Austra

18 01 2012

I think I may have discovered my new favourite band. That is hard for me to say, since Erasure have occupied the most prominent setting in my crown of musical gems since 1995. That may soon change. Their competitor is Austra, a synthpop/darkwave/indie electronica band from Toronto who just released their debut album, Feel It Break, last year. (Yes, I know, as usual I am late to the game.) However I am not yet ready to give the number one position to Austra, simply because Erasure have produced fourteen studio albums, and I have only heard one by Austra, but if they keep up the amazing work, they very well could earn that place. Besides, a tie between the two bands isn’t entirely out of the question.

OK, so you want to know what the hype is all about, don’t you? It’s about their coherent, well-developed style, their professional-sounding technical wizardry, their eerily fun dance sensibility, lead singer Katie Stelmanis’s chillingly pure, cold voice, their artistically spooky themes, their rich harmonies, their otherworldly melodies. All of these in combination produce a lush, full, satisfying sonic experience. Listening to their debut album, Feel It Break, one imagines opening up a book of occult lore and exploring the hidden mysteries within. I would liken them to a cross between Florence and the Machine, Siouxsie Sioux and the Banshees, and Karin Dreijer of The Knife and Fever Ray. But at least as creepy as Karin Dreijer. Finally, an album that sounds weirdly Scandinavian without getting mired in slow, dissonant, undanceable experimentalism. It’s musically exploratory, thematically fascinating, and fun to dance to.

Check out the video for their single Spellwork, taken from the debut album. In my opinion is encapsulates the overall deliciously spooky theme of the work:

This song gives me goosebumps. One thing that stands out is the strong verse-chorus structure characteristic of pop songs—but it’s all done in such a beautifully strange and ethereal way that it doesn’t sound commercial or formulaic. Stelmanis’s eerily quavering vocals are spot-on, the melody soars like some dark-winged bird over bare tree branches, and those rich harmonies complete the vocal arrangements. And those layers upon layers of tinkling synthesisers just sweep you away into a glittering fairy world of yore. I can’t get enough of the cryptic occult references, either. Lots of Youtube commenters have said that the video is “weird”, but it’s supposed to be. The song is about pagan rituals (or so I think), so obviously the video reflects that. It’s so enticing because it’s so arcane.

Then there is the light, bright, beautiful synthpop gem Lose It. This is probably as pure, pretty, and pristine as synthpop can get, and Austra have distilled the essence of the genre in this song, and yet we haven’t quite heard synthpop done in such a fresh, clever way before. At least I don’t think so. Just have a listen:

Isn’t that just delightful? It makes me pee my pants. And it makes me pregnant. With twins. The most remarkable thing about this song, I think, is the perfect harmony between Stelmanis and the background singers in the chorus. Together, they create this plaintive, crystal-clear, birdlike song of hope and sorrow. It almost sounds like Enya in a strange way, but a cool, synthpoppy Enya. Delish.

OK, on to our last video. Showing their ability to master a range of synthpop sub-genres, Austra reveal their goth goth side in this video for their single Beat and the Pulse, and boy is it sexy. Be forewarned: I don’t do censorship, so this video is not safe for work! (That means it’s NSFW):

So what did ya think?? In my opinion, This is the difference between pornography and erotica. The models are portrayed in a seductive, tasteful manner, and they exude a mysterious power. It’s not crass and exploitative; it’s subtle and stylish. Besides, listen to the pulsating bassline that suddenly creeps into your ears when the beat kicks in. And, again, that rich texture of harmonies fills out the song and sends chills down one’s spine. This is dark, sinister synthpop at its finest.

Speaking of weird Scandinavian-sounding dance music, compare Austra to Karin Dreijer when Dreijer accepted the award for best dance artist on behalf of her band Fever Ray at this Swedish music awards ceremony:

Kooky! And fabulous. Now that we’ve established that both Austra and Fever Ray are cool, creative bands with a statement to make, it’s time to ask the question: which one is weirder? All that matters is that they are weird, and there’s a rhyme and reason to it, even if the typical Beyonce-glamoured American can’t see past his milquetoast Top 40 music collection. Consider this Youtube commenter’s post about the above Fever Ray video: “Its unfortunate most people cannot understand the statement of the absurdity of award shows, come up, make a stupid speech and say thank you within 20 seconds and walk off stage for the next commercial, absolutely meaningless. If viewers can only see the surface level and think ‘Man that lady is weird, whats with the face?’, they need to start digging deeper past the surface [sic]”. So true. So, so true. I cannot improve upon that observation, except to say that the average American isn’t into the musical creativity of artists like Fever Ray and Austra, because they’re only exposed to the commercially successful acts.

Anyway, I haven’t written about a cool band in a while, so when I discovered Austra I just knew I had to say something about them and spread the word. I entreat you to do the same. Spread the word. As you would your seed. No, just kidding. Sort of. I can’t wait to hear their next album! I’m thinking of writing about new releases by a few other bands who make me want to diddle myself, like Glass Candy and Chromatics, so keep visiting this blog. (Oh, and I’m posting another instalment of the fabulous lady-comic Julie Gentron and the Lady League very soon, so look for that too.) So go out and buy Austra’s debut album Feel It Break—make sure it’s the deluxe version—and support one of Canada’s most talented and interesting musical products of recent times. (The album was released by Domino or Paper Bag—can’t remember which—and it’s on iTunes, of course.)

