Things We Like: Keluar “Panguna”

On Panguna, Keluar deliver an inspired combination of the exotic exuberance of 80’s synth-pop and classic, hard-edged EBM. But unlike many of the recent retro-electro throwbacks, this one sounds exotic, somewhat mysterious, a little bit dangerous, and – dare I say – fun. 

Keluar manages to capture the mysterious, globe-trotting themes of so many 80’s synth-pop hits. Here, I’m thinking specifically of Duran Duran. The tracks carry the torch of classics like ““Rio”, “Hungry Like the Wolf” or “Wild Boys” to foreign lands and destinations unknown. And the lyrics pair nicely with the sultry, emotive delivery of vocalist Zoe Zanias.

But where the choruses on those 80’s hits can veer straight into middle-of-the-road, crowd-pleasing purgatory, Keluar instead ground the songs securely in the darker BPMs of classic electronic body music like Front 242 or BiGod 20. Really, the tracks on Panguna could best be summed up as “Wild Boys” meets “Headhunter” meets “The Bog”. Darker Duran Duran or lighter Front 242. No other description necessary, really.     

Even as a fan of so much new music these days, rarely does a track excite and surprise as much as the title track. Everything here is interesting, complex, fresh and mysterious. When I put this on, I’m reminded of that rush of excitement you’d get when the DJ would put on an epic synth 12” to crush the dancefloor. One of those rare tracks that would get everyone moving, not just the electroheads.  

An added bonus, here, is the addition of a Hacker remix of the title track. It’s an outright banger that delivers by smoothing things out with a roiling synth line and taut, crisp beats that crack like whip.

They tried to tame you, looks like they’ll try again.

Things We Like: Bing & Ruth, No Home of the Mind

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Bing & Ruth, the project of New York-via-Kansas composer David Moore, delivers ambient compositions centered on piano; instrumental pieces that manifest themselves in sounds that coalesce and slowly swarm and overwhelm. Ethereal compositions like “Starwood Choker” wash over in waves, swelling into a near-droning white noise that leaves you disoriented and kind of numb. These moments mostly reach a point where you have no choice but to sit back, surrender and find solace in your own head. Yet in an instant, Moore can pull out the tide and leave you beached amid the white space of a spare composition like “To All It.” Either way, it’s a good place to be. The world around us can be needlessly loud, nagging and overbearing. Retreating into the embrace of something warm and calm and ambiguous is often necessary to simply carry on. Moore carves out the space and conditions perfect for contemplation, inviting you in to contribute your own thoughts and feelings.

For us, No Home of the Mind is the perfect soundtrack to a calm, cold, quiet winter walk in the woods. In my mind, the day is still and the sun has nearly set. It’s not yet twilight, but will be soon. The cold air numbs your face and it’s getting hard to see, but the scene is so peaceful that you can’t yet bear to break the spell. Interestingly, I’m reminded of the painting February by William Trost Richards, a work in the collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. To my eyes, it perfectly captures the atmosphere of the album, for much like a moment connecting with nature, this is a soundtrack that revels in simplicity and beauty and rewards you for paying attention and just being there.

30 Years Ago Tonight

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Seriously, it wasn’t until we actually got into the Philadelphia Spectrum and passed a merch booth – eyeballing Robert Smith’s pouting, powdered face glowing from an enormous black t-shirt that I realized I was attending my first rock show. Mind you, this was after we parked in one of the vast, darkened lots and passed endless groups of sullen young adults tailgating on our way in. This was even after we had handed over our tickets at entry. I was still flummoxed as to why we were going to a sporting event for my birthday. Ice hockey was pretty cool, but not cool enough to go to on a school night.    

30 years ago tonight, my mom surprised me with a birthday gift I’ll never forget: she took my sister and me to see The Cure, my favorite band at the time, perform live. It was the tail-end of the Prayer Tour, the band supporting the now-classic and personal-favorite, Disintegration. You won’t find September 21 on the back of the tour t-shirt – only the first Philly date, August 23 is listed – but I have the ticket stub to prove it happened. The date appeared to be tacked on towards the tour’s end, presumably “by popular demand”.

