Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Listening to: Ólafur Arnalds

November 14, 2018

I really enjoyed Ólafur Arnalds’ early work; I almost caught him live at SXSW 2013. But since then I’ve lost track of him, until Jeff Hinton alerted me to re:member. Arnalds’ delicate, occasionally whimsical work is piano-based but expands outward into what could even be called post-rock at times: “unfold” is light and airy, while the title track opener reminds me of the lighter end of Sigur Ros’ work. There’s a lot to unpack here, and I don’t think I’m done writing about it. But in this new realm of experimentation I thought I’d mention that I’m listening to it.

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The Roving Ear

November 3, 2018

You can listen to many of the pieces and artists that I mention in this essay at a Spotify list of the same nameThis essay comes as a product of a two-month sabbatical.

I love new music and writing. As a result, Independent Clauses has almost always been a blog that professionally covers the new music which I am listening to recreationally. When the music I’m listening to diverges from what I’m writing about at Independent Clauses, I shift the blog’s focus to draw my recreational listening and my writing back into line. This process is always happening at a micro level. When you’ve been running a blog for fifteen years, though, your micro changes can add up to quite a bit of change. This original scope of this blog included hardcore and emo bands prominently; our current iteration is focused mostly on indie-pop, folk, and neo-classical work. I have slowly, continually shaved off the louder edges of the reviewable range, while simultaneously pushing the quieter boundary of the reviewable range outwards.

Amid the ever-present micro changes, there has been one major topical change. The only hard departure in IC’s existence corresponds to the only major chronological disjuncture in the largely continuous flow of content over the past fifteen years. In 2008, I caught a massive case of burnout while trying to build out a physical zine for Independent Clauses. I took six months off from posting at IC and returned with a very different focus; I featured post-hardcore wizards The Felix Culpa as the cover band for the Spring 2008 second edition of the Independent Clauses zine, while the work I posted about in January 2009 included indie-pop, singer/songwriter, alt-country, and even jazz musicians. It was a big change.

I feel another large change coming on. I say “feel” because it snuck up on me. I was just living my life, and suddenly I had been listening to things way outside the normal bounds of Independent Clauses for months. Simultaneously, I was listening to folk-pop and indie-pop less. Because I had internalized that this blog was a folk and indie-pop blog, I slowly began to write less at Independent Clauses in proportion to the decreased amount of indie-pop/folk pop I was listening to. Longtime readers will note that there have not been nearly as many album reviews at Independent Clauses in 2018 as there have been in previous years; careful album reviews have been our calling card for many years. Longtime readers may have noticed this before I did, even. It snuck up on me.

This is not folk or indie-pop’s fault; I still love those genres and listen to them often. One of the first articles I’ll be writing after this one is a review of Jenny and Tyler’s new album; if there’s been a through-line in the last decade for IC, it’s J&T. Their new album is great, and it transcends my interest in genres. No, it’s not folk-pop’s fault. As the saying goes: It’s not you, it’s me. After nine years of focus on folk-pop and indie-pop, I’ve largely said what I want to say about those two genres. I can write fairly fine-grained descriptions of songs and albums with great rapidity, having hundreds of albums and thousands of songs’ worth of experience at the tasks. But this mastery is a double-edged sword: I’m not particularly intellectually stimulated by folk-pop, indie-pop and their relatives anymore. I have been intellectually stimulated by a wide range of new-to-me genres and sounds over the past year, though. So while I won’t be dropping folk, folk-pop, and indie-pop cold turkey, I am and will be focusing my musical attention on genres outside the IC norm that have been catching my ear and intellectual attention. With that concrete and specific shift in my recreational listening, a change in the topical content of Independent Clauses is a necessary response.

So what I have been listening to that I’m so captivated by? I’ve become taken with a fairly wide variety of longform instrumental music. The range is wide: mid-century minimalism, ambient, progressive house, instrumental trance, chillwave, instrumental acoustic work, acoustic post-rock, indie video game soundtracks, podcast soundtracks, and a post-metal track here and there. (I’ve also been really into Tshegue, but their African dance/garage rock/rap is an outlier in my current musical habits.) Some of my favorites this year have been Lucho Ripley’s discographyThe Album Leaf’s whole discography (minus the newest album, ironically), Split Stones by Lymbyc System (2015), Diminuito by Rolf Lislevand Ensemble (2018; h/t my good friend and collaborator Chris Krycho for this one), Oliver Davis’ discography (ditto), Jack de Quidt’s Marielda (2016; h/t my geek-out partner Jeff Hinton), and Spotify playlists of instrumental trance music. I work really well to playlists of instrumental trance music, incidentally.

I didn’t wake up at the beginning of my recent two-month sabbatical or even January 1 of this year with a sudden musical change of heart. This change began at least four years ago when I discovered the fascinating Become Ocean by John Luther Adams. The discovery of mid-century modernist classic “Canto Ostinato” by Simeon ten Holt three years ago really kicked off a burst of interest in this type of work. Both of these works fall in the classical/neo-classical genre; they are works the aforementioned Chris Krycho would prefer that I (and you) call “composed music.” There’s a great deal of contemporary composed music (both of recent history, such as that of Simeon ten Holt, and true-contemporary, the things being released in the last five years) that I am very interested in.

I’ve also recently admitted to myself a fascination with ambient work, which will be no surprise to close readers of this blog: I’ve been a fan of Teen Daze for many years and seem to get more excited about the work of Jamison (the musician behind Teen Daze) the quieter it gets. His latest venture as Jamison Isaak is fascinating, although Spring Patterns 1 may be too minimalist even for me. The joining of ambient and synthesized music has led me in the last year to the excellent modular synthesizer work of ann annie and r beny. These types of sounds have made cameos–increasingly large cameos, but bit parts nonetheless–in Independent Clauses’ coverage over the past few years. I’m ready to make them the focus of what I’m writing.

