Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Happy Birthday to IC, vol. 8: The Duke of Norfolk

June 19, 2011

For Independent Clauses’ seventh birthday last year, I put out a small, limited-time compilation of unreleased songs by my favorite bands that IC has covered.  I stepped it up this year for IC’s eighth birthday: I helped put a real release of new material into the world.

The goal of IC over the past eight years has always been to help undiscovered artists; it’s a natural extension to move into producing and management.

Alt-folk singer/songwriter The Duke of Norfolk is the first artist I’m partnering with in this new venture; his new EP Barnacle Goose came out Tuesday. I helped produce it. The five-song release is free, and I’d recommend it to fans of Freelance Whales, Beirut, Guster and/or the banjo.

Thanks in advance for giving the tunes a listen! I’m pretty proud of the project, and hope you’ll enjoy it. Feel free to leave feedback  in the comments or send it to indieclauses@gmail.com. Thanks for being a part of Independent Clauses over the last octade; it’s been a fun, fascinating and sometimes fretful ride, but I love it. Here’s to eight more!

Horizon: Kiseleff

June 18, 2011

A single element of Kiseleff‘s A Sound Seal puts the band on the Horizon: the vocals. The album is composed of ten heavily electronic dance tracks that fall somewhere between techno, trance and house. (I don’t claim to be up enough on the sound to discern the nuances.) The ten songs average four minutes each, and they move with a solid beat throughout. These are well-written tunes that would be a lot of fun at a rave/out on the dancefloor.

But the low vocals jar against the sound often. The brighter a track’s tone, the harder the vocals clash: the ’80s-aping “Tightrope” is simply uncomfortable. The dark, moody “The Word” renders my argument null, as the vocalist’s Joy Division-esque vocals fit in perfectly. The awkward vocal lines in the peppy “The City Sublime,” however, remind me why I had the argument.

With a little more work on matching vocals to the tone of the compositions, Kiseleff could be something very exciting. Right now it’s off-putting in too many places.

Shaky Deville's raw rock'n'roll will bowl you over

June 17, 2011

If all rock sounded more like Shaky DeVille and less like Nickelback, I’d listen to a lot more rock’n’roll. Shaky DeVille sounds like the lovechild of rock’s Clutch, country-punk’s 500 Miles to Memphis, Irish punk’s Dropkick Murphys  and Bullets and Octane’s roaring, attitude-filled vocals. Let’s take a moment and think about that sentence. How could this band not be awesome?

You only have to listen to the first thirty seconds of “Come Out Ye Black and Tan” to know everything you need to know about Shaky DeVille. A distorted riff starts out the song, then transforms into crunchy, ear-pleasing guitar mashing. The galloping drums frantically press the sound forward, while the classic country bass line pulls the sound back. It makes Shakey DeVille sound completely awesome and somewhat like the world’s loudest, rawest country band.

“Prayers” has a similar country-esque effect, while the delightfully manic “Let’s Roll” jacks up the tempo even more. “You Had It Good” introduces some old-school metal influence. Title track “Hot Asphalt” sounds like an Irish punk song without the kitsch.

By the time straight-up country-punk tune “Red Sultan” closed out the disc, I’d been completely converted. If you like the idea of rockabilly or country-punk, but think that all the current incarnations are a bit wimpy, Shakey DeVille’s amalgam will take you home. Hot Asphalt is a rock record of which to be proud. Cheers, Shakey DeVille. Have you heard of 500 Miles to Memphis? I think you guys would get along.

Horizon: Jane Hunt

June 16, 2011

That’s a new tag up there. “Horizon” is the label that I’m going to be putting in front of artists that have both promise and a lot of work yet to do. These are bands to keep in the back of your mind; not recommendations or raves, but bands that could be great with some more time and sweat invested. Some people may be uninterested in reading about works in progress, which is why I’ve decided to tag them appropriately. But new, young artists matter to Independent Clauses, so I’m allotting space for them in this new feature.

Not every band that submits to Independent Clauses will get featured in Horizon; I am but one man with time constraints, and I have to hear some promise in a work. Nor will Horizon articles be on any type of schedule; they’ll just be in the mix of things.

Quick Hits, stuff I’m interested in but don’t have that much to say about, will still exist. That has nothing to do with Horizon.

Jane Hunt is an apt first Horizon artist because she’s about as immensely talented as she is confusing. Her four-song EP Violin Venus features an orchestral piece (“Melia Dream”), a Portishead-style trip-hop piece with vocals (“Vasene”), a gorgeous acoustic guitar/piano instrumental (“Flying High”) and what sounds like a film score (“Sahara”). Her desire is to merge the classical and pop worlds together.

