Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Triple: Kesang Marstrand / Wall of Trophies / Takénobu

March 20, 2016

kesangmarstrand

Kesang Marstrand‘s For My Love cuts through the forests of average singer/songwriter work and shows off Marstrand’s impressive talents. Marstrand’s x factors are a commitment to spartan arrangements, a strong melodic sensibility, and an intriguing tension between her lyrics and her arrangements. Marstrand’s tunes consist mostly of an acoustic guitar, occasional sparse counterpoint instruments, her confident alto, and consistent use of tasteful reverb; due to this last element, the tunes have a fullness and a gravitas that I expect from songs with fuller arrangements.

It’s not just the reverb that creates gravitas, as the melodies that Marstrand writes for herself contribute heft to the work. “First Love,” “Arrow Breaks Skin,” and the title track each have indelible vocal lines that balance “fun to sing” and “serious music” deftly.  The songs are catchy, yet without being “pop”–these are clearly singer/songwriter tunes, but ones that aren’t so introspective as to lose connection to a wider audience (a common complaint lodged against singer/songwriters). There’s a dignified, mature air to the tunes that shines through in the instrumental and vocal songwriting.

The lyrics provide a counterpoint to the songwriting, as they are direct, emotional, and raw. The title track conveys the blunt, unfettered pain of a murder ballad sung from the perspective of the bereaved; “First Love” is a sad, retrospective tale about the titular experience. “Walking Dream” and “Night Planes” are more impressionistic, stringing together a small number of short, poetic lines. Throughout, Marstrand infuses her words with the sorts of big emotions that aren’t as dramatically represented in the delicate, mature songs that accompany them.  Marstrand’s For My Love is a moving, mature work that shows off a unique songwriting sensibility.

walloftrophies

Wall of Trophies‘ Heliograph includes reverb as well, but they have the knob cranked way farther over than Kesang Marstrand. Their synth-driven indie-rock art music manages to have more reverb than seemingly possible without obscuring the songs that make this release so enjoyable.

While Heliograph is a debut under the Wall of Trophies moniker, it’s the second full-length collaboration between Brittany Jean and Will Copps. (They released Places under their own names in 2014.) The songs on Places were slow-moving, genre-defying creations, full of post-rock builds, clouds of reverb, and Jean’s towering vocals. In contrast, Heliograph‘s tunes are more traditionally song-oriented while still retaining the layers and layers of reverb, developing like a minor-key version of School of Seven Bells.

The title track is the best example of the subtle shift: the tune opens with a driving piano line and drum machine beat before introducing low-key vocals from Jean. Her vocals, instead of creating noisily dramatic effect, tend to fade off into the distance on high notes. This allows her to mesh with the rest of the instrumentation on the song: by the time a huge synth section comes in at two minutes, the focus is split between her vocals and the rest of the song arrangement. The results recontextualize the ideas of Places into a more understandably indie-rock realm.

This approach allows both band members’ skills to shine: the synths are more distinct (“Break All the Rules”!!), the vocal lines are more easily singable, and overall tracks are more memorable. The songs are big and noisy, but they’re distilled into distinct, digestible chunks. There are some moments of respite in the rush: “Dirt” features the acoustic guitar that Jean writes her songs on before bringing in a burbling arpeggiator, while the beginning of “Debt” has a bit of a James Blake-ian downtempo vibe.

Wall of Trophies’ work builds on the creators’ own ideas as well as established sounds to create a unique album. Where Places landed as an artistic whole, Heliograph allows people to break the sound down into individual parts with distinct instrumental and vocal melodies. Both are approaches I’ve lauded before and will laud again. It’s a little weird to be talking about “distinctness” as a primary quality of a heavily-reverbed synth-indie-rock album, but that’s the world they’ve set up. If you’re into School of Seven Bells, you need to hear this.

takenobu

And now for something completely different: Reversal is Takénobu‘s 5th album of instrumental cello compositions. His work relies heavily on intertwining cello lines and pizzicato plucking, which places the legato and staccato in conversation with each other.

