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Picastro - Become Secret

  by Dominic B. Simpson

published: 12 / 5 / 2010

Picastro - Become Secret
Label: Mondrain Records
Format: CD


Minimal and bleak, but compelling fourth album from Picastro, the project of genetically deaf singer-songwriter Liz Hysen, which includes a guest appearance from Owen Pallett on violin

When an album arrives with a front cover bearing the painting of a boy burning in a fire, a bleak, lone tree without leaves behind him, you know that you’re not dealing in light-hearted fare. And Picastro are most definitely not the most light-hearted kind of band. They are, however, compelling, intense, haunting and often beautiful in the bleakness and lyrical intensity. Since forming in the mid-90s in Toronto, Canada, the band have previously released three LPs, toured the UK with former Pennyblackmusic favourites Bikini Atoll, and mined lushly atmospheric ruminations on the human condition from frontwoman Liz Hysen – a mysterious part-time filmmaker supposedly raised in a deaf family and genetically deaf herself (though it hasn’t stopped the band lurching into some intensely loud dirge-like explorations). All the while, they’ve been joined by Arcade Fire and Hidden Cameras collaborator Owen “Final Fantasy” Pallett, whose frequently tortured violin has been a perfect accompaniment to the enigmatic Hysen’s intense explorations of human fragility, claustrophobia, fear and failed relationships in her lyrics, all delivered in her trademark listless, anaesthetized tone. With song titles like ‘I Can’t Fall Asleep’, ‘Teeth and No Eyes’, ‘Night of Long Knives’, and – just for good measure – ‘The Sea Will Kill You’, Hysen’s traumatised, terrified lyrics sound like a psychosexual exploration of neurotic obsession; suffice to say, this isn’t music that will ever be playing down the Equinox in Leicester Square on a Saturday night. Yet Picastro can have moments of startling beauty too, as with ‘No Contest’, the opening track of their sophomore effort ‘Metal Cares’, in which the song slowly unfurls like a blooming flower against a backdrop of Pallett’s violin, cymbals and a cyclical acoustic riff to gorgeous effect. Perhaps not surprisingly, the band haven’t mutated into shiny-go-happy pop stars since their last album, ‘Whore Luck’, yet they remain as compelling as ever on their new offering, ‘Become Secret’. It’s difficult to tell who exactly is accompanying Hysen this time round; promo photos have showed her alone, compared to previous albums where she has been accompanied by the whole band. On opener ‘Twilight Parting’ it certainly sounds like Hysen on her own, accompanied only by piano and Pallett’s violin, reminiscent in the instrumental parts of the solo work by múm’s Hildur Gudnadottir, while ‘A Dune A Doom’ has echoes of Easter European folk – a genre that Picastro have visited before, most obviously with ‘Ah Nyeh Nyeh’ and ‘Towtruck’ on previous albums. But it’s ‘Pig & Sucker’ that sounds most like previous Picastro, with Hysen intoning “you’re begging for all you can steal…you’re on me, you’re on me” over a simple acoustic guitar – yet despite its simplicity somehow it’s delivered convincingly and compellingly. ‘I Know My Time Now’ is a beautiful torch ballad on piano, with one of Hysen’s most affecting vocal takes whispering in the listener’s ear and Pallett’s violin sublime in it’s mournful, tearful state: “tell me all your stories…cos someone sold all your friends”. With much of the album continuing in such a minimal tone, it’s obvious that Picastro is essentially Hysen these days plus a number of collaborators, as opposed to being a full band. The drums, bass and electric guitar of previous albums is nowhere to be seen on ‘Become Secret’; with Pallett’s violin at least present, the result is surprisingly similar to Nico’s ‘The Marble Index’ or ‘Desertshore’, with Hysen adopting the role of a bleak chanteuse singer. The only evidence that might point the contrary is presented by ‘Suttee’, a roughly-recorded unexpected a cappella sing-along between Hysen and some uncredited male singers: “You will never love again/ I will never grieve again/You will never grieve again/I will never love again”. Whether they were her present or former bandmates isn’t clear, and shorn of any accompanying context, it’s difficult to know what is really being addressed in the song, but it certainly works as a counterpoint to the rest of the album’s dependence on piano and ghostly acoustic guitar. The final track, ‘The Stiff’, is the album’s most desolate and lonely moment, a 60’s ghostly keyboard accompanying the guitar and violin as Hysen sings, ‘This song is the last word that we’ll sing when you die…cursed by my own hands to sing till I die/And burn when I sleep”. Like a more extreme version of some of the songs on Kristin Hersh’s ‘Hips and Makers’ (itself not exactly a fun pub singalong either), it’s a harrowing and uncompromising ending to an austere album that at just under thirty minutes long is practically a mini-album, but which lures you into it’s scarred and solipsist world, where nothing outside really counts. Picastro’s music has become even more inward-looking and minimal than before on ‘Become Secret’, and all the better for those willing to submit to Hysen’s traumatised vision without prejudice.

Track Listing:-
1 Twilight Parting
2 A Dune A Doom
3 Pig & Sucker
4 Split Head
5 I Know My Time Now
6 Neva
7 Suttee
8 A Neck In The Desert
9 The Stiff

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