Sound Bites

Album review: Mutual Benefit's Love's Crushing Diamond will move your soul, steal your heart

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 7, 2013

In an age of torrential information, rare is the frisson of discovery.

It's increasingly tough to get a skin-tingling sense of wonder, of chancing upon something so luminescent and untethered to trends.

A few debut albums have had that transformative effect on me.

I remember being walloped by the passion of Montreal alt-rockers Arcade Fire's 2004 debut Funeral and the spectral honesty of Wisconsin indie-folk troubadour Bon Iver's 2007 debut For Emma, Forever Ago.

And now, another record has come out of nowhere to steal my heart: Love's Crushing Diamond, the proper debut by Jordan Lee, a peripatetic American based in Brooklyn.

Going by a humble moniker Mutual Benefit, Lee recorded these songs on the road, intending the album initially to be available only on cassettes.

Excellent word-of-mouth means Love's Crushing Diamond will soon be available in multiple formats - for now, it's available on iTunes.

The music recalls folkish Sufjan Stevens; the hushed moments of the late indie rocker Elliott Smith; and in the way instruments and voice unite in a seemingly artless manner, reminds one of the San Franciscan band Vetiver's 2006 album To Find Me Gone, specifically its opening track Been So Long.

The first track, Strong River, shimmers into life, chimes and percussion stirring from dream. Lee's voice, too, is a creature of wonder. Kiwi bird-shy, it chirps.

The gentleness rivets.

Its exquisite beauty belies some tough human decisions one has to make.

On Golden Wake, driven by what sounds like a factory motor churning ad nauseam, he decides to quit his job when he realises on a river walk that "we weren't made to be afraid".

That's what makes Mutual Benefit so special. Lee's intimations may be personal, but they are also communal, drawing all into his warm embrace.

Advanced Falconry captures the moment of being slayed by love. "And she talks softly/Sees through me/Says something/I can't hear it," he sings, slowly levitating himself.

Elsewhere, one learns life isn't a bed of roses and you have to strive for it.

His characters are ensnared in the penumbra, looking "for God in an empty motel room" (The Light That's Blinding) or swimming against currents (Strong Swimmer).

And so you immerse in the ambivalent waters of Mutual Benefit.

Never fully aware of the power of the undertow, you saunter into it anyway.


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Album of the week

INDIE FOLK

LOVE’S CRUSHING DIAMOND

Mutual Benefit

Soft Eyes/Other Music

Recording Co

**** 1/2


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Indie/Folk rock

ANTIPHON

Midlake

ATO/Love Da Music

*** 1/2

An antiphon is a choir response, often in the form of a Gregorian chant. Could the fourth album by Texan band Midlake be a reply to lead singer Tim Smith who left the band last year? Probably.

With guitarist Eric Pulido taking on the vocals, there’s a shift in tenor. He doesn’t have Smith’s caramel richness – it’s simultaneously thinner yet rougher. You’re unlikely to be lulled.

Sonically, they are on top of their game. Songs such as The Old And The Young and Aurora Gone soar and dip, surfing on a sea of synthesizer, keys and organic instruments.

Like alt-country equals Grandaddy and Lambchop, they build a world of their own, and you feel privileged to be invited in.


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Indie pop/Pop rock

FIRE WITHIN

Birdy

14th Floor/Atlantic

***

You’ve heard her chart-topping cover of Bon Iver’s Skinny Love in 2011, and now Birdy wants to prove she can write her own tunes.

At 17, the English singer is a year older than Lorde, the New Zealander who is making waves now with her debut, Pure Heroine.

Birdy’s Fire Within may not be as high-profile as Lorde’s, but she holds her own, thank you very much. A wellschooled singer who does all the right things, she segues to a falsetto in Maybe or emotes convincingly in No Angel.

With co-writers such as Australian singer-songwriter Sia Furler and American band OneRepublic’s frontman Ryan Tedder, this Birdy is in protective hands. Whether or not she’ll find her own space in the sky, one awaits.


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Indie rock/Psych-pop

WONDROUS BUGHOUSE

Youth Lagoon

Fat Possum

****

Defiantly personal, Youth Lagoon are the kind of band the late Lou Reed would have liked. Sometimes p***-drunk and always alert, they inhabit an alterna-universe together with like-minded contrarians such as Ariel Pink and Bradford Cox (Deerhunter).

Headed by Boise, Idaho, songsmith Trevor Powers, Youth Lagoon spin a merry-go-round of warped melodies. It’s psych-pop Animal Collective but submerged in water.

Many times, you can’t quite make out what Powers is on about, but you’re unnerved and seduced nonetheless.

Fluvial synths pervade The Bath, as the singer dives in and out; and Sleep Paralysis slows and stills and tries to find its way out of here.


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Hip-hop/Alternative dance

THE FIFTH

Dizzee Rascal

Dirtee Stank/Universal

** 1/2

A decade after the East London rapper made his Mercury Prize-winning debut Boy In Da Corner, Dizzee Rascal tries to crack America.

It’s dispiriting, to be honest. Roping in singers will.i.am, Sean Kingston, Jessie J, Robbie Williams and Tinie Tempah, this comes across as a by-the-numbers missive at the charts.

His super-slick flow can still light a fire, but that’s extinguished by the oft-canny production.

Occasionally, he throws out the rule book and lets his inner Brit quirk run free. Superman works its cinematic synths around Laurie Anderson’s O Superman while the utterly rude Bassline Junkie will make you laugh.

kaichai@sph.com.sg