We love Hoodie Allen at Independent Clauses, largely because of his way with samples. Even though his new EP All American does not include any samples, the original beat in “No Interruption” has the same buoyant flair that he previously appropriated out of other people’s music. It’s an impressive transition, and one that has me hoping and thinking about all the directions he could take his sound now that he’s making songs instead of flipping songs. (Live instruments? Eh?) “No Interruption” has me excited for the rest of the EP, and that’s what a good lead single should do. Buy it on iTunes, and here’s the vid:
I love songs that buck trends. It’s refreshing to hear a song that operates in the way its author feels is right, instead of a predetermined “right” pattern. This sort of idiosyncratic songwriting has caused me to shower praise on Regina Spektor’s Soviet Kitsch (severaltimes), Mansions’ Best of the Bees and The Mountain Goats’ entire discography.
Superstar Runner’s “Advice From People Who Shouldn’t Give It (Don’t Take It)” is my latest favorite wrong song. Songwriter Ben Johnson builds the tune from a slow, gently fingerpicked intro to a fast-paced group-sing accompanied by piano and beatboxing over the span of 3:43. There’s no real chorus; instead, Johnson sprinkles repeated melodies and phrases throughout the tune. (Also, yes, the percussion is a guy beatboxing.) No matter; “Advice” feels incredibly organic, passionate and relatable.
It made me think of Nitsuh Abebe’s recent rumination that “The motor behind [Fiona] Apple’s shows seemed to be inside her– some kind of emotion with no cultural reference point.” We want songwriters to tell us stuff about themselves and ourselves, so we rightly decry songwriters who try to cop someone else’s style or produce weirdness for the sake of weirdness. When idiosyncratic, weird songwriting meets an emotion that’s difficult to express, that’s where the magic happens. And “Advice From People Who Shouldn’t Give It (Don’t Take It)” is certainly magic.
The emotion that’s so difficult has much to do with the tensions and strains that come with leaving a birth family (physically and metaphorically) to start a new family. There’s plenty of bildungsroman novels and songs, but much less ink spilled over pinpointing how and when we change from one family to the other as our primary marker (especially when this generation puts it off so much). That sprawling tension is all over the title and content of Heritage/Lineage/Hand-Me Downs/Scars (Your Birthmarks Do Not Bother Me).
Johnson’s highlight track and emotive themes peg him in unique (and potentially difficult) territory, but he remains in the realm of the relatable by doing his homework. Instead of going all tUnE-yArDs with “Advice” as a jumping off point, Johnson reveals a solo songwriting project that calls to mind the passionate, low-complexity arrangements prominent in the early periods of both Bright Eyes and The Mountain Goats. Johnson has learned how to use song structures, lyrics, melodies and moods for differentiation; each song is unique and interesting.
“You must fall down / if you ever want to grow up / You must leave town / if you ever want to find home,” Johnson sings in “Growing Pain,” an I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning—style country tune complete with snare shuffle and up/down bass line. His unadorned, sincere tenor keeps the song from ever coming unhinged. That control of conviction allows for the tender “Just a Lullaby,” the adamant semi-title track “Your Birthmarks Do Not Bother Me” and the wistful “Cribs and Kids” to all peacefully exist on the same album. The only place his stridency becomes a liability is when he lets his strumming and singing roar on the overdramatic “Dylan Come Home,” which draws too hard on Dashboard Confessional influences.
With 11 songs with meaningful lyrics spread over nearly 40 minutes, there’s a lot to digest in Heritage/Lineage/Hand-Me Downs/Scars (Your Birthmarks Do Not Bother Me). But Johnson’s songwriting skill is such that this feels like a guided tour instead of an art spectacle, and that marks Superstar Runner as a rising talent.
I discovered post-pop artist S. Carey the same way everyone else did: as a member of Bon Iver. But since his 2010 debut All We Grow, I’ve followed him in his own right. The gentle, melodic layering of new track “Two Angles” is built on an insistent, burbling foundation that picks up right where All We Grow‘s standout track “In the Dirt” ended. The song has me thoroughly excited for his upcoming EP Hoyas.
