Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Concert Review: Ari Picker’s Lion and the Lamb

April 2, 2015

I don’t usually write live reviews, because I think it’s weird to describe something that categorically isn’t available for someone to hear. It’s also rare for me to write reviews where you can’t hear at least a single to know what the music sounds like. So you’ll have to bear with me on this one, because I’m about to review one of only two performances of the as-yet-unrecorded Ari Picker composition Lion and the Lamb.

You might know Ari Picker better as the songwriter of the now-retired orchestral folk outfit Lost in the Trees. Since the end of his previous project, he’s turned his eye firmly to orchestration. Lion and the Lamb is a classical work for 11 musicians: string quartet, french horn, saxophonist, pianist, drummer, bassist, and two vocalists. The classical and indie-rock performers that made up the temporary crew included Phil Moore of Bowerbirds, who opened the show with a solo set composed largely of new material. (“It’s my first show in two years,” he announced, but his formidable vocal and songwriting skills didn’t show rust.)

Lion and the Lamb is broken up into eight sections, which range from quite short to long, flowing pieces. Each is, to varying degrees, a tone poem: a piece of music set up largely to convey a feeling rather than to advance a certain motif or theme. As a result, the sections tend to feel less like “songs” and more like “movements.” This is critical to understanding and enjoying Lion and the Lamb; those looking for catchy melodies (even of the classical variety) will not largely feel at home here. If you sit back and let the mood wash over you, you’ll be in a much better place to enjoy the work.

The mood is a peculiar one: fit to Rainer Maria Rilke’s devotional poetry collection Book of Hours, the music delivers dissonant exuberance. “Beauty No. 1 (Descend)”–a complex title for a complex work–opens the set with a gently dissonant piano form consisting of slowly-moving bass notes strung together in a legato style. It is one of three Beauties, including the titular section; the “Descend” pattern is reprised in the last section. A great amount is packed into the opening, so it’s important to listen carefully.

The unexpected dissonance is an integral part of the melodic structure of the whole work: these tunes largely fall in minor keys and play with the listener’s expectation of dissonance. By the time the closing section “Autumn Day / Descend reprise” arrived, the dissonance had been largely normalized in my ear: it felt expected, even warm and comforting. It speaks to strong composition skills that Picker was able to develop that mood from jarring to pleasant throughout the work.

“Beauty No. 1″ is instrumental; half of the eight do not feature lyrics. The wordless sections allow the string quartet, horn, and piano to take over the heavy lifting: Picker spends a lot of time layering and building in these pieces. “Chords” in particular sticks out as a successful piece, memorable for its ultimate sonic collage.

When the vocals do appear, they are often accompanied by drums, bass keys, and saxophone; “Panther” and “Sound Will Be Yours” were particularly excellent in this vein. The polyrhthymic drumming and intricate saxophone patterning lock in together, creating an exciting, eyebrow-raising sound. The bass supports these complex rhythms, grounding the whole song. The vocalists layer their notes on top of this controlled chaos, singing dramatically in powerful, enthusiastic tones. With the quartet, horn, and piano melded into this mix, the sound becomes a wonder to behold. The drumming in “Panther” is especially blood-pumping, while the frantic saxophone contributions there and elsewhere are riveting. An indie-rocker might say that it is well-orchestrated post-rock without v/c/v structure; a classical artist might say they are highly stylized, dramatic tone poems. Whatever you call the music, it is beautiful in an unusual way.

Picker’s arrangements straddle the border between indie-rock and classical: some melodies weren’t repeated enough for indie-rock standards, while the noisy kit drumming might rustle some classical feathers. But for the open-minded listener of music, this was a rare, unique offering. Picker said that he hopes to record the work, as well as write more in this vein–I hope that occurs. The complex beauty requires the stretching of the ear and mind a bit, but connects with the heart and emotions quickly. May that tension ever continue.

Fireships: Joy sprinkled with darkness

April 1, 2015

fireships

Fireships’ self-titled album is purely a joy to listen to. Their playful yet smart lyrics combine with brilliant instrumentation to make Fireships one you need to grab.

The album’s multifaceted influences will be sure to please a variety of audiences. With the overall feel of the album being rather uplifting, one might think that that’s all there is to the album. I mean, with an opener like “All We Got,” what more do we need than that driving beat, enlivening lyrics, and humble vocals? Yet, Fireships has even more to offer us!

