Bees and the Birds – S/t EP
Our Neighborhood Records
Passionate, straightforward, and immeasurably catchy, this indie-pop EP makes a huge impression.
Nuance and restraint are sorely overrated in this point in musical history. Being introspective is great, but you don’t have to sound like you’re underwater to do it. Sufjan is amazing, but we’re not all as talented as Sufjan. What I’m sayin’ here is that sometimes a little bit of forthrightness makes a lot more sense than a great deal of introspective babble.
That is certainly the case with Bees and the Birds. On their 3-song self-titled EP, they don’t waste any time, making the most of their 7:43 that they have your attention. There is no trace of pretentious songwriting here, as the acoustic guitars brightly jangle, the drums energetically deliver the goods, the moving bass lines add more energy, the banjo (!) adds even more glee, and the brash male and female vocals just pop out of the speakers. It’s loud, it’s pop, and it’s absolutely wonderful. There’s a touch of country vibe throughout their sound, as harmonica and banjo populate the sound, the bass lines occasionally adopt the bouncy country style, and the drums are snare heavy and occasionally galloping. But the sound gives way to the vocal melodies, which are bright, crisp and in-your-face. Some melodies are catchy, but these songs are a whole other level of catchy. This is the ultimate feel-good music. I can’t think of any band that is more passionately pop than Bees and the Birds – they cram more hooks and pop glee into just under 8 minutes than any band I’ve ever heard. They even manage to make a sad song with introspective lyrics, but deliver it in a no-nonsense, no-whining mood. They just sing it – and the brave, brash sound with which they deliver the sound only lends credence to the song’s point: I’m depressed that you’re gone but I’m living anyway. It’s one of the best songs I’ve heard in a long time, because it doesn’t rely on mood or atmosphere to make its point – it relies on solid songwriting, both instrumentally and vocally.
I really, really want to hear a Bees and the Birds full-length – this EP is definitely the best three-song teaser I have ever heard. No joke. And it’s all because they don’t beat around the bush – they get to the heart of the matter and deliver the goods. Hooks, attitude, more fun than I know what to do with, and solid songwriting? It doesn’t get better than that.
Dishwater Psychics – Dry Night Riverbed
Friendly Psychics Music
A moody, dark indie-rock experience that draws from lots of genres perfectly.
First off, I must admit that I love Friendly Psychics Music. I love music collectives, I love prolific artists and labels, I love the DIY ethic and I love people who release music that matters to them despite what the greater populace may think, and Friendly Psychics is guilty as charged on all four counts. And it’s getting easier and easier to be in love with them, as each release they put out is better than the one preceding it. Thus is the case with Dishwater Psychics’ Dry Night Riverbed, which is without reservation or second thought the best album that Friendly Psychics has released.
The trick with Friendly Psychics is that, like all collectives, it’s built around a couple key players – in this case, it’s guitarist/vocalist/keyboardist John Wenzel and bassist/lyricist Chris Jones. No matter who they’re playing with or what their title is, each release that FPM puts out shows Wenzel and Jones growing more and more mature as songwriters. From rolling psychedelia to fractured indie-rock to weary folk-pop, Wenzel/Jones have gone through it all. And on their latest outing, the aforementioned duo (with more than occasional player Dan Miller on guitars/backing vox/keys) put all of their influences together into something awesome.
Dry Night Riverbed takes the best influences of all those genres and combines them into a moody, dark indie-rock experience. The mood is extremely well-cultivated (the psychedelia influence), the melodies appear in great number (the folk-pop) and the whole thing grooves on the strength of gritty guitars and propulsive drums (the indie-rock). It’s truly the full experience now – a full palette of musical endeavors has finally been tapped into one canvas.
Considering that a great deal of the Wenzel/Jones catalog is the type of music that you have to focus on, mull over and listen to repeatedly, it feels almost like a reward to sit down to an FPM album that just grabs me. Not to say that nuance isn’t fun, but when the opening arpeggiated acoustic chords of “Decimal Jokes” are scored by a blast of guitar distortion and reinforced by a four-on-the-floor rock drumbeat, it’s exciting. The fact that the song hits, delivers its moody, angry message and quits is also a testament to songwriting growth – gone are the unnecessarily drawn-out melodic sections. In fact, eight of the ten tracks on this album are under 3:30; I don’t know if this is truly a new improvement or if the improvement is the fact that every second of these tunes actually matter.
