Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Lisa’s Best-of 2019

December 20, 2019

Music makes an impression, creating space for silence within us. As a new decade looms on the horizon, revisiting the music that has touched that space inside me and still resonates is a trip. This year has been challenging, with the opportunity to complete a master’s degree at Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC cutting into time at the writer’s desk.

Before the list begins, my background in arts and humanities ties some significant events together. John Schlesinger’s film Midnight Cowboy changed perceptions of sexuality, and Harry Nillson’s anthem “Everybody’s Talkin’” is inextricably linked to the film. The song served as a guidepost, defining generations trying to find themselves. I refuse to attempt to consider a rank for This is the Town (Vol. 2): A Tribute To Nilsson. This collection of covers showing the songwriter’s prolific genius is perfect. This deep dive into one of American music’s greatest catalogs is still available on limited edition orange vinyl via Royal Potato Family. It is worth a look for the holidays. 

Moving forward, here are the artists and music that have kept me humming and contemplating the future of  2020. Thanks to my editor Stephen Carradini and all the readers of IC. Onward! 

10. Liam Pitcher’s 2019 EP Sessions at Baxter Theatre in February led to the ten-album collection Improvisations. A daunting proposition to grasp, the South African pianist has made the entire work is available in Youtube playlists. White, from the first of ten volumes, resembles Tchaikovsky’s 1892 ballet The Nutcracker: delicate beauty airily drifting away with each note. Perfect holiday music. (Full disclosure: Lisa worked on the press campaign for Improvisations. -Ed.)

9. Instrumental geniuses The New Mastersounds shifted gears after years of being standouts in the funk-jazz space. I am a fan of taking risks in life for art’s sake, and the the jam-funk band’s addition of Lamar Williams, Jr. (son of Allman Brothers bassist Lamar Williams) as a soul singer provides a new depth and direction. Technically brilliant: Gibson-guitar-slinging Eddie Roberts, bassist Pete Shaud, and wannabe-comedian drummer Simon Allen had had a good thing going before this album, but the transformation occurred with Shake It! I call stellar.

8. How is it that A Poison Melody is so sweet? Curtis Eller’s American Circus throws down a full orchestration of his view of the world, complete with banjo and brass. Stunning seems trite when considering this politically charged statement set to music. Eller and his band create simply defiant artistry. Charged with an energy that is part of the chaos of our times, the music winds through generations of social and political struggle in a jazz-blues fusion.

7. Jacob Faurholt’s Shake Off the Fear was my first dip into the waters of this songwriter’s perspective. One of the greatest joys of writing for IC is being exposed to global music, and Jacob’s prolific musical projects are a perfect example. Authentic themes and raw emotions translate easily through the music despite the fact that Faurholt’s home is in Denmark. He is a vocalist whose stylistic choices mirror Mick Jagger with shadows of Kurt Cobain. 

6. With My Finest Work Yet, Andrew Bird delivers lush textures linked to lyrical tone and direct messages wrapped in Greek tragedy. With imagery tied directly to the ills of today’s human condition, Bird’s art is a vehicle to call out the truth as he sees it. What a gift, as listeners are able to be live from SXSW in this video of my favorite cut, “Cracking Codes”. Great art is a reflection of the chaos of the time in which we live, for sure. 

5. John Paul White’s The Hurting Kind, the troubadour follow up to his 2016 solo record Beulah, is nothing short of genius. Echos of Roy Orbison and a host of collaborations ooze through the crystalline vocals. Transformational, this album still haunts me at times, in the way memories of that one special sunset still linger, imprinted on my soul. Hear some of it at his Paste Session.

4. Uniquely creative, Charming Disaster’s Spells + Rituals carries the rock opera torch forward from The Decemberists’ 2009 release The Hazards of Love. Ellia Bisker (vocals, ukulele, piano, music box, glass jars, percussion) and Jeff Morris (vocals, guitar, piano, ratchet set, canned air, percussion) in eleven songs create a poetic rock opera set to a cacophony emerging from the gothic folk genre. The pair of Brooklyn musicians are involved in many great projects, most recently Bisker in Funkrust Brass Band’s Bones and Burning.

3. The Wood BrothersLive at the Fillmore changed my mind about live records. I always felt like I’d missed out on something when listening to a live record. However, this album brought the vibe of the historic venue into the resonance of each recorded note. The room’s warmth merged with the lush strings and blended with rich Wood Brothers harmonies like fine wine. Though I have never have been to the historic Fillmore in San Francisco, I will go there someday. Until then, I look forward to experiencing The Wood Brothers live at Phoenix’s Crescent Ballroom on March 4, 2020. 

