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In an age where most bands find one sound and stick to it, Autamata - founded by musician and producer Ken McHugh, and featuring the unmistakeable voices of songwriter-vocalists Carol Keogh and Sarah Verdon - have always stood out. Short Stories, their second album, a sprawling, utterly disparate, breathtakingly ambitious and above all hugely fun exploration of near-limitless musical and emotional terrain, confirms that the band are impossible to shoehorn into anything as boring as one musical genre.
If the album has a theme, it's one of love: love lost and love gained. If you like, it's the musical equivalent of a miniature film festival: 13 short films each with its own distinctive characters and its own palpable mood, with all the limitless variation and surprises that implies.
Just as a music lover's vinyl collection, CD rack or iPod will reflect its owner's desire to jump from hip hop to dream-pop to soundclashey disco-rock to folktronica to everything else besides, Ken, Carol and Sarah are modern music lovers whose tastes and greediness for playful experimentation across all musical genres know no bounds. Hence - just like its creators' tastes - Short Stories genre-jumps, too.
Thus, the modernist Peaches-style electroclash aggression of 'Bring It On' segues seamlessly into its complete opposite: the hallucinatory sashay-pop of 'Goldilocks', with its shining, crystalline textures and dreamlike mood; which then itself dissolves into the exquisitely bittersweet remembrance of things past that is 'Skimming Stones'. Elsewhere, depending on your mood, you can groove to squelchy post-Aaliyah slouch-pop about lovers' insecurity ('The Tap'); you can slam-dance to a post-Destiny's Child anthem about how an Independent Woman's attitude adjustment led her to happiness (the filthified whip-crack that is 'Dirtybird'); you can sway to the doomy early-'80s warehouse party last-dance that is 'Summer's Son'; you can laze to the splashy banjo-and-accordion-led sea shanty/cowboy song that is 'Out To Sea'; or you can squint in the beachside setting sun that is 'A Clear View'. And that's only the half of it.
Those familiar with Autamata's debut album, My Sanctuary, will hear a quantum shift in Autamata's approach in the aggressive, in-your-face production and undeniable pop sensibility in evidence on Short Stories. After writing My Sanctuary, says Ken, I took Autamata a step further, and started playing live. It really influenced the way we went about writing this album. Sure enough, as a result of Autamata's transformation over the last two years from a chiefly studio-based project into one of the nation's finest live bands - merging astonishing musicianship, cracking modernist electro flourishes and two of the country's most distinctive singers - Short Stories bristles with immediacy. Everything from its smashing live drum sound to its fearless head-first embracing of the whole audio spectrum, from cacophony and electro-noise through to intimacy, acoustica and silence, reflects a period spent honing what Autamata do to perfection in a live setting.
Autamata's debut album My Sanctuary exceeded any ambitions even Ken himself might have had for it, bringing with it two landmark music videos from Irish animation legends D.A.D.D.Y. and winning placement in films and adverts on both sides of the Atlantic. Above all, however, its success inspired Ken to play around with his own ideas about music.
Short Stories, for me, is a compilation made from a two-year period of writing, where Carol, Sarah and myself wrote 20 songs and 10 instrumentals, and then chose our favourites and recorded them. Whereas My Sanctuary was put together by making instrumental tunes first, which we then formed into songs, Short Stories was mainly created the opposite way, writing songs first and playing around with ideas about their sound and feel afterward.
I like making Autamata albums as musical journeys, Ken says, where each track has its own identity -as opposed to a lot of other artists, who seem to find one sound and stick to it. I know this is unconventional, he says, but I think things have changed. It's not like it was, where people used to be into only one kind of music, and be part of a particular 'scene'. We're living in a time now where people are really passionate and inquisitive about finding out about all sorts of stuff, and like lots of different styles of music. I know that's what the three of us are like, anyway.
For people who truly love music, Short Stories has more than a few good yarns to tell.