Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Adam Hill-Four Shades of Green

March 1, 2008

Adam Hill – Four Shades of Green

Self-released

Simple, thoughtful bluegrass.

Let’s face it: one-man-bands can be really hard to pull off. There can occasionally be one or two instruments that just suffer because the musician just doesn’t have a grasp for it. Luckily, Adam Hill of Portland, Ore., shows stellar musicianship and songwriting with his one-man-bluegrass album Four Shades of Green.

With obvious inspirations from traditional bluegrass, folk and gospel, Hill weaves together a string of originals that exude the joys and sorrows of everyday life.

From guitar, bass and rhythm to mandolin, banjo, fiddle, trumpet and trombone, Hill manages to impress with his wide range of skills. He’s technically not the only person on the album, since a couple of tracks feature the voices of the Dekum Deck Choir, but close enough. The only instrument that doesn’t quite fit is his own voice, sounding more like it belongs in a pop-punk band rather than a bluegrass band. However, this gives the music a unique quality and gives it a particularly more indie sound.

Hill takes an interesting route throughout the album. He continually returns to instrumental tracks, four in all, that are all named “Down In The Valley.” Each is a different version of the same essential melody, first with fiddle, then guitar, then banjo and finally, finishing the album, with the choir. These give the album a very nice cohesiveness and also give some hint at its title, Four Shades of Green, by having four “shades” of the same tune.

Hill obviously has an affinity for twangy vocals, taking many opportunities to belt out. “Next Stop, Winona,” is especially fun to sing along to as Hill sings about that old bluegrass/folk/country standby, a train ride.

Hill’s songwriting style lends itself to the musical style. His lyrics and arrangements are simple and about everyday life. It gives the album a certain reassuring quality that makes you feel like everything is right in the world.

Standout tracks include the aforementioned “Next Stop, Winona,” as well as “Beulahland.” “Portland Winter Blues” is especially interesting due to its heavy influence from early Dixieland jazz.

I really enjoyed “Banks of the Ohio,” though it regularly distracts me. The melody and chord progression of the song in certain portions are remarkably similar to Ewan MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town,” which has been made popular by The Pogues and other Celtic bands. It’s not really a bad thing and most people wouldn’t pick up on it, but it distracted me from the song.

All in all, Four Shades of Green is an extremely solid effort for one musician to think up and record by himself. The world could always use more talented musicians like him.

Nate Williams

nathanmw@ou.edu

Andy Werth-Seeing Stars EP

Andy Werth – Seeing Stars EP

Self-released

Smile-producing, honest-to-goodness pop romps that are fun for everyone.

I don’t feel ashamed in admitting that I am truly a sucker when it comes to pop music (Sucker…pop…get it?). I tend to favor melodies that sweetly stay stuck in my head. And if said pop also has a layer of complexity and different flavoring, I find it truly delicious. But bad puns aside, Andy Werth’s latest EP Seeing Stars has these truly delectable characteristics and is a pop treat enjoyable for all.

The EP opens with the possibly ironic “Goodnight,” which starts with a slower tempo but soon picks up the pace in the chorus. Here, with the entrance of a stronger drumbeat and jubilant brass, “Goodnight” becomes irresistible. The music itself is upbeat and buoyant, but is juxtaposed with lyrics about a lost love. This never feels odd though, and Andy Werth and his band pull off the contrast beautifully throughout Seeing Stars.

“Snowing in Buffalo” begins in a similar way to “Goodnight,” but then definitely proves to be a unique installment. The chorus in this one is snappy and attention-grabbing, and makes me want to dance happy circles in my apartment (my roommate was thankfully not home to witness that). I also love the harmonies, which make “Snowing in Buffalo” very full-sounding. The momentum continues to drive forward with “Tower,” which develops very well. The various verses, hooks, and choruses feel like movements instead of sections, and when the song ends, you are left with a sense of totality.

Things take an old-fashioned turn with “Miss Lonely,” which is youthful, but also delivers wonderful narrative. Some sections are repeated several times, but it never feels repetitious or old. There is always something new to listen to and enjoy. Seeing Stars ends with “It’s Alright,” a sincere lamentation concerning a tongue-tied individual. It’s about someone who tries not to get too sentimental by often saying “it’s alright with me.” This theme has got to be something that everyone can relate to. But again, this song never gets too down because of its fun melody. “It’s Alright” concludes with a gorgeous piano outro that is much more than “alright.”

