Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Wild Ones / Cameron Blake

July 19, 2013

keepitsafe

Portland’s Wild Ones kept me company for the last legs of my Kickstarter journey (notably the handmaking mixtapes part). Their album Keep It Safe is a perfect summer album, so if you don’t have one yet, you can pick this one up. It’s mid-tempo indie-pop with some electro vibes: chill, but with enough head-bobbing propulsiveness that it keeps the wheels rolling in the car. When I turn it off, it feels like I’m turning off the mood in the room. It’s that pervasive in my mind.

Tracks like “Row” and “Golden Twin” let the female vocals dance breathily over a gently rolling keys-and-drums backbeat, augmenting every now and then with synths for flavor. The guitars flow in and out of the songs, never announcing their presence too hard or going unnoticed. It’s just beautifully executed indie-pop; the sort of album where every track works together and trying to pick singles is fruitless. You know, like how all the summer days run together? Jump on this.

withoutthesoundofviolence

In contrast, Cameron Blake‘s Without the Sound of Violence is surprisingly dark. The singer/songwriter has never shied away from heavy lyrical topics, but the music he couched those thoughts in was considerably buoyant (or at least hopeful). Without sees him match terse thoughts on social and political matters with similarly tense arrangements. Opener “Rugged Cross to Bear” sets the album in an ominous light, culminating in the mantra “hey, hey, hey, you better put your gun down/there ain’t nobody gonna hold you when the chips are down.” Choosing guitar as the lead instrument instead of his usual piano, Blake cultivates a heavy, tough feel to the tune. The sound continues directly into the title track, which includes a noise intended to mimic the sound of blades scraping as an interpretation of the lyrics. Even the fun, cheeky country hoedown “Cabin Fever” includes the love interest crying and being afraid. In short, this is not light summer reading.

So what is the end of all this heaviness? Blake uses the space to talk about hope, hopelessness, and steadfastness in the face of difficult times, whether that’s by singing from the perspective of Abraham traveling to sacrifice Isaac (“Abraham and Isaac”), channeling the perspective of a remorseful divorcee (the poignant, beautiful closer “Driftwood”), or getting Dylan-esque in lyrical structure for “Blood in Our Love.” That last track is my favorite of the album, as it ties the themes of the album to a piano-based sound that caused me to fall in love with Blake’s work in the first place. His performance is incredibly comfortable in “Blood in Our Love,” as he lets his voice loose to interpret the lyrics for him. It’s one of the only places that he gets unbridled in an album that’s marked by tight control over the arrangements; since the track doesn’t necessarily mesh well with the album musically (although it’s spot-on thematically), some may find it to be their least favorite. But I like it a lot.

Blake’s muse has taken him through some heavy places on Without the Sound of Violence, and he has come out with some memorable tunes for it. It’s definitely not dance music, but songs like “Driftwood” tap into deep, heavy emotions excellently. If you’d like to hear Josh Ritter do something darker, you may find your wish is granted in this album.

July Video Jam pt. 2: That Was Fun

July 18, 2013

Have you ever seen a person play wine glasses? Have you ever heard them turn those ethereal sounds into beautiful indie-pop? No? Then today is your lucky day, because Jonny Rodgers does those things in this video. He also loops those wine glasses into a mix with live guitars, keys, and percussion. The results are jaw-dropping.

So, before Gotye was “Someone That I Used to Know,” he had a scuzzy garage-rock/retro-rock band called The Basics. Sometime between 2010 and today, a very entertaining music video for one of their tunes was created.

Found video clips don’t usually pique my attention, but French pop outfit Pendentif salvaged really incredible footage for “1er Juillet.” Like, what in the world was the original use for the singing bears? It’s a great song, too.

M. Lockwood Porter sings the song of the ex-Oklahoman

July 17, 2013

judahgone

I’ve been listening to M. Lockwood Porter‘s bands since 2005. In that time, he’s been in an early 2000s emo band, an energetic post-rock band that held my personal “favorite band ever” title for a good five years, and a San Fran indie-pop band. Now he’s stepping out on his own with a solo record called Judah’s Gone. And although it’s been almost a decade since he’s lived in Oklahoma, the record is largely about that place which Lockwood and I share as a home state.

