Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s “The Mosaic of Transformation” Offers Soothing Sounds in Troubling Times

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s new album, The Mosaic of Transformation, has the unenviable task of following, no joke, what I consider one of the greatest albums of all time in 2017’s The Kid. It will take some restraint not to turn this post into more gushing about that work, but suffice to say, it had a mix of childhood wonder and sophisticated pop songwriting that is shared only by a select few artists who I worship (Björk, Trish Keenan, that’s about it). Just to up the difficulty further, what made that album so remarkable was its execution of about the most ambitious concept you could try in music, which is telling the story of life. Where are you supposed to go after you’ve made an album that already captured everything? Such an album necessitates regrouping and trying something on a smaller scale, and that’s what Smith has done here, with a shorter series of songs focused around energy and the human body.

It’s a fitting theme for Smith, whose songs are made up of all these tiny interconnecting parts that combine to function against all reason. While on the surface her modular synthesizer noodling resembles new age background music (she did release an album specifically for yoga and meditation last year), it also appeals to obsessive types who enjoy being overwhelmed by little flourishes and touches that can be analyzed forever. One of the cool effects of The Kid was how all of her sounds that could feel random took on deeper meaning because of their connection to a narrative. A simple droning note and bird calls on “Who I Am & Why I Am Where I Am” became a moving piece on idly contemplating the self; the rapid percussion on “A Kid” brought to mind early childhood exploration and discovery as Smith seemed to be playing in her own musical sandbox. On The Mosaic of Transformation, her focus shifts from the evolving mind to something more physical; her bubbling, fluttery synth sounds now make me think of molecules or cells, and every song bursts with these little fragments of energy.

While Smith’s work recently has had her embracing more pop structure and melody, on The Mosaic of Transformation she dials back her voice and creates free-flowing compositions that use repetition to soothe the listener. The few lyrics on the album more resemble mantras than traditional storytelling, such as the refrain of “be kind to one another/we’re calming together” on “Remember.” The instrumental “Carrying Gravity” gradually piles on layers of strings and other sounds over its drones, creating a peaceful symphony of movement. The long closing track, “Expanding Electricity,” is the album’s densest song (and maybe the busiest of all of Smith’s songs in general, which is saying something), as all of the energy built up in the previous songs comes together to form a harmonious whole.

What’s missing for me on the album is any kind of narrative thread connecting the songs, which was such an important part of The Kid transcending its blippity-bloopity trappings. There is a high floor to Smith’s music because it is so creative and contains such thought and spirit, but without a central narrative, the multitude of sounds and flourishes start to lose meaning and it fades into the kind of background music that she expertly avoided on her previous two albums. The Mosaic of Transformation is also being released at a somewhat inopportune time: while its calming, peaceful sound provides some solace in this insane year, it also at times starts to border on being cloying and naïve, feelings that The Kid was able to harness because they fit its themes of wide-eyed childhood innocence. Smith’s unbounded positivity is admirable, but I’m beginning to wonder if there is a tipping point where it becomes too detached from the real world to be a valuable statement.

Those critiques come off harsher than I probably intend, only because I know how powerful Smith’s music is when she is able to connect her fascinating sounds with a fruitful story. She is still an expert at channeling her distinct charisma through her electronic tools, and this is another album that is identifiably hers and exists in its own musical space separate from what everyone else is doing. Just that alone makes this worthwhile in a blobby indie landscape that has fewer and fewer truly original voices. The Mosaic of Transformation is a step back for her, but it’s one that probably needed to happen. It still succeeds on its own terms and offers some serenity at a time when we could all use it.

“Warnings” is a Major Breakthrough for I Break Horses

While recently writing my albums of the decade list, my mind started connecting the dots between the records I enjoyed the most in the last ten years. A common link between many was that they sounded ambitious and vast, yet still maintained a sense of personality and intimacy. Albums like Tamaryn’s The Waves, Angel Olsen’s All Mirrors, and Bjork’s Vulnicura were three just from the top ten that came to mind as fitting into this framework. They all succeeded at scratching the itch I have for big, dramatic sounds, but also my desire to hear music that reflects an individual with distinct charisma, which tends to be my primary focus in the medium.

