Gregory Alan Isakov was one of my favorite discoveries of 2013; his deeply romantic, gentle folk tunes moved me often. (This probably has to do with being in a relationship; sorry to all ye unrequited.) Leif Vollebekk has a similar vibe in North Americana, as his songs meld earnest and passionate emotions with relaxing arrangements.
Even though Vollebekk is a Canadian troubadour, you’d never know unless I told you: this is a Southern record through and through. He has a lilting Southern voice full of vibrato, grit, and regret. The opening track is called “Southern United States”; “Pallbearer Blues” has a New Orleans funeral feel (mmm, rag piano…) and a William Faulkner title. Standout “When the Subway Comes Above the Ground” namechecks Mississippi, Memphis, and Nashville. The storyteller pose that Vollebekk takes is a little bit southern bluesman, a little bit Leonard Cohen. The dude can even rock a harmonica. North Americana does not accomplish the insider’s perspective of Jason Isbell’s Southeastern; instead, it becomes a testament of appreciation for a place a little to the south of his Canadian digs.
That tender affection for the locations and people invoked and implied in these songs make it easy to transfer that affection. “When the Subway Comes Above the Ground” sounds like a gorgeous, expansive love song complete with organ–even though it’s mostly about travel and disappointment. If you don’t listen to the lyrics and just feel the emotion in his voice, it can be about anything or anyone lovely and rare.
While Vollebekk’s arrangements are beautiful, they never obscure his vocal lines. His trembling tenor is the centerpiece of things both expansive and minimalist. Quiet closer “From the Fourth” invokes the best moments of Josh Ritter in the crisp, light guitar playing; Vollebekk puts his own spin on it with a breathtaking, thoughtful vocal performance. It’s the sort of performance that emphasizes the subtle details of the vocal performance: the tone of voice, the length of notes, the timbre with which each word is sung. Someone else could sing it, but it wouldn’t be the same song. That is a sign of vocal and songwriting mastery.
Leif Vollebekk’s North Americana is an album that rewards both those who want the mood and who want to know the details. You can put this on and it will lighten the vibe of a room immediately; you can focus and hear all the little aspects that Vollebekk took care to give the listener. It’s top-shelf music either way you go, and that is very, very uncommon. It stands up to the glance and the scrutiny; I wish the same could be said of all music–and of me. Highly recommended.
Who:Nonagon (Tony Aimone, Robert Gomez, John Hastie); The Austerity Program (Thad Calabrese, Justin Foley) What: Controlled Burn Records, their new artist-run label When: Formed 2013 How: The Austerity Program, formerly of sadly defunct Hydra Head Records, was looking for a label; Nonagon was looking to expand their reach. Cousins Foley and Hastie decided that their two bands could throw their hat in the ring together.
Why: Now here’s where it gets interesting. Controlled Burn Records isn’t out to move either band up to a major label or engage in any sort of careerist acts. The members of each band have jobs, families, and rooted lives that they very much enjoy. So instead of folding the bands or trying to make a poor label match work, the two bands decided to collectively make a system that worked for their needs.
“We didn’t really feel like we were a good fit for [other labels]. We have to do things in a sustainable way. We have to fit our bands into our lives in a way that may not fit with a record label that says, ‘You need to go on tour to support this record,'” said John Hastie, member of Nonagon and thereby co-founder of Controlled Burn. “Hydra Head was incredibly patient with The Austerity Program and all the restrictions that their family and jobs brought. Their situation became part of the solution.”
But they also didn’t just put up a website and call it a record label. Controlled Burn is legally incorporated as a general partnership, securing distribution for its bands, and organizing releases like Nonagon’s recent The Last Hydronaut EP. The five members of the two bands have capitalized on each of their strengths to create a division of labor that everyone benefits from. It wasn’t something that happened overnight; Hastie stressed that there were a lot of late-night phone calls trying to hammer out all of the details. In other words, this is serious, actual stuff.