2. Okay, now we are closing the door in 2019. The possibilities of change are before us. Seth Walker said such simple truths that it should be easy to hear them. I had heard of his music but not been exposed to the blend of jazz and Cuban vibes thrown into a New Orleans jambalaya of sound. Are You Open?” from his album of the same name, released through Royal Potato Family, eases us all into a new way of thinking about the meaning of opening up. Filmed at the Jazz Kitchen in Indianapolis, Indiana, this authentic clip of film is a testament to truth. 

1. Grover Anderson’s album The Frontman should remind us all of what life is like from the stage. What is that stage? Here it is a small-town view of bigger issues. Anderson crafts imagery through stunning lyricism like the town cryer. The words are a crafty thing, the elusive melodies wrapped around notes and measures. His beautiful, haunting melodies are rich with instrumentation.

Closing out 2019, here’s a list of the best live music I was blessed to catch in my wanderings throughout the year. All include links to the artist, some are for the shows being mentioned. 

Some live video is from the rich Phoenix, Arizona music scene.  A few are performances from my current favorite music festival: Quincy, California’s High Sierra Music Festival, which is celebrating its 30th year this summer season. Next year I hope to add the Tuscany Songwriters Festival, Italy’s newest retreat for musicians to encourage global collaborative artistry, to the list.

Blessings for peace, health, and prosperity for you and yours in the new year. 

Lisa 

1. Midnight North was tapped by Rolling Stone as the Best New Act in 2018 and is my pick for the Best Live Act in 2019. Midnight North features Grahame Lesh and Elliot Peck equally sharing the spotlight. This clip includes guest Dan “Lebo” Lebowitz helping to create a moment only live performances and show finales create. (Grahame Lesh is son of Phil Lesh, best known as founding member of The Grateful Dead.)

2. Matt Lorenz, also known as The Suitcase Junket, has toured across the world with his one-man-band. I was exposed to his live performance while at High Sierra. This stripped-down performance from New York’s Cellar Sessions of my favorite song Dreamless Life is worth including here as a taste of the talented songwriter and musician’s work.

3. Decker. and his band are local staples and touring troubadours whose songwriting talents have led to being part of the Royal Potato Family. Their live performances are spiritual experiences, an invitation to embrace the energy exchange charging the air. The Garden is my personal favorite of the decker. music catalog, recorded at the Greetings All Ye Playful Prisoners of Spacetime release show at Last Exit Live.

4. Having experienced Nahko and Medicine for the People at festivals in the past, the vibe shift that occurred with the songs on his upcoming release Take Your Power Back profoundly struck a chord. Hitting a blend of hip-hop and reggae, the live video closing a show at The Van Buren in Phoenix explains why Nahko’s Dear Brother is on this list.

5. St. Paul and The Broken Bones blew my mind the first time I caught a video of “Live Without You” and “Broken Bones & Pocket Change” on YouTube. Needless to say, every chance I have to see this church of Alabama Soul live, I will be there! The resurgence of Sixties soul blended with jazz is an integral essence of the throwback groove. 

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Stephen’s Albums of the Year

December 17, 2019

It was an unusual year at Independent Clauses, as I experimented with new formats, new genres, and new ways of writing. Not everything that I did worked, but it was all interesting to me. I am hopeful that people found the music that I wrote about as part of these experiments as entertaining and moving as I did. With that caveat out of the way, here’s my top ten of the year. Thanks to everyone who has been a part of Independent Clauses over the years, but particularly if you stuck with me through this year. Lisa’s albums of the year will come tomorrow.

1. Walk Home InsteadMake Sure. In a year where I mostly listened to electronic music, I found a folk/indie-pop album as the one I couldn’t shake the most. It wasn’t even a question when I sat down to write this: Walk Home Instead is gonna be the album I’m listening to in 10 years out of all that I listened to this year. It was essentially the only contender for album of the year. Joshua Aubrey Jackson’s latest project takes the best of all his previous work (catchy melodies, memorable lyrics, pitch-perfect arrangements, moods that stay for a whole album) and honed it all to the finest point he’s yet reached. This album sounds like I want to feel: it’s warm, relaxed, comfortable, and yet vital. “Deal Breakers” is a perfect place to start: it’s tender, honest, and perfectly engineered. Just a fantastic song on a fantastic release. Here’s to more Make Sure.

2. Zelda and Chill – Mikel. In a year where I spent much of my time exploring electronic music, Mikel’s mashup of Legend of Zelda music and downtempo beats was one of the true gold finds. Many video game mashups can feel kitschy or jokey, but this never does–it is honest, earnest, hardworking composition from the starting point of Zelda tunes. Even if you’re not a fan of Zelda or even video games, there is plenty to enjoy here.

