Soft Lighting: Portraits - Soft Lighting is the solo work of Kansas City producer Bryan Cox. His work has been chronicled and lauded by this site over the last year and for good reason. His continued innovation and attention to detail surprises at every turn. When you put on a Soft Lighting record for the first time, there’s no way of knowing what exactly you’ll be hearing. These are the artists I live for.
Cox’s debut album, Slow Motion Silhouettes, was an eclectic mix of chill wave, synth wave and experimental electronica. While I enjoyed it very much, there didn’t seem to be a specific direction he was heading and ultimately I was left with more questions than answers. However, once I heard his Glamour Shots EP, I was completely taken aback by just about everything to do with it. It was as if he had an epiphany (or maybe it was me) and suddenly his direction was precise, established and uniformly remarkable. As a result, it ended up in my top 5 records of 2012 and well-deservedly so. By the time his Laser Tag EP came out in October, I was starting to see the theme: experimental electronica with a synth-wavey sexiness. And that’s another thing – the name Soft Lighting was also beginning to make sense to me because if his music is anything, it’s sexy.
Portraits begins with the dark and whispery-vocaled ‘Bodies’. It’s a mysterious way to begin the album and perfectly sets the tone for what we’ll hear next. It then drifts into the very dark and heavily-synthed ‘Dangerous’. It’s hard not to love a track that makes you slightly uncomfortable while making you want to dance at the same time. At this point, Portraits takes an unexpected turn with ‘The First Time’. While the instrumentation is very much what I expected to hear, the vocals and content were not. The vocals are less processed and for the first time since his debut, you can tell he actually attaches a lot of heart to it which comes through in droves… ironically enough, it’s also the song I typically have in my head once the album’s over. When ‘Breakdown’ begins with its fuzzy guitar solo, and drifts into ‘Bad Guy’, a story of guilt and optimism, you begin to see where Cox is taking us and the emotional bent this album has taken out of him, and thus, the listener. This tone is abruptly cut short by the biting tone of ‘July’ and it’s aggressive synths, huge beats and whispery vocals. While I’m not sure what being ‘On The Nod’ is, what I do know is that I loved the slow-building multiple layers of its concept and the effect it had on the flow of the record up to this point. Following this is ‘My Friend’, another seemingly personal track with a slow build that crescendos into and fades out of one of the best choruses on the record. We’re then treated to the almost instrumental ‘Midnight Rendezvous’ and its bouncy synths and almost-sung whispery “oh’s” before Portraits comes to a close with the guitar-led and very emotional ‘Moving On’, a song about the frustration of living in one place for too long and the realization that it’s time to make a new start.
There’s a ton to love about about Portraits. It’s really fresh, but there’s also a distinct nostalgia attached to it somehow. You can’t really pin it to the ’80s, ’90s, 2000s… it’s really all over the place and in the end, very much now. It’s one of the most personal electronic records I’ve heard in years that still retains a distinct edge. Portraits has also combined one of the most deeply satisfying musical and emotional experiences that I’ve heard in years. It truly has a lot of layers to pull back from it. It’s hard to imagine what sort of direction Soft Lighting will take us in next, but you can be sure it will be absolutely remarkable. Perfection… 10/10
The Postelles: …And It Shook Me – When the New York four-piece The Postelles released their first album in 2011, they didn’t need to be original. Produced by Albert Hammond, Jr., and already set in line with a handful of semi-prolific New York indie rock bands, they could have easily settled into a point of complacency surrounded by the same rhythm-driven sounds and slightly shadowy lyrics that defined the scene around them. Indeed, for their premier album, they did just that, making a name for themselves based upon the names to which they were already being compared. However, that first dose of attention gave the band all they needed diverge from that path and market their own blend of indie rock and pithy pop, an effort which came to light with the release of their new album, …And It Shook Me.
