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Month: January 2011

Quick Hits: Jim Ivins Band

Jim Ivins Band impressed me with their slick modern acoustic pop sound last time out. Their newest set of songs doesn’t disappoint either, although it doesn’t appear under the happiest circumstances. Their contributions to Songs of Life: The Kathy Ivins Project is two new tunes and a full-band version of a previously released solo track to commemorate Kathy Ivins, the mother of Jim (lead vocals/guitar) and Jack Ivins (drums). She passed away of cancer in 2010, inspiring these tunes.

And they are a fitting tribute, as they build on the strengths from their previous EP. The melodies are strong and memorable, the band is tight and well-arranged, the production is warm without being saccharine, and the overall impression left by these tracks is positive. “Moving” features a massive chorus and a generally powerful feel, while “You Can Have It All” features some neat syncopated percussion and a wiry, direct feel. The chorus is no less memorable for the lessened heft of the songwriting. Comparisons to Goo Goo Dolls and the very best moments of Matchbox 20 abound, and as a child of the ’90s I mean those comparisons as compliments. “Stages of Your Life,” the updated acoustic track, doesn’t have the same pop as the full-band compositions, but it’s still passable.

Good art often emerges from tragedy, and these tunes can be counted in that long tradition. I hope someone writes songs this solid for me when I’m gone; quite an honor. Purchase the album these tunes come from here; two other bands offer up tunes to complete the set.

Single: Hoodie Allen’s “Dreams Up”

Hoodie Allen is back. After dropping the frenetic, energetic Pep Rally last year, he’s got a new mixtape coming out called Leap Year. The first cut is called “Dreams Up,” and you can download it here. It’s straight-up Hoodie Allen style: RJF chops up a hip indie rock song (“White Nights” by Oh Land) into a beat without getting too crazy, while Allen drops some even flow with a lot of pop culture name dropping. It’s fun. The downside: other than slowing down the speed of his rapping, “Dreams Up” doesn’t show any new sides of Hoodie Allen or RJF. But it is only a lead single; they have a whole mixtape for that.

Either way, if you liked Pep Rally, Hoodie Allen’s still your boy, makin’ it safe for even the most reluctant of rap listeners to get in on the game.

Ithica knocks their self-titled album out of the park

I’ve had Ithica‘s self-titled release for a while now. I didn’t neglect to review it because it’s bad, but because it’s so good.

I had a pretty wretched 2010 in many regards. Failures personal, professional and health-related cast a pallor over the year. I did not want to think about anything more than I absolutely had to, and that’s why Ithica’s brilliant self-titled album got shuffled to the side.

I have to think about Ithica because it is a truly genre-less piece of work. To say it’s indie-rock is a bit incorrect, because there are few guitars and even fewer directly rock-oriented moves. It’s got some pop melodies, but it’s not pop. It’s deeply electronic, but very human. It’s lushly orchestrated but never indulgent. It’s got high ideals, a cinematic scope, and immaculate production. It’s gorgeous, but never saccharine or maudlin.

Enough with the nots. It is a sort of extra-beautiful industrial music, in that it is electronic, rhythmic music for the sake of music. It’s a concept album about the breakdown of a family through the eyes of a child; a sort of The Suburbs meets OK Computer meets Mommy Dearest. It has similarities to TV on the Radio, although I can’t entirely put my finger on what it is about the two that are the same.

The songs are not structured in normal pop structures; they flow and morph as Ithica feels they should. The best example of their sound is “There Is Love In The Ceiling,” which starts off with distant atmospheric synths underlaid by a deep rumble. A mildly distorted breakbeat fades into another breakbeat, louder and less distorted. A child’s voice comes in, reverbed and repeated:

“They’re screening their phone calls
they’re locking their doors
they’re choking down silence
they’re sleeping on an empty floor
They say that God is a slogan
They say that truth is a children’s song
They claim that love has completely vanished
they claim that love is finally gone
there is love in the ceiling
there is love scribbled on the bathroom floor
there is love in the furniture
there is love in every secret drawer.”

It’s dark. It’s heavy, emotionally (see why I didn’t want to deal with this in my dark and heavy year?). The song builds as the lyrics go through, introducing a piano elegy into the rhythmic mix, as well as some faux strings that are clearly faux but beautiful because of their fakeness in the context of the tune.

Then a major chord appears; the tune shifts lyrically and melodically, although not entirely to a major key. “I believe those dead will live again/there is love in the ceiling,” the voice intones. Then the song ends.