Her violin skills can’t be knocked; she can definitely play. But this EP has little to nothing in the way of cohesiveness. “Flying High” is absolutely gorgeous; “Vasene” sounds kitschy, especially without more songs in the same style around it to sell the idea that she’s not just appropriating the style. “Melia Dream” is pretty, but not near as polished as Olafur Arnalds’ work; “Sahara” is a great concept marred by odd percussion and unnecessary electric guitar.

Jane Hunt needs to better integrate her ideas so that listeners can understand what she’s going for. She has the technical chops and the songwriting skill, but her Violin Venus is a confusing, unfocused release. But man, “Flying High” is gorgeous.

Jacob Furr releases a trio of flawless folk tunes

June 15, 2011

Much new folk music doesn’t sound like old folk music; it’s merely an appropriation of the instruments and aesthetic of folk (i.e. the West London Folk Scene, with the occasional exception of Johnny Flynn). There’s nothing wrong with playing strummy pop on acoustic instruments; I feel that the world could use more of that, not less. But in terms of rustic beauty, I’ve been coming up short recently without going deep into the country genre.

And not all folk music was country, so this is disappointing. That’s why Jacob Furr‘s music is so refreshing. His three-song EP Finches features opener “Running,” which appropriates the rustic sound of a single acoustic guitar and solo voice beautifully. The songwriting feels timeless in a way that many other folk songs don’t: there’s a bit of gospel undertone in the way he enters the chorus; the harmonica is mournful and high; the rhythm has a gentle, plodding bass line evocative of country music. By the time Furr gently sings, “Hold the world inside your hands” in his calm tenor halfway through, I’m totally sold.

“Still as My Heart” calls up Nick Drake comparisons in the guitar’s melodic structure, and that’s high praise over here. If you haven’t been introduced to Nick Drake, hear this now. If you have, be excited about Jacob Furr. It’s not rustic, but man, it’s just as great to hear someone enfolding Drake influences (or reinventing a rarely found wheel, if Furr came by it naturally).

If that weren’t enough, Furr flexes his modern folk muscles and a bit of Dylan influence on “Marching on to Zion.” Even though the first two thrill me, the third is the only one that gives me straight-up shivers. The poignantly delivered line “Don’t let your worry/steal your joy away” is followed by three percussive guitar taps and a sweetly played harmonica; I don’t know why it is such a powerful moment, but it is.

If you’re a fan of folk music of any variety, Finches by Jacob Furr should be in heavy rotation. It is a flawless trio of beautiful folk tunes, and I don’t use that word lightly. Get it right here for free.

Quick Hits: …music video?

June 14, 2011

Be not fooled by …music video? Just like the name — really an unflashy one cased in unusual punctuation and capitalization — his music is solid white R&B cased in some psychedelic and digital touches. If This TV Could Talk opens with “No Things Happen for Reasons,” which has an indie-rock flair to it in some distorted guitar. But Paul Jenkins’ vocal style, the background vocals and rhythmic patterns positively scream R&B. “All I Really Know” drops the indie pretense except for some squelchy bass synth and just goes all R&B slow jam.

This is not said to be a knock: if …music video? were in the Brill Building business, these songs would be snapped up and all over the radio by now. The melodies, the mood and the groove are all there in this collection of tunes. “Not Worth Your Time” gets a little too into the R&B groove and borders on cliche in lyrics and instrumentation, but it’s forgivable. The stuttering standout “In Case We Catch Fire” can cancel it out, and we’re good to go.

If you’re down for some solid R&B, hit up …music video?’s If This TV Could Talk. Even if you’re not but you’re adventurous, you may try out “In Case We Catch Fire.” You’ll be surprised.

Right now, if you “Like” the band’s Facebook page, you can get five free tracks from them. Swag!

Wallscenery Demos' new incarnation is a bit of a baffler

June 13, 2011

There’s a difference between lo-fi fuzz and garage rock reverb. The former uses tape hiss to evoke unassuming intimacy, either through necessity or appropriation.  The latter is intentionally designed to obscure distinct parts, creating space between the listener and the art.  This is the difference between Wallscenery Demosprevious album Check This! and new album Half Asleep. Half Awake.

Check This! is a pastiche of lo-fi ruminations and found sounds. There was tape hiss in and through it, but it was first and foremost and intensely personal experience. I could tell what was happening the entire time.

Half Asleep. Half Awake. is much less of a collage, as only the highlight “Money Lebowski” includes found sound. Instead, the album sees WD mastermind James Hicken trying to transition to more solid songwriting.  The songs are longer than his previous work, and they are more fleshed out. He spells it out in the short but insightful liner notes, stating “The album is a departure … “

The 2:34 “Wrote,” one of the shorter tunes here, pushes the upward bounds of what Hicken felt comfortable committing to tape before. It is a calm, acoustic-led indie-pop tune, still vaguely reminiscent of Pedro the Lion. The vocals have some light reverb on them, and it’s fine, because the rest of the song (keys, drums, background vocals) is audible.

