I love sonic blankets: songs and records that encourage you to grab a quilt, find a comfy spot, and rest a while. We Are the West‘s Regards is a sonic blanket of the finest order: their relaxing folk tunes create soundscapes similar to those of The Low Anthem at their prettiest. The three songs of this all-too-short release don’t waste time, as opener “Hold On” gives the listener gentle fingerpicking, stand-up bass, a wistful accordion, and sounds of the rain outside the performer’s doors. By the time that distant back-up vocals come in, the idyllic scene has already been fully realized. Everything else is icing.
The rain continues gently in the background of the two following tracks, creating a pleasant through-line that ties the work together. “The Thin Red Line” adds the sounds of frogs croaking in the distance and changes the focus a bit: Brett Hool’s velvety tenor is the central character, with guitar and stand-up bass providing the grounding. More BGVs and a fiddle come in toward the end, but nothing takes the spotlight from Hool. The lead in the closer and title track could be Hool’s voice or guitar, but in my mind it’s the pump organ: there are few instruments more heartbreaking when employed to their best effect, and the pump organ is treated expertly here. The fragile certainty of the pump organ echoes the tensions in Hool’s voice, as he offers up his most dramatic performance. It’s still not what one might consider theatrical, but he emotes.
Regards is just a bit under 15 minutes, but I could stand for much more. The careful construction of sounds here results in songs that hit all the right emotional chords in me. If you’ve got a summer storm headed your way, get Regards, a blanket, and a big window ready. (This is especially grand if you’re in some sort of countryside, but urban spaces work too.) Now that I mention it, I can’t think of much more I want to do right now. Here’s to We Are the West–check them out.
Billy Shaddox‘s I Melt, I Howl contains sounds as fresh-faced as a Generationals pop song, as gently quirky as a Backyard Tire Fire jam, and as easily evocative as an Iron & Wine tune. To put it another way: Shaddox’s work lives in space created by drawing a triangle with points at good-natured AM radio rock, unpretentious folk, and earnest indie pop. His songwriting prowess shows through not in complexity, but in making simplicity sound just the way I want it to sound.
It all starts with Shaddox’s effortless tenor voice, which is often so at home it seems like he opens his mouth and notes just tumble out. They land in a comfy bed of leaves: from road-friendly, ’70s folk-rock vibes of the title track opener to the gently grooving rock of “Golden Coast” to the resplendent melodic acoustic guitar work of “Who You Were,” the arrangements here can’t be ignored. “Who You Were” in particular points out the fusion between his comforting voice and unassuming arrangements, as he takes an old chord progression and presses it into service of a nostalgic, yearning tune. With his voice, gentle keys, and some color electric guitar chiming off in the distance, old pieces feel fresh and bright again.
It’s that sense of brightness that most marks I Melt, I Howl. Even on the more downtempo songs, Shaddox makes sure that there’s light coming in around the edges. It gets its street cred not from being edgy or heavily imperiled in turmoil, but by employing traditional pop songcraft in an impressive way. This has elements of tons of American songwriting genres, as I’ve mentioned already–but it’s not a grab bag. The overall mood ties these songs together into an elegant collection. If you’re looking for the soundtrack to a charming summer trip, or a tender summer romance, you need to look into Billy Shaddox’s I Melt, I Howl (stream). It will stick with you.
Independent Clauses is a wide-ranging blog, but my home base is gentle, tender, fingerpicked folk. That’s why I’m so jumping-up-and-down excited about Austin Basham, an artist that synthesizes the best elements of David Ramirez and The Tallest Man on Earth (two acts I already love).
Basham’s five-song Linton // Oslo EP shows off a nimble, fragile fingerpicking skill similar to Kristian Matsson’s and an intimate baritone similar to Ramirez’s (“Running“). The production that captures these central elements is immediate–it sounds as if Basham is sitting next to me playing. These three elements together make this EP worth buying, but there’s a wealth of reasons beyond the initial listen.
