On the Culture Front: Music from the Underground, Part 14

10/16/2017 02:43 pm ET

Laura Avonius, who records under the moniker GEA, creates the kind of ethereal pop that draws comparisons to Sigur Ros. Lushly orchestral, the songs wrap themselves seductively around you until you are listening with all of your senses. Avonius draws on her upbringing in northern Finland both musically and thematically. The Lapland landscape is both intensely beautiful and daunting for its extreme climate and vacillation between intensely light and endlessly dark. Now based in Helsinki, Avonius teemed up with a trio of musicians to realize her vision for her debut LP, “Butterflies.” Horn and string arrangements buttress introspective piano driven tracks like “Alone.” The opening piano riff is a catchy pop hook played with melancholy and echoes of Fiona Apple. It’s augmented by a violin trill played by producer Mikko H Haapoja that becomes the backbone of the song’s melody. On the following track, “Little Detail,” another Mikko (Kangas) steals the show with a trumpet solo that envelops the melody while expanding upon it.

Despite an unfortunate name that evokes a saccharine movie from my youth, Free Willy is a good-time bluegrass band with energy to burn. The opening track, “Amazing Gracie,” uses the popular hymn as a jumping off point to delve into a story of unrequited love. Furiously paced banjo and mandolin lines keep up the momentum. Others like “God Has a Name” betray the band’s Texas roots. My favorite song on the album, “It’s Good If You Like It” feels like an anthem to keeping an open mind, even though the examples in the verses are pretty tame. The chorus could have the power to cut through the culture wars with it’s openness and levity: “It’s good if you like it / it’s not if you don’t / you’ll know if you try it / you won’t if you won’t.”

Blakeley’s ode to addictions benign and less so, “Caffeine and Nicotine” bounces with the verve of Joan Jet and the well-programmed beats of an EDM group. The lyrics basically express how she can’t function without cigarettes and coffee and act as an unabashed love letter to both. It’s the music though that feels laced with potent drugs. The melody while simple is the perfect balance of candy coated pop and rock adrenaline and feels like it’s being shot directly into your veins. I listened to it twice in a row my first time, not realizing when the song had ended.

Aurganic’s new album, “Distant Echoes and Close Encounters,” has nine songs but it feels like double that. This is due to the density of the tracks, which pack in new wave, new age, prog rock, electronic, the list continues. The band’s members have dabbled in jazz and punk and the songs here show the amorphous exploration of the former and the ferocity of the latter. I love the blend of influences and nothing makes me smile more than unlikely genres coming together in ecstatic ways. Jacques Loussier’s jazz renditions of famous classical works and Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek’s 80s electro take on Carl Orf’s epic choral work “Carmina Burana” come to mind. On early tracks, it feels like all of these elements are floating next to each other rather than blending together to create a cohesive whole, but this changes with “Distant Changes,” which anchors an achingly lush soundscape in equally impassioned vocal refrains.

Eric Anders has a near angelic voice, which provides a soothing counterpoint to the protest songs on his latest album “Eleven Nine.” Named for the date when Hilary Clinton conceded the presidency to Donald Trump, the album begins with a somber ballad, “The Fire Has Burned Too Long,” that offers little hope. “A Man for No Season,” which he initially wrote for an anti-Bush album, strikes a cleverer tone posed as a series of questions to Thomas Moore about his irrational boss Henry VIII and let’s the listens draw the parallels. Another highlight is a cover of Old Crow Medicine Show’s “I Hear Them All,” which melds in a couple verses from “This Land is Your Land” and a joyously defiant New Orleans-style piano solo.

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