Even the dour vocals, which have been the major downside to FPM releases for as long as I’ve been reviewing them, are being used in ways that make sense. Standout track “Camp Oconda” features vocals prominently and effectively, allowing Wenzel to intone the memorable line “taking souls, and setting them on fire.” Given the dark indie-rock surroundings, it’s definitely one of the most soul-gripping moments I’ve heard in a while. It just hits.
It’s interesting to note that while “Camp Oconda” is easily a standout, it’s one of the two tracks that tops the 3.5 minute mark. Just more proof that the songwriting duo have finally figured out what is necessary in a song and what can go. There’s literally no fat on this album, and that’s definitely the first time that I’ve been able to say that of an FPM release.
The members of Dishwater Psychics have created a thoroughly and uniquely enjoyable album in Dry Night Riverbed. Dark, introspective indie-rock that doesn’t wig out into useless vamping or one-dimensional moping is tough to come by, and Dishwater Psychics have nailed it on the head here. Definitely one to check out.
First to Leave – Forging a Future
An arm-flailing, head-banging, yell-along-with-your-fist-raised epic of a punk album.
For every genre, I have a gold standard. Sometimes it’s a band (Ska: Five Iron Frenzy; Power-pop: Fountains of Wayne; Dance-rock: Free Diamonds) and sometimes it’s a not-yet-achieved combination of individual genre characteristics. Punk is one genre where the gold standard hasn’t been achieved. I know I’m not the authority on punk, but when I want to hear a punk band, I want to hear some old-school punk aggression, new-school punk melodicism, that hyper-overenthusiastic galloping punk drum beat, some vocals that are so passionate that they come off as ragged, and a good singing voice. Some bands get close (Latterman and Smash-era Offspring immediately come to mind) but I haven’t ever found a punk album that I want to listen to over and over again.
First to Leave’s Forging a Future is the closest I’ve ever found to my punk ideal. The twelve tracks on this album cover everything in the punk genre, from all-out old-school attack (“The Saving Cycle”) to punchy pop-punk (“Two Guns, One Mile”) to darker 90’s punk (“13 Frames”) to extremely modern sounding rock in “Revival (starts and ends)”. They pull everything off with a passion and a gusto that I find missing in so many “pop-punk” bands today. There is a sincere sense of urgency in the songs that First to Leave writes. That sense of urgency lends a credibility to every song that takes the album from a good collection of songs to an arm-flailing, head-banging, yell-along epic of an album.
I would love to see First to Leave live, because I bet their intense recorded passion is even better live. I hope that First to Leave start to get realized for the genuine bunch of guys that they are. If genuineness is still what the punk scene wants, First to Leave is what the punk scene will get. Meanwhile, I’m going to keep spinning this album in my van. There’s nothing that brightens a day like a talented bunch of musicians b(l)aring their souls at the top of their lungs and volume knobs. Definitely recommended for fans of passionate, fast-paced punk.
Handjobs for Hobos – Right Now
A musical juvenile comedy duo that doesn’t deliver much music or many laughs.
I don’t really know what Handjobs for Hobos expects me to write about their album Right Now. Here’s the facts: Handjobs for Hobos is a joke-y band composed of two guys who sit around playing pop songs with vulgar lyrics and just enough musical talent to wreak havoc on the musical world. They think their music is funny, and this short run (only 100 CDs) is mostly for those who (as the liner notes state) “laugh along with us.” It seems that they know they aren’t great (which kinda defeats the purpose of sending something for review, in my opinion).
Here’s my take on it: Each and every one of these songs is maimed by at least one major flaw, be it juvenile lyrics, unpleasant vocals, chronic underdevelopment of song ideas, or just plain stupidity. The very same things that these guys hold up as the funny parts of their music just don’t do it for me. I don’t like the fact that 6 of the 9 songs on this album attempt to make light of sex, or more specifically, the word “penis.” The only song with any lyrical quality at all is the highlight track “Alone Forever,” which seems to be a serious song about a lost love. I can’t say they’re the best lyrics ever, but at least they’re not “I wanna cum all over your face” (from “Bonana Song”).
There’s not really any redeeming musical value to this album except for “Burke the Jerk,” “A-A-Anime” and “Alone Forever” – and “A-A-Anime” is one of those that suffers from underdevelopment. It would be a great song if there were more to it, but right now it’s just an acoustic guitar line with some catchy stuttering spoken word over it. Again, “Alone Forever” is the only real song, as it has some nice mood-setting arpeggiating and an honest melody. If they move towards the type of songwriting in “Alone Forever,” they could get better. If they’re content to make some guys laugh, then they’ve accomplished their goal.
