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.
1. “Goldface” – Tussilago. This indie-pop tune just feels effortless: Tussilago slides along with a bass groove, a low-key dance vibe, and a great melody. It’s the sort of song that you forget when you heard it the first time: it seems timeless, like it’s always been there.
2. “Break the Chain” – Ultimate Painting. Classic popcraft here, hearkening back to songsmiths like McCartney, Lennon, and Nilsson.
3. “No More Hits” – The ZZips. Do you miss slacker acoustic/funk/groove Beck? Hit up the ZZips, who clearly do as well: the clattering beats and gentle acoustic guitar come together via the funky bass and chiming electric guitar.
4. “Firefly” – Jeremy Bass. The press for this says bossa nova, but all I hear is smooth, gentle acoustic pop with a genuine, earnest vocal performance. It sounds like the sun was shining when he wrote this one.
5. “A Weaker One” – The Henrys. Sometimes I just like a song, and don’t want to kill it with definition. Chill out to this calm, excellent acoustic tune.
6. “Mountain” – Crooked House Road. I know Mumford & Sons kinda killed the market on indie-rock/folk fusions, but I’m surprised that more people haven’t taken Nickel Creek’s bluegrass/indie-rock fusion route. Crooked House Road goes that direction, adding in some klezmer flair and dramatic female lead vocals as well.
7. “Austin” – Tyler Boone. There’s some sweet pedal steel action on this modern country tune, featuring (who else?) a down-and-out narrator.
8. “Eastern Time” – Runner of the Woods. Here’s a tune that appeals to all the old-school country vibes that it can: weeping pedal steel, plain vocals, and bouncy piano (with some John Denver twinkles thrown in). It comes together into a swaying, smile-inducing whole.
9. “Our Garden” by Fox Street. If Ray LaMontagne got a little more Needtobreathe Southern rock in his blood, he could have written this tune. Passionate, raspy vocals meet wailing organ in a mid-tempo ballad.
10. “Too Little Too Late” – Mi’das. I’ve been getting a ton of soulful songs thrown my way recently. Mi’das stands above the pack by delivering not just his vocals but his expressive guitar playing.
11. “Money in the Evenings” – Hermit’s Victory. This white-boy slow jam has a Iron & Wine rustic feel (just the vibe, not the arrangement), while maintaining its own flavor through the accents and Tyler Bertges’ unusual, carefree vocals.
12. “Tz, Ka” – Inner Tongue. More soulful slow jams, but with some major synth contributions that give this also a bit of a dance vibe. It’s, at least, super re-mix ready. The head-bobbing vibe is hard to beat on this one.
13. “Sadie” – Gold Star. Slurry, emotional, and passionate, this vocals-led tune dances around the genres of country, slow-core, and singer/songwriter. Whatever you call it, it grabbed my attention immediately.
1. “Never Learn” – Young Romance. No matter what arrangement you set around a great pop melody, the song will succeed: Young Romance support a can’t-get-it-out-of-my-head vocal line with Sleigh Bells-esque guitars mixed with a pop-rock band’s sense of movement and punk’s sense of closure (it’s barely over two minutes). It’s a winner.
2. “The Right Way” – Cassorla. A mash-up of minimalist electro-pop and bright-eyed, enthusiastic guitar-pop results in an unavoidable, must-listen tune that bears more than a passing significance to the Steve Miller Band (I know, weird, but this is a totally a compliment).
3. “Drawing Space” – Grounders. Unassuming, flowing-yet-punchy guitar pop with a sufficient amount of reverb to call up late ’60s or late ’00s–take your pick.
4. “Feel Alright” – Lime Cordiale. At some point in the process, someone said, “You know what this needs? Some fat horns.” And so it was, and thus an excellent pop song was born.
5. “By the Highway” – The Gorgeous Chans. Can we get this band on tour with Lord Huron, stat? Their tropical/folk/indie mash-up is a perfect blend of aspiration and relaxation. They have an excellent horn line going on, as well. A band to watch.
6. “High and Low” – Bird Dog. Enthusiastic ’50s-inspired pop-rock with old-school back-up vocalists: is there anything more summery?
7. “I’m Not the One” – The Susan Constant. The cheery, poppy element of ’90s college rock is alive and well in this tune that’s lyrically reminiscent of Death Cab’s “Someday You Will Be Loved”: big drums, big hooks, big fun.
8. “Car Alarms” – Coma Girls. Here’s a skewed/re-appropriated ’50s-style ballad with Conor Oberstian vocal theatrics; somehow, the fusion seems meant to be.
9. “Lonely and Blue” – Black Vincent. If genres were placed on a map, Black Vincent would be hanging out on the interstate highway between country and ’50s rock while trying to find the exit to go visit The Walkmen. Dejected clanging of guitars and drums meet yowling vocals to turn out an impassioned performance.
10. “Black Snake” – The Down Home Band. Radio-ready Southern Rock with distinct classic rock vibes. Also, mad props to the mixer, who cranked that bass in the mix. This thing rocks in a long hair, flannel, old-school way.
Just like my bottle of Prairie Bomb! (Beer 1), Independent Clauses began its life in Oklahoma. After eight years in OK, the travels began: a summer in Austin drinking Shiner (Prickly Pear: Beer 2), two years in Alabama drinking Bell’s (Oberon: Beer 3), and now two years in Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill, North Carolina drinking all sorts of local beer (Triangle White Ale: Beer 4).
It’s allowed me to do crazy things I never expected, like manage a folk band currently residing in the UK (Old Speckled Hen: Beer 11), and helped me meet a wonderful woman who became my wife. I drank Trappistes Rochefort (Beer 12) at my bachelor party this past November, reminiscing on my personal and professional past. It’s been 12 years of Independent Clauses as of May 15, and I can’t imagine my past, present, or future without it.
Thanks to all bands, readers, writers, record labels, PR people, and music business types for being a part of Independent Clauses’ past 12 years! We wouldn’t be here without you. (Special thanks to Bottle Revolution and Ridgewood Wine and Beer for making this post possible.)
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.