Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Premiere: Quinn Erwin – Soul EP

April 28, 2016

Quinn Erwin first came to my attention as a big part of Afterlife Parade, a top-shelf outfit equally comfortable making can’t-ignore-it pop-rock and textured post-rock. Erwin’s Soul EP builds on the pop-rock side of Afterlife Parade, getting crunchier and catchier simultaneously.

The titular track of Soul kicks off the four-song effort with hammering piano, crunchy guitar, handclaps, and Erwin wordlessly throwing his voice around in some great melodies. There’s a pop-rock chassis to the tune, but from the wheels up it’s all muscly soul attitude and yearning blues vocals. There’s a bit of dance-rock thrown in for spice at the end, but this is primarily an earthy, Southern (but not Southern rock) jam. “Heritage” builds on that earthy pop-rock blend, fusing a stomping backbeat to a scuzzed-out guitar line with some zinging synth on top of it. Erwin’s repeated plea (“Don’t let this be my heritage”) and anguished “la”s give the tune some extra punch (as if it needed any). Both of these tunes have a crunch that wasn’t often there in Afterlife Parade, but don’t sacrifice any of the melodic prowess. If anything, these are even catchier tunes.

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“Reality” and “Soul (acoustic)” pull back from the unique vibe of the first two tracks and push the sound in different ways. The straightforward pop-rock of “Reality” does have thrumming bass and insistent snare, but the vibe here is less Southern attitude and more U2-style pop expansion. (You can hear Bono in the wordless, nearly a capella bridge, for sure.)

The acoustic version of “Soul” pulls the excellent arrangements out of the mix and shows that with or without a backing band, “Soul” is a torrential song. Just because there’s only an acoustic guitar accompanying Erwin doesn’t mean he sacrifices any of the attitude or intensity of the tune. The song reveals just how impressive a vocalist Erwin is by putting the focus squarely on his vocal performance.

Soul is one in a series of EPs Erwin is releasing, so we’re going to be treated to more work from him in the near future. And the work is a treat; Erwin’s clear vision for fusing his pop-rock background with other sounds creates distinctive, exciting work. Soul establishes (for some) and continues (for others) the need to carefully follow everything that Erwin is up to.

Soul drops tomorrow, April 29. If you’re in the South, you’ll have some chances to catch him soon on the #OYOUGOTSOUL Spring Tour:

04.29:  Biloxi, MS
04.30:  Mobile, AL
05.06:  Baton Rouge, LA
06.10:  Birmingham, AL

Premiere: The Bitter Poet’s “Guy’s Gotta Breathe”

April 27, 2016

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The Bitter Poet’s “Guy’s Gotta Breathe” is a manic, almost unhinged anti-folk stream of consciousness anchored by literate, specific lyrics and Kevin Draine’s engaging vocal performance.

Over a charging electric guitar line, Draine laments in rapid-fire style relationships current and past, potential apartment hauntings, old laundry, Simon & Schuster, the way coffee tastes three hours after it’s made, never being able to go back to your favorite restaurant, and various other slights (great and small). It is a whirlwind 2:46. His voice moves from a grumble to a howl throughout the song, keeping the listener close with his tenor’s ratcheting tension. The tension finally explodes at the end of the tune, providing a fitting end to the wild ride.

If you’re into The Mountain Goats’ lyrics (or their unhinged moments, like “Psalm 40:2”), you may find The Bitter Poet to be incredibly appealing. In the way of all unique things, the song does takes a moment to adjust to–Draine does not mind dropping you in en media res to his take on things. After you settle in, it’s really impressive and calls for multiple listens.

“Guy’s Gotta Breathe” comes from the upcoming Trail of Glitter, which drops May 6. You can check out tour dates and more info on where to buy the record at The Bitter Poet’s website. If you’re in NYC, you can also check out NYSolo6, the monthly singer/songwriter showcase that he runs.

