Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Elephant Micah’s minimalist folk lets the sunshine in

January 30, 2015

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Elephant Micah‘s Where In Our Woods is the lovely sort of album that makes everything seem warmer and more intimate. Micah is prone to long, droning minimalist folk tunes, but on this album he dismisses a lot of the dreary connotations by throwing open the curtains and letting the light in.

This is clear from opener “By the Canal,” which is a 3-minute guitar, percussion, and voice tune in a major key and a hummable vocal line. It’s very pastoral and rolling, the sort of wide-open tune that might score a romp through a field or a lazy day by a river. Even when he stretches songs back out to his preferred length, tunes like the 5-minute “Albino Animals” and 7-minute “Slow Time Vultures” ditch the despondency for gentle considerations of things.

There are moments that sound like old-school Iron & Wine, which is greatly to be praised; other moments sound like the pristine moments of The Low Anthem (also very exciting). But the overall effect is strictly Elephant Micah: he has his own style, and it’s beautiful. If you’re a fan of acoustic music and you don’t know about Elephant Micah, you’re missing out–one of the best songwriters around is operating in peak form.

Goodbye 2014: Matthew Squires and the Learning Disorders / The Maravines / Lord Buffalo

January 26, 2015

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Matthew Squires and the Learning DisordersWhere the Music Goes to Die.

The vision of indie rock that Neutral Milk Hotel put forward is alive and well in Matthew Squires. Where the Music Goes to Die is a mindbending mix of melodic sophistication, off-kilter arrangements, highly literate and oft-enigmatic lyrics, idiosyncratic vocals, and an uncompromising attitude toward the creation of the work. Heidegger, Plato, and copious Biblical references weave their way through the album, as Squires spins indirect (“When Moses Sighed”) and direct eulogies (“American Trash”) of American society.

The songs that bear the lyrics are at turns jaunty indie-rock tunes [the excellent “Echo,” “Some Corny Love Song (Devotional #1)”], major-key alt-folk (the title track, “Plato’s Cave”), and doomy folk (“When Moses Sighed,” “A Strange Piece”). Squires’ high-pitched voice keeps the whole ship sailing, as he brings the listener through the collection with ease. The ultimate result of the collection is similar to that of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea: Where the Music Goes to Die delivers an almost-overwhelming amount of ideas to take in, but all those pieces unfold through repeated enjoyment of the impressively refined melodic surface level. If nothing else, you’ll love singing along to “Echo”–maybe the Heidegger reference will hit later.

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The MaravinesDistelfink. It’s always a joy to hear a band build and grow from one release to another. The Maravines’ Distelfink follows their self-titled 2013 release by almost exactly 12 months. Their previous offering was a jangly, reverb-heavy indie-pop work; their new one takes those elements and crafts them into a pitch-perfect rainy-day indie-rock album.

From the album art, it’s clear that The Maravines know what they’ve got here: the gray skies and rain over a lush field and a colorful, nostalgic local business sign are a neat analog of the sound. The duo craft elegant, lush tunes that never turn into spectacles: the songwriting, arrangement, and recording are all purposefully tailored to create a consistent sound throughout the record. You can listen to the individual tunes like “Third Floor Statue,” “Maryland,” and “Flowers on Tonnelle” for their standalone beauty, or you can just let the whole album accompany you through (or transport you to) a dreary, relaxing day. That’s the secret weapon of the album: the green fields of the album art. This album ultimately plays not off the stark, forlorn beauty of Bon Iver or Michigan, but the lush beauty of Nightlands, Holy Fiction, and Sleeping at Last. Distelfink is a beautiful, evocative, wonderful album.

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Lord BuffaloCastle Tapes EP. Lord Buffalo is given to long, gritty, Southwestern, wide-open folk-esque landscapes that burn acoustic guitars into ashes and scatter them to the violent Santa Ana Wind. On the other end of the spectrum, they play terrifying post-rock with spoken/chanted/shouted vocals that sounds like the soundtrack to the apocalypse.

On this short EP, they focus more on their expansive, slow-burn sound than their fully-ramped-up version. A cover of Roky Erickson’s “Two-Headed Dog” sets the pace for the EP: it’s a pensive sort of jam with surreal lyrical imagery and a long wind-up that quits before the seemingly-inevitable explosion. The manipulated violins and ominous spoken word of “Valle De Luna” turn into a more abstract tune that’s a little harder to get into, but it still never gets near Armageddon. The final two tracks are essentially parts one and two of the same long song: the pounding, grumbling, low-grade roar of “Mineral Wells” leads directly into the instrumental “Form of the Sword,” which is a long tension release; it’s the sound of the metaphorical tide going out.