Robert Deeble’s video for “Weeds” juxtaposes very bright things (shiny guitars, well-lit people, bright blinking lights) against very dark backdrops for a visual representation of the song’s melancholy attitude. The video doesn’t do much, but it’s a pretty excellent interpretation of the song’s mood and attitude—which is what I look for.
Wrinkle Neck Mules play country music that revels in being country. If the phrase “Zac Brown Band with less Southern rock” appeals to you, apply within:
For various reasons, three of Auburn, AL’s few music-friendly establishments went under in the past year. Mercifully, one of the vacated spaces has recently reopened after being rechristened The Bloodhound. I hit up the new venue for its third show, hosting The Packway Handle Band.
The venue itself is neat: separated completely from the bar and restaurant of the same name by a wall, it was essentially an enormous storage room before being converted to its current purpose. Its high ceiling, concrete walls and hall-style layout all are positives on the acoustic front. A vintage/rustic atmosphere greets patrons, as exposed brick, a wooden latticework ceiling and pensive yet cartoonish art on the walls make up the visual surroundings.
The stage itself is pretty wide and quite deep, with decent lighting for photographers. I’m told it will max at about 300 people once a sprinkler system is installed. It’s also five minutes from my house—by bike. I am thrilled about the venue.
The Packway Handle Band was a great first band to see at The Bloodhound. The five-piece bluegrass outfit set up a dual-head microphone stand in the middle of the stage, then crowded four of the five members around in a semi-circle so they could sing and play into it. The stand-up bassist stood slightly to the side; he didn’t contribute vocals, and his bass was the only instrument with its own amplification. Everything else ran through those two microphones.
This frequently resulted in the best part of the show: the members leaning in to croon four-part harmonies. The instrumental prowess that I’ve come to expect from bluegrass bands was certainly there, and the songwriting was quirky and fun. The band played two sets, but I only stayed for the first; it was clear that they were pulling from deep in their songbook for this show. It was fun to hear them play tunes that they clearly played less and enjoyed playing more because of that. Fans of Trampled by Turtles or Whiskey Shivers will love what they hear in The Packway Handle Band.
It was a fun show to watch in a great setting; I look forward to seeing many more shows at the Bloodhound.
I love doing long reviews, but SXSW has thrown me off my game. To catch up, here’s a rare quartet of quick hits.
Dana Falconberry‘s four-song Though I Didn’t Call It Came is a beautiful, immersing release. The thirteen minutes pass rapidly, as Falconberry’s uniquely interesting voice plays over intricate yet intimate acoustic arrangements. Highlights include the complex and beautiful songwriting structure of “Petoskey Stone,” the Michigan-era Sufjan Stevens fragility of “Muskegon,” and the casual wonder of whistling-led closer “Maple Leaf Red (Acoustic).” It’s a rare songwriter that has tight control over both individual songwriting elements and overall feel, marking Falconberry as one to enjoy now and watch in the future.
England in 1819‘s Alma will quickly remind listeners of British piano-rock bands: Rush of Blood to the Head-era Coldplay is checked on “Air That We Once Breathed,” Muse gets its nod in the title track, and the melodic focus of Keane is familiar throughout. But 2/3rds of the band is conservatory-trained, and those influences show. “Littil Battur” is a chiming, gently swelling post-rock piece with reminiscent of The Album Leaf; “Emily Jane” is another beautiful, wordless, free-flowing piece. There’s enjoyment in their emotive piano-pop, but there’s magic in their instrumental aspirations. That tension shows promise past this sophomore release.
