In an effort to reboot our music coverage, In Review Online has launched some monthly features devoted to reviewing new album releases. Today, we launch Foreign Correspondent — a survey of new releases from the international music world. Issue #1 features takes on albums from Chilean pop artist Alex Anwandter; rising Catalonian star Rosalía; Norwegian electronic avant-gardist and vocalist Stine Janvin; and two Japanese releases, from “post-hardcore” band Cöe Shu Nie and electronic producer Tofubeats. The issue also features a selection for InRO’s Kicking the Canon project: British-born, Indian descended Najma’s 1987 album Qareeb.
Chilean alt-pop auteur Alex Anwandter’s 2016 triumph Amiga channeled queer defiance into both ecstatic dance music (its first half) and reflective balladry (its second). Anwandter’s new album, Latinoamericana, draws equally on the colonialist past and the nationalist present for a cohesive portrait of a new age of anxiety, where hope for the future grapples with the alarmism and despair of the daily news. Opener “Malinche” evokes the eponymous 16th-century Aztec woman, still a controversial figure in Mexican culture, often perceived as a traitor for allying with Hernán Cortés during his brutal conquest. Yet the target of Anwandter’s cryptic accusations sounds more contemporary; “Now you want the taste of the invisible,” he sings, and “You think yourself a preacher/but you are predictable.” Amiga protested violence against, and oppression of, queer people in Anwandter’s native country, but as the title suggests, Latinoamericana takes a broader view, obliquely addressing the rise of right-wing demagogues in not only Chile, but also Argentina, the United States (where Anwandter now resides), and Brazil — the last of these represented via covers of songs, sung in Portuguese, by iconic artists Milton Nascimento and Chico Buarque. Anwandter’s palette of musical influences has also expanded; though the prevailing mode is still impeccably produced synth-pop, bolstered by lush string arrangements, he incorporates traditional South American instruments throughout to enhance the folkloric feel and, on the ominous “No Te Puedes Escapar,” there are bracing hints of new wave and Krautrock. The ambitious scope of Latinoamericana makes for perhaps a less immediate experience than Amiga, but it rewards close attention like nothing else Anwandter has made, revealing new layers of lyrical and musical complexity with each replay. It’s essential listening for anyone seeking politically engaged, artistically impassioned pop music. Alex Engquist
On Stine Janvin’s previous records, the Norwegian artist presented her wide-ranging vocals in a more-or-less unadulterated manner, allowing the otherworldliness of her sound to also feel intimate. She alters that approach for Fake Synthetic Music, marrying her voice to electronics and providing soundscapes that are as hypnotic as they are sterile. While artists who utilize extended vocal techniques are often commended for showcasing the boundlessness of the human voice, Janvin must have found such claims shortsighted. In an interview with C. Spencer Yeh, Janvin commented on her time spent in the free improvisation scene, noting that it’s “never actually free because somehow all the musicians know how to improvise in this free setting. It’s a kind of language even if you claim it not to be.” Her skepticism leads us to the systematic networks of beeps and loops that make up Fake Synthetic Music. While tracks such as “Like Right Now,” “Lean In,” and “Zen Garden” make it easy to trace back sounds to their human source, Janvin’s electronic processing strips her voice of all warmth; her vocals are utilized for their basic aural qualities and decontextualized through her meticulous editing. The result is nine tracks of dizzying rapture, all the more impressive given the small number of elements used. The prickly dance of “GLITCH,” the cryptic atmosphere of “LIPS,” and the distressing sensory assault of “Tripple A” find Janvin consistently coming up with ways to ensnare her listeners. In part, this is due to the discrete rhythmic patterns she employs, which create a strobing effect that recalls EVOL’s Proper Headshrinker and Secret Thirteen mix. Unsurprisingly, it’s by scrapping familiar methodologies that Janvin is able to push her voice into the most unrecognizable places. And given that decades of work from experimental vocalists have allowed for a familiarity of the human voice — both its capabilities and consequent limitations — Fake Synthetic Music is refreshing because it makes the instrument feel alien once again. Joshua Minsoo Kim
