Daniel G. Harmann has been firmly on my radar since 2007, when The Books We Read Will Bury Us made its way into my life. His lush, romantic, slow-moving work helped me first write the phrase “Rainy Day Makeout Music.” Since then he’s gone in all sorts of directions: he’s picked up a noisy rock band (The Trouble Starts) and gone voice-and-acoustic-guitar solo on different projects. The excellent White Mountains benefits from all his various configurations: the whip-smart indie-rock writing incorporates both fury and romance.
You need look no farther than tracks two and three to see how this juxtaposition works out. “Pistols at Dawn” starts out with stark pseudo-grunge clean guitar tone before introducing organ and tempo-pushing drums. The track unfolds as a churning-yet-wiry track, a simmering heat that never boils over but threatens to at all times. Harmann balances the muscle and the melody with his dramatic vocal performance, walking the line between aggressive rock howls and aggrieved indie-pop vocal theatrics. It ends in a drum solo, because why not? It rocks. It’s like Silversun Pickups, but with a window that lets some light in.
“Anna” follows “Pistols,” and it couldn’t be more different. Composed of the same general elements (organ, drums, guitar, DGH’s vocals) with the addition of a Wurlitzer, the song is a mid-tempo tune that showcases the keys and Harmann’s emotive vocals. There’s no aggression here, whereas the last track had the threat of it everywhere. It’s beautiful in a way that hearkens back to his previous work.
This tension goes back and forth throughout the album. “Bastion” is a piano-led indie-pop tune with trembling vocals. The guitar-driven “It’s Fine, It’s Fine” is one of the fastest rock tunes. “New Concerns” encompasses both feelings at once: it’s one of the heaviest tracks here, with a biting guitar tone, brittle vocals, and ominous piano undertones. But there’s also a glorious, dramatic, Muse-esque piano run halfway through that evokes a different mood on top of the one that’s already there. It’s a complex tune with a lot of payoff. Closer “Elkland” meshes the two ideas even more, layering chiming guitar notes over a gritty rhythm guitar to play with the distance between aggression and mourning. It’s evocative, to say the least.
Daniel G. Harmann’s White Mountains offers up complex, satisfying compositions. Harmann’s distinctive voice adds character to the evocative tunes that play with the borders between rock and indie-pop, resulting in an album that doesn’t sound quite like anything else going on. Harmann has honed his craft to a fine point with this release, and it’s worth checking out for any fan of “indie rock,” broadly conceived. Pre-order it here, then start with “New Concerns.”
The three songs all lope along, filled with the sorts of sonic markers that indicate dream pop: off-kilter keyboard rhythms in “The Birds (for Paulo)”; the flowing fingerpicking of “Treehouse”; gauzy, reverb-heavy guitar and underwater percussion in “A New View.”
Competing with these elements are aspects that seem out of place: glitchy beats; EDM-esque synth blares in “The Birds”; and elegant, formal pop songwriting chops in “Treehouse.” The mixture of these elements creates about an extremely varied 10 minutes and 45 seconds. It is a bit of a head-whip from tune to tune, but it’s all pulled off with a confident, assured hand–none of these songs feel like interlopers.
The thing that unites them and drew me in to this collection is the delicate voice of Rosa Bordallo (who is Manett). The Micronesia-to-NYC transplant has a sweet, calming voice that flutters somewhere between alto and soprano. Given the range of tunes here, she does a great job of deploying her voice to fit the situation. Bordallo dispatches languid “ooos” in the chilled-out “A New View,” whisper-sings carefully in the relaxed first half of “The Birds (for Paulo),” and delivers a high lead vocal melody over an acoustic guitar in the tightly structured “Treehouse.” Throughout each of the performances, the little fluctuations of tone in her voice are intriguing.
Manett’s Stigma Style introduces a singer/songwriter with a lot of ideas and a lot of talent with which to realize them. The 10 minutes of this EP are warm, calming, and intriguing, leaving me wanting more.
Double albums are a massive endeavor in every sense of the word. They take a long time to write, record, listen to, and review. All of these things are relative: it does not take as long to write a double album as it does to listen to one, but it does take much longer than average to review a double album than it does a single one.
