Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Premiere: Salim Nourallah’s “Relief”

May 29, 2018

Salim Nourallah‘s “Relief” is a tense song about seeking peace. Nourallah is looking for relational harmony, striving for goodwill between people in relationship and throughout society.

The problem is that he’s not finding any of that peace he’s looking for; he’s offered no relief. The resolution comes when he chooses to give relief to people instead of only seeking it. Lyrically, this is a strong offering–Nourallah’s words keep the song moving, even amid the slow tempo and atmospheric arrangement.

Salim Nourallah wearing sunglasses and a black pea coat, walking down a suburban sidewalk with grass on both sides and large trees in the background. A car is parked on the street.

Salim Nourallah. Photographed by Casey Pinckard.

The arrangement is a deft, careful one. The song was written on piano, but the final version of this track doesn’t bring in the piano until midway through the song. The first, piano-less half of the song relies on ’90s lead guitar sounds, stark percussion, grumbling bass, and distant atmospheric melodies to create the atmosphere he’s looking for: it’s an arrangement that could be peaceful, but has tough edges instead. The entrance of the piano mellows out the tune for a while, but the gritty bits remain throughout. If peace is elusive and difficult lyrically, so it is musically.

Fans of ’90s Brit-pop, ’00s Grandaddy-style alt-pop, and ’10s singer/songwriters (Peter Bradley Adams comes to mind) will enjoy this tune quite a bit. “Relief” appears on both the EP North (out June 1) and the full album Somewhere South of Sane (out sometime in Fall). Both releases are on Palo Santo Records. You can catch Nourallah on Twitter and Facebook.

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Singles: Instrumental

1. “New Moon” – Daniel Bachman. There’s not a much more relaxing instrument than the Bontempi Organ Bachman plays here. Similarly, there’s almost nothing more relaxing that listening to someone play acoustic guitar in the woods while relaxing. This track gives you 13 minutes of both of those things. It does build to a less-than-chill climax, but this is ultimately a long, expansive, exploratory guitar ramble by someone who’s really good at it. (It doesn’t sound like a bad jam band, is what I mean.)

2. “Quebec (Climber)” – Bing & Ruth. A swirling, whirling, propulsive piece that straddles the line between ambient and neo-classical. There are elements of the great, cloudy mountains of sound that John Luther Adams created on Become Ocean, grounded by piano and what sounds like clarinet. Very unique and interesting.

3. “Render Arcane” – Cruel Diagonals. Elements of drone, ambient, and soundtrack music are to be found in this unique instrumental track. There’s some sonic elements that set the scene of a forest, as well as the pitter-patter of melodic percussion (marimba) and ghostly manipulated vocals to further the feel of deep woods. Some industrial-style clanks and bonks are introduced, making me think that perhaps a machine is chasing our protagonist. Under all that, there’s a subtle but real groove that marks this as fascinating work.

4. “Loop 019” – J Foley. This track is from Drone Loops EP 1, which is a pretty descriptive title. This track is a bunch of distorted guitar, looped, chopped, layered, transformed, and droned. The tape hiss and tape chops create a bit of percussion, but mostly the internal inertia of the guitar recording keeps this thing humming along. It’s a bit doomy, but it’s actually way more zen than I expected. It’s sort of like a more minor-key School of Seven Bells with no vocals, maybe. Either way, it’s good. If you like heavy, dark post-rock, conceptual work, or weird drone/ambient stuff, you’ll be into this.

5. “Chasing the Path” – Grej. Music for modern dance is almost always interesting, as the structure and style of the piece are  driven by and intertwined with the contours of the dance. Grej’s Chasing the Path is a long work created for dance; this 13-minute opening track is a piece primarily for piano and cello with some of the melodic percussion that is Grej’s specialty woven in. The lines and long and legato, flowing peacefully until about eight and a half minutes, when the pace picks up and the mood switches to a more ominous, foreboding one. Fans of composed music will find this to be a compelling work.

