It appears that someone in Ukraine shot down a Malaysian jet liner, killing all 295 people on board. If this seems random, garish, and apropos of nothing, that’s because it is. Malaysia and Ukraine were not at war with each other. This serves no obvious purpose. Death appears, and it is absurd; we rage against it. It is this sense of outrage that powers The Collection‘s Ars Moriendi.
It must be said straight away: Ars Moriendi is unapologetically weighty. It tackles questions of death, life, and religion unflinchingly. Some people in this album don’t believe in God; others do. Narrators live. Narrators die. There are straight people, gay people, married people, lonely people, depressed people, and recovering people. The one thing that unites them all is that they’re all gonna die, and they’re all concerned about what this means for their lives. There are songs here that hit me hard in my particular current life experience–I’m willing to bet that there are different ones for other people. The Collection isn’t shying away from what they’ve got to say about life in the context of death, which is a rare thing. But don’t worry–there’s a great amount of hope and exultation in the tunes that accompany these thoughts.
The music here is by turns jubilant, pensive, and energetic, but it’s always passionate. This diverse sound is created by the Collection’s 16-piece folk orchestra–and when I say “orchestra,” I don’t mean there’s a string player and a horn player. The credits on this album are humongous, including 27 people. Lead songwriter David Wimbish takes the giant ensemble that he has and leads them to create some of the most incredible folk-inspired tunes I’ve ever heard.
Wimbish can write a mournful dirge (“The Doubtful One”), but he can also write a jubilant tune of celebration (lead single “The Gown of Green”). He can use every single instrument at once (“Garden”) or lead the orchestra to beautifully frame a trumpet solo (the Beirut-esque coda of “The Borrowers”). He knows how to write indelible vocal melodies–”Scala Naturae” and “Broken Tether” in particular, although you can sing along to almost every single tune here. Some of the crescendoes they hit are downright shiver-inducing; then again, it’s emotionally devastating when he drops out the orchestra and just sings against an acoustic guitar. The songs are about as varied as a cohesive album can get, moving from thrashy galloping drums backed by a full orchestra (“The Art of Dying”) to Wimbish barely holding his voice together in sadness over a solo piano (“Some Days I Don’t Want to Sing”). Ars Moriendi wrings me out emotionally as a listener. I can’t imagine writing and performing it.
It does sound like it wrings out Wimbish, though–as the primary voice of The Collection, he’s the one tasked with delivering the words that accompany all these tunes. His vocal styles are as diverse as the songs ask for: he whispers, sings, hollers, shouts and roars his way through the album. There are few vocalists as engaging as Wimbish: I don’t know if he’s going to break into falsetto or a terrifying roar at any given moment. It makes sense that Wimbish would collect an enormous number of instruments, because that seems like the only thing that could match the depth, disparity, and ferocity of his vocal stylings. My personal favorite line to yell along with is “and though my feet walk very slow, and there is death between my bones, I’ll make it home!” from “Broken Tether.”
I can remember individual lines, but keeping the incredible number of lyrics straight is challenge. Wimbish has written extremely detailed, thoughtful, and meaningful lyrics that don’t just skate the surface. There is hard-won experience documented here, and it’s difficult to look past it to just hear the beautiful, energetic music. Instead, the album is a whole experience. I very often listen to music while I work–this album does not allow that. This is an album that demands attention musically, lyrically, and emotionally. I can’t just hum a lyric here and there and not be moved. I mean, just go read his lyrics listed on the Bandcamp and see. This is not background music in any way, shape, or form. Again: Ars Moriendi is a whole experience.
I could go on about this album for 700 more words, but I’ll try to close here. Ars Moriendi is the sort of album that sucks you in with every song; there’s not a bad one in the bunch. That’s impressive in a 13-song album that’s nearly an hour long. Each song has an astonishing amount of carefully crafted lyrics, painstaking arrangements, moving performances, and brilliant production work. There are six or seven songs that would qualify as the best track on anyone else’s album. It is an album that challenges me emotionally, spiritually, and musically. It’s in the lead for my album of the year.
The last time someone seriously considered death and its consequences, it started The Arcade Fire on a course that resulted in the heights of musical success. Here’s to hoping the Collection sees that level of success–their work here merits it.
People often ask me to define folk, Americana, folk-rock, or alt-country. I understand the confusion: the nuances are there, but for many casual listeners they can be pedantic or unimportant. It doesn’t help that many of those genres share traits, with the difference only lying in the emphasis of this one or that one. Then there are the grey areas. However, sometimes an artist comes around that fits the bill exactly. Keyan Keihani, for instance, is an alt-country artist through and through.
