As a singer, Austra's Katie Stelmanis possesses an elusive, intangible, ineffable quality to her voice that you can't help but notice. If only the Toronto trio had as compelling a musical perspective to match it.
As a singer, Austra's Katie Stelmanis possesses an elusive, intangible, ineffable quality that you can't help but notice. Unique and resembling nothing except itself, Stelmanis' eccentric voice belongs in the current crop of artsy-fartsy women-in-pop, with the likes of St. Vincent's Annie Clark, Glasser's Cameron Mesirow, and Julianna Barwick. A compelling and versatile performer, Stelmanis can evoke a wide range of feelings and moods through her singing, from art-scarred cool to nothing-to-hide emotion, and just about everything in between. On Austra's promising debut, Feel It Break, Stelmanis takes her star turn, role-playing as a singer-songwriter storyteller, brooding goth, and all-out drama queen. And we're just talking about what she's doing on the opening track "Darken Her Horse", where Stelmanis gets across a sense of intrigue through a cryptic narrative that's wrought with enough seething energy to pique your curiosity, as any good first impression should.
But unlike the luminaries mentioned above, Stelmanis doesn't have an equally compelling musical perspective to go along with her singing. There's nothing like, say, St. Vincent's fractured fairy tale symphonics or Glasser's resourceful indie electronica to complement her. What can be frustrating about Feel It Break is that Austra's strength is precisely what highlights the Toronto trio's shortcomings, because its standard issue electro-pop orchestration does little to accentuate the best qualities of Stelmanis' voice. So Feel It Break is clearly a showcase for Stelmanis as a singer, but it's hard to tell whether that's simply because her vocals are so overwhelming or Austra's instrumental chops aren't quite up to the task of matching their force and intensity.
Whatever the case may be, Stelmanis' force-of-nature voice conveys enough novelty and dynamism to carry Feel It Break through the early stages of the album. On "Lose It", Stelmanis goes from playing it cool to working herself up to a fevered pitch, with a sense of desperation that comes through in a slight warble that's barely perceptible as she reaches for the highest notes. It's a virtuoso performance that can get away with lyrics that might look cheesy on paper ("This is a thirst I've never had / I've never bled for another man") because Stelmanis puts enough conviction into her lines that they seem anything but trite. Then she chills things out on "The Future" and the single "Beat and the Pulse", crooning smoothly and easily like a Eurodisco queen. And the sparse, narrative minded "The Choke" doesn't really need so much in the way of musical accompaniment, as Stelmanis keeps you rapt in the impressionistic story she's relating.
Yet you hope for synth lines and techno arrangements that do more than merely set a mood, but would push Stelmanis' vocals to go further, even if they can draw enough interest on their own. Without more musical firepower for reinforcement, Feel It Break gets bogged down the longer it goes on, as the same disco-goth tones that are vaguely ominous at the beginning become redundant and almost tedious the more you hear them. For as much drama as Stelmanis' voice can conjure up, the instrumental parts lose whatever thrills and chills they generate early on and become mostly a monotonous mix of blips and beeps and robotic beats. The formula that worked on "Beat and the Pulse" doesn't hold up as well later on "The Noise" or "Shoot the Water", both of which rely on lyrical gimmickry that isn't masked effectively by the shapeless techno noise. The same goes for "Hate Crime", which seems awkward and vague both musically and lyrically, especially the chorus of "Who signed the consent forms? / Who signed?" In short, there's just not enough in Austra's mostly one-note noir-pop approach to help pick up the slack when Stelmanis can't keep up the intensity.
All in all, Feel It Break as a whole is a little uneven because Austra still seems to be looking to strike the right balance between its different parts. That's not to say, though, that Austra won't grow to possess a richer, fuller aesthetic, something that the group shows it's capable of on the debut's most complete tracks, "Spellwork" and "The Villain". On them, everything comes together because they feature a more defined, fleshed-out instrumental sound with a sense of direction, with the music even taking the lead for a bit and having Stelmanis' vocals follow along for a change. With stronger beats and bolder synth refrains that can stand on their own, "Spellwork", in particular, has structure and development like nothing else on the album. Even though the piano ballad finale "The Beast" isn't quite as memorable, at least Austra tries something a little different musically, bringing in more organic elements to play off Stelmanis' furious, full-throated singing. If the group's musicality can ever set the pace to the songs or just keep up with Stelmanis' natural gifts as a singer on a more consistent basis, Austra will be ready for its breakthrough.