Tag Archives: Indie synth-pop

San Francisco’s New Spell Delivers Spellbinding Dark Indie Synth-pop

16 May

New Spell is a San Francisco-based duo consisting of songwriter Leanne Kelly on lead vocals and keyboards and Jacob Frautschi on drums. The two have been together for awhile as New Spell has progressed through several evolutions, arriving today at a sound the band describes as dark indie synth-pop.

On New Spell’s Of Time – Part I, Kelly creates swirling soundscapes with her layered synths and spellbinding vocals — with a sense of mystery and edginess to a number of the tracks. The arrangements are intricate, with precision production. Lyrics are cerebral and thought-provoking.

Of Time is a four-song EP that will be followed at some point by a full album. If the songs on this EP are any indication, that should be a very exciting release to look forward to.

Track highlights: “Rain” is a propulsive track that opens Of Time with skittering synths accompanied by Kelly’s strong, slightly ominous vocals. There’s also an awesome rhythm-driven bridge.

“The Space Between” features a bouncing, pumping rhythm mixed with a fuzzy synth bass and piano. The vocals are lightly tripping, with distortion added at times and rich harmonies in the chorus.

“Never Change” slows the pace with sustained synth chords, a deliberate tom-tom beat and airy vocals that soar into lush harmonies. Brass-like synth accents are added at times. The entire track is reminiscent of a Naked and Famous song, with a lead break by Kelly near the end that could be Keith Emerson’s keys from legendary Emerson Lake & Palmer.

The final track on Of Time is “Familiar Tune,” and this is definitely lighter and more delicate overall with playful keys and fragile, warm crystalline vocals. Synth orchestration envelops the melody.

New Spell is a local band that’s definitely worth your time. By the way, they’re currently touring and will be in Sacramento, Mountain View and Los Angeles in upcoming weeks. Check out New Spell’s Facebook page for details.



Broods’ “Conscious” Shows Duo’s Steady Growth

8 Sep

New Zealand’s Broods exploded onto the music scene worldwide in 2014 with the release of their debut album, Evergreen. The brother-sister duo of Georgia and Caleb Nott turned quite a few heads with their fresh, uplifting electro-pop. Produced by Lorde’s Joel Little, the album debuted at #1 in New Zealand and was recognized as one of the top CDs of the year, along with Lorde’s Pure Heroine and The Naked and Famous’ In Rolling Waves.

So needless to say, expectations were quite high for the duo’s follow-up, Conscious. And while the consensus of critical reviews is that little new ground has necessarily been broken, the album offers another strong collection of memorable electro-pop standouts with lyrics that examine the pressures of building and nourishing relationships today.

Like Scotland’s Chvrches, Broods doesn’t use its synths to paint gauzy portraits or ethereal visions. Rather, the album features mesmerizing beats and big anthemic arrangements that would play well in club or stadium. Georgia Nott’s vocals are remarkably powerful without the angst or edginess common with many female vocalists in this genre.

Conscious starts with “Free,” a song that does represent a major step forward for the duo with its stunning declaration of feminist freedom. “I’d lose everything so I can sing/Hallelujah, I’m free, I’m free, I’m free, I’m free, I’m free.” The pumping, growling synths and rhythms slap the listener into consciousness — setting the stage for the album’s theme of self-awareness and self-actualization.

The next song, “We Had Everything,” is an upbeat finger-snapping pop track that has a very catchy chorus celebrating the optimism of youth. “We were young, we were proud, we were promising/We were hiding our innocence/We had time, we had love, we had everything/We had everything.”

No review of the album could omit the first track on which Broods and Lorde have actually collaborated. According to an article in Rolling Stone Australia, “Heartlines” was jointly written and demoed while the band and Lorde were in Auckland at the same time for a day.

The sixth track on the album is “Freak of Nature.” Featuring vocals by Tove Lo, the song focuses on the issue of mental illness and how people afflicted with it are often viewed by others as being weak or unwilling to change.

One of the most “up” tracks on the album is “Couldn’t Believe.” In the same article in Rolling Stone Australia, Georgia Nott explains that she wrote the song about the night she got engaged and how she felt at that moment. Once you know the subject matter, the pounding drums, angelic chorus and skittering electronic beat will send chills down your spine.

