I had two presentations and classes to teach this week, so I spent an unusual amount of time doing mental exercises to keep myself calm and focused. One of those was “pushing play on my iPod to hear St. Even‘s Spirit Animal.” It worked almost as well as deep breaths and [nerdy Wheel of Time joke redacted].
It’s easy to chill when listening to St. Even, who longtime readers may recognize from Steve Hefter and Friends (and Friends of Friends), as Spirit Animal‘s acoustic-based folk/indie-pop combines the preternatural chill of Breathe Owl Breathe with the downtrodden theatricality of Dan Mangan. Hefter’s baritone adds to the effect, as his few moments of urgency only serve to reinforce that Spirit Animal is predominantly a leisurely stroll.
Hefter’s low, calming tone spreads from his voice to the arrangements. They are meticulously crafted, but never invasive or heavy: the violins float along in “The Piano Inflates,” while the horns in “Cocksure” are poignant instead of flamboyant. This is due in part to the fact that Hefter hits it and quits it: Most songs hover around 2:40, with some falling near or under two minutes. Nothing has time to overstay its welcome.
The resulting tunes range from the chipper “Blinding Love” and very pleasant “Dreams/My Rope” to the self-effacing “Ariel” and the wrenching sadness of “Long Distance Calls.” The major exception is the Mangan-esque, self-aware closer “This Is Not a Song,” which ends in a ten-car folk pile-up of erratic guitar strum, flutes, choirs, vocal soloists, saloon piano and cello. It’s markedly different than the rest of the album, but it feels fine as an outro.
I listen to a great deal of music, but some albums stick with me past their week. St. Even’s latest seems quite promising to end up on the list with Beirut’s The Rip Tide as most recent entries. Fans of mature, thoughtful songwriting (Mangan, Breathe Owl Breathe, Josh Ritter, Josh Radin, Damien Jurado) should get their paws on a copy of Spirit Animal.
Bright Eyes is not a punk band and never will be. However, if Conor Oberst had made his name playing punk, he may have sounded like either Run, Forever or The Wild. The two bands got together on a split 7″, and it’s a two-punch knockout.
The Wild’s contribution is a harmonica-laced, rattling punk tune complete with Oberst-esque raging vocals. You know, when he gets really amped up, like on that killer moment in “Old Soul Song (for the New World Order)” — you know the one. “Street Names” is that kind of moment, the whole way through.
Run, Forever’s “Silver Screens” sounds like what would have happened if “Another Traveling Song” were way louder and faster. Instead of the desperate Oberst vocals, these are the sung/spoke, didactic version. The vocal rhythms and songwriting moves are very similar to both Bright Eyes and Titus Andronicus, so that’s good for everyone involved.
Both these songs are incredibly entertaining. If you’re interested in vaguely country-esque punk, this one is worth your time. And you’ll be able to decide how much it means to you, as If You Make It is hosting the release as a pay-what-you-want download. Awesome!
*Postscript 8/15/2012: As was pointed out in the comments, I forgot that Conor Oberst was/is in rock/punk band Desaparecidos. And it does sound kind of like these two bands!
Breathe Owl Breathe‘s perspective on the world isn’t just contagious, it’s intoxicating. The enthusiastically wide-eyed life the trio invites their listeners to join includes literally doing whatever they want, which is why they’ve handmade some bound-to-be-gorgeous kids’ books and packaged a 7″ of two new quirky little indie-pop songs inside it. It won’t come out till December, but I would pre-order it instead of sleeping on it. If I had kids, they would listen to Breathe Owl Breathe. Check this glorious tune called “The Listeners (The Mole & The Ostrich)”:
Everybody be rappin’ over indie rock these days, and I’m more than thrilled about this development. PropaneLV uses M83’s “Midnight City” as his own personal backing track, much more in the style of Childish Gambino than Hoodie Allen. He does, however, take the original vocals out before he names it “One More Time.”
