There’s a long history of happy sounds that contain sad lyrics. My mom’s favorite one is the absurdly happy breakup tune “Smoke from a Distant Fire” by Sanford-Townsend Band. I’m fond of the entirety of Paul Simon’s Graceland (except “That Was Your Mother”). Human Behavior‘s Golgotha might be my favorite “actually kind of devastating when you really listen close” album for 2013.
If you just press play instead of thinking about how the band name, title and album art go together, you’re treated to perky indie-folk-punk. Bandleader Andres Parada has a voice that works perfectly for the genre: it’s warbly, a touch nasal, and completely earnest. If you’re intrigued by Aaron Weiss of MeWithoutYou, early John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats), Andrew Jackson Jihad, and the like, you’ll be immediately sucked in to Golgotha. The rest of the sound fits perfectly around Parada’s voice: a small choir of female voices (who sing in the same earnest manner), instrumental performances that retain an urgent “first takes only” feel, and arrangements that are large without feeling pretentious. It’s all grounded in Parada’s voice, and all flows back to his voice.
It’s “Crag” that opens the album, a jaunty tune that calls up vintage-y, Pinterest-y hipsters who attach deer antlers to their heads and such. It’s all fun and games, right? Right. “Yeshua at 12” is dark, but the enthusiastic “Odocoileus Virginianus” is 40 seconds of wonderful! (That’s the Latin name for the whitetail deer, incidentally.) But as I progressed through the album, a dark undercurrent started to suck me in. “Vintage Dad” ends with the band forlornly, repeatedly singing “I am raccoon, and your father thinks that I am beautiful,” which is intriguing/discomforting in a Neutral Milk Hotel sort of way. “Raphus Cucullatus” is the Latinate of the dodo, and it’s a despondent acoustic strum with spoken word that seems to draw a little too close of a metaphor. It’s not overtly depressing, like Brand New or anything, but it’s, you know, just kinda hanging out in background of my brain as maybe not what it seems.
But then I listen to “Crag” again, and the phrases of the chorus are “I’ll strap antlers to my head/and I’ll attract wild dog packs/and I’ll make the woods walkable,” which is either a threat to wild dogs or a commitment to sacrifice in a bizarre way. Also the lines “I don’t want to be attractive,” “I know that I don’t love you two too,” “I’ll probably die sad/and I’ll probably do it by my hand” appear, all of which make me deeply reconsider the wisdom of sending this to my girlfriend because it’s perky and fun. In short, the layers at which you can appreciate Golgotha are multiple, but the deeper ones may render your shallower ones a little bit impotent.
So, are you into folk-punk? Are you into depressed singer/songwriters? Are you into both? If you’re into either of the first two, Golgotha is a fascinating and engaging album. If you’re in the third camp, I suspect that Human Behavior will be quite a find. It’s like a dark mirror of Illinois-era Sufjan, or an alternate-reality Mountain Goats.
When I was in an art-rock band in high school, we managed to agree on only three cover songs in our four-year history: Coldplay’s “Parachutes,” Fall Out Boy’s “Dance Dance,” and “Hotel California.” (If you can figure out what those have in common, let me know.) My latest endeavor with the cover song was much more coherent, as I got 22 bands to contribute to a Postal Service covers album. I’m still incredibly thrilled with the final product, although I certainly do not want to run a similar project any time soon.
Folk-pop duo Jenny & Tyler, who were featured on Never Give Up, have put together their own covers album in For Freedom. As the title would suggest, the 7-song album is a project that benefits International Justice Mission‘s work to end slavery. Not only do you get their excellent arrangement skills, songs you love, and guest musicians (Sara Groves! JJ Heller! A virtual choir of hundreds of J&T fans!), you get to support justice in the world. What are you waiting for?
