Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

The Roving Ear

November 3, 2018

You can listen to many of the pieces and artists that I mention in this essay at a Spotify list of the same nameThis essay comes as a product of a two-month sabbatical.

I love new music and writing. As a result, Independent Clauses has almost always been a blog that professionally covers the new music which I am listening to recreationally. When the music I’m listening to diverges from what I’m writing about at Independent Clauses, I shift the blog’s focus to draw my recreational listening and my writing back into line. This process is always happening at a micro level. When you’ve been running a blog for fifteen years, though, your micro changes can add up to quite a bit of change. This original scope of this blog included hardcore and emo bands prominently; our current iteration is focused mostly on indie-pop, folk, and neo-classical work. I have slowly, continually shaved off the louder edges of the reviewable range, while simultaneously pushing the quieter boundary of the reviewable range outwards.

Amid the ever-present micro changes, there has been one major topical change. The only hard departure in IC’s existence corresponds to the only major chronological disjuncture in the largely continuous flow of content over the past fifteen years. In 2008, I caught a massive case of burnout while trying to build out a physical zine for Independent Clauses. I took six months off from posting at IC and returned with a very different focus; I featured post-hardcore wizards The Felix Culpa as the cover band for the Spring 2008 second edition of the Independent Clauses zine, while the work I posted about in January 2009 included indie-pop, singer/songwriter, alt-country, and even jazz musicians. It was a big change.

I feel another large change coming on. I say “feel” because it snuck up on me. I was just living my life, and suddenly I had been listening to things way outside the normal bounds of Independent Clauses for months. Simultaneously, I was listening to folk-pop and indie-pop less. Because I had internalized that this blog was a folk and indie-pop blog, I slowly began to write less at Independent Clauses in proportion to the decreased amount of indie-pop/folk pop I was listening to. Longtime readers will note that there have not been nearly as many album reviews at Independent Clauses in 2018 as there have been in previous years; careful album reviews have been our calling card for many years. Longtime readers may have noticed this before I did, even. It snuck up on me.

This is not folk or indie-pop’s fault; I still love those genres and listen to them often. One of the first articles I’ll be writing after this one is a review of Jenny and Tyler’s new album; if there’s been a through-line in the last decade for IC, it’s J&T. Their new album is great, and it transcends my interest in genres. No, it’s not folk-pop’s fault. As the saying goes: It’s not you, it’s me. After nine years of focus on folk-pop and indie-pop, I’ve largely said what I want to say about those two genres. I can write fairly fine-grained descriptions of songs and albums with great rapidity, having hundreds of albums and thousands of songs’ worth of experience at the tasks. But this mastery is a double-edged sword: I’m not particularly intellectually stimulated by folk-pop, indie-pop and their relatives anymore. I have been intellectually stimulated by a wide range of new-to-me genres and sounds over the past year, though. So while I won’t be dropping folk, folk-pop, and indie-pop cold turkey, I am and will be focusing my musical attention on genres outside the IC norm that have been catching my ear and intellectual attention. With that concrete and specific shift in my recreational listening, a change in the topical content of Independent Clauses is a necessary response.

So what I have been listening to that I’m so captivated by? I’ve become taken with a fairly wide variety of longform instrumental music. The range is wide: mid-century minimalism, ambient, progressive house, instrumental trance, chillwave, instrumental acoustic work, acoustic post-rock, indie video game soundtracks, podcast soundtracks, and a post-metal track here and there. (I’ve also been really into Tshegue, but their African dance/garage rock/rap is an outlier in my current musical habits.) Some of my favorites this year have been Lucho Ripley’s discographyThe Album Leaf’s whole discography (minus the newest album, ironically), Split Stones by Lymbyc System (2015), Diminuito by Rolf Lislevand Ensemble (2018; h/t my good friend and collaborator Chris Krycho for this one), Oliver Davis’ discography (ditto), Jack de Quidt’s Marielda (2016; h/t my geek-out partner Jeff Hinton), and Spotify playlists of instrumental trance music. I work really well to playlists of instrumental trance music, incidentally.

I didn’t wake up at the beginning of my recent two-month sabbatical or even January 1 of this year with a sudden musical change of heart. This change began at least four years ago when I discovered the fascinating Become Ocean by John Luther Adams. The discovery of mid-century modernist classic “Canto Ostinato” by Simeon ten Holt three years ago really kicked off a burst of interest in this type of work. Both of these works fall in the classical/neo-classical genre; they are works the aforementioned Chris Krycho would prefer that I (and you) call “composed music.” There’s a great deal of contemporary composed music (both of recent history, such as that of Simeon ten Holt, and true-contemporary, the things being released in the last five years) that I am very interested in.

I’ve also recently admitted to myself a fascination with ambient work, which will be no surprise to close readers of this blog: I’ve been a fan of Teen Daze for many years and seem to get more excited about the work of Jamison (the musician behind Teen Daze) the quieter it gets. His latest venture as Jamison Isaak is fascinating, although Spring Patterns 1 may be too minimalist even for me. The joining of ambient and synthesized music has led me in the last year to the excellent modular synthesizer work of ann annie and r beny. These types of sounds have made cameos–increasingly large cameos, but bit parts nonetheless–in Independent Clauses’ coverage over the past few years. I’m ready to make them the focus of what I’m writing.