3. Regions of Time – Traversable Wormhole. On the other end of the spectrum of electronica, I discovered this year that I like deep techno cuts. Like, I want the bass hits to sound like punches, the vibe to be dense, the length to be long, and the pace relentless. This album provides all of that. It is basically one long, pounding, sci-fi techno song, and I love it for that.

4. MØDVLXXR – 0010×0010. This takes deep techno cuts and mixes it with breakbeats, ambient, post-rock, and even industrial. It is hugely adventurous, boundary-pushing, experimental electronic music. It apparently is the score to what must be the world’s most intense art gallery experience.

4. Moon Preach – Sun Speak. Guitar and drums post-rock that revels in layers, textures, ambiance, and groove. This is post-rock that speaks in its own language instead of other people’s, and a unique voice is always worth getting up for.

5. Mister Lies – Mister Lies. An abstract electronica record with a pop music bent and a tendency to throw multiple genres together for fun in a midnight-blue mood. I explained it best the first time: “It’s hard to pin down, yet it’s hard to stay away from. I keep coming back to it over and over; it’s been a near companion for the last few months. It captures a certain sort of mood where the days blend together and time is difficult to parse; things are happening fast, or slow, or fast-then-slow, and it’s all a lot to process. That mood. You know, modern life mood.”

6. Poké and ChillMikel. Mikel’s second entry on this list is perhaps an even more impressive feat than Zelda and Chill. The nostalgia boost from the iconic Zelda songs gives a firm launching point, but Pokémon’s music has rarely been as iconic as other franchises; much of the music is low-key traveling accompaniment or city songs that truly served as background in the games. Yet he spins gold out of them. Even “Trainer Battle” is chilled out to the max. If you like downtempo music, this record is very high-quality.

7. Bioluminescence – Teen Daze. Teen Daze has been working at such a high level for so long that it’s hard to remember the last time that something came out that wasn’t brilliant. This work is truly fascinating, an almost-perfect distillation of the electronic-acoustic fusion he’s looking for.

8. Ströme – Martin Kohlstedt. On this record, Kohlstedt is a composer working primarily with a choir and a minimal amount of surrounding instrumentation. Kohlstedt’s partner GewandhausChor performs all sorts of roles and inhabits all sorts of spaces that I have rarely heard choirs go to. It is haunting, clever, innovative, and lovely.

9. Hasta El Cielo – KhruangbinWhy not take last year’s album and turn it into a dub record to make it this year’s record? This completely reworked version of 2018’s Con Todo El Mundo sounds absolutely fantastic as a bass’n’drums-heavy mood record. Great working music.

10. Phonotron – WE’VE GOT MUSCLES. This instrumental rock album balances torrential with ethereal in a powerful display of songwriting. The opening riff from opening track “Le massacre du printemps” was one of the most memorably electrifying moments of the year for me.

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The Last Singles of the Year

So here’s our last post of the year, other than the best-of-the-year posts. I haven’t done many singles reviews this year, so maybe my desire to put out this last post means next year will have more. Who can say? I can say that this is an incredibly varied post, going from rock to electronica to post-rock to ambient to tech-metal to freakout jazz and more. I’ve had a bit of weird year, I suppose, and it looks like next year will be equally weird, if my tastes continue this way. Here we go!

1. “Virginia Sapphire” – The Wilderness. This song is like taking the extremely honest delivery of the deeply-missed Scott Hutchison from Frightened Rabbit and marrying it with the Menzingers’ guitar attack. There’s also a sax solo. This is one of the best rock songs I’ve heard in a long time.

2. “Komorebi” – Sympala. Fans of ODESZA, turn out: this is excellent post-dub work that makes wub not sound aggressive. This has some serious headbobbing vibes and even some soul moments in the vocals and piano. Great beats, great arrangement, great stuff. I would put some bets on you hearing about Sympala more in the upcoming year.

3. “Umbilical” – 2an. Marimba and violin? Say no more. This electro/acoustic composition is liquid-smooth, packed with sonic depth, and totally satisfying. I look forward to a lot more 2an.

4. “Backlit” – Cosmos in Collision. Fans of Tycho and Ulrich Schnauss will find this electronic/post-rock work very moving. Lots of light surging in, lots of motion, lots of big finishes.

5. “The Rest Will Follow [The Freestyle Version]” – Tracy Shedd. Shedd, a singer-songwriter with a deep catalog, goes full electro-pop on this cut, emphasizing the 808 beats and analog synths that make this song what it is. It’s a lush, full, luxurious tune that makes the most of the arrangement and Shedd’s gentle vocals.

