Track Review: Helado Negro, “Young, Latin and Proud”

(Crossposted from Pitchfork, 6/30/2015)

La Raza takes the spotlight in the latest single by Ecuadorian-American producer Helado Negro, aka Roberto Lange. It doesn’t pack the kind of punch you’d expect from a song title that evokes the militancy of Latino legends, such as the Young Lords or the Brown Berets. Sonically speaking, it hardly even follows the effervescent, tropical synth pop trajectory of his 2014 album, Double Youth. But perhaps the crawling pace and low-lying vocals mark a turn in pan-Latin consciousness: one in which the old promise of a uniformly beige, “cosmic race” no longer carries the sparkle it used to.

This song conjures a more honest vision of the future, in which generations of Latinos meet from various corners of the diaspora with the will to better understand one another, despite all their differences. “[Your grandmother] is young, Latin and proud, [your parents] are young, Latin and proud,” he sings, “One day you’ll be old, Latin and proud.” Helado Negro’s single is a dream of a colorfully varied, empowered group of people, walking confidently toward the sunset.

10 Spanish Indie Acts We’re Totally Smitten With

Mourn. Photo By Berta Pfirsich.

Mourn. Photo By Berta Pfirsich.

(Crossposted from MTV Iggy, 6/15/2015)

International festival season is well under way, and Spain is bringing its A-game. In fact, the great city of Barcelona offers not one, but two incredible, go-broke-worthy music festivals this spring: last month’s Primavera Sound, and this week’s Sónar. Although both festivals are a hub for Anglophone heroes old and new, from New York City dreamboats The Strokes to London trailblazer FKA twigs, they’re also prime opportunities to get a real taste of Spanish indie music. Although, of course, we may have missed a few favorites (or dozens), the following 10 bands highlight the untapped brilliance of Spanish musicians.


Sr. Chinarro

Sevilla-born singer-songwriter Antonio Luque can be best described as the Cool Dad of Spanish indie as we know it. Through his project Sr. Chinarro, he and his rotating cast of backing musicians have been romancing audiences since 1990. His smoky murmurs rest gently upon mountains of organs, strings and other wonky, dissonant orchestral sounds. His voice has only grown more rich and sonorous throughout the years, but his wordplays remain as sharp as ever. If we’re being totally honest here, Sr. Chinarro belonged no other place than number 1 on this list—lest the multiple generations of his superfans take serious offense.


The Suicide Of Western Culture

Gritty, industrial clamor meets a glossy, techno sheen in the latest single by Barcelona duo The Suicide Of Western Culture. Their contentious (and possibly aspirational) name aside, they add a unique touch of serenity to their seething, electronic ruminations. The theory’s just as present in their cinematic sounds, as it is spelled out in vaguely anarcho-nihilist song titles like “Love Your Friends, Hate Politicians,” “Hope Only Brings Pain” and more recently,“Still Breathing But Already Dead.” There is no doubt they’ll continue to kill it in their forthcoming LP, due later this year via Primavera Sound’s new imprint, El Segell del Primavera.


Ferran Palau

Actually, to call Ferran Palau “Spanish” would be a total misnomer. Originating in the bucolic mountain town of Collbató, in the autonomous community of Catalonia, Palau sings strictly in Catalan. He first garnered attention as the frontman of gothic chamber pop outfit, Anímic. (Yes, it’s just as curious as it sounds.) In 2011, he decided to take a stab at a solo project, which led him down an earthier path, venturing quietly into the valley between dream pop and American folk music.


Dulce Pájara de Juventud

Reportedly friends since their days in Catholic kindergarten, the members of Dulce Pájara de Juventud color their indie rock with a next-level piety unseen in most other bands of their ilk. Their latest album, Triumph, sees the Sweet Birds of Youth caught somewhere in the liminal space between starry-eyed psychedelia and sulky, shoegazing splendor. (To sum it up neatly: think The Cure meets Spiritualized meets Yo La Tengo.) Frontman Ricard Izquierdo makes spectacular vocal climbs well throughout the album, but the standout track is “Manantial,” a sobering but punchy indictment of a toxic lover.


Mourn

Clad in tuxedos, hair pulled back in ponytails—only to be shaken off halfway through their set—the Barcelonian noise pop squad took over the Pitchfork stage at Primavera Sound this year, seamlessly tearing through song after song with not a f*ck to be given. Executed with a husky candor comparable to PJ Harvey and the jangly angst of Sebadoh, Mourn’s 2014 self-titled debut caught the eyes and ears of US-based label Captured Tracks. Their latest single, “Gertrudis, Get Through This!” sees the band adopt a fierce composure—even as they’re totally wiling out.


Mujeres

Oh god no, not another Girl Band! But really, there are no actual mujeres to be found here. Nevertheless, this grimy foursome serves a combo platter of rowdy pop punk and slovenly, off-kilter surf rock in their 2015 release, Marathon. If it seems like the most superior drinking music, that’s because it really is.


El Columpio Asesino

The Pamplona five-piece have spanned a multitude of sounds and genres since their inception in 1999, but their sound is more polished and spectral than ever. The dusky title-track of their 2014 album, Ballenas Muertas en San Sebastián, recently got a punchier, electro-punk rework by Madrid-based producer David Kano. It suits them well.


Rombo

Rombo (or, Rhombus in English) puts on a very angular front. But in the fashion of many Sarah Records staple acts, the Barcelona quartet crafts twee pop so plush, you’ll want to give it a great, big hug. Accentuated by quirky little synth lines, their bare-bones instrumentals make for light, carefree listening, best done in the company of your more arty, mohair sweater-clad friends, or perhaps at a tea party starring all your favorite stuffed animals from childhood.