As Richard Nixon said, “People who like this sort of thing will find this is the sort of thing they like.” If you like juvenile humor delivered in a juvenile musical surrounding, pick up Right Now. If not, don’t get near this.
Kris Racer – Has a Banner Year EP
Two Thumbs Down Records
A reformed punker delivers acoustic-based pop songs that don’t strike any particular nerves.
Reviews of good CDs are relatively easy to write. So are reviews of bad ones. It’s the CDs that fall squarely in the average category that are so hard to write. That’s what makes Kris Racer Has a Banner Year so hard to review: it’s a CD full of nice songs. They’re not bad, but they’re not worth jumping around about either. They’re just average.
There’s a tendency to skew towards lumping them average CDs into “bad” category by focusing on the negatives, but that should be avoided because that’s wrong. Kris Racer isn’t bad, by any stretch of the imagination. He’s just astoundingly normal.
His reformed-punker acoustic-based pop songs don’t strike any particular nerves – they’re not as whiny as early Dashboard material, but then again they don’t feel as gritty and passionate as those songs either. They’re not saccharine sweet, but they do have a dose of cute dispersed throughout (kinda like dropping a couple drops of black paint into a bucket of white paint). This cuteness is especially evident in the vocals, which have a jubilant youthful quality to them. This unusual tone will inevitably endear some to Racer’s music and send others fleeing for their lives, especially in “This is Your Emergency”. I’m more on the “flee for my life” side, but at the same time, the songs have enough hooks to offset any discomfort inflicted by the vocal tone (especially “North Milwaukee Damen” and “Banner Year”).
The songwriting isn’t bad, but it doesn’t break any boundaries – we’ve heard these rhythms and chord patterns before. There just isn’t anything here that says “I’M KRIS RACER AND YOU NEED TO KNOW ME.”
The most aggravating thing about average CDs is that since there’s not any pinpoint-able malignancy in the sound, it’s hard to offer advice or even anything constructive. I’d just like to hear Kris Racer experiment more and find some unique sounds for us to hear. Right now it’s just not something I would spin for fun. It just doesn’t get there.
Pandora: The Decemberists
One of the most unique bands to find nearly-mainstream acceptance in the past few years is definitely the Decemberists. Between their bookish love of historical themes, their quirky instrumentation and Colin Meloy’s unforgettable vocals, they make intelligent indie-pop that often seems more suited to a history classroom than a dingy bar. And that’s awesome. Here’s some bands I found when I plugged The Decemberists into Pandora.
Toad the Wet Sprocket – Something’s Always Wrong
More similar to Counting Crows “August and Everything After” than the Decemberists, this is kind’ve an odd choice. I mean, I enjoy it and all, but I feel that I primarily enjoy this easy-going track because of my appreciation for Adam Duritz and co. and not because of the Decemberists. Regardless, this angsty song manages to stay on the melancholy side and not dip into the depressed mode, which I like. Nice jangly guitar work and a nice bit of 90’s-sounding soul-searching in the moaning background vocals. All in all, a nice track that I’d probably listen to again.
Portastatic – Registered Ghost
Well, Pandora targeted that those who like the Decemberists like guys with odd vocals who spin odd tales. Portastatic’s vocalist is a guy who does just that, telling tales about what he did with his registered ghost in a sorta-high pitched voice that does hearken a bit towards Colin Meloy’s. I really enjoyed this rollicking track, as it grows and builds in very pleasing ways. Very fun, very interesting, and worth checking out. I think I’ll be listening to more portastatic in the future.
Hurtin in My Right Side – Tony Furtado
Clicking with the Decemberists’ love of historical themes, Tony Furtado explores a dramatic tale here that draws from work chants, menacing country and bluegrass for inspiration. Extremely creative and interesting, this song had me wondering and anticipating what was about to come. The harmonies on top of the already interesting melodies add a nice touch. The fact that the band seems as excited as Tony Furtado himself does just makes the song that much better. Easily the best find of a station that I will be listening to much, much more.
Strangest Land – Tom McRae
Again drawing on group thought, the intro to this song introduces group hum. The murder-ballad feel to this evokes Tom Waits more than the Decemberists, but it’s still extremely enjoyable. The string contributions assist in creating the mood – definitely a good idea to add them. This song builds like a puzzle, and that’s a great thing. The intrusion of distortion on the song in the breakdown is really, really cool. Another great track, and just more proof that I’ll be listening to this station a lot more in the future. Great find.
