/4 throb, but it’s fleshed out with more: String rondos, timbale ripples, five or six different synth sounds all working in concert. That new thickness of sound makes a huge difference; the songs sound brigther and livelier than before, and you notice different sonic details all the time. (I could swear that’s a goddam harmonica deep in the mix on “We Become,” for instance.) Bits of the music here would resonate as sunshine pop in another band’s hands; the use of synthed-up marimbas, for instance, reminds me of the last Cut Copy album. But Austra have different ideas of what to do with these sounds. No matter how packed these tracks are, no matter how beautifully orchestrated, all the elements still serve that basic percolating burble.
It’s oddly fitting that Olympia is hitting stores the same day as Yeezus, since it draws from some of the same sonic inspirations but does radically different things with them. (And yes, I’m going to be comparing everything to Yeezus for at least the next couple of weeks, sorry. And this is probably also a good place to add a certain programming note: Yeezus is the real album of the week, and possibly the year. But I’ve already written about it at length. I’m using this space to draw attention to something else — partly because Olympia deserves the attention, and partly because nobody needs to read me going long on Yeezus two days in a row.) Kanye West and Austra have evidently spent plenty of time lately contemplating the sparse, primal thump of early house music. On Yeezus, that music is an agent of rupture and distress and anxiety, the distorted 303 scream that opens the record setting the dystopian scene for all the fear and loathing that follows. But for Austra, house music is a warm, enveloping thing, and its influence gives the music a welcoming glow that wasn’t really present on Feel It Break. You hear it in the way the congas gently nudge the music forward, or in the positively liberating piano runs that house borrowed from gospel. That stuff is crucial to Olympia, and every time these elements appear on the album, which is often, they’re sources of pleasure.
And that’s important, since Stelmanis, singing on Olympia, sounds like she needs that comfort. Stelmanis’s vocal performance here is a thing of wonder. The songs have more going on that they did on Feel It Break, but she finds room to push her voice in different directions, to stretch out her vowels and show serious firepower without resorting to melisma. And over and over, she pulls off the neat trick of maintaining poise while sounding utterly torn apart. On “Home,” the entrancing first single, she’s wailing, “You know that it hurts me when you don’t come home at night,” her composure somehow refusing to break. “You Changed My Life” is lovestruck and devoted, Stelmanis repeating “You changed my life for the best” and drawing the words out so far that she sounds like she’s about to run out of breath and pass out. “I Don’t Care (I’m A Man)” is a tiny sketch of a song, one that plays with queer identity and relationship shit: “The quiet indoor fighting / The whimper in her sigh / The softer brutalizing / But I don’t care, I’m a man.” It’s intense sentiment, done with focus and provocative force, but the music around it is as warm and comfortable as a thick blanket. And just like Feel It Break, I expect this one to stick with me.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Kanye West’s brain-shattering Yeezus.
• Sigur Rós’s surprisingly fearsome and vaguely Deftones-esque Kveikur.
• Empire Of The Sun’s new wave blockbuster-attempt Ice On The Dune.
• Mac Miller’s restlessly inventive, invitingly stoned Watching Movies With The Sound Off.
• Zomby’s adventurous post-rave double album With Love.
• Primal Scream’s ancestrally druggy and Stones-indebted More Light.
• Lemuria’s erratic and heartfelt J. Robbins-produced The Distance Is So Big.
• Vacation’s noisy but friendly punker Candy Waves.
• The Mantles’ garage-pop sophomore effort Long Enough To Leave.
• Hospital Ships’ stark and intimate Destruction In Yr Soul.
• Two Inch Astronaut’s jittery, angular Bad Brother.
• Kurt Vile sideman Steve Gunn’s spaced-out instrumental LP Time Off.
• J. Cole’s churlish honors-student effort Born Sinner.
• Quasimoto’s rarities compilation Yessir Whatever.
• TV Girl’s slice-of-life indie-pop EP Lonely Women.