The bouncy garage-pop of Eux Autres‘ Sun is Sunk EP has been honed for almost a decade to a tight mix of modern sensibilities and historic glee. “Right Again” and “Home Tonight” call up ’60s girl-pop groups but don’t overdo it; “Ring Out” features male lead vocals in a perky, jumpy, infectious tune that includes bells and tambourine. The 1:23 of “Call It Off” is thoroughly modern songwriting, though—the band is no one trick pony. There’s just no resisting the charms of Sun is Sunk, and since its six songs only ask for 15 minutes of your time, why would you?
After seeing part of a breathtaking set by Sharon Van Etten at SXSW 2011, I jumped at the chance to give some press for her new album Tramp. Turns out all the big hitters (NPR, Pitchfork, Paste) are already on it. The tunes powered by Van Etten’s emotive croon are in full form, developed from her sparse beginnings into complete arrangements. At 46 minutes, this mature version of Van Etten is a complete vision; still, the haunting, delicate closer “Joke or a Lie” is what sticks with me.
SXSW isn’t just a music smorgasbord. Here’s the best free stuff I found:
Coolest ad campaign: “A Guide to Play Quebec City” is exactly that. The booklet introduces you to threeshow promoters, six venues, one music festival, 35 upcoming shows, six “Cream of the Crop” bands, and nine other groups from “the only 100% francophone city in America.” I feel like I could book a band through Quebec City now, and that’s pretty cool.
Coolest new service:StoryAmp is a way for artists to pitch to journalists in a consistent format. StoryAmp’s idea is to remove the “what do I say in an e-mail pitch?” problem by streamlining everything for the artist and the journalist. And both the flyer I was handed and the site it sells are gorgeous; that means a lot to me. I hope it takes off.
Coolest non-media object: It was a tie. I’m not sure how M for Montreal came up with the idea for a sleep mask, but it’s certainly memorable:
This is a pack of gum from the app iTriage:
Coolest album art: Young Readers’ self-titled EP is a coloring page, complete with crayons. Mega!
Coolest book: Rockin’ in the New World by Bob Tulipan. It’s a how-to guide on getting your band to a successful level in our new media age. I’m looking forward to reading it.
Coolest song named after a basketball player: “Monta Ellis” by Willie Joe.
Coolest album that I had to Google lyrics to determine the band name because I found the album in a venue and it was packaged in a brown paper bag: Roll the Bones by Shakey Graves.
Most confusing ad campaign: “MYSPACE IS DEAD, LONG LIVE MYSPACE.” The Justin Timberlake-owned company never explained this concept except for the tepid, “Change is coming. Loyalty will be rewarded.” Nothing seems different on Myspace today, either. Their sticker and poster campaign seems like a wasted plan.
I’ll be posting a few bands a day that I’ve found or were blown away by here, though:
Daniel(((s))) – Chiptune electronica with masterful live bass. Hooves – Bearded, Avett Bros.-style folk/rock with the indignation turned up. Deerpeople – Dance, indie, piano-pop, moshing and more combine into a unnameable brilliance.
“If there’s no grand cultural war left for you to wage, how are you supposed make friction? Indie rock responded by fanning out into a thousand sub-genre deltas, each with their own set of reference points. The best stuff, every year, is the stuff that somehow leaps across those gaps, like a firing synapse.” -Jayson Greene, Pitchfork, “Making Overtures: The Emergence of Indie Classical”
I’ve been quoting this paragraph copiously in conversation and text since it was published, because it perfectly frames the situation in which indie rock currently sits. Should you be really, really good at one genre? The answer as an extension of this paragraph is “Probably not”: the genre already has a hero (or heroes), and you’re just going to be appropriating heroes if you aspire to greatness in a genre. You should mix and match, because that’s the stuff that gets applause these days: Bon Iver abandoning pure folk for a confluence of acoustic and ’80s synthscapes, Arcade Fire adopting a wiry ’80s touch for “Sprawl II: Mountains Beyond Mountains.” If we’ve heard it all before, we must repackage it in new ways. (This is why we have “new” lawyer dramas every year.)