My changed music listening habits have contributed to this change in musical styles. I have a commute on the shorter side now, and thus have less mandatory solo music-listening time. I’ve also taken up listening to the Bible on my morning commute, further cutting into my new-music-listening time. Instead, I listen to a lot of new music while I work, and music without words is much easier to listen to while working. I used to listen to, think about, and draft reviews of new music while on long runs; now I lift weights, which requires me to think and focus on the activity instead of letting my mind wander. I still listen to music though; I listen to pg.lost quite a bit, and I created a workout list for myself. It’s one of the few times I’ve ever made a workout list in my life. (h/t Chris Krycho again for the pg.lost recommendation.) I will hold a torch for the iPod–I love you forever, you were truly The Perfect Thing–but I have been swayed to streaming services. I tried Apple Music and found their playlist creation tools hard to use. That forced me over to Spotify, with which I’ve made an uneasy truce. Having an astonishing supply of music at my fingertips allows me to explore and investigate quirky corners of sound and rabbit trails of artists, and that’s been a lot of fun. I found Lymbyc System that way; they are fantastic.

With a change in the type of music I’m into and a change in my musical listening habits comes a nigh-on mandatory shift in the way I work here in creating IC content. For the greater part of the last decade, I’ve spent 10-45 minutes a day reading Independent Clauses emails and listening to the new music contained in those emails. Because I have a depth of experience with folk, folk-pop, and indie-pop, I can determine my interest level for many songs in under 30 seconds. This allows me to power through dozens and dozens of emails at massive speed; I can discard stuff I know I won’t like, quickly evaluate stuff I might like, and file stuff I know I’m going to like very quickly.

My new interest in longform music foils this expectation in multiple ways. The first is that longform music might not accomplish much of anything in 30 seconds, regardless of whether it’s mindblowingly amazing or completely derivative: the Pulitzer Prize-winning Become Ocean was the first touchstone in this major musical shift, and the first 30 seconds of the piece produce almost no sound at all. The second reason is that I have no mental shortcuts built up for this music; the cues that I look for in a folk song to let me know what’s going to happen in a minute or three or five aren’t built up yet for these new musical genres. The third reason is that with a few exceptions, I’m not currently on the email lists of people who would send me music like this. (Smalltown Supersound, Fluttery Records, and Home Normal Records are the major exceptions here.) These three concepts working together are a significant part of the reason that I haven’t been posting much at IC in the last few months before my two-month sabbatical; in the last few months I haven’t really known what I’d post about, how I’d post about it, or exactly how I’d find it. I hadn’t and haven’t figured out how to square this new stuff I’m really into with the old way of working. I need a new way of working, but I don’t have it yet.

It’s not that I haven’t picked a new way of working, it’s that I don’t quite know what I mean yet by working differently. I know that the singles review form that I’ve come to enjoy so much as a constraint and a medium doesn’t seem like it’s going to work very well for this music. In exploring works that don’t conform to the traditional EP/album format, I’ve found that these works call for different types of writing than the album review format that I, again, have loved as a medium and constraint over the past 15 years.

One of the biggest changes is related to how I find things to listen to. I haven’t been checking Independent Clauses email for a month while I sorted some of this stuff out in my brain; I find that I miss the relationships I’ve built up with bands, record labels, and PR people over the years, but I don’t miss checking the email. I use the time for other things, like staying up on professional news or getting more work in or not checking emails in the evening. The complication is that the content of Independent Clauses has been tied to a never-ending font of new music via those emails for almost the entirety of its existence. In its stead, I’ve been roving through Spotify, listening to things that span the last 60 years in genres that I haven’t heard. So it’s new-to-me music, but it’s not chronologically new music. This change alone would be enough to tilt Independent Clauses on its axis; I’ve been a fairly staunchly consistent purveyor of music-that-has-been-released-in-this-current-calendar-year for the entirety of Independent Clauses’s existence.

The reputation, professional relationships, and readership of the blog (insofar as all those exist; I’ve never been a big fish in the music blogging world and, since 2009, I have had little desire to be one) are tied to the new music concept. If Independent Clauses continues to be a record of what I’m listening to, then this won’t be a strictly-new-music blog anymore. I would have to come up with a new way of writing that addresses that new exigence: if you’re not reading this post because it’s about something that’s brand new for you to be into, what are you reading it for? Not everyone is as addicted to chronologically new music as I was for many years; it may be that the same people who like chronologically new music like new-to-them music. The point of mentioning this is that I, by dint of long experience in the old way of working, really have no way of knowing if that statement is true or not. Maybe people like new-to-them music but not the new-to-them music IC would recommend, especially as I get up to speed in some genres by listening to stuff most people knowledgeable in the genres would already know about. (i.e. I now have opinions on Armin Van Buuren, you may have heard of him? all the trance fans groan) Who can say? Let’s find out.

By saying I need a new way of working, I mean it–this isn’t a little change. This is a change on par with the 2008-2009 change. We’re going somewhere new.

However, because I don’t quite know where it is we’re going and what it is we’re doing, we’re not going to start doing whatever that is 100% and dropping everything else cold turkey. I’m still going to write about Jenny and Tyler, no matter what form this blog takes–their music is intellectually stimulating to me, no matter what type of work I’m writing about consistently. So there’s going to be some folk and folk-pop and indie-pop in here over the next few months and maybe even years. But as I go along further into that great future, I expect those topics to appear less and less as I get more and more acquainted with the sounds I’m interested in now.

