1. “Savannah, Abandoned” – Lewis Dalgliesh. Shades of Jeffrey Lewis’s lyrical specificity and rapid-fire delivery play out over delicate, fingerpicked acoustic guitar. The rsults are a wonderful, Fionn Regan-style indie-pop tune.
2. “Letter for Ty” – ALFIE. The intertwining of two female voices and the bright production on this pristine acoustic pop tune make me think of another Scandinavian folk duo: First Aid Kit. Highly recommended.
3. “So Close” – Mama Ghost. A lovely, engaging alto voice leads the way in this excellent folk/singer-songwriter tune. The guitar, lead vocals, and harmony vocals mesh perfectly into an enveloping mood.
4. “Get On Your Skates” – Sandtimer. The gravitas of the vocal tone and delivery transforms a smooth acoustic tune into a stellar tune reminiscent of Alexi Murdoch.
5. “War on the Move” – Nice Motor. Hits all the right notes for a modern folk/alt-country shuffle: great vocals, lush harmonies, traditional (but not too(/em) traditional) arrangement, and overall good vibes.
6. “Caroline” – Johnny Nobles. Those who love James Taylor will find much to love in this light, slightly sad acoustic work.
7. “Eagle” – Noel. Brimming with tension but also exuding patience, this mesmerizing ambient/neo-classical piece is built on organ-like synth drone and beautifully airy lead synth.
8. “First Dance” – Doc Yates and the Kings Evil. The vocal melodies of this romantic ballad have a timeless quality to them, as if drawn from ’50s pop, old folk tunes, and/or modern indie pop.
9. “Head Over Heels” – Finn Kleffmann. Fuses acoustic Britpop vibes from the ’90s with modern acoustic pop melodies (and folk-pop “hey!”s). It’s suave and strong.
10. “Fa Fa Fa Fired” – Ryan Oxford. Lots of songwriters want to emulate The Beach Boys, but few do it as well as Oxford does here. The production is spot-on Pet Sounds (with some modern upgrades), but it’s the charming vocal melodies and delivery that sell this one.
1. “Step into the Darkness” – Said the Whale. Sometimes an indie-pop just emerges full-formed, bursting out of the sea with sophisticated arrangements, catchy melodies, intriguing lyrics, and smooth production. Easily one of the best pop songs I’ve heard so far this year.
2. “The Worst in You” – Tyto Alba. Slow-burning track that opens up as a moody indie rock before expanding into a pounding rock conclusion.
3. “Bone Collector” – Julian Lage & Chris Eldridge. A unique acoustic guitar duo creating unique, rhythmically intriguing instrumental music.
4. “Demons” – I.am.hologram. This inventive, satisfyingly unclassifiable 9-minute journey is triangulated from points in post-rock, blues/folk guitar, and indie rock.*
5. “Smash and Grab” – Christopher Giffard. A funky, jazzy, left-hand-heavy instrumental jam that had me head-bobbing from the get-go. There’s a lot going on in this piece, so stick around for the development.
6. “Sal” – K O L T B A C H. Slinky, lithe, and deliciously low-key, this instrumental electro jam is perfectly arranged for maximum effect without hitting any cliches.
7. “Souvenir” – Oh Geronimo. If you’ve ever been in a band that broke up, you’re going to want to listen to this acoustic ballad in a dark room away from people. It nails how I felt when band members moved on; honest, raw, and heartbreaking.
8. “Fancy Footwork” – Les Bohem. Good news for people who love sad news: this is pristine sad music. Consider: this chipper-sounding tune is one of the happiest on the whole double album. If you love sad things, you need to get on this immediately.
9. “Proverba Infero” – Mouse Dog Bird. Slowcore minimalist tendencies, but with the vocals front and center instead of off in the corner somewhere.
*Full disclosure: The PR agent for I.am.hologram, Lisa Whealy, writes for Independent Clauses.
Closing out 2016 with a free download of their EP Joshua Tree, the cacophony of sound that is Moon Hooch throws down a bold statement: Just dance. The EP is a simple thank you to fans for a widely successful year that included sell-out shows across Europe and the United States, along with critical acclaim for Red Sky.
