Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Steven A. Clark: A new addition to the modern R&B pantheon

February 5, 2016

Steven A. Clark - Lonely Roller

For fans of Miguel and Frank Ocean, Steven A. Clark may be the freshest addition to the pop/contemporary R&B pantheon. His album Lonely Roller, which was released last September, rides an emotive rollercoaster of themes about fighting love, yearning for love, and letting the adrenaline of love throw one’s arms up right before the drop into epic unknown. It’s Clark’s talent for lyrics and ability to tell a story that makes Lonely Roller captivating — an album that could double as an audiobook.

From the beginning title track, Clark establishes a narrative of two people irresistibly attracted to one another during a weekend trip to Vegas. With handclaps and catchy, club-ready rhythm, I could feel the butterflies in my stomach at the slow, resisting moment between the two characters as they pull at each other through unblinking eyes and hungry, pursing lips. This club banger theme of two people magnetized by each other’s duende is echoed later on the retro-styled, synthetic sax-sparkling “Time Machine.”

The story continues into “Trouble Baby”: the honest lyrics about only knowing how to break hearts create a vibe similar to a Frank Ocean tune. Dramatic vocals that sound like they’re being emitted from a speaker system give “Trouble Baby” an appealing trippiness.

The ensuing tracks unwind the romance I was rooting for in the beginning. “Not You” is an honest admittance, through guilt-sodden vocals and tear-filled percussion, of wanting to be in love–just not with the person who’s in love with him. On the ‘80s-inspired pop track “Can’t Have,” Clark sings of a girl who claims to not believe in fairytales, but he makes the point that if it were a perfect world he wouldn’t have been, “distracted by them other girls.” Then Clark tells the tale of an “Ex beauty queen/Amongst other things/Face made for the big screen,” who enjoys the sumptuous pleasures of life in the city on “She’s in Love,” with slight disappointment in his voice.

Clark begins to sketch hachures of darkened seriousness onto the pages of this narrative. He does so via severe instrumentation, giving the album Kanye-like grit. “Bounty” includes a full chorus, sluggish beat, psychedelic instrumentation and catchy handclaps. The choir theme is carried into “Floral Print,” which sounds like Clark is reading the gospel behind a pulpit due to his use of organ and powerful vocals. “Part Two” has similar scarlet-colored severity to it, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if Kendrick made a visit on the track.

The narrative ends with “Young, Wild, and Free,” a song which offers smooth, sensual warmth that is yearned for throughout the record. It leaves Lonely Roller on a seemingly happy, hopeful note, but with enough playfulness that causes an eyebrow raise; I felt like an accumulation of all the girls he has been singing about, questioning love even when it’s presented. But as Clark sings, “Take my hand/Are you ready?” I found myself replaying Lonely Roller from the top. Yes, Steven A. Clark, I’ve been ready since track one.–Rachel Haney

February 16 Singles: Acoustic

February 4, 2016

Acoustic

1. “Heart Song” – Samuel Alty. Captures the enthusiasm of flamenco and distills it into a two-and-a-half-minute romp that I can’t get out of my head. The music video perfectly complements the ecstatic vibe of the tune: a group of people slowly getting accustomed to dancing in public. This is way, way fun.

2. “Silent Moon” – Supersmall. It’s a warm blanket of a tune–the soft guitars, the comfortable vocals, and the gentle arrangement all come together to just be a lovely acoustic indie-pop tune.

3. “Roman Tic” – John Helix. Fans of Elliott Smith will fall hard for this spare-yet-endearing tune.

4. “21 Years” – Malory Torr. The quirky songwriting and vocal delivery of Regina Spektor (except on guitar) fused to a Bohemian version of Five for Fighting’s “100 Years.” Love the group vocals throughout.

5. “Drinking Song” – Haley Heynderickx. This slightly woozy, charming tune sounds like Laura Marling and Laura Stephenson collaborated on an acoustic jam. The vocals here are quirky and lovely.

6. “Turn to Stone” – Nice Motor. Combines back-porch picking with West Coast, Laurel Canyon country vibes to create a tune that’s not quite either thing: it kinda sounds like The Eagles somehow turned into a folk band.

7. “Sweet Innocence” – Kylie Odetta. It’s rare that the drums stand out in a singer/songwriter tune, but they provide the perfect counterpoint to Odetta’s warm alto lines in this calm, confident tune.

8. “We Sing with Angels” – The Project. With a singer/songwriter chorus, Spanish finger-style guitar verses, and traditional melodic structure evocative of ancient hymnody, this tune goes in directions you wouldn’t expect. The pieces come together for a unique experience.

