Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Quick hits: Anna Madorsky

November 30, 2010

As I come to the close of another year here at Independent Clauses, I find that I have not written as much at IC as I have in other years. Life is always about finding a balance, and it often seems that my balance changes as soon as I find it. In short, I say every year that “this was a year of flux,” and honestly, they all are. This year was no different, but it also resulted in less posts. Who knows what the next year will bring?

Because of my post shortage, I have stuff that never got posted as it should have. So, I’ll be posting “quick hits” for the next couple posts: reviews shorter than the average IC review, but still important. Here we go.

Anna Madorsky’s theatrical take on dreamy pop incorporates the cold atmospheres of trip-hop and energy of punk. Her unique amalgam draws comparisons to the Dresden Dolls in “Evidence of Me,” Bjork in “Verb” and Fleetwood Mac in “An Ass for Every Seat.” Her piano pieces fare better than her guitar compositions, as her expressive mezzosoprano carries the ivory-led songs with a refreshing confidence.

The best example is standout track “The Unreliable Narrator,” which leans on a heavy, complex drum beat and deft piano work before bringing in fuzzed-out guitar work and synths for a propulsive, yet mesmerizing, effect. Talk Is Cheap is recommended for fans of strong-willed female singer/songwriters (Ani DiFranco, Fiona Apple, et al).

The Top Twenty Quest: Sufjan Stevens and The Age of Adz

November 29, 2010


It’s now been over a month since I saw Sufjan Stevens at McFarlin Auditorium in Dallas, TX. The time gap is not for lack of interest in writing about the proceedings; the show was so overwhelming that it took a while for me to process it.

Only complicating the digestion of the show is its inseparability from The Age of Adz, from which the show pulled material heavily. Instead of the album being a teaser for the show or vice versa, the two create a total experience greater than either part. You can’t see Sufjan’s choreographed dances on the album; you can’t hear “I Want to Be Well” live. Both are necessary for a full understanding of what’s happening in both.

Much has been made of Sufjan’s recent drum machine obsession, and that is an important part of The Age of Adz, for sure. Sufjan wants to show the chaos that comes of a broken heart, and the brittle pounding of his digital music is a perfect medium for that. But it is important to note that he doesn’t just slam the listener with a post-apocalyptic slab of traumatized notes – he waits until track three for “The Age of Adz.” The first two tracks cannot be forgotten, lest the album become Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space redux. Not that appropriating Spiritualized’s masterpiece would be that much of a bummer, but Sufjan’s eyes are set higher than that.

And that’s why “Futile Devices” opens the album. More than just a way to ease hardcore Sufjanites into his new sound, it plays an essential role in setting the scene of the album. My first impression of the lyrics was that Sufjan is singing from the perspective of the girl who is leaving him; even though there are references to the person who would be Sufjan crocheting, I kind of expect Sufjan to be able to know how to crotchet. “I think of you as my brother, although that sounds dumb; and words are futile devices,” Sufjan laments at the close of the track. And what poor nice guy hasn’t heard a variant on those lines before?

After inserting some sounds like muted bombs dropping (nice touch!), Sufjan snakes his way into “Too Much.” It’s a nice post-Postal Service tune; a little heavy on the staccato drumming, but featuring a good melody and harmony lines that distinctly recall previous Sufjan work.

That’s the secret of Age of Adz, after all: it’s a regular Sufjan album when you strip away the digital stuff. It would be (mostly) possible to remove all the digital parts from the album, as there’s a remarkable amount of organic instrumentation throughout. I hope some aspiring DJ pulls it all out and gives us Age of Adz … Naked. It would be an interesting listen, but here’s what I expect we’d find if someone like Max Tannone did the project: Sufjan still writes amazing songs in much the same way he used to, regardless of the window dressing.

So is “Too Much” the giveaway that the digital stuff is a gimmick? No. That’s where the live performance comes in to make sense of things. Sufjan’s tour was a multi-sensory experience, not just a concert. “Too Much” live included a spastic video that isolated movements of Sufjan and others, bringing light to the robotic nature of motion when connecting motions are lost. Sufjan and two backup dancers performed a similar dance while singing, which was less spastic but more disorienting due to the odd nature of the planned movements.

Who hasn’t felt disjointed during a breakup? Sufjan points out the all-encompassing obsession with romantic love in our society in the lyrics of “Too Much,” then complains that because “there’s too much riding on that,” we’re all messed up when it goes wrong. Leave it to Sufjan to point out something so obvious that no one talks about it, and to make the point seem so clear that I can’t believe no one else is saying it as loudly.

