Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – A Kid: Round 105, Nick’s choice

akidkas“Phenomenologically beautiful” is a phrase I use with alarming frequency (probably more than anyone else who has ever lived, I imagine), particularly at record club, where I deservedly receive a ribbing for it every time. (In fact, if you google the phrase, most of the results are me being an idiot. I’ve probably upset some philosophers by mangling what they think it means.) Sometimes it’s really appropriate, though.

It’s really appropriate for this Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith record, her sixth in six years, because A Kid is beautiful: the direct moment of experiencing it, shorn of context or analysis or discussion or wider epistemological considerations, is physically beautiful, on a sensory level of consciousness.

It achieves a similar goal to the James Holden record I played last time we met, but from a different direction and by different means. They both head for sublimation, that experience of forgetting who you are, feeling your own insignificance in the face of the universe. They both kind of get there through sensory overload, but instead of the energy and edge-of-chaos, dancing-uncontrollably-in-a-forest hysteria of The Animal Spirits, A Kid gets there by being… nebulous, difficult to touch, extraordinarily pretty, calm.

Excuse my guff at the start, though, because Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith makes the kind of music that inspires people to delve into breathless hyperbole; in fact there’s an entire, mealy-mouthed, patriarchal, joy-shaming thread on I Love Music dedicated to the things people wrote on the forum about her previous record.

And some of the phrases polled are pretty ridiculous, taken out of context, but they’re also brilliant, and my favourites are also the ones with the most votes:

“superoxygenated synth fantasias”

“we looked at each other and wondered aloud how we were going to put on another album after this one.”

“a cornucopia of wondrous sound, and i’m excited to have it accompany my life in these next few spring and summer months.”

“I’m going to have to download this and go and sit quietly in a forest with it for a while.”

Far from being shamed, the authors of these lines should be pleased that they’ve
inspired other people to go out and listen to this music, because they have.

Some bio in case you can’t be bothered to google for her wiki page: Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith is from Orcas Island, an isolated part of the Pacific North West, and studied composition and sound engineering at Berklee College of Music in Boston (not Berkley in California, as I’ve seen referenced in a couple of locations), before moving back to Orcas Island and discovering synthesizers, especially the Buchla, which she does most of her work on. From pictures on the internet, Orcas Island looks like the kind of place where a creative kid would grow up with an appreciation of the vastness of nature and the insignificance of the self.

Her last album, 2016’s Ears (the one that people were so unreasonably shamed for enjoying on that thread), was on my list last year of things to buy if I ever saw it anywhere, but I never saw it anywhere. So I’ve ordered it (and the preceding Euclid) from Norman now, and hopefully will soon be able to bask in its pleasures.

She recently did a Baker’s Dozen for The Quietus, and there were a couple of key quotes about other people’s records that I thought could be used to describe her own rather well:

“music that… confuses the listener in a way that they can just relax and listen…”

“I love music that I can just play like that, where it can continue going and my brain won’t hold onto it too much…”

So what does it sound actually like? Who or what might be the frames of reference or comparison points or “like that? Try these” pointers that will make you go “ahhhh” and want to listen to this wonderful record?
Well, imagine if Julia Holter’s Ekstasis had evaporated, or Panda Bear’s Person Pitch had dissolved. Make Anna Meredith’s Varmints really vague.

But really she sounds like someone with a phalanx of synths, a universe of ideas, and a belief that music can and (sometimes) ought to be exceptionally beautiful. Her music is.

Steve listened:
I found this quite beguiling and would like to listen a little more closely. It felt it could be good mood music. I would agree that it’s music that my brain didn’t hold on to much and so I would probably listen again and again having forgotten what it was that intrigued me. There was a rich texture to it and many layers that would allow you to explore more and more. I’ve not yet hit the “buy” button but I may keep it in reserve.

Rob listened: Nick, in his attempt at evocative dissembly, has mostly nailed this one. I came across Kaityln Aurelia Smith the previous year, and ‘Ears’ was one of my favourite records of 2016. Luckily I didn’t bring it to DRC or I would undoubtedly have been caught in Nick’s Hall of Hyperbolic Shame. I did just love the way it sounded though and, as chronicled tediously across many of my posts to this archive, I am increasingly attached to apparently formless musics like this. I also loved, when I first heard her introduced by Lars Gotrich on ‘All Songs Considered’, the description of Smith as someone who had found and become virtuosic on one old synthesiser, the aforementioned Buchla 100. It gives me great pleasure to think of her as the Colin Stetson of this box of knobs, able to twist and regenerate it into endlessly fascinating forms, each of which, so far, it also gives me great pleasure to listen to.


