Lots of people want their songs and music videos to be surreal, but few can pull it off. Via Intercom‘s song and associated clip for “The Photographer” nail the balance between atypical weirdness and utter banality that creates truly surreal moments.
We’re premiering the video, so I’ll start with that first. The video is ostensibly a lyric video, but the lyrics are mostly difficult to read–they scroll right to left with the lines running away from the reader. It’s like the beginning of Star Wars out of a misaligned projector. The squinting I had to do for most of the lyrics creates an unusual atmosphere; the jolt of the occasionally-right-side-up lyrics makes the situation even more interestingly uncomfortable.
Once we get past the atypical lyrical presentation, there’s the nature of what’s going on around the lyrics: the members of Via Intercom are dancing inside a dollhouse with giant shadows creeping around outside the house. That’s weird enough, but the dollhouse is icy blue, the dancers are only partially present (no head, no legs, no hands), and the shirts of the dancers are contrasting colors to the icy blue of the dollhouse. Everything seems perfectly calculated to be weird. But it’s not overtly weird–it all seems plausible, as if this would be normal if not viewed through this specific camera lens. That level of unusual-yet-almost-usual is compelling.
If this were some psych-rock nugget, this unusual video might be par for the course. But the song is not some technicolor freakout–it is a measured, considered, detailed indie song. It’s almost slowcore in its arrangement, as a glacial-pace fingerpicked pattern is the main motion of the tune. Strings sway in and out, the occasional glockenspiel note hits, background vocals sigh mysteriously, and the whole song lopes onward under some unseen internal power. Pairing this slow-paced tune with the video isn’t jarring–it’s revealing, influencing how I interpret the video and the song.
The lyrics tell the story of a house party gone totally awry in a specific level of detail that adds another layer of complexity. Multiple characters weave in and out of the song. Tiny details are juxtaposed against sweeping emotional statements. Adding this level of lyrical detail on top of the songwriting and the video results in a unique, fascinating experience. It should go without saying that this is one of the best, most interesting videos I’ve seen in a long time.
1. “You” – David Gorman. The first 45 seconds are a beautiful a cappella chorale reminiscent of the best moments of early Mumford and Sons. At 45 seconds, a delicate, pristine, fingerpicked acoustic guitar line comes in. The rest of the track continues to expand, somewhere between Mumford and Fleet Foxes. It is an excellent track. Highly recommended.
2. “Dollar General Blues” – John John Brown. Gentle, finger-picked, back porch folk that rolls off Brown’s tongue with unbelievable ease. Brown could sing anything and it would sound great, but he chooses to sing a song of (very) contemporary rural America. It’s an unusual type of protest song (probably has too many words for Woody Guthrie’s taste), but it’s one all the same, and it is a poignant (instead of brash) example of the form. This is exemplar: this is how folk should work. Highly recommended.
3. “Tearing Seams” – Micah McCaw. If you’re into major-key folk, you need to jump on this track immediately: this one has the major-key strumming of Josh Ritter, the smooth vocals of Josh Rouse, and the lyrics of early Joe Pug. The triumphant conclusion of the track, led by blaring organ, is just off the charts in terms of satisfying endings. I got shivers. Highly recommended.
4. “Let This Wind Blow” – Sam Alty. The flamenco influences that Alty brings to the table are more subtle in this evocative, expansive acoustic tune. The interest in ostinato rhythms, bass patterns, and pushing forward motion are all present, but in ways that put Alty’s own stamp on the work. His specific vision is coming into focus before our ears.
5. “Mischief” – Dead Seem Old. Flamenco influences always create tunes that seem unable to sit still: there’s always insistent motion, bass groove, big melodies, and punchy moments. This acoustic tune wears its flamenco influences on its sleeve and pairs it with vocals tempered in an contemporary vocal performance fire. Groovy and fun.
6. “A Dog’s Humanity” – Bashful Hips. Insistent, off-kilter speak-sing vocals elevate an unusual folk/indie-rock arrangement into a unique, experimental tune. There’s some pizzicato strings, theremin and thrumming string-bass all threaded between each other. The lyrics are somewhere between the apocalyptica of Modest Mouse, the detailed observations of Emperor X, and personal/collective tensions of I’m Wide Awake-era Bright Eyes.
7. “Good Times” – The Macarnos. The vocals have a touch of Colin Meloy in them and there’s a guitar solo (!), both of which perked my ears up in this heavy-strummed folk/acoustic tune. The acoustic strum meshes tightly with the drums, creating a impressively solid base for the track.
