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Author: Max Thorn

Library Voices create bookish indie-pop

What is it that makes pop music such a fitting background for philosophical and hyper-literary lyrics? This question comes up regularly for listeners of The Decemberists, Modest Mouse, Andrew Bird, Sufjan Stevens and the like. And the question has come up again while listening to Library Voices.

This ten-piece pop collective hails from Saskatchewan, Canada. Their Hunting Ghosts and Other Collected Shorts EP stays true to its bookish name, combining pop culture references, narrative structure, philosophical musings, and existential confusion with musical styles from uptempo, guitar-driven pop to ethereal pieces with delicate instrumental textures. Their Myspace says they sound like “drunk kids talking too openly and too honestly.” I’d have to agree, except these drunk kids are hip, have read lots of books and are probably drunk on craft beers and red wine. (After all, they have appeared in The New Yorker.)

The opening track “Step off the Map and Float” begins with some Nintendo-like sounds, a lighthearted group count-off to twelve, and then jumps into an up-tempo pop song whose chorus–“Your existence is a pinprick/On a paper continent/The patron saints all patronize me”–is tinged with just enough resignation and anguish. But, it is ultimately ebullient: “So step off the map and float.” This track is a balanced showing of their sound, which features clean guitar, multi-part vocals, and an array of quirky elements that at the same time both thicken the song and lighten the sound.

“Kundera on the Dance Floor” features a syncopated rhythm section (including a saxophone) and a sort of character vignette of the “golden girl.” She wears a Tom Waits t-shirt, is “piss drunk on red wine and melody,” and quotes Dando and Kafka. Library Voices’ sharp lyrics and the catchy melodies do exactly what pop lyrics and melodies should do: get stuck in your head and make you thankful for it. Oh, and as a consequence of singing the educated lyrics to yourself as you walk down the street, you get to be introspective and consider, among other ironies and tragedies of life, “the unbearable lightness of being.”

Yet at times Library Voices’ literary leanings can come off as too overt. The somewhat underwhelming “Things We Stole From Vonnegut’s Grave” is just as list-like as it sounds. Abstract items of contraband such as “consciousness of the human condition” and “a taste for science fiction” provide the list with some intrigue. Either way, it is impressive and humorous to listen to the band reel off obscure Vonnegut references, and they certainly leave no doubt that they read a lot of the man’s works. Musically it is one of their more unusual pieces in that its harmonic structure lies outside of the realm of traditional pop. It is only striking in contrast to their other songs. The factual lyrics are impersonal at worst, but the song works within the overall aesthetic of Library Voices in that themes often found in Vonnegut stories regularly show up in the band’s original lyrics. For instance, in “Love in the Age of Absurdity,” the band takes a somewhat prophetic tack, questioning the seeming normality of pop culture givens such as social networking and reality television and stirring the listener to examine his or her place.

“Hunting Ghosts” and “The Lonely Projectionist” are easily the most in keeping with the title of the EP. Both are extensive narratives, and “Hunting Ghosts” is unique in that it features soft, female lead vocals. This quiet, ethereal song contains tighter backing harmonies, more reverb, and a deftly-written string section to create the more intimate texture of this song. The narrative-confessional lyrics add to such a texture. Instrumentally, “The Lonely Projectionist” shares similarities with the other pieces, such as an extensive use of organs and synths, with the bass and drums driving the song forward. However, this song is their best-arranged piece; the instrumental elements of the song move seamlessly together through a larger range of dynamics and moods. About two-thirds of the way through the song they take a chance on a bridge that veers away from the earlier part of the song, and it is a most pleasant surprise. The lyrics narrate two parallel existences of loneliness, and this more oblique approach to existential questions sounds less cathartic.

Library Voices pull off their sound and the pop collective aesthetic with just the right amount of ease. It isn’t polished, but it isn’t chaotic, and doesn’t seem forced. Hunting Ghosts and Other Collected Shorts EP makes me eager for a full-length album. –Max Thorn

Pop solutions from Gregory Pepper and His Problems

No need for a hook to open this review—Gregory Pepper and His Problems’ latest album, With Trumpets Flaring, has plenty to spare. The addicting hooks (and riffs, and melodies, and refrains…) are delivered in a well-crafted and wide-ranging collection of songs, put forth by this 26-year-old musician from Guelph, Ontario. The lyrics are at times honest, sardonic, absurd, self-loathing, nonsensical, ironic, and are very often some combination of those. Pepper’s pallet for his verbal meanderings explores every niche of pop, from full-fledged electro-pop to the sounds of a 1950s doo-wop band, complete with alto saxophone.