6. “Make Me Young, Make Me Young, Make Me Young, Make Me Young” – Anna Flyaway. This band preceded Empire! Empire! I Became a Lonely Estate, and their one album went unreleased. Now it’s getting released on Count Your Lucky Stars! Records (Welcome back, CYLS! Good to see you!) and it’s perfectly the right time: emo never dies but it’s certainly having a good moment right now. (Origami Angel and Cliffdiver are my current faves, but there’s a lot of “et al.” to go with that statement.) This is early ’00s emo par excellence–mathy influences but in a gentle guitar tone, yearning vocals, melodic arrangements (violin! piano!), and slow tempos. Get your American Football on, folks.

7. “Northern Lights” – Artificial Waves. Thrashy, riff-heavy instrumental post-metal blends with tense, groove-laden post-rock to create some heavy/light/heavy goodness.

8. “Burrowing Owl” – The Phantom Broadcast. Here’s seven minutes of slowly-building acoustic-folk that amps up into a post-rock roar with a space-rock outro. If that’s not enough to get you excited about this wild song, I’m not sure what else I can say to get you into this.

9. “Like, Literally” – Kylie Odetta. It’s almost winter, but it’s never too early to get hyped for summer. Odetta’s fun, funky, easy-going flow and beats here are just a blast of warm sunshine for many of us who need it in this weather. It’s a lovely little indie-pop/pop tune, like a bubble floating over a beach.

10. “Fear of Failure” – Sea Wolf. It’s hard to convince me with open-hearted, diary-entry singer-songwriter work anymore, but Sea Wolf’s precise lyricism and deeply engaging vocal delivery have me believing: “I have to be brave / even though I’m still afraid.” Rarely has depiction of stage fright been so relatable and moving. The well-developed indie-pop/indie-rock backdrop is great too; Sea Wolf has come a long way from acoustic folk.

11. “Limitless Benevolence” – Grant Huling. Huling continues his recovery of the formerly-unknown hymns of Haden Laas, a young man who died in World War I and left behind a stack of hymns. Huling found them at an estate sale and has been bringing them back to life. This one is a real funky jam with multiple moods, led by go-go-go piano, wurlitzer, and a skronky guitar solo. It’s like Sufjan at his most kitchen-sink-indie-pop heights.

12. “Holdin’ On” – Ryan Herrick. Herrick’s voice is clear and strong, delivering a soaring vocal performance of this country/folk tune. Fans of organ in country music will celebrate the appearance and continued use of the organ throughout–it provides a lot of class and vibe to this track. Special shout-out to the bass licks, and to the engineer who made them high up in the mix. You can check out a video for the title track off Herrick’s new EP, Heal Your Boneshere.

13. “Permafrost” – Monochromie. Do you need to slow down? I need to slow down. Here: take twelve minutes and drift away on delicate, ethereal, wistful ambient music. I know it helped me calm down.

14. “Sweet Nothings” – Bomethius. A multi-tracked self-a capella that falls between aching and nostalgic, this track is a unique opening to a record and also the title track of the record. A bold opening statement, for sure.

15. “Marshall Law” – Westwego. The undying spirit of major-key troubadour folk just passes from one band to another, sometimes resting on multiple people at once, never letting the people’s song die. Westwego has some of that spirit with them, and this song is basically everything you could possibly want in a folk song: great melodies, great lyrics, beautiful quartet arrangement. It’s folk for the folkster purist and the folkster questioning. It’s just great.

16. “Pursuit” – Xander Naylor. Next year is already looking weird on the genre front: I’m feeling myself pulled back toward punk (see the first track on this list) and I’m starting to understand the appeal of freakout jazz, like this track right here. This is a jazz combo going on a chaotic blitz, stopping only occasionally to let the listener breathe. I don’t have a lot of good RIYLs for this because I don’t actually listen to freakout jazz like this (yet, I suppose), but I must say I think is great, and I expect to listen to more of it in 2020 from Naylor.

17. “Kinetic Disturbances” – Matheus Manente. Also I might be getting into tech-metal. I don’t know what’s happening to this blog, honestly. But if you’re into stuff like Polyphia, then this here track may be of interest to you. The front end is a bunch of highly technical single-note stuff that I’m still working on getting fully into as a genre, but the rest of the piece gets the band locked in to thundering grooves and riffs, and it’s very much up my alley. So, here’s to 2020, y’all. Let’s get weird.

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Stephen’s Most Listened To of the Year

December 15, 2019

This year was a year of experimentation at Independent Clauses. I spent a lot of time in the beginning and middle of the year making Spotify playlists of instrumental music and covering minimal work found by press release. The back of half of the year saw me going back to the traditional Independent Clauses style of album reviews. Because I had two different types of work this year, I’m going to have two different lists. Tomorrow’s will be the traditional “best of” list, where I list the stuff I thought was the best that came out this year. This first list will be a list of what I listened to the most on Spotify over the year from most to least. Some of these came out this year, most didn’t.