8. “Lull” – Cherophobiac. A slow-burning, minor-key piano tune that would fit easily in a companion to OK Computer, what with the long introduction that includes computer sounds, the lyrical emphasis on human senses (seeing/feeling), and the grumbling bass. The layered vocals throughout the piece create a bit of Imogen Heap flavor, as well. The piece, as a result, is satisfyingly unusual.
9. “Goin’ Home” – Barzo. I’m not really into funk, but every now and then a band can catch my ear with a bass groove, a solid rhythm section, and a lead melody. This one does that, as the bass is thick and rubbery, the drums have some flair, and the lead sax melody is juuuuuuuust right.
10. “you cant repeat the past” – Behind Clouds. Melds trip-hop influences, future bass sounds, and delicate piano into a unique instrumental vision. This is a head-bobber for sure.
11. “Exploration” – Floris Boere. Layers on layers of piano sounds are undergirded by a cascade of piano notes that sound like rushing water. The complexity here is what drew me in: there are a lot of ideas going on in the 5:48 of this track. A very impressive, very soothing track. Highly recommended.
12. “Hamerstraat” – Klangriket & Sjors Mans. A lilting, floating, waltz-style tune that marries piano and strings together in a beautiful way. The pensive, restrained mood is perfectly conveyed by the strings.
13. “Tucson” – Hautefort. Rather than lock into a specific song structure or pattern, this piece flows in many directions, following melodic ideas and rhythms as they appear. The song’s mood is held down by the ghostly synths that hover just outside the frame and the occasional intrusion of a synth bass pulse. Overall, it creates a mysterious, expressive experience.
1. “Ride Down the Avenue” – Walter Martin. If you threw dance-rock, Vampire Weekend, CCR, and Jimmy Buffet into a blender, you still probably couldn’t come up with this unusually fun and exciting tune about getting older. Martin’s blurry vocals are the perfect counterpoint to the wall of cheer that he so convincingly creates. Wow.
2. “In Darkness We Feel Our Way” – Delorentos. The impassioned lead vocal performance steals the show here, and there’s quite a show to steal: the tropical-inspired indie-rock arrangement of the sound is pierced by vocal melismatics and occasional choir. The percussion here does unsung hero work in keeping the many parts of this piece on track. The results are spectacular.
3. “With Me” – Language Arts. This flickering, fluttering indie-pop/emo tune has all the best qualities of Braid and Football, etc.– lots of dreamy soundscapes paired with zinging guitar lines that make the whole thing shine like a diamond under a light. The ability to firm up into a straight-forward emo/rock phase is also a bonus, giving some diversity to the piece.
4. “The Emperor” – The Gold Web. Where At War With the Mystics was The Flaming Lips’ response to a Republican administration, “The Emperor” is The Gold Web’s response to another one. This is a huge, whirling, technicolor psych-pop nugget that draws heavily from the aforementioned era of The Flaming Lips, glam-rock, and the Beatles (if you listen close to the vocal lines and back up vocals).
5. “Giants” – Sure Sure. Recipe for this ray of sunshine: the perkiness of Ben Folds, the off-the-cuff holler of Generationals, and the precise rhythms of Bishop Allen. The piano and vocals both deserve mad props for their contributions to this fantastically summery track.
6. “Soul No. 5” – Caroline Rose. Is this a parody of money rap? Or of indie rock? Or both? Or neither? What the lyrics suggest, the video only amplifies–there is definitely something going on here lyrically. But beyond the lyrics, this is a rambunctious, rollicking rock’n’roll song with a delectable indie-pop chorus vocal melody. Whatever conclusions you come to about the tune, I can guarantee you’ll have a blast figuring it out.
7. “Portrait of Arthur Russell” – Similar Fashion. Sounds like a jazz combo and a math-rock band in a contemporary West Side Story rumble. By the time that Logan Hone starts chanting “research and dancing,” I’m all in on this totally madcap, how-does-this-all-hold-together vision of collaborative music. Also I’m researching and dancing. I can at least vouch that you will want to do the latter, but maybe even the former!
8. “Hiding Places” – Rain on Monday. Solid popcraft sometimes is codewords for “sounds like the Beatles,” but I would suggest that it has wider implications now. This solid pop song builds out of chipper acoustic guitar, bass punched way up in the mix, solid percussion contributions, well-placed synths (including arpeggiator, man I love those things), and a low-key memorable lead vocal melody in the chorus. There’s no big eruption of sound, no curveballs, just really great indie-pop throughout.