Shivers.

Other places a male vocalist sings; his voice has a plaintive honesty that meshes perfectly with these deeply confessional and ruminative tracks. The melodic ideas from “There Is Love In The Ceiling” continue throughout the album: atmospheric synths, beautiful piano, heavy drumming and a very personal mood.

Some albums feel like a diary being read to you; this feels like sitting next to someone as their life is playing out before you. These tracks are difficult to forget because they are so powerful. The only track that isn’t incredibly appealing is “My Manic Mother Quietly Folding Clothes,” which has a very sterile feel, complete with whirring machine noises, sludgy bass and wailing siren-esque noise. It doesn’t feel good, but it’s not supposed to; it’s about not feeling anything. The sound perfectly matches the lyrical intent, making it excellent even it is (intentional) coldness.

“A Grace” is another heart-rending highlight, as the piano-heavy track depicts a scene where a child makes a crucifixion scene out of his toys, much to the horror of his mother. It drags in themes of childhood lost, regret, guilt, pain, family, religion, grace and more without ever preaching. If you don’t feel wrung out at the end of the tune, I would recommend you listen again with your ears turned on.

Albums like Ithica are why I don’t make my best-of list until February of the following year. This is one of the best releases of the year, because there’s no one else this year that even tried to do what Ithica excelled at. This is a singular vision completed excellently; it’s an achievement on par with The Postal Service’s Give Up, which was so good that they didn’t even try a follow-up. Let’s hope that Ithica has something else to say, because this concept album is beautiful and nearly perfect. I’ve never heard anything like it, and that’s amazing.

Quick hits: Pineross

Pineross‘s Detached is a set of rustic Americana tunes with mostly spoken word vocals on top of it. In tunes like opener “A Vision,” the cadence and flow come close to rapping; in the following track “Run So Fast,” there’s more of a storytelling vibe about it with some easygoing singing. The tunes here run the gamut, from the saloon-vibe piano-led pop of “Run So Fast” to the accordion-led Spaghetti Western feel of “Motorbike” to the carnival-esque, modern sounds of the rap-heavy “Ruins” and the bluegrass vibe of “No Soundtrack.” Acutally, that’s just the first half of the album; that’s how varied and interesting this thing is.

Songwriter Kevin Larkin is good at both the rustic sounds he creates from his instruments and the vocals he inventively lays on top of those songs, making for a fascinating and unique experience. Explaining it any more than that is nearly impossible to me; it’s such a complete, formed idea that it seems an injustice to try and explain it in words. Go listen to it for yourself if you like alternative rap, unusual acoustic music or something different in general.

Quick Hits: Like Clockwork

Here Are Some Things is a teaser EP for Like Clockwork‘s very long awaited album These Are All Things, which could be as big as a triple LP. The current press says “full-length record,” so make of that what you will.

The EP contains four pop songs. “Grappling Hook” dabbles in Cobra Starship-esque dance pop, while “Televisionary” is like a Fountains of Wayne power-pop song. “Method Act” is a Guster-esque acoustic tune. “Starchild” is a distorted garage-rock tune. None of them are bad, but the vast array of genres makes it feel like nothing more than a teaser. There’s no coherence, nor does it seem that any was attempted. It’s literally “some things.”

Like Clockwork has experience with dance-pop, so his skills in that area are a bit more refined in “Grappling Hook” than in other areas. Ending track “Starchild” is a bit of a mess, but it’s an enjoyable crash. The most ambitious of the set, it starts off at a punk-fueled clip and then spins out into a spaced-out, flowy jam before throwing down some intermittent guitar noises for a long outro.

The EP certainly shows the breadth of Like Clockwork’s songwriting interests. I don’t know how the album is going to pan out after hearing this EP, because it could go in any direction. But the EP certainly has me looking forward to the album, so it’s done its job very well.

Quick Hits: G-Eazy

I’ve been enjoying the new school of rappers throwing down lyrics on top of indie-rock tunes. From Chiddy Bang to Drake to Hoodie Allen (and, ok, the WTF Childish Gambino), they’re popping up everywhere. I love it.

G-Eazy is a rapper in that style. He has two singles kickin’ about the interwebz: The Tennis-sampling “Waspy” and  “Good for Great Remix” of Matt and Kim’s track off Sidewalks, which I raved over a couple weeks ago.