Basham’s not just a brilliant fingerpicker–eloquent without being gaudy, endearing without being overly simplistic–he’s a solid arranger. These songs feature banjo, horns, strings, whistling and background vocals that float and flutter through the background, providing lift to Basham’s already light songs (“https://soundcloud.com/austin-basham/on-the-hunt”>On the Hunt,” “Running“). He even incorporates flutes into “Find a Way” without stereotyping them. He can’t avoid a good whoa-oh every now and then, but even these biggest of moments seem to fold seamlessly into the vibe. It’s not like a massive riff coming in to take over the song (as in a rock anthem); instead it flows directly out of the things around it. (As it well should be, I think.)
Basham’s vocal performances are another selling point; his voice has a rich quality to it, but he doesn’t just lean on the sound of his voice. He knows how to use it to best emotional effect. He jumps up to a slightly higher range to make a big point; he accents particular lyrics with clipped or drawn-out delivery. The lyrics here are kindhearted love songs, wishing well to a lover (“Lord knows I want you to be whole again,” from “On the Hunt“) and offering affection (“I put my heart in my love, my love for you,” from “Running“). The arrangements and clear-eyed recording style keep the songs from being saccharine, and instead come off as earnest.
I’m frankly blown away by Austin Basham’s Linton // Oslo EP. It’s beautifully written, thoughtfully composed, and excellently recorded. It’s the sort of release that I sort through the hundreds of releases I get yearly to find. If you like acoustic music of any variety (those of the Alexei Murdoch persuasion will be particularly thrilled), Austin Basham should be blasting onto your radar soon–if he hasn’t already. An absolutely gorgeous, knock-out release.
I’ve been reading Amanda Petrusich’s excellent book Do Not Sell At Any Price, about collectors of vintage ’78s. It’s a vastly entertaining piece of non-fiction about people who are obsessed with searching for, saving, collecting, and listening to blues, country blues, country, and world records from the early 1900s. It has me thinking about old school sounds, which is perfect for a review of The New Switcheroo‘s Heartless Sky EP. The Chicago four-piece starts with an old-timey, vocal-heavy folk style–a style which isn’t purveyed nearly as often in the 21st century as it was in the early- to mid-twentieth. From there they layer on unhinged country (“I Remember Clifford”), honky-tonk (“NMR”), and some more modern folk (“Lightning”) accompaniments.
It’s hard to stress enough how much this is a vocals-centric work. The three female vocalists take center stage, putting the spotlight firmly on the theatrical (even operatic) vocal melodies and performances. This may throw some people off-kilter. But for those who are into the style, there’s a lot of strong work here: “Lightning” culminates in a variety of vocal lines weaving and intertwining; it’s an impressive accomplishment. “I Remember Clifford” pulls the same feat, but with some impressive belting (“Pixelated, NM” also features some remarkable vocal roars). These vocalists can really holler when they want to. If you’re into old-school Americana sounds or vocal-heavy outfits, The New Switcheroo may be for you.
The members of Red Wood Rising have packed a lot of musical references into their 13-song sophomore collection These Fires. While starting from a folk-rock base, they incorporate elements of timeless anthemic rock (opener “Idle Hands“), ’00s emo (the vocals), hot country (“Down the Old Road”), old-timey bluegrass (“Can’t Figure You Out”), and even smooth jazz (“Deep Within the Ground”). Horns appear throughout, most emphatically on the powerhouse tune “Mark of Cain” and the dramatic “Let Me Carry You.” In their kitchen-sink mentality, they echo bands like Accents that don’t let their way with an acoustic guitar get in the way of including any genre that comes to mind.
These Fires is a long album, and so splitting it in half is a meaningful exercise. The first half is brash, loud, and frenetic; the back half is quiet and chill–but still heavy on drama (“Burning Branches” brings back the anguish of Cain from the first half of the record). It’s tunes like the intimate fingerpicking “On Hold” that will hold the most interest for those of the acoustic persuasion; Isaac Herbert’s soaring, rock-oriented voice is tempered and calmed. If you’re into enthusiastic collections of tunes that don’t shy away from a soaring melody, a huge hook, a new idea (or seven), and interesting juxtapositions, go for Red Wood Rising’s These Fires.
I’m all about alt-country, which is a deceptively hard genre to get right. You can’t lean too country, or too indie, or too singer/songwriter. Red Sammy walks the line between all of these with a tune that’s equal parts Tom Waits, Counting Crows, and Jayhawks.