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Singles: Folk and stuff

May 28, 2018

1. “You, Forever” – Sam Evian. If you somehow crossed Spoon’s minimalist arrangements and the quiet version of Conor Oberst’s vulnerable vocals in front of a Motown producer, this genreless song might appear. It’s a slow burner, working its way into your ears steadily over the unhurried three and a half minutes.

2. “I Don’t Mind” – Aaron Ward. There aren’t enough songs in the world about friendship. Many of those that exist would bring a party connotation to the line “Meet me for a pint / we’ll throw it down.” But this intimate folk/singer-songwriter track (that features a big crescendo to the finale) is about getting vulnerable in friendship, sharing tough emotions and being there for each other. Those are the sort of friendships I want. Here’s to friendship, and to this powerful, vulnerable track.

3. “Roll Around” – Kate Vargas. This sounds like a lost Tom Waits tune in its clanking, vaguely cabaret arrangement. Vargas helps the comparisons with her scratchy, intense voice and the lyrics of tough living (“You can’t get lower than the ground / but you can roll around for a long time”). Very unique.

4. “Soggy Humans” – God Bless Relative. The yearning, searching vocal performance steals the show in this one, even though there’s some tasty organ, strong drumming, and solid bass work in this West Coast Country/folk-rock tune. The tune has the easygoing spirit of the Laurel Canyon folks, but a bit more melancholy than you’d expect. Kinda like what Dawes has been doing lately, but more compelling.

5. “sure, bert” – Tyler Berd. Troubadour folk meets introspective bedroom pop in a collision of styles and expectations. The song sure seems oblivious of that though, as it confidently and earnestly wobbles its way through the slight 1:47 runtime. RIYL: early Bright Eyes, Angelo de Augustine.

6. “Love Me Now” – Ziggy Alberts. Cross the simplicity of Jack Johnson and raw emotion of Ray LaMontagne and you’ve got this Ziggy Alberts tune. This is strong acoustic pop songwriting, right here.

7. “Waiting / On My Own” – Duke Bluebeard. These two tracks are meant to be listened to back-to-back. The first has a folky-to-Brit-pop transition in the middle, while the second is a little bit more introspective and dark in mood. Both feature high-pitched male vocals that convey a lot of emotion and thoughtful arrangements.

8. “Standing Still” – Rebekah Rolland. Fans of Gillian Welch and Sarah Jarosz will love this relaxed folk tune that focuses on Rolland’s lilting, engaging voice. The trumpets and piano interaction will make fans of Sufjan’s Michigan sit up and take notice. In short, if you’re anywhere on the folk music spectrum, you should be checking this out.

9. “Easier (feat. Molly Parden)” – Sons of Bill. I know I throw the word “lush” around a bit too much when I hear songs like this, because I want to say things like, “OK, so, some songs are lush, but not this lush. THIS is lush.” There’s not a gap or space anywhere in this folk tune–it’s all full of cascading guitars, big-yet-friendly percussion, cooing vocals, and even more guitars. The effect is glorious.

10. “Married Young” – Elise Davis. A beautiful, tender depiction of young love, flush with dramatic strings, big wordless vocals, and enough pathos to get me a little misty-eyed. Anyone who’s ever been young and poor and in love will recognize this immediately, whether or not you got married.

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Singles: More Indie-pop

May 25, 2018

1. “Superficial Feeling” – Written Years. This song covers all the bases, stealing bits of electro-indie-pop, big-moment indie-rock and M83-style indie-dance. The song also does pretty much everything right: The arrangement is a slow-burner that heats up to maximum, the vocals are right-on, and the overall effect is perfect.

2. “Future Me Hates Me” – The Beths. I love the deliciously-fuzzy guitar tone and the impressively strong vocals in this power-pop/pop-punk tune. The ascending main guitar riff is also ace.

3. “Number 5 Radio” – Fairburn Royals. In the fine tradition of breaking the fourth wall, this stellar tune is a power-pop song about how to write a power-pop song (in five simple rules). The song itself follows its own rules, and the resulting song is indeed really excellent. Highly recommended.

4. “She Calls” – Tenderfoot. I’m a sucker for a good whoa-oh-oh vocal line, and this tune has a great one. The rest of the song is a catchy, upbeat pop-rock song that’s a lot of fun.

