Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Patrick Park's acoustic folk doesn't quite connect

March 25, 2010

There’s generally three types of reviews: the good review, the bad review, and the average review. The bad are simple to write; when something is bad, you immediately know why (bad vocals, poor rhythm, not interesting, etc). Good ones are a little harder, because you have to figure out what it is that you like so much. But the hardest ones to crank out are average reviews. It’s hard to not make the writing wishy-washy when the feelings toward the record are actually wishy-washy.

See, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Patrick Park’s Come What Will. It has solid acoustic folk songwriting with a crack band behind him. His vocals are solid, and his melodies are hummable. His lyrics are decent, and even his album art is really good. But not a thing sticks once the album is over. The whole thing just slides right out of short term memory.

“Silence and Storm” recalls a more emotive Andrew Bird, while “You Were Always the One” would make Josh Ritter proud. “Blackbird Through the Dark” will please country traditionalists with its gentle snare gallop, choir background singers, and swaying strum.  The duet with a female vocalist on “Starry Night” is also well-done.

There’s not really any bad tunes here, as all of them stick to their mid-tempo, fingerpicked guns. But, as I said earlier, there’s not much here that evokes strong positive feelings either. It’s an enigma to me; Patrick Park has all of the parts that he needs to succeed. They just didn’t get combined right on this album. I hope that he continues to write and hone his craft, as I feel he has talent. He just didn’t hit a home run on this go-round.

Chris Hickey allows access to his songwriting process with Razzmatazz

March 24, 2010

I have always been fascinated by the idea of artistic output. I want to leave behind a set of things that people look back on and say, “Ah, that’s what he did.” Authors get to put books on a shelf. Musicians take up significant space on people’s iPods or CD books (I still have a CD book. It is a monster). Visual artists leave their works all over the world, inadvertently creating a massive scavenger hunt for the mouth-breathing faithful.

Overall output is impressive to me, like the 20 Mountain Goats albums, dozens of books by John Piper, or prodigious output of some visual artists. But contained output has been an obsession of mine as well. That’s where Chris Hickey’s Razzmatazz comes in. These sixteen songs were “written and recorded (on a hand-held digital recorder) by Chris Hickey in March, 2009 as part of a song-a-day undertaking.” Which means there were probably more where these came from, but I’ll be glad with what I’ve got.

Each of these songs but one features nothing but Chris Hickey’s voice and an acoustic guitar. No overdubs, no cuts. This is pure, unadulterated songwriting. There is nowhere to hide, no room to polish, no time to make the lyrics perfect or craft a perfect bridge to finish out the song. This is a picture of how a songwriter writes. And it is absolutely fascinating.

These songs hover around a minute and a half, with the two longest at two and a half. They somewhat apply to pop structures, although Hickey has no problem destroying rhythm to get a point across. The most memorable instance of this is the hilarious moment on “Kerouac” where he repeats a chord for ten seconds so he can cram about twenty extra syllables into a single line. It’s understandable to me; since he doesn’t have a lot of time to polish his lyrics, the words and rhythms come out raw and unusual. His unedited thoughts and rhythms make this album the fascinating thing that it is.

The songs themselves are as simple as you imagine they would be if you had to write one every day. There are often no more than two parts to a song, and some of them only have one guitar part with different sung parts over it. They generally fall between Jack Johnson pop and Josh Radin folk; there’s lots of fingerpicking and gentle strumming, sometimes fast and sometimes slow. It’s a thoroughly mellow collection of tunes, and it’s great accompaniment for driving on a sunny day.

There are some high highs and low lows, due to the constraints of writing one a day. “Down” is a beautiful, memorable song with a great chorus. “Down a Long Haul” has a jaunty vibe to it that puts a grin on my face. “Shine” is the most complete of all the songs, with full chorus and verses. “Soft Sell” has a gentle groove and benefits from the aforementioned excellent lyrics. The speak-sung, charming “Places to Go” is the highlight of the album, as it is suitably unique, relatable, poppy, and interesting.

