Brandon Cunningham‘s Give Out is the sort of album I listen to when I’m alone; sometimes when driving a long stretch of road, sometimes when hanging out in my room. The slow-churning quartet of alt-country tunes has a big, spacious feel that fits a wide-open road; it also has a sort of claustrophobia that hangs over its head, as if someone was trying to expand a room but finds itself banging up against the walls.
There’s some Jason Molina sounds trapped in the wrenching, tension-filled “Doubt,” as the song grows from a tiny spark to a roaring, torrential guitar wall, complete with thrashing cymbals. The reverb, the heavy emphasis on distant sounds, and the sense of weight all mark the track as a soon-beloved of Songs: Ohia listeners. “Lines in the Sand” lets a little light in the cracks by playing acoustic guitar instead of electric, but there’s still a heaviness to the track in the political / religious subject matter. “Bush Wives” is downright chipper in comparison, sounding kind of like a Keane song–which is still pretty thick sonically. “Baby” is a forlorn alt-country love song in the style of Mojave 3, which appeals to my “injured romantic” sensibilities.
Give Out is a diverse foursome of songs that show Cunningham’s ability to corral a small amount of instruments into very specific moods. He can turn it up into a mournful wall of sound or keep it quiet with pensive acoustic tunes. Whichever way he goes, he brings a passion to the songs that allows them to feel real and physical; these songs feel like they grab me by the shoulders and demand I listen. Cunningham should be a name you know.
I’ve been repping The Parmesans as hard as I can for as long as I’ve known about their music, as their bluegrassy/folk-poppy/traditional string band maelstrom is endlessly fun. Their new album Flat Baroque continues their streak (now three albums and two EPs long) of fun, clever, interesting, smile-inducing releases.
They lean heavily on guitar, mandolin, stand-up bass and three-voice harmonies, and it works perfectly. The Parmesans have a habit of recording their favorite songs multiple times (“Delirious Dream,” “JuJaJe” and “See For Yourself” reprise this time), and that gives their albums a feel of a backporch concert that just keeps rolling on. They didn’t record “Walls for the Wind” this time, but hey, they might go for a fourth round on the next album. It’s that sort of off-the-cuff attitude to track listing that’s infused in the tracks themselves. The Parms are clearly having fun, and that is hard to miss as a listener.
They’re developing a signature melodic and rhythmic style in the guitar, which is really cool. It’s fun to hear sounds develop over a long period of time. They’ve also figured out what type of song they’re really good at; consequently, there are no bad tracks on Flat Baroque. “Call Me When You’re There” and “Bad Idea” stand out among the new tracks, but all of them are worth repeating multiple times. They tracked this one live, as they have all their other albums; the difference is that they did so at Tiny Telephone in San Francisco. They’re moving up in the world! If you’re into fun, unique takes on traditional string music, then Flat Baroque is most definitely for you.
They’re on tour right now; they’re passing through Raleigh (Fuquay-Varina!) on Sunday. I’ll be there, hoping for “Walls for the Wind” and “Bad Idea.”
Lindsey Saunders‘ four-song EPMiles Before Sleep is a solo acoustic guitar effort that showcases her impressive technical and melodic skill. Saunders’ modus operandi in these tunes is to set up a melodic environment not unlike that of a solo piano piece: an introductory section to establish mood, then development of themes, then variations on those themes–all while managing the crescendo/descrescendo flow of the piece. (It was originally meant to accompany a dance piece by Texture Ballet.)
This wouldn’t work if Saunders weren’t so impressive at fretwork: the flowing opener “Task” leads the listener on a relaxing journey full of melody ideas, while “Decision” amps up the speed of the work and pulls off some complex, syncopated lead lines. “Questioning” opens with the feel of the former but graduates to the latter, featuring some of her most aggressive, acrobatic-sounding fretwork. “Acceptance” returns to the lullaby-esque feel of “Task,” closing the EP on a pensive, beautiful note. I’m only rarely sent acoustic solo guitar work, but so far I’ve enjoyed what I’ve heard. Perhaps only those with intense chops even consider pulling it off. Lindsey Saunders has both the technical skill and the melodic songwriting chops to write impressive and engaging solo guitar tunes, which is rare. The EP drops November 4.