5. “Spoil With The Rest” – Ryley Walker. Transforms from a purveyor of pastoral folk to an explosive indie-rocker with folky leanings–it’s like when The Dodos transformed themselves from frenetic mathy duo to a more dense outfit. Walker’s voice is still relaxed and relaxing, but his electric guitar does the talking here.

6. “Necessaries” – Many Voices Speak. The band here uses reverb to turn the song into an intimate experience instead of to create space; there’s lots of wobbly sounds, bouncing notes, and the like, but it all sounds like a blanket wrapped around me instead of a giant cloud. The loose, unstressed vocals create even more of that warm feel, giving this low-key dream-pop song a magnetic aura.

7. “Blue Love” – JOYNER. Sometimes a chorus pops up and just washes over me with such unavoidable confidence that it compels me to write about the song. The rest of the tune is a thoroughly fine low-key electro-influenced indie-pop tune, but that chorus is just perfect.

8. “Undone” – Greta Isaac. Chipper, friendly, and enthusiastic are all things I look for in a great indie-pop tune. This tune nails it: the arrangement is perky everywhere, the melodies are easily accessible, and there are tons of enthusiastic choral vocals in the chorus. The light electro-pop/glitchy touches make it even more exciting. Here’s one for your summer lists.

9. “Baby” – Basement Revolver. I’m not much into rock songs with heavily distorted guitars these days, but Basement Revolver infuses their songs with so much pathos and desire that it’s hard to not empathize with vocalist Chrisy Hurn. Hurn can belt with the best of them, but her quiet voice is equally as controlled and equally as devastating. The band’s ability to match Hurn’s urgency without turning into a punk rock outfit is further impressive. Just an absolutely bang-up job on this indie-rock tune. Fans of Silversun Pickups will love this.

10. “ABOP” – tunng. Have some low-slung electro-pop from this veteran outfit. There’s an X factor here that comes of having a lot of years in the game–a lot of people can make electro-pop with acoustic leanings, but not many can make it stick.

11. “Favourite Song” – Pizzagirl. The caption on this video says “For best results listen in 1987 at night,” which is spot-on self-awareness. The big synths, the gated snares, the vocal tone, the vocal melodies, it’s all pitch-perfect late ’80s synth-pop. I’m particularly fond of the vocal melodies.

12. “Never There (for bassooning and Crooning)” – Some Professional Help. This almost exactly what it says on the tin: it is a spoken-word-and-bassoon version of CAKE’s “Never There.” As a fan of CAKE and weird conceptual ideas (and how much more a weird conceptual idea involving CAKE), this is hilariously great. Some Professional Help is also a folk-punk-ish band, but this one is literally just Scott Alexander spoofing the spoofers who are CAKE. Please avail yourself of this song.

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Singles: Acoustic/alt-pop

May 24, 2018

1. “In the Fields” – Simon D. James. Here’s a lush, sweeping tune that paints a whole landscape. The piano occasionally sounds like an arpeggiator (awesome), the violin swoops all over the place, and the drums hold everything together. It’s bright and folky, but also dense like Decemberists song. It is a great blend of tons of influences into a distinct whole. Highly recommended.

2. “I Won’t Sit Around and Cry” – Jon Patrick Walker. Solid fingerpicking, speedy vocal delivery (not quite Jeffrey Lewis, but similar), some country vibes in the guitar solo, and an indie-pop grin throughout the whole thing. If you’re a fan of folk/indie-pop, this is basically the instantiation of what that combo sounds like. Highly recommended.

3. “The Long Game” – Jonathan Rice. Like Death Cab for Cutie’s “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” this is an excellent pop ballad unencumbered by flashy arrangements or innovative turns. Instead, there’s an endearing lyrical set, a compelling vocal performance, unforgettable melodies, and a sense of pure songwriting craft. This is a great song written by an expert hand. Highly recommended.

4. “Hank” – Declan O’Donovan. There’s a bit of honky-tonk, a lot of Creedence, and a lot of confidence in this Southerny, folky tune. Special shout-out to the piano player, who really makes this song what it is.