So Mon Draggor is probably wondering why I keep saying “soon! soon!” in relation to this review, especially since I love the album so much–it should be easy to write about something you’re really into, right? But these things take time, even (especially?) when I’m reviewing a dense, textured, complex, beautiful album such as Pushing Buttons / Pulling Strings.
Further complicating the work of this double album is that there are two different genres: Pushing Buttons is a nine-track electro-rock album reminiscent of The Naked and the Famous, Passion Pit, and Bloc Party. Pulling Strings‘s nine tracks are more organically oriented, although the electronic elements spill over into the indie-rock more than the indie rock spills over into the electro.
Take “Painted Wings,” which is most electro cut of Pushing Buttons. There’s a bit of Muse’s high-drama vocals, sweeping soundscapes made by layers of distant synths, and massively reverbed percussion booms. There’s a “whoa-oh” section. It’s a slow-jam club banger of the cosmic variety, instead of the sensual variety–it feels like outer space.
“Armageddon Baby” has many of the same elements, but with more straight-ahead EDM/trance beats and energy. Opener “Everyone Runs” fits Passion Pit stabs of synths over a wubby, pulsing bass for a tune that would make fans of the aforementioned and Imagine Dragons happy.
I know it’s not cool to invoke Imagine Dragons, but they know how to write an infectious pop song. So does Mon Draggor. The vocal melodies throughout both albums are the sort that stick in your mind. Richard Jankovich’s vocals have the high-pitched tone that can firm up into perfect pop melodies or get yelpy into ecstatic/aggrieved howls (see Bright Eyes). The ease with which the songs go through your ears and into your mind is a credit: it’s hard to write 18 songs that are all distinct enough that the listener remembers them. Sure, I can hum individual tracks like “On Your Own” because of the soaring vocals, but keeping a whole double album going is a rare skill. I don’t want to skip tracks here, and that is a rare thing in the double album.
I want to keep touting Pushing Buttons, because I could (“Secret Science”! “We Found the Limit”!)–but I have to get to Pulling Strings before I start writing a tome. (That double album problem again.) Pulling Strings is a more relaxed affair, but it’s not quite folk. It has more affinity with The National, a band that’s quiet in their own idiosyncratic way and has the ability to get loud. The best example of this is “It’s Quiet Now,” which could be lazily called folk but has a lot more moving parts that create a unique atmosphere. The trilling, keening guitar is reminiscent of The Walkmen’s work, but the thrumming bass, gentle fingerpicking and delicate piano create a unique atmosphere. It’s a standout in regard to either album.
“Recon by Candlelight” starts with a similarly spacious arrangement of fingerpicked guitar and delicate piano before expanding into a beautiful tune that grows by adding more and more parts on top of each other. (That’s an electro song structure and arrangement style peeking through.) “Curtains” starts off with looped violin notes before layering vocoder on top; the giddy experimentation and unusual juxtapositions call to mind Sufjan Stevens’ The Age of Adz, but in a darker sonic realm. The song eventually cranks up with drums and screaming guitar; it’s a moving, beautifully arranged tune. “Love is All Around” blurs the lines between the two albums, as electronic beats and fuzzy synths live in harmony with melancholy electric guitar. The eerie “Magic Shilo” does the same. They’re all excellent.
Pushing Buttons / Pulling Strings is that rare double album that’s worth every minute. Richard Jankovich is at the top of his game, delivering an astonishing amount of thoughtful, well-arranged work in two different (but subtly related) genres. If you’re into electronic pop or indie-rock with an electronic bent, Mon Draggor will scratch both itches in grand fashion.
The aesthetics of Avid Dancer’s “All Your Words Are Gone” are cheery, nostalgic, and lovingly kitschy. There’s no disdain for the quirkiness of suburban objects, weird craft projects, and silly experiences: they’re all celebrated in this gentle, charming indie-pop tune.
Jacco Gardner’s clip for “Find Yourself” perfectly recreates the visual style, psychedelic guitar effects, and surreal storyline of ’60s and ’70s spy films. It feels like a lost James Bond opening sequence. (I mean that in the most complimentary of ways.)
