Alt Pop

VIDEO: ‘f*ckthat’ | IAN SWEET

photo credit: Ariel Fish

 

 

IAN SWEET is the quirky name of Los Angeles-based artist Jillian Medford’s musical project, and she’s just dropped new synthpop-tinged single “f*ckthat” via Polyvinyl, along with a music video to support it. 

 

The track (produced by Canadian duo deadmen) begins with delicate plinking piano and underwater wordless swoons, before Medford’s lead vocal—sometimes weightlessly breathy, sometimes pleasingly piercing and assertive—enters alongside taut drums, bass, and spacey synths. Medford’s lyrics focus on the exasperation the narrator feels for a relationship that feels one-sided, lacking the reciprocation of affection and emotional investment that the narrator themself has put in. 

 

“We’ve been on the phone all night long / I’m singin’ you the words to your favorite song / You wouldn’t do the same for me / If I called you up at 3 / You’d probably see my number and just let it ring”

 

The song’s mildly profane title arrives right at the explosion of the chorus, fittingly evoking the narrator’s frustration and venting in the way that only a person who has a sense of self-worth can. Why put up with a love that doesn’t love you back, or bother to follow through on the little things that, in the end, mean so much between two people? It’s a deep topic for such a seemingly effortless pop confection, but it’s pulled off with finesse, and shows that IAN SWEET is a name to remember. 

 

The IAN SWEET-directed video, meanwhile, finds the artist in a semi-psychedelic call center, complete with boring powder-blue landline phone, shocking pink hair, and a computer monitor that goes wacky with the kind of spiral video feedback that 80s kids remember from pointing their parents’ camcorder at a TV screen. Kudos has to be given for making the most of the little gear and location the crew had. The video never feels repetitive, as the rapid but not distracting editing keeps things visually interesting, and Medford’s indie style and charisma keeps things compelling. 

 

IAN SWEET takes to the road in the spring on next year in support of her new album, Show Me How You Disappear, with tickets going on sale Friday Oct. 10th. Gabe Hernandez

   

Catherine Moan sets off a "Chain Reaction"



Months previous to the release of her debut full-length Chain Reaction (Born Losers Records), the first time I heard Catherine Moan’s music was with the song “Drop It!” whose refrain goes: “sway in time, it’s so sweet / drop down low and feel the heat / keep it down low / drop it, drop it feel the heat / drop it feel the heat, drop it feel the heat / drop it, drop it, drop it, drop it / drop it feel the heat” and I was immediately struck by how Ms. Moan had taken the sentiment behind Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot” (due credit to Lil’ Wayne) and removed both the simile and the spare, ultra-vivid production work—replacing it instead with a neon smear of pulsing analog synths and 80s-esque drum programming (“new retro wave” the kids call it) with the requested acts of “drop[ping] it” and “feel[ing] the heat” (not to mention “keep[ing] this fire burning / ’til the records stop turning”) framed as invitations rather than commands, supported by a bopping electro-lullaby vibe with the song’s only hint of conflict coming in the bridge: “now that we can finally breathe / c’mon and drop that ass / and dance with me.

It was the perfect summer jam and needless to say I was hooked, especially after witnessing the music video which simulates the feel of an ‘80s video dating profile. But then something funny happened. The more I listened, the more I detected a ghostly undertow to the song. Maybe it was the icy pinprick synths in the chorus. Or the airy dissociated-sounding vocals, like being seduced by someone when under ether (hello, Andrea True Connection!) or how the musical arrangement feels like John Carpenter wrote a major-key disco song for one of his soundtracks.

But far from detracting from the song this only deepened my appreciation because, for my money, it’s just this distinctively different kind of tension that makes “Drop It!” and the album it appears on now so oddly alluring—because over seven subsequent tracks Chain Reaction doubles down on the mood-altering mashup of ecstatic release and confining unease and emotional blunting a.k.a. “waning of affect” if you wanna get all postmodern about it (on the latter point, one song on the album revolves around the repeated phrase “I can’t feel a thing” while the chorus of another informs the listener “I want to feel nothing / I want to see nothing”).