The album begins with a vaudeville accordion that suddenly gives way into an electronic backbeat that sounds akin to Chromeo, which then gives way into a more traditional, guitar-driven, indie-pop sound, which comes back fairly quickly to electro-pop. And that’s just the first song, “7ths and 3rds.” Although many of the songs are short—ten of the thirteen are under three minutes; the album itself is a mere half-hour—Pepper still manages to explore classic pop sounds such as the Beach Boys, Paul McCartney, and Weezer, and some lesser-loved genres (he makes a mocking foray into rock opera), while still giving all his songs a personal touch, a touch that oscillates between, and sometimes combines, hopeless optimism and sardonic dismissal.

Much of this touch comes from his lyrical content and vocal style. On “Built A Boat” Pepper’s voice sounds unsure and mournful in a simple, sparsely instrumented song that richly describes building a fantastic boat, only to find out that it doesn’t float. He sounds charmingly off-key in the short romp that is “There Were Dinosaurs.” In the singable chorus of “Drop the Plot”—which repeats “Do, do what you want to / you already do”—he exudes a tone that also hints towards self-loathing, the latter of which becomes an explicit lyrical theme in the pop-rock opus “It Must Be True.” This song spans a range of dynamics and emotions, building to a nerdy-angsty climax like the kind Weezer excelled at on their debut album. “One Man Show” best displays his vocal timbre and lyrical tone, which when averaged out over the album become something that is at the same time melancholic, optimistic, trenchant, relatable, and absurd.

The vocal themes tend towards either the macabre or the absurd, with witticisms in both. “If You Try” is a full-fledged 50s doo-wop song over which Pepper croons about various methods of suicide: “Jumping from a building / what a scary way to die. / Starving in the desert / what a boring way to die. // But it’s all called suicide if you try.” Part of the chorus in “I Was A John” has the protagonist expecting pasta to come out of his addressee’s fax machine. This same protagonist earlier declares, “I was psychotic and working in a woodshop / I built the stairway to heaven.”

To focus only on his lyrical wit and vocal delivery would be to ignore his deft ability to create catchy pop hooks over a wide range of styles. In fact, nearly every song on the album sounds different from the others. Some, like “Built a Boat” and “Outro” are intimate in their instrumental nakedness. Other pieces showcase Pepper’s ability to build pop-rock songs that span genres, have musical depth and still avoid feeling forced and overloaded. Pepper takes advantage of a diverse array of sounds, utilizing, among others, glockenspiel, electric drum sequencing, synthesizers, acoustic guitars, organ, handclaps, shakers, and multiple layers of vocal harmonies. His style spans pop-rock, electro-pop, nerd-rock, and indie-pop, and he fits it all together in the tremendous and delightful mess that is With Trumpets Flaring. As I find myself humming his songs more and more often, I realize that Gregory Pepper and His Problems might be the best pop surprise I have had in a long time. –Max Thorn

The Dimes create memorable folk-pop for latest EP

The Dimes are a band your history professors would love. The Portland-based folk-pop group recently released an EP, New England, in anticipation of their second full-length album tentatively scheduled to be released this coming September. The EP is not lazily titled. In fact, the subject matter of each song deals with 19th-century New England. The Dimes are historically aware, to say the very least.

The first track, “The Liberator,” is a simple song full of allusions to the American abolitionist movement of the 1800s. The song sings of a protagonist—the liberator—making up for his father’s inaction, saying what others will not say, continuing the legacy of John Brown. To some, the subject matter may sound dry or trite, but the with The Dimes it takes on an almost storybook feel, as if the lyrics belonged in the mental vaults of some revered oral tradition. The vocal delivery contributes to said effect through an even-keel tonality and a nostalgic glaze. The music consists of a single, plodding chord progression serving as a backdrop for whatever quirky element The Dimes choose to feature—say, for instance, mandolin tremolo, multi-part harmonies, or a duet featuring clarinet and melodica. The song’s pieces, and the band’s sound as a whole, are seductively congruous.

