The signs in Chris Zane's studio couldn't have been any clearer: "Don't Overthink It" and one simple word—"BOLD."
Or as Asobi Seksu guitarist/singer James Hanna puts it, "This time, our agenda was to not have one at all; to be mellow about the entire process instead of obsessing over everything."
Maybe mellow isn't the right word, unless he's comparing the band's fourth proper full-length (Fluorescence) to a coiled-up cobra or unconscious crocodile— temperamental types that are one false move away from striking. After all, "Coming Up" sets the scene by plowing into beehive-like synth lines and warp speed washes of dream-pop that leave you wondering just what the hell is going on.
Things don't let up on "Trails" either, as singer/keyboardist Yuki Chikudate sets her immaculate melodies against a barrage of battery-powered chords. Catchy and chaotic to the core, the sky-scraping song pays homage to the pitch-perfect songwriting of the ‘60s by chartering a yellow submarine to the moon. And when the Brooklyn-based quartet (rounded out by bassist Billy Pavone and drummer Larry Gorman) finally hits the ground, their color-saturated soundscapes don't get dull or cold. They get even brighter, asFluorescence's many shades shift with each passing song. That includes everything from the expansive/erratic—and yet, oh-so- poppy—prog movements of "Leave the Drummer Out There" to the weightless balladry of "Ocean," a track that channels its title with swollen synths and beats that bob and weave through the murkiest waters around. "James likes to get a lot more abstract with the music," says Chikudate, "So Chris (Asobi Seksu's longtime producer) will often try and reign him in." "I like to see how far we can take a song before pulling back a bit," explains Hanna. "Like I'll say that 100 vocal tracks would sound great in a spot where we only need 40." And since Asobi Seksu have spent the past decade refining their bombastic but beautiful blend of hailstorm hooks and fog-shrouded 4AD-isms (including last year's special acoustic album, Rewolf), they knew exactly what to do with all of that restlessness: embrace it.
Sometimes, listening to Exitmusic, it's hard to tell whether the goosebumps you're getting are from the parts that are chillingly beautiful and melodic or the ones that are aching and guttural or the ones that are creepily sparse and disembodied. The New York City duo – Aleksa Palladino and Devon Church -- doesn't care when the chill runs down your spine, they just hope their music provokes some kind of primal feeling. Church explains, "It's like what Aleksa sings at the end of 'The Sea': 'And you turn your back to life… Oh, sorrow.' We want our music to confront people in a gentle but powerful way, to make them feel something." "To feel human again," adds Palladino. "To remind people, and even us, to let yourself be vulnerable." She says that when she's writing a song, she knows it's going well when she feels breathless, overwhelmed by what is stirring inside of her. "The songs themselves are slightly abstract, but where they're coming from emotionally is always very clear to me." Church and Palladino started writing together several years ago, when Church moved to New York following a year teaching English in Taiwan and India. "We had a funny dynamic musically, at first," says Church, who grew up in Winnipeg. "I was listening to things that had elements sonically of what we're doing now -- Radiohead's Kid A, that second Sigur Ros album, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Warp Records electronic stuff. But all I had to work with at the time was an acoustic guitar. Meanwhile, Aleksa was recording all these really interesting, odd arrangements on her four-track that would be about a minute long and only have one movement in them, and it sounded more like what I was into than what I was doing." Palladino, a New York native, had been writing and recording her own songs since she was in her early teens. She grew up in an artistic family; her grandparents are both painters and her mother is an acclaimed opera singer. Aleksa got her first guitar at age twelve and played it constantly. "When I got the four-track, I got really into layering sounds and playing with what, to me, were shapes. They were music, but they were shapes and angles. I was just committed to sketching, almost. I still wonder if I hadn't started recording with Devon, if I ever would have finished a song." The pair spent pretty much all of their time writing together, but things really began to take shape when they moved to Los Angeles a year later.. "We got a computer and recording software and really started to experiment with it and explore things together," says Palladino. "That's when it became a real project." They self-released their first collection of songs, The Decline of the West, in 2008. Their sound at the time was described by critics as a union of post-punk and trip hop, with apocalyptic overtones. 'Dark, brooding and beautiful,' wrote the UK's Supersweet Magazine. 'Radiohead meets Portishead in a living nightmare. Genius then.'' The couple married that year, exchanging vows at a scenic overlook on Mulholland Drive. They had moved to Los Angeles so that Palladino, who has been acting professionally since fourteen, could be available for work there. But when she was cast in Martin Scorcese's HBO series Boardwalk Empire as bohemian artist Angela Darmody, Exitmusic were thrilled to be able to move back east. Since returning to New York in 2009, the band -- which currently performs as a four piece, with drummer Dru Prentiss and electronic musician Nicholas Shelestak -- has both honed and expanded their sound, as well as their recording technique. Striking a unique balance between darkness and light, their music builds on a foundation of rhythmic electronics and synthesizers, to arrive at a sound almost operatic in scope. The tracks on the band's new EP, From Silence, explore themes of loss, both personal and universal, "the destruction of nature and the destruction of our own nature." Recorded at home in Brooklyn over the course of the past several months, the EP marks Exitmusic's Secretly Canadian debut.
Ape School's Michael Johnson has a solid indie rock résumé. He was part of the SubPop group Holopaw, played with the Lilys, Kurt Vile, and Human Television, and along the way hooked up with Daedelus, appearing on the stand-out track "Make it So" on his 2008 album Love to Make Music To.
This is Johnson's second mostly solo album, his first under the name Ape School. Johnson wraps his catchy songs in a hazy, insulated sound that references neo-psych heroes Mercury Rev and the Flaming Lips, ropes in elements of hip-hop (in the rhythms), shoegaze (the drifting textures are reminiscent at times of the Lilys best work), and oddly enough, a shoestring budget version of stadium dreamers like Coldplay or Keane.
The epic sweep and cinematic sound of songs like "My Intention" or "Deathstomp" work to bring the album a larger scope, with strong vocals and carefully crafted arrangements. The sharpness of the hooks (especially in the killer one-two punch of "Wail to God" and "That's Okay" that kicks off the album), the powerful groove of songs like "Be an Encore," and the tender, freaky balladry of "Did What I Did" and "The Underground" make the album a blissful pop and sonic inventiveness.
Field Mouse is a four-piece dream pop band from Brooklyn, NY. Seamlessly interweaving influences from shoegaze, indie, and power pop, Field Mouse offers lush sonic textures and expansive soundscapes to complement the airy, wistful vocals of singer/guitarist Rachel Browne. Through complex and delicate harmonies, the songwriting of Browne and guitarist Andrew Futral breathes new life into common themes of lost love and renewal.
The band has been honing its sound since the release of its 2010 debut, You Are Here, and has solidified its lineup with the recent addition of bassist Allison Weiss and drummer Geoff Lewit. Their latest single, "You Guys are Gonna Wake Up My Mom," finds the group realizing the their musical vision, incorporating rich synthesizers and feedback to give an edge to its soaring arrangements and pop sensibilities.