Monday, January 14, 2013

School of Seven Bells - "Ghostory" (LP Review)

David Byrne has a TED talk about music in context: how music is shaped by the environment in which it is intended to be experienced.  Music intended for the outdoors, dive bars, concert halls, etc. are best experienced in those environments and do not necessarily translate well into other environments.

There is more to his argument and I encourage you to read it (his blog is always engaging on a variety of topics, only a few of which are about music), but I'll use context as the motivation for this review.  Less than a year ago I was driving in my car and listening to 96.1, pretty much the only local option for alternative music on the radio, not counting specific shows on public radio like "Out of the Box".   Now keep in mind that the definition of "alternative" is contextually dependent as well.  96.1 is a pretty good station, but they have to sell commercials like everybody else and the Hampton Roads market isn't that big, so there is a definite limit to just how "alternative" things get. 

So when I heard "Lafaye" (it was either that or "Love Play") from School of Seven Bells on the car radio, it caught my attention.  I fired up my iphone app to find out who it was and made a note of it for future exploration.  "Ghostory" is the third LP from the band, but somehow I had not heard of them.  The band has an interesting story: originally Benjamin Curtis and identical twins Claudia and Alejandra Deheza, "Ghostory" is their first LP without Claudia.  I did some reading and sampled some YouTube videos, and then added the LP to my next Amazon order. 

So here's the point about context: the threshold for "cool" and "alternative" is apparently much lower in my car radio than it is in my home collection.  "Ghostory" is not a bad LP, and there really aren't any bad songs.  But what sounded so engaging while driving around town is really just a by-the-numbers imitation Cocteau Twins, albeit with productions values updated by 20+ years.  I love the Cocteau Twins (and the whole 4AD sound) but if you have some of the more accessible Cocteau Twins LPs like "Heaven or Las Vegas", you're not going to hear anything new on "Ghostory".  It's all there: ethereal vocals, otherworldly soundscapes, the dreamy soundtrack for some yet-unmade film; the notable exception is that Alejandra does not convey the joy that Elizabeth Fraser brings to the Cocteau Twins.

Somehow, reviews by Pitchfork, Drowned in Sound, and Stereogum all miss the CT/4AD similarity. To me it could not be any more obvious than if they had named the LP "Remixed Ghosts of Heaven or Las Vegas".  One of the reviews points out that "Ghostory" is a concept LP about a woman named "Lafaye" and the "ghosts" in her life... screw it, I'm already bored.

Standout songs: "Love Play", "Lafaye", "Scavenger" (live, acoustic version). 

Other songs: most are available in this YouTube playlist.

Skip 'em songs: none.

Final score: 6/10.  With a nod to David Byrne, "Innovative in Michael's Car" != "Innovative in Michael's Home".  Suitable for background listening.

Cocteau Twins Bonus links: "Heaven or Las Vegas", "Frou Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires", "I Wear Your Ring" -- see my point?

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