Sweden Calling

Mire Kay

This past weekend, I dropped by one of the local bars to hear one of my favorite French bands The Limiñanas (whose 2010 debut on Trouble In Mind is a must have for fans of Serge Gainsbourg, French psychedelia, or the idea of Jacqueline Taïeb on acid). And while I gave my usually stifled inner Francophile a chance to get out and stretch his legs a bit, a friend introduced me to a friend of hers and we had a nice chat about Ingmar Bergman and is Lars Von Trier a creative genius or a sadistic nutcase, etc. Which is to say that, at one point, they mentioned they were thinking of traveling to Sweden in the next year and did I know any bands they should check out while they’re there.

It’s a question which is, as most of you know, nearly impossible to answer. Yes, of course there are good Swedish bands that everyone should check out. There are hundreds of them. It’s probably not far from the truth to say that you could walk into just about any club in Stockholm or Gothenburg or Malmö on just about any given night and you’ll probably hear something good. Some cases in point:

It’s actually been several months since Lissi Dancefloor Disaster contacted me. And, unless you followed the TIH Tumblr for those two weeks or so that I actually made an effort to keep it updated, then I’ve been remiss in sharing their music with you. And, in all honesty, I’ve kind of been beating myself up over it since then. From the moment I began playing the video for “Glowing Hearts” (the single at the time), I experienced a sense of instant familiarity. And by the second video – “Oh My God” – it was as if I’d gone back to the endless stacks of albums in my library and pulled out a long forgotten favorite, only to rediscover (as I have so often done) why I loved it so much in the first place. Check it out. You’ll see what I mean. And, while you’re there, give their remixes a spin as well.

It isn’t quite right to call their music electropop – it’s really more like electronic indiepop (or, as one of their tracks—my favorite—is labeled on Soundcloud: “electropopdancewhatever”). One thing is for sure, if listening to these songs does not make you want to dance wildly about the room, it’s probably because you know you’re surrounded on all sides by high voltage invisible electric fences.

And on the other end of the spectrum, there’s Mire Kay, an indie folk duo featuring Emelie Molin and Victoria Skoglund, formerly of the band Audrey. It’s understandable if listening to their ethereal, effervescent debut EP Fortress, calls to mind our old friends (and recent Swedish breakout duo) First Aid Kit. After all, their new video for “So You Learned” was directed by Mats Udd who’s also done videos for First Aid Kit (not to mention the video for Those Dancing Days’ single “Fuckarias” [swoon]). But, if you listen closely to the vocal delivery, especially on tracks like “Sea Monster” [free download on Bandcamp] you might pick up on traces of Emiliana Torrini – as if someone had gone in and removed all the electronics from Love in the Time of Science. With the elegant richness of their standard guitar and cello instrumentation bolstered occasionally by banjo and bare bones percussion, Mire Kay have crafted a hypnotic, enchanting debut that beckons the listener away – much like the video below – to the water and wild to be willingly lost forever.

A Switched On Christmas Spectacular

I love Christmas. What’s not to love (even though the fact that half the world celebrates it in the summer kinda freaks me out)? It’s the month leading up to it that I’m not so keen on. Sure, December has its good points, like Starbucks red holiday cups and the incomparable scent of winter (again, with the exception of that freakshow Southern Hemisphere). But, let’s face it, December comes with a lot of crap, too, like traffic, huge crowds, and the incomparable cold of winter (except for you know who). By far, however, the worst facet of the Christmas season is the music. Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas music. What I absolutely hate is the effect it has on musicians, namely the “I’m bored, let’s make a Christmas album” attitude. Cases in point: Newsong’s “The Christmas Shoes” and Bob Dylan’s new Christmas album.

No, it’s been a decade since I’ve come across a Christmas album that delivers consistently from start to finish (it was BEC Records’ Happy Christmas volume 1, feat. a young Switchfoot, Starflyer 59, and Five Iron Frenzy, among others). This year, thankfully, has been different. There are a number of promising collections circulating right now. Here are two of them.

