The woodsy, earthy vibes of Fleet Foxes-style alt-folk aren’t that far from the mystic, swirling vibes of Fleetwood Mac’s best-known work. The Self Help Group makes that connection for us in “Luigi’s Waltz,” where the six-piece Brighton-based outfit sounds for all the world like a much-smaller band calling California home. This deceptive trick flows from both the easy confidence of the performance and the careful arranging/mixing: nothing sounds out of place at any point in the process. An easygoing, mellowed-out tune results from their hard work: the sort of tune that feels light even while maintaining a full presence. And at 2:39, it knows how to make its point and get out of its own way. (That’s one way to make us press repeat multiple times.)
It’s always nice to hear from people again. Ira Lawrence was in a band called Even So in the mid-00s that I really loved–their EP Homecomings and Departures has some tunes that I still listen to, years later. So it’s great to hear his distinct vocal stylings in his solo project Ira Lawrences Haunted Mandolin. His six-song release Elegant Freefall showcases both his vocals and the titular mandolin to great effect.
This EP is composed entirely of mandolin sounds. But before you run for the bluegrassy hills, it’s important to note that distortion, reverb, heavy chord strumming, and pitch augmentation are the name of the game here. There are probably folk tunes buried somewhere in these songs, but with Lawrence’s voice and the remarkable arrangements considered, there’s little you can call these but indie-rock tunes. For examples of the gymnastics that the mandolin goes through, “Lucky Lucretia” sees the mandolin pitch-shifted down to sound like a distorted bass guitar. The title track layers multiple strumming lines on top of each other to create clouds of reverbed mandolin; “Babarbara” throws so many effects at it by the end of the tune that it sounds almost exactly like an electric guitar. I’m not sure how huge Lawrence’s pedal board is, but I would wager that it’s big or that he knows how to wring every last sound out of the few pieces he’s got.
“Warp Drive” is an example of a tune where the effects on the mandolin aren’t as central to the tune (well, at least at the beginning). He does put a pretty huge reverb on his own vocals, though, creating a unique vibe for the tune (similar to how Gregory Alan Isakov reverbs/gently distorts his voice). His vocals are part of the allure of this EP for me, as Lawrence’s tenor has a unique tone and timbre. There’s an edge to his voice that can’t be denied, but he uses it in a melodic way much of the time–he sounds both exasperated and under control. It’s the sort of voice that makes me think of the “dancing about architecture” quote: me trying to explain it cheapens it. Just know that his vocals are great and worth checking out for their own merits.
But it’s ultimately the songs that pull this together: they’re hooky, melodic, and unusual. With such a specific constraint (only sounds from a mandolin), the songs could start to sound similar–Lawrence avoids that pitfall. “Babarbara” is a mid-tempo pop song that could perhaps be a ’90s rock song in a different instrumental milieu. The title track is just as elegant as the title would claim, as the various mandolin lines combine with a careful vocal line to make a beautiful tune. “Jeremy Crackers” sounds like a lost Decemberists song, both in the vocal performance and the songwriting style; “Lucky Lucretia” is noisy and cool. They’re all tunes that make me want to come back to them.
Elegant Freefall by Ira Lawrences Haunted Mandolin is the rare “constraint project” that can be appreciated without knowing what the rules were. These songs stand up on their own as hummable, admirable, thoughtful pieces. I’d recommend this to anyone, but I think it would be particularly relevant for those who are interested in the type of indie-rock that pushes the rules for the sake of wondering what’s out there past them. Highly recommended.
Here’s some videos that are more focused on “fun” than yesterday’s.
Here’s my highest praise for a pop-art video: The Elwins’ “So Down Low” looks like OK GO could have made it. It’s mindboggling, smile-inducing, and demands repeat plays to catch all the bits. That’s how it’s done, folks.
From the opening frames that compare the Space Needle to a french fry to the final shots of the band (Blimp Rock) in a blimp, this Archer-esque animation style clip is a hoot.
Do you love Wes Anderson? Prepare to love Sea of Bees’ homage to Moonrise Kingdom in the “Test Yourself” clip.
Here’s another tribute to summer camp, with the oh-so-charming Pen Pals singing a awww-inducing, 90-second indie-pop ditty about why camp is the best. The visual style makes me think of camps I never went to but can imagine perfectly in my head. (The one I went to looked nothing like this one, but I still got nostalgia anyway.)
