Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Two Excellent Acoustic Albums: Little Chief / Grover Anderson

April 29, 2014

littlechief

Arkansas folk-pop outfit Little Chief is shiver-inducingly good. Lion’s Den is a strikingly cohesive, mature, and assured work for a debut album from a young group of musicians.

Little Chief skews toward Mumford and Sons’ style of straightforward songcraft, but they do in a vastly less percussive style. The band softens the edges of everything, from gentle guitar strum to cello inclusions to melodic group vocals instead of shouted ones. The result is a collection of songs that work their way into your long-term memory in a very unassuming manner. I’ve been humming Little Chief tunes long after I heard them, and it drives me back to the album.

Their gentle touch makes every high higher than it would be, because it feels non-obvious and genuinely celebratory. These aren’t party songs, they’re songs of jubilation. “Brighton Shore” and “Shiloh” are both tunes that take feelings of loss and hardship and transform them. This album is deeply concerned with carrying on through trouble, and their humble approach to songcraft displays that earnest emotion.

“Mountain Song” and “Lion’s Den” show the arranging prowess of the band. “Mountain Song” has a long, gorgeous instrumental intro, while the full-song crescendo of “Lion’s Den” is punctuated by an excellent cello part, well-timed drums, and tasteful brass. This band has chops–it knows when to use them and when to let simplicity be.

If you’re into folk-pop, Lion’s Den is a must-listen. It has the emotive heft of The Head and the Heart, the arrangements of early Fleet Foxes, and melodies galore. It’s astonishingly confident for a debut album, but I’m not questioning it: if it’s good, it’s good. Highly recommended.

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It’s a common problem that bands will find a sound they’re good at and hit it until their audience is just sick of it. Grover Anderson handles that problem by playing songs in vastly different genres, somehow managing to avoid sounding like a tourist or faker in any of them. Frantic murder ballads, love ballads, jilted lover electric blues, back-porch pickathon shout-it-outs, brilliant country tunes, and downtempo minimalist all hang out on The Optimist. It’s a credit to Anderson’s skills that each of them sounds natural. It makes for an odd listening experience as a collection of tunes (multiple people die, multiple people get married–sometimes in close quarters), but each individual song is worthwhile.

Given my personal predilections, I’m more interested in the bluegrassy “Pick Up Your Horn” and the Bon Iver-esque “Grindstone” than in the Mraz-style love songs “When You Come Near” and “Enough.” But the gentle fingerpicking of breakup tune “Dancing Slow” calls to mind the weighty work of Ray LaMontagne, which seems to be the antithesis of Jason Mraz in my mind.

All of this love in stark contrast to “The Lampolier” and “Philip Marshall Cates,” both of which are intense murder ballads, the likes of which I haven’t heard in a very long time. To start with, “The Lampolier” is an incredible piece of lyricism, as Anderson puts together an intriguing, eerie story through a very structured rhyme scheme. Amid this complexity, Lampolier delivers a masterful vocal performance that sees him ratchet from a gentle speak/sing to outright desperate hollering. I still get shivers when Anderson roars wordless distress three minutes in. The band is a runaway coal train behind him, pressing the song forward to its inevitable end. It’s the single and the opener, and it doesn’t take many brain cells to decide that both were excellent decisions. “Philip Marshall Cates” isn’t as electric in its convictions, but it’s another death ballad that sits in stark contrast to the love songs.

Also, “Little Spoon” is my favorite love song released this year. Some love songs are huge, sweeping announcements of love–others focus on the little, pedestrian parts of love that make it so wonderful, like drinking Blue Moons together, spooning, and spending time together. Anderson’s tune is the latter.

So Anderson’s got a ton going on in this album, being a lot of things to a lot of people. But no matter who you are, it’s hard to ignore that Anderson’s songwriting skill is great. I look forward to seeing how he adapts and focuses his skills in upcoming work (or not). If you’re into people who play acoustic guitars, Grover Anderson has something for you.

Quick Hit: Aaron Cooper

April 28, 2014

aaroncooper

I’m all about seasonal music, so I’m getting especially fond of summery music right now. Aaron Cooper‘s self-titled singer/songwriter record is hitting the spot today. Cooper plays light, airy acoustic tunes that draw inspiration from classic songsmiths of yore (Paul Simon and the Kinks, particularly) without owing too much debt to anyone. Tunes like “Clown” and “Rat” could have been written then or now or in the future (I’m guessing, unless EDM wins and we all oomkchh oomkchh forever) and they’d fit right in: chipper acoustic strum, gentle melody, fun arrangements. It’s classic guitar popcraft.