“We Will Become Silhouettes” is included here in remastered form, sounding even more gorgeous than before. It would easily be my favorite (and not just for sentimental value; the crescendo from beginning to end is heart-pounding) except for the absolutely stunning “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Jenny & Tyler temper Bono’s original desperation with their warm, gentle arrangement skills, using oboe, clarinet, and cello to create an alternate vision of what that place we’re all looking for sounds like. If that wasn’t enough, they enlist the excellent Sara Groves and a choir of fans to guest vocal, creating a simply masterful take on the song. I could listen to this one all day.
They turn Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” from an angsty rager into a twee-pop tune, complete with glockenspiel. “The Sound of Silence” is suitably haunting, with their voices and clarinet (aside: I just love that they give the clarinet good press) giving a new tension to Simon & Garfunkel’s original. “The Scientist” includes a harpsichord/autoharp sound, but no piano; it’s an ambitious move that pays off.
Overall, Jenny & Tyler have set their unique and particular vision on these tracks, and that’s all that I ask from covers. The fact that the tunes are alternately heartbreaking and heart-pounding is a testament to the skill with which they can realize that vision. Highly recommended.
Zach Boddicker, lyricist and songwriter of country-rock band 4H Royalty, won my heart in 2012 when “Virtues, Spices & Liquors” had a narrator announce that people were “aardvarking cocaine off the back of one of my CDs.” The clever and poignant chorus has even more memorable turns of phrase. Naturally, I looked immediately to lyrics when its follow-up Liars and Outliers arrived. I was not disappointed.
2012’s Where UFOs Go to Die balanced cleverness and humor by setting them in individual songs; Liars and Outliers is more integrated in its lyrical approach. Tunes like “Frank,” “Cherry Street,” and “Moving to the Country” insert clever turns of phrase into tunes that are ultimately about heavier topics like an old friend gone crazy, the complicated emotions surrounding your hometown, and the downsides of rural living. There are still some 100% humorous songs, like “Your Team” and “Road Beer,” but on the whole the approach is more nuanced than in their previous effort. In short, Boddicker takes great and makes it better here.
The music is strong as well. The band has refined its crisp country-rock approach, resulting in distinctly recognizable tunes. “Your Team” and “Road Beer” are both anchored by great melodies in the chorus, while the instrumental “Gas Cap Rag” translates that vocal melodicism into excellent guitarwork. The band has a strong, unified sound, with each member contributing equally to the arrangement. This results in songs that feel like full songs, as opposed to vehicles for a particular element.
The best example of this is “The Shape of Karaoke to Come,” which compares the slacking life to war (and, yes, karaoke) and backs up those ruminations with a bass/drums/guitar arrangement where each part complements the others. It’s not as deeply moving as “Virtues, Spices & Liquors” (and it’s not trying to be), but it’s certainly as polished lyrically and musically. The bassist and drummer also shine in the sinuous, winding “Moving to the Country.”
If you’re a sucker for a lyric, then you should be all over 4H Royalty. But you should also apply within if you like tight, melodic country-rock. It’s rare that you get stellar lyrics and excellent musical achievement in one album, but that’s exactly what you get in the nine songs of Liars and Outliers.
1. “It’s All Over Now” – Blair Crimmins and the Hookers. Vintage-style New Orleans jazz/rag doesn’t get much more fun that this. I mean, spoons!! You know you love this already.
2. “Break Away” – Afterlife Parade. AP’s triumphant indie-rock is sounding more and more like U2 by way of The Killers with every release, and I’m totally down with that. You hit those soaring group vocal lines, and I don’t care who you sound like. Sing it.
3. “Silver Boys” – Holyoak. Do you wish that Grizzly Bear was a little less obtuse? Maybe that Fleet Foxes was a little more direct? Holyoak delivers the goods.
4. “White Noise” – The Hand in the Ocean. Heavy on the folk, lite on the indie; heavy on the warbling vocals, lite on Bon Iver beauty-croon; heavy on the banjo, lite on the kick drum.
5. “Ghostflake” – Owls of the Swamp. This piano-led, indie-folk take is as delicate and gentle as the title would suggest.