My changed music listening habits have contributed to this change in musical styles. I have a commute on the shorter side now, and thus have less mandatory solo music-listening time. I’ve also taken up listening to the Bible on my morning commute, further cutting into my new-music-listening time. Instead, I listen to a lot of new music while I work, and music without words is much easier to listen to while working. I used to listen to, think about, and draft reviews of new music while on long runs; now I lift weights, which requires me to think and focus on the activity instead of letting my mind wander. I still listen to music though; I listen to pg.lost quite a bit, and I created a workout list for myself. It’s one of the few times I’ve ever made a workout list in my life. (h/t Chris Krycho again for the pg.lost recommendation.) I will hold a torch for the iPod–I love you forever, you were truly The Perfect Thing–but I have been swayed to streaming services. I tried Apple Music and found their playlist creation tools hard to use. That forced me over to Spotify, with which I’ve made an uneasy truce. Having an astonishing supply of music at my fingertips allows me to explore and investigate quirky corners of sound and rabbit trails of artists, and that’s been a lot of fun. I found Lymbyc System that way; they are fantastic.

With a change in the type of music I’m into and a change in my musical listening habits comes a nigh-on mandatory shift in the way I work here in creating IC content. For the greater part of the last decade, I’ve spent 10-45 minutes a day reading Independent Clauses emails and listening to the new music contained in those emails. Because I have a depth of experience with folk, folk-pop, and indie-pop, I can determine my interest level for many songs in under 30 seconds. This allows me to power through dozens and dozens of emails at massive speed; I can discard stuff I know I won’t like, quickly evaluate stuff I might like, and file stuff I know I’m going to like very quickly.

My new interest in longform music foils this expectation in multiple ways. The first is that longform music might not accomplish much of anything in 30 seconds, regardless of whether it’s mindblowingly amazing or completely derivative: the Pulitzer Prize-winning Become Ocean was the first touchstone in this major musical shift, and the first 30 seconds of the piece produce almost no sound at all. The second reason is that I have no mental shortcuts built up for this music; the cues that I look for in a folk song to let me know what’s going to happen in a minute or three or five aren’t built up yet for these new musical genres. The third reason is that with a few exceptions, I’m not currently on the email lists of people who would send me music like this. (Smalltown Supersound, Fluttery Records, and Home Normal Records are the major exceptions here.) These three concepts working together are a significant part of the reason that I haven’t been posting much at IC in the last few months before my two-month sabbatical; in the last few months I haven’t really known what I’d post about, how I’d post about it, or exactly how I’d find it. I hadn’t and haven’t figured out how to square this new stuff I’m really into with the old way of working. I need a new way of working, but I don’t have it yet.

It’s not that I haven’t picked a new way of working, it’s that I don’t quite know what I mean yet by working differently. I know that the singles review form that I’ve come to enjoy so much as a constraint and a medium doesn’t seem like it’s going to work very well for this music. In exploring works that don’t conform to the traditional EP/album format, I’ve found that these works call for different types of writing than the album review format that I, again, have loved as a medium and constraint over the past 15 years.

One of the biggest changes is related to how I find things to listen to. I haven’t been checking Independent Clauses email for a month while I sorted some of this stuff out in my brain; I find that I miss the relationships I’ve built up with bands, record labels, and PR people over the years, but I don’t miss checking the email. I use the time for other things, like staying up on professional news or getting more work in or not checking emails in the evening. The complication is that the content of Independent Clauses has been tied to a never-ending font of new music via those emails for almost the entirety of its existence. In its stead, I’ve been roving through Spotify, listening to things that span the last 60 years in genres that I haven’t heard. So it’s new-to-me music, but it’s not chronologically new music. This change alone would be enough to tilt Independent Clauses on its axis; I’ve been a fairly staunchly consistent purveyor of music-that-has-been-released-in-this-current-calendar-year for the entirety of Independent Clauses’s existence.

The reputation, professional relationships, and readership of the blog (insofar as all those exist; I’ve never been a big fish in the music blogging world and, since 2009, I have had little desire to be one) are tied to the new music concept. If Independent Clauses continues to be a record of what I’m listening to, then this won’t be a strictly-new-music blog anymore. I would have to come up with a new way of writing that addresses that new exigence: if you’re not reading this post because it’s about something that’s brand new for you to be into, what are you reading it for? Not everyone is as addicted to chronologically new music as I was for many years; it may be that the same people who like chronologically new music like new-to-them music. The point of mentioning this is that I, by dint of long experience in the old way of working, really have no way of knowing if that statement is true or not. Maybe people like new-to-them music but not the new-to-them music IC would recommend, especially as I get up to speed in some genres by listening to stuff most people knowledgeable in the genres would already know about. (i.e. I now have opinions on Armin Van Buuren, you may have heard of him? all the trance fans groan) Who can say? Let’s find out.

By saying I need a new way of working, I mean it–this isn’t a little change. This is a change on par with the 2008-2009 change. We’re going somewhere new.

However, because I don’t quite know where it is we’re going and what it is we’re doing, we’re not going to start doing whatever that is 100% and dropping everything else cold turkey. I’m still going to write about Jenny and Tyler, no matter what form this blog takes–their music is intellectually stimulating to me, no matter what type of work I’m writing about consistently. So there’s going to be some folk and folk-pop and indie-pop in here over the next few months and maybe even years. But as I go along further into that great future, I expect those topics to appear less and less as I get more and more acquainted with the sounds I’m interested in now.