None of the songs go longer than 2:38, which I admire. When you’ve got good ideas, you can string them out for a long time and make people sick of it, or you can leave ’em wanting more. Cooper does the latter. “Round Three” and “Songs about Birds #2: Dead Baby Bird” have memorable melodies that seem to deserve much more than the 1:30 that they are both allotted, but that sends you back to hit repeat. (And although that last title is sad and the song is a bit morbid, it still manages to be chipper and even a little touching.) Cooper likes tunes that deal with odd subject matter [“Come and Scrape My Brain (Off the Sidewalk)”], but the chill, smile-inducing mood rarely lets up. If you want to hear some light, fun, melodically classic tunes, Aaron Cooper should be on your to-hear list.

Quick Hits: Ghost to Falco / Robert Deeble

April 25, 2014

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Ghost to Falco is that sort of folk/rock band that seems to ooze atmosphere. Whether it’s ominous (“Born to Win”), martial (“Enemies Calling”) or warm (“High Treason”), Eric Crespo and co. know how to make me feel things on Soft Shield. Deer Tick and Two Gallants also have this vibe, so Crespo is in good company. These songs lean more toward Two Gallants’ minimalism; even though Ghost to Falco employs a full band throughout, space is an important part of the sound (“No Reward,” “Feel the Glory”).

This gives the songs a cinematic quality different than that of film scores: these songs literally feel like stories, like journeys that have a beginning and end. It’s a rare skill, to take songs out of the realm of “pop song” and situate them in another milieu entirely. But listening to Soft Shield, it’s hard to imagine these songs in the same realm as The Avett Brothers. These songs have grit, body, and a life of their own outside of the preconceived, circumscribed bounds of three-minute pop songs.

Crespo’s vocal delivery documents every swoop and sway of his emotional state in the tiny bends and wrenches of phrases and words. This gives his songs even more emotive punch than the songwriting alone in the hands of a different vocalist might provide. Between the cinematic songwriting and evocative vocals, Ghost to Falco is a band doing things in a unique and exciting way. If you’re into folk-rock that doesn’t prize “singing along” as the only virtue, Ghost to Falco is a necessary listen.

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Robert Deeble has been putting out albums at his own pace since 1997. (As a person who’s run the same blog for almost 11 years: game recognize game.) His most recent release is a celebration of that history, as Letters from an Expatriate is a live recording that revisits 1998’s Earthside Down with the original band.

Deeble’s gentle, measured folk vibe is in full flower here; his earnest, emotive lyrics and quiet arrangements come together to make beauty. Fans of Gregory Alan Isakov and Alexi Murdoch will find Deeble’s unhurried moods familiar. But where both of those emphasize lyrical romanticism, Deeble works in much heavier territory, spinning tales of woe and redemption. It’s a very entertaining live set, especially for those who enjoy the quieter side of things. If you haven’t been introduced to Robert Deeble, Letters from an Expatriate is a great place to start.

Sinai Vessel impresses with thoughtful lyrics amid emo adrenaline

April 24, 2014

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There’s an emo revival on, which is cool, because I loved emo in the early 2000s. (My copy of Andy Greenwald’s Nothing Feels Good is permanently within arms’ reach on my desk.) I loved that emotional vulnerability, adrenaline, and beauty could all be appreciated in the same band. It became uncool there for a while to be earnest, but I’m glad that irony is at least allowing enough space in the culture to let earnest thought to regroup a little bit.

Sinai Vessel doesn’t call their music emo, but they do call it “punk for sissies.” Both descriptors are thick with positive, negative, and re-appropriated positive connotations, which is a perfect situation for Sinai Vessel’s complex music. Songwriter Caleb Cordes does instill his brand of pop-punk with thoughtful lyrics and twinkly guitar reveries common of emo, but neither of these feel self-indulgent or trend-following. The songs on profanity [ep] are very catchy while being thoughtful, retaining that adrenaline that I so treasure in emo. I love Damien Jurado, but sometimes I want to scream about my introspection. Sinai Vessel offers that.

