Goldfrapp – Felt Mountain (2000)

It was 2001, if I recall properly (which is by no means a guarantee). I was in a strange town, beset by many adolescent insecurities and internal abysses, as teens are wont to be. In the span of three days, I’d lost a crush, I’d been confessed another, and I’d discovered Goldfrapp; the music won in the end. It’s still with me today, just as moving, just as jarring.

goldfrappGoldfrapp is a musical duo from England, much better known for their subsequent albums, which adopt a more dance oriented aesthetic and a more flamboyant theatrical presentation. Alison Goldfrapp can be a true diva, in the original sense of the word – a self-created image of a performer, a studied and contrived full-body mask to be worn on stage and to be projected through song. She’s the voice of the duo, and along with Will Gregory, they have been running up and down the scale from chic to silly countless times in the past decade, sometimes with a huge emphasis on sexuality distilled as sound, other times with the “gone with the fairies” vibe of neopagan trappings. Goldfrapp is nothing if not a constant process of reinvention, which allows them to flirt with mainstream success (when I say flirt, I actually mean “make out on top of the most popular club in London’s wall of speakers for the whole world to see”) and allow themselves the freedom to be genuinely artistic and capable of ushering heartbreaking beauty into the world with their music.

If elegance and oddness could sing, Felt Mountain would be their lullaby. This was Goldfrapp before the horse-tails worn on stage, before the squad of bikini-clad demoiselles with wolves’ heads on. This was a more stylized, subtle concept. Alison and Will had just decided to take the plunge and work together, and their working conditions were dire – a cottage in England, beset by vermin and insects crawling up the walls. I’m sure that contributed somewhat to the wartime-like elegance, melancholy and sophistication of their music. Felt Mountain sounds like it’s comprised of memories of a better time, trickling down into music like water on the wall – painfully, ominously.

There’s a Bond soundtrack vibe to many of these songs, and a surreal ripple reminiscent of Combustible Edison’s borderline “demon circus” musings. Felt Mountain is an album of seduction with dark shines, a retro-futuristic film noir of a record, a mind bending journey through beautiful malaise. The only other outfit I know who could incite the same sort of bittersweet defeat when faced with their music is Portishead, who had just went on their epic hiatus when Felt Mountain was released. It is merely a vague stylistic connection, and more than anything a personal impression – Goldfrapp have an entirely different set of resident obsessions and references.

This music is so evocative and burrows so deep that the 2001 story introduction I made to this article has been clad in the sounds of Goldfrapp’s Utopia song ever since, sparking poetry, fascination, endless conversations and goose-bump inducing remembrance ever since; music entwined with identity. If you, dearest readers, haven’t listened to Felt Mountain, I hope my recommendation can nudge you to do so. Truly, it is a thing to enjoy.

Kayo Dot – Coffins on Io (2014)

The new Kayo Dot album is not something one simply ignores. To be fair, this is true of most of their recordings – I’ve always either loved them to bits or simply not understood them, but I’ve never disliked them. However, Coffins on Io definitely falls into the first category for me. I’ll try to talk about Kayo Dot a third time, without repeating myself if possible.

Kayo-Dot-band-2014

In a way, Coffins on Io is a continuation of an older stylistic expedition for Kayo Dot. Their 2010 album, Coyote, drew heavily on an ’80s, goth/post-punk aural sensibility – powerful bass lines driving the songs, ethereal, plaintive vocals, meandering, dark song structures. Many of those choices persist on Coffins on Io, but it is clear that the intent has morphed subtly. Where Coyote was, for lack of a better word, a „concept album” centering on a very bleak theme which acted as a great catalyst for the return to the ’80s stylistic choice, Coffins on Io almost seems like an aftermath to that, like a take-off from the platform constructed by Coyote.

I wouldn’t want to be misunderstood – I doubt the two albums have much in common save for the strong references to the ’80s aesthetic. It just feels as though Toby Driver’s sources of inspiration are taking on a chronological symmetry. Coffins on Io seems to be built around aspects of darkwave, of electronic music such as Tangerine Dream, on the ruins of prog-rock as it was crumbling under its huge mass at the onset of the ’80s. It is glorious to see how these nuclei morph into the unique Kayo Dot molecule, yet again, so much more than the sum of its parts. Kayo Dot will not be confined, will not be tamed – it comes as a great surprise for me that after 2013’s Hubardo (an extremely dense, staggeringly difficult album), Kayo Dot would shift their attention and create Coffins on Io, although it probably shouldn’t at this point. They are the most mercurial band I’ve ever known, and there are no guarantees and no promises.

