Stephen’s Top 9
While I’m fairly certain that there were other brilliant releases in 2006 that I raved, here are the few that I loved enough to remember.
Pontiak – Valley of Cats
Most creative thing I’ve heard genre-wise all year: hipster indie rock, as filtered through an Appalachian rural band. Not even kidding.
The Unbearables – Just One Bite: Selections from “Bitten!: A Zombie Rock Odyssey”
Zombies, power-pop, bizarre instrumentation, and a storyline – does it get much better?
Elijah Wyman – Why We Never Go Swimming and Other Stories
Singer/songwriter/storyteller plays quite possibly the most complex and convaluted guitar lines of any singer/songwriter I know of. And yet, it’s still wonderful.
Josh Caress – Josh Caress Goes on an Adventure!
Nothing but acoustic guitar and voice, this entrancing travelogue will lull you to sleep in the best way.
Free Diamonds – There Should Be More Dancing
There should be more dancing, and especially to this herky-jerky, spastic, bass-fantastic mess of an album.
SleepBellumSonno – Ascertain
These guys are going to make it. I truly believe that. Their artsy post-hardcore is astounding.
7. The Mountain Goats – Get Lonely
Feels like all the songs were written in one day – that’s how wonderfully interconnected this album is, both lyrically and musically
8. Matt Shaw – Convenience EP
The only EP here, this showed that Shaw has more than just a purely digital side.
Mon Frere – Blood, Sweat and Swords
Would’ve been higher, but they went and broke up. Why, why, why couldn’t you work it out so that you could keep churning out heavy, dancy, quirky, charming, danceable manifestos?
Band: Stephen J.
Album: Midwest in Mono
Best Element: Fluid, relaxing songwriting
Genre: Acoustic/Americana/Folk Rock
Label: Maritime Fist Glee Club
Band Email: email@example.com
Close your eyes (figuratively of course). Let’s pretend for a moment that you are living in Chicago and working on a PhD. In your spare time you play guitar for three bands called Bosco and Jorge, Magic Lanterns and The Slow Planet, as well as working on a side project called Lake Girls. Whoa, that has to consume a good portion of your life. So what do you do in your free time? That’s right; you create a solo project called Stephen J. and release an album. You may now open your eyes and breathe a sigh of relief that you are not Matt Carson.
All of the time that Carson has spent playing for and contributing to other bands gives him valuable insight into his own work. This originality and ingenuity comes as a slap in the face on his debut album, Midwest in Mono. The album opens with “Sunday, 5 A.M.,” a short and comforting instrumental that fades seamlessly into “Big Blue House,” one of the less prominent tracks on the album. “Big Blue House” does, however, set down Carson’s vocal precedents for a relaxing and mellow performance. It is smooth like warm margarine, without losing any of the creaminess or texture of real butter (don’t ask).
“Master of None” and “Wings On,” two of the best tracks on the album, have perfectly fitting guitar melodies without any of the typical showiness. Carson’s song craftsmanship is impressive and completely fluid without ever faltering, best shown in one of the catchiest tracks, “Windmill Lounge.” But I guess everything can’t last forever. Suddenly Carson unveils “Letter (Never Sent),” a Bright Eyes-ish monologue mentioning an ex-casino pit boss, Vietnam veteran pot head juxtaposed with wine glasses and a mangled oboe solo. This is all done in good taste and, as a finished product, is absolutely beautiful to hear. But wait…there’s more! Carson’s alter-ego of sorts, Stephen J., has his own theme song. “Stephen J.” does not deviate from Carson’s desired path of laid-back style in any way. This gem closes with “Suitable for Framing,” a sleepy lo-fi track that makes you wish to spend the rest of the day napping.
This is definitely worth your time. Matt Carson has crafted a warm, good-humored monument to relaxation that gives far more than it takes and leaves you pounding your utensils on the table, demanding to be fed more.
Band Name: Standish Arms
Album Name: The Reasoning Engine
Best Element: Perceptive and catchy lyrics infused with pop melodies.
Website: http://www.myspace.com/standisharms, http://www.standisharms.com.
Label Name: OTP Records
Vacillating between surprising brilliance and heart-rending cynicism, Standish Arms’ first full-length release The Reasoning Engineis brimming with pop hooks and riddled with witty lines. From the country swing, do-do-dos and snaps of “Binary Cold” to the unfailingly sing-able “Great Lengths” to the many other foot-tapping melodies and well-placed pauses, The Reasoning Engine is one of those discs I found myself leaving in the car CD player. Brad Caliman is the soul of Standish Arms, a project that has grown from bedroom four-tracks and snippets of “captured noise” into a viable full band.
