I don’t cover much rock these days. It’s not because I’m anti-rock; it’s just not my primary interest. Since I don’t seek it out, I don’t have a network of rock bands that are passing my name among them (as I do with folk bands). But every now and then a rock album or two crosses my desk that is simply too good to resist.
Miaow by Kursed is just such an album. The French trio makes rock with the crunch and pop hooks in a strong balance, and the airtight production helps as well: I haven’t heard a set of independent rock tunes sound so clean and tight in a long while. The sound is anchored by stomping guitars and a powerful male vocals that sit nicely between the sky-high tenor of pop-rock bands and the baritone of The National. The vocalist sounds completely comfortable in his own sound, which is an incredibly important and impressive aspect of Kursed’s sound. When he’s singing soaring lines (“Pirate Song”) or sounding ominous (“Tarantino”), he sounds right at home. He struggles a bit when he tries to get overly emotional (“I Feel You”), but there are more hits than misses.
The same can be said for the band: they absolutely crush what they’re good at, and they stick to it most of the time. Dark, pounding rock is where’s it at for them: opener “Tsa Tsa Tsu” is a wiry, riff-driven adrenaline kick, while the buzzy intensity of “Wall” is a remarkable turn for the band. When they get too bluesy, it starts to fall a bit far from the tree: “Movie Star” and “Modern Politician fell a bit too much like Clutch without the intensity. But tunes like “Exam,” which incorporate unique melodies and rhythms into their heavy rock, sell the whole thing excellently.
Miaow by Kursed has some completely dominating tracks when all of their elements are on. They still have some kinks to work out in their sound, but this release proves that they’ve got some really good songs in them, now and in the future.
American Wolf has fewer stomping rock moments in their tunes, hearkening back to old-school Muse’s mix of elegant melodic sections and huge riffs. Myriad also incorporates Radiohead-esque moody sections and Mars Volta-style vocal contributions. The mix comes off surprisingly well: opener “A Dark Matter” fits a heavily patterned guitar work and rhythm synths into the pounding of a hyperactive drummer. The vocalists, pulled far back in the mix, coo and call over the turbulent arrangement, creating a remarkable tension. It’s a pretty powerful opening statement.
Thoughtful, intense arrangements characterize the rest of the album: it’s easy to miss some of the pieces on first glance, but there are touches all throughout for the discerning listener. With diverse influences ranging from math rock (the shiver-inducing middle section of “Mahrz”) to atmospheric downtempo (“Skin Tight”) to acoustic folk (“The Secret to Passing Through”), this fascinating album has surprises galore for someone who likes listening deep in the mix. If you’re a fan of complex rock that rewards multiple listens, Myriad is a strong bet.
1. “Zeek and Axl Rose” – Automotive High School. The softer side of AHS’ fuzzed-out pop/pop-punk is just as hooky in a completely different way. The band is quickly moving up my “to-watch” list for 2013.
2. “Graveyard” – LVL UP. I keep a special place in my heart for video-game inspired music, and LVL UP’s punked-out geek pop is right in that space.
3. “Not a Riot” – Permanent Makeup. A wiry, low-slung, yelled punk tune with a neat guitar solo. No, for real.
4. “An Inter-dimensional Spat for the Right to Walk Away the Victor” – Hectorina. Not for the faint of heart or ear, this is a math/garage/post-punk/pop tune that is complex and almost entirely unique. If Queen and The Mars Volta got together, they’d both agree on this. Maybe.
5. “Hurricanes, XO” – Beat Radio. Is there ever not a market for enthusiastically fuzzed-out pop tunes?
6. “Come On. Stand Out.” – 7Bit Hero. A giddy slice of Australian electro-pop.
7. “Fame is for Assholes (Feat. Chiddy)” – Hoodie Allen. It finally happened.
8. “Tiny Kiss” – Hey Anna. This indie-pop tune is whimsical and propulsive, with memorable guitar work.
9. “Sandblonde” – The Bear & The Sea. I am here to state that I never stopped loving chillwave.
February-April is Spring release season, and there’s always more than I can cover as a single man. However, I can mitigate this partially through mixtapes! Today I’ve got a folk/country one; tomorrow I have an indie-pop-rock one.
Alt Your Country Are Belong to Us
1. “You Don’t Know Better Than Me” – Luke Winslow-King. Easy-going folk/country vibe hits some New Orleans swing with gorgeous results.