The historical narratives continue in “Clara,” whose title and lyrics refer to none other than Clara Barton—native New-Englander, abolitionist, suffragist, battlefield nurse, and founder of the American Red Cross. Using a wide range of old-time instruments The Dimes craft a personal account of Clara’s battlefield heroics as told by the unnamed narrator, presumably a mortally wounded soldier. The melody is wonderfully catchy, the foremost part of a musical texture that includes lap steel, harmonica, mandolin, guitar, and a deftly-written banjo riff. The lyrics give the music a gently despairing overtone as the soldier cries out for Clara to save him: “Hold me Clara, to keep me waiting/I don’t have long.” The song’s elements come together to create a mood that is both sorrowful and solid, and the music fades away with a sort of military cadence from the snare drum, cleverly and effectively implying a funereal resolution.

What follows is a short song entitled “Ballad of Winslow Homer.” Homer was a 19th-century artist from, you guessed it, New England. As an artist Homer worked a lot in watercolors, and this ballad by The Dimes has a similar feeling to the medium: light and fluid, but, in the right hands, not lacking in richness or depth. The piece features minimal percussion and simple guitar-picking akin to that of Iron and Wine or Simon and Garfunkel. Such rhythmic minimalism lets The Dimes display their knack for tasteful accents (this song features bells) and, more noticeably, their vocal talents. In case the listener has not yet been convinced, “Ballad of Winslow Homer” features another catchy melody backed up by tight pop harmonies, as well as some light and tasteful background “aah’s.” The Dimes demonstrate their creative vocal powers best on this pop ballad.

The fourth and final piece on the New England EP is a cover of John Lennon’s “Watching the Wheels.” The Dimes’ version features a bit slower tempo and, instead of Lennon’s piano, The Dimes leave it to their reliable acoustic guitar playing to handle the harmonic structure. A minimal instrumental arrangement again pushes the spotlight on the vocals, which are arranged and executed in the folk-pop style that The Dimes excel at.

New England is well-balanced, smartly arranged, lyrically clever and exceptionally performed. The Dimes have made a memorable folk-pop EP, subtle in its sound but lasting in its impression. I ardently look forward to their full-length album. -Max Thorn

the binary marketing show escapes easy classification.

I often wonder at the sheer number and variety of genres and sub-genres. In my more cynical moments I am convinced that obscure genres are the products of a conspiracy between musicians and writers attempting to make unoriginal or unbearable music appealing to college students or habitual Myspacers. Admittedly, I fall into both of these categories, but I have never been the type of person who refers to a band with a phrase like “my new favorite post-Marxist-futurepop duo.” When my cynicism temporarily resolves itself, I realize that frenzied sub-genre creation has its roots in unique music: Bands make original and progressive music and listeners try to classify that music with the vocabulary at hand. Self-described as experimental noise pop, Brooklyn’s the binary marketing show seems difficult to place, even with hundreds of sub-genres to choose from.

Their latest album, pattern, opens with “shape of your head,” a piece that adequately demonstrates the major elements of the binary marketing show’s elusive sound. The song begins with a swirling and sweeping soundscape—a mix of electronic drum samples and acoustic percussion, a short, bell-like loop that seems to have escaped from Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog, and ethereal choral voices—that gives way into a more driving drum beat and what one later recognizes as their signature guitar sound. This guitar sound, an element in most of the album’s tracks, is especially striking in “la boheme,” where the guitar picking exudes solitude, like a post-modern interpretation of the musical score from an old Western film. The guitar playing is minimalistic, thriving on repetitions of a scant riffs, its clean sound colored by just enough reverb to hint at deliriousness.

In fact, “minimalistic” is an apt adjective for the entirety of pattern. Many of the songs are built around the repetition of a particular loop or musical theme, and the overall arrangements are sparse. Acoustic drums are relegated to simple timekeeping and the use of the snare drum is rare. Minimalism is especially noticeable in “white template,” a song that moves the listener into, out of, and through an unearthly soundscape of tom patterns, electronic noise, and repetitive guitar picking. On this track Bethany Carder’s vocal delivery reminds me of Alanis Morissette, if Alanis were more indie and bothered and had better music to sing over. Some songs, such as “628 hertz,” contain only one lyrical phrase, plaintively repeated throughout the piece. Even the album title itself hints at the band’s affinity for minimalistic compositions.