The mumbly acoustic ditty “And Falling” is reminiscent of the charms from Check This!. The beautiful “Money Lebowski” calls up comparisons to folktronic producers and the Album Leaf, as it pairs a droning background synth and heavily modified snares with a gentle acoustic melody and found movie clips. A whole album of this would be a glorious experience.

But Hicken is still not completely confident in his songwriting ability, as he covers several of his works in the aforementioned oppressive reverb.  Almost without exception, the longer a song gets, the more of it is caked in great washes of ghostly sound. The 4:28 of “Gotta Watch Out For a Year” would be a great song if it weren’t so hard to find inside itself (except for a surprisingly clear bass line).

This reaches its zenith in the instrumental six-minute closer “The Club Is Open,” which reverbs literally every part of the song (drums, guitars, beats, heck, even the synths sound doubled). As a song, “The Club Is Open” is not bad; as the conclusion of this album, it keeps the idioms but not the songwriting structures, resulting in listener confusion.

Half Asleep. Half Awake. sounds like a transitional document, which is fitting: Hicken describes its main topic as “relocation.” It feels less solid than Check This!, due in part to the recording style and the songs contained therein. There are flashes of brilliance and markers that hopefully point in a good direction:  “Money Lebowski” next to “The Club Is Open” is a surprisingly effective pairing, and that’s almost a third of the album’s 33-minute running time.

James Hicken’s got skills, but this incarnation isn’t the best use of them. He can write good songs; he doesn’t have to hide or obscure his work in cavernous reverb.

JD Eicher and the Goodnight's modern pop resists cliches

June 12, 2011

In 2002, a wise friend handed me copies of Coldplay’s A Rush of Blood to the Head and Counting Crows’ August and Everything After. Inexplicably to my pop-punk self at the time, I became obsessed with both. Thus began an interest in modern pop music that extends to an unironic enjoyment of Goo Goo Dolls and Train. Judge away.

JD Eicher and the Goodnights falls between the acoustic pop of August and Everything After and the arena-sized pathos of Goo Goo Dolls. The band’s best songs aren’t quite as navelgazing as Adam Duritz’ increasing self-defeating tunes, but stop short of going for the John Rzeznik stadium singalong. The lesser tunes fall on either side of the divide.

Eicher opens the Crows-esque “Feel The Rain” with the striking, “Seems like every couple hours, it’s six a.m.,” and its subsequent description of breakup symptoms doesn’t beg for sympathy or employ bitterness. The rest of the band employs a similarly impressive restraint, teasing the listener with a soaring chorus that never arrives. The song becomes a highlight because it doesn’t command all the modern pop tricks. Subversive!

The melodic bass work on “Distance and Space” echoes the style of “Feel the Rain,” proving the bassist’s vitally important role in the band’s best songs. The acoustic songwriting in “Love is Gonna Find You” leans in toward Goo Goo Dolls drama, but Eicher keeps the arrangement tight and low: more featured bass, no sweeping strings, no chorus pedal.

It’s not all success. Openers “The Beauty of It All” and “Two Weeks Back” do let the arrangements go electric, and the songs suffer blandness accordingly. “Crazy” is an odd acoustic-rock turn. “Fine Line” is a bit too Five for Fighting cute to pique my interest, and “Easy” flirts with that syndrome as well. But the high highs make the middling tracks easy to pass over.

That oft-maligned, major label-infested genre of modern pop is a tough bag in which to make a go of it. But JD Eicher and the Goodnights are not perturbed. It feels that Shifting came about honestly: Eicher and his band just process music this way, and the greatest honest move they can do is make these songs in this way. In a genre full of cash grabs, kitsch and knowing winks, it’s a pleasant and unusual experience to know that Eicher and his band really mean it when they rock out at the end of “Mr. Misery.” That level of honesty and real pop songwriting chops make Shifting into the success it is.

Oh, and JD: Buy your bassist a beer. And don’t let him leave the band.

Long live the post-rock of Final Days Society

June 11, 2011

I’ve been getting heavily into post-rock recently, as Of the Vine, Colin Stetson, Industries of the Blind and Isis have all been in my rotation. Final Days Society is the latest post-rock group to be added to their number, and I may be most obsessed with it.

Y’see, I’m a sucker for crescendo. If you can take a tiny, clean guitar line and turn it into a raging maelstrom in about seven minutes, I’ll love it. This means that Final Days Society has tailor-made several songs for me on their album “Ours Is Not a Caravan of Despair.”

