Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Half-Handed Cloud! Forever! And Ever! Amen!

November 9, 2019

Half-handed Cloud is a secretly powerful band. They pack incredible amounts of punch into indie-pop songs that almost never break the 2:30 mark and most often sit comfortably between 45 to 90 seconds. They are a never-ending font of vocal melodies, instrumental flourishes, unusual jumps, thoughtful lyrics, and enigmatic song endings. They are experts at doing everything that most bands do in 3:30 in a fraction of that time.

Half-handed Cloud is on Sufjan’s Asthmatic Kitty label, which is perfectly right; Half-handed Cloud is a hyperactive, exaggerated version of Sufjan’s Illinois phase. If you wish that Sufjan still sounded like that, then you’re in luck: Half-Handed Cloud sounded like that before Sufjan did, and still sounds like it after Sufjan does. In other words, there are legitimate ways in which John Ringhofer is more Sufjan than Sufjan. Word.

Here’s one way that HHC is out-Sufjaning the man himself: Gathered Out of Thin Air is a b-sides record that collects sixty (60, not a typo) non-LP songs that have appeared (or not) over the last decade. Further dueling with the master: half of them are about Jesus, there’s a whole sequence about Magellan-era naval exploration, eight Christmas/holiday songs (!!!), and one called “Viscous Shadow of Cleopas,” which sounds more early-Mountain Goats than Sufjan. It’s very simply a treasure trove: there’s barely a second to breathe, not a song of waste, and literally no place to start in a review. Okay, maybe there is a place to start: There’s a song about how Y2K was a disappointment [“Nativity Costume (2000 Year’s Eve)”]. That’s pretty rad.

John Ringhofer’s voice is very high, so you may not be into that sort of thing. You may not be into blitz-speed songs that usually don’t feature normal song structures. But if you’re basically anyone else, this collection is an absolutely incredible trove of tunes by Half-Handed Cloud. You might say, “Okay, but is a 60-song b-sides compilation the best place to start in an oeuvre?” I would say yes. It’s that good. Half-handed Cloud is so fantastic that even their b-sides are magnificent. I’ve been listening to Half-Handed Cloud since the earliest days of Independent Clauses, and while I don’t listen to HHC every day, this is exactly why I love them so much. They’re great, Gathered From Thin Air is great, and you’ll feel great when you’re listening to this. Highly recommended.–Stephen Carradini

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Leuers: a lovely collection of genre-blurred compositions

November 8, 2019

Dominique Charpentier‘s Lueurs is a lovely collection of composed music with electronic and acoustic flourishes. From solo piano pieces (“Pitchoun”) to delicate, romantic elegies (“Parachute”) to downtempo electro pieces (“Leuer“) to complex and novel post-rock-style pieces (“Chat Perché”), Leuers covers a lot of ground very effectively.

The 10 pieces are all connected by an overarching mood: there’s a wistful, dusky sense of earnest throughout the work. Most of the works are solidly grounded in piano (or at least keyboard) performance, and this clear beginning point lends the rest of the arrangements a confident air. But this is not to-boldly-go music (despite the synthy enthusiasms of “Chat Perché”); this is much more careful and precise work, with each element being careful placed and developed. This album works because each of its individual parts contribute equally: the songs all contribute to the album’s vibe, and each instrument contributes equally to each song. There’s no big synth blasts driving the bus for most of the album; for example, the ethereal synths are mixed almost on par with the sounds of rain for much of the songin the beautiful “Falaise”.

“Ressac” is a favorite of mine off the record, transforming a midnight-blue piano introduction into a post-rock piece with the introduction of electro beats, blurps, and arpeggios. The outlier of the record (“La Cabane”) is a ukulele-based fugue that delivers an instrumental twee indie-pop piece Lullatone would be proud of; while it doesn’t quite fit the tone of the record, it’s a lovely song that I would rather have on than off the release. Charpentier closes out the record with two very quiet solo piano pieces, bringing the mood back in line with the rest of the record and sending the listener off with the mood of the record swimming in my head.

Leuers is a strong release that spans genres without getting too caught up in its genre-blurring; none of the tracks here feel like attempts to pull off something that’s over the composer’s head. Instead, there’s a wide array of skills and ideas on display here. It seems self-evident to say “it’s a great record to listen to,” but not all records reward just sitting and listening. Charpentier has done just that here: created something that’s fun and interesting to listen to, even repeatedly.