With a closer look, you begin to hear folk, western, and even some African influences. Both “Chasing the Sun” and  “Countdown Time” show a Spaghetti Western influence. “Come Back To Me” enters with a very Caribbean feel done through its opening rhythms and instrumentation; “Going Down Fighting” is very reminiscent of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” The choral voices in “Fantasy” are reminiscent of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.”

One thing that stands out throughout the album is Fireships’ ingenious instrumentation. Each instrument is used to add different things for different songs: the guitar is playful in “Chasing the Sun”, yet soulful in “Long Shadow.” The sweetness in “Words Escape Me” comes from the guitar too; when paired with the violin, the six-string adds darkness to  “Carried Away.”

Although mostly cheery and upbeat, Fireships does have its moments of darkness, which serve to even out the sound. The best example of this is the juxtaposition between singles “Gush” and “Countdown Time,” both of which you can listen to now.  “Gush” begins with an opening guitar riff that is oddly reminiscent of Fountains Of Wayne’s “Stacy’s Mom.” As the track continues, it simply gets cuter and cuter (unlike “Stacy’s Mom,” which just gets creepier and creepier). And as “Gush” fades out and “Countdown Time” enters in, there’s a bit of uneasiness lingering.

Although “Countdown Time” sounds dark through it’s minor chords and ominous tone, the track is still just as playful as “Gush” (as evidenced by the track’s music video). The experience of hearing their most darling–but not cheesy–love song, then one of the darkest sounding tracks on the album, then the almost Bob Dylan-esque “Long Shadow” gives the listener a moment of darkness quickly swallowed up by folky happiness again. These transitions allow the album to be upbeat and happy, yet contain depth sprinkled with darkness.

Fireships was thoughtful enough to prepare us for the album’s end by closing with a song of preparation. “Unplug the Stars” serves as the perfect ending to a wonderful album. The repetition of the lyric “it’s time,” the gently driving beat, and calming strums of the guitar enable the listener to find reconciliation with the end of the album just in time for it to come to a close. Nothing could be a better example of Fireships’ brilliance.

Pre-order Fireships here!–Krisann Janowitz

Chris Jamison’s complex arrangements arrive warm and relaxed

March 31, 2015

chrisjamison

Chris Jamison‘s Lovecraft is linked with horror via its title and album art, but the music is more relaxing than terrifying. Jamison has melded West Coast breeziness, old-school country vibes, the stark emotionalism of For Emma Bon Iver, and the melodic arrangements of modern folk into an engaging, acoustic-led album.

Jamison used to live in Austin and now lives in Arizona, which helps explain his particular mix of influences in a causal or at least correlated way; there’s a tension between sonic structures evocative of wide-open space and melodic immediacy reminiscent of Fleet Foxes in tunes like “The Mockingbird Song” and “Blue Melody.” There’s more than a little bit of old-school country kicking around in the mix as well: “Roadside Bar” evokes saloons and Crosby, Stills & Young soft country, while lead single “Juniper Blues” leans heavily on an organ and a break-up narrative for a traditional country tune. The muted trumpet there is an nice, unexpected touch that points to Jamison’s desires to work within constraints but also push the edges a bit.

“What About Tomorrow” is the most immediately impressive song on the record, combining Spaghetti western dramatic guitars, horns evocative of the desert, a breezy vocal melody, and a complex arrangement. The result is a fascinating blend of easy-going vibes, serious undertones, and instrumental chops. It’s like Jackson Browne got lost in the desert, started seeing things, and seriously reconsidered some aspects of his life.

Jamison’s warm, soft voice floats above all the arrangements, from the icy “Pedernal” to the gospel-tinged warmth of the organ-heavy “Old 81.” The variety of sounds that Jamison corrals on the record don’t ever make his voice sound out of place: instead, Jamison seems to collect the wild edges of the tunes with his gentle delivery. Whether it’s the funky “Always” or the trad-country “Waves of the Wind,” the songs hold together with a warm core. So it may have the same name as a horror author, but Jamison’s vocal warmth and skillful instrumentation make Lovecraft a lovely experience. After hearing the beautiful strings of “Waves of the Wind,” you’d be forgiven for thinking maybe it should have been Craftlove.

Video Premiere: The Collection’s “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight”

March 30, 2015

Two years ago I ran a Kickstarter so I could pay the fees associated with compiling an album of my favorite bands playing The Postal Service’s music. (You can’t get Never Give Up from the usual sources, but I’m informed it is still out there on the torrents.) The Collection’s version of “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” kicked off the album in grand, enthusiastic fashion–I was honored to have such a complex, beautiful rendition open the project.

