Nobody Listens to…Lorde (yet)

A recent trip to Los Angeles left me with quite a few lessons to bring back to my daily life.  I learned about grocery stores. I went to Compton. I ate a lobster grilled cheese sandwich in Hollywood. But first and foremost, I learned that a sixteen-year-old from New Zealand is about to be a huge star.

The first time that I heard “Royals” on the radio while driving through the valleys east of L.A. I was taken completely off-guard and was fumbling through the lyrics of the chorus.  The second time I heard the song I desperately hoped to hear who was behind the track.  The third time I heard it, a DJ on KCRW had reworked it into a killer remix that had me dancing in the driver’s seat.  Spotify searches and a bit of internet investigation gave me all I needed to know about Lorde. I was hooked.

Lorde is the stage name of sixteen-year-old Ella Yelich O’Connor, a typical young lady from the suburbs of Auckland, New Zealand, in all respects except that she pens and records alt-pop tracks that are simultaneously airy and sharp.  O’Connor was discovered when a video of her performance at a talent show put her on Universal’s radar.  Then a preteen, O’Connor was singing Duffy songs and writing about classmates, but had already flashed a unique voice and a precocious knack for tackling weighty personal themes in her lyrics.  Four years later, Lorde has topped digital download charts in Auckland and boarded an airplane for the first time in order to embark on an international tour.  Behind the strength of her debut EP The Love Club and touting hype for a full-length album set for release this fall, the singer is taking a slight detour in her coursework towards graduating high school in the North Shore.  In interviews and through her web presence O’Connor has come across as down-to-earth (if a bit aloof) and wise beyond her years.  All of this bodes well for the explosion that seems to be bubbling beneath the surface.  Coming from a small island that seems to be a hotbed for young female vocalists (Princess Chelsea, anyone?), Lorde stands out for her startling honesty and lush harmonies.

Lorde’s music is characterized by songwriting that is decidedly vocal-centric.  Feist and Cocorosie might be fair comparisons, though a more apt one might be to imagine Bon Iver as a teenage girl trying to record a hip-hop album.  Sparse drum machine loops and synthesizer hooks and pads make up the bulk of Lorde’s instrumental arrangements, though the singer’s voice is multi-tracked and recorded as percussion and accompaniment to virtually every tune’s lyrical content.  With a musical base for her songs serving like a blank canvas, O’Connor is free to style her lead vocals in a quasi-rap croon over self-harmonizing that swells and soars behind.  The singer’s range is truly impressive, rising from a husky dip to a sugary high.  The lyrics of Lorde’s songs focus on being real: O’Connor draws from personal experiences and anecdotes of eschewing pop culture consumption and endless partying for a simple life surrounded by people she loves.  O’Connor sings of finding secret teenage haunts and sudden success as a performer, and couches it all in the swagger of an introvert faking self-confidence until she makes it.  These are endearing songs, but hit on more complex ideas in the sway of the music that surrounds them: the listener immediately relates to O’Connor’s lyrics while wondering if the young singer is even from this planet.

The can’t-miss standout among Lorde’s catalog thus far is “Royals”.  The artist’s first single is everything described above about Lorde- the song tackles rap music’s obsession with money and luxury while touting O’Connor’s friends as above it all while absolutely gorgeous harmonies build a hook in unexpected musical architecture.  The rest of The Love Club continues Lorde’s idiosyncratic take on harmonic pop: “Million Dollar Bills” is a jumpy club banger whose blaring synth blasts are actually O’Connor’s voice, and “Biting Down” is a darkly dramatic call-and-response vamp to close the EP out.  The title track details the singer’s lost time partying with a circle of friends she ultimately grew uncomfortable with.  The lead-off tune, entitled “Bravado” seems linked to the new single “Tennis Court“, with both numbers chronicling O’Connor’s venture into the music industry and her attempts to reconcile that with her still-normal day-to-day in the suburbs.  Also to be found floating in the ether of the internet are a Lana Del Ray-style tribute to solidarity among teenage rebels (“Swingin’ Party“) and an acoustic cover of British singer Pixie Lott’s “Mama Do“, to date the most distilled example of Lorde’s voice.  Each song is enjoyable on a superficial level that belies thought-provoking lyrics while projecting the tunefulness that makes drivers beat their steering wheels and writers tap their pencils.

Sixteen-year-old Ella Yelich O’Connor seems poised to wedge her earworm single and layered harmonies into worldwide music consciousness.  In between house parties and homework, Lorde is a young woman with a fantastic voice and an incredible talent for writing who simply writes and performs songs that are interesting to listen to.  In her quest to remain authentic and genuine the singer is game but honest.  Whether posting new tracks to her soundcloud or proclaiming her love for Prince and Lou Reed in interviews, Lorde unveils a new surprise at every turn- it seems that the teen’s mystery grows as she becomes more famous.  And maybe that is the point.  Lorde can be followed on twitter and facebook, and operates a highly minimalist official page.  Nobody is listening to Lorde yet, but sweeping vocal harmonies and spunky white girl raps about being the queen bee will soon draw listeners in, and honest songs sung by a unique vocalist promise to retain those listeners’ attention.

Nobody Listens to…Hadestown

For my first installment, I’m sticking continental and electing to tell you all about what may be the best concept album I’ve ever heard.