1. Zelda and Chill – Mikel.

2. Master Spy – RAC.

3. Marimba Suites: Gwendolyn Burgett Thrasher Plays Her Transcriptions of Six Cello Suites by J. S. Bach – Gwendolyn Burgett Thrasher.

4. TRON: Legacy Reconfigured – Daft Punk & Various Artists.

5. Monument Valley 2 Original Game Soundtrack – Todd Baker.

6. Poké and Chill – Mikel.

7. Persuasion System – Com Truise.

8. Iteration – Com Truise.

9. Virðulegu Forsetar – Jóhann Jóhannsson.

10. Scenery – Snail’s House.

11. Walk Home Instead – Make Sure.

12. Scale – Various Artists (Bigo & Twigetti).

13. Party Starter – Antone.

14. Luminous Emptiness – Hang Massive.

15. [USA] – Anamanaguchi.

16. Ex – KJ.

17. Mustard After Dinner – Fighting Kites.

18. Englabörn & Variations – Jóhann Jóhannsson.

19. The Appearance of Colour – John Metcalfe.

20. Cold Math – Panfur.

21. Mister Lies – Mister Lies.

22. Bioluminescence – Teen Daze.

23. Spells – KJ.

24. Sunset & Formosa – DJ Dister.

25. Silk Music Presents Shingo Nakamura 02.

26. MODVLXXR – 0010×0010.

Honorable Mentions:

Hasta El Cielo (Con Todo El Mundo in Dub) – Khruangbin.

Traversable Wormhole Vol. 6-10 – Traversable Wormhole.

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The Six Mountain Goats Shows I Have Seen

I feel kinda bad after giving In League With Dragons an average review, because I love the Mountain Goats so much. So, to make up for that, I’m going to retroactively review all six Mountain Goats shows I’ve seen and show you just how much I love the Mountain Goats. This is penance. Sorry in advance if you’re not interested. That’s how penance works sometimes.

1. The Opolis – Norman, OK – October 26, 2006. What I Learned: The Mountain Goats can suck you in live. Before this show, the extent of my Mountain Goats knowledge was favoriting “It Froze Me” on Pandora. However, I loved “It Froze Me” so much that I later recorded a cover of it. When the assignment came up to go to review this show for a now-defunct, online-only University of Oklahoma student publication called The Hub, I jumped at the chance. It’s weird that I got paid to discover my favorite band of all time, but that’s a thing that happened.

So I did actually write a review of this show once already, but it’s lost to the sands of time and the vagaries of the internet. I remember much of it, though: it was a pretty packed house for the teeny Opolis. It was a trio of John, Peter, and Franklin Bruno (on keys). They played almost all of Get Lonely before playing any of the hits, and I was entranced by the urgency of all the tracks from Get Lonely. Imagine my utter surprise when everyone started singing “No Children” at the top of their lungs. I had already fallen in love with tMG from the first half of the set, but the back half of the set cemented it. I was hooked.

A few weird notes from this show: I very much remember being creeped out by their cover of Nothing Painted Blue’s “Houseguest.” I have an affection for “In Corolla” that probably stems from it being the closer. I probably could have had a long conversation with John Darnielle if I had known that this was a thing that would be highly coveted in the next 13 years. It was an amazing night.

2. The Granada Theater – Dallas, TX – November 19, 2009. What I learned: The Mountain Goats can rip. Still living in Norman, OK, I drove myself down to Dallas toward the end of my last semester in college to catch tMG on the Life of the World to Come tour. This is probably my favorite experience seeing the Mountain Goats, as the set list fit me perfectly at the time except for “Raja Vocative.” This live version of tMG was actually a four-piece combo, with John on acoustic, Peter on bass, a pre-joined-the-band Jon Wurster on drums, and a hired gun on electric guitar. They turned “Against Pollution” into a rager; seriously, listen to that tape of it and hear John just dissolve into his own fury by the second verse and chorus, to say nothing of the guitar and drums just flailing it out mid-song. That version is the penultimate song of the last show of the tour, so it gets an extended rock-out coda that I didn’t get, which is all the better for you the listener. That song still lives on in my mind as one of the greatest moments I’ve ever had live at a concert.

It was John at his most professional and least off-the-cuff, so I remember almost no banter at all. I still hadn’t dug into Tallahassee yet, so “See America Right” went over my head other than being notably intense. I absolutely loved the performance of “Thank You Mario, But Our Princess Is In Another Castle,” which astonishingly you can see a partial video of here. The people talking in this video are clearly not aware of what brilliance they are apparently deeming themselves more important than.