But, as breakups are wont to do, things get worse. Sufjan noted during his performance that “Age of Adz” was “where I confuse heartbreak for the apocalypse,” and that’s exactly what the song sounds like. The art which graces the cover and fills the interior booklet correspond to this theme, as Sufjan told us (He also noted that it would have been artist Royal Robertson’s birthday, and that his widow was in the audience for the performance).

This and “I Want to Be Well” are the most jarring tunes on the album, and not just because they’re some of the most electronic-heavy ones. They touch a really deep nerve: It’s discomforting to hear Sufjan’s version of the break-upocalypse; the crushing melodrama is all too familiar and all too frustrating (irony: the girl I’m dating was with me at this show).

He follows it up with even more melodrama, as “I Walked” has some of the most raw (and, honestly, most high school-ish) lyrics he’s ever written. But the music in “I Walked” is one of the best musical efforts on the album, as it takes the songwriting style from previous work and effortlessly transitions it to electronic pop. As far as I can tell, there are no organic instruments in the recorded version of this song. Sufjan dances disjointedly in this song too, as well he should, for the same reasons as before.

Sufjan travels through various other breakup emotions: hindsight on “Now That I’m Older,” accusation on “Bad Communication,” longing for memories on “All for Myself” and self-motivation on “Get Real Get Right” and “Vesuvius.” When performed live, “Vesuvius” becomes even more dramatic than the recorded version; with an army of lights, Sufjan and his ten-piece band played accompaniment to the stage glowing red and orange in flickering patterns. They recreated the inside of a volcano, transforming the song from good to mind-blowing. In terms of sheer enjoyment, “Vesuvius” is the highlight from the show and the album; it is beautiful, powerful and moving.

Sufjan closes the album with “I Want to Be Well,” which has gotten lots of note for being the one where he says fuck sixteen times, specifically in the repeated phrase “I’m not fucking around.” Many Christians were sad. But as a Christian, I was not sad: these Christians condemning him for his display of emotion are not very honest with themselves. How many times have curse words burbled to the surface of terrible breakups? Lots. Especially inside people’s heads, which is where we are when we listen to Sufjan. Christian or no, it’s a hard thing to be broken up with, and sometimes it ends up with curse words.

Aside from that, it’s the biggest hopeful moment on the album, as Sufjan decides that he wants to get better from the breakup. He may not be getting better yet, but he wants to. He manages to say, “And I forgive you, even as you choke me!” That’s a pretty solid conclusion, wrapping around to the beginning of the album’s statements in “Futile Devices.” The mad rush of drums and vocals that is the last two and a half minutes of the song are some of the most heart-pounding on the album, because they’re simply cathartic.

It’s relieving that there’s a conclusion. If Sufjan didn’t have any finishing insight on what he saw, this whole album would be a hot mess (i.e. most breakup albums). But the lyrics, music and performances of Age of Adz all shed new light and commentary on the oldest pop music subject in the book.

We could have guessed this was coming, honestly. We got to hear about his home state, his religion, his childhood and his hobbies — why hadn’t we heard of his love life yet? Now we have. And boy, that was one massive breakup.

How bad was Sufjan’s breakup? Well, bad enough that he tells the whole story twice, because “Impossible Soul” is a 25-minute trip through the same exact story we just heard. It has almost exactly the same emotional arc as the first 49 minutes of the album, albeit with an extra bit that didn’t make the previous songs: an emphatic dance party in the middle where he recounts the best parts of the relationship. During the live performance, he heavily autotuned himself and seriously got down with the dance moves. I mean, Kanye West had nothing on this dude. He had an upside-down visor with a long tail of silver streamers on it. He was rocking it. It was incredibly fun to watch.

Aside from the dance floor jamz, the mini-opus travels through many of the same moods and feelings that the previous album did. And it’s brilliant. There’s really nothing else that can be said about a twenty-five minute track that doesn’t feel nearly that long.

Sufjan fleshed out his live performance with a few non-Adz tracks; “Chicago” made an obligatory appearance, as well as opener “Seven Swans” and “That Dress Looks Nice on You.” He played a couple from All Delighted People EP, which were nice (which is pretty much my conclusion on that whole EP, as well). They were thoroughly enjoyed by the audience, but in comparison to the inspiring opuses of Age of Adz, they felt a bit pale. Anything that can make the life-affirming power of “Chicago” seem pale needs to be taken very seriously.

