Is folk a mindset or a sound or both? The answer Accents‘ Tall 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Damascus‘ So 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.
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.
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.
1. “Salgado” – ALTRE DI B. Somewhere between the punchy riffing of Cage the Elephant and the attitude-heavy enthusiasm of The Vaccines lives this exciting tune. The extended coda is surprising and hopefully indicative of left-turns in the future.
2. “Hold On” – Leisure Club. For those who miss the old Vampire Weekend, look no further for your latest fix. It pushes almost all the buttons and feels so good.
3. “Turtledoves” – Gingerlys. The cloudy guitars of late ’00s SanFran garage rock are put to different use here, paired with pop-punk drumming and relatively straightforward indie-pop vocal melodies. The results are an unusually propulsive haze that collapses triumphantly and unexpectedly at the finish line.
4. “The Lord Giveth and Taketh Away” – Chaperone Picks. Lo-fi guitar strumming a la early Mountain Goats, big overdriven guitar that calls up ’90s indie heroes like Guided by Voices, and a drop-dead end to the two-minute song create a mystical union (a unified belt, if you will) of multiple strands of lo-fi indie.
5. “Oom Sha La La” – Haley Heynderickx. If Lady Lamb weren’t quite so prickly and prone to ’50s vocalizations (either for ironic effect or in true earnestness, who can say?), she could have written this loping, quirky, deeply engaging indie rock tune.
6. “Beholden” – Canon Blue. Anyone missing the chipper tones of Givers or who loves when Lord Huron plays huge pop songs will love this grooving, steel-drum-inflected folk-goes-indie-rock tune.
7. “My Heart, Your Heart” – Trevor Hall. I don’t know how Hall makes such a beats-driven indie tune sound organic and human, but whatever he does, it’s totally effective. This is immersive.
8. “Look Up” – raener. This de-constructed indie-rock tune is one part James Blake silkiness, one part menomena controlled chaos, and one part LCD Soundsystem abstract danciness. Despite its inherent coldness in the choppy, brittle arrangement, there’s an inviting nature to the tune. Very interesting.
9. “Warm (ft. Frankie Forman)” – Speakman Sound. This snaky, slinky, low-slung electro tune has features a real violin, real drums, and layered vocals; it almost sounds like a Local Natives tune, or a very distant cousin to a Fleet Foxes tune. I was astonished by it.
So now that I’ve been running Independent Clauses for more than 14 years, I’ve been following some of the same artists for years–some for the better part of a decade. As a result, I tend to feel like these artists are my friends, just by dint of hearing so much of their music. I feel the emotions they sing about more deeply. Love songs are more exciting and breakup records are harder to hear, because I like the people involved in the records (even just from hearing their records over time).
The Good Graces‘ Set Your Sights is a breakup record, and it tears me up pretty good. It’s a tough record, because the older you get, the harder the breakups get (“Too Old for This”). The Good Graces’ Close to the Sun was the very first record I ever premiered, so I feel some kinship with Kim of TGG, even though we’ve only met in person once. So if this review sounds a little different than my normal reviews, that’s because it is a little different.
This particular breakup record is unusual because it’s told from the perspective of the person doing the breaking up. Usually we hear the jilted lover, but the emotional complexities of doing the breaking up are on display here. (Moral of the story: It’s still emotionally difficult to break up, even when you’re the one doing the leaving.) “7-Year Sentence (Going to Hell)” is the centerpiece of the record, an alt-country ballad that lays out the difficult complexities of the break-up with unusual, unflinching candor. It’s pretty heavy stuff.
The song itself is way more fun than the lyrics, even if it’s a minor-key ballad; the band is in top flight (as they are throughout the record) from the booming bass lines to the zinging lead guitar to the choir singing the last chorus. The tune perfectly fuses alt-country gloom with indie-pop enthusiasm. It is not as weird as it sounds.
Elsewhere, TGG throws down pop-punk-esque burners (“Remember the Old School,” the country-punk-inflected “Take Heart”), high-quality indie-pop tunes (“Too Old For This,” “Porchlight”), the indie-folk the band has honed (“Out There,” “More Careful”), and a magnificent strings-and-voice elegy (“The Hard Way”). “The Hard Way” is another unusually candid exploration of the breakup, exploring the internal states that caused all this trouble (“I learn all my lessons the hard way / if I even learn them at all”). It is a beautiful tune melodically and instrumentally.
So, like I said. Breakups (and breakup records) get harder the older you get, and this one is no exception. But there are beautiful (and even fun!) moments amid the tough lyrics. The instrumental work here is top-notch, too. If you’re looking for a solid alt-country record, indie-pop record, or breakup record, this one will fit the bill nicely.
Builder of the House‘s Ornaments is way more Christmas in July than actually a December record. The acoustic album is warm, sunny, mellow, and happy. The tunes unspool at an easy pace, unhurried and unworried. If you’re in a bad mood and want to slowly rise out of it, I can’t think of a better record for it. The standout title track has a bit of Lord Huron in the melodic structure, while “When No One Is Here” feels like a mood-inverted Rocky Votolato song. Smooth, elegant, and yet crisp in its arrangements, this album just hits the spot for lazy summer days and aspirational winter ones. Highly recommended.
As jittery and frenetic as that last one was calm and relaxing, Emperor X‘s Oversleepers International is a feast for fans of that spot where pop-punk, alt-folk, indie-pop, literary studies, political science, and psychology intersect. In other terms, it’s as if late ’90s John Darnielle joined the Weakerthans instead of being compared to them.
“Wasted on the Senate Floor” is a verbal blitzkrieg married to a frantic acoustic-punk band; “Schopenhauer in Berlin” slows down the pace enough for the lyrics to be understandable but still requires you to look up who Schopenhauer is. Elsewhere, Emperor X goes all wacky Ben Folds (“Riot for Descendant Command”), references Anonymous and North Korea in a song called “Low Orbit Ion Cannon” (!!), and creates one of the weirdest travel journals ever (that also doubles as a breakup tune of sorts; it’s the title track, because of course).
Also there’s a techno-dance song and an ambient tune. The English town of Dorset and Vilnius, Lithuania are involved. The songs are crazy and memorable, musically and lyrically–what else could you ask for? Highly recommended.
Zach Winters‘ latest folk records were delicate-yet-intense constructions of great seriousness and import. On To Have You Around, Winters sounds downright loose. “Sometimes I Wonder” starts off in his traditionally ghostly acoustic vein, but turns into a more-than-subtly funky pop song by chorus. It is rad. “If the Sun is Shining” doubles down and gets a funky bass line on a stand-up bass and snazzily jazzy horns involved.
“Do You Really” starts off with the line “taking a shower with a known carcinogen” and proceeds to be a “chill out, stop worrying” song. “Love My Woman” is exactly what you would expect from the title and previous descriptions. Even the instrumental “Buffalo” has a chipper vibe. It’s a new look for Winters, and it’s a great one. If you’re looking for some acoustic-fronted, low-key-funky pop songs, look no further for a great time. Highly recommended.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.