Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Quick Hit: Lights & Motion / Jake McKelvie / Tim Carr

February 13, 2017

Lights & Motion‘s Dear Avalanche delivers more of the high-drama, major-key post-rock that composer Christoffer Franzen has come to be known for. Fans of this style of post-rock already know what to expect from a Lights & Motion album, and Franzen does not disappoint: there are a lot of delicate melodies that grow into giant codas, big explosions of sound, and pounding percussion.

There are a few new touches (or old touches with new emphasis): Vocals appear in standout “Silver Lining,” which will appeal to fans of Sigur Ros; “Perfect Symmetry” includes some intriguing patterned piano playing; “DNA” is a stomping, aggressive minor-key piece. Beyond these small changes, Franzen sticks to what works: closer “We Only Have Forever” opens with a celebratory guitar melody underpinned by punchy drums and big pad synths, then grows to a giant, revelatory conclusion. Fans of enthusiastic, cinematic post-rock will find much to love in Dear Avalanche. 

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Jake McKelvie‘s The Rhinestone Busboy EP is an alt-country record mostly because of the tone in which he sings and the lyrics he pairs with his traditional, spartan country arrangements. If McKelvie had a baritone drawl, this would be pretty close to vintage country. Instead, McKelvie’s voice is a wobbly tenor, and his lyrics include lines like “‘Cause I flat-out can’t kiss you with food in my mouth” and “I’m a brutal believer, you’re a tongue-tied late teether.” There’s a tension between these two elements, with neither the “alt” or the “country” winning out.

Instead of sounding goofy or unrealistic, McKelvie’s slightly warped delivery and alternately quirky/incisive lyrics are lent gravitas by the precise guitar strum and subtle arrangements. The results are a set of tunes that sound like a usually-cheery person trying to cope with a broken heart, trying to be mature about things but really just not wanting to. Like this set of lines from standout “Fantasy Team”: “And it’s time for me to leave / To practice my cursive and eat lots of ice cream  / And buy a new weight set to leave / In the box that it comes in and draft my new fantasy team.” Pretty real, man. If you’re not into stark alt-country, these six tunes may all sound similar; but if you’re a card-carrying sad-song-person, this one will be a great friend in your next sad-song-binge.

Side projects can be confusing whims, cross-genre experimentations, or weird one-off collaborations. They can also be unhurried, easygoing works that reveal new facets of musicians.

Tim Carr‘s The Last Day of Fighting has that unhurried ease in spades. His indie-pop/folk album has overtones of French pop in the meandering vocal melodies, airy guitars, and lazy rhythms; these together create a short album that’s relaxing to listen to.  “Easy for Me” is not just a fitting title to add on such a flowing album, it’s a standout tune that sees Carr’s room-echo vocal performance mesh beautifully with a rolling, tumbling acoustic guitar performance. Carr’s sleepy-around-the-edges tenor recalls Paul Simon’s at times in this Simon and Garfunkel-esque tune. “Beyond You” and “The Last Day of Fighting” also show off his folky bonafides, while “Kindred One” has some rhythmic alterations that give the tune a different, slightly African feel.

No matter what track you’re listening to on The Last Day of Fighting, you’re sure to hear some relaxing, enjoyable acoustic music. Lots to love here.

Matthew Squires: A Unique Indie-pop Vision

February 9, 2017

Some artists are so idiosyncratic that they become required listening despite whether you like that style or not. Depending on their popular success, these people are the greats or the “songwriter’s songwriter.” I’m talking Kendrick Lamar, Beyonce, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Daniel Johnston, The Gorillaz: people who are doing their own thing with a very specific, easily identifiable creative vision. Matthew Squires has been developing a very distinct creative vision for a while now, and Tambaleo brings his fractured, angular, skeptically-but-knowledgably-religious indie-pop to new heights.

The main focus of these songs is Squires’ weary, slightly off-kilter tenor. It’s not your standard voice, even for that particular region of the indie-pop map which celebrates the atypical and imperfect. Squires’ voice rotates between being a spot-on melody maker (“Welcome”), a speak/sing drawl (“Sex & Tragedy”), a slurry dartboard (“Unwholesome Health”), and an onomatopoeic sound machine (“Grace’s Drum”). Sometimes it’s all of these in the space of a single song or even the space of a few lines. For some, the singing will be the reason for attendance; for others, it will be the price of admission. Whichever end of the spectrum you land on, it’s a distinct voice.

