Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Hanna Kostamaa: Spectrum

August 25, 2015

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Do you ever just turn on a song and immediately feel happier–even lighter, perhaps? That’s the way I felt when I first listened to the opening track off Hanna Kostamaa’s self-released EP Spectrum. Even though the subject matter of “Always Gonna Feel Kinda Lonely” is not lighthearted, the sounds of the song filled my ears with whimsy.

The San Diego-based Kostamaa plays with rock instrumentation and pop melodies to create a sound that’s all her own. Spectrum combines this indie-pop/rock sound with very realistic lyrics that seem to say, “even though life isn’t all sunshine and lollipops, our instrumentation can be.”

Opener “Always Gonna Feel Kinda Lonely” is the shining single off this EP. The keyboard intro is very reminiscent of the beginning of “Cherry Tulips” by Headlights–in fact, Headlights is a really great comparison to this release. The quirky pop sound of “Always Gonna Feel Kinda Lonely” and “Lost in a Dream” contain the same whimsical instrumentation found in many Headlights songs. Both artists fill their instrumentation with the electronic keyboard, funky bass lines, and beachy Californian guitar. Hanna’s voice even sounds very familiar in tone and style to Erin Fein’s. Unfortunately, Headlights has disbanded; luckily we have Hanna Kostamaa to keep their sound alive!

The other two songs on the EP,  “Claustrophobia” and “WIldfire,” have much more of a indie rock feel akin to The Black Keys. “Claustrophobia” begins with a light drum beat and quickly points our attention towards a truly funky bass line. On top of the drums and awesome bass line, Hanna layers a slightly chaotic electric guitar that takes off on solos which ooze rock ’n roll sex appeal, similar to what Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney tend to do. “Wildfire” then begins with the sexy electric guitar that “Claustrophobia” left off on. Hanna’s experimentation with badass rock ‘n roll instrumentation delightfully keeps Spectrum from being an innocent indie-pop EP. The way Hanna fully enters into two different worlds- the rock and the pop- and makes them both her own in Spectrum that really makes the unique sound of the EP stand out.

Hanna’s darker lyrics also inhibit Spectrum from being a happy-go-lucky pop collection. Even “Lost in a Dream” is not as innocent as its name and instrumentation sounds. Instead of “Lost in a Dream” being an angelic love song–which is what I originally thought it was–it speaks a much darker message.The track opens with “Meeting by the swings/ Innocence and its dream” and I thought, aww–how sweet, a love song! As the song progresses, the chorus hit me with a reality check–this song isn’t about gaining love, it’s about losing love. The chorus repeats throughout the song: “Hold on, where are you going?/ We didn’t agree that it was finished for you and me/ Hold on, why are you going?” I then realized that the first few lyrics were actually what she later describes as “Clinging onto the few good things.”

The sweet-sounding instrumentation of “Lost in a Dream” continues to the end of the song, leading us to the final, despondent lyric: “Hold on, why are you gone?” It’s as if the playful, dream-pop sound of the song is meant to lead us astray just as much as the “few good things” led her to think that maybe there’s a chance that the relationship doesn’t have to end. But all good things must end at some point.

The very realistic, human lyrics pair with the quirky indie-pop/rock vibe in a wonderfully paradoxical way. It is beautiful hearing a budding artist play around with sound, resulting in an EP that’s entirely unique. Hanna Kostamaa’s Spectrum is a great example of what it sounds like for an artist to have fun with her music and not worry which subgenre to perfectly fit into. It’s just good music. And good music should be appreciated. —Krisann Janowitz

Lee Reit: Easygoing, Engrossing, Calming

August 21, 2015

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Lee Reit‘s self-titled record is largely played on a nylon-stringed guitar. In addition to adding a gentle sonic quality to the tunes, those strings import Spanish and Latin American connotations to the nine songs included here. When Reit’s evocative vocal tone and narrative vocal delivery are added in, the result is an engrossing, calming album full of intriguing tunes.

Opener “Dream Another Night” gives a good look at Reit’s guitar playing and his suave, subtly dramatic baritone vocal tone. The rolling fingerpicking is underscored by an insistent, shuffling, brushed drumbeat that would fit in a country tune; the constant press forward creates a tension against the guitar line and Reit’s easygoing vocal delivery. That tension holds even when Caitlin Marie Bell takes the mic for a verse; it’s a pleasant sort of push and pull that engages me in the tune.