The new Rosalía album has been promoted by the press as a deliberate synthesis of the Catalonian artist’s modern flamenco sound (as defined on last year’s beautiful, cavernous Los Ángeles) and the R&B and hip-hop music that the millennial’s attentions have drifted toward in her rise to international recognition. A couple collabs with Pharrell Williams and Columbian reggaeton sensation J. Balvin in recent months paved the way for what looked like a full-blown crossover effort. But while El Mal Querer certainly has its pop moments (singles “Pienso en tu Mirá” and “Malamente,” in particular) they come interwoven into a conscious and accomplished album statement, one that indicates sonic ambitions far greater than merely capturing the genre sounds of the contemporary zeitgeist. Tracks like “De Aquí No Sales,” with its revving motorcycle engines and screeching tires, or the 1:38 breakdown of “Maldición,” which features the tinny video game sound of clanging swords followed by a distorted sample of Arthur Russel’s “Answers Me” (the same track Kanye sampled on “30 Hours”), approach a kind of musique concrète style similar to what Tex-Mex standard-bearers Los Lobos accomplished in the 1990s, especially with their side-project Latin Playboys. Rosalía’s ambitions are even headier though: Whereas the Playboys aimed to craft a sound not only representative of their genre interests, but also of the surrounding sociocultural atmosphere that music was recorded in, the soundscape of Rosalia’s album is appropriately globalized. On the interlude “Preso,” a lo-fi recording of a solo Spanish guitar shares space with a gentle tropical house beat, and a sample of Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” shows up on “Bagdad,” blended into a Middle Eastern melody. Found-sound experimentation finds its way into the more pop moments too, tempting comparison to M.I.A.’s ahead-of-its-time 2010 album, Maya, especially in the way these elements provide rhythmic frameworks (like the very flamenco handclap-beat of “Di Mi Nombre,” or the way the motorcycles and police sirens on “De Aquí No Sales” are chopped up and isolated as a backing track). But M.I.A.’s production tends to favor cacophony, while what’s most striking about El Mal Querer is also what anchors it in the tradition of flamenco: Its minimalism, and its emphasis on negative space. The album’s 30:14 is densely packed with sonic ideas, but it still retains much of the ruminative spaciousness that made Los Ángeles such a fetching debut. Sam C. Mac
Like most artists who set out to create a novel sound all their own, Cö Shu Nie are hard to put in a single box. While the group definitely falls under the wider category of Japan’s post-hardcore movement, simply describing them as such would be reductive; they combine the technical skill and unpredictability of revered predecessors of the genre, like Ling Toshite Sigure, with the catchy hooks and smart sequencing of groups like School Food Punishment. Nearly every Cö Shu Nie song is imbued with a layer of electronics and strings on top of an already bursting combination of guitars, bass, and drums, resulting in an intentional chaos that makes the band consistently engaging. And the group’s generally unstructured compositions, as well as their penchant for songs that come in under the three-minute mark, result in a dynamic, dense sound that allows for the keen listener to discover something new each time. Cö Shu Nie’s latest EP, Aurora, is a short release, but it provides a good overall sampler of the band’s sound: Album opener “Character” is a glitchy, chaotic assault to the senses that’s improbably also very catchy, while “Budou” further solidifies the comparisons to School Food Punishment, and also Gesu No Kiwami Otome — yet at the same time, the layered style and upbeat tempo gives it Cö Shu Nie’s signature flair. “Asura” falls much more into the Ling Toshite Sigure side of the band’s dual inspirations, with a sprightly, sporadically deployed guitar riff that turns into an overwhelming show of technical skill before an abrupt end, all in barely over a minute. A contemplative, solemn, piano-led reworking of Cö Shu Nie’s previous EP’s title track, “Asphyxia,” closes out Aurora, ending the short but intense release in the unexpected tone of a sweet whisper. Taylor Murnane