“Aeons” takes only twenty seconds to transfrom an arpeggiated, clean guitar riff into a raging wall of sound, but they spend the next 9+ minutes fleshing that idea out. And by wall of sound, I do mean wall: the Swedes (of course!) in Final Days Society have found the right combination of pedals to produce a humongous overdrive which, when strummed at high velocity, sounds like it’s about to crush the world/transport you to the next one. In fact, “Beauty” is all about showing off this pedal combo, as they just hammer the listener with it for approximately five minutes. It’s a revelation. I felt like I was going to lift off the ground the first time I heard it.

But this band isn’t all about destroying eardrums, as “60” and “To Calm Sea” revel in the moods created without going all aggro, as one of my friends would say. The sparingly-used vocals are employed to great effect on both tracks, using them as instruments. “60” heavily modifies the voice in a completely fitting way, while the vulnerability of “To Calm Sea” enhances the mood of the song.

The 7 songs on “Ours Is Not a Caravan of Despair” clock in at just shy of 56 minutes, meaning each averages 8 minutes in length. This is not a band that shys away from lengthy pieces. And that’s to the listener’s benefit, because any way that you get more Final Days Society is a win.

This band is poised for big things if they can keep it together. They’ve got the sound, the songs and the chops to make it in post-rock. Long live Final Days Society.

Scales of Motion alternates tough indie rock and melodic indie pop

June 10, 2011

In late 2004/early 2005, I bought a copy of Scales of Motion‘s self-titled EP. I admired them as elder statesmen in the Tulsa scene; as a high-school kid in my first band, I was awestruck that high-quality indie-rock existed in my hometown.

Jump forward to mid-2011, and Scales of Motion is still at it. If they members were elder statesmen then, they’re Methuselahs now. Yet, not much has changed: 2004’s Scales of Motion and 2011’s Nocturnes feature the same three guys: Chris Skillern (bass/vocals), Kevin Skillern (Guitar/bgvs) and Craig Maricle (drums). The band used the same studio for both sessions (Valcour Sound, in which I have recorded twice). Their 2011 wiry, post-punk-influenced indie-rock songs are not drastically different than their 2004 tunes.

But there is some variation. Nocturnes shows the band leaning toward the more pop-oriented side of its sound:  slow-paced opener “Darkness” hangs on the vocal performance instead of the instrumentals. The band is content to set a mood than pummel the listener with riffs, as there are less breakdowns and gritty guitar sections than I expected to hear on Nocturnes.

Chris Skillern has always propelled the sound with his bass work; his angular, forceful riffs play the role of bass and rhythm guitar. Kevin Skillern contributes melodic, single-note runs and riffs over that work. That’s still the case for the majority of the album, but “Darkness” shows that they’ve grown in their confidence enough to not rely entirely on their tried-and-true formula. And while following track “Still We Sing” definitely is a classic Chris Skillern bass riff, the vocal melodies are just as important to the mood.

I noted in my quick overview that their post-punk influences add some edges to their pop songs, and their pop side knocks some of the edges off their post-punk work . “Still We Sing” is the former, but third track “Winter Heart” is very clearly the latter.

For my money, I enjoy the “Winter Heart” style most. Skillern’s high voice sounds best when it’s matched with some tough indie-rock to ground it — without a tether, Scales starts to sound like just another indie-pop band, and that’s not what they are at all. Chris Skillern even drops in a MeWithoutYou-esque spoken-word section, which just amps up the intensity even more. It’s a highlight of the album, and an example of what makes them special.

The bass, guitar and vocals lock into the inspired drum work on the rhythmic “Holier Mysteries.” It’s hard to explain how powerful Craig Maricle is when he’s drumming, but he’s one of the most intense skinsmen I’ve ever witnessed. He makes “Holier Mysteries” into the powerhouse it is. The rawness of the performance helps draw comparisons to The Felix Culpa, which, if you’ve read me gush about TFC, you know is high praise.

The rest of the album splits its time between nice pop tunes and tough indie-rock. On one side, “Hope” includes a harmonica and “My Beloved” sounds like what you think it might; the other, “A Better Dream” shows Kevin Skillern mashing out chords.

But the two sounds aren’t completely disparate; the mood overall is cohesive, and the album definitely feels of one piece. The lyrics also help the unity of the disc, being predominantly concerned with the day-to-day workings of the Christian life.

“Winter Heart,” “Holier Mysteries” and “A Better Dream” are some of the most satisfying rock tunes I’ve heard yet this year. The rest of the album, while not as arresting, is good. If old-school Appleseed Cast ate Death Cab for Cutie, it might sound something like this.  Also, the album artwork (not just the cover, but the whole CD package) is gorgeous, and it has my vote for art of the year so far.

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

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