Benjamin Verdoes’ latest EP The One and the Other drips like the steady precipitation of his native Seattle. It’s melancholy and moist, with recordings of chirping birds and nighttime city sounds. Verdoes has tamed these eerie textures with soothing vocals to create a definite style of clean, concise wistfulness.
Starting with the somewhat jarring sound of a car driving by, “Highly Emotional” portrays alienation in a place that seems lively and urban. Verdoes uses dark, electronic texturing and echoing vocals to render a humanistic, raw, internal loneliness that’s imprinted on the rest of the EP.
“Night Walk” commences with a similar sound of a car kicking up rainwater from a curbside puddle, but the rhythm on this track is groovier, more dense, and bewitching. The percussion remains hauntingly steady, the synth creeps, and the whole mood is so darkly ambient, I expected to hear an owl hooting in the background.
One of the more upbeat tracks, “Above Ground,” culminates in a strange, circus vibe as the vocals soar and sweep along high notes. The mood reminded me of The Internet’s “Cocaine,” because of the similar dreamlike quality that Verdoes portrays. “It’s too beautiful to argue/You forgive me, and I’ll forgive you,” the male vocalist sings warmly. A sudden, beautiful interruption of R&B then elevates the instrumentation, and a swirl of that carnival techno pulses even harder.
Tracks such as “Is This All That We Are” and “Eight Oh Eight” are patient and calculated. “Is This All That We Are” utilizes a gorgeous touch of piano and horn, while “Eight Oh Eight” plays on bursts of vocals. But “Beautiful Dying World” is the most angelic, sounding like a big-bodied choir singing a church hymn. Strumming guitar builds up to a celestial drop, which– while not as earth shattering as an Odesza drop–has a parallel euphoric rush.
These six tracks are united in their darkly contoured style, haunting vocals and R&B tendencies, but they each offer something different in terms of tempo and shades of fragility and seriousness. The One and the Otheris an EP to digest solo, with only the rain-washed walls of your city to keep you company. —Rachel Haney
I have thoroughly enjoyed my first year writing reviews for Independent Clauses and discovering new music. The following is a list of my top five releases from what I have reviewed this year, including both full length albums and EPs. It was difficult to choose a top five since I have loved every artist I wrote about, but here are a few of my favorites.
Paul Doffing – Songs from the (quaking) Heart(Review) Paul Doffing’s heartfelt release is, simply put, beautiful. As soon as I turn the album on, I feel so deeply that it almost brings me to tears every time. Not only the lyrics but the very instrumentation of Songs from the (quaking) heart exude raw emotion. Every time I listen, the album inspires me to go out to nature and write or paint.
Jeremy Bass – New York in Spring (Review) This EP is quite a unique cup of tea, and I love it. Bass’ New York in Spring oozes the kind of whimsy that can brighten any day. My favorite track from the EP, “Work,” showcases the album’s bossa nova flair while containing a string of brilliantly crafted lyrics that sardonically comment on our relationship with the inevitable: work.
The Lowest Pair- The Sacred Heart Sessions(Review) I remember the days when anything close to country music was something I did not listen to. Now, I find myself giddy over minimalist bluegrass album The Sacred Heart Sessions. Kendl Winter and Palmer T. Lee might be one of the best vocal pairings I have ever heard.
Tidelands- Old Mill Park(Review) This EP also effortlessly interweaves both male and female vocals throughout. Yet, the unique mix of classical and rock instrumentation is really what makes this collection stand out. Every song has a distinctly different sound from the next. I shared a few of these tracks with my picky husband, and he loved them all.
Thayer Sarrano- Shaky(Review) Hauntingly beautiful really is the best phrase to describe this album. This is yet another album that makes me feel deeply just from the instrumentation. Sarrano’s vocals and lyrics leave me truly awed. Shaky’s southern gothic sound makes me a little bit uncomfortable in the best way; in my opinion, the best art does.–Krisann Janowitz
1. “The Itch” – Brother O’ Brother. Stripping some of the Black Keys-esque arena-rock sheen from their guitar-and-drums approach ends up with a raging, distortion-laden tune that has The White Stripes on speed-dial. Ka-pow.
2. “The Dusty Song” – Sebastian Brkic. Brkic creates a swooping, diving panorama that relies just as much on creaky-voiced MeWithoutYou-style indie-rock as it does acoustic material.
3. “Ridiculous” – Mleo. Surprising vocal and instrumental range make this an impressive rock tune.
