Pure Bathing Culture: Shimmering And Winsome Pop Songs

So many bands have tended to pull from the “indie rock” part of the 1980s — the edgy rock and punk and hardcore bands that embody the DIY ethos, and all that. But lately we’re starting to get bands wistful for the other half of that decade, the side that punk was rebelling against: the commercialized, MTV-ready, Reagan-ized pop music that dominated the radio charts. Don’t get me wrong, I love a lot of this music, if not back then when I was too little, then now as I’ve come to discover that music with new ears. In fact, just this year groups like CHVRCHES and HAIM have nailed that sound, but modernize it with buoyant and inventive electronics and killer hooks that demonstrate tightly-wound songcraft behind the polish.

Pure Bathing Culture has touches of that sound too, but with something closer to a glittery New Wave-meets-New Age tone: the sparkly chimes, the silky smooth synth flourishes, and breathy vocals, just a little too airy to deliver much emotion beyond broken-hearted.

Pure Bathing Culture writes the kind of winsome, crystalline pop songs steeped in a hazy past remembered only through hissy VHS home movies that have been played a few too many times. With its debut album Moon Tides, the Portland, Ore. duo — Sarah Versprille and Daniel Hindman, formerly of Vetiver — worked with producer extraordinaire Richard Swift to evoke a sound capturing the sun-dappled 1970’s cuddle rock, ’80s radio pop, and the alluring and wobbly melodies of artists like Kate Bush or Cocteau Twins.

Moon Tides is a record that filters those pristine, high-end influences through lo-fi production sounds: thrift shop drum machines, reverb-drenched guitar arpeggios and shimmering keyboards that seem to dissipate into the ether. Whether by calculated choice, or simply a by-product of not having the kind of money to spend to fully achieve the sheen of bands of that era (probably the latter), Pure Bathing Culture and Swift’s production actually grounds these songs with more tasteful application of the genre tropes, and side-step sounding as syrupy.

Still, with heart-aching three-minute gems like “Pendulum” and “Only Lonely Lovers,” Pure Bathing Culture proves adept at rendering those nostalgic moods into songs both timeless and earnest.

TV On The Radio’s Resurfaces With Another New Song, ‘Million Miles’

I’ve been a a fan and admirer of TV On The Radio since the one-two punch masterpieces, 2004’s Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes and 2006’s Return To Cookie Mountain. At the time, songs like “I Was A Lover” and “Province” were truly mind-boggling, resetting my expectation for what “indie rock” should and could sound like. Melding so many genres effortlessly, TV On The Radio has long been a band of great ambition and always sounded genuinely musically curious.

However, since those two albums I sorta tuned out a bit. I found Dear Science a disappointing, over-produced mess that lost the songs amid the fussy production. And I’m not sure I spent much time with 2011’s Nine Types Of Light — a record that suddenly took on far darker meaning with the loss of longtime member Gerard Smith, who died from lung cancer just after the release.

TV On The Radio has been relatively dormant since that last album, but now the Brooklyn-based band has begun to show signs of activity again, teasing out tidbits about its follow-up. There’s very little known at this point about what it’s called or when it’ll drop, we’re now starting to get something of a sense for what it could sound like. Some weeks back TV On The Radio previewed the song “Mercy,” an edgy basher full of buzzed-out guitars and strobing synths.

Today NPR Music and various public radio entities like WNYC’s Soundcheck (for whom I work) premiered a second taste with another new track, the subdued, yet beautifully soulful “Million Miles.”

Meanwhile, the song’s music video also debuted, as part of a series of six videos made by MySpace and Sitek’s Federal Prism label. This one is directed by Kyp Malone with Natalia Leite.

Compared to “Mercy,” or a lot of TV On The Radio’s back catalog for that matter, “Million Miles” is deceptively simple: With soaring falsetto and the chiming arpeggios of a Fender Rhodes keyboard, the song recalls the R&B jams on 2006’s Return To Cookie Mountain, more than say, the aggressive live wire distortion and big beats of Dear Science.

And yet, as the chorus swells with Dave Sitek’s trademark dense thickets of sound, “Million Miles” proves undeniably cathartic as Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone’s powerful vocals sing “Don’t you let love break your heart / Give it all your power.”

Whether playing sneering, throat-slitting punk rockers or crafting cavernous experiments piled high with noise hugging the periphery — it’s amazing that after all these years TV On The Radio remains a group with such uncompromising artistic vision. This song is a gorgeous reminder of why I fell in love with the group in the first place. Can’t wait to hear more.

Julianna Barwick: Transportive And Swooning Choral Meditations

Julianna Barwick performs at Central Presbyterian Church during South By Southwest in Austin, Texas on March 17, 2011. (© Michael Katzif - Do not use or republish without prior consent.)
Julianna Barwick performs at Central Presbyterian Church during South By Southwest in Austin, Texas on March 17, 2011. (© Michael Katzif - Do not use or republish without prior consent.)

It was early evening at South By Southwest in 2011, and my ears were already blasted out from a few days of the noisy madness of Austin’s Sixth Street. Exhausted, and feeling a little daunted about what music to seek out the rest of that night, I wandered into Austin’s gorgeous Central Presbyterian Church to catch my breath with the music of Julianna Barwick. As I sat in the church pews (with my pal, NPR Music’s Stephen Thompson), I could feel the weight lifting.

