It appears that 2018 will mark a sort of rebirth year for First Aid Kit. After scoring glowing reviews for their last two LPs (2012’s The Lion’s Roar and 2014’s Stay Gold) the Swedish duo have moved on from longtime producer Mike Mogis to work with Tucker Martine (the Decemberists, My Morning Jacket, Modest Mouse), giving their brand of shimmering alt-country a more raw and live feel.
Despite the new sonic scope of their latest LP, Ruins stands as the most intimate and introspective album to date for the Söderberg sisters. Largely written about guitarist and co-vocalist Klara Söderberg’s recent breakup, the ten-track LP treats heartache with a rather sunny disposition, wonderfully established by the Bakersfield Sound veneer of “It’s a Shame,” the piano-drenched Muscle Shoals tribute “Postcard” and the gang vocal outro of the potent “Hem of Her Dress.”
Not only do Klara and Johanna adroitly utilize a wealth of instrumentation on the album — “Fireworks” benefits wonderfully from sweeping hits of strings and “Distant Star” features an organ sound that propels the song into harmonic bliss — but they also bring a terrific backing band into the mix (featuring R.E.M’s Peter Buck, Wilco’s Glenn Kotche and Midlake’s McKenzie Smith) helping them experiment with a variety of writing styles and modes, while mixing ambient sounds into Martine’s punchy production sound.
Lyrically and sonically, Ruins helps First Aid Kit gives listeners a mature, realized and often heartbreaking version of this young band’s oeuvre. (Columbia)
Six albums in, and Jeremy Sills and Frank Smith still seem to be discovering themselves musically. With their latest LP, Maps – Burned or Lost, the Ottawa duo have tapped the fruits of their patience, crafting a whopping 70 minutes of music that finds each track unfolding and revealing itself at a pleasingly woozy pace.
Bringing in a handful of exceptionally tenured and celebrated local guest musicians, including Jesse Stewart on percussion, Marianne Dumas on keyboards and Petr Cancura on mandolin, Maps – Burned or Lost is instrumentally expansive and sonically adventurous. Producer Phillip Victor Bova gives many of the album’s 14 songs an arrestingly distant and cavernous vocal sound, courtesy of Frank Smith. The vocalist provides listeners with a clear-eyed vision that works off of surprisingly percussive and dusty delivery for an album so polished and well-sequenced, as noted on “Miss Us” and “On the Edge.”
Although Sills & Smith have often been described as prog rock enthusiasts, the band take their sweet time on Maps – Burned or Lost, assuring that a cornucopia of sounds and genres are represented while simultaneously matching the sensibilities of these accomplished musicians impeccably. (Independent)
The music of Diane Motel is so precisely assembled, so patiently delivered and so uncomplicated in its arrangements that there’s almost a purity to it. Lonesome for the Colour, the debut from the Windsor, ON folk quintet, is a sturdy listen built upon collating strings, courtesy of guitarist Josh Fraser and co-vocals Travis Laver, and tightly-wound melodies courtesy of Jo Meloche.
Tracks like opener “Jar Me Awake” and “Saint of the Coast” benefit from refreshingly simple song structures reminiscent of salt-of-the-earth early ’90s acts like the Vulgar Boatmen or Caitlin Cary, giving extra weight to the album’s grittier moments, like the hypnotic electric guitar and whirling piano outro of “Northumberland County” and the yearning harmonies of “Kinsey’s Cabin.”
Meloche takes a solo turn of the Celtic-tinged short-runner “Wishing Wells,” perfectly sequenced in the middle of this 11-track/37-minute album, as the back half of the LP becomes moodier, but also more digestible, highlighted by the sparse and confessional “For Annie Tee” and the beautiful barefoot-tapper “Daffodil.”
On Lonesome for the Colour Diane Motel are completely comfortable and capable of baring their souls, and they want you to hear every note and every moment. (Independent)
Better known for his series of dance floor-friendly electronic singles, Michael Red has adopted the moniker Souns to release nine affecting ambient and avant-garde pieces as Aquamarine, the first full-length of his career. Although the Vancouver musician strips down his usual busy sound here — removing his hypnotic and pulsating drum beats — there’s an element that’s unmistakably his.
