Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Quick Hits: Justin Klaas / The Maravines / Clara Engel

March 6, 2014

whatchanged

It’s always a joy when a band from IC’s history reappears with new music. I first reviewed Justin Klaas‘ work in 2006, and 8 years later I’m writing about more music from him. What Changed? is a thoughtful, atmospheric album that challenges the boundaries between indie-rock and indie-pop. Klaas’ voice calls up comparisons to the howl of The Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser, which brings passion to the work no matter what the genre.

Instead of fighting for balance between loud and soft, Klaas holds the album together with those dueling ends of his sound. The yearning “Sunlight or Moonlight?” allows tension to manifest in the arrangement, giving the reins to the vocals to complete the mood. The walking-speed indie-pop songwriting of “Wait Here” lets the vocals take the forefront, giving a different feel to the song. The delicate instrumental “Moonlight” casts a Bon Iver-esque tranquility over the record, calming the tension momentarily. The whole album holds together beautifully, drawing on imagery of evening as a guide for the listener. What Changed? is a short film shot in the dusky woods, perhaps, or maybe a night spent on the street corner under the streetlight. If you’re into low-key, personal indie-rock, you should check out Justin Klaas’ work.

maravines

I’m not sure there’s a better way to start an album of jangly guitar-pop than with a song called “The Smiths.” You should thank The Maravines for figuring this out on their self-titled record. It’s not just jangle-pop here; the sound also draws on both the lush melancholy and occasionally the rough aggression (“I Say Go”) of early ’00s emo. Still, the primary mood throughout the album is a leisurely stroll through reverb-heavy indie-pop.

The album is purposefully cohesive; the band posted the whole release as a YouTube video so listeners could experience it as a free-flowing unit. If you’re pressed for time though, you can start at “Train Ride” (20:09) and let the dreamy feel both lull you into serenity and sell you on the album. Mint 400 Records seems to be specializing in acoustic-folk and guitar-based indie-pop albums as of late, and The Maravines are a worthy inclusion in the latter camp.

claraengel

I’ve mentioned before how “The Lioness” by Songs:Ohia is one of my enduring favorites. Its raw, minimalist power is simply unimpeachable. Many have tried to appropriate that barely-contained energy, but it’s hard to emulate Jason Molina. Clara EngelsAshes & Tangerines has moments that take on that hushed intensity–but in contrast to Molina, she often explodes these moments into their full potential for wrenching, dramatic conclusions.

The album is minimalist, but by no means ignorable. “Raven” begins the album with a simple plodding bass guitar strum and furious vocal performance, letting you know exactly what type of album this will be from moment one. “Heaven and Hell” introduces a delicate, forlorn piano line before opening up her voice to its full dramatic potential. The palm-muted guitar and rumbling toms of “X-Ray” go in an ominous lyrical and tonal direction, as opposed to a sad one. That’s the biggest marker of Engels’ sound: she has a lot of ominous (“Harvest”), eerie (“Decomposition”), even menacing (“X-Ray”) work on Ashes & Tangerines. By setting that tone, Engels puts herself outside the category of casual listening: this demands focus and attention. If that’s what you’re looking for in a musical experience, Clara Engels will give you a fascinating listen.

Quick Hits: A Day in The Life of a Traveling Shoelace Salesman – Aglets, not Ferrules, Ma’am.

March 5, 2014

goldlight

Gold Light sits at the altar, fists bored to its chin, waiting for the hymn to end, so it can get to the real songs… the ones waiting at the fellowship hour to follow.

There’s an obvious throwback vibe on this self-titled record to Velvet Underground or more modernly The Tyde. Joe Chang, Gold Light himself, has a distinct voice, though. The lyrics are rife with simple wisdom, bent clichés, and plenty of baby-you-better-believe-its. The vocals (swathed in hall reverb) with just a Pixies bass line supporting–like Jonathan Richman with a story-time, Springsteen flow–on the song “Gold” say, “Well, darling, don’t you know that your heart of made of gold? How come you set the price so low?” Memorable and classic. “True Love Never Dies,” the album closer, has a Phil Spector shimmer and a da doo ron clippy clop, arpeggiated beauty.