Controlled Burn Records is not an organization bent on getting bands to major labels, but it’s also not a hobby project. It’s a third way: talented, passionate musicians who are seeking to increase the amount of people who enjoy their music via a non-traditional system. In an Internet era that allows worldwide exposure without having to tour your physical presence all over the world, this sort of creative end-run on traditional methods is important and vital. Many people still want a career in music; adapting some of the principles and methods of Controlled Burn can indeed help move bands along in that endeavor. But CB is also a refreshing example of how the Internet can allow a different set of goals not just to exist, but flourish.
“We made a decision a long time ago, which is we decided to keep this extremely important thing to us–this creative endeavor–we decided to keep it at arm’s length from how we earn our food,” Hastie said. “Am I a ‘hobbyist’? I’ll be a hobbyist. My output keeps getting better and better, and my happiness level has kept getting higher and higher.”
Controlled Burn–what a perfect name for the label. Nonagon and the Austerity Program are both able to keep the fires of their artistry burning, exactly under the specifications they want.
A ton of great singles have come my way in January, so I thought I’d put them all in one big post arranged quiet to loud. Enjoy!
1. “Pacific (Acoustic)” – Indigo Wild. Were you looking for a rolling, intricate, acoustic mountain jam? Like Fleet Foxes if they were less hazy, this will make you long for the pines.
2. “Anna” – Daniel G. Harmann. After graduating his solo project The Trouble Starts up to a full-on rock outfit, Harmann gives old-school fans a few tracks that hearken back to his early, dreamy days. His trembling, soaring voice over spare guitar chords is just wonderful to these ears.
4. “Slow & Easy” – Scott H. Biram. Less gospel and more ominous vibes mark the second Biram single off Nothin’ But Blood. It’s still incredibly engaging, what with the crisp production and Biram’s voice.
5. “Celeste” – Ezra Vine. If you’re of the opinion that you can never have enough hand claps, whoa-ohs, and happy melodies, raise your hand. Then lower that hand and click on this peppy, wonderful tune.
6. “Girl Don’t Fight It” – Phone Home. Optimistic, keys-heavy, proggy indie-rock in the vein of Fang Island, And So I Watch You From Afar, and others. It’s giddy and heavy and intelligent!
7. “Planets” – Little Earthquake. Peppy acoustic-pop + massive MGMT synth melodies = this unique song.
9. “Violent Shooting Stars” – Robot Princess. Mostly RP is a heavy, exuberant, video-game-infused garage-pop band (WEEZER FOREVER!!). This track puts them more in a pensive mood (at least for them) before ratcheting up to some stomping guitars. Get your power-pop on, dudes.
10. “Bird in the Water” – The Trouble Starts. Harmann’s band, throwing down pop-rock a la Snow Patrol. This would be fun to hear live.
11. “Tangle” – Acid Fast. Starts out with a nostalgic, emo-esque half-time section, then blasts off into a punk rock second half. The melodies bounce off those basement walls with almost more cymbals and passion than you can handle.
Kris Orlowski’s clip for “Believer” reminds me of Arcade Fire’s visual aesthetics. The song is a much louder indie-rock than he’s previously put out, and the guitar-heavy backdrop frames his vocals beautifully.
WolfCryer is on a hot streak, even while walking around in the snow playing a guitar. (“Sparrow”)
Okay, no dancers here. But this is a really, really good surrealist montage; bands try to do this all the time, but most fail. This one is mesmerizing, irresistible, and truly bizarre.
The Oklahoma-founded duo of Walking Waves have an odd connection to Independent Clauses; almost exactly 10 years ago, I reviewed an emo track by the band Roma Secrets. That band broke up, but at least one band member remembered that little blog that covered them. Now that I do folk music instead of screamy emo, and THEY do folk music instead of screamy emo, it was a perfect match–again. We all grow up and chill out sometime, I suppose.
But enough preamble! Their self-titled debut album is great, and deserves applause. Leaning toward the soundscape majesty of Bon Iver but still containing the raw beauty of For Emma, Forever Ago, Walking Waves plays like a mythical middle album between the two extremes. The gentle keyboards of “Echo” lull me into a pristine daze; the folky acoustic strum and keening falsetto of “Letter” sound gorgeous in a completely different way. With Bon Iver on hiatus or something, the world could use more pristine-arrangement, maximum-falsetto, fragile-beauty folk bands.
