Independent Clauses is but one man at the moment, and that means that it’s impossible for me to cover everything that comes through the front doors. Some notable music flies under the radar for lack of time. To remedy these oversights, I’ve created two shout-out lists. Today’s is for the more pop-oriented stuff, while tomorrow’s is for indie-rock and singer/songwriter.
Alex and the XO’s – North to the Future Here’s some fun ukulele-fronted pop-rock with a female vocalist. Don’t confuse this for an Ingrid Michaelson copy: there’s a lot of crunch in these pop-rock tunes alongside the ukulele strum.
Christian Hansen – C’mon Arizona. This driving-ready synth-pop features a baritone vocalist for a change. Fans of Talking Heads should check the infectious “Spirit Guide” and the money-titled “You Were a Juggalo.”
Coed Pageant – The Seasons EPs Vol. 4: The Fallout. Boy/girl pop that goes for the grand sweep instead of the intimate coo. If Mates of State thought that their loudest arrangement could use a couple more instruments for scope, they might end up in this arena.
Hostage Calm – Please Remain Calm. Gonna throw my hat in here with the rest of the punk world: this one is pretty stellar. I’m a huge Menzingers fan, and this pushes all the same buttons lyrically and musically (only with a bit less gruffness).
Nora and One Left – Bicycle. Enthusiastic, girl-fronted indie-pop that occasionally includes accordion.
The World Record – Freeway Special. Similar to Fountains of Wayne, TWR goes to great lengths and many sub-genres in search of the perfect pop song. And check that sweet album art.
Wise Girl – Wise Girl EP. Straight-up power-pop with a great female vocalist. Turn it up loud.
Reina Del Cid has a rare melodic gift. Her 10-song release with The Cidizens is titled blueprints, plans, and each song features one absolutely stunning vocal melody after another. She could have made any song on the whole album the single, and they all would have been just as effective at showing off that Reina Del Cid can write unforgettable tunes. Her pop-folk/bluegrass-lite makes great use of traditional sounds, rhythms and instruments to float her brilliant vocal melodies, from the condescending “Pretty Lie” to the forlorn “Expiration Date” to the striking “Brutal Love.” All of these tunes are mixtape-worthy, which is incredibly unusual. If you’re into anything from Jason Mraz to Nickel Creek to Ani Difranco, you’ll find something to love in Reina Del Cid and the Cidizens. And if you like all of them, then you’re in for a treat.
David Ullman lets you know exactly what you’re going to get immediately. Ullman opens Light the Dark with a single sharp acoustic guitar strum and a howl of, “This is my cry in the dark!” As the rest of “Who You Say” unfolds, it becomes very clear that Ullman comes from the Damien Rice school of singer/songwriters, where hearing the tension and struggle in the vocals is a large part of the charm. Light also features instrumentation similar to Rice’s, with acoustic guitar, piano, strings and vocals taking up the lion’s share of the work. Ullman’s voice is grittier than Rice’s, making some of the tunes here positively punishing on his vocal chords. The lyrics deal with struggle and tension in religious themes, so there’s fertile ground for crescendo and catharsis. If you’re into gritty, powerful singer/songwriter fare, Light the Dark will be right up your alley.
The strength of hunters.’white lies is the interplay between easygoing alt-country vibes and the impressively descriptive lyrics. From describing a picturesque summer evening in standout “Ft. Lee, VA” to chronicling the life and times of the titular character in “Ambulance Chaser,” vocalist Rosa Del Duca nails the lyrics. She has strong control over her voice as well, lending these tunes a knowing, confident air. White Lies is fun to listen to on all levels, as hummable melodies, interesting arrangements, and memorable lyrics abound. This seven-song release is very worth your time.
I associate Damien Jurado with fragile, delicate folk, so it’s no surprise that my favorite tunes on Maraqopa are the quietest. “Working Titles” pairs a gentle ukulele strum with swooning backup vocals and very high steel drum notes (no foolin’) to create a swaying, beautiful tune. “Museum of Flight” depends on Jurado’s falsetto to sell the dreamy tune, and it works out perfectly. The rest of the album is a bit noisier, moving almost over into the dream-pop/indie-pop realm instead of the singer/songwriter genre that he established himself in. It’s definitely a unique sound that new fans may enjoy and embrace. It’s a tough sell for this old-school fan, though.
The genius of Pedro the Lion’s songwriting was the ability to combine minimalist singer/songwriter arrangements with loud indie-rock almost seamlessly. Illustrated Manual‘s The Long and Tangled Beard splits that difference neatly as well, allowing the deeply personal subject matter to find whatever proper mood it needs. “The Invisible Line” sets the tale of a first sexual encounter against the backdrop of a fragile piano line and slowly building arrangement. “Hiding the Boy” sets another intimate story against a solo acoustic guitar backdrop; “The Time Traveler” starts with airy synths and gentle acoustic guitar before snapping to attention as a driving pop/rock piece.
