Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Hannah Miller: Soul & Relaxation

May 27, 2015

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Before you listen to this album, you must first grab your favorite bottle of wine, draw yourself a warm bath, light a candle and soak. You just created the perfect listening party for Hannah Miller’s recently released self-titled album. Hannah Miller’s soulful instrumentation and sultry voice create the ultimate arena for relaxation.

At the top of the album, “Help Me Out” sets the mood with a seductively played electric guitar. After a few measures of the solo guitar, Miller’s alto voice enters into the mix. These two elements are quite the power couple; keys and percussion add further flavor, but they in no way compare to the power of the first two. Watch the music video to see what I mean.

The soulful sound of Hannah Miller is akin to many different artists that exist within soul’s extended family. In “Falling” the keys shine, similar to neo-soul artists like Jill Scott. The prominent bass and funky guitar in “You Don’t Call” remind me of Lana Del Rey’s “Blue Jeans.”  Throughout the album, Miller’s voice and instrumentation could be compared to Adele’s blue-eyed soul music, particularly in 19. There is no denying that Miller’s sound fits at least partially into the genre of soul, but which sub-genre would be a topic up for debate.

“Soothed” begins similarly to “Help Me Out,” and its calming instrumentation provides the perfect backdrop for Miller’s beautiful voice–her pipes become the focal point of the track. Aptly titled, the instrumentation on “Soothed” is entirely made up of a soulful, beachy-sounding guitar. Miller’s voice lingers in the higher part of her register here, and the outcome is really quite relaxing. Ironically, the lyrics actually speak to her refusal to be “soothed,” while she clearly has no problem soothing others.

One interesting piece of the album is the two versions of “Promise Land.” The chronologically first version has quite a funky instrumentation with the blues-infused electric guitar, soulful keys and a rare addition of background vocals (which adds a ton of depth to the sound). This “New version” of the song has a much fuller sound than the second “Chernobyl version,” but that doesn’t mean it is superior. In the second “Promise Land,” the simple acoustic guitar accompaniment shows off the peaceful aspects in Miller’s voice that might be slightly overshadowed by the full instrumentation of the first. Both versions are beautiful; both have the same lyrics that delve into the world of spirituality, at least in the metaphorical sense.

Song after song, Hannah Miller proves to be a very soothing experience. The sound of Hannah Miller contains great depth while sounding effortless. If your life is filled with stress and you need something–anything–to help you unwind, look no further than Hannah Miller’s self-titled album, out now. —Krisann Janowitz

Underlined Passages: Rainy Day Indie-rock

May 21, 2015

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While Underlined Passages’ self-titled release is a debut, my roots with the band go back deeper. The two principal band members were formerly in The Seldon Plan, a Baltimore indie-rock band that I started reviewing in 2006. After some time off, Michael Nestor and Frank Corl have regrouped as Underlined Passages. Their debut release is on Mint 400 Records (a connection I helped make), and their rainy-day indie-rock fits perfectly with other M400 bands like the Maravines and the Sink Tapes.

The nine songs of Underlined Passages sport various amounts of energy, but each have some sense of melancholy about them. Even when the drums are thrashing away and the guitars are chiming wildly on “Magic, Logic, Life,” Nestor’s vocals are bereft of aggression. The guitar arpeggios and slow pace of “It’s Ok” are more stereotypically melancholy, with emotively-driven lyrics, mournful melodies, and a warm sense of nostalgia/affection. There’s a lot of emotion in these songs, but it never goes over-the-top; like so much on this album, it just fits.

Considering the emotive push, Underlined Passages could definitely hang with the emo revival bands: the one-two punch of opener “Perspective” and “Every Night” are right there with Football, Etc. in aesthetic similarity. But for the most part, Underlined Passages doesn’t have the brash, punchy aspect that many emo bands inherit from their punk roots. These are earnest, passionate, mid-tempo songs for grey days. You don’t have to look farther than the swirling “Sonata” and the intimate “Like 2009″ to get where Nestor and Corl are coming from.