Bellwire’s clip for “Time Out” is like the dream of the indie ’90s revisited: yards of yarn, googly eyes, people dancing through the frame, a haircut, and lots of gawky bounding about. It’s pretty much a perfect analog to the sound.
Ah, the reveries of youth: a kid finds himself as a superhero in this video for Tuff Sunshine’s “Dreamin'”.
Careening around the downstairs of a house is an unusual concept for a video, but somehow Off the Record’s clip for “Whitley” makes it work. I want to know what’s going on upstairs.
Goofy and great.
David Wimbish‘s lyrics are incredible, but with so much going on in his 7-to-18-piece indie-rock orchestra The Collection, the lyrics sometimes take a backseat to the enormous amount of things going on around them. His solo EP On Separation strips away some (some) of the musicians to put the focus squarely on his voice and lyrics. The tender, gentle acoustic tunes that result will please fans of the Collection and gather new fans of quiet music under his wing.
In a nod to the solo nature of the work, Wimbish takes the time to write out some explanatory liner notes in the first person. In explaining the title, he writes, “Each song on On Separation deals with different aspects of disconnection, whether it be marital divorce experienced by my friends lately, or self-imposed loss of close friendships from the past.” To whit, standout “Circles and Lines” begins with, “Today she dropped the glass and shattered many things / and you had not yet thought of where you’d set your ring.” Yet not all of the lyrics are so literal, as Wimbish prefers to plumb the interior spaces of the involved parties and observers of the events (“A Ghost and A Scale,” “Back and Forth”). They’re complex, multi-layered lyrics, full of personal musings, places, and religious allusions: Cain and Abel make appearances in their eponymous tune, and the prodigal son makes a reappearance (from the Collection’s “Broken Tether”) in “Lost and Found.” Wimbish’s ability to turn a phrase that both sounds great and has meaning is in top form here.
These lyrics are paired with some of the most beautiful music Wimbish has yet written. “Circles and Lines” pairs the heavy lyrics against a beautiful, fingerpicked, cascading acoustic guitar line. The song builds to the loudest moment on the EP with the inclusion of strings and slapped cello for percussion, but it returns to its delicate roots for the conclusion of the tune. That underscores the approach here: while these are songs that deal with dramatic events, the overall tone and timbre of this EP is quiet and even understated at times (at least in comparison to the weightiness of the lyrics). The rhythms and string arrangement of “Back and Forth” seem a little like a Collection song with the bombast removed–the chiming autoharp of “A Ghost and a Scale” recalls his band as well. But other than those occasional flourishes, these songs do feel like a statement by Wimbish instead of stripped-out versions of full-band work. They’re elegant, not empty.
Part of the understatedness of the release is realized in the sharp focus that Wimbish puts on his voice delivering the lyrics, to the exclusion of complexity elsewhere. This is particularly true in “Cain and Abel,” which uses Wimbish’s voice as both lead and background vocals. Gentle marimba and cello occasionally show up, but this one’s about the voice. Wimbish’s tenor, so often used for roaring in The Collection’s work, is gorgeous in this quieter setting, as his range, tone, and nuances of delivery stand out. (All those are present in The Collection’s work, but as previously noted, there’s a lot more elements going on there.) His voice is soft, clear, and comforting–if you didn’t listen to the lyrics, these tunes would be the sort of thing to lull you peacefully to sleep.
David Wimbish’s On Separation is a beautiful EP that showcases a singer/songwriter with a clear sonic and lyrical vision. Fans of Damien Jurado, Josh Ritter, or Gregory Alan Isakov will find much to love in the music, while fans of the dense, thoughtful lyrics of The Mountain Goats or Sufjan Stevens’ Michigan/Illinois work will celebrate this one. Highly recommended.
I’m not being hyperbolic when I say this is one of the most impressive music videos I’ve ever seen. The concept, the story, the cinematography, the pairing of the story with the sound of the song: it’s all flawless. It’s a beautiful, haunting, mesmerizing clip. Highly recommended.
A lot of bands want to be surreal and off-kilter, but I’ve never seen anyone do it as compellingly as Finn Keenan does it for Enemies in their “Play Fire” clip. They turn the use of repetition and reversal from a parlor trick into a celebration of granular motion, concluding in one of the most carefully architected set-pieces I’ve ever seen in a music video. It reminded me of inception in its fine-grained attention to detail that turns into a enormously rewarding whole. It’s remarkable. Highly recommended.
