Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Don't get Blacklisted from this one

July 29, 2009

Instantly accessible, incredibly entertaining, and zipping along at the rate of a punk album, Kap Bambino’s Blacklist is a thorough album. Kap Bambino is an electronic French duo, Caroline Marital on vocals and instrumentals by Orion Bouvier, that I stumbled upon on the internet much earlier this year and heard their 2007 lp Zero Life, Night Vision, which is a harsh electronic punk album with some 8-bit influences. Because of their musical tendencies, Kap Bambino will garner instant comparison to Justice and Crystal Castles. However, this quirky, electro-punk duo has been doing this stuff since 2001, and has seemed to steadily improve their craft.

Kap Bambino’s Blacklist is a much more accessible affair than their previous lp Zero Life, Night Vision.  Zero Life, Night Vision is a bit noisier, layered with Caroline Marital’s screaming vocals that reminisces of TV static because of it’s lo-fi nature. It’s a renegade punk electronic album that’s full of high-energy, but, because of the noise, most people would miss the intrigue. Blacklist keeps  the base of the same recipe of Zero Life, Night Vision, but smooths it out and creates some tracks that are more grander in production. This is due to Orion Bouvier’s expanded range of sounds, such as a spare bass guitar line on “Lezard” or the Monkey Grinder Organ core to “Rezozero.” This album shows that Kap Bambino can keep the experimental punk flavor while making an album that more fans of electro, or similar electronic sub-genres,  might have missed on Kap Bambino’s earlier work.

Another difference on Blacklist is that Caroline Marital’s vocals become more recognizible as words, and her french-accent broken english vocals provide the same fun and energy as Deerhoof’s Satomi Matsuzaki. On “Batcaves,” Caroline Marital sings “It’s a good time for bat caves” over and over again, that helps to create a quirky, campy fun song.

Blacklist just needs to be listened to. It’s barely over thirty minutes, so there’s not much excuse not to. The only downside to the album is that it stops at barely over thirty minutes, and between most songs there’s a couple seconds of silence that kill the party, but you can use that time to try to digest what assaulted you aurally.

ACL Explains It All: MuteMath

July 27, 2009

So, in addition to coming from a pop-punk background, I came from a Christian rock background. The weeping and the gnashing of teeth need not apply, because I was birthed on bands that actually did something meaningful with their careers: Relient K, Switchfoot, OC Supertones, and Earthsuit. I listened to a lot of other bands (Bleach in particular) in Christian rock, but those four names were meaningful outside of Christian rock circles (although the ‘tones were only big in ska circles, literally and metaphorically).

While Switchfoot went on to modern-rock fame and Relient K went into piano-pop-punk, Earthsuit broke up. And then they formed MuteMath, and left Christian rock.

This is distressing to me on many levels. One, it’s distressing that the remnants of what was probably the most creative Christian band of the past twenty years (no, really; Kaleidoscope Superior is earth-shatteringly, mind-bendingly good) abandoned the genre, but two, it’s distressing that there is a need to.

Christian rock has a problem. For several reasons, it’s just not as good as its secular brethren. It suffers from lowered expectations (“well, it’s just a cleaned-up version of real music, who would expect it to be good?”); too much focus on lyrics; less competitive market, letting less-talented work slip through; less critical audiences (audiences less interested in musical quality than moral quality); and many more. In short, people are rewarded (with listeners and money) for making music that wouldn’t cut it in the secular scene. And that lack of quality hurts the perception of Christian music, which hinders the possibility of any great Christian  artists ever emerging. Which is distressing, because I like hearing people sing about things I like in a style I like. At this point, my chances of that happening are slim and falling.

This is not to say that there aren’t Christian bands putting out quality, quality work. Tooth and Nail keeps some great artists; Jonezetta is fantastic. Gotee harbors some talented musicians. But for the most part, stuff that gets played on Christian radio wouldn’t make it to modern rock radio (and with the state of our radio, that’s saying something).

