1. “Into the River” – The Quick and the Dead. This exclusive download toes the line between power-pop and Old ’97s alt-country and includes a killer harmonica solo. Back to the Future Part Three was rad.*
2. “Primitive Style” – Johnny Delaware. I am in a roadtrip movie. I am in an ’80s convertible. Johnny Delaware is riding on the back of the car and playing guitar, somehow standing upright at 60 mph. My feathered hair is flying in the wind. I feel like yelling “FREEDOM” into the air in a Breakfast Club sort of way, not a William Wallace sort of way. Did Molly Ringwald listen to Bruce Springsteen? She would have loved Johnny Delaware.
3. “Dybbuk” – Remedies. I am transported to a kids’ movie in the ’80s, where I am wandering through an enchanted cave. Something awesome or maybe terrible is about to happen. My hair is still feathered. My jean jacket is on. The viewers are holding their breath. Let’s do this.
4. “Lost Track of Time” – MTNS. The Antlers, How to Dress Well, Vondelpark, and MTNS would be an absolutely incredible soundtrack to a 16 Candles-type movie. You know it’s true.
5. “Electricity” -FMLYBND. It’s like M83, The Rapture, and The Temper Trap collaborated on an ’80s club jam. SET PHASERS TO STUN.
6. “The Day We Both Died” – Vial of Sound. I’m always afraid to namecheck Daft Punk and LCD Soundsystem at the same time but screw it SET PHASERS TO KILL
7. “Told You Twice” – Milo’s Planes. Because sometimes you just need a thrashy, scream-it-out tune to blast in your car.
*I’m aware that BTTF3 came out in 1990, but let’s be real. 1990 was still the ’80s.
Brook Pridemore’s second video is as much fun as his first one. Punchline: Brook takes his guitar everywhere–really, everywhere. The Mountain Goats-esque power-pop is also awesome.
Kodacrome’s elegant “Strike The Gold” has a perfect video: super-slo-mo of a horse getting ready for a run and then doing it. I can’t even explain how perfect this video is for this song.
In June, I got to see The Postal Service live. It was such an incredible experience that I couldn’t find words to adequately explain it. Instead, The Creators Project got together and made a 14-minute video about PS’s tour. It is beautiful. You should watch all 14 minutes.
It blows my mind that Matt Shaw’s Ghosts in the Concrete came out in 2004. Matt Shaw created an electronic indie-pop world that was more lush and developed than The Postal Service’s take on the genre, and Ghosts has remained one of my favorite releases I’ve ever reviewed at Independent Clauses. Shaw’s band City Light just released its sophomore album Memory Guide, and it builds out his indie-pop sensibilities with hip-hop and electronica overtones to make a very engaging album.
Shaw has always used his melodic gifts to create tunes of foreboding or downright dread; even in the musically chipper Ghosts the main themes were urban malaise and future panic. City Light’s debut album fashioned a fitting musical sheath for these ideas, creating “moody, haunting, electronic indie-rock.” Memory Guide swings back toward the balance in his solo work: upbeat songs that deliver downbeat lyrics. The album does have some dark, haunting arrangements, like the excellent instrumental “Memory Loss,” but the overall tone is much brighter. “Sweet Death” is a buoyant dance song about getting old, while “Waste Away” is a stomping rock track with sparkly lead guitar. As you can see from the titles, however, Shaw hasn’t gotten any more optimistic in his musings.
My favorite moments apart from the surprisingly dance-able pessimism are “Wrecking Ball” and “You Know This Song,” which both strip away the bravado of a full band and operate much more like the small, cohesive, claustrophobic Shaw tunes I so adored on Ghosts. “Wrecking Ball” pairs a lazy, fingerpicked, clean guitar line with a trip-hop beat, some fuzzy organs and bgvs; it works beautifully. “You Know This Song” employs a similar strategy, letting the focus fall squarely on Shaw’s beautiful, evocative voice.
Shaw’s blurry, bleary tenor is one of the things that attracted me most to his work, and it is in fine form here. Comparisons to Ben Gibbard miss the gauzy/gritty edge that Shaw cultivates; references to pop-era Flaming Lips don’t give Shaw enough credit for hitting notes (which, as an avowed Flaming Lips fan, is something I can fully admit that Wayne Coyne does not often try to do). It is a distinct, passionate, memorable voice, and one that can suck me into any tune. It’s worth your price of admission just to hear it.
