I like Knickers

I don’t know how often you folks clean out your spam folders. Personally, I try to do it a few times a week. Granted, 85% of the time it’s Central African solicitors and Irish Lottery winnings, but occasionally, something slips through. (I often wonder how many of the indecipherable Korean and Chinese mailings are actually press releases for fantastic new bands I’ll never hear because I made the mistake of not learning every language ever.) But it’s the most recent number to be dug from the depths of discarded pyramid schemes which left me nearly breathless from the potential magnitude of such a near miss.

Knickers (I don’t think I need to explain to you why Gmail filed this where they did), are the latest effort from Simon Love (The Loves). According to one interview, by the time The Loves retired on Valentine’s Day 2011, Simon already had plans for Knickers. Still, as the story goes, Sarah answered an ad Simon had posted on Gumtree.com reading “French Girl Wanted”. A few crude demos later, Knickers were formed. To date, the band have only played a handful of gigs (including one last week with Elefant labelmates The School), but word is spreading fast. On my recent trip through the UK, the chat around the record shop circuit (Rough Trade, Spillers, Monorail, Avalanche, etc.) was about Knickers (the band…I checked). I even met a man here in terminally uncool Columbus, Ohio this week who asked me if I knew anything about them.

The word is out, kids – and so is the record – a four-track EP on Elefant Records, that is. And if you’ve ever loved anything on Elefant, it’s an EP you’re going to need – four pop gems inspired by French yé-yé, ’60s garage, and the Velvet Underground. Lead off track, “My Baby’s Just a Baby” is a catchy ode to melodic dirty garage rock. Between a strong stomping melody and a clever video [below] in which Sarah gives the boy bandmates the RealDoll treatment, the lead single makes a compelling case that Knickers are onto something here. And the follow-up tracks are far from filler.

What follows is a fitting tribute to the golden age of pop. “Are You Ready, Girl?” is a crooning cover of what is essentially a lost Kinks tune (written by Dave Davies for an unreleased solo album) and finds singer Sarah channeling Nina Persson at her swooning best. In fact, the hallmarks of the Cardigans’ frontwoman are also a major part of what makes the current EP such a resounding success. Sarah is obviously a woman who knows her way around a hook. It’s her ease of delivery coupled with Simon’s masterful pairing of fuzzed-out and jangly guitars that drives the charging duet of “A Thousand Ways” (a duet that cleverly mirrors the pairing of clean and dirty guitars). And elsewhere, it is the juxtaposition of purity of tone and melody (and doubling glockenspiel) with those same dirty guitars in “Darling” that makes such an indelible impression on the listener and will leave you singing that final hook for days (unless, of course, you’ve left the EP on repeat, as I have, in which case each memorable hook is supplanted by the next, ad infinitum).

Knickers debut EP, My Baby’s Just A Baby, is available digitally and as a limited seven-inch on red vinyl from Elefant Records.

Check out Knickers on: [Facebook] [Twitter] [Bandcamp] [Tumblr]

Tracklist:

  1. ‘My Baby’s Just a Baby (But I Love Him So)
  2. ‘Are You Ready Girl?’
  3. ‘A Thousand Ways’
  4. ‘Darling’

J’adore Eux Autres

Hi, guys.  Happy Thursday.  Soon it will be May, and you know what that means, right?  Our contest!!  Which we will be announcing in May!!

Also, I have a few gems before I get on with Eux Autres.  I thought about reviewing the new New Pornographers album, Together, but I decided not to because … I don’t know.  I just decided.  But, you can listen to them on NPR’s Exclusive First Listen, and because I love them, I think that you should.  You should also check out Josh Ritter’s new album, especially “Another New World.” It is quite possibly the most beautiful song I’ve heard all year.  Maybe.  Finally, check out this crazy video of music that is actually painful to listen to.

On to other things.  Like “them other,” or Eux Autres, a band that has apparently been around from quite some time but has not gotten the audience I think they deserve.  I’ve spent some time this week listening to their 2 full-length albums…I’m pretty impressed.  Their blog indicates that a third album is well on the way, which I believe has the potential to really put these guys on the map.   She & Him and the School have been quenching my thirst for new, pure pop for a few weeks, but this week I’ve begun desperately searching for more…it’s like an unstoppable hunger…and there was Eux Autres, waiting for me.  For years.  Plus, instead of dream pop, Eux Autres falls more under the category of garage pop.  So, you get all the summer sweetness of pop and all the angst of real life.  I love it.