Cool that it’s a cassette, but here’s what Gold Light should do. Tour the US really quickly supporting this release. Only Joe can drive the van, so he can focus on the lights and the destination, his delivery and the maddening lines–upon the highway and furrowed brow alike. Meanwhile, the other band members get to really tour the nation, burping up ethanol-boiled pizza slices, watching deer play on the side of the highway. Put out another full-length really soon after this one…like start recording it the day they get back. Then, put the new one and Gold Light out on vinyl. Lou Reed said, “There’s only X amount of time. You can do whatever you want with that time. It’s your time.”

Thirteen words on watching the sun rise to this album: I am not still drunk. I can run my hands over iridescent clouds.

mathmajor

Math Major by Art Contest is a catapult crock completely crammed with cottage cheese. Now, where are we going to aim it, and who gets to release the ropes?

I picture seeing this band live and remarking, “Wow, they were different than every other band on this bill.” Hyper, stand-out fun is tangible with every soaring guitar overture. Then, the rhythm section crashes in, swoops with emphasis showing the backbone and the corners of each song. RIYL Truman’s Water (yet not as musically reckless–“Banana Boat”), The Wicked Farleys (in frenetic vibe “Sugar Bay”), Weekends (but with bass guitar–“Riff Raff”). On “Tripp Pants” the words are, “I was kissing my dad, and I didn’t even know it. I was crashing my car, and no one ever told me.” Five gold stars.

Thirteen words on sun-tanning & eating lunch to this album:  Pass me the gigantic Christmas tin of Cracker Jack. The peanuts are disgusting.

wecamefromexplodingstars

We Come From Exploding Stars is a reflective, hopeful dream of light… a reach from despair for the young and the restless. We just stayed right out there under the pines… a beach in the air for the dumb and thus tentless. Moonlit Sailor comes from Boras, Sweden where they often experience weeks without sunlight*.

The Sailors do epic, instrumental, ambient, triumphant post-rock. I think they sound like a tight band that does what they do very well: putting space between swells and sinking boats by the end of a song. It sounds like they have an Ibanez AD999, an Akai Head Rush, a tube bass head, and a great drummer. The tunes are well composed. They swell up and duck down, crushing you into a ball of foil. Unball that foil to reveal an imprint of a fossilized fish. Give it to your nephew on his 7th birthday. Watch him grow. Be proud when he becomes an archaeologist and finds all the dinosaurs the way they really looked. This band has grown up over the course of four albums, all on Deep Elm Records*. Their uncles should be proud.

Thirteen words on watching the sun set to this album: Time was once the decider; now, the Universe has sent space to me.–Gary Lee Barrett

*These were all words from a press kit.

The Fox and the Bird | Brown and Blue / Novi Split | Arctic Tern

March 4, 2014

darkesthours

It’s always a bit unusual for me when songs that I’ve known only in performance make their way to tape. The Fox and The Bird‘s Darkest Hours is composed of songs that I’ve heard the Dallas-based band perform over the past three years since their impressive 2011 debut Floating Feather. “Saints,” “Valley,” and “No Man’s Land” are tunes that have lived in my memory long before they ever found a home on this album, so it’s a bit like welcoming old friends back into my home than meeting new people. Keep that in mind as I praise the album.

The Fox and the Bird is a real chipper folk-pop outfit musically, but their lyrics have a complicated, melancholy tinge. Darkest Hours makes obvious with the title a strand of thought started in their debut. “The Wreck of the Fallible,” “Valley,” and “Habit” all weave together human frailty, the petty ugliness of our actions, redemption, and hope into complex lyrics that keep me pondering as I hum along. “Valley” is especially contradictory in this regard, as I find myself humming the dramatic line “And it was every bit as bad / as our father said” without feeling particularly bad. “Habit” is about a history of violence, sung in an perky, old-school Decemberists vein.

