Monday, 1 October 2012

Andain - You Once Told Me (2012) Review


Andain is the pairing of producer Josh Gabriel (of Gabriel and Dresden) and singer Mavie Marcos, and they have a history with the trance genre dating back to 2002. Oddly enough I somehow managed to miss most of that and only discovered them last week. Their debut album serendipitously came out on the day I first found out about them, after four years of buildup. Considering my fondness for full vocal trance I immediately checked out You Once Told Me, but it's actually not a trance album, going a bit deeper into indie electronica than the stuff I usually listen to but with vocal-centred songwriting very much at the core. This turned out to not be a detriment to the album - far from it.



It's common for people who largely or exclusively listen to electronic dance music to look on moves in this direction as either selling out or ill-advised watering down of an artist's edge. I've thought this on occasion myself, both for entire albums and parts of dance albums where a dance musician changes abruptly to something less energetic and completely messes it up. Gabriel and Marcos have not only avoided this pitfall but have created an LP that neatly goes way beyond common "EDM artist makes pop" fare. From its very beginning, You Once Told Me draws you in, and very few occasions throughout the album let you wander out again.

Marcos has a voice that sometimes brings to mind the a more melodic, less breathy Jes Brieden, and in others a less twangy, softer Leigh Nash, but her sound is distinctive enough that these suggestions don't spring to mind that often. All of these songs are hers, as there are no instrumentals, and Marcos is more than up to the task of tackling a disparate set of styles without either wearing you down with sameyness of tone or making any of the tracks sound like they should be on a different album. Lyrically this is an album with relatively subtle rather than overwhelming dark patches and highs, but nevertheless there is thought and meaning behind most of the songs on this album and cheese is blissfully absent. It is often easy for listeners like myself, for who lyrics are not as important as music and texture, to overlook the words and this might occur here due to the tone of Marcos' voice and the power of the music often having a hypnotic effect, but if you're inclined the other way you'll find nothing to cringe at on this album.

The arrangement and production on the album is also top-notch, Gabriel showing his dance roots by providing a quite polished approach to the mixing and engineering. None of the songs possess elements that sound like misplaced holdovers from dance music - no over the top hard TR-909 drums or heavy claps when they are not necessary for example - which is one way in which inexperienced dance producers often fumble when making less driven and more subtle music. The precision of an EDM artist is all present and correct though, with the use of carefully chosen samples, some liberally used 808 kicks and claps for when a little more punch is needed, and dense layering of atmospheric elements along with synths and strings when this is required. Aside from a few tracks where the percussion is minimal or background, the beats are very much present and correct but are kept back enough that the heart of the songs remains at the front of your mind. The rhythmic elements work well with the instrumentation, which tends toward the pretty pads and string arrangements but there is still room for highly electronic sounds here and other more percussive melodies, songs like "Find Your Way" highlighting this perfectly with it's slow-paced breakbeat, thick string pads, perfectly timed music box sound and occasional warm square wave lead.

Between the consistent style and lyrics that having a sole vocalist in the band brings and the polished but still present edge that Gabriel provides to the music, You Once Told Me ranks as one of the most consistent albums of this type I've listened to. If you imagined Imogen Heap with less wonky music and less spoken word, or if Delerium without the cliches that they frequently exploit on their LPs and with one permanent singer, you might get close to the territory that Andain's album sits comfortably within.