And not that you asked but when it comes to cinematic associations evoked by Chain Reaction for me it’s Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner all the way. Because imho all these songs would fit perfectly at a Los Angeles discotheque and lounge circa 2019 as imagined in 1982 (natch!) perfectly capturing the retro-future sound of pop music in a society overtaken by rampant technology, alienation, and environmental degradation (but also, new methods of connection and new avenues of pleasure, so call it a draw!) which leads its citizenry to question what it even means to be “human” anymore (who could imagine such a place!) and where pop music serves both as a crucial mirror-to-society and escapist release (like how Harrison Ford reportedly loved singing “More, More, More” in his downtime). And then seeing Ms. Moan perform her first NYC live show on a rooftop on the first night that Tropical Storm Elsa brought torrential rains to the city (the Our Wicked Lady roof is covered, but still I'm surprised and impressed the show went on) really sealed the deal.

Plus on “Drop It!” in particular I get the feeling Ms. Moan is actually role-playing as a “basic pleasure model” replicant-as-pop-artist à la Daryl Hannah’s Pris character (who shoulda been in a goth band in the movie with her perfect punky raccoon look, or maybe they cut those scenes out) but a basic pleasure model who will gladly crush your windpipe between her thighs when the time’s right—plus you gotta admit “feel the beat / in your heartbeat” is a brilliantly cyborg-y song lyric but hey what do I know—while the other songs on Chain Reaction likewise bring to mind a distinctly “glowing neon signs reflecting off glass surfaces and slicked concrete streets of an urban dis/pleasure district”, with the next track “Wasted” upping the moody-pop stakes with a faded-in intro that could easily be a Vangelis outtake from the Blade Runner soundtrack.

To which you may rightly say: “Theories, schmeries! What does Catherine herself say about the record, her creative process and sources of inspiration?” Well, lucky for you, I asked and she answered, generously filling in some of the details and, no, Blade Runner was never mentioned. Ms. Moan describes her creative process thusly: 

“I write and record off of feelings and whims. Rather than going into a song with a planned idea it usually starts from a melody or lyric I hummed and came up with in the shower or on a walk. And from there it is a playful and chaotic binge of making all kinds of arrangements of sounds and melodies. I'll sit there with my microphone and sing/speak/shout all kinds of quips and lines in different rhythms and styles until something clicks and it all falls into place. And this process goes on until I can't stop dancing around my room until i'm out of breath. It's a style of creativity that I feel is very true to my hyperactive and energetic personality…there's something about spontaneity and randomness that I think can really bring ideas out of thin air and really tap into where I am at the moment.”

And ok none of this sounds very cyborg-like but instead more human than human which hey that’s a good thing and I’m just picturing this process unfolding with a song like “Body Work” as it builds from a reflective electro-ballad (“I get overwhelmed from the start”) to a bedroom-dancing-crescendo during the chorus (“I can’t feel a thing / ‘cause I’m over it all”) which all taps into one overarching theme of the album described by Catherine as “coping with an unnatural amount of alone time with yourself and your body and specifically the places my own mind went from being beside myself too long” which is all pretty damn relatable given the recent past. 

But when it comes to the creative tools she used to make the album I’m on slightly firmer ground given that the songs on Chain Reaction were created using a “tight selection of gear…using a KORG Minilogue, my pink Fender Mustang, a humble Shure SM58, and a handful of VSTs” and judging from a couple demo videos I viewed on the Minilogue it’s especially good at producing the ethereal, shimmering timbres favored by Vangelis and the Yamama CS-80 used on the Blade Runner soundtrack so there ya go. 

Moving from keyboard patches to skin grafts, on “Skin Graft” Ms. Moan elaborates her Cartesian thematics further on a song she describes as being “about [my own] frequent hospital visits and health issues” plus “reacting to a permanent scar I had just acquired on my chin from falling HARD off my skateboard,” but that also comes from “the perspective of elective surgeries people go through with to alter their appearance or ‘fix’ parts of their bodies they don't agree with.” 

“The lyrics ‘scars on my face / stitches cut across / take them away…bind them down’ is a reflection on gender identity and a disassociation and conflict between secondary sex characteristics and androgyny. And more specifically the compulsion to want to change those things to find comfort albeit through drastic, painful, medical procedures like breast reduction [or] full on top surgery [whereas] the chorus ‘I want to feel nothing I want to see nothing’ is very self explanatory…an honest and blunt vocalization of the conflict and the wish to cease and desist any self hatred / body confusion” which raises an interesting if accidental parallel between the song and the movie because they both revolve around being in a state of ontological crisis—a crisis provoked when long-standing, dominant binaries (male/female, human/non-human) are violated and thus challenged which is a brave but risky thing to do—though at least this state of crisis is set to a catchy disco beat which makes for the best kind of crisis.