The Cardiff-based Bubblewrap Collective has put out a collection that is in some shops this week and ought to be for sale at Rough Trade in London sometime next week. The concept is quite clever, I must say. Twelve artists were given 31 days to write and record a song based on one of the twelve days of Christmas. The result is a varied landscape of often lo-fi, stripped-down indie goodness where ukuleles and glockenspiels (and everything else, really) flourish with an impressive line-up including: The School, Little My, Allo Darlin’, and The Bobby McGees.

Our old friends and Indie Handbook favourites, The School (who are included on a couple of other Christmas comps this season which, if we can get our hands on copies, we will also review for you) have the twelfth day (for those who, like me, don’t have the attention span to make it through the entire song, that’s drummers drumming). And they execute their share of the festivities brilliantly with the handclappy C86 ditty “Drummer Boy”. Brontosaurus Chorus, on “Calling Birds” (that’s the fourth day), manage to pull off what may be the single greatest line in the history of Christmas music: “Christmas is a time for excessive drinking”.

On the lighter side are “Five Golden Rings from the Hi 5 Kings” by The Rocky Nest (including a heartbreaking muted trumpet refrain between otherworldly vocal performances) and Allo Darlin’ with the ukulele-laden “Silver Swans in NYC”. Then there’s the relentlessly charming “Lords Keep Leaping” by Silence at Sea, complete with injected sound effects. I’m going to have to stop myself there, because I’ve got another album to talk about. You’ll just have to check out the other seven days on your own.

Venus Hum’s Switched on Christmas EP (get it here for free) is something completely different from the 12 Days compilation. Rather than a set of entirely new songs, Venus Hum have embraced the spirit of reinterpretation championed by artists like Wendy (née Walter) Carlos on such albums as Switched on Bach and Switched on Brandenburgs. (Once upon a time, the traditionalist in me cringed at the thought of such an atrocity. The post-structuralist in me has since destroyed that aesthetic neophyte.)

Certain tracks on this EP, like “Suzy Snowflake” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” translate naturally into such an electrified idiom. Even before listening, the concept is a welcome change. Ballads like “Silver Bells” also sync easily with the band’s dreamy electropop aesthetic, as a sort of hybrid of their first two albums (though it’s more Big Beautiful Sky than The Colors In the Wheel). On the opener, “Let It Snow”, Annette Strean’s vocals have been assimilated into the network and “switched on” along with a seemingly endless array of computers, synths, and processors to dazzling and (aurally) sparkling effect.

Going in, however, I had my doubts about how even one of my all-time favorite bands would adapt two of my favorite seasonal numbers. There is, of course, the classic “The Christmas Song”, penned by Mel Tormé, immortalized by Nat “King” Cole, here given a tastefully switched on treatment, with a bit of ambient crackling tacked on in the opening for good measure. In the cases of electro-programming wizards Kip Kubin and Tony Miracle, it is their sensitivity and, more importantly, ability to hold back that render “The Christmas Song” not only passable, but one of two “must hear” tracks on the EP. The other being “Silent Night”.

Now, about that “Silent Night”. It’s come a long way since Christmas Eve of 1818 and the debut performance (for voice and guitar) at Nikolaus-Kirche in Oberndorf, Austria. But it’s still one of those songs I prefer un-fooled-around with. Sometimes (ok, oftentimes) it’s easy to question if all of the “progress” we as human beings have made in the last 191 years, has really left us any better off or if we’ve regressed, and those really were the “good old days”. Maybe we really have sucked the world dry of all the beautiful things. Venus Hum’s take on this, perhaps quintessential, musical rendering of the birth of Christ is humbly trippy and sufficiently glitchy (just like we are), but the sound of Annette’s voice floating just over top of it leaves me with the sense (and hope) that there just may be some goodness left in the world.

Sleep in Heavenly peace”? Yes, thank you. I believe I shall.

Kristin is taking a week off.

Yesterday was Kristin’s birthday and because she is my friend and I have been slacking off lately, I suggested she take the week off. (Also, I am too cheap to buy her a real present.) Sorry folks, you’re stuck with me for the week, but at least you’ll get a brief respite on Wednesday, because I have another guest submission from Dan Holloway. I guess every cloud really does have a silver lining.