And, seriously, Age of Adz is about as good as pop music gets. Sufjan has pushed the envelope of his own groundbreaking sound to its outer limits and returned with previously unknown jewels from those reaches. It’s fitting that acoustic guitar opens and closes the album; it truly is a Sufjan Stevens record. It’s just a Sufjan record that reaches for the very stars that compose the video of his “Seven Swans” performance. He pulls them down, too; there’s not a clunker anywhere on the album. Individually and collectively, this album succeeds. With the live show augmenting it, it becomes downright awe-inspiring.

Will this be his sound from now on? Almost certainly not. This is a document of what he went through that one time, and he’s a very good documenter of what he goes through. Like Ben Folds said, “I do the best imitation of myself,” and Sufjan’s most recently necessary imitation of himself required apocalyptic booms and synthesizers. Who knows what will happen next? I highly doubt Sufjan does, and that’s the wonder of his artistry. He makes as he is: he lets us in on secrets. The Age of Adz is not in the future; it happened already to Sufjan Stevens.

And we get to see and hear as he sees and hears. Rare is the talent so grand as Sufjan’s, and rarer still is an album so completely successful as Age of Adz.

Carl Hauck's gentle folk builds on the past with great success

November 28, 2010


Carl Hauck has spent his last few releases searching for an identity. He was right at the cusp of one with Counter Intelligence, and his subsequent release Windjammer finally pushed him over the top. Carl Hauck’s lush, calm, finger-picked folk rides on gently thoughtful lyrics and understated yet rich vocal melodies to create an expansive experience inside an intimate mood. Hold up while I unpack all that mumbo jumbo.

Opening track “Martial Riesling” is the best song I’ve heard yet from Hauck, building on the strengths of his “To Coast” track that he contributed to On Joyful Wings’ latest comp. He starts the song off with a gentle guitar melody, which he quickly follows up with calm but rapid lyrics. Hauck’s not in a hurry, but he’s got a lot to say; that idiom follows through the album. In previous albums, his rapid delivery made understanding difficult. That doesn’t happen here. He’s letting listeners in to his thoughts much more, not shrouding them in cryptic words or speedy delivery.

His sound takes a turn for the expansive when he brings horns in for accent toward the end of the song. They aren’t particularly brassy or blaring; they, like the rest of the album’s parts, gently make their case before fading off. It alerts the listener to keep ears out for the stuff that’s going to be happening on the album. The same was true with previous releases, but the sounds didn’t fit in his songs as cohesively. Now the pieces gel perfectly, as gentle orchestration becomes a staple of the album’s sound.

The circumstances in which Hauck wrote the album also help the mood. Windjammer is the name of the street Hauck grew up on; it’s the same street he currently lives on, where he wrote the album. The whole album has a quiet awe about it, and features repetition of vocal and guitar melodies heavily. The repetition serves as a model of the feelings running through his experience (“whoa, I’ve lived here before”), as well as a showcase of his excellent melodic abilities.

In addition to having wonderful songs throughout, this album is a cohesive experience. It is best listened to in order, without distraction from the liner notes, lyric transcription or anything else. From tip to tail, it evokes a consistent feeling that feeling washes over the listener. It put me in a nostalgic state, especially by the time “Rooster” appeared at track 7. It’s a rare album that sustains a single consistent mood without getting monotonous, so Windjammer is definitely worth praising on that front.

Carl Hauck’s latest release builds on his strengths and drops out old weaknesses, which is about all you can ask for in a developing artist. The songs are emotive and powerful without being forceful, and beautiful without being cloying. Windjammer is one of the best acoustic releases of the year, as it will continue to reveal treasures as one listens repeatedly.

Breathe Owl Breathe lets earnestness be its guide

November 8, 2010


Good bands write songs that people like and perform them well. Great bands write songs that people love and perform them excellently. The best bands write songs and perform in such a way that when a listener has finished watching or hearing, that listener feels the only appropriate thing to do is join the band and be awesome with them or — barring that Black Flag-esque experience — form their own band that is exactly like the band in question.

Breathe Owl Breathe is one of the very best bands I’ve seen live.

To start: in them there is no guile. The three members of the band are earnest beyond anything I’ve ever seen on stage. Whether it’s playing with a werewolf hat/puppet, telling dragon stories, delicately stagediving, dressing the part, cracking jokes or (oh yeah) performing their music, all is done with an absolute belief that “this is totally cool and fun.”