Overall, Seeing Stars has the power to enchant, and in under twenty minutes to boot. Andy Werth really has something strong going on here, and I am excited to hear what a full-length album might be like someday. This EP is recommended for all fans of pop, storytelling, or smiling.

-Megan Morgan

megan@independentclauses.com

Attica! Attica!-Dead Skin Dried Blood

Attica! Attica! – Dead Skin Dried Blood

Red Leader Records

Folksy pop with great instrumentation and powerful lyrics.

Despite an early dislike for this album, I would have to give Dead Skin Dried Blood a pretty glowing review in the end. Originally, I had the feeling that Attica! Attica! would be a lot more appealing with a different sound. It felt as though the voice of singer Aaron Scott didn’t match the music he was making.

Scott’s voice seems too heavy and serious for such a light-sounding album. Although his vocals turned me off at first because of their blunt, shouting, deep nature, many people would find it beautiful.

Dead Skin Dried Blood combines a variety of instruments and elements on every track. Scott has entailed the help of Chris Antal, Annie Barley and Kevin Dossinger on instruments such as piano, cello, guitar, drums, accordion and various other percussions. This keeps the music very interesting. Each song is very forward-moving, but sometimes it just sounds overdone, vocally. One song really stands out as being near-perfect, however, and that is “The Play’s the Thing.” It could be very commercial, and is enjoyable to listen to, consider its upbeat, powerful attitude.

This album is a journey. Each song is respectfully different, but it is fair to say it is a cohesive album. It’s amazing how Aaron Scott can absolutely change his sound 180 degrees from “Frostbite” to the next track, “Tires and Mint.”

The brightest spots on Dead Skin Dried Blood are not only certain tracks (“A Dirge for Underground” being one of the best), but the musical integrity. Each sound comes across as so intensely bright and clear (his voice, the strumming of the guitar, the piano). The lyrics are also insanely interesting and reverent to a lot of what is going on in the world today. Everything is so pertinent; there is no flimsy filler here at all. Scott is a skillful writer, and the only times the lyrics get cheesy and are weirdly rhymed are in the first track, “Motion Sickness.” But just move on from that and enjoy the rest of the album….

Thought has gone into every song, most noticeably the lyrics. A lot of them are politically charged such as “Way Down in Gitmo.” Suddenly the sound goes country folk, and Scott plows on through the song with lyrics such as, “Way down in Gitmo/That’s Guantanamo Bay/ that’s where bad guys belong even if they’ve done no wrong/’cause we need someone to blame.” Scott’s vocals are actually most refreshing and likeable in this song. The thing about his singing style, is that you hear each and every word, and there is no guessing as to what certain lyrics might be. Some like that, some don’t you be the judge.

Where his voice irritates me, I can indulge in the masterfully played instruments. If you’re not in this for the lyrics, the music is poppy and uplifting to anyone.

Marilyse Diaz

Bear Claw-Slow Speed: Deep Owls

Sickroom Records, Ltd.

Heavy double-bass punk/metal with serious chops.

If the blindingly long and drawn out jam sesh that is the first track of this album doesn’t set you off, then congratulations! You have made it to the rest of the album, which is actually quite delightful.

Ok, so delightful is probably not the best word to use in order to describe this thumping, thick, bass-guitar-heavy second album by Bear Claw. The band has been described as a post-punk band, but it’s more of a metal/punk hybrid. Singers Rich Fessler and Scott Picco talk and sometimes yell their way over thick, melodic tracks. Picco and Fessler’s singing method is different in the way that it’s not so much singing as it is just loudly talking. This delivers a cool effect in most of the songs, but honestly gets rather old.

“Slippage” has one of the best vocal tracks on the album—it is set apart by the higher tone of voice and actual singing. The tone makes it possible to feel Picco’s desperation. Like the rest of the songs, the arrangement is deep and haunting, as the two bass guitars are heavy, rich, and dynamic.

You read right; Bear Claw is composed of two bass guitars and drums. This could very easily set the band in the rut of being just plain old plodding, weighty and monotonous, but Bear Claw rises above and makes good use of the entire fingerboard on the bass. This is refreshing on a lot of the tracks.

The listener can feel a lot of mood radiate from this album as a whole and many of the songs on it. The songs independently are very intriguing, especially when you consider the lyrics. “Stubborn Agenda” was a personal favorite.

This album is complicated – don’t just take it for an easy listen on a Sunday afternoon. The motifs and chords are complex and interchanging, which keeps it interesting, especially to a seasoned listener’s ear. It is extremely dissonant, which can be surprisingly invigorating. Despite minor setbacks throughout, it would be a shame to overlook this release.