City Light’s indie-pop tunes have a complexity far beyond what I’ve described; the arrangements are strong, the songwriting is tight, and the performances are spot-on. There’s a lot going on and a lot to love. The most important things to note, though, are that these are fun, clever, and interesting tunes by some experienced hands. I highly recommend Memory Guide to any fan of indie-pop, electronic or no.
Pedro the Lion’s work was raw and honest, musically and lyrically: David Bazan grappled with his faith, his insecurities, and his culture in an alt-rock-ish idiom that hadn’t generally been reserved for that sort of work. Bazan’s retirement of the moniker was a sad day for me. With PTL long since gone, there aren’t that many bands holding a torch for the sort of emotionally vulnerable rock that can range in volume from forlorn slowcore to cymbal-rush pounding.
DL Rossi aims for that space with his music. His self-titled record is composed of confessional alt-rock (“The Fool,” “12 Step Plan”) and instrospective acoustic work (“Worked Up,” “Be Alone”) that complement each other in tone. Rossi also takes after Bazan lyrically, covering religion, relationships, and culture in a cynical-yet-hopeful sort of way. “12 Step Plan” is bitingly critical of mega-church Christianity, while “The Fool” is possibly even more vitriolic on the subject. Both tunes are hooky, energetic pop-rockers with a low-end crunch and indie-pop melodies; while these tunes would fit in on rock radio, they have a different flair and feel to them than your average rock track.
Other tunes tackle relationships, including the bombastic single “Strange Thing” and the Parachutes-esque “Suckers and Chumps.” (You probably don’t need me to tell you what they’re about, based on the titles.) The quieter tunes, like the latter, land gently, showing ache and pain without getting (too) maudlin. As soon as the emotions start to get a bit much, Rossi lightens the mood with some rock. It’s a good balance throughout.
I don’t listen to too many rock albums straight through anymore, but I’ve heard this one from end to end several times because of its diversity in sound. Rossi simply churns out high-quality tunes. He may be the spiritual and melodic successor to Pedro the Lion, but he could be much more than that as he matures as an artist. Very worth watching.
I deeply admire intricate arrangements, but I fall in love with simplicity. Singer/songwriter Jared Foldy‘s American Summer is a graceful, simple, beautiful seven-song release that is an easy candidate for my end of year lists.
It’s not just that the songs are simple, because anyone can do that. Foldy has taken great care in choosing and maintaining a specific mood throughout American Summer. The album art does an excellent job of interpreting the feel of this record: gauzy, but not opaque; relaxed, but not lazy; calm, but not uninterested. This is beautiful, beautiful music.
The sparse arrangements are light, airy, and smooth without turning maudlin or sappy; the early work of Joshua Radin and Rehearsals for Departure-era Damien Jurado come to mind. All three artists espouse a wide-eyed wonder about the world without getting maudlin or sappy. The effortless grace of Mojave 3’s Ask Me Tomorrow also is a strong touchstone, as Foldy and M3 share an elegant gravitas.
Foldy’s opener “See It All” has the gravitas and passion that only a patient, experienced singer/songwriter can draw out. The chorus-less song builds to a strong conclusion through clever use of instruments (and smart refusal to use others, like snare drum). The songwriting is strong, the performances are inspired, and the production is simply incredible to pull it all together.
The rest of the songs are more verse/chorus/verse oriented, but they are no less beautiful. Title track “American Summer” is an absolutely stunning song that leverages all the best things about the album into one piece: Foldy’s light, gentle tenor floats over warm fingerpicking in a calming, uplifting mood. It’s a lyrically beautiful song as well, gently appealing to a woman playing hard to get. It’s everything I want in a song.
“Wide Eyes” is also firing on all cylinders. Foldy’s voice and guitar playing are augmented by piano, strings and brushed percussion, merging the excellent arrangement of “See It All” with the memorable vocal melody of “American Summer.” Even though “American Summer” is my favorite tune to hear on the record, “Wide Eyes” is the one I hum to myself.