2. “Beneath the Willow Tree” – The Lonesome Outfit. This yearning, gospel-inflected country tune features great vocals.
3. “Grandstanders” – Sunjacket. Carl Hauck is in a band? Of course it’s wonderful. Fans of Animal Collective and My Morning Jacket will enjoy this moody, rumbling, intricate tune.
4. “Ramona” – Night Beds. Everyone’s all up in Night Beds. They are totally right.
5. “Fall With You” – Mikaela Kahn. Snare shuffle, a beautiful voice and a strong mood: yup, you’ve sold me.
6. “Griping” – Dear Blanca. The horns and vocals in this song are absolutely excellent.
7. “Secret” – Time Travels. If there is clapping and singing in your song, I will cheer. This jaunty, indie-pop by way of alt-country tune makes me cheer.
8. “Junior Year” – Case Closed. A little bit country, a little bit pop-punk, a little bit The Format.
Independent Clauses is all about helping musicians navigate the thorny and confusing world that is independent music, so I was very interested when Brian Penick of The Counter Rhythm Group told me about his plans to make that journey easier for musicians. Brian is running a Kickstarter to fund Musicians’ Desk Reference, a comprehensive guide to making your way in music. He was kind enough to take some time and explain the project to me and IC readers.
IC: What is the Musicians’ Desk Reference?
Brian Penick: Musicians’ Desk Reference is an eBook that establishes a protocol for progression in the modern music industry. That is a mouthful so let me explain. Essentially this is a software driven experience for the user that aims to help a musician or a band receive information and working guides (including templates, instructional guides, examples and video tutorials) on specific areas of the music industry, with a majority of the information being customized around the WHEN, WHY and HOW something is completed in their unique situation. It’s very “hands on” in a digital sense.
What types of things are covered in the book?
We have been helping to introduce musicians to the servicing side of the music industry with The Counter Rhythm Group for about two and a half years now, gaining an understanding of what general areas of interest repeatedly come up. The working model of the book deals with and delves into several areas, ranging from information about starting a band and recording your first record to properly going on tour, promoting your project and building a team. There is a LOT if information in here and it is meant to be used throughout an artist’s progression, expanding on information as the users grow in the industry.
Who is the audience for the book? People with labels? People with agents? Do-it-yourselfers?
One of the most intriguing aspects of this book is that it serves such a wide group of musicians. You can literally work with it while starting your first project (helping to build a strong foundation from the beginning), then using it every time you go on tour to help map out a list of tasks that will help even larger and established musicians focusing on their own promotional practices, while still emphasizing the importance of building a team when the times comes for it. The book was designed to essentially help everyone it could, from new artists to local artists, regional and even up to national recognized musicians. While some of the information may already be known, it is nice to have it complied into one entity that gives the user so much control through customization.
How did you choose Kickstarter? How did you come to the amount that you need for the Kickstarter? As a person who is running a Kickstarter, I’m interested in how people make these decisions.
Kickstarter is such a wonderful platform that allows the some of the wildest imaginations to become tangible aspects of life, and I could not think of another medium to work with. I got a lot of inspiration from other Kickstarters while considering independent sources to fund this idea, and ultimately I felt that this was the perfect one to run with. Regarding the amount, I have sat down and reworked the numbers over several months, and while the amount we’re asking for is not the final amount needed, it is enough that would get us over the initial hump of production and promotions.
We hope that once Musicians’ Desk Reference is released and helping artists, the users will be inspired enough to share their stories with others about its benefits and uses, calling attention to it a personal touch which is how we feel the best products are promoted. I see that you have already killed it with your own Kickstarter, so congratulations, Stephen!
How much will the e-book cost? How did you come to that price?
The price of the final product is ultimately going to be determined by the final amount of funding received. I am really trying to bypass any third party publishers and keeping the number of any outside investors down will also help us battle the costs. Realistically, this book will range anywhere from $50–$100, but that could change depending on MANY variables. It may sound like an expensive product, but for multiple uses throughout a musician’s career we feel it is definitely fair. Think of it how you would look at Quickbooks for your taxes, only that this helps you progress in the music industry. The more you use it, the more valuable of a tool it becomes. We’re promoting the mentality that it is essentially the cost of playing a show, and if you’re not making that amount per show the book is especially designed with you in mind.
