The ninth of ten favorite 2011 albums — When Saints Go Machine, ‘Konkylie’

When Saints Go Machine, Konkylie

And yes, I admit I keep thinking of a certain Australian singer given the album name, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

I think my reaction to Konkylie, based on the self-titled opening song, was probably a little bemusement. Male vocals as strange, swooping sing-song isn’t completely out of my experience, after all, but it almost seemed a bit quirkily clownish on first blush — or it probably was until I took in the impact of the depth and echo on the one hand and the addition of backing counterpoint singing, more cleanly falsetto and suddenly thrilling. When something starts pushing those buttons in my brain like Active Child did this year, or Radiohead continued to do, then I’m pretty well already sold.

What are those buttons, in the end? I’ve mentioned the Associates before, a-ha, Arthur Russell is perhaps another inevitable example — maybe I just like acts that start with a. (You could definitely count A R Kane in there as well.) So when the album ‘normalizes’ with “Church and Law” it does so in an area I’m intensely comfortable in, because it’s so thrilling still, just a little sense of something exaltant, exultant and yet a tiny bit wrong, like the angelic is ruined or promising something a bit more, something less heaven-sent. This might be a big reason I like Jimmy Scott, for example, though I do have to thank David Lynch for that in part as well.

Anyway, digressions and all — When Saints Go Machine also filled a spot for me that came not out of the sense of an established place, but an unfamiliar one. Bands and musicians MUST surprise the active and engaged listener if one values that, after all — if it is one’s bread and butter, or even a side dish, then nothing everything can be the expectation of the familiar. In the case of When Saints Go Machine, though they’d released something beforehand, I’d never heard of them before Konkylie, and when I did hear it I was knocked sideways. The previous year We Love had had that impact in me in the summer — it always seems to be summer — so I was a little primed for something that would come at me sideways, just enough. Turned out to be a bunch of Danes, who knew.

I invoke We Love specifically because the kind of album in this example is important — it always seems to be electronic. The promise of electronic musical construction seems to me still to always be something just futuristic enough, not futurist per se but futuristic. Increasing amounts of people have grown up with that as a baseline, a true roots music, no matter the fleeing to acoustic purity some still demand of themselves if not others, and the sheer amount of invention within the field constantly amazes. When Saints Go Machine are much more formal than most, certainly, a progression from a dreamland of the 1980s experiments and pop moves in a 2011 context, taking in both vocal and technological possibilities as they go. But how amazing the results, on songs like “Chestnut” and “On the Move,” how wideopen and windswept if one is inclined to the feeling.

The breakdowns and shifts on “The Same Scissors” are an illustrative instance for me, the way that cries emerge at one point, how everything strips back to a sudden descending string synth part, metallic clashes and low rumbles while a distant keyboard figure plays, a kaleidoscopic shifting within a formula, like something continuously reassembles itself in different forms each time you look, each time you even blink. The feeling is one of refreshment, a sense that there’s just that much promise there, something to luxuriate in and wonder what might be next. Genteel on the one hand, revelatory on the other, having its cake and eating it too.

A lot of these words could perhaps be used for someone else who got a lot of attention this year — electronics, falsetto, genteel, etc. So I mention Bon Iver to ignore him. I don’t feel railroaded into liking or hating anyone, so I hope, and if some choices are consensus, they’re consensus. My larger point is that from where I’m sitting, as yet that other fellow has not written a song with as sweet a kick and groove and feeling as, say, “Kelly.” Because “Beth/Rest” certainly isn’t it (and isn’t trying to be it, obviously, but even so).

Yet perhaps some things are in the air. “Kelly”‘s sax stabs deserve a bit of note given how said instrument cropped up here and there in other contexts during the year — not as much as whistling, as Al Shipley noted, but noticeable enough. When Saints Go Machine are a bit of me having my own cake and eating it too in turn, an indulgence that feels more private even as I want it to be more public, and as other people turn to particular lodestones. Is it a question of wanting to be part of the larger public conversation or just wanting to impose my own thoughts on that conversation? The eternal struggle of anyone who goes “Well, yeah, everyone’s going on about that but there is too! Over…here? Anyone?”

But life in the modern discursive hothouse, all of us firing off our feelings in our own self-selected circles, is that way. A random Twitter post will provoke a whole conversation, a crafted and pithy blog post or article nothing but a shrug and silence, and if you’ve done anything like this for any length of time you have to get used to that. If anything, my final entry tomorrow causes me more of a feeling of banging my head against the wall to gain something greater notice beyond what it already has, but it’s not like I can do anything on my own besides cross my fingers and hope.

Yet as the vocals go on the final song, “Add Ends,” “Everything looks brighter now.” Something like this is the quiet inspiration, not the trumpeted-to-the-heights masterwork (and I’ve loved those things plenty of times, whatever they might be). That Konkylie settles in as the shared pleasure among a few friends than a universe makes it no less a pleasure, an obvious point but one that remains potent in this world we’re in. That the album spins out and away on a swirl of plucked strings and singing seems only right, it’s not so much a dance on the edge as a dance for its own enjoyable sake. Those kinds of pleasures will always thrive, and I hope to always find a few more as I go.

Purchase Konkylie via iTunes or Amazon.

Posted in Life, Music. 2 Comments »

2 Responses to “The ninth of ten favorite 2011 albums — When Saints Go Machine, ‘Konkylie’”

  1. Charlie Frame Says:

    Brilliant. My favourite album this year, Ned. You’re right, it’s quite an implacable, strange record and I remember finding it tough to categorise when it came to reviewing it earlier in the year

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