The arrangements here are also excellent. Packed full of instruments that seem to be taking their own path through the track at loping tempos, these individual performances come together to fill out Squires’ unique songwriting sensibility. Squires is endlessly inventive and not afraid to experiment with tones, textures, rhythms, and instrument pairings. This makes for songs that clang (“Dead or Dying”), skip along in a twee fashion [“Hosanna (Devotional #3)”], push along in a recognizably indie-pop manner (“Welcome”), and even get their pop-rock on … sort of (“Shape of Your Heart”). All of them have a left turn about every 20 seconds. Some albums keep you on your toes; this one will have you en pointe.

One of the most interesting things about Squires is his continued relationship with religion in his lyrics. Squires is well versed: like any honest religious person, there are moments of certitude, moments of doubt, and moments of skepticism in his relationship to religion. “Unwholesome Health” opens with “Judas was all alone / when he called me on the telephone / and told me about the pain he had caused / about Mary’s face when her Son was torn apart,” while “Welcome” closes with Squires speaking to himself: “You were named after a friend of the son of God / now bracket for a moment whether God exists or not / Have you been kind? / Have you been kind? / Have you been kind?” “Hosanna (Devotional #3)” wears the references on its titular sleeve, while other songs weave religious characters, terms and ideas through the lyrics more subtly. It treats religion as not something to be partitioned away from life, but woven all through it. I dig it.

Not every song on Tambaleo is independently majestic (“Debt Song” isn’t my favorite), but the whole collection is a deeply thoughtful, incredibly well-crafted album from a musician who is hitting his stride. This is the sort of album that not very many people could have made; a wild array of influences mesh into a idiosyncratic, deeply interesting album. Recommended.

Alex Dezen plays you his excellent version of the radio

February 8, 2017

Learning how to write in a genre can be a lifelong exploration, even for the most talented of musicians: Josh Ritter has made a whole career exploring the nooks and crannies of modern folk. The Mountain Goats spent a whole decade mastering the lo-fi recording before spending another 15 years doing indie-pop in tons of different styles. As a result of the difficulty and time required to be an expert in one genre, skepticism is warranted when an artist leaves their home genre for another.

This is an even more risky proposition when the target isn’t one new genre, but a multi-genre, broadly “pop” album. Yet despite these many cards stacked against Alex Dezen‘s second solo outing II, the former Damnwells frontman has created a fascinating, incredibly enjoyable album that dabbles in half-a-dozen pop genres. It’s proof of Dezen’s songwriting prowess that he’s not just great in one genre: he’s great in a bunch of them.

Dezen doesn’t try to hide that’s he indulging in any flight of fancy that comes his way: The album opens with “When You Give Up,” a Miami Vice-esque noir new wave tune. Dezen’s lithe voice shines here; not only could he sing the phone book and make it sound great, he could sing it in a wide variety of genres, as well. His knack for catchy melodies is on display everywhere, from the vocal melodies to acoustic guitar riffs to blocky synth blasts. “Holding on to You (Holding on to Me)” has more ’80s rock vibes–this time more Heart than Blondie (“Barracuda,” in particular). As ever, the chorus hook is polished till it glows–you’ll be mumbling “holdingontoyou / holdingontoME” for a long while afterwards.

From there on, Dezen goes in full-on world tour mode. “Randolph Tonight” is CCR-esque swamp rock; “I Am a Racist” is a straight-up doo-wop tune; “New York to Paradise” is a lost Billy Joel piano ballad; “Fuck or Fight” is an Eagles-style country-rock rambler. None of these songs feel insincere or mishandled; Dezen waltzes his way through each of them with a deft hand. It’s even more to his credit that he played almost every instrument on this album. It’s one thing to write a melody in a different genre, and it’s another thing entirely to have the chops on multiple instruments to pull off a whole arrangement in another genre.

