Music

Sea Wolf: Old World Romance

On Sea Wolf's third album, creator Alex Brown Church crafts a series of soft, autumnal songs about finding wisdom by returning home.


Sea Wolf

Old World Romance

Label: Dangerbird
US Release Date: 2012-09-11
UK Release Date: Import
Artist Website
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New is overrated. Both in the frenetically trend-cycling province of indie rock and the world as a whole, the novel and unfamiliar can often initially appear to be more exciting and challenging than that which seems based in already-explored territory. After a while, however, that buzz band or new trend starts to seem sillier and sillier while familiar themes and questions are repeating themselves and demanding attention. Alex Brown Church, the man behind Sea Wolf, knows that thoughtful depth can be far more rewarding than dilettantish breadth and uses the band’s third album, Old World Romance to illustrate his point.

Sea Wolf started as a bedroom recording project fleshed out with a band in the studio, and its first two albums were full of songs that felt like fleshed-out solo acoustic numbers. However, on Old World Romance, Church takes full advantage of his backing band and the time production possibilities of his home studio, crafting a set of songs that rely on atmosphere and instrumentation just as much as songwriting. The sound of the record is rooted firmly in northwestern indie-pop of the mid-‘00s, calling to mind Nada Surf’s Chris Walla-produced albums, early Rogue Wave and Plans-era Death Cab For Cutie.

Although Sea Wolf is based in LA, Church grew up in Berkley and the small mountain town of Columbia, California, which helps explain the music’s sound because Old World Romance has a distinctly autumnal vibe that the City of Angels just can’t provide. The album’s songs center around the ideas of returning home and coming to grips with accepting one’s life on its own terms. Like many of his generation who were just spit out by their tumultuous twenties, Church wanders around his old haunts, staying out late, looking at the oceans, meeting friends from his past and otherwise trying to ground himself in time and space.

Church starts off trying to find himself by catching up with people from his past and taking stock of where he is. Returning home isn’t a nostalgia trip or D.I.Y. high school reunion, it’s a chance to try to figure out who he is through the lens of the places and people who knew him long ago. He looks for clues to himself with an old lover in “Priscilla” where he notes, “I know that endings / Are the best place to begin” and tries to “see what this love is for”. He continues the same quest “Kasper”, admitting “I’m an old man / Who can sometimes feel like a kid”. Not for nothing is the album’s lead song and single called “Old Friend”. The first half of the record is marked by a sense of drifting about trying to use props to spur an internal realization of purpose.

On the second half of the record, Church starts putting the pieces together and realizing that his search for meaning and direction have been more about quest than the destination. “Come back to yourself / Because there’s nowhere else to go” he pleads on “St. Catherine’s Street”, rejecting the wandering and search for external answers of his past for homecoming and self-reflection. He even admits as much in “Changing Seasons” where he talks about using changes in weather and scenery as a way to escape a past nipping at his heels. By the next song he’s begging for a “Miracle Cure” to help him finally make amends for his (unspecified) previous failings. But there are no great revelations or life-altering epiphanies to be had here, just a slow, quiet acceptance of himself, his age, and his place in life. The soft familiarity of the music echoes this theme providing comfort and stability - a musical home to match his physical one.

The downside of this is that the songs on Old World Romance do start to sound a bit same-y, as the procession of mid-tempo songs featuring syncopated drumming, dry acoustic guitars, and swelling strings or tasteful keys starts to blend together after a while. However, Brown manages to work creatively within a limited color set rather than becoming monochromatic, which saves the album from tedium. “Dear Fellow Traveler”, with its down-key folk guitar harkens back to early Sea Wolf when Iron & Wine comparisons were flying fast and furious. “Blue Stockings” is centered around a simple guitar-picked melody and gives us as close to a ballad or tempo change as this record has to offer.

But this sameness is part of the experience of the album. This isn’t meant to be a record to set the world on fire, it’s a record meant to capture specific set of places and feelings, which it does wonderfully. Time moves on, people change and every moment summer gets imperceptibly farther away and winter gets that much closer. Old World Romance ultimately reveals itself to be a song cycle, with the end leading right back into the beginning. “Saw something in the shadows / Pulled me in to the shallows” Church repeats on the closer, “Whirlpool”, at times exchanging “shadows” with “shallows and vice versa, pulling the listener back into the same path they’ve just left. For Sea Wolf, it’s not novelty that leads to wisdom but trying to understand the familiar, and in this case, they’re onto something.

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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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