A few weeks ago my younger brother (full disclosure: he is six years younger and infinitely cooler than I am) started telling me all about this folk opera he read about on cracked.com, and how it was a great listen.  I was initially hesitant to give “Hadestown” a shot, but I have to say that I’m glad my brother won me over.

“Hadestown” is a self-styled “folk opera” by singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell that recasts the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in a post-apocalyptic depression-era America.  Instead of dying, Eurydice leaves Orpheus for the opportunity of work in the walled mining colony of Hadestown, which is run by the corrupt businessman Hades.  Persephone, Hermes, and the Fates make appearances as well as, respectively, Hades’ speakeasy-owner of a wife, a railroad man who guides Orpheus “down South”, and…the Fates (I think).  Admittedly, I have loved myths and legends since I was a wee lad and went on to get a bachelor’s degree in a field that allows me to study folklore, but I really geek out over the story told throughout the album.  It’s not always entirely clear what’s happening track to track, but it’s easy to imagine that one tone or sound effect corresponds to an instance in the tale or another. At least that’s the way I do it (yes, because I geek out over this sort of thing).

The casting for “Hadestown” is pretty impressive as well. Mitchell takes on the role of Eurydice, and lends it her brand of half-innocent-half-repentant pleading to a great deal of the female lead’s songs and verses.  The songwriter’s voice contrasts well with the incomparable Ani DiFranco (seriously, how did she get onto this project?) by sonically making Persephone sound a bit older and wiser, knowingly seeing the events of the myth play out from behind the bar in her speakeasy.  Folk singer Greg Brown gives Hades a strikingly deep voice that rumbles every time he delivers a line, and though I don’t feel that the writing for the titular town’s ruler is as strong as for most of the other characters, Brown’s delivery keeps the listener engaged.  Ben Knox Miller of The Low Anthem plays Hermes with a raggedy blues yell that I wish I could imitate, and the Haden Triplets (Tanya, Petra, and Rachel) harmonize as the three fates.

But the role of Orpheus is one I’d like to spotlight here. The vocalist who takes on the lead male role in “Hadestown” is Justin Vernon….otherwise known as the lead singer behind buzzword and recent Grammy nominee Bon Iver.  “Hadestown” is at this point about a year and a half old in its recorded form (a few live, almost hootenanny-style stage shows preceded the album), and as such may predate most listeners’ relationships with Bon Iver.  The love that Vernon has lately been getting, however, is one reason I’m surprised that no one I’ve spoken to but my super-hip brother has heard “Hadestown”.  While I wouldn’t even presume to say that Vernon’s voice is sweet enough to charm rocks, his style fits impeccably in this particular opus’ Orpheus role, and the overdubbed harmony technique that Vernon uses in his Bon Iver recordings is utilized here to give Orpheus an otherwordly quality…it’s as though Orpheus’ musical genius gives him the ability to sing with multiple voices at the same time.

Being a concept album or “folk opera”, “Hadestown“‘s lyrics tell the story through lyrics, which are frequently clever and topical while (mostly) remaining broad enough that almost every track is listenable on its own.  Some of the songs function simply as exposition or backstory to the plot, and the vast majority of the numbers refer to Orpheus, but most of these pieces could easily stand alone.  Whether this is because of the self-contained nature of the song (as in “Way Down Hadestown” and “Epic” parts 1 and 2, for example) or because the lyrics use metaphors or broader themes (as in “Wedding Song” and “If it’s True”) varies across the album.  Some of the details of the story are explained only implicitly or through research outside of the album, though the characters are all clear in their roles, and much is made of the Greek Underworld’s transformation into a mining town, with a giant wall replacing the river Styx.  With references worked in to both the original myth and more modern conventions about the hero’s journey and the archetypal roles the characters in “Hadestown” fill, the text of the album really makes everything work.

This isn’t to say that the lyrics are all that matter.  Anaïs Mitchell’s collaboration with musician Michael Chorney to add the musical backdrop to “Hadestown” really makes the opus stand out, as the pieces are all interesting to listen to, and three instrumental tracks spotlight the extent to which the songwriters used musical soundscapes as the place-setting for the scenes portrayed by the words that are sung above them.  Each song has its own groove, and impressive solos are sprinkled throughout (the piano in “When the Chips Are Down” and the Accordion in “His Kiss, The Riot” are personal favorites of mine); but everything lays over a dense musical blend of guitars, stringed instruments, percussion, brass, and sound effects. Though there are few instances where an instrument forwards the plot in place of a vocalist, I feel there are “yes!” moments to the music throughout.

All of these factors add up to a highly interesting piece that I’ve found myself playing to much more frequently than I would’ve guessed before, or even after, my first listen.  “Hadestown” is best enjoyed through a stereo in a dark room or on a night-time drive; any situation in which the album dominates the listener’s sensory maximizes its potential to really lay everything out.  There’s so much going on in each number that really listening to -as opposed to hearing- the album makes it infinitely better. 

Nobody is listening to Anaïs Mitchell’s “Hadestown” right now, but I think the all-star cast it sports and the epic blend of Greek mythology and well-written indie-folk earn it at least a few more fans. So I pass it on to you all.