In some ways, it’s very exciting to be starting to focus on that which is for Independent Clauses uncharted territory. I’ve been getting really excited about Lymbyc Systym’s Split Stones and Jack de Quidt’s Marielda, so much so that I’ve been texting and chatting gushing recommendations to friends about them. This is a sure sign that I’ve caught on to something I like. It’s fun to be excited and naive about new sounds.

In other ways, it’s a bit disorienting; leaving behind mastery is leaving behind a source of personal pride, professional fulfillment, and social status. None of my quotes about the composed music that I am geeking out about these days are going to end up on PR emails anytime soon, and that’s a small joy that I will miss. I will know a ton about folk conceptually but will have increasingly little to say about individual acts that will be to me suddenly and unexpectedly popular. I’ll be out of that game, even if I have my head in another game. It’s a little like retiring from one sport and picking up another. (Is Usain Bolt a potentially good soccer player? I digress.)

As I’ve been kicking these thoughts around for the last few months before and during my sabbatical, I’ve wondered about the future of Independent Clauses. Since the great refocusing of 2008-2009, I’ve never really considered shutting down the blog. It has become a part of my life so deeply that it’s almost a part of me. Independent Clauses has been in my life longer than any friend I talk to on a regular basis, and all but two of my distant we-would-be-better-friends-if-we-lived-closer-to-each-other friends. It’s been around longer than my marriage, longer than any address I’ve ever lived at, longer than my current career path, longer than pretty much everything except my nuclear family relationships and my faith in Christianity. Even in the midst of this big upheaval, I still haven’t considered shutting it down. It’s a whole other essay’s worth of content to delineate what Independent Clauses brings to my life, but there are a lot of personal, practical, and professional benefits that I have seen from this blog. Even if those all change as this big re-direction occurs, I feel confident that those benefits will reappear in new ways.

I still don’t know exactly what format I’ll be posting in, or how often I’ll be posting, or exactly what I’ll be posting about. But I know this: I’m excited about it. I’m excited about the changes, more so than I was excited about reading through dozens of emails about folk-pop bands to find the one true gem. And that’s more than enough reason to go through with this big change: it’s going to be a lot of fun. I hope that you will come along for the ride. If this isn’t your cup of tea, maybe you have a friend who might be interested in it.

Technically speaking, I’ll still accept submissions at indieclauses@gmail.com. However, I expect to check the account with much less frequency–maybe once or twice a week, as opposed to every morning first thing in the morning and last thing before leaving work. I’ll be sourcing a lot more from my own adventures in music searching, but I won’t be abandoning my knowledge that the easiest way to find something really amazing and new is to maintain an open inbox and strong relationships with people in the know. I’ll probably be a pretty bad premiere partner for the near future, as I don’t quite know how to talk about the stuff I’m geeking out on yet. (But I’d be willing to experiment, if you’d be willing to live with the results!) I’d be thrilled to have people who are interested in this type of longform instrumental music write with me–that’s another way for me to learn. While everything else about IC up to and including my relationship to the former lifeblood of this blog (email) may change in this shift, my enthusiasm for working with other writers shows little sign of diminishing. Let me know if you’re interested.

Thank you to everyone who has supported Independent Clauses in the last 15 years; if this is the last time you read Independent Clauses, I thank you deeply for your attention and your interest. If this is the first time you’ve read Independent Clauses, welcome: we’re a 15-year-old blog about under-appreciated music that’s under new management despite the same manager.

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decker.’s Spiritual Awakening

September 11, 2018

A rude awakening always comes before the spiritual awakening, even for musical mystic decker. Brandon Decker has toured ceaselessly for nearly ten years since the release of his debut in 2009, with multiple albums dropped along the way. Born to Wake Up is a transcendent soundscape from a man who listeners only thought they knew. Reborn, a better man has emerged from the ashes. His sound has evolved along with his spirit.

Signed to the prestigious Royal Potato Family record label, Brandon Decker has brought his Sedona, Arizona, psychedelic folk to life.  Adding to the ambient surreal aura is cover art from Brandon Paul Shupe Art. The stunning artwork blends desert psychedelia and possibly some pea soup aesthetic into the blender of creativity. Quinn Murphy at Hamster Labs in Phoenix, Arizona helped make the artwork and layout come to life. This album, produced by Brandon Decker & Dylan Ludwig and recorded at Raven Sound Studio in Prescott, Arizona, has an added essence infused by final mastering from Dan Coutant (Caterpillars, Sherwood, among a host of others) at Sun Room Audio in Cornwall, New York.

The first sounds of “No Beginning No End”  opens the ten-song album with an expansive echo of brilliance. Some facts are clear: like a desert night, each sound is magnified, every nuance vibrating with meaning. With Brandon Decker on guitars, vocals, and percussion joined by Dylan Ludwig on guitars, synthesizers, and percussion, a skeleton of a symphony has been created. Amber Johnson (keyboards), Andrew Bates (electric bass), Zirque Bonner (upright bass), Charlie Foldesh (drums), Shawnee Snaketail (drums),  and Meliza Jackson (guitar) are the full orchestra of sound that helps create the rich lushness of this album.