Already noted for the vivacity of their debut record, the Postelles take a more relaxed approach in their sophomore …And It Shook Me. The album crutches less on the repeatable and somewhat predictable garage riffs popular among their contemporaries, and instead brings in a milder, rather more retro sound that nevertheless maintains an offhand rock edge. Each track is, for the most part, easy, steady, and consistent, paying a certain amount of attention to the incorporation of classic pop elements that blend seamlessly with the soft and soulful indie sound to which the band now stakes their claim. Doo-wop style choral accents and metrically simplistic lyrics create a danceable levity that denies some of the static energy for which the band was first noticed, but still complements, rather than compromises, the tight melodic arrangements and heavy, raw bass lines. The end result is an album in which it is easy to get lost, wrapped up in the simple contentment the music seems to bring.
With all the musical warmth tucked into every corner of the album, it would be little problem upon first listen to assume the lyrical content is much the same. However, it’s only with careful delivery that the lyrics, which delve rather consistently into tumultuous ties and rocky relationships, blend so seamlessly into their happy musical counterparts. Songs such as ‘Tidal Wave’ and ‘Sweet Water’ rely on lightweight acoustic chords and well-timed vocal harmonies to veil their heavier lyrical undertones, while ‘Pretend It’s Love’ brings them to the forefront with a verse-for-verse trade-off between male and female voices, each sounding out the disappointment they’ve found in their more-than-volatile relationship. “I promised you the world and all its oceans, but all I have are notions of keeping you inside all day,” he sings, while she responds in kind with “like juggling matchsticks, I think I burned my fingertips. So why can’t you wash away the pain? I thought you could.” The music/lyric contrast is skillfully subtle feature given the constant upbeat tones held in front man Daniel Balk’s voice, and it speaks to the care the entire ensemble puts into their craft, hiding content in plain daylight to create a very present though not immediately apparent contrast.
Charged with almost constant hooks and single-worthy material, …And It Shook Me delivers nothing less than a tight, pop-infused album that listens effortlessly and perhaps too happily, given the gravity of the words being sung. It is, hopefully, not the album that will come to mark the pinnacle of this band’s career, but rather the one that shows promise that there will be a pinnacle worth marking. Making heavy use of The Postelles‘ strong suits while steering them away from easy comparisons, …And It Shook Me is a solid effort from strong group and a great listen to fit the mirthful and melancholic alike… 8.5/10
Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle: Perils from the Sea – Are you stressed? Is this work-a-day life getting you down or making you feel weary? Do you feel like you just need to sit in a dark room and stare off into space? Then Perils of the Sea is for you.
Perils of the Sea is the collaboration between Mark Kozelek, best known from his work in Sun Kil Moon and Red House Painters, and Jimmy Lavalle, better known as The Album Leaf. The result is basically pure relaxing and entertaining magic. Both men adjust their typical aesthetic to meld into one another, therefore purists of either individually may be slightly thrown off by the outcome, but if you are new to these two artists I feel like you’re really in for a treat. The album is basically Mark Kozelek telling a collection of stories with his soulful coupling style while backed by Jimmy Lavalle’s synthy, almost ambient tracks. The two combine to create an experience of musical storytelling like I personally have never quite heard before.
The stories range from the mundane to the deeply personal while simultaneously maintaining an almost off the top of the head freshness. ‘Ceing Gazing’ would probably stand out as the most aggressively mundane. It basically reads as the stream of consciousness thoughts that Kozelek experiences while staring at his ceiling. He discusses being jet lagged and opening mail. The thoughts jump from thoughts of his grandfather to family that he’s lost touch with and is brought home at the end of the song when he reveals that these are all simply concepts that run through his mind while he’s “ceiling gazing.” Earlier in the album in the song ‘Gustavo’, the mundanity and really novel appeal of the album is brought into sharp focus when he details buying a fixer-upper house and hiring day laborers, one of which is of course named Gustavo. He ends up befriending the men and they live with him for some time. The story takes a sad turn when Gustavo is pulled over for drunk driving and deported. Kozelek has to fix up the house himself and the true hilarity within the song arises when someone asks him if he ever thinks of Gustavo and he replies, “really I don’t give much thought to Gustavo,” well, except when he has to write a song, I guess.