Emily Craner

Culture Killers-Culture Killers EP

Culture Killers – Culture Killers EP

Delvue Records

‘80s rock attitude and rockin’ grooves keep this band rolling.

This foursome from Los Angeles, California, has their following and press convinced they know what rock is. I don’t disagree, but at the same rate, I wouldn’t compare them to Queen, Guns ‘N Roses and Van Halen, as their press does. Granted, their first public appearance was on Playboy TV on a show called Night Calls; but they’re still not worthy of being compared to some of the best rock bands to come out of the ‘80s.

Culture Killers’ sound is loud and intense with the appropriate melodic lines and guitar rhythms that are needed for the rock genre. Also prevalent on this EP are the desired guitar solos and half minute intros almost every 80’s rock song has (memorable guitar solos: “Gone Hollywood,” “Something Missing”).

To make an 80’s rock band, you also need an 80’s rock voice to compliment the guitar. Lead singer David George has the raspy, harsh yet almost smooth voice that is capable of singing during mellow points and screaming when the music calls for it. George definitely has the typical “rock” voice. The band provides respectable transitions between the two concepts of sedated and forceful music.

My basic problem, as with all music, is that it tends to get repetitive in the chorus lines, especially in “Gone Hollywood.” The main line of the song is, “Hey yeah/we’re living in a dream land/riding high on the whiskey and the cocaine.” That line is repeated more than just several times. Yeah, I get it; it’s LA where there are loads of parties. The thing that keeps these guys rolling in my book is that they are consistent with an upbeat groove and ‘80s rock attitude. That and the drummer and bassist, Johnny G and Johnny Tokes, hail from Philadelphia, PA; my side of town.

Emily Robinson

fpvm@iup.edu

Dartz-This is My Ship

[url=http://www.dartzisgood.co.uk]Dartz![/url] – This is My Ship
[url=http://www.deepelmrecords.com]Deep Elm Records[/url]
Dartz! throws a doozy at America with an old fashioned punk/math rock combo.
Fresh out of the UK, Dartz! lights things up with their debut full length album This Is My Ship. The best way to describe this album: Old fashioned punk done right by the Brits with a little bit of math rock thrown in for good measure, so each track offers a certain level of “dance-ability.” If you’re one of those folks who loves a good listen, each song offers its own unique rhythm and melodic tones that get you moving in and out of your chair.
The vocals of Will Anderson are a throw back to the early punk years, and his lyrics have a depth that the listener can connect with. Coming in on drums and backup vocals is the versatile Philip Maughan, a fantastic percussionist whose vocals blend well with Anderson’s. Rounding it all up with guitar that makes or breaks each song is guitarist Henry Carden. His leads open up each song with a captivating rhythm and melody.
Dartz is a fantastic math rock band, as demonstrated in “Laser Eyes.” Indie dance clubs will no doubt be filled with this song soon enough. The instrumentals of Dartz are as good as any math rock band. They perhaps even rival some of the more prominent bands of the modern era, as each track mixes rock n’ roll with tastes of punk and jazz. “Teaching Me to Dance” has definite jazz influence with saxophone solos and a rhythm that has a bit of a 1970’s flavor to it. The energy is uncontainable and it comes out in the lyrics “It’s not a crime to have opinions, teaching me to dance…”
Another highlight is “Prego Triangolos,” which has several unpredictable stops throughout the track that catch you off guard while you’re wrapped up in the middle of shakin’ it, which translates to a hilarious and enjoyable experience.
This is My Ship is a brilliant mix of math rock and punk, which creates a unique dancing and listening experience. You should head to their site at myspace.com/dartz to get information on tour dates and ordering information for This is My Ship.
- Stephen C. O’Riley

Drag The Rivers-You Can’t Live This Way

Drag The Rivers – You Can’t Live This Way

Suburban Home Records

Country that almost anyone could love.

Finding modern country that has a broad appeal to it is an excessively rare occurrence. However, Colorado’s Drag The River has hit gold with its unique brand of country. Blending rock, folk and even some indie in, Drag The River manages to find a very accessible country sound with You Can’t Live This Way.

Most people hold the stereotype that most country is about lost loves, drinking and dead dogs. I’m one of them. And lost love and drinking are featured in the album, but I found no mention of dead dogs. I can’t say I’m completely against country, being a big fan of the likes of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and the like, but modern country does not sit well with me.

