New Music 12/2020 – A-WA, Grimes, Sufjan Stevens

Another musical trio of Haim sisters (from Israel rather than Los Angeles); a concept album about the goddess of climate crisis; brilliant electronic re-invention.

Bayti Fi Rasi

I first heard sisters Tair, Liron, and Tagel Haim when I randomly stumbled on a track by Acid Arab with their guest appearance, and was instantly smitten with their bold attitude and gorgeous voices that burst through like rays of shine. So I thought I’d look them up and this sophomore effort seemed like a good place to start.

The ladies of A-WA hail from Israel and their music is a rather captivating and nimble blend of their Yemeni heritage with modern pop, electronic, reggae and hip-hop. While the poppy songs that dominate the first half of the album are bright and infectious, for my money the second half is actually stronger (a rare thing with albums which tend to be front-loaded more often than not), with a more traditional folk sound that I loved best. The sisters’ soaring harmonies and punchy vocals are easily their greatest weapons; joyful, uplifting and an absolute pleasure to listen to.

Miss Anthropocene

Grimes is the kind of artist whose actual music seems to be only the partial talking point as far as the media is concerned, obscured by mythology and tabloid discussions of her personal life and romantic choices. I couldn’t care less who she hooks up with and my only interest is in whether her latest album is any good. It’s quite good, even if its lofty concept aspirations kinda passed me by. According to Grimes (passport name Claire Boucher), this album is about anthropomorphising climate change into a figure of a dark vengeful goddess. I’ve honestly no idea whether it delivers on the concept front, especially when Grimes’ vocals, often buried under layers of guitars, beats and synths, make the lyrics tough to make out.

However I quite enjoy the music, the deliciously dark and gothic synth pop that’s alternately pretty and disorienting, such as paranoid-sounding Darkseid with its frantic spoken stream-of-consciousness in Mandarin. I pretty much expect Grimes to sound strange, otherworldly and experimental, so the biggest surprise for me was the straightforward country pop of Delete Forever, with acoustic strumming, deeply personal lyrics and vulnerable vocals.

The Ascension

Silver linings come about in mysterious ways. If I didn’t get a persistent upper back pain a few months ago, I wouldn’t have gone to my local physio, who turned out to be a huge Sufjan Stevens fan and clued me onto this album during our session chats. I don’t know why I haven’t kept up with Stevens in the last fifteen years, when his 2005 Illinois is one of my all-time favourite albums; perhaps it’s because, for all the intricate magnificence of his music, I never felt quite as strongly about his frail wavering vocals.

My physio had described this album as Sufjan Stevens going electronic, and he wasn’t kidding. This is not about sprinkling electronic sounds on top but a full-on re-invention, with Stevens chucking out acoustic guitars and banjos in favour of synthesisers and a drum machine to create his electronic landscapes. At over 80 minutes long, it still invites the same “grand, sprawling and dense” description as Illinois, though the mood overall is more downbeat, weary and sparse. Which is not to say that it’s a drag, because at the same time the music is quite deceptively poppy with catchy hooks and shimmering melodies. I’m not sure if America, the album’s mammoth closer, really needed to go on for 12 and a half minutes, but overall I thought that this was a brilliant left turn.

One thought on “New Music 12/2020 – A-WA, Grimes, Sufjan Stevens

  • So good to see the “other” Haim getting some recognition outside of the country. 🙂 I’ve heard their songs played at bars from Istanbul over Tunis to Paris but nobody seems to be familiar with who they actually are.

    Liked by 1 person

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