Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Ty Maxon has "New (Folk) Magic" for You

September 15, 2009

I love folk music. I’ll admit that folk singers traditionally don’t have the most stellar voices, but they can often do things with acoustic guitars that simply blow my mind. Ty Maxon fits both of those categories. No one’s going to be hailing him as the next Frank Sinatra, but his guitar chops and songwriting skills vault him high above any potshots that can be taken at his voice.

Maxon sets up shop by playing “New Magic.” This is a brilliant move; it’s one of the best tracks on the album. It’s an acoustic-only song, as all the songs on this album are. The intricate fingerpicking makes it sound like he has several extra hands creating the song. “New Magic” makes a single guitar sound like an orchestra, complete with rhythmic and melodic ornamentation. In addition to pure guitar skill, he deftly moves the song through several sections without ever really giving in to verse/chorus/verse. The song unfolds unexpectedly but pleasantly; there are no sudden jerks or uncomfortable moves. The whole thing flows. The song gave me goosebumps the first time I heard it.

As he moves into the rest of the album, he displays that the best parts of “New Magic” were not anomalies. It’s the way he rolls. The intricate fingerpicking, high-tenor warble, clever songwriting and smooth presentation continue throughout the album. “Free (From Time to Time)” has a more traditional chord structure, but even that is subject to fingerpicking interludes. It’s rare that he uses full chords, and even rarer that he uses traditional verse/chorus/verse stucture. In short, there’s nothing derivative here; even the most basic of the time-tested folk ideas (you know, the ones that anyone can get away with in the name of folk tradition) have been spun, twisted, and re-worked.

The album unfolds its many joys much too quickly, depositing the listener at “So They Say” in just under a half-hour. But it’s at “So They Say” that Maxon releases the best song in the collection. He has learned the art of song order: hook ’em early and leave ’em wanting more. “So They Say” has the best vocal melody in the collection, as it is the only one which could be counted as “catchy.” The song is swift; the fingerpicking is incredible. It is the piece de resistance on the album. And, in a move that I just couldn’t believe, the song fades out as opposed to ending. Talk about memorable exits.

The lyrics aren’t exactly memorable, and that could be improved. Similarly, the vocal lines are not always engaging. Sometimes they even detract from the guitar playing. But, as his songs have many parts, this ill is never around long. That’s part of his clever genius.

This folk album is one of the best I’ve heard all year. Fans of Jose Gonzalez, Nick Drake, and/or Bob Dylan will find much to admire and enjoy here. Astonishing guitar work and clever songwriting are the hallmarks of Ty Maxon’s incredible Furthest From the Tree.

Country with an indie spin creates a stir

September 14, 2009

I like country music, and I’m glad that the number of indie-rockers in country bands (which, really, is what an alt-country band is) is growing. In addition to the obligatories (Wilco, Jayhawks, Old 97s; you can’t really say the phrase alt-country without mentioning them), the late Drag the River (and the rest of Suburban Home Records’ artists), Clem Snide, 500 Miles to Memphis, and now Any Day Parade have crossed my path and made it okay for me to say “I like country music.”

Yes, Any Day Parade is undeniably country. They have the walking bass, the distinctly country guitar tone, and the shuffling drums. There’s harmonies galore: males harmonizing male leads, females harmonizing male leads, males harmonizing female leads, and duets where both are equally important. In fact, if this weren’t all delivered with sneer, grit and adrenaline, this album would be a straight-up country record.

But the sneer, grit and adrenaline take what could be a flat country palate and transform it. It’s not even a heavy edge of adrenaline (not like 500 Miles to Memphis’ liberal application of the double pedal), sneer (Clem Snide has them way beat), or grit (there’s plenty of bands that have them covered on the gritty front), but their combination is just the right mix. It’s the desperation in the female lead’s voice in “Where We Fall” and “Water Bucket”; it’s the ominous overtones to “Water Bucket.” It’s the almost-too-honest lyrics of “A Couple Hours.” It’s all these little moments and parts that take Any Day Parade from just your average country band to one that you want to blast with your windows down on a lonely highway.

So, it’s hard to explain exactly why Where We Fall EP is so good. It just is. There’s nothing innovative here; they’re just great songwriters and passionate performers. This is good music, without any gimmicks. It’s worth your time, if you’re the least bit interested in country (or expanding your musical tastes).