9. “The One” – Erik Fastén. There’s a sense of noble, dignified romantic angst here, employed through a careful guitar performance, breathy vocals, and fluttering strings.

10. “Follow the Sun” – Hand Drawn Maps. An early-’00s sense of full-band indie-pop melancholy permeates this track–it makes perfect sense that they’re from LA, the home of Phantom Planet and inspiration of Death Cab’s “Why You’d Want to Live Here.”

11. “The Planets Align” – Chris Belson. A deep, silky, enveloping, enigmatic voice dances over a simple guitar.

12. “1963” – Nikki Gregoroff. Gregoroff makes a simple piano line arresting with a bright, clear, magnetic vocal performance.

13. “Kaydence” – Triana Presley. Sometimes you just want to hear a melancholy piano-pop ballad. I’ve been known to love Something Corporate and Taylor Swift. I’ll admit it.

14. “Can’t Erase It” – Kylie Odetta. Somewhere between Norah Jones and Adele lives this beatuiful, wistful track. Odetta’s voice reads far older than her years. (Rare double entry on the same post!)

February 2016: Pop!

February 3, 2016

1. “Hero” – Starlight Girls. If you mashed up Tusk-era Fleetwood Mac with modern indie-pop sensibilities, you’d have this powerhouse of a pop song. This is the most infectious, irresistible groove of 2016 so far.

2. “Hang On To Yourself (David Bowie Cover)” – Ancient Cities.  Bowie didn’t play much of a role in my personal musical development (I was introduced to him in my 20s), but his shadow looms large over many musicians. Ancient Cities drops a worthy tribute to Ziggy here.

3. “Boys That Sing” – Viola Beach. Sometimes the melody, the lyrics, and the vibe just come together for a great pop tune. Puts a smile on my face.

4. “Crazy Eyes” – Brother Moses. BroMo returns with a breezy, peppy tune that builds on their slacker-rock foundation with some scrambling drums, driving bass and twirling guitars. The compelling vocal tone and delivery are as powerful as ever.

5. “Youth Dies Young” – Til We Have Faces. Well here’s something interesting: A major key indie-rock song that thinks it’s an arpeggiator-heavy electro-jam which builds at the speed of a post-rock tune. By the end it’s almost a Here We Go Magic tune. Totally rad.

6. “Fundamental Ground” – TW Walsh. I don’t use the term “floating” that often, but this indie-pop tune has a lot of the elements that you might associate with floating: lazy rhythms, slightly washed-out vibe, hazy elements chilling out in the background of the tune, a vocal line that seems distant-yet-close. It’s beautiful, in a weird way.

7. “Sometimes (One Night)” – The Golden Peppers. Here’s a tight soul arrangement, blanketed with horns and infused with indie-pop vocal melodic flair. Just can’t get enough Nathaniel Rateliff?

8. “Lucky One” – Why We Love. It seems that the major-key, jangly pop-rock tune is not only immortal, but thriving. Everything about this is fun.

9. “Unicorns Get More Bacon” – Marc with a C. The giddy, funny, absurd, fourth-wall-destroying power-pop of Marc with a C is in fine, fine form in this 3-and-a-half minute jam.

10. “Glad to Be Alive” – Memoir. Draws from funk, reggae, and ’90s pop without camping in any of them, this grounded-yet-bouncy tune is led by neat vocal syncopation and and a mood that just brightens a room.

11. “Touch” – Guard. A hypnotic keys melody and a head-bobbing beat make this into the chillest of remix-ready club tunes. Ibiza beaches for this version, Ibiza clubs for the inevitable reworks.

12. “Still Life” – I.W.A. Blissful chillwave, the likes of which I don’t get to hear very often. Just gorgeous stuff here.

13. “Don’t Complain/Don’t Explain” – Bare Mattress.  Like a more existential version of The Postal Service, this unassuming indie-pop-electro track sneaks its way into ears and heart.

14. “Glass” – Howard. This is like the indie-electro/post-dub version of a dystopian movie in which everything looks kind of right but is slowly revealed to actually be dystopian. In other words, the slow burn works great.

15. “I Don’t Want to Know Her Name” – Amber Quintero. Lilting, easygoing, spacious bedroom pop that finely balances lyrical intimacy and wide-open pad synth landscapes.