“We rented a house and set up a little studio in the Mojave desert just outside of Joshua Tree National Park,” explains Wenzl McGowen. “We got together in the same room with our instruments and said, ‘Let’s just hit it’ and started playing whatever came to our minds. Somehow this process created eight songs. Don’t ask us where they came from, but we certainly enjoyed bringing them to this planet.”
Drenched in the surreal quality of the Joshua Tree environment, this EP opens with “Sandstorm,” hitting that desert rave on fire. Overarching melodies from the swirling horns repeat with a precision that is cohesive in its chaos, like desert sands–each minute but necessary. “Dancing Dwarf” brings it in a notch but still has that controlled lullaby of screaming saxophone. (It’s been said that the saxophone is the closest instrument to the human voice.) Not needing to be jazz or fusion allows Moon Hooch to just be. No explanations needed.
Stalking out of the party, “Mountain Lion” sprinkles in the middle eastern flavor that has influenced much of the band’s evolution, philosophy, and social consciousness. The dance party slides in to create the shout of “Jiggle.” Melodic sax soars and shouts lyrics with a staccato, jazz-infused mayhem that bringings to mind the roaring twenties. Hitting a stride halfway through, twisting and stealthy, spiraling into another dimension, is a final crazy “Criminals” breakdown.
To explain “Improv Intro” seems silly. Just listen. The three musicians demonstrate the skill and brotherhood that has developed, as each fit a groove. “Improv” feels like a creation from another universe and quite possibly is. This fusion of metal, jazz, experimental, and improvisation brings chills in an auditory freak-out that feels oh so good.
“Ballad” is a close your eyes and dream moment on rapid fire release, a brief sensory experience. “Outer Urge” brings to a close a journey that is a gift to experience. Looping back around to the beginning with familiar composition is an intriguing skill that Moon Hooch keeps in their arsenal. Regardless the point is above all else: just dance. —Lisa Whealy
Moon Hooch will hit the road on both coasts and abroad in 2017, starting in February:
February 1 – Washington, DC – U Street Music Hall February 2 – Morgantown, WV – Main Stage February 3 – Columbus, OH – Winter Werk Out February 4 – Ferndale, MI – Otus Supply February 8 – Buffalo, NY – Buffalo Iron Works February 9 – Saranac Lake, NY – Waterhole February 10 – Burlington, VT – Higher Ground February 11 – Northampton, MA – Pearl Street Clubroom February 12 – Hamden, CT – The Ballroom @ Outer Space February 18 – Brooklyn, NY – Brooklyn Bowl February 22 – Santa Cruz, CA – The Catalyst Atrium February 23 – Chico, CA – Lost On Main February 24 – San Francisco, CA – The Fillmore February 25 – Petaluma, CA – Mystic Theatre February 28 – Charlottesville, VA – The Jefferson March 1 – Charleston, SC – Pour House March 2 – Tampa, FL – Crowbar March 3 – Gainesville, FL – Changeville Festival March 4 – Tallahassee, FL – The SideBar Theatre June 2 – Oslo, NO – Nattjazz Festival September 22 – Thornville, OH – Resonance Music & Arts Festival
Ah, 2017! I’m pleased to be starting the new year with a fantastic song to premiere.
MAITA is a Portland-based songwriter who has turned out an exciting chamber-folk tune in “Kinder than Most.” MAITA’s lilting alto leads the way: her range and notes are carefully controlled, but the engaging, intriguing swoops and leaps of her vocal melodies give the song a bit of a woozy cast. The arrangement is almost the definition of chamber-folk, as pizzicato strings, precise-yet-round bass, gentle percussion, and subtle acoustic guitar mesh together into an arrangement that feels by turns spartan and lush.