Adam Trice’s rough vocals aren’t the only place that Waits comparisons fit: “Sometimes You Forget What’s Real” is a long, walking-speed tune that relies heavily on a world-weary mood to compel listeners’ ears. There’s a genial, earnest feel to the guitar that calls up August and Everything After-era Counting Crows, while the weeping electric guitar gives the tune a big ‘ol “alt-country” stamp not too far from the Jayhawks’ work. Extra bonus: Mountain Goats-quality yawps at the end of the vocals’ contributions. The whole tune comes together so beautifully that it’s hard to believe that it’s over 6 minutes long. If you’re into old-school, loose folk/country jams or any of the previous acts, this tune will perk your ears up.
“Sometimes You Forget What’s Real” is the lead single on an upcoming album, set to drop Fall 2015.
I’m a big believer in seasonal music, and it doesn’t get more summery than Coma Girls’ “Runaround.” The tune has the teen energy and vocal harmonies of ’60s surf-pop, the noisy enthusiasm of pop-punk, and the organ-heavy arrangements of a surf-punk tune. There’s nothing I’ve heard so far this year that makes me want to head to the beach more than this.
The tune starts off with a rad bass line that segues into a twirly, arpeggiated organ line, sandwiching a clanging distorted guitar somewhere in there. The vocals, a mix of Beach Boys melodies and modern hollering, come in and add even more infectious quality to this. The lyrics are about a girl who runs around with every boy in town but the narrator–a tried and true problem of surf-pop tunes (and, let’s face it, all pop tunes). Whoa-ohs are had. Back-up vocals add their value. It does pretty much everything you could ask of a summery pop song with vintage vibes. That’s why I’m stoked that I get to premiere the track. Jump on this one for all your summer mixtapes, mix CDs, and playlists.
I don’t think anything else would sound equally fitting as a horror flick soundtrack than Nightmare Fortress’s debut album The Wanting. I mean this with the utmost awe for the Seattle quartet’s ability to package such huge soundscape range into a dark pop/electronic record.
Alicia Amiri is like Florence Welch’s gothic sister. Full of alto depth that pairs well with her foreboding lyrics, Amiri’s voice embodies the album’s enticing gloom. “You can’t control what history knows/Disgrace, cover your face/Trying to hide what daylight knows,” she sings on opener “No Exit,” which makes clear that unapologetic exposure is a theme of this album.
The Wanting has strong gothic style with splatters of synth-pop and dance-ready beats, exemplified on “The Perfect Feeling” and “Crawl to Me.” “The Perfect Feeling” gets you amped-up on red lip-stained sassiness and don’t-mess-with-me attitude of which Amiri is a poster child. With the use of heavy organ, think modern-day Phantom of the Opera visits a warehouse party and fits right in. “Crawl to Me,” a dance-rock track, proclaims like an anthem with Amiri’s bold lyrics. Her opening line, “There’s a place where it always rains and when you’re ready to die/Just stand outside, mouth open,” is no doubt deserving of your attention.
The more dungeon-like tracks on the album include “Mourning Star,” which focuses on a man’s decline, and “After Death.” “After Death” builds suspense with a strong repetitive rhythm like the sound of someone stomping down an empty hallway, dramatized condensation dripping from a low ceiling, and then an eerie, escalating choir echo in the background.
Don’t think The Wanting is only meant for those attracted to the darker side, though. The atmospheric mood of “Terminal” and trance qualities of “Crusher” weigh on the opposite end of the spectrum. “Crusher” includes an array of sonic texturing, such as dial-tone synth and bouts of air being pressed and ushered over bass like overworked machinery in an engine room.
“A Life Worth Leaving” is a standout on The Wanting. With a blend of atmospheric guitar, bouncy rhythm, and 80s-esque vocals, it’s a testament to anyone who has ever known they deserved better in any relationship. “Scratching at my door, like a dog, always begging me for more,” Amiri sings, having no problem admitting, “Either way, you’re going to miss me when I’m gone.” Amiri is matter-of-fact, and it’s this cool admittance throughout the record that makes The Wanting so captivating.
