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Month: November 2019

Half-Handed Cloud! Forever! And Ever! Amen!

Half-handed Cloud is a secretly powerful band. They pack incredible amounts of punch into indie-pop songs that almost never break the 2:30 mark and most often sit comfortably between 45 to 90 seconds. They are a never-ending font of vocal melodies, instrumental flourishes, unusual jumps, thoughtful lyrics, and enigmatic song endings. They are experts at doing everything that most bands do in 3:30 in a fraction of that time.

Half-handed Cloud is on Sufjan’s Asthmatic Kitty label, which is perfectly right; Half-handed Cloud is a hyperactive, exaggerated version of Sufjan’s Illinois phase. If you wish that Sufjan still sounded like that, then you’re in luck: Half-Handed Cloud sounded like that before Sufjan did, and still sounds like it after Sufjan does. In other words, there are legitimate ways in which John Ringhofer is more Sufjan than Sufjan. Word.

Here’s one way that HHC is out-Sufjaning the man himself: Gathered Out of Thin Air is a b-sides record that collects sixty (60, not a typo) non-LP songs that have appeared (or not) over the last decade. Further dueling with the master: half of them are about Jesus, there’s a whole sequence about Magellan-era naval exploration, eight Christmas/holiday songs (!!!), and one called “Viscous Shadow of Cleopas,” which sounds more early-Mountain Goats than Sufjan. It’s very simply a treasure trove: there’s barely a second to breathe, not a song of waste, and literally no place to start in a review. Okay, maybe there is a place to start: There’s a song about how Y2K was a disappointment [“Nativity Costume (2000 Year’s Eve)”]. That’s pretty rad.

John Ringhofer’s voice is very high, so you may not be into that sort of thing. You may not be into blitz-speed songs that usually don’t feature normal song structures. But if you’re basically anyone else, this collection is an absolutely incredible trove of tunes by Half-Handed Cloud. You might say, “Okay, but is a 60-song b-sides compilation the best place to start in an oeuvre?” I would say yes. It’s that good. Half-handed Cloud is so fantastic that even their b-sides are magnificent. I’ve been listening to Half-Handed Cloud since the earliest days of Independent Clauses, and while I don’t listen to HHC every day, this is exactly why I love them so much. They’re great, Gathered From Thin Air is great, and you’ll feel great when you’re listening to this. Highly recommended.–Stephen Carradini

Leuers: a lovely collection of genre-blurred compositions

Dominique Charpentier‘s Lueurs is a lovely collection of composed music with electronic and acoustic flourishes. From solo piano pieces (“Pitchoun”) to delicate, romantic elegies (“Parachute”) to downtempo electro pieces (“Leuer“) to complex and novel post-rock-style pieces (“Chat Perché”), Leuers covers a lot of ground very effectively.

The 10 pieces are all connected by an overarching mood: there’s a wistful, dusky sense of earnest throughout the work. Most of the works are solidly grounded in piano (or at least keyboard) performance, and this clear beginning point lends the rest of the arrangements a confident air. But this is not to-boldly-go music (despite the synthy enthusiasms of “Chat Perché”); this is much more careful and precise work, with each element being careful placed and developed. This album works because each of its individual parts contribute equally: the songs all contribute to the album’s vibe, and each instrument contributes equally to each song. There’s no big synth blasts driving the bus for most of the album; for example, the ethereal synths are mixed almost on par with the sounds of rain for much of the songin the beautiful “Falaise”.

“Ressac” is a favorite of mine off the record, transforming a midnight-blue piano introduction into a post-rock piece with the introduction of electro beats, blurps, and arpeggios. The outlier of the record (“La Cabane”) is a ukulele-based fugue that delivers an instrumental twee indie-pop piece Lullatone would be proud of; while it doesn’t quite fit the tone of the record, it’s a lovely song that I would rather have on than off the release. Charpentier closes out the record with two very quiet solo piano pieces, bringing the mood back in line with the rest of the record and sending the listener off with the mood of the record swimming in my head.

Leuers is a strong release that spans genres without getting too caught up in its genre-blurring; none of the tracks here feel like attempts to pull off something that’s over the composer’s head. Instead, there’s a wide array of skills and ideas on display here. It seems self-evident to say “it’s a great record to listen to,” but not all records reward just sitting and listening. Charpentier has done just that here: created something that’s fun and interesting to listen to, even repeatedly.

Leuers comes out November 22. —Stephen Carradini

Traversable Wormhole’s Regions of Time is a trip and a half

Traversable Wormhole‘s Regions of Time is exactly the sort of thing I’m into these days: beat-heavy, deep-groove instrumental electronic music with an emphasis on long pieces. All of the eight pieces are longer than six minutes, with “Rotation Frequency” hitting the 7:33 mark. None of them have as much as a single vocal yip. This is full-on, large-scale, muscly, instrumental techno bliss.

