45:44 min • Paper Bag • June 17, 2013
John Preston reviews
Austra, a three-piece female lead electronic group from Canada, refer to themselves as a gay band – and it’s interesting to think about the ideas that may already have sprung into your mind about what they might sound like. Every artist should be able to be open about their sexual orientation. Some bands, like the Scissor Sisters or Rufus Wainwright for example, have in part-built a career around it. Austra are indeed making music that is sensual and in places political but specific gay reference points are subtle and ambiguous. The most significant thing about Olympia though, their beautifully crafted second album, is just how good it is.
Austra’s 2011 debut album Feel It Break was graceful and hard, relentless in its pessimism; song titles included ‘The Choke’, ‘The Villain’, ‘The Noise’ and ‘The Beast’ and these themes of threat and terror were played out against slow motion techno and, on occasion, piano with only Katie Stelmanis shocking and beautiful classically trained soprano providing the humanity. You could actually dance to ‘Beat and Pulse’ if forced, which is probably surprising given the seriousness of the album, but one thing you couldn’t call it is warm and it probably isn’t pop either. The first track on Olympia, the grammatically confused ‘What We Done’, is the bridge between the coolness and alienation of ’ Feel It Break’ and this album’s more fleshed out and human sound. More than any other song here, ‘What We Done’ focuses on a graphic external scenario.
So I dance for nothing and I dance for free and there is no glamour,
Stumbling down queen…
Come back to me, you’re 17 –
is the plea against set against minimal clicks and synths until the final 2 minutes where it opens up and a hi-hat spits, a house beat throbs and horns melt, the first indication that Austra have moved into an altogether more emotional sonic place.
The second track, ‘Forgive Me’, borrows its bass-line from Madonna’s ‘Jump’. I can’t remember who she pinched it from but it’s completely unexpected. After a quiet start, which is a definite and definitely misleading theme here, this builds into another lonely dancer with a fantastic middle eight, a sudden swell of beautiful harmonies and strings that disappear as suddenly as they appear.
‘Fire’ continues to play with these styles, all layered and stacked up harmonies. Mid-tempo pop house and a quiet intro give way to something far more expansive in the song’s final minute. The magnificent ‘Home’, the first single release, switches dramatically from pounding, classical piano notes to an Italo piano house riff within the first minute, with Stelmanis despairing,
You know that it hurts me so,
When you don’t come home at night –
Like the best sad disco songs, which is what this really is, you also feel the pain in your chest. It’s a shared pain.
‘I Don’t Care (I’m A Man)’ introduces the more complicated, introverted second half of Olympia. At just over than a minute long it’s more than an interval and is a statement chamber piece.
The quiet indoor fighting, the whimper in her sigh…
I don’t care, I’m a man –
Stelmanis intones, reinforcing and also challenging gender stereotypes as she sings in the first person. Immediate relief comes with ‘We Become’ with its cow bells, Larry Levan synthetic hand claps and a lilting, harmonica hook which is reminiscent of Carly Simon’s Chic-produced oddity ‘Why’. Definite album highlight is the superbly titled ‘Annie (Oh Muse You)’. Its steel drum samples are an obvious nod to The Knife, and the drum machine sequencing is pure Shep Pettibone mid-eighties house-pop – which is very much at odds with the disturbing, “go on, get off the ground, oh muse you,” lyric.
If there was any doubt at this point of the charge and power of Stelmanis’ voice then the penultimate track, ‘You Changed My Life’, a song in two parts, will leave you wiped-out and convinced. Around the one minute mark she holds a note, long, clear, affecting. She then bows out completely, heralding the arrival of a quietly murmuring army equipped with drums and piano.
Austra have made an album that quietly but effectively incorporates early house music and melancholic disco, and it builds in a way that Little Boots tried to do with her Nocturnes album earlier this year (which only occasionally delivered). Some of the tracks reference other genres, such as the pure trip-hop of album closer ‘Hurt Me Now’, but do so just as successfully. Like the vivid and exhilarating blues and green of the album’s cover, Austra have allowed their sound to become saturated with colour, giving these very strong songs about difficult and painful human relationships a far sharper focus than in previous work. Olympia is one of the most rewarding and impressive releases of the year. To hear a band develop and grow from one record to the next at this rate is rare.