Amid the tension and feeling, there is at least one track that is just happy. “No Man’s Land” is a song of hope, passion, and western expansion that includes jubilant trumpet and a sweeping set of “oh-whoa-oh”s in the chorus. But other than that, it’s charming melodies and back-porch banjo of “Ashes” supporting a conflicted lyric set about loneliness, and the beautiful vintage country harmonies of “Dallas” elucidating how Dallas is a pretty terrible place. (“Dallas is a rich man with a death wish in his eyes / A steel and concrete soul with a warm hearted love disguise.”)

So The Fox and the Bird are not The Lumineers: while both can write folk-pop and country tunes that are melodic, memorable, even masterful, the goals of Darkest Hours are quite different than those of “Ho Hey” or “Classy Girls.” This isn’t to knock either band–it’s to point out that fans of Lumineers’ musical qualities might very well enjoy The Fox and the Bird’s music, but might find the lyrics frustrating or even difficult. Others who are fans of challenging lyrics will find an impressive amount of care and thought put into the lyrics, and they might just dig the extremely strong folk-pop stylings. It’s clear that Darkest Hours was crafted over years instead of months: these tunes shine musically and lyrically. The result is one of my favorite albums of the year so far.

novibrownandblue

I have often sung the praises of Novi Split, so I’m thrilled that David J is moving into an active phase of his production. His most recent release is a split 7″ with fellow Los Angelenos Brown and Blue. Amazingly, the two bands secured Split7Inch.Bandcamp.com to host the thing–although the availability of their seems-like-it-would-already-be-taken website is only one of the impressive things about the split.

Both bands incorporate country influences and focus on gentle vocals; B&B adds a country sway to a quiet indie-rock ballad of sorts in “Honeymoon Suite,” while Novi Split adds pedal steel to the hushed singer/songwriter vibe of “Stupid.” Both bands have a deeply romantic streak running through the lyrics and overall feel, making them great split partners. My only quibble with this is 7 minutes is awfully short for such a great match. Thankfully, both bands are releasing EPs in March–I’ll just play them back to back and call it good. Definitely check out this release.

arctictern

It is extremely hard for me to resist romantic music. I don’t just mean love songs, although I’m hard-pressed to ignore those; I mean romantic in the literary sense, romanticism that idealizes love and loss and feeling as near to the highest manifestations of the human soul. Damien Rice and early 2000s emo have a lot in common, you know?

Arctic Tern
‘s Leaves EP is a passionately romantic album that combines the emotive vocals of David Gray or Josh Garrels with pristine, gentle arrangements of Sleeping at Last and Gregory Alan Isakov. A lilting Irish air to the vocals only makes the sound more appealing. “Light a Fire” is the most polished of the tunes, a full arrangement with good motion, even a quiet urgency, throughout the track. Other tracks show off Arctic Tern’s (one person, naturally: the solitary genius is a beloved romantic-era invention) prowess with just an acoustic guitar: “Love is Not a Game” and “Ties” have stark sections and yet are still smooth. “Love is Not a Game” expands into a tune with swooping cello, melancholy piano, and glockenspiel–it’s an absolutely beautiful piece.

Arctic Tern’s sound falls somewhere between searching and content: the lyrics speak of the anxious space between love and not, but the arrangements are strong and confident. This is music to chill out to, to make out to, to be thoughtful to. It’s music that gets into the spaces of your mind and smooths those jagged edges, even if only for a little while. It’s an EP that caused me to repeat it 8 times in one day. That’s a mighty accomplishment.

Quick Hits: …Of Sinking Ships / Vinny Vegas

March 3, 2014

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…Of Sinking Ships’ first full length album, The Amaranthine Sea, is a beautifully arranged and orchestrated instrumental album. It takes the ambiance of The Sea and The Bells by Rachel’s and the clean but dreamy sensibilities of Cerberus Shoal’s …And Farewell To Hightide, then adds a solid, technical percussive foundation a la Red Sparowes or Ativin.

The album is a tad more alive than Sonna, and quite a bit less math-oriented and busy than Don Caballero, but fans of both should enjoy.  For example, the song “I Set Sail On Winds Of Renewal,” the first sneak-peak track posted online, has this sick, Dianogah-like, ramble-but-syncopate bass line; then, it ends in a deep, shoegaze bend. This band makes a lot of keen choices in their arrangements.

