We’re going to do two reviews a week here – one of a new album (less than a year old) and one of an older album. We also thought it’d be cool if our reviews took the form of a discussion, with humor and personality, rather than a dry essay. Our new album review this week is of Austra’s album Olympia. Click “continue reading” to check it out.
Austra are an electronic group from Toronto, named after lead singer Katie Austra Stelmanis, who is in turn named after Austra, the Latvian goddess of light. They play a type of synthpop that’s heavily influenced by New Wave music and acts such as Kate Bush and Depeche Mode. Their debut album, Feel It Break, was released in 2011 and received well. Olympia, their follow-up, was released this past June.
Oscar: OK, let’s do it.
Zen: OK. Fair warning, Starbucks is determined to mess with the speed of my WiFi.
Oscar: Me too. It’ll be ok.
Zen: So, why did you pick this album?
Oscar: Because Austra’s debut was one of my favorite albums of the past few years, and so when I heard they had a new album out I immediately knew we had to review it.
Zen: Fair enough. What were your feelings compared to their debut?
Oscar: Mixed. I think there was a lot of growth, in terms of production more than songwriting, but ultimately I didn’t like it as much as Feel It Break.
Zen: That’s how I felt as well.
Oscar: I still liked it a lot, just not as much as the debut.
Zen: You could definitely see some new tricks in the way they create beats, but yeah.
Oscar: What were your thoughts?
Zen: Essentially I felt the same as you, except tone down the enjoyment a few dials. While I liked Feel It Break a lot, it wouldn’t go under my list of things I’ve enjoyed the most in the past few years.
Oscar: That’s very fair. I think the reason for it being one of my favorites has much more to do with personal taste than musical fantasticness.
Zen: Good point. What kept you from liking Olympia as much as you would have liked?
Oscar: I just thought some of the songs had weaknesses. A few of them I thought the melody didn’t live up to the beat/lyrics, other times vice-versa. What were your top 3 songs?
Zen: In no order, “Painful Like,” “We Become,” “Reconcile.” Actually, I lied. They are in the order of track listing.
Oscar: OK, and why?
Zen: I think they all acted as great showcases for what I really like about Austra.
Zen: The combination of very danceable backbeats and vaguely strange lyrics, without merely being electro shit with a female voice on top (which I think a lot of this type of music falls into).
Oscar: I really like the “it could be our love” thing in “We Become.”
Zen: That part has been stuck in my head for the entire week, but I haven’t been upset by that at all. I thought “We Become” had one of the cooler beats of the album, I’m always a sucker for funky distorted cowbell, and also showed how they played with new styles of production.
Oscar: Yeah, it definitely moved away from their typical sound.
Zen: One moment that stuck out to me in “Painful Like” was the rhyming of, “underwear” and “but I don’t care,” and that type of bluntness is one of the things I like most about Austra’s lyrics (although I don’t think it works all the time).
Oscar: I know exactly what you mean.
Zen: I also think it’s cool that it’s coming from a female singer. The honest bluntness reminds me of Leonard Cohen.
Oscar: Yeah, she represents a very distinct persona that you don’t find in a lot of contemporary female singers.
Oscar: As edgy as people say Rihanna is, I can’t imagine her ever saying a line like that.
Zen: Definitely not, and that’s what I like about it. In my eyes it’s not necessarily about how much sex appeal can Austra’s lyrics make, cause really, there is nothing sexy about the line “I held you in my underwear.” Just part of the story.
Zen: What were your top 3?
Oscar: Number one was “Home.” It was Kate Bush as fuck, and I really like when Austra gets like that. The little flute flourish thing was great, and the female backing vocals going “hope,” just Kate Bush as fuck.
Zen: I can get behind that, but that track wasn’t one of my favorites. While I love Kate Bush, I felt that “Home” was more of a wannabe Kate Bush than actual being Kate Bush
Oscar: Number 2 was “Fire.” I really liked the weird distorted choral sample.
Zen: Yeah that was a super cool little musical choice.
Oscar: And the melody was weird in a way I really enjoyed, especially the “you are not willing” part.
Zen: I thought of Portishead during that song
Oscar: Really? I didn’t make that connection.
Zen: It was the weird melody that made me think of them.
Oscar: I can see that actually, if it was a lot slower and emptier.
Zen: Yeah, just use your imagination and change the entire song.
Oscar: Easy. Third was “Hurt Me Now,” or “We Become.” I can’t decide. They both felt different from the rest of the album.
Zen: “Hurt Me Now” was fighting for 3rd spot for me too. It was the song that felt the most different for me.
Oscar: When there’s that guitar (or something stringed) break and then the beat comes back in… I liked it a lot.
Zen: It was very cool. I also liked that they changed the way they went about constructing their song.
Oscar: What do you mean?
Zen: Instead of being a cool dance song with dark lyrics that you don’t necessarily know has dark lyrics on first listen, it was a cool dance that song that did feel dark and vaguely dangerous right off the bat.
Oscar: OK yeah, I got you. OK, I’m gonna have to go get my laundry, sorry. brb
Zen: It’s ok, cleanliness is next to something good, or something. And did you just “brb” me?
Oscar: Didn’t you “brb” me earlier? That’s the only reason I “brb”’d you.
