The mix of an album can tell you a lot about the priorities of its creators. Dylan Dickerson’s frantic, fractured voice is cranked about as high in the mix of Dear Blanca‘s Pobrecito as possible, which tells me that they care about the raw, ragged, real aspects of performance. Look no farther than the wordless, anguished roar that is the chorus of “Showplace” for proof. The intense alt-country songwriting behind the pipes matches Dickerson’s careening, manic vocal quality. In other words, Conor Oberst and Dickerson would have plenty to talk about.
But like Bright Eyes, Dickerson and co. aren’t all raging fury. The (relatively) pensive “Noma” includes a musical saw that gives the tune a Neutral Milk Hotel feel (Mangum, of course, being another vocalist who celebrated the rough edges of his non-traditional voice). Dickerson can write a pop song, too: “Huff” has a great guitar riff and a (relatively) restrained vocal performance. But it’s loud, noisy alt-country rock that is his natural home, which is why even the rhythmically tight, acoustic-led “Priscilla” turns into a torrent of guitar distortion and a repeated hollering of the titular character’s name in the chorus. Closer “Cadmus” starts off quiet with acoustic guitar, organ, and female vocals before introducing pounding toms into the tune. Hey, if you’re good at a thing, do that thing.
You like the stomping work of the Drive-By Truckers? Dear Blanca is like the Drive-In-And-Stay-In-Your-Front-Yard-Yelling-Until-You-Come-Out Truckers. Pobrecito is a sweat-drenched, passionate, powerful set of noisy alt-country tunes that will occasionally give you shivers.
The mid-’00s were a good time for indie-pop music, with bands like Annuals, Decemberists, Grandaddy, and the Shins purveying a very particular type of giddy, instrument-stuffed pop music that wasn’t being well-represented on the radio. Koria Kitten Riot picks up that torch of shiny, acoustic-led, maximalist indie-pop on Rich Men Poor Men Good Men. It’s the sort of album that includes coconuts imitating horse clip-clops in a way that sounds totally natural (“The Lovers That You’ve Never Had”). It’s twee without being overly cute in the vocals, or serious vocals with a whimsical touch to the arrangements.
“A Last Waltz” stands out as one of the highlight tracks not because it’s particularly more charming that the rest of the tunes here, but because it’s a touch darker. The rest of the album can flow together as one wonderful experience, but track three points itself out as a great track by showing the diversity the band is able to deliver (while still not damaging the flow of the record). “Today’s Been a Beautiful Day” nicks not only the sound but the joyful irony of the era, pairing one of the most chipper melodies and arrangements on the record with a song about a person who gets hit by a car and dies. (Oops, spoilers.) Follow-up “Carpathia” sounds a bit like a brit-pop tune, what with the wistful reverb, processed strings, and discrete acoustic strumming; it’s a nice change of mood that stands out as a highlight.
If you’re into cheerful, instrument-stuffed indie-pop, you’ll find a ton to love in Koria Kitten Riot. You can listen to the whole album and let it wash over your mood, or you can listen to individual tunes; it matters not. It will make you smile either way.
Bishop Allen was also doing quirky indie-pop in the mid ’00s, and they’ve since gotten a bit noisier than their indie-pop masterpiece The Broken String. I think they still count as indie-pop on Lights Out, but they’re certainly creeping closer to power-pop.
They make it clear with opener “Start Again,” which is all buzzy synths, classy dance-rock guitars, and propulsive percussion. “Bread Crumbs” makes the dance-rock vibes even more explicit, putting together a wicked bass groove, a protoypical piano hook, and a minimum of lyrics. (And, because this is Bishop Allen, there’s also a bass-heavy horn section.) “Crows” involves some of their traditional quirky rhythms (Latin/island, a la “Like Castanets”), chill melodies, and pristine arrangements, but with a funky bass line. It’s way fun. “Skeleton Key” is another funky tune that’s worth remembering.
The overall sound of Lights Out is more matured, even with the dance-rock tendencies: it’s a poised, refined musicality that runs through the record. The lyrics reflect that aging as well; there are more references to hard times, the existential crises of adulthood (“No Conditions”), and that most adult of rituals: leaving the party early (“Why I Had To Go”). But they never get heavy-handed, morose, or grumpy. It’s a band that grew up, but kept their pop song skills with them. Mazel tov! Here’s to Bishop Allen: long may you write.
