Afternoons‘ Say Yes is a fun, nostalgic indie-pop album that knows how to hit pop high notes with indie nuance. The album seems plucked out of the mid ’00s, when the populous-friendly psych of The Flaming Lips’ At War with The Mystics and the dance-heavy electro of MGMT were having their moments. (For good reason: If you check their convoluted history, it sort of was.)
The album has that sort of gentle production wash over it that softens every edge and warms (almost) every mood. Opener “Graffiti Artist” has a chant-able vocal hook (one of many) and a propulsive but not too aggressive synth hook (also one of many). The killer cut is the stomping, boisterous, utterly infectious title track, which drops second–the vocal melodies are magnetic, the rhythm is just-right, the chorus has people hollering “say yes!”, and the whole thing comes off as a pro-adventure anthem. Yup, sign me up for that.
“Saturday Morning” and “Bored Teenagers” bring in softer vibes that recall Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.’s work, while touches of the high-brow work Grandaddy did appear throughout. “Gloria” and “Love is a Western Word” are two more upbeat tracks worth noting. The back part of the album gets darker and creepier in both lyric and sound, making it less interesting to me, but the first part of the album is so infectious and joyful that it’s worth checking out just for that. Say yes, indeed. Stream the album here.
I listen to a ton of acoustic-related music, so I like things to get a little experimental. I look for artists to wow me with some tasteful-yet-unique genre mashups, go deep on the lyrical concept, package it with a multimedia experience, or in general do something that stands out. But every now and then, a band comes along that just does one thing really well. Ted Z and the Wranglers play ’90s-style alt-country (pedal steel, organ, sneering vocals, galloping drums), nothing more or less. Their five-song EP Like a King relies on infectious melodies and complete identification with the alt-country ideal to be impressive.
Ted Z is such an alt-country purist that his band is named The Wranglers. Everything about this fits right into your mental map of alt-country, but in a way that celebrates the genre, not copies it. It helps that the musicians are incredibly talented, the songwriting is so smooth, and the production is incredibly tight. This is the definition of “listenable,” in that it’s fun to hear. By the end of the title track and “Heaven’s Rent,” I was hooked on the faithful representation of the alt-country ethos. “Heaven’s Rent” includes some western swing vibes, while the title throws down straight-ahead work. “Virginia” is a love song, which switches things up a bit; the ’50s-rock-inspired “Ball and Chain” follows it up, in case you were thinking that they were getting too sentimental on you.
Closer “Tomorrow” really shows off the band’s songcraft, mining vocal harmonies, woozy pedal steel, and an intimate feel that draws me close. This one is a little less country and a little more Paul Simon, but it’s still in the genre. The beautiful vocal chorus is remarkable, as well. Ted Z and the Wranglers’ Like a King is the rare release that sticks out from the crowd simply by perfecting its genre. They know how to write an alt-country song, and sometimes that’s all I ask: to tap my foot, sing along, and feel good.
The early 2000s were a time of joy and splendor for independent music: people were putting Death Cab in TV shows! Modest Mouse was getting signed! Blogs were zooming bands to stardom in mere days! In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was slowly rumbling its way to cult stardom! Independent music culture, which had existed since the late ’70s, finally had some above-the-radar recognition. In this crucible appeared bands that were obvious pop successes, but also some band’s bands: shadowy, insider-baseball outfits that were revered and somehow kept secret from/didn’t resonate with the general populace. Jeff Mangum’s output is the example par excellence, but unassuming lo-fi bands like The Microphones and The Shivers also fell into that category. It is a vinyl re-release of The Shivers’ Charades I am here to praise today (even though I almost never cover re-releases).
