There was a point in the mid-’00s when people knew almost exactly what you meant when you said, “We’re an indie-rock band.” With Death Cab for Cutie, Modest Mouse, The Shins, and dozens more running around, “indie rock” meant melodic rock songs with quirky affectations in one or more categories of lyrics, arrangements, song structures, and public persona (Flaming Lips were totally an indie-rock band for a minute, even though they were on a major label–whatever).
Quiet Company‘s Transgressor is an indie rock album in that fine tradition, drawing off all the influences that were impressing themselves on that wave of bands. It’s a melodic, enthusiastic, thoughtful, impressive record that creates surprises where I thought there could be no more surprises.
The first clue is lead single and opener “Seven Hells,” which is a frantic, manic tune in a major key. (Almost all the tunes here are in a major key.) The tune shows the versatility of Taylor Muse’s voice, going from smooth, friendly melodist to freaked-out rager in a span of seconds. It’s the sort of subversive moment that appeared in the mid-’00s and made you think that maybe these buttoned-up kids weren’t as okay as they looked on the cover of the album. Maybe it’s okay to not be totally okay. Maybe we should keep spinning this album for a few more aimless car rides around the city.
“Mother of a Deal” also packs personality and punch into spaces you wouldn’t expect. The casual, lackadaisical refrain of “this is how we play the game” contrasts to the passionate guitars, stomping drums and wailing organ, making another of the whiplash moments that are so cathartic and exciting. It’s that sort of giddy play with expectations that makes most of the tunes here so engaging. You might think, “Wait, didn’t we play that out in like 2009?” Well, maybe you did, but Quiet Company totally didn’t. The Shins could have written the excellent standout “The Road to Perdition,” but they didn’t, and now I’ve got plunking piano, ba-da-das, syncopated vocals, whizzing synths, stomps and handclaps trapped in my mind on loop. “I can’t get you off my mind,” indeed. If you can stop your feet from tapping in “The Road to Perdition,” then the emo revival has hit you a bit too hard, friend.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t some really sad things going on in Transgressor (“A Year in Decline,” “Wherever You Take Me”). It’s just that Quiet Company attacks difficult songs like “I Heard the Devil Say My Name” with almost pop-punk enthusiasm: blaring, wiry synths; galloping drums; big choruses; jubilant horns. There are some nuanced guitar lines, and there’s some heaviness in the lyrics, but if you left the lyrics out, you could dance gleefully to it. You can dance gleefully to basically any track on Transgressor, which is an irony inherent in the title.
The tale is about the courtship, consummation, and subsequent difficulties of marriage, and the title points out the narrator as the transgressor. But it’s still transgressive to dance at sadness and pain, no matter how many times we do it. “I’m begging you to know me / I’m begging you to figure me out / Are you brave enough to love me? / Are you smart enough to have your doubts?” Doesn’t get much rawer than that, even though that section is bookended by perky ba-da-da-da horns.
I could go on, but it would just diminish the beauty and power and excitement of Transgressor. There are alleys and paths and fields and caves to find for your own here. If you’re into mid-’00s indie-rock, late ’00s pop-punk like Relient K, or Death Cab for Cutie at any point in their career, you’ll be into Quiet Company’s impressive Transgressor.
Afterlife Parade started out as an artsy, experimental indie-rock group. Death & Rebirth is a wild, scattered, and often-powerful debut released in two parts. The band turned right around and dropped A Million Miles Away, which contains some of the most spot-on, adrenaline-pumping, emotion-charged pop-rock I’ve heard in years, losing some of their sweeping arrangements but amping up their melodic bonafides. Where did the tumultuous, textured, enigmatic, dramatic work go? Well, it all made its way into AWE: Volumes 1-3.
AWE is a set of three impressive five-song instrumental post-rock albums. Each of the three holds to a different theme (the passing of a day, the cycle of seasons, the span of a life), and each of the 15 songs explores a different mood of post-rock song. I know that sounds ambitious, but it’s true. What’s more impressive is that they sound seasoned in every single style. They’ve listened to a lot of post-rock, and their tunes distill a lot of post-rock ideas into (often) short spaces.
Volume One (about the passing of a day) opens with “Dusk Whipers,” a glacially-paced but gentle tune that builds on soft keys and ambient space until it reaches its apex. It doesn’t get heavy, which leads neatly into the perky, Devotchka-esque melodies and quiet-but-insistent rhythms of “Stretching Sunlight.” Here and elsewhere, they layer individual sounds expertly to create moods.