My favorite tunes here are ones that pair excellent arrangements with incisive, carefully wrought lyrics. The REM jangle of “I Had a Band” relates anecdotes from a coming-of-age tale with the emotionally charged punch line “I never had much of a father / but I had a band / yeah, I had a band.” Anyone who’s been in a band will relate to the loving, wry tone that runs through the lyrics, whether or not your relationship with your father was great. IC had the distinct honor of premiering the Graceland-inspired “Everything’s Great (Everything’s Terrible),” which has a thoughtful set of lyrics about people in the contemporary moment just trying to make it through. The acoustic closer “The Boys of Bummer” is a lovely song about people who write sad songs by a person who writes sad songs. The dignity with which the characters meander through the tune makes me think of The Hold Steady.

Because of the herculean effort Dezen expends on every track, the album is only 9 songs. Yet in those nine songs he creates his own personal version of the radio, putting his imprint on pop music. It’s a rare album that manages to pull off all that Dezen does here: this is a fully-realized album on “extra difficulty” mode. If you like pop music in any way, shape, or form, you need to hear this album. Highly recommended.

Moon Hooch: Just Dance

January 12, 2017

Closing out 2016 with a free download of their EP Joshua Tree, the cacophony of sound that is Moon Hooch throws down a bold statement: Just dance. The EP is a simple thank you to fans for a widely successful year that included sell-out shows across Europe and the United States, along with critical acclaim for Red Sky.

“We rented a house and set up a little studio in the Mojave desert just outside of Joshua Tree National Park,” explains Wenzl McGowen. “We got together in the same room with our instruments and said, ‘Let’s just hit it’ and started playing whatever came to our minds. Somehow this process created eight songs. Don’t ask us where they came from, but we certainly enjoyed bringing them to this planet.”

Drenched in the surreal quality of the Joshua Tree environment, this EP opens with “Sandstorm,” hitting that desert rave on fire. Overarching melodies from the swirling horns repeat with a precision that is cohesive in its chaos, like desert sands–each minute but necessary. “Dancing Dwarf” brings it in a notch but still has that controlled lullaby of screaming saxophone. (It’s been said that the saxophone is the closest instrument to the human voice.) Not needing to be jazz or fusion allows Moon Hooch to just be. No explanations needed.

Stalking out of the party, “Mountain Lion” sprinkles in the middle eastern flavor that has influenced much of the band’s evolution, philosophy, and social consciousness. The dance party slides in to create the shout of “Jiggle.” Melodic sax soars and shouts lyrics with a staccato, jazz-infused mayhem that bringings to mind the roaring twenties. Hitting a stride halfway through, twisting and stealthy, spiraling into another dimension, is a final crazy “Criminals” breakdown.

To explain “Improv Intro” seems silly. Just listen. The three musicians demonstrate the skill and brotherhood that has developed, as each fit a groove. “Improv” feels like a creation from another universe and quite possibly is. This fusion of metal, jazz, experimental, and improvisation brings chills in an auditory freak-out that feels oh so good.

“Ballad” is a close your eyes and dream moment on rapid fire release, a brief sensory experience. “Outer Urge” brings to a close a journey that is a gift to experience. Looping back around to the beginning with familiar composition is an intriguing skill that Moon Hooch keeps in their arsenal. Regardless the point is above all else: just dance. Lisa Whealy

Moon Hooch will hit the road on both coasts and abroad in 2017, starting in February:

February 1 – Washington, DC – U Street Music Hall
February 2 – Morgantown, WV – Main Stage
February 3 – Columbus, OH – Winter Werk Out
February 4 – Ferndale, MI – Otus Supply
February 8 – Buffalo, NY – Buffalo Iron Works
February 9 – Saranac Lake, NY – Waterhole
February 10 – Burlington, VT – Higher Ground
February 11 – Northampton, MA – Pearl Street Clubroom
February 12 – Hamden, CT The Ballroom @ Outer Space
February 18 – Brooklyn, NY – Brooklyn Bowl
February 22 – Santa Cruz, CA – The Catalyst Atrium
February 23 – Chico, CA – Lost On Main
February 24 – San Francisco, CA – The Fillmore
February 25 – Petaluma, CA – Mystic Theatre
February 28 – Charlottesville, VA – The Jefferson
March 1 – Charleston, SC – Pour House
March 2 – Tampa, FL – Crowbar
March 3 – Gainesville, FL – Changeville Festival
March 4 – Tallahassee, FL – The SideBar Theatre
June 2 – Oslo, NO – Nattjazz Festival
September 22 – Thornville, OH – Resonance Music & Arts Festival

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Cindertalk: Pushing the boundaries of what pop music can do

December 30, 2016

Cindertalk‘s All a Shimmer is an ostensibly-indie-pop album that transcends boundaries and genre labels, creating a mind-bending world of tensions: complex/spartan arrangements; huge/tiny lyrical concerns; vulnerable/brash emotive turns; dark/light moods; gentle/forceful instrumentation; subtle/powerful vocals. Jonny Rodgers’ work with tuned glass shows through consistently, but never dominates; instead, all the pieces come together into whirling, enigmatic, satisfyingly unusual pieces.