Christians used to be on the cutting edge of art, science and thought. Now, we’re not. That’s a sad statement to me, and I wish that we could change it. Sufjan Stevens is working very hard to change this perception, as he is almost universally loved, and no one in their right mind would be able to listen to a Sufjan record without acknowledging that he must be a Christian. This is the way it should go; bands should strive to be the best band they can be in comparison to the secular market, and go from there. If I had my way, this distinction of “Christian music” wouldn’t exist, except for explicitly worship music, and perhaps CCM (which is, apparently, the distinction for Christian Adult Contemporary). It would just all be lumped in with your regular music, and the themes in the lyrics wouldn’t separate out the music into “secular” and “Christian.”

The whole idea that there is a Christian music scene is a tad ridiculous, but I’ll spare you the “you don’t see any Christian plumbers” shtick. I wish that MuteMath could have been in Christian music and respected as indie rockers; we’ll never know if they would have, had they tried it. But the odds were against them, so I don’t blame them for bailing. Christian market isn’t one for experimental indie-rock; their possibilities were limited (ever heard of the Myriad? I didn’t think so). They had to bail for the secular scene. And that makes me sad. Hopefully we have some more Sufjans make it in the indie-rock world, and make it safe to be unabashedly Christian again.

Festivalmania

July 22, 2009

I (Stephen) am hitting up DFest in Tulsa this weekend, although I’ll only get to go to Saturday, which makes me sad. But I’ll still get to see Mates of State and Cake, two of my favorite bands. The surrounding bands are a bit odd (Blue October? Metro Station? A yoga festival?!), but still, I’d pay 36 bucks to see Mates of State open for Cake. And I get a whole bunch of other bands thrown in for the money. Sounds good to me.

It’s humorous to me; I’ve been running this site for six years and I hadn’t been to a single festival. In six months, I will have gone to Norman Music Festival, DFest, and Austin City Limits. Good things come in spades!

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ACL Explains it All: Bon Iver

July 20, 2009

One problem with reviewing is that occasionally people run up against bands that they like for reasons that are almost entirely unknown to them. This is fine, if you’re not in the business of telling people why you like things or don’t like things.

Bon Iver is exactly this way for me. I didn’t like Bon Iver the first time I heard his album For Emma, Forever Ago, but the more I heard it, the more his creaky, high voice grew on me. His songwriting, full of reverb, far-off sounds and repetition, sounds of loneliness, but not your usual “i’m without a girl” loneliness. It sounds like he’s literally alone, with no one around. The songs sound forlorn.

This is not necesarily something that convinces people to listen to Bon Iver. Telling someone that the songs sound lonelier than anyone else’s is not necessarily the way to get them to listen (unless they like Jose Gonzalez, and then it might be). There’s just something comforting in the imperfectness of Bon Iver’s songs. They’re well-recorded, but they sound like they’re not. They feel authentic; more real. They feel old.

See all that? Bon Iver is one of my favorite new artists, but I can’t explain why I like it. All the things I like about his music are the things that most people hate in music; those are usually the detractors. But they are what endear me to his music. His songs aren’t even really that hummable. He’s a total enigma to me; this might be why I like him so much. But he stymies my ability to review him. I guess some things weren’t meant to be said.

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Dumpster Diving with A Billion Ernies

July 16, 2009

Dumpster Generation by A Billion Ernies is a hard-hitting album that rarely lets up from start to finish. If you’re not familiar with the band, their sound is a mix of ska and hard rock. Think Emery or Chevelle meets Streetlight Manifesto. It’s standard rock instrumentation, plus trumpet, trombone, and a vocalist prone to bouts of screaming. A Billion Ernies maintain a relatively raw sound – not quite garage rock, but not all that far from it, either.

The album opens with “Two Kings” and “Used Up.” They’re actually a little softer than other songs on the album, with more of an emphasis on the ska influence. “Two Kings” is a little heavy on the bass, and almost anthemic at points, then transitions into a much harder rock tonality about 2:00 in. “Used Up” has a little more of the same, with powerful vocals and backup vocal hits. There’s a driving, upbeat tempo, with periodic screaming and brass (trumpet and trombone, if you’re curious; typical ska instrumentation, though I definitely hear saxophone as well, which is a little less common).

