Genre mash-ups are the way of the future, if Steven Hyden’s reading of music’s trajectory is to be believed. (I believe it.) But where Hyden thinks that we’re headed for “a future where all music sounds like everything at once” and nothing is distinctive, Sloth provides a counter-argument. Sloth‘s Out + Out combines alt-country, slackerish ’90s indie, gritty garage-rock and tons more to create a sound all its own. Instead of being a mishmash, the inventive results are a gripping listen.
The sheer number of ideas on Out + Out is head-spinning. In taking sonic elements, songwriting conventions, riff styles, and attitudes from a variety of styles, it seems that lead songwriter Seth Nathan has no end of new elements to include. Opener “Every Circle” starts off with a squalling guitars and ominous cymbal splashes before leaping into a lumbering rock guitar line counterpointed by frantic bass guitar work. A snap change to the verse ushers in a new section entirely: easygoing vocal delivery, lean-back drumming, mellowed-out background vocals. The chorus and the post-chorus instrumental section amp up the rock again. Instead of feeling disjointed, it feels like it fits in the alt-country milieu of rapid starts and stops. It’s the sort of song that sounds improbable in text but just works when you hear it. Trust me on this one.
The wild arrangements don’t let down after that first tune. “Montana” combines spidery lead guitar with alt-country backline and an artsy bridge; “Live For Beauty” has some tropical vibes thrown into the guitar along with a snare shuffle and hectic bass riffing. (Bassist Frank Cicciarello deserves mad props not just here, but everywhere on the album.) “I Wanna Move (to Portland)” marries the cascading guitars of the previous song to the laid-back indie-rock vibes at the beginning, but morphs into an even wilder experience: a brief interlude that’s nearly calypso in tone and rhythm leads into an abstract, dissonant art-rock section that reminds me of Minus the Bear in a really bad mood. Then it segues into a grumbling-yet-funky post-punk thing. It gets more and more complex from there (!). It’s a mind-bending, thought-provoking, brilliant song. Just this tune alone could merit its own review.
There are some moments of sonic breath: “Staring at the Sun” is a walking-speed ballad, while “What You See” follows up “I Wanna Move (To Portland)” with a relatively straightforward mid-tempo rock song (albeit with brittle, damaged guitar solos like something out of Tom Morello’s oeuvre). They show that while Sloth can get experimental with the best of them, they can also knock a traditional structure out of the park. Sloth packs more into the 25 minutes of Out + Out than some bands can get in twice that long. If you’re up for an adventurous, out-of-the-box listen, Sloth’s Out + Out should give you quite a trip.
Gramatik has always been my quintessential god of grooviness, but Mocean Worker may be overtaking that throne after his newly-released self-titled album. With a tasteful blend of electronic, funk and jazz elements–a little house here, a sprinkle of synth there, handfuls of hunky horn over yonder–Mocean Worker stirs a pot of sizzling, spicy Electro Swing (yes, it is a thing).
Hearing “Soul Swing” was like hearing Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” for the first time–it’s fiercely upbeat, techno-textured and vibrantly optimistic, but yet there’s a goofiness riding the track the whole time; It never takes itself too seriously. Jam-packed with piano and an old timey-feel, the vibe this first track sets for the party record shows depth and off-the-charts mixing.
“I Told You Twice The First Time” has carnival-like mockery to it. Colorful electronic incorporations, repeated female vocals, Richter-scale rhythm, rollercoaster synth and subtly dense bass build a groove that wraps itself in circles.
Tracks such as “The Actual Funk (Featuring Sweetpea Atkinson),” “Savoy Strut,” and “Clap Yo Hands (Mtune)” are techno-charged and sleek. “Clap Yo Hands (Mtune)” has an especially duskier vibe to it compared to others on the album: it begins slow-paced, ping-ping-pinging until an upbeat funk unleashes and fat bass guitar strums along, ultimately creating a warehouse party feel. Dubstep elements gently tug the rope that the opposing happy-groove buzz has a firm grip on for the majority of the album.