In some ways, it’s very exciting to be starting to focus on that which is for Independent Clauses uncharted territory. I’ve been getting really excited about Lymbyc Systym’s Split Stones and Jack de Quidt’s Marielda, so much so that I’ve been texting and chatting gushing recommendations to friends about them. This is a sure sign that I’ve caught on to something I like. It’s fun to be excited and naive about new sounds.

In other ways, it’s a bit disorienting; leaving behind mastery is leaving behind a source of personal pride, professional fulfillment, and social status. None of my quotes about the composed music that I am geeking out about these days are going to end up on PR emails anytime soon, and that’s a small joy that I will miss. I will know a ton about folk conceptually but will have increasingly little to say about individual acts that will be to me suddenly and unexpectedly popular. I’ll be out of that game, even if I have my head in another game. It’s a little like retiring from one sport and picking up another. (Is Usain Bolt a potentially good soccer player? I digress.)

As I’ve been kicking these thoughts around for the last few months before and during my sabbatical, I’ve wondered about the future of Independent Clauses. Since the great refocusing of 2008-2009, I’ve never really considered shutting down the blog. It has become a part of my life so deeply that it’s almost a part of me. Independent Clauses has been in my life longer than any friend I talk to on a regular basis, and all but two of my distant we-would-be-better-friends-if-we-lived-closer-to-each-other friends. It’s been around longer than my marriage, longer than any address I’ve ever lived at, longer than my current career path, longer than pretty much everything except my nuclear family relationships and my faith in Christianity. Even in the midst of this big upheaval, I still haven’t considered shutting it down. It’s a whole other essay’s worth of content to delineate what Independent Clauses brings to my life, but there are a lot of personal, practical, and professional benefits that I have seen from this blog. Even if those all change as this big re-direction occurs, I feel confident that those benefits will reappear in new ways.

I still don’t know exactly what format I’ll be posting in, or how often I’ll be posting, or exactly what I’ll be posting about. But I know this: I’m excited about it. I’m excited about the changes, more so than I was excited about reading through dozens of emails about folk-pop bands to find the one true gem. And that’s more than enough reason to go through with this big change: it’s going to be a lot of fun. I hope that you will come along for the ride. If this isn’t your cup of tea, maybe you have a friend who might be interested in it.

Technically speaking, I’ll still accept submissions at indieclauses@gmail.com. However, I expect to check the account with much less frequency–maybe once or twice a week, as opposed to every morning first thing in the morning and last thing before leaving work. I’ll be sourcing a lot more from my own adventures in music searching, but I won’t be abandoning my knowledge that the easiest way to find something really amazing and new is to maintain an open inbox and strong relationships with people in the know. I’ll probably be a pretty bad premiere partner for the near future, as I don’t quite know how to talk about the stuff I’m geeking out on yet. (But I’d be willing to experiment, if you’d be willing to live with the results!) I’d be thrilled to have people who are interested in this type of longform instrumental music write with me–that’s another way for me to learn. While everything else about IC up to and including my relationship to the former lifeblood of this blog (email) may change in this shift, my enthusiasm for working with other writers shows little sign of diminishing. Let me know if you’re interested.

Thank you to everyone who has supported Independent Clauses in the last 15 years; if this is the last time you read Independent Clauses, I thank you deeply for your attention and your interest. If this is the first time you’ve read Independent Clauses, welcome: we’re a 15-year-old blog about under-appreciated music that’s under new management despite the same manager.

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decker.’s Spiritual Awakening

September 11, 2018

A rude awakening always comes before the spiritual awakening, even for musical mystic decker. Brandon Decker has toured ceaselessly for nearly ten years since the release of his debut in 2009, with multiple albums dropped along the way. Born to Wake Up is a transcendent soundscape from a man who listeners only thought they knew. Reborn, a better man has emerged from the ashes. His sound has evolved along with his spirit.

Signed to the prestigious Royal Potato Family record label, Brandon Decker has brought his Sedona, Arizona, psychedelic folk to life.  Adding to the ambient surreal aura is cover art from Brandon Paul Shupe Art. The stunning artwork blends desert psychedelia and possibly some pea soup aesthetic into the blender of creativity. Quinn Murphy at Hamster Labs in Phoenix, Arizona helped make the artwork and layout come to life. This album, produced by Brandon Decker & Dylan Ludwig and recorded at Raven Sound Studio in Prescott, Arizona, has an added essence infused by final mastering from Dan Coutant (Caterpillars, Sherwood, among a host of others) at Sun Room Audio in Cornwall, New York.

The first sounds of “No Beginning No End”  opens the ten-song album with an expansive echo of brilliance. Some facts are clear: like a desert night, each sound is magnified, every nuance vibrating with meaning. With Brandon Decker on guitars, vocals, and percussion joined by Dylan Ludwig on guitars, synthesizers, and percussion, a skeleton of a symphony has been created. Amber Johnson (keyboards), Andrew Bates (electric bass), Zirque Bonner (upright bass), Charlie Foldesh (drums), Shawnee Snaketail (drums),  and Meliza Jackson (guitar) are the full orchestra of sound that helps create the rich lushness of this album.

Resting in the mystery is “The Strawman,” with an wide, cinematic feel; a hollow echo of lyrics create a haunting, soul-jarring connection to one of the most strikingly brilliant vocals ever felt by this troubadour.  