There are some entirely weird tracks, like a cappella closer “What You Are,” the out-of-character “A Man is Rich,” and the awkward rhythms of “Nothing is Real.” But those tracks are overshadowed by the excellent tracks.

Razzmatazz is a fascinating, entertaining, engrossing album that allows access to the unfiltered workings of a musician’s writing process. It’s almost like watching an artist paint or a sculptor sculpt. It’s that interesting. Get this if you’re a fan of fingerpicked folk or gentle acoustic pop.

Vitamin D's indie-pop is scattershot, with hits and misses

Vitamin-DSome bands seem to have several bands crashing about inside of them. Vitamin-D is one of those bands. There is a power-pop band, a stately indie-pop band, and a goofy indie-pop band all running around in Vitamin-D’s album Bridge. The problem is that they don’t all succeed at the same level.

Let’s get the goofy out of the way first. The least explicable song here is “George Washington Bridge,” which is one of four songs that have the word “bridge” in the title. It plays like a weird Decemberists cast-off, with a group of people singing the words of the title over and over with an accompanying accordion and guitar. It’s not bad at all, but it’s completely out of context for the album. There would have to be significantly more weirdness on this album for me to get behind this track completely. But I certainly could, as I’m pro-accordion, the song has a nice melody, and the overall effect is one of swaying and happiness. There could be more of this and I’d be happy. But there’s really not.

Then they have a couple of electric-fronted power-pop tunes. “Upstaged,” “Findable” and “Astoria Bridge” play out somewhere between the morose musings of Counting Crows and poppy missives of Fountains of Wayne. They are pleasant, but there’s nothing too unique about them. I’d take “Upstaged” over most pop on the radio, but the power-pop still plays second fiddle to the meat of the album, which is the stately indie-pop.

The majority of the album lies firmly in stately indie-pop. The rhythms are precise, the melodies are calm, the arrangements are meticulous, and the mood is morose. Bon Iver would envy the gloom that is crafted in “Trumpet Moment 2,” as the repeated brass chord ushers in a sense of melancholy only augmented by the sparse picking and eventual trumpet solo.  “The Summer Crossing” is a little more upbeat, features strings, and feels somewhat like The Album Leaf, musically. “Bartlett Bridge” features the trumpet again, and has a very calm, pleasing atmosphere.

This bulk of the album is what I prefer to listen to, as it has the most fully developed moods, the best melodies, and the tightest arrangements. The vocals don’t strain or stress, they just fit into the song as they should. It feels quite effortless on tunes like “Bartlett Bridge” and “Beneficial Bridge.” The inclusion of the instrumental track “Hopscotch” is a highlight, as it shows off the songwriting skil of Vitamin D. I would prefer to see more work in this vein, actually, as the arrangement was excellent and the tune was beautiful. Even if it wasn’t exactly pop music, it was gorgeous and made me feel. And that’s what good music should do.

The schizophrenia of the album takes its toll when listened to in full; the album never settles into a real rhythm, dragging the listener through various moods. But when listened to in bits and snippets, it’s very good music. I enjoyed many of the tracks, but as a full album it just doesn’t make much sense. I hope Vitamin D can streamline their sound more effectively next go-round.

Al-Yaman mixes dance music with Arabic sounds to amazing success

March 23, 2010

I once lived with a guy who played sitar. One of my other friends came over and was incredibly taken by his sitar skills. She exhorted him, “You should start a band with that! That would be so cool! Why has no one thought of that before?”

Calmly, he responded, “Well, I think it was called the 1970s.”

It was pretty awesome. That’s my best memory of the instrument, right ahead of the time that guy taught me to play it But I think that Al-Yaman‘s Insanyya might qualify as my third favorite sitar experience, as Al-Yaman features sitar prominently in their Middle Eastern/Indian dance music. They also feature distorted guitars, rock drumming and dance beats. This is not your standard folk music. It also sounds nothing like the 1970s (sorry, Matt).

