Saturday, December 27, 2008

(Mini) Review: Harland - Phoelar

Artist: Harland
Album: Phoelar
Year: 2001
Rating: 3.5/5

Written on 23 December 2008

First of all, I want to say that Harland would have probably been a lot bigger in my books if her caffeine-laden songwriting would have been, I don't know, a bit less calculated, more spontaneous and with more kicks. And her albums are way too fragmented and maybe in a hurry: rarely the mood gets more meditative, more dreamy, most of the time it's dry and poppy, but does little to maintain attention. That's the problem: it rarely manages to grab your attention, and maybe that's why you need quite a lot of listens and a lot of attention to find the good music that's buried underneath.

Having said that, I can now firmly say that Phoelar is a strong debut and should deserve more publicity, even from Harland herself. Her "milk chocolate" vocals are definitely not something unusual in trip-hop, but are obviously beautiful, especially when she attempts to do hooks like in "Broken" (which does manage to have a nice hook, with some tropical flavours if you look/hear a little closer). Obviously, the highlight of the album is the poppy but very effective track "Broken". Besides it, there's also the great first track "Dry", as well as "Parade", "Snake", "Phases" and "Lovers Greed". The track to almost grab the title of "highlight of the album" is the quite melancholic outro "Imperfect Hostess". Here you can have a better glimpse of what is delicious in Harland's sound, because the pace has slowed down in comparison with the rest of the album and somewhat makes up for the lack of personality of some of the tracks on the album. As you've probably anticipated, the main con of "Phoelar" is the lack of personality: incorporating a quite poppy sound, Harland did more to clutter her album with standard-length songs and less to populate her creations with some personality to set her apart from other names of the genre (Mandalay, to name only one such band).

According to another review of this album (, "Harland's debut album is a more experimental and somewhat darker piece of work than her follow-up project" and that "many of the songs veer into the synth/goth genre". I wouldn't say that. For the most, this is pretty much "cookie cutter" standard trip-hop. It isn't experimental at all, but I guess the writer of that review barely had any experience within the genre, as Salt Box Lane isn't too marvellous either. To conclude, I say that this is an OK experience that could have been a lot more satisfying if Harland was willing more to risk and to shock.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Review: Sankt Otten - Eine Kleine Traurigkeit

Artist: Sankt Otten
Album: Eine Kleine Traurigkeit
Year: 2008 (first issue: 2000, on Eleganz Records)
Rating: 5/5

I admit that Sankt Otten's albums never amazed me on my first listen. I admit that, by definition, I have strong negative opinions regarding pop music and I do admit that I have a strong bias towards the so-called 'trip-hop' movement, which was never considered clearly underground (classical?) or clearly pop. I've been into this sound (it's not a genre, but a sound) for about 4 years and I still haven't grown out of it. I've collected a lot of trip-hop records over the years and I have discovered numerous hidden gems, but, until recently, Sankt Otten were nowhere near my favourite bands.

Thanks to the likes of Colour Kane and Glassacre, I've eventually found out about the myriad of talented bands around this Australian label called Hidden Shoal Recordings, so it was a matter of time until hearing of Sankt Otten... I often think that I was drunk or something while listening to their albums the first time, as I never managed to retain much from that first audition. It took some time for me to fully appreciate "Wir koennen ja freunde bleiben" and "Wunden gibt es immer wieder". However, right from the second listen, "Eine Kleine Traurigkeit" blown me away. Considering the fact that German vocals don't particularly appeal to me and that "Eine Kleine Traurigkeit" isn't too innovative either (the innovations here are subtle), this might seem pure magic.

Let me tell you what I think: these guys are poets. They can effortlessly place a jigsaw into the right place. They can make us see that things make sense. They always win with their heart instead of a dictionary. Their heart is a dictionary! What they're doing here looks like cartography to me, as their songs have a rare way of precisely expressing things, feelings that seem somehow more real than the reality. Because, each time you play this album, you can feel the night surrounding you, and that's the best and most precise thing I can say about "Eine Kleine Traurigkeit". It's a journey to the center of the night, a disturbing and exciting trip to Miss Terria's Darkness Factory...

When this album was first released, back in 2000, there still was anxiety floating in the air, due to the arrival of the new millennium... In 2008, long after trip-hop lived its heyday, Hidden Shoal reissues this little known album. Whether it is 9/11 or the Iraq War or the Large Hadron Collider, there's always a reason to be nervous, uncertain. The sour times that were so often depited in trip-hop songs are not only here, but you can also feel they're aggravating. In 2000 Sankt Otten already felt the need for "post trip-hop", the need for expanding beyond the already established trip-hop sounds and experiment with the posibilities of this, ahem, genre (which doesn't mean they can't perfect the old "formula", a thing they did on tracks like "Elektronik Nein", besides more courageous tracks like "Stille Tage im Klischee"). The most obvious result of this need can be heard in the single "Tiefgang", a piece that seems to be derived from western spaghetti soundtracks a la Ennio Morricone rather than Blue Lines. The two different styles might seem to clash, but, being so cinematic, the Sankt Otten sound can easily merge the two apparently contrary directions. The experimenting is still a bit subtle on this album, only on the following albums the band has moved towards more courageous territories. Nevertheless, "Eine Kleine Traurigkeit" is a (pretty inspired, I'd say) step in the right direction, which is maybe the only reason why it could be considered a predecessor of Portishead's "Third", as here there are no experimental rock pretentions or downright hopeless sounds like in "Third".

