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Month: June 2020

June Singles: Noisy

1. “Black Sorbet – Live in Krasnodar” – Closet Disco Queen. I don’t know where Closet Disco Queen has been hiding these last few years, but their mix of thrashy metal, thundering post-hardcore, and riffs (RIIIIIIIFFFFFS) has finally landed on my doorstep and I am thrilled. “Black Sorbet” is one long riffsplosion, a thoroughgoing tour-de-force on how to write guitar-drums rock music that absolutely, totally rips. The shout at 2:30 proves that the guitarist is as jazzed as I am over this magic. Highly recommended.

2. “California” – Knuckle Pups. Folk punk meets emo crossed with the Mountain Goats riding on a banjo with Bright Eyes/Clap Your Hands Say Yeah-style vocals. Also gang vocals. Also religious references. This is basically laser-targeted at my interests circa 2012, which means that it’s a nostalgia trip for a song I’ve never heard before. Knuckle Pups have a lot of promise, y’all. I don’t say “this is gonna be big” often, but I would be lying if I said anything other than “I think this is gonna be big.” Highly recommended.

3. “Bubble Under” – Anteloper. The skittering beats and thudding bass that into this track had me saying “ohhhhh yeahhhh” before we even got to the trumpet and pad synths that turn this track. The dense backdrop allows gossamer pads and fluctuating trumpet lines to float and frolic through the space. It’s an excellent track. Highly recommended.

4. “Pelota” – Khruangbin. My favorite Thai-influenced post-rock / dub / unclassifiable outfit returns with more fascinatingly uncompromising and difficult-to-explain music. This one has latin vibes running through it in addition to the trio’s spacious bass-lines, wiry melodies and percussion setup. Vocals appear in this one as well, pointing to new directions for the group.

5. “Easy” – Omar Addis. Funky, smooth, major-key indie-rock that evokes Tame Impala in the best ways. A lot of fun!

6. “Our Reflection Adorned by Newly Formed Stars” – Turning Jewels into Water. Feels like it should explode out into zinging chaos at any moment, but stays controlled, tightly coiled, a source of energy only being used at its partial capacity. The tension that they build with the knowledge that this could have gone from its current state as a percussion and staccato synths groove jam into a freakout is immense. Very cool track.

7. “Rock ‘n Rollin” – The Chef. As a huge fan of the Daft Punk Tron: Legacy soundtrack and its remixes, I am predisposed to big, stomping techno with distorted guitars, minor key punch, and vaguely-to-seriously ominous vibes. The Chef checks all those boxes here, wrapping in some nostalgically ’90s sounds for pleasingly good measure.

8. “Augusta Fairgrounds” – Matt Gold. A snappy-yet-thoughtful guitar-and-drums post-rock tune that’s long on mood and melody. This would be a perfect inclusion on an open-road vacation playlist.

9. “Rat King” – Patrick Phelan. The dour self-awareness of Bright Eyes meets slowcore aesthetics with some drama-enhancing synths laid on top of it. It’s an evocative mix.

10. “May” – standards. Man, I love standards. Their brand of math-rock fused with indie-pop melodicism is just right in my instrumental sweet spot. “May” is a bit more relaxed than their previous singles from the new record, as the tempo is dialed back (although the drums still manage to fill up all available space, endearingly) and the melodies are less insistent. Can math-rock be relaxing? I submit that it can.

11. “If I Had a Body (Live at Old Oak Studio)” – Samuel Alty. Alty’s angry on this song, as the lyrics clearly show; yet he restrains his vocals and fingerpicked guitar performance from the frenetic roar that he has shown he is capable of making. There’s more than a little Jose Gonzalez in this track, as a result–tension tightly constrained, making the moments where it breaks free even more appealing.

12. “Holding the Night’s Attention” – Identical Homes. This electronic track starts off hazy and ominous, then coalesces into a full-on menacing stomp. It never turns to rage, just a steadily oncoming danger. FFO the Daft Punk Tron soundtrack.

13. “November / The Bird in My Breast” – The Duke of Norfolk. Now this is a wildly inventive tune. The Duke of Norfolk takes the traditional hymn “Be Thou My Vision” and weaves the original lyrics into new ones in the original melody. This composes a song fearfully considering whether a lover will leave, with overtones of the same fear in a religious context. (The concluding choir of “Ae Fond Kiss” seals the deal with, yes, indeed, the lover will leave.) The music itself is a stripped-down, restrained version of all the things the Duke does best: electro-folk with major key burbles, distant reveries, and fully-developed atmosphere. (Disclaimer: I managed the Duke from 2009-2014.)

14. “Rest” – The Gray Havens. TGH has been kicking it with rappers and remixers a lot recently (see Propaganda’s feature on their last album and a recent trio of dance remixes), and it shows here: big, booming, reverb-heavy beats; speak-sung vocals; synths for atmosphere; a lot of percussion hit; and a striking lack of piano except for flourishes and outro. It’s a banger, tbh. From the Gray Havens. A banger, I say.