“Burnin Grass” is a tribute to Tom Petty that was also the lead single from Born to Wake Up. It is a solid homage to the great songwriter in vibe and lyricism, with a splash of desert folk style. Shifting gears, “The Garden” has an eclectic cool with a bass line that rolls. The intimacy of the sound’s contradiction with the lyrics is genius. In the past, Brandon Decker has written more from the dark side, a perspective that dead ends in many ways. Hope is heard on this album, with love and light breaking through introducing life anew.

The driving groove of “The Matador” is animalistic, thanks to the abundance of percussion, and the primal feel reflects the fact that this man is connected to the land.  Clearly, this an elevation of an already talented artist and that brilliance is heard lyrically. Bright vocally, this soars in triumph, an awareness that the truth is a freedom that cannot be given without sacrifice. The title track “Born to Wake Up” follows. With guitar work that feels like a loving hug, each lyric is a positive reinforcement to clear each speed bump in life, big or small, in order to become the best human being possible. Is this a new Decker, a little road weary and more introspective?

Sometimes the best new music connects a listener to memories of the past, great albums seared into the soul. “Smudge” has an aura of The Beatles with a vibe that brings to mind the psychedelic aesthetic of cuts from Revolver, Rubber Soul, and the White Album as do all of the closing songs.   Written with his son, “Mexico” is simply beautiful and in many ways reminiscent of “Beautiful Boy” by John Lennon; simple, heartfelt love of father and son. Life is celebrated with breathtaking honesty.  Adding to the magic is the voice of Katherine Byrnes; heart-stopping love seems to radiate from this cut unconsciously. Knowing that the songwriter and his son wrote this song is that much more powerful, knowing the bond the two share.

An evolution has occurred for Brandon Decker. Closing out the album with “The Saint” as a tribute to his grandmother, the man has certainly shifted his perspective.  Now his ascension to another plane as a songwriter has begun, more open and authentic spiritually than on any of his previous seven releases. A bookend to close the album, “No End, No Beginning” harkens in the dawn, a chapter in the musical life of a man devoted to his son, his art, and his spirit.–Lisa Whealy

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August Singles

August 7, 2018

1. “Dancing” – Young Readers. This beautiful whisper-folk tune comes with a huge history: this song was originally written years ago, before a Kickstarter campaign, a cancer diagnosis, a cancer recovery, and a return to music. Jordan Herrera’s fragile voice and subtle determination are beautiful on their own, but they have a lot more gravitas when you know the story attached. As a long-time fan of Young Readers (and one of the funders of that cancer-battered Kickstarter), I’m thrilled to hear Young Readers back in the game.

2. “About” – Another Michael. Anyone who starts off their track with found sound and a blaring organ is going somewhere unusual. This Topshelf Records crew demonstrates that they leans toward the quiet end of that label’s spectrum with this artsy, clever, propulsive indie-pop tune. Fans of mid-era Death Cab for Cutie (Transatlanticism, especially), the Shins, and other early ’00s indie-pop will love this. 

3. “Go With You” – Mike Edel. Absorbs the best vibes of ’80s synth pop and ’00s indie-pop to come up with a smooth, soft, charming, contemporary indie-pop jam. There’s a lot to love: Edel’s voice and vocal lines, the clanging ’80s guitar, the delicate piano, the wispy female echo/harmony, the punchy drums, just all of it. 

4. “Prism” – Small Leaks Sink Ships. If you’re into high-drama pop of any era, you’ll be way into this. This track falls right in the chronology of The Moody Blues to Styx to Queen to all of ’80s synth-pop to My Chemical Romance and the like. Synths! Big drums! Dramatic, soaring vocals! Quiet/loud transitions! It’s all here for you. 

5. “Synesthesia” – Polychrome. This electro-pop jam is full of twinkly synths, breathy vocals, triumphant piano, and charging guitar. Yet the breathy vocals are really the star–the rest of the mix is turned down for space, and the result is a dreamy track that could have been a blaster with a different mix. It’s a testament to the vision of the artist that this version won out when another one easily could have–this one is immensely satisfying.

6. “Morning is Made” – Hush Kids. Weepies fans, rejoice! This has a little more mature gravitas to it, but at its core this is a softly-fingerpicked acoustic-pop song with a heartwarming female/male duet. The softly rising horns in the arrangement seal the deal for me. There’s going to be a lot of fans of Hush Kids very soon.

7. “Hometown Honey” – The Herbert Bail Orchestra. If you manage to effectively use a theremin and a bevy of mournful trumpets in the same alt-country tune, you’re going to end up on Independent Clauses. Bail’s vocals are engaging and the songwriting is strong, but it’s the stuff around the main thrust of the tune that really sells the song. 

8. “Poor Stuart” – Ben Somers. It takes a really compelling instrumental folk performance to snag my ear, because I’m not just looking for a solid traditional tune. I want to hear something that’s trad but also contemporary; something that sets the song apart. This tune has a lot of vintage in it, but there’s modern elements and approaches in the melodic lines that give it a fresh voice–Somers is not just recreating an era, he’s updating it for the modern ear. The touches and flourishes are subtle, but they’re there. Strong work.

9. “Through the Atmosphere” – Dusty Stray. Here’s a walking-speed, wide-eyed, low-key folk tune the likes of which Bonnie Prince Billy is great at. Stray settles some subtle instrumental touches around the edges of the calm vocals and fingerpicking–clunking bass hand on the piano, fluttering treble hand, delicate auxiliary keys, etc. But basically I imagine a guy walking by a river and serenading whoever he passes by. 