Weird note: I had a frenemy in high school that devolved into a longstanding, low-simmering feud over petty and insignificant high school things. We actually went to the same university but he went math/science, and I went arts/communication. I remember looking across the room in between the opener (the incredible Owen Pallett, then performing as Final Fantasy) and seeing the frenemy. He looked directly at me, pointed to me, nodded, and looked up toward the stage. We both knew that we both loved the Mountain Goats. Our feud was over. The Mountain Goats are powerful.

(Also, I didn’t get to hear the tMG/Final Fantasy version of “Alpha Omega” live, as they did that version eight days later. But it’s one of my favorite tMG live jams ever and it deserves mention here. Please enjoy Owen Pallett and John Darnielle’s mutual appreciation society paying back enormous benefits. I love this grainy, grungy recorded video so much that I included it as part of my “listen to the Mountain Goats” pitch and somehow at least one person believed me.)

3. ACM @UCO Performance Lab – Oklahoma City, OK – October 6, 2010. What I Learned: The Mountain Goats can construct amazing setlists. This one-off show was due to the school-of-rock ACM@UCO bringing John in. Wye Oak opened and played the heartbreaking ode to a dying person “I Hope You Die,” which had some of the most charming opening banter I’ve ever heard: it ran something like “I’m really honored to play with The Mountain Goats. When I play this song, I think of the Mountain Goats. I mean, not that I hope they die. In this song, the sentiment is supposed to be sweet. I don’t hope the Mountain Goats die. I’m gonna stop and just play the song.”

My most vivid memory of this show is the closer “California Song,” which is basically bass and Casio in the original; John let Peter handle the instruments and instead wandered around stage singing this beautiful/weird song like he was a frontman in a punk rock band. He leaned into the audience on a bass-and-casio song. The Mountain Goats are brilliant.

This show also features an almost immaculate playlist: my personal favorite “Waving At You”; the rare “Fall of the High School Running Back” and “Lion’s Teeth”; and the “just play the hits” run of “Dance Music,” “This Year”, and “No Children” back-to-back-to-back.” The one exception is “Minnesota,” which, fine, yes, he has so many songs and knows so many of them that I can’t keep up. (An admission: Full Force Galesburg is one of the only non-EP Mountain Goats records that I haven’t purchased.)

I would remember more about this show but I was tailing off a horrible year that would take a strong sharp turn upwards in roughly three weeks after this gig; it was deeply moving at the time, but I’d mostly like to forget everything except the resulting personal character development from January to October of 2010. It was still great though, and I now love “California Song” and “I Hope You Die” with unquenchable passion. So, no weird notes from this show.

4. Haw River Ballroom – Saxaphaw, NC – June 27, 2014 – What I Learned: The Mountain Goats know their deep cuts. Another one-off show, and easily the weirdest tMG show I’ve seen. This was a benefit show for Girls Rock NC, so John peppered his set with cover songs originally written by women. These one-off, exclusive performances were gold (you can see a video of “Spellbound” by Siouxsie & The Banshees here). However, these special songs were thrown into a set of almost aggressively atypical selections: deep cuts “Baboon” and “Grendel’s Mother,” b-sides “Rotten Stinking Mouthpiece” and (the deeply moving) “Steal Smoked Fish,” unreleased ultra-gem “You Were Cool,” side project song “Thank You Mario” (again!), and a pre-release version of “Southwestern Territory.” This resulted in one of those you-had-to-be-there shows that was also a weird follow-up to the “just play the hits” show I saw in 2010. Yet it was not one of those “everyone calls out songs and John plays some of them” shows, because it was in a giant theater.

Weird note: I bought Tallahassee at this show because after hearing “Have to Explode,” I decided it was time to go for it. I’d heard so many Tallahassee songs live at that point that I just needed to make it happen. So I did. It’s way up on my list of favorite tMG albums now, and I may have switched from being a Sunset Tree person to a Tallahassee person (although my ultimate allegiance is to The Life of the World to Come).

5. Cat’s Cradle – Carrboro, NC – April 7, 2015 – What I Learned: The Mountain Goats can go and go. This one is the first set I saw with JD’s current method of playing shows: full band set, JD solo set, second full band set, encores. The first set held two of my favorite Beat the Champ songs (“Southwestern Territory,” “Foreign Object”) and three personal faves (“Slow West Vultures,” “Get Lonely,” and “Cry for Judas”). The solo set had “There Will Be No Divorce” in it, which is in the running for my favorite tMG song with “Against Pollution,” so that pretty much brought the house down for me. We also got “Love Love Love,” “Up the Wolves,” and “Amy AKA Spent Gladiator #1,” none of which I had yet heard and all of which ruled.