“Mount Sol” relies heavily on pizzicato strings to give it a Balmorhea vibe, while “Day’s End” builds off tape hiss, melancholy finger-picked guitar, ephemeral keys, and ghostly voices. (It’s like a post-rock Bon Iver.) “Midnight Waltzes” closes the set with a regal, stately solo grand piano performance. It’s a gorgeous, remarkable set all on its own, and there’s still two more!
Volume Two is a much grander affair than Volume One; where the first one was done in under 20 minutes, the follow-up is near 40 minutes long. Their interpretation of the changing of seasons is much heavier in tone than their sound of a day; Volume Two opens with the bass-heavy, ominous “Solstice” anchored by an ostinato piano line that is transformed in tone via the layers added to it (like LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends”). “July’s” spends several minutes developing a complex Latin-jazz percussive beat created by electronic and human drummers before transforming the connotatively-celebratory mood into an eerie soundscape that feels like a forest closing in on you.
“Fall Euphoria” is still pretty pensive at the beginning, but it transforms the uncomfortable vibes and percussive dominance of the first two tracks into a tender, beautiful piece that’s reminiscent of the Album Leaf. It’s a remarkable, deft, expert turn to move directly from one to the other through the same piece. Its wistful overtones lead into the nine-minute “Slow Cold,” which is exactly what it says on the tin. (Post-rock fans are nodding their heads.) It closes with a dissonant solo piano piece that experiments with the way that humans hear and interpret dissonance, holding out notes that don’t necessarily go together for long periods of time before resolving them. It’s basically modern classical music, and it’s remarkable. It’s not one of my favorite pieces emotionally, but musically it’s one of the most impressive.
Volume Three is quite different than the second; it barely covers 15 minutes. However, it’s the most emotionally evocative of the three for me. Covering the span of a life, it starts out with “Tippy Toes,” a 96-second tune with ukulele, toy piano, shaker and other small instruments that remind me of Lullatone’s twinkly, beautiful, but not pandering work. It’s a wonderfully charming start to the piece. “Hopscotch” is a perky tune built on guitars that is again reminiscent of Devotchka. It captures the freedom and uncomplicated joy of play in a surprisingly poignant way. A little growing up leads us to “Sixteen,” which combines confident ’80s-style electro beats and synths with some gently exploratory guitar work.
“Youngblood” is a more tentative work, scared even–showing the difficulties of growing up and getting out into the world. The sound is ambient, with bits of sound coming in and out at seemingly spontaneous times, but never sounding fully like a cohesive unit. The purposeful off-centering of the work tells a strong narrative, especially in the context of the pieces that came before it. A blaring organ starts off “Sage,” but it soon gets layers and layers of keys on top of it, turning it into a woozy, vaguely funereal dirge tinted with specks of joy. It’s a bold, risky conclusion to the release, and I like it.
The three releases in the AWE series are each incredibly beautiful. The fact that one band made music of this many varieties while also being able to throw down incredible pop-rock tunes points to an intimidating, towering talent. The songwriting is amazing; AWE is amazing; Afterlife Parade is amazing.
Singer/songwriter Kris Orlowski has been a shooting star for the fast few years, moving quickly from local roots to premiering his latest album Believer on Pandora to recording a three-song EP with the venerable Damien Jurado at the helm. Columbia City Theater Sessions is the outcome of that collaboration: three songs of stripped-down acoustic work with delicate touches that are indicative of Jurado’s ear.
The new version of “Believer” retains the heavy strum pattern of the original, but foregrounds the lead and backup vocals. It creates a more collective vibe to the tune, as opposed to the very individualistic vibe that runs through the lyrics and original full-band version. (You can check the full version of “Believer” as the bonus track on this EP.)
The revelation here is “Fighting the War,” which is transformed from an anthemic pop-rock song into a tender, delicate tune that incorporates distant piano, warm background vocals, and even flute. It feels very much like a Jurado tune, in its tension between spare vibes and lush aspirations. It’s a stand-out tune both ways Orlowksi has cut it so far, which is truly remarkable.
The new track, “Winter, Winter” is truly a solo effort, vocals and guitar only. I don’t know how much influence Jurado had on it, but the insistent strum pattern is similar to the work that Damien would put out. Jurado’s fingerprints are all over these three quiet re-interpretations, and it shows a side of Orlowski that he hasn’t flexed in a while. If you’re looking for a solid little EP to play on a snowy day (like today), this one would be a great choice.
