Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Conchita Campos' dusky voice leads a great collection of genre-spanning songs

February 23, 2010

I hate funk. The wah-pedal guitars and syncopated bass note  sound cheesy to me. It is a deficiency in my music criticism that I will freely admit: I don’t get funk, and as a result I hate hearing it. The fact that Conchita Campos is able to make “Lately” an enjoyable funk song for me is a testament to her songwriting skill. The fact that she placed it as lead-off on the album is a show of guts, especially considering the rest of No One Really Knows has little to nothing to do with funk.

But Campos shows that she has guts all throughout the album, from artwork to songwriting and back. The solid-black CD case features nothing but the words “no one really knows” on the cover and the spine, the titles of the songs, her website and copyright information. That’s it. It’s pretty attention-grabbing. It’s that stripped-down, raw aesthetic that carries over to the music on the album. The attention-grabbing part carries over pretty well too.

Other than the funkadelic “Lately,” No One Really Knows is a largely subdued affair in mood and tempo. There are tons of genres features here, but it’s all held together by Campos’ excellent low voice. Her clear, dusky voice rings true on the let’s-get-it-on R&B slow-burner “Now and Then,” which eviscerates other “soul” singers who smack of cheesiness. “Silverline” adds a distinctly Spanish feel to the proceedings, resulting in a Bossa Nova-esque track. “Not Today” is a Jack Johnson-esque, head-bobbing beach pop song.  “Ease My Mind” is a downtempo song reminiscent of Portishead, while “On and On” is a little more upbeat but still evokes the Bristol-based threesome.

There are tons of genres represented here, but Campos pulls them all off effortlessly. The album flows, almost inexplicably at times, due to the strength of the compositions and the underlying themes and moods that tie the songs together. Campos has an amazing voice and a songwriting gift, making No One Really Knows an incredibly mature and solid release. If you’re a fan of female vocalists, downtempo music, or the next big thing, you should get acquainted with Conchita Campos. I see no reason why she shouldn’t be highly lauded in the near future.

The Holiday Electric's pop/rock is slick, melodic, and well-done

The pop/rock that The Holiday Electric plays is slick, tight, and melodic. The only problem is that is has no element to call its own. There are many other bands playing pop/rock just like this: We the Kings, Boys like Girls, Augustana, The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, etc. This doesn’t mean that the band will not be successful.  It just means that if you like this type of music, you’ll be on board with The Holiday Electric. If you’re not, then The Holiday Electric isn’t going to convince you.

Each of the four tunes on their self-titled debut EP culminate in towering choruses with pounding drums, skyscraping guitarwork, and thrumming bass notes. Knowing that doesn’t dismiss the joy that comes from hearing the songs; The Holiday Electric creates songs that tantalize you with the chorus. They build the tension to the point where it’s almost palpable (see “Heart Attack,” where they actually pause the song), then let you have what you want. It’s great.

The distinguishing factors between songs are neat: “Heart Attack” has a heavier guitar riff at the beginning of the song and a piano bridge before returning to power-anthem mode. “Til the River Runs Dry” features no electric guitar in the verses. “Perfect World” has a piano base and the best vocal performance on the EP. And that’s saying something, as Chris Woods’ voice is clear, bright, not helium-high, and not the least bit annoying (hallelujah! hallelujah!).

This is pop/rock, pure and simple. It doesn’t aspire to be anything else, and it succeeds admirably at its mission.  The songs are good. If you’re the type to get into pop/rock, you should get their EP (which they’re giving away as a pay-what-you-want download) right now. You will be hearing more about The Holiday Electric.

Bright as Night Records releases an average lo-fi punk/lo-fi pop comp

February 22, 2010

In part two of my “Oh snap, I haven’t reviewed this?!” find, I have a comp from Bright as Night Records called The Bright Side…/The Night Side… It got sent to me as the same time as Hot Victory‘s Vol. 1, which is why Hot Victory’s “Beach…That’s Too Bad” appears on this comp (side note: that’s not the track’s name on the iTunes page for Vol. 1, but it is the name listed on the press sheet here).