Today, Independent Clauses has the distinct honor of premiering a stream of The Good Graces‘ Close to the Sun, which comes out September 30 digitally on Potluck Foundation and October 28 on vinyl from Fort Lowell Records. (You can pre-order the vinyl, if you’d like.) But you can hear it here now! So press play and hear the excellent record as you read a review of it.
I think about musical genres a lot, since I have to make a public proclamation of a song’s genre about once a day. Genre has gotten muddied and muddled through crossovers, influences, and incorporations; people no less humongous than Bob Boilen question the usefulness of the whole endeavor. I think it matters; genres have social realities. Saying an album is a singer/songwriter release makes different people interested than if I say it’s an alt-country release. The same goes with indie-pop. But when an album comes along that ties many genres together with elements that transcend all of them, I understand why people just want to throw the whole constraint overboard.
The Good Graces’ Close to the Sun incorporates obvious tonal markers of alt-country (“Cold in California”), indie-pop (“My Own Grace”), and singer/songwriter genres (“Under the Weather”). Just to prove I’m not purposefully making things difficult, those three songs I mentioned are tracks two, three, and four on the album; songwriter Kim Ware isn’t tightly allied to any particular sound from the get-go. By track five, “Something So Beautiful” is incorporating swirling guitars, pounding toms, found sound (a Grandaddy-esque indie-pop move) and alt-country harmonica to create something incredibly attractive that sits completely outside easy classifications. Oy.
Despite the varied genres, Close to the Sun does have an internal consistency. Ware expertly crafts a overlying mood of hard-earned, clear-eyed calm for the release. That’s not something that comes across in a specific instrument or genre: it’s an approach to songwriting, lyric writing, and vocal performance that influences whatever direction the song takes. “Curb Appeal” is a condemnation of a person who shows a false front to the world; the same lyrics and chord progression could have been used for an angry, guitar-heavy rocker or a whirring, keys-led indie-pop song. (Ware chooses the latter, resulting in a charming indie-pop tune.) There are lots of places where this album could go for dissonance and instead goes to resolve tensions, musically and lyrically.
That’s not to say that there’s no grit here; the grit is just written into unusual places, which grabs my attention. “Parts > Sum,” the most ominous and irritated of the tunes here, is a straight-up alt-country tune complete with reverb-heavy lead guitar. But instead of pouring vocal and lyrical fury into the track, it opens with Ware singing, “My God, my God, what have I done? / I have been untrue / My actions have hurt everyone / but mostly they’ve hurt you.” You have to go to the easy-going, open-road vibe of “Cold in California” to get the lyrics that might have fit with an angry alt-country track. It’s a consistent trend: the genre expectations are subverted throughout to take a gentler, even-handed tack. Even closing love song “Before You Go” starts out with a list of things that annoy her lover (a bold move, for sure). But starting there unveils a deeper, more mature love that looks past surface annoyances to the realities of relationship.
Even though the underlying calm and the twists of genre expectations carry through the record, it’s Ware’s clear, strong alto that ties the record together. Ware’s evocative voice can display the careful inflections and intonations of singer/songwriter fare (“A Gain, Again”), sell a tricky mood (the complex emotions of “Cold in California”), or carry a rock-ish tune (“Standing in Line”). Throughout it all, her vocal tone stays warm and open, instead of closed off and bitter. That tone often balances out the disparate sounds and lyrics, deftly tying the parts together. The final effect is that her voice sounds natural in these songs, and that’s an element that will elevate any record.
Close to the Sun is a brilliant collection of acoustic-led tunes across a number of genres. It’s a calm, pleasant record in the sense that watching seas from the shore can be calm and pleasant. It doesn’t mean that things aren’t happening on the surface or below the surface; it means that the overall product comes together in a way that is emotionally impressive, intellectually rewarding, and aesthetically pleasing. Ware has done an incredible job pulling together genre-subverting arrangements and lyrics with beautiful vocals, resulting in an album that is hard to stop listening to. If you’re into acoustic-led music, Close to the Sun should very much be on your to-hear list.