The next day, I was lucky enough to have chance to meet Barwick for a video shoot with NPR Music at the famed Driskill Hotel and see her setup up close and watch her perform my favorite song “Bob In Your Gait.”

I was familiar, if not an expert on Barwick’s music before. After that SXSW, I was a fan.

To listen to the hypnotic choral voices of Julianna Barwick is to be swept away, transported to a musical world out of time. Her songs are lush, yet minimally constructed, parsing out fragments of looped word-less vocal phrases and spare instrumentation and layering them into church-filling meditations.

With her previous records, like 2011’s superb (and perfectly titled) The Magic Place, Barwick assembled her music by singing into a single microphone through some effects and a loop pedal into a laptop, while sitting cross-legged on her bed alone in her Brooklyn bedroom “studio.” For music that feels intended for ancient crumbling cathedrals, it seems hi-tech. Yet for most modern electronic music, however, that domestic intimacy is decidedly lo-fi.

For Nepenthe, her forthcoming record (out Aug. 20), Barwick both expands her musical worldview, and collaborates with others, turning to Icelandic musician Alex Somers (of Sigur Rós, Jónsi) to record this latest collection of moody and experimental tapestries amid Iceland’s majestic landscapes. The album also brings in collaborations with string ensemble Amiina, Múm guitarist Róbert Sturla Reynisson, and a choir of teenage girls to fill out the sound in a new way.

Like its predecessors, Nepenthe artfully mixes Barwick’s alluring voice — think Gregorian chant crossed with Enya, but in a good way — with swooning electronics, all fluttering and swelling in the shadows. Yet, with the influence of Somers — and, no doubt, the setting itself — songs like “Offing” or “Forever,” with all those sounds swirling in the ether, take on new life, becoming even more wonderfully cathartic and grand. And in “One Half,” Barwick sings distinct, if still elusive lyrics for the first time.

Nepenthe is not an immediate album and it won’t actively grab you right away — but that’s not really the point: Barwick’s music is so subtle, so delicate, so outright pretty, that you just have to let it linger in the room like a halo of smoke slowly unfurling.

Even now, a few years later, Julianna Barwick’s immersive and near-spiritual set at SXSW is one of my favorite things I’ve seen at the festival, so much so that I’ve almost been reluctant to see her again in concert, if only because that setting was so perfect, I can’t fathom how anything could rise to that. Next week, Barwick will be performing her amazing new record in New York, in a church. I hope to be there so I can close my eyes, lean back, and let this elusive and stunning music take me away again.

UPDATE: Today on WNYC’s Soundcheck, Julianna Barwick dropped by the studio to play three songs from the new record. Plus, see some photos I shot as well.

Anticipating Spike Jonze’s ‘Her’ And Revisiting A Forgotten Pop Song

There are a few filmmakers out there that I’m always waiting and eager to see what they have next: Directors like Alfonso Cuaron, Michel Gondry, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson and Spike Jonze have earned a free ride with me from where I’ll follow them from project to project forever, even after movies I don’t always love.

So as an unapologetic mega-fan of Spike Jonze’s music video work and especially his films — and yes, even his last movie, Where The Wild Things Are — I’m impossibly excited to say outloud: Hey, new Spike Jonze film coming in November! Finally!

Her stars a Joaquin Phoenix, as an introverted sad-sack of a man, shut off from the world, with some clearly buried emotional damage to work through. Just based on the trailer, Phoenix looks peculiar and slightly off — sporting a morose blandness akin to Bryan Cranston’s early look as Walter White on Breaking Bad. But after his eccentric temper and strange mannerisms of The Master, it’s nice to Phoenix in a more restrained, tic-free performance. And for Jonze, Her comes off as a more grounded film — with real-world characters — than he’s done in awhile. That is, if a sentient artificial intelligence can be considered “grounded.”

The rest of the impossibly stacked cast includes Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Oliva Wilde, Chris Pratt, and the titular computerized A.I. voice of one Scarlett Johansson.

Sure, there are elements of this trailer could set off the ol’ “Twee-dar:” The high concept of a man being brought out of his shell by relating to, and possibly falling in love with an artificial woman (See: Lars and the Real Girl meets I, Robot?); the indie romance disguised as subtle sci fi; the indie rock-leaning music.

On that front, Arcade Fire will have new songs from its forthcoming record as part of the film’s soundtrack, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O reportedly wrote an original song as well — which you can hear a portion of “The Moon Song” at the 1:37 mark in the trailer.

But what really makes the trailer work for me musically is the inclusion of another Yeah Yeah Yeahs track, “Skeletons,” from the 2009 album It’s Blitz!.

It’s a song I had actually forgotten about from that record, but hearing it again now, I think it’s one of the best songs on that album, more so than my previous favorite, the buzzier dance pop single “Zero.” The song is still fizzy synth pop, but there’s a buzzing melancholy there that really fits the tone of the film. It’s nice to rediscover this older song and hear it in a new way.

So yeah, there’s enough to like here in the trailer to peak my interest, and I’m hoping that because it’s a filmmaker like Spike Jonze at the helm, those initial reservations will fade.