My favorite track “Great Lengths” develops from a simple guitar and trumpet gliding over a muted drum kit. Caliman’s lyrics truly shape the song, as a line referencing a ballerina devolves into a few waltzing bars before returning to the initial mood. A verbal metaphor turned rhythmic… sheer brilliance! Following this, a snare build-up is eclipsed by guitars and a full ensemble as Caliman wails his most powerfully memorable lines: “We’ll go / to great lengths / our heads / we can’t escape / talking circles / voices are powerless / we can’t find a purpose / but we’re hopeful / ever hopeful / we will compromise.”
Where The Reasoning Engine falls a bit short is the wavering ability of Caliman to hold the notes he writes. Brad Caliman’s voice—at times a bit overly airy for the punk-tinged guitar lines—hovers lightly over sometimes bitter, often rhythmically syncopated, always penetrating lyrics. Whether his near-misses are intentional or not, we cannot tell. This isn’t horribly noticeable, and what is lacking in this department is made up for in the penetratingly honest words and irresistible pop feel of the entire album. I think with a bit of polishing, this project has a chance to break from the ranks of also-rans and radio-station dust-collectors; anyone who can compose songs as Caliman does certainly has a future in songwriting.
Where many singer-songwriters have difficulty prying poetic phrases into their songs, lyrical gems seem to be Caliman’s standard fare. Wordplay dominates the songs on The Reasoning Engine. From slant-rhymes cutting through “Stack the Facts” (“both rooms reek the perfume / of smoke from the jokes next door”) to the sensitively honest “Blinders” (“…couples so closely bound / parading insecurities all over town / what would you do for a hand to hold? / a 98.6 to keep your 97 from cold?”) to his ability to create mood through sensory associations in “Two Birds in a Flock” (“…Eskimo kiss, passionless / polar cap landing / regardless, still standing / regardless, still standing up”), Caliman is certainly a songwriter to look out for.
With some vocal polishing and a continued development, I see Standish Arms becoming a very good band. Fortunately they’re young, and haven’t reached their potential. Consider me interested.
Solar Powered People: The Shoegazers are Coming!
I was going over my “to listen” pile when I came across the self titled album by Solar Powered People. After a really impressive opener I was ready to turn on the computer and start writing. As the songs progressed, I found myself drowning in a wave of delays fuzz boxes and floating vocals….And then I remembered: The shoegazers are coming back!
Which begs a little history lesson…
With the success of bands like the Jesus and Mary Chain, a new genre was born in the mid 80’s. The term was coined after the band’s odd style of performance, which consisted mainly of staring at the floor while playing. Sound-wise it incorporated walls of guitar, endless riffs and bucket loads of feedback.
The scene itself was defined by My Bloody Valentine’s first few EPs. Bands like Ride, Chapterhouse, and Lush dominated the scene, which was described as a “ccene that celebrates itself” (Being a London musician myself, that mostly means no one comes to your gigs except for other bands).
The shoegazers died out in the early 90’s, mainly due to lack of stage charisma and hits. It did give birth to bands like The Verve and Spiritualized, and in a sense produced a few chart toppers like Blur’s “She’s So High”, and Lush’s “Ladykiller”.
And so the past is set to repeat itself in gaps of 20’s. We did the early 80’s, we’re almost upon the re-emergence of hair bands, and it’s about time we re-visited 1987. Some bands like The Strokes have shown us they can borrow from the past and create their own improved style. Others, like The Bravery, proved to be nothing more than a glorified tribute band.
So what can Solar Powered People bring to the mix? The Californians obviously pay compliments to their elders with beautiful rich sounds. A bit of goth is also thrown into the mix with a large pinch of psychedelia. Modern production values mean that sounds are distinguishable from each other. The drum and bass are also much tighter, and bring some welcome constriction to the guitar drones.
But enough with the comparisons. The album itself is a good listen. The songs are well written, and the guitar work is skillful. This is more than just your usual continual hum with low vocals. Oh, and there’s that great album opener “Start the Cycle”, which takes it further into Sonic Youth territory (OK, I guess one more comparison).
First printed on ThePlugg.com
Band Name: Shake Some Action
Album Title: Self-Titled
Best Element: Songwriting skills
Label Name: Satellite 451 Records
Band Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Although recently dubbed as the worst town ever for American Idol tryouts, Seattle still has a claim to fame when it comes to the evolution of music. Not only did Seattle drive the nail home in arena rock’s coffin, but it was also home to the grunge movement that swung the hammer. Now, however, from the ashes of the self-destructive grunge lifestyle comes Shake Some Action, the brain-child of the musically gifted James Hall.
Hall knows what he can do and how to do it well. That much is obvious after one listen through of his band’s self-titled album. Featuring twelve tracks of music completely composed by Hall (though several of his live musicians contribute to tracks on the disk), Shake Some Action is a fun, light, pop-filled album built specifically to generate positive vibes.
