Sound Advice: Olympia by Austra

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Sound Advice: Olympia by Austra

Electro-pop meets analog and opera.

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From humble beginnings as a solo project by vocalist and keyboard player Katie Stelmanis back in 2009, Austra has become an ever-more-complex musical chimera. First, the operatic, indie-rock project became a trio with the addition of drummer Maya Postepski and bassist Dorian Wolf, finding both a new creative centre and some forward drive in the process. Their collaboration led to Austra’s 2011 debut, Feel It Break, a shiveringly authentic piece of electro pop that earned the band a place on the 2011 Polaris Prise short list. Later, Austra would attract a revolving cast of touring and session members. Out of that expanding network of talent, a second full-length, Olympia, was formed.

Olympia, released on June 18 by Paper Bag Records, was written more collaboratively than past albums, and is primarily the work of Stelmanis and co-songwriter Sari Lightman—who, along with her sister Romy (both of Tasseomancy), also serves as a touring backup singer. The lyrics are much improved over Austra’s earlier efforts, alternately sweet and melancholic or ghostly and biting, with more punch and grit and teeth than on Feel It Break. It’s the songwriting, as well as the recording quality itself, that has shown the most improvement. There’s a gothic intricacy to the layering of sound. The band takes a framework of stark, chilly synths and pours warm, velvety strings and winds on top, with urgent beats and supremely danceable energy underneath. The production quality is buttery, burnished, and distinctly analog, creating a sound that’s muscular and inviting. For all its complexity, individual elements stand out in detail, giving Austra’s sound more precision than in the past.

Over and above all the glorious production finishes and musical flourishes, Stelamanis’s clarion voice soars. It would be easy to hide behind the music and all its baroque electronics, but Olympia finds its singer even more open and vulnerable, her vocals often evoking a palpable ache. The album’s first single, “Home,” is a trilling, trembling ode to loneliness even in love, the mournfulness in the words offset by swelling, almost rebellious keys. (You can listen to “Home” by clicking the sample, above.) Likewise, the sheer prettiness of the harmonies in “What We Done” belies a creeping sense of loss woven into its gently rocking rhythms. Olympia is an excellent record for anyone who wants to feel everything at once.

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