Rather than relying on slick polyrhythms, Red moves each song forward with strategically-placed synth sounds, whether it’s the syncopated bells that make up the foggy opener “Echoes in the Forest (Part 2)” or the random-generated decayed thuds of the sci-fi-esque “Sun Inside the Sun.” Then there are tracks like “To Sleep” and “Untouched,” which come off impossibly cinematic and epic due to Red’s tight, sparse arrangements. As Red closes off the LP with two of his most patient ambient tracks, the not-much-more-than-a-hiss of “Open Face Sun” and the tone-shifting hum of “The Sound,” it only demonstrates how many mechanisms Red operates throughout this quiet piece of art.
On Aquamarine, Souns shows how recognizable and sophisticated his sound has become, no matter which way he chooses to package it. (Subtempo Records)
As a member of London, England band Three Trapped Tigers, Tom Rogerson blends an invigorating mix of noise-rock, math rock and heady electronic music. On Finding Shore, the immortal Brian Eno helps bring out the beauty, resourcefulness and simplicity of the keyboardist’s sound.
Meeting outside a bathroom after a concert, Rogerson and Eno bonded over the vast, heartland landscapes of their Eastern England upbringings, and sought to capture that serenity over the album’s 13 tracks. Rogerson does all of the tactile work here, playing the piano and synths that largely make up the album, while Eno set the musician up with a piece of equipment called the ‘Piano Bar,’ designed to break the piano notes into midi signals that the elder musician would then manipulate.
The results find Rogerson and Eno working with a plethora of sounds, as no two tracks sound quite alike. The duo play a stickily cascading score on “Motion in Field,” display naked piano virtuosity on “One-ness,” dabble in post-electro ambience on “The Gabbard” and make humming synth explorations on “Chain Home.”
Many avant-garde instrumental albums exist to strictly craft a mood, and Tom Rogerson and Brian Eno somehow seem to merge these moods, sounds and themes together effortlessly and radiantly on Finding Shore. (Dead Oceans)
Those who find Fever Ray and Grouper’s brand of warped, left-field electronics absorbing will find a new favourite in Islaja. A singer/songwriter at first, Merja Kokkonen has experimented with her craft over the past dozen years, and LP number six, Tarrantulla, finds the Finnish musician releasing her most exploratory and fully realized album to date.
Once loosely lumped in with the short-lived freak-folk movement of the mid ’00s, Islaja retains that ethereal element in her sound, incorporating lo-fi synths, gloomy live instrumentation and loads of disjointed arrangements into the mix. “Ghost from the Future” lays the groundwork for this nine-track/38-minute LP, as Islaja travels through four-and-a-half minutes of warped and distorted vocals, sparse beats, strings and cunning lyrics. But Islaja expands exponentially on that sound too, adding danceable rhythms and punchy vocals to “Peace Pilot” and chopped and screwed industrial beats to the haunted but beautifully delivered “Robot Arm.”
Throughout much of the album, as highlighted by the raga “Sadetta” and affecting album closer “Sun luona taas,” Islaja uses vocals, instrumentation and arrangements interchangeably to create something otherworldly. Tarrantullafinds Islaja breaking free from traditional songwriting, creating an album that fucks with the formula in just the right ways. (Svart)
Whether due to the fact that both artists have been known to record their music alone in their homes, or the fact that both have expressed their love of opera and classical music, Will Wiesenfeld’s music has often been compared to the bedroom pop of Michael Angelakos (Passion Pit). But with the release of Romaplasm, Wiesenfeld’s third LP under the moniker Baths, the connection between the two has grown even closer. Over 12 joyful and crisply produced tracks, Wiesenfeld thrusts his habitually complex beats and rhythms straight to the forefront here, allowing the album to simply pop like nothing he’s produced before.
On his first album in four years, the California musician makes this newly unveiled sheen work, as tracks like “Yeoman” and “Out” weave Wiesenfeld’s trademark falsetto through driving and dipping synth rhythms, leaving nary a moment for the listener to catch their aural breath. Just to add to the audio commerce of Romaplasm, Wiesenfeld inserts gratifyingly listenable flourishes like the sped-up vocal hits on “Adam Copies” and the synthetic violin on “Superstructure.” Even when Wiesenfeld slows things down, like on the shimmering “Lev” or the piano-assisted “Coitus,” there’s still a strong melody pulling the songs together and giving them a sense of buoyancy. With Romaplasm, Baths has released his most extroverted album to date without sacrificing any depth. (Anticon)