Music: City Calm Down’s ‘In a Restless Place’ and Grimes’ ‘Art Angels’

CITY CALM DOWN – IN A RESTLESS PLACE review

It has been a long time coming for the release of Melbourne band City Calm Down’s first full-length album. As we’ve waited, clearly the lives of these young men have dramatically changed. The musical evolution, the doubts, the fears, the loves and the losses have all led to the songs we hear on In a Restless House, and our patience, as well as their own, has most certainly paid off. From the sobering introduction that welcomes us into a murky landscape and sits us down on their dirty couch to witness the journey, City Calm Down has developed into a well-rounded and sonically exciting act. When Jack Bourke’s Beringer-esque (I’m sure he is well and truly sick of the comparisons, but there are distinct similarities) baritone vocals begin, Jack’s cynicism begins to fade as he repeats ‘you are the wind beneath my arms’. It sets the tone for an album that appear to revolve around the motifs of being trapped, escaping, the new beginning and finding one’s place.

The first song on the album, ‘Border on Control’ is driven by a ‘Red Eyes’ influenced wave of synth and guitar. It is a dynamic opening to the album, where Bourke delivers the ominous line, ‘I guess I got my timing wrong’. Whether we believe it is another matter entirely, considering the context. ‘Border on Control’ leads into the song of the album, ‘Son’ which features a chorus that sounds peculiarly like a mesh between Midnight Oil’s ‘Forgotten Years’ and The Killers ‘Dustland Fairytale’. There are influences you cannot ignore on this album, such as New Order, Joy Division and the National, however there is also something distinctly Australian about In a Restless House that keeps it grounded to its geographical roots. The vocal performance by Bourke, for want of a better word, is nuts. His vocal proficiency is something to behold. One of the strengths of the song is the strong backing vocals provided by Bourke’s band mates, including organist/synth sequencer Sam Mullaly, who sets the spiritual tone of ‘Son’, in combination for the earthy grounding of Lee Anderson on drums. ‘Son’ also introduces us to the brass section of the band, a recent addition to the makeup of the band’s sound that has lead to a progression to a sound that will undoubtedly be suited to the bigger venues of Australia and beyond.

‘Rabbit Run’ was the first single off the album and presents itself as a moody, expressive tip of the hat to Ian Curtis and Joy Division. Bourke isn’t the tortured soul that Curtis is, but he still seems to have a connection with isolation and a lack of direction as he mourns ‘Voices tell me I’m better off eating, Eating all the violence I see without breathing, To chew battered innocence not knowing what I’ve done.’ As the synth gradually catches light and the powerful drumbeat adds heat to the flame, it is clear that this song announces the new direction of City Calm Down, with all the lyrical depth of a band wise beyond their years.

‘Wandering’ is one of Bourke’s finest vocal performances on the album, where he seems to combine the profundity of Nick Cave and the delicate vulnerability of Matt Beringer to create a fragile landscape of a man losing grip on his own reality. The ‘rat in the cage’ metaphor is a variation on the classic angst of The Smashing Pumpkins, instead depicting the rat as a lost soul at the whim of those in its vicinity. The final vocals on the song are swallowed up by the building drive of the instrumental backing, which takes control in the final stanza. I think I would have preferred to hear the heartbreaking clarity of Bourke’s vulnerability rather than losing him in the pool of noise. This small criticism aside, it is a really affecting song.

The direction of the album seems to change from the point of ‘Your Fix’ which returns to City Calm Down’s early EP sounds, which delighted in 80s new wave. The bass line from Jeremy Sonnenberg is crunchy and full, perfectly complementing Bourke’s determined uncertainty where he issues the contradictory ‘if you’re looking for forgiveness, then I don’t care, if you’re begging for forgiveness, then I’m scared’. ‘Nowhere to Start’ verges on an acidic/psychedelic move from the band with shared vocals with a female vocalist, a nice move from the band, stymied by Bourke’s verse in the middle of the song that takes the direction of the song from Veckatimest to something straight out of a Pulp album. It is a silky, moody, well-paced song that again utilises the brass section to full effect. The sullen bass line from Sonnenberg is once again a strength. Including this song on the album was a risk, however it has paid off in spades. It is one of their most sonically interesting songs on the record.

To be honest, I was consistently surprised by the album having listened to City Calm Down over an elongated period. ‘If There’s a Light On’ had elements of Tears for Fears in the chorus, and has a rollicking guitar beat that keeps the listener on their toes. Although it is a long song, I didn’t want this one to finish – I craved the fragile falsetto of Bourke to continue for longer as he collapsed into the void. ‘Falling’ is a frantic slobber knocker that has elements of a Young Fathers’ chorus and shows off Bourke’s gorgeous falsetto in a beautifully constructed bridge before the band bursts into contained recklessness. Once again, these tracks show how much this band has developed into a sonically awe-inspiring unit.

What City Calm Down has created In a Restless House is a diverse and imaginative debut LP. They haven’t subscribed to the critical analysis gone by that placed them into a pile of bands influenced by UK New Wave, but instead have tested the boundaries and found a sound that grows more intriguing with each listen. This is one of the strongest Australian albums from 2015, and could be the one that launches CCD into international waters, or land, depending on how keen they are to do the cruise ship scene. Supporters of Australian music… buy the vinyl, buy the CD, buy the fucking t-shirt. Well worth a few of your hard earned.

