Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Status updates

April 29, 2010

Posts have been spotty here at IC because I’ve been hard at work setting up an art project over at Gospelized.com. It went live today, so I anticipate being more consistent with posts in the next few weeks, leading up to our birthday surprise on May 15. I am really excited about the birthday project; I can hardly wait to unveil it.

Thanks for your patience and continued support of Independent Clauses!

Derek Porter has a composer's ear for atmospheric folk

April 27, 2010

There are artists in this world that cut a huge swath across their genre. They’re the Bob Dylan, Arcade Fire, Death Cab for Cutie and Shins-type bands; their sound is so distinct that it’s hard for them to escape it, much less anyone who sounds like them. This is a shame, because as any hipster will tell you, Nirvana wasn’t the first band to sound like Nirvana. There were people before and after Nirvana who sounded just like ‘em, but those before didn’t get the glory and those after glommed onto the glory without earning it or were shunted to the side as copycats.

I hope that Derek Porter can fall into the former category; it would be easy to shove him aside as a Bon Iver disciple, but that’s not a fair judgment. There are striking similarities in the folk tunes of the two men: both have a rustic sound, favor spare arrangements and feature a high, trembling vocalist. But where Bon Iver makes paeans to the cold desolation of heartbreak, Derek Porter’s Strangers, Vol. 1 is a humble and inviting exploration of memory.

It’s probably good that these tunes aren’t as wholesale despair-laden as Bon Iver’s work. I don’t know if I could take much more of that. I much prefer Porter’s lively, bluegrass-inflected “I Remember” to the atmospheric density he employs in “All I Know Will Be Forgotten.” When “I Remember” drifts off into a weary haze, it still doesn’t meander into navel-gazing depression. This is because Porter takes careful care of the moods he creates; he’s not creating standard depressing fare, but his strength is still the moods he is putting out.

“I Forgot” is a cheery, wide-eyed tune, incorporating an accordion to great effect. It doesn’t have the direct, powerful melodies that some bands make their living on, but the overall mood cultivated is just as satisfying in this and other cases. There are good melodies sprinkled throughout, but the moods are much more consistent and thereby more praiseworthy.

Derek Porter’s Strangers, Vol. 1 is a solid EP. If you’re big on atmosphere (or a film scorer), Derek Porter should jump high up in your queue. He’s got a composer’s ear and skills. The tunes aren’t as direct, clear and elegant as Avett Brothers or Low Anthem tunes, but his command of mood transforms a room. It will be interesting to see if he develops his melodic prowess in the future or whether he pours himself even more into the atmosphere work. No matter which way he goes, Strangers, Vol. 1 is a great EP to put on during a lazy day and just be with.

Microbunny's wintry ambient tunes deserve praise

April 23, 2010

Microbunny’s 49 Swans came out in the wrong season, and the members of Microbunny know it. Why else would they put a picture of a totally frozen-over window as the cover art to this fine album? They know that their chilling, ambient, occasionally trip-hop tunes are best heard in winter’s icy grip. Even listening to this on a rainy day doesn’t really work; the album features the harsh feel of desolation, not the dreary doldrums of a rainy day.

This album is a fully-realized one; the fourteen songs work together perfectly. The whole thing flows as one long song; even the occasional break in mood is welcomed instead of belittled, because Microbunny is just too good at writing the sound of desolation. From synths to drums to guitars to bass, everything works together as one big instrument to convey what Microbunny wanted to say. And it says it perfectly.

From the jarring drumming of “Electrical Fire Incident” to the shapeshifting synths in “Spring Ice Remnant Death Knell” to the gorgeous and emotionally jarring piano on “Outer Sad/Inner Happy,” there’s variation and yet no variation at all. It all says the same thing in different ways. It’s pretty, it’s sad, it’s the soundtrack to a literal or emotional winter.

If you’re in the mood for downers but you don’t have any around, Microbunny’s 49 Swans will do the trick. I don’t mean that in a bad way; that’s what they intended it to be. It’s perfectly suited to what it wants to be. And that means it’s a great album.

Michael's Uncle makes punk rock the old-school way: with attitude

Michael’s Uncle and the Ramones would have been good friends. Michael’s Uncle plays primitive, rebellious, shout-it-out punk rock that doesn’t take any prisoners or care what you think about it. The fact that the vocals on Return of Dark Psychedelia that aren’t yelling are difficult to stomach isn’t going to stop Michael’s Uncle from singing them. That’s what they wanted to do, sucker, and who’s gonna stop them? You?

The band is quite tight, which is a surprise. They make a good show of being sloppy and rambunctious (“We Say,” especially), but they tip their hand on “Hellboy,” which relies on several interlocking rhythmic parts. Once I realized what they were capable of, I went back and re-listened to everything, and it becomes obvious fairly quickly that under the disorganized chaos of their vocal performances lies a band that knows itself very well.

Sure, “Mas Na To” is basically a Ramones tune, but “Prej Byznys” calls up a Rage Against the Machine rhythm and mentality with surprising ease.  “Z Kontejneru Smrad” is an entirely enjoyable and convincing so-cal surf-punk tune (not kidding). “Nezmenis Nic” is a Primus-esque battle rock tune. This band has chops to spare, and they show them off to all who are paying close enough attention. This is primarily a punk album, but not in a Green Day way at all.