Also good are “The Existentialist’s Apprentice” and “Idea12,” which display a broader range and more versatility than other songs on the album. “The Existentialist’s Apprentice” starts off with a cool guitar lick and drums; it’s less metal or hard rock and more light ska. That’s all relative, of course – everything on the album is harder than most ska groups, like Streetlight Manifesto or Suburban Legends. “Idea12″ has a cool beginning with some Latin influence. Lyrics start with, “Another day / another dollar / another eight hours of feeling used/ This is not where I’m supposed to be” and add great tone. This is one of the better examples of their sound, with broad style and energy that varies from a quiet opening to a loud, bombastic chorus, with great use of all of their instrumentation. At around 2:00, it breaks down into hard rock that’s strangely reminiscent of early Blindside (certainly not a bad thing to remind me of).

Unfortunately, A Billion Ernies sometimes goes a bit far into the hard rock territory, losing the ska edge that makes their sound unique. Songs like “Point-Click” default to generic hard rock and screamo, which I found a little disappointing. It feels more like rock that just happens to have a few brass musicians hanging around. The album also drooped a little at the end, with songs like “Athiest” and “Addict” failing to impress me. It is worth noting that it ends on a positive note; “Thanks” is an acoustic piece, borderline singer-songwriter business. It’s got a very raw, back-room unpolished feel to it, with strong lyrics that proclaim, “Count your blessings / You’re still alive, who knows / Your mother could have killed you / Before you arrived / What a world.” I found it an interesting and welcome way to end the album.

Dumpster Generation is a solid release, though not everyone will find it appealing – hard ska-rock is definitely a niche genre. I found much of it to be enjoyable, but a wider range and more exploration of alternative sounds would have been welcome. Too often a song would devolve into mindless screaming. I’m all for hard stuff, but without reason it becomes a little self-indulgent.

I realize this is all a little muddled. Frankly, that’s because I’ve got mixed feelings. Consider this a “yes, but…” recommendation. It’s a good album, but I would like to see more variation and innovation from A Billion Ernies in the future.

Jamming with kangaroos and such

July 15, 2009

The first thing one must consider when listening to Genus Thylacinus by MarsupiaL (with a capital L), is that this is a bona fide jam band. Out of Asheville, NC, MarsupiaL’s sound mixes progressive rock with southern rock and a taste of jazz. What results is a very winding and mellow type of music, like the rock equivalent of a babbling brook. This quartet’s sound is just plain laid-back and unobtrusive. They’re not flashy, but that doesn’t mean there’s not talent here. Quite the contrary, there is a strongly prevalent degree of musicianship at work that is sometimes hard to find in a band, even with several releases under their belts (let’s face it: some bands just aren’t that good at what they do).

The eight song album goes by relatively fast, even when all but two of the songs clock in at over four minutes. Track one is just shy of nine minutes, while track three comes close to ten minutes, which goes to show that the band likes to meander about in the songs that they play. I actually thought that track one, “Lead On,” was two different songs until it reprised into its chorus at the end.

This is an album perfect for sitting around with friends on a summer night while kicking back a few beers. I’m not saying that it’s only good as background music, but it’s just very “chill,” so to speak. It has a sort of Frank Zappa-ish vibe to it, and feels very much like one of the classic rock jam bands of years gone by. This kind of music simply isn’t seen as much any more, and that’s a shame, because these guys have a lot of talent.

While this isn’t something I would play religiously, I would definitely recommend this to anyone who likes a good jam band. The first track, “Lead On,” is especially fun, with some great guitar solos. The southern rock feel of “The Man Who Knows Things” makes it stand out well from the rest of the album. I definitely wouldn’t mind listening to some more MarsupiaL.

Say Hello To Merykid

July 14, 2009

The name of the game today is Merykid‘s newest EP, Boy and the Bird, and why you should get it. First of all, you should all trust my excellent taste and judgment in these matters. Failing that, take a look at my impressions, then give Merykid a listen. This guy is a singer-songwriter, yes, but his music is greater than that bland definition. It has attitude, sincere emotion, and creative writing. Songs alternately brought to mind other artists like Temposhark, Sufjan Stevens, and Keaton Simons. What’s more, all the tracks are equally accessible individually or as a whole, which is always a plus, right?