17 years: Ten Seminal Records

Facebook tropes are usually just fodder for scam artists trying to steal personal question answers, but the “10 albums no explanation” trope is charming to me. I loved seeing my newsfeed populated by pictures of album art, before the trope got stopped cold by the George Floyd protests. (Who knew so many of my friends were influenced by Based on a True Story by Fat Freddy’s Drop?) My modus operandi is talking about music at length, so I was always going to fail at just posting album art. Instead, I’m making an essay out of it. Intriguingly, no one tagged me in to the chain for music, although one person did for books. I’m tagging myself in. Here’s 10 albums that cover my formative years of 1988-2008.

  1. The Lord Reigns – Bob Fitts. One of my earliest memories of recorded music is me pulling out the drawer on a CD cabinet and seeing this right at the front of the line. My family listened to this live-recorded worship record all the time. Pretty much everything about this album is indelibly printed on my brain, from the sonics to the melodies to the lyrics to the artwork to the included lyric sheets. This album is so bedrock in my listening experience that I can’t explain what parts of it specifically went forward with me. (I would guess not the high-’80s trumpet synths.) I can say without shame that I still jam out to this record.
  2. Songs – Rich Mullins. Everything I know about Christian songwriting (non-corporate-worship division) and many things I know about music in general I learned from Rich Mullins. Christians can doubt in song (“Jacob and 2 Women”), write about things other than God (“The River”), write perfect albums (A Liturgy, A Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band), excel musically (“Creed”), expand the universe (“Calling Out Your Name”), be funny (“Screen Door”), write demos (The Jesus Album), I could go on. His hit-to-filler ratio was so high that it was unfair. (I’m not going to defend “Higher Education and the Book of Love,” though, that one is just a straight-up clunker.) While I think that Liturgy is perfect and The World as Best as I Remember It, Vol. 1 is his desert-island record for me (I just love “The River” and “I See You” so much), Songs is the one that I remember listening to the most as a kid.
  3. The Anatomy of the Tongue in Cheek – Relient K. Christmas, 2001. My grandmother gifts me a lime green Discman with three CDs: Relient K’s Anatomy, The OC Supertones Strike Back and a third album lost to time. (It’s fully possible that it was Superchic[k]’s Karaoke Superstars, but I cannot confirm.) I went upstairs after opening my gifts, sat on my bottom bed of my red metal bunkbed, picked Relient K’s record to try first, put it on, and was blasted by the opening snare hits and charging pop-punk guitars of “Kick-off.” At the end of the 0:39 song, I remember distinctly thinking, “I don’t know what this is, but I want to do it for the rest of my life.” 17 months later, I was running Independent Clauses. I was 15 years old.
  4. Philmore – Philmore. This obscure, bizarre punk rock record is notable because Philmore lived next to my friend William in a neighborhood a mile down the road from my house. This was my introduction to local music, and I’ve done my best to be a fan of and friend to local music ever since. (The record is so way out of print and the band so long gone that I am shocked that they still have a Wikipedia page.) There is a cover of Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer” on this record, as well as a remarkably audacious, not-a-joke song extending the “more fish in the sea” metaphor to absurd levels. (It was the single!!)
  5. August and Everything After – Counting Crows. In early 2003, my friend Annie was incredulous that I had never heard of Coldplay. (I did not listen to the radio.) She burned my A Rush of Blood to the Head (which is barely missed making the cut itself, being a force in its own right on my musical thinking; I would later form a band that went through a serious Coldplay phase) and August. August is a tour de force of perhaps-too-vulnerable lyrics and impassioned, idiosyncratic, non-standard pop songwriting; my deep affection for both of these things is directly related to hearing this record. “Raining in Baltimore” blew the top off my brain and pretty much still does every time I listen to it.
  6. Give Up – The Postal Service. Ben Gibbard’s 2003 output was so formative to me that I have both of his ’03 records on this list. The Postal Service’s lone record has been one of the deepest wells of delight a single record has ever produced for me. Longtime readers of this blog will remember that when it came time to celebrate the 10th anniversary of IC, I chose Give Up as the album to cover. The fusion of indie-pop melodies with subtle electro-pop backdrops influences how I think about both of those things, even now.
  7. Transatlanticism – Death Cab for Cutie. The second Ben Gibbard record of ’03 to grace the list. It is not an exaggeration to say that every indie-pop record I have ever listened to has been filtered through the lens of Transatlanticism. Even more specifically, the ineffable, inexplicable beauty of “Title and Registration” and the slightly cracked enthusiasm of the ode to anxiety “The Sound of Settling” have shaped my reviewing to an extensive degree. This album is, to me, perfect–anything you dislike about this record is an area of disagreement on our aesthetic values. Where Give Up expanded my horizons (electro-pop was new to me), this cemented an undying love of indie-pop that Counting Crows had begun in me.
  8. Thought Control EP – The Felix Culpa. At almost the same time as I was looking out from pop-punk to the milder climes of indie-pop via Ben Gibbard, I was exploring darker, harsher sounds as well. I grew to love post-hardcore before I discovered The Felix Culpa, but “Good Business Moves” and “Commitment” (which, humorously, does not appear on the album Commitment) are basically the apex of my interest in two types of post-hardcore. “Good Business Moves” is a socio-critical rager with one of the most monster riffs I had ever heard at that point (it’s still a top-10 riff), while “Commitment” is headier, more personal, dealing with the mature troubles of marriage (which were a foreign country to me at that point in 2005). When I think of post-hardcore, I think of the Felix Culpa, period.
  9. Rehearsals for Departure – Damien Jurado. I can’t pin down when I first heard Jurado, but I know that I saw him live somewhere in 2007-2008, so it had to be before then. Rehearsals opened up a whole new world for me. I had heard and enjoyed acoustic music from pop-punk bands who were doing acoustic ballads, gimmicky larks or genuine side projects like The New Amsterdams. But Jurado’s fully-developed world of gentle acoustic sounds, tightly detailed lyrics, and almost timeless angst plunked me straight down in a place I’d never been. The 2009-2018 iteration of this blog focused on folk-pop was almost entirely due to my obsession with Jurado that was rekindled by Mumford & Son’s Sigh No More. 
  10. The Sunset Tree – The Mountain Goats. While I first heard “It Froze Me” on Pandora, then heard most of Get Lonely live, it’s The Sunset Tree that turned me into a hardcore tMG fan. The combustible combination of even-more-detailed-than-Damien-Jurado lyrics, impeccably arranged indie-pop songwriting, howling vocals, and dense worldbuilding sucked me in. Beyond this record, I found worlds upon worlds built by John Darnielle, and they are all what keep me going farther in. But I could have stopped at Get Lonely, despite how great a record it is–I could not stop after The Sunset Tree. Even as I move away from covering indie-pop, if anyone mentions the Mountain Goats in their PR, I will listen. I will always listen.