The only real flub I found in eighteen tracks was the plodding “Moon,” which makes no sense in the context of the album and does nothing helpful to the progression of the album. Every other track has something redeemable about it, and most have lots of redeemable things.

The musicians are talented. The songwriting skills are spot-on. The command of other genres is excellent. This is a punk album worth picking up if you like true punk attitude and old-school punk rock bands. Return of Dark Psychedelia is a surprise-laden release that rewards people who tune in.

Pillowhead blows the EP format out of the water

April 22, 2010

Pillowhead’s Convictions EP does just about everything right that you can do in an EP. They establish their sound, display variations on that theme, drop in a cover, and then bring it back home with a solid tune as a closer. That’s all in five songs.

Yeah. Be amazed.

Pillowhead plays a sort of rock that isn’t pop-punk but isn’t exactly rock’n’roll. It’s not as giddy as the pop/rock on the radio, but it’s not so overly serious in its music that it falls under the modern rock label. They tackle really heavy topics on the EP (another plus!) but they do it thoughtfully and without ham-fisted theatrics. Even when a choir comes in on “The Reasons,” it doesn’t feel over the top.

If it was going to get overblown, it would have long before, when the singer starts singing to his mother about his and her failures in their relationship (for those keeping track at home: the last time this was an effective tactic not mocked by the mainstream was Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”). But it never does. Pillowhead manages to make the maudlin manageable.

“The Revelation” drops into a nice groove and takes the band in a much more low-key direction, eschewing the epic for the sake of a good tune (yet another check mark!). “55 Broad” has an extended instrumental section that shows the instrumental and songwriting chops of the band (can this band get any better?).

They chose to cover “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” by the Postal Service, which is a brilliant move on several levels. First off, they hooked me with the promise of this track; I (along with the rest of the indie world) love any and all covers of the Postal Service. Secondly, they didn’t mess with the track; they played it as a rock band playing a straight cover of a indie-techno song.  Finally, they pulled it off extremely well. Yet another kudos for the cart.

“Diseased, Misused and Wasted Youth” wraps things up; it’s also the title track, as the line “you’ve got convictions/you’ve got beliefs” shows up. It’s an emotive, powerful track, but it’s also got some solid melodies. It’s not your usual rock track, and that’s great.

This is the best possible EP Pillowhead could have released. Their songs are solid, their delivery is pitch-perfect, and their skills are undeniable. If you like rock or pop, you need this EP right now. We all know there is little justice in the music world, but if there were, you would already know about Pillowhead, ’cause everyone should know about Pillowhead. Amazing stuff.

Papermoons steal a shtick but make it tick

April 21, 2010

Death Cab for Cutie did not write an album between The Photo Album and Transatlanticism that spanned the gap between the dreamy, distorted qualities of the former and the humble, direct pop of the latter. They just pretty much abandoned one for the other. It’s not an issue any more, though; Papermoons’ New Tales fills the gap with eerie precision.

Matt Clark’s voice is exactly the same as Ben Gibbard’s in pitch, tone, and inflection. His songs fluctuate between fuzzed-out indie bliss and knocked-out indie sadness, much in the DCFC way. I am not kidding or exaggerating: this sounds like a lost Death Cab record.

And I think it’s awesome. There are people who will hate it because of that, but I am glad this record exists.

“Bad Notes” features a calmly picked acoustic guitar, far-off harmonica, high-pitched pad synths and hushed vocals for an incredibly intimate listening experience. The lazy stops and starts of “Holy Cow” make me feel as if I’ve stumbled into Clark’s bedroom after he just woke up. “Car Lights” slows it down even farther, making each chord into a gift. It’s gorgeous. There’s no other real term for it.

The ten songs of New Tales are completely and totally devoid of bravado, irony, posturing, anger, grittiness, psychedelic tendencies, or noise. They are full of lush orchestrations, honest performances, beautiful melodies and a sense of wonder. This album doesn’t break new ground, but it does claim the ground it’s on for its own. Whether or not you’re excited about these particular claimgrabbers depends on your feelings toward Death Cab. I like it a lot.

See Green has a unique synth-laden take on pop music

April 20, 2010

See Green’s Violet EP is a rowdy blast of synthy, poppy fun. It’s easy to listen to, and it almost rolls down the windows on your car for you. The upbeat, sunny music draws a lot on nineties and eighties radio pop, but updates the sound with the inclusion of strange and interesting instruments and sounds.

Those instruments (a glockenspiel and very strange synths, most prominently) make the EP what it is. They’re also slightly off-putting in their unique qualities.  When the band settles down and just cranks out a chorus, it’s almost always pure gold; Courtenay Green (who is the primary artist behind See Green) has the melodic gift that so many other bands covet. The rest of the songs, with their quirky instrumentation and songwriting, never cross the line from “weird” to “endearing.”

