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Louise Burns, Spells
1710 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA, 94103
Doors 7:00 PM / Show 8:00 PM
Lightning Dust - the duo comprised of Amber Webber and Josh Wells - tends to thrive in the spirit of change. 2007's self-titled debut was a hushed, intricate folk affair, while 2009's Infinite Light found a middle ground between Suicide and Fleetwood Mac era pop. So when they geared up to make the music that would become Fantasy, the pair was looking for a new sonic stamp.
Lightning Dust's 3rd proper full length finds its inspiration in skeletal synth pop, modern R&B beats, the films of John Carpenter and -- in accordance with Lightning Dust's only longstanding rule -- absolute minimalism. The core of Fantasy lies as much in the songwriting as in its sonics, and begins with tools familiar to Webber and Wells: her acoustic guitar and his Wurlitzer piano. They worked to distill the arrangements to just the few key elements that were necessary to make the feel right, and through countless hours of labor in The Balloon Factory - their Vancouver studio - the songs found their way to a sonic palette more squarely electronic than either expected.
The first product of this experiment was "Never Again" which was previously featured on a 7" in 2011 and now closes the new album. It is a menacing, almost gothic electro-pop churner, marching from an oscillating beat to an anthemic thunderstorm of synth textures. Like many of its cohorts, the song came together slowly: beginning with a barebones acoustic demo and honed through their new sonic prism, "Never Again" became not only a bouncing synth opus but a thesis statement of sorts for Fantasy.
Knowing now where they were going, the path began to take shape. The duo was keen to use a purely synthetic palette for Fantasy, but instead of toiling away in front of a computer, Wells armed himself with an MPC 2000 -- a cumbersome, outdated machine, but one that proved to be the perfect tool to keep the spirit of absolute minimalism alive in their new musical terrain. The time-honored producer's weapon of choice became Wells' entrance to the world of programming, one that empowered him to work by feel alone. Webber, meanwhile, mined the freedom she felt singing along to records as a child, and strove to write vocal melodies and sing with a more extroverted pop sensibility. The hooks are apparent, and Webber sings with a self-assurance that belies the extent to which Fantasy marks a new, uncharted sonic space for the band.
By beginning at the end, Lightning Dust has delivered an album that informs their sound in remarkable new ways. Fantasy is a hypnotic, exciting record, recklessly new without sacrificing the rich atmosphere that makes Lightning Dust who they are. "Loaded Gun" is a robotic riot grrrl anthem, while "Agatha" stands tall as an ominous lullaby. "Fire, Flesh and Bone" recalls the best cinematic new wave ballads, while acoustic heartbreaker "Moon" makes the rest of the world disappear. And so while Lightning Dust's destination was never an exact place, Fantasy is as vivid a place as you've ever imagined.
According to Louise Burns, the spirit animal hovering above her new album is a Foxx. A John Foxx, to be precise, meaning the impressively cheekboned UK synth pop pioneer who fronted Ultravox in the late '70s. You can find a picture of Burns online, standing in a record store, the proud new owner of Foxx's second solo LP, The Garden. Fittingly, Burns' sophomore album is partly located in the same time and place.
"I went back to the music I first fell in love with," she says of her latest, The Midnight Mass. "Which was the Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Depeche Mode, all of my favourite influences." You could add Berlin-era Bowie into the mix—there's even a tense, Scott Walker-ish track called "The Lodger"—but The Midnight Mass is hardly an exercise in aping Burns' heroes.
She's too much in the habit of being herself to let that happen. And so, while the glacial presence of NY no-wavers Suicide is felt in a track like "Don't Like Sunny Days," it's in a sort of détente with Burns' natural warmth, amber voice, and her instinct for a hook. And while Townes Van Zandt was a seemingly unlikely source for the slow-burning "Heaven"— "I was literally going to bed listening to the 'For the Sake of the Song' every night for three months," she says—Burns tackles it like she's in a spectral version of the Shangri-Las. The effect in either case is something like sweet depression.
Not surprisingly, The Midnight Mass was conjured out of a tumultuous time for the artist. She describes a feeling of "displacement" that only increased after the release of her Polaris nominated solo debut Mellow Drama in 2011. "Jobs, rent, strained relationships, self-doubt— a lot of the record is about the reality check you get in your late twenties," she says.
As for the striking departure in style, Burns was never likely to stop exploring her private musical landscape—something she does here with the aid of producers Colin Stewart and the Raveonettes' Sune Rose Wagner. Sonically, The Midnight Mass is like Mellow Drama after it was shoved through the fifth dimension in a TARDIS. First single "Emerald Shatter" is draped in the heaviest of synths; electric clouds of buzz devour roiling post-punk drums in "The Artist"; her cover of the Gun Club's "Mother of Earth" literally sounds like charged fog.
With players James Younger, Darcy Hancock (Ladyhawk), Gregg Foreman (Cat Power), and drummer Brennan Saul (Brasstronaut) on board—with some additional help from Wagner and Dum Dum Girls' Sandra Vu—a track like ``He`s My Woman`` becomes Rowland S. Howard doing Ennio Morricone in a mossy Romanian field (complete with Jesse Zubot's dancing fiddle). In all cases, the instincts that have carried Burns through an almost 20 year career are never abandoned.
"It doesn't feel like a big change for me. I'm a pop writer," she says, acknowledging that no amount of gleefully applied retro-future artifice can obscure the honesty of her songwriting. Ditching the feel for addictive melodies, meanwhile, would be like learning to un-walk. Louise Burns wanted to make an album that was "coherent and cinematic and beautiful and dark"—and she has—but rendering it into an item as gripping as The Midnight Mass was something she never could have helped.
Spells is the latest project from San Francisco-based songwriter Jennifer Marie.
Between layers of synths and vintage organs are haunting melodies, the music falling somewhere in that shadowy space between darkness and light. Like the sounds heard when you're walking alone at night, Spells' songs are enigmatic and lush, heady and dreamlike.