Keihani relies on country vibes, full-band arrangements, pedal steel, organ, rock-style songwriting (verse/chorus/verse), and modern melodies in Eastbound–which is exactly what alt-country bands are known for. The Jayhawks, Ryan Adams, and the Old 97s are all examplars of the modern version of the sound that The Byrds, CSN&Y, and Buffalo Springfield helped invent. But just because something can be named doesn’t mean it’s not exciting and interesting. Keihani’s vocal melodies and tight arrangements create a memorable, easygoing record that invites you to press repeat.
“Don’t You Ever Leave” is a perfect example of his sound. Swooping pedal guitar, insistent drumming, and honkytonk piano come together to create something much greater than the sum of their parts. Keihani ties all these parts together with his smooth, evocative tenor, giving a gravitas to the track that transforms it from solid to excellent. The wistful “Same We’ve Been” ties twinkling piano and treble-heavy mandolin together for a romantic vibe; “Good Country Night” turns up the honkytonk without getting abrasive, making for a song that’s just a ton of fun.
Keihani’s debut album shows a maturity unexpected in those putting out a first collection of tunes. His deft songwriting touch allows traditional instruments and well-known moods to be invigorating and interesting. His vocals allow people who might not otherwise get into the genre an in. The whole album comes off as an assured, welcoming set of tunes. Keyan Keihani may have just said hello with Eastbound, but it sounds like he’s got a lot more to say.
For me, Feist set the standard for mature female-fronted indie-pop. Charming, interesting, and occasionally deep, Feist relies on traditional songcraft as opposed to tricks or gimmicks. (No hate: I love a good gimmick.) But there’s something classic about Feist, and anybody I can find to compare must necessarily be on top of their game. It’s incredibly impressive, then, that Grace Joyner‘s debut EP has a clarity of vision and excellence of performance that would put her in Feist’s category.
What Young Fools does best is convince me. Joyner’s songs sound mature, bright, and real. They don’t feel like ephemeral pop songs or ponderous singer/songwriter tunes; these are songs with weight and heft, but also a light touch. If Joyner didn’t apply to modern indie vocal melodies and styles, these songs could easily be confused for songs much older. Opener “Other Girls” features piano, gentle drumming, and flutes for color; “Young Thing” and “Be Good” have the pad synths and separated beats of an ’80s Police-style song. (“Holy” does sound like a Killers or Bravery track, but it’s an outlier.) Their traditional style, however, makes them endearing–not cliche. Joyner’s songs are excellent because they perfectly compliment the real star: her voice.
Joyner’s alto is awesome because it’s flexible. “Other Girls” sees her using in a near-formal capacity, full of trills, swoops, and vibrato. “Be Good” sees her adapt a speak/sing style, while “Love of Mine” shows off her poppy side. But it’s “Young Thing” that shows her voice’s versatility and unique qualities. The standout performance sees Joyner getting emotional without getting theatrical, which is an impressive feat. Using little shifts in tone and register, Joyner puts on an evocative display without going into Adele-style range. It’s impressive, and more than any other track makes me excited for Joyner’s future work.
Grace Joyner’s first step out from background vocals position is an impressive one. Young Fools is an accomplished, mature, exciting release that displays impressive songwriting skills. If you’re a fan of Wye Oak, Feist, Waxahatchie, or even She and Him, you’ll find a lot to love in Grace Joyner’s work.
Even though my parents played folk bands for me when I was young, the first music I discovered on my own was pop-punk. I made it back to folk by listening to lots of pop-punk bands play acoustic songs, then moving on to singer/songwriters from there. So there’s always a sweet spot in my heart for pop-punk bands that break out the acoustic guitar. Dan Webb exactly fits that bill.
Webb usually fronts the pop-punk band Dan Webb and the Spiders, but for Eine Kleine Akustischmusik he lists his band as Dan Webb and a Spider. (Ha!) The recordings are simple: two guys with voices and acoustic guitars. There are occasional light overdubs (“Night Games,” “Long Years”). The whole 13-track thing was recorded in one (apparently quite long) night in a studio, giving it an earnest, raw feel without dipping too deeply into lo-fi. Webb’s high voice is complimented often by passionate high harmonies, which give a lot of energy to the tunes. As with anything that includes “punk band,” “one night” and “recordings” in the same sentence, these necessarily imperfect tunes have absolutely gorgeous, pure moments too. Sometimes those two things exist in the same song or phrase. It’s totally cool.