5. “Time Runs Out For Narcissus” – Thomas & The Empty Orchestra. A jaunty, wholesome-sounding folk tune with swift fingerpicking, witty lyrics, and a lovely accordion. If you’re into Justin Townes Earle, Langhorne Slim, or Common Man, you’ll love this.

6. “What I Came Here For” – Luca Fogale. The delicate ease of Joshua Radin rests on this tune, what with the sprightly fingerpicking, the distant piano and the achingly beautiful melodies. The lovely layered vocal arrangements are icing on the fantastic cake. Highly recommended.

7. “Slow It Down” – Sarah Clanton. There’s a hint of Sixpence None the Richer in this dense, acoustic-focused singer-songwriter/pop song, from Clanton’s easygoing vocals to the overall taut-but-smooth atmosphere.

8. “Bare” – Rosie Carney. This one’s a quiet guitar-and-piano rumination anchored by a striking vocal performance from Carney.

9. “I Won’t Move” – Natalie Carolan. A delicate, yearning, searching piece that builds from hear-the-piano-pedals quietude to a smooth, compelling alt-pop piece.

10. “Dark Places” – Maria Kelly. Simple, quiet, and emotionally devastating, this acoustic tune is a delicate, carefully written explanation of how depression feels and acts. Kelly’s voice is alternately fragile and sturdy, underscoring the tensions in the song.

11. “Let Somebody Inside” – David Hopkins. The opening piano/synth arrangement may be a little too heavy on piano ballad conventions for some, but the vocal performance here is gripping and the chorus is just fantastic. The horn arrangement that comes in halfway through caps the song. It’s a great pop song.

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Singles: Indie-pop and such

May 23, 2018

1. “Into the Unknown” – The Lighthouse and the Whaler. Just an absolute, A+, oh-wow-2010-was-great, stomping, soaring folk-pop song. It’s like a Lord Huron and Lumineers collaboration that preserves all the best parts of both of their work. There are even “HEY”s. I’m in love.

2. “No Mamma” – Animal House (UK). This is the most infectious British guitar rock tune since Marsicans showed up. It’s got a lot of early ’00s Strokes in it, but it’s more rubbery, more bouncy, and way less preening than Casablancas and co. Yep, just a really great pop song about being young. Ace.

3. “Free Like a Broken Heart” – Birdtalker. If you like your folk/alt-country with a heavy dose of Motown soul, you’ll whip your head in the direction of Birdtalker. The dual vocals are strong, the arrangement is excellent, and the whole thing comes off like a Dawes track coming out of a historic Detroit studio.

4. “Miss Him Too” – Nate Daviau. “You miss the man you fell in love with / honey / I miss him too” is about the most alt-country sentiment I can imagine. It’s aggressive yet mopey, self-aware yet miserable. The crunchy, Jayhawks/Old ’97s-style arrangement fits perfectly with these lyrics. Daviau has a lot of swagger going on in this track.

5. “Less Than Positive” – Michael Nau. There’s some ’50s pop mixing, some loping country-style bass, some Gregory Alan Isakov vocal performance, and bright-shiny guitars all thrown together into a great pop song. If you need a smile but don’t want to go full-on happy, there’s just enough downer here to keep it real (while still being a lot of fun).

6. “Glow” – Brooke Annibale. Power-pop that doesn’t go for the Big Crunch–more like Fountains of Wayne, or Spoon, or even the fuzzed-out elements of Spiritualized. The song keeps an even keel but stays exciting throughout.

7. “Dreaming About You” – Polychrome. Dreamy electro-pop with ODESZA-style post-dub vocal blips and twiddly melodies over a thick synth base. There’s a lot of songs that could be described like that, but this is one that nails it with an X factor, where others just sound like ODESZA.

8. “Please Don’t Let My Art Die” – Marc with a C. Uber-satirist Marc with a C turns his gaze toward the hereafter and pens a plaintive, honest look at what it means to leave behind a legacy as an artist and person. It’s couched in a jangly, punchy power-pop tune that Marc has refined to a T. The a cappella bit at the end is just lovely.