10. “Eleanora” – baeilou. Adventurous, experimental, dramatic, ominous, and groove-heavy, this cello-and-voice excursion is a wild journey. baeilou has crooning, speak-singing, semi-beatboxing, and more in her diverse vocal performance; the cello is used as treble, bass and percussion. The moods swoop and shift and change without warning. It’s an experience. The sheer inventiveness of this track is worth a listen. Do not expect anything like “Eleanor Rigby.”

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Culture Wars’ s/t EP

August 6, 2018

Culture Wars’ S/t EP

Alex Dugan, Mic Vredenburgh, and David Grayson have something to say, and the guys known collectively as Culture Wars are using a self-titled debut EP to do it. The Austin-based trio has been dropped into turbulent times, using that background to make a surrealist splash in five tracks coupled with cinematic visuals.

Each song is topically relevant to the world today. The lyrical subject matter covers greed, dishonesty, vanity, narcissism, and the beat goes on. Tapping Alan Moulder (Arctic Monkeys, The Killers) as producer brings an edge to the music which gives the topics a sonic surge. Completed with mixing by Manny Marroquin (Imagine Dragons, Kanye West), Culture Wars has found a vibe. With Dugan on vocals and electronics, Vrendenburgh on guitar and cello, and Grayson covering drums, this minimalist approach defies the sonic depth produced here. Many of the music videos are directed by Jeremi Mattern and Alex Dugan in the the DIY spirit. Not to be overlooked is the surrealist cover art from Gary Dorsey at Pixel Peach Studios, twisting each lyrical concept into mind blowing graphics. The stage is set to let the music rip.

Culture Wars breathes haunting echoes that flash back to early sounds from The All American Rejects. AAR’s rock was born in Stillwater, Oklahoma, less than twelve hours from Sonic Ranch in El Paso, Texas, where Culture Wars tracked their debut. Great music comes out of unexpected places sometimes. Dugan seems to mirror the vocal delivery style of the Vans Warped Tour headliner and frontman Tyson Ritter from AAR.

“Lies” is a great kick-off to the EP. The song struts, inviting listeners unfamiliar with the boys in the band to join the party. The lyrics seems to fit the current world culture. Dugan, Vredenburgh, and Grayson deliver heavy pop vibes with “Bones” flowing into “Money (Gimme, Gimme)”; each track drives a gritty relevance with current cultural chaos. It’s an electro-music microscope on society–did bands like Talking Heads influence the refrain?

Each song of the EP has been represented in a video, so you can absorb the EP thru Youtube. Visuals play a big part in telling the story of songs like “Hideaway.” That tune peels another layer away of how communication has changed in today’s age of social media. Ending the EP with “Delilah (Tear Me Away)” Culture Wars hits a dance club groove that would make Bowie proud; fun, easy groove flows out here, making a statement with skilled musicianship.

Great music is often born in Austin, Texas, because of the influences of music born nearby. Such is the case with Culture Wars, whose debut self-titled EP was produced by the man who helped give an extra edge to The Killers and Arctic Monkeys. That’s a big deal, but more important is the fact that this trio has talent to match the opportunities that are coming their way. This trio delivers some fresh new pop-rock crackling with echoes of past greats like Bowie blurred in a blender with the best of Warped Tour greats. Poised and ready, Culture Wars has earned a unique spot as an indie pop rock voice today.–Lisa Whealy

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Mid-July Singles: A Cross-section of Tastes

July 26, 2018

1. “A Better Pet” – curtsy. Part of the weirdness that is music blogging (or writing about art in any way, really) is trying to capture something often ineffable in words. There are ways and means and tricks and common practices to try to do this, but sometimes there’s a truly ineffable one. I really like this song by curtsy, and yet it is the type of jangly guitar-rock that I often do not like. Why do I like this one when I don’t like other ones? I have no idea. I can list a few things that stick out, but none of them are the real X factor that makes me think yes: the vocal melodies are good, the recording style is bass-forward (which I love), and the chorus is big and satisfying. All of that together in the exact way they put it together makes it stellar. Here’s to mystery.

2. “Wasted Youth” – Blue Velvet. If you cross the powerhouse melodic punk of The Menzingers with the blitzing enthusiasm of The Vaccines at their most skittish, you’d have this great tune. As those two bands are two of my favorites when it comes to guitar-mashing enthusiasm, I’m basically unable to do anything but love this song.

3. “Old New” – Grandpa Jack. Grandpa Jack’s second single “Old New” from the debut release from the Brooklyn-based old-school rockers is sure to satisfy millennials raised on Led Zeppelin vinyls. Is there room for bands following in the footsteps of Greta Van Fleet? Definitely. In fact, Johnny Storm, Jared Schakper and Matt C. White would be a perfect fit for an “old-timer” throwback rock tour featuring young rock soul. Full of great guitar work and subtly shredding vocals, wrapped up with drums and bass that support the stellar musicianship from the bottom up.–Lisa Whealy

4. “Kyoto Blues” – Alex Tiunaev. This solo piano piece hovers around the edges of several different directions–there’s a strong romantic underpinning, some ambient-inspired sounds in the background, and some calming/new age approaches to the melodicism. It’s hard to find solo piano that espouses a particular vision without becoming mushy or maudlin, but Tiunaev does well to put out a distinctive idea and mood here.

5. “Just Saying” – Tiny Eyes. A lovely entry in the “delicate, formal, Beatles-esque piano ballad” category, this tune has a sleepy vocal performance; a distant, metronomic percussion performance; and lots of charm. Harry Nilsson came to mind, but you have to squint to catch it.

