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We review the good (and bad) releases of September — Jasmine Sokko, Yeule, The Steve McQueens and more

We review the good (and bad) releases of September — Jasmine Sokko, Yeule, The Steve McQueens and more

Hope you didn't fall asleep through September, because it presented one of the best months Singapore music had to offer this year.

From Jasmine Sokko's long-awaited debut EP, to the proper introductions of Handsome Girl, Ethel Yap, Miss Lou and Supersect, there's so much to dig into. Let's get started.

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Jasmine Sokko

Genre: Electro-pop
Release date: September 22nd

The meteoric rise of Jasmine Sokko — from masked unknown to Spotify playlist darling — is not that hard to explain. The producer and singer-songwriter has a clear, masterful grasp of sensual pop songwriting: the kind of music that fits the bedroom and dancefloor (but mostly the bedroom). The immediacy of her songs is bolstered by her ability to tweak and sprinkle electro-pop beat flourishes that make casual listeners come back for more. 

With her debut EP , the release serves less like a fully fleshed-out record for the new artist than it is a bonus giveaway for fans who’ve stuck around since ’1057’. Featuring all of her first three singles — the latter, along with ‘Porcupine’ and ‘H2O’, Nº is a concise and mesmerizing listen, even if most of it is a retread into territory once explored.

She has yet to conquer the region — let alone, the world — so let Nº be the gateway to Sokko you’ll eventually need. — Daniel Peters

Rating: 7/10

Stream the release here.


Handsome Girl
Shut Up Cutie

Genre: Indie rock, singer-songwriter
Release date: September 29th

The tension between joy and grief lies at the heart of Handsome Girl's Shut Up Cutie, the debut EP of Glasgow-based Singaporean singer-songwriter Aqi H. For all the playfulness and lightheartedness sounds on the record, there is an undercurrent of sadness and despair. And there is an abundance of playfulness, the dreamy sounds of guitars tinkling like a music box over simple rhythms.

Behind that facade of cutesy lies the barest, starkest lyrics, mined from the depths of personal trauma. It's a confession of innermost thoughts, of loss and inadequacy of self — about being "sexually attracted to your body", retrospectively childish scenarios like wanting to kiss someone but backing out "because I had bad breath", declarations that "I'm not that Asian girl you can fuck" or just pained murmurings of how "I’ve loved you since December." They are powerful and gripping just by virtue of how intensely personal they are, and yet ambiguous enough that one can plausibly relate to them.

The music matches the words too — the band seems to move at Aqi's whim, slowing down or speeding up as her voice demands, and the tracks seem less like fully structured songs than spontaneous confessions. Aqi's child-like, nasal vocals recall Joanna Newsom, howling and whining one moment before seamlessly shifting to a whisper fit for a lullaby.

Her versatility allows her to deal with sadness and despair with self-deprecation and an exaggerated sense of cutesie, making light of circumstances — but that cutesie is also so exaggerated as to be a blatant facade, a facade you can't help but enjoy anyway for all the grief gnawing at its edges. One can imagine that without everything coming into place, the lyrics could come off as simply being edgy or indulgent, but it doesn't, and that is the triumph of Shut Up Cutie as a record.

Though it may be short and lacking in other dimensions (admittedly a tall order for an extended player) Shut Up Cutie is heartwarming. For how tortured it is, there is always a sense that it is trying to reach out to other people through their vague capacity to relate to the traumas on the album, to reassure listeners that things will be okay. And that is beautiful. — Yong Junyi

Rating: 8/10

Stream the release here.


The Steve McQueens
TERRAЯIUM

Genre: Neo-soul, jazz
Release date: September 29th

Neo-soul’s common weak spot lies in its inability to keep a listener hooked for a full-length, a necessary evil as perpetual jazz chords will eventually relegate whole records into a dimly-lit corner of the bar.

So it definitely doesn’t help that TERRAЯIUM starts off with the fantastic ‘Hephaestus’ which bounds and rebounds, slips and slides, scrubs and swings. The rest of the album departs completely from that schizophrenic high — fading away, content with its own lounge tunefulness.

It’s not that they’re bereft of ideas; said tunefulness is never “not good”. But their tracks feel lacking for one reason or another: ‘Catch Me Fallin’’’s coda could use a little more chaotic ba-dup-be-bop – a la the un-Spotify-able local legend Eza Seow; also, the otherwise-excellent space-funk of ‘Illusionary Boy’ loses steam to its own disjointed prog.

And even the belters of second-half highlight ’Wolfboy’ call upon Esperanza Spalding, who inevitably pales lead Eugenia Yap’s own vocal ability. She’s a good singer, no doubt. But is good enough? — BJ Lim

Rating: 7/10

Stream the release here.