Neither of us live there anymore, but apparently an Oklahoma flag hangs in the background of both our minds. The three highlight tracks from the record (“Judah’s Gone,” “Now My Time Has Come,” and “Osage County”) all reference the state specifically and neatly lay out the narrative of the album. Opener “Judah’s Gone” tells the story of Lockwood’s childhood and parentage in the state (spoiler: it doesn’t go so well), which leads to him fleeing the state as soon as he graduated high school (“Now My Time Has Come”). A bunch of relationships and regrets occur in his forays on both coasts (all the other songs on the record), before he looks back longingly at Oklahoma in a complicated, attached sort of way (“Osage County”). It’s the story of many, many Oklahomans, this one included. If there’s an ex-pat Oklahoman Facebook group somewhere, Lockwood should be promoting this there. It would sell like dry-rub chicken barbecue.

The fact that Judah’s Gone sounds largely like a lost Neil Young record would help the sales pitch as well. The arrangements are twangy, but in that laid-back, Southern sort of way that Neil Young virtually patented. Lockwood’s voice breaks and bends over notes (a la Neil), but largely stays in a recognizably “correct” range. Porter is a lot less nasally than Young, which is also great. The album only has one rockish tune: the fast-paced “Tonight,” which barely gets over 2:00. Porter puts some distortion on his voice for the tune, and it fits nicely. It’s nowhere near an art-rock tune from his previous ventures, but you can tell that Porter has a rock background. Otherwise, this is a folky alt-country record the whole way.

The few quibbles that could be lobbed at the record have to do with this being his debut in the genre: tunes like “Darkside” and “Higher Home” fit perfectly into the proscribed narratives of what folky alt-country should sound like, both in sound and word. The tunes sound fine, but they don’t show off Porter’s skills as a storyteller or melodist very well because of their adherence to tried-and-true formulas. Porter shows on tracks like “Stephen” (not about me) that he can bend the formulas to his skill set: the track is a mid-tempo song about the guy with vast promise who never left home. The tune is memorable because of the melodic chorus and the detailed care with which the lyrics are composed. So even if some tracks are a bit less shiny than the rest, it’s not something that a few more albums of songwriting can’t polish up.

M. Lockwood Porter has established himself as a talent to watch on Judah’s Gone. Tracks like the title track and “Osage County” show a melodic and lyrical talent with range and depth. It will be interesting to see where Porter goes from here as he gets familiar with the genre. I’ll be listening attentively to whatever it is. (Especially if there’s more Oklahoma angst.)

Xoë Wise / Scout Niblett

July 16, 2013

breakfast

I have several friends and relatives who are seriously into Ke$ha. Like, not just “bought the album” into it, but “this album is the soundtrack to my life” and/or “Seriously, listen to all of the songwriting moves on this track” into it. I have listened to Warrior in its entirety, and I like some of it, but it just doesn’t connect with me. I never thought I would find anything that bridged the gap between earnest, up-front electro-pop and singer/songwriter. Then Xoë Wise‘s Breakfast EP happened to me.

I say “happened to me” because it’s not very often that a release broadsides my expectations. I first heard Wise as a pensive acoustic singer/songwriter in 2012. Her new EP Breakfast still has a strong acoustic element, but it’s mashed up with some very svelte electro elements. And that’s real cool. Opener “Too Young” features rapper Nikki Lynette for a few bars amid a clicking beat, grumbling bass synths, and Wise’s calm alto speak/sing. It’s highly unexpected and really fun to listen to. Follow-up “Brunch” is an R&B jam that keeps with the intriguing minimalist production and introduces a clean electric guitar, bringing back a rooted sound I’m familiar with from Wise.