“Sound of Your Mind” dictates the rest of the CD with its happy-go-lucky, Beatle-esque feel. Vocal harmony, tight rhythms, and well communicated emotion are all themes that repeat through the album. “Complicated” stirs up 80’s pop with a tinge of the Beach Boys as Hall belts out a simple, yet beautifully crafted mix of easy-going vocals and a high melodic lead guitar. Hall’s vocals turn husky as he drops a tear of romance on his listeners in the mellower “Orange Peel.” Ever mixing it up, Hall lets a tint of blues seep into the pot via “Damaged,” a heavier toe-tapping rocker complete with scaling vocal harmonies and a guitar solo.
A loud crash signals the start of the hip beat that comprises the backbone of “Without You,” one of the best tunes Hall offers. The songwriter’s instrumental control shines in “You’ve Got it Made” when he drops out the high vocals to allow for an epic instrumental middle that brings to mind images of driving down an endless road in a state of pure bliss.
The last tune on the disk kicks off with a shout of “1,2,3,4!” Hall and co. then rock out for the next two and half minutes, including a tinge of early 90s alternative, a blazing guitar solo and the ever-solid vocal harmonies in each singalong chorus.
As stated before, Hall knows who he is and what he is capable of. It’s no surprise that with that in mind, he also knows how to write twelve songs incapable of flaw. If there is anything wrong with this CD, it may be that it’s too happy.
Easy-going vocals, chill instrumentals, and an overall feeling of peace make this album a must-own. Regardless of what style of music you like, this album will put you in nirvana. Hall’s own words in his last song say, “It’s what you want me to do.” Well, taking the words from his mouth, buy this album. It’s what I want YOU to do.
Scott’s Top 5 releases of 2006
5. The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me – Brand New
I will be mocked mercilessly for this but Brand New’s third full length release was one of the few albums this year that could be listened to the whole way through. While there were no stand-out tracks, the album was well worth the three years we had to wait for it.
4. A City by the Light Divided – Thursday
They’re back. After War All the Time was so disappointing, Thursday was able to recover with A City by the Light Divided. Once again, the entire album was listenable. For the first time, Thursday really showed that they were able to play good mellow music and still retain that edge that made Full Collapse so good.
3. Nightcrawler – Pete Yorn
There are some guys who are really able to write music, and Pete Yorn is one of those guys. His third full length release returned to the genius of his freshman release Musicforthemorningafter. With stand out tracks “Ice Age” and “Undercover,” Yorn put out an album that is hard not to enjoy. He succeeded in producing pop music without sacrificing the quality of the music.
2. No Heroes – Converge
Brutal, unforgiving and a kick in the teeth are only three ways to describe Converge’s 2006 release. While a lot of hardcore bands are getting away from controlled anger and moving towards “noise,” Converge was able to produce an album that was beautiful in the way it terrorized the listener’s ears.
1. Ascertain – SleepBellumSonno
I got this album through Independent Clauses in May of 2006 and I don’t think I’ve gone two full weeks without listening to it. I said it in the review and I’ll say it again now, SleepBellumSonno is producing music that is void of genre, without attempting to. Ascertain was and remains an album that everyone will find something they like on. This is the best album of the year and it will propel this band on to great things.
Honorable mention: Always Open Mouth – Fear Before the March of Flames; Everything’s Watched, Everyone’s Watching – Heavy Heavy Low Low; New Amsterdam Live At Heineken Music Hall February 6, 2003 – Counting Crows
Do You Hate Signed Bands?
When I tell people what Independent Clauses is about, I, almost without fail, get the asked if I hated signed bands or if I’m a socialist. While the latter is true, it has nothing to do with my work with unsigned bands – and I do not hate signed bands. I am a music lover; I listen to music whenever and where ever I can. This means that I go out and find new bands whenever I can. My work with Independent Clauses is intended to help those great bands that haven’t been discovered yet. It is in no way intended to hurt the good bands that are getting attention. I may be a music snob and I may be offended when “emo” is associated with Fall Out Boy and Panic! At the Disco but I will never say a band is bad simply because they are signed.
The music industry has been getting harder and harder to crack into over the past 10 years. Declining record sales, due mainly to illegal downloading, have caused record labels to cut down on the number of bands they sign and the number of albums released. Those bands that get signed are expected to churn out a top 20 album every two years while touring almost non-stop and releasing a DVD or live album between studio albums. This set-up destroys bands and makes it almost impossible for a band who is able to live up to contractual obligations to produce quality music. Since May 6th, 2003, Fall Out Boy has released three full length albums, one nine track EP and will be releasing a fourth full length in two weeks, meaning in less than four years Fall Out Boy will have released 56 songs on five releases. A band can not be expected to produce quality music at this rate.