Resting in the mystery is “The Strawman,” with an wide, cinematic feel; a hollow echo of lyrics create a haunting, soul-jarring connection to one of the most strikingly brilliant vocals ever felt by this troubadour.  

“Burnin Grass” is a tribute to Tom Petty that was also the lead single from Born to Wake Up. It is a solid homage to the great songwriter in vibe and lyricism, with a splash of desert folk style. Shifting gears, “The Garden” has an eclectic cool with a bass line that rolls. The intimacy of the sound’s contradiction with the lyrics is genius. In the past, Brandon Decker has written more from the dark side, a perspective that dead ends in many ways. Hope is heard on this album, with love and light breaking through introducing life anew.

The driving groove of “The Matador” is animalistic, thanks to the abundance of percussion, and the primal feel reflects the fact that this man is connected to the land.  Clearly, this an elevation of an already talented artist and that brilliance is heard lyrically. Bright vocally, this soars in triumph, an awareness that the truth is a freedom that cannot be given without sacrifice. The title track “Born to Wake Up” follows. With guitar work that feels like a loving hug, each lyric is a positive reinforcement to clear each speed bump in life, big or small, in order to become the best human being possible. Is this a new Decker, a little road weary and more introspective?

Sometimes the best new music connects a listener to memories of the past, great albums seared into the soul. “Smudge” has an aura of The Beatles with a vibe that brings to mind the psychedelic aesthetic of cuts from Revolver, Rubber Soul, and the White Album as do all of the closing songs.   Written with his son, “Mexico” is simply beautiful and in many ways reminiscent of “Beautiful Boy” by John Lennon; simple, heartfelt love of father and son. Life is celebrated with breathtaking honesty.  Adding to the magic is the voice of Katherine Byrnes; heart-stopping love seems to radiate from this cut unconsciously. Knowing that the songwriter and his son wrote this song is that much more powerful, knowing the bond the two share.

An evolution has occurred for Brandon Decker. Closing out the album with “The Saint” as a tribute to his grandmother, the man has certainly shifted his perspective.  Now his ascension to another plane as a songwriter has begun, more open and authentic spiritually than on any of his previous seven releases. A bookend to close the album, “No End, No Beginning” harkens in the dawn, a chapter in the musical life of a man devoted to his son, his art, and his spirit.–Lisa Whealy

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August Singles

August 7, 2018

1. “Dancing” – Young Readers. This beautiful whisper-folk tune comes with a huge history: this song was originally written years ago, before a Kickstarter campaign, a cancer diagnosis, a cancer recovery, and a return to music. Jordan Herrera’s fragile voice and subtle determination are beautiful on their own, but they have a lot more gravitas when you know the story attached. As a long-time fan of Young Readers (and one of the funders of that cancer-battered Kickstarter), I’m thrilled to hear Young Readers back in the game.

2. “About” – Another Michael. Anyone who starts off their track with found sound and a blaring organ is going somewhere unusual. This Topshelf Records crew demonstrates that they leans toward the quiet end of that label’s spectrum with this artsy, clever, propulsive indie-pop tune. Fans of mid-era Death Cab for Cutie (Transatlanticism, especially), the Shins, and other early ’00s indie-pop will love this. 

3. “Go With You” – Mike Edel. Absorbs the best vibes of ’80s synth pop and ’00s indie-pop to come up with a smooth, soft, charming, contemporary indie-pop jam. There’s a lot to love: Edel’s voice and vocal lines, the clanging ’80s guitar, the delicate piano, the wispy female echo/harmony, the punchy drums, just all of it. 

4. “Prism” – Small Leaks Sink Ships. If you’re into high-drama pop of any era, you’ll be way into this. This track falls right in the chronology of The Moody Blues to Styx to Queen to all of ’80s synth-pop to My Chemical Romance and the like. Synths! Big drums! Dramatic, soaring vocals! Quiet/loud transitions! It’s all here for you. 

5. “Synesthesia” – Polychrome. This electro-pop jam is full of twinkly synths, breathy vocals, triumphant piano, and charging guitar. Yet the breathy vocals are really the star–the rest of the mix is turned down for space, and the result is a dreamy track that could have been a blaster with a different mix. It’s a testament to the vision of the artist that this version won out when another one easily could have–this one is immensely satisfying.

6. “Morning is Made” – Hush Kids. Weepies fans, rejoice! This has a little more mature gravitas to it, but at its core this is a softly-fingerpicked acoustic-pop song with a heartwarming female/male duet. The softly rising horns in the arrangement seal the deal for me. There’s going to be a lot of fans of Hush Kids very soon.

7. “Hometown Honey” – The Herbert Bail Orchestra. If you manage to effectively use a theremin and a bevy of mournful trumpets in the same alt-country tune, you’re going to end up on Independent Clauses. Bail’s vocals are engaging and the songwriting is strong, but it’s the stuff around the main thrust of the tune that really sells the song. 

8. “Poor Stuart” – Ben Somers. It takes a really compelling instrumental folk performance to snag my ear, because I’m not just looking for a solid traditional tune. I want to hear something that’s trad but also contemporary; something that sets the song apart. This tune has a lot of vintage in it, but there’s modern elements and approaches in the melodic lines that give it a fresh voice–Somers is not just recreating an era, he’s updating it for the modern ear. The touches and flourishes are subtle, but they’re there. Strong work.