The Comet Comes and Drops off Some Good Folk/pop tunes

September 11, 2009

There’s nothing more invigorating than popping an album in and being hit with a great song to kick off the album. ReedKD accomplishes this impeccably with “This Is It,” the opener to In Case the Comet Comes. The first sound is a wildly strummed mandolin, followed by a bass drum, tambourine, claps and vocals. The motifs of the album are laid out in full before “This is It” even finishes: acoustic instrumentation, instantly memorable melodies, yearning lyrics, folk/pop sound, capable of being uptempo but also comfortable in the slower vein, and established as part of a full-band aesthetic (even if the band is simply providing handclaps and bass drum hits).

Yes, “This Is It” is so good that it shouldn’t be legal to have a second track just that improves upon the formula. But “If the Tide Swings” does just that by adding a full band to the mix, with prominent bass guitar, fuller drum presence, accordion and more. It’s feels like all the members of the band are playing their hearts out, maybe at somebody’s house party somewhere. It has that loose, organic, passionate feeling, although the sound is crisp and the performances tight. It’s been immaculately made, but it doesn’t sound overproduced or thought to death. It’s clean, tight, and adrenalizing.

After the initial bang, ReedKD follows a road map eerily similar to the one laid out by previous effort The Ashes Bloom: slow numbers interspersed with some uptempo pieces and a sole electronic pop piece. His uptempo work is much improved this time around; “Cactus Garden” and “Sleepless Nights in Bed” kick the junk out of the older works due to the experimentation with other instruments. Playing drinking glasses is a great move, only improved by some muted brass picking up the slack in the chorus of “Sleepless Nights in Bed” (a highlight, for sure). The hoedown fiddle of “Cactus Garden” also lends a bit of unusual kick to his sound.

But his slower work is a bit too slow this time around, causing some lag in the album. “Space Vacuums” drags on for almost six minutes, which is far too long. “Lake Missouri” moves at what can only be described as a glacial pace. Closer “Splinters in the Evening” is too stately for the rest of the album, sticking out like a sore thumb. It’s understandable that the slow work is a bit off, though; in his previous album, Reed was everything. Reed’s deft acoustic guitar skills picked up the slow pieces on their own. When adding in and causing other instruments to carry tunes, as the bass does on “Lake Missouri” and the piano does on “Splinters in the Evening,” some of Reed’s skill gets muffled in the transition.

In Case the Comet Comes starts off with a bang and provides some great folk/pop moments along the way. There are a couple potholes on the road, but the majority of the tunes are catchy, peppy, and fun. If you like Josh Ritter, Josh Rouse, Avett Brothers, or David Shultz, this would make a good addition to your collection.

Beaucoup Blue = U.S.A.?

September 10, 2009

Somehow I didn’t realize how much traffic I would run into driving on a major highway on Labor Day weekend. But that’s why I’m extra grateful that I was introduced to the relaxing yet engaging Americana blues of Beaucoup Blue.

Beaucoup Blue is Philadelphia duo David and Adrian Mowry, a father/son team that play mainly steel and slide guitar, respectively. Their latest release, Free to Fall, made a wonderful companion for me while inching across flat Oklahoman plains, stuck in a situation that very easily could have been fodder for road rage.

It’s not just the novelty of the band being centered around a father and son, although this is interesting in itself. And it’s not just that the two clearly have a strong handle on songwriting, although this certainly doesn’t hurt. What makes Free to Fall really special is its pure and simple “Americanness.”

Songs like the opener “Delta Rain” evoke a country/folk/bluegrass/blues sensibility that sounds traditional and original at the same time. References to places in America abound throughout the album, but even more than this, it’s the “down home,” honest, twangy and rich sound that paints a picture of the country.

Both father and son have earnest and soulful voices that further enhance the already rich instrumentation. But when joined by the aptly-named Melody Gardot in the pretty ballad “Bluer than the Midnight Sky” and by the female group Red Molly in “Oh America” and “Free to Fall,” the result is nothing short of beautiful.

“Oh America” puts a new spin on the traditional “America the Beautiful,” adding a knee-slapping beat and wonderfully satirical lyrics like: “Purple mountains majesty/ above the fruity plains/ sell it for a billion bucks/ and buy your own jet plane. Beautiful for spacious skies and amber waves of grain/ put a casino in the middle/ do an Eagle Dance for rain.”

Other highlights include “By Your Side” and “Free to Fall,” which both exude the same earnestness and “Americanness” found throughout.

So while Beaucoup Blue made me look at the (slowly moving) green fields around me in a calmer light, Free to Fall would really make for a great listen anytime.

Library Voices create bookish indie-pop

September 9, 2009

What is it that makes pop music such a fitting background for philosophical and hyper-literary lyrics? This question comes up regularly for listeners of The Decemberists, Modest Mouse, Andrew Bird, Sufjan Stevens and the like. And the question has come up again while listening to Library Voices.