Leuers comes out November 22. —Stephen Carradini

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Traversable Wormhole’s Regions of Time is a trip and a half

November 7, 2019

Traversable Wormhole‘s Regions of Time is exactly the sort of thing I’m into these days: beat-heavy, deep-groove instrumental electronic music with an emphasis on long pieces. All of the eight pieces are longer than six minutes, with “Rotation Frequency” hitting the 7:33 mark. None of them have as much as a single vocal yip. This is full-on, large-scale, muscly, instrumental techno bliss.

These pieces all inhabit a similar sonic world, and as the band name and title imply, it’s a very sci-fi world. But this is not whooshing-space-ambient spacy. This is dense, punchy, hyperspace-intensity work. The low-end thumps are scrubbed of fade and often equipped with short reverb: in their ideal form, the bass hits on “Geodesic Motion” are like punches in the best of ways. The rest of sonic palette is rattling digital percussion, tightly-constrained synths, and careful melodies. Picking out individual tracks in this record is not as good as listening to the whole thing through in a row; I can tell you that “Massless Fermions” has a big ‘ol four-on-the-floor thump that’s particularly effective, but on its own it’s not quite as good as hearing it in the context of its prior and following tracks. The whole thing genuinely feels like traveling through space on a very fast ship toward an uncertain (but probably awesome) place/event.

Regions of Time is not an album that goes much for subtlety: these are big, powerful pieces that work a minimum of parts into a maximum of payoff. The album starts without much fanfare and ends suddenly; it goes full-bore for its full run-time, then stops. It’s an engine that’s either on or off, and it’s really, really good when it’s on. If you’re in for a 40+ minute ride into a deep, dark, sci-fi space, Regions of Time will take you there, no questions asked. Highly recommended.

Regions of Time is out November 15 on Sonic Groove Records. –Stephen Carradini

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Anamanaguchi Grows Up without Growing Old

November 6, 2019

Anamanaguchi‘s latest hyperactive blitz of chiptune, punk rock, pop songs, and dance music manages to satisfy my cravings for old-school Guchi pep and interest in bands developing their sounds. “On My Own” is about as Anamana as it gets, with punk rock tempos and affectations (including a hardcore-style half-time breakdown!), cheery 8bit melodies, and a pop female vocalist bringing it all home. It’s about as maximum a tribute to JPop as four dudes who went to east coast design schools can offer. Follow-up track “Up to You” amps up the pop aspects and includes a feathery vocal approach that’s half JPop/KPop and half … uh … Owl City. It works though, I promise. “Air On Line” is a standard Guchi instrumental jam, and it rips in all the ways you would expect. If you’re here for more of what Guchi has given you in the past, Anamanaguchi delivers.

Yet they’ve also grown in their approach. The album is named [USA], which implies a much different theme than Endless Fantasy. The opener is a deliberate, expansive introduction that ends with distorted male vocals chanting U-S-A! U-S-A! That’s different. The title track follows, and it is a dense, complex, almost post-rock affair, with the quartet turning their usual adrenalized approach inside out. They introduce vocorder vocals, which continue in the similarly thoughtful and careful “Lorem Ipsum (Arctic Anthem).” They introduce back their signature 8bit sounds into this one with aplomb, making a fusion between their more pensive take and their LET’S-GOOOOO normal state. (There’s plenty of chiptune enthusiasm in the center of “Lorem Ipsum,” don’t worry.)

While the album is provocatively called [USA], the band does not dramatically foreground the theme. If you think hard and deeply about the nature of the individual songs, the work’s structure, and the often-partially-obscured lyrics, you can start to draw conclusions. But you don’t have to. You can just take this at sonic face value as a fascinating, excellent album that walks the tightest of tightropes: making more of what you’re known for while still stretching the wings and expanding sonically. Anamanaguchi handles the task deftly, and that makes the album a huge success. Highly recommended. —Stephen Carradini

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Big Little Lions speak loudly and clearly with Inside Voice

November 5, 2019

Big Little Lions let Inside Voice fly out to the world in stunning fashion. The duo from Cincinnati and British Columbia has created songwriting magic here on their sixth release via AntiFragile.

“Here We Go Again” seems a fitting welcome to fans, embracing a Mumford-and-Sons-type sound. Precise production choices make “I Can Have It All” seem like a hop, skip, and angst into the reality of the life of today’s generations. It’s truly brilliant in its paradoxes: how many toe-tapping heroin-addicted youths identify here? “Stay In” is enveloped in harmonic brilliance, while Paul Otten’s drums drive into the sweet goodbye of “Where Are You Now.” The reality of mental health is anthemic in the chorus of this stunner. The piece is unexpectedly emotional in its authentic cries fading into a solo violin. Brilliance shines in unexpected places.