9. “Lake Erie” – Wild Pink. John Ross manages to sound vulnerable and confident at the same time–conveying the emotions of uncertain and confusion in a rock-solid performance. His gentle voice mixes excellently with the jangling indie-rock guitars. This song is full of happy-sad; the sort of sadness that makes some people just happy inside.

10. “Round but Jaded” – Dear Life,. Alternating between a delicate alt-pop tune and a stomping indie-rock one, this track has a lot of sonic diversity. I love a good arpeggiator, and their use of synth is the beating heart of this song. The vocals are also a unique touch.

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Matt C. White: Effortless, honest, and authentic Americana

May 22, 2018

Occasionally music transcends place, born from the essence of a musician and his roots to become something greater almost effortlessly. Matt C. White does that with his debut album wallow in the hollow., available via Burro Borrocho Records. Infused with a Carolina youth, the man who calls Brooklyn home packs a punch with this first effort.

White is a city man who has country oozing from his soul. Embracing Americana that emerges from deep woods country, his authentic connection to the land undoubtedly shaped production choices. He paints a landscape with instrumentation, creating rustic, back-porch ambiance. The simple instrumentation consists of guitar, mandolin, bass, and slide. Vocals are layered with claps and stomps. The occasional studio wizardry digs deep into a bag of tricks to make all this come to life on the record.

Matt C. White is a constant music-making machine, involved in projects from Charles Ellsworth and The C.O.O. to Grandpa Jack to Dead Seconds. After wallowing in the music, it is easy to hear why Alex Saltz was interested in this project. Saltz (Bruce Springsteen, Deer Tick, The Raconteurs) contributes analog mastering, which fits White’s style perfectly.

It’s apparent from the start is that this record has been a lifetime in gestation, as it is lyrically dense and sonically intelligent. Reminiscent of Australian blues musician Ash Grunwald, this is Deer Tick with a twang; strut in the best way. From the dark opener “Lie With Me” and its equally ominous sister “Can’t Get Away,” it almost feels like someone is looking over their shoulder, whistling down the street in the middle of the night. It is brilliant!

Each cut takes listener to a different space, mixing up the pace of the album. White connects people with his emotional reality by utilizing sequencing and pacing; tempo is punctuation, a memo for listeners to perk up and pay attention. “Now And Then” has an over-the-top happy feel that balances the dark of the previous track. Think Disney’s Snow White: the balance of dwarves whistling to keep from thinking about the queen. White lands a suckerpunch on “Year Of Dogs.” The darkly brilliant tune shows off the best vocal performance from White on the record.

Nearly halfway through, “Black Spiral” is a lyrical masterpiece that plumbs the depths of darkness amid an unusual mix that focuses on the background vocals. Resting points are huge, and “Intermission” feels like a special place to rise to the surface. It takes a moment to remember that this a trip into the Carolina woods, and “Have It” is that reminder. Taking a slide into “Don’t Look Over Your Shoulder,” it’s easy to slip back in front of the campfire. Raw, rustic, and real, this is the best of what makes American music great; mixed with restraint and mastered with a light hand, the analog feel is perfect. With heart and soul, grit and guts, this is the track of the record here, no question.

In the home stretch, “Words To Make You Stay” is a melancholy bookend to any Muddy Waters proclamation; the joy at the end of this record comes from feeling the roots of the artist that is Matt C. White. Somehow, the revival is at the river, and “Lost On the Way” proves that there is always a way back to one’s roots. Celebrating that place where he grew up, “Nightsky” is a flashback written by a man in the city; upbeat, with a celebratory vibe, it is also a songwriter looking forward, not back. “Fare Thee Well” is a fond adieu to listeners who wallow in the hollow. with Matt C. White. A flash of a song, does it really count, or is it really a wave that suggests “until we meet again”?