Jared Foldy has grown leaps and bounds since 2011’s Everyone’s Singing. Foldy had the songwriting skill then, but now he’s put his own stamp on the sound. American Summer is an outstanding collection of tunes that I would recommend to anyone who like beautiful music, but especially those who like folk/singer-songwriter/acoustic. I hope this release pushes Foldy into the brighter spotlight that he deserves.
Sam Buckingham‘s I’m a Bird is also a bright singer/songwriter affair. She emanates an assured, confident vibe, similar to KT Tunstall. Her guitar and often sassy voice are the main players here, with only light accompaniment throughout. But she doesn’t need a full band to pack tunes like “Follow You,” “Hit Me With Your Heart” and “Tomorrow I’ll Wear Black” with a ton of attitude.
The third of the trio is most fascinating: “Tomorrow I’ll Wear Black” tune composed entirely of Buckingham’s vocals, group vocals on the chorus, and clapping. For a song about changing yourself so that someone will love you, it’s surprisingly chipper and flirty. It is the penultimate tune on the album, and it made me sit up and take notice. It’s a great pair with the charming, cutesy “Rabbit Hole” to end the album.
In between that closing and the opening salvo “Follow You”/”Hit Me With Your Heart” is a lot of music to explore: “Mountain Sun” features a tuba and clarinet; “So Much Loving Left to Do” slows things down for a piano ballad. The tunes in the middle are less immediately arresting than the beginning and end, but when you have such high-quality tunes at the front and back, it’s tough to keep that level of excellence going on. Overall, there are very few clunkers on the album, with Buckingham bringing her A-game consistently.
Buckingham has a clear vision of what her sound and style are: she executes that vision very well on I’m a Bird. If you like strong, sassy female singer/songwriters, then you should definitely check out Buckingham’s music.
The ever-prolific Fiery Crash has ditched the fuzzed-out dream pop for a much more straightforward acoustic guitar album on Practice Shots. The results sound something like an early M. Ward album on downers: Josh Jackson’s acoustic guitar sound is warm and gentle even while being played in precise rhythms, and his rambling/mumbling/singing vocal style calls up great memories of “Chinese Translation“–although Jackson’s voice is lower than Ward’s. Working with not much more than that throughout the album, Jackson constructs tunes that float the entire way through.
Jackson’s baritone voice could be a dominant feature, a la the National, but he balances it perfectly against the other elements. The result are tunes that flow smoothly on their own and as a cohesive whole. “Equinox” layers three guitar parts, a vocal line, and simple percussion without ever feeling cluttered; opener “Cada Ano” pulls a similar feat while featuring an arresting vocal melody. “For the Canopy” is a little duskier in its mood, allowing for a pleasant variety. Even the louder tracks fit with the lazy, slowly rolling mood: “Volleybeachball!” uses an electric guitar and a speedy drum machine but is dragged back into the mood with a lackadaisical vocal line.
Fiery Crash has kept the quality level incredibly high over this latest dispatch of prolific production. This is the second full album and fourth release in this calendar year, and Practice Shots is the best of the bunch so far. I don’t know when Jackson will let up, but at this point he’s clicking on all cylinders. Fans of cheery, breezy acoustic songwriting like (early) Shins, She & Him, and more will love this. I look forward to his next move.
The title track for Together Through It All must have been an incredibly easy choice for Kye Alfred Hillig: in a 14-song album with few clunkers, “Together Through It All” stands head and shoulders above everything else on the record. Hillig’s forte is creating almost uncomfortably intense tunes, as if Ray LaMontagne’s vocal chords, Josh Garrels’ lyrical depth, latter-day Sam Beam’s arrangements, and David Bazan’s general passion were all crammed into one artist. “Together Through The Years” tracks the downward progression of a troubled son through the eyes of his loving, committed father: by the last verse, Hillig is roaring out over pounding drums and blasting horns that “the tombstone don’t make the man/And that’s not how I choose to remember him.” Hillig then returns to the devastating chorus: “I’m still his father/he’s still my son.” If you don’t get shivers or goosebumps or something during this tune, I don’t think this blog can help you much.
Hillig doesn’t just focus on heavy topics; there are some excellent love tunes here as well. “An Unedited Presentation of Souls,” “You and Me and Time,” and “Trampled/Triumphant” all take the average love ballad and crank up the intensity a few notches. The lyrics themselves are far more intimate and emotionally raw than I expect to hear, and the passionate vocal delivery is jaw-dropping at times. Hillig is a focused, powerful vocalist, but he can also deliver songs sweetly. It’s a rare thing to find.
