Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Accents writes folk and pop-punk–it works perfectly

April 21, 2014

talltales

Is folk a mindset or a sound or both? The answer AccentsTall Tales provides is a giant yes to all. The album is built out of fingerpicked guitar and emotive vocals, expanding from that foundation into genres like folk orchestra (jubilant opener “Hold Me Close”), indie rock (the pensive “Artist in Denial”), and even pop-punk (the impressive “I Wasn’t Looking for You”). Some tracks forsake the folk backdrop and just start out in other genres: the excellent, hopeful ’90s pop of “Reminders”; the anthemic Mumfordy folk of “England Awaits”; the noisy indie-rock-with-horns of “Heart in My Room.”

But even through all these genres, the album holds together excellently; it’s that folk mindset coming through. Accents decided that if you want everything, they can give it to you: guitar rock, orchestration, female vocals, male vocals, hushed songs, brash songs, catchy songs, thoughtful songs, big riffs, the whole nine yards. There’s a pipeline between pop-punk and folk-pop; Accents is the house band for that pipeline. This is a brilliant accomplishment that in lesser hands would be a disjointed mess. Tall Tales is very worth your time.

Community Records' huge pop-punk-based comp thrills

March 2, 2012

I have waxed rhapsodic over the joys of the compilation album before, but here’s a reminder: I love the idea of twenty or more bands all chilling on the same disc. SXSW is kind of like one giant compilation, if you conflate seeing music live and hearing it recorded.

But what’s even better than a great comp is a great comp from a high-quality label. If that label is a homegrown, upstart indie, all the better! And Community Records (no, really, that’s the awesome name) has released just such a disc with their Compilation Volume 3: Old Dog, New Tricks. The album showcases 26 (!) bands associated with the New Orleans-based label; a footnote states, “Download free music from all of these bands on our web-site.” (That’s prolific!)

Some well-known bands like A Billion Ernies, Marathon and Swear Jar are present here, alongside a slew of up-and-comers. The music falls into five general genres: pop-punk, ska, hardcore/post-hardcore, acoustic and reggae-ish stuff.

The pop-punk is the lion’s share of the material. Caddywhompus’ “The Weight” won my heart by incorporating prog-based rhythms and melodies into its pop-punk, giving the song a very Fang Island-esque feel. Safety’s “Alone Together” throws down great melodies and energy in an early-2000s pop-punk style; the action-packed 91 seconds of The Rooks’ “The Benefit of Fish Tacos” throws all sorts of things into an unconventional song structure. The off-kilter “I’m Not Done Yet” by All People is oddly catchy as well.

The highlights of the ska offerings are the wildly varied tune by A Billion Ernies, the rhythms-not-horns ska of “They Can’t Fix Me” by Matt Wixson’s Flying Circus, and the gruff ska-punk of Brunt of It’s “Bad Sign.”

I wasn’t too into the loud stuff or the reggae, but the acoustic offerings are worth note: my favorite tune on the whole comp is See You in Mexico’s “Human Race.” It starts off as a pensive, moody tune in the Deja Entendu vein, then kicks into acoustic-punk high gear for the satisfying conclusion. The vocal melodies and harmonies are especially notable. Closer “Live On” by Matt Wixson (minus the Flying Circus) is a charming, lo-fi acoustic pop song that could be sung around campfires forever. “Summer’s Slumber” by Dominique LeJeune is a poignant, female-fronted acoustic love song that made me swoon a bit.

There’s all sorts of things inbetween, from woozy, New Orleans-style jazz bombast (Stuck Lucky’s “Finland”) to the indie-rock haze of Sun Hotel’s “Talks.” I mean, with 27 tracks, there’s almost something for everyone who even remotely likes the idea of modern punk. That should be a strong motivator for you to check out Community Records’ Old Dog, New Tricks.

The Shoreline produces a stellar pop-punk cover … and some other songs

July 23, 2010

I used to hate covers, because I thought they showed a lack of originality on the part of a band. Now I see that in addition to paying homage to a respected band, a good cover can be just as creative (and just as satisfying, if not more so) than a good original.

