Over the course of several albums, the idiosyncrasies of sister-duo CocoRosie have manifested themselves in a number of fittingly quirky ways, most notably on 2007’s The Adventures of Ghosthorse and Stillborn, which seemingly thrust their anachronistic tendencies into the 21st century. That record propped their unique vocals against big backbeats while still maintaining a good deal of the group’s elvish mystique. It seemed even their insular world was not immune to pop trends.
With Grey Oceans, CocoRosie’s fourth album, it’s tempting to view the record as a retreat to the folkian ways of Noah’s Ark, their second full-length. But beneath Oceans’ demode facade is a gurgling wellspring of contemporarily erratic sonic textures. Like Björk’s creative move from Vespertine to Medúlla, this album’s shapeshifting is only confounding until one adjusts to the surroundings. “Hopscotch” parts childish sing-song with frenetic beats and “Fairy Princess” is carved out of patchy synths and musicbox melodies, but it begins to make sense once the real world fades into the background and one is absorbed into this strange abyss. And while this audio web is so tangled that it’s possible one may never make it back to the surface, it really isn’t a concern.
Jamie Lidell’s been rocking future-funk and electro-soul since Justin Timberlake was still in Mickey Mouse ears. With impeccable pipes, a dirty mind and a penchant for sonic experimentation, Lidell makes music that is as gleefully retro as is it boldly adventurous. His latest, Compass, navigates a path that is all too familiar to long-time listeners. But while I wouldn’t mind a few more surprises on the record, there’s something to be said for cultivating a winning formula that spawns reliably solid tracks every time out.
Lidell’s trademark layered beatboxing opens the album before giving way to the deep distorted melody of the excellent “Completely Exposed,” which sounds like something off There’s a Riot Goin’ On, but with brighter production. On “The Ring,” Lidell as producer cranks the fuzz up on his own vocal bassline to make it sound like a kazoo run through an overdrive pedal. And the deceptively minimalist Beck collaboration, “Coma Chameleon,” is built largely on a single piano note made to sound like a dystopic death knell.
Lidell isn’t the greatest lyricist on the planet, but his vocal chops and grittiness lend him a sense of credibility essential to any soul revivalist’s success. Moreover, few artists possess his ability to balance respect for tradition with a burning desire to innovate and push things forward. The result is a unique yet familiar sound that is unstuck in time and, most importantly, a hell of a lot of fun.
One of the best parts about the rise of Lady Gaga is that it makes the way a little easier for her synth-minded contemporaries. But she has also helped cast a more favorable light on her spiritual forefathers, with respect being paid to those luminaries’ pure-pop sensibilities. Which makes it the perfect time for the re-emergence of Andy Bell, best known as the singing half of synth-pop duo Erasure and who has stepped away for his second solo album, Non-Stop.
While not as referenced as often as Pet Shop Boys or Depeche Mode, Erasure, whose other half, Vince Clarke, was a founding member of Depeche Mode, was as equally instrumental in welding whipsmart pop songwriting to dancefloor ready tunes. Less dark than Depeche Mode and less detached than Pet Shop Boys, Erasure’s best songs were filled with a soaring exuberance. Thankfully that pattern continues on Non-Stop. After all, when a singer goes on a solo mission, there’s always the fear that they’ll go on some odd left turn. That’s not the case here. This is a record that sits comfortably among Erasure’s best.
In 1986, when Erasure made their debut, there were plenty of like-minded sounds on the radio. But over the course of 12 albums, nine EPs and 20-plus years, they established a signature sound. And Non-Stop doesn’t stray from the formula. Bell’s soaring tenor glides over bubbling keyboard lines and drum machine stomps, while lyrically finding a way to fold his occasionally dark take on relationships into a shiny package. While clocking in at a lean 36 minutes running time, Non-Stop is comprised of 10 perfectly constructed pop gems with hooks galore. You’ll even forgive the lapse when Bell drops in phrases like “keep it real” and “hot mess.” And while the Perry Farrell guest spot could be a shock, you barely notice. But such concerns are minor. At least he didn’t get a guest spot from Will I. Am.
Dorian S. Ham
First Aid Kit is the sister duo of Johanna and Klara Söderburg, imported to us from the woodlands of Sweden. That rustic and beautiful environment is no doubt paralleled in their music, which possesses a charmingly bucolic sound.
These girls (they’re much younger than they sound) actually gained notoriety two years ago via an increasingly popular medium, when they posted a video of their stirring cover of Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song.” Fortunately for them, 2008 was the year that Pecknold and company exploded, increasingly the likelihood that somewhere along the interconnected roadmap of the internets, people would stumble upon their video and fall in love with the angelic two-part harmonies and cherub faces. They did—1.3 million and counting. Now, here they are, two years later, with a forthcoming debut full-length slated for September.
Meanwhile, folks can get their First Aid Kit fill with a U.S. release of their EP Drunken Trees, released in Europe on the Wichita Recordings label in 2008. It’s a compilation of seven originals and, of course, the infamous Fleet Foxes cover. The songs themselves are, in a word, lovely. The practically pitch-perfect harmonies of the duo’s voices are laced with a sense of wisdom and longing far beyond their years. Or perchance it’s just another testament to the products of small-town isolationism. Regardless of the minutiae, these sisters have a penchant for creating wonderfully unpretentious songs, with narratives ranging from looming love to unhappy marriages.
The music is simple, written with merely an acoustic guitar and the occasional addition of the organ. But the girls’ voices fill the sparseness better than any instrument could. The nagging paradox of this album, however, is that while the two sound wise, there’s a naive quality about their voices that somehow gives away their age. Once that happens, the lyrics, with sobering subject matter, seem strangely out of place. This is most apparent during the opener, “Little Moon,” which begins with a playful invitation to follow them “if you want, I mean, if you have the time.”
Undoubtedly, these sisters found the beginnings of success among thousands of wannabe internet celebrities for a reason: raw talent and tenacity. Though Drunken Trees may sound a bit unfinished, it’s surely an encouraging sign of things to come.
Like any band managing to stick around for several decades, the Hoodoo Gurus have had their share of ups and downs over the course of their 29-year career. Major label deals never really amounted to much, and the Australian band has largely remained on the fringes, even by the alt-rock standards of the States. Principal founder Dave Faulkner supposedly put the act to bed in 1998, only to resurface in 2004 with essentially the 1989 version of the band—guitarist Brad Shepherd, drummer Mark Kingsmill and bassist Rick Grossman—to release Mach Schau.
Now revitalized, the Gurus are back again with Purity of Essence, an album that, while emblazoned with the kind of full-throttle rock & roll the band has long made its stock-in-trade, also avoids the pratfalls that the band has fallen prey to in the past. Cuts like “What’s In It for Me?” are undistilled shots of rock gusto, which while not the most earthshaking stuff, at least don’t suffer for trying too hard to be of the times. This old-fashioned approach doesn’t always fare well, as on the bluesy “Ashamed of Me” and in the heavy-handed hokeyness of “Only in America,” but when the band works up a collective head of steam, like on the peppy “A Few Home Truths,” the Hoodoo Gurus’ heyday is almost within earshot.