Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Late September Singles 1: Acoustic and such

September 29, 2017

1. “Moonshine” – Winnie Brave. If you generally like the things I post on this blog, you will almost certainly like this song: shuffle drums, strong female vocals, pedal steel, even tasty organ. But there’s no alt about this: this is straight-up country. Get on the train, friends. Jump on it. There’s no shame.

2. “Go” – Glen Phillips. There are few people who have two full careers in music in their lives, but Glen Phillips is closing in on it: having been one of the staples of the ’90s in Toad the Wet Sprocket, he has remade himself into a troubadour par excellence since then. This latest tune shows off his mastery of the nuanced vocal performance, satisfying arrangements, and enveloping moods. Just stellar stuff.

3. “Kool Aid” – The Lords of Liechtenstein. This chipper post-Dixieland major-key folk tune evokes contemporaries like Jonas Friddle and vintage performers. (The banjo and piano work together beautifully here.) The satirical lyrics extend the horrifying-situation-turned-metaphor “drinking the kool-aid” (apropos for our current era in many ways). The video drives home its political point even more clearly.

4. “She Got Time” – The Morning Yells. If there’s a point where Laurel Canyon country meets Bruce Springsteen-esque road-rockers, The Morning Yells were born on that spot. Throw in some Dawes for modernization (although Dawes is always looking back too), and you’ve got a breezy-yet-grounded track that’s tailor-made for a late-night drive up Pacific Coast 1.

5. “Heavy Eyes” – Palm Ghosts. I try to avoid the word “dreamy” because it’s so over-used, but this chilled-out tune feels genuinely like a dream: it feels totally concrete but also gauzy around the edges, sort of like there’s something just over the next ridge that will pop the bubble, but until then it’s all floating and hazy. That tension is impressive, and gives this indie-folk/indie-rock track a unique feel (even among all the “dreamy” work out there).

6. “Paint the Road” – Sierra Blanca. Sierra Blanca’s stately, engrossing “Paint the Road” made me think of John Denver’s endearingly earnest delivery, James Taylor’s gentle guitar delivery, and Simon’s subtle rhythmic elements. That’s pretty rarefied air, even decades after the high points for that trio.

7. “Northern Lights” – This Pale Fire. The subdued, even reverent murmur that is this track draws on excellent arranging and a great engineering job to create its beautiful, nuanced vibe.

8. “Thursday Lights” – Frozen Houses. This tune has both delicacy and density, as synths burble and dance in the background of this friendly, almost tropical acoustic-led piece.

Your Friendly Neighborhood: Overflow

September 28, 2017

The indie-rock of Your Friendly Neighborhood‘s Overflow is a ship in a bottle: each tune is wild, rambling, and yet still carefully developed; lush, expansive, yet carefully defined. If you’ve ever been fascinated by the romance of a ship in a bottle and then contrasted that to the painstaking ways in which they are made, you know what I mean.

The first way I heard of Overflow was via IC fave Zach Winters repping it on social media. There are tons of sonic connections between Winters’ work and YFN’s: both use chill electric and acoustic guitar as the starting point (but not the centerpiece) of their songs, employ dense arrangements to create hazy/cloudy/expansive soundscapes, and often draw the song’s focus from lead vocals to the arrangements (“Backroads,” “Fall in Line”). Sonic touchstones beyond Winters’ work are non-Emma Bon Iver (“Hello Mire”), a more organic James Blake (the title track), the vocal stylings of Coldplay (“Doubt”), and rainy day musicians like The Maravines (pretty much all the tracks).

The album isn’t just one long chillfest, though–YFN carefully ordered the album so that it builds in emotional and sonic intensity to the towering roar of penultimate track “II.” If you listen to “II” on its own, you could be forgiven if you thought you were listening to Sigur Ros or Explosions in the Sky–it is very much awash in distortion and cymbal bashing. But in the context of the record, it is the conclusion of a long crescendo that started at the very beginning of the record. It is satisfying. This sort of careful development of an individual song and the whole track order are examples of the meticulous care with which this album was created.

As if to refute a bit of its own (well-earned) grandeur, closer “Birth Mark” strips out most of the complex arrangements except for some vocal processing and lets Caleb Killian’s skill with a guitar and vocal melody shine. Listening to this track unlocks a different angle on the record; instead of being a hazy indie-rock experience, it can also be read as a indie-folk record gone huge. (It’s all in what you prioritize as you listen.)

