Austra – ‘HiRUDiN’

Sounds like … breaking free from the dark chains of the past.

The bleakness of life has always fascinated Katie Stelmanis and it’s been an essential part of her artistic alter ego Austra over the past decade. However, maybe also due to her distinctive and majestic vocal performance she always managed to face the darkness with dignity. While 2017’s Future Politics was a gritty yet determined reflection on the external forces that were threaten her life, the follow-up takes a more inward perspective. HiRUDiN follows a creative and personal burnout which saw Stelmanis’ confidence in her creative and personal self on an absolute low point. Her fourth full-length a deeply personal journey towards regeneration, dealing with the fallout of toxic relationships, queer shame, and all sorts of insecurity that happened along the way. In the end it might even be Austra‘s most hopeful record so far. Anywayz is up to an optimistic start despite it sees Stelmanis clinging on to a relationship that somehow appears to be doomed. “We’ll figure it out”, she sings although she might not be totally convinced here. HiRUDiN is also the testament of a new start on many levels for the songwriter. Stelmanis found herself lost with all creative and personal relationships heavily intertwined so she decided to part ways with many of them while also establishing new working methods to the Austra cosmos.

And that’s something you instantly notice on this album – it sounds slightly different, more organic, reduced and more light-footed than her previous work. Just take the uplifting lead single Risk It with Stelmanis’ pitched chipmunk-like chorus. That wouldn’t be imaginable on one of her albums in the past. The theme, however remains a dark one as the singer is still fighting to get over her partner: “I’m struggling to keep you left of me / It’s slowly killing me”. Then there’s also a song like Mountain Baby, a collaboration with Cecile Believe. It features a playful piano and a children’s choir and that’s another surprise you wouldn’t expect on this record. While the lyrics see Stelmanis battling her inner demons the sound remains clear and less bleak and of course her wonderful voice is the spiritual guide that keeps the whole thing together. “You’ve raised me up, I’m in the sky,” she sings in the closing Messiah and that ends the record on a pretty high note. HiRUDiN is Stelmanis’ emancipation on multiple levels but on a musical one she’s finally breaking free from the stigma of being this dark wave synth pop queen that was somehow still attached to her in all these years. She lets light and musical adventure into her world and she truly deserved that. (Norman Fleischer)

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Car Seat Headrest – ‘Making A Door Less Open’

Sounds like … a classic Car Seat Headrest album with some new ideas.

Car Seat Headrest have always been uneasy about their material. When the indie rock band broke into the mainstream with their 2016 release Teens Of Denial, the Band re-recorded lead single Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales, with the explicit intent to make it more radio friendly. Using their newfound success, mastermind Will Toledo remade his Bandcamp project Twin Fantasy entirely, with widespread acclaim. Uneasiness is part of every band but with Toledo and company it seems to be the core conceit. On their newest release Making A Door Less Open, the anxiety seems to have started at the writing stage. According to the band, the album was recorded twice, once as a guitar-heavy project and once with a focus on synth and electronics. Some may call this a marketing gimmick, but the results certainly speak for the band.

Making A Door Less Open is immediately recognizable as Car Seat Headrest – the dirty guitars, the slacker vibe, and Toledo’s trademark drawl are present in every song. But the heavy use of processed drums and electronic tinkering adds an element of ambience that suits the band’s songwriting style. Opener Weightlifters starts off a lot like Teens Of Denial’s Vincent, but while that song opened into nervous bursts of guitar, Weightlifters opts for a more patient, ambient soundscape sounding at once more agitated and more relaxed than everything the band has done previously. Similarly, Hollywood contains every element that makes a Car Seat Headrest song danceable, but presents it in a colder, more calculated way. What helps the songs along is the fact that the band never lose sight of what made their tracks special in the first place. Toledo sounds a weary as ever and there is still a rawness to the guitar playing that sets them apart from most of their contemporaries. Die-hard fans will find enough new sounds and ideas to keep them occupied, while casual listeners will be relieved to learn that, despite everything, this is still a Car Seat Headrest record, which is usually good news. (Nils Heutehaus)

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Ghostpoet – ‘I Grow Tired But Dare Not Fall Asleep’

Sounds like … a tower moment – dark, hurting, and transformative.

If you are a fan of dystopian fiction, I can assure you, you will hold this album close to your heart. Obaro Ejimiwe’s fifth album as Ghostpoet, again released by Play It Again Sam, explores our relationship with social media, questions how we perceive the world in troubling times and the reality we have created for ourselves. Here is another record which was created before the current crisis but gained an even more complex meaning through its timing.

