Music

Elephant: Sky Swimming

A proper producer works wonders for the London-based dreampop duo's years-in-the-making debut album. Cue ruffled satin sheets.


Elephant

Sky Swimming

Label: Memphis Industries
US Release Date: 2014-05-06
UK Release Date: 2014-04-28
Artist Website
Amazon
iTunes

In the music industry, few titles are as ambiguous as "producer". If the artists are making the music, after all, just what is the producer producing?

That all depends. In the 1950s and much of the '60s, the producer was often responsible for every part of a record except the singing. As more artists started writing songs and playing instruments, some producers took more of a hands-off role. Sometimes they were simply in charge of scoring drugs.

With the advent of hip hop and modern R&B, the producer's role became more powerful than it had been in decades. Usually, producers of this music are in charge of the instrumentation, with the artist singing or rapping over the top. From the Bomb Squad and Prince Paul to Dr. Dre and Timbaland, the producer credit was just as important as the name on the label.

In this era of indie music and easy, inexpensive, do-it-yourself home recording, one could imagine the producer becoming obsolete. But, oh, what a difference they can still make. Just ask Elephant, the London-based duo of Christian Pinchbeck and Amelia Rivas. Listen to any of the several self-produced singles and EPs they released between 2010 and 2012, and, with the exception of the rather, erm, alluring ode to infatuation, "Allured", you'll hear pleasant if rather simply-arranged and nondescript dreampop. Debut album Sky Swimming, however, is a bright, spangled, often symphonic affair that smacks of sophistication. Even when some of those older tunes are reprised, they are rendered in superior, more fully formed versions.

The difference? Well, Pinchbeck and Rivas have surely over time become more adept at playing their instruments and manipulating their home studio. More telling, though, is the presence of producer Andy Dragazis. With a strong background in film and television, Dragazis, working with the band, pulls all the strings behind the curtain. He plays instruments, does string arrangements, and, crucially, adds the thick, no-nonsense hip hop beats that underpin Sky Swimming. Essentially, Dragazis has brought Elephant out of the café and to the grand ball.

Pinchbeck and Rivas have largely made good on the songwriting part, too. The duo were romantically involved when they recorded much of this music, and they intend Sky Swimming to be an invitation to their own series of tastefully hedonistic trysts. Young love creates an us-against-the-world mindset by default, and for 12 songs, you get to be on Elephant's side. It's a world where falling asleep in front of the TV, "with nothing but a smile on," is commonplace, and you "close the curtains in the middle of the day / And only open them up for the moon." In the immortal words of Bryan Ferry, you can guess the rest.

Within the milieu of sensual, sophisticated coed duos, Elephant are like a less kitchy jj or a more arch Beach House. Actually, Lamb without the drum'n'bass almost nails it. Rivas's crooning gets the dynamics and come-hither swoons right. She sings with the conviction of someone who actually believes her words are not just lyrics but rather love poetry. Of course, the primary impact of this music is visceral and atmospheric, so what she's actually saying is of secondary importance. Anyway, her crooning is so heavily accented and laconic at times, you wonder if she isn't getting paid by the woozy, drawn out vowel.

Sky Swimming doesn't exactly add much new to the boy-girl dreampop template. It does, however, wear its influences well, and with style. Single "Skyscraper" finds all involved at the peaks of their powers, with its plucked doo-wop guitar line, Rivas's easy cooing, and the magic touch of ethereal sampled background vocals, wafting in like the ghost of a Bobby Vinton record. "Elusive Youth" and "TV Dinner" are girl-group pop by way of Saint Etienne, while "Shipwrecked" and "Golden" project Cocteau Twins-like cathedrals of sound. As for some of the older tracks, "Allured" is made even more lush, and "Assembly" gets a sharp Europop makeover.

Sky Swimming sags in the middle, but its two best songs come at the end. The title track is not much more than a simple melody over a dubby bassline, but it's the one that really, truly sinks in. Much of this is down to Rivas's genuinely affecting vocal. On the chorus especially, she sounds more natural than ever, unguarded, even. Not coincidentally, this is the one track that was written and recorded after the duo's whirlwind romance came to an end. The alternately swooning and soaring, positively Spectorian "Shapeshifter" is the best of all the album's sounds weaved into a single, almost transcendent track.

While the pleasures of Sky Swimming are mostly aesthetic ones, with a bit of pruning you'll find a clutch of wonderfully ornate songs that bear repeated listening. As Pinchbeck and Rivas now know all too well, young love is fleeting, and it's something of a melancholy thrill listening to them try to cheat time, or maybe just stop it. If a producer's job is to bring a band's potential to full fruition, Andy Dragazis has earned his money and then some on Sky Swimming.

7

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

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less
Culture

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less
Books

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image