It’s holiday music time, y’all! Time for Bing Crosby, Mariah Carey, and this chart. Here’s what’s made its way into the Independent Clauses inbox this year.
1. Every Mother’s Child – 3 Songs for Christmas – Jonny Rodgers. So, I’ve been in love with everything Jonny Rodgers has done this year, and this is no change. These two traditional hymns and one Christmas song are all arranged in Rodgers’ delicate, intricate style: acoustic guitar, tuned wine glasses, and gentle vocals. The tuned wine glasses give the songs a serene, ethereal feel, which is absolutely what I look for in a Christmas song. Money from this release is going to Project Night Night, a non-profit that gives gifts to homeless children. This is wonderful all around.
2. Canticles by Cardiphonia. Canticles is not exactly a Christmas album, but an album that fits perfectly at Christmas. Cardiphonia is also not a group, per se, but a collection of songwriters* that get together to write songs for Christian worship in a folky milieu. Their latest album Canticles focuses on songs that are sung by people in the Bible. Obviously the music is all-new, but the words are old. The quality is consistently high through these 26 songs; I’m confident in telling you to pick anywhere in the album to start. My favorites are the upbeat indie-pop of “Arise, Shine, For Your Light Has Come (Isaiah 60:1-19),” the soaring “Alas! The Lord My Life is Gone (Jonah 2:2-9),” the Sufjan-esque “Arise and Look to the Skies (Isaiah 60:1-19),” and the beautiful female vocals and neat dobro guitar of the country-fied “For You Alone (Revelation 15:3-4).”
*I personally know about a half-dozen people who worked on or performed on this album.
3. Advent to Christmas by Page CXVI. My favorite hymn rewrite project does its take on Christmas. The piano-based trio turns out smooth, melodious versions of songs familiar (“Angels We Have Heard On High,” “Oh Come All Ye Faithful”) and not so common (“Awake My Soul, Awake My Tongue,” “Comfort, Comfort Now My People“). Those more recognizable hymns have been tweaked in ways that make the versions worthwhile but also faithful to the source material. The newer tunes are especially beautiful, as no work is needed to make them fresh in my mind. Lead vocalist Tifah’s alto/tenor voice fits absolutely beautifully above these arrangements, making this an outstanding project that I’m proud to have backed on IndieGoGo.
4. Island Holiday by Paper City. Totally delivers on its promises to be “listenable at Christmas, or any time of the year!” Fun, cheery pop heavily influenced by surf-rock and girl-pop. None of the tracks get over 3 minutes long; one is titled “Sing Me a Carpenters Christmas.” In short, you’re going to have fun.
Did you know that computers are physically incapable of making mistakes?* They complete patterns exactly as they are told or refuse to do them at all. There is no partial or halfway with computers: a thing completes perfectly or fails totally. 1 or 0. This is one of many reasons why In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is such a huge, important statement: in an era where we can turn the human messiness into pitch-perfection via machine, it is a countercultural move to celebrate the human mess. It is in this spirit that I fell in love with Matthew Squires and the Learning Disorders.
You Are Everything or: The Art of Being Nothing in Particular lets you know what’s going to happen before the music even starts: naming your band “The Learning Disorders” takes a wry and self-deprecating sense of humor, while referencing a Rumi poem and existential ennui in the title lets you know more about the personality powering these songs. Then that goofy/wonderful album art lets you know this is going to be a lo-fi, DIY, personal sort of record. And Matthew Squires delivers on all of that: this is the sort of music that can only be called indie-rock, that sort of music that hardly existed except perhaps in the imagination of The Velvet Underground before the lo-fi ’90s came along and got themselves culminated in Jeff Mangum and co.
Yes, this is raw, quirky, unusual, wholly irresistible music. “An Ancient Voice” pairs Squires’ unique voice against a plaintive, reverb-laden fingerpicking pattern to deliver lines of existential glee and terror: “a miracle more common than a clump of dirt / Yours is a life that’s lived and died as one eternal search / Tell me what it is you seek / and is that message heavy or are my ears weak?” When he intones, “this life is happening” in his speak-sing tones, it’s tough to forget. “The Turnings of the Earth (And Other Observations)” puts a Graceland-esque pop spin on the indie-rock sound, while “A Song for a Future Phoenix” delivers a strong arrangement. The repeated call of “we’re going home!” in “We Are Donkeys” gives me a catch in my throat.
But my favorite moment comes in “Claim Your Birthright!”, where Squires’ voice reaches for a high note in a moment of passion, hollering out “I-i, hope you forgive the whole world.” It doesn’t quite make it up there to that first note; but instead of being horrible, it charmingly underscores the deep humanity of the sentiment. We’re not computers. We make partial perfection, occasional wonderfulness, and incomplete beauty. But that, to me, is more real and excellent than “perfection” that we can achieve with autotuning. It helps that Squires is an excellent songwriter; these songs are memorable and poignant in their construction, even without the endearing, passionate performances. But when strong songs, clever arrangements, and memorable performances come together, magic can happen. And You Are Everything has some very magical moments.
*A friend noted that computers can actually make mistakes in memory called “soft errors.” I feel my point, however, holds: humans are a lot squishier than computers in terms of straight logic.
We’re getting to the point in history where long band names like Day Laborers & Petty Intellectuals are necessary. Instead of shrugging and repeating the “what’s in a name” platitude, it’s worth taking note of DLPI’s moniker. The indie/country/folk band puts great thought into its complex, verbose lyrics on this self-titled album; the Bright Eyes-esque profusion of religious musings in “The Beginning” echoes both Oberst’s memorable turns of phrase and penchant for ratcheting up to a frenzied delivery.