There’s a whole other list I could put together for touchstones from 2009-2019; perhaps in another decade I’ll put together that list. Happy 17th anniversary to Independent Clauses, by the way–we keep on truckin’.

Matt Gold branches out with excellent results

Matt Gold, as half of Sun Speak, is familiar with complex-yet-friendly guitar-based instrumental post-rock. On his first solo record Imagined Sky, Gold purveys more guitar-based post-rock, albeit with a wider instrumental and vocal palette. Opener “Augusta Fairgrounds” will warm the heart of any Sun Speak fan, as there’s not much a difference between Gold and Sun Speak on this one.

It’s with “Queen Anne” that Gold sets out the new directions for the record, as a warm synth whirrs elegantly to start the tune, met by Macie Stewart’s clear, excellent vocals. Bass guitar follows, and then finally guitar and drums (in his traditional style) come in. Even with the patterns of the guitar being similar, they’re put in much more pop-oriented mode here, eschewing gnarly turns of guitar runs for tag-team vocal performances. “Petrichor,” featuring vocals by Sara Serpa, pushes that impulse even farther, leaning into a smoothed-out, angle-less, artsy indie-pop frame that is more evocative of My Brightest Diamond than Sun Speak.

“Truehearted” is the center of the record, a piece that features Gold’s own very-capable voice in a surprisingly confident, folksy, finger-picked, acoustic guitar setting. Fluttery synths hang out in the background for texture. This is an impressive track that certainly shows another side of Gold’s work. “Between the Four Seas” is another acoustic-guitar work, this time an instrumental that applies the intricate work of his electric guitar to the quieter realm. It’s equally as charming as “Truehearted,” if a little less immediate in its connection.

The rest of the tracks will be more familiar to fans of instrumental work. “Bottom of the Barrel” has some Southern-rock crunch to the tone and melodies, which is really quite appealing. “Dollarama” is a slow-paced, wide-screen look at Gold’s work at walking pace, and “Crimes” fills out the record with Sun Speak-ian drama. Overall, this record is impressive, with the extensions of Gold’s sound all landing very capably and entertainingly while not diminishing the quality of the work he is so expert at. It’s a rare feat to have your cake and eat it too, and Gold has certainly done that here. The listeners are the beneficiaries of his rare skill. Highly recommended.

Under the Reefs Orchestra / The People of 2020 / TENGGER

Under the Reefs Orchestra is a jazz ensemble that sounds like a post-rock band trying to be an electronic outfit. The bass saxophone, guitar, and drums trio create crunchy, groove-laden, thunderous, and seemingly seamless work that could appeal to fans of any of the types of music I mentioned above. “Sumo” is a good place to start: the distorted (!) baritone sax barrels out its riff while the drums give a slo-mo headbanging stomp, and the guitar whirls and clangs above it in a supremely post-rock experience.

“Eldorado” is more heavily electronic, as the drums are processed into an electronic beat and noodly synths wander around the delicate, mysterious guitar line. Closer “Le Naufrage” is a distorted, rumbling, post-apocalyptic landscape driven by the baritone sax that is almost as terrifying as Colin Stetson’s fear-suffused work. “Tucuman” is as close to jazz as this record gets, with the sax playing some jazz-inspired patterns to guide the rest of the band in their still partially-apocalyptic explorations. This whole record sounds like it was recorded late at night in a dimly-lit room, with the trio scoring a particularly edgy noir film. Under the Reefs Orchestra’s self-titled record is a wild ride for those interested in adventurous music. Highly recommended.

