Rosenau and Sanborn‘s Bluebird is a charming update of the back-porch picker motif: instead of all-acoustic instruments, Rosenau and Sanborn play an acoustic guitar and analog synths. These are long, relaxed, warm, comforting, beautifully-lazy arrangements; the duo got together for a weekend, wrote/recorded/had fun for two days straight, and then released their output as-is. There’s occasional background noise evocative of place: a creaking chair, rain, spoken words at the end of tracks, and other bits that give this a totally-lived-in feel. The combination of the slowly, gently unfolding acoustic guitar lines with the subtle tension of the delicate electronics pushing forward elevates this from idle noodling to purposeful creation: these songs feel like they belong, like they exist, even as they float effortlessly toward whatever comes next. This is an ideal soundtrack for reading a good book on a rainy vacation day up in the mountains, which is pretty much an ideal vacation for me. So this is good, good stuff. Recommended.
I’ve been covering Fairmont since the very first months of Independent Clauses’ existence. In recent years, we’ve gone in different sonic directions, but Fairmont is one of the few bands still in existence from IC’s first year. They’ve got serious nostalgia factor for me on top of being a strong indie-rock/dark-indie-pop band. With that as a backdrop, it should not be surprising that Fairmont’s Demo’s & Lost EP’s 2001-2005 (iTunes / Spotify) taps into some strong personal feelings.
Independent Clauses in the early 2000s was a punk/emo/indie-rock blog, and Fairmont in the early 2000s was a punk/emo/indie-rock band. Their 3 Way Split EP that opens this archival collection displays all the hallmarks of early ’00s punk/emo–punk guitar crunch, highly emotional (and occasionally morbid/violent, in the now-uncomfortable style of the era) lyrics about broken relationships, and blazing synthesizers (oh yeah synth-punk! You were a thing!). If you were or are into early Brand New, Taking Back Sunday, or the like, you’ll be into the first bit of this collection for sure. The Hand That Holds The Knife Must Be Cold & Steady EP continues the dramatic lyrics and introduces a lot more screaming into the mix–this is definitely heavier than the first EP, so the previous RIYLs plus Thursday apply.
The three demos that close the first side of the collection shift suddenly into Fairmont’s indie-rock phase; the crunchy punk guitars are replaced by more jangly guitars, the vocals are less aggressive, the melodies are subtler (and at the same time, more indie-pop-oriented), and the tracks are much more indicative of the Fairmont that exists now. The demos aren’t dated, but I assume they’re later than the punk phase. “The Amazing Plastic Boy” is the first vocal performance of the collection that really feels like Fairmont–this performance is still a little raw around the edges, but you can hear Fairmont’s sound coming together through this track. (And that’s the fun of the archives!)
The back half of the collection is mostly short tracks of acoustic-related work; this acoustic phase is what made me interested in Fairmont way back when, so I enjoyed these tracks quite a bit. Interestingly, one non-acoustic standout from this side is an electric version of a song that I loved then and now in its acoustic form: “Rebuilding Home”. “Rebuilding Home” was one of the first songs that I really stored away and kept with me for years from Independent Clauses; it’s a little piece of my personal and professional life that I go back to every now and then, even 16 years later. This noisier version is very demo-y, with crashing drums, practice-space mixing, and other novelties that result from demoing. The charm of the song is still in there: the melody, the earnest lyrics, etc. It’s a good one.
If you’re a hardcore Fairmont fan, this will be a fun trip into the archives. If you’re a fan of early ’00s punk/emo, the first half of the collection will speak to you. If you’re interested in acoustic-fronted indie-rock, the back half will be your jam. For me personally, it’s a big memory trip and a lovely way to say “Thanks, Fairmont.”
While I’ve been focusing on instrumental work recently, I’ve been dabbling back into music with vocals. The artsy downtempo electronica of Alexandra’s “River Snake” is not purely instrumental, as the vocals play a key role in the mood of the song. But the arrangement is deeply important to the song–perhaps even more so than the vocal melodies. By focusing on sonic elements that are highly evocative and association-laden, the song marries the historic with the futuristic and wraps it in mystical vibes.
