I plan a lot of my blog posts ahead of time, but sometimes I don’t get to write much while I’m planning. I’ll occasionally stick placeholder text in the draft to remind myself; it’s usually “Band name, y’all.” (Oklahoma forever.) I always eventually change the text. But this time I feel like leaving it:
Cameron Blake, y’all.
That’s right. Cameron Blake is running a Kickstarter to fund an album of just him and a guitar. I’m a big fan of Cameron’s work, and so I’m really excited to see what he can do with the bare essentials. I have extremely high hopes for this record, based on the below demo and the music from the Kickstarter video.
Novi Split is going through the great reconsideration right now. Between Spare Songs, Keep Moving, Disk 2 and If Not This, Then What, David J has spent the last three months publicizing, re-publicizing, and in some cases unearthing everything that his singer/songwriter project has done. In case you the missed the incredible work of David J over the last decade, he’s making himself easy to find now.
And that’s good, because these three releases show an impressive songwriter with a golden voice and a crisp, earnest singer/songwriter style. Let’s start with Keep Moving, Disk 2, which puts the focus on his 2003 debut, Keep Moving. Even though it invokes the title of the original album, it could more accurately be titled Pretty Much Everything I Did Between My First and Second Album, which was almost exactly four years from Jan 2003-Jan 2007.
Disk 2 collects great tracks off obscure EPs (“Get Me to Bed”), devastatingly beautiful covers (Material Issue’s “Very First Lie,” Robyn Hitchcock’s “Madonna of the Wasps”), surprisingly pretty demos (“California Skies”), and an aptly titled instrumental (“Instrumental”). It also includes no less than 21 live tracks, which are mostly of Keep Moving tracks. It is a deep dive into the catalog of Novi Split, and it will leave you charmed, pleased, and puzzled that Novi Split isn’t more well known. “The New Split (Live)” deeply moves me. “Me and Andy” has been one of my favorite songs for years. This reconsideration couldn’t come soon enough.
Once you’ve been blown away by his early work, let’s pick up with some mid-period stuff in Spare Songs. Pink in the Sink was a decidedly more hi-fi affair, and the songs on Spare Songs show that. “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now” seems to have mixing and mastering, a luxury that was not expended on some of the early tracks. This by no means diminishes the charm of the early ones or raises the stature of the new ones. It merely makes them sound different.
David J’s voice gets featured a little less here, as his pristine songwriting gets played up. “Don’t Go Home” is an absolutely gorgeous piano tune, while “Pear” (a song I’ve never heard before) is a gentle, thoughtful instrumental that links up to previous tracks in the distant horn line. (Similar horn melodies will resurface in other songs–it’s a bonus, not a detractor. Trust me.) Spare Songs is capped by a delightfully weird and wonderful version of “Dancing in the Dark.” I like this version better than the Springsteen original, for real.
And finally, we make it to If Not This, Then What, which includes brand new versions of songs off Pink in the Sink (“You Got Served,” “Young Girls”), songs that got released between PITS and now (“Hollow Notes”), and a brand new cover (Blaze Foley’s “Clay Pigeons”). Through it all, David J displays the intimacy that characterized his early works with the pristine songwriting and hi-fi production of his later work. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: David J’s voice and songwriting sound effortless, as if he just opens his mouth and the music comes out. He’s significantly more alt-country than he used to be, but it’s not a twangy-voiced alt-country but a pedal-steel affection. It’s downright beautiful stuff.
Now that Novi Split has cleared out every corner of the vault, I hope that we’ll be seeing some brand new work in the upcoming years. With all his work available and easily accessible for the first time ever (you have no idea how hard I worked to track down all the tracks that are now available on a single Bandcamp page), hopefully people will start to pick up on an unheralded, underappreciated master of the craft.
Mike Dillon‘s Band of Outsiders begins with Dillon hammering on a heavily distorted marimba. The trombone and punk-speed drums come in next. Eventually Dillon layers on ominous speak/sing vocals calmly stating that the narrator will “throw you on / my bonfire.” Sometimes a band tells you everything you need to know pretty quickly.
If you’re still not convinced that Mike Dillon is (or isn’t) for you, here’s a bit of overview on the album. Dillon and his three-piece backing band whip through pieces that throw jazz, rap, ska, metal, punk, and bossa nova (seriously) into a blender and press frappe. Dillon has religious thoughts, anti-police thoughts, political thoughts, absurdist thoughts–sometimes all in within a span of 30 seconds (“Homeland Insecurity”). There’s a lot of trombone, which is not something I get to write very often. You can dance to it. You can mosh to it. You can shout along to it (“Carly Hates the Dubstep,” most emphatically). In short, Mike Dillon is out of his mind, in the most entertaining and musically challenging of ways. Unless you’ve heard Mike Dillon before, you’ve almost certainly not heard anything like this.