Underlined Passages is an excellent companion on a rainy day. The melancholy arrangements, the hooky melodies, and nostalgic overall mood invite you to curl up under a blanket and watch the rain come down. If you’re looking for some moody, earnest indie-rock today, look no farther.

Amber Edgar: Good truly will rise

May 20, 2015

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If you are searching for a collection of songs that will make you experience an array of emotions, look no further. Singer/Songwriter Amber Edgar’s latest EP Good Will Rise will make you feel, and often. The four tracks here speak larger volumes than many twelve-track albums do. What makes Amber Edgar’s music so impactful? Edgar’s brilliant, raw lyrics mesh with her unique instrumentation and gorgeous vocals to create an EP that will move even the most deadpan music appreciator.

The title track begins the collection on a hopeful note. Edgar’s crystal-clear mezzo-soprano voice shines alongside her main accompaniment–the acoustic guitar. The combination of her sweet yet soulful voice and the acoustic guitar creates a wonderfully unassuming sound, similar to much of Priscilla Ahn’s music. The sound, alongside the modestly hopeful lyrics, gains further flavor through a layer of horns played by one of her very talented musicians. Yet the horns do not take control of the sound; Edgar’s beautiful lyrics and voice still shine the brightest, only adding to the hope that “good will rise.”

The use of the Wurlitzer in “The Key” and “Danny Was So Young” adds a bit of a funky sound to the hauntingly beautiful songs. “The Key” contains some eerie background vocals towards the end that really leaves listeners with a slightly unsettling feeling, fitting for the EP.

“Danny Was So Young” provides a bit of discomfort mainly through the painfully vulnerable lyrics focused on friends that have committed suicide. The acoustic guitar makes perfect sense to be the lead instrument on such a delicate song. The level of maturity it takes to tackle such a dark topic in such a poetic way is simply astounding.

In the song, there certainly exists a feeling of melancholic mourning that all who have lost loved ones can relate to, yet lingering under it all is still hope that normalcy will return. The lyrics compare the pain one feels in missing friends to an anchor. What a brilliant way to imply that the pain does not disappear–it becomes a part of daily life alongside all the other emotions one feels. I can really not say enough about the beautifully poetic nature of “Danny Was So Young” and, really, all the tracks off Good Will Rise.

“Only In Dreams” highlights Edgar’s skills as a multi-talented instrumentalist, beautiful vocalist and amazing lyricist. With assists from other skilled musicians, “Only In Dreams” opens with a lovely banjo/cello combination. Other instruments, such as drums, slowly trickle into the arrangement. Edgar shows her impressive range by soulfully dipping low in the verses and shining at the high notes in the chorus. The lyrics tackle the topic of love through beautiful sailing and nautical imagery, with lyrics like, “Well I am just a little boat/When I see you I begin to float.” The overarching metaphor of “dreaming” really takes the track home, with the closing repetition of “Never wake me up” showing listeners that lyrics can also double as poems.

Amber Edgar’s latest EP Good Will Rise will blow you away with its unique instrumentation, beautiful vocals, and poetic lyrics, leaving you to press repeat over and over again. –Krisann Janowitz

Cavepainters: A Band for the People

May 13, 2015

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Cavepainters recently released their sophomore album With the Trees, and it is a folk masterpiece. With the Trees’ banjo-heavy instrumentation, sardonic lyrics, and effortless vocal harmonization reaches back in time to bring the sounds of late 20th century folk music to our ears.

Opener “Heart Full of Smoke” is a great example of how Cavepainters creates the perfect folk combination. With magnificent banjo solos galore, honest storytelling lyrics, and brilliant vocal harmonization reminiscent of Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, “Heart Full of Smoke” drips with the sound of Appalachian folk. Through their refreshing sound and realistic lyrics, the members of Cavepainters really show themselves as an honest band with an honest sound.

Writ large, With the Trees is an album for the people. “Everybody’s working, always working, all day working” is the opening lyric to “Sweet Relief,” which both pokes fun at and validates the hardworking American experience. The band pairs truthful lyrics with an upbeat sound to speak sardonically about the meathook realities of life in a lighthearted way that almost makes it all feel better. The lyrics here and in the rest of the album cover many ongoing American struggles, while the cheerful instrumentation serves to speak into those realities and say, “It’s all gonna be okay!” Cavepainters does a really wonderful job at pairing lyrics to their instrumentation counterpart.