A lot of people put out quarantine songs (Grimes put out a whole record!), but The People of 2020 have the most unique quarantine record, in my estimation. The self-titled five-song collection was composed by 40 people over a 14-day span, with each person having 24 hours to contribute their parts to the songs as they grew. The three main works (two are opening/closing interludes) span a wide gamut, but it’s generally jazz. It’s big jazz, as you might expect from 40 people working on a record. There are all sorts of influences that come from those large amount of players: on the seven-minute “Flattening,” there’s steel pan, synths, classic-rock-inflected electric guitar, flute, horn line, trombone, solo sax, hand percussion, kit percussion (and boy, the drummer gets after it), and more. The lengths of the tunes help corral some of this largesse into shape, but in general this is a big ‘ol asynchronous jam session, and I am fully here for it. It’s dreamy, it’s woozy, it’s a little wacky, but it’s impressive nonetheless.

“The Climb” is a little less kitchen-sink vibe, as it opens with a slinky sax, a smooth clarinet, and smoky piano to set the vibe. The drums once again ratchet the track’s energy into the stratosphere (your mileage may vary on if this is a good thing or not, I tend to think it could have come down a bit), but the vocals and instruments do a good job of keeping that smoky, slinky vibe going throughout, even with a raucous number of players. The coda is just as noisy as “Flattening,” but it feels a little more in service of the track itself.

“Slide Out” opens up in a much more hip-hop-infused jazz mode, with electric keys, wah guitar, and spoken word vocals leading the funky, snappy charge. Of the three tracks, this one is the most focused and tight, with powerful female sung vocals, somewhat restrained drums, challenging bass work, and saxophone swirling around each other to create an impressive whirligig. If you’d told me that this was a live-gig-weathered outfit that made this track, I wouldn’t be surprised. It’s more surprising that the jam is this tight for a group that has never and probably will never play together in one room. It’s the highlight, for sure.

There’s a lot more info about the record at the record label Infinity Gritty’s site. If you’re up for some kitchen-sink maximalist jazz-funk-hip-hop vibes, hit this one up.

TENGGER‘s Nomad is a collection of mostly-instrumental synth-heavy landscapes. The married duo’s last album Spiritual 2 drew heavily on motorik / krautrock sorts of repetition, but Nomad works more with drone, delicate ostinato patterns, and nature-inspired work to invoke its sense of centering calm. Opener “Achime” has subtle percussion clicks to keep the flow moving, and the steady pulse of the arpeggiator on “Eurasia” functions as percussion before a semblance of a kit comes in. Those are limited palettes, compared to prior work, but the rest of the tracks (“Bliss,” “Water,” “Flow,” “Us”) eschew even that. Instead, these are flowing pieces that rely as much on nature recordings (“Bliss”) and subtle evocations of nature (a pattern here, a tone there) to do their work.

And their work is deeply relaxing–it’s more motion-oriented than most ambient tunes, but that only serves to further calm me. Instead of trying to become fully, maximally chill, these tunes seem to gently bring me down to a level of peace-within-gentle-motion that my amped-up self can be comfortable with. “Bliss” is pretty much what it says on the tin, a space where no negative thoughts seem allowed. “Water” sounds like a steady, peaceful stream through masterful synth tone manipulation. “Flow” is ten minutes that opens with a pitched-down, sped-up version of “Water” and layers spacey pad synths on top of it, putting me in a good headspace. Female vocals waft throughout this and other pieces, adding a wordless layer of enthusiasm on the lovely space. It is a bit of a contradiction that it can be enthusiastic and ambient at the same time, but that’s why I like it. Nomad is a lovely, elegant, peaceful work, and I commend it to anyone looking for those qualities.

Gabriel Birnbaum reads my past back to me

A significant reason I stopped covering folk-pop was my inability to take any more breakup songs. After a decade of folk-pop mope and almost a decade of pop-punk / emo in the same vein before that, I was full up. (the Good Graces’ devastating Set Your Sights is pretty much all I need at this point, although sharp-eyed readers will note that I just recently covered Summerooms’ breakup album–some things can’t be avoided.) Looking into instrumental music means that I am opening myself into a vast new room of tropes. I’m sure I’ll get sick of the tropes of instrumental music at some point, but there’s always new genres to discover when that happens.

I mention all this because I’ve never heard an album quite like Gabriel Birnbaum‘s NightwaterIt is the opposite of a breakup album: instead of being heavily invested in personal grief, reckoning, and catharsis, Nightwater is almost aggressively focused on items and their surroundings. The titles here are their own art, setting aside the music for a moment; it’s as if William Carlos Williams wrote a track listing. “Half an Orange Crush on a Blue Recycling Bin,” “Ashtray, I <3 NY,” “Yellow Sign, Discount Liquor, Seen Through the Window,” and “Sun Bleached Bbq Grill, Red to Pink” are all so lusciously specific in their iconography and representative details that I barely have to describe the music to you. All four of those songs sound exactly like those situations. I don’t know if Birnbaum wrote the titles and then set out to evoke those images or is simply a savant at understanding which slices of low-key everyplace ephemera his instrumental compositions sound like. Either way, I heard this record, saw those titles, and fell in love with it. I fell in love with it so hard that I wanted to make something like it. That’s my highest honor.

Okay, but what does “Half an Orange Crush on a Blue Recycling Bin” sound like, if you’ve never had the experience of seeing that exact thing? Well, there’s a vintage keyboard sound that lazily and contentedly creeps its way along, a bass that plods along with it, and a Casio-style backbeat. The lead melody sounds like it came out of a toy instrument somewhere. The whole thing is the best sort of humid languor–the nowhere-to-be, nothing-to-do sort of space that is so constricting to teens but so nostalgic and desirable to adults who are forgetting how much it sucked the first time around. I have that nostalgia when I hear this track, and affirm that I didn’t really like this sort of feeling when I was a teenager–that’s the level of evocativeness that Birnbaum has conjured up from this track. Also there’s a saxophone or something, of course there is, there always was.