There is a good amount of abstraction that Mocean Worker slips in casually. “Julius,Irving,Berlin” gives Mocean Worker a distorted edge, playing up distant-sounding, quick bits of piano, warped tads of techno, and female vocals that sound like chopped television recordings. The opening on “Rubberband” harps and pulses like it’s beating from below water, an undersea horn-heavy dance party for the first few seconds. The beginning of “Now That’s What I’m Talkin’ Bout” also stole my heart with its slow-to-build swing dance, finger-snapping, bass-heavy groove.
While “Ralph and Marcus” is meant for a private striptese–with all of its confident sultriness, clinking percussion and teasing instrumentals–it’s “PunkDisco (Jaco)” that got my hips swaying with wooden percussion and Latin elements. And the title of True Romantic track goes to closer “Collete Ma Belle Femme.” Serene piano adds newfound lightness to the record, making it a sleepy, beautiful surprise. This one plays like a romantic serenade or a lullaby, and I could almost picture the misty mountain ranges as the album comes to a close.
Mocean Worker is for all of those hard-to-pleasers out there; it’s got enough tasteful fun to put a smile on the faces and sway in the hips of even the most snobby listeners. Because, simply put, Mocean Worker is a natural at creating ambiance. He has done for our ears what Feng Shui has done for rich people’s living rooms–harmonized us with our souls. But instead of through our surrounding environments, he has done so via a groovy, funk-inspired, kaleidoscope lens. —Rachel Haney
Final Days Society‘s post-rock expands its palette from the “melodic/quiet to tube-screaming towers of sound” model on Icebreaker. While tunes like “At Peace, At Last” and the title track still bathe in that immortal fountain, they experiment with other sounds and textures here. “Drifter” leans heavily on a giant-sounding horn line for its cathartic end, while “Overburdened Companions” opens with accordion-esque keys. The diversity creates space for interesting diversions from the standard post-rock templates.
The inclusion of feathery vocals links the band to Sigur Ros–and as soon as I made that synaptic leap, I heard the Icelandic band’s influence in a lot of places, from sparkly quiet sections (“Drowner”) to hollowed-out columns of sound (“Debris”). As a result, Icebreaker feels more organic than one might expect, while still delivering giant crescendoes. If you’re into high-drama post-rock, check it out.
I’ve been listening to Josh Caress for almost a decade now, through dozens of mentions on this blog, half a dozen albums, and two Kickstarter campaigns (his own for Come On Pilgrim! and mine for the Never Give Up project). Caress’ Little Lights is the sonic culmination of the last ten years that Caress has invested in creating lush, gorgeous work.
New listeners can jump in right here at Little Lights and experience an incredible album of beautifully-arranged indie-pop/singer-songwriter work–“When I Drove Across the Country” is as moving an 11 minutes as you could hope to hear. But for those who’ve been tracking with Caress’ catalog, there’s a wealth of connections, tip-offs, and tributes to ponder. “When I Drove” is the chronological and emotional centerpiece of the record, a sweeping travelogue that calls to mind the lyrics of Josh Caress Goes on an Adventure. The sonic palette is a wide-screen, romantic reading of the night sky that updates the template of the magnificent Letting Go of a Dream with crisper production and instrumentation while still creating great clouds of sound. That template is overlaid with digital blips called out of Perestroika, which lend an extra level of depth to the landscape. The central lyrical image of the travelogue is actually a domestic scene of the narrator having breakfast with his young son instead of being out on the road–shades of the family life present in The Rockford Files.