There are Spanish vibes in “Dream Another Night,” both sonic and visual. The sonic ones aren’t as pronounced as they are in later songs, but the choice of all-white clothes for the band in the video gives the clip a light, airy feel that makes me think of relaxing languidly in a Spanish vineyard. (We’re honored to premiere the video above today!) “The Pleasure of the Fall” has a dusky Spanish nightclub vibe–not Ibiza, but 1920s literary expat Spanish nightclub. (The distant trumpet and sighing strings reinforce the initial thought.) “Visions of Eternity” amps up this style by incorporating Dylan-esque, cryptic, religious/political/social commentary and ratcheting up the minor-key drama. “Thanks for the Lessons” calls back to that Spanish vineyard, while also pointing toward Parachutes-era Coldplay work.

Most of the tunes on the record benefit from the control Reit has of his voice. “The Pleasure of the Fall” allows him to accentuate different points of the narrative by modifying the register and tone of his voice, from light and high to low and serious. It sounds like a simple transaction, but it’s not: there’s a significant, mysterious gravitas that he’s able to conjure up with the vocal shifts. He’s also great at delivering phrases and words, filling particular ones with meaning just by inflecting them in a certain way (“Thanks for the Lessons” and “Grace Alone” in particular, although it’s evident everywhere).

It’s not all Latin American vibes–“Grace Alone” is folky, even with hints of blues and gospel vibes. The fast-paced, keys-laden “Here, As in Heaven” has a speak/sing, Lou Reed/CAKE thing going on, which presents a very different angle on Reit’s songwriting. But in general, this is a walking-speed, unhurried album. “Wheel Within a Wheel” and “Shangri La,” the chronological center of the record, are flowing, relaxed tunes that make me want to go on a low-stress beach vacation–they’re indicative of the overall response I have to the record.

Lee Reit’s self-titled record is one that can be appreciated for its beauty immediately and for its subtlety over multiple listens. Like John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats (although in a very different milieu), Reit has developed his voice to be a fine-tuned instrument for delivering melodies and lyrics that stick in my head and keep me coming back. You could cover a Lee Reit song, but you wouldn’t sing it the way that he does. That’s a distinctive mark. If you’re into slowcore acoustic (Mark Kozelek, Songs: Ohia, Mojave 3) or thoughtful acoustic work (Josh Ritter, Joe Pug, Jason Isbell), you’ll enjoy Lee Reit’s work.

Fine Animal: Like a modern ballet, like a royal-blooded babe

August 19, 2015

Fine Animal

Fine Animal’s debut album, Before the Glow, could orchestrate a modern ballet. The duo has created something spiritual–combining harp-like vocals with minimalist electronic that puts the ‘dream’ in ‘dream pop.’

“When It All Happens (it happens all at once)” was like listening to Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” for the first time–only instead of riding shotgun in my dad’s ‘92 Honda Civic and asking him if we can cut my hair that short, I was sitting on my balcony feeling exceptionally euphoric. Lucy Oaks’ repeated lyric, “It’s so good when you know,” distorts itself, weaving in and out, until a simple techno beat drops, and one of the most fragile pieces of electronica I’ve ever heard launches this album off.

The delicateness continues throughout, especially on “Riser,” which combines high-pitched female vocals and trancey instrumentation, all sweating over sexual, ambient groove. “Portal” builds on that dreamy quality, bringing in an Irish countryside raininess, sweater-wrapped warmth. And “Lay Awake,” with its surprising energetic vibe, melts right into “Boarding Area,” where tasteful trippiness takes hold.

For as minimalist as Before the Glow may seem, tracks like “Perpetually Waking Up” and “Old Dollar” add depth. “Perpetually Waking Up” carries angelic vocals that mist over a thunder-warped soundscape, and Oaks’ ending lyrics, “Like a Pharaoh, sinking in his chair/Let’s test our devotion, while completely unaware,” surprised me with their gravity. “Old Dollar” zips like a racecar across a deserted soundscape, with hollowed vocals and a desperate, beautiful energy to match. Try thinking of “Old Dollar” as a remake of the plastic-bag-blowing-in-the-wind scene from American Beauty, except replace the bag with an old dollar and all-of-a-sudden it’s even deeper.