The majority of opener “cats” is actually not very punk-rock in its songwriting style; the mid-tempo tension is much more reminiscent of Dashboard Confessional or Death Cab for Cutie than The Wonder Years or Blink-182. The unassuming beginning allows for a shiver-inducing moment when the ratchet up to a pounding, hollering conclusion. “You mean everything to me,” indeed.

“Cuckold” reminds me of Say Anything in the vocal delivery and rhythmic style, while “Drown Around” makes good on the Pedro the Lion RIYL they sent me. (Longtime David Bazan collaborator TW Walsh mastered profanity.) “Flannery” invokes the Catholic author’s work and words to continue her conflicted feelings about the evil in the world and ourselves. It’s one of the most interesting lyrically and most enjoyable musically.

I’ve gotten this far without noting that David Wimbish of IC faves The Collection played brass, recorded, and mixed the record, but he totally did, and that’s awesome. Thoughtful lyrics, punk-rock adrenaline, David Wimbish, TW Walsh, and free? How can you pass this up? You shouldn’t. Sinai Vessel is an impressive outfit that I look forward to hearing more from. Highly recommended.

Debut: Grant Valdes’ “Streetcorner Waltz” clip

April 23, 2014

I’ve proclaimed my love for real dancing in videos and continued to write about Americana/folk for a very long time, so it should be self-evident that Grant Valdes‘ music video combining these two things would steal my heart. The instrumental “Streetcorner Waltz” off his album Brownout is a tender, fragile instrumental piece that is suited perfectly with a delicate, charming video. Click “Full Screen” and enjoy this lovely video debuting on Independent Clauses today.

Quick Hit: Hayden Calnin

April 22, 2014

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April and November are the two most hectic times of the year for me, so it’s nice to hear some chill, laid-back tunes to get me through the craziness. Hayden Calnin‘s Oh, Hunter is just that: a five-song set of relaxed tunes. The sound itself is quite impressive, melding the melodicism of The National and the tense post-dub soundscapes of James Blake.

Calnin’s low voice is evocative, and it fits in the spaces provided by the sparse beats perfectly. Instead of airy synths, Calnin trafficks in cold, separated beats that he warms with his melodies and delicate instruments: high piano notes, fingerpicked nylon-string guitar, ghostly sounds. The resulting tunes feel weighty without feeling dense; they have emotional heft without beating the listener over the head with it. Calnin shows off his talent as a mature, assured songwriter here–check out the gorgeous “Comatose” or the sparse “Not Good for Me” to see him in full form. Recommended; one to watch.

Accents writes folk and pop-punk–it works perfectly

April 21, 2014

talltales

Is folk a mindset or a sound or both? The answer AccentsTall Tales provides is a giant yes to all. The album is built out of fingerpicked guitar and emotive vocals, expanding from that foundation into genres like folk orchestra (jubilant opener “Hold Me Close”), indie rock (the pensive “Artist in Denial”), and even pop-punk (the impressive “I Wasn’t Looking for You”). Some tracks forsake the folk backdrop and just start out in other genres: the excellent, hopeful ’90s pop of “Reminders”; the anthemic Mumfordy folk of “England Awaits”; the noisy indie-rock-with-horns of “Heart in My Room.”

But even through all these genres, the album holds together excellently; it’s that folk mindset coming through. Accents decided that if you want everything, they can give it to you: guitar rock, orchestration, female vocals, male vocals, hushed songs, brash songs, catchy songs, thoughtful songs, big riffs, the whole nine yards. There’s a pipeline between pop-punk and folk-pop; Accents is the house band for that pipeline. This is a brilliant accomplishment that in lesser hands would be a disjointed mess. Tall Tales is very worth your time.

Cameron Blake’s Kickstarter has me excited

April 18, 2014

I plan a lot of my blog posts ahead of time, but sometimes I don’t get to write much while I’m planning. I’ll occasionally stick placeholder text in the draft to remind myself; it’s usually “Band name, y’all.” (Oklahoma forever.) I always eventually change the text. But this time I feel like leaving it:

Cameron Blake, y’all.

That’s right. Cameron Blake is running a Kickstarter to fund an album of just him and a guitar. I’m a big fan of Cameron’s work, and so I’m really excited to see what he can do with the bare essentials. I have extremely high hopes for this record, based on the below demo and the music from the Kickstarter video.

So if you’ve got some metaphorical pennies kicking about, consider pitching some Cameron Blake’s way. It’s gonna be a great album.