But wait, it gets worse. I have been crazy busy lately: the Dublin Irish Festival last weekend followed almost immediately by four and a half days out of town (that’s a lot of hours in my car and even more scones). Consequently, I have had very little time to explore and have been listening almost exclusively to Julie Fowlis, Tilly & the Wall, and the Pipettes. (In the process, I learned a beautiful Scots lullaby, which I will be happy to sing to you, if you are a girl.) So, unless you really want to hear more about one of those artists, you will have to content yourself with the news contained in this article.

In case any of you actually expressed interest in the initial clause of that last sentence, you may be interested to know that Rose Elinor Dougall, formerly Rosay of the Pipettes, is in the process of releasing her second single as a solo artist, with plans to put out a full LP some time in 2010. Also, Gwenno Saunders, currently of the Pipettes, had some success with Welsh and Cornish language electropop before joining the band.

Word from Cardiff is that The School are in post production of their debut LP. Mastering and production work were completed on Wednesday. From what I hear, all that is left to work out are the singles, artwork, and that sort of thing, hopefully to be completed in time for an October release.

Not to mention, we are but a fortnight removed from Fun’s Aim and Ignite and Imogen Heap’s Ellipse. Of course, you knew that already. What you may not know is that you can stream Aim and Ignite on MySpace right now.

Even more pressing, however, is the imminent release of the new album, Silent City (featuring Will Oldham, a.k.a. Bonnie “Prince” Billy, on three tracks), by Columbus, Ohio’s own Brian Harnetty. That is, it comes out tomorrow. For you locals, there is a release party at Rumba on Friday. Super Desserts will also be playing. I’ve heard Brian perform once before, in a local used record store. It was a low-key affair, but I was transfixed. He is Paste’s “Artist of the Week“, and deservedly so.

Laziness takes lots of energy

You may have noticed that I’ve been a bit lazy with my posts lately. If you haven’t, pay attention, because I am about to be lazy again. How lazy? Today, I am going to tell you about a band that broke up eight years which aligns nicely with a tale of serendipitous googling that I am going to (in the name of Dickensian expediency) save for another post later in the week. But first I am going to tell you about some CDs I got from Subroutine today.

Today I got some CDs from Subroutine Records, namely AC Berkheimer and the Sugarettes. You may remember them from Dutch Week. If you weren’t with us for Dutch Week, you can find them in the drop down menu to the right. I also got my autographed copy of the new 7-inch from the Joy Formidable. I trust you all have yours by now as well, since I’ve been urging you for months to order one.

Anyway, on with the irrelevant posting. I mentioned Universal Hall Pass on Facebook on Friday. Did you listen? It doesn’t really matter, because I am talking about Splashdown tonight.

Splashdown were one of those indefinable fusion-type bands drawing on elements of electronica, jazz, and trip hop. Add to that the vocals of Melissa Kaplan who can turn a Middle Eastern maqam like nobody’s business (if you’ve listened to UHP, you know this already) and you can have no trouble understanding how, in their five years together, Splashdown won such a dedicated following. In that time, the band released two EPs (Halfworld and Redshift) and an LP (Stars and Garters)

I am going to come right out and say that I really like Stars and Garters. And I have no trouble admitting that I like it for primarily one reason. “So Ha” has got to be one of the best tracks on any album that I have ever heard. It will take you a month just to figure out the time signature, if you can settle on one at all. I’ve been listening for over a year and the is what I’ve got: 16/8; 10/8; 6/8; 2/4; and 12/8 (both 3+3+3+3 and 3+3+2+2+2, often simultaneously). A couple minutes of this, and even Brahms would have been all cross-eyed and sweaty.

The band also recorded two other LPs (Blueshift and Possibilities), both of which were shelved by Capitol Records at the time of the band’s demise and will never be released. It’s a funny thing about record labels though. No one really cares what they think anymore. I know I don’t (or else I’d be gagging for, or thanks to, Tinted Windows like those other people). The band now encourage fans to share their music, for free, even the “never-to-be” released LPs (silly record execs). You can find most of them (and a few live recordings) here and check here to pick up a copy of Redshift.

If you like what you hear from Splashdown, check out Freezepop and Symbion Project, both projects by Kasson Crooker as well as Anarchy Club which is not so much my thing, but it is the current musical home of Adam Buhler. I hope you know by now the name of the other band I think you should check out.