While I do not like what a lot of major labels are doing to their bands, I do not hate the existence of record labels. They enable the general populous to hear music that they wouldn’t heard if music was promoted by word of mouth only. Independent Clauses, Lovethatsound and other independent music websites are doing a great job at promoting bands, but the labels are needed so that a kid from Connecticut can hear a band from Kansas without jumping through too many hoops. While I think that a lot of record labels aren’t putting out the highest quality music, they are necessary to the music industry.
Basically, I don’t like record labels but I understand that they are necessary and hope that independent companies will be able to influence record companies in the future. Labels like Common Cloud and Ferret Records are doing the right thing; they help their bands instead of using them like musical cows, milking everything they can out of them until they die. Hopefully Atlantic and Sony Records will take a few notes.
Band: Randall Shreve
Album: The Cure for Yesterday
Best Element: Honest songwriting
Band E-mail: email@example.com
Randall Shreve has spent most of his life playing in bands. GS Megaphone was his most notable success in earlier years, led by his brother Benjamin Del Shreve. After the band disbursed he began a project on his own while playing a short time in the Orlando, FL band Rook.
It may have taken 2 years, but it could be worth the wait. In The Cure For Yesterday Randall plays all instruments, has penned the lyrics, and recorded the entire record from start to finish at his own Carnaby Street Studios. He really shines in a way that shows he is comfortable in his own skin, and not afraid to let others crawl in it with him. This is a fairly epic pop record, with most songs clocking in at about 5 minutes or longer as a story unfolds for two lovers and their journey. There is obviously an autobiographical touch to the theme as his MySpace site (www.myspace.com/randallshreve) shares this quote:
“I’m not sure why I write so much in story form”, says Shreve. “I think it may be a way of feeling like someone can relate to something I’m going through at the time I write a song. Instead of writing about how I feel, I write about how my story’s character feels, and then I sympathize with him or her.”
The self-titled first single crescendos between lightly droning pianos wrapped in a muse-like vocal track into full-on strings and horns with several intertwining vocal tracks. That leaves you unprepared for the Cake-like bass line of “Charlie and Beth” and the pseudo rap effect before exploding back into harmonies and full instrumentation that Cake couldn’t accomplish at its best. In “Pop Star” Randall tells no lies, and he celebrates the music and the goals that this record represents. His talent really shines on tracks like “The Kiss” and “Prayers from a Red Light District.” While the latter is vocals-only, it is an instrument showcase for his talent instead of obstructing it in any way.
After playing throughout the South and Southwest United states, it appears that as 2007 approaches his appeal is growing, and several showcases are being prepared in New York for both large booking agencies and possibly Warner Bros. The talent is there, and with proper push we could start hearing and seeing a lot more of this talented musician on many different levels.
First printed on ThePlugg.com
Band Name: Mika
Album Name: Life in Cartoon Motion
Best Element: All around superb musicianship
Label Name: Casablanca
Band E-mail: n/a
The current pop climate is open for a jack-of-all-trades, and after listening to Mika’s debut album Life In Cartoon Motion, that seems to be exactly the title he’s going for. From theatrical rock (lead single “Grace Kelly”) to smooth disco (“Relax, Take It Easy”) to quirky piano pop (“Billy Brown”), Mika covers it all… and it’s a clean sweep across the board.
Life In Cartoon Motion is 2007’s first perfect pop album. Its choruses are bigger than everyone else’s, and its ringleader, led by his remarkable falsetto, undeniably brandishes that ever-so-coveted x-factor. Like it or not, Mika is destined to be a star. And, really, how could you not like it? With songs as addictive as the stomping playground romp “Lollipop” and the this-is-how-Orson-should-have-sounded “Big Girl (You Are Beautiful)”, resistance really is futile. Life In Cartoon Motion even has its anthem, the gorgeous guitar/dance hybrid Love Today. Its potentially saccharine sentiments are brilliantly subverted as Mika ends the chorus with a simple refrain: “love, love me.” We do.
Equally impressive, albeit in different ways, is Any Other World, a haunting ballad that makes excellent use of a cutting string section. Then there’s Stuck in the Middle, a very Scissor Sisters-esque track with a piano riff that echoes that very band’s “Laura” from a few years back. Add that to the radio pop of “My Interpretation” and the soul-inflected closer “Happy Ending,” and you’ve got a filler-free, absolute delight of an album. As Mika himself preaches: “Relax, take it easy.” And, enjoy. A
Key Tracks: Love Today, Any Other World, Relax, Take It Easy
– Nick James
Best Albums of 2006
Mogwai – Mr. Beast
The Black Keys – Magic Potion
Kunek – Flight of the Flynns
Oh No! Oh My! – Oh No! Oh My!
Ghostland Observatory – Paparazzi Lightning
65daysofstatic – One Time For All Time
Danielson – Ships
Steve Hefter and Friends and Friends of Friends – A Six Song Demonstration
Rock Plaza Central – Are We Not Horses?
TV on the Radio – Return to Cookie Mountain
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Show Your Bones
Islands – Return to the Sea