Coffins on Io has a steadily ascending learning curve, as it were. The more you advance, the more challenging the songs become, but it never asks more than it can give, and it’s never unfair to the listener. There’s also a certain cyclical quality to the album (not unlike their 2012 release – Gamma Knife, but less categorically), where the start and the finish seem to have more in common with each other than with what happens in between. Toby Driver is really on top of his compositional game on this album, and not only that, but he brings forth a completely new vocal technique – his remarkable falsetto, completely replacing the metal growls he would use on previous releases for variation of texture. Overall, the commitment to the chosen aesthetic seems more complete this time around, and Kayo Dot seem to be drawing more on their own experience as well, with gentle, accepting nods to previous sonic laboratories and forays they’ve engaged in. The effect is reassuring and welcome. I’m also glad to see that Coffins on Io is no longer self-released – I remember reading interviews with Toby Driver from the Gamma Knife, Hubardo years, and the strain of having to deal with self-releasing records seemed to weight heavily on him. It feels as though that weight has lifted, at least partially, and I feel Coffins on Io benefits from that.

If you’re curious, if you’re fascinated by the way old shapes can take new meaning, if you’re nostalgic without being anachronistic, then listen to Coffins on Io (and to Kayo Dot in general). Seriously, they’re one of the freshest, most thoughtful, deeply relevant music makers out there nowadays. Enjoy!

P.S.: Three years ago today I started ZaRecords. I honestly didn’t know for how long I would be able to make it last, and I still don’t. For now, it’s still lingering, half way between an obsession and an afterthought. Thank you all for sticking around for so long.

Lhasa – The Living Road (2003)

It’s been a while since I’ve written a proper review, and this one is long overdue. Dear friends, the music I am about to try speaking about is possessed of such arcane intensity that it may tighten the heart and illuminate the laboriousness of breathing. It’s raw, unspeakable elegance is almost too much to take in, and yet, once sampled, it projects this pale aura throughout the reaches of memory and emotion, a negative space in which no other reference may venture. This is the legacy of Lhasa de Sela.

lhasa12First of all, I have to say it is really rather difficult saying what exactly Lhasa was, save perhaps for the generic notion of “artist”. “Singer” does not do her justice. Neither does the quaint concept of “poet”. Her ability to express personal experience in a universal way (truly, so much so that, as I said, I can liken her to no other) was so overwhelming that it manages to cast doubt on the efficacy of common descriptive words, and I am unable to find appropriate uncommon ones either. I cannot stress enough how singular the experience of her music is, how terrifying in its fierce honesty and directness. It is as though her entire life is projected forth with each note, the full weight of her intricate lineage and background subtly leaning on the listener’s own sensibility in the simple, minimalist, fluid structures of her songs.

Music able to spark tactile response, music of such strength that it can induce synesthesia is rare indeed, and yet there are songs on this, her second album, which flood the mind with hybrid image/tastes of dust, dusk light, wind-on-skin and dryness of throat. “The Living Road” lacks nothing, needs nothing. Not one note out of place, no superfluous effects or gimmicks. There is no marketing at play, no ulterior motive. She sings in three languages because she needs them all, because there are things which can only be expressed in each of them. It is quite jarring to experience music which touches on a sort of objectivity with such effortless grace. (I know I’ve just made the word “objective” relative, but that’s because it’s so hard to even use it, given the fragmented nature of our experience – and all the greater the shock of Lhasa’s music.)

The decidedly odd thing about “The Living Road” is the overarching feeling of loneliness the album emits, without succumbing to any of the usual traps of exaggeration or needlessness to which much music referred to as “singular” falls prey. There is no moping, no bleeding heart sentimentalism in these songs. In fact, they are infused with this staggering stoicism; yes, the ever-present distance between things and people is unavoidable and immutable, but in accepting that, it becomes empowering, blade-sharp, an essential tool for self-definition and understanding. “The Living Road” is not unlike a koan in this sense – an exquisite puzzle for meditation, for forging an honest relationship with oneself. And, at the same time, it is “for” nothing – it exists, self-contained like a smooth stone, hinting at the disinterested, pristine act of initial creation.

