Album: If You Leave
Released: March 18th, 2013
Highlights: Smother, Youth, Still, Shallows
As indie rock spreads like fire through the backdoors of the music scene, a probable consequence of the almost complete domination of the mainstream by other genres, groups that are part of the movement tend to use their folk inclinations as either a trampoline for anthemic songwriting or introspective balladry. Daughter, a British trio led by Elena Tonra, falls under the latter category: like a modern and plugged in Joni Mitchell, Elena knits – through a whole lot of string-picking – a steady bed made of beautiful guitar chimes over which her strong melodies and haunting voice can stand, producing a hypnotic and slow soundscape from which it is impossible to get away.
Widely aware of the tricks and resources available, Daughter smartly adorns its simple and quiet folk tunes with a huge assortment of electronic elements, and therein lies the group’s most distinctive feature, as their music is decorated by pulses, sounds, and atmospheric hums that lend the songs numerous otherwise unachievable strata of tension, feeling, and drama. The emergence of such traits, as great as it might be, however, is not the best effect of the band’s unique blend of electronic music with folk, for that mixture also supports a great deal of dynamism that would have been non-existent in a scenario in which these songs would be approached in their naked state. Often within the very same song, electronic effects will be employed to make the tunes’ intimate moments even more introspective – usually through borderline whispered and tiny-sounding environmental noises, and to turn their emotional peaks into points of true grandeur.
Therefore, it frequently seems that Elena starts her songs in a peaceful and lonely forest where small sounds echo in the air, only to suddenly be transported to a small rowboat stranded in the middle of a deep ocean; her microphone capturing the gigantic music-like noises that come from the depths below. Any ten-song and forty-five-minute exploration of reflective folk rock runs the serious risk of landing as one monotonous work, but Daughter avoids that trap by over a mile thanks to its wise use of electronic elements, which instead of overwhelming the true star of the show – the songwriting – like so many groups seem to do, only serve to augment it and take it to another level; the gorgeous remarkable melodies that appear on pretty much every song; and a simple and beautiful brand of poetry, usually centered around romantic love which has grown cold and distant, which is easy to grasp but strong enough to make a mark.
From “Winter”, the effect-heavy opener whose title’s frostiness is perfectly broadcast by its pulses; going through the dramatic and painful self-analysis of “Smother”, the arousing and bittersweet “Youth”, the almost pure pop of “Still”, the honest reckoning of “Human” – the record’s most traditional song; and concluding with the spectacular epic that is “Shallows” – likely the best exposure of the record’s sober balance between its folk and electronic tendencies and how the latter greatly supports the former, “If You Leave” is excellent. It swallows listeners whole into an immerssive and intimate world of music and does not let go until its very last second, its pieces falling in place to form an incredibly coherent and involving environment.
Album: Beneath the Skin
Artist: Of Monsters and Men
Released: June 8th, 2015
Highlights: Crystals, Hunger, Empire, I of the Storm
With “Beneath the Skin”, Of Monsters and Men decide to tackle two obstacles that invariably appear in front of most bands – the tough second record and the so-called album of maturation – with one swift jump. To deal with the first matter, the group hinges on a safe four-year interval between releases, hence giving themselves plenty of time to come up with new material and find a refreshing magnetic North; and on Nanna and Ragnar’s uncannily natural abilities to come up with strong sing-along melodies. To handle the latter, they steer the big and feel-good sound of “My Head Is an Animal” away from the green plains of a sunbathed Iceland into the maw of a gigantic and isolated glacier inside which the group promptly settles on building introspective numbers whose grandeur rises from the reverberation of the ringing sound waves they conjure against the impassable walls of ice.
“Beneath the Skin” is simultaneously huge-sounding, intimate, cold, and powerful; qualities that certainly do not tend to walk hand-in-hand. The vulnerability that appeared in tracks such as “Love Love Love” and “Sloom” in “My Head Is an Animal” permeates the whole record here; the difference is that, instead of retracting, that frailty – highlighted by lyrics that sink their teeth into the flaws of the human condition – rises and expands like a tidal wave. “Beneath the Skin” is built to overwhelm: Brynjar’s guitar lets out beautiful echoing rings that would make The Edge jealous; Arnar’s percussion and drum work is magnificent, as rarely does he follow a standard beat, relying on patterns that are almost tribal – a perfect compliment for music that has a very primal quality to it both in terms of sound and lyrics; and keyboards and organs thread thick layers of ambiance.
Above those mountainous and freezing billows, both Nanna and Ragnar shine. Sometimes, the pair can be seen riding those waves in beauty-infused moments of self-discovery – as in the anthemic opener “Crystal”, the battle between instincts and control depicted in “Human”, the natural joy and fear of becoming one with someone else shown in “Wolves Without Teeth”, and on the spiritual renewal brought by the rain described in “Empire”. On other occasions, they are sinking far into the depths of the music, as it occurs in “Slow Life”, when the song’s main character acknowledges their destructive traits and, in the choice of isolation from others, is swallowed by those personal issues; the painful look on a past relationship told in the simple ballad “Organs”; the oblique descriptions of depression in “Black Water” and “Thousand Eyes”; and the hurtful insecurities of “I of the Storm”;
“Beneath the Skin” is excellent; a statement that is in itself is a major victory for a tough and somewhat ambitious sophomore work. It is not, however, perfect, for it is hurt by its sequencing: the option to leave all of its energetic tracks in positions one through five makes the second portion of the album drag after a certain point. The long string of atmospheric and slow tunes, despite their impeccable melodic and emotive qualities, makes the work stall a bit too heavily and abruptly, only giving listeners room to breathe in the closer “We Sink”. In spite of its tendency to become muddle during some listens, “Beneath the Skin” is a triumphant moody album that expands the band’s palette and shows that Of Monsters and Men is indeed one of its generation’s most talented groups.