Yeule 
Coma

Genre: Dream pop, electronic
Release date: September 29th

Singapore-born artist Yeule is an underground treasure — with her spaced-out and funereal take on dream pop, sparkling with fuzzy synths and plenty of digital headroom, Yeule’s seeming despondency is alleviated by her intoxicating optimism. Her label succinctly puts it on her Bandcamp page that “pleasure in this life cannot be had without pain”, and she carries that effortlessly over all five tracks.

‘I Saw You In My Dreams Last Night’ alone is an immediate winner, and what Coma truly excels in is its consistency and vibrancy — at least, as much vibrancy as she can muster over distant piano chords and faded snares.

Coma may have been borne out of the darkness, but it gleams with an unfettered elegance so rare these days. — Daniel Peters

Rating: 8/10

Stream the release here.


Bruised Willies
Dark Humour

Genre: Punk rock
Release date: August 31st 

With a punny name like that, you toe the line of being taken seriously and being relegated to a gimmick. On Dark Humour, the band manifests the depressive darkness hiding internally — the three-piece's sound is heavy, claustrophobic and in your face, with shades of the best punk rock the 90s had to offer. The members take turns with vocal duties, being efficient and poignant in delivery.

Bruised Willies might seem to be unabashedly forward and deliberate in intent, but their lyrics are everything but tongue in cheek. Irreverent but consistently sincere, the album voices frustrations about a purgatorial state of progress, heard most starkly on the single 'Maybe That’s What Hell Is'.

Their take on regret and self-loathing — packaged in positive sounding songs, mixed with despondent and fatalistic lyrics, sung with resignation — makes for an incredibly relatable experience. It’s an honest message, blasted into your ears. Do you feel it? — Jared Carlo Monteiro

Rating: 7/10

Stream the release here.


Supersect 
Greatest Hits

Genre: Alternative metal
Release date: August 31st

They claim Red Hot Chilli Peppers, My Chemical Romance, Foo Fighters and Tool inter alia as influences; spot on, they blatantly rehash those sounds to the point of parody.

So it’s pleasantly surprising that they end up sounding nothing like any of them. Instead, they couldn’t be any more J-rock: think anime theme openings and their over-elaborate take on nu-metal and post-hardcore.

And in case you’ve been focusing too much on their dynamic arrangements and watertight instrumentals, do also note what they’re saying. There’s a solid rock band already, but it’s their devil-may-care posturing and deliberately shit lyrics that turn this EP solid gold.

That’s because they understand the Boredphucks ethos way more than anyone else ever did – and potentially ever can. After all, local music clearly peaked at a funk metal cover of Phua Chu Kang’s Sars rap. — BJ Lim

Rating: 8/10

Stream the release here.


TypeWriter
What You're Feeling Is Not Enough

Genre: Alternative rock
Release date: September 8th

In our recent interview with the band, made up of primarily Singaporean music veterans, their ringleader Chang Kang explains that their new EP — titled What You’re Feeling Is Not Enough — is their biggest attempt at reaching a bigger audience. 

There’s no sign of the band adopting any trend-influenced stylistic choices, but the five-piece certainly tries their damned best to reach for the stars. What You're Feeling Is Not Enough is an expansive and heartfelt EP that features airtight songwriting, even if it also has dreadfully spotty production.

Synthesized strings and backing vocals are employed with grace and subtlety, and each song carries an engaging amount of emotional gravitas. Unbalanced mix aside, What You’re Feeling Is Not Enough is a solid and earnest concoction that aims for the heart — as close as Singapore can get to heartland rock in a post-Oddfellows world. — Daniel Peters

Rating: 7/10

Stream the release here.


Chasing Daylight
Chasing Daylight

Genre: Pop rock
Release date: September 8th

Chasing Daylight plays the sort of straightforward, uplifting soft-rock/pop that wants to make circa-2003 Coldplay proud, but imitates it in theory and not in practice. The four songs on their debut EP draw shamelessly from a laundry list of clichés, and the band might have gotten away with it if not for how dull and tiresome it sounds both in production and performance, exposing just how generic the songwriting is.

The vocals are sketchy in execution and unexpressive, never powerful enough to match the anthemic flag-waving nature of the lyrics and choruses. And though one can plausibly blame production for thinner vocals compared to the rest of the band, the other instruments don't fare well either.

On a whole, Chasing Daylight sounds undynamic and monotonous; the music might sound busier as the band builds up to the final chorus of each song (and literally all of their songs do this), but paradoxically it somehow does not sound any more intense or urgent than it did at the start.

The EP just plods on, there are no moments of sonic sparkle or incredibly strong hooks to grab our attention. Nothing stands out, nothing interesting ever happens — with nothing to carry and propel the band forward, Chasing Daylight falls flat.