All in all, Conscious is a very good sophomore release from a duo that shows the promise of still having much room for future growth.


Fialta Channels San Luis Obispo Sunshine and Surf in Smart Synth-Pop

23 Aug

The San Luis Obispo area is a fabulous part of the state, set within a rolling sun-drenched landscape that lies roughly halfway between Northern and Southern California. Residents and visitors alike enjoy relaxing on glistening beaches, exploring the oak-studded foothills, shopping for art and household goods in local shops, or tasting fine wines produced by the growing number of Central Coast vineyards.

In an area this inviting, it’s not surprising to find more and more bands calling San Luis Obispo home. Such is the case with Fialta, which offers melodic California indie pop-rock on their sophomore album, Shadow of a Drought.

The music is sunny and smart — a little surfy, with heavily reverbed guitars, ukulele, layered harmonies, and interesting rhythms. Fialta is comprised of two married couples: Mike Leibovich and Beth Clements, who were the first from the group to settle in the San Luis Obispo area, and David Provenzano and Sara Shotwell, who joined them after a move from the San Francisco Bay Area.

All four individuals are contributing songwriters, vocalists and multi-instrumentalists — which is likely the reason their music is so well done — far from much of the sticky-sweet formula pop world.

One of the standouts on Shadow of a Drought is “Do the Best We Can.” The title track, sort of — “shadow of a drought is mentioned in several of the lines — is anthemic, fuzzy synth-pop. While Clements handles the lead vocals at the start, all four individuals sing the chorus, resulting in the rich harmonies that are a trademark of the group. An acoustic performance of the track is here.

“Another Lonely Heart” is a mid-tempo cut that for some reason reminds me of Hall & Oates — if Hall & Oates were female vocalists. The song features richly harmonized vocals over a slinky synth track that’s backed by a steady beat.

The album opener is “Be Someone,” up-tempo, catchy pop-rock with a cool bass line, guitar stingers, harmonized male vocals, and glockenspiel. Jumping toward the end of the 12-song set, “On the Run” features a stripped-down arrangement with jangly guitar over a sleigh bell rhythm, an intimate vocal (by Sarah, I believe), and warm harmonies.

I can’t end a review of Shadow of a Drought without mentioning “Queen of the Night,” a happy, bounding romp with pounding drums and pumping, arcade-link synths. I’m sure this is a fun song to do live — and the group is touring this summer and fall in support of the album.

VisitSLO.com calls San Luis Obispo the “happiest place in America.” With apologies to Disneyland, which has clearly earned the moniker of “happiest place on earth,” the land of endless summer does inspire an optimism and positive energy that locals embrace. And this upbeat attitude is definitely felt in the music of Fialta.


East India Youth’s “Culture of Volume” a Refreshing Surprise

15 Oct

The indie pop, rock and folk music that I feature on my Friday 9 a.m. – 12 noon shows on Stanford University’s KZSU (listen live on the Internet here) and write about in this blog embraces a wide range of genres and styles. What I seldom get a chance to include is anything that could be classified as experimental.

The common standard by which I choose the music that I play and review is that it has to be melodic. This, by definition, leaves out a lot of the more experimental offerings being created today.

So, it’s exciting to be able to feature on tomorrow’s show William Doyle’s East India Youth and his new album, Culture of Volume.

Based in London, East India Youth blends electronic dance music (EDM) with melodic pop in a way that transcends most of the techno-pop being created today. Meant to be consumed as a whole — not in individual bites (bytes?) — the album ranges from synth-pop that might have put Doyle at the cutting edge of the original electronica revolution in the 1970s and 1980s to edgy, jittery EDM that would be right at home in today’s Berlin club scene.

East India Youth’s efforts on Culture of Volume aren’t universally appreciated. Some who reviewed the album judged Doyle’s work to be pretentious — more style than substance — with artificial lyrics meant to impress upon us the “importance” of his music.

I thoroughly disagree.