It’s also rare to hear so much diversity fit so neatly on a record. The dense arrangement of opener “Breaking Lungs” makes it feel like a lost track from Iron and Wine’s Kiss Each Other Clean, while “War in Spring” is a perky piano-pop tune anchored by a Postal Service-esque beat. Closer “Does My Soul Still Sing?” is a majestic, reverential, synth-laden elegy, while “Free the Birds” is a garage-rock track anchored by campy organ. (Okay, “Free the Birds” does stick out a bit.) But other than that one, Hillig makes all of the tracks work by investing each of them with an equal amount of passion and care. No track here feels cast off on a whim: Together Through It All is completely and carefully organized.
If listening through the whole 45+ minutes is a bit of an exhausting experience, it’s a thrillingly exhausting one. There’s more charm and care crammed into this album than most bands can get into three albums. If you love singer/songwriters who aren’t necessarily out to make you happy, but are definitely out to make you feel, you need to know Kye Alfred Hillig. Trust me on this one. Kye Alfred Hillig will make you smile, laugh, and cry.
Christa Wells‘ music is weighty without feeling heavy, as the singer/songwriter balances heft and grace with ease on Feed Your Soul. Wells relies on smooth arrangements and incredible vocal performances to create and sustain that tension. Songwriters like Sara Groves are the best comparison for Wells’ sound: mature, grounded songs with strong melodies and a melancholy streak.
When Wells delves into that sadness which looks longingly toward hopefulness, her songs soar. Closer “Being Loved” is a powerful tune distilled to a simple truth (“being loved is a hard thing to take/I will try”). “You Are My Defense” shows off the complete comfort that she has in her own skin, musically and lyrically. The opening of “Come Close Now” somehow balances being objectively gentle musically (piano/vocals/tapped drums) and subjectively crushing emotionally. Wells knows how to suck the listener in with a minimum of fuss, and that’s a deceptively difficult skill to master.
When Feed Your Soul heads in louder, funkier territory such as “Vanity Vanity” and the title track, the results are less immediately satisfying. I’d much prefer to keep hearing Wells play simple piano and level me emotionally with tunes like “For My Child” and “This Thing Is Not Going to Break You.” The exception is “The Way That You Love Me,” which funnels her emotional command into an upbeat love song much in the same way that Brooke Fraser turned out the wonderful “Something in the Water.”
Wells’ Feed Your Soul is a beautiful, soul-baring record that works with seemingly little effort. The amount of skill, hard work, and time that go into a record like that are almost never recognized, so I’m celebrating those elements here. Wells knows how to write a compelling song, and she knows that the way to turn it from “good” to “great” isn’t always to add more arrangement. I look forward to hearing more from Wells.
Caitlin Marie Bell does simplicity a very different way. At the extreme, the Americana singer/songwriter goes totally barebones by singing traditional murder ballad “Omie Wise” with only staccato percussion as accompaniment. Bell’s resonant alto voice sells the song perfectly, bringing an Irish flair to the work. Bell relies on her strong pipes throughout Blood and The Water, as she doesn’t employ anything more than a fingerpicked guitar, stringed bass, and gentle percussion to set the backdrop.
The most impressive thing about this spartan setup is not the live feel, but that Bell packs so much personality into the sound. Tracks like “River Song” and “Pallet on the Floor” slot her right in next to some of the giants of the genre both in sound and quality: the former pairs Bell’s lilting voice with the sound of a thunderstorm, while the latter displays a complex intimacy in lyric and vocal delivery. Both will stick with you long past their run time.
Both tunes spin together a small world in a few minutes–that’s hard for any songwriter to do, much less one who isn’t backed by a huge, involved band. The tunes on Blood and the Water possess a gravitas and maturity far beyond what I expect from a debut. These weighty tunes are very worth checking out for anyone who’s a fan of Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris and other female Americana singer/songwriters.
