New Lungs‘ Lanterns is an incredible release that ties together the best parts of post-rock, serious indie-rock and optimism. I know it seems like these things would not mesh conceptually, but New Lungs does a bang-up job combining them.
Look no further than “Concrete” for your example, where a tom-heavy rhythm anchors a speedy, rhythmically complex guitar/bass fusion. The surprisingly bright guitar and bass tone drop out without warning and give way to an a cappella chorale. Just out of nowhere, you know? Because that’s what we do here. Just about the time you get used to it, they blast off into a punk-inspired section that wouldn’t be out of place on a Deep Elm post-punk circa ’05 release. To signal the second verse, they throw in an 8-bit video game noise low in the mix. Not obvious, but totally there. Are you guys reading my mind or something? In short, “Concrete” is almost certainly going to be on my “top songs of the year,” even if it was released three days before 2013 started.
The rest of the five-song release, while not as mind-blowing as “Concrete,” has much to praise. “A Wallflower (The Price of Being)” uses a math-rock-inspired riff as the lead on the track, but wraps it in a warm, friendly guitar tone. It’s dizzying in its execution, and it’s not as sterilized as some technical math rock can become. (This same sort of incredible guitar work appears in the spunky “Euro.”) The bass and drums follow the guitar around, snaking through time changes and mood changes at the guitar’s whim. It all works beautifully. The vocalist is also throwing down the best vocal line outside of “Concrete” while this is all going on. Yes. This band knows what is up when it comes to songwriting.
Steven Hyden suggests in his piece on Muse that we’re headed for “a future where all music sounds like everything at once.” If mind-bending music like New Lungs’ is the result of having all genres accessible to us at all times, I’m all for it. I could use a few more shiver-inducing moments like “Concrete”‘s unexpected chorale in my music-listening life.
Speaking of “all genres at once,” Swedish spazz-rockers Cyan Marble have dropped a new EP. Maya is almost twenty minutes of frenetic, whiplash-inducing rock spread out over three tunes. Comparisons to the Mars Volta will abound, both for the sky-high vocals and the penchant for pairing absurdly technical sections of math-rock with melodic ideas yanked from every imaginable permutation of rock music. Still, with MV gone, it’s good to see someone carrying on that spazz-rock torch.
If there’s a breakout star of the EP, it’s bassist André Hayrapetian, whose intimidating chops are put front and center in “Purple Testament.” Instead of providing incredible work in the background as he did in previous EP Mirror, Hayrapetian carries the whole 7-minute tune with his rhythmic, melodic riffing. Now that Cyan Marble has established itself with two solid EPs of extremely intriguing rock, I’m interested to see where the muse takes them next. They’ve got the ambition and the chops to create some really incredible things, so we could be in for an impressive ride with Cyan Marble.
Vic Alvarez has a long history with IC. By talking about his new project Saint Popes, I’ve now covered three of his bands, stretching all the way back to (incredibly) 2004. He’s also written for the site at points. So it’s with a certain confidence that comes from seeing the whole backstory that I can tell you this: The gentle singer/songwriter tunes of Saint Popes’ self-titled EP are my favorite songs that Alvarez has ever attached his name to.
Having a strong collaborator helps: Michelle Keating handles a lot of the vocals. Her strong, clear mezzo-soprano voice fits perfectly with the unadorned, stark arrangements. Even though there are only five entries on the EP, they are varied in style: “Atlas” is a tune reminiscent of the Weepies in its perky yet not overly energetic strumming; “Warm” and “Paperbag” evoke Jason Molina’s slowcore in different ways; “Somewhere” is a charming, peppy pop song. I hear a lot of singer/songwriters, but the spare, tight production cuts through the clutter of what I usually hear.
Even though this band doesn’t share the country affectations that The Civil Wars included in their sound, those looking for a band to fill the post-CW hole in their hearts could do real well to check out Saint Popes. It’s beautiful, crisp, emotional music played without pretense; I don’t ask for much more out of bands.