Everything about the show blew my soon-to-be-12-year-old mind: they played Disintegration in its entirety (though not in running order), they played scores of old favorites, it was loud, there was a stage set-up and lights, and the kids in the crowd wore such cool clothes. I discovered a newfound appreciation for deep cuts that still, to this day, remind me of that night: “Last Dance”, “Prayers for Rain”, and “The Same Deep Water as You” among them. The epic, reverberating bassline of “Closedown” was a highlight that’s still etched into my brain. Another favorite was a 20-minute version of “A Forest” that ebbed and flowed on Smith’s endless guitar solo, morphing from blistering noise to delicate strumming for, like, 15 whole minutes (see a shorter version from 1992 here).

According to setlist.fm, the band played “The Perfect Girl”, a rather poppy deep cut from the Kiss Me album. I don’t remember that at all. I also recall that they played “Kyoto Song”, but it’s not listed as such. I’m probably wrong on both counts. Funny how some memories can be clear as day and other details just drift away.

Love and Rockets opened the tour, but not on this night. A few dates even included third act Pixies as additional support – deep in their Doolittle prime (all three bands toured the States at that time, joining up for major outdoor shows at venues like Giants Stadium in New Jersey). No matter, I was just happy to be there.

Mom let us sleep in the next day and play hooky from school. She even took us to Repo Records, our favorite record store – then still in Wayne, by the R5 station – so we could load up on even more Cure records. She was now all-in.

My concert-going career could’ve started and ended that night. It was that good.

If you’re at all as nostalgic as I am, you can relive the magic here. Happy Birthday to me!

Summer Tunes: Ride, “Charm Assault”

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Ride: Then and Now

It’s summer. Time to switch over to some indie, dream pop, shoegaze and/or britpop. Time for some sun, fun, road trips and popsicle sticks (and/or other summertime clichés). Seriously, though, we’re ready for some easy, breezy tunes. Right now I’m thinking Ride – specifically the tune “Charm Assault” – from their 2017 comeback album, Weather Diaries. The whole record is fantastic – and true to their 1990s form – but for me, right now, this tune is all I need. It’s cathartic, atmospheric retro pop. Supposedly, the lyrics have something to do with Brexit, but I hardly ever pay attention to the words. Well, sometimes. Occasionally. Elizabeth does, but I tend to focus more on melody and mood and less on message. But we can discuss that later.

So while we wait for their upcoming LP, This Is Not a Safe Place, fire up “Charm Assault”, the sunny and melancholy “Cali” or the cooler, overcast “Lannoy Point” to brighten your summer day.

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Things We Like: Drab Majesty, “The Demonstration”

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Dreamy and introspective. That’s the easy answer. Some might say “dark”. Perhaps a bit. But that’s an overly simplistic and, frankly, cynical take. It could be said Drab Majesty conjures up a 4AD aura about things with hints of vintage Clan of Xymox or Cocteau Twins in both sound and style. Really, though, there are many influences – dream pop, shoegaze and classic goth among them – that tease their way into the songs. But Deb DeMure, the androgynous alter-ego of L.A.-based musician Andrew Clinco, comes calling with more than just a checklist of references.

On their second proper album, The Demonstration, Drab Majesty transcends the confines of strict style and the niche tastes of a precious few and push out into the realm of 80’s new wave and pop. The songs are catchy and irresistible and satisfyingly accessible while managing to still shimmer and haunt and hover in the corner – a perfect mix of light and dark that invites obsessive listening. Many of these songs wouldn’t seem out of place on mainstream radio of the era. The grand, euphoric “Cold Souls” comes to mind as does “39 By Design”, their languid meditation on the Heaven’s Gate cult – both tracks aptly released in advance of the album like incantations masking as pop singles.