Their label, Broken Circles, really has something here. This group features members formerly in Hrvrd and Hopesfall. This album’s production is definitely a bump up from their earlier, self-titled EP. The rhythm section especially shines. This reviewer’s pick is the mid-album builder, “Colliding On Rocks I Knew Not Existed.” It takes one back to such down-tuned crushers as Shiner, Texas is the Reason, and Far. It’s rather shocking that this album has no singing. It would be interesting to hear what melody line might come up and take over these anthems.

vinnywhi

For instance, Vinny Vegas’ brand new album, The Big White Whale. delivers while having a similar feel.  I think this is what …Of Sinking Ships could have done to make their new album more timeless: add a passionate singer who has the acumen to sing in the right spots over the course of lengthier, well-played and well-laid-out compositions.

Vinny Vegas’ J Robbins-produced album leaps high over a difficult hurdle: keeping the listener’s attention over the course of a long song. VV accomplish that with memorable vocals and by keeping the musical passages anything-but-boring. OSS’s aim is different; they are trying to set a mood and fly you up and crash you down. They’ve put together some beautiful music here. This song-minded reviewer just wants to hear some vocals.

The Amaranthine Sea features outstanding artwork from the acclaimed Chandler Owen (John Legend, Underoath, Between The Buried And Me) and will be available digitally, on CD, and vinyl (limited to 300 copies). It releases March 25. Keep an ear out for this record.–Gary Lee Barrett

Third time’s the charm: Liverpool artisans Ninetails present Quiet Confidence

February 27, 2014

quiet-confidence-artwork

Ninetails’ Quiet Confidence is a thoroughly thematic and shrewdly arranged huddle of live instruments, field recordings, and angelic vocals coming together in psychedelic conglomerate. A listen through the entire release is highly recommended, as it stands strongly as a whole.

Plaid, on 2003’s Spokes especially, laid the British soundwork for artists like Ninetails. It’s a bit daft to just throw out a sound-alike RIYL like this, but fans-of would definitely crush on these Liverpool artisans. Quiet Confidence features the keen mastering ear of Music Producers Guild’s Mastering Engineer of the Year, Matt Colton, who has worked most notably with Raime and James Blake. On first listen, Mr. Blake’s cut-up compositions come to mind. Ninetails’ use of ancient-sounding, pitch-addled human vocals is different than, say, Blake’s Klavierwerke, but they seem to have the same ethereal end result in sight.

Cex’s Role Model is another apt aural forerunner of Quiet Confidence. To state it again, this EP must be heard in its entirety, as the moods shift with each new sample. There’s an intelligence to this music that hangs formidably high above a waterfall, clinging tightly to a seemingly substantial lift that only delivers the brief tensile security of a strand of hair. Cex, in the momentary comparison, offered a more personal look at IDM and intelligent electronic (and creatively mixed) music with his aforementioned album. Not at all pastiche, Ninetails strikes a similar bell without the Autechre Dropps, and Harry Partch sits and stares.

Repeating themes from soulful genes… The music history book of thematic presentation should have a foreword dedicated fully to Harry Nilsson’s Aerial Pandemonium Ballet. Harry took two of his albums and re-mixed them into one and sounded a true APB. Quiet Confidence, with producer Chris Pawlusek at the helm, weaves that same thematic magic. Guitar lines that you swear you just heard. Vocals that sound only halfway backwards, but they remind and refresh. Harry re-recorded the vocals of “One” and slickly inserted them in to “Mr. Richland’s Favorite Song” as a background vocal. These little genius moves keep an old song fresh… keep the listener’s ear perked and noticing.

