Austra and Magic Mouth both make it to SF in time for Pride week, plus a band vs band chili cook-off at Bender's
TOFU AND WHISKEY Unlike most anticipated albums these days, Austra's sophomore LP, Olympia (June 18, Domino Records), came out in gleaming little drops. There were no leaked full downloads — at least, nothing massively widespread. But the sparkly bits that did trickle out, namely first single "Home" and its follow-up, "Painful Like," were enough to build interest.
The Canadian synth-pop six-piece already had a built-in audience, thanks to 2011's Feel It Break, mostly created by darkly operatic lead vocalist Katie Stelmanis, former Trust vocalist Maya Postepski on drums, and bassist Dorian Wolf, and made almost exclusively on a computer. Now a more fully realized unit using live instrumentation, the group, which also includes keyboardist Ryan Wonsiak and supernatural twin backing vocalists Sari and Romy Lightman, created the lush, full-bodied second record together in a studio. And it shows: there's a richness to the sound. There's a steady dance beat throughout the record, with the addition of sounds like cowbells and even more barreling percussion underneath all those moody vocals wailings and subtle piano keys.
"We have so much percussion on the album, I had days where I would just play all day," Postepski says from Switzerland, on the group's brief tour through Europe. "I think it added to the richness to it, and the realness of the sound. As much as it is an electronic record, we wanted it to have a balance with real instruments."
That first released track "Home" seduced critics earlier this spring with a more upbeat style than typical of Austra, yet the lyrics are again deeply personal for Stelmanis, about someone not coming home at night because they're out getting wasted, and the desperate feeling of waiting for that person to return.
Sonically, second single, "Painful Like" gets more to the core of what the group does best, meshing gothy dancefloor-ready beats and bubbly synth with crashing drums and Stelmanis' otherworldly vocals on display.
The lyrics were inspired by "the disillusionment of growing up gay in a small town and finding solace in the arms of a lover."
Stelmis told Spinner in 2011, "Indie music is funny. It's really not as queer positive as you would think. In a lot of ways, it's very centered around white men, basically. I just want there to be space for gays."
She seems to have taken that to heart on Olympia, including even more of herself than on Feel it Break.
"The lyrics on the new album are personal, intimate reflections of what Stelmanis is going through," Postepski says.
The new record contains hints of other moody synth-based projects like former tourmate Grimes, the Knife, and Zola Jesus, though Postepski says she almost exclusively listens to music made before 1995, specifically Grace Jones and David Bowie. She does make an exception for British techno producer Andy Stott. "That's where all the super low bassy stuff comes from," she explains.
While many of the tracks follow the same formula, Olympia is packed with emotional dancefloor moments. It's the kind of record that could soundtrack a crying fit in a dark club bathroom, mascara bleeding down the face, strangers surrounding the mirror, all of the drama inherent in nightlife, then follow the main character triumphantly back out onto the floor.
"As much as it is a serious album, there's a lot of playfulness as well," Postepski says. "I think we struck a good balance."