The track begins with church bells–a staple of ancient life–then introduces a fluttering flute and 1950/1960s voiceover tone that are highly reminiscent of NASA space exploration narratives. This tension between the ancient and the new, the natural and the technological, persists throughout the tune in a productive tension.
After the introduction, a persistent, urgent synth like a dull bell emerges as the pacesetter for the track. Over this urgent line float in layers of vocals, some manipulated and some not. High-pitched synths that evoke theremin and more spacy vibes collide with these collaged fragments of vocals and merge into a piece that joins the past and the future. To further make this marriage or natural and technological clear, Alexandra ends the tune with distant, wailing, undulating vocals that are traditional to many styles of music placed over the sound of water lapping the shore. It’s as if Alexandra has become the titular river snake and the process of becoming was the preceding electronic sounds.
The overall effect is one of mysticism and mystical moments–even though Alexandra tells me that the piece is about “‘perennial fear’ growing like a mold inside the subject’s body, a reflection of unrequited love and separate emotions,” the feelings I get are more of reverence for the process of amid the difficulties and uncertainties of life. It’s a beautiful, exciting, complex, fully-realized piece of work.
“River Snake” comes from upcoming full-length Ecdysis, which drops July 26. While the Ecdysis release show is TBD, you can catch Alexandra on August 17th & 18th as part of Spirit House Music Fest at Azøth in Portland, OR.
Fifty years ago, John Schlesinger’s film Midnight Cowboy changed perceptions of sexuality. To this day, it is the only X-rated film named Best Picture by the Academy. Harry Nillson’s anthem “Everybody’s Talkin’” is inextricably linked to the film it appears in, and the song served as a guidepost, defining generations trying to find themselves.
Beyond the film, the legendary Harry Nilsson has become recognized as a master of the craft, particularly after his genius had time to gestate in other’s talent. Such is the case with the pure, brilliant talent assembled here for This is the Town (Vol. 2): A Tribute To Nilsson. The collection is a fitting tribute to this songwriter’s prolific genius. This deep dive into one of American music’s greatest catalogs is now available on limited edition orange vinyl via Royal Potato Family. Kenny Siegal revisits the producer’s seat in this follow-up to This Is the Town (Vol. 1), working his magic in Old Soul Studios in Catskills, New York.
Mikaela Davis takes her classically trained harpist swagger to the strut of “Take 54.” Etienne de Rocher’s subtle “Wasting My Time” is so right that it feels like Nilsson’s watching somewhere, whistling along. Robin Zander’s growling rock in “Ambush” makes sense as Cheap Trick takes the vibe right back to 1969, a country in confused chaos.
“This Could Be The Night” from Bart & The Bedazzled is a perky bit of sunshine that contrasts against the standout smokey jazz of “City Life” from Lauren Ruth Ward. Colored with subtle horns and just enough grit, the dark side of the city comes back into focus as clear as Ward’s vocal stylings.
Invisible Familiars’ “Old Forgotten Soldier” recalls the era in which this music came into being; ethereal vocals and soft piano wrapped with driving bass punctuate the truth of the times. Now we just have veterans suffering from PTSD who served in the Middle East. Has anything changed in fifty years? “I Guess The Lord Must Be In New York City” by Valley Queen is that moment when people will think Buck from Midnight Cowboy is strolling nearby. Drifting into the city with Belle-Skinner’s ukulele, “Open Your Window” is like sitting on the stoop, waiting for the sunset in Greenwich Village.
The essence of New York City resonates through each beat of “Driving Along” as a beat box throwdown from Adam Matta. The joy of albums like this is discovery, and wow! I plan on shaking Adam Matta’s hand at a show soon. Aching violin and a haunting cello embrace Nina Violet, even though we know “I’ll Never Leave You” is not true. “Turn On Your Radio” is a night light in Nilssons’s lyrics, sung with stunning grace by Arc Iris.
