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.

Olympia is out now on Domino. Stream it here.

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.

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Comments (22)
  1. Huh, didn’t see that coming.

    I think my album of the week is Kveikur. As far as I’m concerned, Sigur Ros hit it out of the park in all the right ways, and it’s my favorite thing they’ve done since at least Takk….

  2. Completely agree with all of that. ^

    Tom’s description above… “surprisingly fearsome and vaguely Deftones-esque”

  3. THIS ALBUM IS AMAZING!

  4. A swerve of Mark Henry proportions, as I was thinking Tom would go with Lemuria’s The Distance Is So Far. Instead we got a Del Rio / Ziggler double-turn while he F5′s the Chicago fan favorite and the self-proclaimed World’s Greatest in the form of Yeezus right middle of the post for good measure to make it a blockbuster AOTW episode.

  5. Anyone heard the new J Cole? I have a friend begging me to check it out…

    • Ya, it’s some audio-NyQuil, post-college dropout hip-hop blog rap. If you like really mediocre hiphop it’s a blast.

    • Forbidden fruit and power trip are good courtesy of the hooks from Kendrick and Miguel but other than that its a pretty boring listen. The guy has no charisma or interesting flows imo.

    • Whew, you guys are harsher than I anticipated.

      I guess I came in with relatively minimal expectations since I wasn’t a huge J. Cole to begin with, but I think he’s a technically talented dude. A lot of his rhymes had me grinning. Granted, “Born Sinner” is no “Good Kid M.A.A.D. City,” mainly, I think, because J. Cole lacks the requisite X Factor necessary to make an album like that, but I would still give it a listen and see what you think.

      Then again, the small sample size of ‘Gummers who’s responded does not bode well for my argument.

      • I think most ‘Gummers don’t listen to rap unless it comes with the Pitchfork seal of approval. So dumb to hear people who probably couldn’t find their local rap/R&B station on the radio but act like Miguel is the end-all-be-all of R&B or like Kendrick Lamar is the same for rap. When there’s better buzz to be had elsewhere, whether that’s in one year or five, they’ll move on. Cole is actually trying to build a fan base from people who like rap.

    • It’s a great rap album, it’s just a shitty week to be a rapper who isn’t Kanye West. And unlike Yeezus, it is actually a rap album (which is also why its not getting love at the ‘gum but is drawing lots of praise at rap-oriented sites).

      The way I see it, Cole is an incredibly promising rapper/producer, but he has yet to find a sound that transcends the sum of his influences (Outkast, Wu-Tang, Jay-Z, early Kanye). But since those four are responsible for about 80% of my favorite rap albums, it’s not hard for me to enjoy an album that’s rooted in that sound.

  6. My album of the week, non-Yeezus category, is J. Cole’s latest. It’s rock-solid, and I wasn’t a big fan of his last two releases so that’s saying something. He overreaches at times, copping the beat for one of my favorite rap songs of all time (“Da Art of Storytellin’ (Part 1)” by Outkast) without doing it the necessary level of justice, but the early returns are looking really good.

    I’ll be sure to give the new Austra a listen — this year just hasn’t given me a break when it comes to music I want to listen to.

  7. Steve Gunn’s album is excellent stuff (it’s only not solely instrumental, for what it’s worth).

  8. Whoa, this is a nice surprise to get to see Austra get an AOTW post!

    So far, I’m not sure that I like it more than Feel It Break, though that was one of my favorite albums of 2011, so that’s some stiff competition in my book. (Also, I don’t entirely agree with Tom’s point about it being monochromatic… I can see where he’s coming from, since the mood is fairly consistent throughout and there are some sonic similarities between some of the songs, but I feel like there is a fair amount of variety between songs, with songs like “Shoot the Water,” “Beat and the Pulse,” and “The Beast” coming to mind. Anyways!)
    I’m still getting used to the new sound the band is putting forward on Olympia, and it’s growing on me as I type this. “Home” and “Painful Like” may have indicated that this was not going to be a rehash of Feel It Break, but somehow those songs did not prepare me for how much Olympia departs from their previous work. It does seem like they’ve matured a lot as a band, no doubt partially due to the addition of the touring members to the songwriting/recording line up, so I’m excited about that growth… even if all this does make it sound a lot less likely that Maya will be contributing to Trust anytime in the near future…

  9. I’m relieved you acknowledge that Feel It Break was underserved. I couldn’t get how it missed a BNM nod. Definitely one of my favorite albums that year. Very excited for Olympia!

  10. I really diskliked this album. It feels a bit tuneless, the hooks are forced, almost inexistent. Most of songs are based entirely on her beautiful voice and vibrato, and the melodies end up being less important. I know Austra is not suposed to be poppy, but the record is beat oriented, so i don’t like the songwrting on this one, . I think i like TRST more than Austra!

  11. This isn’t to diss Austra at all– a band I really like despite (or perhaps because of) its mannered melodrama– but I still think the best thing Katie Stelmanis put her vocals on to date is the Death in Vegas track, Your Loft My Acid. It’s the best possible vehicle for her operatics and the song carries for her voice, rather than the opposite, which is probably why Austra hasn’t made its masterpiece yet– she’s so dominant in the mix, you sort of forget the band or the tunes.

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