This ten-piece pop collective hails from Saskatchewan, Canada. Their Hunting Ghosts and Other Collected Shorts EP stays true to its bookish name, combining pop culture references, narrative structure, philosophical musings, and existential confusion with musical styles from uptempo, guitar-driven pop to ethereal pieces with delicate instrumental textures. Their Myspace says they sound like “drunk kids talking too openly and too honestly.” I’d have to agree, except these drunk kids are hip, have read lots of books and are probably drunk on craft beers and red wine. (After all, they have appeared in The New Yorker.)

The opening track “Step off the Map and Float” begins with some Nintendo-like sounds, a lighthearted group count-off to twelve, and then jumps into an up-tempo pop song whose chorus–“Your existence is a pinprick/On a paper continent/The patron saints all patronize me”–is tinged with just enough resignation and anguish. But, it is ultimately ebullient: “So step off the map and float.” This track is a balanced showing of their sound, which features clean guitar, multi-part vocals, and an array of quirky elements that at the same time both thicken the song and lighten the sound.

“Kundera on the Dance Floor” features a syncopated rhythm section (including a saxophone) and a sort of character vignette of the “golden girl.” She wears a Tom Waits t-shirt, is “piss drunk on red wine and melody,” and quotes Dando and Kafka. Library Voices’ sharp lyrics and the catchy melodies do exactly what pop lyrics and melodies should do: get stuck in your head and make you thankful for it. Oh, and as a consequence of singing the educated lyrics to yourself as you walk down the street, you get to be introspective and consider, among other ironies and tragedies of life, “the unbearable lightness of being.”

Yet at times Library Voices’ literary leanings can come off as too overt. The somewhat underwhelming “Things We Stole From Vonnegut’s Grave” is just as list-like as it sounds. Abstract items of contraband such as “consciousness of the human condition” and “a taste for science fiction” provide the list with some intrigue. Either way, it is impressive and humorous to listen to the band reel off obscure Vonnegut references, and they certainly leave no doubt that they read a lot of the man’s works. Musically it is one of their more unusual pieces in that its harmonic structure lies outside of the realm of traditional pop. It is only striking in contrast to their other songs. The factual lyrics are impersonal at worst, but the song works within the overall aesthetic of Library Voices in that themes often found in Vonnegut stories regularly show up in the band’s original lyrics. For instance, in “Love in the Age of Absurdity,” the band takes a somewhat prophetic tack, questioning the seeming normality of pop culture givens such as social networking and reality television and stirring the listener to examine his or her place.

“Hunting Ghosts” and “The Lonely Projectionist” are easily the most in keeping with the title of the EP. Both are extensive narratives, and “Hunting Ghosts” is unique in that it features soft, female lead vocals. This quiet, ethereal song contains tighter backing harmonies, more reverb, and a deftly-written string section to create the more intimate texture of this song. The narrative-confessional lyrics add to such a texture. Instrumentally, “The Lonely Projectionist” shares similarities with the other pieces, such as an extensive use of organs and synths, with the bass and drums driving the song forward. However, this song is their best-arranged piece; the instrumental elements of the song move seamlessly together through a larger range of dynamics and moods. About two-thirds of the way through the song they take a chance on a bridge that veers away from the earlier part of the song, and it is a most pleasant surprise. The lyrics narrate two parallel existences of loneliness, and this more oblique approach to existential questions sounds less cathartic.

Library Voices pull off their sound and the pop collective aesthetic with just the right amount of ease. It isn’t polished, but it isn’t chaotic, and doesn’t seem forced. Hunting Ghosts and Other Collected Shorts EP makes me eager for a full-length album. –Max Thorn

Jacob Furr debuts strong folk songwriting

September 3, 2009

There are various schools of thought when it comes to folk music. Woody Guthrie leads the traditionalists. The Dylan school is all cryptic lyrics and chunky chords. There’s the Nick Drake school, which is quiet, pensive, and emotive. The Sufjanites pack their songs full of instruments. There’s the freak-folk Banhart followers, which are just out of their minds. And then there’s the Joseph Arthur school, which is plaintive lyrics and lots of pop influence. No folk artist can escape the influence of these artists.

Jacob Furr falls squarely in the Joseph Arthur school. His songs are definitely folk-laden, but have a lot of pop influences. The strumming is smooth, the recording is tight, and the songwriting is structured in concise pop structures more than the meandering, free-form folk odysseys of other artists. His voice is warm and inviting; no creaking, breaking or howling here. These seven tunes on The Only Road are very emotive, but not hysterical or pre-occupied with their own emotionality.

