A Retrospective on Pia Fraus: Wonder What It’s Like (Pia Records, 2001)
This review begins a retrospective into the music of the band Pia Fraus. For those who do not know, Pia Fraus is an Estonian band whose first album was released in 2001. Yes, a seemingly unlikely place for such an important and influential dreampop band to come from but, as all music fans know, music knows no borders. It transcends cultures and can bring together fans of different nations. As I look back through their catalog, I hope to write up each album in the order in which they were released, tracing the history of this celebrated dreampop band as they progress from Wonder What It’s Like to After Summer. I will not only visit their albums but write on some of their EP’s along the way, looking toward their recent resurgences with the Autumn Winds and Cloudy Eyes 7” singles they have released in 2016 and 2017. All of this is inspired by the fact that Pia Fraus is currently working on their first full-length in almost a decade.
Wonder What It’s Like is a mixture of original tracks and remixes done by other Estonian artists. It’s an odd mix for a first album because the remixes are worked into the album rather than placed at its end. There are four remixes (tracks 4, 7, 8, and 11) and eight original pieces. Apparently, this was common practice for Estonian bands in the early 2000’s. I will note the placement of the remixes in the overall order of the album below but that, of course, is an outsider’s viewpoint looking into another culture’s music scene. At the time of Wonder What It’s Like, the band consisted of Rein Fuks, Reijo Tagapere, Kärt Ojavee, Kristel Loide (Eplik), Joosep Volk, and Tõnis Kenkmaa. They were a group of mostly 17-year-old musicians who began recording their first album in 2000. They had released one song entitled “Nature Heart Software” on a Japanese release before Wonder What It’s Like came out. The line-up would alter a bit over the years as members would come and go due to general life happenings. This, of course, is to be expected for a band that has been together for so long at this point.
Back in 2001, the first track many would encounter from this dreampop band was “How Fast Can You Love”. It bursts forth from the speakers with a punk rock feel but then the dreamy, ethereal voices bring a sort of dreampop calm. Acoustic guitar becomes the central instrument around which the rest of the hazy guitars and punk-like drums circle. The bridge also demonstrates their straight out of the gate songwriting prowess with a bass line that just rolls and fuzzed out, drifting keys that disappear and become spacy under acoustic guitar. It’s an incredible introduction to a young band that would prove to be adept at their craft throughout the years to come.
“Obnoxious” is second on this debut album and it is filled with fuzzy guitars, beautifully played bass, and tiny, expressive percussion. This time, an organ is a central tone maker with female vocals sitting deep in the mix. However, those vocals aren’t ethereal or floating but rather matter of fact. They remind me of vocals in twee bands such as Heavenly or Marine Research. The song is also accented with a few electronic spacy sounds here and there and these tones create a wonderful contrast with the rather spirited vocals. “Moon Like a Pearl” has a wonderful bounce to it straight out of the gate. This piece has all the makings of what would eventually become that signature Pia Fraus sound. Gorgeous, energetic drums, innocent melodic vocals, and bright guitars. The organ on “Moon Like a Pearl” is brilliant, playing a perfect melody over the strumming guitars. One can’t help but bounce about and move listening to this bright tune.
“Moon Like a Pearl” is followed by a remix of “Obnoxious”. This wonderful reconstruction of “Obnoxious” is done by the experimental electronic artist Galaktlan. Synths create rhythmic sounds with otherworldly tones and bouncing cadences. The vocals are really one of the only things recognizable about the track in this instance. Of course, the core melodies remain, and that is where Galaktlan does a brilliant job on this piece. “Summer Before Spring” is another classic Pia Fraus tune with gloriously dreamlike vocals and that perfect pop structure. As a young band, they found their legs early and located the central, core elements of their sound as a band. The band also proved adept at larger tonal changes in this track with aggressive guitars turning to the quieter side while percussion and bass play distinct roles in these ever so delicate moments. The band’s brilliance is demonstrated very early on, foreshadowing their impressive catalog to come.
“In Mind” begins like a ghost of Slowdive past. Dreamy walls of sound slowly move like sonic icebergs listing about under floating, breathy vocals. There is no bounce or twee element here but rather classic shoegaze brilliance infuses the band. It has those dreamier elements of what would be in tracks like “House Eaten” but doesn’t contain that bouncy Pia Fraus signature sound. It’s honestly one of my favorite tracks on their first album but it’s certainly a sign that the band was finding its musical identity still. “Deep Purple (Njuu rmx)” follows and it’s a remix of a track that doesn’t show up on the album till later. It’s an odd choice in terms of track order. It’s a techno heavy remix which sounds very electronic and is filled with pulsing beats and even moments of light drones. It’s a far dreamier version of the original track, leaving little semblance of it in the mix. Mainly, the vocals survive and provide the connection the mix gives to its origins.
“Summer Before Spring (Snafu rmx)” gets a rather glorious remix here with bouncy, almost tribal drums and a set of hand claps amid reverberating, swirling electronic ghosts. The vocals repeat and the tempo is changed along with a very interesting bass-line. There’s also this wonderful Basa-nova style organ that plays at one point. “Beautiful Next Time” returns to the dreamy, female vocals with that edgy touch which was present in “Obnoxious”. “Beautiful Next Time” swings in a slow cadence, walking the listener through a beautiful dreampopscape of Pia Fraus’ making. Even at the band’s beginnings, they were able to take a sort of macabre feel and twist it into a pop-laden tune. Their mastery of this skill would develop over the years.
“Deep Purple Girl”, the aforementioned remixed track, finally appears in its naked, unremixed form at track 10. Again, this is another signature track with breathy, slightly reverbed vocals and cymbal/high hat laden percussion that brightens up the backdrop of the track. Synths shimmer as bass glues the band together. Guitars fill in the gaps, playing a subtle roll in the backdrop, contributing deftly to the wall of sound. Another odd track order decision follows with “Swim in Eyes (Lobsand Dorje rmx)” which is another remix that occurs before the original track has come up in the track listing. This remix is eerie, with deep synths reverberating in the speakers. Piano plays a light melody as bongos provide percussion. I’m not sure this is even a remix of the track but rather a complete and utter reimagining of it. “Swim In Eyes” rounds out the album with one of my other favorite tracks on this release. It’s a perfect dreampop piece with complex percussion and organ moments that lay on top of layers of guitar and some tambourine. It’s a longer form piece that just never gets old. Every note is perfect. What a great finale to this first outing for the band.
Pia Fraus’ debut Wonder What It’s Like is a brilliant beginning for what I consider to be a very important band in the history of dreampop. While I think this album sees them finding their own musical identity as a unit, it has all those brilliant touches that are signature Pia Fraus. The album also demonstrates that the band was brilliant from the very start and the potential for greatness already obvious. Next up, I will take a look at In Solarium, the band’s sophomore outing on Clairecords. It’s a testament to their brilliance that they ended up on one of the most important shoegaze/dreampop labels of the 2000’s with their second full-length.
[…] album on the horizon. I’ve even started a retrospective series on their albums starting with Wonder What It’s Like. As a dreampop band that started in the early 2000’s, I consider the band important in the […]
[…] releasing their first new album in almost a decade. As I noted in my piece on their first album, Wonder What It’s Like, the band at the time seemed to have yet to find their signature sound in full. The band moved in […]
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