I find Culture of Volume to be honest, exciting and something that’s a rare find in today’s well-defined, genre-driven music scene. The expansive, 10-song set is original and varied — with 56 minutes of music that never feels like it’s covering the same ground. And just as Doyle intended, it’s best enjoyed as a complete one-hour musical immersion. But this being radio, I can’t simply put the CD in the tray, close it, press play, and get caught up on my social media while you listen to the album from start to finish. So, let’s take a closer look at some of the specific tracks.

After a jittery EDM warm-up called “The Juddering,” the album’s second track, “End Result,” recalls the beginning of Arcade Fire’s “Ready to Start,” the second track from The Suburbs. In this case, rather than a repeated pinging piano note, it’s a repetitious synth tone in virtually the same cadence. (The pitch is not identical, but close.) This spare start gives way to a lush and melodic synth landscape, underscored by an off-kilter rhythm and ominous vocals warning that “The end result is not what was in mind/The end result is always hard to find.”

Track 4, “Turn Away,” is a pulsing electro-pop number with an extremely catchy melody built on a roaring foundation — with a complex rhythm and captivating changes in dynamics.

“Hearts That Never” has an entirely synthesized, sequencer-driven rhythm that is eerily reminiscent of the one used on Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” in 1977. It is overlaid with Doyle’s crystal-clear, atmospheric vocals.

This track segues directly into Doyle’s most experimental on the album — “Entirety” — a jarringly industrial house track that pushes the limits of what encompasses Culture of Youth.

When that ends, Doyle amazingly leads us seamlessly into “Carousel,” a gorgeous, beat-less soundscape with an anthemic feel painted by Doyle’s remarkable vocals.

There are three more tracks beyond that — including the epic, 10-minute “Manner of Words” — but I’ve already gone on too long. My advice: tune in to my show tomorrow. And if the selections I play intrigue you — add Culture of Youth to your collection.

Teen Men Provide an Audio/Visual Treat

5 Aug

Teen Men found the inspiration for its band name in an ad taken from a 1960s era Playboy magazine. According to the Delaware band’s bio page on the website of its label, this appealed to them because teen men take risks, yearn for new experiences, and have an inordinate amount of self-confidence — often for no reason at all.

What does risk and confidence bordering on being foolhardy have to do with Teen Men? Well…the band is made up of two musicians: Nick Krill, a guitarist and songwriter and Joe Hobson, guitarist; plus two visual artists, Albert Birney, a keyboardist and creator of the Simply Sylvio series on Vine; and Catharine Maloney, a fine artist who has exhibited internationally — but also happens to play keyboards. As such, they refer to themselves as an “audio/visual group.” That’s risk, right?

Exhibit A of being an audio/visual group is the intriguing video they created for their first single from the Teen Men album, “Adventure Kids.” In addition, their live performances often include an interactive video that’s synchronized to their music. According to the label’s website once again, this video “provides an interactive platform for the band members and audience.”

Their music sounds a lot like a young Vampire Weekend. Compelling melodies are set to trip-hop beats — with liberal use of synthesizers and other keyboards, guitars, some samples, and noise on a few of the tracks.

The second song on the album, “Adventure Kids,” opens with a mesmerizing electronic rhythm mixed with tasty guitar licks. Drums are layered in to provide a steady backbeat for Krill’s dreamy, smooth lead vocals.

“The Sea, The Sea” hears Krill singing wistfully about youthful turning points. A steel drum adds a bit of a Caribbean flavor. Near the end of the track, Krill sings, “It seems we find ourselves confused by our own youth…” This mantra encapsulates much of what the band has to say on this album.

The fifth track, “René,” is a light and breezy melody with a very interesting bass line. Keys and guitar are interspersed in creative ways, and a backing chorus is ever-present.

“New Kind” stretches the envelope for the band. It opens with a funky, stop-and-go rhythm that includes an electronic drum kit, electronic bass, scratchy guitar, and Krill’s vocals. There’s a real resemblance to more experimental indie synth pop-rock artists such as Split Screens.

The album closes with “Kids Being Kids,” which features a female vocalist (Maloney? Or possibly, a guest vocalist?) echoing responses to some of Krill’s questions and ideas. The song has a quiet energy together with an inner peace that’s quite appealing.