It’s all enough to make you wanna switch your mind and body onto autopilot (another running theme on the album!) which is addressed head-on in the album’s penultimate track “Lucky Lobotomy” (“Turn myself into the cerebral authorities. Lock me out, toss the key”) which is about how “all the privilege and agency that comes with having a sentient mind can be overwhelming because your thoughts will just go to such unhealthy and painful places that wind up hurting you and god forbid others. But luckily it’s a lovely track so you’re unlikely to suffer any permanent damage. 

In closing I’d say that Catherine Moan’s I-wanna-be-sedated-synth-pop bangers on Chain Reaction are perfect for turning off your mind and floating downstream (despite some heavy, heady ideas as inspiration) or for dancing madly in the middle of the street not giving a damn what anyone thinks because all these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. (Jason Lee)

   

Take a Spin at The DiscOasis with The Belle Sounds

Austin quintet The Belle Sounds capture lightning in a bottle with their latest single, “All About Love.”

Within the first few seconds, they lay down a groove that reels you in, hypnotically enticing you to start tapping your feet and bobbing your head. A disco-esque rhythm dances underneath upbeat synths, a funky guitar riff, and vibrant vocals. Perfectly paired with the music is a dazzling music video that keeps viewers’ entranced for the entire four and half minutes, a towering achievement and a testament to the group's bright vision and brighter future.

Flowing with the beat  are an array of talented roller-skaters wearing scintillating outfits and surrounded by flashing neon lights. The disco-themed production meshes flawlessly with the track's ebullient atmosphere, and the skaters' he constant movement parallels the endless dancing triggered by this track. “All About Love” is one of those rare instances where the music video is as epic as the song itself. 

The Belle Sounds are reminiscent of a variety of acts, including Moon Boots, Tame Impala, and Fleetwood Mac. Yet, despite a wide range of influences, their sound is unmistakably modern and fresh, as they rejuvenate past ideas to concoct a rich, delicious sound they can claim as their own. Much of contemporary pop music is (fairly or unfairly) criticized as one-dimensional, lacking the substance and depth needed to create something timeless. However, The Belle Sounds aren't afraid push the boundaries of what pop music can be.

Though one could be forgiven for believing the group, led by husband-and-wife power duo Noëlle Hampton and André Moran, hit their stride years ago, they are continuing to manufacture tunes that are groundbreaking and continue to set trends, rather than follow them. With releases of this caliber, The Belle Sounds—always ahead of the curve—continue raising the bar for not just Austin's pop music, but pop music entirely. Check out their new EP below, and keep an eye out for shows soon.

   

VIDEO: ‘Right Out The Window’ | Sunshine Boysclub

photo credit: Daniel Yoon

 

Sunshine Boysclub, the new solo project by Sam Martin (lead singer and songwriter of local indie-pop veterans Youngblood Hawke), has released “Right Out The Window,” the latest single from his self-produced solo debut Hut on The Hill, out independently on all major streaming services.  

The “hut” referred to in the title of the album is an abandoned shack on the side of a hill behind Martin’s suburban L.A. house, which he cleaned out and renovated, making it into a small studio which witnessed the creation of the Sunshine Boysclub debut. Consider it a more temperate West Coast version of Bon Iver’s legendary cabin in the Wisconsin woods. The music’s also much more energetic and uplifting, if the lyrics are less so, according to Martin: “…The one theme that runs through this album is failure, as dark as that may seem. These songs are me working through the past, trying to close that door and move into a new space with new thoughts. I spent years struggling with depression, I stopped making music and was ready to quit. Writing these songs helped me work through those years of struggle and taught me valuable lessons about creativity and happiness, and how connected those two things are for me.”

 

It sounds like Martin connected creativity and happiness almost perfectly. Take the new single “Right Out The Window,” for instance. It’s a thick, syrupy cut that recalls 70s Eurodisco through a 21st Century set of ears. The bass is nimble and insistent, the compressed “four-on-the-floor” drums are locked-in and ooze with vintage squash. and Martin’s vocals recall the falsetto acrobatics of the Bee Gees with a hint of distortion tucked into the mix for some added edge. The little whistling synth touches scattered throughout the track also add a wee bit of late-70s ABBA flavor to the proceedings.

 

Meanwhile, the music video (directed by Kate Hollowell) is a nifty one-shot production that finds Martin lip-syncing the song while coasting down the sunny hills of Mount Washington on a mountain bike, outfitted in retro blue baseball cap and jersey, living out some sort of second childhood. According to the artist, "I wanted to capture the ease and energy of the song and felt like one long, continuous ride would help display that. The giant hill I rode down in this video is the hill I looked up at everyday while writing this album."

