Independent Clauses is somewhat of an alternate universe when it comes to music reviewing. I rarely cover the hip bands, often love things no one else does, and generally attempt to be true to what I hear. If there’s a radar to be on or under, we’re hanging out on a different screen altogether. This is more by happenstance than choice: I never set out to be contrarian. And I don’t feel like a curmudgeonly naysayer of popular music, as you’ll see tomorrow. I just have a different lens than many people. Here’s the view from that lens.
16. Elijah Wyman/Jason Rozen’s collective output: Tiny Mtns/The Seer Group/Decent Lovers. What started out as the artsy electro-pop project Tiny Mtns split into a heavily artsy electro project (The Seer Group) and a heavily artsy pop project (Decent Lovers), with the two splitting the tracks between them. Except when both kept a track and reworked it to their likings. Did I mention that this one time, one of these guys gave the other a kidney? Now you see why they get one mention.
The album isn’t dead, as you’ll see when my top albums of the year list rolls around tomorrow. But these songs stuck out over and above the albums that encompassed them–or not, as #4’s album has yet to be released. Viva la album, viva la single.
I usually like to get this post to a nice round number, but I didn’t get it there this year. Here’s what my year sounded like, y’all! This post isn’t ranked; instead, it’s a playlist of sorts. My ranked post will come tomorrow.
The title of Challenger’s The World Is Too Much For Me is an apt interpretation of both its lyrics and music, but in opposite ways. The lyrics throughout the album are about the byproducts of modern life: fear, desperation and confusion over an amorphous other. The size of the world and its problems are conspiring to overwhelm the lyricist, but the lyrics fight back with a commitment to hope. The music, on the other hand, is more manic than morose, invoking the sounds of Paul Simon’s Graceland, Peter Gabriel’s catalog and ’80s synth pop. Songs like “Takers” sound like the output of people who can’t get enough of everything, who have music just spilling out the ears.
Challenger knows its way around a pop hook, creating incredibly memorable tunes like “Are You Scared Too?”, “Don’t Die,” “Life in the Paint” and single “I Am Switches.” But each of these tunes drag some melancholy into the songwriting, to give the highs an extra edge. Good always looks better when it’s beating evil. And so it goes with Challenger, who are at their best when playing with the juxtapositions of light and dark. But it’s all done in a framework of electro-pop that will put a huge smile on your face. The World Is Too Much For Me is easily one of the best releases of the year, recommended for anyone who likes thoughtful, happy music.
Oh Look Out‘s Orchestrated Fuzz is also titled well: the latest from the geek-friendly power-pop band relies heavily on arrangements and album structure. Last year’s Alright Alright Alright Alright Alright was dominated by riffs and melodies, causing each song to stick out as its own piece of the puzzle. Orchestrated Fuzz is intended to hang together as one giant experience, like the soundtrack to a video game binge session.
While the tunes pop out less at me in this one, the overall sound is still strong: buzzy guitars and retro-sounding synths are undergirded by big drums and capped off by JP Pfertner’s high-pitched (but not annoyingly so) voice. The songs all run into each other, with opener “Velcro Wolf” snapping off as “Or Be Destroyed” kicks in. Things continue in this vein throughout, to good (aforementioned) effect. Lead single “Monster Fiction” is a standout, as the melody is a killer hook; “Monotone Hurray” sticks out because its awesome title leads me to remember the song. It’s worth noting that the whole thing has a lovably bedroom/garage feel to it; in a world where everything is rushing to sound professional, it’s nice to hear something that sounds lovably like a human made it. The handwritten online zine (!) also adds to that feel. Fans of Weezer, Math the Band, and Matt and Kim will all find much to love in Orchestrated Fuzz.
Also reppin those ’80s hard is Ponychase, which takes the arch synth-pop of Tears for Fears and other hyper-emotive bands of the era and uses it for modern ends. The self-titled EP combines towering synths with twinkling guitar, sparse percussion and Jordan Caress’s commanding but not overbearing voice to create a timeless, otherworldly sound. The modern lyrical cadence and vocal melody structure are what sink their teeth into me, as the joyful synth blast that opens “Believer” is elevated by Caress’s strong vocal performance.
