I review a lot of music. Like any person who does a particular action thousands of times, I’ve come up with better and more refined ways of accomplishing this task. For me it means listening while doing certain types of other actions, keeping track of any stray thought whatsoever I have while listening, and so on. But sometimes an album comes along that blows up my method. Post-war by Last Builders of Empire forces me to encounter it on the creator’s terms instead of my own, which results in a really satisfying listener experience and (as you’re about to see) a relatively difficult writer experience.
My natural reaction to post-rock is to describe the quality of the sounds and point out the defining characteristic of those sounds. Post-War resists that. The post-rock here is largely dark, heavy, and emotional; it aims for the widescreen angles. The band’s scenes are framed by delicate guitar work; they often build from sweet, subtle beginnings to heavy, dissonant, distorted conclusions. That all sounds like standard post-rock fare, right? That’s because the individual aspects of the sound aren’t really the point of the album (as opposed to, say, an Adebisi Shank album, where they are 100% the reason to listen). The care and attention that Last Builders of Empire invest in the details of the songwriting and wordless storytelling are what make this an engaging, enveloping listen.
The band wrote this work with a specific arc in mind; this isn’t a haphazard collection of songs without context. Set up in a tripartite “Inferno,” “Purgatorio,” “Paradiso” format, this album seeks to be a whole unit. (This is why it is so difficult to talk about its individual songs or even the individual sounds.) Yes, this is a fully-realized achievement, an album that has the plodding dissonance of “Huida Hacia El Sol” as an equally important part of the album as the urgent, yearning “Quiet Like a Knife.”
Closer “For Those Who Have Faith” brings both of those leanings together, pairing a yearning guitar line that finally edges its way over into a major key with a thumping, low-slung rhythm section. The middle section represents a style closer to the soaring, upbeat Lights and Motion style of post-rock than the heavy, brutal Godspeed You! Black Emperor style. It’s still very clearly Last Builders of Empire, but they’re able to transform their songwriting accordingly to fit their overall arc. By the end they’ve come back around to their home base of dark, heavy, dissonant, and emotional–which presents an interesting conclusion to the album. Perhaps “Paradiso” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be–returning home from war is never easy.
Post-war by Last Builders of Empire is not the sort of album you can digest in one song or even one sitting of the whole record. It’s an experience that you have simmer in and immerse yourself in. Last Builders of Empire have taken the time to craft their art in deep and thought-provoking ways, which I always appreciate. If you’re into post-rock, Last Builders of Empire should be on your to-hear list.
I’m a big fan of two mid-era Jimmy Eat World records, Futures and Chase This Light, that perfectly captured the blend of riffs, rhythmic variety, clever vocal melodies, and mood diversity that I’m looking for in rock. The Slang have a ton of sonic similarities with Jimmy Eat World, which makes me a huge fan of their self-titled EP. Opener “Far from Over” has a vaguely disco opening before dropping into a guitar-laden groove that manages to keep energy going through a midtempo tune (an admirable feat).
Lead single “Feels Like Work” nails the quiet/loud dichotomy in creating a solid radio-rock tune. It feels mature, powerful, and not kitschy–especially when the lead guitar lines come in. The vocals take the lead in “One Step at a Time,” which makes it feel even more like a Jimmy Eat World song. Throughout the EP, there are strong riffs and a great sense of control that keeps this from turning into pedestrian rock. The Slang has an x factor that’s hard to quantify in rock, but it’s very clearly there. If you like thoughtful rock’n’roll that doesn’t turn into sterilized thought experiments, The Slang will scratch your itch. It’s melodic comfort food for me. I look forward to hearing much more from The Slang.
1. “Old Hope” – Angelo de Augustine. It’s like Elliott Smith is alive. Maybe there’s some Joshua Radin and Nick Drake in there, but mostly the whispered vocals and style of acoustic guitar remind me of Smith.
2. “Amarillo” – Anna Vogelzang. Combine the charm of Ingrid Michaelson with the full arrangements of Laura Stevenson, and you’ve got a little bit of an idea of Vogelzang’s talent. She’s one to watch.
3. “Red River” – Tyler Sjöström. Fans of Mumford and Sons will love this theatrical, finger-picked folk-pop tune.
