Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Mel Flannery Trucking Co. unleashes jazz-pop with confident, beautiful vocals and a few misses

March 17, 2010

Mel Flannery Trucking Co.’s jazzy, keys-heavy As It Turns Out gives a little too much of a good thing.

Mel Flannery’s voice is a delight; it’s smooth, warm and crisp. The clarity and passion of the songs show that she has confidence in both her songwriting and vocal skills. Highlight “Gone” sees her nailing a difficult vocal line and leading a choir through an excellent pop song populated by gentle keys, pulsing bass and jazzy drums. You’ll hit repeat, almost assuredly. The song just oozes charisma.

Other songs feature the jazz elements of her sound more prominently. “You Know What to Do” sees her in come-hither lounge singer mode over a syncopated keys line. “I Need You Here With Me” shows a forlorn black-and-white movies nightclub singer side of her. These three elements of her personality shine, as she has very obviously polished these.

The problem comes in the songs that stray from her easygoing, seductive pop. “(You Are the Only One For Me)” is a giddy love song written on guitar, and it only serves to break up the album in an uncomfortable, annoying way. “Without You” barely keeps its head up under the weight of its narrator’s depression, although it does fare better than “Lift Me Up, Tie Me Down.” “Lift Me Up…” is a depressing, introspective tune, and it sounds confident musically but misplaced lyrically and mood-wise on this album of otherwise slinky and assured tunes. Even “Running,” a tune about physical spousal abuse, comes off with a assured swagger, as the song’s battered woman books it from the bad relationship with little more than a middle finger left behind.

Mel Flannery Trucking Co.’s As It Turns Out is a collection of tunes that suffer from trying to do too much. Flannery has the seductive song down pat, as well as the gentle, lilting pop song. The great success of her hits only make her misses that much more obvious. Still, the majority of the tunes here are thoroughly enjoyable and display chops musically, vocally and lyrically. Fans of gentle, jazzy pop, like Norah Jones, Michael Buble, Jason Mraz, or Regina Spektor and the like would find much to enjoy in Mel Flannery’s wonderful voice and great songwriting.

…soihadto…'s instrumental post-rock is heavy on the rock, light on the post

March 16, 2010

I was incredibly confused when I listened to …soIhadto…’s album Adventure Stories (Not Based on Fact?). I was looking forward to a pop punk band: unneccessary punctuation, weird capitalization, questions in the title, the word “adventure,” the whole nine yards. As kitschy as a band name/album name combo can get? Pretty close.

…soIhadto… is actually an instrumental post-rock band, heavy on the rock. Yeah, I know, right? Wouldn’t have guessed that in a million years. I guess that’s why reviewers listen to albums instead of look at them. Who knew?

Having already reviewed an incredibly good post-rock album this year in Post Harbor’s They Can’t Hurt You If You Don’t Believe In Them, my critical ears immediately went into comparison mode. Where Post Harbor’s post-rock was heavy on the post (i.e. mood and melody), …soIhadto…’s is heavy on the rock (i.e. riffs and riffs and riffs). So I pretty much had to shut down the compare-o-meter as soon as I started it up.

As …soIhadto… is big into riffs and guitar heroics, I didn’t connect with their music as thoroughly as I did other bands. It’s not that they neglect mood; “Please Friends Warn Me If They Agree” sets up a very expectant mood for the first forty-five seconds of the songs. It’s that the mood is often a means to an end; in this case, it’s the megariff that hits at forty-six seconds. Is it an awesome riff? Yes. But when the band uses what I consider to be one of the main joys of the genre (extended mood sections) as a means to an end, it’s a bit slighting to me. It feels like …soIhadto… is a rock band that somehow lost its vocalist instead of a true post-rock instrumental band.

Let me reiterate: “Please Friends…” is freakin’ awesome. I wish I had written the riff that they crank out at the end of the song. But it just feels oddly misplaced without vocals. Then again, for those who are upset with post-rock’s inability to stop feeling and just kick out the jams, …soIhadto… might be just the thing. I mean, there’s not too many places you’re going to get the all-out modern rock rush of “The Plumber and the Peacock.”

The songs aren’t all as egregious offenders as “Please Friends…” Tunes like “Come and Get Me in My Sleep” stretch out for eight minutes, and several of them are spent on the type of musical experimentation and wankery that I’ve come to expect from the genre.