4. “Salvo” – CFIT. Serious music that reaches for the seriousness of Radiohead, the swirling development of shoegaze, some airy aesthetics of chillwave, and an overall sense that none of those influences take away from the inventiveness of the work.
5. “What’s Pesto” – The River Fane. Ominous clicking and clacking undergird this menacing, pondering, powerful indie rock track that’s anchored by thunderous piano chords and wavering vocals a la Thom Yorke.
6. “Rubbernecking” – Frog. Fresh off their triumphant Kind of Blah, Frog re-released their debut. This track points toward the ragged enthusiasm and vocal intricacies that made the guitar rock of KOB such a charm.
7. “End of Something” – Febria. This tunes’ an omnivorous beast, as prog, math-rock, laid-back ’70s psych, jazz, and guitar heroics blend together into a mindbending stew. It’s not as hectic as The Mars Volta, but it’s maybe in the zipcode next door.
8. “Golden Threads From the Sun (excerpt)” – yndi halda. This bit of a tune from a larger post-rock work points to the scope at which yndi halda feels comfortable: massive. As such, there are some group vocals, Sigur Ros-like distortion explosions and frantic drums, strings, and generally all manner of thing going on. Here’s to maximalist post-rock.
9. “Thank You For Your Time” – Citizen Shade. Soulful and dramatic, this piano-led romp starts off quiet and ramps way up.
Instead of writing new blurbs for each of these albums, I’m going to let the reviews stand as my comments about each of them except the album of the year. Since I had so many EPs on my EPs of the year list, there are less than my standard 20 albums of the year this year.
Album of the Year: Worn Out Skin – Annabelle’s Curse. (Review) This album came out of nowhere and established itself as a standard component of my listening life. It fits on the shelf right next to Josh Ritter and The Barr Brothers in terms of maturity of songwriting, lyrical depth, beauty, and overall engagement. Each of the songs here have their own charms, which is rare for an album: this one will keep you interested the whole way through. It’s a complete album in every sense of the word, and so it was the easy choice for album of the year.
1. “Mirrors” – Mos Eisley. Triumphant folk-pop that’s exciting without going over the top into cliche.
2. “Glow” – The National Parks. Big instrumental melodies, lots of instruments, charming vocal melodies, subtle-enough-to-not-be-gimmicky underlying electronic beats; this folky indie song is just a blast.
3. “Vintage” – High Dive Heart. Throw technicolor girl pop, white rap, a banjo, and folk-pop harmonies in a blender and you get out this enigmatically engaging song. This song doesn’t make any sense to me in so many ways and yet I love it. It just works. Amazing. (Video direct link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dDtZ__MOT20)
4. “Ancient Burial Ground” – Kye Alfred Hillig. Hillig gives us the demos of his new album before it’s released, and you can color me excited: this tune and the handful of others that come with it are chipper musically and intricate lyrically, just like his best work. Watch for Great Falls Memorial Interchange in 2016.
5. “Canada” – Nikki Gregoroff. “The people are nice cross the border,” sings Gregoroff, which is just a really nice thing to write into a Simon and Garfunkel-esque tune.
6. “Chantilly Grace” – Granville Automatic. Bell-clear female vocals lead this tune that looks back to vintage Americana (that fiddle!) and forward to modern alt-country melodies.
7. “Bliss Mill” – Matthew Carter. The laid-back chill vibe and unhurried vocals of Alexi Murdoch meets the shuffle-snare of traditional country/folk for a memorable tune.
8. “Set Sail” – Matt Monoogian. Monoogian’s calm voice leads this acoustic track with an intricate arrangement that pulls the Gregory Alan Isakov trick of feeling both comfortingly small and confidently big.
9. “Bentonville Blues” – Adam Hill. A protest song for the modern day working poor, Hill captures the everyman ethos with great delivery of relatable lyrics, simpple arrangement of singalong melodies, and a the burned-but-not-killed mentality similar to old-time protest work songs.
10. “Itasca County” – Rosa del Duca. The frontman of folk outfit hunters. releases her own album of singer/songwriter tunes that focus on her voice and lyrics, both of which are in fine form on this rolling, harmonica-splashed tune.
11. “Tongue Tied” – Oktoba. That space between soul, folk, and singer/songwriter keeps getting more populated: let in Oktoba, whose offering isn’t as overtly sensuous as some but is just as romantic (and hummable)!
12. “The Blue” – David Porteous. Canadian Porteous beautifully splits the difference between two UK singer/songwriters here by invoking Damien Rice’s sense of intense romantic intimacy and David Gray’s widescreen pop arrangements.