9. “Through the Atmosphere” – Dusty Stray. Here’s a walking-speed, wide-eyed, low-key folk tune the likes of which Bonnie Prince Billy is great at. Stray settles some subtle instrumental touches around the edges of the calm vocals and fingerpicking–clunking bass hand on the piano, fluttering treble hand, delicate auxiliary keys, etc. But basically I imagine a guy walking by a river and serenading whoever he passes by. 

10. “Eleanora” – baeilou. Adventurous, experimental, dramatic, ominous, and groove-heavy, this cello-and-voice excursion is a wild journey. baeilou has crooning, speak-singing, semi-beatboxing, and more in her diverse vocal performance; the cello is used as treble, bass and percussion. The moods swoop and shift and change without warning. It’s an experience. The sheer inventiveness of this track is worth a listen. Do not expect anything like “Eleanor Rigby.”

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Culture Wars’ s/t EP

August 6, 2018

Culture Wars’ S/t EP

Alex Dugan, Mic Vredenburgh, and David Grayson have something to say, and the guys known collectively as Culture Wars are using a self-titled debut EP to do it. The Austin-based trio has been dropped into turbulent times, using that background to make a surrealist splash in five tracks coupled with cinematic visuals.

Each song is topically relevant to the world today. The lyrical subject matter covers greed, dishonesty, vanity, narcissism, and the beat goes on. Tapping Alan Moulder (Arctic Monkeys, The Killers) as producer brings an edge to the music which gives the topics a sonic surge. Completed with mixing by Manny Marroquin (Imagine Dragons, Kanye West), Culture Wars has found a vibe. With Dugan on vocals and electronics, Vrendenburgh on guitar and cello, and Grayson covering drums, this minimalist approach defies the sonic depth produced here. Many of the music videos are directed by Jeremi Mattern and Alex Dugan in the the DIY spirit. Not to be overlooked is the surrealist cover art from Gary Dorsey at Pixel Peach Studios, twisting each lyrical concept into mind blowing graphics. The stage is set to let the music rip.

Culture Wars breathes haunting echoes that flash back to early sounds from The All American Rejects. AAR’s rock was born in Stillwater, Oklahoma, less than twelve hours from Sonic Ranch in El Paso, Texas, where Culture Wars tracked their debut. Great music comes out of unexpected places sometimes. Dugan seems to mirror the vocal delivery style of the Vans Warped Tour headliner and frontman Tyson Ritter from AAR.

“Lies” is a great kick-off to the EP. The song struts, inviting listeners unfamiliar with the boys in the band to join the party. The lyrics seems to fit the current world culture. Dugan, Vredenburgh, and Grayson deliver heavy pop vibes with “Bones” flowing into “Money (Gimme, Gimme)”; each track drives a gritty relevance with current cultural chaos. It’s an electro-music microscope on society–did bands like Talking Heads influence the refrain?

Each song of the EP has been represented in a video, so you can absorb the EP thru Youtube. Visuals play a big part in telling the story of songs like “Hideaway.” That tune peels another layer away of how communication has changed in today’s age of social media. Ending the EP with “Delilah (Tear Me Away)” Culture Wars hits a dance club groove that would make Bowie proud; fun, easy groove flows out here, making a statement with skilled musicianship.

Great music is often born in Austin, Texas, because of the influences of music born nearby. Such is the case with Culture Wars, whose debut self-titled EP was produced by the man who helped give an extra edge to The Killers and Arctic Monkeys. That’s a big deal, but more important is the fact that this trio has talent to match the opportunities that are coming their way. This trio delivers some fresh new pop-rock crackling with echoes of past greats like Bowie blurred in a blender with the best of Warped Tour greats. Poised and ready, Culture Wars has earned a unique spot as an indie pop rock voice today.–Lisa Whealy

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Red Sammy: Visiting the dark places of folk

July 12, 2018

On Red Sammy’s new album Neon Motel, songwriter Adam Trice explores a collection of barroom ballads that sound like an invitation to the barren frontier, one frosty brew, or a hot buttered rum on a frostier Baltimore night. Bruce Elliott (electric and electric slide guitar), Greg Humphreys (bass, mandolin, electric guitar), Ryan Bowen (drums), Anjili Babbar (backing vocals), and mastermind Trice (lead vocals, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, tambourine, mandolin) have opened for national acts like Deer Tick, Mike Watt and The Missingmen, Phosphorescent, and Dirty River Boys.

Some facts are certain here. The eleven songs are a deep dive into the land of angst-driven guitar. The video clip of mask-wearing school kids playing at life lets listeners get the vibe of “Ernie the Lizard”. With Trice crafting songs like the perky “You That I Refuse,” listeners may feel that they are in the hands of a master craftsman, because each note punctuates the message lyrically.