You can hear this on “Reversing,” the first full track after the introduction–a cinematic arpeggio comes in over a legato bed of strings, then transforms into a pizzicato backdrop for an smooth, expressive solo. The combination of the note types, as well as his ability to use elements of the cello as percussion, shows his versatility in using the whole of the cello’s abilities. These sonic pieces come up over and over again, in the gentle opening of “Snow Day,” the speedy/frantic “Moonshine Still,” the charming “Swimmin’,” and more.

The surprise on Reversal is “Curtain Call,” where Takénobu sings. His voice is an urgent, vibrato-laden tenor that fits neatly with the composition, where rhythmic clicks, staccato “chords,” and weaving lead lines all come together to create a sum larger than the parts. Even if there had been no vocals, “Curtain Call” would have been a great piece–with the vocals, it’s a lovely surprise. In fact, the whole album is lovely, and should be appreciated by more than just those who are into modern composition. The beauty, complexity, and diversity of the work on Reversal should appeal to anyone interested in acoustic music.

Quick Hit: Jon Bennett

March 19, 2016

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Jon Bennett‘s A Saint’s Book is a modest, unassuming folk EP that packs a way bigger punch than it would seem. None of the seven songs here break three minutes; none feature more instrumentation than Bennett’s fluid fingerpicking, slightly gritty vocals, and occasional whistling. Yet within these parameters, Bennett spins observant, literate tales that recall The Freewheeling Bob Dylan. The speedy guitar performance and talking-blues vocal style of “Ukiah” most call up the Dylan of old, but there are traces throughout of a similar unadorned, rough-around-the-edges glory.

“Scotty in the Trees” and “The Dressmaker” both create memorable character sketches in a remarkably short span, with the latter managing to work in the phrases “whale baleen” and “a glass of absinthe” in meaningful ways. Bennet’s lyrics have a much different bent than The Mountain Goats’, but both songwriters pack a lot of development into few phrases. The slight, sprightly instrumental “Flood” shows off Bennett’s guitar skills, too.

If you’re looking for a new singer-songwriter to charm your old-school folk-loving ears, you should definitely check out A Saint’s Book. It’s a remarkable release.

News: SubmitHub!

March 18, 2016

Independent Clauses is a really rad part of my life, but it is not my main income-making jam. Over the past 13 years that I’ve been running this blog, my time available to dedicate to it has waxed and waned. I’m moving into a waning phase, but I’m happy to report that the only change necessary for this round is one in how submissions are processed.

As of March 18, 2016, Independent Clauses is only accepting submissions through SubmitHub. Signing up and submitting at that website is free, although there is a premium mode you can use as well. Learn more about SubmitHub here. I am encouraging individual artists, PR companies, record labels, managers, and all other submitters to use the service, as no unsolicited requests will be processed through e-mail.

I am making this change because it will simplify and streamline the time-consuming process of blogging. I am in the middle of the dissertation process at North Carolina State University’s Communication, Rhetoric and Digital Media doctoral program, and this shift will help me devote more time to the dissertation and less to the email overhead of blogging.

The publishing schedule of the blog will be unaffected, and this protocol will be maintained for the foreseeable future. (My dissertation will be finished in May 2017–if you’re looking for a tenure-track scholar focused on music business communication, I’d love to hear from you!) While this shift is a big change, it is in the best interest of the life of the blog that it occur. I’d rather do this than slow down the publishing schedule or go on hiatus.

Thanks for all your interest in Independent Clauses over the years! I look forward to the next 13 years.

Mid-March MP3s: Vol. 3

1. “Lie With Me” – Roan Yellowthorn. Immediate, engaging female vocals grab the ear, and the rest of the song follows in a similarly irresistible way. The chamber folk is just right–not too ostentatious, but suitably quirky. Love it.

2. “Let’s Be Happy” – Fire Chief Charlie. So if She and Him arrangements met Civil Wars chemistry but with Ray LaMontagne passion, you might end up with something as shiver-inducing as as “Let’s Be Happy.” It’s a head-turner.

