Today, we were treated to the long-awaited return of a beloved cult figure in modern pop. Finally, with her new band Exploded View, Anika has risen! (Wait, did something else happen too?) To date, Berlin via Britain singer Annika Henderson has been a fringe figure, with a small output and a mysterious air. Portishead’s Geoff Barrow produced her 2011 debut Anika with his sideband BEAK> providing instrumental backing. The record, a set of downcast covers with one stray original song mixed in, felt old-fashioned and almost willfully slight. A 2013 EP, also just called Anika, followed the same formula (and continued to professionally shun her name’s stray second “n”). Henderson didn’t do much press and the records slid quickly out of view. But her songs kept popping up in artist-curated playlists, in interviews and lists of faves. There was something to them. They lingered in mind longer than it seemed they should.
Those records played out like immaculately chosen playlists performed as live cabaret in a dim Berlin nightclub—songs by The Kinks and The Chromatics, Skeeter Davis and Yoko Ono all colored dark, ranging from aloof to actively sinister. Her flat vocal affect recalled Nico, sure, but the next wave of European punk singers, the Velvet Underground singer inspired even more so. The discordant Malaria!, a truly obscure and totally fearsome German band active in the early 80s, might be a more closely held touchstone. There’s a quality to her singing that’s hard to pin down. It was intimate, but not exactly vulnerable, cool despite rough red spikes. On those releases, hypnotic as they still are, it was easy to consider Anika primarily as a stylist, a curator as much as a creator.
Three years later she’s re-emerged, suddenly, at the helm of a tight four-piece rock band. Henderson met her Exploded View bandmates Martin Thulin, Hugo Quezada, and Amon Melgarejo in Mexico City in 2014, where they’d been pre-assembled as her back-up for a short string of live dates. Due to pure inspiration or an instant realization of impending geographic separation, the group recorded their self-titled debut LP quickly, as a series of unbroken, single takes captured to a vintage TASCAM 388, 8-track recorder. The 11-song set, released today on Brooklyn’s Sacred Bones label, is a fuller document of the singer as distinct artist rather than hip interpreter.
Barrow and co’s accompaniment was sparse, dubby and a bit dreamy. As a showcase for Anika’s vocal, they were like a spotlight on an empty stage. Exploded View can be gentle too, in parts, but the band has a more aggressive gear and a more claustrophobic density to navigate. Their rad krautrock single “No More Parties in the Attic” barrels forward trailing metallic sparks, pings from inside a descending submarine ringing on its edges. Floating in scant space, with remarkable timing and undeniable presence, Henderson ends up weirdly dominant. Grace amid doom is not their only move. The deep, hedonistic groove of “Orlando” (written about the gender-fluid Virginia Woolf novel, not the horrific nightclub shooting) peaks in delightfully overexcited drum fills, irrepressibly fun and sexy in spite of itself.
A 1960s girl-group fixation lingers from Anika to Exploded View. “One Too Many” carries the deliberate pace and romantic timbre of that era’s teen love ballads, despite its cracked, agitating guitar. Curdling the sweetness, or at least teasing out the lurking darkness, in 60s pop hits isn’t a particularly radical move in 2016. Still, original songs allow perspectives that would then have been too strange for old standards. “I’ve seen too many men go down this road again. I’ve seen so many crumble,” Henderson reports, a knowing Cassandra, a prophet of doom. In “Call on the Gods” she goes so deep into that eerie soothsayer vibe that she starts speaking in tongues. Freed from the constraints of others’ material, the surreal images and unusual turns of phrase stand out. I have no idea what “Robert DeNiro’s disco glove” refers to, but it sounds completely depraved.
There’s substance behind all that style. Henderson, who has a professional background in political journalism, cites a righteous anger she brought to the lyrics on songs like “Lark Descending” which elliptically reference the vapid, corrosive nature of news coverage that mediates and minimizes tragedy and death. But it feels incorrect to claim agitprop as Exploded View’s primary thrill. It’s mostly beautiful and effecting for the real sustained tension between broken sounds, locked-in, physical playing and the reserved, spectral singing. Henderson sounds both natural inside these tracks and set eerily apart from them. It’s certainly not difficult music to enjoy, but it hums on a peculiar out-of-time wavelength that makes few efforts to pander to the present tense. It’s a true cult-pop rarity for self-selected oddballs, at a time when shards of meaning in mass production are all we ever seem to ask for, or really bother to discuss.