The first item in the catalog of the globe-trotting Switzerland-based label Bongo Joe—whose releases include everything from Haitian vodou records to Azerbaijani guitar music—is one that was made in their own backyard. Drones & Love Songs, the debut album by Swiss artist Elias Raschle, who records as Augenwasser, delivers exactly what it promises—a pack of 10 hazy and gentle indie folk songs steeped in strange and otherworldly effects, something like Psychocandy unplugged but with the feedback somehow still intact, or Slumberland Records covers at a coffee shop. It’s curiously charming, familiar and even sweetly approachable, but with an ever-present experimental sensibility, as if to send the message to the person on the other end of those love songs that a first date might involve chemical enhancement or communication with far-off galaxies.
Raschle has since mostly kept his steel strings under lock and key since embracing a more synth-driven sound on the minimal wave playground of 2020’s Sleepdancer. With third album The Big Swim, each idiosyncratic fragment becomes part of a greater whole. Augenwasser’s turns at oddball folk and space-age pop jam sessions have given way to a more romantic and sleek late-night synth-pop reminiscent of a slightly more hedonistic The Blue Nile and all the rain-streaked windshields reflecting oncoming headlight glare that might entail.
It’s easy to be won over simply by the aesthetic that Augenwasser crafts on The Big Swim; bare-bones drum-machine beats snap and pop against a glittering curtain of guitars and lovesick saxophones on leadoff track “Calling Out,” as Raschle’s melancholy croon has grown stronger if still far from showy. It all feels so comfortably luxurious, like being fitted for a velvet coat. Yet it’s the songs more than simply the sound that show the most growth and outward expansion, whether through the pulsing and gradually evolving beatscape of “Real Time,” the minimal wave post-punk blues of “One Sad Morning,” or the smooth-disco daydream of “Keep It Together.” The singer/songwriter with a penchant for juxtaposing sweet melodies with abrasive backdrops is still easy to find within these synthscapes, but the parts fit better, and there’s a sense of direction and resolution that feels like a significant step forward.
There’s nothing particularly maximalist or outsized about The Big Swim—Raschle has a more robust set of tools to work with here, but his sense of economy is one of the most impressive aspects of the album. He’s essentially making something bigger from a similar point of origin as his prior two records, but the end result is one whose horizon only seems to keep unfolding. As far as Augenwasser has come, there’s still so much room to build from here—if he never abandons that simple, drum-machine clink, however, I wouldn’t mind a bit.
Label: Bongo Joe
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.