To start off with, every one of Al-Yaman’s ten songs on this album is over four minutes. The average is six minutes, as the album clocks in at almost exactly an hour. The band gives you plenty of time to adjust to the grooves and then hit the dance floor. And that’s really what they do best; they turn Arabic/Indian folk music into a techno-like experience. This is especially true on the standout “Samra,” which features clapping, slinky bass, the aforementioned sitar, very hip-hop drums, pulsing synths, and stabbing guitar. It’s like a post-punk band eating a sitar-heavy traditional folk band. The female singer weaves her Arabic melodies and language around the tunes, creating an incredibly unique dance music experience.

The production is top-notch, lending the sound even more power and clarity. From the slow jamz (!!) of “Omnia” to the traditional drums and herky-jerky vibe of “Kamelulu” to the frantic club-pleaser (I am not kidding) “Ethnic Session,” Al-Yaman fleshes out their unique vision of creating traditionally-influenced dance music to incredible results.

This is some of the tightest dance music I’ve heard this year; it flies directly in the face of the current DJ trends, which mandate cranking out glitchy and disjointed rhythmic pieces instead of letting the melodies jam. Insanyaa lets the melodies fly, and the result is an incredibly good album. This album makes the two disparate genres of dance and Arabic music sound not only like they belong together, but like they’ve been together for years and years. Insanyaa is straight-up amazing. Highly recommended to fans of dance music. You will not be disappointed.

BraAgas' world-traveling folk tunes score with unique success

March 22, 2010

Independent Clauses has a history of reviewing stuff that’s out of the ordinary. We like our folk, indie-rock and indie-pop here, but we also dabble in the more unique. Our tendency toward the unusual is part of the reason that you’re reading a review of BraAgas‘ world-traveling folk album Tapas. The other reason you’re reading it is because Tapas is really good.

It’s a folk band, which is right up IC’s alley, although we don’t usually get folk albums that hail from other continents and are sung entirely in foreign tongues. Thankfully, the melodic prowess and excellent performances on the album more than make up for the fact that I have no clue what’s being said. One of the things that makes their melodic prowess so strong is that the songs here span so many different moods and cultures. “Suricillo” has a lilting, medieval quality to it, while “Asentada en mi ventara” is an a cappella gypsy folk track accompanied only by clapping. Highlight “Csiki, Csiki” has a profoundly Spanish flair in the guitar and stand-up bass work. Haunting “Hajde Jano” combines several different cultures into one profoundly ethereal experience.

Where much “world music” is difficult to get acquainted with, Tapas is immediately accessible. It’s recorded immaculately, with the instruments and voices coming through excellently. The tunes themselves are incredibly engaging and, while unique to the listener unacquainted with world folk, not off-putting after the first few tracks. The biggest challenge for the listener will probably be getting over the idea of “world folk” and just listening to it. BraAgas will take care of your enjoyment if you just let them.

If you’re up for something new in your life musically, you should check out BraAgas’ Tapas from Indies Scope Records. It’s a beautiful, engaging world folk record that reveals many excellent moments on repeated listens.

Jacuzzi Fuzz creates a "best case" scenario

March 21, 2010

Last December, Miami-based Jacuzzi Fuzz released their excellent new album, The Best Worst-Case Scenario, on Treehouse Records.  This reggae- and rock-infused band has created a highly enjoyable 11-track album, beginning with the ear-catching guitar riff on “Milton’s Revenge.”

Fans of Sublime, Nirvana, Rx Bandits and Bob Marley alike will find appeal in the sound of Jacuzzi Fuzz.  The guitar work on the album showcases excellent musicianship, so much so that I’m kind of aching to watch them play live.  The band really has found the perfect balance between the energy of rock and the beat of reggae.