All of that comes together in one deeply affecting 11-minute opus that successfully pushes the bounds of what Caress is capable of. The arrangement is complex over the life of the song, building and fading out to emphasize elements: the central moment is delivered by just an acoustic guitar and Caress’ reverb-laden voice, before the song slowly grows back to a pivotal lyrical conclusion and long instrumental outro. The guitars, vocals, strings, synths, and piano that swirl their way through this tune are all played with a sophisticated, fine-tuned hand–the result is nothing less than stunning. There are songs before and after “When I Drove Across the Country,” but they all point to and lead away from this tune. “To Be Strong” is more overtly dramatic, while the title track is potentially more tightly arranged with the same instruments. But neither of those have such a strong synergy of lyrics, melodies, and arrangement. It’s a tour de force, especially if you’ve unwittingly watched it coming for a decade.
The only tune that gives “When I Drove Across the Country” a run for its money is its follow-up track (and polar opposite) “Feelings of Loss and Rejection (Are Not What You Think They Are).” Caress has never been afraid of using plain language for big emotions–where he delves deep into wordplay and scene-painting in “When I Drove,” he prefers to lay it out plain in this one: “I know it’s real / and I know it hurts / I know the suffering / I know what it’s worth.” The fact that the word “worth” connects with the word “cost” that appears in a critical soul-searching moment of “When I Drove” makes it even better. If you need some catharsis, Caress has some for you with this tune.
And not just lyrically, either–“Feelings of Loss and Rejection (Are Not What You Think They Are)” is a triumphant, jubilant indie-rock tune that makes me think of Bruce Springsteen leading The Arcade Fire (and recalls the full band sound of Perestroika). Starting with thumping toms and a great electric guitar line, the song bursts into snare rolls and synth licks, great ideas just stacked on top of great ideas. It’s a testament to a decade of songwriting that this doesn’t descend into chaos. Instead, it ratchets up to a hair-raising, spine-tingling moment when Caress howls out “Come up to the mountain! / Would you offer me the world?” over an all-out tempest. It’s the sort of thing that I didn’t know I wanted until I heard it, and then I couldn’t get enough. It’s the sort of thing I want to start getting hyperbolic about.
After the one-two punch of “When I Drove Across the Country” and “Feelings of Loss and Rejection (Are Not What You Think They Are),” the rest of album keeps the quality high. “Interlude (Across the Whole Desert Sky)” is particularly notable for introducing some weird arpeggiator effects that keep a mysterious edge to the album. “I Won’t Get This Low Again” is a highway rock song with some serious ’80s vibes going on. The intro and outro (a thing I deeply love from Letting Go of a Dream) set the scene beautifully. It’s just an incredible album.
Little Lights is the type of album we don’t get that often anymore: the album that is designed to be heard all in one sitting and (essentially) all as one song. There are almost no gaps in sound–this is a “through-composed” record, where each song blends into the next. As a result, it’s thoroughly cohesive musically and lyrically. (The lyrics seem to be a long goodbye to “all that” and a hello to a new life.) When we critics say something is a statement, we often mean that the effort expended is extraordinary and that the results are a calling card. Little Lights is a statement of a different type: it actually has something to say, musically and lyrically. It’s a rare treat to hear an artist on top of their game: check out Little Lights to get the experience. —Stephen Carradini
It’s somewhat astonishing that it’s almost time for Christmas music already. I almost threw a moratorium at this one (no Christmas music until at least November!), but then I listened to it twelve times in one day. I figured somewhere around the 7th or 8th listen that I was probably socially obligated to tell people about this tune that I was getting so much enjoyment from.
Hailing from my old stomping grounds of Opelika, Alabama, Martha’s Trouble sets off more nostalgia for me than that which strictly comes from their poignant rewrite of “White Christmas.” The easygoing folk arrangement has warm edges that seem to evoke the warmth and glow of a candle sitting in a window at Yuletide. The gentle electric guitar reverbing off the full acoustic strum and delicate banjo creates the comforting, enveloping atmosphere that you want to imagine Christmas will be.