Closing out This is the Town (Vol. 2): A Tribute To Nilsson with “The Puppy Song” (Phoebe Siegal) makes sense. The point? Usually, genius in art is recognized too late, after a talent is taken from the world too young, leaving only songs behind. Like Midnight Cowboy, who fifty years ago won an award that made the establishment rethink what real genius on film could look like, the folks at Royal Potato Family show they know what genius sounds like.–Lisa Whealy
You had me at gothic folk, Charming Disaster. Ellia Bisker (vocals, ukulele, piano, music box, glass jars, percussion) and Jeff Morris (vocals, guitar, piano, ratchet set, canned air, percussion) honor the legacy of artists like The Decemberists and their iconic 2009 effort The Hazards of Love with Spells + Rituals.
This saga is complete in eleven songs. Haunting, nuanced entrances are key to suspending disbelief. Bisker’s vocals are enchanting, luring listeners into an eerie place. Her vocals intertwine with Morris on the lead single “Blacksnake,” where the tale begins. Starting with imagery of the temptress should tell listeners where this is going, but the fun is in the journey. It’s a testament to love, an all-consuming power transfixing us; melodic and hypnotic, against all reason, these lovers chase the dream.
Don Godwin (bass, drums, horns, backing vocals, percussion), Heather Cole (violin) and Jessie Kilguss (harmonium, recorded at Charlie Nieland Productions) create an out-of-this-century trip to somewhere else. Don Goodwin co-produced the record with Charming Disaster and mixed the record; Randy LeRoy mastered the record at Tonal Park in Takoma Park, Maryland. Illustrations from Magda Boreysza and graphic design from Jeff Morris add to the tone of this release beautifully.
Much of the album needs the body of work to be fully appreciated, as most songs do not stand alone. Yet “Wishing Well” can stand alone: Morris takes the vocal lead and contributes a lighter musical tone to the yellow brick road where these characters find themselves. Cluttered with heaviness and confusion from the bass line, brighter lyrics contrast brilliantly, lightening the mood. Hitting on themes like ambition and fame, the duo shows that whistling a happy tune does not help put sunshine back in the devastated landscape.
The tango “Devil May Care” shows why these two musicians found each other, as masterful pizzicato violin work surrounds harmonies. Perfection slides into angst, crafting a caustic cavalcade of not-so-thinly-veiled metaphor in “Blue Bottle Blues.” This is one of the most impactful tracks of the album: speakeasy smooth, this is a calling out of all the ills of society.
Fans of rock opera as a genre know that the best way to fully immerse in the story is to listen front to back, and the steampunk “Heart of Brass” marks the turning point where the gears shift into place and the engine of the album starts to hum. “Bride of Frankenstein” plods towards a cool monster mash, putting Nick Cave firmly in the vibe. To touch on each cut here will spoil the magic of discovery, and there’s still a lot to discover for those who are intrigued.
The album shines as a masterclass of musicality. Each note fully breathes in its absinthe, intoxicating the listener. Charming Disaster has crafted a gothic folk opera that is definitely going to find its audience in Spells + Rituals. Usually the strange and unusual takes time to find its home, but I am sure glad you found me, Charming Disaster. —Lisa Whealy
Chelidon Frame‘s NowHere Nowhere NoWhere is one of the most interesting albums I’ve ever heard. It’s a brilliant instrumental piece of art that sonically depicts (not evokes, or suggests, but straight-up maps out) various landscapes, people, events, and stories. It’s no good as working music or ambient music because it demands to be listened to. It is a fully conceived piece of art in the way that films are fully conceived pieces of art. It’s hard for me to explain it, and I don’t really want to explain it, because trying to describe it would not do it justice. This album is a totally unique experience to everything I’ve ever heard before, and it’s massively impressive. Do yourself a sonic favor and check it out.
Olof Cornéer‘s Waves, Breaths & Dead Cities is a fascinating and difficult-to-explain work. Part of this is that I’m new at contemporary classical reviewing, but another part is that this is that I’ve rarely ever heard anything like this. The three parts of Waves, Breaths & Dead Cities are (de-)constructed so as to have only one note of one instrument of the wind quintet enter at a time, rarely relying on layering so much as leaning on the impact of each note entering.