Warnings, the latest album by I Break Horses (the recording project of Swedish singer/songwriter Maria Linden), is a strong entrant into this class of album. Its release comes after a six-year hiatus since 2014’s Chiaroscuro; in the last year, I had coincidentally been revisiting her earlier music and wondering what happened to her, assuming the project had just ended without much fanfare. Her 2011 debut, Hearts, was the archetypical early 2010s electronic dream pop album that was very listenable, glossy, and chill, but didn’t have enough personality or originality to be more than a collection of solidly crafted, kind of forgettable pop songs. Warnings is a much more ambitious release that also feels personal and distinct, which is what makes it such a satisfying breakthrough.

The difference in Linden’s approach is obvious from the first song, “Turn,” which dispenses with typical pop lengths and breathes freely over the course of nine minutes, which are built around a repeated arpeggio and dense rhythms. The lyrics describe a tumultuous relationship that changes over time, so the song has a reason to go this long as it conveys her shifting emotions. The words don’t exactly jump off the page if you just read them, but they’re elevated by the whole sumptuous atmosphere the song creates, as well as Linden’s voice, which remains the biggest strength of her work. Beyond just the subjective “she sounds great” aspect, there is a sincerity in her delivery, and she can range from delivering soaring choruses to the quiet parts of this song that give it a sense of solitude and intimacy.

The release of Warnings was prefaced by a stellar run of singles that guaranteed I was going to love this album way more than anyone else who wastes time writing about music. “Death Engine” is in a similar vein to “Turn,” in that it uses length and space to tell a dramatic story about suicide and loss. “I’ll Be the Death of You,” “Neon Lights,” and “The Prophet” are pop songs from Linden’s old playbook, with earworm melodies, smooth production, and more straight-forward lyrics about relationships. But even those more traditional songs show further self-assuredness with her craft. They all take their time and the focus continues to be more on Linden expressing herself with her voice than just on cultivating a cool aesthetic. The album also sprinkles in some short ambient mood pieces, which help break up the pop songs while showing different sides of Linden’s creativity. The only real misfire on the album is the last track, “Depression Tourist,” and even that has less to do with the craft and more to do with me being a cranky music boomer about autotune. I will never understand why someone who has talent like Linden’s would mangle their voice with that sort of gimmickry, and it feels out of step with the rest of the album’s organic, soulful vibe.

That’s a small complaint when the rest of the album gives the listener so much, and it’s also a natural side effect of the ambition that makes the other songs so memorable. When announcing her new album after such a long break, Linden vowed that she wanted “to create the most intimate and sincere songs I felt I had in me.” Warnings delivers on that promise, and she didn’t have to trade off any of what made her previous music so appealing to get there. This album’s sound and its depth are on a different level, and few recent albums have had this combination of evocative singing and songwriting with addictive pop hooks.

Midwife’s “Forever” is a Nuanced Depiction of Grief

Madeline Johnston, who records as Midwife, has come up with a great name for her genre of music: “heaven metal.” Her second album, Forever, has the noise of metal with songs built around heavy guitar, but it trades in that genre’s usual aggressiveness for calming repetition. The result is a gloomy, immersive atmosphere that is reminiscent of some of Emma Ruth Rundle’s work, though this music is less focused on hooks. Instead, Johnston makes these songs into formless voids that are dark, emotive, and also weirdly peaceful. It’s relaxing to let everything go and let this album’s sound wash over you.

Johnston muffles her voice in the guitar, almost sounding like she’s patching into the songs from a radio. The lyrics are simple and repetitive, matching the droning guitar parts, and they’re focused on loss after a friend of hers, Colin Ward (who is heard reading a poem on the album’s fifth track track, “C.F.R.W.”), passed away. That lends the songs an underlying purpose and feeling that helps keep it engaging, unlike some other drone albums that can be difficult to connect with if it just feels like the artist is experimenting with sounds for the sake of it.