Future efforts should refine and mold the sound, and the rough edges will either get knocked off or transform into something even more distinct. Either direction is fine; more stomping pop like “Get What I Want” would be welcomed, while “Goldmine” would probably be less awkward if it just went the straight-up prog route instead of hopping back and forth between prog and pop.

Violet is a solid EP. It establishes Green as an artist, drops some good tunes and shows avenues for future growth and direction. It’s not perfect, but it’s fun, and that covers a multitude of wounds.

A Road to Damascus' pop-punk is highly enjoyable

April 19, 2010

Even though it’s been raining for the last few days, summer is indeed coming. And that means it’s time for summer music. It’s just hard to rock the Bon Iver with the sun shining and the windows down. Then again, I wouldn’t really consider Last Tuesday, Relient K or The Bee Team during the doldrums of December. Everything in its right place.

A Road to DamascusSo Damn Close EP is an excellent slice of summer music. Pop-punk with enough pop to roll the windows down but enough punk to keep the energy high, the three tracks here sport a sheen that could be construed as annoying if you weren’t taking it at face value. Don’t try to read anything in to these songs; they’re not made for it.

But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t great tunes. The vocal melodies of “So Damn Close” are bright without being sugar-coated, perfect for singing along. The darker mood of “Sweetheart” evokes AFI in all the right ways, from the dour but catchy chorus to the breakdown in the bridge to the minor but not dissonant guitarwork. Equally as catchy as the first track, but in different ways. That’s what I want out of a band.

“Sang 3″ yanks Yellowcard’s rhythmic and melodic shtick, but it does it with so much enthusiasm and candor that it’s entirely forgivable. While not the best track here, it’s certainly enjoyable and interesting. It features the only moment on this EP to give me shivers, at 2:40. I won’t ruin it for you.

A Road to Damascus’ So Damn Close EP is loads of fun. The tracks are fun to listen to, beg to be sung along with, and would almost certainly inspire fist-pumping at a concert. There’s not much more that I want out of a pop-punk band, and I don’t think that’s much more than the band wants to be. Highly recommended.

Paul Masson's debut EP struggles to establish artistic identity

April 18, 2010

Paul Masson has a voice that almost exactly recalls Ray LaMontagne. The rough, passionate rasp that is so distinctive to Mr. LaMontagne is apparently not as distinctive as we once thought. If you’re a fan of this particular performance style, then you’ll love Paul Masson’s self-titled EP.

Masson isn’t a rip-off; he just happens to have a eerily similar voice to someone already established. Not a crime. His tunes are country tunes, whereas LaMontagne’s are ballads. But it’s still an eerie coincidence on some tracks, and it’s a hard thing to get over (note how I haven’t been able to stop talking about it). The songwriting doesn’t do much to help the issue; the songs are totally vehicles for the vocals. They are fine tunes, but their merits cannot be parsed apart from the vocals. It really would be doing a disservice to the songs, which were clearly not written to stand on their own. And that’s no crime either.

But it does leave us with an intriguing problem: the music points me to the vocals, which point me elsewhere. I keep thinking that “Hannah” is going to pop up next on my playlist after a Paul Masson song. The reprieve from this is “My Girl Baltimore,” which has such a powerful melody that it grips me beyond the quibbles I’ve had with the tunes thus far. It is, far and away, the best track here. It will grip your heart.

Paul Masson is a talented individual who has focused his EP on things that distract me from his own identity. If these songs had more distinctive arrangements, it would be easier to pass over some of the other quibbles. But at the moment, it’s hard to distinguish Masson as his own artist.

If you’ve never heard Ray LaMontagne, though, you should totally check Paul Masson out. You’d like him. And then check Ray LaMontagne out after that. You’ll love him too.

Cady Groves enjoys the good "Life"

April 17, 2010

I really like old-school Dashboard Confessional. The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most was the maximum amount of emotion you could put into an album before it became maudlin; the rest of his discography would bear testament to that. But Places is the perfect combination of raw vocals, skilled guitarwork, powerful melodies and weighty lyrics. I still listen to it, ten years later.

Cady Groves’ The Life of a Pirate has a lot of similarities to Carrabba’s work. Cady has a similar guitar style (although not as raw or as hard – CC was terrible to his guitar strings in the early days), an honest voice and striking melodies. Her lyrical quality isn’t up to Dashboard standards, but it’s easily enough ignored. Just sing “oh” and you won’t even notice.

And these are singalong songs; they aren’t burdened with any tricks or gimmicks. This is songwriting the way I like it: spare and unadorned. There’s nowhere for Groves to hide in these songs, and – thankfully – she doesn’t need to cover her songwriting in layers of junk. It’s solid the way it is.

“Or Else” is an extremely emotive piece that has several ear-catching vocal melodies; “I’m Still Here” makes me wonder if a female version of Jason Mraz would be as loved by male fans as the real Mr. A-Z is by females (for the record: I think yes). “The Life of a Pirate” starts out with pensive sea noises – as opposed to beach-party noise – and never lets the mood of the beach go. It’s a gorgeous song, and it doesn’t feel forced in the least.

If you like singing along to acoustic pop with an open heart and solid melodies, you’re going to enjoy Cady Groves. Her songwriting is clear, bright and infectious. Recommended.

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

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