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Novi Split: The Grand Reconsideration

April 17, 2014

Novi Split is going through the great reconsideration right now. Between Spare Songs, Keep Moving, Disk 2 and If Not This, Then What, David J has spent the last three months publicizing, re-publicizing, and in some cases unearthing everything that his singer/songwriter project has done. In case you the missed the incredible work of David J over the last decade, he’s making himself easy to find now.

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And that’s good, because these three releases show an impressive songwriter with a golden voice and a crisp, earnest singer/songwriter style. Let’s start with Keep Moving, Disk 2, which puts the focus on his 2003 debut, Keep Moving. Even though it invokes the title of the original album, it could more accurately be titled Pretty Much Everything I Did Between My First and Second Album, which was almost exactly four years from Jan 2003-Jan 2007.

Disk 2 collects great tracks off obscure EPs (“Get Me to Bed”), devastatingly beautiful covers (Material Issue’s “Very First Lie,” Robyn Hitchcock’s “Madonna of the Wasps”), surprisingly pretty demos (“California Skies”), and an aptly titled instrumental (“Instrumental”). It also includes no less than 21 live tracks, which are mostly of Keep Moving tracks. It is a deep dive into the catalog of Novi Split, and it will leave you charmed, pleased, and puzzled that Novi Split isn’t more well known. “The New Split (Live)” deeply moves me. “Me and Andy” has been one of my favorite songs for years. This reconsideration couldn’t come soon enough.

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Once you’ve been blown away by his early work, let’s pick up with some mid-period stuff in Spare Songs. Pink in the Sink was a decidedly more hi-fi affair, and the songs on Spare Songs show that. “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now” seems to have mixing and mastering, a luxury that was not expended on some of the early tracks. This by no means diminishes the charm of the early ones or raises the stature of the new ones. It merely makes them sound different.

David J’s voice gets featured a little less here, as his pristine songwriting gets played up. “Don’t Go Home” is an absolutely gorgeous piano tune, while “Pear” (a song I’ve never heard before) is a gentle, thoughtful instrumental that links up to previous tracks in the distant horn line. (Similar horn melodies will resurface in other songs–it’s a bonus, not a detractor. Trust me.) Spare Songs is capped by a delightfully weird and wonderful version of “Dancing in the Dark.” I like this version better than the Springsteen original, for real.

And finally, we make it to If Not This, Then What, which includes brand new versions of songs off Pink in the Sink (“You Got Served,” “Young Girls”), songs that got released between PITS and now (“Hollow Notes”), and a brand new cover (Blaze Foley’s “Clay Pigeons”). Through it all, David J displays the intimacy that characterized his early works with the pristine songwriting and hi-fi production of his later work. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: David J’s voice and songwriting sound effortless, as if he just opens his mouth and the music comes out. He’s significantly more alt-country than he used to be, but it’s not a twangy-voiced alt-country but a pedal-steel affection. It’s downright beautiful stuff.

Now that Novi Split has cleared out every corner of the vault, I hope that we’ll be seeing some brand new work in the upcoming years. With all his work available and easily accessible for the first time ever (you have no idea how hard I worked to track down all the tracks that are now available on a single Bandcamp page), hopefully people will start to pick up on an unheralded, underappreciated master of the craft.

Quick Hit: Mike Dillon

April 16, 2014

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Mike Dillon‘s Band of Outsiders begins with Dillon hammering on a heavily distorted marimba. The trombone and punk-speed drums come in next. Eventually Dillon layers on ominous speak/sing vocals calmly stating that the narrator will “throw you on / my bonfire.” Sometimes a band tells you everything you need to know pretty quickly.

If you’re still not convinced that Mike Dillon is (or isn’t) for you, here’s a bit of overview on the album. Dillon and his three-piece backing band whip through pieces that throw jazz, rap, ska, metal, punk, and bossa nova (seriously) into a blender and press frappe. Dillon has religious thoughts, anti-police thoughts, political thoughts, absurdist thoughts–sometimes all in within a span of 30 seconds (“Homeland Insecurity”). There’s a lot of trombone, which is not something I get to write very often. You can dance to it. You can mosh to it. You can shout along to it (“Carly Hates the Dubstep,” most emphatically). In short, Mike Dillon is out of his mind, in the most entertaining and musically challenging of ways. Unless you’ve heard Mike Dillon before, you’ve almost certainly not heard anything like this.

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

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