“Little Brooklyn” is yet another example of Cavepainters’ instrumentation and storytelling lyrics being welded together to create a superb salute to true folk music. “Little Brooklyn” is chock full of anecdotal lyrics that truly make you laugh. It compares Chicago to Brooklyn and includes lovely lyrics like “and if skinny yuppie people walk their skinny yuppie pets, who will know?”  The banjo/accordion/acoustic guitar  arrangement pairs really well with the whimsical lyrics as it makes you sway (and maybe even dance!) to its lighthearted sound.

Although the album is not all whimsy, With the Trees is an album that truly makes you happy to be alive. So if you need validation that life is tough and oh so wonderful, I’d recommend buying Cavepainters’ With the Trees. And even if you don’t need that pick-me-up, I’d say buy it anyways! With the Trees is out now! –Krisann Janowitz

Quick Hits: The Sideshow Tragedy / Football, Etc. / Laura Joy

May 11, 2015

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Capital by The Sideshow Tragedy shows off the skills of a two-piece blues-rock duo that sounds like an angry, political Black Keys.

The outfit can play the pop game with great aplomb, as the hooky riffs and consistent kick drum of standout single “Number One” and “The Winning Side” attest. However, they can also get down into some dirty, dirty blues riffs (“Two Guns,” “Keys to the Kingdom”) and low-slung, gritty rock (“Blacked Out Windows”). When they bring their pop chops to bear on those muddy, murky influences, things get seriously interesting: the title track grooves hard but also has that warm glow throughout which keeps things in the pop realm.

It’s tough to keep things in the “top down, wind-in-my-hair” mode when the lyrics are so seething with bitterness towards ruined economies at the hands of the rich & powerful, but they manage the balance. From the down-and-out vignettes of opener “Number One” to the religious imagery of “Let the Love Go Down” to the apocalyptic sketch of acoustic closer “Plow Song,” every song is an economic protest in one way or another. (I don’t usually put a lot of stock in album titles, but this one is perfectly named.) If you wish that The Black Keys had gotten grittier instead of going stadium-rock on us, The Sideshow Tragedy will perk you up. If you’re into protest music that can get your adrenaline pumping, you’ll be all over this, too.

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Second-wave/late ’90s-early ’00s emo can occasionally (rightly) be associated with uncharitable, uninviting navel-gazing, but Football, Etc.‘s Disappear EP transcends the worst of the stigma by keeping a dreamy pop sensibility firmly in view.

The four-song set shows off the hallmarks of the genre–gauzy guitars, twinkly melodies, drums reminiscent of punk, tidy arrangements, small number of musicians–without lapsing into homage or parody. The fact that you can hum along with “Sunday” points to an important aspect of their pop-music ethos; the fact that the EP opens with Lindsay Minton’s voice on “Sunday” points even more strongly in that direction.

Yes, there are some chilled-out tunes that focus more squarely on the lyrics, which some may not like. But the melodies and the mood make it very worth it for me. If you’re into dream-pop or the emo revival, sign up with Football, Etc.

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Laura Joy‘s Between Our Words is a light, airy, sun-dappled collection of acoustic songs. Joy takes a singer/songwriter’s introspective approach to lyrics, but the bouncy bass of “Takes a While” and cheery organ of “Phoenix” keep things from feeling too cloistered. Those two songs in particular should be played outside on a walk in the park during a mid-’70s cloudless day. “Courting Disaster” is an acoustic pop tune that is potentially the perkiest cut ever to have “disaster” in the title.

Joy’s unaffected, straightforward voice helps create the unassuming air as well: throughout the five songs, Joy sounds down-to-earth and approachable due to a pleasant eschewing of vocal theatrics. Even when things do get a little more dramatic in the fingerpicked title track and troubadour-esque “Moving On,” Joy still situates herself in vocal and instrumental arrangements that don’t go for huge sweeps and maximum catharsis. Instead, she writes comfortable, relatable, small songs. It’s a refreshing turn to hear things not need to be pushed to their brim. Laura Joy’s Between Our Words is a quiet, light EP that makes an outsized mark for its weight.