Let RÜFÜS DU SOL whisk you away into summertime

April 25, 2016

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RÜFÜS DU SOL, the Aussie nu-disco group that’s been showing up on major festival lineups this year, has good reason to be blowing up the way they have. Their latest album, Bloom, is electronica with an actual pulse; it combines catchy synth with heartfelt mood, so listeners receive the total package, a fire and ice combo. I don’t think the overall theme of the album is as important as the impressive fact that every. single. track. can stand strong on its own.

“Brighter” starts off with the recording of a rainstorm, dreamy vocals, slightly depressing lyrics, and musical-esque fingersnaps. The immediate mood is soaking wet, like the song weighs an extra few pounds. But the vibe dries itself off and sheds the excess weight via an infectious tropical house beat spritzed with retro-sounding laser zapping.

This sunny vibe toasts the rest of the record. It sways right into “Like An Animal,” which has more a house-y beat–an occurrence that comes in waves throughout the album. The bass is heavy and emotive, matching the message of the song: “Like an animal, I’ve still got love for you/And I’m coming, I’m coming home for you.” Other tracks that exhibit similar club banger qualities include my personal favorite, “You Were Right,” which carries with it sultry synth and an overall sexy, pleading, retro vibe. And though “Tell Me” is ready for summer radio play, I can see many a remix heading its way.

Airy tracks on the record include the popular, melancholic “Say A Prayer For Me” and “Hypnotised,” which has gorgeous female vocals, sleigh bells, and more pensive instrumentation. This one gives us a nice rip tide effect below the rest of the very build-climax-crash waviness throughout the rest of the record.

Another cut that caused a repeat play was “Be With You,” which starts with a choir-like echo that almost gives it a hip-hop vibe at first. The vocals are warm and groovy. The song is like one giant, sonic kaleidoscope. With recordings of people partying in the background, this is the track that everyone will get down to.

Bloom makes a graceful exit with “Innerbloom,” a heroic nine-minute track that feels more like a nine-minute meditation session in the middle of a drunken night; it’s happy, warm, and peaceful. With each song worthy of praise, this isn’t necessarily about an overall message; it’s like RUFUS’s mindset was, “Let’s make each track a fucking hit,” aka, the perfect electronic album to whisk you away into summertime.–Rachel Haney

Wilder Adkins’ Hope and Sorrow: A beautiful, can’t-miss folk record

April 22, 2016

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Wilder AdkinsHope and Sorrow is a beautiful record. The Birmingham-by-way-of-metro-Atlanta singer/songwriter has created an impeccable, gorgeous modern folk record that shows off the value of maturity. It’s the sort of record that stretches the limits of my writing ability, making me want to write simply: “Just go listen to this record. You won’t regret it.”

Adkins has been plying the folk trade for a long time; his discography stretches back to 2009. As a result, Hope and Sorrow is a record that avoids the pitfalls of young artists’ work. Adkins is a patient songwriter, knowing exactly when to include a new instrument, bulk up an arrangement, deliver a word, or hold his silence. The tunes here are measured, careful, and well-edited. Instead of making them boring (as our culture of now might assume), this makes them riveting. There is nothing wasted here: no songs are throwaway, no performance is wallpaper, no lyrics should have been left on the cutting-room floor. To repeat: this album is riveting.

Adkins’ skill is in the delicate, tender folk tune; he expertly lays down gentle fingerpicking with arrangements that don’t drag down the lightness of the foundation notes. His voice is perfectly suited to this work: he has a lithe, evocative tenor that is confident without being brash. It’s not whisperfolk; Adkins can sing. But it’s beautifully suited, melodically and volume-wise, to the songs surrounding it. You can see his vocal deftness in the one-two punch of “Mecca” and “When I’m Married.” The first is a thoughtful, reverent religious discussion, and the second is a beautiful, realistic love song; both vocal performances underscore the lyrics and the mood of the song.

Those twin lyrical themes of romance and religion appear throughout the record; the balance between the two topics keeps the record moving along just as well as the engaging songwiting does. The aforementioned tunes are the highlight on both fronts. “Our Love is a Garden,” “Gentle Woman,” and “Cherry Blossoms” are also beautiful love songs; the title track and “Wrestle” hold down the other front well. But those two topics aren’t the only things on the record, as Hope and Sorrow is a full 12 tracks. It’s a testament to Adkins’ expertise that this record never feels weighty or bulky–it’s long, but it’s the best sort of long. I wanted it to be this long.