In this excellently-done video, Solai beautifully embodies the concept of the tune (“I see your ghost”) in three dancers who perform their way through a man’s pedestrian life. The cinematographic effects are impeccably done, the color palette is perfect for the tune, and the overall effect is incredible. Highly recommended.
Oryx and Crake’s video is great on its own, repurposing the titular core statement (“The world will take care of me”) from a defiant statement aimed at a lover to something much grander and more complex. The story behind the video adds another layer on. Really, really great stuff here.
In Tall Buildings’ “Flare Gun” is one of my favorite tunes in recent memory, and it gets a visually arresting treatment in this clip that juxtaposes a space traveler with shots of the natural world. Just lovely.
This one’s simple yet high-concept: the story of the tune is mirrored in the story of the video. Props to Say Yes Dog for creating a thoughtful, pensive analog to a dance tune.
WindfallFound’s “Floating (Pulling for the Heavens, pt 2)” also focuses on outer space visuals–in contrast, these ones are serene and contemplative.
I only lived in Austin for three-ish months, so I hardly count as a resident. Nevertheless, Justin Fallen and the Angels’ clip for “Dancehall (Rhythm of a Saturday Night)” makes me nostalgic for the city by featuring Austin landmarks. There’s also a great amount of dancing, which always endears me to a video.
1. “Bugs” – Patrick James. If you can resist the mopey lyrics, catchy melodies and smooth vocals of an acoustic guitar-toting Australian, you have more strength than me. Sounds kind of like a down-under Passenger with extra indie cred in the arrangements, if you need more motivation.
10. “We Have a Hope” – Nathan Partain. Fresh off the great Jaywalker, Partain drops an intimate, careful, beautiful rumination on hope in the midst of difficulty.
4. “Push and Pull (All the Time)” – Promised Land Sound. Lush, full acoustic-folk sound that calls to mind The Head and the Heart, but with some adventurous instrumental work of their own vintage. Those vocal harmonies, though. Man.
7. “January” – Mia Rose Lynne. There’s always room in my heart for a clean guitar strum, a tender vocal melody, and a swooping violin. This tune is fresh, bright, and charming.
2. “Motion Sick” – Casey Dubie. Dubie’s voice fits perfectly in the adult-alternative space constructed around it. It’s the sort of compelling track that I hate tagging with that genre name, because it’s so tight, evocative, and lively.
5. “Wait” – Lawrence Trailer. Subtle funkiness sneaks its way into this acoustic-led adult alternative track: the bass and vocal performance give the tune a gentle swagger that separates it from the pack.
3. “Long Beach Idyll” – Chris Forsyth & Koen Holtkamp. This meandering acoustic/synth collaboration sounds like some impossible combination of the beach and the desert, with some ’70s psych vibes thrown in. Far out.
8. “Wolvering” – Maiden Radio. Come for the Appalachian folk vibes, stay for the vocals: there’s a vocal surprise early on in this all-female trio’s tune that hooked me.
6. “Solo Sin Tu Amor” – Radio Free Honduras. As Monty Python might say, “And now for something completely different.” This Spanish-language tune uses Latin rhythms, nylon-string melodies, and tropical trumpets to create a smile-inducing, dance-inspiring track. I think this is what Bishop Allen wanted “Like Castanets” to sound like.
9. “Pretty Little Life Form” – Valley Maker. A rumination on life, death, and love in a woodsy, low-slung, minor-key folk environment. It’s got an easygoing flow, amid all that.
11. “Nitetime Moths” – Des Ark. Throw a clarinet at anything in the indie realm and I’m pretty much sold. Aimée Argote’s loud/soft project features the soft side here, singing mesmerizingly over a real piano, tape hiss, and that clarinet. It’s just remarkably pretty.
1. “Psychrocker” – Honeymilk (featuring De Montevert). This is an absurdly catchy, fuzzed-out piece of psych-rock that just does it all right. Mad props.
2. “Elsewhere” – Nevasca. The good will out–sometimes it takes a partnership of seven record labels, but the good will out. Nevasca’s early ’00s emo-inspired sound sounds much more like Midwestern America than Murmansk, Russia, with dramatic guitar delivery, swooping vocals, and a highly emotional approach. Great stuff here.
