In the brilliant Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991, author Michael Azerrad describes Beat Happening as flaunting “rudimentary musicianship and primitive recordings, a retro-pop style, and a fey naivete in a genre that became known as ‘twee-pop’ or ‘love rock.'” Twee would continue on through the ’90s, and its fey naivete would become a driving force in indie-pop (which was twee without the junky recordings). Indie-pop begat indie-folk of Iron + Wine and Sufjan Stevens, which crashed into the singer/songwriter genre just as the latter was trying to differentiate itself from Lilith Fair and alt.country. Thus, the two sides of indie-folk met in the middle to create a new aesthetic, and that (along with a little bit of bluegrass and some Great Depression imagery thrown in along the way) is how we ended up with Mumford and Sons.
All that to say, there’s a serious side and a playful side to indie-folk, and The Ridges most definitely fall on the serious side. The band’s Daytrotter session shows them building on the strings-heavy folk sound that they crafted on their debut EP. The three EP tunes don’t stray much from their previously-recorded incarnations: “Not a Ghost” is still a rambling, shambling, catchy song with atmosphere; “War Bonds” shows a bit of their playful side with a bell kit, while still commenting on “dead friends”; “Overboard” is a sea shanty of merit. The upsides: the strings sound even more vital in these recordings, while the vocalist Victor Rasgatis gets unhinged. If you haven’t heard the Ridges yet, this is as good a way as any.
The real treat is the two unreleased songs. (I expect that a great many more bands will start sending me Daytrotter sessions of new music, because if a band’s up to one-take recording, that’s a five-song EP with no recording costs, yo!) “Dawn of Night” would have fit in perfectly with their self-titled EP, as a raw energy pulses through the tune, punctuated by ragged “oh-oh”s. The underlying intensity that The Ridges bring to the table is something that’s rarely seen in folk; there seems to be something truly ominous about their work, and not in a “ha! look! this is creepy!” sort of way. “Jackson Pollock” tones down the eerie for a four-on-the-floor fast song. Despite the speed, the arrangement is remarkably complex for a live recording, which makes me all the more impressed by The Ridges. The string melodies are especially solid.
The Ridges’ “melodic strengths are honed to a fine point” here, as I hoped in my last review. If you’re into serious indie-folk (Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, Little Teeth), you should be all over this. Look for the Ridges to make a splash in 2012.
This is my first year to be living in Alabama while celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It feels heavy, with import that I did not understand or experience while living in Oklahoma. Thank you, Dr. King.
Canyons of Static‘s post-rock is the type that builds from a single element to jubilant roar and thrash, like the best moments of Sigur Ros. The big moment is often a pedal stomp that overdrives the guitar into the stratosphere. I wish I knew the name of it, as it’s an iconic sound: Final Days Society and others use it to great effect.
The “heavens just opened up” pedal is a powerful songwriting move, especially when paired with wailing drums and thumping bass. The beautiful “Wake,” which juxtaposes a monster wall of sound against delicate keys, is the perfect example of their oeuvre. If their show is anything like the towering epics of Farewell Shadows, CoS is absolutely overwhelming live.
The five tunes create an energetic, passionate atmosphere for almost all 34 minutes. This is a double-edged sword; while the release is consistent, it doesn’t show the variety of CoS’s songwriting ability. In future releases, I hope to see them diversify their songwriting moods and structures.
Canyons of Static’s well-established sound is foregrounded in Farewell Shadows. The band has chemistry, instrumental chops and experience (first release: 2006); now they need to grow in diversity. If you’re into Sigur Ros, Moonlit Sailor, Unwed Sailor or Dorena, you’ll be a big fan of Canyons of Static.
IC fave Kickstarter had a humongous third year, and you can see all their stats and stuff from it here. Cool information design for an even cooler site. They are literally changing the way the world does art.
Super Visas, James Hicken’s ambient folk project, has a new video for “The Hum That Keeps Us Cool.” It’s incredibly disorienting and fascinating:
The Oklahoma four-piece’s debut has a lot of promise in it, as well as a lot of homages to their influences (hello, cover art). And although they also mention “the taxman” in the almost-title track “Midwest,” their love of the Beatles is more in connection with their dedication to the hard work of songwriting than any particular musical inferences. Their songs temper the pop-punk tropes of uncontrollable enthusiasm and huge guitar sound with a dose of determined populism that lands the band close to both the wide-open Midwestern rock sound (old-school Wilco, Mellencamp, Horse Thief) and Midwestern folk lyrical tradition (Woody Guthrie, Bob “People forget I’m from rural Minnesota” Dylan, etc.).