Jupiter Lion

Valencia trio Jupiter Lion are guaranteed to hold you captive with their intricate collage of progressive rock, synthy post-punk and noise in their latest album, Brighter. They have a knack for formulating sonic tessellations that wind and bend in mesmerizing synchronicity. Be sure to catch them at this year’s Sónar, if you should be so lucky!


Ocellot

Is this real life? Is my head really swimming in gelatin? Barna’s Ocellot have taken their dizzying experimental pop act across the Atlantic several times over, and even scored a spot at this year’s SXSW as one of its Showcasing Artists. Fans of Panda Bear, Atlas Sound and Silver Apples may be most tickled by their Jelly Beat LP.

Album Review: Shamir, ‘Ratchet’

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(Crossposted from Rolling Stone, 5/19/2015)

Singular singer-MC hopscotches through house, disco, pop, soul

Las Vegas newcomer Shamir works disco into a state of undress on his first full-length album. He isn’t operating in the same romantic vein as, say, Sylvester, one obvious predecessor — just delivering a healthy dose of real talk, set to clean cuts of vintage Chicago house grooves. On “Vegas,” the 20-year-old artist recounts the squalor of his hometown with lounge-like ease; for “On the Regular,” he ramps up the drama with a string of sharp quips (“Don’t try me, I’m not a free sample”). His bubbly verses stick like schoolyard chants, then melt into silky strands of cosmic soul on “Darker.” And “Call It Off” is the ultimate springtime un-cuffing jam — a call to arms for jaded PYTs seeking greener pastures.

Album Review: Torres, ‘Sprinter’

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(Crossposted from Rolling Stone, 5/5/2015)

Intense emotions power a songwriter’s breakthrough LP

Singer-songwriter Mackenzie Scott (a.k.a. Torres) detangles years of spiritual unrest on her stirring second album. She recorded the set in an old children’s nursery in rural England with co-producer Rob Ellis (PJ Harvey) and Portishead guitarist Adrian Utley, who help give her steely reflections a ghostly vibe. The scalding grunge fury of “Strange Hellos” is tempered into the smoldering tones of “New Skin,” a gentle meditation on baptism. “If you do not know the darkness,” Scott crows, “then you’re the one I fear the most.” On the title track, she looks back at her own religious upbringing, illuminating the long-running face-off between the skeptic and the Holy Spirit that both preside in her.

Track Review: Shura “2Shy”

(Crossposted from Pitchfork, 4/30/2015)

Long relegated to the feminized corner of DIY electronic music, otherwise known as “bedroom pop,” London singer-songwriter and producer Shura first piqued the Internet’s curiosity with her sensuous 2014 single, “Touch”. She creeps wraithlike into 2015 with “2Shy”, a gentle ode to those who spend their Saturday nights dwelling uncomfortably on the sidelines of every dance floor. At first listen, the glimmering, 1980s production evokes visions of a young Janet Jackson backed by the Human League, ensconced in blue lights and mist.

“Let’s go find a corner we can sit in/And talk about that film instead of us,” Shura beckons between synthesized hand claps. Her next admission sounds like every secret admirer’s worst nightmare: “Even though throughout it, I was thinking/ I was gonna say I love you afterwards.” Is “2Shy” a call to action for chronic crushers? Or a message of solidarity to the wallflowers of the world? Either way, the track makes for an optimal passive-aggressive Facebook confessional—too real to go under the radar, and yet too cool to be committal.


Album Review: Speedy Ortiz, ‘Foil Deer’

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(Crossposted from Rolling Stone, 4/21/2015)

Fuzzed-out indie crew ups the wordplay and the energy

Massachusetts indie rockers Speedy Ortiz take a plunge down the rabbit hole on their second LP. Frontwoman Sadie Dupuis is their bedraggled Alice in Wonderland, tumbling past the cartoonish faces of every ex-friend and bitter stranger, with plenty of Mad Hatter-worthy wordplay along the way (“We were the law-school rejects/So we quarreled at the bar instead”). Foil Deer is an upswing from the listless cynicism that clouded their 2013 breakout, Major Arcana: This time, Dupuis and fellow guitarist Devin McKnight take charge. Album highlight “Raising the Skate” is a bold provocation to any doubters: “If you wanna throw,” Dupuis says, “you better have an awfully big stone.”

How Kurt Vile Rediscovered the Sound of His Couch for Darkest LP Yet

Kurt Vile says that his new album may be the darkest of his career.  (Robin Little/Redferns)

Kurt Vile says that his new album may be the darkest of his career.
(Robin Little/Redferns)

(Crossposted from Rolling Stone, 4/3/2015)

Inside the Violators frontman’s open-ended return: “The record happens as my life happens”

It’s 3 p.m. in Los Angeles, which means that Kurt Vile has just finished eating breakfast. When the beloved psych-rocker began working on his new album last year in Philadelphia, he wanted to reconsider the way he makes music and unlearn some of his acquired habits. This, it turned out, was best done in the still of the night. “It’s the first time I’ve had this long of a break from touring and recording,” he explains. “I’ve developed this routine at home. I wait for the kids to go to bed, then my wife falls asleep. Then it’s dark and quiet enough for me to work on songs. I just keep going later and later, until sunrise.”

At first, this process didn’t take him very far. “I wanted to get back into the habit of writing a sad song on my couch, with nobody waiting on me,” he says. “I really wanted it to sound like it’s on my couch — not in a lo-fi way, just more unguarded and vulnerable.”

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