3. “He Who Cried, ‘Whore!’” – The Insurrectionists. Does anybody remember Calibretto? If so, the Insurrectionist’s fusion of vaudevillian horror music tropes and crunchy alt-rock will sound wonderfully familiar: the blaring organ, the scampering bass, the high-drama timing, the oh-so-intriguing mix that lets it all be heard. To everyone else, this will sound super-fresh.
4. “I Live My Broken Dreams” – Gramma’s Boyfriend. Quirky ’80s guitar, Casio-eque drums, and Haley Bonar’s assured vocals transform this Daniel Johnston cover into something all its own.
5. “Day Off” – Ryan Dwork. Sweet bass jams and insistent drums power this groove-heavy rock tune. The distorted vocals fit oh-so-nicely over the instrumentation.
6. “Trust Me” – The Maisons. Snarling vocals and grungy guitar can’t feel fresh, can it? The Maisons beg to differ.
7. “Fold a Winning Hand” – Calico. Take a trad jazz outfit and fuse some patterned, wiry guitar and atmospheric post-rock-ish vibes on it, and you’re beginning to approximate Calico’s adventurous work.
8. “Diev” – Big Harp. I could have thrown this with the pop songs, but that would do a disservice to the garage rock that Big Harp is about. Sure, it’s not as scuzzy, abrasive, or ominous as some, but it’s still got that crunch, that attitude, and the bare-bones instrumentation. Rock on.
9. “Shrink” – Tallows. If post-rock tried to abandon the conventions of rock, Tallows is a rock band that just tries to make the conventions of rock really, really weird. Some funkiness, some melodicism, some bombastic elements, some dance-rock beats–yet all spun in an unusual way.
It’s a tricky thing to go electric: ever since Dylan pretty much mastered the art, all artists who attempt it since are necessarily living in his shadow. I’ve been a big champion of Wolfcryer‘s acoustic work, so it’s with great interest that I listened to his “Go Out and See the World” / “St. Anthony” single.
The release offers a slice of his melancholy, baritone-led troubadour work backed with a rollicking folk-rock tune that gives a taste of what a louder, electric Wolfcryer would sound like. The latter starts off with a frenetic acoustic strum, then barrels on as bass, electric guitar and drums crash in. Matt Baumann’s vocals are higher and faster to fit the rock backdrop, and they sound great in that range. A wailing harmonica and a crunchy-yet-melodic guitar solo cap off the sound in great fashion. It seems like an extension of Wolfcryer’s sound instead of a total re-invention: the sound is strong, tight, and crisp without forsaking the grit and earnestness of Baumann’s A-side (and previous work). “Go Out and See the World” is the quieter of the two offerings, a tune laden with empty-room-reverb and carrying all the gravitas that Baumann’s voice can convey. It’s a beautiful tune.
It’s no small feat to keep the emotional weight and the songwriting depth that Baumann brought to his solo work while changing milieus. If Wolfcryer is able to consistently pull off that trick, one that he nailed in “St. Anthony,” then things are looking bright indeed. It never hurts to be great at loud songs and soft ones.
1. “Hopeful” – Bear Mountain. A little bit of Passion Pit, a little bit of Vampire Weekend, a little M83, and you’ve got one of the best dance-pop songs I’ve heard all year.
2. “Entomologist” – Luxxe. Shades of Jason Isbell’s evocative voice creep in here, placed in the context of a perky-yet-mature pop-rock tune. It all comes off with impressive cohesion.
3. “Buoy” – The Band and the Beat. If you wished that Mates of State used analog synths all the time, you’ll be way into TBxB’s gentle, warm, female-fronted synth-pop. The tune just wraps itself around my brain and comforts it.
4. “Understand” – Photoreal. It seems wrong to describe this pop-rock tune as “muscly,” but it feels like a streamlined, beefed-up version of Generationals’ catchy indie-pop work.
5. “Au Naturel” – Holy ’57. The frenetic blitz of a major-key sugar rush will never get old. This tune has everything I’m looking for in a pop tune.
6. “Lodestar” – Starlight Girls. The disco vibes are impeccably done and the vocals are tight, but–for my money–this song is 100% about that bass work. It’s melodic, funky, tight, and just plain irresistible. A knock-out.