Laying in to rest of the album with the easy tempo of the title track, “Neon Motel” is sung with vocal gruffness that makes Red Sammy one of the best folk-rock singers around today. With an identifiable quality like Bob Dylan, Adam Trice has a style that is alive with nuanced emotion. Carving ideas out of each experience, a great songwriter takes each and uses it to his advantage. The slide guitar lover’s dream that is “Bad Ideas” pulls lyrics back in from the title cut. This tune shows a songwriter at home with his bandmates, creating a dank, dark frontier where listeners are invited to come. Exceptional guitar work rounds out the sound into something deeper, a pit of places that always end badly, eyes open at the end of a drunk night.

“You Don’t Gotta Convince Me” is magic, featuring beautiful harmonies in duet with backing vocalist Anjili Babbar; one of the magic moments on this album, this standout is crazy good. Tripping into “Firetrail” with its almost in-your-face blues rock, one thing is certain: evolution has occurred. Seven albums later this man does not sound tired of doing what he loves, despite the name “Tired and Free.” “Tired” eases in patiently, with Trice phrasing each vocal delivery purposefully. This comfortable, purposeful work is a mirror of greats like Dylan, come to life again for another generation in new rock star. “Rock Star” is that self-proclaimed anthem, coming in with a growl, a shout, stellar guitar work, and lyrics laden with sarcasm. The band takes that guitar work into ‘Roofbeam.” This cut also feels like a car sing-along, with Ryan Bowen keeping a noticeably steady beat on drums with Greg Humphreys on bass. Often restraint is a challenge to accomplish successfully, but there’s no problem here for these seasoned musicians. They mesh together seemingly without effort.

Conscious of sequencing on this piece of music, “I Stay in Bed” and “The Current” close out the record. The first has a Harry Nilsson, “pull the covers over the head” vibe. It’s a brilliant acoustic window into a horror show, a bookend to Childish Gambino’s mind-blowing “This Is America.” Red Sammy closes out with “The Current,” subtle and soft. The acoustic guitar is the voice that rings true, along with a wordsmith that has made his thoughts heard with a rock, folk, and Americana beat.

Singing the song of everyman, Red Sammy does something really special on his seventh release Neon Motel. Any listener has met the cast of characters that inhabit the world of Adam Trice and Red Sammy. Whether is is the businessman drinking his lunch, the booze hound lurking in the shadows, or the guy grateful to have made a fast getaway, we have met these folks before. Sometimes it is nice to know we all have the same dark places we can go visit. Sometimes hanging out in the shadows with your friends is the best place to be.–Lisa Whealy

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Howlin Rain’s “The Alligator Bride”

June 28, 2018

Howlin Rain has literally been around since their 2006 debut. The Oakland, California-based band has toured the world with their west coast rock flavor. More impressive is that the band is set to drop its fifth full length album, The Alligator Bride, via Silver Current Records this June. What a long, strange trip it’s been!

It can be tough to have comparisons tossed about to iconic bands like The Grateful Dead, getting hippie culture vibrating with expectations. Especially after the band had worked with famous producers that carried with it major labels.

Ethan Miller claims the role of lead howler and guitarist. Taking on the world in true DIY spirit, Miller makes Silver Current Records an artist-owned and artist-run endeavor. With their future in their own hands, this bunch of mischief makers is focused on some serious music making business, as The Alligator Bride can attest.

Joining Ethan Miller on guitar is Daniel Cervantes. Two guitars make for a wicked rich mix of sound. Jeff McElroy on bass and Justin Smith on drums create a foundation for this rock trip to happen. The seven songs of this album feature an authentic connection to a swampy groove–Mountain comes to mind, best known for their performance from 1969’s Woodstock.

From the opening of “Rainbow Trout,” one thing is apparent: listeners are on a road trip to parts unknown, and happily so. This track is magic: striking vocals and great guitar work with riff layered on riff. It’s a celebration of life in song, this kind of rock has been left to the Phish fans and Dead heads since 1969. Howlin Rain picks up that vibe, and this track is like the best of what started in 1967 at Monterey Pop.

“Missouri” follows with an easy feel, a down-home, road-trippin, blasting-out-of-the-radio-of-a-Volkswagen-bus song. Listeners can almost feel the wind in their faces. It’s a summer day in a song; there is no doubt why this was the first video to drop from the record. Musically, this is a masterclass in joyful noise: exceptional guitar work embraces Miller’s vocals with riffs all over.

The band follows that up with a contrast. “Speed” is a soft-spoken acoustic guitar with an easy, soothing voice. But “Speed” is also a story of contrasts: being high can take effort, as anyone that has ever had too much of anything will relate. This is songwriting brilliance. Following up with a track like “The Wild Boys” is a bit of sequencing genius. A song reminiscent of Grateful Dead, this is softly executed. Of all the songs so far this has the most Dead vibes; enough essence of what is past, but enough of what is Howlin Rain this is elevated beyond what may have helped create the music. Long jams and stellar drum work make this a stand out. However, it is apparent why “ Alligator Bride” is the title track. Lush harmonies tell the tale of simpler times that have moved on, good old days gone, never to return. Catch hold of your breath–this is a stunner that wraps in a squeal of guitars.