Rodgers has been working with tuned glass for a long time now, and the glass has transcended use as a side or even feature instrument. It is now an integral part of his work, an instrument that has expanded his sense of what is possible in a song. Rodgers can use the glass as a beautiful pad synth (“Ruminating,” “All A Shimmer”), a feathery mini orchestra (“You Will Suffer”),  a guitar solo (“One of Their Own”), a lead riff [“Swing (Your Low Song)”], a marimba-esque percussion element (“Mutter Mutter Mutter”) and as a foil to Imogen Heap-style autotune (“Twitter Queen”).

It’s not just that the instrument is used in so many different ways; it has so thoroughly suffused Rodgers’ songwriting that the sounds and rhythms of other instruments are intertwined and influenced by the glass. The percussion here is muted throughout, hitting with punch but not snap; whether subtle electronic beats (“The Frozen Field”), distant kit drum (“Twitter Queen,” “Hurrah Hurrah,” “One of Their Own”), or something in-between (“Mutter Mutter Mutter”), the percussion here fits perfectly in against the glass and the rest of the indie-pop arrangements. The guitars, piano, and bass (often through bass keys) have similarly unique personality as a result of their interaction with the glass. The guitar is sometimes precise and patterned like glass-tapping, while the piano often lush yet precise in its stops and starts. This is a musical album like none you’ve ever heard before.

However, it’s not just the instrumental prowess that makes this an irresistible album. The vocal tone and vocal melodies are beautiful and catchy. (Those two adjectives don’t always go together.) From the forceful indie-rock attitude of “Mutter Mutter Mutter” to the yearning beauty of “Love, I Will Remember Your Hands” to the swooping “Swing (Your Low Song),” many of these songs have distinct, precise, memorable melodies that don’t blend into each other. There’s a theme throughout (these aren’t unrelated pieces), but I find myself humming many different melodies from this album, not just one or two. This is partially due to Rodgers’ unusually wide vocal range: his voice can reach to dramatic, perfectly-sustained high notes that make the vocals seem almost as crystalline as the glass. You’ll hear his voice once and remember it.

The lyrics that Rodgers pairs with the music are equally as impressive as the music, which is no small feat. Not a single song here traffics in cliches except “Twitter Queen,” which does so to subvert them in uncomfortable, social-commentary-laden ways. Elsewhere, he writes a love song to his lover’s hands, discusses why death may not be the worst possible thing that can happen to you (solo piano elegy “I’m Only Dying”), thinks through mental and emotional suffering (“Ruminating,” “You Will Suffer,”), ponders the problem of evil (“All A Shimmer”), and more. (I’m still not entirely done pondering what the lyrics of “Hurrah Hurrah” mean when paired with the minor/major tension of the instrumental accompaniment, but it is the type of song that will make you think about it.)

The whole album is a powerhouse, but there’s a suite of three songs in the middle that really took my breath away. “Ruminating” is the closest to an indie-pop song that Cindertalk gets on this record, as the glass, acoustic guitar, percussion, and harmonica come together to form a song that flips back and forth from airy openness to concrete, almost-country-esque sections. The melodies and lyrics are straightforward (at least as compared to the rest of the album), but they’re still unique and lovely. This fun tune leads into my favorite song of the record, “You Will Suffer.” The opening lyrics tell you everything you need to know about the content of the song and the complex rhythmic patterns that flow through it: “You / You will suffer / some things alone / but it / it / will show you / who you are / who you are.” The bass guitar doesn’t have too many important roles on this record (and this one may still be a guitar modulated down a couple octaves), but the bass here does some great work, along with the keys and the glass. It’s a whirling, complex song–a great microcosm of the record.