I get to be honored twice by the same song, because today the Collection have graciously allowed IC to premiere their video for “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight.” The 6-minute video includes seven of the Collection’s members creating a huge, textured sound. Overall, I am always impressed by their expert clarinet arrangements, played by Hope Baker; working a single woodwind into the mix of a rock band in a way that is both audible and meaningful is more difficult than you might imagine. (That’s spoken from experience.) David Wimbish’s powerful vocals also live up to their great potential here.

The best section of the video is the long instrumental bridge, where Hayden Cooke’s bass work really takes off. The forward motion of the energetic bass line gives a section that might get mired down in long instrumental crescendos a levity that takes the song from good to great. The bass and drums lock in perfectly, which grounds the work and allows the rest of the instruments to build. It’s an excellent arrangement of a wonderful song.

The Collection is headed out on tour later this April, hitting some of the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, and South. If they’re going to be in your area, you should really check them out: their live show is amazing.

the Collection Spring Tour Poster

EP: Manett

March 24, 2015

stigmastyle

There’s something enigmatic and beguiling about Manett‘s Stigma Style EP.

The three songs all lope along, filled with the sorts of sonic markers that indicate dream pop: off-kilter keyboard rhythms in “The Birds (for Paulo)”; the flowing fingerpicking of “Treehouse”; gauzy, reverb-heavy guitar and underwater percussion in “A New View.”

Competing with these elements are aspects that seem out of place: glitchy beats; EDM-esque synth blares in “The Birds”; and elegant, formal pop songwriting chops in “Treehouse.” The mixture of these elements creates about an extremely varied 10 minutes and 45 seconds. It is a bit of a head-whip from tune to tune, but it’s all pulled off with a confident, assured hand–none of these songs feel like interlopers.

The thing that unites them and drew me in to this collection is the delicate voice of Rosa Bordallo (who is Manett). The Micronesia-to-NYC transplant has a sweet, calming voice that flutters somewhere between alto and soprano. Given the range of tunes here, she does a great job of deploying her voice to fit the situation. Bordallo dispatches languid “ooos” in the chilled-out “A New View,” whisper-sings carefully in the relaxed first half of “The Birds (for Paulo),” and delivers a high lead vocal melody over an acoustic guitar in the tightly structured “Treehouse.” Throughout each of the performances, the little fluctuations of tone in her voice are intriguing.

Manett’s Stigma Style introduces a singer/songwriter with a lot of ideas and a lot of talent with which to realize them. The 10 minutes of this EP are warm, calming, and intriguing, leaving me wanting more.

Videos: Goofy and great

March 20, 2015

The aesthetics of Avid Dancer’s “All Your Words Are Gone” are cheery, nostalgic, and lovingly kitschy. There’s no disdain for the quirkiness of suburban objects, weird craft projects, and silly experiences: they’re all celebrated in this gentle, charming indie-pop tune.

Jacco Gardner’s clip for “Find Yourself” perfectly recreates the visual style, psychedelic guitar effects, and surreal storyline of ’60s and ’70s spy films. It feels like a lost James Bond opening sequence. (I mean that in the most complimentary of ways.)

While we’re on a nostalgia trip, let’s pair some Strokes-ian early ’00s indie rock with a goofy buddy cop narrative. Big Lonely’s “You Want It All” is a blast in several different ways.

Everything that Brook Pridemore does is endearingly off-kilter, and so it goes with his clip for “Brother Comfort.” It features a gorilla suit unabashedly. The song has some great horns amid his uptempo, enthusiastic folk-punk.

Quick Hit: The Painted Horses

March 17, 2015

ponderosapines

I’ve listened to The Painted Horses‘ full-length debut Ponderosa Pines maybe half a dozen times through, and the element that always strikes me is how thoroughly it inhabits my expectations of alt-country. The band plays earnest, acoustic-led, wide-open tunes with Laurel Canyon sweetness, down-home vibes, and a relaxed ethos.

There aren’t any genre mash-ups, curveballs, or left hooks in the ten-song collection. Instead, the band delivers a set of earnest tunes that are solid through and through. From gentle single “Much Too Long” to the pure harmonies of “Desert Skies” to the rolling fingerpicking of “In the Garden” to the saloon piano of “September Rain” and the high lonesome-esque “Black Water,” there are no weak points in the album.