The title track brings Breakfast even closer to the singer/songwriter sound I know, but places it in the context of the clever production that underlines this EP. It’s a brilliant move, turning what could be an average female-fronted acoustic tune into a fascinating part of a continued melodic statement. People only try this sort of prolonged consistency on an album, when they have the time to expound on themes and sounds; Xoë Wise knocks the artistic statement out of the park on a five-track EP. The songwriting and Ethan Stoller‘s production work together seamlessly to really create something unique. By the time that album highlight “Toyota” rolls around, the no-frills acoustic tune fits perfectly into the mood, even without electronic elements. It’s the heart of the EP, showing that Wise and Stoller know how to craft consistency with or without a dominant musical palette. That’s a surprising versatility.

The EP concludes with a sad little jam called “Cigarette Break” that gives closure to the EP in the same way that a rough morning is a fitting end to the crazy night before. The whole EP shines, pointing out different facets of Wise’s sound in exciting and interesting ways. It took me a little bit to adjust my expectations for Breakfast, but after I did, what I found was delicious and highly recommended. (Couldn’t get out without a food pun.)

itsuptoemma

I’m new to Scout Niblett‘s work, so I don’t have anything to say about how this work fits into her decade-plus of previous releases. I can note, however, that the ghost of Jason Molina hovers lightly over It’s Up to Emma. The solitary, forlorn guitar crunch that so endeared me to Songs: Ohia is the main weapon in Niblett’s arsenal, from opener “Gun” to the is-that-Molina-in-the-strings heaviness of “My Man” to the eerie, haunting cover of “No Scrubs.” Niblett’s voice is wrenching and occasionally howling, drawing out every ounce of emotion from the pipes that she’s working with. This is intense stuff, pulled from quiet, sparse elements that hardly seem able to create such an atmosphere. It’s not a surprise to me that a split 7″ with Songs:Ohia from 2001 is the first thing in her discography.

The same disclaimer I gave to all those trying out Molina’s work applies here: the songs are long, melancholy, and unaccommodating. (Although, some quick research shows that this may be her most approachable work in a while, which is kind of impressive and makes me wonder what the other stuff was like). New listeners are about to submerge in a fully realized world where gut-wrenching minimalism is not something come by accidentally. These songs are supposed to sound like that, and if you’re not down with that, then there are other things to listen to. As it stands, Niblett’s highly specialized brand of sadness is honed to a fine point on It’s Up to Emma. Some will rejoice (while being sad, in keeping with the album’s theme); some will be sad, because they’d rather rejoice. Both are acceptable responses to an uncompromising, fully-realized record.

July Video Jam pt. 1: The '80s

July 15, 2013

Do you love the ’80s? Like, really love the ’80s? Like, hardcore love the ’80s?

Maybe you liked the lo-fi ’80s. Yellowbirds totally did.

Perhaps the peppy, preppy ’80s were more your thing. Incredibly upbeat indie-poppers Cayucas can help you with that, although their blindingly white suits may hurt your eyes. Their goofy, wonderful dancing also deserves mention.

The Lion of Tallasi

July 12, 2013

lionoftallasi

The Never Give Up Kickstarter officially ended yesterday, as I mailed out the last of the rewards and got covered on Cover Lay Down (which was a huge thrill). It was an incredible project that I’m extremely proud to have completed. We did the whole thing right at budget, too, which is exciting. The Lion of Tallasi contributed a really fantastic version of “Recycled Air” that put a whole new spin on the tune, and it ended up being one of my favorite renditions in the whole project. So it’s with great excitement that I tell you about the Lion’s debut album, God, Love, and Death. (And yes, the band did include the Oxford Comma. Take that, Vampire Weekend.)

The album is built off heavy folk strum and Matt Howard’s Conor Oberst-esque roar. A full band accompanies, but they are firmly supporters of Howard, who stands front and center throughout the record. The most prominent member of the band is Kristen Durrett, who provides vocal counterpoint in many of the tracks; the rest of the band makes sure that things keep pushing forward without drawing too much attention to themselves.