The final of the three tunes in the suite is one of the most complex-sounding on the record (although “Mutter Mutter Mutter” objectively has more going on), due to the almost-mathy patterning of the guitar and percussion rhythms. Rodgers’ vocals shine here, as he uses vocal percussion, soaring wordless arias, and lead vocals here. The song rolls, starts, stops, starts again, adds in instruments, drops out instruments, and generally never lets you walk in a straight line for four and a half minutes. It’s expertly crafted, and, again, a microcosm of the record.

I could keep going, but this is already one of my longest reviews of the year. All A Shimmer is a beautiful album that enthusiastically and successfully pushes the boundaries of what pop music can do. Rodgers shows off an incredibly unique songwriting voice, a deft arranging hand, and expert engineering skills. It was an easy choice to include in my albums of the year. If you’re into adventurous music, there was no more an adventurous album this year than this one. Highly recommended.

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December Singles 1: Acoustic / Folk / Country

December 8, 2016

1. “These Bells Will Ring” – Bitter’s Kiss (feat. Blue Stone). It’s ostensibly a Christmas song, but the melody has an anthemic power that transcends the holiday. In this time of division throughout the world, a well-written and well-arranged plea for peace and unity is deeply appreciated. Mad props.

2. “Alibi” – Rich Stevenson. Enthusiastic, even jubilant, major-key folk with flashes of The Tallest Man on Earth, Guster, and more coming together for an infectious mood and sound.

3. “Minute Steak” – Trookers. Pretty sure no one’s ever titled a song “Minute Steak” before. Shades of Frightened Rabbit and Elbow color this precise-yet-full-throated indie/folk mashup.

4. “Came Down From the Mountain” – Matt Townsend. A full, thick folk arrangement provides the backdrop for Townsend’s high vocals, which swoop and sing with confidence. The vibe is “let’s sit around the fireplace while snow falls outside.”

5. “Hold Me” – Tors. Soaring falsetto, tight harmonies, intimate production, and delicate guitar work–what else are you looking for?

6. “Walk Away” – Lowlight Gathering. Anyone who starts out with a cappella harmonies has a lot of confidence in their vocal chops. And it pays off, as this dreamy, fluid folk song is focused on the big, thick harmonies.

7. “T.B.D.” – Hanging Valleys. This acoustic-fronted indie song is deeply moving. It sounds almost as if Bon Iver got anthemic, or if the Fleet Foxes got a bit more electronic/atmospheric. Either way, it’s lovely.

8. “Where Is Your Heart?” – The Fair Wells. High-drama folk that combines the romanticism of male/female duo folk with the emotional punch of old-timey banjo picking. It’s that happy sort of sadness. (In other words, the “sad/beautiful music” Batman signal is on.)

9. “Hold On” – Little Quirks. An all-female alt-folk trio that’s heavy on thumping percussion, pounding piano, and powerful vocals.

10. “Doing Something Right” – TAMMY. Walking-speed vintage country, complete with lazy harmonies, thrumming stand-up bass, and slo-mo drums. TAMMY’s voice is lithe, smooth, and fits perfectly.

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Cameron James Henderson: Blues-folk following the greats

December 4, 2016

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With an honours degree in classical guitar, it is not difficult to hear the talent of Sydney, Australia’s Cameron James Henderson. “This definitely influences my composition,” he says. Influenced by the obvious–Bob Dylan and Tom Waits–it is refreshing to hear echoes of Jim Campilongo, Blake Mills, Ry Cooder, and Marc Ribot coming from his guitar. There is also a vibe that comes from down under. “Definitely John Butler and Ash Grunwald were guys I looked up to heaps during high school. Saw both of them a bunch of times etc and played their songs,” says Henderson.  

The twelve-song Storm Rollin’ In is a treat for blues-folk fans worldwide. The laid back shuffle of opener “Storm Blues” feels like the salt air and beaches of Sydney. Simple, elegant storytelling follows with “Across the Water,” whose guitar work shines. “Lifeboat” features satisfying slide guitar work, while classic guitar riffs blend Stevie Ray Vaughn and John Butler Trio beautifully. The metaphor-filled “Refugee” is a bit of brilliance. Channeling Bob Dylan in vocal style, the song is a powerful testament to humanity’s weaknesses. The mix is stellar, allowing the song to breathe out the message freely.