Nightmare Fortress’s debut album leaves you strangely refreshed in its bluntness. Between Alicia Amiri’s scarlet-colored vocals and the band’s unique take on darkwave, get ready for something ghostly thrilling. —Rachel Haney
1. “Keep It Coming” – Topher Mohr. It’s hard to write a timeless pop song, but Mohr has put together a wonder of a tune that feels like it could have come out of the ’70s AM Radio scene or the mid-’00s MGMT-esque pop stuff. It’s just a great track all around.
2. “Ice Fishing” – The Cairo Gang. The sort of guitar-rock tune that splits the difference between classic rock, Beatles pop, and San Fran garage rock with ease. Between God? and Burger (and its many offshoots) Records, it feels like we’re in a genuine moment for hooky garage rock.
3. “Sugar Coated” – Jessie Jones. It sounds like everyone, from the bassist to the drummer to the vocalist, is having fun on this hooky garage-rock track.
4. “Timepiece” – Ripple Green. Classic rock guitar and vocals meet a radio-ready modern pop chorus, putting a foot in each world.
5. “Dusty Springfield” – The Fontaines. A little bit of indie-rock, a little bit of ’50s girl-pop, a whole lot of catchy.
6. “Long Way Down” – Vienna Ditto. Minor-key surf-punk? Why not? Vienna Ditto own it, complete with whirring organ, honking saxes, and frantic tom rolls.
7. “Big Bright World” – Jeremy Pinnell. This is about as authentic as country gets: western swing rhythms, weeping pedal still, deep-voiced sadness, and a narrator with a former(?) drug problem. Still, the sun shines through, just like the title suggests.
8. “The Night Before” – No Dry County. You don’t have to sound like Bob Wills to catch my ear with a country tune; this modern country tune has a great melody, a solid arrangement, and an evocative vocal performance. It’s like a country Jimmy Eat World, maybe.
9. “Soaring” -WindfallFound. Post-rock of the beauty-inclined variety, complete with distant, processed vocals, Appleseed Cast-style.
10. “She Knows It” – Shannen Nicole. Goes from “ooh” to “whoa” in no time flat: starts off as a dusky torch song, then amps up to a thunderous torcher by the end. A formidable performance.
11. “The Gold Standard” – Marrow. The Hold Steady’s wry, jubilant mantra “Gonna walk around and drink some more” drops the jubilant part here: this low-slung, slow-build indie-rock tune has a woozy calm that belies the sort of difficult, composed walking that comes of one too many drinks.
1. “All I Can Give” – Haring. Chillwave forever: bright synth washes, gentle beats, and burbling melodies. Chillwave forever,
2. “Petrol Station” – Sorcha Richardson. Right when I think that I can’t take one more downtempo electro-pop tune, Sorcha Richardson renews my faith in the genre. This is slinky, groove-laden, and funky in all the best senses of those terms. Her vocals are just so smooth.
3. “Outro (Entry Code, Dial Tone)” – Heart/Dancer. Warm, refreshing, and intimate electro pop; the male/female vocals remind of Chairlift or Mates of State.
4. “Everything” – Wall of Trophies. Brittany Jean and Will Copps return as Wall of Trophies, showing off their particular skills: whirlwinds of artsy electronic/acoustic sound marshaled by Jean’s acrobatic vocals and passionate delivery. The sonic conclusion at the end of the tune will raise your eyebrows.
5. “Surrender” – Briana Marela. Somewhere between the intimate voice morphing of Imogen Heap and the cinematic vocal loops of Julianna Barwick lies Briana Marela. “Surrender” is a burbling electro/acoustic track that relies on complex beats, layers of sounds, and delicate/feathery melodies.
6. “Ready 2 Wear” – Loveskills. What would dance music sound like if there were no drum machines or synths? That’s the question Loveskills admirably tackles here, creating a bouncy, infectious track out of piano, finger snaps, strings, and intriguing vocals. This is a great pop song.
7. “Wavering Down” – Kasey Keller Big Band. Starts off as an abstract, outsider electronic piece, ends in a bit of a hooky electro jam–all in under 90 seconds.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.