“Olympia” – Austra

5 stars (out of 5)

0

OlympiaAustra, a 3-piece female- led electronic group from Canada, refer to themselves as a gay band and it’s interesting to think about the pre conceived ideas that may already have sprung into your mind about what they might sound like. Every artist should be able to be open about their sexual orientation if they so wish and some bands, like the Scissor Sisters or Rufus Wainwright say, have in part built a career around it. Austra are indeed making music that is sensual and in places political but specific gay reference points are subtle and ambiguous, the most significant thing about ”Olympia” though, their beautifully-crafted second album, is just how good it is.

Austra’s 2011 debut album “Feel It Break” was graceful and hard, relentless in its pessimism; song titles included “The Choke”, “The Villain”, “The Noise” and ”The Beast” and these themes of threat and terror were played out against slow motion techno and, on occasion, piano with only Katie Stelmanis’ shocking and beautiful classically-trained soprano providing the humanity. You could actually dance to “Beat and Pulse” if forced, which is probably surprising given the seriousness of the album, but one thing you couldn’t call it was warm and it probably wasn’t pop either. The first track on “Olympia”, the grammatically confused “What We Done?”, is the bridge between the coolness and alienation of “Feel It Break” and this album’s more fleshed out and human sound.  More than any other song here “What We Done” focuses on a graphic external scenario;  ‘So I dance for nothing and I dance for free and there is no glamour, stumbling down queen…come back to me, you’re 17’ is the plea against minimal clicks and synths until the final two minutes, where it opens up and a hi-hat spits, a house beat throbs and horns melt, the first indication that Austra have moved into an altogether more emotional sonic place.

The second track here, “Forgive Me”, borrows its bassline from Madonna’s “Jump”.  I can’t remember who she pinched it from but it’s completely unexpected and after a quiet start, which is a definite and definitely misleading theme here, this builds into another lonely dancer with a fantastic middle eight; a sudden swell of beautiful harmonies and strings which, as quickly as they’ve appeared, are gone. “Fire” continues to play with these styles, all layered and stacked up harmonies, mid tempo pop house and a quiet intro giving way to something far more expansive in the song’s final minute. On the first single release, and a contender for one of the best songs of the year so far surely, the magnificent “Home” switches dramatically from pounding, classical piano notes to an Italo piano house riff within the song’s first minute, with Stelmanis despairing ‘You know that it hurts me so, when you don’t come home at night’, and like the best, sad disco songs, which is what this really is, you can feel the pain in your chest as well, it’s shared.

“I Don’t Care (I’m A Man)” introduces the more complicated, introverted second half of “Olympia” and, at just over  a minute long, it’s more than an interval and is a statement chamber piece; ‘The quiet indoor fighting, the whimper in her sigh.. I don’t care, I’m a man’ Stelmanis intones, reinforcing and also challenging gender stereotypes as she sings in the first person. Immediate relief comes with “We Become” with its cowbells, Larry Levan synthetic hand claps and a lilting, harmonica hook which is reminiscent of Carly Simon’s Chic-produced oddity ‘”Why”. Definite album highlight is the fantastically titled “Annie (Oh Muse You)” which has steel drum samples, an obvious nod to The Knife, and drum machine sequencing that is pure Shep Pettibone  mid-eighties house –pop, very much at odds with the disturbing  ‘go on, get off the ground, oh muse you’ lyric; beguiling. If there was any doubt at this point of the charge and power of Stelmanis’ voice then the penultimate track “You Changed My Life”, a song in two parts, will leave you wiped out and convinced.  Around the one minute mark she holds a long note, clear and affecting and then bows out completely, heralding the arrival of a quietly murmuring army equipped with drums and piano.

Austra have made an album that quietly but effectively incorporates early house music and melancholic disco builds in a way that Little Boots tried to do with her “Nocturnes” album earlier this year but which only occasionally delivered.  Some of the tracks here, like the pure trip hop of album closer “Hurt Me Now”, use different references but just as successfully and, like the vivid and exhilarating blues and green of the album’s cover, Austra have allowed their sound to become saturated with colour, with very strong songs about difficult and painful human relationships now having a far sharper focus. “Olympia” is one of the most rewarding and impressive releases of the year.  To hear a band develop and grow from one record to the next at this rate is rare; go and get it.

Out now.