“No One’s Here/Cares” has a Ray Wylie Hubbard vibe, throwing down a groove that rocks. Sprinkled with harmonica and songwriting nimbly mirroring songwriter Chris Gillespie (AU), this song is an incredibly fun romp. Sequencing on this album works together to create an experience; without “Stand Amazed” (the intro), “Floating” would lose the power of imagery. Stark and haunting acoustic guitarwork slides into the song gracefully. Vocals are layered in with classical guitar composition–simply beautiful musically and lyrically. “Wisest Man” is a shout in the dark, back in the folk singer-songwriter style with an essence of The Milk Carton Kids.

Things shift adeptly to “Old Man Stomp,” then abruptly jump to “Shelter,” as if one could not be there without the other. B.B. King makes his voice heard, here. There is a familiarity with the easy rolling songwriting, hearkening back to the beginning tracks of Storm Rollin’ In. “She’s Not There” brings in what sounds to be the ocean, a continuous pull of life that gives a fluid foundation to the pain of love. “Don’t Go Drifting” closes out the album in style. Soaring, J.J. Cale-style electric guitar and vocal phrasing give an extra punch to the message of the song. This follow-up to Cameron James Henderson’s 2014 debut album is a step up in songwriting dexterity and composition, showing a new depth in vocal delivery. Get yours at www.cameronjameshenderson.com/. —Lisa Whealy

Shiloh Hill’s Wildflower

October 6, 2016

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Shiloh Hill creates a vibe with their latest release Wildflower that feels like running barefoot through a summer rainstorm, fresh and alive. The eleven-song album combines eclectic instrumentation that embarks on a blend of New Orleans Bourbon Street combined with traditional folk. For the rest of the world that is not in the Greensboro, North Carolina, area where this band blossomed, Shiloh Hill is a treasure that has yet to be unearthed since the album dropped in August. 

Supported by regional touring, the band’s current lineup consists of Nick Wes (lead vocals, acoustic guitar), Mamie Wilson (lead vocals, mandolin, glockenspiel), Julian Jackson (background vocals, banjo, electric guitar, dobro), Zeke Churchill (background vocals, drums), and Michael Kuehn (bass guitar, piano, organ) with the regulars joined in studio with friends Benjamin Matlack (trumpet & flugelhorn) and Evan Ringel (fiddle).

“The Artist” begins with a simple pizzicato of strings, building a cinematic vibe with vocals  in layers  from Wes and Wilson. Drifting like a summer breeze with banjo and trumpet accompaniment, the parade that is “Better Fool” begins by clearly marching to a different drum. Admittedly love’s fool, lyrically closing out with a restrained chorus and banjo is brilliant. Creating separation within a song is a challenge that is achieved here with instrumentation and tempo.

Moving it down to to an easy roll, “Mama’s Boy” enhances that Americana quality this album embraces. Juxtaposed with lyrics that bleed anguish, the arrangement is downtempo in a sweetly triumphant way. With horns leading the parade, “Wildflower” is the closest to a pop song on the album. The vocals really shine here, possibly because they are the storytellers, metaphor spreading the seed on the wind. “Seasons” rests roughly halfway along the journey; it’s a traveling song with the anticipation of new things ahead. Mandolin is featured up front in the mix here, and it is a beautiful touch. “Dust” feels like something that bands like The Avett Brothers may have inspired, with banjo and guitar along with the harmonies of Wes and Wilson. Taking the genre in a new direction, horns are added in a subtle way here. The tune pulls out into a solo piano accompanied by a fine bit of banjo work, coming together in a haunted musicality.  

“Box of Pine” kicks the album into high gear with an opening that pulls fiddle and banjo to the front of the mix to highlight the roots of North Carolina musical tradition. Relying heavily on the familiar, the song is sweet with dobro and a toe-tapping infectiousness. “Stale” pulls that new folk thing back in with a fiddle squeal. An almost hypnotic piece is tossed on the table here with a dare. Something so fresh can never be considered old. Songs like “Six Months” and “Riverstone” are lyrically based: the things that are not wanted are usually things that are unavailable, smoothed by time to be less resistant to the currents of life. Closing out with “Oh My Love. Oh My Sweet,” Wildflower goes out in the way it came in, on a soft spring breeze: fragrant, brightly colored, and sweet. —Lisa Whealy

Samuel Alty’s flamenco-inspired folk is a lot of fun

October 3, 2016

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Samuel Alty‘s Hammering Nails into the Sky is a folk/singer-songwriter album that draws heavily off a standard flamenco guitar idea: the bass notes play a straight rhythm while the treble plays a speedy, syncopated rhythm over it. Most of the tracks here play off some variation of that theme, creating a unique, energetic feel to the record.