Obviously, I find “The Living Road” to be quite a philosophical experience. Perhaps I have managed to convey why. Let me know, if you will. And enjoy!

P.S.: I have decided to embed the second song with an introduction/explanation by Lhasa. Listen to it, it is beautiful.

Meagan Grandall (Lemolo) – Interview

Hello friends! I am bursting with excitement today! And so should you, because the title of this post is entirely accurate – Meagan Grandall of Lemolo has very graciously agreed to answer a few questions from ZaRecords. I don’t believe Lemolo needs any further introduction to the faithful readers of this blog, but I will say this, for newcomers: I consider their music some of the best I’ve ever heard, and it is a tremendous honor for me to be able to talk so candidly with Meagan. Here goes!

Lemolo 1ZaRecords: From a composition perspective, where does Meagan end and Lemolo begin? Or, if you prefer, the other way around. Is there an edge anymore?

Lemolo: It’s funny you should ask this, because sometimes I wonder this myself. I formed the band in 2009 and for the first 6 months we played under the name “Meagan Grandall”. I didn’t think that sounded very cool and that was when I came up with the name Lemolo. All along I have written the songs by myself and they are always very personal songs about my life. So in that sense I feel like Lemolo is me and I am Lemolo. But on the other hand I love performing with other people, because I think other instruments and energies can contribute a lot to my music. For example, on my new record the drum beats that my drummer Emily wrote with me are bringing the songs to another level. So I think there is a blurred edge that at times can be hard to pinpoint.

ZaRecords: How’s the chemistry with Emily? Did you two “click” right away?

Lemolo: Emily is awesome. On our first meeting we had coffee and talked for 3 hours! And then during our first jam session I felt that she “got me” right away and was playing the kinds of drum beats I was looking for. I played her all of my new songs and had her jam along to them, and it felt right from that moment on.

Lemolo 2ZaRecords: I “discovered” your music on KEXP – like a lot of great music from the last few years. I have the vague but persistent feeling that there’s a “movement” of sorts developing in the Seattle area, something which reminds me of the coherent pop currents of yesteryear (hindsight is always 20/20, isn’t it?). Would you say there’s a storm brewing in Seattle, or is this stylistic coherence due to my bias as a very distant observer?

Lemolo: I think Seattle definitely has a wonderful music community. I have found that it has been essential in helping me start and maintain a career in music. I think there are so many talented musicians living and creating their art in Seattle, and everyone seems to be very accepted for being their authentic selves and creating their original music. I feel lucky to be based out of Seattle.

ZaRecords: “The Kaleidoscope” is one of those once in a decade albums which instantly enamored anyone I played it for. No exceptions. It’s hard for me and my readers to gauge the success it had from more “objective” perspectives. What’s your view, two years later? Were you expecting more? Less?

Lemolo: Thank you so very much. Just hearing you say that is success in my eyes. It was my first record to ever record and release. Before that I had never even worked in a professional recording studio. So needless to say I had no expectations and just made sure to do my best at every step of the way. So when I received such positive feedback from listeners around the world, it felt amazing. I am still an independent artist and feel that there is a long way for me to go before I have financial stability (I still live in my mother’s basement!), but I am grateful for all of the opportunities I have had so far and am looking forward to what comes next with my new record.

ZaRecords: What’s this I hear about a European tour?

Lemolo: It is true! I received a grant from the embassy of the Czech Republic to travel there and perform my music at Degeneration Next Festival in Brno, Czech Republic on September 23, 2014. I decided to plan a three week tour around that performance, and will be performing all around Central Europe. Performing internationally has been a dream of mine since the beginning, so it feels wonderful that it is finally coming true. I will be announcing more shows soon so you can vista my online show calendar for updates.

ZaRecords: Your music is so intricate and delicate it’s almost palpable. I was wondering what your relationship with your instruments is – do you see them as tools to craft these sonic filigrees, or partners, sources of inspiration? Please tell me the story of your guitar (it’s the only one of its kind I’ve seen) and other such tales, if you like.

