Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Suzie Brown brings a beautiful voice and genre-mixing prowess to Almost There

April 1, 2014

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Pop/folk/country is a near-ubiquitous mash-up right now, but it’s only because there’s so much ground to till there. Suzie Brown‘s songs combine the catchy melodies of acoustic-pop, the deft guitar-playing of folk, and gentle country arrangements that incorporate pedal steel and minimalist drumming.

The title track (and opener) of Almost There combines these three influences for a sprightly, warm, enjoyable tune. “Sugar Blues” picks up some country attitude and pairs it with adult alternative backup singers for a neat juxtaposition. Her cover of Fats Domino’s “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday” also gives the album a burst of energy: even though there’s a jubilant New Orleans Jazz vibe to her rendition, it remains recognizably folk/country. Brown can genre-mix with the best of them, and that gives Almost There an exciting, adventurous feel.

“Own Little Show” is a spare, romantic country ballad, the type that you could imagine being written in the ’40s, ’70s, or today. “Everywhere I Go” is a straight-up pop song that feels like a lyrical and melodic sequel to “Cecilia” by Simon and Garfunkel. “Fallen Down” plays up the folky fingerpicking for a sonorous tune. So even though Brown mixes genres often, she can go traditional too; that diversity gives a lot of spunk to the album.

Brown’s unadorned, beautiful alto voice helps keep consistency throughout the diversity of the album. Brown feels completely at home in her voice, having found a range and a melodic style that serve her well. She clearly has worked hard on songwriting, and she sounds natural in the songs she has written. It’s a hard thing to do, but Brown has accomplished it well here.

Brown has plenty of tricks up her sleeve, which is why Almost There is so delightful. There’s plenty going on in each track and throughout the album, but the album never feels disjointed. If you’re a fan of Laura Stevenson, Laura Marling, Laura Veirs, or female singer/songwriters in general, you should check out Suzie Brown.

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Surreal

March 28, 2014

Before we get to the surreal video clips, here’s an absolutely surreal performance. I will never tire of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and Jenny & Tyler (and guests!) do an incredible rendition right here. Jenny & Tyler is one of the most on-fire acts I know of right now.

A lot of artists want to make surreal music videos, but Elliphant’s latest clip is one of the few that succeeds. The visuals are unsettling without being graphic, perfectly fitting the tense electro-pop of “Revolusion.”

Grant Valdes’ “Lord, Don’t Take the Sun” clip gives a herky-jerky, also-surreal take on building a fire. I know it sounds pedestrian, but it’s compelling.

& Yet gives a strong studio performance of a forlorn chamber-pop tune as part of the Fastback Sessions. It’s not surreal, really, but I wanted to include it anyway. It’s my blog, I do what I want.

If you’ve got 11 minutes for three freak-folk songs from Matthew Squires and The Learning Disorders, then you should check out this video. Squires and a cellist perform amidst a half-finished boutique, complete with mannequins. Suitable space for Squires’ fractured, surreal visions.

5 MP3s

March 27, 2014

Busy day: here are some MP3s to get you through it.

1. “Tom Hanks” – Their Planes Will Block Out the Sun. With new members comes a new sound: Their Planes replaced their lead singer with a guy/girl duo, and it gives the sound a warmth that was never before a priority. It’s still got some icy, spiky edges to the indie rock, but those edges are significantly ground down. Very appealing track from Their Planes.

2. “Only Your Love” – Bondage and Discipline. Mid-80s pop that gives equal time to sequencers and piano. Summertime is coming!

3. “Dograces” – Dub Thompson. Beck? Is that you? Did you eat a garage-rock band? Are you collaborating with the Beastie Boys? What is happening? Are you okay?

4. “New Wave” – Varsity. Female-fronted guitar-pop at its most infectious. Get happy, y’all.

5. “Letters” – Nick Foster. Bright, earnest pop-folk with gospel influences? Yes, please.

Ordinary Elephant: comforting songs you feel you’ve known forever

March 26, 2014

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I’m thrilled by the new: new songs, new places, new tastes, and new ideas. One of my favorite things about Independent Clauses is that I get to hear the cutting edge sounds as they are happening.