That forces all listeners to contend with Howard’s voice and lyrics as the make-or-break points of the band. Howard has the Oberstian roar, as I noted; but he goes farther back in the folk history to draw heavily off Dylan’s lyrics. “A Million Dark Roads” calls up the poetic stylistics of “The Times, They Are A’Changing” and “A Hard Rain’s A’Gonna Fall,” while the downtrodden, stark “Down to the River” reminds of some of Dylan’s more impressionistic work. Highlight track “Don’t Put Me in the Grave” is the catchiest tune of the lot, sounding like a lost track from the chipper sessions of I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning in melody and arrangement. An organ peals, a tambourine shakes, and a mandolin chirps out the instantly memorable melody. It’s an excellent song, and it’s placed right after the intro track as a sign of things to come. It’s not all protest anthem shout-alongs, as there are some love songs sprinkled through, too.

If you’re not down with Dylan or Oberst, then God, Love, and Death is maybe not for you. If you like either of those artists, even just a little, you definitely should listen to The Lion of Tallasi: you will find much to love.

Fauntella Crow's Lost Here is a wonder

July 11, 2013

FauntellaPackage_Out

Sunday Lane’s cover of Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love” is a good place to start talking about Fauntella Crow‘s debut EP Lost Here. Piano-playing singer/songwriter Lane, half of Fauntella Crow, plays predominantly upbeat pop in her solo work. I first discovered her pensive, emotive side on that 2012 cover of Justin Vernon’s keening, beautiful tune. Lane’s voice fit perfectly in the mood, and I longed for her to do more with that combination. It’s like she heard my thoughtwaves, because Lost Here explores her melancholy side.

The title track of the EP makes a conscious effort to pilfer some sonic touches from For Emma, Forever Ago, and it works like a charm: the song steals the show, as Lane’s voice and Jessy Greene’s violin form a perfect pair to convey a familiar form of tragic beauty. There’s a difference in mood on “Lost Here” from the rest of the EP, which falls more in the ’90s singer/songwriter, Lilith Fair vibe. That’s not a bad thing at all–“Delicate” shines in its own right. But “Lost Here” channels the skills of both members into a tune that can stand up with the best indie ballads of the past ten years. That’s a hugely bold statement (“Maps“! “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.“! “For Emma“!), but I’m prepared to make it. The song is wonderful.

The rest of the EP is strong, composed of the aforementioned singer/songwriter vibes. “Grow” meshes Lane and Greene perfectly, as the piano, both vocals, plucked violin, and bowed violin come together for a wonderful first stanza. Opener “Delicate” deftly balances bitterness and vulnerability, both lyrically and vocally; it’s the most well-developed and mature of the offerings that aren’t “Lost Here.” The rest of the tunes fall somewhere between the poised pop of track 1 and the fragility of track 5; all very pretty, but not as immediately arresting as the twin pillars they support.

Lane is a strong songwriter who has found a perfect foil in Greene; the latter brings out the melancholy melodic gifts that I knew Lane had lying dormant. Lost Here is hopefully an opening salvo in a long career for Fauntella Crow–this is too excellent to languish as a one-off side-project. Even if these five tunes are all we get, I’ll be thankful for them, and you should be too.

Antarte / Tango in the Attic / The Boxing Lesson

July 9, 2013

oliosutela

Much post-rock goes for the quiet-loud-quiet or quietest-to-loudest methods. Antarte‘s Olio Su Tela doesn’t often do either, preferring to stay in the quiet-to-quiet method most of the time. It would be easy to slap the label ambient on this and go on, but that’s not exactly what’s happening. This is quiet post-rock; music that plays off the assumptions and structures of rock but applies them to different ends. Ambient builds off electronic ideas, of which there are few to none present. Instead, the Italian outfit wrings emotion out of acoustic instruments (as well as the occasional electric guitar) in unusual ways, resulting in atypical beauty.

