City Island by The Artificial Sea (Review)

A solid debut whose restraint leaves the listener wanting more — in a very good way.
City Island - The Artificial Island

It seems like a lot of electronica-laced pop acts out there focus on making music that is all pretty and floaty, blending wispy (often female) vocals with gurgling, glitchy electronics and ethereal, ringing guitars. Some groups under this umbrella that immediately leap to mind include Park Avenue Music, Lullatone, Casiotone For The Painfully Alone, and Piana.

However, I have difficulty lumping The Artificial Sea (MySpace) in with the aforementioned artists. While the music of Brooklyn-based duo Kevin C. Smith and Alina Simone contains many of the same elements, there’s nothing all that cutesy or floaty about their music.

Rather, there’s a tension and anxiety lurking in the shadows of City Island that seems at odds with what most folks might be expecting from an electronic pop act. At odds, and yet also quite beguiling.

I suspect much of this has to do with Alina Simone’s vocals. Whereas vocalists such as Jeannette Faith and Naoko Sasaki sing in a childlike, playful, and dreamlike manner, Simone’s voice is edgier, thinner, perhaps even a bit unhinged and desperately desperate in a manner more akin to Insides’ Kirsty Yates than the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser.

On “Gloryhole,” the album’s opening track, Simone’s voice careens all over the place, gasping and straining as if she’s being strangled or trying to tell you something incredibly urgent with her final breath. Elsewhere, such as on “The Light of 1,000 Televisions,” she’s content to just meander off on her own, babbling to herself or scatting away in the distance. The listener is left in something of a lurch, left scrambling to make sense of it all on their own.

While this can be a bit frustrating, it’s also fascinating. And when Simone sings in a more straightforward manner, such as on “Tunnel Vision,” the urgency and emotion in her voice is quite affecting.

Simone’s voice, in all of its form, is ably matched by Kevin C. Smith’s layered sonics. At times, they lack a bit too much subtlety: witness the sampled drug-related lecture on “Better Living,” which seems clever at first, but doesn’t hold up to related listens. But for much of the album, his programming, sampling, and arranging provides an interesting context for Simone’s voice and adds to the murky atmosphere.

At first glance, portions of the music seem a little dated, a bit too indebted to late ’90s trip-hop, chill-out, and IDM. But in execution, it’s no less affecting. The loping bassline and jazzy drumming on “The Light of 1,000 Televisions” is reminiscent of Bowery Electric’s Lushlife, providing just the right amount of aloof, jazzy cool for Simone’s meandering, introspective voice while distant-yet-ominous synths and strings circle around the perimeter adding enough ominous flourish.

The beats on “Tunnel Vision” stutter in glacial fits while a cello keens in a distance, only adding to the regretful tone of Simone’s voice. One can almost picture the near-empty bar to which Simone sings as Smith backs her up on the sampler: cigarette smoke lazily floats upwards in the dim light while a dozen hushed, illicit conversations mix in with the plucked strings and synthetic rhythms.

The wah guitar, liquid-y organ, and trebly middle-eastern samples lend “Vor” an exotic texture quite appropriate for Simone’s glossolalia, the atmosphere verging on cinematic. One can almost see the back alley hitmen from Wong Kar-Wai’s Fallen Angels lurking in those samples.

Restraint seems to be Smith’s primary modus operandi. While there are occasional orchestral surges and climaxes (“The Light Of 1,000 Televisions”), he keeps things at an almost threadbare level (by the time the album ends with “Milemarker,” Simone is all alone on except for a handful of synthetic gurgles and a somber cello). The listener is left to fill in the blanks, create the mental pictures, and imagine what’s going on in those spaces between the sounds. And given the terse, urgent manner of Simone’s vocals, whatever’s going on must be something rather dangerous and forbidden.

Suggestion and subtlety goes a long way towards holding my interest, be it with a movie, CD, or book. Those are qualities that City Island has, to great effect. The Artificial Sea’s music is a little rough around the edges, but by and large, it’s a solid debut whose restraint leaves the listener wanting more — in a very good way.

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