It would be a crime not to mention the excellent engineering here, which takes all these beautiful parts and makes them sound as if they’re happening a foot away from me. In that way, it’s a fully realized song: the vocals, arrangement, and engineering all come together perfectly to create a top-shelf tune. Fans of Dana Sipos’ stark folk will find much to love here, while fans of My Brightest Diamond will hear echoes that draw them in (albeit folky echoes).
“Kinder than Most” comes from Maita’s debut EP Waterbearer, which comes out 1/27. You can pre-order it now. I’m very much looking forward to reviewing the full release shortly.
Cindertalk‘sAll a Shimmer is an ostensibly-indie-pop album that transcends boundaries and genre labels, creating a mind-bending world of tensions: complex/spartan arrangements; huge/tiny lyrical concerns; vulnerable/brash emotive turns; dark/light moods; gentle/forceful instrumentation; subtle/powerful vocals. Jonny Rodgers’ work with tuned glass shows through consistently, but never dominates; instead, all the pieces come together into whirling, enigmatic, satisfyingly unusual pieces.
Rodgers has been working with tuned glass for a long time now, and the glass has transcended use as a side or even feature instrument. It is now an integral part of his work, an instrument that has expanded his sense of what is possible in a song. Rodgers can use the glass as a beautiful pad synth (“Ruminating,” “All A Shimmer”), a feathery mini orchestra (“You Will Suffer”), a guitar solo (“One of Their Own”), a lead riff [“Swing (Your Low Song)”], a marimba-esque percussion element (“Mutter Mutter Mutter”) and as a foil to Imogen Heap-style autotune (“Twitter Queen”).
It’s not just that the instrument is used in so many different ways; it has so thoroughly suffused Rodgers’ songwriting that the sounds and rhythms of other instruments are intertwined and influenced by the glass. The percussion here is muted throughout, hitting with punch but not snap; whether subtle electronic beats (“The Frozen Field”), distant kit drum (“Twitter Queen,” “Hurrah Hurrah,” “One of Their Own”), or something in-between (“Mutter Mutter Mutter”), the percussion here fits perfectly in against the glass and the rest of the indie-pop arrangements. The guitars, piano, and bass (often through bass keys) have similarly unique personality as a result of their interaction with the glass. The guitar is sometimes precise and patterned like glass-tapping, while the piano often lush yet precise in its stops and starts. This is a musical album like none you’ve ever heard before.
However, it’s not just the instrumental prowess that makes this an irresistible album. The vocal tone and vocal melodies are beautiful and catchy. (Those two adjectives don’t always go together.) From the forceful indie-rock attitude of “Mutter Mutter Mutter” to the yearning beauty of “Love, I Will Remember Your Hands” to the swooping “Swing (Your Low Song),” many of these songs have distinct, precise, memorable melodies that don’t blend into each other. There’s a theme throughout (these aren’t unrelated pieces), but I find myself humming many different melodies from this album, not just one or two. This is partially due to Rodgers’ unusually wide vocal range: his voice can reach to dramatic, perfectly-sustained high notes that make the vocals seem almost as crystalline as the glass. You’ll hear his voice once and remember it.
The lyrics that Rodgers pairs with the music are equally as impressive as the music, which is no small feat. Not a single song here traffics in cliches except “Twitter Queen,” which does so to subvert them in uncomfortable, social-commentary-laden ways. Elsewhere, he writes a love song to his lover’s hands, discusses why death may not be the worst possible thing that can happen to you (solo piano elegy “I’m Only Dying”), thinks through mental and emotional suffering (“Ruminating,” “You Will Suffer,”), ponders the problem of evil (“All A Shimmer”), and more. (I’m still not entirely done pondering what the lyrics of “Hurrah Hurrah” mean when paired with the minor/major tension of the instrumental accompaniment, but it is the type of song that will make you think about it.)