The folk-grounded indie-pop of In Tall Buildings‘ Driver gets better as it gets weirder. Opener “Bawl Cry Wail” is a traditional modern folk tune that wouldn’t be out of place in a Elephant Micah record, and it’s by no means bad. But things start to sparkle on “All You Pine,” as Erik Hall introduces rubbery, staccato bass; complex drumming; and subtle synth undertones. Then a gritty, grungy guitar solo appears. It’s all very “other” to modern folk, and it’s intriguing. Lead single “Flare Gun” relies on arpeggiated synth and perky drumming to float his guitar picking and vocals; the overall effect is remarkable. “I’ll Be Up Soon” manages to create the separated, synthetic electronic vibe without any obvious electronics, which is an impressive feat.
Once you’ve heard the album once, go back and listen to it again; once you’ve listened through, the context of the whole thing becomes clear and even dramatically un-electronic songs like “Bawl Cry Wail” fit into the amalgam. Songs like “Aloft” could be electronic or organic–it doesn’t matter. They just sound right together. If you’re into adventurous, sonically experimental music (but not in an avant-garde sort of way), Driver is for you.
Usually when I get a music release from someone who’s already famous in another artistic medium, I ignore it. The space that I have is best used on people trying to work their way up from nothin’. However, Michael Malarkey is an exception because his music is really good. Feed the Flames EP shows Malarkey in optimistic fingerpicking troubadour mode, like some cross between Alexi Murdoch, Josh Ritter and Josh Radin.
The chorus vocal line of “Through the Night and Back Again” has been stuck in my head for days, as Malarkey’s gentle baritone lilts its way through a pastoral setting that includes lazy pedal steel. It’s an impressive, mature tune. “Lost and Sound” and “Bells Still Ring” keep that feel going, giving a sense of motion and lightness to the release that can’t be dragged down by two darker tunes. The title track is a minor key tune, still with strong melodicism and fingerpicking, that plays up a romantic feel. “Everything’s Burned” is a helter-skelter klezmer/gypsy tune that taxes Malarkey’s vocals in delivery speed. It’s a fun, quirky tune that never feels overly kitschy.
Acting (Vampire Diaries) first made Michael Malarkey famous, but his singer/songwriter chops are just as strong as any one-art artist could hope for. I really look forward to what Malarkey will do in the future, musically–his first offering is impressive.
I’m always listening to music. I listen to so much music that I have two strands of listening going at any one time–the stuff I’m reviewing and the stuff I’m listening to for fun. It’s been this way since I was in high school: I once spent six months listening to nothing but CAKE in my spare time. (It’s a good thing I have two arms of this project.) In short, my love for CAKE is deep and abiding. If you’ve read this blog recently, you know that my love for alt-country is just as deep (although categorically not as abiding, as it hasn’t been around for a decade yet.) So if there’s a band that combines CAKE and alt-country, it’s a sure bet that I’m going to be all over that.
Embleton‘s It Did Me Well does just that, including a re-contextualized cover* of “Sad Songs and Waltzes” amid a set of tight, lush, upbeat alt-country songs reminiscent of Dawes and Ryan Adams. The nine songs here form a cohesive whole that shows refined songwriting and arranging skills on the part of bandleader Kevin Embleton.
The opening quartet of tunes says a lot about the record: Opener and title track “It Did Me Well” introduces a crunchy electric guitar riff before settling down into an easy-going acoustic strum. That pattern is soon filled out by wavering pedal steel, distant drums, and Embleton’s impassioned high baritone/low tenor voice. It’s a walking-speed jam that instrumentally reminds me of the Jayhawks and vocally calls up comparisons to the controlled drama of Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith. “You’re Not Ready” introduces a harmonica to the mix, taking a lighter tack than the electrified previous tune. Embleton goes for the pop melody in the chorus, showing off some chops there.
The third track is that CAKE cover. Sonically, it’s not that much different than the original, but it’s pulled from its ironic context (CAKE is not an alt-country band) and placed into an earnest one. Surrounded by other country tunes, it takes on a poignant air that was hard to find in the midst of the irony-laced original. It’s a very clever move on Embleton’s part. The fourth track is lead single “Leaving for Good” (IC premiered it), which slots the pedal steel in the lead spot and creates a gentle tune around that keening, mournful sound. The drums still give the song pep and punch, but the emotional qualities of the lyrics and vocals come front and center. It shows off a different angle of the Embleton sound.
The rest of the album continues to develop the balance between crunchy riffs (“Punches”) and gentle arrangements (“Her Name Was Grace”) while displaying an emotional quality through the vocal lines and the melodies (“Only Begun,” “Mountain Time”). Fans of harder edges on their alt-country (Drive-by Truckers, et al) might find that not to their liking, but fans of Dawes’ ruminations on life and love will love it. If you’re into the past or present Laurel Canyon sound, you’ll be all up in this. It Did Me Well drops March 10–you can pre-order it at Embleton’s site.
