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.

Cold Beat’s “Prism” is the Early Song of the Decade

The biggest thing that has always stopped me from being successful as a writer is my inability to produce something when I don’t really feel inspired. When it comes to music, I have no idea how some of these people get themselves fired up to write about albums every single week when most music isn’t all that great. My laziness and inability to pretend to like things means that just getting me to throw a post together is something of an accomplishment, and I use it as a marker of success if anything is able to get me to care enough to write. Cold Beat is one of the only bands that consistently makes me want to throw a shout into the internet echo chamber in the hopes that someone will hear it.

It is difficult to discuss Hannah Lew’s band and not have it be through the lens of how underappreciated they are — I don’t even say “underrated” because they aren’t even rated. Genuinely no one talks about this band other than me. I might actually be their biggest fan, and maybe I should give up and accept that they just don’t appeal to other listeners because they’re all worse at appreciating music than I am. Their new song “Prism” makes me want to keep fighting, though.

This is from their upcoming album, Mother, written during Lew’s pregnancy, and it feels like a strong continuation from their previous album, Chaos By Invitation, which I lauded to a largely indifferent pseudo-audience. With few lyrics, there isn’t much to grab onto in terms of themes, but musically it is a distinct work from the band, who have really carved out their own space in all of these 80s synth pop acts. Cold Beat is still really into purposeful ambiguity — the lyrics aren’t telling the listener anything, but I still feel like there is a clear emotion and meaning to it and I’m always one listen away from figuring it out. Artists who can pull off that trick tend to be among my favorites, and it’s something Lew has shown a knack for even going back to her previous band, Grass Widow.

The ambiguity is part of what makes “Prism” addictive, along with its multiple repeating motorik grooves that are joined by some swirly synths that give it a celestial quality. The band is saying this album is trying to describe earth to a newborn, and the sounds here capture the ground and the sky, along with some of the wonders of looking up into space. Once again, Cold Beat have made a song that isn’t necessarily complicated on the surface and put in so many layers that keep revealing themselves. This is the work of a band in prime form, and Mother is instantly my most anticipated album of 2020.

My Favorite Albums of 2017

I listened to a ton of music this year — mostly to escape the news cycle, but also because the process of writing about it has made me more excited to engage with it, which is why I still do this. I’ve narrowed it down to 15 albums, but I left off a lot of worthwhile music, which I might compile in another post if there’s interest.

One of my main beefs with media year-end lists I see is that they all have this very focus-grouped feeling, where they’re trying to represent every kind of music and appeal to every reader. This is just the music I like (it’s roughly in order of how much I listened to each album), and I don’t make any concessions towards popularity or what I think will necessarily appeal to other people. So I imagine no one on earth will remotely agree with much of this, but I hope at least one of the (mostly underappreciated) albums on this list strikes your fancy.

15. Charlotte Gainsbourg – Rest

I’ll admit to being ignorant of Gainsbourg’s previous work (and I almost missed this album too), but Rest instantly jumped out to me because of its masterful production and dark disco hooks. The occasionally joyous sound somewhat masks that this album was written in a period of grief, and the way Gainsbourg’s lyrics (occasionally in French) clash with the music make this an ambiguous and intriguing album — the kind that makes a joyful chorus out of a Sylvia Plath passage.

 14. Sneaks – It’s a Myth

There are few things harder in music (or life, really) than convincingly being cool, but Sneaks (Eva Moolchan) pulls it off on It’s a Myth because of her effortless charisma. Her deadpan poetry and natural swagger are at the forefront of these economical, minimalist songs that are a seamless fusion of post-punk, funk, and hip-hop.

13. Novella – Change of State

Novella’s lengthy description of Change of State sells it as a political post-Brexit album, but the real appeal here is their sound, a mix of krautrock rhythms with dreamy guitar and vocal harmonies. This band clearly loves Stereolab, and Change of State makes a convincing case for how good taste can lead to good music.

12. Björk – Utopia

The new album by Björk is overwhelming — to the point that it is hard to figure out how to reasonably rank it against other albums. For better or worse, Björk has never felt so distant from contemporary music, and Utopia‘s endless sprawl and the approximately three million things going on in every track make it feel like nothing else this year. While at times indulgent, the album is grounded by Björk’s optimism at a time when that might be even more unusual than her music.

11. Daddy Issues – Deep Dream

The sound of Deep Dream is a pure 90s throwback, with Jenna Moynahan’s grungy riffs contrasting with her light vocals, but Daddy Issues are much more than a tribute band. They bring a different perspective to the grunge genre with emotionally complex lyrics that are equally funny and insightful, using personal experiences to address contemporary gender dynamics and general anxiety. I also find their lack of originality oddly endearing: while so many bands try to be everything at once, Daddy Issues know exactly who they are, and they have the unpretentious, catchy songs to prove it.