3. “Ontario” – Faint Peter. Spacious, gravitas-laden acoustic work that lands like a cross between Alexi Murdoch’s wide screen work and Joshua Radin’s intimate major-key intricacies.

4. “Loved You Good” – Justin Klump. I’m a sucker for a folk pop tune, and this one’s a pristinely arranged, excellently recorded slice of Peter Bradley Adams-esque folk-driven alt-pop.

5. “Floating in Space” – Jacob Faurholt. Seems so fragile as to fall apart at first, but the cinematic indie-pop song instead builds off its delicate beginnings into a moving, expansive tune.

6. “Three Words” – The Holy Smokes. It’s remarkable how much tension people can get into the calmest of tunes. This low-key indie-rock duo (think Alt-J) knows how to wring attention out of the smallest bits of melody and percussion. Great work here.

7. “Anger Tango” – Nevada Nevada. This is literally an anger tango, so fans of Gotan Project and Beirut will be way into this. Surprising and unexpected: Amanda Palmer fans will also be really into the vocalist and the overall arch vibe of the track.

8. “Like What I See” – Kindatheart. It feels kind of boring to complement chord changes in a tune, but Kindatheart really knows how to maximize the chord change for dramatic effect. It’s a subtle thing, because comfortably self-assured performances don’t need to shout it out, but the bass and guitar really power this folk/indie-pop tune. It’s just lovely. As my brother likes to say, you can do some sensible swaying to this tune.

9. “Bobey Breaks a Wineglass” – Bobey. Cascading, looped acoustic guitar notes form a chaotic-yet-structured whole that wouldn’t be out of place in a Delicate Steve piece. The vocals call up Sufjan Stevens comparisons, making the overall product something unique and interesting.

10. “Complicated Hearts” – Jenny Bruce. Love songs that point out the hard-but-committed aspect of love have my serious respect.

11. “get out of here” – John’s Snow. A homespun, lo-fi acoustic piece that evokes humble workers like Novi Split and Right Away, Great Captain.

12. “Sleepless Nights” – Charlie Pollard. This minimalist slowcore track manages to feel much heavier and darker than its instrumentation list would suggest due to the strong presence of bass and the ragged, intense vocals.

13. “Parade” – Ryan Dugre. Anyone who throws a pump organ at me has basically won my heart, but you put some spartan, careful, melodic guitar over it and you’ve got raves from this quarter. Just gorgeous work here.

14. “Gold Park” – Blahvocado. Early-to-mid-’00s low-key indie-pop, for fans of (but not exactly sounding like) Grandaddy, The Shins, and others. It’s got that odd warmth that those indie tracks had, where you felt disillusioned but also sympathized with the disillusionment for an unusual solidarity.

15. “Koi” – Color Majesty. Space age bachelor pad music is one of the more descriptive genre terms we’ve come up with, and it fits this instrumental track to a T: subtly spacy arpeggiator, ethereal pad synths, occasional keyboard plunks–all the stuff you’d expect to hear in the chill section of a cool sci-fi flick.

16. “Sarcophagus” – GLYPTØTEK. The beats of Ratatat with the guitars of Fang Island produce something that’s both chill and oddly energetic.

17. “Elephant Walk” – Hunter Sharpe. I’ve written off guitar rock lots of times, and each time it takes a larger talent to pull me back into the fold. Sharpe’s controlled chaos and way with a chorus hook made my eyebrows raise; there’s something real big going on here.

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Mid-March MP3s: Vol. 2

March 17, 2016

1. “The House” – Air Traffic Controller. Is it too early to call this the song of the summer? This crunchy pop song has hooky verses, an enormous chorus, great lyrics, and did I mention the enormous chorus? I’ve been telling everyone I know. It’s that good.

2. “Masterpiece” – Big Thief. Like All Dogs if they had signed to Saddle Creek (as Big Thief has), “Masterpiece” is a crunchy, female-fronted rock track that has a serious country/folk sentiment running through it in the vocals and the drums.

3. “Codes” – JPhono1. Wandering back and forth between minor and major, this acoustic-led indie-rock track twists expectations in clever ways.