Hope and Sorrow is a remarkable record; it’s the sort of record that I keep coming back to over and over. It perfectly blends songwriting, arrangement, lyrics, and vocal performances into a can’t-miss release. This is definitely one of the best albums of the year so far, and one that anyone who loves folk music (Barr Brothers, Josh Garrels, Gregory Alan Isakov, and Iron & Wine, especially) should seek out right now.

Nonsemble / Jonas Friddle and the Majority

April 21, 2016

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Classical music has a long history of being intense; The Rite of Spring nearly caused a riot on its debut. But “intense,” “aggressive,” and “forceful” are probably not words many people think of when thinking of music for strings today. Enter Nonsemble, a chamber orchestra from Australia. Their Spaceship Earth EP wrecks expectations left and right, from their inclusion of kit drums to their revolving cast of vocalists to their powerful arrangements.

“Bricks” moves from an oddly syncopated piano line supported by kit drums to a roaring high point with dramatic strings and Shem Allen belting out “Monsters!” at the top of his lungs. “Trucksea” also gets pretty wild at its conclusion. “Sovereign Murders” (not your grandpa’s classical music titles here) includes speedy violin bowing and abstract, almost math-rock patterns for the rest of the strings. When a hip-hop kit beat comes in, the song is something completely other: Nonsemble has transcended the labels of chamber orchestra and indie-rock altogether.

Even when Nonsemble chooses to conform to the traditional understanding of chamber-pop with rapidfire pizzicato notes and delicate melodies (“Sonambulists”), they do with such fervor and panache that it doesn’t feel like anything else happening. If you’re into strings, adventurous listening, or Joanna Newsom-style re-imagining of what indie-rock means, Spaceship Earth should be on your radar.

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X and the Ys is a fluid concept with two poles: “X writes everything but has played with the same backing band for years and is giving them some love” on one end and “this is really one band that writes all the songs together from the ground up” on the other. Every X and the Ys is constantly in the process of moving toward one pole and away from the other. Jonas Friddle and the Majority is moving closer to the “one band” concept, which is probably partly why their latest record is a self-titled one. As a result of this full-band focus, Jonas Friddle and the Majority is a big record, full of horns, strings, vocalists, and fun.

Another tip-off that The Majority had a much bigger role on this record than in Friddle’s previous work: they re-record two of Friddle’s tunes from the last double-album. “Belle de Louisville” and “String to a Bell” include much more of the band, letting Friddle’s banjo songwriting become the foundation instead of the focus. “String to a Bell” does this slowly, bringing in parts incrementally before opening up into a horns/strings/bass/drums jam (completely with a Mountain Goats-esque “whoo!” from Friddle). The results sound like a more jovial version of The Collection. “Belle de Lousville” integrates the band more thoroughly into a dense, unified arrangement throughout (although Friddle can’t resist a big “whoa!” here either–gosh, it must be fun watching this show live).

Elsewhere The Majority pulls back from Friddle’s role as “troubadour with some people backing him” and embraces the idea of a full-band outfit. The rhythmic “Hook and Harness” sounds like a slightly more country-rock version of a Illinois-era Sufjan track. “Music Wherever I Go” and single “Sugar Moon” are giddy pop-folk-country tunes that also have some Sufjan-esque wide-eyed wonder running through them. (“Sugar Moon” has a charming percussion joke in it.) “Live in This World” sounds like The Majority wandered onto the set of a Western and was asked to make a brass-heavy Buddy Cop Sitcom theme song for it. (No apologies for that explanation.) Right when you get used to their giddy fusions, “And Your Bird Can Sing” is just a country song. Sort of. I can say for sure that “Corina’s Lullaby” is a tender lullaby.