The tune itself is quite different than the original: the new melody has a great deal less theatricality than the traditional. That overt drama is replaced by a subtle intimacy, an easygoing comfort that really sells the tune. The arrangement backs it up: the song begins, lives, and ends at the same speed and volume. It feels like a slice of life, as opposed to a over-produced Christmas tune. What else can you ask for in a Christmas song?
It seems that rock’n’roll and lust are inseparably intertwined (the term “rock’n’roll” was originally a bawdy phrase, for example). With a name like “Suddenly Naked,” it would be easy to imagine that The High Divers‘ roots rock tune was the latest in a long line of seduction tunes. Hold on to your hats: it’s actually the opposite.
Yep, this one is an anti-lust jam: “Trying to resist you / when suddenly you’re naked on the floor / begging me to kiss you / I don’t want you anymore.” Is it a relationship gone sour? Is it an uneven friendship, where the expectations have become widely disparate? Is it something even more complicated? The lyrics before the crux of the tune don’t overdetermine it, which works great in the context of the song’s intriguing sound and structure.
The High Divers’ sound is generally an energetic vintage-inflected indie-pop-rock party, but this tune sees them getting more pensive (as is appropriate to the lyrics). The song builds from mumbly, dejected quietness at the beginning to a high point of sonic outrage midway through and out through a long instrumental section that closes the tune. The walking-speed tune has some vintage guitar moments right at the high point of the song: the guitar strumming snaps to attention in a decidedly old-school way. But it never feels “retro”–it feels like The High Divers have integrated tons of sounds into their own unique brew.
To that end, there’s also some serious soul vibes going on in the vocals of the central section, right in there with St. Paul and the Broken Bones and Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats. But the rest of the tune feeds more on the roots-rock template with some gentle psych keys thrown on top of it: this is a gritty sort of vibe without getting too abrasive in the overall mood. (It helps to keep the keys high in the mix during the long instrumnetal section/outro.) It’s a subtly complex tune–there’s no verse/chorus/verse structure to lead the listener. Instead, the shifting melodies are the only guide. It’s an excellent tune that begs you to play it again.
Shoegaze, psychedelic folk and southern gothic rock are among the many labels given to Thayer Sarrano’s music. When I listen to Sarrano’s latest album Shaky, one phrase comes to mind: hauntingly beautiful. With an array of mystical sounds and an unshakable voice, Thayer Sarrano carves out her unique spot in the music world with her latest LP Shaky.
Born and raised in Georgia, Thayer Sarrano’s southern side subtly shows itself in Shaky. In the song “Crease,” a distinct southern gothic rock sound comes out through both her vocals and instrumentation. There’s a little twang in Sarrano’s voice not noticeable in most of the other tracks off the album. “Crease” opens with what sounds like a Southern-style steel guitar which continues throughout the song. The heavy drums and other ambient sounds also make this track not just an example of her southern influence, but specifically a southern gothic one.
Sarrano’s use of eerie sounds paired with noisy guitars and partially distorted vocals also makes much of her album Shaky a prime example of what is known as shoegazing or shoegaze. “Aim” begins with a heavy electric guitar creating the “wall of sound” characteristic of shoegaze artists. Sarrano then layers her voice on top of the guitar. The best part of the song is Sarrano’s lead into the chorus: with each repetition of “higher,” her voice goes higher as she takes her listeners up to a psychedelic dream land, where ethereal “ooh’s and ah’s” repeat. As the song progresses, drums and other random instruments fill out the sound and add a certain level of spookiness to the song, making you feel slightly uncomfortable in the best way possible.
Sarrano’s album may be titled Shaky, but her voice is utterly unshakable. Some songs like “Aim” downplay her voice, while others serve to highlight Sarrano’s ethereal vocals. “Glimpses” spotlights her voice by having less of a “wall of sound.” In some parts of the song, her voice stands alone with very soft synth in the background. Through hearing her voice loud and clear, I realize that her voice hits low notes in a very sultry manner, just like Lana Del Rey. The more the tracks linger at her voice, the more they ooze with sensuality. Sarrano’s voice is probably my favorite part of the album.
