2019: Albums of the Year

As a blog focused purely on new music, doing anything that verges on the posthumous feels strange. Honestly, working on this ‘albums of the year’ feature has prevented us from writing about so much new music we’ve loved over the past few weeks. I don’t know if it feels very ‘us’ and maybe we won’t do it again, we’re still in our first year as a blog so we’re still very much experimenting – we probably always will be. 

However, this feature is a nice way to look back on our first year. A year in which we’ve written 209 posts, hosted four showcases and made countless new friends. That last thing is what I’m most proud of, the way this blog has managed to connect with people digitally and physically. It’s responsible for some of the greatest people I’ve ever met entering my life. When I first started it in Salford, at no point did I think I’d receive emails from writers as far away as Baltimore and Minnesota who wanted to be part of this story (hi Sage, hi Anj). We’ve emailed each other as one is going to bed and the other is waking up, the internet in the main is an absolute sewer but when it allows two people with completely different lives, completely different backstories to share their love for something they do have in common – music – you can’t help but step back and admire its fleeting beauty. If you want to help us on our mission to share the best new alternative & DIY music in 2020, please do send us an email at balloonmachineinfo@gmail.com. For now though, just enjoy the albums that meant most to us in 2019, the albums that sent shards of light into a world that’s getting darker by the day.  

Angel Olsen – All Mirrors

By Sage Shemroske

Angel Olsen has had a very particular experience with how the press responds to her music. Years ago a Chicago radio host described Olsen as “kind of like a girl at the bottom of a dark well”, and that helped paint the picture of Olsen as some sort of lonesome storyteller. The sadness she communicated and her personhood became inseparable. She was intertwined with introversion and wet eyeliner and worn tales of love. But her ability to act as a living ventricle is what makes her music so integral to any of us that are deep feelers; she is fluent in the pains of the human heart and translates for us. On her newest album, ‘All Mirrors’, Olsen challenges us to choose what is the performance and who is the person correctly. Olsen has donned many female archetypes over the years whether it be the stark and wry woman on ‘Burn Your Fire For No Witnes’s or the eager lover on ‘MY WOMAN’. But on ‘All Mirrors’ each caricature and each point in her life have room to stand side-by-side. 

The selves on ‘All Mirrors’ don’t stand alone so much as act as different facets of one bigger moving piece, an orchestrated, cinematic voice that grows wiser as it wanders. The impossible opener ‘Lark’ pulses forward with sharp hindsight “walking down that path we made when we thought/what we had was such a good thing”. It is both lovelorn and self sufficient, seething in grandeur. The track is a volta in itself with the build of the orchestra becoming almost grating, merging from lush to granular. Olsen is a master at giving action to each part of the story, creating luxurious tension and then snapping the string. The vastness of the album is navigated with Olsen as a perceptive protagonist. The orchestra acts as a character of their own on ‘Tonight’, which is translucent in its understanding and unrelenting in its feeling. Here Olsen realizes she’s not upset, she just isn’t in love anymore, and there isn’t a moment to explain it all.

The perspectives on ‘All Mirrors’ are varied and each track doesn’t reach quite the same conclusion, but they find their way to each other and weave a clever self-awareness. ‘Summer’ is gallant and technicolor. “If I could show you the hell I’d been to” she sings, recounting the process of becoming reacquainted with yourself through sticky heat. ‘All Mirrors’ shows up for itself unafraid- knowing it can’t change the reactions of others. It’s self-fulfilled. ‘What It Is’ thumps out, carefully calibrated. The track vibrates as she accuses “you just wanted to forget” before the symphony becomes massive and untamed. The air settles for a moment before repeating “it’s easy if you’re passionate”. On ‘Spring’ Olsen is perhaps at her most reflective, warbling “guess we’re just at the mercy of the way we feel”. It’s a tender and truly happy moment in the centre of the album. “I’m holdin’ your baby now that we’re older”, her vibrato an emotional gesture. It’s not surrendering to the idea of settling down so much as shedding a jagged ennui and realizing the beauty in being unashamed of how life happens, of how community settles in around you. This is the revelatory nature of ‘All Mirrors’, Olsen arriving at a certain clarity. The album title is not a nod to vanity but rather self-reflection and true perception. Olsen has always been keenly aware of her presence and the analyzations that come with it, so she’s created something so expansive it can’t be pigeonholed. ‘All Mirrors’ reckons with full totality and it’s perfectly aware of its reflection.