“Three Cacti: Felt, Rubber, Neon” is an unimpeachable ode to kitschy Arizona stuff (yo! I live here now! I know this feeling!). “Candle in Shower, Fear Be Gone” takes the swirling guitars of Damien Jurado’s untethered “Saturday” and gives them a home in my memory of saint candles in odd places. “Kitchen Wall, a Cold Cup of Cosmos” relies on an almost soulful keys-and-bass interplay to turn a ditty with Casio into a reverie on early mornings and late night conversations, sitting in the kitchen, pondering the universe. “Stack of Unread Books Next to the Bed” (yes, I feel very seen) is an intimate, affectionate piece that breaks everything down to its most minimal elements–the percussion is a distant click of spoons, the guitar is minimal, the synths are fragmentary, and the whole thing is homey and lived-in. Your mileage may vary, but tracks like this could just live in the background of my life, and it would be an appropriate estimation of my way of life.

Birnbaum’s four-track approach here does the trick that the best art does: it turns its limitations into its strengths. (See Regina Spektor’s Soviet Kitsch for the highest form of this position.) Birnbaum revels in the space that the limited number of instruments allows; tracks like “Old Family Chair, Claimed by Cat” use little details like amplifier buzz as part of the way the songs develop and feel. That track, by the way, is a beautiful, lightly herky-jerky offering that is basically the sound of your cat’s leg moving in its sleep.

I could go on for a while. This album is 45 minutes of minimalist reveries that are laser-focused to my sonic and topical concerns. If you like minimalist music but can’t stand cold formality, if you like composition but have an indie rock soul instead of a orchestral soul, if you have an emotional response to the title “Two Small Chipped Mugs, Turquoise,” then this record is for you. Highly recommended.

Joshua Crumbly puts himself on the map with a unique space and voice

Joshua Crumbly‘s Rise defies expectations. It’s ostensibly a jazz record, but the approach of the record is far more oriented toward rock, post-rock, and even ambient stylings: one of its singles is a track called “New Rock Thingy” that includes an ambient section (as well as a traditionally jazzy saxophone solo at the end).

This isn’t to say it’s not a jazz record; it’s certainly got the chops and the sensibilities to make jazz aficionados jump. (“Remembering” is a jazz ballad par excellence, while “Shout Song” and “Light” are just a couple of the tracks with prominent saxophone leads.) But Crumbly is definitely in the space of artists like Kamasi Washington, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Mark Guiliana and more who take jazz as a starting place to move into their own space with their own voice.

For Crumbly, that space is a quiet, reverent place. Multiple songs are elegies for the dead; “Noah” and “For Victor” call out their fallen directly, while tracks like “Remembering” and “Rise” fall in a similar sonic space as those and thus feel thematically similar. Beyond the titular thematic thread, much of this record is pensive without dragging (especially “For Victor,” which gets positively hectic), thoughtful without compromising on precision.

Crumbly’s instrumental voice in his compositions is of a bassist that puts emotive bass runs in the service of moving along the mellow, relaxing work. See “Valor” for a perfect example of a deeply enthusiastic bass performance that yet is a laidback jam (even as the bass and drums try to punch it into overdrive). It’s quite a trick. “Shout Song” is another example of an overall quiet approach anchored by consistent bass movement. Closer “Light” is probably the most experimental of the track, showing off Crumbly’s careful voice impeccably. Synths (or perhaps processed sax?), hand percussion, and kit percussion interplay carefully over a series of bass-led chord changes, creating a highly evocative piece of work.

None of the pieces on Rise are long; none break five minutes, and seven of the nine are finished in under four. This gives his reverent, careful pieces the feel of statements in an easygoing conversation. The record is not dense or demanding; instead, the work is inviting, emotive, and thoughtful. That it can be those things without compromising on quality of composition and strength of arrangement is a strong testament to the quality of both. Crumbly has put himself on my map with this debut.

Brief Candle, Sleepersound, L’Eclair

Brief Candle‘s Absurd Dances falls somewhere between instrumental beats, ambient, and found-sound pastiche. The four tracks rely heavily on hip-hop-influenced kit-sounding drums, found-sound speech recordings, textural synths, and nylon-string guitar for its approach. The tunes add in other elements to differentiate the tunes: the lead melodies of “Don Juan” and “Deserts” are classical-guitar inspired, while “Saint-Just” leans in to some processed keys and vaguely Spaghetti-western guitar for the top line. “The Actor” is the most complex of the tunes, using a larger-than-usual drum pattern and lazy keys on top of synths, phased bass, and vocal clips. It’s the least “dry” of the tracks.

The first three rely on a sparse, formal, familiar quality to endear themselves, while the fourth amps up the ideas of each track into a more enveloping, fully-developed space. All four tracks are great, showing off technical know-how, strong mood, and flashes of melodic brilliance. I look forward to more from Brief Candle.