Eux Autres are brother and sister Heather and Nicholas Larimer plus buddy Yoshi Nakamoto.  Imagine Saturday Looks Good to Me with Jenny Watson and Ben Kweller as the vocalists.  I thought these guys might be foreign (because I’m stupid), but actually the entire band lives in San Francisco, and so again I will talk about American music while Eric covers Europe.  Eux Autres definitely focuses more on vocals and songwriting than on instrumentation, but because of the vocals, I’m okay with the less layered sound.  Although they’re poppy, they have a bit of an edge to their sound, not quite lo-fi but still a little unrefined, and it works really well.   And sometimes they sing in French, which is fun!  Their songs are unassuming, sincere stories and sentiments, which make for absolutely lovely and sometimes badass tunes.  Do I recommend one album over another?  Not really.  I have favorite songs from each album, and I think both are worth your ear time.  In fact, you can listen to all of their albums in full on their website, euxautres.bandcamp.com.  NOW WATCH THIS VIDEO IT IS SO CUTE.

*Have you seen this video?  I still love half the songs regardless of how generic they are, but I found it so interesting that our ears have such simple chordal preferences.

Emilie Simon gets the Big Machine up and running

Emilie Simon at BerlinI followed her for years – not in a creepy stalker way, but the way any true fan tracks the career of an artist he or she admires – spending countless hours in dusty independent and secondhand record shops near university campuses and enlisting the help of friends and family in Europe to track down a catalogue of records that you just can’t get here. It was all very calculated and deliberate. Meeting her, on the other hand, was (almost entirely) an accident.

It was on one of these prospecting expeditions (in search of a release date for her latest album, The Big Machine) that I caught a glimpse of Emilie Simon‘s tour schedule. Noticing almost immediately that the next show was scheduled to be in Chicago, I, without thinking, sent off a message to (literally) the only American contact I could find and several hours and half a dozen emails later, we had plans to sit down for a cup of tea after soundcheck.

As I approached Berlin Nightclub and heard the sound of “Opium” emanating from behind the swinging doors, I had no idea what to expect. I am not exactly a veteran of the club scene and I had never even heard most of the songs on the album she was touring, but walked in, trying as best I could to look like I knew what I was doing. What I found: half a dozen people prepping and decorating for the party that night, Elizabeth (my contact), and Emilie on a small stage in the middle of the room surrounded by machines and a keyboard. I stood and listened as she finished her soundcheck, attempting to recover the carefully planned talking points that had fled my memory the moment I came into the presence of my all-time musical idol. How do you cover such an impressive body of work in 20 minutes? You don’t, but the attempt became markedly easier when I discovered that we have a great deal more in common than I ever thought I would with anyone I consider a true genius.

Her first two albums (Emilie Simon and Végétal) and her soundtrack for the French version of March of the Penguins, included some of the most intricate textures I have ever encountered in the course of a four-minute “pop” song. The Big Machine is different, though. You could think of it as the first of her “American” works the way you might “Dvořák’s “New World” symphony. After all, she’s been living in New York for almost two years now.

“At the beginning, I just came for vacation and I enjoyed it, so I decided to stay longer. And I ended up moving here. I think it was just the right timing for me. I was between two albums, so I finished my tour and came here,” she says. And any such dramatic change is bound to make an impression: “I don’t know why, but there is something very intense and creative about New York with all of the artists…but something very noticeable to me when I was in New York was that it was full of a lot of energy…. I don’t want to say that it’s more energy or something, it’s just different and because you are not used to it, it is very noticeable, so it’s really inspiring.” It’s that spirit of change that was such a factor in the new sound heard on The Big Machine.

“I think I had a way of doing things from the first album….I was sort of building the basics. For the album after that, I feel like it was a little bit the same way of working: that I was experimenting and still building and I needed to change – to try something else…because…there is a point where you know that you are totally capable to do that again and again and there is no point in doing that again and again.” And so, the IRCAM alumna and winner of three Victoires de la Musique set out to reinvent herself. “I thought, I am going to stop writing on the computer first and see what instruments I need the most for writing songs and it’s been the keyboard, so…for a long time I was writing without a computer, without programming and everything, just working on the composition itself, the song and its structure.”