Thayer Sarrano’s sublime voice paired with her eclectic instrumentation move my soul in uncanny ways. Shaky has a mysteriously dark feel, making it not the best album for a party. Instead, if you desire an album to take you away to an entirely new world, then look no further. Thayer Sarrano’s Shaky whisks its listeners away to the land of honest, macabre dreamscapes. You will never want to leave. —Krisann Janowitz
“Diamond in the Rough” – Dr!ve. This weekend I was out at Kibitz Room, and the boogie-down vibe of the red-velvet-lit d!ve bar, where a 99-year-old David Bowie lookalike sat sipping bourbon, could be described with this synth-pop, funk-dr!ven jam. As light as the instrumentation is, there is soul and richness in the brown liquor-warmth of it all.
“Baby When I Close My Eyes” – Sweet Spirit. The nine-piece indie band brings it on like a crop top-wearing ‘90s chick with sticky sweet vocals, an attractive string section, and sexy rock qualities.
“Highly Emotional” – Benjamin Verdoes. F**k. This really is strikingly emotional. Longing, pulling, swirling soundscapes paired with echoed vocals that sound like they’re galaxies away, how could it not be?
“Air” – Clas Tuuth. An electronic breeze of hand claps, light, feminine vocals, and a natural easiness of sound.
“Two Bodies” – Flight Facilities (Henri remix). All he needs is five minutes, and all I needed was a half hour to pick myself up off the floor after hearing this gorgeous remake that emphasizes suave European vocals with string, piano, and of course, that tempestuous house beat.
“Heart of Glass” – Korr-A. Had to give a shout out to last weekend’s Los Angeles Mad Decent Block Party with this colorful, pop-trap dance party track. Korr-A is that chick people hated on in high school because she was just so much damn cooler than they were.
“Groove Squared” – Ghost Lover (Steve Hope remix). Powerful piano, blubbering bass, and minimalist vocals bring Barcelona-infused vibes that make me sad to see summer go.
“Chicago Warehouse Party 1995” – Thee Koukouvaya. If this had a video, it would go something like this: Aliens zap you up into a multi-dimensional, techno-laced, time-barren universe and then drop you back down through the atmosphere, tumbling towards Chicago, and crash you through a stained glass warehouse ceiling onto the tranced-out, upward arms of dancing strangers.
“Burred Lens” – Arts & Crafts (WIN WIN remix). Burred Lens brings crispness to the Arts & Crafts original that once gets going, rhymically zigzags down an angel-white powdered vertical. Hint, hint, 2:07.
“Arch” – Rough Year. Bringing a raw realness that only a citizen of the City of Brotherly Love could deliver, trans artist Rough Year texturizes grit, spooky vocal snippets, and demonic percussion for over eleven minutes of an experience as deep and dark as those Philly potholes.
“Golden, Blinding (Feat. Galun)” – Alek Fin. James Blake-esque vocals with severe electronic sensuality it’s not hard to be magnetized to. I haven’t seen Fifty Shades of Grey, but I’d imagine the movie should have went something like this…
“Say My Name (Fakear Remix)” – Odesza (feat. Zyra). Fakear’s fresh remake of the Odesza hit is sophisticated, adding a new filter of flyness achieved through twinkling synth, diamond-encrusted vocal bits, and subtly brilliant drops. This is a crisp remix that’s been released in appropriate unison with the autumnal equinox.
1. “Plastic Skateboard” – Brave Baby. It’s rare that a sound comes along that has its own internal logic and consistency. I could namecheck (Fleetwood Mac, Suburbs-era Arcade Fire, mopey mid-’00s electro, etc.), but ultimately their indie rock sound stands on its own. Impressive.
2. “Scar” – The Lonely Wild. Setting up a distinct feeling an inhabiting it is a sure way to hook me, and this rock tune gives us the sound and shape of desperation.