It’s not experimental tonally (there are melodies! the scale seems like a regular scale!), but it’s highly experimental structurally. The structure, insofar as it exists, is highly obscured: on first listen this sounds like a large collection of notes one after another. With no through-played accompaniment or background elements, this can feel somewhat like points of light hitting a screen. But with repeated listens the whole of it comes together and starts to build a mood. It’s hopeful, of sorts–not gleeful or even happy (per se), but there’s a persistent underlying uplift that carries through.
The second set of three tracks are the “Night Gestalt” reworks that build in a little more of the backdrop of the notes with some electronic hum/hush/roar. It’s a nice companion piece to the stark versions that proceed it. This collection is fascinating and unlike any I’ve ever heard before; it’s worth a try if you’re into experimental, evocative work. The record drops July 4th.
Monomotion‘s Fujisan is a cross between the dignified chillwave of Teen Daze and the maximalist post-dub of Odesza. The 7-song record is essentially one 24-minute song split into parts; the pace shifts, the ideas change, but the overall mood remains the same throughout. Because Monomotion spends so much time carefully developing the mood, it’s a pleasant experience instead of a monotonous one.
Opener “North Cascades” introduces the friendly, relaxed mood through piano, airy synths and staccato beats; “Mango (with FEYNMAN)” cranks up the secluded-glen vibes in the synths and throws a four-on-the-floor bass thump into the mix for a more club-ready downtempo track. “Seed” is the chillout moment, largely eschewing percussion and bass for a 158-second ambient float. There’s some minimal rhythmic work thrown in, but this is a lovely ambient track at its core.
Lead single “Ecocline Patterns” is the core of the record, the place where high drama and chill tendencies come together in a unique way. Monomotion has minimalist tendencies and maximalist urges; despite these contrasting concerns (or maybe because of them), the song and the record feel perfectly balanced between both–the maximalist highs are satisfying, while the minimalist lows aren’t just throwaway moments to provide a lead-up to the payoff. Monomotion has attended to both with equal care, and this provides a satisfying experience in Fujisan. Highly recommended for fans of Teen Daze, Com Truise, and Odesza. Fujisan comes out 7/26, but you can pre-order it now.
Here’s part one of the June List. You can listen to all of these on my Spotify playlist.
Carried – Cenes. Beautiful, ethereal, weightless, floating classical pieces that feature no percussion and very little form; they come, create an atmosphere of gentle hush, and then fade away.
Sauropoda – L’eclair. Funky nu-disco but not kitschy. I’m just as surprised as you are.
d / on the night when the moon sheds dew – TAKAO MINAMOTO. Hang drum compositions that include a wide variety of other instruments to create dense, layered, moody compositions. These diverse works transcend the mystical sound of the hang drum and show that it is more than a one-trick pony.
Persuasion System / Iteration – Com Truise. Teen Daze-style instrumental chillwave, but more heavily indebted to ’80s nostalgia, vaporware and synth-pop. It’s perfect working music: sonically interesting but not disruptive, forward-moving but not chaotic, melodic but not insistently attention-grabbing. It’s mixed and mastered excellently, too.
1. “Inana” – Camel Power Club. Crossing “Wraith Pinned to the Mist”-era Of Montreal bass lines, squiggly Vampire Weekend synth melodies, and old-school Lord Huron vocals, this tune creates one of the most sunny and infectious tunes I have heard in a long time.
2. “Blindfold” – Martha Hill. I love stacked vocals, and I love it when stacked vocals compose the majority of the track. Hill is a little more orthodox than Imogen Heap in her aesthetic tastes, but fans of Heap will find much to love in Hill’s all-vocals-everywhere approach to indie-pop. The first verse and chorus are just fantastic.
3. “Time Stamp” – A Starving Viking. A simple folk tune with an engaging vocal line, a subtle-yet-strong arrangement, and a travelin’ song mood. It takes a lot to get me hooked on a folk song these days, but A Starving Viking nailed it.
4. “Thirty Days” – We Are Strangers. Anyone who plays the lead melody of the track on a theremin is going to catch my attention. The world-weary track has the light touch of an early Josh Radin song but a much more concrete and earthy approach to the vocals. It’s a solid indie-folk/adult alternative track reminiscent of Peter Bradley Adams in some respects.