Sleepersound‘s In Medias Res tugged a string deep in my musical soul. One of the first indie-rock albums I ever heard was Sleeping at Last’s Ghosts (2003!). In Medias Res and Ghosts both do things that make me swoon: combine art-school sensibilities to noisy, distorted guitars; feature high-pitched vocals; move seamlessly from spartan ballads to indie-rock to noisier work; cultivate an air of night-time outer-hush-inner-noise; and manage to be distorted and heavy without feeling aggressive. It’s music of internal anguish; it’s emo but without the punk-rock trappings. (It should be noted: I love the punk rock trappings in other places.)

In Medias Res is a deeply felt record that paints in dark blue hues. Anyone who likes early ’00s indie-rock (Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie, et al.), when indie-rock was “rock that doesn’t sound like stuff on the radio,” will love this.

L’Eclair’s Noshtta is exactly the sort of record I want in the summer. It’s a peppy, upbeat take on instrumental music that puts  funk, tropicalia, disco, and indie-rock into a blender. The results are perfect for jamming to–headbobbing is a must. The vibe is perfect for a summer party. Opener “Cebando” goes heavy on the wah guitar over the rubbery bass line and rattling-snare percussion, while the claves and washed out chords of “Atlantis” amp up the woozy tropicalia mood to 11. “Dallas” meshes the two, letting the tropicalia have the lead on the mood while the funky backline keeps the song moving for a productive tension.

Closer “Carousel” is a little more dramatic, leaning on staccato indie-rock guitar and synths to create a magnificent LCD-Soundsystem-in-Miami approach. The whole EP is vastly commendable, with no filler to be found in the four cuts. This is how you do an EP right. Great job, everyone!

June Singles: Quieter

1. “We All Breathe the Same Air” – Nathan Moore and Alfred Howard. A song of protest that calls out the murder of Ahmaud Arbery amid the rest of the trouble of this year: “Won’t wear a mask but a hood’s not restricting / I refresh the feed cause the news is addicting” is a particularly poignant couplet, among many. The song itself is a well-developed acoustic arrangement, a lament fit to jaunty, Spanish-guitar vibes to keep the mood from going too low. Howard will be releasing two songs a week for the rest of the year (!!) with half of the proceeds going to Black Visions Collective.

2. “Interval” – Jim Perkins. This lithe, lovely little trebly piano composition is part of Perceptions from Bigo and Twigetti, a compilation of piano tracks that point out different styles and methods of piano performance. The comp is being released sequentially: two songs every three weeks until September, when it’s fully out.

3. “From All Who Came Before” – BPMoore. A beautiful, carefully-emerging piece for strings and electronics that evokes the slowly-unfolding majesty of John Luther Adams crammed into the bottle of 3 minutes and four seconds.

4. “Messed It Up” – Of the Vine. OtV is known for big, howling post-rock tunes, but this one is a haunting, mournful track that consists of little more than the repeated phrase “I really messed it up this time” and a chiming, ringing, delicate guitar line. It’s a fragile, earnest, painfully sad track.

5. “Stay Gold” – B. Snipes. This is a pristine, highly stylized, deeply affecting form of indie-folk that evokes M. Ward, the ballads of the Avett Brothers, and the Barr Brothers’ work. Snipes’ voice is perfectly situated within a cocoon of elegant acoustic sound.

6. “American Foursquare” – Denison Witmer. 2005’s Are You a Dreamer? left an imprint on me, and Witmer’s first album since 2013 opens up with a track that could have fit right in on that album: a peaceful, hushed form of singer-songwriter/folk that puts laser focus on the details of moving home from the city to your hometown. Is it autobiographical? Is it a tale? It is equally powerful both ways. If you’re into old-school Damien Jurado, William Fitzsimmons, or the original version of Iron & Wine, you’ll love this.

7. “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus” – Josh Garrels. I’ve never been a huge fan of this hymn, as the arrangements I’m familiar with are a bit too maudlin for me. Garrels takes the haunting melody and pulls all of the dourness out of it, falsetto-ing it into a fragile piece of ice carefully balanced so as not to fall and shatter. The spartan acoustic arrangement is perfect to make sure his voice stays front and center without collapsing. It’s a lovely, refreshing take on the classic. The rest of the record is equally as refreshing.

8. “Summer Sun” – Alex Rainer. If you crossed sun-splashed acoustic performances of Nick Drake with the laconic drama of James Taylor, you’d come out with something as easy-going and yet meaningful as this track.

9. “Summer Tale” – Aukai. A feathery, relaxing, expansive piece that features the fingerpicked ronroco (or charango; a small guitar-like instrument) and piano to create a floating feeling.

10. “Blossoms” – Drexler. An ostinato piano line anchors this neo-classical piece that moves from small to wide-screen in no time flat. This composition only lasts 2:34, but it covers a wide range of emotion and layers of sound in that short time. Both mysterious and hopeful, this is a fascinating track.

11. “Elders of Kaytete County”  – AJ True. I went through a short ambient phase last year and this track is the very best of the reasons that I did so. The core of the track is a simple, unadorned sound: it barely sounds like an instrument, more like the sun breaking over the horizon on a new day. It’s clean, pure, elegant. The rest of the track is the very specific addition of little sounds, barely even melodies, to build and shape the piece. It’s just really excellent, beautiful ambient work.