4. “Forever Gone” – Andrew Marica. The morose romanticism of Damien Rice + the distant reverb-heavy atmospherics of Bon Iver create this downtempo ballad.
5. “Delilah” – Tony Lucca. This one’s pretty boss: Wide-open, sneering, engaging full-band country-rock with an eye toward Coldplay-style, radio-friendly vocal melodies. Also, there’s some awesome saloon-style piano playing.
6. “Angel Tonight” – Peter Galperin. Musical adventurer Galperin moves from his bossa nova experiments towards ’80s country-flavored classic rock. There’s some Springsteen, some Paul Simon, and more all combined here.
7. “Time” – Night Windows. Acoustic-based indie-pop a la David Bazan that teeters on the edge between twee and melancholy.
8. “I Got Creepy When Lou Reed Died” – Red Sammy. The husky, gravel-throated country of Red Sammy gets an electric makeover for this tribute tune. The title a weird thing to chant, but you’ll probably want to sing along repeatedly to the mantra-esque chorus.
Brandon Cunningham‘s Give Out is the sort of album I listen to when I’m alone; sometimes when driving a long stretch of road, sometimes when hanging out in my room. The slow-churning quartet of alt-country tunes has a big, spacious feel that fits a wide-open road; it also has a sort of claustrophobia that hangs over its head, as if someone was trying to expand a room but finds itself banging up against the walls.
There’s some Jason Molina sounds trapped in the wrenching, tension-filled “Doubt,” as the song grows from a tiny spark to a roaring, torrential guitar wall, complete with thrashing cymbals. The reverb, the heavy emphasis on distant sounds, and the sense of weight all mark the track as a soon-beloved of Songs: Ohia listeners. “Lines in the Sand” lets a little light in the cracks by playing acoustic guitar instead of electric, but there’s still a heaviness to the track in the political / religious subject matter. “Bush Wives” is downright chipper in comparison, sounding kind of like a Keane song–which is still pretty thick sonically. “Baby” is a forlorn alt-country love song in the style of Mojave 3, which appeals to my “injured romantic” sensibilities.
Give Out is a diverse foursome of songs that show Cunningham’s ability to corral a small amount of instruments into very specific moods. He can turn it up into a mournful wall of sound or keep it quiet with pensive acoustic tunes. Whichever way he goes, he brings a passion to the songs that allows them to feel real and physical; these songs feel like they grab me by the shoulders and demand I listen. Cunningham should be a name you know.
1. “Lighthouse” – The Burgeoning. One of the most intriguing singles I’ve heard all year, this track combines the ambient uppers of chillwave with the melodic structures of Vampire Weekend and the frantic fury (and guitar noise) of a punk band. It’s a fresh, amazing combination. I’m looking forward to hear more from The Burgeoning.
2. “The Next Morning” – The Drafts. The energy and enthusiastic guitars of The Vaccines meet a reserved, pensive vocalist for a charming, infectious tune that you’ll want to hear multiple times.
3. “Where I Go” – Pistol Shrimp. If Passion Pit, MGMT, and Anamanaguchi had a basement dance party, this bangin’ tune would be the result. Pop gold, right here.
4. “Heartracer” – Cosby. Synth-laden, big-pop ’80s revivalism is going great this year. This fits right up there with Challenger for the best of the bunch.
5. “Recurring Dreams” – Shivery Shakes. The carefree nature of whistling in a ’60s surf-pop influenced tune gets me every time. You like The Drums? You’ll love this.
6. “Promises” – Barreracudas. If you make a metaphor that includes arcade games (specifically Donkey Kong), I will be immediately more endeared to you. Fun, poppy garage-rock here.
7. “Speed Date Yr Way to Fame” – Sweet Deals on Surgery. Starts off a thrashy, screamed, frantic punk song before taking a momentary break in pop. Then in blasts off again.
8. “Name on a Matchbook” – Springtime Carnivore. ’60s girl pop gets a slight sonic update, but the soul of this tune really begs for an -ettes suffix.
9. “Head Down” – The Ocean Party. Jangly ’80s indie-rock meets airy ’80s synth-pop. The peppy, fun results are less ’80s and more ’00s than you’d think.