The band does have crescendoes and diminuendoes; this isn’t a shapeless, formless mass. But these songs don’t reach for the towering rushes of adrenaline like Sigur Ros or Explosions in the Sky; closer “Controluce” never gets louder than what would constitute the middle of your average post-rock song before concluding. But that doesn’t change how wonderful it sounds. “Cenere” does have a loud section, but it’s a surprise amidst the smooth, gliding bass and guitar lines that this album is full of. It’s what makes both “Cenere” and Olio Su Tela so memorable: it inverts expectations at every turn. This is a beautiful and surprising collection of tunes, and that doesn’t come along too often.

tangointheattic

Every now and then I weary of indie-pop, because it feels like everyone’s just beating a dead horse. But, in 10 years of doing this reviewing thing, someone has always come along to restore my faith in the genre. Tango in the Attic is that band. Their four-song EP Crushed Up takes the pep of Tokyo Police Club and filters it through an offbeat, unusual vision of what indie-rock can be. The result are songs that I can recognize instantly, hum effortlessly, and think about heavily. That’s a pretty good trifecta. The band delivers the goods from opener “Sellotape,” which plays with the stereo feature of my headphones and the joy of seemingly-erratic rhythms, to the extended hazy coda of closer “Crush.”

The Scottish lads’ vision of music is one where artsy collages and poppy melodies share the same space: where chillwave and pop-rock aren’t diametrically opposed, but layered; where inscrutable sections of composition resolve into propulsive, infectious guitar-driven epics. And that’s all in the opener. The incredibly memorable “Easybones” feels like a progressive R&B track before the Tokyo Police Club guitars come bursting in. That section is followed by one that is anchored by marimba. I could go on, but I think you get the point: this is creative, fascinating music that is also good for dancing and singing along with. I highly recommend Crushed Up.

boxinglesson

The Boxing Lesson first endeared themselves to me as a trippy, woozy, psychedelic outfit. They have completely morphed out of that on Big Hits!. Instead of handing out mushrooms, they’re mashing with hammers: the riffs throughout this album are absolutely in keeping with the album title. “Eastside Possibilities” throws down the gauntlet, showing that this trio is about the rock this time around: the big, fat, buzzy, hooky riffs are delicious.

This album is less interested in SanFran guitar-rock scuzz and more about stomping, classic-rock-esque riffs. But this is by no means a Jet album or anything: this is a profoundly modern record that happens to have huge guitars dominating it in the best way. “Tape Deck Time Machine” is a charger that gives the drummer a workout; “Better Daze” allow aliens to descend for 39 seconds before powering into a swaggering, chunky riff. The guitarwork on “Red River Blues” sounds like the inverse of the riff from “Better Daze,” and it’s totally awesome. The whole album is full of dark, huge guitars, and it’s just a ton of fun. The notable exceptions: 9-minute opener “Endless Possibilities,” which has a dreamy feel and an orchestra backing it up, and “Breezy,” which is a pop/rock tune that is exactly what the title suggests (especially in contrast to the rest of the “dim streetlights/aliens/danger” vibe). Both are cool additions to the album, instead of being detractors, which is a job well done all around.

If you’re into big, dark guitars; rock moves; and lots of hooky melodies from the instruments and vocals, Big Hits! should be on your to-do list. I really enjoy it, and that’s from a guy who doesn’t cover much rock at all (because I got bored of it). So this one’s a pretty strong recommendation.

Happy 4th of July!

July 4, 2013

As I happily noted on my personal Facebook, “American Democracy is a fragile concept that has now withstood 237 years of the best and most creative abuse Americans and their government can throw at it.” We have problems like everyone else; we are not exceptional in that. Still, I am proud to be an American.

One of those problems is the recently unearthed NSA PRISM project, which has been monitoring large swaths of the Internet under some wide interpretations of a law. The Internet Defense League has organized a massive protest against this today. I’m supporting their “Cat Signal” to protect the Internet from sweeping, unwarranted, unprecedented surveillance. Not because I don’t like America or freedom, but because I do like America and freedom. Especially the 4th amendment, which was important enough to end up fourth on the list.

Happy 4th of July!

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.

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