Lemolo: Thank you! I’m glad to hear you like my guitar as much as I do. I found it hanging up in a vintage guitar store and felt an instant connection with it. At that point I had never even played an electric guitar, but I knew she had to be mine. I spent all of the money I had in my bank account to buy it and have been in love with it ever since. It is a Teisco and was made in 1962 in Japan.

I think you’re spot on when you say I use my instruments as tools to write my songs. When I get a new instrument or new effects pedal, it directly inspires my songwriting. Often I arrange my songs while I am writing them, so my instruments and effects play a major role in how my songs come together.

Lemolo 3

ZaRecords: I wonder what your non-musical inspirations are, if any. Books, paintings, films? Video games?

Lemolo: I think my biggest inspiration outside of music is nature. I feel the most at peace with myself when I am outside, and especially when I am on the water. I grew up doing a lot of sailing and boating, and doing that is somewhat similar to a religious experience for me. When I spend time outside I come home feeling the most creative and eager to write music. I also love watching movies, and really admire the work of filmmaker Brit Marling. She has a very inspirational story and she is one of my idols.

ZaRecords: Do you have a go-to album for when you want to center yourself? What’s your musical oasis?

Lemolo: I love your expression “musical oasis”. Mine is Radiohead. I have favorite songs from each Radiohead album, a handful of them are “Everything in it’s Right Place”, “Pyramid Song”, “Sail to the Moon”, “Videotape” and “Bullet Proof I Wish I Was”. I love so many other artists too, but I feel a very deep connection with these songs in particular.

ZaRecords: How has the studio work on the upcoming record differed from “The Kaleidoscope”? How far along are you in the process?

Lemolo: I am nearing the end of recording my new album, which is very exciting. I think it is probably 85% finished at this point. With my new songs I am trying to take them to another level with the drum beats and layers. On The Kaleidoscope I purposefully kept the songs very minimal and mellow, but the news songs are feeling a little more upbeat and lush. It has been fun to experiment with new sounds and textures. I can’t wait to share it with you!

ZaRecords: Tell me a story from one of your concerts, from tour, one of those tales to tell the grandkids.

Lemolo: My best tour memory was from the very first time I went on tour. I planned a video session with some videographers in San Diego, California who filmed a project called the Boat Sessions. They invited us onto their sailboat with our instruments, and filmed us as we performed an acoustic version of Whale Song while sailing around Mission Bay. It was glorious and such an adventure!

ZaRecords: I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to answer these questions!

Lemolo: I hope these answers are okay for you, and that we can meet up on my upcoming tour. Thank you so much!

Rabbit Rabbit – Hush Hush (February 2012)

Shhh… I’ve just sneaked back in here to let you know about Rabbit Rabbit. Don’t make any sudden movements or loud noises – they’re as easy to scare off as a random thought. Oh, but once that thought grows roots and blooms, what fun!

Rabbit Rabbit is a gorgeous project by Carla Kihlstedt & Matthias Bossi, of multifaceted fame (from Sleepytime Gorilla Museum to Tin Hat and many other shards in between). Music by subscription – monthly 2, 3 or 5$ fee for the same content: a home-made music video, a new song, a very entertaining list of things to do that particular month, pictures and who knows what else? There’s a feeling of intimacy to this project – it manages to drive home the impact that the artists’ relationship with their friends, family and fans has on their creative output, inspiration and very livelihood. You want to be part of that, believe me. You want to have that vague feeling – it’s like none other. The delivery platform is called Rabbit Rabbit Radio, here it is, give it a look.

I find it spectacular that Carla Kihlstedt and Matthias Bossi would be the ones coming up with this – it’s like a conceptual culmination of the artistic shock-waves their music has been sending up and down spines throughout the world for many years now, in one incarnation or another. It makes perfect sense! There’s a disclaimer – as always, the music isn’t for everyone and for every mood. But, at the risk of repeating myself – I have never disliked anything these guys committed to tape or vinyl or what have you. I might not have understood much of it, or felt that it would take a few years of personal boundary-pushing to finally click with it (The Book of Knots, for example), but it has always been worth the effort.

Let me know what you think. See you soon! I’ve got one more ace up my sleeve, just you wait. 😉