1. “Satelighter” – Telecraze. This Iranian band mashes post-punk vocals and moods with an whirring, glitchy, crunchy electro backbeat.
2. “Blauer Tag” – Mowe. I love some subtlety in my electro bangers. This one’s got it in spades, delivering the goods but also not whacking you over the head with obvious dubstep drops. Great stuff here.
3. “Meridian” – Zola Blood. A really accessible, highly stylized indie-rock tune that has major radio appeal. ZB could be a crossover.
4. “Sound the Alarm” – QVALIA. Not to be confused with the post-rock band Qualia, which I enjoy as well. QVALIA throws down (another) radio-ready tune with fuzzed out, ominous bass synths, quirky soprano synths, and rhythms some familiar rhythms to pull it all together.
1. “Animals” – In-Flight Safety. Here’s a slick, Brit-pop-influenced pop-rock track. That’s one of the most enjoyable pieces of guitar-led work I’ve heard in a while.
2. “Seascape” – Upperfields. Genre labels are kinda useless here, as some mix of indie-rock, indie-pop, synths, artsy landscape-y work, and straight up ’80s jams come together to make this irresistible track.
3. “Bird of Prey” – Natalie Prass. Perky soprano vocals dance over an old-school, chilled-out soul/motown backdrop. I think of 1970s New York neighborhoods, kids on the front steps.
4. “Mirrors (I)” – Sister Speak. There was that time in the ’80s where pop-rock females could be really introspective and deep while still maintaining a connection to groove. Sister Speak is all about that time period. Not that this sounds like the ’80s. But it could live there, maybe.
5. “Deepend” – Mister Lies. Lush, emotive, swishy bedroom electro? SIGN ME UP BRO.
It is often easy to lose the remembrance somewhere between the 10th and the 25th anniversary of things. Today is the 13th anniversary of a deeply painful day that launched many difficult days. I think a fitting memorial would be to examine our own prejudices and see why we hold them; if we all do this, hopefully we can move toward discussion and away from violence on hard things such as those that caused the tragedy.
1. “Growing Mould” – Ha the Unclear. I’m a big fan of yelpy vocalists that can find a foil for their tones. Ha the Unclear’s eccentric mix of throw-back pop crossed with mid -’00s indie-pop is a perfect fusion of instrument and voice.
2. “Repetition” – Kobadelta. If you’re a fan of the Doors or any band that has tried to emulate the Doors, you’ll be interested in Kobadelta’s bass-heavy psych-rock with a baritone vocalist and spot-on production. Check that sweet half-time breakdown.
3. “Coulda Been” – Sallie Ford. Get back to your ’60s and ’70s rock roots. Nod at your Grace Slick poster. Remember that the congas are a legitimate instrument. You’re fully ready to get sassed by Ms. Ford in this impressively rhythmic and cool track.
4. “Cellophane” – Adventure Set. Some synth-pop is really indie-pop with a synth. I actually think that Adventure Set wrote every part of this song except the vocals on synths. It’s simultaneously nostalgic and futuristic, wistful and giddy.
5. “Flederlaus” – Magnetfisch. Instrumental synth-pop? Why not? With its chirpy synth line and sassy guitar solo, this particular track feels like it should be the soundtrack to an old-school platformer video game. Sonic the Hedgehog was awesome, y’all.
I had so many MP3s lined up that I’m breaking them into four mini-lists over the next few days. Cool, huh?
We Love Dashes – Indie-Pop-Folk
1. “Carry Oceans” – Montoya. Sweeping, cinematic pop that uses reverb expertly to create mood. There’s some acoustic guitars, pad synths, earnest female vocals, and more. For a first track, this is an exciting start.
2. “Those Days” – Noire. Wistful verses blossom into a joyful, twinkling chorus: it’s like the sun coming out from behind a cloud, or someone flicking open the curtains in a gloomy room. You’ll feel your hips move to this one.
3. “2004” – Sleepwalk Parade. That line between indie-rock, alt-country, and folk-punk is a thin one at times. Great melodies and vibe going on here.