Tulsa’s finest totally unclassifiable wunderkinds Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey are back for their 26th album, Worker. Taking a break from longform work after several years of work on The Race Riot Suite, JFJO are delving into their indie-rock and hip-hop influences. The ever-evolving, piano-led trio spends the bulk of Worker writing short songs full of grinding noises, synth blasts, abrupt shifts, and funky breakdowns.
“Appropriation Song” seems to be self-aware in its pilfering of noises, melodies and rhythms from other genres. “Better Living Through Competitive Spirituality” uses old-school analog synths to create one of the coolest tracks I’ve heard in a long time. It’s got jazzy influences, but it’s essentially a post-rock song. Furthermore, it could be the backing track to some really impressive alt hip-hop; it would be incredible if they got some rappers to create some remixes on this track in particular. “Bounce” could also work brilliantly for a hip-hop remix, as it already has the rhythmic tensions present in great hip-hop.
JFJO is a fascinating band: 20 years into their run, they’re putting out work that’s just as challenging (if not more) than their early or mid-period work. They may not have much of the “jazz” from their name left in their sound, but they do have one trait of great jazz musicians: they’re getting better with age. Worker is a challenging, engaging, rewarding listen that will please fans of experimental, adventurous post-rock. The album drops tomorrow, October 14.
The Widest Smiling Faces‘ Sin Waves is also difficult to describe, but in a completely different way from JFJO. Sin Waves is a 33-track album of dreamy, woozy, reverb-heavy, gentle tracks. Only 6 of them break one minute, though; TWSF prefers to cast off tiny, impressionistic swatches of sound that lean heavily on meandering solo fingerpicked electric guitar. Especially in the back half of the album, listening to Sin Waves is more like wandering through a lovely art gallery that plays sounds than listening to songs.
There are six longer pieces that approximate the standard definition of song. In contrast to the largely instrumental sound swatches, the longer pieces feature Aviv Cohn’s mumbling, whispering, feathery voice. “Rip Me in Half” pairs guitar and voice with some distant, muffled drums to pleasing effect; “Oil Pastel” has a disarmingly straightforward guitar lead before it gets layered upon with more guitars and voice. Cohn is fully capable of writing longform; he just prefers to do elsewise.
Sin Waves is an album in the truest sense of the word: it’s a collection of things that are meant to be heard together. I don’t see a lot of point in listening to this work outside its whole: the entirety of the work is needed for the experience to be fully appreciated. If you’ve got a half-hour that you want to spend in dreamy, ethereal mode, this album should be in your life.
Music for Abandoned Podcast by Kasey Keller Big Band shares the genre-demolishing tendencies of JFJO and the short runtimes of TWSF, making for a surrealistic, madcap 10 tracks in 10 minutes. Keller likes to group strummed instruments (ukulele, nylon-string guitar) with gritty synths, beats, and droll spoken/sung vocals, as in the eerie “Wardenclyffe” and bizarre synth-pop of “Usain Bolt.” Opening track “RIC” is almost two minutes of melodic synth-pop jams, showing a rare, impressive conventional turn from KKBB.
Sometimes elements of his sound are dropped out: “Mosaic History” is a straight synth-pop jam without strings, “Glottal Stop” removes the vocals for 30 seconds of the most intriguing instrumental hip-hop I’ve heard in a while, and “New Knees” is a lo-fi acoustic-and-voice moment. But overall, this is an experimental release that plumbs the depths of acoustic/electronic interaction by juxtaposing them in gritty, raw, unusual ways. If you’re into experimental music, jump on this.
Falcon Arrow‘s Tower is a soaring, powerful, instrumental, drum-and-bass post-rock duo that ranks as one of the best of the year. Now don’t get tricked into thinking this is drone or anything. This album is one of the most acrobatic post-rock albums I’ve heard in a long, long time. Bassist Matt Reints modulates his bass playing several octaves out of normal bass range, making tunes that have heavy, grooving bass foundations and incredible treble-end melodies. It’s astonishing what Reints can wring out of one four-string bass. (The press photo has him playing a four-string. For real. As a bassist, I can’t even believe that this is possible with essentially the same instrument I have.)