9. “Strange But True” – Western Scene. This indie-pop jam spends the first minute teasing you with what a jubilant, exuberant track this could be, then lets you have it. Big guitars, lots of cymbals (thankfully turned down low in the mix–enough to get the point across but not to shred ears), and soaring keys make this a shake-your-hips-whip-your-hair jam.
10. “Easy Company” – Safari Gold. A perfect name for the song and band. This track is an easygoing, easy-to-love indie-pop track. The whole vibe of the tune is warm and bright, just like the gold of the band name. If Lord Huron got some MGMT mixed in his drink, we might end up with something like this.
11. “10,000 Year Old Woman” – Long Neck. An immersive, convincing breakup-or-is-it? tune that goes beyond the tropes and reveals a little more of the story. The strong, clear vocal performance is the thing to write home about musically; the well-done acoustic work is also compelling.
Brook Pridemore is an acoustic-punk band that’s sometimes more punk than acoustic. But on “No Tiger, Ever,” Pridemore is downright peaceful.
A wistful, melancholy fingerpicked acoustic guitar line comes in, given some body by ambient synths and gentle found sound (although, it should be noted, the gentle spoken word clip is about increasing hostility). Pridemore’s vocals replace the spoken word and slowly reveal a single lyrical idea in a delicate vocal melody. It’s not quite a singer/songwriter ballad, it’s not quite slowcore acoustic, it’s not quite indie pop–instead, it’s a self-contained, beautiful song that bends the boundaries of Pridemore’s sound and of the genres it could be associated with. If you’re into left-of-center acoustic stuff, like Clem Snide or Eels or any of Michael Nau’s aliases, you’ll be into this track.
“No Tiger, Ever” comes from the forthcoming Metal Is My Only Friend.
I mentioned recently that lo-fi records often have the benefit of being “all of a piece”; the tendency for lo-fi artists to write, record, and release in rapid succession lets listeners get a sense of how artists feel at a given point in time. This look-in isn’t only reserved for lo-fi artists; Jenny & Tyler have been putting out songs almost weekly for about six months, courtesy of a studio they own.
Their newest album is the latest batch of work from that burst of disciplined, hard-working creativity. Jenny and Tyler recently mentioned on their Patreon that they aren’t very good at naming things, which is why their latest album is called Album Two [Patreon].
I have a humble suggestion for a name: Jenny and Tyler Fight the Darkness. Every song on this record is about fighting through hard times–eight out of ten songs mention the words “dark” or “night”. The other two are powerful opener “Who I’m Not,” which is about struggling to feel like a real person while constantly on the road, and closer “Rejoice,” which is about trusting and rejoicing in God to get through hard times. This album is for those struggling personally (“The Sun Will Rise”), relationally (“I’m Sorry”), spiritually (“Now When the Dusky Shades of Night”) and/or existentially (“In These Bones”).
These struggles are real, pitched on massive and intimate scales. On one end, there’s the cosmic sweep of God fighting evil in this mortal plane amid the lives of his people (“The Sun Will Rise,” “In These Bones”); on the intimate side, there are liner notes showing the tiny details of life (“Written on 7/11/2017 during naptime after doctor’s appointment” and “Started writing on 9/29/2017 in guest bedroom while feeding Mary at 6a”) that are no less a struggle at times. The lullabies and assurances written for their children (“Baby I Got You,” “We Will Be Here For You”) also show off the intimacy of these tunes.
The tension between epic scope and intimate detail continues on into the music. “In These Bones” is one of the best, most mature expressions of their indie-folk/indie-rock fusion they’ve yet produced. It starts off all ominous vibes and fingerpicking before building from that small kernel to a huge “whoa-oh-oh” section accompanied by thrashing cymbals, thrumming bass, and distant distorted guitar. It’ll get your blood pumping.
It’s followed up by “Now When the Dusky Shades of Night,” an old hymn sung in duet style against gently fuzzed-out electric guitar fingerpicking. It’s the sort of recording that makes it feel like Jenny and Tyler are in the room with the listener. These two extremes show that J&T have honed and are honing their sound to become consistent and recognizable across many different arrangements and settings.
Other highlights include the straight-up folk-pop of “When I Hold Your Hand I’m Home” and the sun-dappled, Jack Johnson-y, lightly funky groove of “Baby I Got You.” Both are throwbacks to their very earliest albums–it’s a great thing to hear that sound not be completely be abandoned. “Rejoice” is a solo tune from Jenny that shines in its melody as well being a fitting end to the album. Fans of Sandra McCracken will enjoy this one in particular.
