Friday, October 14, 2011

Ohbijou: Metal Meets

Prior to this year, Toronto-based indie band Ohbijou had released two albums, each full of beautiful chamber pop music highlighted by ornate string parts and Casey Mecija's ethereal vocals. At times, they managed to go beyond "beautiful" and create something truly magical - "Make It Gold" off of their sophomore effort Beacons comes instantly to mind. I've come to adore both Beacons and Swift Feet for Troubling Times, but if there's any criticism I'd level, it's that when listening to either album, by the time I reach the end of the album I feel there's a certain sameness to some of the songs. It seems the band liked to work in their comfort zone - and it was a very good comfort zone, so that's not really a bad thing - but it was on the songs when they pushed beyond that comfort zone that their music gained those magical qualities.

Two weeks ago, Ohbijou released their third album, Metal Meets, and from the instant I first heard the powerful electric guitar chords that introduce opening track "Niagara" I felt something was different. That sense of magic? "Niagara" has it in spades, the guitar and some spacey synths complimenting those familiarly gorgeous strings and vocals in a dreamy masterpiece. "Niagara" is an apt beginning to an album that takes Ohbijou's sounds to places barely imaginable from their previous albums. The aforementioned "Make It Gold" was my previous favorite song by the band, but perhaps half of the tracks on Metal Meets are just as good or even better.

What's remarkable about this album is that it's simultaneously a natural progression and a radical evolution in style. Previously, Ohbijou's brand of chamber pop was folk-tinged. That's gone now, with nary an acoustic guitar to be heard. Instead, the listener is treated to richly textured soundscapes built on electric guitar tremolos, airy synth arrangements, and a weightier rhythm section - but it wouldn't be Ohbijou without the strings, and they're just as present and just as gorgeous as ever. It all comes together as a fuller, more confident sound for the band, and the vocals top it off perfectly - Casey Mecija's remarkable voice can be both angelic and mischievous, and the backing vocals of her bandmates compliment it wonderfully.

The sense of sameness that I sometimes felt creeping in on their previous albums is also gone. Each song now feels vital, and each is its own distinct entity (but not in a way that sacrifices the flow of the album). After "Niagara," third track "Balikbayan" is another standout. In a nod to Casey and (sister and bandmate) Jenny Mecija's Filipino heritage, its lyrics are inspired by Balikbayan boxes, pieces of luggage that overseas Filipinos use to send items back home.

"Sligo" is the longest Ohbijou track yet, and it makes good use of its six minutes, starting off at a leisurely pace that's repeatedly punctuated by stately strings, and then going into a drawn-out buildup in its second half that takes full advantage of Ohbijou's newfound penchant for the electric guitar. "Sligo" kicks off a sequence of songs that showcase a band at the height of its abilities. "Anser" is another strong contender for best song on the album. It's a wonderfully dramatic composition, with piano, guitar, strings, and shared female/male vocals all building off each other. This newly dramatic, dynamic Ohbijou continues to strut their stuff on "Obsidian" and "Scalpel Blade," before pulling back toward that leisurely pace for the beginning of "Turquoise Lake." (They operated at a leisurely pace for most of their first album, actually, but this is darker, more impactful stuff.) And then "Turquoise Lake" culminates in another dramatic buildup, with a heavy guitar part that I never would have imagined hearing on an Ohbijou album before now. Yet on this album, it fits right in. There's one more song, "The Dreaming." It's as dreamy as you'd guess from its title, and it's a nice way to close out one of the best albums of the year.

In summary, if you are in any way into lushly orchestrated indie pop music, do not miss this album. I continue to be amazed at all the great music arising from the Canadian indie scene, and Ohbijou has just staked their claim as one of the heavyweights in that scene. If Metal Meets is your introduction to the band, don't miss out on their previous albums, either - they're both gorgeous, and the evolution of Ohbijou's sound is wonderful to experience.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Album review: Motopony (s/t)

There have been a few occasions when my introduction to a new artist has gone something like this: I hear one song, and really like that song, so I buy their album. Then it turns out that the song I really liked is easily my favorite song on the album. Even if I still enjoy the rest of the album, it's a disappointing thing to have happen.

But there are also happy occasions when the opposite occurs. On the basis of one song, I get an album - and it turns out that the album is far beyond anything I could have imagined from that single song. That's what happened to me with Motopony.

The song? "King of Diamonds." It's gotten some buzz in recent months, and for good reason. It's a really nice, folksy pop tune, good music for chilling out on a summer day. (I'm a little late writing this review - I did get into Motopony over the summer. It's appropriate, I guess, that today felt like a perfect summer day, despite it being October!) Amazon had the song for free and I decided to check it out, and enjoyed it enough to take a chance on the self-titled debut album. If the rest of the album had been made up of songs of a similar style and quality to "King of Diamonds," I wouldn't have been disappointed. But I got much, much more.

In a certain sense, I'd compare this album to Bon Iver's latest. I wouldn't say that Motopony sounds just like Bon Iver (maybe a little) but there is a similarity in that, at its heart, this is a guy with a guitar playing folk music, but then it pulls in all sorts of eclectic instrumentation and stylistic influences and becomes a wonderfully diverse (yet cohesive) collection of songs. The pleasant pop sounds of "King of Diamonds" are followed by the catchy soul of "Seer." But it's on the second half of the album when the music really transforms into something beautiful. Piano, synth, acoustic guitar, and vocals all play off each other wonderfully over the heavy, syncopated backing beat of "God Damn Girl." "Wait For Me" wanders into dream pop territory, and it's just a really gorgeous track.

"Wake Up" is another standout, adding to the list of great songs called "Wake Up." (Seriously, why are there so many songs called "Wake Up," and why is it that when a band I like has a song called "Wake Up" it's invariably one of my favorite songs by that artist? Arcade Fire, Ozma, Mad Season...) Clocking in at over six and a half minutes, it's a haunting slow burner that starts out with just acoustic guitar and Daniel Blue's vocals, with some powerful lyrics (What if these drugs aren't the problem?/What if my freedom's hiding just outside my reach?/What if I never hit bottom?/How far can I go fallin' 'fore I realize fallin's free?) As the song builds in intensity, insistent xylophone and synth parts join in for a dramatic, but not overstated, climax, before the song settles back down. One last track follows, and "Euphoria" is another beautiful song.

Since I discovered Motopony a couple of months ago, their album has become one of my most listened to of the year. They appear to be a band on the rise, and with this great collection of songs, they deserve all the success they get. Check them out!

One more note - I wasn't sure for a while how to pronounce the band's name - mo-TOP-on-y or MO-to-po-ny. It's apparently the latter.