Optimism is the underlying tone of this record. Paul Otten and Helen Austin “Get There” in an unusual way, as on this track they represent getting through hell. Austin’s angelic vocal delivery wrapped in the warmth of simple folk instrumentation is perfect. Like kids lost in the dark holding on to a line in order to find that safe place, the lush cello and violin of “Old Armchairs” dance in the dark. The track is confident in spite of fear, challenging listeners to let go and yet feel safe. Musical storytelling like this makes it clear why the duo won Canadian Folk Music Award for Ensemble of the Year in 2015. 

Haunting in its honest description of depression, “The Outside” feels like blowing on a frozen windowpane in order to see out. The nuanced simplicity of “Find It While I’m Falling” is another personal favorite from this excellent album. The harmonies at times feel like Angus & Julia, definitely shifting more towards a folk vibe heading towards the end. Optimism gets old without a balance of darkness, and the minimalist “Ripples” is genius. Stark and mixed to an amazing level of separation, this is one of the most relevant tracks of the album. Holistic in its message, words do not do the lyrics and music justice. 

An album with fourteen songs that all have substance is rare. Yet this one is richly satisfying in its length. Big Little Lions is that endangered species in the music industry: a band combining intelligent songwriting with unique stylistic musicality. —Lisa Whealy

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Walk Home Instead is a truly beautiful record

October 31, 2019

Joshua Aubrey Jackson has always been about mood, whether as Fiery Crash, Summerooms, or now as part of a small outfit in Make Sure. The sentimental, lush, reverberant indie-pop that he offers in Walk Home Instead is his current apex of his pretty-laser-focused goal of great moods: my wife asked me to turn the album back on because it made her feel “homey.” And if you had no more review than that, I hope you know that her recommendation is a very high bar indeed.

But that’s not all the review you get here! The 96-second titular opener is a beautiful instrumental intro to the album, setting the stage excellently. There’s delicate electric guitar with just enough reverb on it to give it a wistful feel intertwining with subtle acoustic guitar and chiming piano melodies. The depth of Jackson’s recording experience is evident, as the album is recorded and produced magnificently; this is just the sign of things to come. “Deal Breakers” is the first full song of the record, and it is incredible: Jackson’s vocals are kind, gentle, and yet yearning on top of carefully developed indie-pop orchestration. This song is like a warm shirt on a cool day that fits perfectly. You can sing this song, or you can just let it enfold you; it’s the sort of work that fits beautifully wherever it may lie.

Elsewhere Jackson continues his excellent work. “Home This Weekend” features the lovely line “I don’t feel any older / other than just an ache in my knee”; it looks pedestrian when written out, but it’s sung with such care and attention to detail that the line is a standout of the song and the album. “After School” features drums more prominently than in other places, but they’re very carefully recorded and mixed drums to fit with the lush, wistful mood of this instrumental track and the overall album. That track leads directly into “I Thought I Could Do Better Than You,” which has faint echoes of Relient K in its lyrical approach and vocal line construction. It’s the most straightforward of the songs here in terms of the pop realms of his songwriting; there’s a lot more snap in this one, and fewer wistful bits (even though the lyrics are directly laced with regrets here, more so than others). The coda of the song makes me think of Transatlanticism by Death Cab for Cutie (that’s never anything but a good thing). In case the thread has been lost: the moods here are just so, so great, no matter which song you pick.

There is a huge amount to enjoy in Walk Home Instead. Joshua Aubrey Jackson’s vision for the sonic palette of the record is clear and fully-recognized. The songs are tight and beautifully-written. The performances are solid, and the production is immaculate. Walk Home Instead is a truly beautiful record in just about every way a record can be (check the gorgeous album art, too!). If you’re an indie-pop fan and haven’t heard of Make Sure yet, you need to do so as soon as possible and treat your ears. Joshua Aubrey Jackson remains the country’s best kept secret in songwriting, and he’s only getting better; you’d do well to get on the train as quickly as possible. —Stephen Carradini

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How to Direct Your Friends to the Appropriate Mountain Goats Album, Courtesy of In League With Dragons

October 30, 2019

The Mountain Goats‘ In League With Dragons is a thoroughly okay Mountain Goats record. It has some great jams, some forgettable tunes, and some your-mileage-may-vary songs. I suspect due to its emphasis on subtlety that it is a grower, so check back in a year or two to see if it has worked its magic on me. That’s what happened to me with Goths, and now I love that album. Maybe John’s just doing growers these days. More power to you.