Tidelands’ Old Mill Park: Delivering Twists and Turns

May 6, 2015

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At first, I didn’t know what to make of Tidelands’ latest EP Old Mill Park because of how diverse it is. As I listened more, I discovered that  what ties the album together is the fact that every song is so distinct in its sound, making the listening experience quite the adventure.

Opener ”Old Mill Park” begins with a calming guitar intro. Gabriel Leis’ voice quickly enters and the coolness in his voice furthers the relaxing feel of the song. As the lyrics say, “drifting on, drifting on”; it’s as if your mind is drifting on to a much more peaceful place. The track has a very Shins feel to it.

“Dog Named Bart” begins with a much more classical instrumentation, primarily through the use of strings. You can begin to understand why they call themselves “Orchestral Indie Rock.” The adorable lyrics paired with the back-and-forth, male-to-female vocalization really transform this song from a potential classical ballad to a more cheerful orchestral folk song.

The aptly named “Four Strings and a Wooden Box” interlude in the middle of the album is exactly as the title states: a classically brilliant cello/violin interlude. It’s interesting that the interlude begins with more hopeful-sounding notes and transitions into more minor, dreary ones. The interlude really serves as a good transition for the collection from the two more upbeat songs to the three more complex and dark ones.

“Hole in the Ceiling” immediately follows the interlude with a distinctly flamenco feel. The use of brass instruments with the traditional flamenco guitar melodies really add this dark Latin American sound to the song, throwing a unique twist into the listening experience.

“Brown Eyes” and “Low Roller” both have a lovely mellow sound. The band uses a melodic vocal harmonization to add a calming effect, much like what Milo Greene does in their music. The use of the electric guitar paired with the sensual lyrics brings “Brown Eyes” from mellow to sultry.

Closer “Low Roller” ties the album together beautifully. The long track clearly has two parts separated by a distinct midpoint, where the song turns from more of a vocal-driven track to an instrumentally driven one. Through a repetitive beat, the song slowly revs up to the final closing section. The final set of lyrics begin with the phrase “turn the lights down ma” which gently nudges listeners into the direction that the outro moves toward. The end of Old Mill Park leaves its listeners in a calm sleep-like state through beautiful instrumentation and rest-encouraging lyrics. Tidelands’ “Old Mill Park” is definitely worth the buy.–Krisann Janowitz

Midnight Pilot: Strings! Organ! Horns! Alt-country!

May 5, 2015

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Bands come and go through the doors of Independent Clauses–some shine bright and disappear, while others put on the slow burn to the top. Midnight Pilot is one of the latter, as I’ve been covering them (under the name Ringer T) since 2005.

In an era with fewer “sure things” in terms of economics, it’s remarkable that bands like Midnight Pilot just keep on keepin’ on. Their self-titled debut album under their rebranded new name is a crunchy slice of Americana-tinged alt-country that shows off their depth of songwriting experience.

I’ve often compared the work that Grant Geertsma, Kyle Schonewill and Kris Schonewill create to Paul Simon mixed with the alt-country band du jour. While the vocals still can attain a Rhymin’ Simon sweetness, Midnight Pilot sees them cranking the guitars a bit. Standout “Let Loose” is a perfect title for a biting, ominous rocker that has some Drive-by Truckers influences in the verses. They don’t go full guitar onslaught, though: the chorus includes hooky “ba-ba” and “whoa-oh-oh” vocals.

No matter where the band takes the sound, their core competency is memorable, hummable melodies. The slow-build roar of “Give Me What You Gave to Him,” the NeedtoBreathe-esque “Take Me There,” the piano-driven ballad “Better Man”–Midnight Pilot is in the business of hooks.