6. “The Road Reversed” – Nathan Bowles. There’s always some ambient, deconstructed folk kicking around in the background of the folk field, whether it’s slowcore people or tape deck experiments or glitchfolk or other things. This tune isn’t quite as deconstructed as some, but there’s a lot of subtlety and repetition in this ten-minute track. It’s a great example of instrumental folk that takes cues from tradition but isn’t slavishly beholden to the tradition, that experiments without losing its core, and that stays interesting even in its long runtime. Great work.

7. “New Ones” – Hollaphonic feat. Aaron Camper. The synth effects here are hugely summery and exciting, while the rhythms and arrangement are bright, fun, and compelling. The song is just over two minutes long–it disappears almost as soon as it arrives. It’s a good way to keep us wanting more/pressing repeat/hoping for remixes.

8. “Just Survive” – The Hope State. Sad songs are par for the course in pop music and especially in this blog, but man this one is a doozy. It’s similar to Strand of Oaks in that a wrenchingly sad story is couched in driving, melodic folk-rock–the sorrow is there, but it’s being strapped to a desire to keep moving. That’s what the title says, and that’s what the music tells–this is how you push through, even when it’s emotionally grueling. If you need some commiseration in deeply-trying-but-still-miserable situations, you’ll find it here: “I am trying my best to get better / my blood’s been clean since we lost our daughter / I’m a wreck / I’m a mess / I will never forgive myself … please don’t give up on me yet.”

9. (Drinking Is Easy) Living Is Hard” – Mill’s End. Phoenix, Arizona-based country rock band Mill’s End drops “(Drinking Is Easy) Living Is Hard,” with lyrical subject matter that ranges from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to single parenthood to loss. This is a classic country-rock story song, welcoming Alan Clark to the band on guitar. The tune shifts stylistically from longtime lead guitarist Keith Perillo’s approach with a more bluesy vibe. Julissa Ruth adds the perfect touch to this barroom anthem.–Lisa Whealy

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Mid-July Singles: Emotions

July 25, 2018

There’s a lot of emotions going on in this post, whether from the songs themselves or the emotions they bring out in me. Here’s to the feels.

1. “Knocking” – Basement Revolver. This ballad is utterly astonishing. It is a vulnerable, honest, cathartic track that combines the cavernous spaces of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ quiet work with subtle folk touches and Chrisy Hurn’s knock-out vocals. Hurn sings her heart out on this track, conveying hurt and pain and ultimately redemption. If you’re a Christian, this song will bowl you over–it is the gospel for the broken and hurting. Even if you’re not Christian, even if you’re not religious, the way Hurn and Basement Revolver end this song seems like it would be deeply moving. Highly recommended.

2. “All Affirming” – Lay Low Moon. This lovely full-band folk song touches off a complex set of emotions for me. It’s got a touch of punk-goes-folk in the vocal tone and the sort of arrangement that those early ’00s bands used. That tips off serious nostalgia. The banjo inclusion makes me think of the early ’10s, when folk-pop was having its major moment (more nostalgia). The melancholy piano and vocal lines make me feel sadness, but the sort of sadness that makes me happy. It’s a strong tune that is made even more convincing to me due to my personal musical experiences.

3. “Baby” – Hotel Mira. While we’re on the subject to nostalgia, this Hotel Mira track is everything that I loved about the Strokes. It manages to combine the jangle and vocal enthusiasm of their early work with the guitar snarl of First Impressions of Earth. The chorus is all Darkness-style falsetto and joy. There’s a half-time breakdown. It’s just a great rock song. I don’t cover a lot of rock songs anymore but this one hits all the nostalgia buttons without being a copycat.

4. “Home” – Esther & Fatou. This duo manages to make the biggest “thum thum”s this side of Law and Order fit seamlessly into a rollicking, harmony-heavy folk tune. There’s also some wandering, wavering, synthy slices of sound adding depth to the tune. It’s one of those tunes where it feels like they’ve listened to a lot of different folk, indie-pop and electro stuff, then came back with the best of all of it.

5. “If Not For You” – Umbra and the Volcan Siege. I’m tough on covers, but sometimes a really good cover gets a pass if I’ve never heard or am not very familiar with the original work. This is the case here, as Umbra & Co. give a George Harrison song that I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a sprightly, lightly psych treatment. This is of the major-key, fuzzed-out psych variety, not the dark-and-strung-out kind. It’s just a lot of fun.

6. “Every Day and Night Now (Feat. Peter Morén)” – Kris Gruen. It’s not surprising that Peter of Peter, Bjorn and John is featured in this tune, as it purveys the sort of dignified enthusiasm that PB&J were so great at. This is striking, memorable songwriting, from the strong acoustic guitar work to the excellent vocal melodies to the strings to the tromping percussion. It’s the sort of song that makes you think “oh man, what else is there by Kris Gruen?”

7. “The Shell Lottery” – Ben Fisher. There are a lot of things you can write an album about, but a concept album about Israel and Palestine in a Sufjan Stevens’ state-album milieu is a pretty distinctive, unusual, and exciting one. Fisher’s lead track is a serious, contemplative, piano-driven tune that lays out the founding of Tel Aviv. There’s some arrangement, but the piano and Fisher’s calm, clear-eyed vocals are the big things here. Get ready for this one–this is going to be quite an album. Does the Land Remember Me? comes out September 7.