The Gromble‘s slow burn keeps burnin’ with this neat little vid. Remember VHS? Static-laden TVs? Really terrible fashion? This one’s for you, ’80s kids.
Shenandoah Davis is not messing around. She and her two-man backing band started touring August 14, toured through September, will keep going through October, then will close out the run with 20+ shows in November. By the end, she will have played a self-booked show almost every day for four. solid. months.
The new music industry takes work ethic, but that’s far beyond anything I’ve ever seen. I would write about that insane tour schedule even if I didn’t like her music. That is worthy.
The Company We Keep, however, is also worthy. Her album features distinctive, precise piano-based songwriting. Davis has a high, affected, trilling voice that calls up Joanna Newsom comparisons, and it’s the centerpiece of the album. The songwriting is accompanied by stark arrangements that play up the wintry tones that she invokes. Tunes like “Sewn Up Tight” and “Oh Way Oh” use strings to condense the sound, making it even more claustrophobic than her songwriting would otherwise make it.
She strikes an odd and mesmerizing balance in The Company We Keep; she and Newsom have the weird songwriter vibe in common, but there’s also a distinct element of Bon Iver-esque beauty encompassed in the tunes (“White Wind”). Regina Spektor’s more brusque and brittle moments are called up as well (“Duet,” “Proof”). “Proof” is an especially interesting case, as it funnels all of her borrowed idiosyncrasies through a jaunty saloon-style piano. It’s easily the most distinctive and unique tune here. You’ll be humming it at the end, most likely.
The Company We Keep is a beautiful, unique collection of tunes. And since songs only get more broken in when you play them repeatedly, Davis is probably sporting even better renditions of these on the road (today: Providence, RI). Even so, picking up a Bandcamp copy of The Company We Keep is recommended.
You need to go to Shenandoah Davis’ show when she comes through your town. Because she probably is coming through your town. Heck, she might even come to my small town. I am not kidding. This is how dedicated she is.
Dr. Pants often gets compared to Weezer, but The Trip, Side 2: Breaking the Feel should do a great deal to get some other RIYLs on the list. The second of four EPs in a release cycle features nuanced songs that sound a great deal more like They Might Be Giants and Fountains of Wayne than Rivers Cuomo and co.
Songwriter David Broyles’ clever, geeky sense of humor is still thankfully intact. “Calling Chewbacca” is literally about the Wookiee leaving messages on his cell phone, which I thought was mildly quirky until I remembered that Chewbacca speaks in unintelligible howls. The only conclusion? David Broyles is Han Solo.
But for all the gleeful ridiculousness of the opener (the band even throws in the Star Wars theme as a guitar solo), Breaking The Feel has more serious topics than outlandish ones. “The Live and the Lecherous” is a critical look at our culture’s obsession with social media: “Like me now please!” begs the chorus. “The Cassette Song” is about the titular item on the surface, but it’s really about abusive relationships. (Gulp.) “This is What It Looks Like” is an incredibly tender, mature love song to his wife. The only clunker is “Magic Airplane,” which gets lost in its own metaphors.
Broyles’ lyrics take the front seat here, but the music hasn’t suffered. His ’90s-leaning vocal melodies are top-notch. The music, while dialed back in volume from the power-pop that garnered them so many Blue Album comparisons, hasn’t lost any vitality. “This is What It Looks Like” and “The Live and The Lecherous” are actually more dialed-in because they take the focus off the chord mashing: the former is a subdued acoustic vehicle, while the latter noticeably mixes the rock so that Broyles can be front and center.
Breaking the Feel is not as goofy as Dr. Pants’ past work, but we get older and our goofiness is tempered by wisdom. I’m teaching a unit on musical authenticity right now in my day job, and Broyles’ balance of geekery, music knowledge, and life observations is much more true to Broyles’ life than most Great Depression-appropriating alt-country. If we care about authenticity—if it matters at all—then we should celebrate it when it appears. It’s definitely on display here.