A favorite on the record is “Gold Rush,” for its snake-like guitar that weaves throughout the pounding drums and interesting vocals by Andy Clavijo.  Clavijo’s voice has the ability to express lyrics like, “big up your style, big up your life when you jah to see ya through your strife…”with a reggae swag. At the same time his vocals are tinged with a roughness that gives him a signature raw sound.  Clavijo also takes credit for the guitar on the album, making his work all the more impressive.

Other interesting components of the record include an instrumental track and a political rant, much in the footsteps of Marley.  The record wraps up with Clavijo singing, “our economy isn’t free, it costs dollars,” to the chugging of an acoustic guitar.

Jacuzzi Fuzz is credited with playing shows with the likes of Damian Marley, Against All Authority and the Expendables.  The well-rounded quality from start to end of this record is well worth checking out, even for those who don’t regularly listen to reggae/grunge.  I was impressed by the lyrics, which tops off the impressiveness of these guys.  With one part thoughtful lyrics, one part awesome instrumental, and one part reggae magic that takes you right to the beaches of Miami, listeners won’t be disappointed by The Best Worst Case Scenario.

Absinthe Junk combines modern rock, world music and powerful female vocals

Sometimes a band comes along that’s really good and I just don’t like very much for personal reasons. I call it my Dave Matthews Syndrome. I can acknowledge that Dave Matthews is a talented musician, but I very much do not like his music. It’s not interesting to me, despite my many friends who enjoy it and play me acoustic covers of his songs while we’re sitting around hanging out.

Absinthe Junk is one of those bands, and the reason I don’t like it is because of the female vocalist. I don’t like female vocalists in rock music, for whatever reason. I’m not saying women shouldn’t be in rock, nor that they can’t be excellent rock stars. I’m saying that I dislike frontwomen. Millions of people love Flyleaf and Paramore; I hold nothing against the fans or the bands. I just don’t like it.

On that note, it must be noted that fans of Flyleaf and Paramore will also be great big fans of Absinthe Junk. Absinthe Junk’s Living Ghosts rocks out hard in the modern rock vein, giving lead singer Blair (just Blair, in true rock star form) the platform to make a mark for herself in the pantheon of women rock vocalists. And she makes the best of it, turning out blistering performances where needed (“Commercialized Waste,” “Swear to Me,” “Sweet Vaccine”), slow-burning performances (“Precious Delirium”), or no performance (the instrumental freak-out “Road to Damnation,” dreamy “Living Ghosts”). Her powerful voice carries the sound and makes the band what it is.

The band is no slouch either, led by Blair’s violin-playing chops toward distinctly non-American tones in their music. “Road to Damnation” makes modern rock with Celtic and Middle Eastern overtures in the same tune. That’s impressive.  “Rust” combines those Middle Eastern sounds with brittle electronic sounds and charging riffs. Instrumental title track “Living Ghosts” further explores sounds from the Arab world.

And they do all this while playing tight, well-recorded modern rock. The production values on this disc are immaculate, which helps out the songs. If not recorded as confidently and perfectly as they are, this might sound campy or weird. But it all works perfectly, going off without a hitch.

If you’re a fan of modern rock, this is definitely up your alley. Flyleaf and Paramore fans should take note as well. It’s definitely good.

The Hotel Chronicles' unique industrial/rock vision now includes hip-hop and electronica

March 20, 2010

One of the joys of being around for almost a full seven years (secret: keep your eyes peeled for a 7-year birthday present soon!) is that I can follow artists through their careers. We’ve covered every single Felix Culpa release except for their debut three-way-split EP. We’ve covered half a dozen Fairmont releases. We’ve covered just about as many Marc with a C albums. Green Song is the fourth release that’s associated with musician E Deubner that we’ve covered – two solo albums and an album by his band Futants preceded this latest solo effort. This is his first under moniker The Hotel Chronicles.

