For complicated reasons I didn’t listen to much new music for a long time, but in the last few years since I started doing so again, I’ve found that if there is something that interests me within what used to be called ‘independent’ music, it more often than not seems to come from groups where women have a strong creative involvement. This is something still commonly undermined by determinedly sexist attitudes within the industry, which are never more apparent than in that joyless period which is currently upon us, the festival season. So it’s nice that the back story to one of my favourite records of this year so far, “Almost” by The Ophelias, feels like a subtle but effective act of subversion; the reason that the group formed in the first place was that each of the members were sick of being the “token woman” in someone else’s shit band, so they got their own together, the better to make themselves heard and make some great records in the process.
“Almost”, their second LP, is a wonderful thing, an intelligent and sometimes challenging record which is still beautifully melodic, combining a light touch with the ability to take their music into uncomfortable places when they choose to do so. Opener “Fog” is very much the kind of rolling, gorgeous chamber pop that provides the backbone of a large part of the album, bound together by a simple acoustic guitar but with an artificial sensibility to the production that lifts it clearly into commercial territory. Owen Pallett’s Final Fantasy project often springs to mind here, and the processed strings that bring the chorus of “Lunar Rover” to a stuttering, swirling climax feel strongly reminiscent of their “Has A Good Home” album. But the sound here is largely of The Ophelias’ own making; art pop which pulls you in with its grace and charm, before throwing you off a little with its uneven mood, at once joyous and unnerving.
And for all its melodic pull, “”Almost” is always a little unnerving one way or another. Single “General Electric” uses it’s soothing, summery sound and sing song organ to sneak in a report from an uncomfortably masochistic relationship, as vocalist Spencer Pepper sings “I wanna be what you fantasise” in a blank, almost bored tone, reminiscent of washed out modern post-punks like Lithics. At other times, the band seem to channel idiosyncratic Canadian musician Jane Siberry; “O Command” starts off like a ringer for one of those nebulous, floating Siberry songs like “The Lobby”, before heading off in a direction of jarring time signatures and odd structural quirks which those who know her work will also find familiar. Later on, the album takes a distinctly avant garde turn through the middle of the second side, particularly on “Zero”, which shifts between grinding. discordant riffs and an almost nursery rhyme chorus that seems to come from another song entirely.
By the melancholy closer, ‘”Moon Like Sour Candy”, we’ve come full circle, back to the strummed acoustics and evocative strings, but a little more world weary for the time spent. Spencer’s vocal feels more involved and desperate, singing “you can only like me when you’re drunk” as the song moves towards its stately, mournful conclusion, and the last line, ‘I’m trying” sounds more like a cry for help than anything at all positive. It’s a sad, beautiful end to an album that rarely takes the easy path, but makes the ascent seem effortless anyway. Truly unmissable.