“Do you have an album you recently liked?” Tofubeats cried out on 2017’s “Shoppingmall,” the lead-off track of their last album, Fantasy Club. There, drowned-out by noises of the modern world, digital-pop producer Yūsuke Kawai still desperately yearned to connect with anyone who was willing to listen to his diary-like music. His anxiety may have subsided a bit since, but he once again clutches on to music for emotional support — and as a guide to finding missed connections — on Run. Kawai calls out the “DJ” in the ‘90s-nostalgic R&B jam “Moonlight,” and proceeds to run through a series of back-to-back house tracks, each serving as a direct genre exercise: Tofubeats steps outside of his usual style to flex his dance-music know-how, with acid (“You Make Me Acid”), deep house (“Return to Sender”), and electro (“Bullet TRN”). After this run of instrumentals, Kawai reemerges — and on “Sometimes,” he bashfully sings, “I want you to play me a record you like,” as if reminiscing about the music that came immediately before. “Dead Wax” then catches a lonely Tofubeats, left at a venue after a show with the lights back on and the music shut off. But the final piano ballad, “River,” concludes Run in a tone far removed from that of the album’s blindly infatuated opener, “Immortal Love” — settling on a contented ending, rather than sulking in disappointment. Kawai may still be a wanderer on Run, trying to fill a void by forming new relationships and sharing his favorite records, but he seems more willing to take those experiences in stride. Ryo Miyauchi
British-born Najma Akhtar never intended to become a singer; she followed in the footsteps of her parents and graduated with a masters in Chemical Engineering from Aston University. It wasn’t until Najma visited distant relatives in Najibabad, India, and learned Urdu, that she picked up the vocal tradition of spiritual poems (or as their known in the Arab world, ghazals). As the liner notes for 1987’s Qareeb explain, “The ghazal occupies a unique place in the poetry and music of the Indian subcontinent.” The poetic form dates back to the 7th century, but remains popular among modern-day Middle-Eastern/Indian vocalists. Usually, these verses are deeply religious in nature, centering on one’s love for their creator and the feelings of fulfillment that love brings them. Back in the UK, and enjoying the tutelage of esteemed Indian vocal coach Ustad Naeem Solaria, Najma entered into Birmingham’s Asian Song Contest, won the top prize, and from their slowly built-up a fanbase. One of these fans was fusion artist Iain Scott, who asked Najma if she’d be interested in recording an album of only ghazals. Recorded at F2 Studios (famous for hosting The Cure and Anne Clark), with an eye on the international market, Qareeb became that album, and represented the first time that many outside of Asia had even heard of the the ethnic choral form of the ghazal.
Scott’s vision for Qareeb was as a grand mixture of musical traditions modern and traditional — a bridge between “old world” Indian music and a contemporary sound. To accomplish this, Hindustani melodies were paired with ’80s smooth jazz arrangements, and East Asian time signatures — all in service to Najma’s sweeping, Bollywood-esque soprano. Opening track “Neend Koyi” features Najma’s reverberating vocal accompanied by spare synths and lush violin playing (by Nawazish Ali Khan, who’s since gone on to work with the likes of Morrissey and Robert Plant). The dynamic range of Najma’s singing announces itself as an easygoing tabla rhythm saunters in, and the singer’s voice shifts from a bellowing lower register to a soaring, high-pitched cry, breathing new life into the song’s ancient lyrics. For the rest of Qareeb, an eclectically transnational blend of musical influences continue to evolve beyond the rigidity of the set’s retro foundations. But it’s really Najma’s heavenly rounded vocal tone that affords this project its magnetic allure; the singer supplies tracks like “Dil Laga Ya Tha” and “Zikar Hai Apna” with a grace and energy that invigorates and galvanizes the accompanying instrumentals. Najma would continue to push boundaries with her voice over the next decade on some otherwise conventional, bhajan-inspired releases. But in some ways, much like her beginnings in music, Najma’s Qareeb represents a serendipitous occurrence, conjuring a universally appealing sound from the transnational experience. Paul Attard