House of Blondes – Clean Cuts: round 58, Nick’s choice

I’ve been wanting to play this gorgeous, modest album for quite some time, but holding off until we were at my house so that people could feel its beautifully-rendered synthesisers emanating from my speakers. Not that there’s anything wrong with anyone else’s speakers; just that I know that Clean Cuts sounds mighty fine through mine, and I didn’t want to risk a sub-optimal first impression.

Except that 2012’s Clean Cuts, despite being House of Blondes’ debut album, wasn’t my first impression of House of Blondes; in 2007 a band by the same name, led by the same man (New Yorker John Blonde) released another debut album (there’s quite a backstory regarding how I came to hear them in that linked article).

That band was a decent-enough indie coterie with some gently florid tunes, and I enjoyed their eponymous record. The House of Blondes that released Clean Cuts early last year is a synth-based three-piece however, and sounds almost completely different bar a few melodic similarities which seem to come, understandably, from the fact that the same guy is singing the songs. Beyond that, though, the analogue pulse, drift, reverberation and oscillation of this record sounds completely unlike the faintly folky guitar piano bass drums of House of Blondes mk1. And I’m glad, because while mk1 was nice, mk2 is wonderful.

Clean Cuts is, to my ears, almost perfectly pitched and sequenced as an album of this kind; there’s an exquisite balance between “songy songs” and “tracky tracks” (as I so eloquently put it on the night), much like on Burst Apart by Antlers. ‘Ego songs’ – tunes that demand your attention, want to be hollered along with, be a single or thought of as an important statement – can be tiring if over used, as they often are on BIG. IMPORTANT. RECORDS. where every song matters and there’s no room to breathe. I’ve always liked the moments in between the ego songs, the segues and instrumentals and low-key songs and ambient wibbles that act as respite and palette cleansers, giving you space to just enjoy the wonder of recorded sound. Clean Cuts has those moments in abundance, and even the “songs songs” never stray fully into ego territory; as a result I’ve never grown tired of this record, despite having played it over and over and over and over again. And the “tracky tracks”, although occasionally beatifically absent and vatic, always feel like something more substantial than sheer ambience.

In terms of influences, similarities, and sound-alikes, you can draw obvious lines to New Order, Gary Numan, Bowie’s Berlin trilogy, Suicide, OMD, and countless other synth-oscillators over the last 30-40 years, but to do so is a little reductive; House of Blondes are their own thing, and very good too. The question of what happens to make some bands get picked up and go over the precipice into wider awareness is a strange one; Clean Cuts is self-released but as good as anything I’ve heard on an established record label. It’s one of my favourite records that I’ve come across in the last 12 months.

Rob listened: Liked this a great deal. Mainly on a purely sonic level, the sounds were lovely and assembled with exquisite care. Secondly, it seemed to chime with the Pinkunoizu record in that it took influences which it seemed happy to display, but wove something new and exciting from them. That’s a tough thing to do and when it’s done right it hits a big sweet spot.

Tom Listened: Whilst sharing only the slightest of direct musical similarities, Clean Cuts seemed to share much common ground with Rob’s offering – Pinkunoizu’s The Drop (to be honest, most records surely will have some common ground with The Drop). Both are records from bands that are so far off the radar that I haven’t seen their name mentioned yet at all in any of the end of year best of lists I have glanced at. Which is simply wrong – both sound to me worthy of adulation and respect….much more so than many of the records that have found their way onto said lists. And both are records that sound unencumbered by the weight of expectation, records made by people who are simply doing what they have to do, just getting it out there. Both are records that I will probably end up buying. Fantastic stuff.

Graham Listened: Sat nicely alongside Pinkunoizu, though a lot more sophisticated and mature than the cheeky upstart. Lots of reference points to electro that could be dubbed “my era”, which made it easy to get on with.

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