As the title would suggest, the A side is The Bright Side, consisting of pop and upbeat rock tunes. The Night Side (side B) consists of darker punk and hardcore tracks. The whole comp is decidedly lo-fi, which is great for The Bright Side but kinda terrible for the Night Side.

Vanishing Kids contribute the opener, which is really a bridge between the Bright and the Night. “Heathen Heart” is a chaotic, jagged indie-rock nightmare that counts as one of the best tracks here. It’s crazy. Street Pyramids’ “World’s Apart” is another of the Bright Side highlights, as the dreamy, fuzz-heavy track is a great chill-out tune. The female vocals drift in and out, making a great song even better. Enough Static’s buzzing electro-pop “Our Addiction” sounds like German electro-pop fronted by the lead singer of the Arcade Fire. It’s a bit odd, but it’s a good track.

Smithsick‘s woozy “My Last Stand” provides a nice segue as The Night Side kicks off. It’s not as ominous as it wants to be, but it’s a good tune. Right after that is the best track on this side: Tornado Attack‘s “Cowardly Conformist.” The thrashy, snare-heavy punk features growly hardcore vocals and moves at two speeds: fast and faster. The dark, fast, mid-to-lo-fi aggressive punk tune sets the tone for the rest of the songs on the Night Side, although none match up to the quality of Tornado Attack. Omega Weapon’s appropriately-titled “The Dance Song” pulls off dance-punk with a snotty, abrasive attitude. It’s a highlight as well. The rest of the tunes don’t fare as well, suffering from disjointed songwriting to annoying found sounds to just plain weird ideas.

This is a pretty standard comp, with a few excellent tracks, an equal number of throwaways, and the majority in the middle. I would skip the vinyl and just check out Vanishing Kids, Hot Victory, Street Pyramids, and Tornado Attack.

Hot Victory's dual drumsets serve up some solid experimental beats

February 21, 2010

Hot Victory, Vol. 1I always feel awful when I clean out a box and find stuff I haven’t reviewed. This is sadly not an uncommon occurrence, given the impressive volume of releases that we somehow attain (I’m still convinced that someone’s going to come around and revoke my music reviewer card someday, telling me that I’m “informal” and “biased toward folk”). Unfortunately, the “oh snap, what’s this?” scenario was exactly what happened to today’s and tomorrow’s reviewees.

Still, it’s extremely interesting that I found Hot Victory‘s 7″ Vol. 1 when I did. Hot Victory is an all-percussion band, which makes it only the second all-percussion ensemble I’ve ever reviewed (the other one being Random Touch’s Turbulent Flesh, which I literally finished reviewing five minutes ago, but posted yesterday. Time gets all wacky when you schedule reviews for the future). Two all-percussion ensembles in one day? Righteous!

The first thing to note is that there were two drum sets represented in HV at the time of recording. There are also occasional melodic dalliances throughout and jungle sounds (monkeys! sweet!) on “Bungalow.” Hot Victory is less experimental than Random Touch, but by no means are they making beats to rap over. These are sound experiments in their own right. The two drummers play with syncopation more than they do polyrhythms (meaning they work as one unit, not two contrasting ones).

The B-side “Bungalow” is the slowest and most spacious of the three compositions. It has a consistent quarter-note high-hat throughout a majority of the track, making it the more recognizable and standard of the two sides. There is enough continuity to allow for mood shifts in the piece, including a thunderous climax that incorporates a grimy, distorted melody pulled from the depths of a dj table somewhere. For about a minute, the drumming locks in with the melody and it feels like a warped club rave. It’s pretty fantastic, as the minutes it took to get to that locked-in sound make the pay-off all the more exciting. This is a testament to the skill of the creators, that I don’t resent the first few minutes of the track, but instead see them as lead-up. Solid.

