[20 June 2013]
PopMatters Music Editor
Katie Stelmanis still sings like a drama queen, but now she’s also learned how to raise the emotional stakes in her music to match the formidable figure she cuts as Austra’s frontwoman. While the foreboding electro-pop of Austra’s 2011 debut Feel It Break overdid its dramatics to the point they lost some of their effect, Olympia is a more engrossing work because it’s subtle and diverse, making full use of a varied sonic palette and Stelmanis’ more developed songwriting to evoke a broader range of feeling. So if the synthetic pleasures of Feel It Break sometimes felt too slick to stick, there’s a more organic appeal to Olympia that allows for a stronger connection to the woman behind the machine—just judge this album by its cover and contrast the vivid, pastoral artwork for Olympia to the abstracted mostly black-and-white image of Feel It Break to get a sense of the more inviting mood Austra sets this time around.
If anything, Olympia shows that letting in more light can intensify the level of engagement. It’s Olympia’s brighter, more colorful tone that draws you in from the start with pieces like the opener “What We Done” and standout track “Forgive Me”, both of which boast melodic elements that distinguish themselves and stay with you because they don’t go back to the same formula time after time, track after track. So when you hear the way Austra juxtaposes imposing bass and playful synths to patiently build “What We Done” or how they stretch the emotional range they’re capable of on “Forgive Me”, it’s clear that going from a trio to a sextet wasn’t about amping up the theatrics of Feel It Break to the point of excess, but rather about expanding the possibilities for the group. On “Forgive Me” especially, there’s space for more components to really shine, whether it’s the strutting bass line, the snippets of melancholy strings, or Stelmanis’ fragile vocals, which hit a heightened register when she pleads, “What do I have to do? / What will release me?,” only to answer her own question by finding that release.
In turn, Austra opens things up in all sorts of unexpected directions on Olympia, showing off Stelmanis’ proficiency in more dance-pop vernaculars than the dark electro-goth vocabulary that Feel It Break mined all too thoroughly and single-mindedly. “Reconcile”, for instance, puts an emphasis on melody like no other Austra number has, as Stelmanis’ pretty vocal cadences float to airy keyboards and what sounds like a poignant horn part. Living up to the mental imagery conjured up by the cover art, “We Become” offers up an even more unforeseen and compelling head fake, dropping plump, calypso-ish beats that convey a beach jammy mood that’s almost akin to Blondie’s reggae-disco hybrid. And though it’s not as drastic a shift in tone as “We Become” is, “Annie (Oh Muse You)” rides that vibe as well, its dubby beats and buoyant synths feeling breezy and bottom-heavy at once, a clever sleight-of-hand you never would’ve expected from a group whose keyboards once tended to churn and ring with machine-like efficiency.
Often, the most powerful departures on Olympia are thanks to Stelmanis’ newfound touch with dance-pop nuances, as Austra turns down the volume and puts the focus on the finer subtleties, be it musically or in the stories she tells. What best captures this new way of going about things is how Stelmanis takes the mundane details of everyday relationships and turns them into the stuff of dramatic pop without ever having to be very overt about it. While the title of the single “Painful Like” might suggest something histrionic and melodramatic, the song sounds like it’s more about the throbs and pangs of infatuation rather than the pyrotechnics, as it percolates with Kraftwerk-ian blips-and-beeps, only to mix in something languidly soulful when Stelmanis’ vocals enter the scene. More aching and yearning is “Home”, which starts with Stelmanis imploring, “You know that it hurts when / You don’t come home at night.” As the song’s deftly played elements coalesce, with resonant piano chords transitioning to a house-y synth refrain and flourishes of flute, Stelmanis’ ordinary frustrations are lifted onto a higher plane, somehow feeling immediate and transcendent at the same time.
That’s not to say that every attempt at following through with this new approach works out on Olympia—“Sleep”, for instance, is as drowsy as its title hints at, as is the meandering “Fire”, while the closer “Hurt Me Now” comes off like the Knife-lite, an instance where going all out might’ve actually been for the best. But the hits and even the misses on Austra’s latest end up being more revelatory than the one-note perfectionism of Feel It Break, because the music on Olympia reflects what Katie Stelmanis’ songs are about: coming into your own by moving out of your comfort zone.