! = recommended
* = all-ages
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Maybe you’ve noticed that Iceland is having a moment? Between volcanic eruptions on the news, nonstop flights between Seattle and Reykjavík advertised on the side of every bus downtown, and oodles of on-air love from KEXP, it seems like Iceland is in the spotlight wherever you turn. The attention is well deserved; despite housing a population about half the size of Seattle, Iceland boasts a quality music scene as diverse as our own. But if you didn’t win KEXP’s Iceland Fly-Away contest to attend the Airwaves festival in Reykjavík, how can you find all that deserving music?
Iceland Music Export has your back. Each year, IMX puts out a compilation CD highlighting tracks from some of Iceland’s hottest new albums you never heard of. Bands like Of Monsters and Men already spend more time abroad than at home in Iceland; the IMX Made in Iceland VI compilation introduces you to what’s next.
A few highlights are worthy of everyone’s attention. Government official by day, mad genius rapper by night, former Sugarcubes member Einar Örn contributes the track “Dreamland” by his project Ghostigital. KEXP favorite Ólafur Arnalds will be playing Decibel Festival here in Seattle in September. Prepare for that show by listening to “Old Skin.” Because Agent Fresco’s Arnór Dan is one of the most moving singers alive, the Pascal Pinon track “When I Can’t Sleep” featuring his guest vocals is required listening.
The self-titled debut from Chicago, Illinois, duo Hobbyist is a knock out-passionate post-punky protest against all the societal gears that grind women (and men) down every day in work, religion, home, health, life and death. Holly Prindle (vocals) and Marc Mozga (vocals, drum machine programming, guitars, bass, melodica) angle their arch, sample-fueled, dubby rant-stomps as musical sabotage to the factory of fear called Modern America. In a world where sacramental wine becomes after hours buzz against pain, and the thin girl playing the fat girl wins the awards, it's all about clinging to each other and hearing each others' beating hearts.
The two used to be I Luv Luv Birds, but I've never heard the self-released albums they put out under that name. I wonder if they've always been as good as blending their female-male short story narratives in sweet and sour sing-song, owning these stories of life across the wrong side of the tracks, against the "kamikaze heroes and nazi fucks," capturing the essences of whole lives in a couple of shattering lines. This collection of songs are based around a "verite-type film" that Mozga has been working on about a family with an autistic child. None of it sounds anything less than powerful, but seductive, well played and produced, delivering the anthemic goods without any sonic slush to keep from connecting. Holly's voice warmly reminds me of everyone from Poison Girls' Vi Subversa (!!) to Ari Up to PJ Harvey -- without acing in on any of 'em. It's all hers. "Goddamn soulless lies, get back under your rock and hide" she sings, and she has the vocal strength to make it sound liex a very real hex on what vexes her deeply.
Tullycraft's first single came out when I was fifteen. Played heavily on WPRB Princeton, "Pop Songs Your New Boyfriend's Too Stupid To Know About" was the start of MY long and damning relationship with indie pop. Yet, like the boy in that 1995 single, Tullycraft has made me worry I was too stupid to know about the bands they were singing about. My love for them has been a combination of sheer adoration and joy coupled with a nervousness that I was missing the joke -- maybe I too, in the words of the album's title track "Lost in Light Rotation," never took the time to learn the slang that we speak or the slogans on the t-shirts. Yet when the message is all wrapped up in harmonies and power chords, I forget my fear for love of bouncing and singing along.
Tullycraft’s vision of twee was something both sweet and cynical, a cuteness belied with dirty jokes, and both obscure references and snide comments about other bands. Don’t you dare try to tell me they’re all about ukuleles and bunny rabbits and cuddly wuddly love songs! The hearts in their songs are often broken, the best times have already past, and computers don’t even exist as a way to keep in touch with friends.
This is Solvents' least stylistically ambitious release -- and that is a very good thing. The band hasn't gone purely minimalistic in working with Karl Blau for one day in his Anacortes studio; the absolutely luscious violin of Emily Madden honey-drips upon her husband Jarrod Bramson's salty sighed-vocals in a way that could never be described as overly restrained. But the duo are sounding gingerly tight and scrupulously aware of their best qualities in the seven songs that make up Ghetto Moon, and every song could be a gentle giant hit. They've left the cut-and-paste scruff of oblique fanzine rock for cafe troubadour waltz, august vocal melodies partnered with bardic elucidation. And yet not without coy humor ("I'm so obscure, and bitter cool, and long to come undone").
The Port Townsend, WA creator-couple have released, over time, a flurry of diverse-sounding cassettes and CDs and Internet-mixes, and their last planned full-length, the appreciated forgive yr. blood, showed they could be a lo-fi Basement Tapes jukebox of styles. Ghetto Moon is much different: it's all stately-gorgeous, if denuded to Jarrod's mellifluous lead vocals and Emily's complimentary harmonies, truly deeply sung melodies that are going to stick with you as much as her lovely fiddling.
Lines We Trace opens up suddenly, with all kinds of ache laced through the echoes of a well-worn Andrew Bird album, cut beautifully with strains of Matt Bishop's unmistakable vocals. It's a powerful track ("Tides"), the line I would trade ten thousand days / for one more hour with you immediately vaulting the listener into a pile of Polaroids, to sift through the sweet nostalgia of every relationship they ever had that didn't quite work out. As sudden as the physical start of this album is the realization that Hey Marseilles has matured, with a new depth to their composition, yet with that familiar I'm-telling-this-story-right-to-your-soul songwriting that we've come to know and love.
For those who have gotten by these last few years on live shows, the occasional single release, and 2008's To Travels and Trunks; Lines We Trace is the equivalent of a new apartment in a town you love: you know the roads around it like the back of your hand, but you've never seen the sunlight through the windowpanes quite like this. Everything that's wonderful and familiar about Hey Marseilles is present -- a profound earnestness, those unmistakable chord progressions, the orchestral swells and pitches -- but delivered with new perspective, more wisdom, and perhaps the sight of a first laugh line in the bathroom mirror.