Reints is not just a fantastic technician armed with modulating pedals and loopers; he’s a brilliant melodist. And since he’s a bass player, he knows how to use the low-end not just to support the treble, but to interlock with it to create sums bigger than the parts. Finally, since he’s a bass player, there aren’t chords anywhere on this album: everything is done through cascading single-note runs and super-sludgy single note crushers for some grounding. In short, Matt Reints has taken on the job of being the guitarist and the bassist in one of the more complex post-rock bands I’ve ever heard. I have no idea how he remembers everything. I really don’t. Also Dav Kemp plays drums. (Sorry Dav. Bassist geeking out over here.)
You can pick any of the 11 songs on this roughly 40-minute album and have your mind blown, but my two favorites are “Aldebaran Serpent” and “Cantina Empire,” which form the 13-minute heart of the record. (They’re really into sci-fi; JUST ONE MORE THING TO LOVE.) “Aldebaran Serpent” starts off with some crushing, distorted bass, punchy snare hits, and some syncopated bass drum patterns. After inoculating you into the groove, Reints starts tossing off heavily-reverbed runs of high treble notes, creating a gorgeously full sound. Then he modulates up another octave and starts playing even faster, essentially turning his bass into a synthesizer. If your mind’s not blown, I don’t know what will do that for you. “Cantina Empire” leans more heavily on Reints’ traditional instrumental chops, using a swift, clean bass guitar line as the foundation. Kemp supports neatly with some punctuated, staccato drumming. They eventually do drop in a distorted low-end and a reverb-heavy top line; the riff at 1:30 is one of my favorite on the record, especially when put in the full context of the song. It’s an impressive song.
Tower is nothing short of astonishing. It’s gorgeous and impressive on its own melodic merits, but it’s even more mindblowing that two people (and only two people) composed all of this and perform it live. If you’re into post-rock of any variety, you will be blown away by Falcon Arrow. They’re just absolutely incredible.
Dylan Gilbert is a man of many talents. He’s been tirelessly releasing music since 2005, reinventing himself at every turn. Currently he fronts the manic prog/punk/surf outfit Hectorina and abruptly drops impressive acoustic-based solo albums. His latest offering of the latter is Shaken, an 8-song set that relies heavily on his ability of his voice to sound wildly outraged and outrageously wild.
With the exception of the gentle closer, this is an exercise in shout-folk from beginning to end. The ominous title track opens the lot, but he quickly moves away from trying to sound scary and embraces the persona of a person outraged at his misfortune. You can read this just from the titles of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” “Another Beast Washes Ashore” and “This Woman’s Gonna Put Me in the Ground.” His voice and powerfully strummed guitar (those poor guitar strings) come together to create compelling tunes that aren’t exactly Andrew Jackson Jihad, but something pretty near it. Sean Bonnette of AJJ has a nasally voice that he pairs excellently with frantic guitar strum; Gilbert has a very traditionally attractive voice that he just thrashes against the wall of life’s troubles like a dusty rug. Both are very impressive, it should be noted.
Gilbert does two covers here: the traditional “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” and “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me.” The former takes a song many people know and pours all the mourning that’s actually there in the lyrics into the vocal performance. The latter tries to infuse the weary misery of the track (again) that’s already there in the lyrics. These are pretty much required listening; the source material for both are some of my favorite tunes of all time, so it’s impressive that Gilbert can take both and breathe fresh life into them. Gilbert’s an astonishingly talented songwriter and performer, and you’d be remiss to not know of his work. Shaken should be your introduction if you’re unfamiliar.
Drift Wood Miracle impressed me from the word go, and every interaction I’ve had with them or their music since then has only grown that admiration. The Between Three & Four EP takes their disparate ideas (punk, artsy emo, acoustic singer/songwriter) and melds them into a cohesive experience that ranks with some of the best artistic rock music being made today.
“41 (Blue)” starts off with morose vocals over dreamy guitars (emo revival!) before seguing into a snappy acoustic singer/songwriter section; it shifts into an arty, woozy, vaguely psychedelic coda, then closes with traditional classical piano. If you’re scratching your head, no shame there. It’s only held together by force of Drift Wood Miracle’s collective will. The band then smashcuts into the raging punk/emo track “Typical,” complete with their quickly-becoming-signature sliding guitar riff style. The type of guitar work here makes me immediately think of verse/chorus/verse style of Brand New and Taking Back Sunday, but they subvert those markers of familiarity by not complying with that standard songwriting style. Instead, they throw riff after riff, never returning to any of them. You can make three or four songs out of the ideas in “Typical,” especially if you include the pensive guitar ballad at the end. If you’re not impressed at this point, this type of music probably isn’t for you.