7. “Storm” – Bright Whistles. Sometimes I’m concerned that I’ve abused the term “quirky,” because something always seems to come along that was quirkier than the last. Suffice it to say, “Storm” by Bright Whistles is like what The Flaming Lips could have been if they kept on the Yoshimi path, or what all genres of indie-rock sound like in a giant blender, or (stay with me on this one) what an OK GO music video would sound like if the video itself were transformed into audio that reflected the clever, enthusiastic, enigmatic visuals. In other words, it’s pretty rad.
8. “Summertime” – The High Divers. Bands are always making odes to that sunniest of seasons, but this one really nails it: a touch of Vampire Weekend, a splash of Hamilton Leithauser’s vocal gymnastics, and a whole lot of good-old-pop-music. Dare you to not smile.
9. “Two Weeks” – HIGH UP. File this powerhouse tune under “Muscle Shoals Soul/Funk,” right there next to Alabama Shakes, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, and St. Paul and the Broken Bones.
10. “Burning Candles” – Disaster Lover. It’s like I walked into a room where Disaster Lover’s vision was already fully employed: not so many songs capture and modify the aural space that they’re deployed in. The whirling/somewhat chaotic percussion and synths that are woven together to create this here/there/everywhere piece of work are wild and yet inviting.
11. “We All Decided No” – S.M. Wolf. This is, at its core, a pop-rock song. It is a very weird, arch, theatrical, blown-out take on the theme, but it’s in there. This is basically what I imagine we’re trying to capture with the idea of indie-pop: pop songs that just aren’t radio material in this universe, but only because it’s an unjust universe.
12. “Suspended in la raison d’être” – Cloud Seeding. Just a beautiful instrumental dream-pop track that’s over too soon.
Genre mash-ups are the way of the future, if Steven Hyden’s reading of music’s trajectory is to be believed. (I believe it.) But where Hyden thinks that we’re headed for “a future where all music sounds like everything at once” and nothing is distinctive, Sloth provides a counter-argument. Sloth‘s Out + Out combines alt-country, slackerish ’90s indie, gritty garage-rock and tons more to create a sound all its own. Instead of being a mishmash, the inventive results are a gripping listen.
The sheer number of ideas on Out + Out is head-spinning. In taking sonic elements, songwriting conventions, riff styles, and attitudes from a variety of styles, it seems that lead songwriter Seth Nathan has no end of new elements to include. Opener “Every Circle” starts off with a squalling guitars and ominous cymbal splashes before leaping into a lumbering rock guitar line counterpointed by frantic bass guitar work. A snap change to the verse ushers in a new section entirely: easygoing vocal delivery, lean-back drumming, mellowed-out background vocals. The chorus and the post-chorus instrumental section amp up the rock again. Instead of feeling disjointed, it feels like it fits in the alt-country milieu of rapid starts and stops. It’s the sort of song that sounds improbable in text but just works when you hear it. Trust me on this one.
The wild arrangements don’t let down after that first tune. “Montana” combines spidery lead guitar with alt-country backline and an artsy bridge; “Live For Beauty” has some tropical vibes thrown into the guitar along with a snare shuffle and hectic bass riffing. (Bassist Frank Cicciarello deserves mad props not just here, but everywhere on the album.) “I Wanna Move (to Portland)” marries the cascading guitars of the previous song to the laid-back indie-rock vibes at the beginning, but morphs into an even wilder experience: a brief interlude that’s nearly calypso in tone and rhythm leads into an abstract, dissonant art-rock section that reminds me of Minus the Bear in a really bad mood. Then it segues into a grumbling-yet-funky post-punk thing. It gets more and more complex from there (!). It’s a mind-bending, thought-provoking, brilliant song. Just this tune alone could merit its own review.
There are some moments of sonic breath: “Staring at the Sun” is a walking-speed ballad, while “What You See” follows up “I Wanna Move (To Portland)” with a relatively straightforward mid-tempo rock song (albeit with brittle, damaged guitar solos like something out of Tom Morello’s oeuvre). They show that while Sloth can get experimental with the best of them, they can also knock a traditional structure out of the park. Sloth packs more into the 25 minutes of Out + Out than some bands can get in twice that long. If you’re up for an adventurous, out-of-the-box listen, Sloth’s Out + Out should give you quite a trip.