Piano graces the scene here and there; violins waver in and out; the bass bounces up and down like you expect it to. Pedal steel and organ make a cameo in “Georgia.” The whole thing is capped off by tenor vocals that seem to be the human embodiment of the sound they float above (or vice versa, I suppose). If you’re looking for a gentler Dawes, a more upbeat Mojave 3, or something beautiful, I can heartily recommend The Painted Horses’ Ponderosa Pines to you on March 27.

Kickstarter: Young Readers

March 16, 2015

It’s a great thing to show back up at work on Monday and have an e-mail from someone you haven’t heard from in a while. Jordan Herrera of whisper-folk outfit Young Readers sent over that he’s doing a Kickstarter to fund the finishing of his new record Migrator. Check the video below:

I’m super stoked to hear more Young Readers tunes in the world: I love his previous work, and I’m thrilled about the clips in the video. If you’re down for that sound, contribute what you can.

February Singles: Garage Rock and Such

March 12, 2015

Garage Rock and Such

1. “Away” – Heart Beach. Heart Beach is out-Pixie-ing the Pixies with this churning slice of plodding bass, washed-out guitar and yearning vocals. A+.

2. “Cavity” – Kuzin. Sometimes the vocal hook that seals it is in the verse, and so it goes with the yearning killer line of this track. You’ll be humming this one for a while.

3. “Gone Past” – Lore City. A lot of people want to invoke shoegaze, but few bands really inhabit the idea of the sound overwhelming a person in their entirety the way that Lore City does here. Slow movement, pounding drums, howling vocals, synth sheen over everything: this is how you create a wall of sound in 2015.

4. “He’s Not Real and He Ain’t Coming Back” – Twin River. The synth-laden, reverb-heavy soundscapes on this track recall the slow motion of the band’s titular geographical features. Let it wash over you.

5. “Wasting Time” – The Phantoms. The alt-rock drama of Anberlin meets Blur influences in vocal delivery for this high-contrast track.

6. “Dotted Line” – Bombay Harambee. Guitar rock with demonstrative, impassioned front men will always have a home. This particular brand makes me think of a slowed-down Arctic Monkeys.

7. “Fourth Quarter Funeral” – Velcro Mary. The thick, bassy guitars in this power-pop song fill up the track, but they never make the song feel leaden. Instead, the track moves sprightly along on a Foo Fighters backline and a snarly vocal line that never explodes.

8. “Universe” – Faith Healer. Some perky garage-rock with a mumbly female lead vocal creates a very cool vibe.

9. “Actual Alien” – American Culture. Scuzzy guitars; gated ’80s drums; distorted, nasally vocals. Sounds like a great entry into American garage rock culture to me.

10. “Time For Us to Move” – Full Trunk. We really should thank the Black Keys for re-popularizing blues rock. There are few ways to vibe harder than on a good blues-rock riff, like the one here.

February Singles: Pop, Light and Dark

March 11, 2015

Pop, Light and Dark

1. “Just What I Needed” – Wonderful Humans. Whatever the opposite of “reign of terror” is, WH is on that path. Their seemingly endless stream of high-energy, ’80s-inspired dance-pop singles continues with this tropical track.

2. “Summertime” – Ships Have Sailed. ShS are also on a hot streak: this latest tune is some combination of the Cars and All-American Rejects.

3. “Eternal Sunshine” – Memoryy. Yep, you can hook me with any invocation of steel drums. (They’re just so happy!) The rest of the track besides the chorus splits the difference between nu-disco and glitchy clicking–always fun.

4. “Too Damn Good” – JOA. The inimitable Jesse Owen Astin is back to making guitar-rock/electro-pop mini epics, and this one is a builder that grows to a huge apex and then fades away.

5. “She Speaks the Wave” – The Nursery. This song would have fit right in on radio when Interpol, The Killers, and The Bravery were all towering. Some real sleek, solid dance-rock here.

6. “Drive” – Ships Have Sailed. You know when Jimmy Eat World goes for a ballad but still gotta have the angsty energy? Ships Have Sailed power through this track with that same feel.

7. “Tears” – Prints. Dark, clubby electronic pop songs.are a dime a dozen, but Prints float above the pack by balancing your emotional needs with your club needs.

8. “Earth Not Above” – HÆLOS. Cinematic, evocative trip-hop mixed with some modern beats? Sign me up.

9. “Underlined Passages From Your Books” – Underlined Passages. Here’s some lush, walking-speed romance from members formerly of indie-rockers The Seldon Plan. Combining early ’00s indie-pop melodies with early ’00s emo guitar tone is a sweet spot these days.

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

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