On the same note, what is already mixed on the cutting edge by Pawlusek and the band, could go further. Music is really chilled-out these days. It’d be nice to hear some more aggressive or perhaps more abrasive re-mixes of the six Ninetails songs here. Picture something industrial beneath or a break-beat sneak sitting, seething under the horns in “Radiant Hex.” For instance, I tried Giorgio Moroder’s “From Here to Eternity” under “O for Two.” I was doing the dishes. I started square-dance calling nonsense about, “Everybody who came here on a bike, over in this corner, please!” I was dancing around my kitchen. I broke one of my Alvin & the Chipmunks (who had similarly treated vocals) drinking glasses (Simon: the one with glasses), only to have a Theodore left.  It’s fine; he’s the drummer. Most times… all you need is a good groove, but, all the time, you need a beat…. a manifest pulse.

It can be hard to handle progressive music that is just a lot of things that happen one after another with gaudy guitar solos and full-kit triplets and Rick Wakeman pans. It can be hard to handle ambient music, too, because if you’re not trying to melt away a headache or trying to read, it can bore. Ninetails dashes all this while still being musically progressive. They place just the right engaging elements into a radio-play-length song.

Make a dinner that lasts all week. No one wants Dinty Moore beef stew. We want Scottish beef porridge with monkey ears, whole sweet potatoes, and Sri Lankan starfruit. That’s what we have here. Keep pushing the genre barriers, Ninetails, and they’ll move your picture from near the exhaust pipe on the Underground and put it on the side, BIG AS DAY, next to the clean air initiative stamp and the No Smoking sign. It’s going to get better.–Gary Lee Barrett

Once Upon A Launch Break: Casper & the Cookies deliver Dingbats!

February 21, 2014

dingding

Dingbats is the fourth & newest album by Athens, Georgia’s Casper & the Cookies. This album is a fun romp through a cemetery late at night (the lanterns would give us away), a secret crush on a hundred year old man (the one from work with the pickup truck) … an atrocious notion of swallowing the ocean.

Back to the full-band swing of 2006’s The Optimist’s Club, the Cookies are hitting it straight out of the park–a long fly ball, all gloves flipped on hips–with Dingbats. The album opener, “Improvisamente Ardito,” walks the listener through the fears and fun of deciding to do something “one more time” (the ringing, resounding, sing-it-all-week reverberation). One more album from C & the Cs? Yes, please, with walnuts and jimmies this time. Quickly, we have to get to the show!

Jason NeSmith (former of Montreal contributor) offers the strongest song with “Lemon Horses.” The sheer bravado is felt fully in this tune: the runt–changed forever, hazed, picked up off the ground by the back of his belt–becomes the big talker. Jason tells us a story of being pulled over on the way to the show…about being a big shot in Athens, about getting high on animal spirits, about being powerful. Blowing smoke in a cop’s face, he could have anything in the back of the tour van, so what do YOU want it to be? Ballads are hard to pull off without hearing a “shave and a hair cut… that sucked” at the end. This is a truly well-delivered story. The words fit the music so masterfully and vice versa. Experience this song!

Kay Stanton (current Supercluster contributor) offers another one of her ultra-real, super-exciting pop gems with “Jennifer’s House.” It sounds a bit like “Meredith,” a Kay song from the Cookies’ third album, Modern Silence, but this tune serves up more details. Why does this person stink, Kay? Why do you still love them? What is giving up worth?

This reviewer’s favorite song is “Thing for Ugly.” While having a great sense of humor in that it’s about what it’s about (one’s kink being ugly people), the song delivers a lot more. Jason’s best vocals, where he sounds like a young Glenn Tilbrook, lie here. This is a lost Squeeze song for sure: the early UK Squeeze. It’s like “Out Of Control” with a Nels Cline Singers, electrified sewer grate breakdown from the other side of the moon… not Earth’s. Way out there: Callisto. The Cookies throw out some more memorable thought-bites, “Where’s your sense of humanity? Somebody’s got to love them!” Good fun.