The best moments of singer/songwriter Steph Casey‘s Whisper and Holler fall on the “whisper” side of that equation: when Casey’s songs are stripped down to sparse acoustic guitar and voice, her work shines. “Heavy Warm Heart” and the title track are lent an immediacy by their simplicity, as it feels like Casey had the melodies burning a hole in her pocket and just had to get them out there. The delicate guitarwork and engaging vocal tone mesh beautifully, creating magic.
There are some more full arrangements that shine as well: lead track “Nice to Almost Know You” gives off a relaxed, back-porch vibe in its assured/regretful stance looking back on a failed relationship. “Kapiti”builds out a simple Jack Johnson-esque beach vibe into a highly enjoyable track. Both of those tunes fall right in line with the ethos that characterizes the highlights: take one thing and do it well. Added bonus: Casey is a Kiwi. (Australia and New Zealand are just excellent these days.)
I try to post videos that are interesting to watch, because that’s the point of a video. But some clips just have such beautiful songs that I have to post them, even if their visuals are less than mindblowing. Here are four.
“Song for Zula,” Phosphorescent‘s candidate for Song of the Year, just got better: here’s a gorgeous acoustic guitar version performed at the behest of Line of Best Fit.
Safe Haven’s studio vid for “Leave Me Where I Want to Be” has a lot of sepia going on.
I will post pretty much anything that Page CXVI sends me, because it’s always just stunningly beautiful. Here’s “O Sacred Head.”
Here’s a reminder: post-rockers Pan are a ton of fun. Here’s “John from New York.”
Ringer T has honed their alt-country to a near-perfect point on Nothing But Time. Their sound is equal parts Paul Simon melodicism, Jayhawks crunch, and Switchfoot-style tension between the two, which results in some of the most beautiful, listenable alt-country you could ever hope to hear. The songs spring out of my speakers, fit and fine: nothing seems left to chance, nothing seems out of place. Fans of lo-fi stuff need not apply, as everything from vocal performances to drum rhythms is spot-on. For example, the crunchy “Into Your Own” aligns on a strict meter that sees everything clicking together: had the song been in the hands of a band less concerned with precision, it would have a much different feel and effect.
While the band can throw down the guitar distortion, I prefer their gentler, beautiful songs like “What Lies Ahead” and “Good Morning.” These strip out the crunch from the alt-country and focus on intricate strumming/fingerpicking, subtle melodicism, and well-developed moods. “Good Morning” is a lilting instrumental track that just stole my heart with its rolling melodies and strong arrangement. (Sleigh bells!!) Grant Geertsma’s voice really soars on quieter tracks like “What Lies Ahead,” as it’s the primary focus of the tune. His voice is a proverbial “phone book voice,” making it difficult for me to tear my ears away. The excellent backup vocal contributions on “What Lies Ahead” put it over the top and make it a highlight. These quieter tunes give Geertsma room to really move, and that’s wonderful.
That’s not to say that there aren’t strong vocal performances in the louder songs: the title track features excellent efforts from the lead and backup vocalists, who stand out amid the distorted guitars. Then they bring in horns to cap off the tune, so you can definitely count that one as a highlight. That’s the sort of album that Ringer T has crafted in Nothing But Time: things are going great, and then they go even better than that. If you’re into alt-country, you need to hear Ringer T now. This is an album that should go places.
I hold a special place in my heart for pianists: I play several instruments, but I got my start in bands and solo work on the ivories. I keep a flame for lyricists with a lot to say, as well, so it was an easy fit to fall in love with Brendan James‘ Simplify. James splits time between being Josh Ritter on the keys and Billy Joel in the modern era, both treats that we don’t get very often.
James’ 13-song album splits roughly into two parts: the first half adheres toward indie-pop principles in arrangement, production, and lyrical topics; the back half leans toward Joel-esque piano-pop storytelling and balladry. James has highs in both of these arenas, although I prefer the indie-pop leanings more. I’m a big Joel fan, so it’s not any anti-The Kid bias; I think it’s purely that his indie-pop is more consistently strong. This is evident from the one-two punch of “Windblown” and the title track, where James sets up catchy but relatively simple piano lines as the base for his intricate, syncopated vocal lines to play over. This playful approach to songwriting caught my ear immediately and kept my attention for the duration of both songs. “Windblown” is an introspective piece about the toils of a longsuffering artist, while “Simplify” is a bit more wide-ranging manifesto. Both are beautiful, clever and engaging, making me want more.