Songs to listen to: Son, Wandering, If There’s a Light on.
When to listen to: Christening a lost soul

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GRIMES – ARTANGELS review

‘When you get bored of me, I’ll be back on the shelf’, Grimes states matter-of-factly in ‘California’, the unofficial opening track on Art Angels, her fourth studio LP which is likely to be her most divisive amongst fans and critics alike. However, just as she seems to say that line with a shrug of the shoulders, the listener knows just as well that Grimes has plenty left in that old kit bag. She is an artist, one who is used to being misinterpreted, categorised incorrectly and pushed around by the patriarchy that still exists in the music industry. After Visions, this album was inevitably going to be a mix bag that strays from what we expect. And from the moment ‘California’ moves into ‘Scream’ (a real slow burner, I was totally against it at first, but it grows), it is crystal clear that Clare Boucher just doesn’t care about what you want anymore, as she croons on the outstanding ‘Flesh without Blood’. She cares about what she needs, which in turn is what you need. To be challenged, entertained, gratified, divided, shamed, loved and hated. You can’t get more challenging, divisive and entertaining than the first three songs on this album.

One of the defining features of this album is Grimes’ voice. Those who have followed her career know that she coe-ees with the best of them in her Xena warrior princess way, however her voice has more depth and power in this album than it ever did in the exceptional Visions and in the ethereal gloom of Halfaxa. There is the ferocity of ‘Kill V. Maim’ where the chastising bass guitar combines with Grimes’ bearing her chops and standing her ground for she is ‘only a man, and I do what I can’, which is up to interpretation, be it fighting the natural laws of which we govern ourselves on, a transgendered Al Pacino or a dig at the entrenched state of self-entitlement of the modern man. She may not look it, but this woman is really fucking tough.

Grimes is such an interesting case study when delving into the lyrical content of her songs. On ‘California’, she displays her knack for the classic double-entendre in the chorus build up, where she sings ‘And when the ocean rises up above the ground, baby I’ll drown in’. Whilst she has stated that it is a reference to Tool’s ‘aenema’, it is just as easily taken as a reference to both the pitfalls of being constantly analysed and sneered at and the concerning dismissal of the rumbles of rising sea levels. On ‘Venus Fly’ with fellow femme-fatale Janelle Monae, the lyrical content is rabid, however it is the production of the song that turns this from something that Nicki Minaj and Madonna would collaborate on (no offence to the two, they’ve produced a couple of absolute ripsnorters) to a track that is immensely listenable. With an interlude that sounds like something out of Zelda where Link crosses a calm sea, to the crushing, lip snarling outro that will have people across the world screaming ‘why you looking at me now!?!?’

The notion of the manic pixie dream girl is quashed on the final track of the album, aptly named ‘Butterfly’, where Grimes playfully lambasts the men (and most likely women) who froth over this enigmatic producer. ‘I’ll never be your dream girl’ she sticks it to us before launching into the ambiguous notion of ‘a butterfly who waits for the wind to fly away’. Sure, we can immediately criticise Grimes’ move to produce the song ‘Go’ after Rihanna rejected it and scream like banshees as her rabid fans sense her moving to the centre to create mainstream pop, or we can allow the journey to take its course. On ‘World Princess Part II’ we are briefly returned to the world of Halfaxa, however, Grimes refuses to mourn, she celebrates her progression – ‘it’s mine’ she menaces repeatedly – and pumps her chest to those who have come along for the ride, and those she has lost. Like a number of the songs featured on the album, this is a strangely moving moment.

I have barely touched the surface on the production of the album. The intricacies and depth of her beats continue on from her previous work. She still is a prodigious and pedantic producer. The loops and vocal manipulation remain a constant from previous albums, however she has taken up guitar and beefed it up from Visions. The album is at once more decipherable than Visions, yet more enigmatic and freeing. To assess and analyse every nook and cranny on the album would require an essay. The one-off samples such as Rihanna’s ‘Pon-de-Replay’ on ‘California’ and the sick play-off of ‘Belly and the Beat’ which sounds like the acoustic version of Bjorn’s ‘Hyperballad’ into the opening beats of ‘Kill V. Maim’ which sounds like something straight out of the 2000s Brit-Rock (‘This Fire’ by Franz Ferdinand… am I clutching at straws??’) handbook.

‘REALiTi’ is one of the album’s best songs, however if this album were to stick to one agenda, or one note, this would have looked out of place. However, as this album is like a scrapbook of ideas tied together, with influencers ranging from Mariah Carey, to K-Pop, to Tool, to Al Pacino, to anime, to Bjork and Beyonce, to Aphex Twin, ‘REALiTi’ grounds the album. However, I don’t want to needlessly overcomplicate Grimes. She is who she is. Interpreting her albums requires far more than just a few listens, just like every challenging and well-structured album seems to do. In the end, good albums need to be substantial, enjoyable and indisputably listenable. There are a couple of spots where Grimes’ makes pretty comfortable music (Pin and Easily) but they are both listenable and lighthearted. Here, we have an album that fits these categories, a notion that Grimes does not subscribe to, particularly when it comes to genre. The one category she definitely fits into is artist. This isn’t Visions, but we didn’t need another Visions. We just needed more Grimes.

Songs to listen to: REALiTi, Kill V. Maim, Flesh without Blood.
When to listen to: Cruisin’ around in your convertible feeling like a bad bish.

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