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Dis-track-ed Vol. 5: Broken Balladry

In her monthly column, Ruth Saxelby identifies some of the trends that are shaping modern music. In this edition, the new song constructions of Palmistry, Holly Herndon, HTRK and more. Illustration by Inka Gerbert. 


“I grew up listening to a lot of Irish ballads through my family,” London producer Benjy Keating, aka Palmistry, says over email. “In traditional Irish music ‘slow airs’ are really popular. They tend to be subdued, lamenting instrumentals but they can also be vocal a cappellas and they don’t follow a metric scale. I find the possibilities of working off the grid inspiring.” Having produced for Hippos In Tanks rapper Triad God and dropped a dancehall inspired single on Brooklyn label Mixpak last year, it had been a little bit of a double-take to find a ballad (“In My Heart II”, listen below) nestling at the heart of Keating’s new Lil Gem EP on Italian label Hey Presto!?. Or rather, a contemporary take on the ballad that privileges uncomfortable listening over an easy ride.

While upbeat dance music has been underground pop’s quarry for the last few years—sometimes feeling like a race to nail the perfect banger on cracked software—the ballad has largely remained on the shelf. Perhaps because it is traditionally less youthful: the crooners that dominated much of the twentieth century were concerned with reinforcing culturally acceptable ideas of slow and steady love, rather than satisfying today’s perhaps more honest fascination with speed and sex. (Keating highlights a scene from American Psycho that illustrates this turning point tension about the ballad brilliantly.) It’s only in the back of late-night taxis that pump out syndicated, nostalgia-ridden radio shows that you find the ballads of old today, churning out their cliches to shush spinning heads.

Over the last couple of years, however, a new generation of singers and producers are flipping the form upside down and breathing new life into the ballad. How To Dress Well, FKA twigs and Kelela have all played with the ballad, purposefully unpicking the inherent smoothness that became its mainstay in the eighties and nineties to put their unravelled edges under the spotlight. This new balladry exists somewhere between saccharine and acidic—and it’s precisely that awkwardness that is so compelling. How raw can you go? Or perhaps its a return to the ballad’s etymological beginnings. Here are a clutch of artists dissolving balladic sweetness into sonic poetry for a new age.


Palmistry “In My Heart II”

“In My Heart II” is a modern ballad that plays with contrast to paper-cut sharp effect. That vocoder “baby” in the background, stretched into an unforgiving plastic shard, works to make Keating’s half-whispered, half-whimpered voice sound all the more desperate. It’s tender in that poke-a-bruise-to-check-it-still-hurts kind of way – and all the more riveting for it.


James K “Drunktrack”

One half of pixellated trip hip duo SETH (with Gobby) and sometime Physical Therapy guest vocalist, producer/singer Jamie Karsner released her debut solo EP in November last year. “Drunktrack” is the one I keep going back to. There’s a spidery feel to its stop-start flow, scurrying then freezing like a small being suddenly aware its on your radar. At just under two and a half minutes, it’s all over too soon.


Deptford Goth “Guts No Glory” (Fis remix)

New Zealand producer Fis, who last year told me that the feeling he gets in his torso when he’s making music is “almost the guide or the arbiter of a work,” was the surprise reveal remixer of London’s Deptford Goth just before Christmas. But it’s where Fis took the melancholic ballader that really thrilled. In placing him in an abandoned industrial landscape, Fis lends Deptford Goth’s mourning a more urgent edge: the ache is stronger.


HTRK “Give It Up”

The long-running Australian experimentalists do a low blood-sugar take on Sade with “Give It Up” from their forthcoming new album Psychic 9-5 Club. They take the slow love song format and time-stretch the pulse until it barely registers. It’s a mood that speaks to endless winter days.


Holly Herndon “Chorus”

Twitching and blurring like screen-burn vision, Holly Herndon’s new work “Chorus” melts down song structure to form something new. The balladic elements are there—the yearning voice, the lamenting chords—but they are scrambled up like a bag of old Scrabble letters covered in dust and dirt. It’s the ballad circa 2030, gravity-free and on a mission to find new life. ~


For more editions of Dis-track-ed, click here.

Published January 28, 2014. Words by ruthsaxelby.