4. “Troubles” – Ego Death. An insistent acoustic guitar is accompanied by ominous banjo, floating flutes, and subtle pizzicato to create an acoustic tune full of tension and release.

5. “Mother” – Ulli Matsson. A pleasantly wavering, flowing, idiosyncratic voice leads this punchy, inspired two-guitar acoustic song.

6. “like a feather or a pawprint” – Field Medic. Combine Iron & Wine with The Tallest Man on Earth, and you’d have the sort of tenderly romantic lo-fi fingerpicking with enigmatic lyrics that Field Medic espouses here. A charming little tune.

7. “When U Come Home” – Kate Walsh. A dramatic acoustic-pop track gets an upgrade with a smooth electro beat and bass line.

8. “Midnight Runner” – Emilio Bonito. A warm, inviting acoustic guitar instrumental complete with tapping percussion, harmonics, and mood shifts.

9. “Chamber of Sins” – Gonzalo Varela. Do you remember the old F-Zero games for Nintendo? The frantic rhythms and 8-bit melodies of Varela’s unique slice of post-rock reminds me of the tunes from that old space-racing game. (Also reminds me of Anamanaguchi, which more people might be more familiar with.)

10. “No Glitch” – One Girl Symphony. The up-front placement of a big, fat, plodding bass line tells me right away that this isn’t a typical instrumental performance. The rest of the tune delivers, landing somewhere between funk, country, and post-rock. Get adventurous, y’all.

11. “Lucid” – Dreamless. The instrumental hip-hop designation usually seems a little presumptuous, but “Lucid” has the swagger, confidence, and even melodic flow that make me think, “yes, this is what they were looking for.”

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Quick Hit: Polecat

polecat

Polecat reads at times like a cooler Dave Matthews Band and at others like a chiller Michael Franti and Spearhead. The members of the band are extremely talented instrumentalists, which means that they can pingpong back and forth between the sort of acoustic-based instrumental jam that DMB is best known for and the free-wheeling, world-music-informed pop songs that Franti is mostly known for (Ok, it’s really only that “Say Hey (I Love You)” song, but you know what I mean) without missing a beat anywhere. As a result, Into the Wind is a remarkable album.

The instrumental songs are really where Polecat blows it out of the water. Armed with a mindmelting drummer that occasionally takes center stage with complex rhythms, unique sounds, and incredible taste, they’re able to pivot between parts of songs seamlessly. This is an important skill when you’re cranking out songs that mash up Irish folk melodies and reggae (as they do in the cleverly named “Lochs of Dread”). They also know how to meld American folk, traditional country, acoustic pop, and more into their eclectic mix. It wouldn’t do justice to try to explain all the inventive fusions they create: just know that they tear it up in ways that both impress and surprise me, which is a rare achievement.

Elsewhere they show off their vocal melodic ability, in tunes like “In the Cold” and “Fly on the Wall,” where the band wraps itself around Aaron Guest’s melodies. Polecat is proof that you can have catchy pop melodies and not sacrifice an ounce of musicianship–if more people would take up the mantle, music would be a much more interesting place. But it starts with every member of the band being incredible talented at their instruments, and that’s a rare thing. (If everyone were as talented as Chris Thile, we could all be the Punch Brothers, for example.) All that to say, you’ll be singing along while also cocking your head to try to hear the guitar, drum, and fiddle parts that make the songs so interesting.

Polecat’s Into the Wind has fun songs all around, whether they’re instrumental or singalong. If you’re into an album that both shows off instrumental prowess and makes you smile, you should check this one out ASAP.

Mid-March Videos Pt 2: Serious

Smoke Season is going big with their videos: the second in a series tackles the difficulties of veterans, PTSD, and reacclimation. Heavy, but very worthwhile.

This video game / sci-fi narrative drops you into the story en media res and takes it from there. Moderat should be commended for going for such a risky, difficult proposition in commissioning this type of video. The risk pays off in spades.

Is SATE’s “What Did I Do?” video funny? Is it sad? I got all the way through and didn’t really figure it out. It’s compelling, though.