Opener “Texas” is the tune that most sounds like a singer/songwriter tune instead of a acoustic punk song; Webb’s vocal melodies fit beautifully over a lazy strum. “Fix This Place” also feels more like a singer/songwriter tune, as the somber guitar structures lend a gravitas to the tune. But just in case you worry that this is all introspective work, there is a song called “Astro Zombies.” It’s about zombies from outer space trying to exterminate humans. Yup.
If you’re into that particular style of acoustic music purveyed by pop-punkers taking a break from their regular style, Dan Webb and a Spider have got a treat for you. It will be interesting to see if Dan Webb keeps developing this songwriting style; there are some high highs that show up.
Clara Barker‘s songwriting is impeccable on Fine Art and the Breslins. The Isle of Man (!) resident’s folk and acoustic indie-pop tunes have a classic songcraft flair about them; she breathes life into rhythms and arrangements that would seem like tropes in others’ hands.
She’s able to do this in part because of charming moods: it’s just fun to listen to tunes like “Angel” and “Love (Fill My Heart).” Both are happy songs that make me bob my head, clap my hands, and sing along. Are the strum and percussive patterns familiar? Yep. But that’s what makes it so immediately lovable. She also dabbles in melancholy, Verve Pipe-style Brit-pop (“Dodging Bullets,” “Seth’s Song”), which is a nice change of pace.
Her lovely voice also helps get through any complaints about formal songwriting. Her perky, buoyant voice gives her a bit of a manic pixie dream girl vibe. It puts her in league with other beloved indie singer-songwriters like Ingrid Michaelson and She and Him. This is nowhere as prevalent as “The Bees Song,” which is a twee love song that includes a toy piano (or similar sound). In short, Clara Barker’s songs are comfortable, lovable, and fun to listen to. I’m behind anyone who can hit that trifecta.
Bon Iver may sparked a surge in mopey folk singers (whom I love, let it be known), but it’s good to know that there are still bands who think that folk music is wild, crazy, and a little dangerous. Push play on The Loose Canyons‘ Strivers’ Row and you’ll get immediately introduced to the raucous “If We Don’t Know By Now,” which sees the band blasting forward with train-whistle rhythms, energy galore, and a slicing harmonica. The next track lets the guitarist rip off a blazing guitar solo in-between gruff, growling vocals. Tom Waits lite plus The Low Anthem? Yes please.
Even when the band slows things down they retain that ragged flair. “My Tendencies” is technically slower and led by a female vocalist, but this just means that they sound like they’re luring you into a back alley somewhere. And they still manage to get an overdriven guitar and wailing harmonica into the arrangement.
By the time you get to “7th Day,” the vocal-centric, harmony-friendly, even sweet tune seems like it’s coming from some other band. It shows the impressive diversity of Loose Canyons; they can fully inhabit their moods and shed them just as quickly. They circle the wagons for a final track, where all the moods (tenderness, gruffness, instrumental prowess, vocal-centricness) come together. “John Lennon” is a pretty impressive track, if only for the amount of things it crams in. I’m still partial to those raucous first two tracks, but that’s a personal preference thing. The Loose Canyons are great on each of these five songs, and you’d do well to check them out if you’re into folk music.
Sabers has the rare ability to rock without stomping the fuzzbox too hard or too often. It’s a trait they share with indie legends Spoon: rock is in the attitude, not the delivery. They rely on groove, tone, and mood to do the work for them, instead of speedy tempos, massive walls of sound, or crashing drums. I mean, Sic Semper Sabers starts out with a walking pace tune called “Armchair Warriors” and follows it up a track punnily called “Money Eddie.” This is a band that knows what it is about.
Don’t confuse: Sabers has chops galore. It’s just that they approach those chops from a casual perspective, preferring a bleary-eyed, Velvet Underground take on things as opposed to a Rolling Stones style. There are some who may not even call this rock, and quote the chill “Ever Eyeing” to say it’s indie-pop or something. I rebut with the surf-rock riff and distorted vocals of follow-up “Puppet.” The production job here softens edges, to be sure, but I’m betting you that Sabers gets plenty loud live. I also bet their hooks (instrumental and vocal) are just as good live as they are on tape.
I’m a big fan of bands that have energy, songwriting skills, and restraint. It shows good taste to know you can blow the doors off and yet don’t. It leaves the listener with some mystery. Sic Semper Sabers is an impressive album that establishes Sabers as an intriguing band to watch.
Candysound also rocks in an unusual way, combining the instrumental setup of garage rock, the raw energy of folk-rock, and the production values of dream-pop. Candysound’s intricate arrangements feature staccato rhythms that never become brittle, complimented by passion that never translates to general heaviness. The songs feel light and engaging, even though they’re all going at it full force.