Occasionally a musician releases a debut album that seems effortless, honest, and authentic with a distinct voice as a songwriter and a vivid soundscape. This is that record, oozing inspiration and life experience. Streamers, do yourself a favor: listen to wallow in the hollow. by Matt. C. White vinyl-style, start to finish. Highly recommended.–Lisa Whealy

Luke & Emily’s Short-but-strong, Sacred/Contemporary Scripture EP

May 21, 2018

Luke & Emily, Songs to Remember Vol. 1

Luke & Emily‘s Songs to Remember Vol. 1 is a short EP that crams five fully-fleshed-out tunes into 10 minutes. The acoustic-laden songs are all sonic interpretations of texts drawn literally from the Bible, with titles that reflect the passage of the lyrics. Christians will notice that these are all “greatest hits” of scripture, from the opening of the Bible (“Genesis 1:1-5”) to doctrinal pillars (“Romans 8:1-2,” “John 1:1-5”) to encouragements in living daily life (“Philippians 4:11b-13,” “Ecclesiastes 3:11a”).

Musically there’s two milieus here: a thread of sacred music that is elegant, reverent, and traditional (check that flute and cello!) contrasted against a very Welcome Wagon-esque jaunty folk-pop. The sacred tunes (“Genesis,” “Ecclesiastes,” “Romans”) are beautiful, easily ready for “special music” sections of traditional worship services. Meanwhile, “John” and “Phillipians” are 100% ready to go for the contemporary service (usually a couple hours later on Sunday morning).

Download here: John 1:1-5 by Luke & Emily

“John 1:1-5” (displayed above; we’re going old-school with an MP3 embed/download!) is particularly excellent; Luke & Emily bring their vocal duet style to bear on a chipper sing-a-long that is almost certainly the easiest way to remember and ponder the complex theological passage. The chorus (“The light shines in the darkness / and the darkness has not overcome it”) points squarely at the crux of the passage, while the intro/outro (“In the beginning was the Word / and the Word was with God / And the Word was God”) offer unvarnished theological complexity in a fun way. They also manage to make the cello and flute sound quirky and charming instead of somber. It’s great!

If you want a small-but-strong EP to fit into a mellow playlist, help you memorize scripture, whet your appetite for more Luke & Emily music, or scratch an itch for things near to The Welcome Wagon’s idiosyncratic approach, this is very worth your time.

Wall Sun Sun: An absolute must-hear

May 17, 2018

Wall Sun Sun‘s Oranges is one of the most brilliant albums I have heard all year. Their unique fusion of fiercely acoustic aesthetics, complex rhythms, extremely catchy melodies, tight harmonies, and surrealist lyrics results into a fascinating, mind-bending indie-pop album.

The band is not a usual set-up. There’s an excellent tuba instead of a bass guitar. There are seven vocalists–three male and four female. The four female vocalists often sing in incredibly close harmony, sometimes even sounding like one voice. The percussion is split between two people, both of whom sound like they are standing waaaaaay at the back of the room for recording. There is no distortion on this record and very few (if any) electric guitars; most of the songs sound like they are played on a nylon-string guitar.

All of this personnel comes together into a fresh, compelling sound–sort of like the enthusiastic pop of early Bombadil meeting the dense vocals of the Polyphonic Spree in a Shins-ian acoustic setup with Vampire Weekend rhythms. Got all that?

Those complex, Vampire Weekend-style rhythms are a big element of this record; none of the tracks have a traditional four-on-the-floor approach to the drumming. The speedy rim-and-snare interplay of “You” meshes with the tropical guitar melodies and rapid-fire vocal performances to create an impressively complex song that yet sounds light and fun. That style of speedy-yet-not-invasive drumming is almost omnipresent, lending a unique vibe to the work. It even gets a turn in the spotlight: the snappy, punchy bass-and-rim percussion of “Menageries” forms the main arrangement for a great bulk of the tune. The intriguing complexity of the percussion approach lends a lot of interest to the record.

It’s a bit nerdy to focus on percussion before vocals, because this album really is about the catchy melodies and tight harmonies. The album owes a lot to doo-wop and tropicalia in its vocal approach, as the female vocalists often sing in such close harmonies that my wife wondered if the sound was a vocal effect or just incredible performing. (My wife is a vocalist. They’re that tight.) The male “lead” vocals are yelpy and fun, from the serious “Rely” to the goofy “Comedian” to the standout pop tune “Gold.” The melodies are the sort that can’t be wrenched out of my head for days: I’ve been humming “You” and “Gold” and “Menageries” and “Comedian” non-stop over the past few weeks. It’s just a great collection of songs with an indelible approach.