This latest Patreon album is available if you become patrons of Jenny & Tyler’s. They will be re-recording tracks from Album One, Album Two, and the upcoming Album Three to develop into a full-length, public release record, so you’ll hear some of these tracks in the future even if you don’t join the Patreon. However you hear these tracks, you should get excited about them if you’re into indie folk or indie rock. Jenny and Tyler are producing high-level work at an astonishing clip, and listeners are the winners.
Paper Canoe Company‘s Beanstalk Jackis an adventurous, ambitious work. It’s a concept album about the fairy tale of Jack and the Beanstalk. It’s pitched as a kid’s album (as a concept album about a fairy tale might be), but it’s a complex piece of work that transcends that pigeonholing. The band isn’t afraid to indulge all their ideas, as this album is 16 songs long. In short, Paper Canoe Company threw out all the rules and just made what they wanted. As a result of all these things, the album is a rewarding, engaging listen.
Starting from a grounding of acoustic folk (“Daydream”), Paper Canoe Company expands outwards in all directions: the title track and “Let Me Be” have zydeco flair via accordion inclusion, “Bestest Bargain” evokes the Simon & Garfunkel folk of “Scarborough Faire,” “Lucky Jack” is a hoedown, and “Fee Fi Fo Fum” is a Tom Waits-ian dirge. “All The Pretty Things” sounds like a dreamy ’70s pop cut, even. I won’t spoil all the surprises–there are tons, and they are fun to hear.
These tunes each serve a role in the narrative, but these aren’t showtunes–the closest the band comes is in the major/minor fluctuations and soaring vocal lines of “Look At Us Now,” where upbeat Jack tries to convince his downcast mother that the beans are actually valuable. I had a blast listening to this record–the diversity of musical styles made me think of Fountains of Wayne’s fantastic Welcome Interstate Managers. The many vocal performances throughout range from exuberantly fun to downright impressive, as well. If you’re looking for a fun record for anyone (or, I suppose, kids–the intended audience), Beanstalk Jackis a surprisingly good pickup.
1. “Mine/Yours” – Long Neck. The rattling fingerpicking, the female speak/sing delivery, and the rumbling enthusiasm of the guitar rock make this one of the coolest songs I’ve heard in a long time. I keep thinking of The Hold Steady but maybe that’s just me? 100% rad, regardless.
2. “all these worlds are yours” – HOLY. If you forgive the 10-car pileup of guitar distortion and drums that takes up the first 25 seconds of this tune, the the next 8.5 minutes are an indie-pop wonderland. There’s perky piano, sighing vocals, found sounds, layers on layers on layers, big drums, everything becoming ascendant, and then some more layers. It lives up to its runtime and will remind you of Spiritualized.
3. “You Are An Ocean” – Beams. Staccato drums accent the lead banjo line in a satisfying way. The rest of the song floats along as an indie-pop tune would, just with banjo. It’s a lot of fun.
4. “We Make Do” – Martha Ffion. “With an overwhelming sense of / making do” caps off the lovely chorus of this low piano-pop tune. It’s got bits of Regina Spektor and Lisa Hannigan in the stew, but it has an air of confidence that’s all Ffion’s.
6. “Forget Me” – Born Ruffians. Cheery, chipper, emotive indie-pop with gleefully yelpy vocals and effervescent handclaps. Fans of the vintage-y ideas of Stornoway or Bishop Allen will love this.
7. “Relay Runner” – Loma. The insistent beat of this indie-pop track anchors a song that wavers from major to minor key repeatedly. That beat has the sort of groove reserved for deep electronica tracks, but the band tempers that flow with mysterious, ethereal sounds, glitchy bits, and odd vibes. It’s a weird, intriguing track, like some sort of chopped-and-screwed Wye Oak jam.
Finishing out the year in the year is a tough thing to do. We got closer than ever before in 2017, but there’s still a few things to be wrapped up. Here are some of the last tunes of 2017, rolled in with some early returns from 2018.
1. “True Refuge” – Ezra Feinberg. This incredible instrumental track has all of the build of a post-rock song without any electric guitars and all of the exuberance of a Dan Deacon song without any synthesizers. The arrangement is all layered acoustic guitars and piano, which is just amazing. It’s a warm, sun-dappled drive in the country; it’s uplifting in so many ways. Highly recommended.
2. “Little Moses” – The Rough & Tumble. The harmonica and accordion come together mellifluously to almost sound like a harmonium–one of my favorite sounds in all of folk. This folky, country-inflected acoustic tune will make fans of the Low Anthem sigh and swoon. The female/male vocal performances here are bright, strong, and memorable.