13. “Whirlpool Hymnal” – Matthew Squires and the Learning Disorders. Squires expands his yearning, searching alt-folk to include found sounds–the lyrics are just as thought-provoking and honest as ever.
14. “Playground” – Myopic. The fragile swoon of a violin bounces off the stately plunk of melodic percussion in this thoughtful instrumental piece.
15. “Siphoning Gas” – Luke Redfield. This gentle, ambient soundscape is the sound of looking out the window when rain is coming down and you don’t have to go anywhere or do anything but cuddle up with a blanket and a book in a big bay window and enjoy it.
The number of things Deep Elm Records has been over the past 21 years is impressive: an upstart label of emo bands before they were cool, the premier emo label in the world, an elite indie-rock label, the source for some of the finest post-rock in the game, and now a hub of dramatic piano-led music (and some dramatic acoustic-guitar-led folk-rock, too). Their last incarnation stems from their continued support of the great Carly Comando and the new signing of Inward Oceans, a “post-rock” trio that spends most of its time working its magic on a single piano.
There are moments of full-band development to augment the sonorous sound (“Homecoming,” “Amelioration,” “Fields of White”), but the majority of the sounds on Paths from Home are intricate, slowly-unfolding single note patterns that tend toward the left end of the keyboard (like “Consequences”). This creates a full, round sound that maximizes the melodic lines of the tunes instead of cluttering it with high-pitched trills or other development. Even when there is more of a post-rock arrangement around a tune, the arrangement tends to be atmospheric and mood-building (“A Road Inside,” “Fields of White”) than creating soft-loud transitions (although “Homecoming” and to a lesser extent “Fields of White” do employ kit drums to this effect). The pieces here are calming and pensive–not melancholy, exactly, nor as enthusiastic as Comando’s work. Instead, Inward Oceans is exploring mid-tempo beauty, moving closer to modern/contemporary classical work in comparison than post-rock. The focus is on beauty, and they succeed with Paths from Home.
EPs are becoming more popular than ever, and I love the trend: there’s no room for filler on an EP. As a result, a lot of artists brought their A game to the smaller format this year. Here’s to them:
1. Thanks for All Your Patience – Brother Moses. (Review) I spun this one the most often because the easygoing, almost effortless indie-rock vibe gave rise to some seamless, indelible melodies. Clean, tight, clever, and earnest, I gravitated to this one early and often in 2015.
2. On Separation – David Wimbish. (Review) Wimbish, frontman of The Collection, stripped out some of the intricate arrangements of his day job for a more intimate set of portraits that focused in on the lyrics. Elegant, haunting, and beautiful.
3. Loca EP – Valley Shine. (Review) Folk-pop can be a formula these days, but Valley Shine is all about exploding the formula with raw enthusiasm, brash melodies, and surprising pathos.
6. Regards – We are the West. (Review) A wisp of an EP that barely has time to meet you before it’s gone, but oh does it deliver: this Low Anthem-style Americana sounds like a warm blanket around my ears.
7. Joe Kaplow EP – Joe Kaplow. (Review) One of my favorite debuts of the year, as Kaplow showed off his versatility in several different acoustic-based styles. Looking forward to more from Kaplow.
8. Away, Away – B. Snipes. (Review) Another excellent debut that introduces Snipes’ low-slung troubadour singer/songwriter voice to the world, taking the lyrics of Rocky Votolato in a more Americana direction.
The acoustic indie-pop of Living Decent‘s Do What Makes You BraveEPshows a different side of the band, which released their self-titled pop-punk EP in July 2015. Brave relies on the singer/songwriter background of Vic Alvarez, featuring his voice against an acoustic guitar and minimal arrangement around that. The minimalism ranges from nothing but voice and guitar in “Minus 10” to the bass and tambourine of the perky (but still not pop-punk perky) “Crystal Palace” and the crescendoing drums and bass of “Moving the Sun.” The four songs here each maintain a balance between punchy and melancholy–it’s unsurprising that they list “emo” as one of their tags. They could tour with Football, Etc. as part of the emo revival, making music that draws off emo’s forefather influences but sounds modern and relateable.
The standout is closer “I Could Not Be Here,” the most realized of the tunes here: Alvarez’s breathy, earnest tenor is surrounded by warm keys and gentle percussion to create a tune that almost sounds like a Plans-era Death Cab for Cutie song. Living Decent has songwriting chops that they’ve now showed off in two different realms very quickly. They’re an exciting outfit to watch for in 2016.