In short, these are honest songs that are enjoyable. They don’t belabor the point, and they don’t make it cryptic or inaccessible. “Many Times” is about being lonely on the road, and its musical echoes of Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” only accentuate the point that being free and on your own is not always all that it’s cracked up to be. Tom Waits would have been proud to write “Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” as the eerie sway and low-slung plod invoke an atmosphere of danger, dark alleys and more. Furr’s invocation of Jewish legend and religion (“going over river Jordan”) makes the song even more foreign and thus all the more interesting.

Furr’s command of melody on “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” is another element that helps the song succeed. His vocal melodies, carried by his calm and inviting voice, are some of the longest-sticking remnants after the album is done.

Other than “Stranger,” the highlight here is “Where Are You Going?” The song expertly combines all the elements that Furr is best at:  solid songwriting conveying honest emotion, a memorable vocal line,  and an inviting atmosphere. It’s the type of song that fits in the emotional climax of TV shows, and I mean that as high praise.

Also in “Where Are You Going,” he delivers his best lyrical line. The lyrics in The Only Road are clear, concise, and, in comparison to other folk artists, not something to write home about. But he delivers a crushing set in the middle of this song:  “She said why are you flying?/Cause it’s faster than a bus/There’s no stops along the long way./What became of us?” In the midst of the mundane conversation he’s relating, he drops in the whole point of the song, then jumps off again, ready for the next lyric. The stark contrast and particular delivery made me take notice from the very first time I heard it, and that’s a good thing.

The Only Road is a good debut. Furr has established himself as a strong songwriter in the vein of Joseph Arthur and Josh Rouse. He can strengthen his lyrics (and, in folk, that’s a big consideration), but the musicianship is tight. If you’re interested in folk that will please your ears and tickle your emotions, Jacob Furr should be in your near future. And seeing as you can get his album in a “pay-what-you-want” scheme, you really should.

I Hope You Carry This Record Home With You

September 1, 2009

The polish, space and patience in Austin Stahl‘s The Things You Carry makes it abundantly obvious that this is not his first go-round. As band-leader of Baltimore indie-poppers Private Eleanor, he’s put out albums with varying numbers of participants for a good while now. These experience lend a gravity to The Things You Carry that isn’t present in many other solo debuts.

Because Stahl has been in a band for so long, he’s picked up on how to write songs with more than just a main part and some filler instruments. While acoustic guitar is still the main instrument used, these songs aren’t acoustic songs with some stuff added in. These are full-band arrangements of acoustic-led indie-pop songs. This may be a solo project, but his songwriting aesthetic has molded over time into something that resembles a full band with equal contributors (much more so than some bands that actually say each member is an equal contributor).

On the pensive “Before the Skies Come Down,” for example, the acoustic guitar is the base for the song, but the just song wouldn’t work without the buzzing synthesizer in the background. It’s a vital part of what makes the song, not an afterthought or neat trick.

The same goes for the next track, “Shrug.” The bass guitar plods its way through the entire piece, but the chiming guitar and plinking piano do much more than just provide atmosphere. The pieces of the song are woven together so tightly that to separate out each part becomes an exercise. If you focus on the drums primarily, the song has one feel. If you focus primarily on the keys, guitar or bass in the same manner, the song mutates a bit; it doesn’t have exactly the same feel. When listened to all together (as, obviously, was intended), the song is dense and full of surprises, but never seems overwhelming in the least.

The metaphor of “Shrug” lends itself nicely to the rest of the album. It’s dense with charming moments that are incredible even if yanked out of context. But when the album is listened to in context, it is a fully-recognized vision of a season in Stahl’s life. It feels right. Short songs bump up against long ones. No song feels rushed, no song feels dragged out. The songs exist as they should, without being forced to be one thing or another.  “Stories of Us” is only 1:19, but it’s my favorite song here. “Band of Gold” is probably my second-favorite track; it’s an epic 6:48.

Austin Stahl’s The Things You Carry isn’t the type of record that spawns hits, even of the indie variety (“Dude, you don’t have that on your iPod? What’s wrong with you?!”). It is, however, an excellent album to listen to all the way through. It is a calm yet unfailingly interesting listen; it won’t rile you up, but it won’t bore you, either. This is mature songwriting; Stahl knows what he wants to say and how to say it to best effect within his songwriting style. Whether it be jangly, bumpy, folky, poppy, smooth, or however else, he does it with candor and quality. This is an undeniably outstanding record that you can download for free on his website.

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

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