Even though Castle Tapes shows off the “lighter” side of Lord Buffalo, this is still a heavy, serious, thought-provoking release. Lord Buffalo says they’re building up to a full-length in 2015, which I can only expect will have more sweeping, booming, indignant folk/post-rock dispatches for us.

Premiere: John Calvin Abney’s Better Luck

January 24, 2015

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Until John Calvin Abney reappeared with Better Luck, he’d been a fixture in one particular corner of my mind. The last three semesters of my college experience were a difficult time for IC, as they include a 6-month shutdown of IC: the only substantial break I’ve taken in 11.5 years of writing here. I restarted tentatively in January 2009, trying to wrap my head around the impending end of college and the seemingly-unanswerable question of “what am I doing with Independent Clauses?”

That’s when I got to know John Calvin Abney: I went to his concerts, listened to his music, and even got him to help me record my debut indie-pop album. The working relationship helped get me back into music when I had been stalled for a while. But all things go; I left college, he left college, and we lost touch. So it’s with much amazement that I note several incredible things: 1. I get to debut John Calvin Abney’s Better Luck here on Independent Clauses and 2. John Calvin Abney is touring right now with M. Lockwood Porter, whom I met in high school and premiered an album for in 2014. It’s mind-bending, the smallness of worlds.

Click here to stream Better Luck.

Yes, yes, that’s very nice disclosure-cum-nostalgia, Stephen, but how does the record sound? Better Luck is a confident collection of tunes that draws off troubadour fingerpicking, alt-country arrangements, and a history of woodshedding. If you can imagine what Jason Isbell’s alt-country might sound like if he was a little more influenced by freak-folk and indie-pop, then you can imagine Abney’s sound. Fingerpicking ballads like “Scarecrow” and “James and Julie” are evocative, catchy, and beautifully arranged, while noisier tunes like “Stepladder” and “Dallas City Lights” include some of the guitar solos that made Calvin such an impressive musician to watch live a half-decade ago.

But where earlier versions of Abney wanted to be a indie-pop songwriter and a guitar god simultaneously, Better Luck shows him in tasteful, refined form. I’d bet Abney can still wail live, but on record he’s developed a cool, confident persona that translates to easily-relatable songs instead of towering walls of guitar heroics. There are moments that call for some guitar thunder, but they’re set in service of the overall song instead of vice versa. His voice has also tightened up: the melodies and delivery are easy, smooth, and inflected with subtleties that turn songs like “James and Julie” and “Scarecrow” from good songs to great ones. (He can also still wail a harmonica with the best of them, which is a bonus wherever you can get it.)

Abney’s songs have a home base in the space between alt-country (“I Can’t Choose,” “Stepladder,” “Cut the Rope”) and folk (“Sirens,” “Scarecrow”), with some outliers in related genres: the ominous, bluesy slant of “Gold Silver”; the Coldplay-esque piano balladry of “Museums”; and the perky, indie-pop-influenced title track, which would have fit neatly as the best track on an early EP of his. Throughout it all, Abney delivers memorable vocal performances, strong songwriting, and tight arrangements.

Just as I noted for tourmate M. Lockwood Porter, John Calvin Abney inhabits these songs thoroughly: nothing feels out of place, nothing feels forced. Porter uses that ease to shuffle through genres like a deck of cards; despite the distinct genre influences that can be noted throughout, Abney seems to be honing down into a definable style. What I can only assume was ruthless editing throughout the process has delivered these songs to their final form in top shape. Better Luck is the product of hard work in developing a sound; that work results in a tight, crisp, earnest album of alt-country/folk songs that resonate easily and deeply.

Goodbye 2014: Angela James / Quinn Tsan / Sloth

January 22, 2015

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Angela JamesWay Down Deep. James’ voice is the star of this rich, elegant collection. Her strong, clear, bright alto leads the way through sparse but not stark environments, occasionally striking out with not much more than a gentle, distant guitar. She goes completely a capella in the evocative title track, a bold, risky move that pays off gloriously. She effects a regal stance through these tunes by calling up mental images of the torchy lounge singer, the world-weary blues singer, and the old-school country diva–sometimes all within the same song: “Dirty Moon” mixes 1800s saloon-style piano with early ‘1900s ragtime and jazz instrument soloing.