*Post-publication, I was informed that “Sad Songs and Waltzes” is originally a Willie Nelson tune, which means that Embleton re-re-contextualized it. As I only knew about the CAKE version when I wrote the review, I’m leaving the text the same. Sorry, Willie. Sorry, Trigger.
Tender Mercy‘s 5-song EP Sacred Sphinx follows up on his 2014 debut of the same length. His milieu hasn’t changed a bit: it’s still Mark Kramer’s forlorn voice, a gently plucked guitar, tape hiss, and reverb. The minimalist, slowcore songs that result are heavily mood-oriented pieces; they rely not on complexity, but on the all-pervasive mood that the few elements create. It takes work to make simplicity sound so vital, and it’s clear that Kramer has put in that work.
Because of the stark minimalism, the melodies that Kramer features feel immediate and foregrounded: the vocals in the chorus of “Invisible” and the guitar patterns in “Doubt” and “MLK Day” are particularly striking. By contrast, the near-consistent guitar strumming of “Dirt Mtns” feels like a grand statement. Tender Mercy’s songs create an alternate universe for themselves and suck you into it: they seem difficult and foreboding at first, but their charms unfold as the listener slowly accustoms to the type of world that Kramer is imagining. Slow down a bit and enjoy Sacred Sphinx; it’s not the sort of thing that you work to. It’s an experience to be savored.
Alan Doyle‘s So Let’s Go is an incredibly fun amalgam of foot-stomping folk, celtic vibes, and radio pop conventions that makes it a goal to connect with its audience. From the Imagine Dragons-esque whistling of the opening title track to the infectious barroom chant of “1, 2, 3, 4″ to the claps in alt-pop/folk-pop tune “I Can’t Dance Without You,” there’s barely a moment throughout that isn’t written for maximum participant inclusion. There are woah-ohs, sing-alongs, clapping, stomping, and all manner of dramatic moments that make for great pop songs.
Doyle is the frontman of long-running band Great Big Sea, and the songwriting experience shows here. This is the sort of album that makes a convincing argument for the necessity of pop radio: how could anybody who likes pop songs not enjoy Alan Doyle’s music if they just heard it? It’s not a giant artistic statement, it’s not depthy or weighty, it’s just an incredible straight-ahead pop album. If you like fun, happy, uplifting pop songs, you need to check out So Let’s Go.
1. “The Last Generation of Love” – The Holy Gasp. Hugely theatrical vocals, driving conga drums, stabbing horns, and an overall feel of wild desperation permeate this wild track. It feels like a lost ’60s bossa nova played at triple the speed with an apocalyptic poet dropping remix bars over it. In short, this one’s different.
2. “Hot Coffee” – Greg Chiapello. Somewhere between Brill Building formal pop songcraft and Beatles-esque arrangement affectations sits this perky, smile-inducing, timeless tune.
3. “Wake Up and Fight” – Gaston Light. If you’re looking for a widescreen folk creed, this tune builds from a single bass note to a fist-raised anthem. Gaston Light attempts to channel Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Conor Oberst, and more.
4. “Evil Dreams” – Elstow. ’50s girl-pop mixed with some 9 p.m. vibes and reverb = solid track.
6. “All This Wandering Around” – Ivan and Alyosha. Ivan and Alyosha are back with a chipper indie-rock song that will get you tapping your toes.
7. “Less Traveled” – Johanna Warren. A lilting soprano supported by low flutes and burbling fingerpicking developed into technical guitarwork that lifted my eyebrows. There’s a lot of talent going on here. I love what Team Love is up to this year.
8. “Folding” – Martin Callingham. Callingham has crafted the sort of tune that’s almost inarguable: it floats lightly on your consciousness, gently working its way through to the end of the tune. If Joshua Radin had gotten a few more instruments involved without going rock…
9. “Wild at Heart” – Trans Van Santos. Does Calexico have a patent of the sound of the high desert? Mark Matos hopes not, as the baritone-voiced songwriter of Trans Van Santos has a way with the guitar delays and reverbs of that venerable sound. Perfect for your jaunts to or from Flagstaff.
10. “Don’t You Honey Me” – Timothy Jaromir. Here’s a bluesy country duet with excellent come-hither female vocals, muted horns, and romance on the mind.