“Bad Things” starts things off right with a wicked keyboard intro and thick effects on the vocals. It comes off as kind of echo-y, almost like the vocalist is singing through a megaphone. The song wastes no time, morphing into a Temposhark-esque drumbeat and electronic bit. The lyrics on this song are simplistic, but vocals are strong and sound great: “Sometimes the bad things are the best things.” Overall, the song is set apart with tons of electronic effects, and 3D sound moving between left and right monitors.

There’s a totally different tone on “The Bird,” which features an acoustic guitar intro and clean vocals; it’s more traditional singer/songwriter territory. The vocals remind me of Keaton Simons a little, or maybe Jason Mraz. The addition of drums, bass, and violin at around the one minute mark flesh out the track’s sound and give it more character. Around 1:30, Merykid surprises with a transition into a jazzy breakdown as drums, piano, then electric guitar are added. “The Bird” gains  a lot of attitude here, great differentiation from more generic stuff. Strong rhythm and counter-beats among the different instrumental parts top off a great song.

“Goodbye Moon” is up next, and it takes a departure from the previous two tracks. It opens with marimba – a softer, quieter, feel than earlier. Add in xylophone, strings, and then vocals, the combination of which made me think of Sufjan Stevens (by no means a bad artist to be compared to). Vocals are good, though lyrics have something of a dark undertone with the likes of, “I am not the kind of man who talks about his problems / when they need not be told / and I am sinking deeper into the quicksand around me / and I feel I am alone / So goodbye to the moon, and goodbye to the stars above.” The instrumentation here is excellent, really making for great effect when the more traditional rock ensemble comes in on top. There are layers and layers of sound, walls of sound, all emotional and energetic and vibrant and flowing. It’s great stuff, really.

“Clean Freak! Ghost!” was by far my favorite song of the album, though I’m hard-pressed to offer a specific reason why. It opens with some great lines like, “You could be a beggar the way you ask me for change / I could be a mover how you’re asking me to stay.” I find it a little strange that this is my favorite, because it’s the closest to what I would consider a typical/generic singer/songwriter approach – acoustic guitar and vocals, little else. Maybe it’s because this one feels like it’s got the most emotion invested in it. It seems personal. Some electronic effects enter at the chorus, but they only add to the overall feel. “I’m a clean freak ghost / I cover my tracks and I disappear like smoke / I’m a desperate man / So I will be on my way as soon as I can.” This is also by far the longest track of the album, weighing in at 6:40, but it’s worth every second.

Boy and the Bird is a great release from Merykid. It’s got plenty of depth and variety, especially for a six-track EP. What’s more, I discovered that this guy is from my hometown, beautiful (hot) San Antonio. Hopefully I can catch a performance when I get back into the states. For the rest of you, check out his stuff on http://myspace.com/merykid, or pick up Boy and the Bird on iTunes.

ACL Explains It All: The Low Anthem

July 13, 2009

There’s a specific type of song that I seek out as the perfect song. It’s different in every genre; in punk it has to do with the way the verses and the chorus work together, and the way the vocals sound (melodic, but still gruff). In pop, it has to do with each interlocking piece having an element of catchiness (“Move Along” by the All-American Rejects is the perfect pop song, in my opinion, for exactly that reason).

In acoustic folk, it is a very simple but very difficult thing to achieve. For a folk song to be perfect, there has to be only an acoustic guitar throughout (some light percussion is allowed, but detracts). There can be multiple vocalists, but there needs to be one dominant. There can be a token solo instrument, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the mood of the song. The chorus needs to be sung enough but not too much; the verses need to have enough lyrics but not too few or too many. The song needs to flow as if it were being dictated instead of performed. It has to have an easy sway.

It seems harsh, but hey, perfect ain’t for everybody.