The album moves expertly through combinations of smooth jazz, alt-country, and modern singer-writer, showing tasteful, thoughtful touches no matter which genre is dominant in a song. (Check the wonderful jazz instrumental “Salt Town.”) But even though the arrangements are great, James is at her best when she lets it be stark and quiet: “I Should’ve Known,” “Lost and Found,” and the title track are majestic and masterful. The deft, impressive songwriting of Way Down Deep is the perfect vehicle for James’ remarkable vocal talents while still being engaging in its own right: there’s not much more you can ask of an album. And it’s classy as anything, too. Highly recommended.

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Quinn Tsan – Good Winter. Bon Iver established brittle, distant, forlorn sounds as the definitive winter soundtrack; Quinn Tsan falls a bit afield from that vision by injecting warmth and immediacy into the vocals and instruments while still retaining the stark, austere singer/songwriter vibe. Songs like “Bedrooms III” perfectly capture the conflicted feel of sitting by a warm fire on a dark, cold night–your hands are comfortable, but the cold is creeping up your back. “Oh! The Places We’ll See!” delivers a similar vibe, but with a bit more of a sea shanty air. The title track of this six-song EP is actually the least wintry, as Tsan appropriates a lilting vocal style and a gentle-yet-perky instrumentation more similar to Lisa Hannigan, Regina Spektor, or Ingrid Michaelson. It’s an interesting, enveloping EP that establishes Tsan as someone to watch.

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Sloth – Still Awake. Sloth is pretty perfectly named for a rock band that combines a pronounced Pavement streak in the vocals and guitar with a shuffle-snare alt-country. It’s a situation where the best of both worlds come together: the endearing slacker ethos of early ’90s indie-rock meets the fresh-faced sounds of ’90s alt-country in tunes like “Matador Scarf” and “No Places to Be.” Scuzzy guitar drops into the background of tunes, mumbly vocals wander around with wry amusement written all over them, and overall good vibes permeate everything.

Even tunes that lean more to one side of their genre mix are fun: “Cheer Up Charlie” is devoid of alt-country and plays up the pseudo-funky chill that white boys were (are) all about; “This Dashboard Looks Like the Rest of Our Lives” is a bent take on trad country, while “Dark Dark Dark” is as close to Jayhawks as Sloth gets. But it’s opener “Smug Rock” that shows the best way forward for Sloth: a space somewhere between the two genres where they can put their stamp on the sound. Just like most early ’90s indie-rock, Sloth’s work is just plain fun to listen to: delightfully quirky, unexpectedly exciting, and altogether impressive.

Cameron Blake sets the singer/songwriter bar high in 2015

January 14, 2015

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Writing a whole album for single instrument and voice is a deceptively difficult task. No orchestration, no ornamentation, nothing but the melody, the rhythm, and whatever counterpoint you can get your fingers (or your looper) to do; what could go wrong?

Well, lots. I’ve heard a bunch of albums that consist of the same three songs over and over. I’ve discovered how important a backing band is to some musicians. I’ve heard a lot of grating flaws that were charming in a previous context. All this makes me appreciate even half-decent attempts at true solo records that much more. Cameron Blake‘s Alone on the World Stage is that rare album which showcases diverse songwriting skills and loads of memorable melodies within a very constricted medium. Alone impressively makes guitar and voice seem like an endless, expansive orchard with good songs ripe for the picking.

It’s not just that the songs are all there; they all sound so easy. The rolling fingerpicking of lead single “North Dakota Oil” seems to effortlessly buoy Blake’s baritone musings about the latest American oil rush. The insistent strumming that supports tales of hard-luck life in “Detroit” sounds no less assured. The pensive sway of “The Fisherman,” the bouncy “Piccadilly Circus,” and the precise-yet-gentle arpeggios of “Ultrasound” all show other facets of the diamond. “Fragile Glory” closes the record not by rehashing the sonic content, but by summing it up beautifully in a tender, expressive performance. Blake didn’t phone in a single song here: deft, purposeful work went into each of these twelve tracks. The result is an album that showcases his vast instrumental songwriting abilities without getting repetitive.