Track one of the A-side (“Beach”) is less entertaining, as it sounds like a marching band at a gunfight. There are some cool moments, but mostly it feels like a spastic freakout. The second track on the A-side (“Construction”) is relatively placid, having neither the souped-up groove of “Bungalow” or the attention-grabbing spastic moments of “Beach.” It’s neat, but it’s third place.

In addition to creative music, Hot Victory sports an awesome name, neat cover art and one of the coolest vinyls I’ve ever seen: clear with royal blue tye-dye. I’m going to hang it on my wall cause it’s so awesome. So, if you like experimental music, drum-heavy beats, or really artsy things, hook yourself up with Hot Victory on vinyl or on iTunes.

CR Gruve has a radio-friendly, club-bangin' sound

Rap is one of the more confusing genres in the world to me. I like it, don’t get me wrong. But when I’m reviewing independent hip-hop, a lot of the things I use to weed out bad indie-rock don’t apply. There are plenty of rappers with annoying voices. There are plenty of rappers who have beats so sparse as to not even be important. There are plenty of rappers who jam their tracks full of singers to the point of clutter. Making up words, coming up with goofy phrases, generally being weird? All standard in rap.

So, reviewing underground rap is pretty much a crapshoot. There are a few rappers that rise above, but the K’Naans of the world aren’t really going for the radio right now.

All that to say, if you like mainstream rap, CR Gruve is your new fave. Their beats are tight, their flow is solid, their rhymes are good, and their sound is cohesive. They talk almost entirely about sex, women, partying and dancing; but so does everyone else in the rap scene. CR Gruve’s eight-song album The Naughty and the Nice fits in perfectly with other club rap right now. It’s nigh on indistinguishable, really, which is good and bad. They’re ready to make it big, because they’ve adopted and adapted a tried and true sound, but on the other hand, there’s nothing here that you haven’t heard.

But it is enjoyable. The hooks are solid, like on “Senorita” and the surprisingly tender “Milf Song.” The jams are upbeat on “Water” and slowed down on “Lunar Dance.” There’s some funky stringed bass action on “Frisky,” and the electronics get play in “Trollin.'” So, if you like radio-friendly, club-bangin’ rap, CR Gruve got your back.

The Read's gritty dance-rock is quite enjoyable

February 20, 2010

TheReadThe final day of our three-day Phratry Record Vinyl Extravaganza isn’t a split 7″, but a two-song release from The Read (past tense, not present tense). Of the three releases, this is the most unique, as The Read is an unusual sort of dance-punk band.

The dance comes before the punk part in the Read’s mind, as every second of this release has a groove that causes me to head-bob and (under louder circumstances) to dance. The bass and drum grooves are heavy, and the guitar contributes jarring, jagged melodies and chords to propel the songs. The band is extremely tight, which is how they’re able to make solid dance-rock without any mention of synthesizer. Both “Party Lines” and “Yr Garbage” deliver a significant danceable edge without compromising any of the DIY grittiness that Phratry Records espouses.

A big element of that DIY grit is The Read’s lyrics, which are socially (“Yr Garbage,” which is literally about reusing garbage) and politically (“Party Lines”) motivated. Another element is the vocals, which are not standard. They’re low, gruff, and occasionally amelodic, but not in a spoken way. It’s something you have to hear. It sounds great in the context of the Read’s music.

This is a really tight, enjoyable release. I’d love to see the Read live, as I’m sure that show would be a heck of a lot of fun. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard dance-rock on vinyl, but there’s a first time for everything, right?

Random Touch creates an improvised, polyrhythmic, no-drums percussion orchestra

Random Touch - Turbulent Flesh VinylI honestly cannot remember when Random Touch‘s Turbulent Flesh landed on my doorstep. It could have been as far back as April of 2009, although I highly doubt that. Either way, I pulled out the vinyl and slapped it on my record player without knowing what was going to happen. It’s fitting that the release seemed to appear on my desk, because the whole release seems to have been piped in from another dimension.