That’s why The Shoreline‘s cover of “I Gotta Feelin'” is my favorite track on their EP Fake It Till You Make It. Their cover re-envisions the party anthem as a pop-rock anthem. They remain faithful to the lyrics, mood and song structure; they just infuse the tune with a lot of guitar strumming and a pop-punk high-pitched voice. And while some covers become cloying in their pandering (someone played me a copy of a “Tik Tok” pop-punk cover that I could barely make it through), The Shoreline’s version of the Black Eyed Peas tune doesn’t get repetitive, annoying or gratuitous. It makes the point, slams it home and gets on to the next thing. It’s great. I like this song just as much as I like the original version, for completely different reasons. That’s the mark of a great cover.

The rest of the EP doesn’t have anything that possesses that sort of clarity and focus. As a result, the tunes are difficult to remember and just don’t make a big impact. If you like current pop-punk (e.g. Boys Like Girls, Angels and Airwaves, We the Kings, Fall Out Boy – especially in “Let’s Make a Mess”), you’ll like The Shoreline. But they won’t be your favorite band off the strength of this EP. Perhaps they have more in the tank, and they’re just getting started from here.

For now, I highly recommend “I Gotta Feelin'” to anyone and Fake It ‘Til You Make It to fans of the genre.

Atrocity Solution drops old-school pop-punk songs with a modern fury

July 11, 2010

There’s not a lot of protest going on in music today. Atrocity Solution is, well, part of the solution. They’re a ferocious punk band that’s heavy on protest. From the title of their album Tomorrow’s Too Late to song titles like “The Protest Song” and “The Scales of Injustice,” they’re out to stick it to the problems of the world.

And while their music is snare-heavy pop-punk with tight hooks, they deliver vocals most often in a throat-shredding hardcore-esque snarl, with occasional whoa-ohs. While the strength of the songs would amp the band from in line with everyone else to way above the crowd, the delivery and attitude of the vocals shoots Atrocity Solution into the stratosphere.

There are some songs where the vocalist sings. But he sings in the same way that the band plays ska; yeah, there are some moments with the upstroke (“Down the Alleyway,” “Scales of Injustice”) and some moments with singing/spoken word (“Change the Channel, “Voices of the Underground”), but they are the exception.

This band rips through punk songs and rips through vocal chords. They do it with abandon, power and finesse. These are punk songs of the highest order, refugees from the ’80s era when punk was a meaningful lifestyle choice and not just a musical classification. Tomorrow’s Too Late is easily the best punk CD I’ve heard this year thus far.

A Road to Damascus' pop-punk is highly enjoyable

April 19, 2010

Even though it’s been raining for the last few days, summer is indeed coming. And that means it’s time for summer music. It’s just hard to rock the Bon Iver with the sun shining and the windows down. Then again, I wouldn’t really consider Last Tuesday, Relient K or The Bee Team during the doldrums of December. Everything in its right place.

A Road to DamascusSo Damn Close EP is an excellent slice of summer music. Pop-punk with enough pop to roll the windows down but enough punk to keep the energy high, the three tracks here sport a sheen that could be construed as annoying if you weren’t taking it at face value. Don’t try to read anything in to these songs; they’re not made for it.

But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t great tunes. The vocal melodies of “So Damn Close” are bright without being sugar-coated, perfect for singing along. The darker mood of “Sweetheart” evokes AFI in all the right ways, from the dour but catchy chorus to the breakdown in the bridge to the minor but not dissonant guitarwork. Equally as catchy as the first track, but in different ways. That’s what I want out of a band.

“Sang 3” yanks Yellowcard’s rhythmic and melodic shtick, but it does it with so much enthusiasm and candor that it’s entirely forgivable. While not the best track here, it’s certainly enjoyable and interesting. It features the only moment on this EP to give me shivers, at 2:40. I won’t ruin it for you.

A Road to Damascus’ So Damn Close EP is loads of fun. The tracks are fun to listen to, beg to be sung along with, and would almost certainly inspire fist-pumping at a concert. There’s not much more that I want out of a pop-punk band, and I don’t think that’s much more than the band wants to be. Highly recommended.

FFHH tries to break from the pop-punk mold

November 19, 2009

I grew up listening to pop-punk, so I have a fondness for it that goes far beyond the marginal toleration most reviewers give it. I also grew up listening to local bands from faraway places like Baltimore. So, FFHH (which is now going by the abbreviation of their former title Faster Faster Harder Harder) has several legs up on the competition with their Baltimore-based pop-punk.