6. “Vermona” – Take Berlin. Formal pop songcraft and singer/songwriter fare are coming closer and closer together, as the rambling Bob Dylan impulses of yore are turning more toward Paul Simon’s beautiful structuralism. This track’s guitar and analog synthesizer show off that shift.
7. “Broken Arrows” – Tracy Shedd also shows off her formal songcraft skills, adding in a touch of ’50s pop vocal flair to the precise acoustic strumming and melodicism.
8. “The Kids and the Rain” – Alex Tiuniaev. New classical piano composer Tiuniaev opens his album Blurred with this moody, atmospheric, scene-setting solo keys piece.
So I’m getting caught up on MP3s too. Soon I will be back on schedule!
MP3 Drop 1: DANCE IT OUT
1. “Wear You Out” – Amerigogo. Punk-funk-party-rock with muscle, grit and old-school “we play our own damn instruments” passion. If you don’t want to dance to this, I’m not sure this blog can help you much on that front.
2. “Gold” – Half Sister. There will always be room in my heart for more girl-fronted power-pop, especially when it’s as crisp and surprisingly emotive as this. Tender is not a term given to power-pop that often, but more power to Half Sister for pulling it off.
3. “Small Pony” – Dott. Girl-fronted power-pop that features an impressive bit of drumming; if you’re on the Best Coast train, you’ll find much to love here.
4. “Get Down” – Like Clockwork. Somewhere between the Postal Service and Ke$ha lies this track and its catchy chorus. Cobra Starship? Maybe?
5. “TTYN” – SCRNS. Is Lorde on the front edge of something, or is she already causing? SCRNS has similarly minimalist electro production going on, and it’s similarly catchy and fun.
6. “Partners in Crime” – We Were Lovers. I don’t think I can ever think of rich, majestic, night-time dance-rock without invoking The Killers. So a female-fronted Killers it is, and I love it.
7. “My Song 9” – Nova Heart. Ominous, foreboding female-fronted indie-electro-rock with an excellent production job.
8. “Inhibitionist” – Starlight Girls. The line between campy horror and surf-rock has never been harder to find. Fun all around, whatever you think the sound is.
9. “Earthquake” – Passafire. The only reggae I know much about is Matisyahu, but Passafire caught my attention with this track: smooth vocals, great chorus, a bit of tough edge to the guitar.
10. “Moonlight” – Message to Bears. A hypnotizing, gently rolling tune that inhabits the space between artsy R&B and atmospheric indie-folk.
GOVS combines Spiritualized’s post-shoegaze haze, indie rock’s pathos, and great trumpet work to create an absolutely beautiful tune. Watch for GOVS in 2014.
The Worriers’ clip for “Little Lucy” perfectly reflects their Vaccines-esque hyperactive enthusiasm: the band members spastically bounce around a dark room with a video projected behind them in a totally ADHD way. It’s awesome.
I love Hemmingbirds’ “My Love, Our Time Is Now,” so I’m glad to see it got a video. I’m unsure what the floating ghost baddies are doing, but I think the power of love defeats them in the end. Nevertheless, THE SONG TOTALLY RULES.
Don DiLego is a songwriter you should know about. Here’s his “Midnight Train,” as performed in an empty bar.
Do you love pop-punk circa 2003? Like, Blink-182 and Sum-41 and all that? If yes, then you need to watch “Towamencin” by Dugout, as they have perfectly recreated that. I mean, absolutely everything, from the song to the clothes to the activities in the video to the camera angles to the locations for the shoot (living room practice space! junky basement venue!) to the homemade tattoos I MEAN WHY DID THIS GO AWAY?!. Relive it for four minutes. Oh, and if you made it this far you already know someone’s going to throw up in this video, so you don’t need me to warn you.
Night Beds is an incredible band that doesn’t get enough love, and I hope 2014 is their year. Winston Yellen’s voice is ethereal and beautiful, while his arrangements are reminiscent of the excellent Sleeping at Last. You should be on this train. Here’s your ticket:
So I don’t usually post more than four videos at a time, but I’m behind and there’s a ton of good videos sitting in my inbox. So here’s two days with 11 total (WHOA).