On the other end of the spectrum is “Hillary,” which even apes some vocal rhythms and tics from Joel. There’s also a pronounced Paul Simon influence in the arrangement, which is another excellent inclusion. The story-song tells of a student who works with the narrator’s wife, detailing the conversations between the wife and Hillary. It’s a great song lyrically, and it includes clapping and a “whoa-oh” section to charm my soul. “He Loved” dips into ballad mode while maintaining the storytelling, showing off a different set of skills.
“Constellations” and “Counting Hours” also stand out for special note. Both struck me as very quiet tunes of the variety that Josh Ritter would have included on The Animal Years; their expansive, wide-open feel is refreshing and rewarding. Brendan James’ varied skills (lyricism, songwriting, arrangements) are on great display in Simplify, creating a thoroughly entertaining album. The highlight tracks are some that I can see myself spinning for a long, long time.
A continuation of yesterday’s post, here are the June/July singles that are quiet.
1. “Simplify” – Brendan James. It’s as if Josh Ritter sat down at a piano and started casting off lyrics like he does over a guitar. Beautiful, powerful, engaging stuff.
2. “Crush” – Roy Dahan. Dahan’s Israeli vocal tone and cadence fit gloriously over snappy, precise alt-country, creating a unique, beautiful mix.
3. “I Will Let You Fall” – Walking with Elephants. Clear, crisp Americana, like Mumford but without the howling vocals.
4. “Everything is Yours” – Jonny Rodgers. I posted a Rodgers video of this song yesterday, but this version is different and worth listening to in its own right. Rodgers is a massive talent that I eagerly look forward to hearing more from.
5. “Follow You” – Sam Buckingham. YouTube suggests that I should watch videos by Junip and Noah & The Whale next; Buckingham’s delicate folk-pop kinda fits in there, but it’s way more charming and lilting than those bands.
6. “Strike the Gold” – Kodachrome. Think more of the picture type than the Paul Simon song, and you’ll have a good idea of what this impressionistic synth-pop tune sounds like.
7. “O Love, Let’s Renew Our Vows” – Jonny Rodgers. So, I’m really, really stoked about Rodgers. Really.
8. “One Half” – Julianna Barwick. A female Sigur Ros? A more concrete take on New Age? A transcendent composition? Absolutely stunning? All of the above?
So I didn’t post much in June, so all of the June singles are getting posted now. This means that instead of one mix, there are two: a loud one and a quiet one. I’ll start today with the loud one.
1. “Strange Thing” – DL Rossi. Pedro the Lion has left few followers in the emotive alt-rock space, but DL Rossi is a welcome addition to the space. He also brings in Bazan’s qualms with Christianity, although Rossi seems to hold fast to the tenets of the faith while contending with some practices of Christianity. Also, he has a Mumford-ian penchant for dramatic f-bombing.
2. “Glaciers” – The Trouble Starts. Daniel G. Harmann has completed his transition from bedroom indie-pop hero to rock band by dropping his name off the front of the group. Here’s a roiling, churning example of the newly-christened group’s output. Foo Fighters’ fans will approve.
3. “All the Lights in New York” – Autumn Owls. The fractured folk of Autumn Owls casts its foggy, urban, streetlight glow on you. You smile uncertainly, and step forward into the gloom.
4. “We Are the Dreamers” – The Stargazer Lilies. Shoegazer Lilies, maybe, plus some Portishead dread and staccato stomp. Overall, a very different dream than Teen Daze’s chillwave dreaming. But still quite engaging!
5. “Be Someone” – Post War Years. The Postal Service + Passion Pit = Post War Years. Clicky, hooky, fun, and now with 100% more xylophone!
6. “Cut Free” – The Alibis. Yo, this ’90s-style Brit-pop track is all about the excellent bass player. I look forward to more fascinating work from this band.
7. “Bystander” – Shotgun No Blitz. Shotgun No Blitz might be the best possible pop-punk name, calling up youthful games, playful but aggressive contact, friendly agreement, and speed. And the spread offense, which I just like.
8. “We’re the Kids” – Parade of Lights. New formula for massive single: use the word kids, employ that specific synth noise, and crank the bass. MONEY.
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.