Distant Cousins‘ self-titled EP finds a way to triangulate contemplative folk, folk-pop, and Imagine Dragons-style radio pop in a fun, catchy product. Opener “Taste of Tomorrow” combines all three of their elements in an enthusiastic, sax-blasted tune that reminds me of Magic Giant’s work. “Your Story” is a straight-up-and-down folk pop tune that ropes in female vocalist Jessie Payo for the back-and-forth elements. Closer “For a Moment” is a pristine folk tune buoyed by multiple-part harmonies that sticks out for its beauty. The rest of the tracks on the six-song EP turn up the pop volume and get fun–if you’re into that style of music, Distant Cousins are right on that wavelength. Their debut EP shows off that they can write a snappy tune, and there are flashes of beauty in there too. I’m interested to see where they go next.
The four songs of Marc Maynon‘s Watch Pot have thoroughly ingested British Invasion songcraft but don’t just spit that back out. Instead, Maynon’s songwriting has a bit of a power-pop cast to it at times (“Something to Live For”) and a piano-pop flair at other times (“Sensation,” “Vintage Lens”). Maynon’s high-pitched tenor is deployed nicely throughout the EP; in “Sensation” and “Vintage Lens” his vocals pair especially well with the bright piano tone. Even though he has solid pop bonafides, this isn’t all upbeat major-key work; Maynon has a solid control of mid-tempo and minor-key work. Add in the thoughtful arrangement touches throughout, from strings to synths to trumpet, and you’ve got a solid EP of pop songwriting. Watch Pot is a good slice of sound for fans of formal pop songwriting.
Sundaug‘s Nocturnality is a full album of instrumental compositions that primarily revolve around a fingerpicked acoustic guitar. Each of the 14 tracks is remarkably relaxing, from the gently grooving opener “Pyramid” to the moody closer “Chasing Angels.” The album is strongly cohesive, and you can listen to the album as one long tune if you wish. (It’s particularly good for setting on in an afternoon where you don’t have much to do and just want to chill–I can vouch). Some highlights that stick out (but only ever so slightly–it’s all really good) are “When Solitude Becomes Isolation,” a cascading tune that sounds more contemplative and positive than the title suggests, and “The Submersion,” which pairs pad synths with interesting guitar runs. (Some might not be thrilled with the occasional overture toward new age music, but I don’t think it diminishes the overall impact of the release.) If you’re interested in relaxing guitar-centric music, you should check out Sundaug’s Nocturnality.
4. “The Move” – Michael Persall. We can keep updating that ’50s/’60s perky pop sound forever, and I hope we do. The horns, clapping, and general enthusiasm here really seal the deal.
5. “Give Up the Ghost” – Legends of Et Cetera. Synthy new wave/power-pop a la the Cars with an alto female vocalist and a roaring chorus? Sign me up.
6. “Break” – Jesse Owen Astin. Blink and you’ll miss this indie-electro empowerment jam–if you need a stomping tune to get you through a tough thing from the indie spectrum, here you are.
7. “I Feel This Place” – Goldensuns. I never get why some people put only hazy, fuzzy old-school Super 8 footage on their music videos, but if Goldensuns did that for this song it would make perfect sense and I would love it. Languid, ethereal, nostalgic, and yet right on the current waves.
8. “White Flags” – I Used to Be a Sparrow. Andrea Caccese and co. pack a lot into this tune: charging guitars, soaring vocal lines, wiry instrumental sections, memorable melodic parts, and more. I’m always excited to hear more IUtBaS music, and this song is no letdown.
9. “Ode to the Spring” – Crocodile. If Bombadil’s quirky-yet-earnest approach to songwriting collided with Pet Sounds, the results would be similar to this acoustic-led track that balances psych wandering with straightforward acoustic pop.
10. “I Could Never Say No” – Heather LaRose. Here’s a fun modern pop song with solid vocal and synthesizer melodies. LaRose knows how to write a tune that sticks.
11. “Cobwebs” – Fell Runner. This one’s got a ton of atmosphere, as the indie-rock tune gives off the vibe of a meandering trip down a dark, foggy night street.
12. “Sigil of Forgiveness” – Kaito Gigantia. Any description of this song is going to be somewhat deceptive: R&B keys, trumpet, and whispered vocals power this tune, but this deconstructed/experimental take on the genre is like no R&B track you’ve ever heard. For adventurous fans.
The story told here is visually arresting, attention-grabbing, engrossing, and deeply moving. I wanted it to go on for so much longer than it did, which is the highest praise I can give to music videos.