I’ve been repping The Parmesans as hard as I can for as long as I’ve known about their music, as their bluegrassy/folk-poppy/traditional string band maelstrom is endlessly fun. Their new album Flat Baroque continues their streak (now three albums and two EPs long) of fun, clever, interesting, smile-inducing releases.
They lean heavily on guitar, mandolin, stand-up bass and three-voice harmonies, and it works perfectly. The Parmesans have a habit of recording their favorite songs multiple times (“Delirious Dream,” “JuJaJe” and “See For Yourself” reprise this time), and that gives their albums a feel of a backporch concert that just keeps rolling on. They didn’t record “Walls for the Wind” this time, but hey, they might go for a fourth round on the next album. It’s that sort of off-the-cuff attitude to track listing that’s infused in the tracks themselves. The Parms are clearly having fun, and that is hard to miss as a listener.
They’re developing a signature melodic and rhythmic style in the guitar, which is really cool. It’s fun to hear sounds develop over a long period of time. They’ve also figured out what type of song they’re really good at; consequently, there are no bad tracks on Flat Baroque. “Call Me When You’re There” and “Bad Idea” stand out among the new tracks, but all of them are worth repeating multiple times. They tracked this one live, as they have all their other albums; the difference is that they did so at Tiny Telephone in San Francisco. They’re moving up in the world! If you’re into fun, unique takes on traditional string music, then Flat Baroque is most definitely for you.
They’re on tour right now; they’re passing through Raleigh (Fuquay-Varina!) on Sunday. I’ll be there, hoping for “Walls for the Wind” and “Bad Idea.”
Lindsey Saunders‘ four-song EPMiles Before Sleep is a solo acoustic guitar effort that showcases her impressive technical and melodic skill. Saunders’ modus operandi in these tunes is to set up a melodic environment not unlike that of a solo piano piece: an introductory section to establish mood, then development of themes, then variations on those themes–all while managing the crescendo/descrescendo flow of the piece. (It was originally meant to accompany a dance piece by Texture Ballet.)
This wouldn’t work if Saunders weren’t so impressive at fretwork: the flowing opener “Task” leads the listener on a relaxing journey full of melody ideas, while “Decision” amps up the speed of the work and pulls off some complex, syncopated lead lines. “Questioning” opens with the feel of the former but graduates to the latter, featuring some of her most aggressive, acrobatic-sounding fretwork. “Acceptance” returns to the lullaby-esque feel of “Task,” closing the EP on a pensive, beautiful note. I’m only rarely sent acoustic solo guitar work, but so far I’ve enjoyed what I’ve heard. Perhaps only those with intense chops even consider pulling it off. Lindsey Saunders has both the technical skill and the melodic songwriting chops to write impressive and engaging solo guitar tunes, which is rare. The EP drops November 4.
7. “Worth Your While” – Wonderful Humans. Somewhere, Vangelis is rejoicing that his style is alive and well. Vintage ’80s synth-pop matched up with modern indie vocal lines and melodies. Awesome.
8. “Jack and the Giant” – A Love Like Pi. You know that lovely feeling when you’re about to drift off to sleep in the arms of someone you love, and all seems right in the world even if just for a moment? This is what that sounds like.
8. “Safety” – Jasia. Starts out as not much: spare clicks and pops meeting some keening falsetto. But Jasia molds, shapes, and crafts the parts into a booming, M83-like track by the end. Whoa.
9. “Wyn” – Ashan. Do you need eight minutes of ethereal ahs over clicky chillwave-inspired electro? Of course you do. I can see myself both chilling out to this and getting my dance on in a real hip club.
Tulsa’s finest totally unclassifiable wunderkinds Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey are back for their 26th album, Worker. Taking a break from longform work after several years of work on The Race Riot Suite, JFJO are delving into their indie-rock and hip-hop influences. The ever-evolving, piano-led trio spends the bulk of Worker writing short songs full of grinding noises, synth blasts, abrupt shifts, and funky breakdowns.
“Appropriation Song” seems to be self-aware in its pilfering of noises, melodies and rhythms from other genres. “Better Living Through Competitive Spirituality” uses old-school analog synths to create one of the coolest tracks I’ve heard in a long time. It’s got jazzy influences, but it’s essentially a post-rock song. Furthermore, it could be the backing track to some really impressive alt hip-hop; it would be incredible if they got some rappers to create some remixes on this track in particular. “Bounce” could also work brilliantly for a hip-hop remix, as it already has the rhythmic tensions present in great hip-hop.