There are few things more soothing and beautiful than an a cappella choir used to its full potential. The Silver Lake Chorus understands this, and has released the two-song EP Wreckage to prove it. They’ve got Ben Lee producing and A.C. Newman writing on the track, so it can be understood why “Wreckage” is a quirky, upbeat indie-pop tune with piano. It’s fun and clever, but it’s not the jewel. “From the Snow Tipped Hills” is a gorgeous piece that hearkens directly back to what a cappella means in Italian: “in the manner of the chapel.” It shows off what sort or reverent magic choirs can produce for an audience that (potentially) has never heard a full SATB go for an Eric Whitacre piece. Need more proof that it’s worth your time? Justin Vernon of Bon Iver wrote it. Yes. You need to hear this thing right now.
It only takes one listen of Little Chief‘s Somewhere Near the River to know that something special is going on here. The Arkansas folk quintet takes the sonic palette that has become stock-in-trade for the genre and softens the percussive edge that Mumford and Sons’ influence has imported. This means that the banjo doesn’t sound like it’s hammering on your brain, the drummer gets to use more tasteful and complex arrangements than “more kick drum,” and vocalist Matt Cooper doesn’t bellow. Instead, he turns his soft tenor voice toward Ray LaMontagne-style emoting, making his overall vocal performances somewhat akin to Kris Orlowski‘s.
Cooper’s voice is not the icing on the cake, but the element around which all things center. The arrangements point toward the lyrics and the vocal melodies without turning into wallpaper, which is a tough feat indeed. The cello goes a long way to strike this balance: it’s hard to not listen for the beautiful tones of that instrument, but it’s also pulled back enough in the mix that a clear signal is sent. That tension sounds like it would be a problem, but it’s really a benefit. The engineer that recorded this knew exactly what he was doing in maximizing this band’s skills and tastes.
The fact that the very young band knows its skills and tastes on their debut EP is equally impressive. It’s easy to want to go for bombast when you’ve just discovered your voice, but they restrain themselves beautifully. Instead of creating stadium-rockers, they’ve created headphone bobbers and car-trip wonderers: these are tunes of travel and geography, gently unfurling against the best possible backdrop. The title track incorporates a choir that actually sings, not just hollers. I love hollering, for real, but it’s still startling and pleasant to hear actual choral contributions. “Hiding and Seeking” is the high point, as it shows how they can be engaging, even electrifying, without being bombastic. The stuttering rhythms from the cello blend with guys hollering “hey” (can’t avoid it, y’all) and a dreamy guy/girl duet in the chorus to produce a shiver-inducing moment.
It’s astonishing that Somewhere Near the River is a debut, as the subtlety and refinement in the songwriting chops would indicate a group with much more recording experience. This band has a bright future that I will be tracking closely. If you’re sick of the overwrought theatricality that currently dominates folk, Little Chief is a pleasant, earnest antidote.
Chloë Sunshine‘s new album is called Indian Summer, and the sound matches both names perfectly: perky, bright indie-pop with influences from surf-rock (“I Try,” “Modern House”) and chill beach-pop (“Love Love Love”). Sunshine’s earnest, unaffected voice sells the whole production with a cute-but-not-smarmy air. It’s the perfect soundtrack to a summer road trip, as you’ll be bobbing your head, singing along, and smiling with your hair flowing in the wind. It’s just a lovely album.
Folk, country, and rock have been chillin’ together since ever, and yet it’s still always a delight to me when someone comes along with a new take on the idea. Akron Engine is latest contender, taking (or at least sharing) the honor from SXSW darling Dawes. Where Dawes traffics in smooth rhythms and tones, Akron Engine’s Silhouettes keeps things endearingly scruffy. Strummy guitars, up-front rhythms and swooping pedal steel contrast against Davis Jones’ sweet tenor voice, allowing for tunes like ominous “Silhouettes” and the weary “Hold On to It” to succeed. The band can lay down a beautiful tune, as the shuffling waltz “Believe in You” and solitary closer “All We Ever Had” show. Those into country-rock/folk should check this out this fine collection of tunes.