In the rest of the all-too-short EP (12 minutes?!), we get a spoken-word French section, a squalling instrumental emo breakdown, group vocals over an acoustic guitar in a haunting melody, the drummer singing a song he wrote (!), more piano, complicated drum rhythms, and a towering post-hardcore wall of guitars. It’s a tour-de-force collage of sounds and ideas that all come together in a consistent mood. Drift Wood Miracle has come into its own here, asserting their innovative artistic vision with impressive maturity and clarity. Between Three & Four is a dizzying, astonishing performance that will make you want to play it over and over.
Midway Fair‘s 2011 offering The Distance of the Moon at Daybreak leaned heavily on traditional English folk rhythms and melodies, throwing in some Springsteen-esque chug to cap it off. On their latest EP Most Distant Star, the band has grown into its sound quite a bit: the influences are still there, but they’re much tighter wound around each other. The result is a sharp four-song outing that gives me a feel for what Midway Fair is trying to accomplish as a band.
The opener/title track starts off with a strong piano riff and brash male/female vocals. By the middle of the first verse, they’ve introduced galloping drums to speedily pace the tune. They build the song throughout to a great, pounding high-point at about two minutes in, showing off their instrumental chops (those drum fills!), songwriting ability, and style. It’s a great song, totally appropriate to be the title track. The quartet keeps that energy and passion going through the rest of the EP, not letting any track drag. “Gone to California” features folk-style storytelling lyrics on top of a jaunty backdrop. “Ones and Zeros” incorporates some ’50s pop influences, while “Be What You Like” loops in some light soul and funk elements. It’s fun to see a band that’s comfortable with itself start to push the boundaries of its sound.
Midway Fair’s Most Distant Star may have started out as a folk EP, but by the end it morphed into a quick sampler of American pop music. Their tight instrumental interplay results in a light mood throughout: none of these tunes sound forced or heavy. If you’re looking for a fun pick-me-up today, look to Most Distant Star.
Eoin Glackin also sounds like an amped up version of himself on his new EP Pretty Girl. While the title track is a smooth adult alternative cut in the vein of David Grey, the other three tracks are louder, faster, and fuller than Glackin has experimented with in the past. “Morning Take Us Easy” turns rumbling toms into a punk-inspired, push-tempo pattern in the chorus; the bass, guitar, and speedy vocal patterns follow suit, making this somewhat like a Frank Turner song or a Ryan Adams song on speed. There’s still harmonica and piano in there for sure, but this ain’t your usual laidback singer/songwriter fare.
“Ride It Out” expands the sound even wider, pulling in some widescreen soundscapes reminiscent of U2. Glackin gets a tenor howl going on against a reverbed guitar riff–I can totally see him throwing his head back and going full Bono on it. He fills out the EP with a punchy alternate version of “Rain Finally Came” from his previous album, using the drums and bass to once again help create the energetic vibe of the tune.
Sometimes an artist loses all their charm when they “go electric,” but Glackin is able to transfer his appealing aspects to the new situation and incorporate new tricks. His vocals are perhaps even more suited to the electric style than the troubadour folk he was previously doing. Pretty Girl is a fun, exciting EP that shows a new direction for Glackin that could pay off in spades.
The deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and more have inspired the myth that 27 is the age past which no musical youth icon can live. M. Lockwood Porter, also aged 27 but definitely alive, thoughtfully grabbed the number for the title of his sophomore alt-country/country-rock/just plain rock album. His debut Judah’s Gone focused on the past (just look at that title); 27 is a coming-of-age rumination that turns his gaze from youthful aches to the troubles of living in the adult world.
27 does not contain fluffy or stereotypical lyrics: while there are a couple jilted-lover tunes, they fit into a larger paradigm of the difficult questions Porter is asking about life. Thoughts about mortality (“Chris Bell,” about another lost 27-year-old musician), the possibility of not achieving dreams (“Restless”), religion (“Couer D’Alene”), and leaving behind a legacy (“Mountains”) paint a picture of a person standing at the edge of adulthood and grappling with what he’s found so far. I may not agree with every conclusion, but I’m deeply glad that the sentiments are expressed with enough depth and clarity that I can actually agree or disagree with them. That’s a pretty rare accomplishment in the rock world.
