Here are three 2019 albums that are quirky and full of exotic sounds. I’ve ordered them in magnitude of weirdness, with the least eccentric first. Enjoy!
Cate Le Bon
Cate Le Bon was discovered by Super Furry Animals front-man Gruff Rhys, opening for him on his 2007 tour. She’s since released a string of well-received records. Leading up to her fifth album, Reward, Le Bon spent a year living alone in the Lake District. In daylight hours she learned to make wooden furniture and at night she composed on her piano.
By the time of Reward, Le Bon’s music still has vestiges of folk, but the predominant flavour is minimalist chamber-pop. Half of the tracks don’t have a regular rhythm section, instead backing Le Bon’s vocals with saxophone and guitar melody lines. The results are often distant from the mainstream of popular music, recalling Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps.
The unusual arrangements are pushed straight into service from the outset – the opener ‘Miami’ immediately launches into a hypnotic arrangement. The single ‘Daylight Matters’ is much more straitlaced, with a rhythm section, but the saxophone and guitar leads still provide an off-kilter feel. Closer ‘Meet the Man’ recalls Bowie’s Berlin-era with its cavernous and arresting vocal, backed with snatches of saxophone.
Reward uses unusual textures, but there’s beauty in its icy austerity.
(Sandy) Alex G
House of Sugar
Philadelphia’s Alexander Giannascoli, known as (Sandy) Alex G, is a product of the Bandcamp self-promotion era. He’s been self-releasing albums of bedroom pop for a decade, building a profile. House of Sugar is his eighth album, and unlike his earliest records, it has its own Wikipedia page, a CD release, and has cracked the Billboard top 50.
House of Sugar is named after the witch’s house in the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel – the first single is also named ‘Gretel’. Musically, (Sandy) Alex G plays deconstructed bedroom pop, often with prominent acoustic instruments like guitar and piano. There’s a distinct, homegrown flavour to his records, even as they become more professional sounding.
House of Sugar features a blend of song-oriented pieces like ‘Gretel’ and ‘Southern Sky’, and more atmospheric pieces. ‘Gretel’ and ‘Walk Away’ have an indie pop flavour, based around acoustic guitar. The bonus track, a live ‘Sugarhouse’, is strangely reminiscent of Springsteen with its impassioned vocal and saxophone backing.
House of Sugar seems unassuming at first, but gradually reveals its charms.
the first glass beach album
Back in the 1990s, it felt like Beck was totally post-modern, blurring the lines between genres on projects like Odelay. Los Angeles band Glass Beach take this approach about six light years further on their debut album. They ignore genre boundaries and change gears abruptly multiple times during the course of a single song.
“the sound of glass beach is a fusion of our diverse range of influences including 1960s jazz, new wave, early synthesizer music, and emo, but all presented with the harshness and irreverence of punk music. we embrace the trend towards genrelessness caused by the increasing irrelevance of record labels and democratization of music brought about by the internet and enjoy playing with musical boundaries even to the point of absurdity.”Glass Beach
Glass Beach launched their career with grandeur – many bands start with EPs, but Glass Beach simply released an hour long debut record. It paid off – they gathered enough momentum that they’ve now received the attention of taste-makers like Pitchfork and TheNeedleDrop.
There’s extreme diversity on the first glass beach album, but much of it has roots in the late 1990s and early 2000s. There’s more than a hint of emo in the vocals of Casio Dad. The first half of ‘Neon Glow’ is driven by pop-punk energy, while the second half builds from ambient noodling into acoustic indie pop, before lifting in intensity for the climax.
Sometimes Glass Beach’s vocals fail to match the grandiosity of the music – the vocals are malleable to keep up with the intricate melodic twists and turns, but can grate after a while. Nevertheless, the first glass beach album is one of the densest records I’ve ever heard – there’s so many ideas here, and it’s worth listening to see if some connect with you.