Forever only has six songs, but each are their own distinct, haunting reflections on grief. Opener “2018” captures the initial shock and anger, with its only lyrics being “this is really happening to me” and “get the fuck away from me, 2018.” The closest the album has to a single is “Anyone Can Play Guitar,” which has a gentle melody that blends in with Johnston’s reverbed guitar. “Vow” and “Language” bring the volume down to nearly a whisper, using space and spare droning notes to create a feeling of vast emptiness. Ward’s poem jars the listener out of that lull at the start of “C.F.R.W.” which is followed by four minutes of reflective ambient sound that lets his death settle in. That transitions into the closer, “S.W.I.M.,” which returns to the heaven metal sound with the loud guitars and shoegaze-inspired riffs. Johnston sings her most straight-forward, heartbreaking lyrics on that song, conveying her struggle to move on: “I don’t want to swim forever, treading water my whole life.”

It is grim material, and Johnston portrays it unflinchingly, using both her words and the sound to convey her grief directly while also retaining ambiguity that will allow listeners to connect with these songs in their own way. As heavy as the subject matter and sound is at times, there is an undercurrent of resolve and strength in her noisy guitar parts, which help the album avoid feeling like it’s just hitting you over the head with sadness. Forever gives the listener a lot more than that; it’s a nuanced, heartfelt recording that belongs to its own genre and does justice to her friend’s memory.

“Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is Fiona Apple in Peak Form

It’s nice that we can all agree. Fiona Apple’s new album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, is receiving nearly unprecedented critical praise, and deservedly so. If you’re like me and think of music primarily as a vehicle for personalities and charisma, it is hard for anything to top this. Every song on this album is one that only Fiona Apple could have made, with words that only she would say. The level of detail and specificity in these songs makes the album transcend the idea of confessional songwriting: this isn’t just a little window into Apple’s world, it is her world, and anyone who listens is living in it for its entire duration.

That’s an underrated and increasingly rare trait in art — the idea of the work as a way to deepen your understanding of other people. A lot of Apple’s lyrics on Fetch the Bolt Cutters deal with uncomfortable subjects of abuse and gaslighting at the hands of men, especially the way they impacted her mindset and her friendships with other women. The most jarring moment, on “For Her,” comes after a couple minutes of a fun-sounding ditty when the song stops and Apple matter-of-factly states “Good morning. You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in.” It’s a far cry from “Sullen Girl” from Tidal, which couched its story of rape in a metaphor about a man taking her pearl and leaving a shell. Now, Apple is comfortable just saying the truth and embracing the harshness of it. On “Newspaper,” she describes a previous partner who caught her up in “his big show” and then began seeing another woman, who Apple felt an unspoken bond with.  “I wonder what lies he’s telling you about me to make sure we can never be friends,” she muses, backed by a variety of percussion and backing vocals. “You and I won’t get a witness,” she adds. “We’re the only ones who will ever know.”

But now, through these songs, people will know a little bit, even if they don’t have the specifics. As a man, I realize it looks weird that I’m almost always celebrating the work of women, but part of it is how much I value this aspect of art. I can try to live with empathy and do my best to understand other people with different experiences, but I can’t really know. Albums like Apple’s are the closest you can get to walking in another person’s shoes because of the blunt, vivid truths in her lyrics and the authenticity of her performance. That’s a gift that shouldn’t be taken lightly, and albums like this are why I listen to music.

The lyrics get so much of the attention, but the sound is just as big a part of this. I’ve written a decent amount about The Shaggs, who were untrained sisters who possessed little knowledge or training in music, yet still recorded an album at the behest of their father, which ended up becoming a cult classic. My argument in favor of them was that, while their music sounded unpleasant, there was a pureness and authenticity to it that is almost never heard, because it was made with no desire to impress and contained no references to other music. Fetch the Bolt Cutters is about the closest a trained, talented musician has come to capturing that magic. In every element of these songs, Apple is breaking down the barriers of pretension and performance, until all that’s left is just her voice, her stories and the truth.