Weird facts: This set was a herculean 24 songs long. Yet John was so stoked about this set that for his encore he played a song he wrote for his son that he had apparently never played live before. He asked that it not be recorded. It was remarkably tender. I try to remember as much of it as I can, because I won’t ever hear it again. God bless all Dads everywhere, and especially those who fight their own demons to father their own children well.

6. Crescent Ballroom – Phoenix, AZ – September 11, 2018 – What I Learned: The Mountain Goats will always make it worth your time. By this point, I’d seen enough Mountain Goats shows that I have a list of songs I haven’t seen that I would love to see live (within reason; there are good reasons for “Going to Georgia” to not be played live, and I’m pretty sure it’s gonna take a special event for “Cubs in Five” to make it back out), and wouldn’t you know it, I got three of them in this show: an appropriately ferocious “Lovecraft in Brooklyn,” deep cut fave “Lakeside View Apartments Suite” and the very fun “Southwood Plantation Road.” I also didn’t know how much I needed “Heel Turn 2” in my life, because that was impressive too. So no matter how many tMG shows you’ve seen, JD will always make it worth it for you. That’s the mark of a true great live show: you can see it over and over and it will still rule. It still rules.

Weird fact: the first half of this set, other than “Lovecraft in Brooklyn,” seemed dedicated to finding tracks that I am just not into–the setlist was not my favorite one (that’s the ACM@UCO show). Two of the three solo set songs I had never heard before (“Soft Targets,” “Dutch Orchestra Blues”). I got an extra copy of the official Mountain Goats fan card (card-carrying member!) and mailed it to my friend Jeff, the one who gamely listened to the grainy “Alpha Omega” and got into the Goats big time. The Goats transcend time, space, sound quality, better judgment, and youthful enthusiasm.

So there you have it: six Mountain Goats shows, all of which were grade A or better. (Soon there will be another entry in this list, as I will be seeing John solo in San Francisco in February with Jeff.) You should very much go see the Mountain Goats, no matter what album tour they’re on–they will make it worth your time. Undeniably and in any format, they are a fantastic live band, and you should go see them. Consider this a make-good for that lukewarm review of In League With Dragons. 

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Scale compilation: For lovers of instrumental variety

December 12, 2019

Bigo & Twigetti‘s Scale compilation record is a fascinating, highly enjoyable work. It covers a wide range of instrumental territory but never compromises on quality. I’m a fan of more melodic instrumental work than dissonant work, so I was drawn to the softer side of the release: Jameson Nathan Jones’ “Continuum” is a beautiful work that stretches the bounds of choral, electronic, classical, and ambient music; “To Learn and Grow” by Philip G Anderson and Laura Masotto is a mysterious wintry walk for piano and violin; and “Ode” by Klangriket creates ambient work out of what sounds like a harmonium and found sounds.

It’s not all uncomplicatedly beautiful things. “Disproportionate Joys” by William Ryan Fritch is both elegant and abrasive, if such a thing is possible–the music-box delicacy is contrasted by sharp, shearing noises that give an unusual, interesting feel to the work. Fiona Brice’s “Past Present” is intense and disquieting, with dissonance, repetition, and doppler-effect crescendoes/decrescendoes that inspire a sense of dread. There are others in this darker, more challenging vein as well (the landscapes of “Koexistenz” by Jonas Meyer, the analog synths of “Deep Forest” by Luca Longobardi).

But it’s the beautiful that I am drawn to most on this collection, and the last five of the 17-track collection have some of the most lovely work: piano excellence (“Symmetry” by Garreth Broke, “Falling Stars” by Matt Stewart-Evans, “Forgotten” by Marika Takeuchi, “Sum and Part” by Nathan Shubert) and a final long, sweeping, sci-fi-tinged synths piece (“0.000628 Light Years” by Yehezkel Raz) provide an excellent parting shot of roughly 25 minutes.

There’s a credit to compilers of this collection not only in the high quality of the pieces included here, but also the excellent sequencing; the album flows in a lovely manner, even through the more dissonant pieces. It feels like a real album, not a haphazard collection of pieces thrown together. That’s very hard to do. If you’re into instrumental pieces, you should definitely check out Scale from Bigo & Twigetti.

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November Singles 1

December 11, 2019

1. “Candlelight” – Moon Hooch. Two saxophones and a drumkit make some of the most infectious dance music that I know of, and this latest track is no exception. If you’ve never heard Moon Hooch before, get ready. If you have heard them before, well–also get ready. It’s real good. The video is an excellent representation of their live show, so get hyped for their live work with this clip, if you’ve not had that experience.