All throughout Jonas Friddle and the Majority, horns, strings, backing vocalists, percussion, and probably the kitchen sink are melded together into jubilant, exciting songs. It’s very different than Friddle’s previous work, so those expecting more of his troubadour work should be warned that this is a full band now, and they do full band things. If you’re on board for a wild, fun ride, then you shouldn’t have any concerns or worries as The Majority pulls through the curves and loops of its rollercoaster.

Quick Hit: Parasite Child

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Swedish artist Andreas Stellan has released his first album as Parasite Child. The self-titled album echoes UK synth-pop mixed with a moody rock flavor. Heavy on the keyboard and synthesizer, Parasite Child gives off an air of ‘80s pop music, yet with a darker edge. With crisp vocals and brooding instrumentation, Parasite Child veers off the Kesha pop train and gives us something different.

Andreas Stellan’s voice is very clear, making it easy to hear the lyrics. Many of the tracks (“Crazy,” “Ocean,” “Memories,” “Guadeloop,” “Interview,” “Give In”) include a cluster of slightly muddied female background vocals that contrast smashingly with Stellans’ voice. Parasite Child uses the sopranic female vocals to add another layer to their tracks. In “Guadeloop,” the female vocals don’t enter until two thirds of the way through the song. The track already had organ-like synth sounds and Stellan wooing a lover with desire-fueled lyrics, so the addition of the female vocals works as a call and response that plays out beautifully.

The playful instrumentation of Parasite Child echoes ‘80s synth pop music, similar to Stars. Parasite Child utilizes keys and synthesizer to anchor many of their songs. Layers of electric guitar and strong bass lines add heaviness to the tracks. Take “Secrets,” for example: the track begins with a funky keyboard beat and lyrics that drip of longing. At the chorus, the electric guitar, drums and synthesizer explode the song to a brooding, cinematic level.

Parasite Child’s self-titled debut is is a dynamic album that would be a great score for an indie film. Here a few songs to whet your appetite. —Krisann Janowitz

Ghost of a King: Jaw-dropping folk-pop achieving in all directions

April 8, 2016

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The Gray HavensGhost of a King is a strikingly diverse record; the duo’s work previously has fallen into piano pop or folk-pop realms, but Ghost sees them expanding their core sound to include cinematic pop-rock, ambient art tunes, and even electro-pop. Their expansion of borders doesn’t diminish at all their continuing maturity in the folk-pop realm, as the album contains some of the best folk-pop tunes they’ve ever written. In short, Ghost of a King shows growth in every area, and that results in an incredible album.

The two points of entry are pretty obvious on this record: “Shadows of the Dawn” and “Diamonds and Gold” both gave me shivers. I don’t get goosebumps very often, and I can’t think of the last time that I got goosebumps twice in one album. “Shadows of the Dawn” is a folk-pop tune that is imbued with a well-tuned sense of the dramatic–the verses are delicate yet taut with tension, while the memorable chorus opens up the song to release the tension. But it’s the triumphant, jubilant counterpoint choral vocals in the third chorus that dropped my jaw. While Dave Radford holds down the lead vocals, a choir led by Licia Radford exultantly sings wordless arias that point toward the transcendence the lyrics call for. I’m doing an injustice even trying to describe it. You have to hear it to understand how affecting and effective it is.

“Diamonds and Gold” is, surprisingly, their full-on electro-pop jaunt, but it’s thoroughly a highlight of the record. Folkies who try to go electro often result in embarrassing facsimiles of the genre, but “Diamonds” hits all the beats of a electro-pop song flawlessly. It’s hands-down the best electro-pop song I’ve heard all year. Dave Radford nails the attitude that you need to have in electro-pop, confidently swaggering his way through a giddy synth atmosphere. “They say we’re crazy / that’s fine / they say we’re out of our mind / well tell’em, tell’em alright / alright / if the world is all we got / then alright, alright / but it’s not,” Radford states, pointing again to the transcendence that is a deep theme of the record. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the excellent background vocals, again–The Gray Havens really know how to maximize a vocal performance.