Many bands, when pulling off antics similar to BOB’s, would infuse the proceedings with a sense of irony, just as a protective device: The band still must be taken seriously, you know. Not so with these three. Their childish wonder and goofy stage antics are the serious part. And when the audience realized this on Thursday, Nov. 4, that’s when things got interesting.

“Dog Walkers of the New Age” kicked off the set, but the crowd was standoffish and confused at the fist-pumps in the otherwise mellow tune. It wasn’t until Micah donned a camail and started telling the story that precedes “Dragon” that people really got into it. Micah, Andrea and Trevor encouraged the audience to participate by giving them parts to clap and melodies to sing, which the audience (having caught on that the earnestness wasn’t a trick) enthusiastically obliged.

From then on, the audience was hooked, enjoying antics with the aforementioned werewolf hat, goofy dances and general glee. The stage show was enough to endear an attendee, but the fact that they played knockout tunes made the set impossible to not love. From “Own Stunts” to “Swimming” to “Board Games,” they blew through their tunes with perfection. The vocals were spot-on, the instruments sounded perfect, and the timing was precise. The band did not let their gleeful antics get in the way of their musicianship at all.

Instead, it seemed that the antics were an overflow of their musicianship; they just played that way. On “Board Games,” Andrea set up a tom and a snare, which she walloped with bouncy exuberance. When she played her cello, she did so with finesse and excitement. Micah, although not exuberant in his motions, played the whole set with a dry wit that kept the crowd in stitches. Trevor, unfortunately, was back in the shadows most of the time, but he did provide “ooo”s for the “spirit of the werewolf,” when it “flew” off Andrea’s head at the end of the song. I use quotation marks only because I know no other way to convey the ideas.

In short, Breathe Owl Breathe’s quiet, introspective folk songs translated into glorious, gleeful spectacles live. It was impossible to dislike the set, mostly because BOB was having so much fun doing what they were doing. Their energy was infectious, and it made for one of the most memorable sets I’ve ever seen. I’m sad I didn’t bring my camera. I’m sad I didn’t bring all my friends. These errors will be corrected next time.

You’ll never grow tired of this wonder you’re under…

November 3, 2010

I love folk music an inordinate amount for someone who’s only 22. I have no explanation for how I came into this love so early, other than burning out of punk rock early on account of overexposure and a lack of connection with the rebellious sentiment.

Explanations aside, here I am, loving Breathe Owl Breathe‘s Magic Central. The whole album can be summed up in this glorious sentence: This is what the National would sound like if they were a mellow folk band. The vocalist has a similar baritone, although his is less husky and more smooth that Matt Berninger’s croon. They have a similar penchant for dusky, hyper-romantic moods, infectious yet understated melodies, and a sense of wonder. Breathe Owl Breathe just has keyboards, occasional acoustic guitar, stringed instruments, toy pianos and female vocals making the music.

There is little distortion or dissonance here; these songs float along calmly and beautifully. Single “Swimming” includes a playful feel, as the vocals mimic a brushed snare drum for a hook. “Dog Walkers of the New Age” actually uses a brushed snare for a propulsive feel; that is, as propulsive as a song carried by ethereal keyboards and single notes plucked on a guitar. A cello swoons in and out, for effect. The whole thing sounds like a warm blanket.

It is when Breathe Owl Breathe contents itself with sitting back in their chilled out folk grooves that they score the highest marks. “Dragon” is a funky, jazzy sort of number that is good, but barely hangs with the rest of the tunes in mood. The keyboards connect the isolated pieces and save it from being a herky-jerky anomaly. When they instead kick it wistfully on “Lake Light,” it feels simultaneously like the chillest M. Ward track of all time and like a quiet day on someone’s back porch.  Those are both very good things, for the uninitiated.

“Across the Loch” is another highlight; the melody strikes quickly and remains lodged in the brain. It has a bit of a trip-hop influence; it’s just enough to make the song memorable without pushing it into a feel that doesn’t mesh with the majority of the album.

Magic Central is a chill, chill album. It is almost completely cohesive, rewarding those who listen to it in full sittings. The tunes are good by themselves, but when kept in context, my enjoyment built and built as I got progressively more calm and enjoyed the state that multiple Breathe Owl Breathe songs put me in. Highly recommended for fans of mellow folk that doesn’t necessarily need strummy guitars to be great.

Breathe Owl Breathe plays Opolis in Norman tomorrow. If their live show is anything like their albums, it will put you in a good humour. And who doesn’t want that? Go see it.

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