But sometimes I want something comforting and familiar–I’ve listened to Josh Caress’ Letting Go of a Dream probably more than 100 times. Josh Caress’ way with melody and mood are two reasons that I love his record so much, but another is that Letting Go sits in the timeless genre of singer/songwriter. You don’t have to be in that genre to become timeless, but it sure helps.

Ordinary Elephant is firmly situated in a time-honored folk/bluegrass milieu. Their songs sound new and old at the same time: songs I’ve never heard, but wrapped in a style and arrangements that are very recognizable. Crystal Hariu-Damore’s alto pairs with Peter Damore’s tenor over acoustic guitar, banjo, and stand-up bass. The songs on dusty words & cardboard boxes are essentially warm blankets of sound: you can wrap yourself up in them without effort. You don’t have to penetrate any gnarly lyrical difficulties or quirky arrangements; you can just enjoy the songcraft. It’s kind of like a folk version of The Weepies.

“damage is done” is a perfect example of this songwriting style. It’s a mid-tempo tune that contrasts a chipper banjo line with a world-weary vocal performance from Hariu-Damore. The resulting mood is easy-going but a little melancholy; a good “summer porch, warm afternoon” song. Not giddy, not morose–somewhere between, in that muddle and mix. “the great migration” features a violin and mandolin, giving it a fuller flair; closer “could have” is a bright, major key song.

You can pick anywhere in the album to start and you’ll be treated to comfortable, calm, organic tunes. If you’re looking for wild fits of fancy, this is not your jam. If you’re looking for earnest, honest folk music, dusty words & cardboard boxes is going to give you what you’re after. For fans of old-school Caedmon’s Call (when Derek Webb was still in it), stand-up basses, Gillian Welch, and the phrase “good ‘ol fashioned.”

Quick Hit: Page CXVI

March 24, 2014

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My favorite hymn rewrite project, Page CXVI, knows its strengths. On Lent to Maundy Thursday, the trio creates cohesive and enveloping moods through attention to musical detail. Page CXVI is led by Tifah’s expressive alto; she knows how to use her range and tone to great effect, and it shows on some powerful performances here. The bass tone is especially notable on the instrumental side; there’s a lot of thought going into those details, and it makes an overall better album.

The striking, pensive arrangements neatly guide the listener through the somber lyrics; even at the high, triumphant moment of “This Blessed Day,” there’s still notes of sadness and tension. This is an album of hard-wrought celebration, of praise in honor of that which was most difficult. The tone reflects both ends: Lent to Maundy Thursday never becomes overly gloomy or giddy. This is a measured, thoughtful work celebrating and accompanying a complex time in the Christian calendar.

In Honor of Deep Elm: A List.

March 21, 2014

Deep Elm Records, whose mail I have been getting since Independent Clauses first started in 2003, has done something entirely unprecedented with its 200+ releases: made them all pay-what-you-want. All of them. This is simply mind-boggling. 200 releases spanning almost 20 years? It’s a treasure trove of everything from raging hardcore to emo to post-rock to post-punk to dance-rock to garage-rock to indie-pop to folk-pop. If it has a guitar in it, Deep Elm has probably put it out. In honor of their 200th, as well as their generosity, here’s a list of my Top Ten Favorite Deep Elm Releases.

Good Job, Deep Elm

Honorable Mentions: She Bears’ I Found Myself Asleep, The Lions Rampant’s It’s Fun to Do Bad Things

10. So Close to Life – Moonlit Sailor. “Hope” is one of my favorite songs of all time, although not my favorite Deep Elm song (that one comes later). A great post-rock album.

9. This is Indie Rock, Vol. 2. The second compilation that I deeply loved from Deep Elm, and they do have a ton of them to keep up with. That’s one thing I’ve always loved about Deep Elm–they go all out for their artists, and that makes them one of the best in the business.

8. Sunshine in a Shot Glass – 500 Miles to Memphis. This album literally does everything I want a country-punk album to do. It could be a blueprint.