Matt Ryd combines country with pop, but not in the schmaltzy, Rascal Flatts sort of way. Imagine if a power-pop band also had a pedal steel in it, and there you are. At least, there you are as far as “Nobody But Me” is concerned, the infectious, energetic opening to track to Ryd’s 3-song EP Ryd ‘Em Cowboy. The follow-up “Long, Long Time” is a ballad that does head in that direction, but Ryd’s earnest vocals make sure that the love song stays firmly in realm of “pleasantly familiar” instead of “cloyingly obvious.” Closer “Marianne [Country Remix]” leans even more toward ballad-style country, with the inclusion of a female back-up vocalist. It’s not what I usually cover, but Ryd’s earnest voice and spot-on production make this a fun listen.
Wakeup Starlight‘s awesomely-titled The White Flags of Alderaan rounds out this collection of bands that are easy to listen to. The acoustic-heavy band sounds like Jack Johnson jamming on “Hey There Delilah” with a dash of Dispatch thrown in. If that sounds like the most cheery thing ever, you wouldn’t be wrong in your assessment. It’s hilarious, then, that they have songs titled “The Earth is Dying,” “Loco Train (A Canadian Tragedy)” and “The Ghost of Myself Facing You.” To be fair, that last one tries to be ominous until it breaks into a “hey-o” section. For real. They’re smart to put that one last, because the happier this band is, the more entertaining their songs are. So if you want a few rays of sunshine in your life, you should go for “The Earth is Dying” and “Loco Train (A Canadian Tragedy).” Trust me, they’re actually smile-inducing.
The saxophone is an oft-maligned instrument in indie rock that recently received some out-of-nowhere street cred by being the thing that Colin Stetson chose to blow minds with and the centerpiece of the masterful “Midnight City” by M83. But “Midnight City” only re-appropriates a past meaning of the saxophone: it’s hard to imagine that Anthony Gonzalez honestly believes in the smaltzy sound of the saxophone as much as he believes in turning that goofy sound into something revelatory through contrast with its surroundings. (Maybe he’s earnestly all up in it, I don’t know.) But using the saxophone for effect is vastly different than conceiving it as a whole part of your sound, which is what makes Dear Blanca‘s repeated use of the saxophone the most surprising and intriguing part of a very surprising and intriguing album.
First off, the genre of Talker can be described as Conor Oberst-esque alt-country hysterics, making this album an unusual place to deploy saxophones. Secondly, the level of saxophone integration into “Griping,” “No Protector,” and “King of Salters” strongly implies that the instrument was not a late addition, but an actual consideration in the songwriting process. It’s not just surprising that saxophone appears; it’s even more surprising that it’s awesome.
“Griping” is the best example of Dear Blanca’s work on the album. The tune opens up with a 20-second alt-country solo guitar riff before dropping into a groove with tight drums, distant saloon piano, and steady bass. It’s effectively a pensive Old ’97s song until 0:33, when saxophones come swooping in with a completely unexpected layer of atmosphere. They transform the song into something different: perched on the edges of what I know and expect, but putting a foot outside it as well. Dylan Dickerson’s passionate, ragged voice comes in and spins the mood in another direction again, creating an altogether unique listening experience for me. The breakdown in the middle of the song feels like a car speeding up inexorably towards a cliff, with the choppy drumming and staccato blasts of saxophones pressing Dickerson’s anguished wailing ever forward. Then the band stops abruptly and leans back to the pensive mood (except for the vocals). It’s one of the most engaging songs I’ve heard all year.
The rest of the album keeps up the unexpected directions. “Comrade” brings in a cello to contrast against Dickerson’s roaring voice, which works beautifully. “No Protector” might be the best pop song of the bunch, relying on great bass contributions, a strong saxophone bit, and a compelling vocal melody from Dickerson. It might also be “Havana Tonight,” which has a more folky arrangement (harmonica!) but amps up the vocal melody to “I’m singing along? When I did start singing along?” levels. “Hunny (Don’t Mind If I Tao)” closes out the album with a wiry, buzzy post-punk tune, which is a little out of character but enjoyable after a whole album of emotionally and sonically involving alt-country.