The melodies are appropriately huge; it sounds like the members know how to rile up a crowd. “Gone Gone Gone” features rumbling toms, blaring organ and group vocals, while opener “Let Me Live” employs the same basic elements but with a bell kit on top of it for charm. The verses of the latter cut to tom rolls, sleigh bells and nakedly honest vocals, and I am not kidding when I say they make me miss Oklahoma something fierce. It’s a dangerous move for a band to put its best track first, but man, “Let Me Live” absolutely knocks it out from the get go.
Their aforementioned populist strain is on full display: “All I know is the American Dream / All I know is what I see on TV / All I know is the American Dream / All I know is what I can’t reach” in “Connecticut to Paris (I Don’t Know)”; “The taxman came to my home / Said we might have to foreclose / But I said this is where I’ve spent my whole life” in “Midwest”; and “My God I’ve got to find a better way / Before I suffer Gatsby’s fate” in “Gone Gone Gone.” If you dig it, you dig it – that’s all there is to it.
The Typist is a young band composed of seasoned vets, and it shows: their careful attention to detail in the arrangements allows the entire album to flow in one consistent mood. This is a double-edged sword: it’s easy to hear in one sitting, but it’s a bit tough to distinguish between songs toward the end of the album. As individual tracks, nearly every song works, but they all work for the same exact reason. As the band grows over time and gets more comfortable with its chemistry, I expect some more melodic and rhythmic variation. This will greatly improve the overall experience and produce some even more interesting tunes.
Midwestern High Life is quite a rocking start for The Typist. I thoroughly expect to hear more from this outfit, as their energy, passion, and understanding of both historical lyrics and songwriting have me excited.
Here in Auburn, Ala., winter is a color and not a weather pattern. The 40-60 degree temperatures are not much colder than “fall” or “spring,” but the sky turns (and apparently stays) various shades of gray. From ivory to gunmetal, it’s all washed out, all the time. This, however, is the perfect situation to hear Songs for the Sleepwalkers‘ Our Rehearsed Spontaneous Reactions.
I’m willing to bet it’s gray a lot of the time in Lake Mälaren, Sweden, where bandleader Andrea Caccese and his cohorts probably see a lot more snow than Auburn does to create the color. The de-centered, dreamy feeling that comes from not seeing the natural color of the sky is at least an analogue and perhaps a motivator to these delicate, unusual tunes.
Fellow cold-weather dreamers Sigur Ros provide a fine starting point for discussion of Our Rehearsed Spontaneous Reactions. Beauty-minded arrangments, atypical song structures and uniquely transcendent moods are shared goals between them; while the tunes of Sigur Ros can ratchet up to an impressive roar from their starting point, the songs of SFTS often dissipate into a wispy haze. To that end, it’s probably more fair to call SFTS post-pop than post-rock; it does not appear that the members aspire to rock in any way, although people who are fond of post-rock will be quite understanding of what the band is trying to do. “Down the Line” is built off a gently strummed acoustic guitar, a shaker egg and strings; it measures its own weight by fading in and out through the song, then abruptly ending. It’s not constructed in any specifically defined way; it meanders about at its own pace, keeping its own counsel.
But where the gray winter provides a downward slope into disappointment, the songs of SFTS have a levity about them that precludes a doleful interpretation. Keeping the listener off-balance with the unique song structures is their first tactic, while creating carefully arranged moods is the second: note the use of barely-distorted electric guitar on “We Are Still Here” and the depth of field in the arrangement of standout “Tell Me How.” In an era where post-rock is defined by the dichotomies of loud/soft, fast/slow, and heavy/delicate, it’s refreshing to hear a take that blissfully ignores all pretense of what “should” be done. The wordless, cascading “Asleep” is the best example of this, and putting an acoustic guitar and voice track (“What If I Do”) at the end is certainly another tally mark under that category.
Our Rehearsed Spontaneous Reactions does feel spontaneous, but not in the hyperactive sense of my connotation. These are tunes that feel like the audio equivalent of drawing directly from subconscious: raw, but not in a calculated way; honest, but not in a truly focused way. The meandering aspect (Caccese describes it as “like a drunk man staggering over here and there”) is the element that most surprises and delights. Here’s to hoping Songs for The Sleepwalkers’ work never sobers up, and we hear more beautiful tunes like these in the future.
Greek rockers The Finger have been releasing song after song from their upcoming full-length album, and title track “I Don’t Believe My Eyes” is the latest. The dark, mysterious tune has a great groove going for it, meshing well with the alto female vocals. The slinky, forceful bass melodies power the song through to the big pay-off—and it is big. You should be looking forward to their album.