8. “Becoming My Own Home” – The Collection. David Wimbish has made a career out of humongous folk-orchestra arrangements, howling vocals, and uninterrupted yearning/questioning. This song throws over a bunch of those things without losing what makes the Collection distinctive: Wimbish reins in the arrangement (just strings, it seems like, although there’s always more hiding in a Collection arrangement), goes for a calm vocal performance by Wimbish standards, and sings about coming to peace with things (!!). But there’s a big swoop and sway that hearken back to highlights of Ars Moriendi, and Wimbish’s voice is just as excellent when he’s calm as it is when he’s calamitous. Side note: This song mentions “burning trees,” the name of The Collection’s first EP–I don’t know what that means, but it’s worth mentioning.

9. “rosalee” – humble thumb. Got some Spaghetti Western/Western Gothic/murder ballad songwriting for you right here. If you love lazily floating horns, traditional country bass playing, a touch of Tom Waits in your vocals, and high dramatic tension, this track will rocket up your list of new music.

10. “Bones” – Koltbach. I’ve been enjoying Koltbach’s streamlined electro for a while, and this track is no exception. Taking the drive of trance, the artistic filter of post-dub, and dusky atmosphere of trip-hop, Koltbach creates a smooth, engaging piece of electronic music. You can dance to this, but it would be slinky dancing, not big, jump-up-and-down trance movement. Very smooth.

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Red Sammy: Visiting the dark places of folk

July 12, 2018

On Red Sammy’s new album Neon Motel, songwriter Adam Trice explores a collection of barroom ballads that sound like an invitation to the barren frontier, one frosty brew, or a hot buttered rum on a frostier Baltimore night. Bruce Elliott (electric and electric slide guitar), Greg Humphreys (bass, mandolin, electric guitar), Ryan Bowen (drums), Anjili Babbar (backing vocals), and mastermind Trice (lead vocals, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, tambourine, mandolin) have opened for national acts like Deer Tick, Mike Watt and The Missingmen, Phosphorescent, and Dirty River Boys.

Some facts are certain here. The eleven songs are a deep dive into the land of angst-driven guitar. The video clip of mask-wearing school kids playing at life lets listeners get the vibe of “Ernie the Lizard”. With Trice crafting songs like the perky “You That I Refuse,” listeners may feel that they are in the hands of a master craftsman, because each note punctuates the message lyrically.

Laying in to rest of the album with the easy tempo of the title track, “Neon Motel” is sung with vocal gruffness that makes Red Sammy one of the best folk-rock singers around today. With an identifiable quality like Bob Dylan, Adam Trice has a style that is alive with nuanced emotion. Carving ideas out of each experience, a great songwriter takes each and uses it to his advantage. The slide guitar lover’s dream that is “Bad Ideas” pulls lyrics back in from the title cut. This tune shows a songwriter at home with his bandmates, creating a dank, dark frontier where listeners are invited to come. Exceptional guitar work rounds out the sound into something deeper, a pit of places that always end badly, eyes open at the end of a drunk night.

“You Don’t Gotta Convince Me” is magic, featuring beautiful harmonies in duet with backing vocalist Anjili Babbar; one of the magic moments on this album, this standout is crazy good. Tripping into “Firetrail” with its almost in-your-face blues rock, one thing is certain: evolution has occurred. Seven albums later this man does not sound tired of doing what he loves, despite the name “Tired and Free.” “Tired” eases in patiently, with Trice phrasing each vocal delivery purposefully. This comfortable, purposeful work is a mirror of greats like Dylan, come to life again for another generation in new rock star. “Rock Star” is that self-proclaimed anthem, coming in with a growl, a shout, stellar guitar work, and lyrics laden with sarcasm. The band takes that guitar work into ‘Roofbeam.” This cut also feels like a car sing-along, with Ryan Bowen keeping a noticeably steady beat on drums with Greg Humphreys on bass. Often restraint is a challenge to accomplish successfully, but there’s no problem here for these seasoned musicians. They mesh together seemingly without effort.

Conscious of sequencing on this piece of music, “I Stay in Bed” and “The Current” close out the record. The first has a Harry Nilsson, “pull the covers over the head” vibe. It’s a brilliant acoustic window into a horror show, a bookend to Childish Gambino’s mind-blowing “This Is America.” Red Sammy closes out with “The Current,” subtle and soft. The acoustic guitar is the voice that rings true, along with a wordsmith that has made his thoughts heard with a rock, folk, and Americana beat.

Singing the song of everyman, Red Sammy does something really special on his seventh release Neon Motel. Any listener has met the cast of characters that inhabit the world of Adam Trice and Red Sammy. Whether is is the businessman drinking his lunch, the booze hound lurking in the shadows, or the guy grateful to have made a fast getaway, we have met these folks before. Sometimes it is nice to know we all have the same dark places we can go visit. Sometimes hanging out in the shadows with your friends is the best place to be.–Lisa Whealy

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Mid-July Singles 1

July 10, 2018

1. “Computer Games” – Greta Jaime. Bass heavy. Metaphorically relevant. Swooning vocals. “Computer Games” by British up-and-comer Greta Jaime is layered with pops and cracks that belie a much lighter track than what the lyrics imply. She’s not afraid to stand alone from the instrumentals as “Computer Games” patiently builds itself up from the thumping back beats to a swirling collection of digitally driven cacophony. She’s an artist who is in total control of every sound and emotion. From the lyrical prowess to the aptly subtle guitar riffs that add to the ambivalent tone, Jaime’s strength lies in her courage and already legendary vocal range. Having caught the attention of the Glastonbury Festival’s Emerging Artist Competition, Jaime is undoubtedly on a fast-track to impressively high levels of success. –Maria Edwards

2. “The Highway State” – The Bowling Alley Sound. This post-rock outfit likes to bend the expectations of the genre–this is a major key piece, but not the surging crescendo of a Lights and Motion piece. This is cinematic, but more Wes Anderson than sweeping landscape. This has a lot of dynamic motion, but this is not a on/off/on roarer. Instead, this is a carefully crafted, beautifully executed, compositionally unique piece that includes a long spoken word section, interesting violin work, and strong trumpet use. There’s also guitars for those whom guitars in post rock is a mandatory–but they’re more like folk than like GYBE. So, overall–this is vastly impressive and interesting.