His lyrical songwriting is as adroit as the guitar work. Despite the implied political ends of the title, the album covers a wide range of topics. “Welfare Street” follows up on the promise of some politics, but primarily by focusing on the plight of the people involved in the situation–“Detroit” can be read in the same way. “Fragile Glory” expands the widescreen lens even more, taking a look at the whole human condition (“Hallelujah! We are human.”). On the other end of the spectrum, “Ultrasound” is a very personal song about becoming a father. But even if the scope is turned outward or inward, these are songs that are generous, even affectionate, toward their subjects. Instead of taking a calculated, sneering, ironic stance that can come out in pictures of people in culture, there’s a kind undercurrent to the lyrics that courses through the tunes almost as persistently as the bass note rhythms.

It’s peculiar that the most moving song on the album is one of two written for piano and voice: “Home Movie” is a soaring, passionate treatment of what the liner notes call “old silent film music” with new vocals and lyrics. Blake’s consistently evocative vocals are especially well done here, as his baritone lends the song a dynamism that fits with the deeply affecting lyrics. It’s the sort of song that doesn’t appear that often; everything comes together in that one performance to show the heart of the song and the songwriter. It’s the best of what an instrument and a voice can do; it’s the track that allures and calls so many people to try this sort of thing.

Cameron Blake’s Alone on the World Stage sees him standing out from the pack of singer/songwriters with powerful songwriting, passionate lyrics, and intimate performances. Blake sets the bar high for this year of albums.

Grab Bag 3: Zach Winters / Naïm Amor

December 17, 2014

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Zach WintersMonarch is a gentle, calming, delicate album of pristine singer/songwriter work reminiscent of Sleeping at Last. Winters’ modus operandi is to develop a single quiet element into a whole array of sounds without ever crossing the threshold into noisy.

The lack of kit drums throughout much of the album helps greatly in building this lush, soothing sound: strings, voice, two guitars, and auxiliary instruments can still sound intimate if there’s no snares and cymbals marshaling them forward. Instead, the sounds and songs here unfold tenderly, one part after another. This is not a pop album; these songs are not built for instant gratification. Monarch sets the mood for an hour, or a day, or a week.

The high points, insofar as can be picked out from the gorgeous whole, are the swells where Winters exercises his arrangement skills: the title track soars as Winters puts everything he has into the six-minute tune; “Deep Deep” shows his “poppiest” vocal melody, which makes the song sound like a lost Josh Garrels tune. “Meant” is a beautiful love song that calls up the closest Sleeping at Last comparisons, while “Tonight” is one of the warmest tracks I’ve heard in a while. Monarch is a romantic wonder in the literary and literal senses of the world: the emphasis on beauty appeals to those eloquent novels and poetry of yore, while lovers of all types will find a sonic analogue to tender affection. Highly recommended.

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Naïm Amor‘s Hear the Walls is also quiet, but in a different way. Hear the Walls is a stark, enticing album that relies on mystery and intrigue. The album’s allure starts with its lyrics: the songs are sung in both English and French, giving some of these songs the mystique of a foreign tongue. The ones that do appear in English draw on lightly reverbed guitar, distant arrangements, and whispered vocals to create their enticing moods.

Lead single “No Way Back” is one of the most full arrangements, incorporating prominent strings and a second guitar into the mix. The result is a tune something like Joseph Arthur or an acoustic Teitur might make: a mature, full-bodied song that just happen to be quiet. Follow-up track “Cherche Dans la Brume” features Andrew Bird-style whistling into a tune that’s far more tense than the small arrangement should be able to create. There are some lovely moments, such as the beautiful closing instrumental “Learning America”; the overall impression, however, is one of intrigue.

Amor’s offerings here are equally as mood-creating as Zach Winter’s, but in a very different way. The quiet tension throughout the release makes me look always just around the corner, waiting for the next element to emerge. If you’re into serious music a la Andrew Bird, Patrick Watson, or Joseph Arthur, Hear the Walls will provide a treat.

New Tongues’s post-hardcore is somehow compatible with Simon & Garfunkel

December 16, 2014

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I don’t cover a lot of post-hardcore anymore; the high-water mark of my engagement with the genre was proclaiming The Felix Culpa’s Sever Your Roots the album of the year in 2010. Since then, nothing has seemed as exciting as TFC’s work. I’ve thrown a review out here or there, but it’s been scattershot engagement with what’s happening in the genre.

Every now and then a band rousts me out of my slumber; New Tongues is the latest band to do it.