 

Hut On The Hill is out now. Gabe Hernandez

 

   

Jamythyst asserts control on "Pastel Colors"

“Pastel Colors” is the name of a single released this past weekend by self-described “90s girl” Jamythyst, self-described creator of “DIY electromotional pop jams,” and it’s an interesting choice of title because this ‘90s girl is clearly drawn to day-glo tones and darker hues elsewhere—both visually and musically—just as the Nineties itself is known for its fluorescent pop and abrasively dark rock and goth and hip hop. (Mariah meet Metallica! Hanson say howdy to Hole! N*SYNC nuzzle up to NWA! Etc. Etc.) And while Jamythyst’s music falls squarely under the pop column, tracks like “Witches in the Woods,” “Scary Movies,” and “Masochist” show that she’s also into exploring her darker side. 

So where do pastels fit into this color scheme? When placed next to electro-bangerz like “Flip Me Over’ and “Melt My Face” with their cheeky entreaties to “be your hourglass / if you flip me over” or to “drop the needle, drop the bass / rock my world, melt my face,” “Pastel Colors” is indeed more subdued, something like a mid-80s Howard Jones joint with its mix of airy synths, percolating sequencers, and reflective lyrics.
 
 
Lyrically, the pastel colors in question seem to imply both a childlike sense of wonder (“carousel in the middle of the city / gets me every time the colors go by”) and a spellbinding sense of risk (“I can’t help myself / I jump off the carousel every time / getting dizzy on the pastel colors”) as represented by the faded fiberglass horses of a mesmerizing merry-go-round going around and around in circles (just like the swirling echo effect at the end of each vocal line) or as Jamythyst puts it “it’s an electro-pop bop about being a commitment-phobe who just wants to have fun” which is perhaps another kind of going in circles. 

So we’re talking about losing control and re-asserting control here, being lured by the pastel blur of the carousel but then jumping off when things get too intense. And if this song is in fact at least implicitly about control issues (stick with me here!) then it’s obviously also an homage to Janet’s Jackson’s “Control” because that particular song from 1986 (and the whole Control album!) was a turning point in the history of dance pop, not to mention an assertion of artistic independence by Ms. Jackson (if you’re nasty!) and thus a precursor to artists like Jamythyst.


All of which makes me wonder if our featured artist’s stage name is in fact an homage to the production team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis who helped shape Control and thus strongly impacted much of the dance pop, R&B, and rap that came in its wake (not to mention the whole “New Jack Swing” phenomenon) and certainly Jamythyst reflects all of this “control” both in spirit—as a self-contained singer, songwriter, and producer who makes bedroom dance pop—and in terms of sonics with her proclivity for jacked drum machines beats and phat synth-baselines and angular in-your-face sampling (with the caveat that other influences obviously come into play such as early Madonna, Sylvester, Robyn, Prince, and other single-monikered artistes.




And when we look at the bigger picture, isn’t so much of pop music (and dance pop in particular) fixated on control issues—whether control over one’s own bodily and sexual expression, control over one’s own artistic expression and public image, or control over fate itself in the aspirational pop of the Idol era, not to mention the inverse loss-of-control and sense of transcendence sought on the dance floor—which is probably one big reason why marginalized groups in society are so often at the forefront of pop music’s innovations.

 

Sadly, after an astounding ten-plus year run of hits, control was taken away from Janet Jackson when the reigning queen of self-assertive pop (and a highly LGBTQ+ friendly reigning queen at that) was essentially accused of being a witch and burned at the stake by a raging mob of pigskin fans (and gossip mongers who could care less about the Super Bowl) because they were briefly distracted from Tom Brady’s ass-hugging shiny pants due to the sudden and unwelcome split-second appearance of Janet Jackson’s nipple on national TV courtesy of a former Mouseketeer. Yet, the sound that Janet Jackson and Jam/Lewis continued to refine on albums like Rhythm Nation 1814 and The Velvet Rope has continued on, often in service of “straight” artists ranging from boy bands to gangsta rappers. And so, speaking of control, it’s reassuring to happen upon a local artist, and one who just started producing her own music during the pandemic at that, digging into the roots of dance pop and re-asserting control on behalf of femme- and queer-identifying artists past and present. (Jason Lee)