Before the Glow embodies the kind of mystery that makes you keen on listening for every moment; it’s a startling vessel of strength and beauty, a royal-blooded babe.Rachel Haney

Premiere: Electrician’s “I Felt the Breeze”

August 18, 2015

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IC has the great privilege of premiering Electrician‘s “I Felt the Breeze” today. We’ve been covering Electrician since 2011, although it feels like I’ve known about his work forever. Neil Campau’s lo-fi tunes have both an electronic and an acoustic idiom: this track falls squarely into the latter.

Campau’s gentle strums carry his wavering, earnest voice; he counterpoints his delicate lead delivery with a low, strong, confident “la” section in the chorus. It’s not every day that you hear “las” with this much seriousness and gravity, but there you are. Those secondary vocals fit with the lonely, forlorn, minor-key mood in an intriguing, satisfying way.

The overall result is an impassioned tune that reads like the best of (minor-key) lo-fi bedroom work: a tune that balances fragility and confidence, uses tape hiss for mood instead of a crutch, and leaves a lasting impression. It’s a free download, so if you’re into it you can keep it forever.

The song comes from the 7-song release What I Don’t Want, which drops a week from today. You can pre-order it at Bandcamp.

Shoplifters: An EP for a Generation

August 14, 2015

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The Gray Company pairs beachy rock instrumentation with culturally relevant lyrics in their latest EP Shoplifters.  

There is no doubt that the tracks found in Shoplifters will make you groove to their beachy sound. The instrumentation is heavy on electric guitar and drum. The electric guitar starts off every song on the EP. Percussive elements such as the full kit or cymbals usually enter after one or two measures. Even as Zebeeb Awalom’s smooth soprano voice quickly follows in, the drums and guitar continue to be a primary focus of each track. In half of the songs (“By the Moon,” “Wasting Time,” “Temporary Love”), the guitar takes on a beachy jazz vibe. In the other three tracks (“Direct Affect”; “Bleack Sea”; “She Told Me”), the guitar gives off more of a rock and roll flavor. In each track off the album, the drums deliver the driving beat that brings the tracks home. I particularly enjoy the use of the pounding cymbals in “By the Moon.” Overall, the instrumentation delivers a perfect summertime rock and roll/ jazz feel through the electric guitar and drum power-duo.

Honestly, one thing I didn’t notice at first was the well-targeted lyrics of Shoplifters. The lyrics found in the EP’s six tracks all speak to common issues felt by teens and twenty-somethings alike. The album covers scenarios like falling asleep as you wait for a long-anticipated phone call (“By The Moon”), the struggles of breaking up with someone that just won’t get it (“Wasting Time”), and what you’re thinking when you’re drowning in a sea of infatuation (“Direct Affect”; “Temporary Love”).

The most brilliant aspect of the already engaging lyrics is the particularly relatable wording. For example in “Wasting Time”, the narrator attempts to convince the other person in the relationship that “I will waste your time” so let’s just part, through using iconic phrases like “Don’t take it personal/ It’s not you, it’s me.” Let’s face it, most of us have either used that tactic or have had it used on us sometime in the last twenty years. Similarly, the lyrics of “Direct Affect” and “Temporary Love” sound like they flew right out of a couple of my old sappy love poems. Phrases like, “You got this affect on me/ And I just can’t hide it” (“Direct Affect”) and “I waste nights trying to chase you/ You’re so close I can taste you” (“Temporary Love”) have most likely graced the pages of your diaries and love poems as well.  The direct, unadorned lyrics found in Shoplifters drive home the band’s relatable sound.

Shoplifters delivers an appeal for those who desire to groove to rock music infused with a beachy jazz vibe. The EP also contains well-written lyrics that reinforce the emotions felt by many of us millenials. All in all, The Gray Company’s Shoplifters is a well-crafted EP. —Krisann Janowitz

Premiere: Jennell’s “Long Way from Home”

August 13, 2015

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The folk-pop of Jennell‘s “Long Way From Home” draws equally from the stomp-clap hoedowns of The Lumineers and the polished country-pop of Taylor Swift, creating a point of connection between the two social worlds that could sit comfortably next to Phillip Phillips’ work. (It even talks about home!)

