30 April 2009

Catching up with Empire of the Sun and Grand Duchy

A friend’s parent once joked around with me during college and asked me if I was getting a degree in concert going, to which I replied that would be grand if possible. We got into a conversation about concerts then, and from then till now, over a decade and a half later, I always go back twenty years to one of the best shows I have ever been to: 20 August 1989, Giant Stadium, the Cure’s Prayers Tour. Among the artists was the opening band, Shelleyan Orphan, which really made me appreciate my musical exploration. They were one of those bands that really made me expand my horizons and explore music that I thought I might not like otherwise (hey, I was a teen who was ignorant of all the music out there then). And then there was the second act, the Pixies, the first time I witnessed Frank Black! Brilliant, should be considered proto-grunge band, they just scorched the stage and etched an impression on me. So the journey of exploration continues, but now with Empire of the Sun, and Frank Black continues to prove he is brilliant, now with Grand Duchy.

Empire of the Sun: “Walking on a Dream”

Hailing from Australia, the electropop band Empire of the Sun (which is named after the J.G. Ballard novel) is continuing to add momentum to the ever-growing number of Australian electronic oriented bands. Though released digitally on 30 August 2008 and on hard copy on 4 October 2008 in Australia, it did not the see the UK till 16 February 2009 and finally made its way to the United States on 21 April 2009. What is most impressive about this album is though it is grounded in many new, fresh production styles and contemporary beats, there is a classic feel to the album without attempting rehash.

Empire of the Sun is a duo composed of Luke Steele (of The Sleepy Jackson fame) and Nick Littlemore (of Pnau fame). Together, they bring their respective elements of psychedelic pop sensibility and consciously crafted dance beats. Though you are inundated with a multitude of styles, from the Spandau Ballet style ballad “Without You” to the dance pop of the titular track “Walking on a Dream,” cohesion is achieved by a carefully selected arrangement of the tracks, allowing for an easy drift from one song to another.

There are two tracks that will keep playing forever in your head. The first is the opening track, “Standing on the Shore.” Basic beat and bass, ambient keys, and simple guitars layered against an intricate vocal arrangement: “A star explodes a storm, a billion seasons born, a shock to the waves I know, breaking far from shore…” It is the simplicity of the music, the ambiguity of the lyrics, and the trying to figure out what is going on that keeps the song in your head. Then there is “Swordfish Hotkiss Night” – come on, just the title gains bonus points. This song sports out some of the strangest tricks in the book from the 80s, including funk vocals, ostianto (the constant, repetitive sound in the background), stream of consciousness lyrics, and some sound effect reminiscent of my old 16-bit Atari; however, this is done with the sophistication of a contemporary artist (that is, sans the cheese of 80s acts like Cameo, though they look like Adam Ant). But it is not just these two songs that will impress you; the album is full of gems, like “Half Mast” and “Tiger By My Side.” This album is definitely a journey worth taking, worth discovering.

Track Listing:
1. Standing on the Shore
2. Walking on a Dream
3. Half Mast
4. We Are the People
5. Delta Boy
6. Country
7. The World
8. Swordfish Hotkiss Night
9. Tiger by My Side
10. Without You
11. Breakdown – iTunes bonus track

Keep up with Empire of the Sun at their homepage and MySpace. Here is the video for “Walking on a Dream” on their YouTube Channel: EmpireoftheSunSound.

Grand Duchy: “Petite Fours”

Frank Black, or is it Black Francis (but never Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV), joins forces with his wife, Violet Clark, for this album. Catchy, infectious, and as urgent as ever, “Petite Fours” (16 February 2009 in the UK, 14 April 2009 in the USA) brings Black closer to a darker, post-punk sound, but there is a greater mixture of styles present than ever before. Named after the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, it is the most apropos name for them. Think of it like this – what is Luxembourg? A country sandwiched between the Flemish, the Francophiles, and the Germans, which brings to bear a cross pollination and cross-cultural influences. That is the perfect metaphor for Grand Duchy: the head on collision between two styles.

Straight forward, devoid of cheap grandstanding or production gimmicks, “Petite Fours” blasts into a soundscape of driving bass lines, ambient keys, and edgy, hooky guitars. Opening with ambient fuzz sound, before breaking into ambient rock, “Come On Over To My House” is not at all typical of what is to follow. My favorite track with Clark on leads is the closing track, “Volcano!” Again, with a post-punk feel in the bass followed by an ambient keyboard, this song follows all the hooks of post-punk, including what seems to be choppy, stream of consciousness lyrics (“He’s courageous, it’s so contagious… that big volcano is about to blow”).

Okay, a friend of mine told me, “I like it, but it’s not the Pixies.” And I retorted, “Your head is so far up your ass, you have lost four out of five of your basic senses. If you like it, who gives a shit who is doing it?” This is not the Pixies, and for those people longing for a Pixies album, go listen to “Doolittle” again – which I do at least once a month. This is a great album that is going to get you hooked, and show Black developing as an artist, while demonstrating that Clark can bring equal creativity and passion to the table along side one of the greatest song writers of all times. If you want more “Debaser” (which I was screaming in my car earlier), hit the repeat option on iTunes and have fun. If you want something new, fresh, and relevant, pick up this album, now.

Track Listing:
1. Come On Over To My House
2. Lovesick
3. Fort Wayne
4. Seeing Stars
5. Black Suit
6. The Long Song
7. Break the Angels
8. Ermesinde
9. Volcano!

Keep up with Grand Duchy at their homepage and MySpace.

Upcoming Tour Dates (check MySpace for more info):
F 5/1 Bellingham, Washington
Sa 5/2 Tacoma, Washington
Su 5/3 Eugene, Oregon
T 5/5 Santa Cruz, California
W 5/6 Oakland, California
F 5/8 Costa Mesa, California
Sa 5/9 San Diego, California
Su 5/10 Visalia, California
M 5/11 Sacramento, California

Sa 7/18 Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York – Siren Festival
F 7/24 Chicago, Illinois
Sa 7/25 Chicago, Illinois – Wicker Park Fest