Adventure Stories (Not Based on Fact?) is a solid instrumental post-rock release. The members are all talented musicians and their collective vision is fully realized, resulting in some powerful songs and mighty riffs. I just don’t connect with that vision very well.

After the Fall's punk-rock is best-of-year, shiver-inducingly good

March 15, 2010

I still have a soft spot in my heart for well-done punk. Many people grow out of their punk phase, but I didn’t. Mine just morphed. I still mosh and skank and throw up my fist with the best of them; I’m just more selective with who I go all out for. Flogging Molly earned my passion, as noted in my Righs review a couple weeks ago. If I ever saw After the Fall live, they would earn my fervor as well.

There’s nothing complicated about After the Fall or their album Fort Orange. They play punk rock with a constant snare, more strumming than should be possible, and hollered vocals that waver between screaming and singing. This is my favorite vocal style, as it shows a singer who really wants to be singing, but occasionally becomes too passionate for notes and has to scream. It gives me shivers. And there aren’t that many bands (and even fewer punk bands) that can give me shivers the way that “1994” does.

They don’t usually stray toward the pop-punk end of things, choosing more often to err on the side of hardcore. But they rarely set up in chugga-chugga breakdown mode, preferring the spastic side of hardcore, as seen in the brutal, flailing attack of the minute-long “It’s Her Choice.” They also keep it short and tight; of the thirteen songs here, only three make it over 2:10. Most clock in around a minute and a half. This rapid-fire release of songs helps distinguish the songs. If they were any longer, the stuff might run together. Instead, it feels like After the Fall is dropping bombs, one after the other.

“Poor Excuse” showcases the chops of After the Fall, as there’s some impressive metal-esque guitar soloing. The strumming also shows up in some interesting patterns. The drummer keeps pounding that snare; the muscles in his right arm must be about twice as large as his left. “Routine” makes it clear how tight the band is, as there are timing breaks and tempo shifts that require a lot of band cohesiveness. This isn’t just a frantic, “play-as-fast-as-you-can-GO!” band. They know exactly what they’re doing; they decided to play punk because they wanted to play punk.

They show they aren’t a one-trick pony with the slowed-down melodic sections in “Decapitate,” the only song that breaks three minutes (and barely, at 3:10). It’s an impressive song, as they maintain their attitude even through the quieter sections. They keep it punk by (hilariously) having the drummer play as if it wasn’t a quiet section. What’s even crazier is that it becomes one of the most memorable moments on the album. Shows what I know, right?

After the Fall’s Fort Orange is the best punk release I’ve heard this year. I’m sad it came out last year, although I might still sneak it into my best-of list at the end of the year (I do what I want!!). If you like straight-up, snare-heavy, passionate, scream-it-loud-and-mosh-along punk rock, you need this record. Or, at the very least, a download of “1994.” It will give you shivers, it’s so good. That is, if you recognize shivers while you’re flailing in a pit.

Feldiken plays enthusiastic, upbeat, optimistic acoustic pop (emphasis on the adjectives)

March 14, 2010

I expected Feldiken to be some sort of techno project from Europe, based on the name. I could not have been more wrong. Feldiken is a Brooklyn-based innocent, buoyant pop band that sounds like an even more optimistic Backyard Tire Fire (yes, I know, that is somewhat difficult to fathom). With bouncy bass lines, organ and accordion accompaniment, lyrics bordering on naivete (in mostly a good way) and harmonies so comfortable that I feel like I already know them, it’s pretty hard to make a case for Feldiken to be anything but a straight-up pop band.

Small Songs About Us is acoustic-based pop, similar to Joshua Radin’s wide-eyed optimism. But where Joshua Radin takes turns for the depressive, Feldiken never goes there.  The only remotely sad moment on the album is “Too Good,” where he recites a list of awesome things that are happening in his life and how he’s worried because they’re all too good to be happening. Bro, I’ll take that problem any day of the week. “Not Like Clockwork” is almost depressing, but the chorus comes around to realizing “Oh! I have friends, sunshine, laughter and a woman! And that makes my life better!” I am not exaggerating.

And although it does sound oppressively happy, it rarely reaches that point because the acoustic songwriting is well-grounded, unendingly melodic, and incredibly comfortable. The only point where it gets unbearable is “Rockin’ All the Way,” which feels like a kid’s song because it calls out the instruments as they enter the song. I just can’t bear it.