If you haven’t heard of The Shivers and their cult classic Charades, don’t worry: until a 10-year anniversary vinyl was brought to my attention, I didn’t know about Keith Zarriello and co.’s gritty, lo-fi indie-pop. Zarriello fits in with The Microphones and other early ’00s bands that were trying (and largely succeeded) to make indie-pop into a dignified art form with aesthetic diversity and abilities. It was purposefully serious music, but it could be beautiful (and even a little funny, too). Charades is all of that: serious, diverse, artistic, beautiful, and even a bit humorous. It succeeds as a gorgeous album without sounding like it’s trying too hard (although we now know that certain level of disaffected attitude takes considerable effort).
“Beauty” is the highlight here: a gently strummed electric guitar, tape hiss, and a plunky bass guitar open the track and set the mood. Zarriello’s voice warbles confidently (no, I mean that) above the quiet backdrop, sounding every bit a bedroom track. But the lyrics open up from the concerns of one man’s head and encompass a general statement on love and life. It’s a statement that many artists try to make, and it’s not entirely clear why this one works so poignantly. Perhaps it’s the distinct combination of the elements. Perhaps it’s the wonderful chorus, sung by a multi-tracked vocal chorus. Maybe it’s none of those things. But it’s a gorgeous, memorable track that can’t be ignored. It has largely propelled Charades ongoing life.
But there are other songs going for it as well: “Sunshine” has a wistful lullaby feel about it. “The Shivers” and “Charades” are moody pieces that seek that artistic aesthetic. “I Could Care Less” and “L.I.E.” are a little more immediate in their take on things: the former by being loud and brash, the latter by tuning down the tape hiss and focusing right on the vocals and gentle guitars.
Charades gave me time machine joy: the passion and dreary excitement of the early ’00s are historical relics now, but Charades lets you relive what it was like to hear bands push those boundaries. The excitement of discovering songs in the way they would have been discovered a decade ago is an exquisite and rare joy. You get to have some nostalgia and get to hear some incredible new songs. I can’t think of much more to ask for in a re-release.
There’s a striking immediacy to much punk music that endears me to it. Even more that rock, punk music feels connected to the life of the moment. No hook should be delayed, no element should be understated, nuance should be minimized; who knows how long that PA will hold up? If the show will get shut down? If the world ends? Nope, play fast and loud and do it all right now. Quiet Stories‘ Matt Moran cut his teeth in the short-lived punk/rock band The Typist, so he knows the world of sonic immediacy. Even though he’s playing acoustic folk/country right now, he’s maintained that brash, devil-may-care attitude in his melodies and arrangements. Per Aspera Ad Astra is a passionate album that feels both energetic and comforting.
The history of musicians leaving punk for acoustic music is long, but it’s one of punk’s lesser-known defects that was most successful as an acoustic performer. Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba was in punk/emo band Further Seems Forever in the early ’00s before starting DC. Since DC is pretty much sad songs sung to punk strumming on an acoustic guitar, it’s not surprising the first time you hear that fact. Moran has more than a little bit of the brash vocal stylings and energetic arrangements of Carrabba. “1987” and “Seven Years” particularly show off this vibe: the former sees Moran singing loudly and hammering a piano from the outset of the song, while the full band arrangement of the latter includes full-keyboard slides, hollered punk vocals, iconic punk whoas, and punchy drums. This may be a folk/country album, but it’s not Bon Iver by any stretch of the imagination.
“When It’s Over” starts with full arrangement and vocals from the beginning, a no-nonsense approach to getting into a song. It’s a bit more of a melancholy track, per its title. Even though it jumps in with both feet, it still shows a reflective musical and lyrical side. Fingerpicked ballad “This is 25″ will be the high point for fans of quiet/sad tunes–it’s a really strong track that shows Moran could play ball with the best of the solo singer/songwriters if he so chose. But when you can holler with the best of them and play loud songs like closer “American Summer,” why would you play only quiet ones? Moran is comfortable with the mix of sounds, as none of the songs here sound out of place to my ear. It’s just a fun album to listen to.
That diversity of sound turns Per Aspera from a collection of tunes into a true album. There are many facets to the album, even though the predominant sound is a brash, punk-inspired folk/country idiom. Moran knows his way around a guitar, and that shows throughout. If you want some folk/country with energy, passion, and strong songwriting, check out Quiet Stories.