5. “We Stole Your Head” – Mountain Head. The low-key vibe of Spoon, the bluesy rock of the Black Keys, and the richly arch electro of Spiritualized all come together into a great slowburn rock track. The chorus is absolutely ace.
6. “Mystics” – Frank LoCrasto. If you told my 18-year-old self that 13 years later I’d be covering instrumental retro tropicalia for fun, my 18-year-old self would definitely not have believed you. But lo, here we are: LoCrasto’s command of the specific vibe of ’70s/’80s tropicalia is impressive–the synths touch the right feel, the hand percussion is spot-on (which is a big deal, coming from me), and the overall piece is just fun.
7. “Oussou I Need You” – Nate Kohrs. I’m on a big sci-fi kick these days, and boy, do sci-fi books love gritty urban settings (either on earth or in space somewhere). This instrumental piece could fit excellently into the soundtrack of a sci-fi novel, as tension, mystery, grit, electronics, and ghostly sounds combine to make a perfect build-to-big-event track. The layering here is excellent.
8. “Let It Go” – Kelly Lee Owens. I’m still real green when it comes to writing about electronic music, but man if this doesn’t sound to me like old-school, original-vibes techno from Detroit. It’s got that raw, I-don’t-care-this-will-take-as-long-as-it-takes vibe. Aggressive, minimal, impressive.
9. “Observable Future” – Carmen Villain. A subtle, simple beat and two intertwining flutes provide the majority of this 8-minute tune. It’s a mesmerizing bit of low-key flow.
10. “Sleeper” – Trentemøller. This is an impressive bit of downtempo electro magic that manages to be quiet but also intense: the build here is highly unusual, moving through thick synths and acoustic percussion into various moments. The sound is liquid, amorphous, but still focused–it’s both smooth and tough. It’s really, really cool.
11. “Stars” – Alex Tiuniaev. This is the first piece in a five-piece piano suite about outer space. How can I not be into that? The piece itself is an adagio walk, a elegant piece of sonorous magic that eschews harsh dissonance in favor of delicate resonances and harmonies. It’s a lovely bit of piano
12. “Solid Influence” – Go Gracious. A big, bold, charming, Bastille-esque pop anthem about a partner’s drinking problem. The video is an equally charming take on the “dancing in public places” genre.
13. “Feel Nuthin’” – Keon Masters. A solo album from a member of IC faves Brave Baby is on the way, and this is the excellent lead single. Pulling fragments of Generationals bass lines, Vampire Weekend Afro-blitz, ’90s kit beats, and ’80s soaring pop vocals, this is summery indie pop par excellence.
14. “Mary Always” – Khruangbin. Khruangbin’s unclassifiable instrumental work is always fascinating. Here we have hand percussion, ’70s-style guitar modifications (or maybe they’re keys?), easy-going bass, and a solid groove created by the whole arrangement. Very interesting.
15. “Jagged Mountain Melts at Dawn (part I)” – Prana Crafter. Who doesn’t want 9 and a half minutes of woolly, foresty, psych guitar unspooling at a patient pace? This gentle, exploratory, moody-yet-organic psych is really interesting to me; it defies the conventions of being multi-colored and flashy as well as being cold and slow, fitting nicely in between those two.
Helsinki 8.12.18 is a work of mind-bending originality from Jonah Parzen-Johnson. Parzen-Johnson’s oeuvre is baritone saxophone with synthesizer accompaniment; this idea alone should give you a sense of what type of unusual territory we are entering into. On the one hand, Parzen-Johnson does what many musicians of all genres aspire to do: he creates spectacularly interesting soundscapes and populates them with all sorts of sounds and feelings. On the other hand, the first draft of this review had me comparing “You Don’t Get to Finish” to a coastal jungle adventure and “Find the Feeling” to a hardboiled detective narrative. You can compare Parzen-Johnson’s work to less adventurous contemporaries for safe RIYLs, but why would you? This is boundary-smashing, genre-dismissing work of the highest order and if you’re here for that, I’m here for that.