I disagree that there is no room for purists; folksters The Low Anthem immediately come to mind as a great example of forging forward in a historically-established sound, as well as singer/songwriters like Brianna Gaither. Still, it’s true that the hip and cool stuff right now is interdisciplinary. (The technically appropriate term would intergenrenary, but that’s a clunky, made-up word.) Everything in the world is becoming interconnected; why not music?
Gabriel and the Hounds‘ Kiss Full of Teeth is the sound of a band working hard on its interdisciplinary mix. The basic elements of the sound are stark folk in the For Emma vein, The National-style gloomy indie rock, and a composer’s sense of symphonic instrumentation (more Firebird Suite, less “Eleanor Rigby”). Like my late grandfather’s attempts to recreate Bailey’s Irish Cream from his own personal brewing and mixing, the results aren’t perfect—but they still taste great.
“Lovely Thief” is the most memorable track of the album, both for its successes and head-scratching excesses. The first minute consists of a grooving, lightly distorted guitar rhythm and comfortable tenor vocals. Trumpets, horns and oboes arrive without warning, colliding with the rhythmically solid guitar in erratic foxhunt calls. The guitar and foxhunt end simultaneously, giving way to an elegant symphonic break. Drums and guitar are then introduced on top of the continued symphonic elements. It’s a beautiful tune, especially in its final, fully-realized minute.
However, its abrupt switches show either a desire to rupture normative ideas of modern songwriting or an unfamiliarity with the delicate balance between all the song’s moving parts (or both!). The first is admirable, the second understandable; both show that they’re trying stuff. When the band sticks to one genre, they make very consistent songs that are less dynamic and interesting that their experiments: “The World Unfolds” uses strings as a support element to a straight-forward indie-rock tune; “What Good Would That Do” is Tom Waits for electric guitar.
So it’s pleasing that Gabriel and the Hounds try more ambitious tunes than standard ones: the very pretty “When We Die in South America” uses an unexpected entry point of strings to disrupt usual songwriting structure, while “Wire and Stone” sets an orchestra as the grounding point instead of traditional rock instruments. The swelling, building “An In-Between (Full Where You Are)” provides even more emphasis on symphonic composition—Colin Stetson listeners will nod and smile. “Who Will Fall on Knees” sets the symphonic arrangement against a pensive folk piece, using the strings as the forceful element in the piece.
Gabriel and the Hounds’ Kiss Full of Teeth is a wildly interesting piece of work packed with vitality and thought. The unique ideas shine, even if the pieces don’t come together in a completely unified way. It’s like listening to Regina Spektor’s Soviet Kitsch: It’s clear that she is either purposefully ignoring conventions of songwriting or isn’t yet skilled enough to write proper songs she hears in her head—regardless, Soviet Kitsch is wonderful. (Based on the markedly less erratic quality of her later output, I’d bank the latter idea.) Put another way: formal success does not ensure quality. Sometimes the half-baked mistakes are far more interesting and vital than the fully-formed, conventionally-sound work, and that’s the case for Gabriel and the Hounds. Hopefully more bands follow their lead and risk putting out this sort of genre-bending, might-be-a-mess-but-who-cares work.
I’m incredibly excited about Bowerbirds’ new album, which I will hear and review very soon. Until then, here’s a breathtakingly gorgeous video for “Tuck the Darkness In.”
This black and white period piece is an enthralling piece of storytelling. Kudos to Sunset Television for this beautiful mini-movie set to “Vagabonds” by Beirut.
Dustin Wong, whose optimistic prog-rock is purveyed under his own name and as part of Ponytail, is doing a cool fan-based project. He encouraged each fan to record himself or herself retelling a dream he or she has had and upload it to Soundcloud. Wong chose the most evocative of them and created songs around the words. He then completed the tune by setting the spoken word recordings on top of these instrumentals. The first of these, “Dave Sutton’s Dream: Gold Dust and Skateboarding” is online now. There are four more of these to come. I hope they will all be this interesting.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.