What is your goal (or goals) with the book?
Without sounding like I am trying to lead my people through a desert to a new salvation, I am essentially trying to standardize some aspects of the music industry. There are so many artists that I have encountered over 13+ years of being a musician and since I started this company that are desperately seeking help and answers, along with so much information and ideas that seem to be floating out in the ether that I hope to pack it all into one piece of information, helping as many musicians as possible.
I would have loved to have something like this when I was working on my own progression, and I hope users will find it as useful as I would have. There are too many artists out there that are working hard without the recognition they deserve, and I hope that this levels the playing field enough so that those hard workers get as much of a chance of finding success as anyone else could. We’re trying to build a community that promotes positivity and a strong work ethic, with musicians helping each other along the way. Call me crazy, but that is the world I want to live in.
Debuts are funny things. The cult of genius that critics are sometimes guilty of proliferating puts a lot of stock in the opening salvo of a career; whole careers (even masterful ones) can be defined by the first release. So it’s with trepidation that I heap praise on any debut: there’s a lot at stake for the artist. Still, it feels disingenuous to not convey how impressed I am at Lights and Motion‘s Reanimation.
The origin story of is that of a 24-year-old, self-taught musician working long hours alone to craft an album of sweeping, cinematic post-rock. The album leans toward the “start small, end huge” trope of post-rock, but there are some songs that just hang out in the “start small, stay small” zone (“Requiem”). Guitar, piano and atmospheric synths carry the day, as they often work together to create the big crescendos. Strings also play a large role in the construction of the tunes. It is, above all else, beautiful music: there are no Tortoise-style jaunts into gritty landscapes or Isis-style dissonant roars. If you’re looking for some gorgeous post-rock, Reanimation is in your corner. As Lights and Motion continues his career, I look forward to seeing him expand his sonic palette into some more adventurous waters. But as a debut, it’s an assured and deeply enjoyable listen.
The debut of Bluskreen happened in 1996, but it’s just being unearthed now. After finding a brown paper bag full of tapes, Tony Ianutti was able to salvage four albums’ worth of glitchy, minimalist post-rock/soundscapes created on fully analog equipment. The unnamed songs on the four volumes of XLIIS90 – The Cassette Archives range from immersive to downright oddball, but they present a very recognizable prefiguring of Bluskreen’s later, more melodic work.
I’m particularly fond of the openers of each volume, as they cover a lot of the ground that the rest of albums tread. The opener of Volume 1 pairs a highly rhythmic backdrop with a slow-moving, mysterious keyboard line to create an intriguing tension that’s reminiscent of a good video game soundtrack. Volume 2 kicks off with a modified spoken-word clip and a murky melodic motif that set a noir-ish, trip-hop feel. It’s one of the most memorable tracks in the collection.
The high-pitched, Postal Service-esque beat that opens Volume 3 sets a very different tone than the first two. Though maintaining the heavily rhythmic beats, the tune is much more optimistic than the previous contributions. The profoundly eerie synth sweeps that open Volume 4 give way to some strange sonic and melodic experimenting, which shows yet another side of Bluskreen.
Bluskreen’s XLIIS90 volumes are a treasure trove of downtempo, minimalist post-rock/soundscapes. I’ve loved all of Bluskreen’s work thus far, and so it’s fascinating to hear the very beginnings of the project. Highly recommended.
Independent Clauses exists to cover things that don’t get much coverage, and kindie rock doesn’t get much play in the circles I run in. But it certainly is worth the effort, because modern kids’ music is a far cry from Raffi and Harry Chapin (as much as I love Tom Chapin). I put Justin Roberts’ music on mixtapes for people and no one ever guesses it’s a kid song. So here’s two kindie rock albums that have crossed my path recently.
The Not-Its! are a power-pop band that probably sound less like a kid’s band than The Apples in Stereo sometimes did (Remember this song?!). They also come off as more of an indie band than some indie bands, dressed out in White Stripes-ian pink/black/white. Kidquake! is primarily female-fronted, although some songs (“Let’s Skateboard”) are fronted by a guy who’s voice is actually not that far off from Robert Schneider’s. “Let’s Skateboard” is one of the best tracks on the album, fitting both the term “no comply” and some infectious indie-punk-pop melodies into a sub-2:00 package. Legit. Also legit: the punk-ska attack of “Busy.” Less legit: the kid monologue opening the Blink 182-esque “Temper Tantrum.” But on the whole, this is a solidly enjoyable piece of power-pop that can be enjoyed on its own merits–not just as “kid’s music that doesn’t suck!”