These pieces all inhabit a similar sonic world, and as the band name and title imply, it’s a very sci-fi world. But this is not whooshing-space-ambient spacy. This is dense, punchy, hyperspace-intensity work. The low-end thumps are scrubbed of fade and often equipped with short reverb: in their ideal form, the bass hits on “Geodesic Motion” are like punches in the best of ways. The rest of sonic palette is rattling digital percussion, tightly-constrained synths, and careful melodies. Picking out individual tracks in this record is not as good as listening to the whole thing through in a row; I can tell you that “Massless Fermions” has a big ‘ol four-on-the-floor thump that’s particularly effective, but on its own it’s not quite as good as hearing it in the context of its prior and following tracks. The whole thing genuinely feels like traveling through space on a very fast ship toward an uncertain (but probably awesome) place/event.

Regions of Time is not an album that goes much for subtlety: these are big, powerful pieces that work a minimum of parts into a maximum of payoff. The album starts without much fanfare and ends suddenly; it goes full-bore for its full run-time, then stops. It’s an engine that’s either on or off, and it’s really, really good when it’s on. If you’re in for a 40+ minute ride into a deep, dark, sci-fi space, Regions of Time will take you there, no questions asked. Highly recommended.

Regions of Time is out November 15 on Sonic Groove Records. –Stephen Carradini

Anamanaguchi Grows Up without Growing Old

Anamanaguchi‘s latest hyperactive blitz of chiptune, punk rock, pop songs, and dance music manages to satisfy my cravings for old-school Guchi pep and interest in bands developing their sounds. “On My Own” is about as Anamana as it gets, with punk rock tempos and affectations (including a hardcore-style half-time breakdown!), cheery 8bit melodies, and a pop female vocalist bringing it all home. It’s about as maximum a tribute to JPop as four dudes who went to east coast design schools can offer. Follow-up track “Up to You” amps up the pop aspects and includes a feathery vocal approach that’s half JPop/KPop and half … uh … Owl City. It works though, I promise. “Air On Line” is a standard Guchi instrumental jam, and it rips in all the ways you would expect. If you’re here for more of what Guchi has given you in the past, Anamanaguchi delivers.

Yet they’ve also grown in their approach. The album is named [USA], which implies a much different theme than Endless Fantasy. The opener is a deliberate, expansive introduction that ends with distorted male vocals chanting U-S-A! U-S-A! That’s different. The title track follows, and it is a dense, complex, almost post-rock affair, with the quartet turning their usual adrenalized approach inside out. They introduce vocorder vocals, which continue in the similarly thoughtful and careful “Lorem Ipsum (Arctic Anthem).” They introduce back their signature 8bit sounds into this one with aplomb, making a fusion between their more pensive take and their LET’S-GOOOOO normal state. (There’s plenty of chiptune enthusiasm in the center of “Lorem Ipsum,” don’t worry.)

While the album is provocatively called [USA], the band does not dramatically foreground the theme. If you think hard and deeply about the nature of the individual songs, the work’s structure, and the often-partially-obscured lyrics, you can start to draw conclusions. But you don’t have to. You can just take this at sonic face value as a fascinating, excellent album that walks the tightest of tightropes: making more of what you’re known for while still stretching the wings and expanding sonically. Anamanaguchi handles the task deftly, and that makes the album a huge success. Highly recommended. —Stephen Carradini

Big Little Lions speak loudly and clearly with Inside Voice

Big Little Lions let Inside Voice fly out to the world in stunning fashion. The duo from Cincinnati and British Columbia has created songwriting magic here on their sixth release via AntiFragile.

“Here We Go Again” seems a fitting welcome to fans, embracing a Mumford-and-Sons-type sound. Precise production choices make “I Can Have It All” seem like a hop, skip, and angst into the reality of the life of today’s generations. It’s truly brilliant in its paradoxes: how many toe-tapping heroin-addicted youths identify here? “Stay In” is enveloped in harmonic brilliance, while Paul Otten’s drums drive into the sweet goodbye of “Where Are You Now.” The reality of mental health is anthemic in the chorus of this stunner. The piece is unexpectedly emotional in its authentic cries fading into a solo violin. Brilliance shines in unexpected places.

Optimism is the underlying tone of this record. Paul Otten and Helen Austin “Get There” in an unusual way, as on this track they represent getting through hell. Austin’s angelic vocal delivery wrapped in the warmth of simple folk instrumentation is perfect. Like kids lost in the dark holding on to a line in order to find that safe place, the lush cello and violin of “Old Armchairs” dance in the dark. The track is confident in spite of fear, challenging listeners to let go and yet feel safe. Musical storytelling like this makes it clear why the duo won Canadian Folk Music Award for Ensemble of the Year in 2015. 

Haunting in its honest description of depression, “The Outside” feels like blowing on a frozen windowpane in order to see out. The nuanced simplicity of “Find It While I’m Falling” is another personal favorite from this excellent album. The harmonies at times feel like Angus & Julia, definitely shifting more towards a folk vibe heading towards the end. Optimism gets old without a balance of darkness, and the minimalist “Ripples” is genius. Stark and mixed to an amazing level of separation, this is one of the most relevant tracks of the album. Holistic in its message, words do not do the lyrics and music justice. 

An album with fourteen songs that all have substance is rare. Yet this one is richly satisfying in its length. Big Little Lions is that endangered species in the music industry: a band combining intelligent songwriting with unique stylistic musicality. —Lisa Whealy