Here’s some adjectives and where to find them. Frantic: the vocals in “Omni” – a cracked trip in all directions. Huge: the keyboard in response to the group vocals in “Sleep Defense.” Compelling: whoever’s speaking in “When The Moon Was In Command,” the album closer. This album delivers a lot of interesting (like new lifeforms discovered in Antarctica) and fun [like an all super-villian rollercoaster that becomes a cannon at the end: POW! (into the Sun)] songs that a lot of ears should hear. Bullet point: Their last three albums were great; Dingbats is even better. It comes out on vinyl, CD, & digitally on February 25th co-released by Wild Kindness Records (Pittsburgh, PA) and Stuff Records (Athens, GA). –Gary Lee Barrett

SeBADoh pleases the crowd, while Octagrape threatens to upstage the vets

February 19, 2014

SeBADoh / Octagrape
February 5, 2014
Ottobar | Baltimore, Maryland

Lou Barlow and Jason Lowenstein of seBADoh. Photo by Matt Condon.

Lou Barlow and Jason Lowenstein of seBADoh. Photo by Matt Condon.

So, it’s the first date of tour. Defend Yourself is fresh; SeBADoh is ready. They come out triumphantly with “Beauty of the Ride,” a crowd-winner. Between the first two songs, Lou Barlow realizes he’s resolved to always have a bottle of water on stage, and he is without. Jason Lowenstein doesn’t know any jokes as Lou leaps backstage. I offer up, “Jason, Jason, ask them if they heard about the fire at the circus.” Jason bites, offers the set-up, and waits for me to hand over that sweet punch line. Groans already mount. “It was in tents.” Lou is back: “Magnet’s Coil.” It’s one of those more intimate shows with about 200 or so weeknight indie-goers braving the snow and hangover tomorrow–way worth it!

Jason swears mid-set that they put a lot of time into learning the new songs as they bom-bom all askew. I heard only two or so off the new album; “State Of Mine” definitely caught my ear. “License to Confuse” knocks off the kids’ knit caps. They clobber with a lot more from the you-love-that-song-because-you-know-it back catalog. It is a brilliant, short-but-sweet set from one the most revered bands in the business. Encore: “Skull.”

If there was any kind of mistake made at this show, it was Jason, Lou, and Bob’s choice to follow their opener, San Diego’s Octagrape. Because THEY RULE! They come out on the stage like someone just murdered an alien with oranges on the ceiling. Escape! Square-wave time bombs… half-bird half-doctor, fuse lit underwater by flare to explode pomegranates into goose feathers and lice. Probably the best band I’ve seen take over a stage in a long, long time!

Octagrape's Red UFO

More importantly, their new album, Red UFO, is so interesting and arresting… ah! I just can’t stop listening to it. It is by far the best thing to come across my desk… and then eat the desk, and whine all day about how its name is now Desk and how small the holes in the screen door screen are.

There are NO straps on their guitars; they’re jumping off amps like 1994’s Justin Trosper and landing like 1999’s Eric Paul on Prince’s perfectly woven 1999-gold-sequin tapestry rendering it confetti. Miles runs the voodoo down.

You can say that they sound like a Truman’s Water tributary that indeed leads to larger, more expansive, permanent things. One might say it’s the second coming of Brainiac with mind-melds hourly, making sure all craniums are crammed with silly-string nightmares. Some might say they fall right in between the unabashed abandon of the weirder Guided By Voices vignettes and the living-like-it’s-summer, psycho-swell of Kill Atom Smasher-era Pitchblende. Um … they are a great opening band.

The tour continues with both bands in the US until February 25th. Then, Sebadoh is off to Australia and New Zealand in March. –Gary Lee Barrett

Austin Miller’s calm candor results in beautiful tunes

February 14, 2014

austinmiller

I don’t listen to Rocky Votolato much anymore, because the intensity of his emotion deeply impacted me at a pretty pivotal point in my life. Rocky is stuck as a historical moment for me, but Austin Miller has a similar vibe that I hope to listen to for a long time.

More Than One Way sees Miller in thoughtful troubadour mode, dispensing calm, comfortable songs with an easy gravitas. “When the Rain Comes” sticks with me long after I stop listening to it; the melodies are arresting, but it’s the tone of his voice and the lyrics that keep coming back to me. “When the rain comes / I will welcome it with open arms / what else am I supposed to do?” Miller posits, and it’s the delivery that turns that from a prosaic statement into a haunting-yet-optimistic one.