I review a lot of music. Like any person who does a particular action thousands of times, I’ve come up with better and more refined ways of accomplishing this task. For me it means listening while doing certain types of other actions, keeping track of any stray thought whatsoever I have while listening, and so on. But sometimes an album comes along that blows up my method. Post-war by Last Builders of Empire forces me to encounter it on the creator’s terms instead of my own, which results in a really satisfying listener experience and (as you’re about to see) a relatively difficult writer experience.
My natural reaction to post-rock is to describe the quality of the sounds and point out the defining characteristic of those sounds. Post-War resists that. The post-rock here is largely dark, heavy, and emotional; it aims for the widescreen angles. The band’s scenes are framed by delicate guitar work; they often build from sweet, subtle beginnings to heavy, dissonant, distorted conclusions. That all sounds like standard post-rock fare, right? That’s because the individual aspects of the sound aren’t really the point of the album (as opposed to, say, an Adebisi Shank album, where they are 100% the reason to listen). The care and attention that Last Builders of Empire invest in the details of the songwriting and wordless storytelling are what make this an engaging, enveloping listen.
The band wrote this work with a specific arc in mind; this isn’t a haphazard collection of songs without context. Set up in a tripartite “Inferno,” “Purgatorio,” “Paradiso” format, this album seeks to be a whole unit. (This is why it is so difficult to talk about its individual songs or even the individual sounds.) Yes, this is a fully-realized achievement, an album that has the plodding dissonance of “Huida Hacia El Sol” as an equally important part of the album as the urgent, yearning “Quiet Like a Knife.”
Closer “For Those Who Have Faith” brings both of those leanings together, pairing a yearning guitar line that finally edges its way over into a major key with a thumping, low-slung rhythm section. The middle section represents a style closer to the soaring, upbeat Lights and Motion style of post-rock than the heavy, brutal Godspeed You! Black Emperor style. It’s still very clearly Last Builders of Empire, but they’re able to transform their songwriting accordingly to fit their overall arc. By the end they’ve come back around to their home base of dark, heavy, dissonant, and emotional–which presents an interesting conclusion to the album. Perhaps “Paradiso” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be–returning home from war is never easy.
Post-war by Last Builders of Empire is not the sort of album you can digest in one song or even one sitting of the whole record. It’s an experience that you have simmer in and immerse yourself in. Last Builders of Empire have taken the time to craft their art in deep and thought-provoking ways, which I always appreciate. If you’re into post-rock, Last Builders of Empire should be on your to-hear list.
I’m a big fan of two mid-era Jimmy Eat World records, Futures and Chase This Light, that perfectly captured the blend of riffs, rhythmic variety, clever vocal melodies, and mood diversity that I’m looking for in rock. The Slang have a ton of sonic similarities with Jimmy Eat World, which makes me a huge fan of their self-titled EP. Opener “Far from Over” has a vaguely disco opening before dropping into a guitar-laden groove that manages to keep energy going through a midtempo tune (an admirable feat).
Lead single “Feels Like Work” nails the quiet/loud dichotomy in creating a solid radio-rock tune. It feels mature, powerful, and not kitschy–especially when the lead guitar lines come in. The vocals take the lead in “One Step at a Time,” which makes it feel even more like a Jimmy Eat World song. Throughout the EP, there are strong riffs and a great sense of control that keeps this from turning into pedestrian rock. The Slang has an x factor that’s hard to quantify in rock, but it’s very clearly there. If you like thoughtful rock’n’roll that doesn’t turn into sterilized thought experiments, The Slang will scratch your itch. It’s melodic comfort food for me. I look forward to hearing much more from The Slang.