The album begins with the deeply personal. ‘What Happened To My Brother’ is an opus where Kozelek laments about his brother, who is apparently a shell of his formerly charismatic self due to drug addiction. ’1939′ the second song on the album is a story about stealing his mother’s 1936 dime that was given to her by her father before the war. He steals the dime buys weed and takes a nap, his mother is crushed, and he vows to get the dime back to her somehow. Honestly I don’t want to ruin the end of the story, but it’s a perfect example of what makes the album so great. It’s a captivating story presented artfully and with beautiful musical backing and while it seems to simply be a story about stealing ten cents it really reveals the love he has for his mother and the selfishness of childhood, both eternally relatable themes. So, while the album is almost comically banal at times, the stories told within behold grander messages that are engaging and rich.
I’ll end with a description of my favorite song on the album, ‘You Missed My Heart’. In the story Kozelek describes catching and stabbing his girlfriend’s lover, having an altercation with his girlfriend, attempting to escape from jail, getting fatally wounded, and it’s all joined together by one simple line. “You missed my heart.” If you don’t want to experience this album now, I don’t think we have anything to talk about… 9.2/10
From the first moment I heard Erika Spring‘s angelic “oh, in the danger zone,” over Airbird & Napolian‘s gigantic beats and slap bass, I knew something special was about to happen. By the time it ended, I felt like it was over far too quickly for such a wonderfully composed track. It was over as quickly as I fell in love with it. While not much is known about Airbird & Napolian just yet, Cascine promises a proper full length by the end of the year… which we eagerly await. The first thing that came to mind when I heard it was what you see: The Joker as played by Jack Nicholson skipping into Gotham’s art museum with his henchmen, blasting Prince and trashing everything. It very quickly became completely about the Joker and nothing else… just like most of us remember it anyway.
Folly & The Hunter: Tragic Care – In Folly & The Hunter‘s own summary of Tragic Care, they describe the album as finding “beauty in the breakdown”, and I could not agree more with this assessment. This is the sophomore album from the Canadian trio. Tragic Care is a response to heartbreak and tragedy, which clearly translates. There are elements of the album that are very comforting and it was obviously a cathartic release for the members, especially singer Nick Vallee, whose real life experiences were the main inspiration.
The subject matter is both heart-wrenching and relatable. Anyone who has experienced a failed relationship or lost love will be able to connect with the honesty in the lyrics. “I have done the best I could/didn’t touch you like it should/So I’m propelled into the wind/I didn’t learn and I didn’t win” (‘Tragic Care’). There are so many instances of heartache and anguish throughout the entire album, like in the song ‘Mask’, where Vallee sings of his heart going “almost monotone”. This balanced with the thoughtful instrumentation creates something that as a whole is very accomplished and beautiful.
Various elements come together to make this album a true piece of art but the main strength is in the songwriting. The lyrics are quite literally like poetry set to music. They are a paintbrush that create beautiful imagery in the listener’s mind. It doesn’t hurt when said lyrics are being sung by Vallee, whose stunningly lovely vocals are reminiscent of artists like Ben Bridwell of Band of Horses, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, and Fleet Foxes‘ Robin Pecknold.
One of the standout songs from the album is the track ‘Vultures’, which pairs dark imagery with a beautiful melody. “I give up, I repent/my money is spent/I am rotting to the core/it’s what the vultures hunger for”. Though the album’s focus is on hurt and loss, there are times where it also offers a glimmer of hope: “Strong ideas take so much space that you feel you have died when they’ve left/But a warmth is replacing the regret I held in my chest” (‘Our Stories End’). Though most of the actual lyrics in some way involve sorrow, the music almost feels uplifting as you listen to it. All in all, Tragic Care is an excellent piece of work, especially when it comes to songwriting. It is the perfect album for those times when you need to soothe a broken heart, need a good cry, or just want to listen to something that is both haunting and touching…7.4/10