Grace Notes is a weekly exploration by Jason Morehead of signs of common grace in the music world. We hope to alert you to wonderful music, some of which will be spiritual in nature but all of which will be unique and worthy of your attention. Each week we will share brief reviews of albums worthy of your attention and maybe a video or two.
Based on song titles like “Deeper” and “Plaything”, as well as lyrics such as “I wait until you’re woozy/I won’t know until you’re limp/I take you in the mouth/Like a lion takes his game”, you might think that Wild Beasts’ Smother is a rather lascivious album about the pleasures of the flesh. And it is… to an extent. Throughout the album, Hayden Thorpe sings of various liaisons and trysts, indulges in voyeurism, and relishes a “never-ending line of lovers”. But dig a little deeper, and you’ll glimpse some interesting and welcome emotional complexity. On “Loop The Loop”, Thorpe contemplates past relationships while concluding “Oh don’t you think that people are the strangest things/Design of desire means all that the heart requires/Is what it can’t recognize”, and on “Lion’s Share”, he sings of shame and remorse amidst the sensuality (“That’s why the dark is there/See you don’t have to see what you can’t bear”). Musically, the album captivates as it moves from dance-y grooves à la Franz Ferdinand to more atmospheric moments replete with lush synthesizers and haunting guitar melodies. Then there’s Thorpe’s voice, which falls somewhere between Erasure’s Andy Bell and Junior Boys’ Jeremy Greenspan, and can be airy, operatic, and intimate all at once — perfect for the album’s ruminations on both the good and bad sides of love and sensuality.
I first heard Balam Acab last year when his See Birds EP was released, and I was instantly struck by his cavernous, haunting take on electronica (indeed, “See Birds” was one of my favorite tracks of 2010). He was lumped in with the rest of the “witch house” genre, which always struck me as rather odd. While many in that genre seemed obsessed with being dark, spooky, and creepy for their own sakes, Balam Acab seemed more interested in simply crafting haunting little songs that, while sometimes eerie, were much more interested beauty and emotion. Wander / Wonder, his debut full-length, confirms that suspicion. The album’s cover artwork does as good a job of describing the music as anything: a single shaft of light penetrates what could be some deep subterranean passage or underwater chasm. There’s a lot of sonic darkness and obscurity in Balam Acab’s music, such as syrupy-slow beats, ominous drones, and warped vocals. But at the same time, the album is rife with little moments of beauty like the processed “little girl lost” vocals and almost folks-y loops that ripple through “Oh, Why”. Combined, the dark and light aspects make for a fascinating and evocative listen.