The songwriting itself is commendable too; there are tempo shifts, tonal changes, hard left hooks, big moments, subtle movements, and more. It’s the sort of exciting, whizbang songwriting that keeps the listener constantly on toes. The lyrics are just as fun and interesting–they’re surreal in a Bombadil sort of way, where things start off normal and slowly get weirder and weirder. “You,” “Comedian,” “Life,” and “Guessed” are all tracks that have endearing “wait, what?” moments in the lyrics.

So Oranges is the whole package: from the unique personnel to the fresh songwriting approach to the impressive vocal performances to the surreal lyrics. It even comes with a digital form of liner notes, charmingly twee press photos of the outfit all dressed in orange, and beautiful album art. There’s nothing to knock in this record: it’s simply one of the best things I’ve heard all year in all respects. If you’re a fan of indie-pop, this is an absolute must-hear. Highly recommended.

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St. Even expands his sonic palette, gets serious and/or optimistic

May 16, 2018

St. Even‘s Other Times You Die is a record that builds on the past successes of Steve Hefter (he who is St. Even) as a quiet indie-pop artist by expanding his palette in a wide array of ways. The expansion of his sonic bounds coincides with a more well-developed sense of the album as a unit, as he tells a distinct–if perhaps not exactly chronologically ordered–story about the joys and disappointments of relationship.

So, that sonic space. Hefter’s previous work relied heavily on acoustic instrumentation, spartan arrangements, and a lot of patience. On this record, he is not as patient–there are things zooming all over the place from the beginning to the end of the album. There are electric guitars!There are electronic bits! There’s found sound! All these things make it a very exciting record.

It is a bit of a departure from his previous work, although there are a couple tracks which strip everything out and leave just the core of his songwriting (“Opaquing,” “Not What You Think,” “Shittiness”). Those stripped-down songs sound remarkably like his previous work. So, this record is less of a change in his sound, and more of an expansion of what he was previously doing.

The expanded songwriting takes shape in many ways. There are nigh-on rock songs like the title track and opener “Piling It On”, which features crunchy guitar and sees Hefter in a bit of a power-pop attack mode. Love song “Matchmaker” has a tropical vibe, full of steel drums and Vampire Weekend style arrangements. “Every Night” is some sort of stuttery neo-funk tune. There are multiple interludes that show off his ability to create pastiches and found sound arrangements. These are all a heck of a lot of fun.

The core of the record, though, is not about his sonic explorations. The record is really about the highs and lows of a relationship from the giddy start and the amazing highs to the not so great parts (“Little Things”). There are plenty of indications that there is trouble in paradise on this record, and they are carefully and unsparingly documented (“3/18/06”). However, this is a record about trying to keep a relationship together as opposed to a document of one falling apart. This is most clearly shown in “Shittiness,” where Hefter  attests to the need to keep perspective while things are going well; he needs to not take good times in a relationship for granted.

Closer “Happy Last New Year” is a true resolution: things are going well in the relationship. This allows Hefter to bust out a very-traditionally-St. Even melancholic tune about how he feels like the world is falling apart right as he feels like he’s getting himself together. Even though this is a closer that’s supposed to be a bummer, it’s mostly a reassuring song–you can have totally shitty moments in your relationship and yet still come out the other side. In that way, the record is a record about how to stay together as opposed to the many records about how to fall apart. This doesn’t mean that there’s not fights, even bad ones – but in the end all turns out well (or at least seems like it). That’s pretty rad.

This is an under-the-radar triumph of indie-pop songwriting. If you like St. Even’s previous work, there are a couple tracks that sound just like it here. But if you’re not a fan of quiet, moping indie-pop with indelible melodies, there’s a lot more going on this record which might interest you too. If you like unique, disjointed, unusual indie-pop arrangements, you’ll be into this. So there are a lot of people who should be liking this record, not the least of which being optimists. Also, realists who are trying to be optimistic. Long live St. Even. Highly recommended.

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

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