And while there’s a lot to love about The Demonstration, DeMure’s guitar playing could be the true star. Her chiming guitar lines are captivating as they meander around and hang in the air. They lure you in, slow things down and let the white space between notes wrap you in a woozy, warm embrace. “Not Just a Name” and “Forget Tomorrow” conjure up this atmosphere perfectly, the latter playing up the 80’s-era drum machines to near-absurd levels of intensity.

But grandiose gestures are what Drab Majesty is all about. Their image and influences spill out super-saturated, dime-store drama in a kaleidoscope of colors, textures and references. They present an exquisite corpse tangled with so many conflicting cultural touch points – religious pageantry, the occult, KISS Army, Warhol wigs, science fiction, Geisha girl, Members Only – that it’s hard not to fall under their spell (or perhaps surrender to the sheer weight of their presentation) and just follow along. But it all works. Style and sound are a perfect match – light and dark, sweet and sour, high and low – that keeps you off balance and craving more.

After letting this one brood on the turntable for the better part of a month (on glorious marbled blue vinyl and on constant repeat), The Demonstration presents a complete, confident and fully realized vision. Also, the album’s production – care of Telaphon Tel Aviv’s Joshua Eustis – is cleaner and less claustrophobic than its predecessor, Careless (itself a clear statement of purpose with its fair share of great songs).

But The Demonstration is the complete package. It’s that same complex and compelling vision but pushed through with focus and clarity, delivering great songs with production to match.

SUMMER TUNES: Ocean Blue, “Between Something and Nothing”

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Picture, if you will, a bunch of college kids rolling down a rural road in a beat-up set of wheels, windows down, tunes blaring, bright blue skies and not a care in the world. Sound familiar? Yep, it’s a pretty exasperatingly tired indie-rock cliche. Yet this song from Hershey, Pennsylvania’s dream-pop poster boys seems worthy of the picture.

Sort of. Just replace the farms with colorful flower gardens and the late-summer heat with a refreshing late-spring breeze and you’re just about there. That, and they’re probably a little better dressed than those other kids.

Here, big, bright, shimmering atmospherics and sweet, somewhat straightforward (but no less sublime) imagery collide, expand out, and go on for miles. It’s the perfect soundtrack for catching the rays as you cruise to the beach to catch some waves.

Further Listening: “Drifting, Falling”, “Give it a Try”

Things We Like: Nite Fields

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Lately (pun intended?), we’ve been listening to Nite Fields’ debut album, Depersonalization. T. Cole Rachel wrote in a review on Pitchfork that the band had been absorbing and faithfully reinterpreting early 4AD, Clan of Xymox, Cure, and New Order (personally, I’d also throw in some Church and Death in June). And while it’s true to the source material—dreamy, echoey, lethargic, retro—listening makes me wonder if all of the revival/archival aesthetics going on out there generally is a good thing. Don’t misunderstand, as a nostalgic, approaching-middle-age music fan, I’m all about it, but I’m not sure it’s very productive in the grand scheme of things. You know, say, being a quasi early 80’s cover band versus pushing new boundaries. I suppose that’s a compliment that speaks to the band’s ability to recreate a certain sound, I’m just not sure how healthy the tendency of mere reproduction is. Going down that road tends to reduce the music (and ensuing discussion) down to nothing more than a laundry list of references and influences.

Then again, cribbing from previous styles is nothing new. Really, it’s been standard practice for ages. And amid all the retreads that such endeavors encourage, this is often where new ideas are hatched and permutated into something fresh. New life breathed into dead ends.

So there. I pretty much just turned my original commentary on its end. That, and we can’t seem to stop listening to this thing. When it’s good, it’s good. Embrace it. For now, let’s just zone out and enjoy the ride.