Yo, “Steal the Light” by The Cat Empire takes a minute to warm up. Give it a second, though, because it turns into a triumphant, horn-laden, percussive Caribbean groove. Because they’re from Australia.
The clip for “Between Us” by Pistol Shrimp is beautiful non-sequitur set to a Passion Pit-esque thumper. Awesome.
Just Walden’s “Space Cadet” video is certainly saying something, but I’m not sure what it is. It’s a neat-looking video aside from parsing the deeper meanings.
Austin alt-country outfit Salesman‘s output up until this point has been eerie, avant-garde, and complex. With the Let’s Go Jump into the Fire 7″, they’ve gone in a different direction that they admit is “a new page” in their book. And boy, is it.
Instead of dark and foreboding tunes that take a while to make their way to your heart, the title track of the seven-inch is an immediately endearing tune. It opens with a jaunty, celebratory, major-key fingerpicking pattern on an electric guitar, which is a shock in itself.
The rest of the arrangement unfolds in a careful way that builds the song seemingly organically to a jubilant point two minutes in where Devin James Fry yells “Yeah!” not out of terror, but out of enthusiasm. Wavering pedal steel, tasteful drums, and thrumming bass create a warm atmosphere that’s hard to resist. It’s very much alt-country, and the rhythms and vocals still mark it as a Salesman track, but their powers are definitely engaged in a different direction.
“Let’s Go Jump into the Fire” is backed with “Riddle of the Source,” which is darker in tone and timbre. It’s still not as difficult as their previous work (or Fry’s previous work with apocalyptic post-rock band Lord Buffalo), but the vibes are darker, more forlorn, more at home in the minor key. Fry stretches out his vocals here, leading the song with his nuanced performance. There’s an awesome (and all too short) guitar solo as well. Salesman’s new look is less obtuse, more direct, and thoroughly enjoyable. “Let’s Go Jump into the Fire” is a brilliant track that speaks optimistically toward things to come.
Janet Devlin‘s Running With Scissors is a thoroughly modern acoustic pop album, putting all the things we’ve learned since Nevermind to good use. The Irish singer/songwriter channels The Lumineers, Lilith Fair, Ingrid Michaelson, and KT Tunstall throughout the album, creating tunes that fit the best adjectives of each turn. Opener “Creatures of the Night” is a perky mid-’00s acoustic-pop song with mandolin and stomping drums; the booming kick bass turns into the walloped, four-on-the-floor tom of “House of Cards,” which is a female-fronted Lumineers track if there ever was one. (It’s even got the obligatory “hey!”)
The tunes set the tone for the album: fun, smart, and melodically mature. The surprisingly maturity with which she traipses through genres is worth noting here: “Hide and Seek” is straight-ahead ’90s female pop (Jewel?), “Lifeboat” includes melodica and separated strumming a la Ingrid Michaelson, “Things We Lost in the Fire” is an introspective piano ballad (Fiona Apple!), and her cover of the The Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love” is all folk fingerpicking and whispered vocals. “Wonderful” has a regrettable lyrical concept, but if you just ignore the words, it’s another cheery ’90s pop tune. (On second thought, maybe the goofy lyrics are just part and parcel of her commitment to the style.)
Janet Devlin’s Running With Scissors is a carousel of delights: no matter which song you pick, it will take you for a warm, lovely trip. If you’re into acoustic pop, you should know about Devlin.
1. “Why” – Rathborne. Helter-skelter drums, bass that’s just trying to keep up, jagged guitar sprawling everywhere, aggrieved vocals leading the charge? And it’s done in 2 minutes? Sign me up for garage rock 101, Rathborne. Teach me.
2. “Jawbone” – Dogheart. Sometimes the melody and vocals are so good that it doesn’t really matter what genre the song is. Dogheart’s good-natured garage rock will have people of all sorts humming along.
3. “Suckcess” – Michael Rault. Lo-fi rock with just the right amount of fuzz to get your adrenaline, but not so much that you can’t tell what’s going on. A strong dose of pop ideals (and pop history) put this one over the top.
4. “Boomerang” – Ships Have Sailed. Big fat pop songs are great ways to get through wet, cold Tuesdays in February. Ones that have vibes like The Killers are even better.
5. “Six String to My Heart” – Purple Hill. If The Hold Steady were more alt-country instead of classic rock, they might have sounded like this organ-laden, vocal-driven mid-tempo rock tune.
6. “A Whole New Shape” – Happyness. Remember when Yuck and Smith Westerns were big because they were playing neo-grunge with an indie flair? Happyness is on that train too, and they deserve as much attention as the aforementioned.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.