Where their previous albums were often intimate affairs, Midnight Pilot is a hugely orchestrated effort. Opener “Give Me What You Gave To Him” signals this by bringing a full gospel choir for the final crescendo. (There’s no better way to telegraph you’re going big than that.) “Takin My Chances” and “Birds Fly South” employ horn sections in two very different ways: the former in a Motown milieu, the latter in a flamenco flamboyance.

“Better Man” and “By My Side” incorporate big string sections (okay, several songs include big strings), while tunes like “Taking My Chances” and “Break In” put the contributions of their newest member, Dustin Wise on keys, to great use. “Break In” stacks strings and keys, making it a standout track. It helps that Geertsma can still really soar a vocal line, too. He gets his snarl on in a couple songs, giving them a bit of a gritty scrub. While the overall sound is upbeat and friendly, those rockers let frustration peek out.

Midnight Pilot is an album that shows the band in full-out, going-for-it mode. The quartet has poured their efforts into these songs, and it shows. The final product is akin to a more highly orchestrated version of Dawes’ alt-country and Americana rock, with some downtempo Simon-esque pop songs thrown in. It’s an impressive collection of tunes that unveil charms with every subsequent listen. If you’re into Americana/alt-country, Midnight Pilot needs to be on your radar. Their album drops today.

Perdido Key: Lucid Dream / Grungy Energy

April 28, 2015

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Underground club producers Perdido Key transcend house music, varying into many upbeat dimensions that lug dark tones beneath the surface. Their latest EP, Lost is Found, is a lucid dream, pulling us into a labyrinth of psychedelic compounds and synthetic bass lines. Lost is Found journeys through its five tracks like a person entering a new room every few minutes at a dingy house party.

The title track starts by immediately lulling you into an opening scene of a cinematic warehouse venue. You can almost feel the passing slimy shoulder of a trance dancer. Four-on-the-floor rhythm provides a steady, uniform beat that emphasizes its deep house origins. With dreamy, light vocals layered on top, this is a flawless contrast of harshness and lovely ambiance. It has an Odesza feel initially, but the jacking rhythm quickly cuts through the fogginess. The ending gets mistier, trailing behind us distantly, echoed. You soon realize this track, and the whole EP, is an obscure and perplexing take on electronica.

Quick, even tempo is carried over into “I’m Free,” which exhales a spellbinding river of sharp, varied, static sounds complemented by deep vocals that dip in tone. The build-up halfway through the song sucks up the griminess with a laser-beam zap, and then drops down a series of clanking sounds, like banging on dull kitchenware.

“Rat Acid” is a peak time Techno cut that hops, soars and pops. It sounds like a recording of an arcade game’s inner-workings with its all-over-the-place bounciness and Pac-Man-like bits.

Earl Grey numbs “Lost is Found” into something heavy and sublime that somehow still maintains an elegant loftiness. This may be due to the angelic whispering that at first tries to seep through unnoticed. It has a SBTRKT dankness to it. The William Earl remix of “I’m Free” belongs in an action thriller. Its drawn-out layers build suspense and keep us wanting more, epitomizing Perdido Key’s hypnotizing prowess.

Perdido Key’s eccentric take on techno is dense, frenetic and lively. This NYC duo has captured their city’s grungy energy in Lost is Found through entrancing left-field house and the familiar scents of a sweaty, pulsating basement. —Rachel Haney

Pearls Mahone: Western Swing for those who don’t know it

April 24, 2015

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Every time that someone sends me western swing, I want to write this opening paragraph again. Let’s just say I love this genre, not many other people my age do, and I feel like I have to do my part to help it out whenever I can. Pearls Mahone‘s Echoes from the Prairie is about as squarely planted in Western Swing as you can possibly be, which means that there’s sassy vocals, perky arrangements, and enough good vibes to go around two or three times. It’s also a lot of fun, regardless of if you’re into the genre or not.

So, just by being a western swing band, Mahone is calculated to get a high score from me. Beyond that, she’s an incredible artist: her voice is powerful and evocative and her choice of songs is brilliant. (Bonus: She’s got a song about my home state of Oklahoma.) Mahone’s voice is a confident alto that can be used a variety of ways: she can pull off vulnerable, sultry, sassy, and sentimental. “Saint & Sinner” also captures in a title the two sides of the coin that she espouses lyrically here: the brash “I Had Someone Else…” (“before I had you / and I’ll have someone after you’re gone”) and materialistic “Flash Your Diamonds” contrast with more tender work, like the nostalgic “Oklahoma Hills” and Billie Holliday’s “All of Me.”