The highly structured chaos of Bright Eyes’ “Road to Joy” is a good RIYL for DLPI in musical as well as lyrical qualities. Every part of the sound is recorded with precision and clarity, moving in the opposite direction from Iron & Wine’s hazy folk sounds. Opener “What’s the Meaning of This Magic?” includes galloping drums, dramatic trumpet, sweeping violin, and vocals somewhere between the self-assured delivery of Cake and the apocalyptic fervor of Modest Mouse. The whole thing fits inside an ominous alt-country frame. It’s a vastly intriguing opening salvo, for sure.
“Irene, Goodnight” is a similarly dark but less overtly country tune; “What the Hell Happened?” is bouncy enough in the bass and acoustic guitars to be considered poppy. (If you’re into 4H Royalty’s work, you’ll be into this track.) But the core of the album is “The Beginning,” which uses all of the tools that DLPI puts forth to their best effect. Start there, for sure. This isn’t singalong folk-pop, yet it’s very involving.
Day Laborers and Petty Intellectuals’ self-titled album is quite impressive. The recording is immaculate, the songwriting is impeccable, the lyrics are strong, and the moods are enveloping. What else are you waiting for? Go get this one.
I broke out Nik Freitas’ Saturday Night Underwater this week, because its AM-pop gold was on my mind. I’ve got the soft way on my mind because of Monsenior‘s self-titled EP, which is an excellent example of the form itself. The Irish duo is meticulous in its song constructions, purveying sweet pop melodies and tight arrangements to go with them. The band gives the RIYL of Bright Eyes, but it’s much closer to Supertramp, Paul Simon, even Fleetwood Mac (at its most structured, not its “Tusk” weird era).
“Seven Bells” leans on a gentle guitar riff, shakers, tambourine, rolling piano and pressing bass, creating that old driving feeling. You can put your top down to this one, but it’s the knowing-cool sort of drive, not the the giddy-freedom sort of trip. “Head Screwed On” is a jaunty acoustic tune that reminds me of Fionn Regan and (again) Paul Simon; that’s high praise from over here. The winding lead guitar melody expands into a wide-open pop tune, complete with either spoons or tapdancing. That’s the sort of tune I can get behind! Each of these four tunes are supported by intricate arrangements that don’t self-consciously draw attention to themselves, which is nice in the chamber-pop era. (Don’t worry, I still love chamber-pop. But the change of pace is nice!)
If you’re disillusioned by the fact that rap, dubstep, country, rock and pop are all converging as one amorphous pop sound, let Monsenior’s four-song EP remind you that in the minds of at least a few holdouts, pop means something specific. Cheery hooks, acoustic guitar, piano (“Simple Miss”), and an unassuming backing band are all you need to get an overall shine to your pop. Monsenior has those things in spades. Here’s to pop music.
I’ve sung the praises of Pedro the Lion throughout this blog. Given The Soldier Story‘s moody indie-rock with clanging guitars, I’m going to take it as serendipitous that the second song on Rooms of the Indoors is named “A Lion.” Songwriter Colin Meyer’s voice echoes Bazan’s in tone, and the arrangement shifts from delicate thoughts to towering electric guitars at whim. The overall effect is striking, as Meyer knows how to play with tension, using layering and juxtaposition excellently.
He also knows how to make individual instrumental parts complement each other without competing: The complex, beautiful “When the Thieves Came” is constructed as if it were half clockwork and half Rube Goldberg Machine. Halfway through the tune, Meyer’s playing a spiky ditty on a clean guitar with a kick-drum stomp; the next second, the guitars and bass have distorted, the drums amp up to full-set freakout, and it sounds like a post-hardcore jam a la The Felix Culpa. Then it goes directly back to the spiky little ditty, without feeling disjointed at all. (Meyer got some songwriting help on this track from Jonny Rodgers, no stranger to intricate construction himself.)
Those skills transfer over to the rest of the tunes, whether it’s the fragile, William Fitzsimmons-esque folk of “Gray Clean Suit”; the experimental intro of “Through the Trees”; or the vast, expansive title track, which grows from a forlorn acoustic strum to a rapturous, wild conclusion. Rooms of the Indoors is an album that unfolds its intricacies over multiple listens. I found it interesting the first time, but I see it as much more than that now. Meyer has moving songwriting skills that will grip you, if you give him your attention. Recommended.
Lullatone makes beautiful, charming, instrumental twee music. Their latest release Falling for Autumn – EP is 22ish minutes of ukuleles, toy pianos, whistling, clapping, gentle horns, and hushed acoustic guitars. It perfectly appropriates the feel of fall not only in the sounds, but in the titles of songs: “here comes the sweater weather,” “raindrops plucking the last leaves from a tree,” “the biggest pile of leaves you have ever seen,” “just walking around.” Lullatone, a married duo who live in Japan, know how to turn earnest cheer into affecting, emotive work. To quote a title of one of their previous albums, these are “Soundtracks for Everyday Adventures.” I am absolutely in love with this record, and I hope that you will be too. Falling for Autumn – EP makes me unabashedly, giddily happy.
Kayte Grace bridges pop-country and folk-pop nicely, singing with a pleasant twang and keeping the arrangements jaunty and light. The four tunes on Chapter 1: Say Yes are love songs with well-developed pop chops: only one of the tunes breaks the 2:30 mark. “Decorate the World” is a clear single, with a strong melody and cheery mood; “Just Need You” adds some jazzy markers to the songwriting. “City Plans” adds some gospel vibes in the vocals and cleverly romantic lyrics, which vaults the tune to highlight status. “Farther Than This” showcases Grace’s vocal prowess in a more dramatic song, which rounds out the diverse collection nicely. Chapter 1: Say Yes is a strong opening statement from an artist with diverse skills; the EP stays centered on Grace’s strong songwriting while displaying the variety of her creative ideas. I look forward to the next chapters in this release cycle.
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.