Other tunes point in different sonic directions. “Band of Gold” is a romantic, married-person folk-pop tune along the lines of the Lumineers and the Oh Hellos; you’ll be singing along shortly. The title track, “This My Soul,” and “At Last, the King” have a sort of minor-key cinematic cast that reminds me of Imagine Dragons’ great pop tune “Demons”; “Take This Slowly” employs wide-open, organ-seared, major-key folk reminiscent of Josh Ritter’s “Kathleen” (and oh, is it fun). “A Living Hope” is a two-minute tune built on a base of cascading piano notes that crescendos to a haunting climax full of synths, pounding drums, and distant autotuned vocals. It’s a remarkably ambitious track to put on a folk-pop record, recalling some of Gungor’s more adventurous compositions in scope.

Ghost of a King is a remarkable achievement. It’s the rare album with clear heights supported by a large number of high-quality tunes. There’s not a lot of chaff on this record, which is doubly impressive for the wide range of sounds included on the record. The Gray Havens are hitting a stride here, and I am excited to see where they go from here. Right now, though, I’m picking my jaw up off the floor and enjoying Ghost of a King thoroughly. Highly recommended.

Ghost of a King is out today.

Prana Crafter’s Psychedelic Ride

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William Sol’s brainchild Prana Crafter serves up yet another mind-melting Prana Crafter album with Rupture of Planes. The album consists primarily of mysteriously seductive instrumental tracks that always leave you wanting more. For most of the album, Prana Crafter entices you; places you in a trance; and then, when you least expect it, kicks you out of your state. Until, that is, the next track begins. Rupture of Planes combines brilliant guitar work with raw vocals and poetic lyrics to create a truly existential experience.

William Sol is the best guitar player I have heard all year. Whether acoustic or electric, the guitar work in this album is jaw-dropping. At times the electric guitar oozes sex appeal (“Forest at First Light,” “Rupture of Planes,” “Mudra of the Mountain Throned”) akin to Jimi Hendrix’s guitar style. In other songs, Sol goes the more intricate route with both his electric (“Diamond Cutter of the Jagged Mountain,” “Moksha of Melting Mind”) and acoustic (“Vessel,” “Tara, Do You Remember the Way?”) guitars.

In the end, no matter which way he plays the guitar or whether it is acoustic or electric, Sol’s guitar work stands strong as the star of this psychedelic rock album. The interplay between the electric and acoustic guitars within songs like “Prana Crafter’s Abode” and “Mudra of the Mountain Throned” is playful yet competitive; it’s as if the two are in competition to see who can stand out the most. My vote is on the thunderous electric guitar.

Although less than half of Rupture of Planes contains vocals, both Sol’s voice and his lyrics are noteworthy aspects of the album. I love Sol’s voice; it’s very rustic and Eddie Vedder-esque. The lyrics are also breathtaking. One of my favorite tracks off the album, “Forest at First Light,” shows off Sol’s tender voice with thoughtful lyrics and some of that beautiful acoustic (and a bit of electric) guitar work. The nature-focused lyrics of “Forest at First Light” ooze poetry with such morsels as “the swimming song of the birds and the trees/ riding on the luminous breeze.” Sol creates these brilliant images with his words and his instrumentation.

Rupture of Planes will take you on a ride to a place you never dreamed you’d go. But when the album ends, you will want to take that awe-inspiring ride again and again. If you have never experienced Prana Crafter’s psychedelic rock, you are in for a treat.–Krisann Janowitz

Ryan Dugre’s Gardens: Peaceful, soothing audio origami

April 6, 2016

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My life has been very noisy on the academic, professional, and personal fronts for a few months. Amid the clatter and bustle of changes and projects and decisions and concerns, I’ve come across Ryan Dugre‘s GardensGardens is a haven of calm and respite amid the modern hustle. The solo guitar record has a zen-like focus and a clarity that make the music incredibly soothing to a harried mind.

Opener “Parade” shows off his electric guitar’s round low-end tone and precise, delicate treble tone; the two distinct voices create a conversation, even though they’re both coming from the same guitar. The songwriting here is very subtle and calm; there’s no clutter, no erratic motions, and very little chaos. “Mute Swan” continues this theme, adding reverb to the treble to create an even clearer distinction. It sounds like audio origami–complex and angular, but only when looked at up close: from afar it seems beautiful, unified, and peaceful.  “Only to Leave, Only to Please” is a ballad of sorts, as it employs this bass/treble distinction to create a melodic structure that is almost lyrical.