Great Lakes: Bringing Back Rock & Roll

February 2, 2016

great lakes

Growing up, my mother always made me listen to her music: Bad Company, The Eagles, The Police, etc. Often, I petitioned for listening to “cooler” music, but now I take those words back. I find myself regularly in the mood for some classic rock, and I now understand that you honestly can’t get any cooler than such true examples of rock & roll. The band Great Lakes echoes ‘70s and ‘80s rock & roll while making a sound all their own. Great Lakes’ 5th album release Wild Vision combines the true essence of rock & roll with country instrumentation and a bent towards nature.

“Bird Flying” and “Wild Again” are great reflections of the classic rock & roll vibe with a twist. “Bird Flying” begins with an electric guitar opener that oozes sex appeal. The electric guitar pops back in midway through the song and again at the end. Although the solos are not quite as long as The Eagles’ “Hotel California” solo, Great Lakes’ use of the electric guitar is just as seductive. “Wild Again” uses drums, bass, electric guitar, pedal steel, synthesizer, and even cello to create a very full rock & roll sound with moments of dissonance. The entire song builds to a climax at the end following the last chorus. Picture it: the lyrics “I want to be Wild again/ wild again/ wild again” repeat as the instruments go wild into this magnificent, all-instruments on-deck-outro (with space sounds, to boot)!

“Beauties of the Way,” “Blood on my Tooth,” and “Shot at and Missed” are unique rock & roll experiences. “Beauties of the Way” begins with a drums/guitar beat that instantly reminds me of ‘90s hit “The Way” by Fastball. As the song continues, more guitars and a pedal steel are added. By the end of the track, the initial ‘90s beat is long forgotten and the electric guitar leads the way to another far-out ending. “Blood on my Tooth” has more of a toned-down sound with minimal percussion and a great acoustic guitar rhythm. Then out of nowhere comes this funky, Doors-esque bass line. The lyrics in “Blood on my Tooth” are also very rock & roll: “You shouldn’t have asked if you did not want to get hurt.” “Shot at and Missed” throws you yet again into their funky rock & roll world and includes fun lyrics like, “To the wild/I Go”.

“Kin to the Mountain,” “Nature is Always True” and “I Stay, You Go” have more of a country rock feel, similar to the The Eagles, established through their instrumentation. These songs feature the acoustic guitar and pedal steel more than the other tracks. Great Lakes still maintained their rock sound in these tracks, they just toned it down a bit and featured more acoustic instruments. By softening up their instrumentation, listeners are also enabled to take more notice to the harmonic male/female vocal combination and poetic lyrics.

The lyrics and titles of Wild Vision’s tracks expose Great Lakes’ bent towards nature. I mean, with a name like Great Lakes and an album like Wild Visions, the focus on nature is already pretty evident. “Swim the River,” “Bird Flying,” “Kin to the Mountain,” “Wild Again,” and “Nature is Always True” are the titles of the first five songs–all related to nature. “Kin to the Mountain” contains some of the best nature-focused lyrics on the album, opening with the chorus: “I am kin to the mountain/ kin to the sea/ my name is lightning/ wild vision I’ve seen.” That is a lyric to chew on.

Great Lakes blew me away with Wild Vision. The male/female vocal pairing is harmonic and genuine, but the instrumentation is really what shines in this album. Wild Vision is nothing but true rock & roll. —Krisann Janowitz

Kalden Bess: Like an after-hours speedway

January 29, 2016

Jet Lag

Like an emerald mustang with a black racer stripe, Kalden Bess’s Jet Lag EP hits 60 mph in five seconds. The first two songs, “Rabbit Hole” and a remix by Jon Gurd, are techno-heavy, house-beat tracks that made me feel like I was punching it into gear with 500+ horsepower in an action movie. Just as intensely alluring as the original, this remix adds subtle details, such as a slight muting halfway through. It sounded, quite literally, like I was racing through a tunnel, with the sound dropping out a bit and then epic, bass-bumping diapason returning seconds later — barely enough time for me to hold my breath until reaching the other side.

The synth work in “Jet Lag (Original Mix)” is tight, severe and sexy-spooky. The overall vibe is eternal, like a warehouse party that will never end, or a blunt cruise with a full tank of gas. Clean hi-hats and a bumping bassline light up the car radio with flashing red and purple stereo lights. Adding a metallic charm, The Developer remix bolsters the original with an industriously atmospheric flair. Like a recording of a penny factory’s internal operations, the beat is repetitive and efficient.

“Slower (Original Mix)” was a personal favorite because of the muffled vocals, muted beat, and pounding-on-the-door rhythm that reminded me of making beats on cafeteria tables. I can almost hear my middle school classmates free-styling over the thud-th-thud of our rolled up fists, silverware clinking against trays.