JFJO is a fascinating band: 20 years into their run, they’re putting out work that’s just as challenging (if not more) than their early or mid-period work. They may not have much of the “jazz” from their name left in their sound, but they do have one trait of great jazz musicians: they’re getting better with age. Worker is a challenging, engaging, rewarding listen that will please fans of experimental, adventurous post-rock. The album drops tomorrow, October 14.
The Widest Smiling Faces‘ Sin Waves is also difficult to describe, but in a completely different way from JFJO. Sin Waves is a 33-track album of dreamy, woozy, reverb-heavy, gentle tracks. Only 6 of them break one minute, though; TWSF prefers to cast off tiny, impressionistic swatches of sound that lean heavily on meandering solo fingerpicked electric guitar. Especially in the back half of the album, listening to Sin Waves is more like wandering through a lovely art gallery that plays sounds than listening to songs.
There are six longer pieces that approximate the standard definition of song. In contrast to the largely instrumental sound swatches, the longer pieces feature Aviv Cohn’s mumbling, whispering, feathery voice. “Rip Me in Half” pairs guitar and voice with some distant, muffled drums to pleasing effect; “Oil Pastel” has a disarmingly straightforward guitar lead before it gets layered upon with more guitars and voice. Cohn is fully capable of writing longform; he just prefers to do elsewise.
Sin Waves is an album in the truest sense of the word: it’s a collection of things that are meant to be heard together. I don’t see a lot of point in listening to this work outside its whole: the entirety of the work is needed for the experience to be fully appreciated. If you’ve got a half-hour that you want to spend in dreamy, ethereal mode, this album should be in your life.
Music for Abandoned Podcast by Kasey Keller Big Band shares the genre-demolishing tendencies of JFJO and the short runtimes of TWSF, making for a surrealistic, madcap 10 tracks in 10 minutes. Keller likes to group strummed instruments (ukulele, nylon-string guitar) with gritty synths, beats, and droll spoken/sung vocals, as in the eerie “Wardenclyffe” and bizarre synth-pop of “Usain Bolt.” Opening track “RIC” is almost two minutes of melodic synth-pop jams, showing a rare, impressive conventional turn from KKBB.
Sometimes elements of his sound are dropped out: “Mosaic History” is a straight synth-pop jam without strings, “Glottal Stop” removes the vocals for 30 seconds of the most intriguing instrumental hip-hop I’ve heard in a while, and “New Knees” is a lo-fi acoustic-and-voice moment. But overall, this is an experimental release that plumbs the depths of acoustic/electronic interaction by juxtaposing them in gritty, raw, unusual ways. If you’re into experimental music, jump on this.
1. “The Balance” – Royal Tongues. Sometimes the RIYL is absolutely perfect. I got told this one was like Smallpools and Passion Pit. BY JOVE IT IS! EVERYBODY DANCE!
2. “Desole Pt. II” – The Gromble. This is like if the enthusiasm of Passion Pit met the restraint of The Naked and the Famous. You can dance to it and think heavy musical thoughts about post-punk to it!
3. “I Feel Sorry For You” – Bullybones. Always space in my heart for voice-shredding, garage-crushin’, surf-rockin’ tunes.
5. “I Told You So” – The March Divide. Early ’00s emo/punk is back, and that’s a really great thing. Let it emote, men. Let it jangle and emote.
6. “Black White Fuzz” – Coastgaard. Yacht rock + The Strokes? Why not? *head bobs frantically*
7. “Little Surfer Girl” – The Yetis. Do you love the Beach Boys? If yes, you love the Yetis.
8. “It Don’t Even” – ET Anderson. When you mix rubbery bass higher in the mix that crunchy guitars, you’ve got a very specific vision for your sound. ET Anderson’s vibe here is strong and impressive, like a slackery Spoon or something. I’m intrigued.
9. “Trouble” – Micah Olsan and the Many. Funk, indie-rock and shades of Hendrix psychedelia come together to make a pulsing, groove-heavy track.
10. “photograph” – crashfaster. Jamiroquai in outer space! Anamanaguchi at the bottom of the sea! Dance-rock with serious sci-fi vibes!