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Drag Queens and Christian Divas

13 08 2011

I just realized something the other day, and it strikes me as more uncanny the more it sinks in. Jan Crouch looks like Divine. Seriously. Scarily like Divine. The wigs, the crazy make-up, the charismatic, larger-than-life diva persona, the whole cosmetic case. But Jan Crouch is a televangelist who co-hosts the Christian program Praise the Lord on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, and Divine (who died in 1988) was a drag queen, singer, and actor who starred in John Waters films like Pink Flamingoes, Female Trouble, Polyester, and Hairspray and released a series of Hi-NRG dance hits like I’m So Beautiful, Walk Like a Man, and Native Love which have become cult classics in the gay and electronic music communities. How can a televangelist look so much like a drag queen? What in the world is the common denominator?

Above is a picture of Jan Crouch, and below, a picture of Divine.

I don’t know about you, but I sense a . . . ahem . . . celestial theme going on with both of these scrumptious, fragrant, poodle-like ladies. Maybe Jan Crouch and Divine were friends at some point and exchanged fashion tips. Maybe they read the little red words of Jesus in the same NIV Bible together, or went to drag shows together. Maybe they performed together, singing contemporary Christian hits or inspirational hymns, or maybe Hi-NRG disco tracks produced by Stock, Aitken, and Waterman (SAW). Or maybe they shared husbands in a polyamorous relationship. I like to think that maybe they became bosom buddies getting a boob job at the same boob job clinic. But I don’t know about that. I think Divine’s boobies were fake. Actually, come to think of it, I think Jan Crouch’s boobies are fake too. I guess that’s another thing they have in common.

To get an idea of what I’m talking about, watch this video clip of Jan Crouch (I couldn’t find a serious video of her; it’s not my fault they’re all parodies):

…and now, children, feast your eyes upon this hot, throbbing, strangely ethereal-sounding homage to Snow White (a song and video I salivate over constantly, handkerchief in hand) by the inimitable queen of early Hi-NRG herself, Divine:

Why do Jan Crouch and Divine want to share mascara wands so much? Maybe that last song sums it up in a nutshell. They’re both unabashedly, flagrantly beautiful. As goes the cliché: the higher the hair, the closer to heaven. Maybe they used to go to clubs in, like, Chelsea or the Castro and sing Christian hymns to a 4/4 dance beat backing track or something. Gay men *get* crazy, big-haired, hymn-clutching, oratorical Christian women—maybe because a lot of gay men were raised by these big ol’ Christian divas and found out, hey, they actually love me and don’t think I’m going to hell!

I think sometimes we take the Christian versus homo thing a bit too seriously, especially when it comes to drag queens and Christian divas and their unexpectedly beautiful, synchronistic relationships with one another. Often, I think, Christian divas are just being mouthpieces for their stodgy husbands while deep down inside they actually like homos. A lot. And for them this is a matter of sloughing off the old, putrid sludge of Biblical patriarchy, becoming their own woman, and honouring what they truly think and feel inside. Think of Tammy Faye Messner, who before she died actually had a talk show with a gay co-host and said in an interview she supported the gay community. I mean, Tammy Faye even appeared in gay pride marches with Lady Bunny and Bruce Vilanch. Yeah! I know! The old PTL televangelist became a fag-hag! She certainly didn’t do so because her husband or the Bible told her to do so; more likely, she did so because she identified with the community as a human with similar thoughts, needs, and emotions. (Wait. Tammy Fay Messner looks just like Divine too. Holy shit. It’s a movement.)

Christian divas and homos both love performance and caricature, over-the-top imagery, bombastic music, and blowing people’s minds out of the water with their big, overly–made–up, screaming, crying faces. It’s cathartic, just like praying to God, or the Madonna (in multiple senses—the mother of Christ, the singer, and the Goddess), so it’s inevitable that the one should identify with the other. Sadly, a lot of Christian divas and drag queens put on their look because they don’t like the way they look without it. In both we see a bittersweet mixture of sorrow and ecstasy, the tragedy which secretly haunts the clown.

Well, I think I may have just answered my own question.

All of that aside though, I’ll tell you what—both of these girls have amazing taste! I wish I had the balls—and tits—to go on T.V. and do movies looking like that. I wouldn’t want either of them to change a thing. Not a thing. Seriously. And not simply because I think I would be turned to stone if I saw one of them rising from their tomb, waking  up in the morning, getting off the toilet, or hopping out of the shower to go to Bible class or drag rehearsal. Religion and Bible crap aside, and looking just at their purely human essence, I think both drag queens and Christian divas offer a vivid, Technicolor glimpse at what sort of magical, otherworldly creatures we all secretly want to embody, and can if we’ll just undo the straps, put the foot to the pedal, and say, “What the fuck?”