If that last assessment sounds a bit abstract, it’s because this record inspires that sort of thinking in me–I have puzzled and pondered over this record as I’ve listened to it repeatedly, and I still feel like I’m just getting to know it. It has depth. I haven’t even begun to parse the lyrics, because there’s so much going on in the sonics. Overflow has the free-flowing soul of a poet filtered through the meticulous approach of a careful editor. In short, it’s as beautiful and mesmerizing as a ship in a bottle, and just as expertly crafted.

Check out a Kickstarter for the record here.

The Good Graces: Set Your Sights

September 26, 2017

So now that I’ve been running Independent Clauses for more than 14 years, I’ve been following some of the same artists for years–some for the better part of a decade. As a result, I tend to feel like these artists are my friends, just by dint of hearing so much of their music. I feel the emotions they sing about more deeply. Love songs are more exciting and breakup records are harder to hear, because I like the people involved in the records (even just from hearing their records over time).

The Good GracesSet Your Sights is a breakup record, and it tears me up pretty good. It’s a tough record, because the older you get, the harder the breakups get (“Too Old for This”). The Good Graces’ Close to the Sun was the very first record I ever premiered, so I feel some kinship with Kim of TGG, even though we’ve only met in person once. So if this review sounds a little different than my normal reviews, that’s because it is a little different.

This particular breakup record is unusual because it’s told from the perspective of the person doing the breaking up. Usually we hear the jilted lover, but the emotional complexities of doing the breaking up are on display here. (Moral of the story: It’s still emotionally difficult to break up, even when you’re the one doing the leaving.) “7-Year Sentence (Going to Hell)” is the centerpiece of the record, an alt-country ballad that lays out the difficult complexities of the break-up with unusual, unflinching candor. It’s pretty heavy stuff.

The song itself is way more fun than the lyrics, even if it’s a minor-key ballad; the band is in top flight (as they are throughout the record) from the booming bass lines to the zinging lead guitar to the choir singing the last chorus. The tune perfectly fuses alt-country gloom with indie-pop enthusiasm. It is not as weird as it sounds.

Elsewhere, TGG throws down pop-punk-esque burners (“Remember the Old School,” the country-punk-inflected “Take Heart”), high-quality indie-pop tunes (“Too Old For This,” “Porchlight”), the indie-folk the band has honed (“Out There,” “More Careful”), and a magnificent strings-and-voice elegy (“The Hard Way”). “The Hard Way” is another unusually candid exploration of the breakup, exploring the internal states that caused all this trouble (“I learn all my lessons the hard way / if I even learn them at all”). It is a beautiful tune melodically and instrumentally.

So, like I said. Breakups (and breakup records) get harder the older you get, and this one is no exception. But there are beautiful (and even fun!) moments amid the tough lyrics. The instrumental work here is top-notch, too. If you’re looking for a solid alt-country record, indie-pop record, or breakup record, this one will fit the bill nicely.

September Singles 2: Wide and Varied Too

September 25, 2017

1. “Brother” – Strawberry Runners. This is an incredibly tight indie-pop song. It ropes in influences from all over the place to build a tune that is catchy yet still contemplative, expansive yet intimate, and ultimately deeply satisfying. Highly recommended.

2. “Blue Cloud” – Wand. I’ve rarely heard an indie-pop/prog fusion in my life, but there’s a first time for everything. This 8-minute track takes listeners on a journey through an immediately familiar chamber indie-pop soundscape that only gets more alien as the song keeps going and going and going. Engrossing.

3. “Aloof” – BOKITO. There is an unbelievable amount of great moments packed into the 3:31 of this tune. It’s a mystic alt-folk tune, it’s a wild ’80s-influenced dance-rock song, it’s an unclassifiable indie-rock rave-up. Massively impressed.

4. “Clap Your Hands” – Brad Peterson. It’s hard to make handclaps sound sad, so Peterson doesn’t even try: this is an infectious, enthusiastic indie-pop song about clapping your hands. Clap on, friends.

5. “Collide” – Junkyardfieldtrip. A bouncy folk tune tempered by a raspy voice spitting some serious gravitas–at least until the chorus.

6. “I Haven’t Been Taking Care of Myself” – Alex Lahey. It’s hard to write more than one great pop song per album, but it sure sounds like Lahey has multiple (including this one) on her upcoming debut. This is a massive power-pop tune that checks all the boxes for “great tune”: vocal tone, vocal melodies, big guitars, fun auxiliary instruments, and big quiet/loud moments. Love it.

7. “Out Among the Sheltering Pines” – The Helio Sequence. Starts out as an old-timey folk tune with a lovely acoustic arrangement, then bursts open into an indie-rock tune. Fantastic.

