Critic’s Notebook: <i>This</i> is L.A. music?
It takes a supreme level of confidence to begin an album with the line, “I’m a broken record, you have heard this before,” as Ramona Gonzales, who makes music under the moniker Nite Jewel, does on her new release, “One Second of Love.” She sings it with deep, exasperated, melodramatic emotion, understanding that to do so is to introduce complications — the bummer of repetition, for one.
Equally gutsy and way more labyrinthine is how fellow Angeleno, kindred spirit and occasional Gonzales collaborator Julia Holter begins her exquisite new “Ekstasis” with the song “Marienbad.” It’s a meandering five-minute journey that commences with an a capella chant, wanders through baroque pop and a Laurie Anderson-suggestive flock of voices before landing a few vistas later inside a majestic “Pet Sounds"/Phil Spector-esque echo chamber. By the time “Marienbad” is over, you want to start again to make sure you didn’t miss anything. You probably did.
Holter and Gonzales are two of the most magnetic of a posse of young L.A. singer-producers-composers crafting layered, smart headphone pop and meta-dance music that messes with the classic song structures of pop music. They also tweak the handcrafted nature of folk, the clarity of intent of visual art and the independent spirit of electronic producers. In doing so, the two have created spring’s most revelatory new albums.
The two are part of a movement of defiantly self-sufficient female artists coming out of Los Angeles who are reworking old formulas to make oft-breathtaking compositions, new bedroom pop and electronic music that harnesses a craftsman’s love of detail and a visual artist’s sense of unyielding aesthetic determination. They’re also doing so with a punk-like D.I.Y. spirit.
A few of the other notable artists emerging from this groundswell: Ryat, a singer-producer who descends deep into bass music and the Low End Theory beat scene to create her palette; Zola Jesus, whose dramatic goth pop has earned much acclaim; and the dub-heavy rhythmic excursions of female-male duo Peaking Lights. What all share is a precision that is at times psychedelic in its detail, rich with sonic experimentation and unconcerned with bowing to the demands of commerce.
Though none of these recordings are officially connected, Nite Jewel’s “One Second of Love” (out March 6 on Secretly Canadian) and Holter’s “Ekstasis” (out March 8 on Rvng Intl.) both rose out of a Los Angeles music label-collective called Human Ear Music. The California Institute of the Arts-affiliated group was started by musician and fellow student Jason Grier in late 2006 in his MacArthur Park apartment, and it went on to include, most prominently, Ariel Pink. Holter started at Human Ear as an intern but within a month was one of its central figures, and the theoretical conversations that happened within that little world were the beginning of something that has maturated in 2012.
Though each of these artists approaches his or her structure differently, what all share is an appreciation for period production. So oddly enlightening are the tones of the records — little or no compression, deliberately hazy sonic qualities — that they illuminate the notion of some sort of post-production era in which the sound of the recording is a signifier in the same way that Gibson Les Pauls plugged into Marshall stacks contains layers of meaning beyond the gear itself. So-called perfect engineering is less desirable than creating something sonically extraordinary — if they weren’t making music they’d be building exquisitely rendered miniatures, perfecting the art of origami or shaping delicate pastries.
One of the main reasons for this evolution is the ease with which individuals can now create complex artistic ideas with little more than musical instruments and a computer. Rather than having to organize a group of lazy dudes to get together for practice three times a week, anyone can construct a virtual band on a hard drive, one texture at a time. And though computer-crafted songs historically have largely been the domain of men, who seem to have a genetic predisposition to geek out over gear and music, that’s thankfully shifting. Gender is gradually finding equilibrium, and what Gonzales and Holter offer feels more intimate and honest, mostly because the template created by testosterone-drunk DJs doesn’t exactly favor nuance.
Gonzales, who over the course of a couple of albums and EPs has created her own uniquely Nite Jewelian style, does. She’s developed a signature sound that seems somehow flattened so that each of the intricately textured instrumental ingredients is absent the booming, big-room depth that so much contemporary music strives to mimic. On “Mind & Eyes,” she channels Steely Dan’s insularity; “No I Don’t” sounds like a Portishead ballad recorded in a crowded closet; and “In the Dark” feels as if it lives between Sade’s silk sheets.
Figuring out what “Ekstasis” is all about is much more complicated. At times, it sounds too organic to have been made on computer, but it contains tones and expressions that had to have come from digital. When, on “Four Gardens,” Holter whispers, it floats unimpeded into your skull. “Will you come go with me?,” she wonders as Tinkerbell-like plings bounce above flittering synthesizer clusters and sitar drones.
It feels utterly out of time, so far removed from the vibe of what’s considered a Los Angeles “sound” that it’s odd to offer it as an example of something uniquely of this region. “Godless Eyes II,” for example, a sequel to a song on Holter’s equally engaging 2011 album, “Tragedy,” features a Vocoder-tinted voice mimicking a robot while her natural tone harmonizes along. It’s one of the album’s best songs because it’s also one of its strangest, but not exactly emanating what you’d consider a classic Southern California vibe. But, as with Holter’s peers mentioned above, her appreciation of texture and tone, of the implications as well as the frequencies of sound, serves as a remarkable reminder that nuance and craft can be powerful tools.