Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Review - Cibelle and Julia Nunes

To follow my very out of date film review, I have a pair of albums which have caught my ear recently. In fact, while I’ve been working through Sophoclean tragedy, two ladies have been warbling on my speakers.

I’m a huge fan of antifolk and the New Weird America movement. It was through listening to Davendra Banhart that I came across a singer called Cibelle. The pair sang together on their track London, London which I found on youtube. From there I listened to tracks from her album The Shine of Dried Electric Leaves (yes, the title itself deserves attention). The first track, Green Grass, is very special indeed: a breathy dream of lost love, sinking into a plant-filled modern landscape. It is the closest thing I’ve found in modern music to a Sappho poem.

And she has a new album out! And what’s more, the title’s even better! Las Venus Resort Palace Hotel is both the name and the fictional location in which the songs take place. It is the last refuge of a world which has crumbled away

‘...a rock floating in space with a jungle on top and the ocean dripping into nowhere...’

She sings as Sonja Khalecallon in the voice of traditional Exotica. But, unlike the subversive voice of much antifolk, Cibelle ne Sonja shows huge respect for the genre and its messages. Well, she does come from Brazil, and she seems to be trying to share a bit of her native sunshine and love.

Of course, this isn’t 100% successful off the bat. Some of the songs are just too sugared for my taste. Even though I appreciate the idea of covering a song from a Bond film, Underneath the Mango Tree had me raising an eyebrow. Although I do think, having listened to it a few times now, that it does set up the rest of the album nicely. It is followed by Man from Mars, a song which perfectly balances a gentle steel drum track, multi-layered, soaring vocals (had me in mind of a sweet-voiced swarm of parrots) and sympathetic trip-hop beats and samples.

Lightworks (cover of Raymond Scott’s original) feels dangerous and slinky – far more Bond-ish than Mango Tree, while The Gun and the Knife sounds remarkably like something from a Tarantino film. Mr and Mrs Grey has a wonderful beat (and, later on, an angry twangy western six string) reminding me equal parts of Rasputina and Lilly Allen’s Not Fair.

I think, for me, the standout songs are half way through and are scarily diverse. Sad Piano is just as dreamy and beautiful as Green Grass but with a much darker tone. Heartbreaking is most definitely the word. But my main problem is that, as a connoisseur of bad jokes, I can’t help but hear her sing “I have a small piano” which does somewhat ruin it.

The main theme of Frankenstein makes me think of Ice Age or some other quest narrative animated film, but most important is the totally catchy rhythm and cyperpunk lyrics which cannot fail to lift the heart.

Love like science and alchemy
tonight the nightclubs are poetry
I need a lightning bolt to his heart
to kick-start my Frankenstein soul

Escute Bem sees Cibelle hit some notes that remind me of Beth Gibbons at her very best, coupled with great electronic noises and an exotic feel. It really is like doing the tango with a triple breasted prostitute on the surface of mars. And yes, I have been drinking.

You don’t need to have drunk anything, though, to find her cover of It’s Not Easy Being Green anything less than charming. What a way to end the album! It’s relatively low key, but with added sparkle. Kermit in a tutu, perhaps.

So what can you say? As a concept album it works absolutely perfectly, painting an image of the last chance saloon of exotica slowly crumbling into a void. As much as some songs are completely uplifting and transformative, I am left worrying about the relatively drab surroundings just outside my window. Perhaps it’s time to search ebay for a feather headdress...


My next warbler was also happened upon on youtube, although in this case it was entirely by accident. Julia Nunes is one of those sickeningly talented young people that make you want to take up drinking whiskey just so you can complain about them in a suitably gnarled voice. She started at the age of 13 and more recently has been writing albums and compiling rather splendid music videos on youtube which demonstrate not just great talent and an ear for a good cover, but also show her great sense of humour and zest for life.

The first video I came across was her cover of Why Do You Build Me Up, Buttercup and on that occasion, I believe I played it through five times. Yes, I know, I’m boring like that. Seriously, take a look through her video stream – you won’t be disappointed.

Today, though, I’ve been listening to her album I Wrote These...which is made of songs that I believe she wrote. Now, I have a bit of a problem here, as I’m abnormally attracted to a cover. So I was a little worried to see how she’d go about constructing an album.

My first impressions were not bad, however. I’ve heard criticism of Cibelle’s voice, saying that it’s not really up to anything more than the fun twiddly bits but gets lost when you chuck a strong tune at it (a rather harsh and unfair criticism in my opinion), but Julia Nunes’ voice is, well, not the antithesis, as she can twiddle as good as the next person, but she has an extremely strong voice which holds a tune (and attention) with ease.

My only criticism was that one of two of the songs felt a little too strong...almost overpowering, in fact. But this is probably just a youth thing, with my poor elderly earlobes unable to keep up. I personally think, though, that she really shines with some of the gentler tracks: especially those which are ukulele-centric.

There’s been a bit of a resurgence in the ukulele business recently (probably because Deborah and I made one. What can I say? We’re trend setters.). But the humble uke has lost a little of its cheeky ‘jumping flea’ character, gaining a more off-key half-drunk weepiness (which I blame entirely on ER and the death scene of Mark Greene). Julia gets rid of this with a big smile and some cracking lyrics. And this is where I feel that Cibelle and Julia Nunes are so linked – they both feel related to a scene that’s too cool for a lot of the genuine sentiment from which their genres originate, and yet they bring a lot of that original light and joy back with the benefit of genre evolution.

I must also quickly point out that her lyrics are very important. I’m not usually too bothered by lyrics – in fact, I often never hear them, just listen to the sounds and enjoy them as such. But there’s something about the crispness of Julia’s voice and the emotion that she puts into things that really brings out the quirky poetry of her words. So I’ll be quoting a few for you.

Binoculars is my favourite of her guitar tracks. It gives voice to the humble neighbourhood peeping tom. No, really. ‘Please don’t be creeped out by me / you’re my miniature TV’ is perhaps my favourite line. It demonstrates perfectly her sense of humour. In fact, it reminds me very much of some Ben Folds work. And again, you must check the video.

Keeping with the guitar theme, Pen to Paper is an interesting one. There’s a very strong beat, and I like how the song is divided up into sections. But again, I’m drawn to her narrative! I can’t help it, really. It has got one of the best relationship-type lyrics since Emmy the Great sang;

I thought romance was pretty, then you went and spoiled it
Every time that I think of you, have to go to the toilet
Can’t tell if this is love or a stomach disorder
Or a massive grade-a typhoon inside my aorta

Julia’s romance is slightly less definite but certainly less icky;

I saw you ‘cross the room
we never really spoke but still I knew that
you and me were meant to be
close if not romantically

The Debt is a wonderful ukulele piece where the bouncy rhythm is helped along with various layered vocal effects and trills and is, perhaps, other than the harsher songs, one of the only ones where I’ve paid less attention to the lyrics. But I must confess - I actually bobbed. Yep, I almost dislocated something.

But the best song of the album without a doubt is Stairwell. It has the absolute perfect mix of wit, rhythm and tune. I’ll be whistling it for weeks to come at least. And what’s more, during those weeks it will never get annoying! Well, not to me, at least. I can’t speak for those who have to live nearby. Anyway, strangely enough, it’s perhaps the least cheery of all the songs. I mean, the opening lines are;

I’m lying here on the floor just like the man on the yellow cone
I guess the floor was wet, so I'm cold and all alone

It turns out that the protagonist has been finding it hard to live and so decided that throwing themselves down the stairs might be a good idea. But I tell you, I’ve never heard someone that depressed carry a tune so well.

So there you are. Listen to them both. And thank me by showering me with gifts.

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