Zen: I would NEVER “brb” anyone.
Oscar: I was under the impression this was a judgment-free zone.
Zen: I’m sorry, I should learn to be more excepting.
Oscar: That word is incorrect. Accepting is what you meant. brb, bitch.
Zen: Well played.
Oscar: OK, I’m back. I’m gonna dropbox you stuff while you tell me your favorite musical and lyrical moments, and then I will respond to your statements.
Zen: I DBed Sepultura, and OK.
Oscar: That’s what reminded me.
Oscar: So are you telling me these moments or what?
Zen: Sorry, my mother came home. Had to, you know, do bonding.
Oscar: You guys haven’t bonded enough after 19 years?
Zen: I know man, it’s ridiculous. Sometimes I just want to shout, “GOSH! All you did was give birth to me!” Lyrically my favorite moment was the underwear line. It felt the most honest to me. I thought a lot of the album’s lyrics fell between the cracks of whiny and wanting to be meaningful, so it was nice when something hit me as being sincere. Or it’s possible that my standards are set too high and nothing will beat Feel It Break’s best line: “I came so hard in your mouth I saw the future, it was dark.”
Oscar: That’s easily my favorite lyric in recent memory.
Zen: I can, without any irony, agree with you. Favorite musical moment would be the drums from “We Become,” for the reasons we’ve already said of why those drums are great.
Oscar: Yeah, those are ‘80s as fuck. They’re like the drums from “Shout” by Tears for Fears.
Zen: What are your favorite moments?
Oscar: My lyrical moment is from “What We Done?”: “She saw the future, it was dark.” Not because it’s a great line in itself or in the context of the song, but just because I love that they alluded to their past album in a subtle way.
Zen: I was about to say that.
Oscar: And it doesn’t hurt that it’s an allusion to the greatest line ever written by humankind.
Zen: Excuse me while I again write in all caps – YES. Just to add to that statement, I always like when artists create their own worlds and then play upon preexisting themes.
Oscar: Musical moment would probably be either the vocal sample in “Fire” that we already discussed, the flute in “Home” that we already discussed, or the beat coming back in “Hurt Me Now” that we already discussed.
Zen: Good, good and great. But I realized, we’ve got to stop gushing and pick the tracks that we didn’t like.
Oscar: Riiiight. OK.
Zen: It’s possible that reviewing should be done when we actually get the proper amount of sleep.
Oscar: It felt like we were moving a little fast.
Zen: Where’s some lean when you need it? Anyway, what were your bottom 3?
Oscar: Bottom was “I Don’t Care (I’m A Man).”
Zen: You are correct. Why the bottom though?
Oscar: Lyrically it was fine I guess, although a man not caring about his girlfriend’s feelings is like, “Hey guys, I think that’s a dead horse over there, let’s beat it” but it just really didn’t impress me. Second would be “You Changed My Life.” Similarly rehashed lyrics, musically fine but nothing special. Third was “Sleep.” I have no problems with it, but it was just totally unremarkable to me. It was like “if you can find the most average Austra song” I would point that person to “Sleep.”
Zen: I counted at least seven sighs of myself repeatedly looking to see how many seconds of “Sleep” was left
Oscar: What were your three?
Zen: “You Changed My Life” at the bottom. I just… I just found it so annoying and grating on my ears. It’s possible I caught myself wishing that something bad would happen to the lead singer so the song’s terrible happiness would stop.
Oscar: That’s a little harsh, but I understand.
Zen: Oh, I know. It definitely means I’m a poor quality human being. Second would be “I Don’t Care (I’m A Man),” for the reasons you said, and also because that was one of the moments where I thought, “Do you actually, like, actuaaally think the words you are saying right now have deep meaning?”
Oscar: There are so many better ways to say “guys can be huge assholes.”
Zen: HAIM do it so well.
Zen: Last would be “Sleep,” for what we’ve said.
Oscar: I’m glad we agree, it happens so rarely.
Zen: Isn’t that why we started a blog together? So our intensely clashing views would make sparks fly?
Zen: Final score?
Zen: What would you have given their old album?
Oscar: I would give Feel It Break an 8.5 I think, and I want to acknowledge that this is definitely a quality work and obviously the product of a lot of effort, but it still fell short. You?
Zen: 6.5. Just like you, I don’t want to dismiss it, but I disliked the lyrics much more than I liked them. And that matters a lot to me since Austra wrote the best line ever.
Oscar: Thats about what I expected you’d say. Did you feel the same way about the lyrics on the first album, or did you like those more?
Zen: I liked them more. Sure, I still had the same complaints about them as these, but the ratio for enjoyment/being impressed was much higher in Feel It Break.
Oscar: OK, yeah. Any final thoughts?
Zen: I’d be very curious to know how they/the lead singer came up with the amazing line from the last album. I don’t even mean that in jest, I’m just genuinely curious. Like, was it based off a personal experience, were they tripping balls, etc.
Oscar: Yeah. I assumed some type of drug use.
Zen: Last words from you?
Oscar: Cool album cover.
Zen: Solid statement.
Come back next week for our reviews of Krallice’s Dimensional Bleedthrough and The Weeknd’s Kiss Land.