Does that make the songs better? In this case, it does: you can tell that Broyles (and Dr. Pants as a whole) care about these tunes, and that makes me want to care. And I do, both in “Calling Chewbacca” and “This Is What It Looks Like.” That’s impressive. I am eagerly anticipating the third volume.
The excellently-named I Can Hear Myself Levitate has dropped a new EP, A City Submerged. While it does retain elements of the radio-friendly rock mashup sound I reviewed so favorably last May, ICHML has pushed its own boundaries in song construction since their last outing.
These four tunes skew much more toward a tension-filled post-hardcore (a la the soon-to-be-broken up The Felix Culpa). Even though the band has largely eschewed traditional v/c/v song structure (or at least masked it quite well), the poppier moments of the sound like the artier moments of AFI’s more recent albums. Opener “Saints and Converts” takes familiar sounds and spins them in delightfully unexpected ways, playing with audience expectations. “Empires” employs a similar tactic, although it does ratchet up to a huge ending with a whoa-oh male chorus. But by that point, it’s what you want to hear!
If you’re not into the emo/punk/post-hardcore sound ca. 2000-2006, you aren’t the audience for I Can Hear Myself Levitate. If you did come of age on dime-a-dozen emo/punk bands, you’ll love A City Submerged. At four tunes and 14 minutes, it’s exactly the right length to enjoy legitimately and fully (nostalgically or currently) without losing interest. I Can Hear Myself Levitate, like A Road to Damascus, is a band that reminds me why played-out sounds became overdone in the first place: when done well, those sounds can light me up with adrenaline.
In other Josh Caress-related news, I heard from his brother Adam (whose old band I reviewed a very long time ago, and who co-runs the blog Mule Variations) that they have TWO MORE musical siblings, who are in this band Ponychase. The song sounds like it could have been lifted from (still) my favorite Josh Caress album, Letting Go of a Dream, which means it’s been chilling in the back of my consciousness since I first heard it. Do yourself a favor and jump on this dreamy wonder.
In still further related Caress news, Adam Caress just did an interview on MV with Red Wanting Blue’s songwriter Scott Terry. Red Wanting Blue has been covered here before, and their new album From The Vanishing Point comes out in January. But because they’re awesome, they’re streaming the album, one song at a time, until it’s all up and out in the universe. If you like good ’90s pop, you’ll love this.
And, finally, it’s October, which means Chris Lawhorn of RunHundred sent over the top running tracks of September from his website. I usually let the data stand, but his commentary (below) is quite interesting. —Stephen Carradini
This month’s list brings two questions to mind:
#1. For how many consecutive months will David Guetta turn up in these top 10 lists? (His new track with Usher made the cut–and he just barely missed making it again with his recent Nicki Minaj collaboration.)
#2. Will Calvin Harris, Benny Benassi or Afrojack be the one that unseats him? (All three are making their second appearances on the charts this month. And, like Guetta, each has begun being billed as the artist on his tracks—rather than being credited as the producer/remixer, which was the case a couple years ago.)
This month’s top 10 is rounded out by a new track from LMFAO, a Britney remix, and a song by Young The Giant—brought most folks’ attention by the band’s surprise inclusion on this year’s MTV Video Music Awards.
Here’s the full list, according to votes placed at RunHundred.com–the web’s most popular workout music blog.
Rihanna & Calvin Harris – “We Found Love”
Dev – “In The Dark”
Afrojack & Eva Simons – “Take Over Control”
LMFAO – “Sexy And I Know It”
Chris Brown & Benny Benassi – “Beautiful People”
Shortee & Faust – “Friday Night Special”
Kelly Rowland & Lil Wayne – “Motivation (Rebel Rock Remix)”
Britney Spears – “I Wanna Go (Oliver Remix)”
Young The Giant – “My Body”
David Guetta & Usher – “Without You” —Chris Lawhorn
The fact that Spottiswoode’s well-developed melodic touch is on full display should seal the deal for that group. For those less high on the Fab Four, there’s still a great chance of purchasing this album. If you hear the songs once, you’ll hear them replayed in your head multiple times — you’ll need the recorded versions so you can stop the earworm record player.