8. “I Need Somebody” – Glasspop. This a fun, thoroughly danceable dance-rock tune. No frills, just the goods.

9. “As Long as I Can See” – Broke Royals. Has that easy anthemic quality that Bastille has almost trademarked.

10. “Heat (it covers everything)” – the fin. A head bobbing, gently grooving track that lands somewhere between indie-electro and indie-pop. It does seem to mimic and interpret a hazy, thick heat wave.

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Mid-September Singles: Wide and Varied

September 22, 2017

There’s a lot going on in here, for real. Enjoy!

1. “Silverlake” – Underlined Passages. The dreamy indie-pop of UP’s previous work is traded for a punchy indie-rock model; Michael Nestor’s vocal lines are still flowing and smooth, but the now-more-crunchy-than-jangly guitars and snappy drums give this tune a new-found pep.

2. “Though Your Sins Be As Scarlet, They Shall Be White As Snow;” – Glacier. Dense, heavily distorted, pounding guitar chords set the atmosphere for this 13-minute post-rock/post-metal epic, but there’s a lot more going on in 13 minutes than just chug (including a found-sound clip of an old time voice reading the end of Matthew 9).

3. “English Weather” – Fick as Fieves. British rock that falls somewhere between the Arctic Monkeys and The Vaccines, propelled forward by an indomitable syncopated guitar riff.

4. “Like Lightning” – Cosmo Calling. Fun vocal rhythms and melodies take the lead on this indie-pop-rock track. The guitars are neat and accompany well, but this one is all about the staccato, syncopated vocal delivery.

5. “Canary” – Holy ’57. There’s a certain type of major-key, drums-first vintage groove that reminds me of fuzzy home videos of summer in NYC during the ’60s and ’70s. People are rollerskating. A dude is playing a trumpet on the corner. There’s a hazy glow around everything. This indie-pop song sounds just like that (even includes a trumpet!).

6. “I Can’t Say No” – The Crayon Set. Smooth, appealing acoustic indie-pop with some fuzzed-out guitar and shimmering synths adding color. The chill vocals fit perfectly over the backdrop.

7. “Bedford” – Too Many Zooz. If you’re into Moon Hooch’s mad sax blast, you’ll be equally thrilled by the sax-trumpet-drums maelstrom that is Too Many Zooz. This video sees them bringing their incredibly infectious rhythms and powerhouse melodies to the NYC subway–at 3:33 in the morning. Stuff like this just happens at 3 a.m. in New York, I guess?

8. “Keep the Car Running” – Silver Torches. If Bruce Springsteen had emerged in this era, this might be what like he would have sounded like: surging drums, melodic piano, yearning vocals, and a serious-yet-warm atmosphere. Just a great tune.

9. “International Dreams” – Farm Hand. A rubbery, loping electronic beat underlines distant, almost-droning vocals for a tune that sounds like “My Girls”-era Animal Collective in a sleepy (yet still happy) mood.

10. “Like Going Down Sideways” – Cut Worms. Lo-fi tape hiss, Beatles-esque songwriting impulses, and “eh-it-doesn’t-need-to-be-perfect” performances make for an endearing tune.

11. “Old Fashioned Way” – Todd Kessler. Ah, yes. A calm, gentle folk love song talking about slowing down and looking back to the old fashions. It doesn’t get much more folky than this, y’all, and it doesn’t get much more chill.

12. “Enjoy It While It Lasts” – Easy Wanderlings. Strong female vocals lead the way through this easygoing folk tune. The video has an actress gallivanting around in a field, which is a pretty much perfect analogue to this wistful, nostalgic tune.

Premiere: Joel Madison Blount’s “Inner Monologue”

September 21, 2017

I live in the Phoenix area now, which means that my predisposition towards seasonally-themed music is suffering from a seemingly perpetual summer. It’s almost October, dang it, and it should be fall. Joel Madison Blount‘s “Inner Monologue” is a tune helping me get into that autumnal spirit.

“Inner Monologue” is a dusky, twilit tune with a bit of a split personality. The verses are downcast, summoning feelings of urban nightly gloom. (The lyrics about middle-of-the-night doubts help this mood along.) The chorus, though, is all soaring lines, yearning guitars, and hopeful lyrics: “release your burdens / let it go / just let it go.” This section has just as much ’90s Oasis-esque Brit-pop in it as it does contemporary acoustic work.

Ultimately, the back-and-forth mirrors some of the alternating cold and warmth of fall. Fans of Gregory Alan Isakov will immediately gravitate toward the tension-and-release nature of the work and the cloudy-yet-tight arrangements.