Walking Waves’ disparate sounds hang together by the force of the mood that runs through each track: whether it’s the reverb-laden standout “Nami” or the complex math-rock-influenced guitar work of instrumental “Winterlude,” winter is a theme that persists. This is music for curling up with your significant other and watching it snow. This is music for warm fires and good friends. It’s comfortable, beautiful music that doesn’t ask too much of you but gives way more than that if you pay attention. The layers of sounds throughout are enough to keep me fascinated for a while.
If you’re into acoustic music that can vaguely be called folk, but is really about being beautiful and nostalgic by any means (and/or labels) necessary, then Walking Waves is for you. It’s easy to say they’re Bon Iver followers, but there’s so much more than that in this self-titled debut. This is a wonderful album, and I hope to hear more from Walking Waves in the future.
DIY Ditty is a hopefully-weekly post that focuses on services, organizations and people who are making it easier for bands to have careers.
Vinyl records are costly: costly to make and costly to procure. That’s not a good or bad thing—it’s merely a fact. Some bands and listeners see themselves priced out of vinyl (bad), despite wanting to have the tangible connection (good) that a record can make between artist and listener.
“On the artist side, having a record on vinyl is a milestone at this point,” said Kyle Billings, co-founder of WaxLimited. “The production costs are a barrier; that’s why it’s a milestone. The fixed costs of actually producing the record are monumental. Even the cheapest, flimsiest weight is going to cost you a grand. You can spend it on t-shirts, which are more likely to sell. Vinyl is a risk.”
But why should it be a risk? In the era of on-demand printing, Kickstarter, and various other monetizing schemes, why can’t vinyl have a new business model? Enter WaxLimited.
WaxLimited, the brainchild of Billings and Julian Weisser, is a new startup that aims to take some of the pain out of creating vinyl for bands. The goal of the project is to lower the risk and the level of knowledge necessary to create a vinyl record. To set up a project, bands have to engage in a Kickstarter-style pre-order of the record. Once the record has enough pre-orders to recoup the costs of the record and the WaxLimited campaign, the band can get the rest of the run to sell at their leisure. Their current small run looks like 88 necessary pre-orders out of a total 250 records.
“You’re not paying 15 bucks for a record, you’re paying five,” said Billings. “Let your fans take the edge off the production costs. We’re hoping to give bands a way to liberate the whole production cost.”
WL also takes out the complicated aspects of finding a place to press your vinyl. By setting up a production system for themselves, they make it so that those elements don’t have to be a consideration for bands. The goal is for bands with music and fans to be able to get vinyl to their fan bases, with no hitches along the way.
“WaxLimited is here to smooth out details and logistics of doing it,” Billings said, “And the fans are there to smooth out the costs of it.”
It’s a project with ambitious goals and yet logical steps to accomplish that. It’s the sort of project that makes sense for an independent musician, which can be chalked up to the fact that Billings and Weisser are bout musicians and listeners themselves. Weisser is a folksinger who goes by the name Dr. J; Billings is of the more electronic ilk. They bonded over a love of vinyl’s materiality, time-consciousness, and decorating possibilities. (It’s tough to hang an MP3, you know?)
WaxLimited is open to work with any artist willing to set up a campaign, no matter the genre. Small labels are also good candidates to work with WL. The two founders don’t have a clear end in mind; as veterans of tech startups, they’re aware that things can morph and change as you do them. So they’re focused right now on getting vinyl to the masses, but they’re not saying that’s all they’ll ever do or that this is exactly how it will run in the future. But even though the long-term remains open, this isn’t a money-grubbing, “take what the industry gives” venture. Anyone concerned about that only has to hear Billings wax poetic about the meaning of vinyl.
“Scrolling through an MP3 collection is one thing; I have a lot of MP3s. Some of them I feel a lot more passionate about than others,” Billings said. “But the records that I have, I’ve curated those to really be a reflection of my personality.”