The whole album is a powerhouse, but there’s a suite of three songs in the middle that really took my breath away. “Ruminating” is the closest to an indie-pop song that Cindertalk gets on this record, as the glass, acoustic guitar, percussion, and harmonica come together to form a song that flips back and forth from airy openness to concrete, almost-country-esque sections. The melodies and lyrics are straightforward (at least as compared to the rest of the album), but they’re still unique and lovely. This fun tune leads into my favorite song of the record, “You Will Suffer.” The opening lyrics tell you everything you need to know about the content of the song and the complex rhythmic patterns that flow through it: “You / You will suffer / some things alone / but it / it / will show you / who you are / who you are.” The bass guitar doesn’t have too many important roles on this record (and this one may still be a guitar modulated down a couple octaves), but the bass here does some great work, along with the keys and the glass. It’s a whirling, complex song–a great microcosm of the record.
The final of the three tunes in the suite is one of the most complex-sounding on the record (although “Mutter Mutter Mutter” objectively has more going on), due to the almost-mathy patterning of the guitar and percussion rhythms. Rodgers’ vocals shine here, as he uses vocal percussion, soaring wordless arias, and lead vocals here. The song rolls, starts, stops, starts again, adds in instruments, drops out instruments, and generally never lets you walk in a straight line for four and a half minutes. It’s expertly crafted, and, again, a microcosm of the record.
I could keep going, but this is already one of my longest reviews of the year. All A Shimmeris a beautiful album that enthusiastically and successfully pushes the boundaries of what pop music can do. Rodgers shows off an incredibly unique songwriting voice, a deft arranging hand, and expert engineering skills. It was an easy choice to include in my albums of the year. If you’re into adventurous music, there was no more an adventurous album this year than this one. Highly recommended.
It’s been a good year of music, and these were the best I heard. With the notable exception of #7, all the quotes are pulled from my review of the record.
7. All A Shimmer – Cindertalk. This ostenstibly-indie-pop album transcends boundaries and genre labels, creating a mind-bending world of tensions: complex/spartan arrangements; huge/tiny lyrical concerns; vulnerable/brash emotive turns; dark/light moods; gentle/forceful instrumentation; gentle/powerful vocals. Jonny Rodgers’ work with tuned glass shows through consistently, but never dominates; instead, all the pieces come together into whirling, enigmatic, satisfyingly unusual pieces. If you’re into adventurous music, there was no more an adventurous album this year than this one. (full review forthcoming)
6. Mantra – Sunjacket. “Mantra is the rare “smart” rock album that isn’t hard to get. It’s weird, it’s quirky, it’s got a unique point of view, but it’s not grueling or punishing. You can listen to it through and hear the guitars and synths and take it at face value. (And its face value is great.) But for those who want to spend more time with their albums, Sunjacket has created an album full of nooks and crannies for listeners to explore.” (full review)
4. Ghost of a King – The Gray Havens. Ghost expands “their core sound to include cinematic pop-rock, ambient art tunes, and even electro-pop. Their expansion of borders doesn’t diminish at all their continuing maturity in the folk-pop realm, as the album contains some of the best folk-pop tunes they’ve ever written. In short, Ghost of a King shows growth in every area, and that results in an incredible album.” (full review)
3. Young Mister – Young Mister. “So carefully and meticulously crafted that it doesn’t show any of the seams. An immense amount of effort went into making indie-pop-rock songs that sound effortless and natural. You can sing along with these songs, write the lyrics on your bedroom wall, or just let the experience wash over you.” (full review)
2. Great Falls Memorial Interchange – Kye Alfred Hillig. “Even though these songs deal with difficult emotions, nowhere do these songs become brittle or unrelatable–the clarity of the lyrics, the ease of the melodies and Hillig’s inviting voice make them fit like a new coat. I hadn’t heard any of these songs before, but they felt like old friends as soon as I had.” (full review)
1. Hope and Sorrow – Wilder Adkins. “An impeccable, gorgeous modern folk record that shows off the value of maturity. It’s the sort of record that stretches the limits of my writing ability, making me want to write simply: ‘Just go listen to this record. You won’t regret it.'” (full review)
This year I have 14 albums of the year. Numbers 14-8 are covered here, while numbers 7-1 will be covered in a few days. Enjoy!