Thankfully, the sunshine is tempered in points throughout; “Like a Flower” has pensive moments, “This Bridge Won’t Burn” has a bit of a distorted edge to it, and “Like a Flower” has some doubt in the lyrics. “Like a Flower” is the winner here, as it evokes Josh Radin in all the right ways but remains true to the Feldiken aesthetic.

Take this away from this review: the acoustic pop here is so upbeat and charming that it makes zydeco (“Never Really Knew”) seem like a totally legitimate move within the sound the band has established. I like it a lot in small doses, especially “Too Good” and “Like a Flower,” but after a full album it’s hard to stomach. If you like happy music, you need this.

Johnny Cakes and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypso make beach-rock with attitude

March 13, 2010

I’ve been recently developing a theory of rock and roll that is currently at this state: It’s no longer a particular sound that’s rock’n’roll; it’s a particular attitude. That attitude consists of flagrant disregard for what popular culture would say is tasteful or appropriate, and a snarling disdain for any strictures of that social culture imposed (successfully or not) on said music, lyrics, or musicians.

This would make Johnny Cakes and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypso a thoroughly rock’n’roll band. Their embrace of the rock’n’roll attitude can best be summed up in a disclaimer that they themselves chose to put on the back of their Rise of the Pink Flamingos: “Johnny Cakes and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypso are well known degenerates and are not responsible for any degeneration caused by listening to this album. If, while listening to this album, you feel a strong desire to damage public rest rooms or sing songs about butts, seek medical attention. Also, feel free to send the band your money and/or naked pictures of your girlfriend.”

With such a loud endorsement of hedonistic excess and flagrant disregard for social niceties, it’s almost unimportant what this album sounds like. Fans of crazy, wild rock’n’roll will listen and enjoy. People who are easily offended will be offended. Not a difficult dichotomy to strike.

The music contained within Rise of the Pink Flamingos is a surprisingly cohesive mix of breezy pop, surf rock, ska, punk and calypso. The nine members of the band (plus four costumed dancers, according to the one-sheet) make music that sounds like the musical accompaniment to a frat party on the beach: lots of juvenile references to sex, upbeat singalongs, adrenaline and goofy jokes, all in the name of having a good time. The bright colors and wild fonts of the album’s art are another good sign of how Johnny Cakes rolls.

With titles like “Pee in the Butt,” Scooby Doo Me” and “Commando,” as well as thank yous to Luke Atmyas, Ima Weiner, and Ineda Shower (and those are the cleaner ones), it should become abundantly clear to you whether or not this is the type of thing you should invest in or not. I am pretty grateful to Johnny Cakes and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypso, as they only strengthen my fledgling theory of rock’n’roll. It’s all about the attitude here, and if you don’t like that attitude, well you can get on out. Johnny Cakes is still gonna keep on being what they are: rock’n’roll.

Ash Gray and Girls steal everything and make new songs out of it, much to the ears' delight

March 12, 2010

I’ve always enjoyed the name Pop Will Eat Itself. I’ve never heard a single song by them (although the tune “Get the Girl! Kill the Baddies!” sounds awesome), but their name has been about as prophetic as MTV’s ominous and prescient first choice of music video. Pop certainly has started eating itself. Example: I had a yelling fight with a close relation over the fact that Imogen Heap, not Jason DeRulo, wrote the hook to DeRulo’s “Whatcha Say.” It was a low point in music history for me.

But DeRulo’s thievery (thievery, I say!) is different than Ash Gray and Girls’ reinventing of pop. They’re both eating pop music, but DeRulo’s not even chewing, while Ash Gray is messing the peas and mashed potatoes on the plate before it even gets to the mouth. Okay, enough with that analogy.

Ash Gray and Girls is a pop band that sounds a little bit like all of these people: Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, Garth Brooks, Fleetwood Mac, Heart, America, Neil Young, the Clash, and the B-52s. There is absolutely nothing here that hasn’t been done before. But that doesn’t matter, because Ash Gray has taken all the pieces of pop music and put them together in odd ways. “Your Gun is Out” is the Clash playing with the B-52s singing. “Rock’n’Roll Record” sounds like Heart’s “Barracuda” being played by John Cougar Mellencamp. “Fire Away” sounds like Garth Brooks fronted by Neil Young. These are all great songs.