Opening the album with Breaking Cover which moves from “I am alive” to “I wanna die” and ends in “I need a break” pretty much sums up the different states many of us have been moving through in the past weeks. Even though the ten songs on I Grow Tired But Dare Not Fall Asleep are written in the first person, they carry a quality of omniscient narration – as if Ejimiwe is zooming in, not only on his own experience but on each of us and knows that the current path could end badly if not properly analysed and corrected. On Concrete Pony which is accompanied by a video showing the artist being covered in black goo, he contemplates on “how one can measure their life” while the title track, more sanguine than the rest of the record, urges us to change direction. Musically, the album is minimalistic though changes its centre point on each song between electric guitars, singled-out piano notes, straightforward drums as well as mournful strings. Throughout the record the focus stays with the lyrics, Ghostpoet’s low rhythmic speak-singing and only diverts to highlight the contributions of SaraSara, Art School Girlfriend, Katie Dove Dixon and Delilah Holiday (from Skinny Girl Diet). It can be heavy to bombard oneself with even more existential questions these days but I Grow Tired… makes it worth it: We are in this shit together but when we get out of it, we can hold hands again, conquering our past shadows. (Anna-Katharina Stich)

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Damien Jurado – ‘What’s New, Tomboy?’

Sounds like … a desperately needed cup of sugar from your friendly neighbour.

It seems as if the days of getting out there into the deserted, spiritual, psychedelic zones of songwriting are ultimately over for Damien Jurado. And consistency is both something new as it is definitely inherent to his art. Over the 14 albums in a little over 20 years of publishing music, Jurado covered quite some territory. While he still might be a songwriter flying under the radar for vast parts of the audiences, he might be one of the most prolific ones by now: Only a year after In the Shape of a Storm, he presents us What’s new Tomboy? Another record full of beautifully reduced, short song sketches that still are refined enough to immediately spellbind. Cover, title and content are little more than the minimum standard you’d expect from your favorite solitary singer. So yeah, what’s new Tomboy? I could see you’ve been home a lot lately from the lights switched on at your porch. Come on over for a coffee. Tell me about it. He does. And that’s what he’s to being loved for.

Maybe Jurado would start by telling: „I was busy being myself“ (Alice Hyatt) in his fragile, crystalclear mumbling. Just another song that’s named after a person, like so many he recently wrote and published. Well, “there are scenes, there are people”, he’d go on. A very direct way of saying: My songs are my stories, stories rely on memory and memory is sparked by the people I meet. Which makes these times we’re in right now troubling in terms of Jurado‘s future output. But I’m sure he’ll find a way. For example when he gives us the perfect lines for the quarantine during the slowly pounding blues of Arthur Aware: „When I get bored of looking at myself/I trade the grey/for the shade of someone else“. We can still get lost in someone else’s stories, right? And if it’s „only“ the cheesiness of love being spelled out in End of the Road: „I spent a lifetime, looking for you/patiently waiting to fall into view/and now that I found you/my running is over/I have made it to the end of the road“. Lines that only few people can make sound as if they’re true. Keep it coming, Tomboy. See you next year. (Henning Grabow)

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Pure X – ‘Pure X’

Sounds like … the warm nostalgia inherent to the last days of summer.

Pure X have been on a six-year hiatus and are now back with their fourth record. A self-titled album this late in the discography is rather unusual but after listening to the record it makes perfect sense. Pure X distills the energy of the band to twelve songs. In the making for two years, this is the LP the band wants to go out on – the one to leave a lingering taste. The trio from Austin, write the songs with a certain nostalgia inherent to the last days of summer.

The record walks in the footsteps of the previous releases that earned the band critical acclaim. Its hazy blur of instrumentation sounds like sun-bleached towels and a sea breeze on a burning summer day. Fantasy and Middle America are reminiscent of the noisier outputs of the band and do not hold back on heavy reverbed guitars. How Good draws on the jazzy influences of the band and the bassline subtly leads the single infused with percussion and dreamy falsettos by lead singer Austin Youngblood. Man With No Head is a stripped back and pensive single while Making History’s laid-back slacker vibe of bendy guitars and gooey vocals melts like ice cream on the tip of the tongue. The unhurried and airy style gives each instrument space to unfold and sounds like backyard summer laziness. Yet, the hazy compositions are marked by an underlying nostalgia – the kind you feel when driving down a highway whose end you cannot see. (Liv Toerkell)

Stream ItSpotify / ► Apple Music / ► Bandcamp