The album’s centerpiece is the ballad “Mountains,” which pulls all of these thoughts about life together. It starts with tom hits that sound like a heartbeat before Porter wearily sings, “When I was young my father said / that faith could move a mountain / now there’s mountains as far as I can see.” Striking piano, tasteful percussion, and an earnest guitar line fill out the raw, earnest tune. I wish I could write out all the lyrics for you, but Porter distills it all into one sweeping statement to close the tune: “And as I stare across the vast expanse / I can hear my father shouting / but mountains are all that I can see.”
Porter serves up these musings in expertly crafted alt-country/country-rock tunes. Porter’s been in a bunch of bands of various genres over the past dozen years, and he’s learned things from all of them. Opener “I Know You’re Going to Leave Me” crescendoes to a pounding, ragged, desperate, shiver-inducing rock ending; he follows it up with “Chris Bell,” which is about as perfect an alt-country song as Gram Parsons could hope to hear. “You Only Talk About Your Band” is a rollicking, impassioned ’50s rock’n’roll tune that sounds like it fell out of a time machine somewhere, while Bruce Springsteen would approve of the insistent piano and urgent vocals in “Restless.” “Secrets” sounds like a San Francisco indie-pop mosey, an influence holdover from his time in The 21st Century. “Couer D’Alene” is a delicate acoustic-and-voice tune to close out the record. All of these songs are impressive in their own right, and yet none feel out of place on the record.
Porter keeps these disparate sounds and ideas held together through a consistent vocal presence on the record. No matter what genre Porter writes, he works to make his voice inhabit the song. There are no bad vehicles here: Porter sounds completely at home in each of these tunes. Instead of sounding pristine, the opposite is true: by feeling comfortable throughout, he’s able to allow his voice some fluctuations and character without needing to edit it out. It gives the whole album a careworn, comfortable feel, similar to a Justin Townes Earle song or Josh Ritter’s The Beast In Its Tracks.
27 has the sort of musical and lyrical depth that causes me to come up with more things to say than I have space for. (Two things that got cut: 1. comparing the lyrics of “Mountains” with my favorite Ryan Adams track “Rock and Roll,” which you should do on your own time; 2. The production job is excellent.) Personally Porter is in transition, but lyrically Porter is hitting his stride to be able to describe the struggles so compellingly. Musically he’s creating work that shines as a whole and as individual tracks, which shows a rare maturity. You need to hear this one.
Fri, 10/10 – San Francisco, CA @ Brick and Mortar w/ Victor Krummenacher
Fri, 10/17 – Oklahoma City, OK @ The Blue Note
Sat, 10/18 – Tulsa, OK @ Mercury Lounge
Sun, 10/19 – Lawrence, KS @ Jackpot Music Hall
Mon, 10/20 – Iowa City, IA @ Gabe’s
Tues, 10/21 – Chicago, IL @ Reggie’s
Wed, 10/22 – Eaton, OH @ Taffy’s
Thurs, 10/23 – Philadelphia @ The Grape Room
Sat, 10/25 – NYC @ Wicked Willy’s at 6:30 pm (Official CMJ Showcase)
Sun, 10/26 – NYC @ Rockwood Music Hall Stage 1
Mon, 10/27 – Charlotte @ Thomas Street Tavern
Tues, 10/28 – Chapel Hill @ The Cave (I’ll be at this one)
Wed, 10/29 – Nashville, TN @ The 5 Spot
Thurs, 10/30 – Huntsville, AL @ Maggie Meyer’s Irish Pub
Fri, 10/31 – Clarksdale, MS @ Shack Up Inn
Sat, 11/1 – Lafayette, LA @ Artmosphere
Sun, 11/2 – Austin, TX @ Sahara Lounge
Mon, 11/3 – Dallas @ Opening Bell
Folk music can sound like any season: spring (The Tallest Man on Earth), summer (Josh Ritter), fall (The Head and the Heart), and winter (Bon Iver). Matthew Oomen is from Norway, and his acoustic-led singer/songwriter tunes definitely take inspiration from the arctic surroundings and lean into the wintry side of things. In contrast to Bon Iver’s impressionistic emoting, the strengths of Oomen’s Where the Valley Is Long lie in spacious arrangements, distinct rhythms, meticulous performances, and crisp production.