3. “Modern Times” – VSTRS. A killer drummer will always stand out, no matter where he or she lands: this minor-key rock track gets its propulsive energy from the frantic drumming. With the vocals, synths, and loping bass pulling the opposite direction, the drums still push this track onward relentlessly. The tension creates a great tune.
4. “Dear California” – Water District. It’s been almost twenty years since Bush and Incubus were cool (!!), so it’s time for their close-up. This chilled-out track calls up the best of those polished alt-rock slackers.
5. “Young Burns” – Fine, It’s Pink. Like a cave of wonders, this tune starts off with an icy, sparse electro intro before unveiling rooms of soaring, impressive indie-rock sound.
6. “Dirty Deli” – Creature from Dell Pond. An alternate vision of post-punk: jazz-inspired rhythms, dissonant chords, speak-sing vocals, occasional dance-rock dalliances, and a careful use of space. This tune scrambles along to its own idiosyncratic vision.
7. “Going Home” – Stomatopod. It’s a great-sounding old-school punk song. What else do you need?
1. “Don’t Go Quietly” – Light Music. Is this indie-rock? Post-rock? Electronica? All of the above? All I know is that this gorgeous track is one of my favorite songs of the year.
2. “Our Little Machine” – Last Good Tooth. The lyrics here sound straightforward till you read them a second time; the dense, melodic sounds here are similarly deceptive, unveiling their details as you listen repeatedly.
3. “The Closing Door” – LVL UP. Balances Weezer-esque guitar-wall crunch with “aw, shucks,” nose-in-a-book indie-pop for a unique, pleasant tension.
4. “Brother in Arms” – Annabelle’s Curse. The smooth easiness of indie-pop meets the complexity of indie rock while the spectre of alt-country hangs over it all. Taking the best of multiple genres and creating something new is a worthy goal, and Annabelle’s Curse knocks it out of the park here with a great tune.
5. “Modern Language” – Postcards from Jeff. Intertwined flute and guitar open this nearly-seven-minute indie-rock title jam from PfJ’s new record. It’s the sort of arrangement that balances delicate sounds with the drum-forward enthusiasm that makes a great live track.
6. “Answered Prayers” – Terribly Yours. This quirky indie-pop tune includes the fattest bass sounds and thickest groove I’ve heard in the genre this side of Of Montreal’s “Wraith Pinned to the Mist.” The song floats along like a tropical breeze on a vacation where you’re really and truly not worrying about going back to work.
7. “New Colors” – Kennan Moving Company. Sometimes you need that blast of horns in your life, no matter if you’re a soul tune or a pop-rock tune (as this one is).
8. “Glory Days” – 1955. The high-drama indie-rock (equal parts early ’00s Hives, early ’00s Elbow, and Cold War Kids) is perfectly tuned to be in one of those adventure-laden Heineken ads (and their spin-offs–what’s up with those Kohler ads?). In other words, it’s the sort of way-too-cool thing you want to score your life’s soundtrack.
9. “Swings & Waterslides” – Viola Beach. Straddling the line between Hot Chelle Rae’s radio-pop-rock and Tokyo Police Club’s left-field take on the same, this tune pushes all the right buttons.
10. “Porch” – Long Beard. All emo-inflected indie-rock bands want to sound effortlessly nostalgic, but few of them hit the mix of guitar tone, vocal reverb, walking-speed energy, and gentle melodicism.
12. “New Vibration” – ALL WALLS. Grumbling guitar distortion and a chiming guitar riff collide with falsetto “oohs” to make a funky/poppy/fun track that would make Prince jealous.
13. “Rock N Roll Disco” – James Soundpost. Do you need a primer in how to write timeless pop-rock music? If so, listen to this tune and learn how to write a no-nonsense guitar line, sing a catchy hook, and rip off a guitar solo. Rad.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.