It’s worth noting that the band members, truthfully, aren’t teens at all. Krill and Hobson were originally together in the Spinto Band, a little-known indie rock group also from Delaware, which got its start in the mid-1990s. That puts the band members more likely in their late 20s or early 30s. Still young, but not that young.

But thanks to Teen Men’s youthful sound, clever lyrics and complex new-age beats, this is definitely an album worth listening to — especially if you enjoy the quirkiness, loveliness and preciseness of Vampire Weekend.

Urban Cone Offers Sunny, Synth-Pop for the Summer of 2015

31 Jul

Urban Cone is the picture of smooth, satisfying synth-pop on the band’s new album, Polaroid Memories. This is the second release from the five-piece group from Stockholm, Sweden. Sounding somewhat similar to Passion Pit or even Phoenix, Urban Cone has created a collection of up-tempo, energetic tunes in Polaroid Memories that are perfect for a romp in the summer sunshine.

The album opens with a very Phoenix-like track called “Weekends.” The extra-bright instrumentation and steady rhythm drive the catchy melody forward as the band sings about “building castles” on the weekends.

“New York” starts with a synthesized backbeat that sounds like an anvil, but eventually builds into a synth-pop anthem with a really strong chorus about “New York Singing.”

“We Are Skeletons” features playful synth arpeggios — riffs most likely created with the latest toy for musicians, a device called an arpeggiator. Handclaps throughout and bigger choruses round out the arrangement.

The fifth track is “You Build your House Out of Cards.” Delicate electric piano and fragile vocals infuse the ballad with a range of emotions. An uplifting chorus and soaring synths add depth and dimension to the song.

Finally, “Sadness Disease” has a smoother sound and is surprisingly happy for telling a story about someone afflicted with sadness that can’t be left behind. It also features a fun, synth-produced, bird-like creature of some sort squawking throughout most of the tune.

Overall, Polaroid Memories, provides an album full of light, but appealing songs that will help you remember the summer of 2016.

Solid Synth-Pop on Sophomore Effort from Tanlines

30 Jun

Tanlines is a Brooklyn-based, synth-pop duo featuring Eric Emm on guitars and lead vocals and Jesse Cohen on percussion. The band made its debut on the indie scene in 2012 with an album called Mixed Emotions. It was hailed by critics as blending pure pop sensibilities with danceable beats and other trappings that often sound like they’re right out of the 80s.

Now comes Tanlines’ follow-up effort, Highlights. It’s an apropos title because while the band hasn’t broken any new ground with Highlights, the album features a number of very good radio-friendly synth-pop songs that could stand as strong singles for the duo.

Produced by Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor, the band merges New Wave synth-pop arrangements underscored by a variety of rhythm tracks with acoustic guitar strumming or electric guitar riffs and Emm’s silky smooth vocals. It’s a proven formula that simply put, works — time and again on the new album (even if many of the online music publications weren’t overly impressed).

Getting a handle on the best tracks requires a few listens, perhaps because they cuts flow together so well. But after two or three times through, the many solid songs stand out.

The album begins in banging fashion with “Pieces,” a bouncy, light and happy synth-pop composition with tremendous hooks. Full of finger snaps and handclaps, the call-and-response vocals will have you singing along before you know it. It’s definitely the best track on the album.

“Slipping Away” is a shimmery, surfy synth-pop hit — the first single from the album. Emm’s ringing guitar is prominent, along with a twitching rhythm that sounds a bit like rubbing corduroy pants together.

The band’s newest music video, “Palace,” is a soft and breezy affair, with a sophisticated club beat supporting a glittery, soft-focus pop melody straight out of the 1980s.

Track 5, “Invisible Ways,” is dreamy and sentimental. It boasts a rich, rolling Roy Orbison-like acoustic guitar with vocals to match. A gushing chorus that starts in the second verse adds to the melancholy feeling.

Track 8 is “Thinking,” another pleasant and playful tune with repetitive synth tones set off against the light tripping beat and added synth and guitar flourishes.

Finally, the second-to-last track, “If You Stay,” is a great little pop tune, with a simple backbeat and musical layers that feature accomplished bass play, acoustic guitar, and a variety of synth sounds.

Overall, it’s a very satisfying collection of songs that offers hours of listing pleasure for those who enjoy synth-pop.