Miller doesn’t traffic in overwrought emotions: he’s no Damien Rice, or even Damien Jurado. Miller pulls me in with his calm appraisals of actions, people, and emotions. There’s a lot of action in this album, despite it being a quiet, walking-speed collection of tunes; the titles “Moving On,” “Moving Along,” “I’ll Walk,” and “How Far” show his concern with all things going. His arrangements aren’t big, but they flesh out and differentiate the songs: “How Far” features a pedal steel guitar, “Moving On” includes harmonium, and “Where We Fell” displays piano and stand-up bass. No matter what he uses, it sounds sweet and winsome; Miller sings and plays with beautiful candor.

I’m reminded of Iron & Wine a little, in the tender way which the songs come off, but the arrangements and vocals aren’t that similar there. It’s a mood sort of thing, I suppose. Rocky Votolato really is the best comparison, which is why I started with him. But I don’t want to sell Miller short; these songs can stand on their own, without any RIYLs. If Miller had invented the genre, it’d be quite a nice genre indeed. Those into earnest, calm, beautiful singer/songwriter tunes should go for More Than One Way.

Brook Pridemore has a new live cassette, and he knows that Jack Kerouac once said, “The only truth is music.”

February 12, 2014

brookpridemore

I think we have a true folk voice here. I had never heard of Brook Pridemore, hailing from Brooklyn, New York. (By the way, the title of the live cassette I’m reviewing here is My Name Is Brook Pridemore, And I Live In Brooklyn, NY). I had the chance to talk with Brook, and I think the answers write this review. After sampling his music, I decided to get to know this artist.

Major influences?
Bill Callahan, Thee Headcoats, Tom Waits, The Mountain Goats…

I can see that Brook gravitates toward very real, natural artists. Brook once got to show Bill “Smog” Callahan his Bill Callahan tattoo! Similarly, Brook writes in a true folk tradition. He writes about the immediate,  foregoing the struggles of song construction and ambiguity that songwriters often labor over. I ask Brook about performing solo with the type of concrete material he has.

“I am not a ‘singer songwriter.’ Brook Pridemore is a band. It happens to have the same name as I do.  It has always been a band, there have just been long patches where I’m the only person playing.  I have learned, through thousands of solo shows, how to perform under any circumstances.  I could go on for days regarding the weird spots I’ve been in.  I got used to running out as soon as the band before me was done, and shout my name and where I was from, and start to play.  Fewer people left, if I did that.  It has still always been a tough slog.  But I wouldn’t trade it for the easier route.”

Brook says his home state of Michigan has nothing to do with his lyrics, but that where he is now does.

“A good bit of my lyrical inspiration comes from years of seeing Kerouac’s America, that is, big wide open spaces, taken through a windshield, the clack-clack of the interstate beneath the wheels, getting stranded atop mountains, making out with strangers, rocking out in Austin after spending the previous night in jail, never giving up, never surrendering, always on the go, always on the run, until you stop and breathe, and realize that the feeling that you’ve been running away from is in your own head.  And you stay home (Brooklyn) for a while, and you learn how to occupy the space you’re in.  So, yes, location matters a lot in my lyrics.”

Bill Callahan says in his song, “Seagull,” “A barroom may entice a seagull like me right off the sea, and into the barroom. How long have I been gone? How long have I been traveling?” I ask Brook if he is married, single, or happily involved. Also, if he meets a lot of hotties because he makes music… or because he’s at bars more than an average person (performing)… or after performing …after a sweaty rave-up (which are what songs like “Chocolate Cake City” and “The Year I Get It Right” from this new live release are: drenched roof-rockers).

“I’m not in a relationship at the moment.  I learned the hard way that I’m not going to meet my wife at a bar. I’m an odd duck. I need to get to know a girl.”

The reviewer interjects. “But, if you’re like (Brook) you run like hell and get to see the world, ‘til you find yourself in Brighton… missing a girl.” -directly from his own song “Oh, E!” – the reviewer’s pick from this release.