“Inner Monologue” comes from Our New Moon, which drops September 29. You can pre-order it here.

Highly Recommended Quick Hits: Builder of the House / Emperor X / Zach Winters

September 20, 2017

Builder of the House‘s Ornaments is way more Christmas in July than actually a December record. The acoustic album is warm, sunny, mellow, and happy. The tunes unspool at an easy pace, unhurried and unworried. If you’re in a bad mood and want to slowly rise out of it, I can’t think of a better record for it. The standout title track has a bit of Lord Huron in the melodic structure, while “When No One Is Here” feels like a mood-inverted Rocky Votolato song. Smooth, elegant, and yet crisp in its arrangements, this album just hits the spot for lazy summer days and aspirational winter ones. Highly recommended.

As jittery and frenetic as that last one was calm and relaxing, Emperor X‘s Oversleepers International is a feast for fans of that spot where pop-punk, alt-folk, indie-pop, literary studies, political science, and psychology intersect. In other terms, it’s as if late ’90s John Darnielle joined the Weakerthans instead of being compared to them.

“Wasted on the Senate Floor” is a verbal blitzkrieg married to a frantic acoustic-punk band; “Schopenhauer in Berlin” slows down the pace enough for the lyrics to be understandable but still requires you to look up who Schopenhauer is. Elsewhere, Emperor X goes all wacky Ben Folds (“Riot for Descendant Command”), references Anonymous and North Korea in a song called “Low Orbit Ion Cannon” (!!), and creates one of the weirdest travel journals ever (that also doubles as a breakup tune of sorts; it’s the title track, because of course).

Also there’s a techno-dance song and an ambient tune. The English town of Dorset and Vilnius, Lithuania are involved. The songs are crazy and memorable, musically and lyrically–what else could you ask for? Highly recommended.

Zach Winters‘ latest folk records were delicate-yet-intense constructions of great seriousness and import. On To Have You Around, Winters sounds downright loose. “Sometimes I Wonder” starts off in his traditionally ghostly acoustic vein, but turns into a more-than-subtly funky pop song by chorus. It is rad. “If the Sun is Shining” doubles down and gets a funky bass line on a stand-up bass and snazzily jazzy horns involved.

“Do You Really” starts off with the line “taking a shower with a known carcinogen” and proceeds to be a “chill out, stop worrying” song. “Love My Woman” is exactly what you would expect from the title and previous descriptions. Even the instrumental “Buffalo” has a chipper vibe. It’s a new look for Winters, and it’s a great one. If you’re looking for some acoustic-fronted, low-key-funky pop songs, look no further for a great time. Highly recommended.

The Collection’s Listen to the River

September 19, 2017

Listen to the River by The Collection opens with a midrash on 2 Samuel 6 that functions as a breakup letter to God: “I can no longer carry the ark / if it’s causing the death of my friends /
So I’ll trade that gold ballast for hand-laden altars / And baptize myself in the lake.” It’s a bold, thorny way to start a record, even if it is a fitting thesis statement for the following work that grapples with a seeming loss of faith amid a beautiful folk-orchestral suite.

For listeners tracking with Wimbish’s exploration of doubts in Christianity, this lyrical direction will not come as a surprise–but it might still hurt: lines like the aforementioned, the title “Siddhartha (My Light Was A Ghost),” and “I hope to break myself open / Drain this poison water / Let it flow back to its ocean / That I used to call, “Father”” (from “The Alchemy of Awe”) make no bones about the crumbling of faith. For those still in the faith, it’s always troubling to see people take their grievances and make for the doors; for those outside of the faith, this might read like someone coming to the light. For those who may be going through the same thing with Wimbish, this might be a vital touchpoint in the experience, along with David Bazan’s Curse Your Branches.

While Bazan has been very open with his atheism, Wimbish’s lyrics throughout still seem to be grappling. There are harsh words, yes, but there are also many moments where the harsh words seem to give way to resignation (“No Maps of the Past”) or disappointment (closer “The Listener”). The closer is sung directly at / to God, and Wimbish seems to be, yes, heading for the doors (“If I head south, will that be heresy? / No, I don’t think so”). But the fact that He’s still addressed leaves the door open enough to wonder where this will all go. That’s the thing with doubt: until it crystallizes into something else, it’s always a door that yet remains ajar.

In that opening salvo I mentioned earlier, it’s just Wimbish and a keyboard; the rest of the seven band members come crashing in afterwards. It’s indicative of the tensions encompassed in the record: the lyrics of this record are focused almost exclusively on Wimbish’s spiritual journey at the same time that the orchestral-folk unit sounds tighter than ever.