It’s a lasting connection, that record: it takes commitment to buy and dedication to keep. That’s the sort of connection all bands want with their fans, and WaxLimited wants to give that feeling to bands and fans.
Fairmont has been a part of Independent Clauses for almost as long as it’s been alive. Over those almost 10 years I’ve seen Fairmont transition from an acoustic-fronted indie-rock band to a theatrical power-pop band and back. In short, it’s been REM to My Chemical Romance to a Violent Femmes/Shins hybrid. That last one spot is where Fairmont currently sits with Live & Acoustic from the Forest of Chaos.
Leaning heavily on acoustic guitar, marimba, and male/female duo vocals, the New Jersey band remakes some of its tunes from the last few years in a chill, stripped-down style. They never lose the friction-energy that powers Neil Sabatino’s songs, but they do smooth out some of the rough edges that the tunes can get from a gritty guitar line or pounding drum kit. “Black Heart Burns” is a great example of their sound on this release, as Sabatino and co. create a sparse but engaged backdrop for the vocal duet to play over. The song is a little morose (re: title), but it never comes off as depressing or overtly navelgazing.
That trend continues throughout: the tunes are surprisingly light and sprightly for their heavy content. “Elephant” has a carnivalesque wonder to it; “King and Queen” is an upbeat song in a major key that will have you tapping your foot and loving the fact that this acoustic album includes marimba. “I Am the Mountain,” a favorite of mine, is just as catchy as in its electric form.
If you’re into acoustic-fronted indie-rock/indie-pop (and who isn’t, these days?), Fairmont’s in-studio live set (no applause, which made me breathe a sigh of relief) is a great way to spend 25ish minutes. Live & Acoustic from the Forest of Chaos drops 1/28.
I came of age in the early 2000s, when Brand New, Thursday, and Taking Back Sunday were all making hay. I was drawn to Brand New the most, as they tempered their blazing vitriol with (somewhat) nuanced emotionalism. Gosh, those songs still give me shivers.
Anyway, I’ve got a decade-plus crush on emo bands that try to tie artistic ideals to the frantic passion of youth. Haverford’s Spirit Bear helped me get a fix recently. One need look no further than opener “Anxious,” which turns a quiet, American Football-esque emo-scape into a churning riffer by the end of three minutes. The rest of the album tracks the highs and lows of that sound, full of melodic textures throughout. Fans of emo revivalists Football, Etc. (what is it with football names?) will find much to love here. It’s a beautiful record that doesn’t try to make everything sound exactly perfect, which charms me all the more. You know who you are–go get this.
One of the things I was most impressed with on Wolfcryer’s debut EP The Long Ride Home was the easy maturity that Matt Baumann displayed in his lyricism and melodicism. His follow-up EP Wild Spaces shows that it was no fluke: the quiet assurance of a man in his element is all over the four tunes here.
Baumann plays folk tunes, pure and simple: they’re the sort of songs that could be played a century ago or a century in the future and be pretty recognizable. Those barebones arrangements leave nowhere to hide, but Baumann doesn’t need to cover anything up. His evocative baritone deftly conveys nuanced emotion, and he varies his strum patterns enough to make these four songs quite distinct from each other.
The insistent strum pattern of highlight track “Lonely Country” gives the tune a forward motion that beautifully matches the lyrical theme of interstate travel, while the cascading banjo plucking of “This Revolver” provides a fitting backdrop for the smooth, mournful vocals. After a pretty intro, “Better to Be” takes the focus off the strummed instrument and puts in on the poetic, Dylan-esque lyrics. The title track even includes the squeak of fingers against strings; in such a stark environment, the consistent sound counts as a mood-making element in the tune.
Wild Spaces is another incredible four-song EP from Wolfcryer. Baumann is in a groove right now, turning out raw, passionate folk songs that strike all sorts of nerves. If you’re into evocative vocalists, poetic lyricists, or thoughtful guitar-players (which is to say, if you like any part of singer/songwritering done well), then you’ll be into Wild Spaces. Watch for this project in 2014.
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.