Austra – Olympia

Austra’s 2011 debut Feel It Break had its moments, but leader Katie Stelmanis’s moody vocal aerobics and familiar synth-pop-manoeuvres-in-the-dark didn’t exactly separate her from the pack. Much more satisfying was Austra’s live show around Laneway last year, during which a six-piece setup thrived on a bubbling rhythm section and dancing back-up singers Sari and Romy Lightman. It showed off a definite evolution from insular solo-style musings to a proper band.

Olympia is very much an extension of that in-sync touring configuration, with drummer Maya Postepski and bassist Dorian Wolf defining these tighter songs just as much as Stelmanis, the Lightmans or keyboardist Ryan Wonsiak. And yet the studio setting is key here, as the band’s self-production locates disciplined richness in non-indulgent layering and subtle thresholds of crackling distortion.

Many of the album’s best tactics arise on the never-bettered opener ‘What Have We Done?’, from off-kilter woodwind and house-music undertow to flickering nocturnal atmosphere. Topping it all off is Stelmanis, whose mercurial lyrics and emotionally fraught vocal depth sell the whole thing. It confirms this as an album of contrasts: it’s a dance record that eschews programmed rhythms in favour of a proper rhythm section, and it’s a studio album forged very much in the live arena. More so, it’s a dance record that nonetheless puts a lot of focus on lingering vocal notes and baroque shadings of horns, woodwinds and violin.

It’s rewarding for all those reasons. ‘Home’ tickles with piano and several slinky extras, even as Stelmanis sings about hurt for not the only time on this record (see the closing ‘Hurt Me Now’). That’s the balance here: on ‘Forgive Me’ her voice is drawn out into a faint shiver before spilling over with emotion and jumping through stylistic hoops, all while a stoic bass line and retro electronics keep the vibe from getting too heavy. On ‘Painful Like’ it’s the chirping, Greek-chorus-like harmonies and mesmeric drumming; on ‘Sleep’ it’s the faux-industrial ephemera and effects-larded drums. ‘Annie (Oh Muse, You)’ pairs a disco undercurrent and another unironic flute solo, while ‘I Don’t Care (I’m a Man)’ is a minute-long centrepiece that feels deeper than a mere interlude.

If those tricks can start to feel predictable, ‘You Changed My Life’ mixes up its sincere lyrics and fluttering vocals by opening with a naked piano passage. Olympia could use a bit more of that structural diversity on a larger level – rather than just in the minor details – but it’s still an admirable, exciting record. It reminds us that siren-fronted dance-pop can remain svelte and sophisticated.