“Gyroscope” by Over Sands is another clip that ends on an ambiguous, thoughtful note. My wife and I had separate interpretations, which I think is a good metric by which art should be judged: it resonates in multiple ways.

I have little idea what’s going on in Julia Jacklin’s “Pool Party” video, except that there’s definitely some relationship dynamics being played out here. Whatever is happening, it kept me watching until the end.

Premiere: Ovando – “Dupuyer”

March 16, 2016

We all have a Platonic ideal of music. You can read what mine was five years ago, but it has changed since then. Now it’s something along the lines of beautiful melodies that get stuck in my head, an effortless voice, gentle acoustic guitars, storytelling lyrics, and subtle emotions.

Ovando‘s “Dupuyer” gets pretty close to that Platonic ideal: Nate Hegyi’s vocals seem like they tumble gracefully out of his throat, while the female harmonies are similarly unadorned. Those voices carry a song of woe about the American West (are there any other type?), floating over lithe, smooth guitar fingerpicking.

Even though the song is spartan, it is assured and complete; the song doesn’t sound like it’s missing anything. Instead, the careful performances fill in all the spaces of the tune to make it feel full and right. “Dupuyer” feels like a Rehearsals for Departure-era Damien Jurado tune, which is a high compliment from over here.

“Dupuyer” opens Cattle Ranching in the Americas, Vol. 1, kicking off a trilogy of EPs focused on the American West. (Dupuyer is a town in Montana, population 86.) The inaugural EP is both admiring of the form of songs that are sung about this place and unflinching in its assessments of the area.

The songs are wide-open, beautiful ballads. The guitar strum in “The Painter of Great Falls” slightly pushes the tempo forward; sonorous, legato strings push back. It frames Hegyi’s voice neatly, giving him space to tell a story. “Saskatchewan” incorporates pizzicato strings and staccato-yet-gentle vocal melodies to recall Michigan-era Sufjan Stevens; “Vigilante Cabin” sees Hegyi speed up the delivery of the vocal in the verses only to slow back down for one of the most memorable melodies of the EP in the chorus.

There’s tape hiss evident throughout each of the tracks, which only serves to heighten the sense of close, intimate performance. These four songs feel like they could have been played in bunkhouses of the West by people waiting out long winters, or around campfires of people working in the summer. Yet they don’t feel self-consciously “vintage” — they feel timeless.

Aside from the music, one of the most interesting inclusions on the EP is a radio clip at the beginning of “The Painter of Great Falls” that explains in very talk-radio fashion the story of a standoff between land owners and the federal government (the likes of which we just saw in Oregon–in fact, the clip may be about the Oregon situation). Cattle Ranching doesn’t shy away from the tensions there in the West, acknowledging that trouble and hardship aren’t just historical things, but ongoing things. The story of “Dupuyer” might be in the past tense, but losing the farm is a real concern for people today. It’s this sort of engagement through storytelling of the livin’ and dyin’ out west that makes Cattle Ranching more than just pretty music.

Ovando’s Cattle Ranching in the Americas, Vol. 1 is a magnificent EP. Its four songs contain beautiful moods, strong melodies, remarkable arrangements, and evocative lyrics. Those who like slowcore music, troubadour folk, or gentle music in general will find much to love in Ovando’s work. I am already looking forward to volumes two and three.

You can pre-order Cattle Ranching at Ovando’s Bandcamp. Fittingly, Hegyi is going on a tour of the American West starting in a few days; check out a show, if you’re in the neighborhood.