I was knocked out by Kye Alfred Hillig‘s ability to convey emotions on last year’s eclectic Together Through It All: through pop-rock, indie-pop, singer/songwriter, and even electro-indie, Hillig showed he knew how to bowl the listener over. Hillig is back with Real Snow, and it’s an even better offering: his emotional power is fine-tuned even further, and he’s chosen a specific sound to investigate. Hillig has gone full electro-pop on Real Snow, and the focus makes it into an excellent album.
Opener “Cold Front” establishes the rules of the game. Good: synths, beats, live percussion, bass, cascading electric guitar riffs, soaring vocal melodies. Less Good: acoustic guitar, piano, ballads. Bad: things you can’t dance to. If you know Hillig’s previous work, “Cold Front” will be a little bit of a shock, but his signature emotive power, vocal tone, and engaging melodies are there. It’s just in a different genre this time. By the time you get to “None of Them Know Me Now,” you won’t even remember that Hillig’s last album was predominantly Americana. He sounds like he belongs in this genre, not as a toy or a lark, but as a genuine pop hitmaker.
I know that sounds weird from an artsy indie songwriter, but don’t worry–the word “slaughterhouse” appears in the chorus, and the narrator of the tune sounds positively solipsistic. Hillig is flexing other muscles, you might say–and when those muscles introduce the triumphant guitar solo in the breakdown section, you’ll be dancing right along without concern. It is truly wonderful. “None of Them Know Me Know” is basically what we wanted MGMT to mature into.
It’s not all neo-club-bangers in here: “Useless Keys,” “Like God” and “Bells of Doom” explore different elements of electro-pop. “Bells of Doom” pairs an insistent acoustic guitar strum with a twitchy, urgent low-key electro section reminiscent of The Postal Service. “Like God” ups the nervousness ante and moves straight into outright dread (complete with terrifying spoken-word section from a guest poet closing the piece). “Useless Keys” relies heavily on real electric bass guitar for its plodding yet bouncy vibe.
Hillig can’t get through a whole album without busting out a few ballads, and so “When You Were a Waitres” and “The Night Obscene” appear. “When You Were a Waitress” is a wrenching piano ballad depicting the remorse at the end of a one-night-stand/relationship that probably shouldn’t have happened, while “The Night Obscene” seems to depict quiet despair in an otherwise normal life via Americana-style acoustic guitar-heavy arrangement. Hillig delves this lyrical mine deeply in Real Snow; everyone seems sad about something. Even the funkiest track “Ugly We Were Born” opens up with, “Heavenly gates, Oh! Don’t you want me?/Don’t you think I’d make a great slave?” Whoa there.
So maybe the grating despair of some tracks makes interesting juxtaposition to the dance-oriented music; maybe the perky arrangements hide the heaviness somewhat. It probably depends on the listener. I know that I’m all about the sounds here; it’s some of the most interesting and enjoyable electro-pop I’ve heard all year. If you need to get down and you want something a little more cerebral than “Selfie,” Real Snow should be your jam.
I don’t review much rock music anymore, because much of it doesn’t excite me aesthetically or push me intellectually. But when a band breaks through the garage-rock haze that is covering so much of rock with melodic prowess and technical brilliance, I sit up and take notice. Death and the Penguin (named after a Russian novel) is the most exciting rock/post-hardcore band that I’ve heard since The Felix Culpa. With the members of Mars Volta hopping around various side projects and one-off things, Death and the Penguin looks like they’re offering their band as a good candidate to step into TMV’s spazzy, eclectic shoes. The 20 minutes of Accidents Happen are one long campaign speech (if people went back and listened to campaign speeches over and over, which I’m sure someone somewhere does).
Now everyone is in a race to be crowned the next TMV, and maybe that’s a disservice to all the bands whose personalities are getting subverted into this quest. But let me tell you: “Strange Times” is the most straightforward track on the EP. It fits neatly into the post-hardcore milieu, especially with the vocal tone and delivery. But though it fits neatly, it still has wildcards. Check out its deceptively short 2:30 for proof.