4. “On the Rocks” – The Rural Alberta Advantage. RAA has always been pushed by insistent drums, but now they’ve added some churning keys to amp up the urgency. By the end of the tune it’s very nearly a dance-rock tune (albeit one with distant, delicate piano).
5. “Livin’ & Dyin (to Dream)” – Kory Quinn. This track has the x factor that the best raw, honest, clear-eyed alt-country singer/songwriters have. Is it the vocal tone? Is it the use of space in the vocal lines? Is the production? Is it all of them?
The new Woman’s Hour video features six middle-schoolers who made up the dance themselves. The band and the director comment that it points out both the awkwardness of middle school and the ability of teenagers to emulate pop culture. It’s a gentle way to introduce a serious topic. Very cool video.
I love goofy concept videos, and this one is par excellence on that front. Why not get five industrial-grade digital road signs to “sing” for you? Super-fantastic. Great job, Stormcellar. (Even if it is from 2010.)
I’m firmly on-board the Andrew Judah train, and this video keeps that trend going. Simple yet entrancing.
Greylag’s “Another” is a great tune, so I’m posting their performance video of it. It’s not much to look at, but you deserve to hear “Another” again.
My favorite genres are acoustic folk, indie-pop, and indie-pop-rock, so it makes perfect sense that a North Elementary / Jesse Marchant / Bishop Allen show was my favorite I’ve been to all summer. The three bands converged on Carrboro’s Local 506 for a Sunday night show that didn’t disappoint those who stayed up late the night before the local university started back to school.
I caught about half of the set from local indie-pop-rockers’ North Elementary. I would have caught more of it, but I never expect any venue to start on time. (Props to Local 506 for starting at 9 when the poster said 9.) Their enthusiastic, noisy, occasionally jubilant rock was fun to hear; closer “Hi-Lo” was especially smile-inducing. The guitars were noisy but not overly heavy; there’s a lot of levity in their tunes. As a bassist, I particularly enjoyed the great low end lines laid down by Jimmy Thompson.
After knocking some of the rust off my concert-lacking ear drums with North Elementary, Jesse Marchant, also known as JBM, soothed my ears. Marchant’s calm, relaxing solo set was an astonishing success, especially considering that he was sandwiched between two loud bands. (He’s on tour with Bishop Allen right now, which I think is cool: I’m a big fan of cross-genre tours.) Marchant’s songs feature the delicate intimacy of Gregory Allen Isakov’s work, but also have a deep grasp of space and mood that reminds me of Jason Molina’s work. Those two songwriters are some of my favorite in my 13-year music-reviewing career; Marchant’s sound was on par with theirs.
His melodic skill, songwriting maturity, and instrumental dexterity are all sky high. Some quiet bands don’t know how to keep attention; Marchant kept me riveted to everything that he played. His new album comes out soon, and I’m very excited for it: his set was one of the most enjoyable I’ve seen all year. If you like quiet, emotional songwriters that can keep you hanging on every note, you need to know JBM (the name his old work is under)/ Jesse Marchant (which the new album will be under).
You’d think it would be hard to top that sort of set, but Bishop Allen is a special band to me. I don’t often indulge in personal backstory for reviews, but BA requires it. Seven years ago, I was an undergraduate at the University of Oklahoma, doing my best to try to figure out my place in the world. I had a best friend, a mentor, a boatload of acquaintances, and a never-ending stream of girls I liked but never managed to date. My best friend was in pretty much the same boat. In the midst of this very normal college experience, he and I went to Guestroom Records in Norman, Oklahoma to get something to listen to. We didn’t have anything in mind.
After scouting through the store, I found Bishop Allen’s The Broken String. I know I liked the cover; this may have been the only reason I bought the album. (Maybe Paste had put Bishop Allen in a sampler; RIP, Paste printed edition.) We bought it, put it in my SUV, and started driving around the city to listen to it. It was amazing. (It is still amazing.) We did this several more times throughout that year, chasing the ennui away with “The News From Your Bed” and “Like Castanets.” It is a major touchstone in my life.