Fans of folk pop will notice the vocal melodies in the prechorus and bridge, while fans of T-Swift will recognize the chorus vibes immediately. The result is a tune that will get at least one melody stuck in your head (but it depends on which one). The lyrics address the uncertainty of travel and discomforts that come from a lack of community, something that anyone who’s ever been traveling a lot can relate to. Sonically, it’s a great song for the lazy end of summer; lyrically, it can keep the company of those still out there on the road.

Jennell’s EP Home comes out 8/28; you can pre-order it on iTunes now.

Quick Hits: DeQn Sue / Mueller_Roedelius

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You don’t begin a song with the sound of glass shattering, followed by the sound of its pieces clanking back together again, and it not be an epic track. And alternative pop artist DeQn Sue’s “Glass” is exactly that. The single from her latest EP Snack rocks tomboy femininity that is sudden, harsh, and genuine.

A punchy, dank beat thickens the sharp soundscape and creates a hypnotic element. DeQn Sue’s eerily at-ease vocals have the intimidating and alluring energy of Sister Sarah in Hocus Pocus (specifically the scene where she’s flying on her broomstick singing that creepy lullaby to the children of Salem). Sue’s vibe and the intensity of the instrumentals capture the theme of the song–contrasting a bold, “bad b***h” mentality with the sometimes shocking presence of feelings.

“Sturdy, I take the pressure/Fragile, behind me…Hard, I’m hard as nails/Solid, I am a dream,” Sue delivers her lyrics with a punch and realness that most street rappers can’t even seem to evoke these days. I would like to thank you, DeQn Sue, for discussing a common contradiction of human emotion, and doing so in explosive song-form.

Mueller

Instead of glass, Mueller_Roedelius’ “Time Has Come” utilizes sounds a bit more spacey, ambiguous, and ambient, like someone making continuous attempts at lighting their lighter. I almost couldn’t see through the aggressive darkness, the sudden flicker of flame, and then the returning sonic pitch-blackness of it all. But the introduction of building piano melodies adds elegance to this track, all with a downbeat trudging beneath.

Before I knew it, the master duo of Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Christoph H. Müller transported me to an impressively weirder experience, warmer and rich with production work that drips. There are hints of jazziness, even some Latin influence. The whole song subtly washed over me, and gradually morphed itself into a beautifully, unconventionally tropic experience. “Time Has Come” is the elevator music of my dreams–evoking the sleek sexiness of potted palms, hotel lobbies, and too-high high heels.–Rachel Haney

Premiere: King Cardinal’s “One”

August 12, 2015

Denver’s King Cardinal plays dignified, classy folk music. In the performance video below of their original tune “One,” Brennan Mackey’s resonant, careworn voice gently leads the way while Texanna Dennie’s tender alto curls around Mackey’s with beautiful, delicate harmonies. The vocals float along over an easy-going guitar strum and acoustic bass thrum. It’s a simple, elegant tune that calls up visions of late night car rides, deep conversations over campfires, and melancholy end-of-movies credits. The cinematographer slowly pans through the room in a circle, giving a lush, cinematic air to both the track and the video.

“One” comes from their most recent release, Once a Giant. You can see them live at Higher Ground Music Festival at 1:45 p.m. August 22 on the Blue Moon Stage. They’ll also be going on a Midwest house show tour in October; you can find forthcoming info at their website.

Quick Hit: Steve Stanley and the Mercs

August 10, 2015

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Steve Stanley and the MercsWhen in Roam is a pristine, idyllic, near-perfect early ’00s Christian punk-rock album with some country-punk leanings thrown in. If every new generation’s music serves a similar social purpose in helping us wind our way through the challenges of life, When in Roam is Two Lefts Don’t Make a Right, But Three Do for everyone who was too young to grow up with Relient K. It’s remarkable how many of the sonic markers that Stanley checks off: pleasantly nasally vocals, yearning vocal lines, rapidfire drumming, guitars that span the distance between youthful adrenaline and earnest melodicism, and heart-on-sleeve lyrics documenting big emotions (“Ten Years Ago,” “Fear in a Handful of Dust,” “I’m a Ship,” okay pretty much every song).