While we’re on a nostalgia trip, let’s pair some Strokes-ian early ’00s indie rock with a goofy buddy cop narrative. Big Lonely’s “You Want It All” is a blast in several different ways.
Everything that Brook Pridemore does is endearingly off-kilter, and so it goes with his clip for “Brother Comfort.” It features a gorilla suit unabashedly. The song has some great horns amid his uptempo, enthusiastic folk-punk.
I’ve listened to The Painted Horses‘ full-length debut Ponderosa Pines maybe half a dozen times through, and the element that always strikes me is how thoroughly it inhabits my expectations of alt-country. The band plays earnest, acoustic-led, wide-open tunes with Laurel Canyon sweetness, down-home vibes, and a relaxed ethos.
There aren’t any genre mash-ups, curveballs, or left hooks in the ten-song collection. Instead, the band delivers a set of earnest tunes that are solid through and through. From gentle single “Much Too Long” to the pure harmonies of “Desert Skies” to the rolling fingerpicking of “In the Garden” to the saloon piano of “September Rain” and the high lonesome-esque “Black Water,” there are no weak points in the album.
Piano graces the scene here and there; violins waver in and out; the bass bounces up and down like you expect it to. Pedal steel and organ make a cameo in “Georgia.” The whole thing is capped off by tenor vocals that seem to be the human embodiment of the sound they float above (or vice versa, I suppose). If you’re looking for a gentler Dawes, a more upbeat Mojave 3, or something beautiful, I can heartily recommend The Painted Horses’ Ponderosa Pines to you on March 27.
It’s a great thing to show back up at work on Monday and have an e-mail from someone you haven’t heard from in a while. Jordan Herrera of whisper-folk outfit Young Readers sent over that he’s doing a Kickstarter to fund the finishing of his new record Migrator. Check the video below:
I’m super stoked to hear more Young Readers tunes in the world: I love his previous work, and I’m thrilled about the clips in the video. If you’re down for that sound, contribute what you can.
Opener “Waking Up Again” is a precise-yet-earthy fingerpicked indie-folk tune reminiscent of Bowerbirds or a darker Weepies; it’s a perfect vehicle for Hearn’s warm, comfortable, unaffected alto. The arrangement and her voice mesh perfectly, creating one of my favorite songs of the year so far. It’s a mature, assured track that kicks the album off in the best way possible. It may be the biggest hill on the rollercoaster in terms of excitement, but it’s not the only exciting twist and turn Hourglass has in store.
“Can’t Help Myself” is an old-school pop song built on a plunked piano and breezy vibes; “The Oak Tree” features a dramatic alt-country vocal line that’s inflected with elements of modern singer/songwriter arrangements–note the motifs playing in the background of the chorus, a solid pop songwriting element. “Please Don’t Take My Love” starts with electronic beats before seguing into a low-slung ballad with anthemic touches (reverbed vocals!). With that, you’ve made it a third of the way through the album. (Please keep your hands inside the vehicle.)
The rest of Hourglass settles into a piano-fronted singer/songwriter vibe, from dramatic lead single “Volcano” to the gentle “Annie” to the earnest “Long Summer.” Throughout it all, Hearn’s vocals are engaging, enveloping, and compelling. Her songwriting is a strong foil–the melodies never become cloying or maudlin, and the structures seem bright and fresh. But it’s Hearn’s vocals that shine most in Hourglass. If nothing else, you must check out “Waking Up Again,” but I highly recommend the whole album.
Brother Moses‘ Thanks For All Your Patience is the sound of slackers who listened to a lot of Beck and the chill parts of Modest Mouse growing up. I mean that literally and figuratively; the lyrics explain the foibles and fears of maturing (just check the titles “Older,” “Wake You Up,” “Eyes Open”), while the music is a refined take on minimalist indie rockers like Spoon.
The line “I’m tired of sleeping in” from “Wake You Up” pretty much sums up the EP lyrically, as Moses Gomez’s lyrics all have to do with that process (sometimes a single sudden moment, sometimes several years’ worth of stuff) where you realize that you’re an adult and you have responsibilities. It’s the soundtrack of the mid-to-late ’20s in 2015. The lyrics are tight and quotable; they’ll appeal to people in that process, as well as people looking back on it.