Big Thief – Two Hands

By Anjali DasSarma

Big Thief only released the subtly immersive ‘UFOF’ back in May, and today (October 11) they return with the equally enrapturing ‘Two Hands’. UFOF possessed an eerie and beautifully unsettling quality, while ‘Two Hands’ is a comforting and dialectic example of how truly beautiful music can be. Adrienne Lenker herself dubbed ‘Two Hands’ as ‘UFOF’s earth twin. 

One similarity ‘UFOF’ shares with ‘Two Hands’ is how the songs pair up in a subtle yet decisive way, making the album feel like one big swaying melody.  Opener, ‘Rock and Sing’ is that first swaying introduction. “Cry with me, cry with me”, Lenker urges. “Within this body, confused. Confuse my home for a refuge.” Lenker’s deft lyricism clear from the off. She’s also adept in her use of tone. Indeed, with an almost pleading innocence, she sings “I don’t want to lock my door anymore”, outwardly desiring to bear her feelings more openly. ‘Two Hands’ yet again finds her musing about the world with utmost wonder yet generous wisdom, whilst riffing on her spiritual connection to it. 

‘Forgotten Eyes’ is reminiscent of Masterpiece-era Big Thief. As is her natural state, Lenker gazes upwards at the sky while all at once contemplating the earth, the soil and the plants surrounding her. It’s a song about the right to comfort, the right to a home, the right to be treated as a human, no matter your origin. The songs ‘Two Hands’ comprises are so complicated and thoughtful that it’s like a novel you keep coming back to again and again. Every listen certain to expose something you’d missed before. 

‘Two Hands’, the fast-paced title track, showcases the foursome’s never-ending growth as a band, the instruments meshing together impeccably. It is by far the best on the album. “Two arms and marked up skin / Two hands, places you have been”, Lenker sings. 

‘Replaced’ recalls the days when Adrianne Lenker and Buck Meek were a duo; Meek’s voice chiming in to create a delightful contrast to Lenker’s vocals during the chorus. Though the words are sometimes difficult to understand, the feeling is there all the same. “Because in your room, we gathered to be replaced by the mystery,” they sing, gently bringing the song down from the sky, and placing it in soft grass. 

We are undoubtedly connected to this planet, and with this album, Lenker seems to be transcending and tossing aside the Anthropocene in favour of a more congruous, more compassionate human existence; one where the importance of the world shines brighter than any of us. She shows us her roots deeply planted in the soil, purposeful.

Big Thief – UFOF

The days of watching our childhood through the lense of blurry handheld camera recordings are fading fast, replaced by the picture-perfect quality of smart phones. It’s regrettable. There’s something special about those shaky recordings, the characters becoming clearer with every viewing, the landscapes and locations more identifiable, the memories growing in strength. 

Big Thief’s third record ‘U.F.O.F’ carries a similar quality; the Austin-via-New-York quartet generate a swirl with their meditative and visceral soundscapes that grows in strength until it envelopes you completely. 

‘U.F.O.F’ is more abstract and haunting than their past efforts. Gone are the fiery choruses of ‘Masterpiece’ and ‘Real Love,’ gone are Lenker’s heartbreaking family stories found throughout ‘Capacity’, and in their place we have a bloodcurdling, Red House Painters-esque haze. Opener ‘Contact’ gives the best inkling of what’s to come, particularly when Lenker sings ‘I wanna drink your milk’ – it’s uneasy and disturbing.

As a band they’ve grown immeasurably, more willing than ever to give each other space to experiment and assert their craft. The instrumental flourishes on ‘U.F.O.F’ are ever-present, whether it’s Buck Meek’s mesmerising guitar, Max Oleartchik’s melodic and pared back bass or James Krivchenia’s subdued yet affecting drums. 

Lenker’s growth though is the most notable.  Label mate Aldous Harding has drawn critical acclaim for the sheer range of voices she showcases on recent album ‘Designer’, and Lenker follows in her wake on ‘U.F.O.F’. Her voice is fluid, transforming throughout; it’s shrill and biting on ‘From’, on ‘Open Desert’ she sounds like she’s singing a child to sleep, while on ‘Betsy’ it’s deeper than ever, channelling her inner-Nico. 