“Waspy” is more of a production job than “Good for Great,” as G-Eazy (who produces his own beats) chops up “Marathon” by Tennis and puts a heavy beat behind it. It’s still recognizable as “Marathon,” which is cool, but the production leaves enough space for the rapping without the song seeming cluttered. The lyrics present a romance between a “punk kid” and a rich “WASPy girl.” The breezy Tennis track evokes an air of Ivy League privilege, making it a perfect fit for the lyrics.

G-Eazy’s rhymes are solid, and his flow is just ragged enough to be interesting. It’s not too erratic, but it keeps attention.

“Good for Great Remix” scrubs most of the vocals from the track and drops G-Eazy’s lyrics in. There is some extra rhythmic production, but it mostly beefs up what was already there. I love Matt and Kim, so I like the remix, even though the lyrics aren’t my favorite. It’s your standard “fuck school, go live life” set, which isn’t my favorite rhetoric (woo grad school!).

G-Eazy has some solid production skills, but I could stand to see his lyrics move above the standard rap motifs. Right now his production talent far surpasses his lyric choices (but not his rapping ability; the boy can rap).

Athletics marry post-rock and modern rock for an adrenalized, emotional experience

I don’t review modern rock on Independent Clauses very much. This is not because I don’t like it; on the contrary, I like good modern rock very much. It’s just that there’s not a lot of it to be had. I love everything Anberlin releases, because it has the emotional impact that much indie rock and folk has while still retaining the guitar bombast, cavernous drums and throat-shredding vocals. But most other bands just can’t stay artsy when they throw down a double pedal roll.

Thankfully, Athletics is championing good modern rock in an incredibly subversive way. By marrying the power of modern rock to the melodic thrust of post-rock (which is, as a backlash to modern rock’s posturing, one of the most emotional genres we currently have), they created Why Aren’t I Home?, which is a consistently amazing debut.

The press for Athletics gushes “It’s one of those albums that reminds you why it is you listen to music in the first place,” and for once the music lives up to the exuberant PR.

The band starts off with the title track, which lays down a distant atmosphere before bringing in rapidly arpeggiated, cascading guitar work. The drummer rolls expectantly on the cymbals. A second guitar comes in with a building guitar line. A tom pound punctuates the preceedings, leading to a snare roll. The vocals, clear and strong roar out as a bell kit comes in. The music leads to the breaking point.

and then nothing happens. They pause entirely.

And THEN they bring in the whole band, with screaming guitars, pounding drums, thundering bass to create an absolutely triumphant feel. It’s post-post-rock; it’s music to think about and mosh to. At the same time, if you can.

The band spends the entire album messing with people’s ideas of what rock is. “See You on the Other Side” is a straight-up rock tune, with a cascading guitar line on top of the mix as the only sign that this band isn’t on tour with Anberlin. The song whips into a frenzy by the end, and you’re probably dead if you aren’t excited as well. “Fairview” is a slow, churning mood piece that would be in perfect company with Sigur Ros. “Jordan” is a vocals-heavy indie rock song, honestly. “Lullaby” isn’t a lullaby at all, but one of the most tense pieces on the album, complete with distorted hollering and a crushing sense of doom underpinning the piece.

But it’s speaking for everyone that gives the most shivers (and trust me, I had more shivers listening to this album than I have in any other album this year). It’s a hollowed-out tune, with the vocals reverbed and the guitars amorphously shifting the atmosphere in the background. It’s incredibly mournful, put over the top by the devastating cry “Have mercy/on everyone/but me” which takes over the last minute of the song and turns into an emotional destroyer. Haunting isn’t a strong enough word.

I could write about each song here, but that would be doing the music a disservice. If you like adrenaline and distorted guitars in your music, but can’t stand posturing of any variety, you need to track down Why Aren’t I Home? It’s easily the most emotional rock experience that I’ve ever heard and/or been a part of, thanks to their brilliant songwriting and spot-on execution. This band deserves to “make it,” whatever making it means to them. This band is amazing, and this album must only be the beginning. Please, for the love of all that is good and right in music, stay together, Athletics.

Ampline defies classification with a brilliant, tightly-wound album

Ampline plays the type of music that makes genres irrelevant. You Will Be Buried Here crams 17 tracks of rock, punk, post-rock, post-punk, indie-pop, folk and more into 43 minutes. To say that it defies classification is like saying Picasso is a painter. It just doesn’t do the phrase justice. Ampline plays music, and they do it brilliantly.