“Master’s Row” opens the album with precise, separated acoustic guitar and banjo fingerpicking, stating very quickly what sort of album this will be. Oomen comes in with gentle whispered/sung tenor vocals, then brings in a swooping cello. The overall effect is a romantic, wintry vibe: the space in the arrangements gives room for listeners to breathe, and the gentle mood has wistful, amorous overtones. The song would fit perfectly in a day where you cuddled up with your lover next to a warm fire as snow falls.
The rest of the songs doen’t stray far from that mood, creating a warm, open, resonant album. “Called to Straw” is one of the slowest on the record, leisurely creating a beautiful atmosphere with the banjo, guitar, and dual-gender vocals. “Camp Hill” is an instrumental track that excellently displays the melodic gift that Oomen has. Some may find that the dominant fingerpicking style can result in some difficulty of differentiation between the tunes, but the specific mood of the album is so consistent that it’s just as good to me as a whole unit as in individual bits. Where the Valley is Long is a beautiful, enchanting, comforting album of pristine singer/songwriter folk. Fans of Young Readers, The Tallest Man on Earth, and Joshua Radin’s early work will find much to love here.
Jesse Marchant‘s self-titled record is far more masterful than a debut would usually be, because Marchant has released several albums under the JBM moniker. (I’m particularly fond of Not Even In July.) Marchant’s first offering under his real name brings his powerful brand of serious music to great results at two different poles. When I first reviewed Marchant’s live show earlier this year, I compared him to a mix of Gregory Alan Isakov and Jason Molina. Here he largely separates those influences, splitting his wistful/romantic and churning/tension-laden elements into different tunes.
I was originally attracted to Marchant’s music for his quiet tunes, but his noisier offerings are just as compelling here. The muscly “In the Sand/Amelia” relies on a seriously fuzzed-out guitar riff and heavy bass tones to create an emotional, powerful tune. He caps the song with a brief yet impressive bit of squalling guitar solo. “All Your Promise” has a bit of Keane-style dramatic flair to its intro, leaning on cinematic, back-alley tenion before settling into a quieter, synth-laden verse. “Adrift” starts off with a big pad synth and a serious drumkit groove; it doesn’t exactly resolve into a rock tune, but it’s pretty close.
But even “In the Sand/Amelia” has an abrupt return to quietness in its middle section. Marchant knows how to wring emotion out of a repetitive guitar riff, a mournful vocal line, and time, and that hasn’t changed here. Opener “Words Underlined” shows him in full form, building a six-minute experience out of a uncomplicated, gently strummed electric guitar. He’s still in Jason Molina territory there. He does turn his attention to less brooding tunes, like the upbeat “The Whip”–not nearing power-pop by any means, but Isakov fans will know the vibe intuitively. “Stay on Your Knees” has a bit more of a rock feel, but the swift fingerpicking pulls it from his Songs:Ohia pole closer to the Isakov one. But even within the song there are dalliances: synths appear, a piano section pops up, etc.
Marchant is building his own style here, and it’s working really well: he’s identifiable with other musicians but not copying them. Jesse Marchant is a satisfying album that should make fans of those not in the know and please those who have followed him as JBM. If you’re into musicians like Leif Vollebekk, Isakov, Molina or Bowerbirds, you’ll find a kindred spirit here.
Slow Magic‘s How to Run Away combines chillwave and chiptune, two of my favorite niche genres, to create a whole album that lives in the tension between lush and staccato. “Hold Still” shows off the dichotomy best, where flowing synths and chill beats in the bulk of the song give way to a mini-dubstep coda with screamin’ single-note synths straight out of a video game somewhere.
Slow Magic does have songs that show off both sides: “Youth Group” sounds like Final Fantasy-inspired chiptune, while “Girls” is right in line with Pogo and Blackbird Blackbird in terms of chopped-vocals/smooth synths chillwave construction. But it’s the songs where the elements cross (and are augmented by insistent piano, as is often the case) where the songs shine. It’s not as high-energy as Anamanaguchi, but this isn’t sit-back-and-relax music either. It strives to make its own path, and that’s commendable no matter what genre you’re in.
Remedies also has some serious chiptune influences, but they choose trip-hop as their second ingredient. Slow Magic chooses upbeat, bright moods; Remedies chooses downtempo, midnight-blue moods to go along with high-pitched synths. The sounds from all your SNES dungeon gaming have found new life in Believers, re-appropriated in unique ways.