Suite is a roughly 22-minute release broken up into Side A and Side B (or four different songs). It can be read, therefore, as one giant piece (suite), two movements, or four sections. (No one can accuse New Tongues of not being detail-oriented.) If you listen to it as one long song, it is a furious, churning salvo of yelled vocals, gritty guitars, rumbling bass, and powerful drums. It spools out like one particularly long post-rock song, if you view it from a high-enough vantage point.

If you break it up into two movements, Side A is the more aggressive side: there’s a lot more work that seems directly born from the hardcore side of the name. After a short melodic intro, the group launches into pummeling toms and bass drums, hollered vocals, and heavily distorted bass. They keep it coming through the rest of Side A: lots of heavy leads towering over a stomping rhythm section.

Side B has more groove going on, right from the get-go: the distortion is much lower on the bass, the guitar is less arch, and the drums are a lot more even-keeled. Side B is also more distinguishable as two different tunes: “El Condor Pasa”–yes, a post-hardcore version of a Simon and Garfunkel song– mashes its way through the final four minutes of the EP. The song’s melody is set up as a pop song’s would be, so it feels different than the rest of the EP. Even though the structure of the original “El Condor Pasa” isn’t 100% pop business as usual, it is a strikingly different way for New Tongues to end their EP.

New Tongues’ Suite is a powerful, churning post-hardcore album that offers up the sound that I’ve come to expect along with some surprises. They pull off the traditional moves with aplomb and make left-of-center ones seem fairly normal. If you’re into noisy work, I recommend New Tongues to you.

Grab Bag 2: Morgan Mecaskey / James Robinson / Angelo De Augustine

December 15, 2014

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December is a tough month to release music: you’ve got orgs like Paste that have already released their year-end lists by the beginning of the month, blogs that are trying to clear out the files from November (or October, or September) to get all their 2014 commitments done, and listeners who are re-living the year instead of hearing new tunes. You should probably just wait till January. But if you don’t, and your release is really good, you might sneak one in under the radar. Morgan Mecaskey is 100% radar sneaking, because anyone who sounds like Sharon Van Etten fronting The National in an eclectic record store is going to get some good words from this camp.

Lover Less Wild is an adventurous, sultry, enigmatic EP that captured me on first listen. Mecaskey’s husky alto/tenor voice leads the charge on music that skirts boundary labels and ends up firmly in that catch-all camp of “indie rock.” Opener “White Horse” has soaring horns, female back-up vocals, churning guitars, push-tempo drums, and some royal fury in the vocals of Mecaskey herself. It sounds like she mentions the name “Jolene” in the chorus, which would hook her up to a long tradition of artists to find an admirable muse in that name. By the coda of the tune, Mecaskey is hollering “Sometimes I don’t feel like who I really am,” which is amazing, because she sounds completely like herself on that tune.

It’s followed up by three tunes that are a few notches down on the tour-de-force scale (but only a few; they all register). “Fighting Extinction” starts out as a distant, questioning mix between The Walkmen and Radiohead before erupting into some funky bass (?!), calling out some Motown horns, and bringing in a male vocalist for a contentious, exciting duet. It also includes the best saxophone solo this side of M83. Because it’s hard for Morgan Mecaskey to do anything twice, the title track opens with Wurlitzer and distant vocals before unfolding into a jazzy, hip-hop/R&B groove. Right about the time that I start to feel we should call up the Antlers and get them on the same tour, the song explodes into towering guitar walls and distorted bass. “Crushed” starts with nylon-string guitar in Spanish rhythms and ends with a full choir (a real one, not just a gang-vocal offering). In short, there is about as much happening in four songs as you can possibly imagine.

Mecaskey holds this whirlwind tour of music genres and styles together with her voice, which is a versatile, powerful, emotive engine. No matter what arrangement she’s leading, she’s in firm control of what’s happening. Her voice is at home wherever she lands it, which is as much a testament to her attitude and confidence as it is her immense songwriting chops. I don’t care if you’re listening to your favorite album of the year again (I know I am, no hate), you’ve got to check out Morgan Mecaskey’s Lover Less Wild. It will keep you spinning.

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James Robinson‘s Start a Fire EP is a charming four-song release. Robinson’s acoustic-centric style fits somewhere between singer/songwriter confessionals and adult-alternative pop sheen, like a more mystical Matt Nathanson or a more polished Damien Rice. This mash-up results in the best of both worlds (instead of the dreaded inverse), with Robinson’s smooth vocals getting all silky around arrangements that have some indie mystery and ambiguity in them. Think less Ed Sheeran crooning and more of that feeling you felt the first time you heard Coldplay’s Parachutes.