Other textures appear on the record as well. “Down By Old River I Lie” has more of a pastoral cast, while “Pindrip” does sound very much like pins dripping from a tall height onto a hard surface. (“Pindrip” is played on acoustic guitar instead of electric; Dugre’s work clearly points out how different the two types of guitar can sound.) “Elliot” employs the bass / treble interplay on the acoustic guitar to great effect–it isn’t as calming as the positively serene “Parade,” but it’s definitely close.

Gardens is a lovely record that is a beacon of peace in a storm of chaos. Instead of showing off how fast or how complex he can be, Dugre employs his guitar skills in such a way that they can be enjoyed in a peaceful setting. It’s very hard to make complexity sound elegant and simple, which is what Dugre has done here. Do your ears a favor and check this 10-song album out.

If you’re in NYC, you should check out his Gardens release show at Manhattan Inn with IC faves Jonah-Parzen Johnson and Dave Miller, which happens tonight at 10 PM. He’ll also be touring and gigging after that around the Northeast and NYC, so you’ll have chances to hear this if you can’t get there tonight. —Stephen Carradini

New Dog breaks the rules, teaches you old tricks

April 4, 2016

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Teeth Marks by New Dog is not a record that fits in with a lot of trends. The gorgeous, spartan, 10-song solo record from Anar Badalov is best consumed as a whole, doesn’t have a clear single, doesn’t traffic in huge melodies, unflinchingly documents modern ennui, and subsequently could not be considered “fun” in very many ways. However, it is the sort of record that enfolds me, transports me, and calms me. It has depths to be plumbed, sonically and lyrically. It rewards those who take time with it, as opposed to trying to digest it on the fly. It is a grower, and it requires you to wait. But it rewards those who delve into the record with a singular, intriguing, mesmerizing experience.

Badalov alternates between delicate guitar and careful piano to create the foundations of this record. (The exceptions are the gorgeously arpeggiated “3 a.m.” and the electric guitar of “Here All Days.”) Over those instruments he whispers, talks, wonders, ponders and even sometimes sings. He approaches vocals more like Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen–there are some melodies, but melodies are not required to create indelible vocal performances. This dismissal of the standard rules opens up a lot of space for Badalov to create tunes: untethered from the expectations of melody, the verse/chorus/verse structure that supports big melodies goes out the window too.

As a result, the tunes sometimes have repeated sections, and sometimes don’t–sometimes the repetition is only a fragment of a thing. Instruments drop in and out of songs; sections lead to other sections and then don’t return to the first thing. It creates an air of mystery and excitement, even in the supremely downtrodden lyrical environment. There’s an idea around every corner; not in a hectic, herky-jerky sort of way, but in a “whoa, come look at this” sort of way. Check out “Lover’s Palm” for an example, or “Sudden Amnesia,” or “3 a.m.” to hear it in action.

And although acoustic guitar and piano create the framework, there’s a lot of distorted synths that enforce a sort of sonic isolation and grinding intensity to the otherwise chill tunes. The use of the noise in contrast to the relaxing arrangements accentuates the lyrics that alternate between very meticulous descriptions of modern ennui (“Here All Days,” “Home by Five,” “Nothing Has Changed”) and the intensity of regrets (“Joe Brainard’s Idea”) and fear of aging (“3 a.m.,” “The Party”). It’s just another carefully planned element of the album.

Teeth Marks is so completely realized that the album artwork is essentially what I would have made up for it if I had to choose it on my own: rich dark blues ripped by a sudden energy (in this case, a flash of lightning). I would have thrown a cityscape in there in substitution for the trees, but otherwise the album art evokes its contents beautifully. If you’re up for a singer/songwriter album that breaks the mold in a variety of ways, New Dog’s Teeth Marks will pleasantly surprise you.

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

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