The three members of Random Touch (who have been together an extremely impressive 38 years) made good on their band’s name with Turbulent Flesh, their eleventh release. They set out to create an all-percussion album without using drums. They used found sound (pots, lids, saws, glass things, what sounds like an opened piano, oil drums, tools, wood blocks, just about any other metal or plastic thing that makes a noise when you hit it) to create improvised rhythm collaborations. Some of them have a sort of flow, as in “Finding the Sun Rise” and “No More than a Taste.” Some of them sound like dropping a cabinet full of silverware (“Sudden Intuition”).

By the time the second side came around, the initial shock of listening to a fully-percussive, amelodic, improvised collection of tunes had worn off, and I found myself engaged in the sound. “By Hand By Foot” actually had me waiting to see what would happen next, which is a pretty good endorsement of quality. I won’t be rocking out to “By Hand By Foot” in my car any time soon (even if it wasn’t on vinyl), but as an experimental art piece, it’s pretty successful. The polyrhythms (because that’s what this album is: a gigantic expression of polyrhythms) fit together in an interesting way and held my interest.

Random Touch’s Turbulent Flesh will go down as the strangest thing I’ve ever reviewed, but it will not go down as the worst. The members of Random Touch do have a chemistry, and even though they’re using it in odd and strange ways, songs like “Traversing the Now” and “By Hand By Foot” genuinely feel like compositions. There are tunes here that are simply bizarre, but with an open mind, not a tune here is unlistenable (except maybe “Sudden Intuition,” which I swear is the interpretation of a headache). If you like experimental music, this is squarely in your department. Pick it up.

Ampline and Atomic Garden release no-frills rock songs

February 19, 2010

Ampline/Atomic GardenDay two of our three-day Phratry Records Vinyl Extravaganza sees Ampline and Atomic Garden splitting the bill. It’s an incredibly effective split, because the bands sound incredibly similar. I actually checked my record player to make sure I’d flipped the vinyl when Atomic Garden’s b-side “Step 3: Sonar System Overload” kicked in, because it sounded remarkably like A-side “Our Carbon Dreams.”

The songs quickly distinguish themselves, but both feature the same ideas: grainy guitar distortion, low vocals placed under the instruments in the mix, a straight-forward rock style, and a disparaging cloud hanging over the entirety of both songs. Ampline’s “Our Carbon Dreams” is a no-frills rock song, going so far as to cut out vocals at points and let the song ride on its own merits. Ampline touts itself as a mostly instrumental band, and the tight, melodic chemistry that the band members show in the vocal-less sections prove the truth of that statement. The melodic guitar work and perfectly pitched mood are excellent.

Atomic Garden’s “Step 3: Sonar System Overloaded” seems to feature the exact same vocalist, but has a much more propulsive energy than Ampline’s work. The consistent drums and strumming patterns push the song forward, although it would still be a stretch to call the speed anything more than mid-tempo. The vocals take a much bigger role here than in the A side, and it’s not my favorite part of the song. The song is good, but definitely not as entertaining as “Our Carbon Dreams.”

This Ampline/Atomic Garden is good, but not the best one of the three. If you like straight-up distortion-heavy rock with some artsy leanings, this would be a good release to pick up.

Caterpillar Tracks and Arms Exploding rock out on a rare split 7-inch

February 18, 2010

CaterpillarTracksArmsExplodingPhratry Records‘ release of split 7″ albums is a show of faith in the importance of rock and roll. Seven-inchers are pretty much most inefficient mode of releasing music there is: two songs on two sides of vinyl.  The rare band and label that still puts money into pressing 7″ believes not only in the particular band being pressed, but in the importance that a single song can have. Is releasing one song by two bands each important? Most say no. Phratry Records says, “Eff yeah!”

So, for the next three days, we’ll be featuring the three latest Phratry records releases, which are all 7″ vinyl. This first one is a Caterpillar Tracks/Arms Exploding split, with the A side being CT’s “It’s a W.I.N. for the Home Team” and the B side being Arms Exploding’s “Of Luxury & Branding.”

