Music

Arthur & Yu: In Camera

Tony Sclafani

Spacey, ethereal dream pop from Seattle. Rainy day, dream away.


Arthur & Yu

In Camera

Label: Hardly Art
US Release Date: 2007-06-19
UK Release Date: 2007-08-20
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Way back in 1984, Rain Parade guitarist Dave Roback convened a group of fellow Los Angeles neo-psychedelic musicians to collaborate on a covers album of 1960s music called Rainy Day. Using little more than strummed acoustic guitar and the reverb-drenched voices of Bangle Susanna Hoffs and Kendra Smith of the Dream Syndicate, the LP offered up spaced-out, minimalist renditions of such songs as the Velvet Underground’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and the Buffalo Springfield’s “Flying on the Ground Is Wrong”. With this LP, Roback had (perhaps unwittingly) crafted the American version of dream pop, a genre known for its atmospherics and its near-exclusive use of female vocals (Cocteau Twins were early pioneers). Roback apparently liked this new sound, because he used it for his next band, Opal. And the one after that, Mazzy Star.

The male-female duo Arthur & Yu’s sound recalls Rainy Day, but it’s unlikely these Seattle musicians have ever heard that record, considering its been out of print for the better part of 20 years. Still, Arthur & Yu count the same influences as Roback & Co., such as the Velvets (who they cited in an interview) and Neil Young (to whom they dedicate a song). And they came up with a sound that’s just as evocative and hypnotizing.

If you like any of the above bands, you’ll probably take to this CD. Arthur & Yu is the first act signed to Sub Pop Records’ newly-formed Hardly Art label, and they present a pretty good example of why dream pop can be so ingratiating. Main singer Sonya Westcott and instrumentalist and occasional vocalist G. Olsen design an otherwordly haven of sound on the ten-song In Camera. (Several musicians assist on the disc, but Westcott and Olsen are the auteurs here.)

Their childlike arrangements, which utilize glockenspiels and a Casio keyboard, are compelling because they tap into our collective unconscious and make us recall music from our past. Think lullabies, ice cream truck jingles, and folk songs. The childhood-innocence motif probably isn’t accidental; the duo’s moniker is made up of nicknames they had as kids.

But cute arrangements do not a great album make. In Camera invites repetitive listening because main writer Olsen knows how to write a melody that grabs you even as it lulls you into a trance. In other words, he doesn’t forget to put the “pop” into dream pop. You don’t forget the hooks on songs like “Come to View (Song for Neil Young)” and “1000 Words” and “Lion’s Mouth”. “There Are Too Many Birds” matches Westcott’s whispered vocals with a gorgeous sunny melody that could have been a hit in, say, 1968.

When the duo harmonizes, like on “Flashing the Lobby Lights”, or shares vocals on “!000 Words”, the results start to edge closer to adult contemporary, although Olsen’s deliberately rough production assures these tracks will never make it onto your local Lite Rock station. The most obvious comparison people have made regarding some of these tracks is to Nancy Sinatra’s work with Lee Hazelwood, but that duo’s music was far more contrived and in-your-face than that of Arthur & Yu. The gauzy, distorted (and somewhat unintelligible) vocals instead seem a deliberate throwback to the Velvet Underground’s Nico-era recordings (funnily enough, there’s a Velvets song that references Nancy Sinatra).

On the negative side, one reason you don’t forget these songs is that they’re somewhat derivative of older songs -- a little Creedence here, a little Velvets there. And if you prefer some power with your pop, this is not the place to find it. The biggest flaw of In Camera is its samey, droning textures. That goes with the genre’s territory, though; you can’t have dream pop with ripping guitars. And, of course, for people who like mid-tempo, droning music (count me as one of ’em), the tone of this CD is not a problem at all.

The hard-to-decipher lyrics work in the record’s favor. “Absurd Heroes Manifestos”, the lead-off cut, seems to be a call to arms for disgruntled workers. But who knows? It sets a mood with its synthetic bells and stark tone, and the listener is left to extract meaning from the general impression of the song. A lyric sheet would have ruined the mystery Arthur & Yu seem to want to create. Maybe they should have called it Camera Obscura.

Cute without being cutesy, mysterious without being totally off-putting, In Camera is a record that draws you in with its sound, but draws you back with its songs. In a few weeks, I’ll eventually get more of a gist as to what these songs are about and regret that I couldn’t make more sense of the record sooner. But being able to gradually pull meaning from a record (or any work of art, for that matter) is becoming a lost pastime in the modern media-scape of sound bites and garishness. Maybe it’s better I didn’t have a lyric sheet for this review. Some things aren’t supposed to be easily deciphered; you need to just accept the skewed sense of reality. Like in a dream.

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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