Miller greets listeners with crystal clear vocals on “In The Evening,” authentic and full of emotion. It is easy to be transported on this journey, simple and uncluttered musically. Three guitars and yet there is restraint–damn. Impressive. Easing out of the record with the final track, “Coming Down” is perfect. Anthemic yet subtle, with a festival-at-sunset feel, the road tripping is over with Howlin Rain and The Alligator Bride. Its beautiful crescendo of soaring guitars spiraling out with the vocal strength of Ethan Miller, say goodbye. Those guitar riffs that will keep fans smiling long after the music fades. Keep up with their tour dates at their website. –Lisa Whealy

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June Singles 2: Less Whiplash, Mostly Indie Pop and Folk

June 20, 2018

1. “Muanapoto” – Tshegue. Dense, groove-heavy African rhythms power this unclassifiable tune, which falls somewhere between LCD Soundsystem electro, Afropunk, and The Very Best. May I repeat: those grooves. You’ll get moving on this one.

2. “Like the Night” – Moonbeau. This electro-pop jam played for roughly three seconds before I thought, “Oh yes. Ohhhhhhh yeahhhhhhhhhhhh.” The airy arpeggiator lead hook is awesome, the verses are perfectly done to build tension, and the chorus brings that hook back in excellently. The vocals nail it, too. If you love JR JR, Hot Chip, and the like, you’ll be absolutely all over this track.

3. “Happy Unhappy” – The Beths. The Beths are jumping in with Alex Lahey and Marsicans as purveyors of incredible, indelible guitar-pop in big batches. This second single I’ve heard from then is just everything I’m looking for in power-pop: thick guitars that yet don’t cover up the vocals, blast-off drums, big low end, and giddy enthusiasm. The fact that the giddy enthusiasm (check the “oh-ah” section) is deployed in a lyrical set complaining about being happy (ha!) is just rollicking fun.

4. “Forever” – The Gray Havens. TGH has moved from piano pop through expansive folk-pop to full-on indie-pop in this latest track. This jubilant track grows from a peaceful opening to include enthusiastic horns, a soaring vocal line, and punchy percussion. Fans of Graceland will hear some resonances there. It’s a blast.

5. “When I Look Back” – Lev Snowe. This track has some psych guitar touches toward the end, but for the majority of the piece it’s a hazy, dreamy, friendly indie-pop effort. Snowe’s fusion of fuzzed out bass (or guitar masquerading as bass), glittery synths, and even-keeled vocals creates a fun but not unserious atmosphere.

6. “I’m the Wolves” – St. Jude the Obscure. Turns a Band of Horses-esque dusky rumination into a full-on dance party–it’s sort of like when The Arcade Fire busts out “Sprawl II” in the middle of The Suburbs. It’s thoughtful, but also got a lot of kinetic energy going on.

7. “Setting In” – Ditches. Starts off with layers of squalling feedback, but quickly abandons this intro for a loping, scuffling, laidback indie-pop song. Fans of formal songwriting, Cut Worms, Grandaddy, The Shins, and more will love this delicate, melancholy, lovely tune.

8. “Ask Me Now” – Wes Allen. I love melodic percussion–xylophones, marimbas, and vibraphones create such a warm, enveloping mood for songs. Allen includes some melodic percussion in his reflective, somber pop song that calls up elements of Jackson Browne, Paul Simon, and other peaceful singer-songwriters of the era. It’s a rumination on a breakup, like so many others, but Allen’s well-turned vocal performance sells it.

9. “Our Conversation on July 7th” – God Bless Relative. World-weary folk-pop that yet retains a sweetness in the arrangement. The electronic drums give this a unique vibe before opening up into a full-band jam (including some of the best handclaps ever used in the service of sadness). One of those tunes that feels like it’s always been around and you’re just hearing it again–it’s that mature and well-developed.

10. “Tiananmen Square” – Cameron Blake. The ever-excellent Cameron Blake’s video for his moving tune “Tiananmen Square” is powerful. The clip shows a lot of historical footage of China ostensibly surrounding the 1989 student protests held in the titular location. The most intriguing part of the video is that, while I’ve seen the iconic tank man picture, I’d never seen video of the ensuing moments: tank man keeps moving in front of the tank, then climbs up on the tank (!!) and attempts to talk to people inside the the tank (!!!) before getting down off the tank and resuming his protest. It adds even more gravitas to an already incredible moment. Blake’s huge crescendoes only help with this feeling.

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June Singles 1: Whiplash

I have been piled under by work recently, so I’m making a good faith effort over the next few days to get out from under a ton of great singles. I’ll be posting singles in roughly the order they were sent to me, which means that these posts will be more eccentric than I like them to be–this one goes from instrumental post-metal to acoustic singer/songwriter back-to-back. Whoops. Enjoy the tunes, regardless.

1. “Ruthless” – Terra Lightfoot. Sounds like a mashup of the vocals of the Alabama Shakes and the Southern-infused alt-country of Jason Isbell. That is high praise, y’all.

2. “Get On Board” – Pirra. This is a pop song that just would not leave my head. The tune sneaks up on you, with a subtle arrangement leading into a big, lovely chorus. There are shades of San Fran indie-pop, ’50s pop, and contemporary folk-pop throughout.

3. “The American Dream” – Crooked Teeth. The reconsideration of the American dream continues, this time in an invigorating, punchy post-LCD Soundsystem soundscape. The tension between the distorted guitar and the frantic arpeggiator is the greatest part of this song–there’s tons of space to mine there, more than LCD can take. The melodic vocal line sets Crooked Teeth apart from their forebears as well.