When you throw in a production job that’s a spot-on re-creation of the sonic space that Relient K mined in the early ’00s, you have an album that is a deeply enjoyable nostalgic trip for late 20s pop-punk fans and (I hope) a thrilling experience for young pop-punk fans. I don’t know if people are still into FM Static, but they’re another sonic touchstone here. The first time I heard the sonic, emotional, and religious crescendo crest in closer “Death and Nostalgia,” I got shivers: with “It is Well” as the main line and a counterpoint of Stanley’s own creation layering on top of it, I could hear the brilliant songwriter emerging (just like I could with Relient K’s Matt Thiessen, all those years ago–and then we got the masterpiece mmhmm and “Deathbed”). I expect great things for Steve Stanley and the Mercs.

July MP3s: Acoustic

August 6, 2015

July MP3s: Acoustic

1. “I Touch My Face in Hyperspace Oh Yeah” – Devin James Fry. You shouldn’t need my encouragement to listen to a song with a title so enigmatic and intriguing, but if you do, the fiery, wild-eyed psych-folk-rock is just as immediately engaging and mind-expanding as the title.

2. “Cheap Shades” – Chris Staples. Staples tosses off lyrics in this gentle, walking-speed acoustic tune as if they were easy to come by, as if they weren’t complex and unique and deeply thoughtful. This doesn’t sound like the Mountain Goats at all, but fans of John Darnielle will hear the lyrical kinship (even if the music is closer to Sufjan’s Michigan than anything TMG has put out, except maybe Get Lonely). If you’re of the age and vintage that 238’s “Modern Day Prayer” is tattooed on your consciousness, get prepared to have your mind blown: this is that Chris Staples.

3. “Can’t Undo This” – Heather Bond. It’s tough to do a dramatic, introspective ballad without getting formalist or maudlin. Bond balances gravitas and vulnerability to come up with a searing, poignant, piano-driven tune.

4. “Take You Away” – The National Parks. Handclaps, pizzicato violin, punchy horns, and bright-eyed guy/girl vocals buoy this cross between orchestral-folk-pop, party-friendly indie-pop-rock, and even some disco vibes (!). Weighty genre labels aside, this is a cheery, thoughtful tune that does more than bash out chords on a well-trod road.

5. “Ida” – El Tryptophan. Was Pet Sounds an orchestral explosion of the Phil Spector sound? If so, “Ida” could fit in the chronological and sonic space right between ’60s girl-pop arrangements and Brian Wilson’s masterpiece (with some Velvet Underground thrown in for good measure).

6. “Pink Lemonade” – Monogold. Sometimes the title is all you need to know.

7. “Cross My Broken Heart” – Sherman Ewing. Sometimes the chorus is all you need to hear.

8. “Kids” – Dara Sisterhen. Somehow manages to blend country, ’50s pop, and folk-pop into one breezy, carefree tune perfect for your next road trip.

9. “The Script” – The Treacherous French. Almost any accordion-laden acoustic tune is going to come off like a sea shanty; the washboard percussion, enthusiastic high-tenor vocal performance, and “whoa-ohs” solidify the notion.

10. “Willingham” – Echo Bloom. Somehow combines the murky sounds of a forest, high-drama noir vocals, indie-rock slinkiness, and ghostly aura. Wildly inventive.

11. “Little Dreamer” – Charlotte & Magon. Delicate electric guitar, gently dramatic vocals, and an overall sense of lazy Saturday mornings.

12. “Gotta Wanna” – Gun Outfit. I turn the key and the engine hums. I turn out of the gas station and back onto an empty Arizona highway, headed back toward California. The insistent drumming underscores my sense of motion, but the vocals and guitar lean back to make sure that everyone knows it’s not all that urgent. We’re gonna hang out and enjoy ourselves when we get there; we’ll enjoy it on the way, too.

13. “Hold Hands for Dry Land” – Oryx and Crake. The gleeful community feel of Funeral was part of what made it so engaging: Oryx and Crake develop that same sort of group vibe in this punchy-yet-thoughtful melodic indie-rock track. Anyone named after a Margaret Atwood novel is asking for your full attention–they reward, both musically and lyrically.

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.

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