It isn’t really obvious at first why the music is so easy to get into. However, I believe it’s because of the lyrics of the songs, which are more akin to indie and also because of the very folk aspect of the music. There’s a very poetic quality to the lyrics that’s more in line with bands like Neutral Milk Hotel than with your standard country artist.

These aren’t pop songs sang with a twang and a steel guitar like a lot of modern country. Songwriters Jon Snodgrass and Chad Price deserve a lot of credit for their ability to take all these elements of country and to mold them into a cohesive whole that is both familiar and completely different. Never have I found the sound of a lapsteel, a galloping drum beat and a country twang so soothing and fun.

Tracks like “Death Of The Life Of The Party,” “Tobacco Fields,” “Defy The Moon,” “Br00tal,” “Lizzy,” and “Bad Side Of A Good Time,” are prime examples of how the band defies genre barriers and brings freshness back to country. The band also had the genius idea of putting a track at the end of the album that plays the entire album as one track. This way if someone finds the CD in a jukebox, then the entire album can be played with one credit.

Let me put it this way: if bands like Drag The River were the standard of country, I’d probably listen to a lot more country.

-Nate Williams

nathanmw@ou.edu

Jerusalem-Self-titled

Jerusalem – Self-titled

Self-released

Impressive solo rock project full of many demonstrations of ability.

Jerusalem’s self-titled album is one of the more refreshing albums to come out in a while. The band is one 20-year-old, Michael S. Judge, who has done everything to produce the album in a matter of nine days and $0. This quick turnaround is probably one of the more impressive musical feats on an album full of them. All of the songs sound pretty hi-fi and well produced, and all of the parts can be heard very clearly. While usually not that unusual for an album, for a single 20-year-old this is unbelievable.

Many of the songs have arrangements that really show Michael Judge’s chops on all of his instruments. While this format means a heck of a lot of soloing and could put off those who don’t see solos as their cup of tea, the way it is all done is pretty tasteful. All of the songs are originals except for the cover of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” which is arranged nicely. “Sea Creatures” is by far the best original track, in which the guitar and keyboards weave in and out of each other, creating a flowing melody before the singing begins.

The only complaints that can be given are that sometimes Judge’s voice can sound a little bit forced, and occasionally the songs eschew the perfect length and become long-winded. But all of the nitpicking aside, this album is an incredible achievement and shows good-old rock musicianship and songwriting.

-Tim Wallen

Keeping Up With….Jet Lag Gemini

Keeping Up With….Jet Lag Gemini

New Jersey pop-punk band Jet Lag Gemini wasn’t expecting to get signed to Doghouse Records two years ago, said lead singer Misha Safonov. Yet, here they are, releasing their new album Fire The Cannons nationally on the label that currently features acts like The All-American Rejects, Say Anything and Limbeck along with storied alumni such as The Get Up Kids and Hot Water Music.

Prior to being signed, Jet Lag Gemini had spent most of its time building its local fan base in New Jersey, Safonov said.

“We did a little of touring on our own, with our manager booking shows. But it’s hard to leave your own state without a strong local following to financially support you,” Safonov said.

The band had had its collective eye on Doghouse Records for some time due to its repertoire of current and alumni bands, Safonov said.

The band’s manager knew an A&R guy from Doghouse, Safonov said. They gave him a copy of their EP to put out on his own smaller label, but he passed it along to Doghouse. The label basically took a chance by signing the band, Safonov said, since they didn’t have much of a support base beyond New Jersey. But that didn’t phase the band or the label.

“They just had the same vision as us,” Safonov said.

Jet Lag Gemini has been noted for its unique sound amongst pop-punk bands. Safonov credits this to the wide range of influences that each member holds.

“We listen to a little bit of everything,” Safonov said, “Classic rock bands from The Beatles to AC/DC and pop-punk bands like blink-182 are major influences. For this record, we even drew on quite a bit of classical music, which comes out in songs like ‘Picture Frame.’”

The influences go beyond the standard rock, however. Safonov came to the United States from Russia in 1993 and the band’s lead guitarist and bassist, brothers Vlad and Matt Gheorghiu, came from Romania seven years ago.

Safonov said that Vlad and Matt both listened to quite a bit of Romanian music and European pop and dance music. He cited his own trip back to Russia during the eighth grade that helped to familiarize himself once again with the music of his native country.

“I listened to a lot of the music while I was there,” Safonov said, “Which included a lot of European music. I also grew up with my parents listening to a lot of Russian contemporary music.”