If you’re a longtime fan of tMG, ILWD is a non-concept record that is more memorable than All Eternals Deck but not as sonically compelling as Heretic Pride or Transcendental Youth. [I’ve grown to judge all tMG records against the albums of their type, lumping together overt concept records (All Hail West Texas, Tallahassee, We Shall All Be Healed, The Sunset Tree, The Life of the World to Come, Beat the Champ) and largely-non-concept records (Get Lonely, Heretic Pride, All Eternals Deck, Transcendental Youth, Goths, and now In League With Dragons).]

“But wait,” you might say, “I was promised a concept record about wizards! It was gonna do for D&D what Beat the Champ did for wrestling and The Life of the World to Come did for the Bible!” We were promised that. Sadly, we do not get that. John abandoned the thread midway, leaving us with only a handful of tunes that get sufficiently weird as to fulfill that wild premise (“Younger,” “Clemency for the Wizard King,” “Sicilian Crest,” maybe “An Antidote for Strychnine”). It’s a non-concept record, unless you’re playing D&D campaigns that include a New York Mets pitcher, Black Sabbath, and Waylon Jennings. (And if you are, I give you free rein to compare it with the concept records, but I should think it would fare rather poorly. Also, please record your sessions and release them as a podcast, I would listen to that very much.)

Yet, nothing in tMG land is that simple. This record serves an incredibly different purpose other than being a non-concept entry in the tMG oeuvre. It is, in fact, a key. If you are trying to introduce your family and friends to the Mountain Goats (and as a tMG person, you are of course doing this a fair bit of the time), you can play this record for them, ask them which tune/tunes they liked the most, and then direct them to the tMG album they will like the most. I can’t say John planned it this way, but ILWD is actually a remarkably clever way to get people in to the fandom. So, for the rest of the review, I’m going to illuminate the key. I may make off-handed remarks about whether or not I like a particular track, but mostly I’m going to make each song an RIYL.

Here we go.

1. “Done Bleeding” – If your friend is deeply moved by depiction of a drug addict getting clean, send them directly to the opening track of We Shall All Be Healed.

2. “Younger” – This is the single from the record and it is a good choice to represent the album. It’s a bit of a jam, and that’s good. It sounds like a cross between the gloomy vibes of All Eternals Deck and the confidently-doomed vocal approach from Transcendental Youth (particularly “Lakeside View Apartment Suite”). The lyrics have a highly stylistized narrator approach that comes directly out of Beat the Champ, so if you like the lyrics, jump up “Heel Turn 2” or “Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan”.

3. “Passaic 1975” – Goths is about working musicians and about celebrating the music of youth. This is both of those in one track: a story about what it must have been like to be Black Sabbath. In a different vein, the song itself is weirdly major-key, sort of like that time the chipper “Genesis 3:23” snuck its way into the mostly-somber The Life of the World to Come. (“Genesis 3:23” is a more compelling song, though, so if you’re into “Passaic 1975” you’re gonna be jazzed about “Genesis 3:23”).

4. “Clemency for the Wizard King” – If your listener is super-stoked by this mystic folk experience, you are going to unfortunately have to tell them “sorry, this is the album ILWD should have been, this is all we’ve got, hopefully he does more of this next time.” This is my favorite track on the record, which is why I am particularly disappointed that he chucked the concept halfway through.

5. “Possum by Night” – This is a great John piano ballad–I love his ballads, so I’m a 100% sucker for this song. It’s my second favorite song on the record, probably because you could slap it right on in to The Life of the World to Come sonically and lyrically; all you’d need to do is pick a bible verse for its title and it’s done. (Given the lyrical content and what I’m reading these days, I’d choose “Zephaniah 3:19.”) If you like this song, you will be hardcore in love with World to Come.

6. “In League With Dragons” – The introspective, solitary nature of the narrator makes the lyrics apex Get Lonely. It’s more chipper than most of Get Lonely, but not by much.

7. “Doc Gooden” – Are you very interested in stories of people dealing with the loss of dignity? John wrote a whole album for you called All Eternals Deck. “The Autopsy Garland” is a good place to start.

8. “Going Invisible 2” – The big indie-pop vocal melody here is straight up Heretic Pride; if you want more indie-pop jams then you’re gonna love all of that record (except, uh, maybe not the two reggae songs). I feel obliged to note that “Going Invisible” was a deep-cut b-side for Get Lonely, so this title directly calls back to that album, even though I feel like this one doesn’t really have the spirit of Get Lonely; there’s way more initiative than was present in Get Lonely. (This is a fairly minor quibble, I’ll grant.)