“Be Brave” is the most identifiably flamenco of the tunes: the rhythms are familiar, the tune’s in a major key, and the whole thing makes me want to sway and dance cheerfully. “Guiding Hands” is a minor-key, even ominous flamenco-inspired piece that retains the treble/bass relationship. That relationship diversifies in “Life It Is for Living,” where the stand-up bass plays the ostinato notes and Alty uses the whole rattling guitar as the counterpoint; it’s inverted in “Revolution,” where the treble is the repeated and the bass and vocals go wild. “Travelling Song” is a complicated instrumental ballad where both the bass and the treble are moving around. Alty does an impressive job turning one overacrching idea into a wide array of compelling song structures.

There are a few tunes where Alty breaks from his theme. “Sanction” is a near 7-minute singer/songwriter tune that focuses heavily on his baritone range instead of his guitar work. It’s a spacious, sparse work, not unlike Bonnie Prince Billy in places. “Glory” is even more focused on Alty’s voice, as he multitracks himself singing and beatboxing for a song that’s completely a capella. It has a trip-hop vibe to it, which is a break in the mostly-speedy tempos of the record.

Hammering Nails into the Sky is a fun, intriguing, intricate record that is probably unlike what you’re listening to right now, unless you’re listening to José González or going flamenco dancing. It has charms on first blush and rewards multiple listens. If you’re looking to expanding your musical horizons today, definitely check out Hammering Nails into the Sky. 

Red Sammy & Some Charming Trespassers: True Believer

September 27, 2016

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Indie folk rock musicians Red Sammy & Some Charming Trespassers channel some greats here in their latest release, True Believer, dropping this fall. Taking a page from the song book of Tom Waits is a challenge, often landing in a crash. This is definitely not the case here, with a collection of eight songs that feel like a throwback to something past, a campfire along the train tracks of life.

Adam Trice is Red Sammy, and that is an important distinction to make. His songwriting is inspired, simple and down to earth. Storytelling is a lost art to many indie musicians; a few come to mind, like Sedona’s decker. and Brooklyn transplant Charles Ellsworth. Both pull in ghosts from the greats as shadows to call on. Some Charming Trespassers are a band of highly skilled musicians including Sarah Kennedy (violin), John Decker (resonator), and Rebecca Edwards (backing vocals) who, with the help of sparse arrangements, play a simple part in the success of this album. They are vehicles that get out of the way and let the music soar.

Opener “Caribou” takes this release out in a stampede for people not yet familiar with Red Sammy. Subtle and powerful, it weaves together a beautiful violin and loaded lyricism. At a little over three minutes, a lifetime is a picture the song paints. “Barefoot in Baltimore” is a love song in the tradition of Appalachian bluegrass, except this is coming out of Maryland, which makes it all the more transcendent of race and economic status. Music is a great equalizer, and “Barefoot” is just that.

“Chickenwire” is poetry bleeding with pain, and “Western Bound” is pain bleeding with hope, all done with skilled arrangements and poetry. Strange thing is, the message is the same, just wrapped in different ribbon. “Heaven the Electric Sky” is filled with harmonic echoes that flesh out the song, reinforcing the band’s stated desire for sparse arrangements on this album. The music shines. Choices like this make this album, and indie music in general, such a force.

“I Knew You Better” is a testament to thinking and how this is a dangerous pastime. Violin-driven, it is terrific. “Santa Ana Wildfire” is that drawn out feeling that isolates us all. As a bit of sequencing genius, it tells a beautiful story that is a complete contradiction and paradox to the previous song. True Believer closes with “Aunt Mary”: sometimes all there is in life is the comfort of an old song, a campfire, a cold beer or a cup of coffee with friends. Desperation is a shared and palpable thing, with taste, sound, and feel. Let this one settle in like a pair of well-worn boots. —Lisa Whealy

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

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