And the resemblance of the band’s name to the cult classic Nintendo 64 game, Jet Force Gemini, that was developed and released by Rare Studios in 1999?

“That was totally random,” Safonov said. “It was something I just thought up one day. I’ve never even played the video game. But if there’s going to be a sequel, we’ll definitely try to get on the soundtrack.”

Do you hear that, Rare Studios? There’s a reason to make a sequel.

*

Whatever the band draws on to create their sound, it’s doing the trick. The album’s first single, “Run This City,” can be heard all over the Internet and even on outlets like Sirius Satellite Radio.

“It’s nice having a big release,” Safonov said. “People can hear about the music and we can have all these big tours.”

Though the band isn’t quite at the level where they have hotel rooms everywhere they go, they’re enjoying the experience of the tours, Safonov said.

“Besides shows, not knowing where you’re going to be next is the best part of touring,” Safonov said. “We meet all these different people, talk with them, stay at their house or whatever. We also look forward to all the stops along the way because you almost always find something cool. We definitely love In & Outs. We don’t have them on the East Coast.”

So what advice does the lead singer of a band that just released their first major album have for bands aspiring to that point?

“Work hard,” Safonov said. “Practice a lot. Play a lot of shows and build a strong local following. Promote your shows. Your local support is the most important for starting out, that’s the main thing to do.”

Mouse Fire-Wooden Teeth Lujo Records

Mouse Fire — Wooden Teeth

Lujo Records

Multi-layered indie-rock propelled by dancey drumbeats and cascading guitar lines.

The first reaction I had when I read the description of Mouse Fire’s music was, “I hope this isn’t another under-talented band trying to snatch their piece of the emergent dance-rock pie.” Popping in Wooden Teeth, I was pleasantly surprised to hear a beautifully produced, complexity-laden indie-rock band that paid dutiful deference to dance-rock drumming.

Mouse Fire immediately reminded me of two of my favorite bands; ironically, their names can be combined to form Mouse Fire. The two bands I’m referring to are Modest Mouse and Fire When Ready, hence the combination: Modest {Mouse Fire} When Ready. The dancey-experimental elements of Mouse Fire’s tunes reminded me most of Modest Mouse, while the guitar tones achieved by Joey Bruce and Shane Schuch are virtual recreations of the ones Fire When Ready blows my mind with. Whether or not this was Mouse Fire’s intent is ultimately irrelevant; Wooden Teeth defends their musical individuality with a willingness to tinker with interspersed experimental elements and ear-catching guitar tones, immaculate production and downright catchy songs.

The twelve songs on Wooden Teeth maintain a connectivity—solidified by Aaron Vernick’s consistently creative and infectious dance beats—that separates this album from the usually formless mass of first albums. These songs are polished, and, as does Mouse Fire, I have to give credit to Jeremy Griffith for a lush yet precise production usually unheard of on a first release.

The opening song on Wooden Teeth, “Culvaria,” begins with distorted drums low in the mix panned hard to the right and vocals run through a pleasantly restrictive effects processing, before a rising bass line tumbles the tune into a mellow groove underscored by fill-stippled, clean drums. The chorus follows shortly—“And everyone’s got their own two eyes / and why can’t they use them… use them? / And everyone’s got their own mouth, so why can’t they use it… use…?”— summarizing the song’s tale of relational tension.

Wooden Teeth hovers thematically around the disconnects between lovers and friends. At times Mouse Fire’s songs hypothetically pose solutions—as does “Culvaria”; other times they lay blame for relational dysfunction, as in “You Started a Fire,” the chorus of which cries, “You started a fire, and you can’t put it out!” On “Friendship,” Mouse Fire compiles a laundry list of personal misfires, but the chorus is hopeful, pointing out that “Hey! We’ll be friends forever just like we were / Over and over.” The guitar tones throughout this powerful and catchy chorus are spot-on, achingly bouncy and ringing from sustain pedals. I like listening to a band that can dissect relationships in song without sacrificing musical integrity.

I guess the truest test of any album is long-term listenability, and Wooden Teeth, at least in the month I’ve been listening to it, hasn’t yet begun to wear on me. That’s more than promising, especially considering the modern music-listener’s A.D.D. when it comes to new music. In the rush to catch the new wave—to borrow an Against Me! phrase—we often leave great albums and artists behind after a listen; Wooden Teeth is packed with enough listenability to avoid this trap. Simply put, it sticks with you.

—Timothy C. Avery

Email: the_kitchen_sinks@yahoo.com

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

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