We were obsessive liner notes readers–me because of The Mountain Goats. We discovered during our first listen to the album that The Broken String had been recorded in Norman, OK–the very town we were living in. This odd coincidence was enough to cement my already burgeoning fanboyship into a full-blown crush on the album. I enjoy the rest of the Bishop Allen catalog (especially the tune titled “Oklahoma,” for obvious reasons), but The Broken String will always be where it’s at for me.
Fast forward to now: Bishop Allen is back with a new album after five years off. Lights Out is a real fun record that I’ll be reviewing soon. Even though I couldn’t get a review done by the time the show rolled around, I wanted to go hear them perform live. Maybe they’d play one or two Broken String songs. I was thrilled by the end of the set: they played almost half the record (5 of 12 songs). So everything you read from this point on is going to be colored by the fact that I heard almost half of one of the more important albums in my life played. They could have played in pitch darkness and I would have been thrilled.
It was a thrill for hardcore fans of Bishop Allen, but I think it would have been a great time for new fans too. BA’s lyrics are often wry and funny, which was reflected in vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Justin Rice’s stage banter. The band ripped through traditionally quieter tunes with extra noise and energy, which made “Rain” in particular into a mini-anthem. With those slight updates to the older material, their new songs fit pretty seamlessly into their live show. The highlight of their new material was the funky, dance-oriented “Breadcrumbs,” which was a lot of fun to dance along to. I and several others were getting into it, dancing-wise. It was a blast–chipper music, fun stage banter, dancing, and singing along to my favorite songs. How can you ask for more?
Bishop Allen’s Lights Out is out now, while Jesse Marchant’s self-titled new album comes out September 9. North Elementary’s Honcho Poncho was released earlier this year.
1. “Whodunit?” – Gentle Robot. GR’s new album of indie-friendly alt-rock a la Silversun Pickups or Anberlin is a whodunit murder mystery. Gentle Robot deftly balances tenderness and aggression via strong lyrical and musical songwriting. Clever, memorable, and novel.
2. “Say Yes” – Afternoons. If you can resist belting out that chorus at the top of your lungs, this blog cannot help you. I’m serious.
3. “Gloria” – Backwords. Item Two: If you can stop yourself from belting out “I NEED GLOOOOOOORIA,” this is probably not the blog for you. Excellent song development from this crew.
4. “Love the Sea” – The Vigilance Committee. Grows from dreamy beginnings all the way to a rhythmically technical post-hardcore section, with some punk-inspired motion in the middle. I love ambitious songwriters.
5. “Midnight:Sixteen” – Tree Dwellers. TD has some weird post-rock/alt-rock/found-sound thing going on here. It’s the soundtrack to a really ominous “getting ready” sequence in a artsy futuristic dystopian action film.
6. “You Come to Kill Me?” – Happyness. Two minutes of pure slacker rock with impressive attention to lyrical detail. It doesn’t get repetitive, it doesn’t ask for much, it just wants to know if you’re there to kill him. Solid, bro.
7. “Monuments” – Haverford. My current favorite emo band mixes vocal desperation, dreamy guitars, and punk intensity for a swirling, whirling track. This release should get Haverford noticed by emo revivalists and more.
8. “Escape” – Dream Boat. The intensity of the forward motion that pushes through this psychedelic track makes it more than just a woozy psych jam or a four-on-the-floor stomper. Heavy vibes here, but good ones.
9. “Love Again” – JOA. Yearning, churning, moody indie-pop from the artist formerly known as Like Clockwork; much more atmospheric than the brash pop music he was previously producing. It’s got some down-tempo groove to it, too.
11. “January” – Silva. The breeziness of chillwave meets the celebratory vibes of Brazilian music in a fun, charming, beautiful track.
12. “Lovekill” – Anie. Opens with an asymmetric vocal line reminiscent of tUnE-yArDs before exploding into a pop-rock tune with high male vocals; it shifts back and forth from artsy to poppy throughout the track. Really interesting take here.
13. “Oh the Evil!!!” – Michael Leonard Witham. A Dylanesque yawp, pedal steel, brazen harmonica, and a perky overall mood? Yes. Let’s have some more of that.
14. “Shapeshifting” – Sam Joole. This warm, gentle, pristine arrangement that recalls William Fitzsimmons or early Joshua Radin feels lush and full, even though it’s rather stark. Wonderful track.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.