Dear Blanca’s Talker features clever arrangements of intriguing sounds and memorable melodies. If you’re a fan of bands that lay it all out on the line in vocal and instrumental performance, you should be all up in this. If you’re into restraint, well, you may look elsewhere. Oh, and if you love saxophone, this is your jam. I expect to be listening to Talker for a long time, and I look forward to what Dear Blanca will put out in the future.
When I Used to Be a Sparrow‘s Luke appeared last year, I praised its “interesting and unique” take on indie rock but complained that they pushed the “anthem” button too often. The duo has corrected that oversight on You Are an Empty Artist, creating a more intimate collection of tunes that yet resists navelgazing. These songs weren’t written as stadium crushers, although they might turn out that way if the band’s passion, composition chops and infectious melodies have anything to say about it.
The chiming guitar tone and soaring, U2-esque guitar melodies from Luke are largely retained but modified in a critical way: instead of being thrown way up in the mix, the guitars take an equal seat with the vocals and rhythm section (“Spring Knows Where You Live,” “I’ve Got the Feeling We Are Not in Kansas Anymore”). This creates an egalitarian atmosphere in the arrangements, letting the listener’s ear roam about. By taking the focus off one thing, they put the focus on everything. Songs like “I’ve Got…” live up to that treatment, as the rhythms, melodies, and intricacies are a joy to listen to. But by keeping the pace quick and focusing on singable vocal melodies, the songs don’t ever veer toward guitar noodling.
The insistent pace and excellent chorus of “Cannonball” mark it as a highlight, while “Always the Runner” stands out by slowing the pace down and showing off a different side of the band. But from opener “Laura” to closer “July,” I Used to Be a Sparrow doesn’t disappoint. Their instrumental palette is still largely stable throughout, and I’d love to hear them experiment with some more sounds in future releases. But as it stands, You Are an Empty Artist does a good job of meeting its own ideals and eschewing vapidity in its work. That’s a worthy coda to any review.
I’ve covered French duo Charlotte and Magon since January 2011, and I’ve been mesmerized by their pensive, mysterious indie-rock that draws just as much from trip-hop and Fleetwood Mac as it does any current band. Life Factory is their first full release, and it delivers on the promise. Charlotte’s alto voice commands the stark, crisp tunes with easy authority, and the whole project comes off with a dramatic flair. They can go a bit overboard on the drama in places (“Dice,” “Shellshock”), but tunes like “Motoroïde” and “Black Horses” are excellent songs that make me excited for the future of this band.
Italian band OfeliaDorme is the perfect companion to Charlotte and Magon, as the bands share similarities in sparse, stark mood and atmosphere. The veterans in OfeliaDorme make Bloodroot a standout by not wasting a single moment: every bit is thoughtfully considered, causing the tunes to seem effortless. (Isn’t that always the way?) Vocalist Francesca Bono sits atop the mix, delivering her vocals in a straightforward, almost entrancing voice. Her voice melds equally well to spacious, gloomy tunes (“Brussels,” “Predictable”) and upbeat pop moments (“Ulysses,” “Stuttering Morning”), which results in a nicely varied group of songs. It’s a credit to the band’s songwriting skill that the album still holds together well as a unit. Bloodroot is an album that you can put on and enjoy in its entirety. If you’re into music that makes small arrangements sound gorgeous, this one’s for you.
Swedish outfit E321 adheres more closely to the post-rock idiom than the two previous bands, but they still keep a candle for gloomy, spare atmospheres on three-song release Among the Trees. Opener “The Naked Sea” builds from a lone guitar playing forlorn melodies to a heavy rock section, complete with spoken/yelled vocals that give it a vaguely post-hardcore vibe. “They Call Us Human” and “Among the Trees” follow a similar pattern, but make the quiets quieter and the louds louder. The band shines when it’s turning morose moments into aggressive ones, although E321 doesn’t go all the way by attempting Isis levels of earsplitting clamor. Instead, the band dials in to their comfort zone and turns out really effective, evocative tunes. If you’re into things that have a post- attached to their name, you should check out E321.