10. Kelly Lee Owens – Kelly Lee Owens

After playing bass in the unfortunately-named The History of Apple Pie (a band I liked, for the record), Owens stepped out on her own with this sleek collection of down-tempo minimalist electronic songs. While clearly indebted to trip-hop bands like Massive Attack (“Keep Walking” is mostly a 2017 reboot of “Teardrop”), Owens’ airy vocals differentiate it from her predecessors, and her ear for production makes it one of the year’s smoothest and most addictive albums.

9. Frankie Rose – Cage Tropical

Every year I seem to fall for one of these throwback 80s pop albums. This year’s is by Frankie Rose, who uses shimmering synths and rich bass to craft catchy and subtly emotional songs on Cage Tropical. Like her former bandmate, Kristin Kontrol, Rose has mastered how to create memorable pop songs through her years of experience, and this album feels like the perfection of her synth-pop vision that began on 2012’s Interstellular.

8. Widowspeak – Expect the Best

Molly Hamilton’s crooning vocals and Robert Earl Thomas’ gorgeous shoegaze/country guitar have always made Widowspeak sound warm and cozy. On Expect the Best, they turn their own music against itself, with songs that show how comfort and nostalgia can turn into inertia that makes you feel directionless. While not a huge musical evolution for the band, Hamilton’s lyrics made this connect with me more than any of their previous work.

7.  Palehound – A Place I’ll Always Go

Written after the loss of her grandmother and a close friend, A Place I’ll Always Go is an honest and heartfelt reflection on loss and friendship by Ellen Kempner, who records as Palehound. While her flashy guitar playing tends to steal the show, Kempner’s lyrics provide the emotional base that makes her fuzzed-out riffs more potent. She captures the feeling of emptiness that follows the loss of a friend by offering us a window into her world — even her mundane descriptions of trips to the grocery store or Dunkin’ Donuts are rich with pathos.

6. Chelsea Wolfe – Hiss Spun

After 2015’s massive Abyss, Wolfe plunges even deeper into darkness with Hiss Spun, a thunderous collection of songs that makes most other artists’ attempts at rock music feel inconsequential. Wolfe is a powerhouse vocalist, and her intensity and flair for the dramatic make every song on Hiss Spun feel like a fight for survival. It’s not for the faint of heart, but great rock music rarely is.

5. Girlpool – Powerplant

After the bare-bones minimalism of their debut album, Before the World Was Big, Girlpool enlisted a drummer and embraced a full rock sound on Powerplant, which easily could have been their “sell-out” moment. Instead, it’s like they emerged from a cocoon. The duo of Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker still have their unique chemistry forged from years of friendship, and the collision of noisy guitars with their vulnerable lockstep harmonies is one of the most compelling sounds in music today.

4. EMA – Exile in the Outer Ring

After the election of Trump, journalists penned a seemingly endless amount of portrayals of the American working class in a desperate attempt to figure out how it happened. They could have just listened to Exile in the Outer Ring instead. Drawing from her upbringing in South Dakota, EMA’s provocative third album is a searing portrait of the American heartland that melds her personal experiences with a broader political message. Its grimy industrial/grunge sound, her lyrics and her vocals capture how it feels to be abused and forgotten about — as well as the barely-restrained fury that simmers underneath.

3. Hand Habits – Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void)

When most people think of great guitarists, they focus on artists who draw attention to themselves with their massive riffs and personalities. Meg Duffy, who records as Hand Habits, is a guitar hero for the indoor kids. Their lo-fi bedroom songs are slow-paced and unassuming, matching their low-key personality, but Wildly Idle gradually reveals itself to be an intimate and powerful album, anchored by their beautiful, psychedelic-tinged guitar. It’s like a shy friend who ends up being kind and caring once you get to know them.

2. Cold Beat – Chaos By Invitation

I continue to bang the drum for Cold Beat and its mastermind, Hannah Lew, who has put out a run of three albums that I compare favorably to any other current artist. Never content to stay in one musical place for too long, Lew pushes her project into new synth-driven territory on Chaos By Invitation, but does it while retaining the band’s distinct (yet hard to pin down) sound that somehow feels chilly and warm at the same time. While the switch to synths would seem to indicate a narrow musical path, Lew shows her creativity and versatility as a songwriter by making a collection of memorable songs that all feel different.

1. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – The Kid

I have no idea how Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith does what she does. Her collection of modular synthesizers, with all of their cords, knobs and wires, look like impossibly complex machinery, but in her hands they’re a conduit for music that feels deeply human and in touch with the natural world. Inspired by the four stages of life, The Kid plays as an outline of one person’s existence, beginning with the wide-eyed joy of early childhood discovery, then progressing to the adult process of learning, questioning, and finding your place in the world. Smith’s own journey of exploration is captured in The Kid‘s restless musical experimentation, and all of its quirky tracks build up to one of the most moving, achingly beautiful conclusions to an album I’ve ever heard.