With this record Lenker has reached legendary status. The Big Thief songwriter has now released two solo albums, three albums with her band and an EP with bandmate Meek; all of which are incredible. On ‘U.F.O.F’ you can hear traces of this back catalogue, the choir-like harmonies of Meek and Lenker on ‘From’ remind you of their joint EP, while her vulnerable, faltering vocal on ‘Orange’ draws parallels with her stripped back solo debut ‘Hours Were The Birds.’ Such is the depth of her work, you can now jump backwards, forwards or sidewards, and perpetually find yourself mesmerised, whether it’s by her unique ability to bring you to your knees or her mastery of imagery that permanently paints pictures in your brain.

The mantra of ‘U.F.O.F’ voices itself on ‘Cattails.’ On it they let their hair blow in the wind as they ride through country fields with ‘the windows wide by their side.’ They’re freer and better than ever before. 

Chastity Belt – Chastity Belt

By Anjali DasSarma

Chastity Belt’s music has grown and matured with each new album, and their self-titled album from earlier this year is no exception. The rolling hooky guitar sounds that they have been known for over the past six years tumble through the melancholy. The production, partially done by Melina Mae Duterte (Jay Som) provides a uniquely dreamy take on Chastity Belt’s sound. 

It feels older. Chastity Belt has always had incredibly quick-witted lyrical takes, but this album takes another step forward. The lyrics take on challenges that the band have been through since their last record. Shapiro released her incredible solo album, and the other members also pursued solo endeavours. And now, this album feels comprehensive of singular growth coming together after time apart. In “Effort,” Shapiro sings about her constant strain for perfection: “Trying to stay grounded / Get off the prowl /Stop shaping piles of dust / Into something that I want / But I’ll keep searching / Looking for light / A single glint’s enough / To send me jumping out of my skin.” The haunting strings at the close give an eerie contrast to the signature reverb guitar. 

The songs melt into one another, with the tempos nearly matching up throughout. And yet the similarity in tempo and sound between songs is not droning, it’s comprehensive, it’s intentional. This is the kind of album you’d want to get on vinyl, the kind of album that’s meant to be played through as one.

The shuddery guitar notes and echoey vocals on Rav-4 almost call to mind Sade, as Shapiro sings “Lost my mind and much more / But who’s keeping score?” ‘Chastity Belt’ questions whether there’s something bigger at play?

“It takes a lot of time to really get it right / It takes time to really get it right / Let go of control / Hoping only breeds fear,” Shapiro sings in “It Takes Time.” Though it’s unclear whether this is directed towards the listener or whether it’s a self-reflective murmur to themselves, on ‘Chastity Belt’ there’s no doubt, they really have ‘got it right’.

Florist – Emily Alone

Florist’s nature obsessed counterpart Adrianne Lenker, questioned whether we are part of the earth or simply observers of it on her solo album ‘abysskiss.’ Emily A Sprague, the songwriter behind Florist, is firmly in the former camp, “I am the ground” she declares on ‘Celebration.’ While Sprague is sure she’s part of the world, less sure is she of her role within it – a question she examines meticulously on ‘Emily Alone,’ a stunning self-exploration of all she is – her brain, her brawn and her blood.

It’s a thought-path forged by Sprague’s move from New York to California. Finding herself away from collaborators and friends, she picked up her guitar and explored ‘the dark places between’ – recording alone under the Florist moniker for the first time.  What follows is otherworldly, a kind of sprawling nature that causes emotion to swell in your stomach before, like marauding ants, it spreads unrelentingly across your whole being.

Forever fluctuating between the prophetic and mundane, Florist brings both these charms together for the opening statement of intent, ‘What is my place in the world?’ – A question from opening track ‘As Alone’ that frames the entire theme of the record. She ponders the answers to this question over tiny yet impactful changes of her acoustic guitar, which jolts, ruminates and strums over the run time of ‘Emily Alone.’ The dark places in the background comprise of the quivering synths that make-up Florist’s ambient project, where she’s simply known by her birth name, Emily A Sprague.

Here, more than ever before, Florist has the words take centre stage, granting the world she’s navigated alone over the past year with its own lexicon. In moments she’s utterly banal, ‘I leave the windows open / So I can have a breeze’, and in other moments unafraid admit truths that many would hide from, “My life is only a combination of things / that I mostly have no control over / And it took me a long time to figure that out.” 

No matter how much she seeks though, Sprague fails to find the answer to her overriding question. By the end we find an artist in disbelief, “I can’t believe I’m real” she sings on ‘Ocean Arms.’ She asks the question simply out of curiosity, with no sense of ego intended, yet it’s in that god-like admiration you’ll view Sprague by the end of ‘Emily Alone.’ Asking yourself, how on earth do we share a planet with someone as talented and prophetic as Emily A Sprague? An icon. 

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