Brandon Cunningham‘s Give Out is the sort of album I listen to when I’m alone; sometimes when driving a long stretch of road, sometimes when hanging out in my room. The slow-churning quartet of alt-country tunes has a big, spacious feel that fits a wide-open road; it also has a sort of claustrophobia that hangs over its head, as if someone was trying to expand a room but finds itself banging up against the walls.
There’s some Jason Molina sounds trapped in the wrenching, tension-filled “Doubt,” as the song grows from a tiny spark to a roaring, torrential guitar wall, complete with thrashing cymbals. The reverb, the heavy emphasis on distant sounds, and the sense of weight all mark the track as a soon-beloved of Songs: Ohia listeners. “Lines in the Sand” lets a little light in the cracks by playing acoustic guitar instead of electric, but there’s still a heaviness to the track in the political / religious subject matter. “Bush Wives” is downright chipper in comparison, sounding kind of like a Keane song–which is still pretty thick sonically. “Baby” is a forlorn alt-country love song in the style of Mojave 3, which appeals to my “injured romantic” sensibilities.
Give Out is a diverse foursome of songs that show Cunningham’s ability to corral a small amount of instruments into very specific moods. He can turn it up into a mournful wall of sound or keep it quiet with pensive acoustic tunes. Whichever way he goes, he brings a passion to the songs that allows them to feel real and physical; these songs feel like they grab me by the shoulders and demand I listen. Cunningham should be a name you know.
I’ve been repping The Parmesans as hard as I can for as long as I’ve known about their music, as their bluegrassy/folk-poppy/traditional string band maelstrom is endlessly fun. Their new album Flat Baroque continues their streak (now three albums and two EPs long) of fun, clever, interesting, smile-inducing releases.
They lean heavily on guitar, mandolin, stand-up bass and three-voice harmonies, and it works perfectly. The Parmesans have a habit of recording their favorite songs multiple times (“Delirious Dream,” “JuJaJe” and “See For Yourself” reprise this time), and that gives their albums a feel of a backporch concert that just keeps rolling on. They didn’t record “Walls for the Wind” this time, but hey, they might go for a fourth round on the next album. It’s that sort of off-the-cuff attitude to track listing that’s infused in the tracks themselves. The Parms are clearly having fun, and that is hard to miss as a listener.
They’re developing a signature melodic and rhythmic style in the guitar, which is really cool. It’s fun to hear sounds develop over a long period of time. They’ve also figured out what type of song they’re really good at; consequently, there are no bad tracks on Flat Baroque. “Call Me When You’re There” and “Bad Idea” stand out among the new tracks, but all of them are worth repeating multiple times. They tracked this one live, as they have all their other albums; the difference is that they did so at Tiny Telephone in San Francisco. They’re moving up in the world! If you’re into fun, unique takes on traditional string music, then Flat Baroque is most definitely for you.
They’re on tour right now; they’re passing through Raleigh (Fuquay-Varina!) on Sunday. I’ll be there, hoping for “Walls for the Wind” and “Bad Idea.”
Lindsey Saunders‘ four-song EPMiles Before Sleep is a solo acoustic guitar effort that showcases her impressive technical and melodic skill. Saunders’ modus operandi in these tunes is to set up a melodic environment not unlike that of a solo piano piece: an introductory section to establish mood, then development of themes, then variations on those themes–all while managing the crescendo/descrescendo flow of the piece. (It was originally meant to accompany a dance piece by Texture Ballet.)
This wouldn’t work if Saunders weren’t so impressive at fretwork: the flowing opener “Task” leads the listener on a relaxing journey full of melody ideas, while “Decision” amps up the speed of the work and pulls off some complex, syncopated lead lines. “Questioning” opens with the feel of the former but graduates to the latter, featuring some of her most aggressive, acrobatic-sounding fretwork. “Acceptance” returns to the lullaby-esque feel of “Task,” closing the EP on a pensive, beautiful note. I’m only rarely sent acoustic solo guitar work, but so far I’ve enjoyed what I’ve heard. Perhaps only those with intense chops even consider pulling it off. Lindsey Saunders has both the technical skill and the melodic songwriting chops to write impressive and engaging solo guitar tunes, which is rare. The EP drops November 4.