This is most clearly shown in single “Trap,” where the opening riff sends me back to Zelda: Link to the Past, while the dreamy synths and autotuned vocals take the song in a different direction. The vocals appear throughout the album, graduating the tunes of Believers from easily-classified electro jams to a more complex and rewarding description: a hybrid R&B/alt hip-hop project. “Time” is a particularly evocative example of their hip-hop grooves, while follow-up “Good Books” shows off their R&B chops in vocal melodies and spurned-lover lyrics. Chiptune, trip-hop, hip-hop, and R&B in a blender seems like a tough thing to imagine, but Remedies sounds surprisingly assured and mature in pulling it off.
ODESZA‘s In Return also has some R&B influences, particularly in the Shy Guys feature “All We Need” and the smooth instrumental banger “Kusanagi.” But it’s a side effect of ODESZA’s main mission: absorb every possible electro-based genre into its own version of what electronic music should be. Call it post-dub if you like, but there’s hardly a drop to be found here (even of the artsy version they originally came to prominence on). Instead, there’s flashes of clubby electro-pop (“Sun Models”), soundtrack-ready mood backdrops (“Sundara”), laconic electronic estimations of quirky indie-pop (“Memories That You Call”), and more. The opening of “For Us” sounds like the start of Coldplay’s “Strawberry Swing,” which is more compliment than not from this party.
By absorbing the lessons of many different strains of electronic music (including chiptune!), ODESZA has crafted an album that blows past all of them. There’s not a cloying or cheesy moment on this whole album, which is a testament to the group’s skill and nuance. (I love Anamanaguchi, because cheesiness is the point. When cheesiness is not the end goal, that’s when it gets problematic.) If you’re into electronic music, you really should be listening to ODESZA. For my money, they’re making the most interesting electronic music around.
If first lines are important for setting the tone of an album, then the opening salvo from Salesman on Escalante lets you know that things aren’t going to progress in the normal fashion: “I believe the dead have to climb / up the narrow road that’s thinner than a chalk line / but they climb / like wine up my throat.” What unspools in the next 37 minutes is a hypnotic, haunting, eerie set of tunes that don’t adhere to any rules of genre or style. Escalante is its own thing, and that’s not something I get so say very often.
Opener “7×7″ sets things in an ostensibly Americana/alt-country setting, with fractured but still recognizable alt-country guitar work and thrumming bass. It’s got those real wild lyics, but you can reasonably call it an alt-country song (albeit one that the Jayhawks never would have imagined). But by the second track, all genre markers are largely obliterated. “Horn” is the sort of song that seems fit for the desert: disjointed bass lines, spartan drumming, occasional dispatches of modified guitar noise, and distant sleigh bells accompany ghostly, mournful vocals for the first true taste of eerie. There is an impressive, grinding guitar bit (guitar solo?) halfway through, but it’s more like Tom Morello’s guitar solos than a surf-rock one.
Things get really wild on “Clear Cold Heaven,” which is a solo vocal piece accompanied only by unsettling clicking, buzzing, and whirring sounds. It is truly avant-garde, and more than a little creepy. (Bonus track “Bringing Upbringing” is constructed in a similar vein, but is less uncomfortable due to the mix of sounds around the vocals.) The members of Salesman know that they’ve been a bit rough on their listeners, so they close out Side A with the acoustically soothing “Spirit Jar,” a beautiful, pensive, slow, acoustic-led folk tune that’s about waking up in a spirit jar. (No rest for the eccentric.)
“Four Legs” counts as one of the more standard tracks here, a helter-skelter indie-rock track that invokes Pontiak and other swamp-lovin’ rock bands. It nears the levels of sonic aggression of Lord Buffalo, the noisy/apocalyptic alt-country band that shares members with Salesman. (“When You Face It” also cultivates this sort of deep-night, gritty-dusty groove.) “Loving Dead” also nears normalcy, opening with beautiful violin and guitar harmonics. So it’s totally possible for Salesman to make songs that adhere to genre patterns, but they just prefer to subvert them most of the time.
Escalante is a fearless, unrestrained record that makes a definite mark. It is not content to get in line with the other bands’ stuff. If you think there’s not enough alt in alt-country these days, Salesman might be on your avant-garde wavelength. Adventurous types, forge ahead!
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.