This is nowhere as present as in the title track of Now and Then, a 1:43 slice of exuberant Candysound style. The song opens with a humble throat clearing before gentle but swift fingerpicking and whispered vocals come in. After 30 seconds, the band arrives: thumping toms and cymbal (no cymbals), intriguing walking bass, female BGVs. After 30 more seconds, the band ratchets up: the cymbals start to blow up, the vocals turn into hollers, and the guitar distorts (but without chord mashing). After 30 more seconds, it ends with a bang and interludes to the next tune. It’s a fascinating, exciting track that establishes a solid instrumental style for the band.
Throughout the rest of the album, elements that appeared in “Now and Then” show up. Single-note riffs and toms make for great fun in “Anything”; things get positively mathy in “Turned In.” But the band never loses touch with relatable hooks and melodies: when the post-rockish “Instrumental” gets heady, there’s a companion for it in the smooth mood and charming vocals of “Keep Up.” “11:11″ gets heavy; its follow-up “Beacons” has a chill vibe.
Candysound has a sophisticated, mature sound: they know what they want to accomplish, and they’re very good at it. I haven’t stated any RIYL bands, because Candysound makes it easy to explain what the songs sound like. Each element of the sound is developed and clear. It’s a really fun album to listen to, and an commendable achievement. Here’s to more from Candysound!
Ships Have Sailed tries to accomplish a lot with its Someday EP: pop-rock, alt-rock, and acoustic pop. Of those three, the pop-rock is admirable, and the acoustic pop is solid.
Opener “Midnight” is a slick, hooky, irresistible pop-rock track reminiscent of The All-American Rejects (whom I love), while “Bring You Down” is one of the catchiest songs I’ve heard in any genre all year. The latter benefits from a “give ‘em what they want” arrangement: it sets you up to want certain moments, then delivers in spades. Can’t ask much more from a song, really. These two tracks are worth checking the EP out on their own: they show a pop songwriting skill that I hope to hear more of.
The two acoustic pop tracks are nice as well; the male tenor vocals handle the change of pace nicely, and the songs are worthy changes of pace. Closer and title track “Someday” brings the two genres together: it starts off as an acoustic pop tune reminiscent of Dashboard Confessional before bursting into a pop-rock song reminiscent of Angels and Airwaves (although with a lower-pitched vocalist). It’s a fun tune that wraps up a fun EP. I’m really intrigued by the songs that Ships Have Sailed has put out there on the Someday EP; three of them are really polished, tight, and memorable. I look forward to hearing more!
The Main Chance‘s album Lunagraphy is absolutely gorgeous. I’ve been listening to it for weeks, and it’s been hard to describe it other than that. Will Gosner’s singer/songwriter tunes have the unassuming confidence that marked the earliest Iron and Wine recordings: they’re beautiful, moving, and memorable with seemingly little effort. His low, comforting voice tumbles from his throat gracefully, and his gentle fingerpicking flows without tension or difficulty.
“The Thinnest Ice,” “In My Young Life” and “The End is Sweet and Near” calm me no matter what mood I’m in, which is a bold statement from over here. Gosner augments the staples of acoustic guitar and voice with occasional gentle arrangements, and he scores whenever he does. Lunagraphy is the sort of record that comes out of nowhere, bowls you over, and keeps you coming back for more. Gosner’s collection of songs here shows off an enormous talent that should take him places. I was astonished and thrilled by Lunagraphy; I think you will be too.
Arctic Tern‘s Hopeful Heart is a wonder to listen to as well. Songwriter Chris Campbell goes for the David Gray style of singer/songwriter tunes: writing deeply romantic tunes with delicate yet full arrangements. There’s also some Bon Iver drama, both in lyric and arrangement (but not too much).
Campbell’s trembling tenor leads the way, setting a mood of vulnerability for these songs. They’re heavily reliant on acoustic guitar and piano, but the ethereal background vocals of “Wax,” the delicate piano of “The Break & the Fall,” and the swooning violin of “In the Cold White” are all subtle touches that take these songs from good to wonderful. The five tunes of Hopeful Heart aim to be beautiful, and they all are; there’s not a slacker in the bunch. If you like romantic, beautiful songs from the likes of Sleeping at Last, Trent Dabbs, and similar artists, you’ll be in love with Arctic Tern. Hopeful Heart is one of the best EPs I’ve heard so far this year.
Having a gravelly voice gets you compared to Bruce Springsteen or Tom Waits, depending on the amount of roughness. It’s not necessarily a fair comparison all the time. Bill Scorzari‘s Just the Same relies on his gravelly voice to power his folk/country tunes, but he uses it differently than the aforementioned fellows.
