California Literary Review

When You See Sparks

A CLR Music Blog

Album review: Purity Ring’s Shrines

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August 6th, 2012 at 4:00 am

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Purity Ring Shrines

Artist: Purity Ring
Album: Shrines
Format: Physical and download
Label: 4AD

CLR Rating: ★★★½☆

Purity Ring make really, really nice sounds. They’re a Montreal-based duo, consisting of multi-instrumentalist Corin Roddick and vocalist Megan James, who formed semi-accidentally while both part of Gobble Gobble (then Born Gold) after Roddick started messing around with beats. They released their first track, ‘Ungirthed,’ online in 2011 and have been slowly leaking songs ever since.

The project was born when Roddick decided to experiement with hip hop beats, which is a fact that genuinely surprised me. Perhaps because I listen to hip hop as a matter of course, it never occurred to me that what I was hearing was more inspired by that than by electronica in general. But finding it out made me overcome all grumpy and mutter feelings about Girl Talk bringing smug hipster pseudo-ironic vegan crunk nights to life. There’s been far too much back-patting over indie musicians listening to a bit of UGK or whatever over the last five years; ever since Simon Reynolds’ outright bonkers declaration that Vampire Weekend had the most innovative beats of 2009 I’ve been twitchily cynical about this sort of fusion cookery.

The good news is: like the xx, Purity Ring pull it off.

The bad news is: unlike the xx, this isn’t a groundbreaker. Where their eponymous 2009 album was a witchy, clattering breakthrough full of tension and minimalism, Purity Ring are working with a different, far more familiar palette. The beats I hadn’t quite recognised as hip hop that Roddick and James have been influenced by are (at a guess) the latter-day Guetta-style productions, which to my European ears sounded like dance. It’s interesting if electronica is coming back to sample hip hop’s use of electronic noise (there are some tracks that definitely veer more in a crunk-ish direction) in the type of endless sample loop both genres are known for. The result is a very appealling-sounding echo chamber — essentially genre navel-gazing.

Which is fine, seeing as that’s essentially the entire purpose of bedroom-soft indie electronica and not necessarily a bad one at all- this is a very beautiful, lush LP. Loops and stutters suit shoegaze perfectly, wrapping it in the patterns of thoughts and daydreams that its born out of, as murky and dense as the synth layers here; Purity Ring’s music is very much about sensation and full effect, from the instrument that Roddick created to play live, covered in light bulbs to glow synaesthetically to the mashed words that make their song titles.

The first track on the album, ‘Crawlersout’, starts with clear, shining waves of synth and James’ high, almost childlike vocals, floating on the ripples. Distortion and noise only occasionally interject, a roar of restrained bass in the chorus the only sign of the build that will occur later in the album. It’s very pretty and almost a mislead, as for all the layers and aesthetic rule here, this isn’t a cute album at all.

Third track on the LP and chronologically their first, ‘Ungirthed’ shows more of the syncopated toughness that Shrines is made of -

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Maybe because it’s their first track, James still sounds very nervous, not in the tremulous way that she does deliberately on later things but in the sense that they don’t seem to quite have control of their sound.

There’s a motif of ‘littleness’ around the album- I realise that’s not a word, however it’s definitely what’s going on here; on ‘Fineshrine’ Megan sings the unearthly chat up line “get a little closer/let it fold/cut open my sternum and pull/my little ribs around you” and on ‘Belispeak’ first Straighten out the pots and set them close outside for when my belly, for when my little belly speaks then again Grandma, my hands have wondered and my legs/my little legs are getting weak.

James plays on her small-sounding voice a lot, which I found increasingly grating the more I listened to the album. It’s partly a personal intolerance for grown women playing twee but also there’s something frustrating about ambitious, wide instrumentals, whose breathy intimacy didn’t need any greater emphasis, being somewhat reduced by a vocal not always interesting enough to accompany them.

The song where it does work the best is ‘Grandloves’, featuring Young Magic- it uses the hip hop element to its fullest and the presence of other vocals elevates the song to another level:

It’s one of the songs where the arrangements are given the most space, the vocals sparse and mixed into the waves of the accompaniment. For such a breathy album, the music isn’t always given enough air and the sense of depth without everything and the kitchen sink being thrown at it here is gorgeous.

‘Lofticries’, the penultimate track, does a similar thing in terms of marrying the synth rhythms and those of James’ vocals, a factor that’s missing from much of the album and one of the things that’s most grating. The gyratory chopping of the arrangement rarely hides the fact she tends to be singing the same tune across quite a few of the songs but ‘Lofticries’ sees her challenged by rhythmic requirements that create a far more complex, deeper sound. The interspersed distorted speech and retro strobe-synth adding to a glittery ball of something pulsing and urgent. The “use your oily fingers, make a paste, let it form” feels alchemical, creative in a witchy way that the album often strives for but only rarely achieves…

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Shrines is an extremely pleasant listen- it has a dreamlike, hymnal atmosphere that’s incredibly appealing, woozy and hypnotic like a deep, drugged sleep and roughly as sinister, for all the sweetness. The band isn’t breaking any boundaries; Shrines sounds an awful lot like DNTEL‘s over-ten-years-old Life Is Full Of Possiblities, but not being cutting-edge doesn’t mean that they’re bad.

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