9. “Waylon Jennings Live” – Goths again, this one directly naming a musician in the title. Also, it’s a country song. I’ve got nothing on that front.

10. “Cadaver Sniffing Dog” – If you listen to the podcast Song Exploder, you’ve already been informed that this is a full-on metaphor song that’s actually about a messy breakup. Tallahassee it is!

11. “An Antidote for Strychnine” – This is a six-minute deeeeeeeep groove and my third favorite track on the record. It’s got that ominous Transcendental Youth vibe.

12. “Sicilian Crest” – If your listener is really into this jam, maybe you should direct them to ABBA instead of tMG. That’s no knock on this track or on ABBA–this track actually sounds like a Swedish vocal-disco cut. I’m as confused as you are. It’s fun anyway.

tMG fans may be wondering why there’s no reference here to The Sunset Tree and that’s because I’m not comfortable comparing anything to The Sunset TreeSunset is that good. You should recommend your friend go listen to Sunset no matter what song they liked off In League With Dragons. —Stephen Carradini

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Video: “Strange One” by CJ Stranger

CJ Stranger is the latest incarnation of Australian songwriter Cameron James Henderson, whose 2016 blues-folk album Storm Rollin’ In was a personal favorite that culminated with a Phoenix, Arizona performance. Now Henderson is set to follow up in 2020 with a shift in direction. The Ro Miles video for “Strange One” leads the show:

Dennis Coomer is driving the train (literally; there’s a train in the video, and Dennis Coomer is driving it), while Cameron James Henderson (vox/guitar), Harry Day (drums), and Nick Henderson (bass) throw out a heavier indie vibe that is just great. Mixed by Anton Hagop with mastering skillfully done by Matthew Gray, this is funky indie cool! How long until the rest of the album drops? I hope we get to hear it first! —Lisa Whealy

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Two instrumentals: The Fierce and the Dead and Sun Speak

October 26, 2019

Live USA 17 – The Fierce and the Dead. This is a great primer to a post-rock band that draws more on punk energy than sludgy metal for its animating force. As one of the members calls out after frantic opener “1991”: “We’re the band you can dance to.” And while there’s a bit of self-deprecating humor there, there’s a real sense where tunes like “Spooky Action” and “Truck” could be credibly accused of being “fun” in addition to rocking. I mean, there’s community clapping in “Flint”. People are having a good time. And you could be too! There’s a lot to explore on this record, and that’s a joy.

Moon Preach – Sun Speak. This album resists easy definition, but I’ll give it a go anyway. This is a guitar-and-drums duo, but this is not a garage-rock outfit or a math-rock beast; instead, it’s a cross between a down-tempo trip-hop album, a post-rock album, and an introspective slowcore record. It’s unlike much else I’ve heard in the instrumental-duo realm; Sun Speak doesn’t try to sound like more people than it is or amplify the minimalist aspects of their set-up. Instead, they create a whole universe to inhabit of subtle grooves (“ALASKA,” “ROOST”), jazzy experiments (“FOXON,” “OFFHUE”), and even a calming acoustic folk-like track (“DAVLIN”). Along the way, Sun Speak paints a picture of a dense, carefully constructed, evocative space that Sun Speak clearly know every inch of. This is great, great stuff. Highly recommended.

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Late Singles 4: Email Bankruptcy

October 18, 2019

I used to follow a blog that would throw down 10-15 MP3s at the end of posts and say “listen to these, they are all great.” Ah, the halcyon days days of the MP3 blog. Well, I’m adapting that practice because I’m so far behind in all things IC that I just need to get these out into the world. Listen to these; they are all great. 

Instrumental-ish

  1. stig of the dump / ogglet (live)” – El Toppo.
  2. Disturbed Pair” – Memory Keepers.
  3. Getaway” – Yoon.
  4. Shush Me” – Nimrawd.
  5. Earthscapes (Ambient)” – Alex Tiuniaev.
  6. Água Viva” – Mister Lies.
  7. This Is It” – Jake Bradford-Sharp.

Not Instrumental

  1. The Waters Below” – The Duke of Norfolk.
  2. Gone Are the Days (Julie Odnoralov Remix)” – The Gray Havens.
  3. Thank You, Derrick Watson” – Frances Luke Accord.
  4. Affectation” – Alexander Noice.
  5. P.D.R.” – The Bergamot.
  6. World Keeps Spinning” – The Brilliance.
  7. Shiny New Model” – BODEGA.
  8. Go Go” – Matt and Kim.

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Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.

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