Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Year of the Dragon lay down party-friendly, non-angsty rap-rock

May 6, 2010

Year of the Dragon’s Blunt Force Karma is extremely entertaining because of what it doesn’t do. The rap-rock that they espouse doesn’t take itself seriously at all, but they resist the urge to make parody songs. Instead, they write serious music with a “let it all hang out” attitude that makes it fun while still loose. The vocalists especially sound like they’re having a genuinely good time.

The whole album lacks the disaffected anger that characterized rap-rock, but it still rocks. “Who Will Save You Know” has excellent riffing and a stomping break. “Poppin'” has a deliciously explicit chorus (“why in the F*** are you takin’ me there?”) that you will want to holler along with. “Bailout” lays down some heavy funk that is irresistably head-bobbing. “High Times” has great guitar work, melodically and rhythmically.

Like I said at the top, this album is entertaining. It doesn’t take anything too seriously musically, even when they’re cranking out top-notch riffing and laying down lyrics on serious topics. You can slap this on a party and people will enjoy it. But if you sit down and listen to it, it has things to offer there as well. It’s really versatile, and that’s impressive. Definitely worth your time if you like modern rock.

The Fools release an astounding, gorgeous acoustic album

May 5, 2010

I maintain a playlist on my iTunes called “Songs I Wish I’d Written.” This list is composed of beautiful, powerful songs so deeply ingrained in my brain that I cannot remember ever not knowing them. They’re mostly acoustic songs, as those resonate most with me. There are only three bands that have two tracks on the roughly thirty-song list: quirky chart-toppers Fountains of Wayne, indie mainstay Sufjan Stevens and unsigned acoustic duo The Fools.

“Open Door” and “For My Mother” are the tracks that made it to the list; both come off the Fools’ Lost and Found. It should be noted that Lost and Found consists of eight songs that run barely over twenty minutes. The Fools wrote two near-perfect songs in a fraction of the time it took artists like Damien Jurado and the Mountain Goats (two of my favorite bands) to write one.

Near-perfect tracks “Open Door” and “For My Mother” fuse genuine emotion with incredible melodies, uncluttered arrangements, an intimate recording style, a hopeful musical tone, thoughtful lyrics and a refreshing lack of needless repetition. “Open Door”  is over in 1:34; “For My Mother” is over in 2:54. The band states its points passionately and lets them stand. If that’s not a sign of mature, assured songwriting, I’m not sure what is.

And they are great songwriters and musicians. Their mellow, gentle acoustic songs are simple and executed beautifully. “Open Door” features a warm keyboard in the background, accompanying the insistent acoustic guitar and lithe bass notes. The calm but passionate female vocals seal the deal; they’re not high, but they’re not low, either. Her alto range fits the music perfectly, giving the already easy-going tunes an air of uncomplicated ease. It honestly feels like The Fools sat down and just tossed off these recordings; they’re not overproduced, overthought, or overwrought. At the same time, they don’t feel rushed or hurriedly made. It feels like The Fools are playing a live show for me.

There are six other tunes on this all-too-short LP; five of them are nearly as good as the two I’ve been lauding for three hundred words now. The sixth, “A Good Day,” would still be a standout anywhere else, but the percussion makes it feel slightly gimmicky compared to the passionate, intimate feel of the rest of the tracks. The alarm clock at the beginning of the song doesn’t help out either.

“The Dream” has just the right amount of reverb attached to the vocals to create a gorgeous, dreamy mood without becoming a strange psychedelic piece. “The Great Whale” has a great bass line to accompany a unique vocal line. “Cosmic Love” features a bit darker tone, but it’s still gentle and lovely. The wistful “Always Tomorrow” has the power to sway my mood to the melancholy. I could go on.

Lost and Found is easily in my top three releases of the year thus far. Their songwriting is immaculate, the recordings are gorgeous, and the finished product is astounding. I can’t say enough good things about this album; it’s beautiful and it’s not going to leave my heavy rotation for a long, long time. I just hope there’s more where this came from.  You need this album if you like mellow music.

Sonarpilot's epic-length techno album produces astounding results

Sonarpilot‘s Mothership is easily one of the most ambitious albums I’ve ever heard. It’s ambitious in its two-hour-plus running length, which sprawls over two CDs. Furthering its ambitions, there are only eleven songs in 120+ minutes. That’s an average of over ten minutes per song, with some going much longer than that. Standout track “First Contact” is three seconds shy of being twenty-three minutes of techno. There is nothing concise about the songs on Mothership.