The music is a streamlined, bouncy, minimalist form of indie rock that relies heavily on the interplay of the easygoing baritone, wiry guitar, rubbery bass, and tasteful drums. Sometimes this takes the form of The Walkmen-esque towers of hollowed-out guitar sound (“Wake You Up”) and sometimes there’s a hectic mashup between all the parts (“Eyes Open”), but most often Brother Moses isolates one aspect of the sound and features it against a backdrop of space (“Older,” “Hopeless”). “Older” takes its cues from a warm-yet-staccato synth, rim-rapping percussion, and occasional guitar to build an infectious, enigmatically beautiful tune. The parts are all there (this isn’t totally minimalist work), but there aren’t a lot of overt rock moves here. There’s a lot more warm vibe and unique mood-building going on.
That’s the thing that sticks the most from Thanks for All Your Patience: the lyrics are memorable, the melodies are tight, and the instrumental work is solid, but the overall mood of the piece is its greatest takeaway. (Slackers trying to grow up don’t necessarily get 100% business-like, at least not all at once.) The work here is strong, high-quality work, yet it’s all read through an easygoing, relaxed perspective. You can get old and not grow up, but you can also grow up and not become stodgy. Brother Moses’ Thanks for All Your Patience is a remarkable debut EP that leaves a big impression.
1. “Away” – Heart Beach. Heart Beach is out-Pixie-ing the Pixies with this churning slice of plodding bass, washed-out guitar and yearning vocals. A+.
2. “Cavity” – Kuzin. Sometimes the vocal hook that seals it is in the verse, and so it goes with the yearning killer line of this track. You’ll be humming this one for a while.
3. “Gone Past” – Lore City. A lot of people want to invoke shoegaze, but few bands really inhabit the idea of the sound overwhelming a person in their entirety the way that Lore City does here. Slow movement, pounding drums, howling vocals, synth sheen over everything: this is how you create a wall of sound in 2015.
4. “He’s Not Real and He Ain’t Coming Back” – Twin River. The synth-laden, reverb-heavy soundscapes on this track recall the slow motion of the band’s titular geographical features. Let it wash over you.
5. “Wasting Time” – The Phantoms. The alt-rock drama of Anberlin meets Blur influences in vocal delivery for this high-contrast track.
6. “Dotted Line” – Bombay Harambee. Guitar rock with demonstrative, impassioned front men will always have a home. This particular brand makes me think of a slowed-down Arctic Monkeys.
7. “Fourth Quarter Funeral” – Velcro Mary. The thick, bassy guitars in this power-pop song fill up the track, but they never make the song feel leaden. Instead, the track moves sprightly along on a Foo Fighters backline and a snarly vocal line that never explodes.
8. “Universe” – Faith Healer. Some perky garage-rock with a mumbly female lead vocal creates a very cool vibe.
9. “Actual Alien” – American Culture. Scuzzy guitars; gated ’80s drums; distorted, nasally vocals. Sounds like a great entry into American garage rock culture to me.
10. “Time For Us to Move” – Full Trunk. We really should thank the Black Keys for re-popularizing blues rock. There are few ways to vibe harder than on a good blues-rock riff, like the one here.
Just about the only thing of Linda Marie Smith‘s Mearra~Selkie from the Sea that doesn’t look and sound 100% Celtic is the artist’s name. Smith’s album is a song cycle depicting the Celtic myth of the selkie: a seal that can shed its skin and become a human (a woman, as you may be able to guess).
The album isn’t an overdose of Celtic stereotypes (this isn’t a Riverdance equivalent); instead, it’s a set of gentle, lush tunes with the lilt and air of Ireland about them. Smith’s refined alto voice fits perfectly, leading the tunes with a earthy, storyteller’s vibe. The album largely sticks to a sound somewhere between piano-driven singer/songwriter, mystic new age a la Enya, and dramatic arrangements that wouldn’t be out of place in a musical, although there are occasional indie-pop moments (“Heaven Knows”). (This actually is a musical of sorts: there’s a visual accompaniment that was recently shown on PBS.) If you’re into dignified, refined Celtic vibes amid your quiet, Mearra~Selkie from the Sea should be on your list.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.