While “Believer” is the most upbeat (and most striking) of the tunes, the rest of the songs on the six-song EP aren’t slouching. Opener “Cup of Hearts” employs many of the same sounds to a more pensive effect, while “Two Times” sounds almost beachy. “Brainwasher” closes out the EP in grand fashion, delivering the best melody of the bunch amid heavily gated snare and Caress’s voice at its torchiest. “Brainwasher, come set me free,” she pleads, and it’s a request that the EP can answer, should you ask of it: just let the sound wash over you. Ponychase’s unique sound is markedly different than other synth-indie-pop, and that’s a great thing.
It’s not just XKCD that has noticed a lack of popular Christmas songs written and/or recorded after 1980. Shane Vidaurri of The Ashes noticed this as well, and pitched the idea of a Christmas compilation album to his record label, Mint 400 Records. Label owner Neil Sabatino (Fairmont) agreed, and now we have A Very Merry Christmas Compilation to bring cheer in.
The comp is excellent because everyone here turns in a stellar effort. None of the seven bands phone in it or get schmaltzy. These are honest-to-goodness Christmas tunes, worthy of being replayed on radio until no one remembers who the artist is anymore and no one cares. This would especially work because the comp doesn’t stick to one genre, but ranges from The Duke of Norfolk’s folky “Lovely Winter” to Fairmont’s jangly “This Song is Your Christmas Gift” to the ‘50s style rock ‘n ‘roll of The Ones and Nines’ “I’m Gonna Lasso Santa Claus.”
The lattermost is a perfect opening track to the compilation, as it sets a jubilant tone for the album. It’s like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” and I love it. Adam N. Copeland apes the Killers’ tradition of putting out a soaring, modern pop tune for the holiday, with a tune that reaches to the same vocal heights as Brandon Flowers’.
There’s some melancholy as well: The Ashes’ “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” can’t even staunch the somber elements of the tune with an almost island-flavored take on the tune. “Sorry I’m Broke” and “This Song Is Your Christmas Gift” are both about the stress of being poor at Christmas.
No compilation would be complete without a hymn or two: The Duke of Norfolk’s “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” brings banjo and beatboxing together for an overall reverent take on the classic. I know, that sounds weird; you’ll just have to check it out.
A Very Merry Christmas Compilation takes Christmas music seriously, and the results are some incredible originals and traditionals. Since it’s varied in genre, you can put it on the stereo and let the wildly varied emotions of the season wash over you. If you sprinkled the tunes into your current list of standards, they wouldn’t stand out at all; they’re that good.
Full disclosure: I worked on The Duke of Norfolk’s tracks as a set of critical ears.
There are, to my knowledge, two ways to write complex music: you learn how to do it as the first thing you know, or you can exhaust all your interest in simplicity. I don’t know which tack Self-Evident took to get here, but We Built a Fortress on Short Notice is incredibly complex in the best ways. WBAFOSN is a tour de force of creative, thoughtful rock.
The complexity of Self-Evident’s music is deceptive, because they make it sound so easy. Tracks like “Our Condition” and “Half Bicycle” build around guitar riffs that seem to bend the very fabric of time signatures, rendering them useless. The fact that the riff sounds perfect with the rest of the band while sounding otherworldly unto itself is a testament to the rhythm section’s patience and prowess. If you’re into intricate rhythms and guitar antics, this one will blow your mind a bit. I mean, just try to duplicate the melodic “Bartertown” or the pulsing “In Cowardice”; it sounds simple, but whoa. It’s totally crazy once you break it down.
The one thing this isn’t is a singalong album: while lead singer Conrad Mach can sing a catchy line if he feels like it, he prefers to deliver his vocals in a ragged yell. While this may bug listeners used to melodic prowess in the music I review, the instrumentals are so extraordinary that they should be impressed anyway; Self-Evident’s latest album is that sort of wild, fascinating ride which leaves you satisfied even if you didn’t know you wanted it. (But those with intense melodic loyalty may want to skip “Not Literally.” Just sayin’.)
