motifs - remember a stranger

26 May 2023  •  Filed under

East & Southeast Asian artists have been increasingly popping up on my radar this year. From everything I can tell, there’s a vibrant, burgeoning music scene in these areas that is going largely unnoticed by western listeners, and that’s a real shame because there are a lot of fresh perspectives to enjoy. It’s a real treat to be a music lover in a time when there’s so much opportunity for new discoveries from the other side of the world.

I discovered Motifs (typically styled as all-lowercase “motifs”) via a YouTube recommendation. They’re a shoegaze/dreampop band from Singapore, and their debut album remember a stranger came out in the fall of 2022. It’s an impressive debut. Though the music feels like it neatly slots into a languid, familiar style, the band brings a couple secret weapons to the recording.

The first is Elspeth Ong, whose steady, slightly-grainy vocals and reflective lyrics are the unassuming air that lifts each track. Her voice has a wistful and sweet tone, a complimentary pairing to her nostalgic, longing, and contemplative lyrics. Hazy memories, lingering loss, uncertain futures; all are captured in smeared, dusky vignettes that bend toward poetry more than confessions or storytelling. There’s a feeling of innocence lost yet somehow rescued, beauty squeezed from bitterness, and calm seas after the storm.

The band also employs synths, but often steers toward more bright, twinkling presets, and regularly brings the keys to the foreground. In many songs—like “fluorescent”—the glittering of the synths is an immensely pleasing counterpoint to the tremolo-tortured guitars. Despite the sad-to-bittersweet content, the musical brightness elevates the whole album and avoids feeling like a downer.

Much like the album cover, this is music that’s softly out of focus, living in memory, and simple in its purity. The title is also evocative. Am I the stranger? The shapeless, rippling mirage I see when I look back at myself in memories? Is it a parent, friend, or lover who was once familiar but has since become estranged? Is it something else?

A bit of mystery is good.

© Jared Christensen

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