Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Moda Spira: Subverting expectations wherever they can be found

May 23, 2016

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Moda Spira‘s self-titled debut album is a beautiful, intriguing work that combines pensive indie-pop, thoughtful electro-pop, R&B and more into a distinctive sound. The lyrics are just as impressive, tackling the little-discussed topic of marital commitment with candor, verve, and impact. The result is a deeply moving album that fires on all cylinders.

Moda Spira is, at core, a piano-led indie-pop album with nods to singer/songwriter lyrical sensibilities. Due to the impressive arrangements that Latifah Phillips and her collaborators develop, the final project is much more than that. It’s a credit to those diverse arrangements that this 12-song album is unusually tight for such a long work; the songs do not become monotonous. There’s a five-song suite in the middle of the album that perfectly shows off how that works.

“Shaking the Walls” is the most immediate of the tunes on the record: it’s the most electronic piece, sounding not that far off from School of Seven Bells material. The layering of multiple synths on top of traditional keyboards matches the complexity of the vocal layering that’s going on by the end of the song. At track five, this thoughtful-yet-fun pop song is a big turning point in the flow of the album. It’s followed by “Bet on Me,” which is probably the track most influenced by R&B: check the restrained guitar, heavily reverbed percussion, and the vocal melodies. It’s a big shift musically from the previous track, but the emotions behind Phillips’ vocals in both tunes carry the listener through.

“The Hard Way” is reminiscent of Jenny and Tyler’s cinematic folk/indie-rock sound, delivering some of the most indelible vocal melodies in an album chock full of them. There’s a little bit of electro sneaking in the arrangement, too, but it’s there to round out the sound instead of take it over. “What You Need” combines the straight piano rhythms of indie-rock/indie-pop with R&B vocals, pad synth arrangements, and strings, combining many of her influences in a sound that’s all Moda Spira’s own. It’s a very quiet, chill song, but not as quiet as “Stillness,” an intimate solo piano musing. In the span of five tunes, Phillips goes from her most noisy to her most serene while displaying a huge breadth of songwriting chops. It’s impressive. There are other impressive tunes (the harp-driven “We Hold On” is particularly rad), but I want to leave some surprises for you.

The lyrics are deeply important here as well. Many of the songs here are about how hard being married is, even if (especially if?) you’re committed to keeping it going through the hard times. (Marriage is also portrayed as incredibly beautiful: see “Shaking the Walls.”) As a husband myself, they resonated clearly and deeply with me. It’s also interesting that these topics are framed in vocal lines that draw from the R&B tradition; the phrases “What You Need” and “Bet on Me” sound like they could be any generic R&B come-on, but in Moda Spira’s wedded context, they have a much richer back story. The lyrics reach into a deep well of emotion and are uniquely strong because of it.

Moda Spira is a brilliant collection of inventive, honest, yearning, passionate tunes about staying together that subverts expectations in an astonishing number of ways. Fans of Imogen Heap, The Antlers, and all the aforementioned artists will find much to love. This is a remarkable album. Highly recommended.

Quick Hits: Plush / Wolf Girl

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Plush, a self-proclaimed SOB-rock band, released their latest EP, Please, last month. With subtle vocals, intimate lyrics, and exploding instrumentation, Please is a very solid EP.

The slow, yet powerful instrumentation is my favorite aspect of this five-track EP. Don’t get me wrong, the vocals are wonderful and unassuming, but it’s the pairing of the vocals with the fantastic instrumentation that really makes this EP shine. “Please Don’t Let Me Go” is a great example of how Plush shows off their instrumentation. The use of a harder electric guitar in contrast with a more beachy guitar and a hefty amount of percussion is perfect. There is even this great build towards the end that slowly winds down–and then the song just ends. Similarly, “Sheer Power” starts off slow and mellow with a subtle electric guitar. About mid-way through, the instrumentation just erupts, pairing well with the increasingly charged lyrics.

The lyrics in Please are emotional and intimate, yet somewhat distant. The lyrics off the EP have this push and pull between “I want you” and “I don’t want you.” Interestingly, most of the songs don’t have distinct choruses. When they do, they are often repeated lines like “But please don’t let me go” from “Please Don’t Let Me Go.” I also love how “Sheer Power” ends on the lyric, “I have the sheer power of/ knowing I still haunt you when I’m gone.” It’s such a punchy way to end a song. By ending the EP in “Fixes” with the lyrics, “There’s no fixes left to try,” they end this collection perfectly.

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London four-piece Wolf Girl’s first full-length record We Tried is a spunky pop punk album full of short, punchy songs with spunky instrumentation and quirky lyrics.

“Skinned Teen Zine Machine” is the shortest of all the tracks at 1:17; it comes and goes like a bullet train. Beginning with electric guitar and quickly accompanied by drums, the fast pace of the track enables Wolf Girl to put a lot into the song. The instrumentation feels very Ramones–they even throw in a few “ba ba ba ba dah”’s very reminiscent of “I Wanna Be Sedated”–although Wolf Girl’s version has a slightly different rhythm. Wolf Girl also ditched the idea of a chorus, leaving the track with two jam-packed verses. One of my favorite lines is “Cassette culture taught me I ought-ta/ Press record when I’m bored.” Wolf Girl fits fun and pizazz into such a short song.

The longest track off the album, “Sourpuss” (3:34), has a slightly slower pace, while still maintaining Wolf Girl’s signature spunk. “Sourpuss” begins slowly with the electric guitar and picks up pace once the drums enter in, although not quite as fast as “Skinned Teen Zine Machine.” There is also an impressive electric guitar solo and short instrumental interlude, giving this track fewer words than the shortest track.