It is pointless to talk about songs. "Eine Kleine Traurigkeit" is a whole. Rarely I've seen albums that are albums and not just collections of singles, like in most pop music. Like in more elevated styles of music such as classical or like in some proggresive rock, everything fits in (and it isn't an coincidence that the (initially) last track on the album, "Ende Gut", is an elegiac song performed only on piano and vocals). Each song is like a jigsaw that fits in perfectly, and not even the bonus track from this 2008 reissue, "Stille Tage im Klischee" (which, by the way, translates roughly as "Quiet Days in the Cliché"), strays too far from this. And it is also pointless to talk about the lyrics. To be honest, I don't know German well, but somehow I can understand everything very well. That's the beauty of music: it makes you realize. The vocals aren't just part of the soundscape, it is a facet of the soundscape. Thanks to the likes of Sigur Rós, we listeners (or at least some of us) haven't forgot that music is a language that transcends languages.

I could tell you more about how the androgynous vocals fit in the concept or how this is much better than average pop music or how my grandma likes Portishead or whatever, but, frankly, I hate to do this. I only want to say this: try this album (by the way, you can try and hear the full songs on sites like so why not?), buy this album, eat this album, drink this album, fork this album, sleep by this album, etc. etc. Don't see it as a critic's opinion. See it as the recommendation of a friend who likes music like you do. I'm an enthusiast who has listened to lots of music (not just trip-hop), not a critic that was professionally trained to tell you in 100 pages how this is the next "Dark Side of the Moon"... I just like music and don't want you to miss this essential releases, definitely one of the best CD's I've heard this year. Don't ignore it (I've done that way too many times with this and other albums), because it deserves your attention and you might actually find it rewarding.

Thank you for having the patience to read this.

P.S. And my grandma doesn't listen to Portishead, actually, she doesn't listen to anything in particular...

(20 December 2008/22:17)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

"Not Nice" Review: Halou - Halou

Artist: Halou
Album: Halou
Year: 2008
Rating: 2.5/5

(Written on 25 Octomber 2008)

As I am writing, I already dust off the R/R Coseboom material, since my nostalgia grown very big again. Because of the autumn? No, not really.

There's a new Halou album. Ha, ha. A very exciting proposal if I hadn't listened to Sawtooth EP. Having listened to that EP, I was ready to hit with predjudice, but, you know, the new album might actually be good! The new album has only 8 new songs (out of which 3 I've already heard on Halou's MySpace), so I hoped these would redeem Halou's latest effort. Unfortunately, at least on my first listen, I wasn't very amazed by what I've heard.

At first, I could define Halou's self-titled album as a "rehash". I don't mind bringing a song from the previous album on your latest album, I don't mind reworking material from a side-project and putting it on the new album. But it's all not good. A part of the album is ripped from Sawtooth EP (all the songs from that EP are here!), a part of it is represented by reworkings of older songs initially made under the R/R Coseboom project ("Seabright" is from Moths + Butterflies and "Eejit" and "Hollywood Ending" are from Beneath Trembling Lanterns), a part of it is represented by apparently new songs - apparently. "Skimming" and a few other songs were supposed to be on a collection of unreleased songs from the Wholeness & Separation sessions, entitled Afield Recordings. But Afield Recordings was never released - they were dumped here. Nice thing to do for fans, but a compilation of B-sides never had as many expectations as a full-grown, long-length album. Having said that, the real problem of this album is the atmosphere. Or the lack of it.

Besides arguable tags like "trip-hop" or "dream pop", I always thought of Halou as a band that creates atmosphere. The term I would least associate with the makers of Wiser or We Only Love You is "bland". Atmosphere is where it's at. However, come to think of it, the one word that defines this new album is "bland". Useless to start describing each song (like in my old reviews, heh). What we got here is slightly noisy indie-rock-tronica-whatever (with some unsubstantial contributions from Robin Guthrie and Zoë Keating, both rarely noticeable - ironically) lumped it with some trip-hoppy-IDM that don't fit in the album very well, even when flooded with - touche! - acoustic guitars.

"Woah, you teh complain cause it's no hip-hop!" Firstly, don't confound trip-hop with hip-hop, and second, Halou members have proved before they don't have to make trip-hop or other such stuff to be cool (Parallelism, for instance). It's just that this album fails to hit me somewhere, anywhere, even on the nails! Sure, returning to your super-duper-shoegazy roots is cool, but this is barely dreamy. It just sounds like the album of a band that's still in pursuit of a identity. Maybe I'll change my opinion a bit over a few listens, maybe it will grow on me, but, personally, I would have waited a little bit more for a different album...

Come to think of it, I like the new typewriter sounds on "Eejit" 2....

Edit: Well, Halou is now gone. I hope the forthcoming Stripmall Architecture album is more polished than this one.