My favorite is opener “Everything is Everything Else,” where Parzen-Johnson’s lead saxophone melody sounds like a lost gospel tune. The warm, phased synthesizers kick in and give that gospel melody a beautiful space to play around in. The results are a surprisingly emotional, surprisingly evocative tune for synthesizer and bari sax. He follows it with three other long pieces that show off various sonic soundscapes: ominous, ambient, percussive dread (“It’s Better If You Don’t”); dense, intricate, pounding post-rock (“Find the Feeling”); and tropical, enigmatic, soundtrack-esque brilliance (“You Don’t Get to Finish”). All of them show off Parzen-Johnson’s main skills: he can wring almost any sound imaginable out of his saxophone, he knows how to place those sounds in context to create strong atmospheres, and he can build to real high-point moments in a piece. If you’re a fan of adventurous, unique, never-heard-that-before type of music, you need to check out Helsinki 8.12.18.
Sometimes sounds just feel right, like a crackling fire spreading warmth through the soul on a snowy winter night, or a sun burning daylight down on tall pines, or mountain tops glowing in the darkness. Grover Anderson taps into those sounds. With The Frontman, Anderson returns to the gold rush hills of his Americana roots in Calaveras County on his follow up to 2017’s From the Pink Room.
Grover Anderson and The Lampoliers (Marshall Henry – guitars, organ; Anthony Delaney – bass; Josh Certo – percussion) bring eight songs to life with lush, majestic beauty. The backing band craft the foundation of this storyteller’s saga of life and love, while an array of guests color tracks shifting through folk, country and Americana.
Wandering into The Frontman, “The Good” brings on a sense of ease and comfort with each note. This is no-pretense traveling music, as the violin and authentic songwriter vocals bring to mind the great Glen Campbell (“Wichita Lineman”) who painted soundscapes that surpassed the confines of genre. Austin Broder (of The Risky Biscuits) lends his fiddle to the composition. I’m not a huge fan of country music, but If that song is country music, I am definitely a fan of that.
Anderson lays the lyrical imagery and wit on thick in “Standing Water.” The musical poetry with twang sounds like Lukas Nelson and The Promise of The Real. Henry’s guitar soars perfectly, leaving space for guest Chelsea Sue to sprinkle in a feminine vocal touch. “Parallel” welcomes guest Kiel Williams (of The Risky Biscuits) on pedal steel. Tangible angst bleeds through simple words. Uncluttered, this cut has room to feel pain. Most everyone has known a broken heart and the space left between two hearts that once beat together.
In the world of storytelling, each chapter has its perfect place. Sequencing plays an integral part in The Frontman. Uptempo redemption breathes on the rapturous symphony of “Evergreen.” Joining Anderson’s vocal with Nathan Semprebon’s (of The Risky Biscuits) is genius, plain and simple. Broder’s fiddle joins Jimbo Scott (of Poor Man’s Whiskey) on this gem. Reminiscent of Jason Isbell’s textural “Last of My Kind” from 2017’s The Nashville Sound, this track combines the best of Americana, roots and country into something cool.
A soft resting place, “On Comfort” brings back images of great singer-songwriters like James Taylor who needed few words and less time to say what needed to be said. This acoustic flicker is not to be underestimated. Wandering towards the end of a rich record, fourteen-year-old Joshua Swank plays cello alongside Broder’s fiddle on “The Archives.” The vocal delivery brings Glen Campbell back to life again. This time, however, this song haunts the soul on another level as each metaphor unfolds. Each note speaks volumes, reinforcing the musician’s vision.
“Wasps” features guests Nate Nathan on piano and Williams on electric guitar. The band delivers a honky-tonk vibe and a downhome groove, but this ain’t no “tears in my beer” country tune. Instead it’s more of a “throw your dog in the truck with the kids and ease on down the road, it’ll be alright” sort of track. Closing out with the title track, “The Frontman” is brilliant. Grover Anderson and The Lampoliers really want to leave an honest impression of who they are as a band.
Anderson is a storyteller extraordinaire. In From the Pink Room, Anderson told his fans how this troubadour got his wish. Now, The Frontman gives listeners an idea of how the view has changed after stepping into the sun. This album makes me curious to hear what happens next with Anderson’s work.–Lisa Whealy