Developing: Dylan Gilbert, whose career Independent Clauses has been following for years, is prepping a rock opera with a new band named Hectorina. The band has released two of the tracks at their Bandcamp, and it’s safe to say that they’re heavy on the rock. There’s a ton of different influences thrown in, so this could get very interesting.
New year, new run: I’m going for the New Orleans Rock’n’Roll (Half) Marathon in March. I know, I was astonished that such a thing existed too. Apparently “alternative, classic and punk rock to blues, jazz and soul” will be played at every mile. This sounds like the greatest idea ever. And I’ll need some workout music, so here’s RunHundred‘s top tracks from December:
I deeply enjoy Starlight Girls‘ self-titled EP, but I’ve thrown in the towel on three four different intros (and a conclusion!) because they all sucked. It’s been a long day that included a freelance writing assignment on boxing, which is not the easiest thing for me to write about. However, the day’s been made better by the Starlight Girls’ debut EP, which amalgamates tons of genres into surprisingly coherent and immediate indie-pop.
The five songs here are each enjoyable on the first listen, and that’s quite rare. This is a testament to the band’s tight chemistry and (I assume) strong work ethic, as they combine elements from all over the place to make their tunes work. The band is fond of whirring organs (a la the similarly monikered Starlight Mints), ’70s/’80s singer/songwriter moods (like Stevie Nicks, although it’s easier to say “sounds like Lissie and/or Tristen”), confident female vocals, bass-heavy arrangements that call up a bit of post-rock moodiness (The National, Del Bel), and surf-rock rhythms, among other things.
It’s fascinating that this grabbed me immediately, because I found that it’s a rather complicated amalgam once I sat down to write about it. While this deep analysis will make you feel good about liking the Starlight Girls’ seemingly simple tunes, you definitely don’t need it to enjoy the songs; just listen and you’ll like them. The EP is the definition of critical darling: it can be both a game of spot-the-influence or just enjoyable melodies and rhythms. That’s a tough balance to strike.
“Gossip” is the one with the feel-good surf-rock guitars and organ, while “Wallflower” is the one that could be an outtake of a Starlight Mints track, what with all the interlocking rhythms and melodies. “Wasteland” has a preternatural cool about it that comes from having a rhythm just faster than trip-hop. The chilled-out keys and vocals help the band toe the line between passion and stateliness that gives the tune and the whole album its desirable amount of tension.
Starlight Girls’ self-titled EP will appeal to lovers of classy, female-fronted indie bands that don’t sound like twee or Best Coast. I expect the band to make some waves in 2012.
Multiple genres is often a huge red flag, but Wiredrawn bucks the trend. Debut EP Loose Lips Sink Ships has five great songs in four different genres. I’m not sure what Wiredrawn will turn out to be in the long run, but if these tunes are any indication, it will be very, very good.
Patrick Baird, the Scot behind Wiredrawn, keeps the EP together with a surprisingly mature melodic skill. Through the various genres of the EP, Baird makes a point to get to the melody quick. This saves alt-rocking opener “This City on Fire” from falling into the tedium that dominates much post-grunge these days and gives the pensive post-rock in “Isle of Glass” an immediacy that is rarely heard in the genre. The latter eschews the drawn-out crescendoes of much instrumental post-rock and instead places the listener in an always-morphing present. On top of being incredibly interesting, it’s poignant to boot!
That mood is another element that links these tunes together: Baird is great at calling up emotions without getting maudlin. (His deft, precise melodic touch helps with this immensely.) The songs each feel incredibly meaningful without feeling overwrought: if Scott Hutchison wasn’t a gigantic emotive smear, Frightened Rabbit’s sound would be a good equivalent. Right now it’s just the instrumentals of the two bands that are reminiscent; Baird’s patient, effective vocals take his songs in different directions than FR’s cathartic anthems.
It’s the best of both worlds when Baird applies those vocals and the post-rock expansiveness of “Isle” to the title track. “Loose Lips Sink Ships” allows for a bit more build than previously, but it never starts to feel like it’s post-rock for the sake of post-rock. It’s emotive without being manipulative, well-composed without being ostentatious and confident without being arrogant.
Throw in a decent ballad-esque acoustic track and the Guided By Voices-esque slacker-pop of “The Silver Screen” (which I previously covered), and you’ve got a great EP. The only thing holding back Wiredrawn is a clear statement of musical purpose, as this EP shows that Patrick Baird has the elements to succeed almost anywhere he goes.
Loose Lips Sink Ships is a pretty great way to start out the year in reviews: you should start your year in listening here as well. Then watch for the name in 2012.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.