But that’s okay, because the songs are good. Somehow, “First Contact” doesn’t sound repetitive or forced. In fact, none of the tracks feel uncomfortable or hyper-extended. Sonarpilot’s deft control of mood and refusal to put stomping house beats to their music makes the listening of the album more of an ebb and flow than a rave.

That’s not to say there aren’t upbeat moments that are fit for the dance floor. There definitely are. But the overall feel of the album is much subtler than a Cascada song. With the exception of the gimmicky “Celtic Lounge,” the album is carefully constructed to avoid cliches and vapid fluff. I know that sounds seemingly impossible on a two-hour double CD (which would probably be an octuple vinyl or something), but it honestly goes really quickly. It’s like listening to Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space with no vocals and less angst.

It’s hard to point out particular tracks as winners when there’s so much contained in a single track. But the stuttering melodic percussion of “Ripples” provides a great contrast to the mellow synths and clicking beats that so characterize the rest of the pieces. “First Contact” is a concept song (first time I’ve ever written that phrase) about a space journey that’s extremely well-done. “Desert Song” has some nice rhythms as well, hitting the ear nicely.

I’m not a big fan of techno music that doesn’t have monster synths, stomping beats and hooks. But Sonarpilot is so good at their craft that they hooked me into two hours of their music. If Mothership is this incredibly enjoyable for those who have a distaste for the genre, I can only imagine the effect it will have on those who love the genre. These techno grooves are solid, melodic, and extremely well-crafted. Highly recommended.

The Lions Rampant furthers the time-honored tradition: sex, drugs and rock'n'roll

May 2, 2010

If you read my review of Microbunny’s 49 Swans recently, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of seasonal music. It’s not a hard and fast rule; I just find myself listening to more pop-punk in summer than I do in winter. And so, The Lions Rampant‘s It’s Fun to Do Bad Things hit me at exactly the right time. This, dear readers, is summer music.

The Lions Rampant produces a bombastic blast of rock’n’roll that’s heavy on guitars, organ, attitude and vices. With titles like “Cocaine Anne,” “Cigs and Gin” and title track “It’s Fun to Do Bad Things,” it’s very clear what lifestyle TLR lives. And for roughly forty minutes, their brand of “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll” is the most engaging thing going.

The band’s adrenaline-fueled mishmash works perfectly and never gets repetitive. The members appropriate Hot Hot Heat (remember them?) on “The Lights On,” with an upbeat piano riff and a melodic approach to the vocals. This is distinctive because vocalist Stuart Mackenzie spends most of his time hollering, wavering somewhere between an out-and-out yell (“I Need (Your Love)” starts off with Mackenzie yelling “Kick out the jams!”, MC5-style) and a snarling speak/sing. It fits the splashy, charging rock perfectly.

And the members know they’re awesome, which makes this set of songs even more enjoyable. “Give Me” steals Queen’s shtick, demanding that someone give him someone to love. It’s not a cover; it’s a direct challenge to Queen, apparently. Or maybe they don’t know about Queen. Or maybe they don’t even care. Yeah, who really cares? I think they’d prefer I just shut up and dance.

They don’t demand dancing on “Cigs and Gin.” That’s because they destroy pop song structures with the tune, taking stops and starts to a new level. They let Mackenzie ramble on for about half the song without any accompaniment from the band. But it’s not divisible into this half and that half; he’ll ramble for twenty seconds, then the band will crash in, then drop out twenty seconds later, only to crash in five later, and on and on. It keeps the listener on point, as there’s absolutely no way to tell what’s going to happen. A whole album of this would be frustrating, probably; but in this context, it’s hands down the best track. It rocks when the band kicks it in, and it rocks when the band isn’t stomping through. It’s easily the best rock song I’ve heard all year.

There are a half dozen more songs on this album that deserve to be talked about, but there’s not the space nor your attention span for that. Just go buy It’s Fun to Do Bad Things by the Lions Rampant. If you like sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, or bands that espouse that ideology, you will love the Lions Rampant. Highly recommended for the rock’n’rolla in you.

Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.

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