Opener “Eight of Nine (Just the Same)” shows how he fits his vocal tone into acoustic-led arrangements that also feature mandolin, organ, and shakers. The vocal melody is catchy, showing off a surprising and stereotype-breaking range. His lyrics are of the first-person storytelling persuasion, spinning yarns of life and loss and drinking. The album is quite long, giving fans plenty to hear; about half of the 13 songs are over four minutes or more. If you’re into storytellin’ folk, you’ll be into Bill Scorzari.
What we listen to says less about us than it used to, given the Internet’s ability to erode consistent listening patterns. But if what we listen to still says something about a person, then it should be noted that I am all about helter-skelter acoustic strumming with the most possible amount of words sung or spoken over it. If you throw down some la-la-las for a chorus, it’s all over. In other words, I’m all about literate folk-punk/indie-pop-rock like Jake McKelvie and the Countertops‘ Solid Chunks of Energy because so much is going on all the time.
McKelvie opens the appropriately titled 10-song salvo with “Mini Monster,” which sees the frontman singing as many words as possible over a pretty clean electric guitar, bass, and drum kit running at breakneck speed. Spitting everything from non-sequitur to Dylan-esque metaphor to puns to self-deprecating truth before bursting into a passionately jubilant “la” section for the chorus, McKelvie is either the motor or the sail. He’s the motor if you’re a fan of the “auteur with a backing band” theory, but he’s the one being pushed along if you’re of the “bands with band names are bands” school of thought. Doesn’t really matter which school you’re in, though–everyone can dance along to “Mini Monster” and feel good about themselves.
Elsewhere, McKelvie and co. get their Bright Eyes on, treating audiences to a quieter version of melodic machine gun vocal delivery. “Aside From Your Hair” is impressive not only for the number of words that are included, but for the fact that the band manages to wring a melody out of the delivery. The rhythm is possessing of its own, but the fact that you can sing along to certain parts is even more fun. “Woke Awake” has similar RIYLs, and is one of the most tender-sounding of the tunes. “Flock Hard, Lockhart” is a power-pop tune that relies more on gone-wild bass work and guitar riffing; “Time Is a Chew Toy” is beachy and kinda ’50s-ish, while still maintaining a brain-bending set of lyrics. “Lots and Lots and Lots of Money” is a straight-up punk song, ’cause why not close out the album that way?
Solid Chunks of Energy is a wildly entertaining album for lyric nerds and pop fans. McKelvie very clearly knows how to write a pop song and has decided to fill his with all sorts of unexpected magic. It just so happens that the magic happens with a very small set of instruments. Guy’s gotta tour somehow, you know? Fans of The Mountain Goats, Attica! Attica!, Bright Eyes, or other “wordy” singers of the indie-pop/alt-folk/folk-punk persuasion will have a new band to watch in Jake McKelvie and the Countertops.
This is Independent Clauses’ 2000th post! Thanks to everyone for sticking with us for 11 years!
Some of the best records are growers: stuff that doesn’t strike you immediately, but works its way into your ears and heart. On the other hand, some grab your attention immediately and don’t let go. James Apollo‘s Angelorum smacked me across the face and demanded that I pay attention. It’s the rarest of rare: a record that has immediate appeals and slowly unfurling charms past that first look.
Apollo commands attention by perfectly executing his distinct and unique vision. Angelorum is a subtle, complex record made from Motown horns, slinky cabaret vibes, Kinks-esque garage rock and unassuming instrumentals. Yet this mix never sounds uncomfortable: Apollo’s identity is strong, clear, and focused. For example, “Two Lane” is an sexy, confident track that relies on a quiet guitar line, occasional bass hits, and Apollo’s smooth vocals. The title track follows “Two Lane,” and it’s a calm tune led by piano and bass. Thanks to Apollo’s style and an excellent production job, these two songs fit perfectly next to each other.
Apollo also knows how to subvert expectations: “Neverland” opens with the rock-est guitar riff of the collection, but it’s eventually buried under bass, shakers, vocals, and vibraphone. It powers the song, but not in the direction you’d expect. “Chestlodge” starts out with a dramatic piano arrangement, then decides to just stay a dramatic instrumental. “Spinnin” throws down some ragged guitar-rock drumming, then almost entirely removes the guitar to create an impressive, interesting tune.
Angelorum is a beautiful record in its tone: it’s at turns highly romantic, tender, pleading, and calm. It’s hard to compare it to much, because Apollo’s vision is very distinct. (That’s a high compliment from a person who listens to hundreds of bands a year.) It’s definitely one of my favorite albums I’ve heard so far this year. Basically, some words aren’t convincing as the music itself will be: you just need to go listen to Angelorum by James Apollo.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.