State of the Magazine
I usually take this space to talk about a music-related issue that’s pressing on my business or personal life, but this month I want to take a step back and give you all a state of the magazine address.
We’re at an amazing point here at Independent Clauses – we have better numbers than we’ve ever had, a stable staff of 17, a growing number of ways to assist bands and a very bright future.
The stable staff couldn’t make me happier – we have CD reviewers, feature writers, photographers, editors, managers, all sorts of people involved here at IC. And everyone’s excited about what they’re doing. They churn out top notch stuff every month, and I couldn’t make this magazine without them. They’re the force behind this – so thank your reviewers. They work their tails off for ya and really make IC happen. I don’t thank them enough for their hard work.
Along with a stable staff comes specialization. Since we have all the primary bases covered, we’re able to branch out and do more to cover the bands you need to hear about. You’ll start to see more interviews, articles and interactive things with bands go online, because we simply have the power to do it. That’s a great feeling, for sure – knowing we have the capability to take on whatever I can think up.
Speaking of things I can think up, the future of IC is coming. Those of you who were itching for a print version of IC can look forward to the end of scratching those itches – it’s coming. That’s all the details I’ll go into now, but before the end of the year, if you want a print IC, then you will have one. You have no clue how much that excites me; the culmination of four years of hard work is at hand, and – as with all good milestones – it’s only the beginning.
Recently, good milestones have been passed every month here at IC. I could go on and on about the numbers that we’ve been seeing on our backend, but all that you really need to know is that the number of people who know about Independent Clauses is growing very quickly. Every month is our best month ever in readership – and that’s exciting. We can’t take credit for that – as much as we would love to, it’s you guys who make that stat possible.
So, thanks for believing in us. Thanks for reading our mag and checking out the bands in it. Thanks for coming, even if you came for one review and only read one other one (or no other ones). This magazine, for all its solid staff and excellent plans, is kept alive by the interest that you, the reader, give us. We are forever indebted to you – really. So, I’ll end this editorial the way I end e-mails to those I work with, ‘cause you are as much the people I work with as PR guys, bands and record labels.
Talk to you soon, and until then, keep rockin -
Street Smart Cyclist – S/t 7”
Our Neighboorhood Records
Extremely intricate, creative, passionate and talented 90’s emo followers create an astounding 7”.
When a press release says that you’ll know ten seconds in, it’s almost never true. There’s just not often reason to jump up and down about a band after ten seconds of music. But with Street Smart Cyclist, the PR don’t lie: as soon as “Hoods Up!” kicks in, you’re introduced to a torrential, gymnastic, tom-heavy drum beat; a hyper-active, coiling clean guitar riff that probably sounds even cooler when you see the guy’s fingers flying across the fretboard live; a second guitar playing inviting, fanfare-ish chords. Can you attention-grabbing?
And once they have your attention, Street Smart Cyclist keeps it by combining extremely complex and talented songwriting with passionate performances, audience interaction (group yelling AND clapping), memorable melodies (“When I would talk talk talk you were always there to listen!!!”) and a general aura of honesty – both lyrically and musically – that sucks you in.
That honest musicianship in both lyric and melody is something that is sorely missing in today’s scene – Street Smart Cyclist is a band of 6 guys playing their heart out for the heck of it. They’re not going to get famous playing their extremely intricate brand of 90’s emo – but they give it their all. And their all is manifested in some of the most talented music I’ve ever heard – the ridiculous intricacy of “Pastor of Muppets” is usually reserved for heady prog-rockers, not down-to-earth heart-on-sleevers. This music is the stuff my dreams are made of: honest music to yell your lungs out to that retains melody, artsy creativity and jaw-dropping intricacy. I can’t even imagine the amount of time it took to compose something like “The Three Lane Cut,” or the amount of time it took to get technically proficient enough on their instruments to even pull off something like “Pastor of Muppets.”
Basically, if you like punk, art-rock, prog-rock, post-rock, or just passionate music in general, you must must must must check out Street Smart Cyclist. This is high up on my “best releases of the year” list and it’s only a three-song 7”. I wish I could rain down copies of this EP from the sky onto art districts in large cities and introduce everyone to these wonderful chaps – because the world needs more Street Smart Cyclist. Honestly.