The band also has an impressive ability to make seemingly incongruous elements hold together, although only barely. It is not uncommon to hear harp loops, harmonica, bells, dub-style horns, and synth drones. “trust and candor” begins with a quick ukelele chord that quickly cuts into a breakneck conga loop layered with bird sounds, mariachi-style trumpets, acoustic drums, and the idiosyncratic vocals of band members Abram Morphew and Carder, whose vocals play share space on nearly every track. My favorite song on the album is “fear,” a folk-pop tune that starts off with a church organ dirge and choral vocal layers. But the song heads up-tempo and its catchy melody is backed by a ukelele sample. The whole piece rises in energy, its zenith a sort of restrained angst.

The precarious arrangements certainly warrant calling the binary marketing show an experimental band. However, they are akin to other great experimenters—Grizzly Bear, Modest Mouse, Talking Heads—in that their eccentricities make them engaging and captivating. It is when the songs are barely holding together that I find myself being held rapt by the songs. The music begs a critical ear while at the same time also rewarding trance-like listening.

So how does one classify the binary marketing show? Indie-Experimental-Electronic-Minimalism? Really-weird-but-endearing-and-sometimes-powerful? Yes, those all work. Although, more simply, how about: “really good”?

Buy it here. –Max Thorn

This Fair City decided to throw a viola into the power-pop blender

What happens when pop-rock in the heritage of Sunny Day Real Estate collides with an oft-haunting viola? Portland-based This Fair City is one place to begin looking for an answer. The edge of their sound falters between hard and soft, as a large part of their sound plays off contrasting elements: clean guitar obligattos versus thickly distorted power chords; lower-register sneers versus long-drawn falsetto; electric instruments versus a stray chamber orchestra voice. That is not to say that those pairs are irreconcilable, and thus the question becomes, “Can This Fair City pull that off?” At times, yes, they do. Although at other times, potential overshadows execution.

The opening track, “what comes our way,” opens with a dark, legato viola line from Brandi “Charlotte” Grahek, followed by tight, melodic interaction between two guitars–a la Emery–to add texture. Jason Charles Franklin’s vocals choose a surprising moment in which to quietly enter, giving a first taste of the intriguing interplay between viola and vocals that inhabits the rest of the album. One wonders exactly who the primary melodic voice is. Such contrasts in timbre between the traditional rock instruments and the viola weaves the entire album together. The effect rewards attentive listening, as the conflict and ambiguity between voices enhances the listening experience.

The most impressive element of the opening track is its density: for better or worse, each instrument is heavily involved in the piece. Franklin’s scream (he averages about one per song) near the end of the piece sounds slightly too forced and, at worst, dishonest, as can some of his lyrics. Franklin’s upper register, to which he easily ascends, resounds with varieties of emotional texture. His falsetto, of which he is in superb control, is incredibly impressive and moving. The piece finishes with a net gain in energy. What comes the listener’s way in the opening track is an honest preview of the general “sound” of This Fair City.

The next track–“tonight we’re running back”–follows right on the heels of its precedent, but brings us starkly (and effectively) down into a mellow mood. Here, This Fair City exhibits its penchant for creating moments of complex texture, interweaving multiple guitar lines (played by Franklin and Travis Schultz), viola obligattos, and vocal harmonies while the rhythm section provides a dependable point of reference. (See also the bridge and last ninety seconds of “thank you mr. king,” the rhythm section on “always,” and the layering of instruments that begins “associated press.”)

Stephen Burnett plays a richly solid bass guitar throughout the album. He avoids the common problems of rock bassists and excels at playing primarily rhythmic bass lines without being overbearing and, what is more, without sacrificing tonality and expression. His rhythmic partner, drummer Robin Marshall, exhibits consistency. Yet at times that consistency and reliability bleeds into repetition and an over-reliance on particular patterns and fills. However, Marshall’s playing is nothing short of tasteful on “associated press” and what I consider to be their best composition, the closing track, “in transit.”

Their last presentation to the listener exceeds the rest. “in transit” departs from the standard verse/chorus structure and the composition shows that, although This Fair City can hammer out measures in distorted and energetic unison, the band has an awareness of the power of nuance. A pluralism of voices slides deftly in and out of perception. The members draw a wide variety of tones and moods from their instruments, challenging the straightforwardness of previous tracks. The mood of the piece is at once impenetrable and self-evident. It moves fluently within its subdued nature. The title is apt; the song feels transitive. In fact, “in transit” is a fitting metonymy for This Fair City: it goes places, but is fittingly cyclical…and the viola gets the final word. –Max Thorn