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Blanket Music – Cultural Norms

As a concept album, Cultural Norms works quite well.

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On the first track of Cultural Norms, Blanket Music does its best to strike fear into the hearts of music reviewers everywhere. In the bizarre story, the band sentences a critical naysayer to death “at the hands of our mild mannered bass player.” Cheeky lines like this, in addition to their vocal style, have earned this band many (many) comparisons to Belle and Sebastian; early Belle and Sebastian, when it was still about quaint stories and catchy folk pop. The resemblance really is uncanny, though. At times it sounds as though they have stolen Stuart Murdoch and forced him to sing on this album. Thankfully they don’t abuse this resemblance. There are no awkward schoolgirl lesbians on this album and they do not attempt at any point to assume Scottish accents.

One also has to keep in mind Blanket Music’s penchant for genre bending. Each album marks a large jump in style for the band, so the musical similarities to Belle and Sebastian are actually quite new to the mix. Even within the album, the band jumps around. Touches of folk-pop, jazz, and lounge music all pop up with a good bit of regularity and a country element is also brought in for the lamenting, unromanticized tale of a modern soldier in “Soldier’s Story.”

As the title suggests, the album deals with the norms of our country and our culture, with more than a touch of wit and irony. As a concept album, Cultural Norms works quite well. The problem with most concept albums is that they are far too grand in scale. The band will have some grandiose, overarching storyline in mind, but it falls flat when put into practice. Either the music suffers for the sake of the story (like parts of The Who’s Tommy), or the other way around (Pedro the Lion’s Winners Never Quit). Blanket Music instead works around a simple topic. It is more likely that they simply found themselves with a collection of songs that all fit within the same subject, rather than forcing themselves to write in a particular frame. This is reflected in the smooth, unforced nature of the songs. Each song can stand easily on its own, telling a self contained story or ruminating on cultural quirks.

We hear from a general manager in “Keep the Prices Down,” a modern-thinking couple contemplating marriage in “Just Us,” and even a household cat (used as more of a metaphor for America, really) in “Cats Corps,” among other characters. The band also turns their lens back on themselves with “Press Conference,” asking the listening public if they would still enjoy their music without an interesting message or story. The music is enjoyable on its own, but the wit of lead singer Chad Crouch’s lyrics adds so much more to the band. Without such interesting subjects, Blanket Music could run the risk of coming off as bad twee pop. But fear not, Crouch knows what he is doing, and on top of that, he’s good at it.

(Hush Records)

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Hatchie – Keepsake

Keepsake, the debut album by Brisbane dream pop artist Hatchie is musical luminescence that can only be described as music written for the stars

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Hatchie Keepsake

Brisbane indie-pop artist Hatchie (known to her friends and family as Harriette Pilbeam) is in the envious position of being a pop artist unspoiled by the many trappings of what it is to be a modern pop artist. Unlike some of her contemporaries who craft music by committee or with Sheeran-like self-importance, Hatchie is as of now, unsullied by the pressures of the cookie-cutter pop machine. Hatchie’s debut full length is a showcase for a talent who is supremely confident and composed in her abilities, and Keepsake is musical luminescence that can only be described as music written for the stars. The album is also a wonderful throwback to pop’s dreamy 60s influences that shuffle in and out of this delirium while working alongside distinctly more current musical touches.

There is the lush dream pop sounds of “Without a Blush”, taking cues from the best of what Stars and Goldfrapp conjure but heaping a tonne of Pilbeam’s charisma on it. Like her vocals, “Without a Blush” has this elegance that has the ability to elevate songs from being beautiful to grand. It is the kind of vocal elegance that really shines through on songs like the skittering, beat-driven “Obsessed” and the alternative, guitar-fuelled (yay!) “When I Get Out”. Indie/electronic closer “Keep” is a wonderful end to proceedings.

However, the great strength of Keepsake is not just its composure in how all the songs have been put together. It is also this genuine, natural-sounding quality that permeates the album- nothing overly written, overly produced or put together by research groups or music analysts. It just sounds like talent. We can argue that much of pop music is constructed to appease the moment- designed to grab as much attention as possible in an A.D.D. world. And sure, that can be said about almost any kind of music, but the resulting aural tone of Keepsake is anything but transient or transparent.

The best way to combat tepid chart-topping music is to write better pop songs. Songs like “Her Own Heart” and the disco-toned “Stay” are examples of pop music that come across as timeless. We are moved by the songs found on Keepsake when we listen to them today. And I suspect that in 10 years time, or in 20, we will most likely feel the same. It is rare to find the sort of ageless beauty you find on Keepsake.

(Heavenly Recordings)

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