Passing Judgement (Nice Fluffy Edition): Amiina & Jóhann Kristinsson

27 Aug

Well despite the never-ending chronicles that is known as “Can’t get at my fucking music on my faulty hard drive,” it’s still good to know that down here on the farm, the flow of new-ish music continues. And over the last few weeks, I’ve come into the possession of a couple of Icelandic albums that seek to soothe with their floaty melodies and stuff. Oh really? well lets have a look then….

Johann Kristinsson – Headphones

There’s been a bit of a buzz about this guy on the Icelandic blogosphere in the last few months. His latest album was mentioned by Oli Dori and Davið Roach, the tastemakers over at as “dramatic and beautiful,” and the GV  recently made one of the songs from ‘Headphones’ track of the issue. So with such hearty endorsements in mind, I went and got myself a copy (Thanks Reykjavik City Library!) to hear what the fuss was all about.

And after several listens, I can definitely say that ‘Headphones’ is a very, very worthy album, but maaaaan it’s so very, very…. dreary. Most of the problem is in the delivery from Kristinsson himself. Straight from the first track “Battleship,” which has this mogadon vocal fry going on, he seems to stay on the same listless energy level throughout. I think he’s trying to go for something that’s close and intimate, but he just sounds tired and bored. Perhaps when you ally it with his lyrics, you could say it gives the impression of someone who is going through depression, or being emotionally closed down. Indeed his songs are peppered with lines such as “There’s something wrong inside of me,” “I don’t know where to begin I don’t know,” or “You can’t undo relationships gone bad.” But you just don’t get the sense that he is drawing from any well of emotional insight. And when he comes out with lines such as “Soon I’ll run away from home, that’s what I’m hoping for/ I just don’t know how I will do it. It’s just another way to let myself away from you/ I hope it works,” or “I’m pretty sure I’m bored,” It’s all comes across a bit like a passive-aggressive whine.

The music is made from components straight from what’s now a pretty identikit now-folk sound. You’ve got electronic beats that Tunng patented all those years ago, along with apologetic pianos and simple downstrummed guitar rhythms. Of course there are effects driven electric guitars that are there to add a bit of dramatic tension, but it’s mere window dressing. Even Of Monsters And Men do that!

It has to be said that there are a few good moments in ‘Headphones.’ Much has been made of the of the fact that the track “Typewriter” was recorded in a castle in Europe, and it definitely lends the track a a dusty and spooky ambiance, where every scratch and creak of the chairs and hinges are accentuated. Then there’s the song after that, “No Need to Hesitate,” where he remembers to express some kind of actual life pumping feeling. It’s during these two tracks where some kind of magic begins. There’s some drums! There’s a rush of energy that makes everything come alive, and Kristinsson’s voice, when he actually sings, actually takes on a bit of a sub Neil Young quality to it. It starts to crack a little bit with emotion. And you think to yourself, THIS is what this album needs a lot more of. 

But two decent tracks alone is not enough to push ‘Headphones’ as an album into essential listening territory for me. The truth is that the world of folky indie right now is suffering from a major glut of music that sounds just exactly like this album – All polite and merely adequate. For this, Jose Gonzales and Ben Gibbard have got a lot to answer for.  

Amiina – The  Lighthouse Project


What … you’re telling me that’s not the first thing you think whenever there’s a new Amiina release? Hmm… must be just me then.

Ah Amiina, all stout of plucked strings and swathed in numerous knitted layers.  Truth is that when I first heard the music of Sigur Rós’ bodyguards Amiina all those years ago, I did have a slight adversive reaction to their sound. The they way they came across was it was all just so precious. But you know, like a slow creeping moss, they slowly displayed a certain charm that was rather beguiling, especially when they took on the services of Kippi Kaninus on electronics and Maggi Eliassen on drums. With them on board there was a more balanced dynamic and a more fleshed out sound to their live proceedings. 

And now they have a new EP out titled “The Lighthouse Sessions.” The main USB, as is hinted in the title. is that the EP was recorded in various lighthouses along the Icelandic coast. This time around it’s Amiina sans Kippi and Maggi (Well I can’t heard them in the mix anyway), with just the women providing the aural environment. In some ways the songs on TLP are probably the most orthodox they’ve written in terms of style and structure. There’s no contrived kerrazy witchy-wooness goings on here. Just simple, uncomplicated melodies, all hanging chimes that are augmented with some wonderfully played bowed saws.

‘The Lighthouse Project,’ is an incredibly warm and soothing listen. When you’re aware of how unstable and volatile Iceland’s weather can be, the impression of making TLP is of being all warn, safe and cozy indoors, while outside a storm blasts the hill and rages against the rocks below. While people have commented on the track “Halli” (Which they recorded a version with a spoken word vocal with the great Lee Hazlewood before he died), the standout track is “Leather And Lace,” which is probably as good  as anything they’ve done over the last several years.

True this is not one of those EPs that’s gonna get you pumping on a Saturday night, which of course is not what Amiina’s music is designed for. This is very much the sort of thing you listen to on a rainy afternoon when indoors with a book, or when you are decompressing late at night as you balm your brain to take your body to the land of nod. 

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Posted by on August 27, 2013 in literature, music


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