The band kicks the set off with the title track, a mellow rumination complete with piano, bell kit and vocals (which are used sparingly throughout). Having known them primarily as a raucously energetic band, this was a bit of a curve, but a good curve nonetheless. After a very enjoyable minute, they shut the tune down and kick into their first distorted tune, “Our Carbon Dreams.”

Ampline’s sound is very simple: a guitar, a bass guitar, a drummer and occasional vocals. They make much out this by limiting repetition of parts and genres. “Our Carbon Dreams” comes complete with ascendant guitar lines reminiscent of early Appleseed Cast. “Until He Wore Out and Died” opens with a complicated, rhythmic bass line and uses it as the jumping off point for an incredibly enjoyable tune. “Vessels of Dead Weight” turns a low-slung riff into a herky-jerky headbanger. “The Electric City” is an almost-optimistic tune with some great guitar work. “Petals” includes sleigh bells in the mix for a different feel.

It’s all held together by a very tight mood that stays strong even when the songs change. Guitarist Mike Montgomery recorded, mixed and mastered the whole effort, and the fact that someone very close to the tunes did the engineering is clear. The mix is pristine, showing off exactly what the band is. The mix is so immediate that it feels as if Ampline is in the room with you.

The songs within are strong, engaging and worth repeating, each emotional in a far more realistic way than Dashboard Confessional or the latest pop/punk band are. They draw the listener in, clearly display an emotion, and invite the listener to experience that with the musicians. It’s this pull throughout the entire album that makes closer “Room and Pillar” the devastating punch it is; after an entire album of tightly-wound, organized music, they lead you out with a single-note melody on a distant guitar underscored by some mumbling. It says volumes with very little, simply because it means something as a piece of the bigger whole.

It is incredibly rare for a band to have talents this strong at each instrument, and rarer still for them to have interlocking chemistry as tight as Ampline’s. This album is striking; even as a person who listens to music all day every day, this album grabbed me from the get-go and did not relinquish my attention until it was over. This is easily one of my favorite releases of the year; I’m sad that I didn’t hear about it until just now. You Will Be Buried Here is a spectacular achievement.

Quick Hits: Old Man's Beard

A lot can be done with an acoustic strum and a snare shuffle. Old Man’s Beard knows this and puts it to good effect on The River. They specialize in pristinely-recorded folk songs, making the familiar elements of folk and country into bright, shiny parts of pop songs.

This is not a bad thing; the instruments sound gorgeous, the vocals are beautiful, and the snare shuffle has never sounded more elegant. Purists will complain that Old Man’s Beard has more in common with Guster than Alan Lomax, and that’s true. But I don’t see that as something to complain about. There are plenty of Woody Guthrie wannabes, and not enough songs that sound like “Empty Pockets” (the purists will debate this point too, but I don’t care).

Most of these songs ease about at a stately pace, giving the listener time to enjoy the immaculate recording. Some of them move slowly because there are deep reggae influences (“Dawson Bound,” “Tofino”). The former even has the signature drumbeat and strum pattern as reggae. Still, the note-perfect production of the song ties it in with the rest in feel.

The River is an absolutely gorgeous record. There is nothing out of place and no mistakes: nothing but pristine sound. The songs are memorable, fun and interesting. And seriously, the production is amazing. I love The River. Highly recommended for fans of acoustic pop or a wide interpretation of the word “folk.”

Quick Hits: Feldiken

There are few things I love more than a song celebrating life. There are plenty of break-up songs and misery tunes in the world, but not enough songs championing good things. Feldiken (the man) is on a mission to change that.

Feldiken (the musical project) has a new EP called Common Splendor, and it is six songs of relentless positivity. His sound primarily stays in the upbeat, bright-eyed pop that he showcased on his debut album Small Songs About Us. The notable exception is “Together in this Groove,” which is a surprisingly coherent and entertaining dance track. While the songwriting style hasn’t changed too much, the lyrics are much more memorable this time around.

Title track “Common Splendor” tells short stories of people taking care of other people, and it’s sincere enough to defeat any accusations of kitsch. Instead, the lyrics are genuinely uplifting and beautiful. “Everybody Loves You” does get a bit saccharine, but it’s redeemed by the funk-inflected pop of “Everything for Everyone.” It’s still not for everyone; I mean, it’s a funky song about helping people. There is no irony here.

Feldiken’s voice is solid, his songwriting is tight, and the EP wooshes by in with a grin and a dance step or two. Fans of Backyard Tire Fire, Bishop Allen and Guster will embrace Feldiken, as will anyone who loves an optimist.