The lyrics of this track provide a little snapshot of a few kids at a party, describing them “In a backroom at a party, avoiding all the fun.” Then, at the chorus the singer pleads, “Bury me in awkward poetry.” By the end of the song, the kids are “In a bathroom at a party, the countdown’s just begun / Your head in the bowl and you’re puking loudly,” the “party” here of course being that of New Years. The lyrics of We Tried capture awkward young adulthood at its finest.

We Tried does a great job at encapsulating what punk rock is all about– awkward teenage angst.–Krisann Janowitz

Frances Luke Accord: Delicate yet complex

May 16, 2016

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“Nowhere to Be Found,” the first single from Frances Luke Accord‘s most recent album, is about as mature, pristine, and lovely as a folk-pop tune can get; it’s right up there with Josh Ritter and Gregory Alan Isakov. It’s a stunner, then, to find that the rest of Fluke is just as good in a different vein: the airy, major-key mysticism of opener “Who Do You Run From” evokes Shepherd’s Dog and Kiss Each Other Clean-era Iron & Wine. The rest of the album combines the delicate immediacy of the former influences with the expansive arrangements of the latter influence.

“Something Moving” is an appropriate title, as the second song on the record has an arrangement that sounds like running gently through a forest: claps, tambourine, distant auxiliary percussion, woozy strings, and breathy vocals combine to create a warm tune with an unusual groove as its chassis. “Stones I’ve Thrown” and “Egoeye” continue this arrangement style, putting a heavy emphasis on the mood that is created by the many instrumental pieces coming together.  “David” starts off as a more direct tune; the band pulls some of the layers back to focus on vocals, lyrics, and saxophone. It doesn’t last long, as Accord expands the simple beginnings into one of the most complex pieces on the record.

Fluke is an engaging, intriguing album that weaves an incredible amount of instruments and sounds together to create a unique mood. The songs can be appreciated on their own, but the album sounds best as a whole, when Frances Luke Accord can tour you through a distinct sonic world. There are many nooks and crannies to explore on Fluke, and you can have a great time finding them all. It’s not a traditional hands-in-the-air summer record, but if you’re in the woods on a lake and take a walk in the next few months, this record would be a great companion.

Nathan Felix’s Neon Heaven is not scary, I promise

May 12, 2016

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Nathan Felix‘s Neon Heaven is not your typical Independent Clauses fare: Felix, the mastermind behind indie rock outfit The Noise Revival Orchestra, actually composes for orchestra (and travels the world doing it). Neon Heaven expands on his symphony debut, The Curse The Cross & The Lionby including a towering choir.

If you’re a little nervous at this point, don’t be: even though “Love Song for Anita” starts out with gigantic choral harmonies, there’s a section around 5:30 in to the piece where Felix takes it down all the way to a plunking piano and glockenspiel. It sounds like a Lullatone piece, which is remarkably cool on its own and even cooler in contrast to the traditional orchestral structure around it. Felix may not be fronting an indie rock band here, but he can’t resist turning a whole orchestra into an indie rock outfit temporarily.

He does the same thing on “Harmonious Harlot,” where a syncopated piano and vocal line intertwine to create an ominous, wiry vibe that sounds strikingly like something you might expect to come out of a Bloc Party album. It gets even more exciting once the vocals split into multiple lines, punctuated by huge horn blasts and interwoven with harp. All this to say, don’t be afraid of this album because it’s a choral symphony. There’s a lot to be thrilled about if you’re a person whose classical music influences don’t extend farther than (or as far as) Sufjan or Joanna Newsom’s explorations.

The charms continue throughout: the beautiful cello/oboe combo in “Mistress of Mistrust” must be noted, along with the remarkable cello solo that starts out “The Sword and the Throne.” The piano-heavy “Phantasmagoria” is a peaceful respite among the highly dramatic work. The harp, which appears throughout, gets its moment in the memorable interlude “Dreamsicle.” There are some more thoroughly orchestral moments (the stomping “Dungeon of Versailles” sounds fully like what you might imagine from a giant orchestra), but in general, this is an orchestra that sounds like it was written by someone who’s up with the current trends.

Neon Heaven is not your usual listening, almost certainly. But in its 40 minutes, Neon Heaven holds many distinct charms, beautiful moments, and memorable sections. If you’re an adventurous listener, you should definitely check out Neon Heaven whenever you can. If you’re in Austin, there will be a listening party for the record at the Museum of Human Achievement on Saturday at 8 p.m., and I encourage you to go.

Quick Hit: Kalispell

May 11, 2016

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Printers’s Son by Kalispell adheres to the Gregory Alan Isakov school of folk: direct, serious, modern. Kalispell’s hook is the immediate production; where Isakov likes ghostly reverb and delay, Shane Leonard presents his instruments and voice mostly unadorned.

This choice results in crisp, tight, uncluttered, and clear arrangements throughout. But the album isn’t stark: Leonard cares deeply about arrangements, including wind instruments, strings, and a full band to create wide-open panoramas of sound. (Song titles “In Chicago” and “Gary, IN” give clues to the landscapes he’s sonically describing.) These songs aren’t particularly designed to be catchy, but there are melodic thrills to be had throughout: “Beautiful Doll” features a cascading banjo melody, while “Hand” opens with a memorable acoustic guitar line and keening strings. The title track has a song structure and emotional vibe that are more attuned to singing along.

Still, the joy of this record is not audience participation, but marveling at the serene, intricate work that Leonard has put together. It’s more along the lines of S. Carey than Bon Iver in that regard, although fans of either musician will find much to love in Printer’s Son. The album drops on June 3; you can pre-order it now. 

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

RUFUS

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.

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

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