Robotic and motorized, Kalden Bess’s Jet Lag is futuristic in a gritty, Clockwork Orange type of way. With tireless techno beats and pristine production work, Jet Lag is a rumbling, well-oiled engine of an EP that doesn’t want to drive us anywhere but to an after-hours illegal speedway.–Rachel Haney

Premiere: Stephen Babcock’s “Someday” kicks off a bright acoustic-pop record

January 27, 2016

Stephen Babcock‘s “Someday” is a smooth acoustic pop track that alerts you his “thing for Southern girls / wrapped in sundresses and pearls.” There’s rarely been a more confident statement of intended audience since John Mayer threw down “Your Body is a Wonderland.”

Babcock has more than a little of Mayer’s early-career suave to his pop songwriting, as he easily lays down a syncopated vocal line over lightly funky guitar and screamin’ organ. But it’s not played off as nerdy cool, like a Mraz tune: this is all eyebrow-raised flirtation and suggestion. (Just listen to those lyrics for more proof.) The results are both familiar and fresh, like a suit that you wear for the first time and automatically feel right in.

“Someday” kicks off Said and Done, where Babcock continues to develop his acoustic-pop milieu. He follows the opening salvo with “Lines of a Love Song,” which is actually a looking-back tune; there’s major wistfulness in the lyrics and a strong dose of melancholy in the verses, but Babcock can’t resist a major-key chorus with a catchy vocal line. Pop songs like those form the majority of Said and Done, with subtle variety throughout: while “Tightrope” and “Kings” continue the full-band alt-pop funkiness, “Worth” punches up the drive a bit by infusing a bit of rock push into the pop tune; “Amy” has some introspective singer/songwriter touches in the guitar line and the lyrics. “Cape Cod” amps up the funky and puts it in a minor key. Without losing his core style, Babcock is able to put distinctive spins on the tracks.

But Babcock’s not just a southern-lovin’, acoustic-toting good ‘ol boy. Babcock’s multi-faceted tenor is a selling point of the record, as the subtle touches in his delivery set the songs apart from other alt-pop tunes. He can easily shift his delivery between evocative and dry, creating tension between verses and chorus–sometimes even between lines. It’s clear that he’s got strong control of what his voice can do, from soaring melodies to wry speak-singing bits. That’s a rare, stand-out skill.

The eight songs of Said and Done show Babcock as an alt-pop singer-songwriter with a strong control of his voice and craft. If you’re looking for some bright, tight, well-penned acoustic pop to slot next to Matt Nathanson, Griffin House, and (yup) John Mayer, you’ll find much to enjoy in Stephen Babcock’s work.

Said and Done drops February 27–pre-order it here. If you’re in NYC, the album release show is that night at Rockwood Music Hall, Stage 2.

More January Videos!

January 22, 2016

Served stark with a frosted tint, Unalaska’s “Air Transylvania” video features clips of coastal highways, snowcapped mountains, aerial views of clouds, and airplane wings soaring through  a pink horizon. Footage was shot with iPhones during various vagabonding, authentically portraying a hauntingly beautiful, natural world.

Black and white contrast sharply capture the detailed facial expressions on these four lovely ladies. Devereaux’s “List It” is cheeky, brazen, and smart; it’s more of a photo shoot with the girl next door than an ostentatious video.

Even if you have witnessed horse masks, raining 500 mg capsules, and a series of neon geometric shapes that are like a bad trip from the ‘80s, you haven’t witnessed it like this. And if a video like that sounds too eccentric for your liking, just know I watched a full minute of a YouTube boiler room set with Total Unicorn’s “Mini Knee” accidentally playing over it, and thought it this was the dopest boiler set I’d ever heard. Alas, it was “Mini Knee” two tabs over.–Rachel Haney

First January Videos!

Marlon Williams’ “Dark Child” video is terrifyingly compelling. I won’t spill anything about it other than you should watch it closely and listen to the lyrics.

It’s extremely rare that I find a depiction of sexuality in a music video that isn’t ribald or gauche. This beautifully choreographed duet dance is remarkable in its beauty and sensuousness without being explicit or overly vague.

On the other end of the spectrum, here’s a Bollywood-esque adventure story told through action figures (featuring the wrestler Sting, April O’Neill from TMNT, and Magneto). I’m sure The Noise FM intended a pun somewhere in there about the fact that this is a cover of a Police song and the action figure Sting is involved, but perhaps I was thinking too hard among the hilarity.

