Future Politics (Domino)
Katie Stelmanis has a voice that is both authorative and beguiling.
Though Canadian it has always struck me as Germanic, for both clichéd reasons – she sounds like she could reclaim the Sudetenland by just demanding it – and because there’s a lot about her, and her music, which recalls 1980s group Propaganda.
Remember them? From Germany’s electronica capital, Dusseldorf, produced to a sheen by Trevor Horn initially, synth-heavy and led by the authoritative and beguiling voice of Suzanne Freytag. In a sense, with songs such as Dr Mabuse and Duel, Propaganda offered the broadsheet heft to the tabloid fun of labelmates Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
As with those actual German forerunners, what defined Toronto’s Austra from the start was a careful balance of close fitting electronic sounds, a rhythm for driving the autobahn at a steady clip and Stelmanis being dispassionate on the surface but more than hinting at intense emotions underneath with a voice that sounds equal parts operatic and stern.
That voice is decidedly an acquired taste: some finding it cold or, worse, impersonal, while others, like me, quietly thrill to its command of the centre ground.
There have been comparisons to someone like Florence (Florence and The Machine) Welch, but while Welch has a big voice she has a bigger range – and a greater willingness to let it run all over that range – than the controlled, narrower Stelmanis.
Future Politics, album number three, finds Stelmanis still holding your head and heart in her hand with that voice. The songs still work a steady, though rarely these days danceable, propulsion, which continues to put its emphasis on machinery rather than warm bodies. This is not organic electronica put it that way.
What has changed is that lyrically, Stelmanis spreads the coverage from the inter-personal to both the broader political and the environmental. Future Politics is actually all about modern politics: set in a deteriorated future where the question of individual control or influence over the world or each life may be redundant because of decisions made now.
That’s all strong enough as a basis, and overall Future Politics is pretty good. But it doesn’t have the grandeur most notably displayed on the 2011 debut, Feel It Break, nor the commanding chill which that album also offered.
It’s electronic pop with a serious intent but not a serious edge. Or at least not enough of a compelling edge.
In other word, rather than demand your attention, Austra – which is Stelmanis’ middle name incidentally – have fallen back into the pack of people asking you to listen.
And you don’t need to be a national cliché to know that asking won’t get you anywhere near as far as demanding. Especially with a voice like that.