I guess we all want to know, then, why did Brook Pridemore start writing songs or, rather, start just putting his reality right on the line… an open book?
“I was drawn to music from an early age.  I was looking for a creative outlet, and I’d missed the boat on marching band. I got my hands on a guitar in 1993, and have never really looked back. Music is so much more immediate than poetry, or fiction, or acting. It’s also so much more personal.” One can pick any song on this live cassette and just know that you’re going to hear a great story, well-told. It’s really an exciting listen also, because you can hear the die-hards in the front rows near the recording device singing along. Brook finishes, “I didn’t realize until I was much older that the big reason for writing songs is so I could make people listen to what I had to say.  And because I wanted to make people dance.”

He gets them dancing around track four of the live cassette (recorded at the Sidewalk Café in Manhattan in 2011), and he only has to suggest it once.

Discover Brook Pridemore. Check out the new live cassette. I hope to see life in the very in-the-present way Brook does. It seems like a great way to exist, experience, and then move forward. -Gary Lee Barrett

Two Takes on Folk: Chris Jamison / Martin Van Ruin

February 11, 2014

chrisjamison

Chris Jamison puts a light reverb on his vocals in “Carousel,” the opening track of five-song EP Sleeping with the T.V. On. That effect gives his voice a nostalgic, romantic air reminiscent of Gregory Alan Isakov’s vocal performances. Jamison’s contemporary-folk has a bit more of a concrete feel to it than Isakov’s ethereal constructions: stand-up bass, shuffling snare, and acoustic guitar strum anchor the sound tightly to this mortal coil. Still, Jamison’s beautiful voice is the feature in “Carousel” and throughout the EP.

Even in tracks where the instruments are more in the fore, they play second fiddle to Jamison’s arresting voice. The subtle pedal steel of “Summer Comes Tomorrow” and the engaging acoustic work of “Joseph” can’t steal the focus from the evocative tone and timbre of the leading tenor. In that way, it’s a bit like Death Cab for Cutie–although their instrumental sounds are completely different, the focus on instruments supporting the vocal melody and performance is present in both artists. If you’re into folk-singin’ troubadours that can tell a song with the tone of their voice alone, you should check out Sleeping with the T.V. On. You’ll very much enjoy yourself.

martinvanruin

Martin Van Ruin‘s Every Man a King has a much more muscular take on folk music. “Gold and Love and Gin” starts out with a sludgy distorted guitar reminiscent of ISIS (for real) before transitioning into a dry, clanging acoustic strum. Lead guitar, slide guitar, harmonica, background vocals and shaker-heavy drums give the song a very Western, wide-open, frontier feel. When lead vocalist Derek Nelson hollers “she’s got something strange always coming out her mouth” near the climax of the tune, it’s a genuine shiver-inducer in the adrenaline-pounding sort of way, not the romantic sort of way.

Part of their energy-creating powers come from backgrounds in genres other than folk; MVR is a new group from a bunch of Chicago music vets that have a wide range of sounds in their past (and present). “Easy Answer” is a perky power-pop tune led by neat male/female vocal interactions and bouncy bass work. “This Time Around” has similar power-pop vibes, but with a bit of Southern-rock crunch; “Wilderness” has a lot of guitar crunch going on. “Sayanora” has a ’50s ballad sort of feel to it. The drums are powerful and prominent throughout; never becoming overwhelming, but definitely giving a bit of pep to the sound in almost every tune they appear. This ain’t Bon Iver over here, just in case anyone was still wondering.

But no matter where they dally, Every Man a King is held together by an underlying folk sentiment. “American Moon” employs a fiddle and a droll vocal line to tell a heartfelt tale of woe. Sure, it’s noisier than your average folk tune, but it’s got a songwriter’s soul. And they’re the sort of people that took the time to list the lyrics to every song on their Bandcamp page. Maybe that doesn’t count for purists, but it counts for me. There’s always the acoustic Americana of “Storm Coming” and the traditional “Give Me Flowers (While I’m Living)” to settle those anxieties.

If you’re up for some folk-inspired music that steals from southern rock, indie-pop, and more, Martin Van Ruin will scratch that itch. Every Man a King is a strong, varied release that never loses its way.

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