From the get-go, Spottiswoode pummels listeners with hook after hook. And like mid-era Beatles (and later pop fanatics Fountains of Wayne), each song takes on a different persona from the pop canon.
“Beautiful Monday” is a perky piano-pop tune that ELO could have written. “Happy or Not” has some upbeat Motown swagger to go with a saxophone and an incredible chorus. “Purple River Yellow Sun” is a hippie anthem; “All in the Past” is a Joseph Arthur tune that turns into a crushing rock song. “Just a Word I Use” appropriates/mocks faux-Parisian tunes that were popular in the ’50s and earlier. “I’d Even Follow You to Philadelphia” is a passionate piano-based crooner that rings completely true (an astonishing feat, honestly).
That’s just the first six of seventeen tracks. This album goes on for over an hour, and there’s barely a clunker in the batch. (Closer “You Won’t Forget Your Dream” does stretch the bounds of attention at 9 minutes, even if it does have a great deal of variation.) Spottiswoode’s complete control over his vocal timbre and arrangements makes him able to sell every one of the tunes. You’re guaranteed to not like the genre of one or two of these tunes, but that doesn’t mean it’s a cast-off.
Wild Goosechase Expedition is a fascinating, lengthy album exploring pop music in just about every form I can think of that existed prior to 1981 (there’s no electro-anything here). And the band pulls it off. I kept expecting it to fall on its face as I got further in to the run time, but it never did. If you still have an attention span that longs for albums, Spottiswoode and His Enemies have a present for you.
I pine for LCD Soundsystem so hard that if someone even mentions their name in a RIYL, I will listen to that album. Pikachunes‘ press mentioned the James Murphy Machine, and so I rushed to the self-titled album. This particular tactic sets everyone up for disappointment: the music of Miles McDougall deserves to be analyzed on its own, not as greater or less than LCD.
However, this particular dance vehicle does draw some comparisons in the both arrangement and recording style. The rhythm-heavy, muscly songs are lovingly treated to a warm production sheen that contrasts nicely with the cold vocals: McDougall’s pipes are reminiscent of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis and his followers (pre-stadium rockin’ She Wants Revenge, especially). The vocal melodies unfold most often over a simple beat, rubbery bass and a melody instrument, but McDougall has enough savvy as a songwriter to make sure a pulse runs through these tunes.
In that regard, Pikachunes is at even more of a disadvantage: by showing significant aptitude in the genre, it’s even easier to draw comparisons to James Murphy. Murphy, however, had 15+ years of indie-rock, DJ, and cultural critic experience to draw on before he started putting together the songs that turned indie music on its ear. McDougall is a relative young’un, and that youth is belied in the pacing of the songs.
Almost all of the songs here are self-contained entities. They share a vague mood and sound palette, but there’s no ebbing/flowing energy from song to song in the collection that would compel me to listen in this order or all at once. There’s nothing wrong with this approach (clubs don’t care about yr album, suckaaa, just yr hitz), but it makes the album less of an meaningful unit. His press says it’s kind of a concept album, so he’s going to have to improve on his cohesiveness in the future if he wants to achieve his concept goals.
But is “Metronome” a bodymovin’ dance track? Yes. Is “Nervous” an earworm deluxe? Also yes. Is “Disco Baby” suave as anything? Very, very yes. This stuff is fun to listen to, and that’s something that you can’t take from him.
But LCD Soundsystem raised the bar for indie kids making dance music. You can’t just throw it down anymore; you’ve gotta build great songs within great albums. I know, I know, that’s what we ask of anyone. But when Miles McDougall’s debut is this promising, I want to be that guy who challenges him to greater heights.
Pikachunes is an entertaining album and impressive debut of club-ready indie dance tracks. Here’s to hoping this is the start of something even greater.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.