Way Yes’ indie/tribal/jam/whatever-rock gets treated to a suitably surreal video including two Segways, a hilarious dance circle, and reptiles.
Here’s another dance party, this one made out of beautiful, intricate paper cut-outs. It’s set to Letters to Fiesta’s “Vampires,” which is going to go over real well with fans of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Bjork.
“Explorer” by Breathe Owl Breathe puts the dance party in outer space.
So I have no idea what’s going on in “Arctic Shark” by Quilt, but it might be a dance party. It’s mesmerizing, whatever it is.
Astonishingly, Femme’s video for “Heartbeat” includes a dance party, reptiles, and the same sort of video design as Quilt’s. Everything is so referential these days. Everything is connected. YO BUT ENOUGH OF THAT LET’S DANCE.
In recorded form, Lord Buffalo has been quiet since I highly recommended their 2012 self-titled EP. They’ve been spending time playing mighty live shows and recording a full album (to be released in 2014). A self-titled 7″ has appeared to whet the appetites of those invested in their spacious sound, and whoa does it ever deliver.
The only Stephen King novel I’ve finished was The Stand, and the post-epidemic landscape that King sets his characters upon could use these two tunes as a soundtrack. Helter-skelter vocal roaring reminiscent of Isaac Brock (Modest Mouse) ranges across the urgent, pounding “Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin”; the heavily rhythmic arrangement hearkens towards stereotypical Native American chant, which only ups the tension. Evocative might be too soft a word for the visceral reaction I feel when hearing the recording; it helps that I saw this one performed live at SXSW 2013, and it was suitably earthshaking. B-side “Black Mesa” is a more expansive track, giving the band more room to breathe. It’s just as dramatic and fascinating, but in a different way. Lord Buffalo are making unique and thrilling music, and I can hardly wait for the full album in 2014. Highly recommended (again!).
At their best, Son of Laughter‘s singer/songwriter tunes blend Paul Simon’s precise fingerpicking and melodies with Josh Ritter’s thoughtful, storytelling lyrics. The result is the 5-song The Mantis and The Moon EP, which gives much to enjoy while pointing to a bright future for musician Chris Slaten.
Opener “Cricket in a Jar” and the title track jump off the page as the clear standouts. The former delivers the most poignant line of the EP (“This is a law of loveliness/we love what never lasts”), while the latter gives us the most memorable chorus of the bunch. Slaten’s voice is in fine form through the chorus and beyond, moving sprightly across the gentle arrangement while maintaining nuance in the pathos. The nice subtlety of the lyrics helps with Slaten’s vocal nuance, as well. It’s hard for me to hear “The Mantis” and resist pushing repeat; that’s high praise from over here. The other three tunes are a little less immediate in their charms, but they each show promising aspects to Slaten’s sound. I’m looking forward to how this project grows and develops, as Slaten’s talent seems like it has a lot of good songs in it that are just waiting to emerge.
I’m new to what residents of North Carolina call The Triangle: the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill metropolitan area. I’m still getting used to the fact that I can see massive amounts of live music in three different locales (four, if you count the occasional Wake Forest show). I took advantage of this a couple weeks ago and headed out to Chapel Hill from my stomping grounds of Raleigh to check out Patrick Park and Gregory Alan Isakov at Cat’s Cradle.
Cat’s (as it is colloquially called) sits in a non-descript endcap storefront. The venue itself is spartan but homely; not too big and empty to be impersonal, not so small to be considered cramped. Just right for 300 people, I’d guess. (I’m bad at headcount guesstimation.) I immediately liked the place: it announces, “We’re a venue, and that’s it.” Way to be who you are.