FFHH is much more AFI than Blink-182, though. The lead vocalist occasionally strikes an almost uncanny resemblance to Davey Havok, especially in “Calm Down,” “My Vision” and title track “All the Lights.” When he drops into his lower register, it’s not as apparent, as in “The Landing.” When his vocals don’t ding the RIYL meter in my head, the musical resemblances to A Fire Inside fall away as well; but the music is not strong enough to withstand the vocal tone similar to Davey Havok’s to stand out while that vocal tone is happening.

That’s one of the strengths and weaknesses of this album; it’s easily taggable within the dark punk zone. There are conscious steps outside it, as “Start Again” is a lumbering, epic-sweeping intro track that features female vocals prominently. “Accident Scene” features a different vocalist, an upbeat tone, and more female vocals. “Count Down” is a five-minute instrumental track that never gets boring. It fits perfectly in the flow and feel of the album. And it segues right into “The Landing,” which is one of the best tracks on the album. If they can put together more songs like this, they’ll be very successful. The melodies are solid, the bass work is tight, the drums are efficient, and the guitar work is mood-building and rocking in turns. This is how they should be composing all the time.

FFHH has a lot of promise. They are skilled musicians, and their ability to form melodies is undeniable. They have the skills necessary to be a great rock band, but they need to get over some blocks in their way. Several tracks on All the Lights are excellent, but they’re held down by a bunch of songs that are just okay. I would recommend that you go see a live show of theirs (because this stuff would have to translate excellently) and download “Count Down” and  “The Landing” from iTunes. If you like AFI, you should definitely invest in the full thing; you’ll love this. I’m interested to see where FFHH goes from here.

Singles: More Indie-pop

May 25, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mid-April Singles: 1

April 12, 2018

1. “I Love You Like a Brother” – Alex Lahey. Not a trick–this song is actually about Alex’s totally appropriate (“Just like I oughta”) fraternal affection. The lyrics are shouted above buzzing, fuzzed-out guitar and punchy drums, ultimately landing this track somewhere between pop-punk and power-pop. High praise: Alex Lahey knows how to write great guitar songs.

2. “Terribly Popular” – Marc With a C. Marc contributes a smart, funny satirical take on Taylor Swift and/or Tumblr culture via a chunky, chant-able power-pop tune. If you like power-pop, nerd culture, or satire, you probably are already hip to Marc with a C–but if not, he’s got a new record out called Obscurity that’ll be to your taste.

3. “I Like Taylor Swift” – Coach Hop. We’re equal opportunity here at IC on the T-Swift front. If you loved early ’00s pop punk and early ’90s Weezer, you’ll love the sonic aesthetics, the spot-on vocal melodies, the humorously earnest lyrics, and, oh, basically all of it.

4. “Head Down / Heart Up” – Towers and Trees. A blast of fun from the first goofy image of a pixelated arcade racing game to the final falsetto over the last crunchy power-pop chord.

5. “We Almost Failed, Brian (Epilogue II)” – Cubs Refrain. There is so much deliciously perfect melodrama in this soaring-higher-than-skyscrapers electro-pop tune that I can’t namecheck the probably-very-uncool-artist-that-I-love which it makes me think of. The bass synths provide the frame for the awesome arpeggiator and super-great vocal melodies. The message here: Just revel in a great pop song.

6. “Lydia” – The Magic Lantern. The Magic Lantern delivers a carefully considered, subtly dignified, self-assured folk tune in the great tradition of Paul Simon and followers. (Those who love Fionn Regan will also find themselves swooning.) It’s the sort of perfect vocal performance that speaks volumes without raising its volume.

7. “And Still I Question” – Chaperone Picks. Already a master of the lo-fi recording and distribution aesthetic, Chaperone Picks has one-upped himself/itself and distilled the songwriting into the essence of the songwriting and no more. This song is 63 seconds long, but it says everything it wants to say and does everything it wants to do. It leaves me wanting more, which is a compliment for anyone, no matter how long the track. RIYL: gritty ’90s lo-fi indie.

8. “Uncertain” – Robert Deeble. Deeble’s made so much music under the radar that he has fully developed his own oeuvre. This tune has all the Deeble staples: walking-speed tempos, airy arrangements, a heavy mood, subtle melodies, and Deeble’s feathery voice. The tune comes together beautifully, with a lovely set of strings in the chorus giving the tune extra oomph. This one comes from a record about a complex, difficult adoption, which gives the tune even more emotional weight.