14. State Center – The Hasslers. “An impressively smooth fusion of country, indie-pop and folk; they’re so adept at handling the genre mashing that it’s hard to pick out exactly where one stops and the other starts.” (full review)
12. Songs of Loss – JPH. “Songs of Loss would be hard to explain even if it weren’t so openly dealing with the loss of the artist’s father. … Imagine if LCD Soundsystem had committed to only using acoustic instruments but still wanted to make the same sort of rhythms, or if Jandek had become dancier. These are strange things to try to imagine, I am aware.” (full review)
11. Gardens – Ryan Dugre. “The solo guitar record has a zen-like focus and a clarity that make the music incredibly soothing to a harried mind. … It sounds like audio origami–complex and angular, but only when looked at up close: from afar it seems beautiful, unified, and peaceful.” (full review)
10. The Road – John John Brown. “Brilliant, drawing heavily from traditional Appalachian sounds and modern folk revivalists to create 10 songs of back-porch folk that are fully realized in scope and yet casual in mood. Brown’s dusky voice, an immaculate production job, and a deft arranging hand makes this duality possible.” (full review)
9. Crooked Orchards – Darling Valley. “Stuffed full of tunes with vocal melodies that I can’t say no to, elite instrumental performances, and enough lyrical poignancy to knock the socks off a skeptic or two. It’s the sort of album that makes you remember why folk-pop was fun in the first place.” (full review)
8. S/t – Moda Spira. “A beautiful, intriguing work that combines pensive indie-pop, thoughtful electro-pop, R&B and more into a distinctive sound. The lyrics are just as impressive, tackling the little-discussed topic of marital commitment with candor, verve, and impact.” (full review)
Here are Independent Clauses’ EPs of the year! The lead link takes you to a place where you can hear/purchase the EP. The quote is from our review, and the last link sends you to the full IC review. Enjoy!
7. Sunset Park – A Valley Son. “Between the distinctive, versatile vocals and the enthusiastic alt-country/roots rock instrumentation, AVS has a lot of pieces that can translate easily onto bigger and brighter stages.” (full review)
6. salt’n’long distance – Foxall. “The sort of acoustic EP that just about everyone wants to write: effortlessly catchy songs with clear, relatable lyrics that are just specific enough to be unique.” (full review)
4. S/t – Roan Yellowthorn. “Her confident alto has a unique personality and sonic profile that is the rarest of things to hear in a (chamber pop) singer. Once you’ve heard her once, you’ll know her again–and that’s rare.” (full review)
2. Cattle Ranching in the Americas, vol. 1 – Ovando. ” Nate Hegyi’s vocals seem like they tumble gracefully out of his throat, while the female harmonies are similarly unadorned. Those voices carry a song of woe about the American West (are there any other type?), floating over lithe, smooth guitar fingerpicking.” (full review)
1. Cold Blood – Josiah and the Bonnevilles. “It’s a stake in the ground that establishes the outfit as one to watch: a specific vision expertly handled within the goalposts of a genre framework that people are already familiar with. … Call it alt-country, alt-folk, whatever; you’ll know what it is when you hear it. … Cold Blood EP is a remarkable first effort that shows off unique arranging skills, intriguing vocals, and strong overall songs.” (full review)
I have an ambivalent relationship to Spotify. I do use it in free mode occasionally (maybe once a week? twice a week?), and I see value in some of its functions, like sharing playlists easily. On the other hand, I thoroughly expect it to be dead in five years, because the more people it adds the more money it loses. Not hard math there.
Eric and Happie‘s It’s Yours is a pristine example of a male/female duo folk-pop album in 2016. The eight songs of the album rarely feature more than guitar/bass/drums, which is just the way I like it. The subtle inclusions of ukulele, strings, and accordion provide great accent to the tracks. Eric and Happie are credited with vocals on every track. It’s an uncomplicated collection of tunes that works excellently.
The songs are not as high-drama as those of The Civil Wars, nor as perky as The Weepies’; it’s not as radio-curated as The Lumineers’ work (with the exception of “Falling For You,” which is a romp complete with “hey!”s). Instead, these are folk songs with pop melodies that you can sing along to with ease. There are romantic songs (the title track, “Falling for You,” “A Dream”), travel songs (“Louisiana,” “Oklahoma,” “Stranger”), and more poetic offerings (“They’ll Never Take Us Alive”).