“Charlie Darwin” by the Low Anthem is very nearly a perfect song. The opening notes have the necessary sway; the multiple vocalists enter quickly, with a high-pitched male taking lead above the female and male oohs. The melody of the verse and chorus are arching, lofty, and pristine. They communicate lonely sadness better than any song about the founder of evolutionary thought should. The solo is equally forlorn, and it could be any number of instruments, but it’s pretty. The lyrics are cryptic, but vaguely sad. The mood of the song is never compromised; it’s all mournful and perfectly staged. It doesn’t vary from its goal. There’s even a climax that’s great.

It’s the type of song that I can listen to over and over without getting tired of it. Different parts of the song stick out to me at different listens. It’s amazing. I love it. Perfect song.

Good job, The Low Anthem. You’ve compelled me to come to your ACL set based entirely on the strength of one song. Their other songs are good too (“To Ohio” and “Ticket Taker” are very nearly perfect as well), but they just outdid themselves with “Charlie Darwin.”

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ACL Explains It All: !!!

July 6, 2009

I like !!!‘s name way more than I actually like !!!. I like !!! because it messes with every idea about how you name yourself (something easy to say, easy to set up websites with, easy to remember, easy to tell people about…!!! is none of these things). The name !!! is pronounced “chk chk chk” most often, although “uh uh uh” and “pow pow pow” are heard, and “any sound repeated three times” is how the band encourages pronounciation of their name. I can only imagine the type of guys who came up with that as a band name. I can also imagine the type of problems that guys would run into trying to get themselves booked early in their career. Even now, at this middling stage of their career, chk chk chk is still spelled out in parentheses behind their real name on a poster on their myspace.

Yes, !!! will always be at or near the top of the “gutsiest band names” list in my book. I love band names; you can hook me into listening to an album just by having a good band name. Band names that are just people’s names throw me off; Greg Laswell is freakin’ great, but I didn’t listen to him for a long time, because I have a negative mental image of single-person bands who don’t find themselves indie enough to name themselves (which is what my favorite mostly-one-person band, The Mountain Goats, did). But if you get up the gumption to call yourself “Writer,” I’m definitely going to listen to that. Cryptic names sometimes help; I still love saying The Felix Culpa. It just sounds good. The Appleseed Cast rolls off the tongue well too.

Sometimes I take names for granted; Death Cab for Cutie (which is not associated with violent morbidity, musically) is almost as violent a name as Death from Above 1979, but not often associated as such. The Flaming Lips have a name that conjures up a bizarre mental image that I’m pretty sure is rarely thought about after the first time a person hears them. Endless Mike and the Beagle Club makes little to no sense; Fountains of Wayne makes absolutely no sense until you research it and find out that it’s the name of a garden fountain shop in Wayne, New Jersey (shockingly clever and creative, those boys).

And then there are names I just love: I liked the Hold Steady’s name long before I ever heard them. The Envy Corps sounds cool and has a cool connotation. Right Away, Great Captain! stretches the boundaries of name length, but has an exclamation point, which makes me happy.

And yes, since one exclamation point makes me happy, three makes me thrice as happy. !!!, your name rocks.

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Arms Worth Bearing

July 2, 2009

Standish Arms’ fourth release, There’s a Distinct Possibility That I’ve Never Woken Up, is best described as quiet indie rock. Supposing the band brainstormed and decided on one word to define their album’s sound, the word “haunting” surely would have been the word circled and highlighted. Most of the time the EP achieves this. Especially fine moments include the opener’s backdrop of cello and interspersed flute, and “The Weak Voice on the Phone,” which sparkles with a rising violin melody.

The songs flow well into each other, buffered by minimalist sound effects that create a stark, desolate canvas. These atmospheric moments create a fluid album, making it hard to tell where one song ends and another begins.

The charm is broken at times when the lyrics pollute the beautiful piano and cello lines. The attempt to reach notes clearly out of the vocalist’s range breaks the otherwise melancholy mood. Lyrics and notes the vocalist can hit and hit well would do a lot for this album.

Overall, the musicianship is impressive, as is the songwriting. Good songwriting matched with beautiful symphonic backdrops creates a dynamic sound worth hearing.

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