Perfume Genius: Learning

Jer Fairall

Young songwriter turns misspent youth into a set of intimate and genuinely original songs on startling (if flawed) debut.

Perfume Genius


Label: Matador
US Release Date: 2010-06-21
UK Release Date: 2010-06-21

Learning, the debut outing by Perfume Genius, is a rare paradox: an album that is swimming in its creator’s compelling back story and yet seems to have sprung out of nowhere. By now, anyone who has heard the record has undoubtedly been intrigued enough to seek out the biographical details of the band’s lone member, 20-something Seattleite Mike Hadreas, who returned to his mother’s home to record the album after a misspent, self-destructive youth. Though he is vague on the exact details -- intimating either personal experiences with or direct observations of drug addiction, abuse and suicide -- Learning bears the distinct weight of a young life spent in a too-close proximity to any number of horrors. Additionally, with no real scene attachments or hype-building precedents, Perfume Genius’s insularity is truely a rarity in today’s everything-is-connected musical landscape. You don’t need to have done any homework to appreciate this album; you simply have to listen to it.

With Hadreas’ frail, plaintive vocals to the sparse piano that is often his sole musical accompaniment, Learning manages to feel even more barren than even the most lo-fi of home recordings. This actually has little to do with the presence of any of the usual varieties of sonic abrasions that tend to mark such things -- Learning is a much cleaner sounding album than something like The Tallest Man On Earth’s determinately gritty The Wild Hunt, for example -- but rather, the persistently wounded tone of his singing and playing. Though we obviously know better, Learning feels less like an album recorded in the comfort of a bedroom, or even a garage, than a self-made cassette tape discovered amidst the possessions of an asylum inmate who somehow, at one point, had access to a piano and a tape recorder.

I’ve already indicated what kind of subject matter Learning contains, and you’d be right to assume that this is no easy listen, but what makes this music so startling is not what it's about, but rather how it is about it. Where a typical novice cursed with the same set of experiences might have formed these songs into searing first-person confessionals, Hadreas sketches them in the detached manner of short fiction, albeit short fiction of the most fragmented and elliptical sort. The effect is not one that, as may be expected, keeps the listener at a distance from the material, but instead draws us in closer by shrouding them in the kind of mystery that leaves us with just enough detail to imagine how the blanks might be filled in. This often results in songs that wind up somehow even more harrowing than what the lyrical scraps he gives us suggest on their own. The already-troubling refrain of “Lookout, Lookout” warns “there are murders about” in what begins as a story of a girl trying to overcome her family’s debased reputation, but ends with the sharp turn of “Brian’s face down/keep your wits/he will not be missed/he didn’t have a family to begin with”. Likewise, the nursery-rhyme-like (and all the more unsettling for it) “Write To Your Brother” pulls a similar sleight-of-hand, beginning as one story with “Mary, you should write to your brother/every night until he recovers” before veering off into “tell him Mom treats you like a lover/that you have to hide all the mouthwash from her”. The implication seems to be that things are not only as bad as they first appear in Hadreas’ stories, but actually worse.

Still, Hadreas never seems to be simply wallowing in gloom here. Displaying an almost brilliant economy with his words, he occasionally sprinkles his stories with enough extraneous detail to suggest a life for these characters beyond their ultimate fates. Things certainly don’t end well for the titular “Mr. Peterson”, a pedophile high school teacher who throws himself off a building, but as one object of the teacher’s affections, the narrator remembers such incidents as “he let me smoke weed in his truck” and “he made me a tape of Joy Division” with an affection that, however misguided and tragic, nevertheless paints the speaker as something more than simply a victim. Elsewhere, the title track begins with what seems like one character’s certain doom with the horrifying “No one will answer your prayers until you take off that dress/No one will hear all your crying until you make your last breath” before backhandedly reassuring her with “you will to survive me”. Not a happy ending in the slightest, but allowing the character a future, however fraught, feels like a step towards something.

Where Learning is less successful, though, is on the moments where Hadreas tries to expand his music somewhere beyond his captivating formula. Sounding a bit like a Sigur Ros demo slowed down to a dirge, the ethereal “Gay Angels” gets lost in its own instrumental drone, his own vocals inaudible amidst the oppressive murk. In fact, whenever Hadreas lets his sonic dabblings obstruct his voice, the whole song tends to suffer as a result, which is particularly frustrating on something like synth-heavy “No Problem” where the music obscures the lyrics to such a degree that it becomes a strain to make out what is going on in any of it. So, while for all of his precocious talent, Hadreas hasn’t yet learned how to properly balance his competing impulses yet. This is only significantly harmful due to the album’s scant running time (Learning’s 10 songs clock in at only 29 minutes), allowing the stumbles to take up too great a portion of the whole. If this ends up marking Learning as more of a promising first outing than an outright triumphant one, though, what is good here is still more than enough to mark Mike Hadreas as an original and important new voice in American independent music.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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