4. “There Is a Ledger” – Wild Pink. John Ross traded in his solo synth-pop project Challenger for art-punks Wild Pink, but this track circles back to his synth-pop beginnings. “There Is a Ledger” is a stroll through the park, with chirpy, charming bits dancing over a low-slung chassis of a song. Ross’s boyish, floaty vocals finish creating the happy mood.

5. “Cómo Me Quieres” – Khruangbin. Khruangbin is creating some of the most interesting non-neo-classical instrumental music in the world right now. And I say world because that is the scope of their music–they throw in Middle Eastern vibes, some funky aspects, vaguely surf-y moments, and a solid grounding in indie rock to create their unique, fascinating stew. Wild stuff.

6. “G.O.A.T.” – Polyphia. What if you could perform dubstep live with real instruments? What if you could mash it up with a math-rock-influenced metal band? What if you could throw some prog drumming in there for kicks? Well, if you’re somehow that inventive, you’d be Polyphia. Just wow.

7. “Crooked Lines” – Lost Like Alice. A soft, unassuming tune that sidles on in, catches your attention, and never lets it go. Ben Parker’s voice is confident but vulnerable; his low range plays like a higher Alexi Murdoch, while his higher register is more along the lines of Passenger’s dramatic performances. The guitar slots in to the mix beautifully. Solid all around.

8. “Life Comes at You Fast” – Jacob Furr. Furr’s been honing his country/folk for a long time now, and he’s earned a hard-won gravitas to his songwriting. He controls space in his vocal lines and guitar lines expertly, allowing the song to have breathing room. His vocal performance is smooth and strong.

9. “Bored in College” – James Quick. I’m not really into white-dude soul, but this tune got me. The vocal performance is carefully done, the low-key groove is impressive, the arrangement is tidy, and the overall vibe is strong. The crowdsourced video only makes it more fun.

10. “Us” – Jamison Isaak. Isaak’s EP2 has songs more atmospheric and more enthusiastic than his first outing. This is one of the latter, as a humble piano chord progression becomes the base for burbling synths, rattling lead treble lines, and other ostinato key patterns. It’s an upbeat, sun-dappled piece that takes minimalism as a starting point to build something beautiful.

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Premiere: Tiphanie Doucet’s “Under My Sun”

June 8, 2018

Tiphanie Doucet‘s “Under My Sun” is a warm, peaceful track that draws its easygoing vibes from a simple, sturdy arrangement. This track falls somewhere between indie-pop and folk: it has the acoustic instruments and acoustic-guitar focus of a folk tune, but the swaying vibe and vocal melodies point toward indie-pop.

Photo by Non Lineard Knitting.

Either way you want to slice it, it’s the careful, uncomplicated arrangement that sells this track: a simple guitar pattern is supported by deep stringed bass, restrained drumming, and sun-dappled piano keys. The pieces come together into a track that is both confident and relaxed–there’s nothing slackery about this track, but you can definitely bob your head to it. It’s much more of a pastoral track than an urban one; this is made for big fields instead of skyscrapers.

Doucet’s hushed invitation to come and be comforted only adds to the feeling of comfort and peace. Her vocal performance is compelling in its attention to detail–the ends of lines and the wordless sighs that close the song contain a lot of emotion without going for the big move. If you’re looking for a relaxing summer tune, this is what you’re looking for. Highly recommended.

“Under My Sun” is the title track of Doucet’s upcoming album, which was produced by Simone Felice and David Baron. Under My Sun will be released August 3. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. If you’re on the New York/New Jersey area, you can catch Doucet live before the record drops:

June 21st Fox and Crow, Jersey City , NJ 8pm
July 2nd Rockwood Music Hall Stage 3, NY 8pm (Tickets)

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Premiere: Salim Nourallah’s “Relief”

May 29, 2018

Salim Nourallah‘s “Relief” is a tense song about seeking peace. Nourallah is looking for relational harmony, striving for goodwill between people in relationship and throughout society.

The problem is that he’s not finding any of that peace he’s looking for; he’s offered no relief. The resolution comes when he chooses to give relief to people instead of only seeking it. Lyrically, this is a strong offering–Nourallah’s words keep the song moving, even amid the slow tempo and atmospheric arrangement.

Salim Nourallah wearing sunglasses and a black pea coat, walking down a suburban sidewalk with grass on both sides and large trees in the background. A car is parked on the street.

Salim Nourallah. Photographed by Casey Pinckard.

The arrangement is a deft, careful one. The song was written on piano, but the final version of this track doesn’t bring in the piano until midway through the song. The first, piano-less half of the song relies on ’90s lead guitar sounds, stark percussion, grumbling bass, and distant atmospheric melodies to create the atmosphere he’s looking for: it’s an arrangement that could be peaceful, but has tough edges instead. The entrance of the piano mellows out the tune for a while, but the gritty bits remain throughout. If peace is elusive and difficult lyrically, so it is musically.

Fans of ’90s Brit-pop, ’00s Grandaddy-style alt-pop, and ’10s singer/songwriters (Peter Bradley Adams comes to mind) will enjoy this tune quite a bit. “Relief” appears on both the EP North (out June 1) and the full album Somewhere South of Sane (out sometime in Fall). Both releases are on Palo Santo Records. You can catch Nourallah on Twitter and Facebook.

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

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