3. “Open Space” – Micah Olsan. There’s always room in my heart for a fingerpicked acoustic guitar, a distant pedal steel, and a pure voice. This is fantastic folk music.
4. “Little Sparrow” – Racoon Racoon. The vocal performance in this delicate folk tune is equal parts vulnerability and confidence, which is a powerful mix. The rest of the arrangement mirrors that blend, with individually tender sounds put together into a strong arrangement.
5. “Standing on a Corner” – Grace Basement. Alt-country that’s half-Jayhawks blueprint, half-Mojave Three dreaminess. If you’re into alt-country, you may have a flashback to the ’90s in the best possible way.
6. “Northern Town” – Fruition. Oh my goodness, <I>that chorus</I>. It’s short, but the vocal melody, the high harmonies, just everything about it is ace. It gave me shivers. There’s a great acoustic arrangement around that chorus, but whoa. Check this one out.
7. “World of Pain” – Phil Lomac. Some excellent groove-heavy percussion, lovely Wurlitzer, and grumbling guitar distortion meld in unique ways to give this folk a distinct vibe. Seriously, that drumming is tight.
8. “Town Hall” – Youth in a Roman Field. The first half of this tune is a pleasant folk tune led by female vocals from Claire Wellin (San Fermin). The second half bursts open into a horns/strings/vocals party, like vintage Arcade Fire or The Collection. It’s an impressive, throw-open-the-doors move for the second act, and it makes this tune a winner.
9. “Fragments” – Dane Joneshill. This swaying, lilting track fuses a contemporary set of singer/songwriter lyrics to music reminiscent of Josh Ritter’s “The Curse.”
10. “Holdin’ Back the Heart” – The Naked Sun. A jaunty, rollicking Americana/rock’n’roll tune that would make Ivan and Alyosha jealous and make Dawes turn its head. The pure falsetto is a really nice touch.
Ben Anderson is a unique man in the glut of indie singer-songwriters. The four songs of his November 2017 release YouTopia, produced by Olivier Zahm and recorded at Electric Lotus, are a showcase for this Phoenix-based talent. Standing out in one of the strongest music scenes in the country is a feat in itself.
On his fifth release, Anderson has taken his music and tossed it into a blender with a twist. The essences of Thom Yorke, Placebo, and Philip Selway beg attention and reflect the eclectic substance in the quartet of tracks. This makes an adventure for listeners heading in. The vibe shifts easily from dark, haunting rock to pop to soul. The connective tissue is authentic tone Ben Anderson brings, the tonic of this release. Interesting here is the juxtaposition of the music against lyrics. Bright music acts as a counterbalance to dark lyrics, making for a fresh indie voice.
All songs on YouTopia are a collaborative effort by Anderson, Zahm, and a host of contributors. Giving this record its life are Ben Anderson on vocals and guitar; Olivier Zahm on vocals, guitar, bass, piano, keyboard, and percussion; Greg Jacks on drums; Mario Mendivil on bass; Dan Puccio on horn arrangement; Shea Marshall on baritone sax and keys; Danny Doyle on trumpet; Anthony Reed on trombone; Holly Pyle on background vocals; M.S. Kannan on violin; and Ganesan Gajendran on mridangam.
Opening with “Clay Pigeons,” the lyricism supports the titular metaphor with destructive imagery. Lush with guitar and gang vocals, the song was one of the lead singles and accompanied by a video. One of the most haunting tracks from the artist is enhanced by some great production values.
“Absentia” pulls in instrumentation that sometimes overshadows the soft-spoken artist in a good way. Feeling like a dream, the chaos is intentional; piano-driven, feeling like an abstract painting by Picasso. Zahm delivers a piano masterclass here, finding a way to connect with the smoky piano bar, Al Green substance that lurks behind the dark vocal delivery. Following up with the uptempo “Goodbye Serenity,” listeners can be lulled into missing out on the lyrical message. Truly a masterful rabbit out of the hat, this song creates the path that the final track can follow.
Dropping in to the sweet spot vocally makes for a Ben Anderson wet dream. The place of “Lukewarm” in the quartet of songs is a perfect bit of sequencing. Putting the Sam Smith sexy on this song : slow and easy, the song is a satisfying sensual crescendo.
Taking into consideration that art is a combination of all elements, a singer-songwriter has a difficult job. The suspension of disbelief must be based on an authentic connection to the finished masterpiece. If listeners need a visual to go with the audio, the Ben Anderson YouTube loops the musical art. Like fingers intertwined while holding hands, lyrics and music are the spark to this indie acoustic flame.–Lisa Whealy
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.