The only thing holding these tunes together is Ash Gray’s acoustic guitar, which is almost omnipresent, and a bright tone to all of the proceedings. There are also plenty of female backup vocals (I assume these are Girls of the band name).  There’s only seven songs on This Could Be a Wild Night, but each is its own adventure, from a face-melting guitar solo (“Fire Away”) to the Lou Reed impersonation that is “Rules.”

Ash Gray and Girls is the type of band that gets everyone in the bar dancing because they remind them of some other band that they usually shake their moneymaker to. Ash Gray seems to have recognized this and capitalized on it, yanking shtick after shtick and combining them into memorable songs. Ash Gray and Girls seem to have become the acoustic pop version of Girl Talk, jacking stuff from everywhere and turning it into something new and different. Highly recommended for fans of any of the gazillion bands I’ve name checked so far, plus Jason Mraz and anyone else with an acoustic guitar and a pop hook. This Could Be a Wild Night is one heck of an EP.

Gary B and the Notions release a polarizing album of '50s-styled pop

So, while we’re in the spirit of full disclosure from yesterday, here’s another one. Gary Barrett, who is the Gary B of Gary B and the Notions, has written for Independent Clauses even more recently than Nate Williams has. Doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions about his record, but it does mean that they’re not totally sterilized. I mean, no one’s really objective these days. So passe.

Anyway. Gary B and the Notions just released New Twist and Shout, and it’s an incredibly appropriate title. Barrett has a strong affinity for ’50s pop, and he creates his own fractured and twisted version of it on this album. Barrett nicks the big pop swing and a chord progression straight out of 1954 in “Unannounced,” drops some creepy organ and oddly dissonant guitars over it,  and turns it loose onto the world. “Jenny” has a bit of a surf-pop vibe to it (although I’m pretty sure Brian Wilson and Co. never accused anyone of being “Motherf****** who want to dance and get out of control”). “Hall and Oates” has a bouncy pop feel to it, similar to the girl-pop of the era (anything-ettes).

If the subverted and repurposed ’50s songwriting doesn’t turn you off, Barrett’s vocals might. Barrett has what can be best described as a Northern drawl; he lets syllables hang a long time, sings odd vocal lines, and generally does whatever he wants. The tone is a bit nasal, but not so much that he doesn’t have low notes. It’s just enough to drive a listener crazy on repeated listens. It’s really unique, but it’s an acquired taste.

The highlights here are “Sally,” “Jenny” and the dark “New York Jet Set Trash,” which was exciting because it was different that the rest. The honky tonk of “Landscapes & Skylines” also stands out, providing a punch of energy toward the end of the album.

If you like the ’50s revisited and don’t mind Gary Barrett’s distinctive, unusual vocals, you will like New Twist and Shout. If either of those things don’t happen for you, it’ll be unlikely that you won’t enjoy this.

The Righs' Irish punk stretches its wings lyrically and musically

March 11, 2010

Over the past few years, I’ve come to love Irish punk music. One of the most incredible concert experiences I’ve ever had was at Flogging Molly’s Austin City Limits ’09 set, when it rained and we danced anyway. There’s more to the tale (there always is!), but you’ll have to track me down in person to hear it. It’s too good to pass up telling live.

The Righs are an Irish punk band and (full disclosure) my friends, as lead singer/acoustic guitarist Nate Williams was a long-time writer for Independent Clauses.  Nate handed me this album and asked me what I thought. I told him pretty much what I’m writing now. But now you’re free to take all this with a grain of salt.

Back to the Righs’ Irish punk. The band is gleefully raw, having recorded these tunes on Roses purposefully without pristine sound quality. Having seen some of these songs performed live, it was a good move to go a little more raw on the recording; this album sounds a lot closer to what the Righs sound like live than their debut album The Rivers Run Deep does. The drums pound, the vocals run ragged, and the band seems to tilt a little bit toward losing control. It’s a wild and frantic sound most of the time, and it’s an energizing one.

I’m sure that the decision to let the sound be less-than-perfect will drive some away. But if that’s what sends them packing, they weren’t really listening to the songs anyway. This album is over an hour long, and the band uses almost every minute of it to say something. They charge through punk songs, drinking songs, anthems, folk tunes, sea shanties and more. The lyrics run the gamut too: from the call-to-arms of opener “Double Edged Sword” to the depressing storytelling of “Mother Knows Best” to the protest anthem “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” back to philosophical musings on closer “What Good is Death?”, The Righs devote time to tons of topics.