The tunes often land in the realm of Jenny and Tyler’s early work, which was warm, friendly, and pop-oriented. It’s a pure, unadulterated sound that often doesn’t last past a few albums, as the lure of larger arrangements draws so many. (And those larger arrangements can be awesome too.) But there’s a special glow that shines off an intimate, simply-wrought album like this; that lightning in a bottle is rarely caught.
The Soldier Story‘s Flowers for Anonymous inhabits a dusky, complex space triangulated between the suave nighttime antics of Bloc Party, the howling reveries of The Walkmen, and the manic fever of MuteMath’s first record. The songs of this record absorb the best bits of each of those bands and synthesize them into something new and fresh. The trick here is that Colin Meyer has the chops to pull off frantic, mathy indie-rock, but he distills those melodic and rhythmic tendencies into tension-laden mid-tempo pieces that are just as ghostly as they are grounded.
Tunes like “Drifting Apart” have patterned guitar leads, syncopated drumbeats, whirling vocals, and more, but in the service of a subdued, push-and-pull mood. Follow-up “Talk With Our Eyes” barely contains the underlying power and passion, as it spikes up through the tension in the form of synths, drums, glitchy beats, and more. It’s a tune that carries the OK Computer torch, updating the “contemporary technological fears in sonic form” palette. (It’s not surprising that various eras of Radiohead are a touchstone for these pieces as well.)
But Meyer isn’t all chaotic rock filtered through massive restraint filters. Elsewhere Meyer turns his penchant for complex, burbling guitar lines into an indie-pop mold, creating beautiful, subtle tunes like “Life is Short” and “An Overdue Farewell.” These tunes balance Meyer’s complicated arrangements with his smooth, airy, at-times-feathery vocal melodies. He can soar with the best of them, but he can also disappear off into the distance. This tension between the chaotic and the delicate is a powerful element in making Flowers for Anonymous a big success. There aren’t many people making music like this; adventurous listeners will greatly enjoy hearing Meyer’s carefully constructed sonic landscapes.
I’m pretty far behind the bandwagon on reviewing M. Lockwood Porter‘s How to Dream Again, even though I have it on vinyl. It’s been getting a ton of accolades from people like Paste and No Depression, so it’s been doing pretty well without me chiming in. But as a person who’s reviewed both Judah’s Gone and 27, I did have a few thoughts that maybe haven’t been said before. (Probably not.)
The new lyrical direction of How to Dream Again has been getting a lot of play: it’s a protest record, save for three love songs at the beginning of the record, and it’s an incisive, thoughtful turn. It pushes on both on internal problems (“Sad/Satisfied”) and external issues (every other song) in a style that’s more Woody Guthrie than Bob Dylan; there aren’t a whole lot of stacked metaphors, but there is a whole lot of direct analysis. Porter also continues to grapple with religion, this time taking God to task over the question of God’s lack of direct intervention on issues of injustice. It’s a question that has resonated through the ages, and one that fits in a protest album. Even if Porter and I come to different conclusions on the matter, the question is real and remains.
The musical direction is also different, albeit more slightly. The songs here are a synthesis of the folk of Porter’s first record and the American rock’n’roll of his second; the troubadour folk style that comes along with protest lyrics is present throughout as well. The three sounds come together to make a mature sound for Porter, one that may not be his last stop (who among us can claim to be in our final form?), but certainly indicates his direction. There are dashes of Dawes (“Sad/Satisfied”) in the rhythmic vocal delivery, rattling ’50s rock’n’roll throughout, and more things thrown in the pot. The title track, which closes the album, brings it all together into a very American amalgam. It’s Porter’s distinct voice that leads the way, adding the final element to make the sound unique. If you’re into protest music or American folk/rock/other, How to Dream Again should be on your to-hear list. It probably already is.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.