Signals to Vega is from Lake Charles, Louisiana, which is interesting because A. it breaks the streak of international bands in this post and B. I once spent a weekend marooned there because of a car wreck. I hold no hard feelings against the town, but if I did I think STV would help exorcise them. This duo does aspire towards the towering metal/post-rock fusions of Isis, as the 10-minute-long lead track “Fear Not the Cycle of Life” alternates between poignant sections of twinkling beauty and roaring double-pedal excursions. The band does both well on Into the Arms of Infinity, as they never lose sight of the melody in the crush of hugely distorted background guitar. No vocals on this one; you’ve just got lots of trilling, soaring guitar to admire. This will make answering e-mails sound way more dramatic and important.
When I’m not listening to stark folk, I love layered, textured, heavily-arranged music in any genre. But Summer Hours prove that there is still a place in my soul for a three-piece guitar-pop band. The 11 songs of Closer Still feature female lead vocals, guitar, bass, drums, occasional background vocals, and only rarely organ. Instead of layering the instruments, Summer Hours deliver a study in songwriting skill and the importance of guitar tone. With so few elements influencing the sound, the choice of guitar tone has a huge impact on how the songs end up. Guitarist Mike Bliss goes for a warm, friendly tone, creating an environment throughout the album that invokes the titles of the album and band perfectly.
From beginning to end, the album thrills in its chill, comforting way. From the walking-speed croon of “Brilliant Things” to the breezy bounce of “These Nights,” the album never falters. Rachel Dannefer’s vocals are unpretentious but not sloppy, showing that it’s possible to be earnest without resorting to garage rock tropes, contentious stances or total twee-ness. The music is beautiful in a wide-eyed wonder sort of way, but there’s just enough toughness in the sound to keep it from being cloying. “Organ Song” is the perfect example: Dannefer’s voice and an organ lock into unusual rhythms, giving an alternate hook to something that could have been an indulgent tune built on quirky, clever lyrics about imaginary boyfriends. Instead, it becomes a highlight of the album, displaying Dannefer’s melodic poise and lyrical skill in a memorable context. I foresee this ending up on my end-of-year lists, and would highly recommend it for anyone interested in chill guitar-pop/indie-pop.
With some trepidation, I’ve been getting into artsy electronica recently. I’ve loved The Postal Service since late ’03, but that felt like it was firmly ensconced in the indie-rock world because of Ben Gibbard’s connection to the project. Artists like Odesza and now The Suicide of Western Culture have much less connection to my stomping grounds. But I like their music nonetheless! Hope Only Brings Pain by TSOWC will catch the ear of any indie-rock fan with its almost absurdly hooky, upbeat instrumental electronica.
With such a downer album title, you’d expect this to be mopey, but it’s actually jubilant throughout most of the release. Opener “Remembering Better Times” frames a hyperactive, wiry synth line in a sweeping pad synth backdrop, effectively evoking the title. Single “Love Your Friends, Hate Politicians” is a straight-up party, with a stuttering intro and cascading melody line leading into a thumping tune that will get stuck in your head. “Spanish Republican Soldiers in French Retirement Homes” is a bit more pensive, but still retains an optimistic bent to the song. (This Spanish duo is champs at the whole “happy songs with sad titles” gambit.) The album’s overall enthusiasm and lack of instrumental diversity might grate on the non-initiated electronica listener, but fans of the genre will appreciate their experiments in unusual sounds and chord structures (“Two Lights at the Bottom of a Ravine,” “Oranienburger”). Very worth your time, even if it ends up not being your thing.
The video for Anne Marie Almedal’s “Winter Song” takes the title literally, placing Almedal in a snow-laden forest and having her wave her arms around a bunch. I know that sounds ridiculous, but hear the song out: it’s gorgeous.
Odesza has been on the forefront of my electronic music kick lately, so I’m thrilled that they joined their largely instrumental electro/hip-hop to stop-motion construction paper animation … about the apocalypse. Beautiful and social commentary!
To flip the script all the way over, but keeping the animation theme, here’s Page CXVI’s also-beautiful “Peace Like a River.”
Morgan Manifacier’s “Cold Countries” is a gripping Bon Iver-esque song with an imagery-laden video that serves less as a narrative and more as a visual complement to the audio.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of instrumental music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.