7. Why Aren’t I Home? – Athletics. I used to run to this album at a really low point in my life. The dramatic tensions between beautiful and crushing, artsy and muscly, longing and being… This was a wonderful soundtrack to those days.

6. We’ve Been Here Forever – Merkabah. Churning, roiling emo-rock: a blast from their early ’00s past displaced into the early ’10s. This album will have your fists in the air and your throat hoarse.

5. If Arsenic Fails … Try Algebra – Pop Unknown. One of the first Deep Elm releases I bought, this emo-rock gem has some strikingly beautiful songs on it.

4. Nuet – Dorena. Deep Elm has gone on a serious post-rock bender as of late. Although Lights and Motion is deservedly soaking up tons of press, Dorena’s latest album just blows my mind.

3. There Should Be More Dancing – Free Diamonds. Way on the other end of the spectrum, this spazzy dance-rock masterpiece has some of the most impressively frantic (yet hooky!) bass lines I have ever heard.

2. Mare Vitalis – The Appleseed Cast. Not entirely because it contains the literally perfect song “Fishing the Sky,” but seriously. An art-rock epic capped off by what is, for my money, the best song Deep Elm has released.

1. Deep Elm: Too Young to Die – Various. The one that started it all for me; I’ve listened to this comp backwards and forwards more times than I can remember. Absolute gold.

Summer’s comin!

March 20, 2014

Even though spring is officially today, it iced two days ago in Raleigh. It’s been a long winter, so it’s nice to start thinking about and hearing summer (even if I can’t see it yet). Here are some summery tunes for you, with occasional interjections from fall (everything folky sounds like fall, sorry bout that).

Summer’s Comin’

1. “The Sun” – Sleepers Bells. Jesse Alexander keeps busy: he’s in IC favorites Battle Ave. and The Miami, as well as releasing a solo project under the name Sleepers Bells. This track combines the Titus Andronicus punk fervor of BA with the wild vocals and mournful sadness of The Miami for a completely fascinating track.

2. “Ether” – Gentle Robot. Is night-time rock a thing? (Bloc Party says yes?) If so, that’s where Gentle Robot lives: dark but not angry, melancholy but not brooding, loud but not abrasive.

3. “Raise a Glass” – Monsenior. Bouncy indie-pop that evenly balances weight and effervescence. This one never loses its grounding as a bass-heavy tune, but it’s still a ton of fun.

4. “Beauty’s Bones” – Villa Kang. Combinines giant, thwomping ’80s electro-pop beats with some wistful ’00s indie-vibes in the vocals. The ghost of MGMT hangs low over this summer banger.

5. “Concorde” – Incan Abraham. No better title for this Springsteen-meets-’80s electro cut than the sadly-no-more jet.

6. “Til Tomorrow” – DWNTWN. We have entered “summery pop” season. It couldn’t get here fast enough, for my money.

7. “Lucid Dream” – Glue Trip. #ChillwaveForever

8. “Dare the Dream (Challenger Remix)” – Pure Bathing Culture. IC faves Challenger give the dreamy PBC cut an even dreamier take, turning it into an ethereal-yet-triumphant take on the tune.

9. “Towers” – Orphan Mothers. Smooth, delicate R&B-esque tune with some indie-rock flair in the guitar. Remember The Antlers? They’d be jamming to this.

10. “She’s Falling” – Breanna Kennedy. It seems like I’m including one adult alternative track per mix. This week’s AA track features a nicely understated chorus; it’s great to not hear a gigantic instrumental explosion every now and then.

11. “Flaws” – Vancouver Sleep Clinic. Falsetto over electro/acoustic jams is either going to invoke James Blake or Bon Iver until further notice. Still, this is a beautiful track.

12. “Burning Promises” – GreenHouse. Piano, synths, found sound, and dry percussion come together to make a relaxing tune.

Don’t fear the country: Zachary Lucky’s ballads will appeal to any fan of acoustic music

March 18, 2014

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Some people are allergic to the term “country”–I admit that I used to be one of these people when I started Independent Clauses. But in the decade since, I’ve come to love the crisp, poignant sincerity of a barebones country track. Zachary Lucky’s The Ballad of Losing You is about as perfect a recreation of that old-school, lonesome country sound as you’re going to find. (Although–It’s entirely possible that this wasn’t what country sounded like, and this is merely what we imagined country sounded like, but I digress.)