12. “Four” – New Dog. Anar Badalov doesn’t usually produce instrumental ambient / electronic work, but from the textured, highly detailed, synthy singer-songwriter work he often puts out as New Dog, I’m not surprised that he’s great at this too. This particular record leans on forlorn pedal steel, pad synths, and the sound of feet walking (maybe crunching leaves?) for a heavily evocative piece about fall.

13. “Heartbeats” – Derrick Hodge. A heartbeat-like kick drum and gentle piano give Hodge a framework within which to present lead bass melodies as the engine of this track. As a bassist myself, I can’t help but love it. Subtly jazzy, but thoroughly accessible to those outside the realm, this is a beautiful instrumental ballad.

Anna Meredith, Fernando Lagreca, Summerooms

Anna Meredith‘s Fibs has haunted me for months. I have listened to it over and over, and to say I have found it enigmatic yet electrifying is underselling it. The compositions are by turns confrontational and comforting, abrasive and then warm. Meredith is a composer, a person with a unique sonic vision for a collective of musicians, and the form which she has chosen here is a wild arpeggiated-synth-pop-meets-post-rock-meets-brass-band amalgam. The chord changes are very composerly; they don’t go where the pop ear wants them to go, but after several listens it starts to feel like a necessary shift, a situation that couldn’t have been any different.

Take highlight “Inhale Exhale.” It starts off as a throwback ’80s arch-synth-pop jam. The vocal melody is beautiful and catchy; the lyrics are a compelling second-person statement of a friend suggesting that someone is lying to themself about things. But the chorus takes a hard left, moving out of a traditional pop space into a wordless ah section with an unusual chord shift and different mood. It’s a stark contrast. The rest of the song fleshes out these two moods/structures, building an unresolvable tension that is so engaging. “Killjoy” leans more over to the pop side of the spectrum, evoking texturally ambitious synth-pop bands of the last twenty years with great melodies. “Sawbones” goes full composer, creating a frantic, mindbending synth-pop composition that relies heavily on the sonically disorienting shepherd’s tone for its structure.

“Ribbons” is Meredith’s best interpretation of a ballad; “My goth twin, she sings / a song from past” she sweetly sings as a spacious, spartan landscape with tuba (!) gives Meredith space to effectively draw the listener into the world. This is a truly unique record, like nothing I’ve ever heard. Highly recommended.

One of my favorite records last year was Daft Punk’s Tron: Legacy Reconfigured. Major EDM musicians took Daft Punk’s dark cyberpunk vision and amped up every aspect of it: more distortion, more big melodies, more gritty stuff, more techno thunder, etc. Fernando Lagreca‘s Infamous fits exactly into that vision: this is dancefloor-ready cyberpunk with lots of mystery, intrigue, and aggression. It filters all of those things into an easily-approachable amalgam; it doesn’t move into any of the subcultures it could by amping up any of its individual elements.

Instead, Lagreca’s work is accessible without being watered down and catchy without being pop songs in disguise. In other words, this is a top-shelf techno record that lots of different people in lots of different subcultures could get into. The four-on-the-floor “Galactic” is a great place to start as synths wander in and out of a locked-down-tight dance beat. “Tears of the Future” amps up the spacey aspects, drawing on arpeggiator sounds that immediately call up spaceship thoughts. Doomy bass heightens the drama. “Lone Condition” is a spy thriller that wouldn’t be out of place on RAC’s Master Spy soundtrack. Ultimately, it’s a totally satisfying, very excited collection of tracks that actually work together as a record while producing bangers. Good work, everyone! Highly recommended.

Summerooms is the immensely talented Joshua Aubrey Jackson’s side-project–his main jam is Make Sure (and used to be Fiery Crash). Summerooms is the place where he experiments with his main sound (a nostalgic mix of acoustic folk, indie-pop, and emo). In The Heat of Summer, he tries out an enormous number of new ideas–not all work, but a whole lot do.

The core of his sound is still an acoustic guitar, but the tinkering runs wild on everything from there on. The title track is a Springsteen-ian epic with iconic snare action, underpinning synth, and a sense of reckless abandon that characterizes all the best Springsteen jams. (He tempers the Springsteen comparisons with stop-on-a-dime quiet sections.) “Turkey Vulture” is a bombastic riff-rocker that appears early in the record and lets the listener know that this is going to be a bit of an adventure.

“Lindsey Whatsherface” is one of the best tracks Jackson’s ever written, a twinkly, dreamy piece that calls up the best of American Football-style twinkle, Death Cab for Cutie-style indie-pop, and more. It’s led by Preslea Elliott’s subtle, careful vocals, which are the perfect foil to the arrangement. Similarly, “Pull Apart” is another highlight in the Jackson oeuvre, a breakup duet with Samantha Eason that shows off all of his indie-pop craft, arranging chops, engineering skills, and big heart. Eason’s emotive vocals are lovely, and the track is just front-to-back gorgeous.

Other tracks land with less force: opener “Red Sun” brings forward a great idea that doesn’t quite capitalize on its initial promise; “Hard to Sleep Hot” has a lyrical set that doesn’t quite connect, especially the initial couplet; the overall record feels long toward the end. The scope itself is part of the experiment–this is an explicit concept record, following the emotional contours of Psalm 32 (and also perhaps an on-again off-again relationship?). There are clear shout-outs at points, but overall the length and scope of the record make it hard to connect all the dots.