The quartet of tunes works nicely together, moving along a high-quality clip without drawing attention to any song in particular. “Demons” has some great bass work and a nice, memorable vocal line; “Holes in the Sky” opens with some nice guitar and vocals that evoke Jason Mraz; “Smoke & Ashes” is the most tender of the collection. But it’s the title track that takes high marks here: its polished arrangement frames Robinson’s voice perfectly, making this an impeccably done song that you’ll be humming for a while. If you’re looking for some gentle singer/songwriter fare with some mystery in it, go for James Robinson.

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Any discussion of Angelo De Augustine‘s Spirals of Silence must be prefaced by this information: de Augustine sounds, musically, vocally, and even lyrically, like Elliott Smith mashed up with Nick Drake. For many people, this is enough to send them running in its direction. I forwarded this to the resident Smith fan in my life and was promptly given compliments on my character after his first listen. It’s a hit.

But it’s not just that it sounds like Smith: the songs are incredibly well-done. de Augustine has the fingerpicking/breathy vocals/tape hiss thing down, but the things he chooses to fingerpick are beautiful, contemplative, melodic works that move sprightly along. Lead single “Old Hope” is a perfect example of this, as de Augustine whispers his way across a traveling, bouncy-yet-not-cheesy guitar line. (Side note: because this song sounds like Josh Radin, I realized that I’d never noticed how much Elliott Smith influenced Josh Radin.) Other highlights include the oddly heartbreaking “Married Mother,” the tender “I Spend Days,” and the intriguing “You Open to the Idea.”

I could say more about Spirals of Silence, but I think I’ve said all I need to in order to get you to listen to this or not. Viva Angelo de Augustine, please and thank you.

Grab Bag 1: Wolfcryer / Kite Flying Robot / Speak, Memory

December 12, 2014

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Even though I love big, towering achievements of heavily orchestrated arrangement, in my heart I am most partial to singer/songwriters who sit down with one instrument (maybe two, harmonica counts) and sing their song. Wolfcryer, aka Matt Baumann, has been cranking out a stream of guitar/vocals or banjo/vocals EPs since 2013 that have been uniformly fantastic. His last offering in this set of intimate, The Prospect of Wind, is no different. Baumann’s husky baritone meshes with his full chord strums and occasional harmonica swoop to create humble, dignified, powerful tunes a la old school Joe Pug.

Each of the 8 tunes on the album have their own merits, so its nigh on impossible to single one out as the highlight. “Clay and Stone” shows off how he can keep a complex lyrical line going while strumming furiously; “Little People” shows off his troubadour storytelling. “The War” kicks off the album with a protest tune. But it truly is the title track that takes the cake: Baumann’s impassioned vocals, emotive banjo strumming (if you don’t know how that works, just listen), and memorable chorus keep this one on loop in my mind. If you want to catch WolfCryer before the train leaves the station, this is the last whistle. It’s on to bigger and better things from here. Highly recommended.

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I just got married, so it’s profoundly dissonant listening to break-up songs. It’s even more odd when the breakup songs form an impressively heartrending album. Kite Flying Robot‘s Magic and Mystery starts out as a arpeggiator-heavy dance-pop album, but slowly unfolds into a narrative of how adults deal with (yet another) breakup. KFR’s synth-pop relies on staccato, separated synths instead of the huge swaths of noise that are en vogue in synthpop right now. This creates a sound that is inspired by the ’80s but also sounds other. References like Prince and ELO floated through my head as I listened; whether or not they’re accurate, the sound of this album isn’t business as usual.

Many songs here are fun and danceable (“Bad Girl,” “Criminal Supervixen,” “Belong to the Beautiful”), but the moments where KFR turns away from the club and gets introspective are surprisingly, almost uncomfortably raw in their musings. The title track and “So Goodbye” feature beautiful instances of songwriting, incisive turns of lyricism, and remarkably emotive vocal performances. Nikolas Thompson knows exactly how to control the phrasing of his lyrics and the delivery of those phrases throughout the album; when he uses those elements to pull heartstrings, the results are impressive. In that way, he’s not so different from Josh Ritter, and Magic and Mystery isn’t too far from The Beast in Its Tracks: an album of impressive songwriting trying to sort through the wreckage of a broken relationship in a dignified, mature, honest way. Kite Flying Robot has a lot going for it on Magic and Mystery; just, uh, keep your tissues handy.