Tulsa’s finest totally unclassifiable wunderkinds Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey are back for their 26th album, Worker. Taking a break from longform work after several years of work on The Race Riot Suite, JFJO are delving into their indie-rock and hip-hop influences. The ever-evolving, piano-led trio spends the bulk of Worker writing short songs full of grinding noises, synth blasts, abrupt shifts, and funky breakdowns.
“Appropriation Song” seems to be self-aware in its pilfering of noises, melodies and rhythms from other genres. “Better Living Through Competitive Spirituality” uses old-school analog synths to create one of the coolest tracks I’ve heard in a long time. It’s got jazzy influences, but it’s essentially a post-rock song. Furthermore, it could be the backing track to some really impressive alt hip-hop; it would be incredible if they got some rappers to create some remixes on this track in particular. “Bounce” could also work brilliantly for a hip-hop remix, as it already has the rhythmic tensions present in great hip-hop.
JFJO is a fascinating band: 20 years into their run, they’re putting out work that’s just as challenging (if not more) than their early or mid-period work. They may not have much of the “jazz” from their name left in their sound, but they do have one trait of great jazz musicians: they’re getting better with age. Worker is a challenging, engaging, rewarding listen that will please fans of experimental, adventurous post-rock. The album drops tomorrow, October 14.
The Widest Smiling Faces‘ Sin Waves is also difficult to describe, but in a completely different way from JFJO. Sin Waves is a 33-track album of dreamy, woozy, reverb-heavy, gentle tracks. Only 6 of them break one minute, though; TWSF prefers to cast off tiny, impressionistic swatches of sound that lean heavily on meandering solo fingerpicked electric guitar. Especially in the back half of the album, listening to Sin Waves is more like wandering through a lovely art gallery that plays sounds than listening to songs.
There are six longer pieces that approximate the standard definition of song. In contrast to the largely instrumental sound swatches, the longer pieces feature Aviv Cohn’s mumbling, whispering, feathery voice. “Rip Me in Half” pairs guitar and voice with some distant, muffled drums to pleasing effect; “Oil Pastel” has a disarmingly straightforward guitar lead before it gets layered upon with more guitars and voice. Cohn is fully capable of writing longform; he just prefers to do elsewise.
Sin Waves is an album in the truest sense of the word: it’s a collection of things that are meant to be heard together. I don’t see a lot of point in listening to this work outside its whole: the entirety of the work is needed for the experience to be fully appreciated. If you’ve got a half-hour that you want to spend in dreamy, ethereal mode, this album should be in your life.
Music for Abandoned Podcast by Kasey Keller Big Band shares the genre-demolishing tendencies of JFJO and the short runtimes of TWSF, making for a surrealistic, madcap 10 tracks in 10 minutes. Keller likes to group strummed instruments (ukulele, nylon-string guitar) with gritty synths, beats, and droll spoken/sung vocals, as in the eerie “Wardenclyffe” and bizarre synth-pop of “Usain Bolt.” Opening track “RIC” is almost two minutes of melodic synth-pop jams, showing a rare, impressive conventional turn from KKBB.
Sometimes elements of his sound are dropped out: “Mosaic History” is a straight synth-pop jam without strings, “Glottal Stop” removes the vocals for 30 seconds of the most intriguing instrumental hip-hop I’ve heard in a while, and “New Knees” is a lo-fi acoustic-and-voice moment. But overall, this is an experimental release that plumbs the depths of acoustic/electronic interaction by juxtaposing them in gritty, raw, unusual ways. If you’re into experimental music, jump on this.