Still, the record sounds beautiful: Jackson is an expert engineer and songwriter, and even the “lows” are good songs if considered out of context. As Jackson continues growing as a songwriter and works with larger conceptual frames like these, I have no doubt that his deft touch with the other aspects of songcraft will mature as well. If nothing else, you’ve got to hear “Lindsey Whatsherface” and “Pull Apart.” They rule.

June Singles 3: We Protest

1. “8:46 (Breathing Song)” – FROOS. This synthesizer-and-voice rumination is a protest song that calls out the amount of time that George Floyd was held with a knee over his throat before he died. The voice and breath that gently accent the washes of synthesizer point the song even further toward its protest goal. The delicate synths are disrupted throughout by grumbling, dissonant bursts of competing synth, evocative of the injustice in the situation breaking in.

2. “Let’s Leap” – Mesadorm. Here’s a different type of protest song: this is a call to action for people (including the singer) to get engaged in the work of making the world better. It’s framed in an enthusiastic, bouncy early-’00s indie-pop jam that will make old-school Of Montreal and Architecture in Helsinki fans do backflips. It’s not quite an anthem, but the quirky hook is solid and the arrangement is absolutely stellar.

3. “All American Singer” – Zephaniah OHora. Some things just fit together, like New York guitar-slinging troubadours with hauntingly familiar voices. Zephaniah OHora’s “All American Singer” is the first single of Listening To The Music, from Last Roundup Records August 28th. Recording in Brooklyn, the record also was the final project for producer Neal Casal prior to his tragic death. Rich yet restrained classic chord structures, slide guitar breaks, and perfectly mixed instrumentation suggest this could be a taste of brilliance to come on the upcoming twelve-song album. The iconic country sound brings to mind Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. Lyricically relevant, each word speaks to music’s role in calling out truth and chaos in society. Music is a place to connect us despite our differences. Closing my eyes, I hear Glen Campbell’s phrasing and smooth vocal tone, with Fred Neil’s “EveryBody’s Talkin” from Midnight Cowboy “ thrown in. Genius, folks. —Lisa Whealy

4. “Cambridge, MA” – Holy ’57. Holy ’57 will finally complete the H-O-L-Y sequence of EPs when “Y” drops later this summer. (As a completist, I am thrilled to hear it.) The lead track goes deep into the Brit-rock archives, fusing Blur’s guitars and hectic vocal approach to Manic Street Preachers’ politics and a very funky bassline. The parody of a hardcore breakdown at the end of the song is funny and also serves the point of the lyrics brilliantly. It’s a lot more rock than dance this time, and fans of the downstream Vampire Weekend vibes might miss the approach, but it’s a compelling new direction nonetheless.

5. “Ode to Youth” – Liam Mour. It’s not chillwave anymore, I suppose, but this is certainly whatever we’re calling “major key, trebly, burbly, low-percussion electro jams with a lot of reverb.” It does have a lot more forward motion than the relaxed pace of chillwave. It grows to a giant, room-filling, spaced-out finale, too–evocative of Ulrich Schnauss, Tycho, and similar. Whatever it is, it’s excellently done, a lot of fun, and overall really appealing.

6. “ity bity” – Otis Sandsjö. This tenor sax, synth, bass, and drums combo creates music that draws equally on electronic music and jazz for its themes and moods; the track opens up in a low-key electro groove with occasional bits of sax before opening into a sax feature. Then it morphs into a lounge-y track with cooing vocals and lay-all-the-way-back vibes. Very cool.

7. “Part VI – Into Eternity” – Carlos Niño & Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. This composition is the very definition of delicate, as it wafts along elegantly and carefully, without so much as a brittle tone anywhere. The gentle percussion is perfectly done, the violin sounds gorgeous, and the soundscapes that fill out the composition are just excellent. It’s the best of modern composition, new age, and ambient rolled into one. Highly recommended.

8. “Palms Up” – Ezra Feinberg. Manages to be meditative and tropical at the same time, which is no easy feat. The synth, guitar, bass, and percussion arrangement is light and lithe without losing its groundedness; it feels real and weighty, despite also feeling warm and light. That’s an impressive arranging job.

9. “Leave It Loading” – Dan Drohan. I’m a big fan of foreground-grabbing bass riffs, especially if they have a punk/metal aesthetic of fury and/or heft. Drohan’s experimental work here has a lot of foreground-grabbing bass amid frantic drums and staccato keys. It’s like those bass/drums punk duos from the early 2000s (Death From Above 1979, represent!) but with (slightly) more expansive ambiance.

10. “Tightrope Tricks” – Redvers and Melissa. The duo branches out from twee-influenced acoustic-pop with new flourishes: autotune/vocoder, synthesizers, big ‘ol bass rumble, and percussion pushing the song along. There’s still an acoustic guitar in there, and the duo’s vocals are still sweet and lovely. But pretty much everything else is bigger and more technicolor. It’s a lot of fun!

11. “Eternal Turtle” – Joshua Van Tassel. A slow-moving ambient / classical piece featuring the rare but legendary ondes martenot. The lush yet dark textures make me think of a Christopher Nolan soundtrack (minus the bwaaaaa sound), as the piece has a dense, ominous, yet still inviting quality.