Because this album is long, varied musically, varied lyrically, and in a style that often gets pegged as a gimmick, it would be easy to think that this would get tiring. It doesn’t, because the album can be neatly broken into two parts: the ragged, wild beginning half, and the more subdued second half. There are still punk tunes in the back half, but “And So It Goes” is a much more orderly song than the “fire that’s on fire” urgency of early standout “The Man With Nickel Plating Makes All the Rules.” It doesn’t mean it’s less enjoyable; it means it’s different. And the Righs use that difference in songwriting and recording style to keep their long album interesting. There are some tunes that lag, but you can skip ’em. With so many songs to choose from here, missing one isn’t a huge loss (especially when the album is not composed with a particular theme, story, or central element).

The Righs’ Roses is an entertaining Irish punk album that draws in a variety of songwriting and lyrical influences from outside the Celtic tradition. While still retaining their core sound, the band pushes its boundaries outward, mostly resulting in success. The crazy, energetic, great songs are proof.

Punk rockers Mourning haven't decided what they want to be yet

March 10, 2010

mourningMourning is a punk band that hasn’t decided whether it’s going to lean toward its pop-punk or hardcore punk side. They showcase both on thief four-song, under-ten-minutes self-titled EP/cassette. (side note: they get mega props for releasing this on cassette tape)

The instrumental work here is solid. The hard-charging guitar work and snare-heavy drumming is nothing that hasn’t been done before, but it’s pulled off with attitude and grit. They do a decent build-up section in “Running From Our Selves,” but they follow it up with a blistering section that proves they’re much better at just cranking out the jams. The harder they play, the better.

The problem is the vocals. When the vocalist sings, his high, young vocals don’t fit the sound at all. The gritty, Latterman-esque punk needs a lot grittier approach to the vocals to make the sound work. He spends much of his time yelling on “Running From Our Selves,” and as a result that track takes the prize for best track. The more sung vocals there are on a track, the less cohesive that track is.

Mourning shows that they have some good ideas on their four-song EP, but they’ve got a long way to go before they’re turning those good ideas into great songs.

Lucid pop may be a bit much for listeners on L'illon's debut album

The debut album from Washington, D.C., based singer/songwriter L’illon is an interesting take on many musical genres coming together to create the pop album that is Warrior Angel. The artist herself describes the ten-track album as “lucid pop.”

In a statement regarding Warrior Angel, L’illon says, “I like to think of it as part of a new musical revolution, drawing from ancient tones, melodic filigree, harmonic complexity…”  Unfortunately this “musical revolution” sounds similar to the mood music that the listener would expect to hear while relaxing at a spa.

Although the singer has a somewhat soothing voice, at times it seems the songs would be much more enjoyable if the cheesy vocals were dropped altogether.  The instrumentals are unique and colorful, but it is incredibly hard to take seriously lyrics like “Mister shy guy.”  The percussion and guitar hint at a Latino influence, so the appeal that L’illon has reached with Europeans is understandable.  However, she is definitely lacking the intensity and fierceness of the likes of Shakira and Paulina Rubio.

Despite the fact that the album has drawn some attention from within the indie world, it seems almost misleading to consider her “indie” with the stereotype that follows that title.  L’illon’s music seems of the type that would be much more appealing to under-romanticized, middle-aged women versus the coffee-shop going, rock-concert-attending listener.

L’illon makes it apparent that one of her goals is to be incredibly honest and straight-forward with her lyrics, which is different from the typical vague, metaphorical songs of many indie artists today.  Her listeners will likely appreciate the chance to understand the song’s meaning from the beginning, rather than trying to play a guessing game of decoding.

In reference to the term she coined, “lucid pop,” L’illon says that “you can feel a new spark of sensuality and vibrancy so that everyone can feel cool, modern, and sexy in their own skin.”  The exotic sounds of songs on Warrior Angel will probably achieve that for those who like hypnotic beats mixed with pop vocals.  Songs like “Love Story” and “Navigate Me Home” will leave you imagining belly dancers and colorful costumes in a psychedelic new age realm, which may not be the most pleasant experience for those of us who have become accustomed to the comfort of acoustic and alternative rock.

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

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