The instrumentation is heavily focused on rhythms, with Apple’s familiar piano playing a part along with miscellaneous percussion (which I suspect is just from things lying around her house) and drumming from her friend, Amy Aileen Wood. “Mistakes” are left in the recording, most notably dogs barking in the background (five are credited on the album with “backing barks,” “collar jangles,” and “thrashing”). In the closing track, “On I Go,” Apple can be heard saying “oh fuck, shit!” after presumably screwing up a take. Leaving these in is just another way Fetch the Bolt Cutters reduces the distance between itself and the listener, which, along with the emotional, biographical lyrics, gives it an unparalleled level of intimacy. When I listen to this album, I feel like I know exactly who Fiona Apple is.

Out of all those traits of hers that come through so clearly on Fetch the Boltcutters, my favorite is her intolerance for bullshit, which was made famous in her speech at the 1997 VMAs. It not only makes her likable, but it adds to her work, which benefits from not having slick production, trendy sounds, or any of the other factors that are often associated with quality but make it difficult for listeners to connect with music in a deep way. This is a sophisticated album that was likely obsessed over for a long time, as all of hers are, yet it feels raw and spontaneous because of its loose structure and homemade production, which adds to the visceral power of the lyrics. Apple’s voice is a major part of this, as she almost scat-sings through a lot of the album rather than singing show-offy notes. Her singing feels utilitarian, like all she wants to do is get the truth out as quickly as possible instead of being weighed down by the usual performative flourishes. She has mastered the art of making such effortful music feel organic and achingly real –only an album with this many imperfections could sound so perfect.

Peel Dream Magazine Pays Tribute to Their Heroes With “Agitprop Alterna”

Peel Dream Magazine’s greatest strength and biggest obstacle is their ability to sound like all of your favorite bands. Anyone who is into this style of fuzzy, brainy indie rock will instantly recognize all of the classic influences: the sounds of Stereolab, Yo La Tengo, and My Bloody Valentine are all replicated on their second album, Agitprop Alterna, to a level of molecular detail. There is a studied, scientific quality to their songs; it’s obvious that songwriter Joe Stevens loves this style of music and has put a lot of thought into the formula that makes it work. Just to pull off this level of mimicry is an accomplishment in and of itself — if it was easy, more bands would do it.

But while the familiar, nostalgic sound of Peel Dream Magazine is what is going to draw listeners in initially, there is depth in Agitprop Alterna and a point of view that moves them beyond being just a hollow copy of superior bands. Compared to their first album, Modern Meta Physic, this one embraces a wider range of sounds and textures, covering almost every angle of their specific obsessive influences. Stevens is the primary instrumentalist, usually playing some noisy guitar or organ with some softer drones mixed in. Singer Jo-Anne Hyun plays a more pivotal role on this album, adding another instrument to the mix and playing off Stevens’ lower register in a way that is reminiscent of those same aforementioned bands that are hard not to mention in every sentence.

The reference points are all boiled down to a series of concise 2-3 minute songs that show Stevens’ skill at crafting the low-key melodies that were the core of all the bands he loves. The opener and lead single, “Pill,” sets the tone as a relentless, tight burst of energy and noise with a catchy, abstract chorus. Throughout the album, Stevens not only captures the familiar sounds, but also that blend of immediacy and intangible strangeness that is so hard to replicate. Songs like “Brief Inner Mission” and the closer “Up and Up” show a softer, pillowy side of the band, leaning into the gentler side of psychedelic pop exhibited by bands like Broadcast.

Most of the songs feel more meditative and internal, but a couple like “NYC Illuminati” and “Emotional Devotion Creator” are pointed criticisms of people who aren’t genuine and “stand for nothing at all.” In those songs, the perspective of Peel Dream Magazine crystallizes a bit. This is not an original band, or an innovative band, but in every song I feel there is a genuine appreciation for the music that inspired them, and a concerted effort to do justice to those heroes in a very uncynical way. Stevens accepts his place in this lineage of music and is smart enough to not try too hard to modify a sound that has already been proven and perfected. Agitprop Alterna can function as something of a meta-album, one that is a worthwhile piece of music itself while also being a celebration of the other bands that inspired it.