Cat Doorman sounds even more comfortable in the “grown up” world, as Songbook is a gorgeous chamber-folk album. This is made possible because songwriter Julianna Bright is a music veteran and Chris Funk of the Decemberists is on board. The balance between fanciful arrangements and tactful restraint is navigated easily, as a honking bass saxophone and a grumbling electric guitar are treated with equal care and taste (“Effervescing Elephant” and “So Many Words,” respectively). Bright’s vocal melodies sell the album perfectly, as they don’t pander to kids in that annoying way that kids’ albums can do. These are real songs, and they happen to have lyrics kids can sing along with. Given the current indie penchant for whimsy, and it’s not that hard to imagine these songs being sung by the next big thing. “Turn Around” is especially poignant and beautiful; when’s the last time you said that about a kid’s song? Yeah. Songbook is impressive by any standard.
The Civil Wars left a gaping hole in the hearts of many when they split up in 2012 over differences in “ambition.” I would like to humbly submit that every Civil Wars fan missing heartfelt, passionate guy/girl folk songs should salve their wounded soul with Venna‘s Third Generation Hymnal: Heather and Marky Hladish’s gorgeous, winsome tunes shine lyrically and musically.
Heather Hladish’s vocals are in turns lilting (“Meet Me in the Hammock”) and driving (“Sweden is the Reason”), providing the engine that powers these tunes. Her most captivating turn comes in lead track “Married,” a performance that pulls off both vulnerability and quiet confidence with ease. “I am content with wanting” is a devastating line in its layers of meaning, and the aching delivery only adds depth. Her wonderful vocals are a consistent draw throughout the eight-song album.
The instrumentals are nothing to shrug at, either. With several veterans of IC’s beloved The Felix Culpa strumming the strings, it should go without saying that the arrangements here are gold. I’m especially fond of “Sweden is the Reason,” which employs driving rhythms, dense texture and bright horn arrangements that are each reminiscent of Neutral Milk Hotel. “Quitting Contest” offers us a huge, sweeping arrangement that is worthy of losing yourself in. “Danger – Past & Present” shows off their Americana bonafides, while “12 Shades to the Wind” appeals to fans of modern folk singer/songwriters.
The spartan strum patterns and arrangement of “12 Shades” are not the only attractive elements, as the lyrics are profoundly beautiful. Drawing off lyrics from the little-sung third verse of “Be Thou My Vision,” Hladish spins a tale of yearning: “Give me a vision/a beauty that kneels/sweet absolution/to cover these years.” The already-mentioned lyrics of “Married” are also impressive in their form and content; “Meet Me in the Hammock” is a very thoughtful piece as well. These are heavy, meaningful words that come off without being ponderous due to Hladish’s stunning voice.
The eight tunes of Third Generation Hymnal are all worth lauding. These magnificent melodic folk tunes are thoughtfully conceived and executed incredibly well. What more can you ask for in an album?
The fourth and final chapter in Dr. Pants‘ huge songwriting project The Trip has arrived. Like any good conclusion, it is the strongest and most impressive of the entries; because Dr. Pants is a goofy power-pop band, it should not surprise you that the towering culmination of years of work is titled The Booty Impression. The combination of tried-and-true tactics with new avenues of exploration make this EP an absolute must for any fan of power-pop.
“S.W.E. (The Na Na Na Song)” is just as infectious as My Chemical Romance’s “Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na)”; Dr. Pants’ onomatopoeia relies less on desperate fury and more on bouncy optimism. It’s in and out in 3:20: a fun pop song to its core. The tune introduces a religious turn for this project: “I see you on the water/I see you in your boat/I see the tempest rising/as you try and stay afloat.” The religious imagery continues to the mid-tempo “Maria”‘s four-minute duration.
I point out the lengths of tunes because the length really matters for the last two tunes here. “In the Name of the Lord” is a six-minute instrumental piece, while “The Trip” is ten minutes of power-pop (complete with vocals). “The Trip” has various movements in its duration, moving from crunchy power-pop to peppy acoustic pop to goofy nerd-rock back to Beach Boy-inspired indie-pop before it even reaches the halfway point. It’s one of the most fun songs I’ve heard all year. I know that this term has been largely robbed of its power, BUT SERIOUSLY, IT’S EPIC.