The Racer‘s brand of rock fits in that narrow slice of time where Bush was still an acceptably awesome rock band. Passengers draws firmly on melodic post-grunge as a base, adding in some bombast from post-rock and some quieter moments of later indie (although “Glycerine” was pretty quiet as well).
“Impact” is the aptly titled first track after the introduction, as the band crams every part of its sound into 4:11. From dramatic instrumental pauses to gentle melodic passages to pounding rock’n’roll, they leave no stone unturned. There’s even a guitar solo. But several elements run through all of that: this band is melody-centric, and furthermore, vocals-centric. That doesn’t mean bad things; Anberlin is the same way.
And Anberlin (especially early, Blueprints for the Black Market-era Anberlin) is a good analogue. These guys know their way around a hook, but they also know how to crank up the guitars. They’ve got taste and tact enough to create atmosphere, and enough passion to ratchet that atmosphere up to towering crescendoes. “Celebrate” and “Lost. Love. Art.” both have particular charms, the former having some wiry guitar work and the latter incorporating some heavily rhythmic elements to great effect. But it’s almost always the quiet tunes that get me, and the same is true here: the title track is a swirling thing, growing off a gentle but insistent piano line. It shows their versatility and strength of songwriting excellently. If you’re into modern rock with taste and chops, check out The Racer.
Indie and country have been mingling freely since the ’80s, but the trend picked up a ton of steam in the ’00s. Yet Philip Boone is able to bring a new light to the subject because of his seamless integration of both sensibilities into one sound. Boone’s A Light and a Line meshes confident vocals with strong instrumentation and recording style to create an wonderfully comfortable album.
Boone’s voice is similar to Ben Gibbard’s: smooth, lithe, emotive and incredibly calming to listen to. It’s a bit lower than the Death Cab for Cutie and Postal Service singer, but not by much. Boone plays to this strength, as the arrangements of these twelve songs never impede his voice from shining. He knows that when you’ve got striking melodies at your disposal, like in the Eagles-esque “Either Way” and piercing ballads of “The Truth Is” and “Don’t You Know,” you should use ’em to their full effect.
This isn’t to say that the band is slouching along; the instrumentalists keep the tunes moving, showing off their skill tastefully. This isn’t heart-stopping rock’n’roll; this is swoon-worthy indie-country. The band plays in that framework, and doesn’t ever create any difficult tensions for Boone’s voice (unless they’re intended to be there). The exception is the solo piano closer, which eschews vocals to great emotive effect.
Boone’s A Light and a Line is strong throughout; I could list off tracks with excellent qualities, but I’d be taking up hundreds of words and repeating myself. He knows his strengths, plays to them well, and produces one of my favorite country-rock albums of the year. The vocals simply shine throughout; in a genre where the telling of the thing is everything, Boone knows how to deliver a melody and a story. Highly recommended for fans of indie-folk and alt-country.
Avant-garde music generally doesn’t agree with me, so I don’t cover it much on IC. But there are exceptions, such as Kai Straw‘s To Pearl Whitney, From Howland Grouse In Loathing. The album was pitched to me as “experimental poetry”; that might make you think of rap, but lead track “sexlovesoul” is an intense a capella piece that blurs the lines between rap and spoken word. The story it tells is one of a relationship found and lost and found, spread over an entire life. It was deeply moving, inspiring me to check out the rest of the 21-song album. What proceeds is a highly idiosyncratic mix of poetry, rapping, electronica, jazz and even some acoustic guitar. The lead is always Straw’s voice, which he has fine-tuned to be precise and highly tonal (even when speaking). The lyrics he sings and speaks are varied, from songs of death and destruction (“The Champion,” “2,000”) to elaborate daydreams (the near-parody “Vanity Fair,” “Boogie Nights”) to relationship troubles (“Drunk,” “sexlovesoul”).