The Collection has really come into its own as a unit on this record, as Listen to the River replaces the fire and fury of predecessor Ars Moriendi with intricate, dense melodicism. Both are giant records stuffed full of instruments and vocals, this one is filled with subtle touches that play up the strengths of the band members.

Upbeat indie-pop tune “You Taste Like Wine” has a sweet (yet short) bass solo. Standout “Birds” has an astonishing clarinet melody–actually, anywhere Hope Baker’s clarinet appears is a great moment. The group vocals on “Sing Of The Moon” seem more like an actual choir singing than a giant group of people yelling. (Far be it from me, though, to knock group yelling: the shout-it-out conclusion of “Birds” is one of the most rousing moments on the record.) The electric guitar leads on “The Older One.” The songs are composed with a full outfit in mind, not just with the band as the finishing touch. As a result, the whole record is a touch calmer musically than former work.

There’s so much going on in a Collection record that there are nigh-on infinite angles to take in a review. I haven’t mentioned the lyrical themes of mysticism and divorce that run through this record, nor the sudden appearance of A Rush of Blood to the Head-era Coldplay piano work. There’s the consistent mention of rivers and water, of sleep and waking, of going somewhere. There’s vibraphone and synth. It’s just a ton of stuff happening.

If you’re into folk-orchestra work, challenging lyrics, religious themes, and/or music that requires your full attention, Listen to the River will give you plenty. It’s heavy. You may not want to go where it’s going. It is not dumbed-down. It is an honest chronicle of where they were and what they had to give, lyrically and musically. Wimbish and co. poured it all in. That’s worth noting.

Explore Illustrated Manual’s deep well of gravitas

September 13, 2017

Illustrated Manual‘s Wives’ Tales draws on a deep well of gravitas to create an album of great dignity, calm, and (yet) emotional impact. The pieces that Jon Cooke used to make this deeply moving album are no more than what could be called spartan arrangements, a baritone voice, and incisive lyrical sets.

Cooke’s voice is in especially fine form here: he can sing a dramatic line with great gusto, but he can also inflect lines and syllables with subtle touches that are ultimately just as powerful. The gentle arrangements here surround an acoustic guitar and a mandolin, but this isn’t folk or bluegrass; this is singer/songwriter work with influences from those genres. Where much singer/songwriter goes astray into bland verse/chorus/verse monotony or generic emotionalism, Cooke’s vocal and instrumental melodies are crafted with a careful hand. Cooke’s willing to let things be spare instead of going for the big move; the results are single-set gems, with nothing to distract from the shine.

The lyrics here are huge: “Negatives,” “Stump,” “Boy in a China Shop,” “The Lumberjack” and “Ant on a Rubber Rope” are each incredible in their own ways. They tell stories of tragedy (“Stump” and “Boy in a China Shop” are deeply sad), change (“Negatives,” “The Lumberjack”) and religious imagery (“Ant on a Rubber Rope”). That’s basically the whole first half of record; the back half of the record is compelling as well.

If you’re into calm, mature, finely crafted acoustic music, you need to check out Illustrated Manual’s Wives’ Tales. Highly recommended.

Quick Hit: Wildflowers of the Mojave

September 11, 2017

Things you need to know about Your Sherpa Will Abandon You and Leave You For Dead by Wildflowers of the Mojave:

  1. It sounds like if frantic vocals of early Bright Eyes were thrown into a folk orchestra (like The Collection) with some folk-punk acoustic strumming keeping the beat and some LCD Soundsystem thrown in for good measure. It is probably more chaotic and exciting than even that description, though.
  2. There’s a nearly 7-minute track completely composed of shearing/shrieking metal (strangely, the title track of the album), because WotM does what it wants.
  3. The album’s twelve tracks take roughly 70 minutes to listen to. That’s a lot of chaotic enthusiasm.
  4. The album is roughly two parts, the wild folk-pop before the metal music and the alt-rock/dance-rock that comes after it. This latter part is no less interesting for its Modest Mouse-ian qualities, even if I’m a folk guy at heart.
  5. The lyrics of this album are intense and complex, focused heavily on religious seeking/ questioning and the complexities of living life while going through that type of thing. They are raw, honest, and unflinching. They made my head spin.
  6. You have almost certainly never heard anything like this in your life.

Start with the excellent I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning lost track “Holy Mountain,” the beautiful “Southwest Mercurial,” or the 12-minute journey “Lovehills in Versailles.”

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

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