Built Like Alaska: Autumnland

Gary Glauber

These songs are an eclectic mix of mostly sad thoughts, infused with small town ennui and presented in a haunting and hypnotic manner.

Built Like Alaska


Label: Sweat of the Alps
US Release Date: 2005-02-01
UK Release Date: Available as import
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There's something good afoot here. Following the opening strains of the brief "Theme from Autumnland", a wonderful sense of ironic disillusionment, heightened observation, beauty and general struggle make up the 14 musical slices of rural small town American life that comprise this most ambitious release. For this, their sophomore effort, Built Like Alaska should garner much well-deserved attention -- this is the kind of pleasant indie surprise that will strike a chord with many.

Autumnland is all over the map, a diverse and grand exploration of moods and moments, nostalgia tinged with world-weariness and wry smiles, merging folk sensibility with flavors of baroque pop and a heavy dollop of casual independent rock. They have been compared to Grandaddy (whose Sweat of the Alps label coordinated with Future Farmer to co-release this disc), but their sound goes to different places.

The band hails from California's Central Valley (Oakdale, to be precise), where the isolation allowed them space to develop their sound. Built Like Alaska is a quintet featuring Neil Jackson (vocals / guitar), Matt Candelario (bass), David Burtch (drums), Susane Reis (keyboards / vocals) and Sean Norman (guitars). The first part of the album showcases Jackson on lead vocals, while the latter part shifts those duties over to Reis. I prefer the Jackson-helmed songs -- there are less of them, and the Reis-led songs can tend to get a bit ponderous.

The first song, "Ran Into A Coroner", is the engaging type of surreal discussion one might easily expect to overhear, somewhere between horse sense and beating a dead horse. Neil Jackson's soft vocals propel the proceedings -- at times almost a laundry list of items and thoughts:

"A chain-link fence, / It's hard to level this, /
Without a beat, / Without a probe, / Hell, /
A crumbling rose with no house left, /
Haven't I been warned, /
And dragged and torn like an organ donor /
Ran into the coroner."

Interesting synthesizer riffs (almost Cars-like) fill the spaces in "Does Your Mother Feel Sick", another mid-tempo track with curious lyrical musings:

"I don't envy the arms that hold me, /
I don't pity no one until some things that's been done to them have been done to you, /
I put a lot of weight in this, /
But your head is a cow that's been living in town, /
Dreaming of the country, dreaming of the open space."

I love the piano-driven "A Happy Home" because it sounds so distinctly unhappy. Here is a man wondering if he's alone in wanting a happy home after all he's been through: "I've had enough of things replaced, / Like a barren heart, / Ten acres gone and turned to dust." Again, Jackson's vocals perfectly express the required weltschmerz.

There's a sweet, innocent sound to these songs that really complements the poetic lyrical twists. Witness "Dirty Mouth", wherein one is discussed who has developed "such a dirty mouth, / That his mind goes such that he spends his days cursing in Latin". The optimistic message here is one of memory and continuity, a universe where "feelings mean everything", and "even if you leave us, you can never leave us".

Another quiet, sweet winner of a tune is the slow-building, endearing "Heavy Foot". This is a meditation on a number of things, including friendship:

"And I should always walk and sometimes run, /
When the count begins can I count on you for once, /
Doing what I used to, / Doing things for nobody else."

There's a hesitance to the intriguing rhythms behind "Train Wreck", a ponderous prayer of a song in which Susane Reis takes the vocals and pleads for safety in order that no one should sing of train wrecks. In the latter part of the song, there's a lyrical word-association explored -- a very eclectic coda to a song that manages to use odd sounds in a most effective way.

Reis also sings the intriguingly titled "Allergies And Lust", the somber, quiet journey of an outsider coming to terms with the realization that it's time to go: "So keep going, you poor lamb, / You'll be fine, / Detox and decide to lose, / You're losing life." Fear not, there's a happy ending (or so we're lead to believe).

Piano drives the start of "Wet Hay In A Barn", an almost hypnotic song that explores unusual imagery around the subject of feeling badly about how everyone has been taken in: "Tiny farm gone smoldering red like wet hay in a barn or a hand on a breast, / A nervous man with a worm in his heart."

"Random Car" asks the musical question "What do I brake for?", and does a nice job of employing its synthesizer (but don't ask me what these lyrics are on about). The sweet ballad "Controlled Climate" is another piano song, this one allowing Reis to sing her poetic allusions in a most expressive way ("leaving blood trails like Rand-McNally"). This is basically a track about asking for pardons while one is still alive.

"It'll Keep You Warm" is a short tidbit of a pleasant offering, more of a fragmentary song idea than anything else, and it segues directly into the powerful musical themes of "Almost The Earth", wherein songwriting is part of the agenda discussed (e.g., "should I use the word euphoria just to bring him down in choruses?"). It's about music and songs -- and the ultimate pointlessness of it at times -- "The river never really goes away, / And it doesn't ever really mean a thing, / If I'm the only one that ever hears me sing."

The CD ends with the melancholy strains of "Quake Song", which largely consists of a piano and vocal treatment that meanders a bit even as it builds (and other instruments join in), discussing whether someone really was at this last earthquake, etc. It's an odd choice for a closing song, but that's part of the spirit of independence that Built Like Alaska demonstrates.

These songs are an eclectic mix of mostly sad thoughts, infused with small town ennui and presented in a haunting and hypnotic manner. It was recorded by band member Jackson with additional help from Lucky Lew (who has also worked with Grandaddy). Sometimes it's like listening to a mopey, dreary distillation of American life -- but it's strangely compelling. While the soft Autumnland and its odd charms won't appeal to everyone, it's full of a number of pleasantly laid-back musical surprises that might just win you over.


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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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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