One of the reasons it’s so fun to cover artists over the long range is that artists grow and change. It’s neat to see where an artist was, where an artist is, and where an artist is (maybe?) going. That’s what makes Green Song especially interesting to me. When I reviewed The Wasted Creator in 2006, Deubner was cranking out heavy, industrial-influenced rock tracks that had almost zero pop influence. Over the years, Deubner’s aesthetic has refined and changed, although never losing the core of dark, distorted, truly alternative rock.

Green Song is the strongest effort that Deubner has put out yet, because like Grant Valdes, Deubner has put his focus squarely on composing and not on becoming a rock star. I’m not sure what the green song that he’s singing about is, but it’s referenced at the beginning, middle and end of the album. The decision to tie the album together thematically also causes Deubner to tie the album together musically, making one of his most ambitious but most cohesive collections of songs yet. Deubner stretches his musical boundaries by including burbling ’80s-style electronica (“Intermission”), Beck-style hip-hop (“My Baby’s Coming Home”), and modern beat-making production (“Love Me, Leave Me”) in his dark, vaguely apocalyptic rock this time around.

Green Song isn’t for the unadventurous. Deubner’s aesthetic, while honed on this album, is still not within the realms recognized as modern rock. If you approach this thinking it’s a Nine Inch Nails sound-a-like, there’s a good chance you will be disappointed. You might not; there is definitely industrial influence that an open-minded NIN fan could enjoy. Songs like “Just for Fun Fun Baby, Run Run Run” and “Green Song Part II” rock out in a way that calls to mind his work with Futants, and those are two tracks that could be enjoyed by many.

But for every accessible riff (like the great opener of “A Minute to Love”), there’s two or three things that would never see the light of radio (like the simultaneous weird falsettos, quaalude guitar tempo, and old-school hip-hop beat of “Love Me, Leave Me”). For every accessible tune like “A Minute to Love,” there’s the late-night basement experimentation of title track “Green Song” and “The Final Push.” This is the way E Deubner wants it, and while not every one of his ideas succeeds (“Reborn” has an awful vocal performance that dooms it instantaneously), he is hitting with a higher level of success than on previous releases.

E Deubner’s Green Song is a solid statement from an artistic with a unique aesthetic. The rock/industrial/other presented here is the work of an artist continually refining his sound. This is a big step forward, but not his final destination. There are a lot of new elements introduced to his sound on this album that will need to see refining in future albums, just as his guitar riffs have. I can’t wait to see where he goes next. Recommended for fans of industrial, experimental rock or experimental music in general.

Project DNA has one amazing song and a bunch of also-rans

March 19, 2010

I love mp3 players, because it makes reviewing music so much easier. I mean, it’s a way better alternative than the discman, which was pretty much nothing but annoying to the one generation that ever used it. Skip city. One problem with Mp3 players, though, is that it occasionally scrambles track order for no reason. This happened to me when I was listening to Project DNA‘s self-titled, and it severely screwed up my listening experience.

My iPod decided that the opening track of this album was going to be “Empty Promises.” It starts out with an acoustic strum, low synths, and the sound of a storm rolling in. Then Jimmy Blecher (who is the majority of Project DNA) calmly intones, “I traded my love and happiness for the joys of a needle and spoon.”

Note to artists reading this: there’s no better way to catch this listener’s attention than to emotionlessly admit a heroin addiction as your introduction. My attention was hooked through the entire song. A weeping violin sneaks in, and its presence livens up Blecher’s emotions. He gets progressively more emotional throughout the song, perfectly in tandem with the instrumental buildup he creates.

The song keeps growing in intensity (but not in tempo, which is impressive) until Blecher is howling with remorse, spitting out advice to others, and seeking forgiveness from God. Then he pulls it back to the dynamics of the beginning and lets the song fade away. It is an emotionally devastating song. I was absolutely stunned. I could not wait for the rest of the album, because an artist who dares put a powerful piece like that as the lead-off must have some amazing stuff in the can.