Need more diversity? “Bitumen” starts off as a stomping/clapping work chant before turning into a groove-heavy rocker. The guitar tone, the rhythmic variations, the intensity of it, the crisp production; it just all comes together perfectly. This may be a debut, but these musicians have played for a while. They know how to draw energy out of the smallest bits of song as well as the biggest ones.
The rest of the EP continues in that vein: juxtaposing unexpected sounds, creating tension and resolving it, and (most of all) throwing down wicked guitar riffs. “Space 1998″ is particularly powerful in those regards–as the second track, it’s the one that really raised my eyebrows and hooked me for the rest of the EP. Accidents Happen, alright, but this is EP doesn’t have much in the way of error. It’s tight, poised, heavy, energetic, intelligent, and clever. That doesn’t happen very often.
Continuing the massive singles drop from yesterday, here’s part deux.
MAXIMUM SINGLENESS (moody part)
1. “Com Et Dius?” – Royal Shoals. If you like your post-punk wiry, methodical, rhythmic and without a lot of repetition, Royal Shoals has a song for you.
2. “Everything (And Nothing)” – The Dark Ales. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to hear an organ in rock again without thinking of The Doors. Aussies The Dark Ales put a nice spin on not-too-grungy grunge with that organ. Also, rockin’ name, guys.
3. “Daily Echo” – Quickly Quietly. Thick, heavy distortion without being abrasive; whirling atmospherics without getting esoteric; rhythms without getting directly danceable. They’ve got something going on here, folks.
4. “Tongue-cut Sparrow” – Life in a Blender. A towering marching band a la “Tusk” dominates this mood-jumping, cabaret, Tom Waits-ian, carnival-hawking experience. If you’re adventurous…
5. “Buyin’ Time” – Black Girls. Woozy without overdoing it, poppy without underselling it–the Beatles would have been proud.
6. “Heartless” – Sean Michael Savage. Tender, confessional folk meets Ultravox. Just trust me on this one.
7. “Shallow Breath” – Early Morning Rebel. Quiet, tense, melodic: kind of like Snow Patrol, but without all the terrible connotations you probably just thought of.
8. “Bad Addiction” – Kylie Odetta. Torchy, dramatic female vocals over lounge-lit piano make this ballad a keeper.
It’s release season, which means that there are literally more things coming out than I can possibly review. The way I can best make sense of this is by dropping massive singles lists and then augmenting with reviews of the very best stuff. So here’s part one of a massive amount of singles.
MAXIMUM SINGLENESS (cheery part)
1. “Rahh!” – Pepa Knight. I’m generally anti-congas, but Pepa Knight makes them sound so delightful in this jubilant indie-pop/pop gem.
2. “Murphy’s Law” – Clockwise. JUST START DANCING NOW. ALSO GET READY TO CLAP. SUMMMMMEEEEERRRRRRR
3. “Suns Out Guns Out” – Concord America. Garage rock needed a shot of the Beastie Boys’ mid-’80s total abandon, and Concord America delivers.
4. “Melody” – Plustwo. This song was a hit in 1983, at the tail end of disco. Now it’s been redone and re-released. Since it sounds pretty much like it could have been written today, it’s now time to say: DISCO IS ALIVE, FOLKS.
5. “Gold Soundz” – Ray and Remora. Respectin’ their indie elders with a low-key indie-electro verzion.
6. “Dirty Mouth“- Killing Kuddles. Here’s a folk song that just couldn’t contain all the raucous energy it had, so it turned into a punk song. Excellent slice of folk-punk here, complete with wicked guitar solo.
7. “Faucet” – Samuel Cooper. Tons ‘o dudes doing the hazy-indie-pop thing, but not so many can do it with such endearing vocal tone and strong melodies.
8. “Running Game” – Awning. Melding ’90s pop to gentle electro to acoustic-pop, Awning are doing something a little different than the rest of us.
9. “When You Call” – July Child. Sometimes R&B is too limp for me, but the energy and strong vocal performance here make this track wistful without being wimpy.
11. “Better Ride” – Curtin. Sometimes I hear a song and think, “damn, s/he must have been writing songs for a long time.” This chill alt-country tune just smacks of experience and expertise. Absolutely gorgeous.
Many of you may not know that Independent Clauses actually has a monthly e-mail list. This is because I am terrible at promoting it. However, suddenly everything has changed.
Independent Clauses has made it into the 21st century and now uses Mailchimp for its monthly e-mail. Sign up here or in the below box if you’re interested in getting a once-monthly e-mail telling you what’s going on in the life of Independent Clauses. If not, carry on.