Caterpillar Tracks’ post-punk offering here is cemented by a pounding, staccato rhythm that becomes a head-bobbing groove after the ears get accustomed to it (and there’s plenty of time to normalize it, as the rhythm forms the basis for the entire song). The guitars squiggle, squirm and leap over it, making dissonant melodies and odd rhythms over the insistent thrum from the rhythm section. The vocals are a clear, undistorted yell; there’s no rasp, nor is there any hysteria in the screaming. The vocalist is passionate, but he doesn’t portray it by getting crazy. This song is relatively short, unfortunately, but it makes a big impression. I loved “It’s a W.I.N. for the Home Team,” as it reminded me of what Deep Elm Records’ Red Animal War and what Brand New could have been like if they had they taken a slightly harder route out of Deja Entendu.

Arms Exploding’s track is much less contained than Caterpillar Tracks’ tune. The thrashing punk of “Of Luxury & Branding” features cymbal-heavy drum work, shrieking guitars, wild yelling, full-out screaming, slashing rhythms, and lots of distortion. Where Caterpillar Tracks’ sound was contained and insistent, Arms Exploding is wild, frenetic and barely controlled. Arms Exploding seems the type of band that would end their sets with blood on the floor and equipment broken.

There is some restraint leveled in “Of Luxury & Branding,” as a stripped-back groove section gives a momentary respite from chaos. The song also ends on a loop of a off-kilter piano line, which was an unexpected move from such a wild and frantic piece. But the majority of this track is old-school punk rock: abrasive, unusual, unexpected, and challenging to the status quo.

Both of these tracks were worth the vinyl. My personal aesthetic draws me to Caterpillar Tracks over Arms Exploding, but the quality of both tracks ensures that there kids out there saying the same thing about Arms Exploding. Whether you get the seven-inch or download it digitally (lame), you should invest some cash in this release. It’s not just two great songs; it’s show of solidarity with Phratry Records’ statement that red vinyl is worth it.

Unified Alarm System is disorienting in its abstract electronic compositions

Friendly Psychics Music has a long history of challenging releases. They rarely make things easy for the listener, and that’s one of the things that attracts me to them. The releases are like good alcohol; whether beer, wine or other spirits, they all take getting used to before full appreciation can be had.

This, however, is not the case with Unified Alarm System‘s This Is Only a Test. While I don’t have scientific evidence to prove it, I’m relatively certain this is the longest FPM release ever, at fourteen tracks averaging five minutes each. The fact that it’s over an hour wouldn’t be a problem except that this is some of the most abstract music I’ve ever heard. Each and every track is composed of synthesizers, theremin, static, vocals, reverb and white space. The difference between songs comes in changing the amount that each individual element is featured in the track.

Although odd, those pieces aren’t entirely foreign. What makes this release so frustrating is the compositions, which are incredibly long, drawn-out pieces that sound like the beginnings of techno songs looped over and over. Almost every track begs for a thumping beat beneath it to fill it out. But we are never treated to that, and the album becomes a study in tension without release. It’s incredibly discomforting to listen to This Is Only a Test, because there is rarely (if ever) resolution to the moods presented. The overall effect of the album is disorienting.

Making things more confusing is the fact that this is one of the best-recorded releases FPM has put together. The soundscapes made are pretty hi-fi in their recording – it’s just that they’re obtuse, peculiar and off-putting hi-fi recordings. If this is the direction that FPM is heading, I’m pretty excited; they’ve kept their very idiosyncratic songwriting sense and upgraded the parts that took away from the success of that vision. I hope that these striking production values will be used in future FPM releases.

In all, this is a point on a larger FPM line rather than a stop on it. This is Only a Test is more than an hour’s worth of unresolved tension, and I’m not sure who signs up for that. But as a marker on the FPM line toward the future, this is a sign of good things to come. If FPM in general interests you, I would still point you toward Derecho’s latest.

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

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