2. “Emerge” – Liam J Hennessy. Combines major-key post-rock, contemporary composition, and solid electronic beats into an uplifting piece. Fans of Lights and Motion will be all over this.

3. “Gaze at Blue” – Elephant Gym. Jazzy, groove-heavy post-rock stuff from Japan that’s real, real chill.

4. “Double” – Lite. This math-rock outfit has managed to create a video as frenetic and fascinating as the original track while still being totally watchable. Great stuff here.

5. “Anna” – Desingly. A walking-speed, brightly-recorded acoustic-pop tune with delicate female and male vocals. It’s a lovely, relaxing cut. (Nov 15)

6. “Solenya” – Febria. This is a more post-hardcore/old-school emo instrumental track, which I very much approve of. Lots of dark, dense sound structures, but lots of punk rock movement in the melodies as well. If you like big guitars, jump on. (Nov 11)

7. “Awaken (Feat. Jon Ososki)” – Marika Takeuchi. This is a deeply satisfying fusion of classical piano, artsy electronic flourishes, and driving beats. The recording and mastering here are excellent, as each element just pops right out of the headphones. This is a serious headbobber. Great stuff.

8. “Our House is On Fire” – Laura Masotto. As you might expect from a song with such an urgent name, this is a track that is not chill in the least. Fleet violin bowing rushes over drone and digital bass burbles. The digital burbles are electronic transmutations of sounds from within the violin, which is really cool. The track gets more and more furious up to its sudden conclusion, upon which one must conclude the house fell over. That’s a lot to pack in to 2:25.

9. “Ambisinistrous” – Jason McMahon. A rolling, cascading bit of acoustic guitar instrumental that feels mysterious and yet concrete. It’s a lovely little two-minute thought break.

10. “Beware the Tempest” – More Than Skies. A temporary respite from the occasionally-raucous folk-rock that MTS usually offers, this tune starts with an elegant strings intro before turning to a piano-led instrumental that establishes a dusky, dramatic mood.

11. “Li Feruli” – Nymphalida. A delicate, measured, spacious ambient track with a lot of atmosphere from not a whole lot of layers.

12. “I Thought By Now” – Nick Nash. The eternal problem: you get everything you want, and it doesn’t fulfill. Nash couches the ultimate problem of the soul in a lushly-ornamented tune that splits the difference between country and folk.

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Funkrust Brass Band gives you something you’ve never heard before

December 5, 2019

Post-apocalyptic disco-punk? Funkrust Brass Band’s Bones and Burning redefines eclectic cool with its eighteen-piece band of shiny brilliance. At its core, multi-instrumentalist Phil Andrews’s music (Rude Mechanical Orchestra, Gay Panic, Apocalypse Five & Dime) and Ellia Bisker’s lyrics (Charming Disaster, Sweet Soubrette) wrap listeners in a party of sound.

Bones and Burning trips into a musical playing field like the bastard of a traditional marching band who met its dream lover. The child birthed glimmers of the genius of Talking Head’s David Byrne, rich in indie vibe. Also, art rock folks that miss Bowie will find solace in Funkrust Brass Band’s debut EP and its otherworldly ambiance. 

Listeners are welcomed in to “Open House Fire” and its halftime-at-a-football-party feel. Musically, Funkrust creates familiarity within the surreal–that is, until Bisker’s biting vocal cuts through the party. Featuring frenetic brass swimming in vast pools of talent and no lack of creativity, “Bones and Burning” struts a tango of angsty trumpet proclamation. This is heady, haunting, poetic stuff, but the band is displaying reality in its lyrics.

Fans of stop-motion animation will deeply enjoy the claymation of “Uncanny Carnival”; the video enhances the carnival-barker-style dissonance of Bisker’s vocals. Originality can be strangely comforting, and each hollow cymbal strike makes this a carnival I want to attend! 

“Terminus” is a stunning closer to the EP. It features a quick tempo matched by the speedy vocals, and the disjointed feel of the track fits with a subtext of the record. It’s a dark message about those with no strategy to impact or affect change, and it closes the EP perfectly.

Beyond the credited 18-piece band, there’s a lot of personnel that helps Funkrust happen: Heather Vaughan’s strong illustration and Matthew Cain’s strong cover design are consistent with the overall tone of the music. The EP was recorded and mixed by engineer Michael Kamm at The Dreamfield and mastered by Stefan Heger. If you’ve got a marching band, then you have to have a choreographer. And yes, Funkrust has a choreographer that plays a part in live performance. Ultimately, the band creates a uniquely cinematic, post-apocalyptic vibe worth getting lost in here. —Lisa Whealy

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Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.

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