April is my busiest month of the year, so I’ll most likely not get as much posting done here as I’d like. But I’m giving it all my effort. Here are five tunes that I’ve been jamming to.
A Small Collection, etc.
1. “The Stone” – The Gray Havens. No matter how far afield I go, I always come back to folk-pop. This takes a grand, sweeping approach to the genre (not unlike I and Love and You-era Avett Brothers), capping off a giant crescendo with a cascade of “ohs” counterpointing the chorus. It’s a fun, peppy, carefully-constructed track that has me excited for their upcoming new album.
2. “Spero” – Cindertalk. IC fave Jonny Rodgers is now Cindertalk. His first release under the name is a haunting, powerful track that relies on his fragile voice and an impressive arrangement of his ethereal tuned wine glasses. There’s a vinyl that will be on sale during Record Store Day–you should check that thing out.
3. “Postworld (The Sun Explodes)” – Manuka Piglet. Were you looking for 13 minutes of psych-folk freakout about the cosmic end of things? Or maybe you were looking for a clarinet solo? Or both? Ambitious, impressive, a little bit nuts.
4. “XOXO” – Swordface. Wiry indie-rock that doesn’t take its talents or melodic prowess too seriously. I heard there’s an emo revival on? This probably counts.
5. “How Terrorism Brought Us Back Together” – Challenger. IC fave Challenger is bringing its ’80s-influence electro-pop back around again, and this one kicks it off with a bouncy track that features strikingly direct vocals and melodies. Throw this one on the car stereo and let that top down.
St. Even is that rare record that is captivating in its vocal melodies, arrangements, lyrics, and album art design. Captivating me with one of these things is enough to score a rave review, but this self-titled record from the nom de guerre of singer/songwriter Steven Hefter gives me everything at once. This quirky, lovely, challenging record is a surefire bet to be on my Top 10 of the year list.
His vocals are warm and engaging: his emotive baritone can sound pain-stricken, hopeful, and confident all in the same song. His years of writing and performing have earned him a quiet control of his range, which makes the melodies that he chooses to go for seem effortless. Even at his dour, Dan Mangan-esque moments, he’s got a little bit of a wry smile going on. The performances are memorable in their distinctness; his is not an interchangeable voice, and these are not disposable performances. Many of the melodies are beautiful not only for their well-craftedness, but for their earnest, nuanced, often subtly-imperfect performances. They’ve got character.
The arrangements are also full of life and verve: Hefter doesn’t like to have each instrument play straight through the song. Instead, he fits parts together like a jigsaw puzzle, making a sprawling chamber orchestra/New Orleans Jazz line into an awe-inspiring musical Rube Goldberg machine. This creates a joyful uncertainty, giving the listener little clue what wonder will be behind the next corner. Will it be the jubilant New Orleans piano of “Don’t Hold Your Breath”? The woozy horns of “Until Now Forever”? The odd rhythms of “Home Is Where You Hang Your Head” that make it feel as if the whole song is leaning forward? Hefter keeps you guessing in the best way. You will sing along with songs that don’t seem like you should be able to sing along; Hefter can make complex things fun, and fun things complex.
The “fun things complex” really comes into play with the lyrics, the weight of which is incredible for a singer/songwriter album that’s written in major keys and with intricate arrangements. Not many would layer another layer of depth onto what’s already going on, but Hefter goes right there in “Been a Little Better,” “Until Now Forever” and “Homesick.” His ruminations on the struggles of life feature lines that stick out in the best of ways, grabbing my attention and making me think about them. Because much of their gravitas comes from their delivery, I won’t spill them here, but I can point you toward “Until Now Forever” and “Really Real” for places where this might come upon you.
The art for the album is beautiful as well, with the case arriving in a burlap bag with gorgous print on both sides. The case itself has art too, which keeps proving that Hefter is really special in his attention to detail and that Gorbie International is a doing a wonderful thing for music. The other record label that put out this record is Party Damage Records, which only has five releases under its belt, but is already climbing my list of labels to watch. They opened up their catalog with the excellent dance-oriented indie-pop of Keep It Safe by Wild Ones; they’ve moved on to recognizing the immense talents of St. Even. Hard to argue with that track record.
St. Even is a sophisticated, intricate, beguiling album that gave me an immediate kick but kept the rest of the iceberg submerged. With some careful attention, the rest of the beauty became apparent–and I’m still discovering it with current listens. Absolutely wonderful. Highly recommended.