The best tunes are the ones that don’t invest the most in the arrangement; while tunes like “Yakuza 21” and “Dionysius” have well-developed backing beats (squelching electronica and traditional R&B, respectively), taking the focus off the vocals is not the best move for Straw. That’s not because the beats aren’t strong; it’s that his voice is so engaging and intriguing that I want to hear it unfiltered. If you’re into hip-hop for the lyrical prowess, you should check out Kai Straw’s work. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.
Me and My Ribcage by The Widest Smiling Faces doesn’t sound that experimental on first blush. The wistful title track opens the album and introduces the listener to a sound somewhere between the moving soundscapes of The Album Leaf and the minimalist slowcore of Jason Molina and Red House Painters. The high, tentative, child-like vocals tip this off as slightly out of the ordinary, however. The album unfolds as a collection of beautiful, relaxing tunes, not so far off from bands like Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate) or Pedro the Lion at its quietest. None of the elements in the album are particularly virtuosic in their performance, but the arrangements of piano, guitar and voice are arresting. If you’re looking for a quiet, melodic, gorgeous album, you should look the way of The Widest Smiling Faces.
I was aware that The Miami had some experimental in them when I reviewed their album “I’ll Be Who You Want Me to Be”, but they ratchet that mode up in their exciting EP “Ring Shouts”. The Miami is a duo that recreates old spirituals, hymns and folk tunes in often-mournful style, stretching the source material in unusual and unexpected ways. “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” has a grating noise butting up against the plain, acoustic accompaniment; this juxtaposition seems to inspire fear in the vocalist/narrator and uneasiness in this listener. The 78 seconds of “Barbed Wire” are an a capella tune with only one person clapping and stomping to back it up, while the swirling, mysterious synths of “Motherless Child” combine with the acoustic guitar and vocals for a heartwrenchingly sad piece.
Then, they throw all that sad stuff overboard and close out the EP with “Kneebone,” a call-and-response tune that is easily the catchiest and happiest tune they’ve ever put out. It’s still got a long introduction that abruptly quits before the vocals come in and a drowsy coda to connect it with the rest of the tunes, but it’s a fun song to hear and to sing along with. Because even the most experimental of us enjoy a good singalong every now and then.
It’s that time of the year again: the end of it. So here’ are my last two 2012 singles mixes before the Best Of lists drop later this month.
1. “Still Analog” – The March Divide. Perky acoustic pop with a snide edge and snapping. Dare you to not smile.
2. “Alright OK” – Ocean Transfer. Reggae, pop-rock and even some funk come together for a fun tune.
3. “Swimsuit” – Cayucas. I’m pretty sure this was written on a surfboard.
4. “Rooftop” – Lady Lamb the Beekeeper. Peppy indie-pop with some folk sensibilities, capped off by a powerful alto vocalist.
5. “Time Keeps Dripping” – Emil Lager. Fans of The Tallest Man on Earth will appreciate the raspy vocals and fingerpicked styles of Lager.
6. “Retaliate” – City Reign. The yearning vocals here are what get me in this acoustic tune.
7. “Land” – Joyce the Librarian. The vocal harmonies, cello work and brass set this stately folk tune apart.
8. “This Love Won’t Break Your Heart” – Annalise Emerick. One of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard all year incorporates “Auld Lang Syne” into its gentle folk arrangement. The build-up to the end of the song is simply heart-pounding.
Moody Rock/Electronica Mix
1. “Each to a Grain” – Light Company. Dreamy post-rock, thumping modern rock, distorted bass and melodic vocals create a unique tune.
2. “The Hunter” – Their Planes Will Block Out the Sun. Tight, dark indie-rock with everything in its right place.
3. “All My People Go (Budo Remix)” – Kris Orlowski and Andrew Joslyn. This highlight track from their recent EP gets a bit of a remix, adding a bit (but not too much) of an electronic edge.
4. “Song for Zula” – Phosphorescent. The lead track off Phosphorescent’s upcoming album ties together strings, beats, and an incredibly emotive vocal performance.
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.