Yes, Lucky is as country as they come, even as he tries to apply an asterisk: cowboy hat, the word “ballad” in the title, and pedal steel applied liberally. He even lists his Bandcamp bio as “the laureate of the lonesome song.” Yet he stops short of calling it country–maybe because he doesn’t like the term, but maybe because this will appeal to tons more people if they don’t have to feel like they’re listening to country. Lucky’s smooth voice, delicate arrangements, and calm moods were recorded directly to tape (!), which means that this has all sorts of atmosphere and heart in it. Fans of music as disparate as Damien Jurado, Wilco, Once, and Death Cab for Cutie will all find Lucky’s songwriting to be absolutely irresistible.

Each one of these songs are breathtaking in their stark beauty, but “Merry Month of May,” “Ramblin Man’s Lament,” and “After All the Months We’ve Shared” are memorable in their vocal performances. Lucky’s dusky baritone can carry several hatfuls of emotion in its impressive range; Lucky is an experienced hand, and never pushes his voice to where it can’t go. These songs just seem to spill out of him fully formed, as if he doesn’t have to try to make this happen. The performances are so comfortable as to seem effortless; that’s a rare feat.

If you’re into acoustic music of any stripe, Zachary Lucky’s The Ballad of Losing You is an album you need to hear. It’s a calming album, impressive in its impeccable songwriting and spot-on arrangements. You can sit back with a beer and listen to this all the way through with ease. Highly recommended.

Guest Review: “Salt Lake City; A Love Story” by Charles Ellsworth and Vincent Draper

March 17, 2014

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Charles Ellsworth and Vincent Draper‘s Salt Lake City; A Love Story is a triumph for American songwriting. The pair spin ten stories that stretch out across the deserts of the southwest, blending outlaw grit with a raw streak of self-awareness.

The format could best be described as an “un-split.” Ellsworth and Draper, who are best friends, alternate songs on the record, but the songs share a sonic palette and instrumentation. Ellsworth’s voice is the more conventional of the two–a breathy baritone clear and strong enough that it wouldn’t be out of place in a straight-ahead pop-country outfit. Draper’s attack is deep and mournful, a highly ornamented bass that shows versatility when he jumps an octave and a half to belt harmonies on the title track.

Each man’s voice and a bright acoustic guitar sit squarely at the center of any given song, backed at various times by crackling drums, lilting cello and fiddle, a clanging Telecaster, and vocal harmonies by Josaleigh Pollett. Salt Lake City‘s production is stellar: it bounces manically from stripped-to-the-bone stillness to lush washes of compressed cymbals and strings. Ellsworth and Draper are credited with bass and drums, respectively, and their chemistry as a rhythm section is impressive. The tone for the orchestration across the board is definitely dramatic, but not overdone.

What sets this pair apart from the legion of young practitioners of Americana is the diversity of influences that come through on the record. For every anthemic moment that brings to mind Waylon or Bruce, there’s an entangled strain reminiscent of Mount Eerie or The National that drifts up from beneath a shadowy shroud.

The same contrast emerges lyrically. Ellsworth writes with an approach that’s full of big ideas (“She said believe in yourself, ’cause there ain’t no one else. But I’m still holding on to this love I know that you felt when I held you in my arms.”) and builds narratives that are moving and relatable. Draper’s lyrics are perhaps the bleaker of the two, driven by endearing detail. Both explore the care and feeding of personal demons, travel, and uncertainty.

All things considered, this is a hidden gem: 43 minutes of melancholy country-folk songs with no filler, written and executed with precision. If you’re feeling down, pour a glass of bourbon and give it a listen. You can stream the album here.-Declan Ryan

DIY Ditty: New Faces Showcases

March 14, 2014

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I’ve been covering some more high-level DIY Ditty stuff in the last few weeks, so it’s time to get grounded again. Since I live in the Triangle of North Carolina, I jumped at the chance to e-mail interview Jesse Edison and Jeremy Blair, who are starting a showcase for new bands in the area. If you’re in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area, you can read below and then apply for New Faces Showcases via their Facebook. If you’re not, you can check out how a couple of people are making space for new bands in their scene.