Album: The Hurting
Artist: Tears For Fears
Released: March 7th, 1983
Highlights: Mad World, Pale Shelter, Suffer the Children, Change
Out of the ashes left by punk rock after the youngsters in leather jackets had burned the whole music scene down to a cinder, numerous new wave groups started emerging from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. By tinging punk’s tempos and agitation with pop sensibilities, and, further down the line, dressing it all up – or drowning it all mercilessly, according to some ears – with wide reverberating soundscapes filled up with grand synthesizers, the genre rode those resounding waves to the top of the charts. Although its instrumentation and production neatly summarize most elements that tend to make mainstream tunes of the 80s be looked down on as irreversibly outdated, “The Hurting” by the duo Tears for Fears still stands strong as an impressive showcase of cohesive, deep, and effective songwriting.
The album’s greatest victory is how it achieves to sneakily tread the line between infectiously catchy and downright depressive without overplaying any of its two aces: the melodies, despite the immediacy with which they rise to a remarkable status, never come off as intentionally built to stick like bubblegum; while its lyrics navigate angst and anger without getting stuck in a swamp of annoying tantrums. Over the programmed drums, processed beats, synthesized effects, and occasional guitar strums and solos that give the tunes punctual openings through which they can breathe some organic pure air, Orzabal and Smith build a record that alternates between challenging tunes that employ surprising degrees of experimentation, such as “The Prisoner”, where Smith’s voice is buried under noise and choir-like effects; songs that arrive like pulsating anthems ready to storm the charts, like “Suffer the Children”, “Mad World”, and “Pale Shelter”; and even a great attempt at a straight pop rock number, “Watch Me Bleed”.
Despite that variety in tone, “The Hurting” still lands as one whole piece; an organism composed of ten parts that are integral to its functioning. That quality is realized due to its very characteristic production, but – more importantly – it is maintained by its lyrical content, which unanimously gravitates around pain. The eponymous track that kicks off the record works as an epitome for what is to come, sensitively approaching isolation, lack of understanding, and depression, and it is no wonder that one of its final verses, “Touch the hurt and don’t let go”, serves as the gateway to the rest of the album, where a study on distress is constructed.
From there on, “The Hurting” covers – without ever being too specific – painful situations that happen through the life of all humans, therefore attaining a message that is universally delivered. Childhood traumas, nervous breakdowns, attempts to mend broken relationships that only serve to further deteriorate the matter, the rebuttal of faith, the emptiness of life, and the loss of friends are all mentioned more than once through the record. And so, with the sound of their era being worn proudly on their sleeve, Tears for Fears deliver an opera of sorrow with incredible expertise for a duo that was only starting its career. “The Hurting” and its sound might not stand the test of time to all ears, but the power of its core subject is undeniable and impossible not to relate to.
Album: Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds
Artist: Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds
Released: October 17th, 2011
Highlights: Dream On, If I Had a Gun, The Death of You and Me, AKA… What a Life!
The debut record of Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds shows that great changes in the environment that surrounds an artist do not necessarily transform his work. Away from his brother Liam and the constantly toxic airs of animosity that surrounded the leaders of Oasis, Noel does not stray away from his songwriting brand: rock and roll feel-good tunes with signature melodies that compensate for inconsistent lyrics that attempt to be deep but never quite make it. That absent of stylistic shifts signals that not only is the older Gallagher comfortable in his mastery of the musical niche in which he thrives, but it also indicates, unsurprisingly, that his creative dominance in Oasis was so resounding that he was the one who dictated the band’s overall sound, for the High Flying Birds’ self-titled album has close ties to the music that turned Oasis into a worldwide phenomenon.
Since the last, and great, pair of Oasis records (“Don’t Believe the Truth” and “Dig Out Your Soul”) had a handful of Noel-penned tunes joined by generally lesser songs from his counterparts, “Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds” stands as the best collection of songs Noel has written since “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?” of 1995. Given that Noel is arguably one of his generation’s best composers, it should not come as a surprise that the album is excellent. Instead of sprinkling wall-stomping rockers with beautiful ballads, the High Flying Birds settle for a set of swinging mid-tempo melodic tunes in the vein of “Acquiesce”, “Live Forever”, and “Part of the Queue”, albeit considerably less anthemic, and roll with it through the course of forty-two minutes and ten tracks.
Inside those familiar confines, the most obvious change presented by Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds is the absence of Liam’s voice. The replacement of his younger brother’s defiant-rock-star approach to singing for his more grounded and workingman-like tone makes the songs come off as more introspective and sincere, which suits Noel’s words – which often border on pep talk or touch on the survival skills necessary for one to make it in real life – just fine. In “Dream On”, “Record Machine”, and “AKA… Broken Arrow” Noel spends their great verses and choruses depicting characters who use dreams, music, and a partner – respectively – as a way to keep on facing their dire situations with optimism; “Everybody’s On The Run” looks at the healing power of love; and other tunes follow suit in handling equally easy-to-relate and simple themes.
The fact that the incredible “The Death of You and Me” is basically a rewrite of the equally impressive Oasis late-career classic “The Importance of Being Idle”, that “If I Had a Gun” shares the same opening chords with “Wonderwall”, and that “Stop the Clocks” – a long-awaited legendary Oasis cut – works as a closing “Champagne Supernova” makes it clear that “Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds” is not a reinvention, but a continuation that takes place in a looser and less pressured ambiance. Consequently, it is a fun, unambitious, honest, and fantastic piece of music. Out of the sad debris left behind by the loud crash of the Oasis juggernaut, it is comforting and pleasing to the group’s fans and the music world itself that Noel will keep producing and putting out great tracks for as long as he feels like it.