Thanks to my iPod, I was disappointed. “Empty Promises” is far and away the best track here, making the rest of the album pale in comparison. Even more distressing is that the album doesn’t sound anything at all like “Empty Promises.” Please be offended when I tell you that this is a pop/rock album. I mean, one of the most gut-wrenching confessionals I’ve heard this year is backed up by poppy songs that have no real connection to anything emotional. It’s bait and switch of the worst order.

There’s nothing exciting about the rest of the tracks on Project DNA; some gospel-tinged rock on “Take Me Away” piques interest but more out of the peculiarity of it than its quality. The doo-wop of “Dumb-Hearted,” the ’90s guitar-pop of “In a Minute,” the unconvincing soul of “Whispers in the Wind,” and the funk-infused power-pop of “Callypso” just don’t connect the same way that “Empty Promises” does. In fact, nothing here remotely matches that glorious songwriting moment.

I can’t understand how or why Jimmy Blecher has songs like “Empty Promises” in him and yet chooses to write vapid pop tunes. There’s nothing worth lauding in the upbeat stuff at all. But his one downtempo moment? Magic. I hope his songwriting takes a turn toward the quieter end of his spectrum, because I see real promise there and not in the pop-rock.

Pull a Star Trip experiment effectively, yet never lose their core pop sound

March 18, 2010

Pull a Star Trip’s E-vasion Inn is one of the more ambitious acoustic projects I’ve heard in a while. Instead of being content to be an acoustic guitar-fronted band singing pretty songs, they set out to fill their songs with memorable touches: background screaming, songs in other languages, electronic beats and more. For the most part, it works.

The base sound isn’t anything that hasn’t been done before. The members of Pull a Star Trip strum their acoustic guitar a lot, stick drums/bass behind it and augment with strings. They sing loudly and passionately, occasionally sacrificing tunefulness for impassioned cries (a la Places You Have Come to Fear the Most-era Dashboard Confessional, which is a compliment). The songs are all worthy of singing along, and some are even worthy of headbanging.

On top of this tried and true base, they layer their personality. The screaming is the most recognizable bit. They do have the sense to always keep it at the same monitor level as background vocals; it’s never in your face. That’s good, because it’s straight-up hardcore/metal raspy screaming. It’s used to good effect in the dramatic “My Last Wish Shall Be a Time Machine,” but in the Jason Mraz-esque “Co-driver,” it just feels really off. By the end of the album, I’d heard it so much that it pretty much registered as static and not as a meaningful element any more.

“Senal” is their offering in another language, and it’s a lush, gorgeous tune. The strings, piano, and electronic elements implemented work together excellently, and the hushed vocals only intensify the mood. The fact that it’s in a cryptic (and therefore, intriguing) language makes it even more fascinating. They do break back into English for the chorus, and that chorus is the best one of the album, as it makes great use of melody and rhythm. “Senal” is definitely one of the most memorable tracks, even though it’s incredibly challenging to sing along with (as you might imagine).”Los Rojiblancos” is in yet another language, and its rattling, consistent Spanish groove and excellent trumpet work creates another winner.

The majority of the album passes in a propulsive yet still breezy mood. If any number of pop/rock bands busted out their acoustic chops more (Boys Like Girls, We the Kings, Yellowcard, etc) but did it with legitimacy and not as a cheap ploy, it would sound similar. As it stands, the sound is similar enough to stuff that’s on the radio to be immediately accessible but different enough to be immediately embraced and enjoyed with out guilt. The large emphasis on strings should make fans of Yellowcard sit up and take notice, while the emphasis on fast, breezy but still intense songs should make fans of Something Corporate and Jack’s Mannequin sign on.

This album is highly recommended for fans of modern pop/rock. It will fit nicely in your collection while filling a space that’s been abandoned since Dashboard Confessional abdicated their spot as kings of acoustic rocking (and, no matter what they say, the Honorary Title is not taking the crown).

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

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