Things We Like: Valentine’s Edition

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In celebration of Valentine’s Day, we discuss an album that Elizabeth and I agreed on, oddly, early in our relationship. While there were other more relevant bands and albums that we obsessed and connected over at that time, The Cure was another band further down the list that we could check in the common interests “yes” column.

But while we enthusiastically agreed on Disintegration as masterpiece, we coolly agreed on Wish as a half-great/half-terrible mixed bag. Yet we each felt uneasy holding the latter opinion. Not only because most everyone loved or hated Wish completely, but because choosing a vague “maybe, sort of” left things in a weird, gray area at home: you weren’t ready to relegate the disc to the local used bin but you also didn’t want to display it too prominently in your rack of discs. I was especially sheepish about calling attention to an album that carried a pop hit as massive (and happy) as “Friday I’m in Love.”   

And yet these feelings of ambivalence still linger today. Talking about the record recently, I reflected that the collection of songs on Wish seem wholly uneven, the album an emotional roller coaster ride between happy and sad that dragged you up and down and back and forth with a complete disregard for continuity, pacing or structure. At least up until that point you could count on a Cure album as being completely up or completely down. But this one was all over the place. Liz even called some of the tracks boring, nothing more than incidental music.

So sad, because some of the tracks on there are excellent. For all the flack we’ve given Wish so far, there are some very strong contenders on there—“Open”, “From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea” and “End” among them. So yes, we gravitate toward the darker, angrier, moodier pieces. And, surprisingly, the album obliges with a handful of solid tracks in that vein. But taking those tracks meant also taking the shiny, happy tracks like “High” and “Doing the Unstuck”—some of their poppiest tracks to date. And at that time, without iTunes or a dubbed cassette to weed out the filler, you were stuck with the whole CD.

Now up until last week we each half-remembered Wish as vaguely, kind of half-good. So to dispel the myths and half-truths, we finally sat down and listened to Wish again in totality. We even made lists of our preferred tracks and regrouped to settle the score. And wouldn’t you know it? We were right. The record splits right down the middle: half happy, half sad. Or if you prefer, half good, half bad.

So to make it official, here’s our break down of how Wish stacks up:

The Cure Wish Breakdown

Things We Like: Linea Aspera

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How did we miss this one? Way back in 2011, the here-and-gone duo Linea Aspera delivered the goods via one short and sweet full-length album (plus a few EPs). Really, just about every track is perfect; smooth electronics and sultry vocals converge, bound by stellar hooks. And just like everything else these days, what’s old is new again: retro synth-pop, goth aesthetics and post-punk attitude duke it out on the dance floor. Though, in typical introspective fashion it requires some coaxing. The songs slink slowly out from the corners only to gain a fiery power that’s simply trance inducing. And, sure, while some lyrics leave something to be desired, the experience grows on you with the delivery and the atmosphere being enough to carry the day.

It’s rare that a young act can it all right: the inspiration, the attitude, the tools, the looks, the songs, the hooks (those last two, sadly, the most neglected). But Linea Aspera did it. In just a sliver of time, no less. We’ll take all we can get.

Things We Like: Best of Summer 2014

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So, at 10:29 PM on Monday, the 22nd of September, summer officially came to a close. Fall is here and with it comes a litany of preview lists from every publication and every blog, usually filled with all the same stuff in a different order. But you rarely see anyone compile a greatest hits list of the season that just wrapped. That’s where we come in. While the so-called tastemakers hunt for “the new” like the crowd at a Black Friday piñata party, we’re content to just hang back and—once the dust settles—collect and savor those truly great moments. So without getting too wordy, let’s get to it:

MoMA
That’s right, not one exhibit, but the whole thing. We were there for the Sigmar Polke retrospective (and the stellar permanent collection, of course), but MoMA was stacked top to bottom with solid exhibitions. We totally hit that sweet spot where the start and end of various shows overlap for a week or two. Good news, because we were able to take in other surveys on our short list like the Lygia Clark retrospective and Christopher Williams’ “The Production Line of Happiness”. And yet the the museum just kept on giving: a Robert Heinecken show, Toulouse Lautrec prints, and an experimental photography survey were rounded out by the Design Department’s short review of classics by faves like Anni Albers and Massimo Vignelli.

