Many note Katie Stelmanis’ voice when talking about Austra, and rightfully so, but to say it is “classically trained” is an undersell-and-a-half. Stelmanis’ classical training means opera, like fat-lady-singing, champagne-flute-shattering, bored-husband-snoring, generally-not-in-English opera. And because opera apparently is not a world that you just fall into, the Toronto-based singer began her path at a very young age, only to wind up in an electronic-based indie band. And her reasoning is the same reason I wouldn’t have wanted to be opera singer: she was young, she didn’t want to live the lifestyle that opera would require, and being in a band with other young people was a lot more fun.
To see Austra perform is to see Stelmanis at home, a young woman who didn’t have the same childhood as everyone else now having a fairly unique adulthood as well. But none of this freedom ever translates into Austra’s music, where the construction of the songs feels rigid and too tight at times, making their best compositions easier to appreciate than love.
Now, aside from that general knock, Olympia is Austra’s second album and second success, led by Stelmanis’ ear for melody and her piercing tenor, which guides all the tracks faithfully, regardless of if the dark/electronic/indie tags associated with the band read like a disclaimer. Leading with the strongest few, album opener “What We Done?” takes its time to invite the listeners in, but once greeted, the table’s set, food’s on the plate, and a bed for you to stay in as long as you need is freshly made. “Forgive Me” builds a fire with its warmth, with a softness to the vocals that hasn’t been present before, as Stelmanis usually has one gear to drive her Corvette in. If she incorporates a more relaxed approach at times, it could benefit the power she typically provides with ease.
The album sags in its center, with the hooks present and effective, but without immediacy or remarkable sonics to maintain the opening’s momentum. “We Become” is almost a sleep-walk. “Reconcile” seems stuck in neutral, and “Annie (Oh, muse, you)” spins its tires in the mud. Reading those cliches is what the songs feel like: a series of similar formulas all yielding the same product.
And if the band seems asleep in Olympia’s middle, then “You Changed My Life” is a bucket of ice water. Maya Postepski’s drums enter after an magnetic opening from Stelmanis, and for the first time, Austra feels organic and alive. Even at their best, the technique is Stelmanis’ voice and the nature of electronic music keeps some of the humanity of Austra concealed. “You Changed My Life” hides nothing, with the titular sentiment all the needs saying, allowing for “Hurt Me Now” to work more effectively than it would elsewhere in the collection and making the singer’s near-whisper at the song’s end hopefully be a jumping-off point for the unnecessarily cold project to get to the heart of what they are trying to be. A little unpredictability would go a long way.