9. “Oh Deep Water” – Great Peacock. Fans of Dawes will resonate with this spacious, well-developed Americana track. The vocal performance is surprisingly grand and very effective.

10. “Small Talk” – Maria Kelly. Dang–this is a knockout quiet tune. Kelly exerts total control over her affecting vocal performance, the somber arrangement, and the vulnerable mood. The results are “knock me over with a feather”-good.

11. “Time Immemorial” – The286. Shades of The Old ’97s, The Beatles, and the tender moments of the Avett Brothers color this lovely, vintage ballad. I can’t shake the feeling that there’s a harpsichord hiding somewhere in this tune, but it may just me appreciating this entry in the long craft tradition of pop songwriting that could reasonably include a harpsichord.

12. “Desert Song (a lullaby)” – Swimming Bell. Layers and layers of vocals and reverb create a sonic equivalent of the aurora borealis over a delicate, spartan guitar. This is majestic.

13. “Fragment II” – boerd. Minimalist techno that’s not quite ambient, this piece skitters along with low-key beats and subtle piano to create a chill, exploratory atmosphere that makes me think of Boards of Canada.

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Mid-March Singles 1: Upbeat

March 21, 2018

1. “Glue” – Bugs. We’re not to the summer yet (unless you live in Arizona), but here’s an early vote for you Summer Jam lists. There’s some early ’00s indie-rock guitars going on (back when major key versions of grunge guitar patterns was the hot thing), some attitude-filled vocals that nod to pop-punk ideals (but not too much), and fantastic background vocals that really make the song. Fans of Brand New’s first record or bands like The Fratellis will be real into this.

2. “Starcrossed Lovers” – The Fratellis. Speaking of: Oh hey, The Fratellis! It’s good to hear from you again. This one has a little more emotional weight than the never-going-to-retire-that-one-live hit of “Chelsea Dagger” and less frantic antics than “Flathead,” but it has way better falsetto in the chorus and boasts a neat strings section in the chorus. Some people just know how to write pop songs, you know?

3. “Other People’s Houses” – American Film History. There’s a fair bit of ’80s nostalgia that I just don’t subscribe to–I was never into giant synth soundscapes, and most new wave doesn’t give me that happy kitsch feeling. So it’s with surprise that American Film History’s updated version of ’80s pop strikes a chord with me. Sure, there’s a lot more emotional depth than most ’80s music, but that alone isn’t it–there’s some excellent melodies, some strong arranging, and just all-around good vibes. Also, I feel no shame spoiling this for you: the video is horribly sad and made me sad. Go with that knowledge.

4. “Foundations” – Pilod. Slowcore acoustic music is a genre that I leave and return to repeatedly: there’s something entrancing about the angst-laden, repetitious minimalism. Sometimes it just feels right. Pilod’s “Foundations” isn’t quite as long or as slow as some of the slowcore you can find, but the long pauses between guitar strums, simple rhythms, and emotional vocal delivery all resonate with my expectations of the genre. There’s a little more electric guitar than you would otherwise expect, but the song lopes its way to a totally great emotional climax (as one would expect). Fans of Songs:Ohia and the like will be into this.

5. “hey (pixies)” – lost valley. I don’t often mention covers on IC, because it has to be 1. a good song 2. re-envisioned in a unique way for me to get on board. Usually covers fail one or the other requirement, but lost valley’s trip-hop-influenced post-dub take on a Pixies tune is a mindbendingly good time. There are flashes of Odesza’s melodic elements, but the tune is mostly stacatto and choppy, hopping from one idea to the next. Very intriguing.

6. “Long Way Home” – YESES. This tune has some definite War on Drugs-esque psych influences, but they are tempered with a liberal dose of Interpol-esque post-punk rhythms, rhythm guitar tone, and dour vocals. Those two poles push and tug on the song from multiple angles, creating productive tension that elevates this above the pack of a very trendy genre right now. (Being above the pack in anything is great, but being above the pack in a “very right now” genre is super-great.)

7. “Angry Seeds” – Narwhals. If you split the difference between the manic indie rock enthusiasms of Frightened Rabbit and the sensible, down-to-earth vocals and arrangements of The National, you might end up somewhere near where Narwhals did on this track. It’s huge that this song doesn’t ape either band, but creates something new and interesting out of the influences.

8. “Happiness” – Callum Pitt. This has a very cheerful acoustic folk/pop chassis with a big, enthusiastic indie-pop body on it–I’m reminded of Soft Bulletin-era Flaming Lips, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., and mid -’00s indie-pop bands like Annuals. Very fun.