Standouts for my ears here begin with album opener "Turn Up the Sound" which starts with a funky but soft breakbeat drum arrangement under the great and hooky traditional song structure, with very well crafted pads and atmosphere on top, and ends with a transition to a shuffle-timed end section to bring a bit more drive to the slow pace of the song and lead into the following songs. "Promises", one of the album's singles, is an electronica torch song which goes straight for the epic, with Marcos' voice backed by thick pads, soft indie guitar and some appearances by music box and piano, but the crescendos of the song in the choruses are truly the strength of this song - almost trance-like in the way the harmonies are arranged, but backed up by slow power-ballad style drums, mid-range present but restrained bass synths and a string section ripe for that hands-in-the-air (or lighters in the air) feeling. Title track "You Once Told Me" is the track that prompted my Delerium comparison, with enough beef in its drums, deep bass and synthesiser sound design to give the track the edge to back up one of the really powerful performances by Marcos on this album. More pop should sound like this song - there's depth in the lyrics, feeling in the vocals and a rich progression of elements to the music. These songs aside, I honestly recommend all the songs on the album. The sole questionable moment on the album for me comes at the end of "What It's Like" where the song ends on repeated samples of the word "take" which are gradually pitched down and elongated. I've never really been into extreme pitch shifting this way or heavy repetition and this mars the song for me somewhat, but this does work to bring the song to an end on a comedown leading into the atmospheric ambient breaks track "Forget Your Face" so I can forgive this for that.

I have no hesitation in strongly recommending the LP to of indie electronica in general, synthpop (or pop in general) fans who like a bit of the softer, more epic sound, and listeners who are female singer-songwriters with depth who don't require club-filling dance tracks. Dance fans who like it when the music softens up but don't want to listen to syrupy fluff will likely appreciate the music Josh and Mavie have created here, and will come away with a fondness for the voice of Mavie Marcos. The album deserves to be a success, and I strongly hope for a follow-up.

Remixes:

Speaking of dance tracks, the digital versions of this album end with several remixes and it's quite a strong grouping indeed, adding a bit of variety to an already strong album and hopefully allowing the band to maintain a strong following in the realm of dance music, where they first made waves nearly a decade ago. The Spotify version features:
  • Older non-album single "Beautiful Things" gets a very smooth progressive house remix from Gabriel himself along with his long-standing partner Dave Dresden as Gabriel and Dresden.
  • The pair also attempt to take "Turn Up the Sound" to big-room anthem status with an 128bpm electro house remix based on a very cool 16th note bassline and a pumping supersaw in the chorus. This arguably succeeds, although the emphasis on a sidechain pumping is very rarely something I get into and I would prefer it if they had worked with a more natural groove.
  • Jaytech turns "Promises" into a darker, trancey electro house track with a fairly distant sounding supersaw, quite gritty electric guitar-like bassline and other rough sounds. This manages not to sound generic because of the unusual flavour of those synths, in spite of the drum production which apes deadmau5 a bit much for me. This remix doesn't really do the atmosphere of the original justice but I guess it will work as a floor-filler.
  • A more exciting take on "Promises" is by KOAN Sound, who keep a lot of the texture intact but spice the arrangement up with some natural sounding drums, simple but effective subtractive synth sounds and a fair helping of swing for both, giving it a smooth and chilled but nonetheless funky and jazzy sound, which definitely has less of a predictable bent to it than Jaytech's mix. 
  • Providing the other mix of "Turn Up the Sound" is Stratus and this one certainly satisfies the demands of the chorus to "make it feel louder" - it's one of those ear-splitting robotic drumstep tracks that sound like they come off a conveyor belt. Again, it'll work as a floor filler but I can't stand the obnoxiousness and predictability of tracks like this so for me this is a definite skip.
  • "Much too Much" fares better - Rido takes the concept of the original and takes it into drum and bass by making the up-tempo sections into a frenetic jungle drop with a very heavy bassline, while maintaining the half-time parts and the spacious atmosphere. These elements blend together perfectly on this track and the quality of the sounds and the mixing is excellent, making this one easily the standout of the clubbier remixes here. 
  • Zetandal instead amps up the atmosphere with a thick sounding mix but also provides a warm sounding synth keyboard lead that brings in a hypnotic synthpop feeling as well. This one manages to bring across some of the mood of the original but take its concept strongly toward the contemplative rather than more insistent feel of the original or the very upfront energy of Rido's version. As Zetandal creates a relaxed interpretation but manages not to bore, I would argue that this should have been the track to end the collection with. 

Both mixes of "Much too Much" are thus the ones I recommend strongly in their own right, with KOAN Sound's mix of "Promises" coming close. The others are mostly strong tracks but a casual listener might not get much out of them - DJs on the other hand, definitely will.

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