IC: How did you come up with the idea for New Faces Showcases?

Jesse Edison: Jeremy contacted me, asking if I knew any new bands. He was putting together a showcase which included his new band. I used to live in Nashville where two venues would have a showcase night for either new or touring bands. One of the showcases was called New Faces Night, and Jeremy spun it into New Faces Showcases. It occurred to me that to my knowledge there was nothing like a New Faces Night in the Triangle. So we decided to make it more than a one time event. We thought the Triangle could use this kind of infrastructure for new bands.

IC: What are the details so far of New Faces Showcases? How often/when/where will they occur?

Jesse: We’re partially in conceptual mode right now. We haven’t decided on all of the rules yet. But we are tailoring the showcase series to the needs of the Triangle. We want it to be a Triangle event, not necessarily a Raleigh, Durham or Chapel Hill event. So we’re not currently planning on the event always taking place at the same venue, although we would love to build relationships with venues. We’d like it revolve. We’ll choose the location according to the home town of the majority of bands most likely. Jeremy is booking the first show, and I’m running the media and conceptualization.

We had an idea to make the showcase actually special, and that is to create a compilation CD for each show. We’re not seeking studio quality for these compilations. Flaws are fine and might add to the time capsule aspect of the CD. We’ll put the compilations up on our Bandcamp page as well, but the CD’s will only be available at the show. The frequency of shows at this point depends on how many booking requests we get. But we think a quarterly or bi-annual show is feasible. We’re just not sure what the new band production rate is!

IC: When going to an NFS, what can a band expect? What can a listener expect?

Jesse: Bands will play relatively short sets, about 20 minutes. This means bands don’t even have to have that much original material to play (bands can use it as a thermometer to see if what they’ve produced so far is good)! It also means that listeners will get to hear another band soon if they don’t like the one that’s up! But on a serious note the short sets encourage bands to play only their best material. And the short sets heighten the attention span of listeners. In my experience people pay more attention at these showcases, and there’s plenty of time for conversation between bands too.

Jeremy Blair: listeners can expect an energy filled night charged with the excitement and expectations of new bands playing their first performances. bands can expect an opportunity to present their sound to a wide audience built by not only their friends and followers, but those of the bands they share the stage with as well. everyone can expect to make a lot of friends and have a great time.

4. What are the goals of New Faces Showcases?

Jeremy: a lot of the hardcore local music followers are on a bit of a rock and roll hangover from how awesome the scene was for new bands five years ago, and finding the same energy to seek out and love newly emerging bands is a challenge. The goals of New Faces Showcases is to remind everyone that this local music culture is still producing inspired original acts, and to showcase as many of them in this series as we can.

Jesse: What he said – we want to create a reliable place where people can go to hear bands that are hot off the press.

5. Who can apply to be in the showcase, and how can they do that? What genres are accepted?

Jeremy: fresh faces who have never been in a band before, side projects of existing bands, and everything in between…any band that is newly formed and has less than a few shows to their credit is the target. bands should play original material, but genres won’t be overly considered. good is good, it doesn’t matter if its hip hop or psycho billy.

Jesse: Genres won’t be a main consideration, but the genre might need to fit the venue’s stipulations. We’d like to shows to have multiple genres. Bands can apply by messaging our Facebook page (and liking and sharing it). Some bands will be turned down, but we encourage anyone interested to apply. We’re not going to judge a band on the polish of a demo, but more on whether or not it would be played on college radio (which is pretty diverse).

6. What’s upcoming for NFS? Anything else you want to say about the showcase?

Jesse: The first show is likely to be in May or June. We hope to take booking requests and build our social media presence in the mean time.

I want to stress that “new” doesn’t mean the shows will feature inexperienced musicians. There will be a mix of experience levels, and many of the new bands or solo projects that come up consist of veteran musicians exploring a new voice. –Stephen Carradini

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