Cold Beat Finds Humanity in the Chaos on “Mother”

Cold Beat never make it easy, which is why I’m obsessed with them and probably why they seem to appeal to a tiny sliver of an audience. Their latest album, Mother, has so much going on that nothing feels right except to hurl a bunch of contradictory adjectives at it: it’s eerie, comforting, warm, icy, catchy, and also near-impossible to fully figure out. After the more spare Chaos By Invitation, songwriter Hannah Lew went for more of a collaborative approach on this album, which is their densest, most experimental effort yet, while also being their most human.

This is another album by the band that defies categorization, but it lands somewhere in the synth-pop realm, with clear inspiration from bands like The Eurythmics (who were the subject of a Cold Beat covers EP). Lew surrounds herself with a variety of synths and tightly wound rhythms, which give the band a clarity and purpose even with the undecipherable or vague lyrics. It is hard to gather meaning from the songs, but it is easy to tell they do mean something, or they wouldn’t be played with this conviction. The standout second track, “Prism,” has only a few lyrics about shapes, yet it is defined by its non-stop piling on of sounds and its driving motorik beat, which lend it a bracing sense of urgency.

All through the album, Cold Beat experiment with their sound with ten tracks that all sound different from each other while clearly being the result of a single-minded effort. “Paper” is loaded with a saxophone part and something that sounds like a theremin, while “Through” has the band’s most pulsing, danceable rhythms to date with tight repetitive synths. Holding all of this madness together is Lew’s understated melodies and vocal performances, which are what allow the band to merge humanity and electronics so well. Her strongest effort is on the shimmering ballad “Double Sided Mirror,” a definitive Cold Beat song that is strange, intangible and psychedelic, yet also heartfelt.

Lew wrote Mother while she was pregnant, with the goal of describing earth to a newborn. That’s probably why this album feels like it’s trying to capture so much, and mostly succeeding: it’s a portrayal of the world, with all of its weirdness, chaos, and randomness, but also those little human moments that give people hope. The structure of Cold Beat’s music allows listeners to be intrigued by the sound, then to latch onto those moments, whether it’s a simple lyric that jumps out, a catchy hook, or a distinct instrumental aside like that saxophone part in “Paper.” For some listeners, I’m sure it will all be too abstract and those moments will never come. Those who let this album work its magic on them will find it to be one of the most thoughtful and addictive albums of the year.

Let Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s New Single Calm You

At this point, this blog serves as an unofficial P.R. wing for Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith. Her 2017 album, The Kid, was my favorite album of the last decade and its predecessor, Ears, ended up in my top 50 also. I’ve long been resistant of using hyperbolic praise for musicians, but it’s not like any of this matters, so screw it: Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith is a genius, and her new single, “Expanding Electricity,” is further proof of that claim.

The timing on this single couldn’t have been better: the virus sweeping the world is the most terrifying thing that has happened in my lifetime (it scares me more than 9/11 did, I think), and I’ve been living in isolation for the last week, though that isn’t necessarily a drastic shift from my usual routine. This song serves as a reminder that good things still exist in the world, and will hopefully exist after this is over. Inspired by electricity and the body, Smith’s latest runs over 10 minutes, with multiple distinct movements, similar to the closer on Ears, “Existence in the Unfurling.” This feels like her densest song so far, as its packed with strings, synths, and vibraphone, while also continuing to showcase her increasing confidence as a vocalist. The sheer volume of stuff going on remains a key draw to Smith’s music; every second over this entire long run time is packed with the joy of discovery and wonder.

Smith’s unbounded positivity and wide-eyed view of the world is so uncynical that I find it sort of jarring — like, how can anyone see what is happening out there and still make music that contains this much hope. A critic could say it is rooted in privilege and naivete, but even if that’s the case, the sounds she makes are so spellbinding and such an authentic translation of Smith’s personality into music. Without any context from the album to draw from, it is hard to say how this single stacks up to The Kid, which had a narrative thrust that added layers of meaning to her synth experimentations, which could otherwise just feel like random blippity-bloopity sounds. So rather than compare, for the time being I’m content to just absorb this song, with all of its little details and quirks. Even if this doesn’t end up being album of the decade material, Smith’s music will continue to serve as a much-needed light in the darkness.