Music

Nurses: Dracula

Thomas Britt

Nurses are a band whose approach to songwriting can be practically defined as playing around in the studio and seeing what sticks. Yet with this keen an editorial sense, the results are consistently impressive.


Nurses

Dracula

Label: Dead Oceans
US Release Date: 2011-09-20
UK Release Date: 2011-09-19
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When Steven Malkmus mused about the voice of Geddy Lee in Pavement’s “Stereo”, his band was still under-dogging its way through a commercial rock landscape rife with singers whose mouths sounded full of marbles. That post-grunge moment was nearly 15 years ago, when beyond the likes of Coyne, Yorke, Lytle, and Linkous, few male pop/rock singers were gaining notice by courting Lee’s register. Malkmus’ laid-back but literate style was in another class altogether, wary of both earnestness and exertion, and all the more interesting for it.

Yet the march of modern rock through time and (increasingly virtual) space has seen the tide turn for guys who pitch their voices to the sky. Many of today’s most critically adored artists have seemingly reached that point by edging away from the virile roots of rock, sidelining decisive rhythms and ceding macho vocal delivery to acts with arena appeal but without much critical currency. This rise of falsetto is a dubious development. Separating the men from the boys, as it were, is largely a matter of being able to spot the point at which the voice blends dynamically with the music or lifts the whole piece into ether – light as air and little more than pretty.

At the most innocuous end of the spectrum is a singer like Justin Vernon, whose career thrives thanks to an increasingly smooth, soft sonic palette and the upper reaches of his range – a combination that makes recently debuted Coldplay songs sound edgy by comparison. Far more vibrant is the voice of Antlers’ Pete Silberman, who uses his technique in the service of palpable emotional qualities of despair (Hospice) or conflicted romance (Burst Apart). With an even better track record is Liars’ Angus Andrew, whose choice to send his singing voice upward creates consistently remarkable contrasts with his band’s unrelenting, gloomy brand of rock. On last year’s Sisterworld, the effect was like hearing a man haunted.

In discussing Nurses, I give all of this attention to the state of the voice, because squeaky, shrieky singing (courtesy of Aaron Chapman and John Bowers) remains the band’s most potentially divisive quality and one of its greatest assets. 2009’s Apple’s Acre was a more or less lo-fi affair – at times it could be mistaken for a demo for bigger pop pieces that would be filled out later. Yet two songs from that album (“Caterpillar Playground” and “What Then”) burrowed more deeply into my head than anything else that year, their economical production favouring and highlighting the band’s tremendous melodic qualities. The point of these songs is the joy of singing the tune, and their compositions at large exist to reflect the melody back onto itself, tunefulness begetting tunefulness.

The announcement that new album Dracula would benefit from studio polish created a concern that Nurses would lose their warm-blooded unruliness even as it had become the band’s most endearing trait. Yet Nurses return even stronger on Dracula, an album more sophisticated than Apple’s Acre but retaining that album’s sincerity and pop sensibilities. Dodging the hi-fi hazards that befell Yeasayer on Odd Blood, Nurses aren’t beholden to production shtick as much as they are determined to not let their rough edges be tamed. The band largely succeeds in the feat, because for every upgrade in rhythmic heft or sonic clarity, there are still more compellingly odd touches, mostly of the vocal sort.

Perhaps the most noticeable single shift from Apple's Acre is the decisive step forward into what the accompanying press notes call “deep grooves, dubby basslines, and a focus on rhythm.” This direction links the album to not only the work that Liars have been up to for the last decade, but also Radiohead, whose own Liars-indebted The King of Limbs was received by the New York Times’ Jon Pareles as being defined by “rhythms, loops and noise.”

Make no mistake, though, Dracula has vastly more replay value than King of Limbs. “Fever Dreams”, the no-brainer of a first single, grows from the same rhythmic fount as Radiohead’s “There There,” but instead of using a series of plateaus to delay crescendo, “Fever Dreams” leaps around with unpredictable energy. Again, as in the best material from Apple's Acre, the voice drives the song, even as the lyrics are mostly unintelligible.

Throughout Dracula, sung words take on several extra syllables and are sometimes stretched so far as to lose all context and literal meaning. But the silliness of the delivery is an excellent vehicle for the ecstasy the songs are there to communicate. This sunny disposition is the quality that most distinguishes Dracula from the Liars/Radiohead school of loop-based production (succinctly characterized as “the murk” by Jess Harvell in a 2007 Liars review). The enhanced focus on dance music (loosely defined) also suggests that Dracula is less an intellectual experience than it is an emotional and – for those inclined to move – physical one. In this context, comparisons to Animal Collective and MGMT are close, but still far from exact.

There is considerable variety within the songs of Dracula. Counterpointing the ecstatic “Fever Dreams” are more restrained, new-wavy tracks such as “Extra Fast” and “Gold Jordan”. The middle section of the album is particularly strong with songs that begin in deceptively simple fashion and then increase in complexity.

“So Sweet”, for instance, might be mistaken as fluff, but its shifting bass line portends that there’s something much more soulful on the way. The eventual hook of the song is revealed, along with the repeated line “I’m just trying to understand.” This repetition itself is varied, so that the band hits a deeply funky stride, and then punctuates it with a refrain that ranks with the compositional mastery of The Soft Bulletin. A mid-song break within “Trying to Reach You” chops, loops, and harmonizes the lead vocal in a way that renews the energy of the song and intensifies the impact of both rhythm and melody. That these kinds of surprises occur throughout the album and remain surprising on subsequent listens, testifies to Nurses’ inventiveness.

This is a band whose approach to songwriting can be practically defined as playing around in the studio and seeing what sticks. Yet with this keen an editorial sense, the results are consistently impressive. Dracula is the sort of successful experiment that comes along too infrequently in modern pop music.

8

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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Music

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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