3. “On and On” – Manatree. This power-pop song rumbles forward with a passionate joie de vivre that is tempered only by the slowly-unfolding vocals (and even that isn’t too much tempering). There’s half a dozen moments in the tune that made my eyebrows raise expectantly, and a couple moments gave me shivers. I’ve got my head bobbing at my desk enthusiastically. These dudes should definitely go on tour with Brother Moses. If you like indie-pop, you need to listen to this one.

4. “Take the Doggie” – Shy Boys. It only takes 96 seconds for me to fall in love with this quirky power-pop/indie-pop tune that’s sung directly to a stray dog. Everything seems to be zooming in all sorts of directions and then it’s over, just in time to press replay. And the video has a bunch of dogs in it. Who can resist?

5. “So We Go” – Cable Street Collective. Excellent female vocals, reggaeton rhythms, hand percussion, and Caribbean vibes power this jubilant indie-pop track. There’s a hint of Vampire Weekend in there, but comparing Cable Street Collective to other bands sells them short. It seems impossible to not have fun while listening to this tune.

6. “Burning Bridges” – The Wandering Hearts. A lovely, lilting folk tune with thick harmonies, subtle percussion, perky bass, and comforting melodies. The smash-cut to the bass-heavy piano and female vocal solo in the bridge is particularly striking.

7. “California” – Mountain Lions. Can you write a song called “California” and not have someone mention Phantom Planet? Anyway, this acoustic indie-pop song is more chipper than the iconic indie serenade of the state, but it’s just as indie-charming. The acoustic arrangement is effervescent without being saccharine, and the melodies are as singable as you’d hope for such a big topic. There’s a touch of M. Ward here and there, some power-pop knowledge sprinkled on it, and the whole thing is wrapped up in a lovely production job. Just a winner, through and through.

8. “For U” – Uma E. Fernqvist. This is how you take trip-hop and move it forward without recreating Portishead. There’s a lot of the things you’d expect from trip-hop: dusky moods, icy tones, stark arrangements, staccato drums, and the like. But there’s also a continuity, an underpinning of a consistent beat drawn more from techno than from trip-hop, that gives this tune some contrast to the trip-hop base. It’s a fascinating, compelling mash-up. It’s also over eight minutes long, another nod to its electronic roots.

9. “Fire B” – Elephant Micah. Elephant Micah has a discography full of slowcore folk musings, and I like those recordings a lot. But, as I have coincidentally done, Elephant Micah suddenly got interested in electronic music. But, because Joe O’Connell loves minimalism, this is real minimal electronic music–sounds from a single synth wash over your ears, sometimes accompanied by another synth, but often not. After about 2.5 minutes of experiments like that, O’Connell bursts into a … cover of his own work? A riff on his own work? It’s not quite “If I Were a Surfer,” but it uses the same melodic and lyrical concepts. There are lots of clanks and bonks and bass whomps to go along with it. It’s a wild thing, regardless of whether you’ve heard Elephant Micah before.

10. “Run Away” – I Am Soyuz. An intimate acoustic tune that evokes the feel of everyone together in a small room making music together. The lead female vocalist has an intriguing, engaging voice and strong melodies to boot. The arrangement is subtle but well-turned–there’s interest for those looking for it. The whole thing comes off like a deconstructed folk-pop tune, sort of somewhere between Dana Sipos’ dreaminess and stomp’n’holler folk.

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Premiere: Michael Flynn’s “Get Old”

July 9, 2018

Michael Flynn (the Slow Runner one, not the other one) is allowing us to premiere a new video for “Get Old.” I say allowing because I love this video and feel genuinely honored to be the person who gets to premiere it. The song checks a ton of boxes for me: 1. It’s a piano-heavy ballad (check) 2. It’s got great melodies (check) 3. The lyrics are excellent, from a point of view not often heard (check) 4. It’s about parenthood but not in a pacifiers-and-LEGOs way (check) 5. Flynn’s vocal performance is excellent (check).

And then the video. Oh, the video.

When I showed up at work the first day I saw this, I did not expect to spend seven minutes crying at my desk, but that’s what happened. This video demonstrates everything good and right and lovely about family and parenting. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking all at once–on the one hand, this is a big visual list of happy moments of a family and that is to be celebrated. On the other, there are always hard things that don’t get in the videos (I know that as a parent myself). Even deeper than that, there are things in all our pasts and families that hurt us deeply–seeing a montage like this makes me well up with sadness in remembering those things. But then I also well up with happiness, thinking of the good times.

And then the end of the video transitions to Flynn’s daughter, and I lost it. I’d just gone through a catalog of the good and the bad in my own personal history and then, then I had to think, “Oh no, I have a child that looks that tiny and small and I have part of the responsibility of doing the best I can to make sure that someday there are more good things than bad things when my child thinks back on his family.” And right as I was suffering this deep parental existential fear, the lyrics returned and reminded me that Flynn is celebrating this. This is good. This can be good. This will be good.

So if you want all that to happen to you, you can check this out. In other words, the video is really good. Really, really good.

Pretend Like came out May 4. Check it out on Spotify or Bandcamp.

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Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of instrumental music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.

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