Sometimes the term “pop” gets a bad rap, often being associated with thoughtless mainstream top 40 radio: most hits feature an overdone verse/chorus structure with ear-worm climaxes and empty lyrical content. But the thing about the conventions of genre is they can be bent and broken, exactly what these three pioneers intend to do. These artists have the ability to compose catchy hooks and incorporate critical feminist theory in one fell swoop, all through the disjointed lens of what we may think of as “pop.” All three will be performing at Big Ears Festival in Knoxville this week. Regardless of whether you can make the trek, these artists are essential listening.
LAUREL HALO (Hyperdub)
Baroque is perhaps the most apt, all encompassing word to describe the rich, at times disorienting electronic sounds by American-born, Berlin-based artist Laurel Halo. Her most recent album “Dust” (2017) is perhaps her most accessible. It’s a delightful work overflowing with energetic samples and ecstatic synth-driven beats. The album is an addicting listen because of its earworm melodies (which are just so much fun), but also because of the heady nature of the work. After countless listens there is still more to unpack as Laurel Halo seamlessly composes, samples and disorients.
Laurel Halo intentionally plays with the conventions of pop by using her tactful DJ skills. She modulates and fragments her voice (and therefore melodies), leaving the listener bewildered in the dust. Such is the nature of Laurel Halo: her 7” releases primarily focus on techno and DJ mixes, while her full length LPs explore the conventions and limitations of “pop.” Thankfully, she will be performing in both capacities at Big Ears, with a DJ set as well as a performance of the music of “Dust.”
JENNY HVAL (Sacred Bones Records)
Jenny Hval, a Norwegian pop musician and writer, is a must see live before you die. Luckily you have two upcoming chances: this week at Big Ears and this coming May at Moogfest. Hval sings, and sometimes speaks, about sexuality and the hard-to-articulate experiences of inhabiting a female body. Particularly with her album 2015 “Apocalypse, Girl,” Hval is credited with bringing feminist political thought to the realm of music in an unprecedented way. Her live shows are a synaesthetic amalgam of her political messages, storytelling and pop synths with transportive theatrical visuals.
If you’re looking for hypnotic danceable synths with sanguine pop vocals, check out her 2016 album “Blood Bitch.” If you’re looking for more conceptually challenging music, “Innocence is Kinky” and “Apocalypse, Girl” use a pop backbone to deliver alternately gut wrenching and humorous lyrics over more complicated sonic modulations. Hval’s most recent project, Lost Girls, a collaboration with Håvard Volden, released “Feeling” EP on March 2nd. It might only be two tracks, but “Feeling” offers an expansive, atmospheric soundscape layered with detached spoken word musings inspired by her experiences on tour. Through largely accessible pop music, Jenny Hval offers a confrontational portrayal of the female body experience.
KELLY LEE OWENS (Smalltown Supersound)
Kelly Lee Owens’ greatest strength is creating simplistic musical worlds that synthesize the languages of minimal techno and dreamy synth pop. Her mission is to create an immersive sonic environment with the purpose of healing: spiritual, personal or medical. Before cultivating an interest in techno working at Rough Trade Records in London, she had aspirations of becoming a healthcare professional. After her stunning debut album, it is clear that she has found her place in the music world, but her goals remain the same. Owens strives to use “healing frequencies,” her interest in contemporary psychotherapy,and astrology heal through landscapes “that you can float in.” However, the mainstream danceable appeal is still there – her big break came when Alexander McQueen used her music in a fashion show, which then led to being signed on Norwegian record label Smalltown Supersound. When you hear Owens’ eponymous debut, expect to feel a glorious tension of wanting to dance and dream simultaneously.