Falcon Arrow‘s Tower is a soaring, powerful, instrumental, drum-and-bass post-rock duo that ranks as one of the best of the year. Now don’t get tricked into thinking this is drone or anything. This album is one of the most acrobatic post-rock albums I’ve heard in a long, long time. Bassist Matt Reints modulates his bass playing several octaves out of normal bass range, making tunes that have heavy, grooving bass foundations and incredible treble-end melodies. It’s astonishing what Reints can wring out of one four-string bass. (The press photo has him playing a four-string. For real. As a bassist, I can’t even believe that this is possible with essentially the same instrument I have.)
Reints is not just a fantastic technician armed with modulating pedals and loopers; he’s a brilliant melodist. And since he’s a bass player, he knows how to use the low-end not just to support the treble, but to interlock with it to create sums bigger than the parts. Finally, since he’s a bass player, there aren’t chords anywhere on this album: everything is done through cascading single-note runs and super-sludgy single note crushers for some grounding. In short, Matt Reints has taken on the job of being the guitarist and the bassist in one of the more complex post-rock bands I’ve ever heard. I have no idea how he remembers everything. I really don’t. Also Dav Kemp plays drums. (Sorry Dav. Bassist geeking out over here.)
You can pick any of the 11 songs on this roughly 40-minute album and have your mind blown, but my two favorites are “Aldebaran Serpent” and “Cantina Empire,” which form the 13-minute heart of the record. (They’re really into sci-fi; JUST ONE MORE THING TO LOVE.) “Aldebaran Serpent” starts off with some crushing, distorted bass, punchy snare hits, and some syncopated bass drum patterns. After inoculating you into the groove, Reints starts tossing off heavily-reverbed runs of high treble notes, creating a gorgeously full sound. Then he modulates up another octave and starts playing even faster, essentially turning his bass into a synthesizer. If your mind’s not blown, I don’t know what will do that for you. “Cantina Empire” leans more heavily on Reints’ traditional instrumental chops, using a swift, clean bass guitar line as the foundation. Kemp supports neatly with some punctuated, staccato drumming. They eventually do drop in a distorted low-end and a reverb-heavy top line; the riff at 1:30 is one of my favorite on the record, especially when put in the full context of the song. It’s an impressive song.
Tower is nothing short of astonishing. It’s gorgeous and impressive on its own melodic merits, but it’s even more mindblowing that two people (and only two people) composed all of this and perform it live. If you’re into post-rock of any variety, you will be blown away by Falcon Arrow. They’re just absolutely incredible.
Dylan Gilbert is a man of many talents. He’s been tirelessly releasing music since 2005, reinventing himself at every turn. Currently he fronts the manic prog/punk/surf outfit Hectorina and abruptly drops impressive acoustic-based solo albums. His latest offering of the latter is Shaken, an 8-song set that relies heavily on his ability of his voice to sound wildly outraged and outrageously wild.
With the exception of the gentle closer, this is an exercise in shout-folk from beginning to end. The ominous title track opens the lot, but he quickly moves away from trying to sound scary and embraces the persona of a person outraged at his misfortune. You can read this just from the titles of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” “Another Beast Washes Ashore” and “This Woman’s Gonna Put Me in the Ground.” His voice and powerfully strummed guitar (those poor guitar strings) come together to create compelling tunes that aren’t exactly Andrew Jackson Jihad, but something pretty near it. Sean Bonnette of AJJ has a nasally voice that he pairs excellently with frantic guitar strum; Gilbert has a very traditionally attractive voice that he just thrashes against the wall of life’s troubles like a dusty rug. Both are very impressive, it should be noted.
Gilbert does two covers here: the traditional “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” and “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me.” The former takes a song many people know and pours all the mourning that’s actually there in the lyrics into the vocal performance. The latter tries to infuse the weary misery of the track (again) that’s already there in the lyrics. These are pretty much required listening; the source material for both are some of my favorite tunes of all time, so it’s impressive that Gilbert can take both and breathe fresh life into them. Gilbert’s an astonishingly talented songwriter and performer, and you’d be remiss to not know of his work. Shaken should be your introduction if you’re unfamiliar.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.