If “The Trip” dialed in the EP as a potential “best of year” pick, it’s “In the Name of the Lord” that really puts it over the top. It’s a surprisingly moving and melodic mash-up of the power-pop that the band is so good at and soaring post-rock. To explain it in words makes the band seem indulgent and does not get the point across: The song is beautiful and distinctly unique.
Power-pop is not often considered a genre that can take on projects of huge scope or experimental tunes. Dr. Pants has proved that the genre is versatile enough to encompass both of them, if the right amount of effort and talent is applied. The Trip, Side 4: The Booty Impression left quite a mark on this listener, and I suspect it will do the same for fans of power-pop everywhere.
As a music journalist, it’s impossible to cover any particular genre in its entirety–and that galls me. I want to know everything. One way that critics get around this is by having refined and efficient means of finding that stuff which will blow our (and your) minds. Another is by dedicating no more than a week or two to the note-gathering section of review writing. But an album as richly expansive as Lady Lamb the Beekeeper‘s Ripely Pine demands more than the average amount of time to parse its depths. Without getting hyperbolic (“You don’t just listen to this album, it listens to you,” etc.), this album is wildly engaging both musically and lyrically, shining a light on an idiosyncratic, fearless musician who could have an incredibly bright future.
The first thing to note about Lady Lamb the Beekeeper is that she has a commanding, distinct presence. Aly Spaltro writes with a powerfully feminine voice: she describes things in ways that men would not. This is the sort of absolutely fascinating work that we need to celebrate: these’s aren’t just men’s songs from a woman’s perspective; these are a woman’s songs. Too often we are treated to “the other side of the story” when really I just want to hear a woman’s story. Well, here it is: a 12-song album full of food language and body metaphors to tell intimate tales of interpersonal relationships as a woman sees them. I’m not saying that no one else is doing this; I’m just trying to celebrate the incredible example in front of me.
The lyrics are by turns elegant and powerful, but consistently raw. When Spaltro hollers out, “I need your teeth around my organs,” in “You Are the Apple,” it’s far more sexual and jarringly personal than the explicit come-ons that pop music has routinely produced over the past twenty years. These lyrics cause me to pause and think. These lyrics shake me. It is rare that I can say that.
There are plenty of lyricists who can’t write a song to deliver the words, but never fear: Spaltro applies her unconventional lyrical angle to the music, creating a whirling, roaring album that includes more shifts and turns than I can keep track of. It should be noted that “Rooftop” was chosen as the single almost by default: it’s the track that most closely resembles recognizably normal indie rock. Guitars that alternate between single-note intricacy and chord mashing lock into a rhythm section that largely stays true to a consistent tempo and four/four time. This stability is notable because it almost never happens again.
Spaltro’s best tracks slow down, speed up, pause unexpectedly, and generally wind all over the map (“Crane Your Neck,” “Mezzanine”). This is almost always in service of the lyrics, creating a synthesis of sound and word that allows for maximum tension. Spaltro knows how to keep you hanging, and then how to pay off that tension; if you’re not breathless at the end of “You Are the Apple,” you’re probably doing too many things at once and not paying attention to Lady Lamb.
I don’t know how you could not pay attention, because Spaltro’s alto voice is mesmerizing: she uses her range to its fullest power, able to create a storm where a whisper was prevailing mere seconds before. Her voice inhabits the lyrics, muscling her way through angry tunes and gracefully gliding through quieter ones. In her voice, as with her songwriting and lyric-writing, she exercises an incredible level of control. She leverages what she has to its best ends, and the results are astonishing.
It is rare that an album comes along that absolutely captivates me. Ripely Pine, with its descriptive imagery, devastating vocals, and arresting tunes, is one of a rare few albums per year that make an indelible mark in my brain, like Colin Stetson’s New History Warfare Vol II: Judges and Titus Andronicus’ The Monitor. The same almost-outlandish ambition that powered those two achievements powers Ripely Pine. It’s not that Lady Lamb the Beekeeper is simply doing something different: it’s that she’s doing something so singularly different that she transcends the label for whatever it is she started out as. That is what an artist should do, and that is what Lady Lamb the Beekeeper has done here. Did I mention this tour de force is a debut?