All of these tunes are directed by Jonathan Cooke’s fluid, gripping vocals; Cooke had vocal cord surgery during the process of making this album, but you’d never be able to tell. His vocal melodies are strong, and his tone is impeccable. It’s the perfect fit for intimate songs like these, as it feels as if Cooke is in the room with me, having a quiet conversation about his life. This album is the sort that doesn’t leave your mind or iPod quickly: this level of execution in the lyrical, instrumental and vocal arenas doesn’t come around that often. The Long and Tangled Beard is a must-hear.
At first glance, it wouldn’t seem that Hemmingbirds‘ The Vines of Age is a kitchen-sink album, as “My Love, Our Time is Now” establishes a pastoral folk-pop sort of mood for the album. But by the middle of the track, it has morphed into a towering rock song complete with walloping drums. This is basically how Hemmingbirds roll: they play everything from really quiet to really loud, without regard for whether that will be jarring. One of the thrashiest tunes, “Heart Attack,” cuts off abruptly from its wailing guitar, howling vocals and whirlwind drums and drops directly into the intricate, gentle solo acoustic guitar of “Through the Night.” They’re good at both ends of their spectrum, but yikes; that’s some heavy whiplash.
Another standout is “Toxic Noise,” which exercises as much restraint as it can before exploding in a gigantic, early-Walkmen rock track. It’s like Bon Iver secretly also wanted to be Jack White, so he did both his thing and JW’s thing at the same time. Again, both sides of the spectrum are good, and the mishmash makes songs like “My Love” and “Toxic Noise” into the successes they are. Don’t expect to have a single mood throughout The Vines of Age; you’ll be disappointed. But if you want to hear some unique songs, you’re in the right place.
The Griswolds‘ four-song Heart of a Lion EP is one of the most fun releases I’ve heard in 2012. This seems like an Australian cross between The Strokes and Vampire Weekend, with the energetic cool of the first and the perky rhythms of the second thrown into a blender and set to the “fun” setting. There are infectious “oh-oh-ohs” in the title track; rumbling toms and animated bass lines mark “The Courtship of Summer Preasley”; falsetto works its way into my heart in the charming “Red Tuxedo.” There’s only ten minutes of music here, but whoa, those ten minutes. They rule. Watch out for The Griswolds in 2013.
7. The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth. Turning its back on the morose portraits that characterized All Eternals Deck, TY was a verifiable romp through the psyches of doomed characters fighting that good fight to stay alive. The addition of horns and enthusiasm worked wonders for Darnielle’s mojo.
6. Challenger – The World is Too Much For Me. Beautiful synth-pop that was equal parts trembling and exultation. Dancy moods and undeniable melodies met a sense of late-night, modern-society dread in a masterful combination. Quite an astonishing debut.
5. The Menzingers – On the Impossible Past. This tightly constructed album is one of the heaviest lyrical statements I’ve ever heard in a punk album, taking on the past and Americanism in a profound way. Their prowess of gruff pop-punk continues, leaving an album that won’t let go of your throat in its wake.
4. Cobalt and the Hired Guns – Everybody Wins. It doesn’t get more enthusiastic than Cobalt. This pop-punk/indie-pop mashup resulted in some of the best “shout-it-out” tunes of the year, while showing that you can indeed still make gold with just three chords, enthusiasm, and a solid lyric. Oh, and horns. Lots of horns.
3. Jenny and Tyler – Open Your Doors. The only artist to appear on 2011’s list and this list, Jenny and Tyler followed up their turbulent, commanding Faint Not with a gentle release looking expectantly toward peace. Its highest moments were revelatory.
2. Come On Pilgrim! – Come On Pilgrim!. Josh Caress and co. lovingly made an expansive, powerful collection of tunes that spanned the wide breadth of modern folk. Leaning heavily on rumbling, low-end arrangements, this was everything that I expected it to be from the first moment longtime solo artist Caress announced he was putting together a band.
1. Jonas Friddle & The Majority – Synco Pony and Belle De Louisville. You should never release a double album as your debut, unless you’ve really got the goods to back it up with. Friddle’s folk explosion is worth every second, as he deftly explores just about every nook and cranny of modern folk, from revivalist antique appropriation to protest songs to modern love songs. The immaculate arrangements would sell it, if his lithe voice hadn’t already given it away. Amazing stuff.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.