Austra: Olympia

Photo by Norman Wong

Olympia is a revelatory album because its diverse, nuanced sound reflects what Katie Stelmanis' songs are about: coming into your own by moving out of your comfort zone.



Label: Domino
US Release Date: 2013-06-18
UK Release Date: 2013-06-17

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.







Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.


The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.


Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.


King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.


Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.


Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.


Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.


The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.


Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.


The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.


'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.


Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.


Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.


South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.


Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.


'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.


A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.


The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.