Listening Post: Slowdive/Penguin Cafe/Asgeir/Stephens, Dessner, Muhly & McAlister
Our weekly wrap of new music.
The seminal shoe-gaze pioneers return for the first time in 22 years with a record that's everything longtime fans would have hoped for. Originally re-forming in 2014 after splitting in 1995, this self-titled album picks up exactly where the band left off, transporting listeners to a lush and ethereal reverb-soaked world. Vocalists Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell's present soft and soothing melodies which blend and contrast together. Slowdive have always mastered a sound that's as equally euphoric as it is haunting and that's a key theme here. The very British sounding Star Roving is shoegaze at its absolute finest with its dreamy and otherworldly riffs. But this isn't all elation, there's certainly a desperation and longing which permeates throughout. Closer Falling Ashes is a little unsettling with its rolling piano and eerie vocal lines. Despite two decades of inactivity, Slowdive are no doubt gaining fans who weren't even alive when shoegaze came into being. With My Bloody Valentine's superb return in 2013, shoegaze's founders may have aged in person but the sound they crafted is still intact and perhaps even a little timeless.
The Imperfect Sea
Arthur Jeffes has taken up the baton of his late father Simon, who formed the classically oriented minimalistic Penguin Cafe Orchestra in 1976. It had a folkish, classical aesthetic to it, influenced as as much by composers such as Michael Nyman and Steve Reich as it was folk traditions. The Penguin Cafe's first release Music From The Albert Hall - Live At The Royal Albert Hall was a tribute to Arthur's father and described by Eno when it was released in 2010 as "eccentric, charming, accommodating, surprising, seductive, warm, reliable, modest and unforgettable: it's a true friend". The Imperfect Sea sees the younger Jeffes step into his own skin as a composer while retaining the ethos of his father. An all acoustic album, despite covers of of Simian Mobile Disco's dance floor oriented Wheels Within Wheels and Kraftwerk's sublime Franz Schubert, it's rich in drama and tension on tracks such as Rescue while retaining an innovative and lively beauty found among the treated pianos and tempered strings of one of the album's highlights Control 1 (Interlude). Essential listening.
In 2012, Icelandic singer/songwriter Ásgeir Trausti Einarsson's first album In The Silence became the biggest selling debut in Iceland's history. Afterglow is his long-awaited follow-up. It's solid but not spectacular; here, Asgeir (his performing name) settles firmly into melancholy singer/songwriter territory, strongly reminiscent of Bon Iver and James Blake. The songs are certainly pretty enough, with Asgeir's falsetto vocals and effective piano work mixing with uber-hip, electronic production. The problem is variety, or the lack of it. There aren't really any standouts — instead, everything just kind of floats along. It's all a little anonymous, too, and by the third song you've basically heard it all.
Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly & James McAlister
Halfway through the 15-minute Earth, the longest and most pretentious track on this long and pretentious album, I nearly threw my speaker out my window. It wasn't meant to be this way. Planetarium is a collaborative effort spearheaded by Sufjan Stevens, The National's Bryce Dessner, and Nico Muhly. Terrific names, shame about the album. Their attempts to recreate the solar system in grand musical terms fail. Instead, we're left with 75 minutes of Windows 95 background music, interspersed with inconsequential bursts of sampled vocals. I can't hear what Stevens is singing about but I get the feeling I wouldn't understand it even if I did. The odd track has character but only Mars really nails the classical/indie crossover it's aiming for. The rest is pompous and stupid, and good luck if you make it through without wanting to destroy the damn thing yourself.
- Sunday Star Times