Quick Hit: Stephen Lee

January 21, 2016

stephenlee

Stephen Lee‘s West of Twenty-Three is a brash, enthusiastic country record: Lee’s whiskey-soaked voice runs ragged over grounded strum, noisy drums, and the occasional melody-contributing violin. It’s refreshing to hear big, bold, unapologetic tunes that aren’t a million-miles-an-hour.

Some might call this folk-punk or some variant of folk–and the speeds occasionally get there for folk-punk–but at its heart this is a country record, interested in the daily lives of people doing what they do: “Blood Brothers” is about kids who took the titular oath, “Jet Lag Blues” follows a traveling salesman, and “Gossip” is about, well, gossip about town. (“Bukowski” even invokes the bard of the common man, positing that he’d be jealous of the narrator’s life.) Lee’s delivery of the lyrics ranges from wry and self-aware (“Cans & Beers”) to even-handed (“Bukowski”) to raging (“One More”), showing his vocal diversity right along with his songwriting diversity.

There are a lot of different looks here, musically. The brash aforementioned tunes are counterpointed by the subdued “Again and Again,” which includes pensive banjo plucks and a wistful vibe, and solo closer “New Wyman Park Restaurant,” which is a pure singer/songwriter tune. Lee’s diversity keeps the album fresh, making West of Twenty-three a blast of fun that’s able to keep your attention even if you’re not in an adrenaline-fueled mood.

2016 Singles: Pop

January 20, 2016

Pop

1. “Russian Roulette” – Sons of London. Well, damn. Right when I thought Deep Elm was out of the game for post-Blink-182 emo-punk-pop, they go and drop this on us. This is one of the most memorable, can’t-stop-listening pop-punk tunes I’ve heard in a long, long time.

2. “Solitude” – Alpenglow. The good people of Alpenglow seem like the sort of good-natured, thoughtful, interesting people who I’d like to get a beer with and talk about water rights politics. I think they’d most likely have an interesting stance, tell me an anecdote or two, and leave me feeling better off in my intellectual life. I think I mean that this song is smart and fun in equal parts, but that’s reductive and makes it look like I didn’t try (although I think Alpenglow would probably be cool with either description, because when you know yourself, you care less about what others are thinking about it.)

3. “Roll It” – Nap Eyes. Nap Eyes has my vote for breakout band of the year–their loping, engaging indie-rock tips its hat to all the coolest references without feeling derivative. “Roll It” just sounds so immediate and fresh that it’s hard to imagine people won’t jump on this train.

4. “Walking In My  Sleep” – Kris Orlowski. Orlowski takes another step farther from his folk roots and closer to an indie-rock home with the debut single from his upcoming record Often in the Pause. Crunchy guitar noise, headbobbing rhythms, and his unchanged ability to write/deliver a compelling vocal melody power this tune that seems always ready to burst but never quite explodes, giving a nice tension.

5. “The Uninvited Guest” – Gladiola. If there’s a Weakerthans-sized hole in your heart, Gladiola is here to fill it with tight power-pop melodies, tight lyrics and an overall sense of weary-yet-determined urban knowledge.

6. “In This Lifetime” – Scary Little Friends. Big, punchy power-pop with a bit of glam creeping in around the edges of the vocals.

7. “Lava” – Pleasant Grove. The distillation of an expansive divorce record that took a decade to complete, “Lava” combines the tough guitar exterior and gentle melodic interior that comprise the tensions of The Heart Contortionists’ early -to-mid ’00s indie-rock. Death Cab for Cutie and Grandaddy fans will find much to love here.  

8. “Butterflies” – Wyland. Do you miss The Joshua Tree? Fear no more: Wyland’s got your back with this arena-filling, stadium-rocking anthem.

9. “Come Down” – Water District. Remember that weird, brief moment where Silversun Pickups made grunge into a cool indie-rock thing? Water District remembers, creating their own pensive, emotive brand of grunge-inspired indie-alt-rock.

10. “From Far Away” – SayReal. This infectious, smile-inducing tune will thrill those who like good pop songs and those wished that Michael Franti and Spearhead sounded more like their one unusual pop hit all the time.

11. “Start Right Here” – Jennifer O’Connor. O’Connor takes the basic elements of modern indie-pop songwriting (jangly guitars, plain vocal style, catchy melodies, full-but-not-noisy drums) and turns out gold. I don’t know how that works, but it does.

12. “Guns” – Andy Metz. Punchy, rhythmic piano-pop verses open up into a smooth, memorable chorus, complete with timely political commentary on gun control.

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.

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