AUSTRA: OLYMPIA (2013)
1) What We Done?; 2) Forgive Me; 3) Painful Like; 4) Sleep; 5) Home; 6) Fire; 7) I Don't Care (I'm A Man); 8) We Become; 9) Reconcile; 10) Annie (Oh Muse, You); 11) You Changed My Life; 12) Hurt Me Now.
Just as I feared, the talents of Kate «Still Not Bush» Stelmanis are one-sided after all: sufficient to craft a well-working formula, insufficient to avoid getting trapped by that formula. Even though she and the rest of Austra had plenty of time to write and record the sophomore follow-up, and even though she claimed to have taken even better care of the production, and even if that album cover looks even more stylish (Bryan Ferry would probably get all ecstatic about that choice of... umm, colors), Olympia remains nowhere near as exciting as Feel It Break, at least, as far as my formerly stunned ears are telling me at the moment.
The big difference is that the melodic base of the songs has become less challenging. The general textures remain the same, but the keyboard riffs are significantly simpler and more «backgroundish» — not coincidentally, there is nothing here like the careful 90-second instrumental build-up of ʽBeat And The Pulseʼ, because the emphasis is always on the singing, almost never on the backing track. At least half of the songs on Feel It Break could have worked very well as instrumentals, simply letting you revel in the smooth, gentle interplay between melodies and counter-melodies; the melodies of Olympia, once I succeed in focusing my ears on synthesizers instead of Stelmanis' vocalizing, move dangerously close to atmospheric mush. It's far from the worst atmospheric mush I've heard, but the disappointment is inevitable: where Feel It Break was a record of not-so-trivial electronic compositions, Olympia is a record about the trials and tribulations of Katie Stelmanis, 21st Century Schizoid Woman.
Even her lyrics are beginning to sound less nonsensical (which I almost regret) and, at times, start to approach the dangerous levels of that olde break-up statement. Even the song titles read like one — ʽWhat We Done?ʼ, then ʽForgive Meʼ, then ʽPainful Likeʼ, then ʽReconcileʼ, then ʽHurt Me Nowʼ (actually, "don't hurt me now"). The combination of her unusual vocal style with retro-sounding synth-pop flourishes still elevates it above the average break-up record, but in a way, it's like a trivial explication of an enigma right before your eyes: Feel It Break was about making you feel it break, regardless of the «it» in question, whereas Olympia is all about "how can I make you believe me?" and about "can you hear me now? don't hurt me now!". Boring!
Okay, not boring as in really boring. At least these vocal melodies are still unusual and enticing. On ʽWhat We Done?ʼ, the contrast between the ghostly group harmonies and the shrill, strained, glass-cutting solo trills from Katie works in quite an epic manner. On ʽPainful Likeʼ, the same ghostly chorus of "who will carry?.." inadvertently brings back memories of Til Tuesday's ʽVoices Carryʼ, as if hinting that the problem exposed thirty years ago still remains unsolved. On ʽSleepʼ, the vocal treatment of the simple question "could I feel more?", with each word artificially divided into two syllables with the accent on the second one, probably defines the idea of «frigid orgasm», whatever that one might be. And the list goes on — I would never dare accuse the vocal parts on the album of sharing the laziness of their instrumental counterparts. Problem is, you cannot introduce that much emotional variety in your vocal parts, and sooner or later, you are bound to begin repeating yourself — right down to the verse melodies of ʽHomeʼ and ʽReconcileʼ being pretty much identical, for instance.
Exactly once does the record try to break out of the formula: ʽYou Changed My Lifeʼ is a curiously ironic piece, beginning as a simple, soulful piano ballad of gratitude ("you changed my life for the best"), and then, with an abrupt stop to the vocal bit, re-fading in as a dark, bass-heavy, drum-crashing instrumental with glitchy overdubs, implying that maybe the guy who changed her life for the best actually turned her into a vampire or something like that. No great musical ideas here, but at least a welcome element of surprise — had there been more tracks like that, I would not have to deliberate so long before finally agreeing on a thumbs up. As it is, the thumbs up are essentially due to the voice, not the instruments; in fact, at this point it does not even matter all that much that Stilmanis nominally continues to function in the same synth-pop paradigm — for all I know, she could have sung all those lines to a battered acoustic guitar, and the effect, in most cases, would have remained the same.