9. “She Waits” – The Gray Havens. tGH has grown from a perky piano-pop duo to something much more vast. This particular track shows off a newfound patience in arrangement–layers of piano and strings slowly accrete in a pattern that echoes the emotions of the titular chorus phrase. Dave Radford’s vocals are some of the most confident that he has delivered, and the song itself is something unique and passionate. This is deeply impressive, highly mature songwriting. If you’re into Viva La Vida-era Coldplay, your eyes will get wide.

10. “Tour Guide” – Cheri Magill. Magill’s website says “music for moms” on it, but it could also say “music for parents” or “music for people who know kids” or “music for people.” This piano-pop tune is starkly beautiful, mostly eschewing percussion in favor of the piano’s own rhythm. Magill’s vocals are strong and clear, just as the strings are. Fans of female-fronted piano work will enjoy this quite a bit. The song is the title track on an album all about parenting, which should come with a different sort of parental guide on it–namely “if you are a parent, you will probably cry while listening to this album.”

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Early November Singles 1

November 16, 2017

1. “Boys Will Be Boys” – Stella Donnelly. The spartan songwriting here gives a perfect contrast to Donnelly’s powerful vocals. The song itself is a knockout without even considering the lyrics; pairing the song with her harrowingly honest lyrics about rape creates a tour-de-force moment for Donnelly and what should be a deeply sobering reality check and call to action for all men (myself included).

2. “Maria También” – Khruangbin. This unclassifiable, incredibly cool instrumental track features elements of Middle Eastern music, some vaguely surf-rock overtones, and found sound celebrating the role of women in pre-1979 revolution. The band notes that the video continues the celebration of that time and place via the performances of “a large network of artists, singers, dancers and songwriters who have been either exiled or silenced since the revolution.”

3. “Seattle” – Strangers by Accident. SbA has expanded from an acoustic folk duo to a folk-rock four-piece on the EP this cut comes from; this track, fronted by female and male vocals, features punchy drums, a speedy tempo, and even a mini guitar solo. But the highlight moment of the track is a breakdown to two vocals and an acoustic guitar, just like the old days–they haven’t abandoned their roots. It’s a strong hello to a new sound.

4. “So Kind” – Kat Myers and the Buzzards. Fans of easygoing West Coast country and female vocals will have a blast with this track. The tune slowly grows from a small tune to a rip-roaring country-rock track led by alternately blazing/delicate electric guitar and Myers’ confident vocals.

5. “Sail on the Water” – Molly Parden. A silky, suave ’70s-inspired singer/songwriter track that calls to mind Fleetwood Mac and other purveyors of dreamy, mystical work.

6. “Dominika” – Jordan Klassen. Somewhere between the woodsy folk of Fleet Foxes and the pristine folk arrangements of Mutual Benefit lands this lightly funky, somewhat proggy (!) folk tune. The video is a magnificent slice of ’90s tribute/parody.

7. “Shadow” – John Hufford. Timely and timeless, this acoustic track incorporates historic vocal harmony styles, contemporary lead vocal melodies, and never-gets-old synth/xylophone combo to create a song not quite folk, not quite indie-pop, and totally impressive.

8. “Throw Ourselves In” – Marsicans. Marsicans’ run of fantastic is unprecedented in IC’s hallowed halls–I’ve now covered six straight Marsicans singles, and they’ve all been amazing. This one has some ’00s pop-punk yells thrown into their peppy indie-guitar-rock for good measure. Everything else (insanely catchy melodies, big guitars, impeccable song structure) is still there. If you haven’t jumped on the Marsicans train, you need to do it as soon as possible. Preferably yesterday.

9. “Moments” – Everywhere. Dance-rock is tough to assess–sometimes over-the-top is great (think The Killers) and sometimes understated is boss (think Cobra Starship). This smooth, sleek track passes the basic test (“do you want to dance”) and also passes the higher bar (“is there something beyond a big dance beat going on”) with flying colors via an M83/Capital Cities-esque atmosphere.

10. “Superhero” – Fuzzystar. Power-pop that’s mellowed somewhat by indie-pop vocal aesthetics–but there are some mathy/emo-esque guitar theatrics to kick it back up a notch. Overall, it’s a fun, engaging pop tune.

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Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of instrumental music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.

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