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Speak, Memory‘s Value to Survival is a 20-minute EP of punk rock-influenced post-rock; it’s the sort of work that Deep Elm Records would have been all about in the early 2000s. The tension of heavily rhythmic drums and melodic lead guitar lines will make fans of Mare Vitalis-era Appleseed Cast grin in recognition.

The trio doesn’t ever get abstractly mathy in its ambitions: where the work is technical, it is complex for a songwriting reason. The center of closer “Blue Jacarandas. Lavender Skies.” is a powerfully emotive piece of music as well as an intricate one; “Splenetic” is held together by solid bass guitar work and a warm, burbling guitar tone that keeps away from the cold brittleness of some math-rock runs. This may be anchored by guitar acrobatics, but they’re of the flowing and beautiful type–not the brute force, shock-and-awe style. It also helps that all but one of the six tracks falls under four minutes, and two fall under three. This trio knows how to hit a tune, work their magic, and then get out before it gets repetitive. If you’re more into snappy motions than slow-building crescendoes, the type of post-rock that Speak, Memory plays will excite you.

500 Miles to Memphis builds out their sound even more, showing off songwriting chops

December 11, 2014

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The first two 500 Miles to Memphis releases I reviewed reveled in their country-punk genre elements. Fiddle, pedal steel, and frantic tempos all clashed and meshed and bashed and had a party. In Stand There and Bleed, the band has matured into itself, making fewer overt gestures to the genres they’re inhabiting or bending. This results in expert songwriting that is both incredibly situated and widely diverse.

First things first: frontman and songwriter Ryan Malott has expanded his lyrical repertoire. Sure, there are still a number of collapsed-or-collapsing relationship tunes on this record (including one simply titled “Alone”), but “Medication” is a touring song, “You’ll Get Around” is a song of advice to a sister, and “Takes Some Time” is – get this – almost a love song. If there’s change, it starts at the root, and the root of 500 Miles to Memphis is its lyrics.

From there, the sound has gotten more comfortable in places and expanded in others. “Medication” still falls squarely in the country-punk genre, with supercharged tempos, galloping drums, and wild lead guitar meeting for an excellent take on the country-punk genre. “How Would I Know” is one of the most torrential salvos of punk anger and energy I’ve heard 500MTM release–there are references to the chugga-chugga of hardcore punk in the bridge. It all sounds supremely assured: nothing is out of place in these tunes, but nothing sounds overpolished either.

The polish is saved for a later collection of tunes. In the same way that Blink-182 tempered some of their snottiness for the power-pop gems of their self-titled record, Malott has channeled his pop inclinations into a trio of tunes: “Bethel, OH,” “Easy Come & Easy Go,” and “Takes Some Time.” “Bethel, OH” is a gleeful rumination on the follies and foibles of youth steered by an effervescent, memorable chorus. The ’80s guitar-pop vibes of “Easy Come & Easy Go” make me think of Cheap Trick at its finest, while the staccato opening riff of “Takes Some Time” pleasantly shocked me in its relationship to those of classic rock mainstays Styx. (As a person who has purposefully attended a latter-day Styx concert, this is a positive reference, I swear.) The band rocks along perfectly in each of these tunes, not sounding out of their element in the least.

That’s not even the most compelling switcheroo the listener is privy to on the record: the last quarter of the record consists of three straight-up country tunes. “You’ll Get Around” is touching in its earnest pleas for a sister to make something of her life, sold beautifully by Malott’s excellent vocal performance and the band’s striking ease at back-porch banjo-pickin’. “Easy Way Out” is more ominous in tone, but it’s perhaps even more impressive in its arrangment. But the piece de resistance of their roots revival is the six-minute “Alone,” which starts off as a swooning lullaby before building to a pounding, towering, full-band crescendo full of frantic drums, searing organ, and overall band theatrics. If it’s not the closer of the live show, it totally should be. It doesn’t beat the 9-minute “Everybody Needs an Enemy” off We’ve Built Up to NOTHING in scope, but it trounces it in terms of impression.

Stand There and Bleed is, to me, an unlikely title for this record–especially considering that there is no title track. The lyrics do have more sturdiness to them, more recognition of the realities of pain and more appreciation for the joys of life. But the music covers so much ground that there is no time to stand still as a band or a listener. Stand There may not be the release that’s heaviest on the country-punk genre markers, but as a musical effort, it’s an impressive, diverse, striking record. Highly recommended.

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

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