Oh, yes, and our apologies to Ray. Sorry we missed you. It was late, we were tired and they really didn’t make it easy to find you.

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Jeff Koons
Love him or loathe him, this career survey—Koons’ first in New York—delivered with cheap thrills and high production values. Bursting at the seams with day-glo colors, industrial sheen and naked bodies, the Whitney’s Breuer building buzzed with cheers, boos and a lot of head-scratching. Unlike some critics, though, we choose to buy-in and accept the premise. Why resist when the results are so ridiculously satisfying? To suggest, as some have, that Koons is not an artist because he doesn’t act like one seems completely short-sighted and missing the point. Or that his work doesn’t count because the subject matter is fluff (Did they miss that “what is art?” discussion in Art History 101? Somehow sleep through the 1960’s?). Yes, the work is flashy and intoxicating (and the artist is flashy and intoxicating), but that doesn’t mean that it’s/he’s lacking in substance. Why, all of a sudden, are the critics so willing to take a work at face value? Koons is complex and his work is complex. Scratch below the surface and you’ll find lots to love, lots to hate and much to debate.

Empanada Mama
Tasty pockets of fried goodness jam-pack the menu at this shoebox of a restaurant. And the watermelon lemonade was pretty tasty, too.

The High Line
Abandoned rail line turned urban oasis delivers on its promise to offer a quiet, contemplative experience with a new view of the city.

Hatch Show Print
A meet-up with the family in Nashville let us indulge in a trip to this legendary print shop. We’ve hosted Hatch for lectures and exhibits, bought their books and prints, and basically know their work inside out, yet we’ve never made the pilgrimage to the source—until now. Though the shop is now housed within the confines of the sparkling Country Music Hall of Fame, it still burns with an unvarnished, youthful energy as they continue to crank out prints repurposed from their historic archive of vintage wood type, dingbats, and hard-carved artwork.

 

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This House in Strathmere
We happened upon a new modernist beach house while on a bike ride through Strathmere in July. “Pure” and “simple” are not words that typically come to mind when you think Shore architecture, but this minimal, compact beach retreat (by Ambit Architecture) feels right at home amid the stark, severe landscape of sand, sky and water.

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Youth Code
A little late to this party, but, hey, better late than never. This electro duo shocked the withering soul of industrial back to life with a confrontational style and minimal aesthetic that owes more to Belgian EBM greats like Klinik or Vomito Negro than guitar-obsessed icons like NIN or Ministry. Pardon the cliche, but “electro-punk” does sum it up pretty well. And they’re hot with the kids, so if YC can turn indie-inclined Crystal Castles fans onto EBM classics, all the better.

Aphex Twin – “Selected Ambient Works II”
This is an oldie that somehow saw a lot of play this summer. Odd, not only because it’s been sitting dormant on my shelf for quite some time, but also because it has more of an introspective, autumnal vibe than a loud, pumping (if somewhat abstract) one you associate with summer. Maybe it was a reminder from deep within that AFX’s first album in 13 years, Syro, arrived in September. In any case, it’s packed with somber electronic goodness perfect for dreaming or dozing.

Suita Sofa Chaise Lounge by Antonio Citterio (in Yellow)
Our new favorite sofa, even if it’s an old design for Vitra. At NeoCon 2014.

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HBF Textiles – Chicago Showroom Redesign
2×4 reimagined the HBF showroom as a cozy, intimate studio. Less glitzy showplace and more residential library, it feels like the perfect place to really focus and get to work.

More NeoCon 2014
Clean, simple and arguably pretentious experience and product design from Arper,  new rugs by textile masters Maharam,  and the poppy, geometric Wallace Sewell collection for Designtex.

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