All this is compounded by lyrics that comprise wholly of catchphrases about positivity, wide-eyed wonder at the world and the virtues and pitfalls of love, declaring "it's better to have love and lost, no one told me what it cost" or that "we're gonna make it or at least we're gonna try", and a whole slew of other unrelated lines that ring as hollow as a self-help book.

At the same time, because of just how brimming the lyrics are with these phrases, it's hard to feel that Chasing Daylight as being anything but sincere with their earnest words and intentions. Which makes it even more tragic that the execution fails to live up to that sincerity. — Yong Junyi

Rating: 3/10

Stream the release here.


Miss Lou
Glamour Vintage Songbird

Genre: Vocal pop
Release date: September 22nd

I appreciate very much the sincere capitalist bitterness, and how it seethes through the pearly-white audiophile production values and standard-serve “vintage” pop.

But I really wonder who among her now-25.6k Instagram followers takes Miss Lou straight without any sense of self-defeating irony. To bastardise a line, “Don’t make it so obvious."

I would like to ignore Glamour Vintage Songbird’s confusing lyrical didacticism, so it’s good that the better tracks just so happen to talk less shop. ‘Timeline’ is fun floor-thumping amidst modern communication breakdown, and ‘Sophia’ is effective balladry in its simplicity.

But in any case, I struggle to hear the soul behind the sheen. No surprises there: she enlisted Mikal Blue, not Raphael Saadiq. — BJ Lim

Rating: 6/10

Stream the release here.


Instigator Afrobeat Orchestra
Singapura Vibrations

Genre: Afrobeat, reggae
Release date: September 30th

Even if they’ve been around for seven years, not much is known about Instigator Afrobeat Orchestra — but the ensemble has been active on the live circuit for many years now. For the uninitiated, Singapura Vibrations is a perfect introduction to one of Singapore’s underground music gems.

The seven-track release by the seven-piece ensemble lay out their influences on the table — from the primal grooves of afrobeat to the gentle digestions of dub and reggae beats — presenting an EP fully driven by visceral performance. Singapura Vibrations has its eyes and ears on the ground, and listening to this release every time is a first-hand experience of undeterred intensity. One for many afternoons. — Daniel Peters

Rating: 7/10

Stream the release here.


Ethel Yap
Ethel Yap

Genre: Singer-songwriter, indie folk
Release date: September 29th

Bursting out of Ethel Yap’s self-titled EP is an innate sense of longing, whether if it’s emotional contentment (‘Place Of Our Own’) or genuine human connection (‘Underwater’). There’s plenty that Ethel is fighting against — it’s painted the clearest in ‘Marionette’, a single off the release — and it’s defined as the struggles that should, on paper, be relatable and even life-affirming to many. 

As a debut release, it soars with immaculate production — strings, guitars, and rock instrumentation that breathe endlessly with studio polish — but the immediate beauty of the music is offset by lyrical deflection: there’s drama without context, and conflict without tension. 

What’s left is a set of songs that are arranged and sound wonderful, but they lack defined layers that would make great folk artists stand out. Ethel opens up a great deal in this self-titled EP — and it’s clear that she’s accumulated the emotional bruises that she places on display — but her lyrics end up serving as an emotional catch-all, instead of layered confessions that would serve as the crux to an artist's purpose.

There’s enough to take away if you’re listening for performance, but you’ll end up learning less and less about the artist behind it. — Daniel Peters

Rating: 6/10

Stream the release here.


Newton Circus
On and On

Genre: Alternative rock
Release date: September 29th

Newton Circus, the indie rock quartet, have released an EP that is earnest and deceptively simple.

The polished instrumentation is reminiscent of indie bands like Copeland and Death Cab for Cutie, and you can even hear some Gibbard-esque tones in Kenneth Ong's vocals. It’s enjoyable — this is an album to get lost in, for a brief moment. 'Twilight' (and in fact, the whole EP) is a wonderful example of songs to drive around at night to, nostalgic and hopeful, embracing abandon and yearning all at once.

It sounds world-weary, which might be the case given how the band's stylistic direction in their videos and album cover borrows from the escapism of wanderlust. But they've managed to mix that with palpable intimacy and introspection — from the ethereal delay guitar verses, to the crescendoes of their choruses, all juxtaposed with lyrics of personal observations and pleas.

The songs seem very deliberate in structure and arrangement, the band making thought-out choices to create songs that pack a profound punch with its simplicity. From the choice of repetition of lyrics in 'Birds' to the organ layers in the lead single, 'On And On', the music is immediate in its resonance, and they effectively demonstrate that power of lyrical simplicity. — Jared Carlo Monteiro

Rating: 7/10

Stream the release here.

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