As a result, her vocals, once set back within the instrumental texture of her songs, have been moved into the foreground, featuring more prominently than ever before. “The other albums are more…like: I have my studio; I can spend a lot of time programming details and the vocals become a part of the instrumentation and are in balance with the other elements. This one was more about the energy and this kind of urgency of writing…. I was moving every week; I had a keyboard and that’s all…It was more of a raw energy, so the vocals took a lot of space because I needed to express myself and I didn’t have all the sounds.”

But such “urgency of writing” is the nature of an album conceived almost entirely in a live setting. After a short set at the Roxy in L.A. where she played several of the new songs for the first time, Emilie embarked on a five-week residency at The Cutting Room in New York. “At the Cutting Room… I was adding a new song every week. So every week I had to finish the programming of a new song and make it ready to be played.” That live atmosphere was maintained throughout the recording process as Emilie “decided to keep [the] energy of experimenting on stage and find [her] band and record”. And she seems happy with the results, assuring me that “everything was like it was meant to be like this”.

Still, someone so involved in the intricacies of composing, as Emilie is, does not relinquish control easily: “at the beginning, I thought maybe I’m going to find the right producer for this album and ask somebody else to produce it…but I didn’t find this perfect person that I can trust so much more than I can trust myself…. And because I produce all my own albums now, I really know what I like, what I don’t like, and trusting somebody else – it has to be amazing, and I trusted and I worked [on] this album with really amazing people and I opened a lot,..but I still kept being the producer of the album because I know where I want to go…I was more like the captain, but the crew was amazing”.

That amazing crew included Kelly Pratt and Jeremy Gara (both of Arcade Fire) and John Natchez (Beirut) as well as sound engineer Mark Plati (David Bowie, Alain Bashung) and Renaud Létang (Feist, Gonzalez…) who mixed the album. The result is an album that “is very different from the other ones: a lot of energy – a different type of energy – a lot of it because of New York and the kind of energy I’ve felt there. It’s the influence of New York on me”.

As we walked back to the club, part of me wished she had an extra day or two to experience Chicago’s own characteristically unique energy that slips so often and unfairly unnoticed beneath the glamorous cacophony of the coasts, rather than the 22-hour reality of airports, traffic, and Belmont Avenue (and you ever do have the time, I hope you will let me know). No offense to the neighborhood, but the one block stretch between Berlin and Starbucks at Clark and Belmont (much of which was under construction at the time) is not exactly the pinnacle of what my beloved Chicago has to offer. Still, for a few hours on October 15th and for reasons I cannot even begin to express, there could have been no more perfect place.

Pourquoi les crayons?

I have to admit, I’m not really sure why I’ve been sitting on this one for so long. I mentioned it on facebook a few weeks ago, but unless you’re a fan (and I don’t know why you wouldn’t be) who happened to be online at the time, chances are, you missed it. I suppose, somewhere in the back of my mind, I had hoped to write this entry in French (as you may have deduced, I have not done so). Regardless, in a rash of dabbling in French music about a month ago, I came across Amelie-les-crayons (yes, it is as ridiculously cool as it sounds).

Honestly, where the music is concerned, I think it is most accurate to say that it sounds French. I mean quintessentially French, often favoring nylon string guitars, piano, woodwinds, accordion, and handclaps (very often, in waltz time), to the extent that, in listening to it, I feel as if I am sitting in a cafe on a cool September evening (and not just because I am sitting in a cafe on a cool September evening). Amelie’s raw vocal quality is firmly rooted in the French chanteuse tradition, but in the execution of her songs, that voice takes on a life of it’s own, almost the character of an absurdist cabaret. If you are familiar with Edith Piaf’s “Bravo Pour le Clown”, imagine that sort of spirit, but unrelenting. You’ve never heard anything like it. More importantly,

you’ve never seen anything like it.

Because there is more to Amelie-les-crayons than just the music (as good as that music is). Amelie-les-crayons is about performance: about creating her own little world and locking you inside with her until you beg her never to let you out. An Amelie-les-crayons performance is a glimpse into this world, blurring the line between Amelie the person and Amelie the Persona (one thing you won’t see is Amelie the rock star). The lighting is intricate, the sets are elaborate, the piano blooms (yes, I said “blooms”), and the energy is palpable (even on YouTube). I wish she would tour here in the States. Luckily for us is in this part of the world, in addition to two albums and an EP, the last two touring shows have been released on DVD (Le Tour de la Question and A l’Ouest). Now, we too can experience the world of Amelie-les-crayons (at least, those of us with multi-region DVD players can). For now, you can get a taste for it below and if you want more (and you will want more), explore the official website; the “Bonus” section is loaded with other videos.