3/25 – Missoula, MT @ VFW*
3/26 – Spokane, WA @ Organic Farm Show for KYRS Community Radio*
3/30 – Seattle, WA @ Capital Cider*
3/31 – Cottage Grove, OR @ Axe and Fiddle*
4/01 – Portland, OR @ Turn, Turn, Turn*
4/02 – Willamina, OR @ Wildwood Hotel
4/03 – Coos Bay, OR @ 7 Devils Brewing Co.
4/05 – Columbia City, WA @ Royal Room*
4/06 – Anacortes, WA @ The Brown Lantern
4/07 – Conway, WA @ Conway Muse**
4/08 – La Conner, WA @ Anelia’s Kitchen and Stage
4/09 – Winthrop, WA @ Old Schoolhouse Brewery

*Sneaky Bones
** Hoe and the Harrow

Mid-March MP3s: Group One

This set of MP3 drops aren’t arranged by any particular mood or sonic space, as I usually do. Here’s a grab bag! Enjoy the surprises!

1. “Sisters” – ELY. There’s more suspense and payoff than in most novels packed into this four-minute instrumental wonder. The trumpet leads the way throught the deconstructed verses, teasing the listener with what could be, until the rousing full-band jaunt that appears twice. Hooky, interesting, and really worth your time.

2. “Sail” – Seckar. This song has a lot going on: post-rock instrumentation, danceable vibes, electronic grooves, acoustic solemnity, ghostly vocals, and overall a giant sense of fun.

3. “Lips” – Oyster Kids. The tension between the light, Foster the People-like melodies and the slow-moving guitars gives this pop song a neat vibe.

4. “Orange + Blue” – Colored In. Chaotic, hyperactive, multi-colored indie-pop held together through sheer force of will. It’s like some alternate-universe of the Flaming Lips where they didn’t get all paranoid but continued getting weird after Yoshimi.

5. “Plastic” – Howard. The grandeur of trip-hop, the instrumentals of maximalist post-dub, and a clicky percussive sensibility lead this indie-rock track. Sounds like a version of OK Computer, 20 years later.

6. “Tin” – Nearly Oratorio. Weary, dreary, bleary, and yet capable of woozing its way to memorable melodies and comforting moods.

7. “The Mahogany Tower” – Pyramid//Indigo. Dark, brooding, and evocative, this instrumental post-rock piece includes found-sound clips of sermons for extra atmosphere.

8. “Cove” – Kerosene (UK). Vocal gravitas and spartan electric guitar levity combine neatly here to make a serious, mature indie-rock tune that doesn’t feel overburdened or maudlin.

9. “Don’t Waste Another Day” – The Moves Collective. There’s a subtly funky groove, charming melodies, a friendly vibe, and rhythms that make me want to dance. This is acoustic jam done right.

10. “My Situation” – Joseph Tonelli. This gently fingerpicked tune is already enticing before it brings in subtle percussion and beautiful strings–after that it’s impressive.

11. “I Called to Cry” – Nate Henry Baker. For those who’ve gone the Sturgill Simpson / Chris Stapleton route and decided that full-on country music is alright by you, add Nate Henry Baker to your list. This one’s a traditional tears-in-your-beer ballad that wouldn’t feel out of place with The Louvin Brothers or Roy Orbison.

12. “Maybe I Won’t Come Home Tonight” – Meredith Baker. There are millions of troubled-relationship tunes, but this one sticks out above the rest with a gentle guitar, an engaging voice, and that x factor called charm.

March Videos pt 1: Upbeat

This video is cute and also painful for anyone who’s ever been in the friend zone.

These Peaches’ clip for “So Glad” is a similarly romantic track, but from the opposite end of the spectrum–trying to find and reconnect with someone you love (either in a literal or metaphorical sense). These Peaches has a headlining set at Township in Chicago tomorrow, so hit that up if you’re in town.

Mutual Benefit’s “Not for Nothing” is another beautiful clip animated in an unusual style that tells a romantic story. The tune here is gorgeous, as well.

Samuel Alty’s “Heart Song” has a wonderful, quirky video in which normal people get up and dance spontaneously in what seems like the most chill / fun club I’ve heard of in a while.

Andrew Adkins’ “Consisting of Love” clip features two dancers gently going about their work to his equally gentle acoustic-pop. I love it when the clip genuinely complements the song.

All Dogs’ clip for “Sunday Morning” is an inversion on the “it was all a dream” and the “suddenly paint is everywhere” tropes, and it’s a lot of fun, as a result.

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.

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