Patrick Park opened the night with a set of intricate, interwoven finger-picking. He deftly balanced the complicated guitar work with engaging vocal lines, creating impressive songs. The performance was lively, even though Park was alone on stage with nothing but his dry stage banter to support him. His anecdote about placing a tune in Grey’s Anatomy got people laughing (“I never wrote a song and thought, ‘Oh, this would be perfect for a murder scene.'”), and his varied song moods and structures kept people engaged. It was a fascinating, incredibly enjoyable set, and I hope that Park gets a lot more exposure from his recently-released EP and his upcoming full-length in 2014.
“Suitcase Full of Sparks” references my not-often-mentioned home state of Oklahoma, so I was thrilled when Gregory Alan Isakov and his two-piece band announced they were about to play it. My hopping-up-and-down enthusiasm was only fueled by the fact that they performed the song with one multi-directional microphone placed in front of the trio, doing it “folk style” (as Isakov noted). The vocal harmonies and pure instrumentation resonated beautifully in the space, making “Suitcase” a delight.
Isakov and his backers played several others off The Weatherman, as well as mixing in older tunes like “The Stable Song” and “This Empty Northern Hemisphere.” In contrast to Park’s knowing, dry humor, Isakov projected a humble, earnest stage vibe that the audience thoroughly enjoyed. The majority of Isakov’s tunes are quiet, beautiful works, and the audience was surprisingly quiet to allow better hearing. This allowed the band to really lock in, and the songs sounded just as good, and in some places even more crisp, than their recorded counterparts. The band played for a long while, giving the audience its money’s worth. It was just all-around an excellent set. Both bands were wonderful, making this tour a total joy. I highly recommend catching either of these bands if they come near you.
I was having lunch with a friend my age (mid-20s) a few weeks ago. He got a bachelor’s degree in music and now works as the music director at the church I go to. The topic veered toward orchestral music, which my friend lamented as dying. “I go to the symphony, and I’m the youngest person there by 30 years!” he said with frustration. And it’s true; composers aren’t the sexy, rebellious Liszts of old; hipsters don’t flock to traditional classical works. Still, there are people working in the idiom, and I don’t think we’ll sound the last playing of Mozart any time soon.
The Noise Revival’s Nathan Felix is the latest in this movement of young composers working to create full orchestral work, releasing his debut symphony The Curse The Cross & The Lion today. It is indeed a full symphony of almost a half-hour’s length. This isn’t pseudo-soundtrack music, although there are some moments reminiscent of good film scores. No, this is a consistent piece of music that takes full attention and full energy to enjoy. There are nuances. In some ways, I had to listen with a different set of ears than my usual “indie-pop” ones; there are different goals, different textures, different ways of being. There’s a heartbreaking oboe solo that stands out amid “V. Don’t Give It Up,” which is one of the most beautiful and powerful sections in the piece; that’s not going to happen in indie-pop all that often.
I’m not qualified to assess this symphony against other classical music, but I can say that it’s incredibly rewarding to listen to for those who don’t listen to a ton of classical music. If you’re into orchestral music, have an adventurous ear, or just like beautiful things, then The Curse The Cross & The Lion should be on your to-hear list.
I idolized the Beach Boys instead of The Beatles growing up, so Pet Sounds is a monument in my musical development. Even as a teenager, I was able to grasp how incredibly difficult everything was on that album. So it’s fairly ambitious to cover the whole album in an indie-pop/indie-folk idiom, as the bands on Mint 400 Records set out to do. (That’s a direct download link, btw.)
The Duke of Norfolk (whom I manage) kicks off the album with a singer/songwriter-esque take on “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” setting the mood for the rest of the album. The One & Nines conform their Motown soul bent into a passionate version of “I’m Waiting for the Day,” while Fairmont’s stand-out rendition of “God Only Knows” is probably very close to what Brian Wilson would have done in the power-pop idiom. A few of the tracks delve heavily into lo-fi arrangements and performances, so fans of that genre have plenty to love as well. It’s free, too! Enjoy Mint 400’s Pet Sounds.
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.