The clutch of tunes at the end of the record is particularly entrancing: the last few start off with a thrilling “St. James Infirmary” and a earnest-in-sound “Old Time Religion” (which is elsewhere known as “I’ve Got That Old Time Religion,” a different song than the traditional “Old Time Religion,” but we’re getting into the weeds now). A short a capella version of “Go to Sleep Little Baby” (which you may know from O Brother Where Art Thou) comes next. Then Mahone seals the deal with a sparse, beautiful version of Tom Waits’ “Long Way Home,” one of my favorite tunes.

Mahone is thoroughly vintage in sound and immage (even evoking vintage typography and photography on her album cover), but she’s crafted an album of tunes that are perky, enthusiastic, and charming. If I had my way, everybody would listen to this and fall in love with Western swing. But until that great (hypothetical) day, we have a remarkable album to enjoy in Echoes from the Prairie.

The Weather Machine: Up, Up, and Away

April 22, 2015

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The Weather Machine‘s self-titled record was a marvel powered by inventive folk-inspired acoustic songwriting, deft lyrics, and an earnest DIY sheen. The “hyper-literate story songs and Dylan-esque prophetic jams” of their 2013 release are still present in Peach, but they’re tucked inside a new-found appreciation for Americana rock. Peach‘s focus is squarely on the sounds that The Weather Machine is able to wring from a well-rounded quintet, and this results in new charms.

But before I start detailing the changes, let me not get too carried away. Peach is still The Weather Machine’s doing. The ominous “Lilium” is right there with “Skeleton Jack” and “Alexei Mikhail.” The jaunty folk of “Some Evenings Are for Dancing” has the same wonderful tension between wry and passionate that characterized so much of their previous release. Okay, so, there’s a little more electric guitar, and it’s not “So, what exactly does it say?” (To paraphrase the genius’ refrain: “But what is?”) There’s still enough acoustic work to appease fans of that which was–and I am one of them.

So, about that electric guitar. The Weather Machine is now very firmly a rock band (among other things), because you can’t write a Springsteen-esque rock song as good as “Wannabe Cowboys” and not at least throw -rock on the end of your genre. There’s a cello* swooping its way through the track, but it’s not a folk-rock tune in the same way that The Low Anthem occasionally makes folk-rock. This is not a rocked-out folk tune: this is a rock song that has some folk instruments in it. The distinction is important for tunes like the super-fun “As Long as We Get Along,” because there’s more screamin’ guitar in that tune than you could possibly expect from a folk outfit. But it still has cello running all through it. It’s a tension–something The Weather Machine is good at.

Even though tension is their forte, they’re making steps toward integration: “Wild West Coast” and “How to Get to Roseburg” are the minor and major key exemplars, respectively, of melding the ideals and instrumentaion of folk and rock on this record. “Wild West Coast” is a low-slung tune that calls up some “The National lost in Arizona” thoughts, while “Roseburg” fuses hyperactive drums and insistent bass to a string-led hoedown stomp.

But right when you think you’ve got them figured out, the title track includes feathery arpeggiators, dreamy bossa nova vibes, and prominent acoustic fingerpicking in a track that sounds like Braids ft. Josh Ritter. (And what a track that would be.) “Breakup Song” and “MC vs. The Digital Age” are as theatrical as a good show tune should be. Things are happening on this record, y’all.

Peach is a record that expands on the template set out by their self-titled record, pushing them in all sorts of directions. Purists need not apply, but those who are interested in what else creative minds* have up their sleeves will enjoy the record immensely.

*correction: originally written as “violin.” It’s way high, though.
**correction: originally written as “the minds that set steel drums in a folk tune.” Apparently the thing that sounds like steel drums is also a cello. I’m as surprised as you are.

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

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