Subvert Familiarity

BY Jazz MonroePublished Aug 26, 2013

"I just don't see the point in always trying to play it cool," sings Carmen Elle on "New House," a cut from Diana's exquisite Perpetual Surrender. It's a clever gambit, one of the debut's many reflexive observations that apply as much to our irony-steeped culture, and Diana's place within it, as the romantic confusion the songs describe.

"I think the '80s music we listen to is highly sincere," muses Carmen, whose stage-faces surpass candour into a kind of tortured adoration. "That decade has a reputation for greed and consumerism, as well as questionable fashion choices — shoulder pads, etc. — but that didn't stop bands like Talk Talk creating thoughtful albums that communicate feeling."

We're in keyboardist/saxophonist Joseph Shabason's home, which is sparsely decorated and mid-renovation (locating the bathroom you pass his makeshift studio), with a half-read New Yorker splayed across the sofa. Joseph recalls growing up in Brampton, where he and friends fostered the ailing music scene by booking passing bands. Then, Toronto-bound for jazz school, he partnered with drummer Kieran Adams. The pair — prolific bickerers, on today's evidence — recently debuted their ambient side-project, indulging a proclivity for "swashes and sonic curtains" (Kieran's verbosity) that occasionally sneaks onto Perpetual Surrender.

Forming the embryonic Diana after several Pitchfork-oriented dalliances, the duo pledged to unlearn their jazz schooling before ultimately unlearning their anti-jazz prejudice and grudgingly embracing the genre's scholarly virtues, albeit in pop-friendly form. Pivotal was Joseph's saxophone-playing tenure with Destroyer, where he adopted an admirable uncool: "Destroyer set an example. Solos don't have to be shied from, they can be tasteful," Joseph posits. "Those guys didn't give a fuck what anyone thought, whether it was cool or too jazzy. Seeing that right before making our album was influential."

Later came the introduction of Carmen Elle, a Toronto scene lothario known for her Army Girls project and collaborations with Austra and Doldrums. Rapidly circulating nostalgia-happy blogs, early offerings "Perpetual Surrender" and "Born Again" somehow sidestepped the pitfalls of the '80s throwback. "It's easy to create a familiar feel," says Kieran. "Like, 'I know how to decorate this, I've seen this type of room before.' But that's falling into the same trap that'd prevent you having a saxophone solo."

"Often the album sounds washed out in a weird way," adds Joseph. "We took familiar sounds and gave them new and interesting character through technology." Look no further than "New House," a live favourite that sounds, on record, as if chemically depleted. "The idea was, throughout this gratifying and emotional song, to have an underlying tension and darkness. So we processed the vocals through a crazy Digitek pedal — there are all these noise loops underneath. It's pretty, but also weird and mysterious and tense."

This illuminates their overarching goal: to subvert blog-pop's cult of familiarity through gentle malformation. "Oversaturated and underwhelmed," rues Carmen on album opener "Foreign Installation." Fortunately, Perpetual Surrender makes an ample remedy.

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