Is Fleetwood Mac cool? U2 is uncool, and Led Zeppelin seems permanently cool (which is funny, because they were decidedly uncool radio rock in their heyday), but Fleetwood Mac is harder to pin down. Jesse DeConto, lead singer/songwriter of The Pinkerton Raid, thinks Fleetwood Mac is very cool (or at least very influential), as A Beautiful World draws on that swirling, vocals-heavy rock sound for its songwriting.
The title track/opener sets up their basic sound: reverb-laden guitars, dramatic vocals that burst into polyvocal harmonies, tom-heavy drums, dreamy keys, and an evening vibe. It’s not dark, but it’s not sunshine and clouds; perhaps it’s a stroll at dusk through a thick forest. It’s tough to capture the idea of expansiveness and intimacy at the same time, but the marriage of the wide-open arrangement and the tight harmonies gives off a very particular vibe. It’s a great track to name the album after and open the album with; it sets up what The Pinkerton Raid is about and lets you know what you’re going to get more of.
Other highlights include the staccato rhythms and thick guitars of “Just a Boy,” and the ominous, turbulent “Giving Tree.” The latter is a rumination on the beloved Shel Silverstein tale; I’ve always been encouraged by the little tale of sacrifice, but The Pinkerton Raid interpret it way differently. They throw one of their most mood-intensive, engaging arrangements at it, including evocative female lead vocals and strong instrumental performances all around. It’s pretty heavy emotionally, but it’s also a highlight of the record. If you’re into swirling indie rock that mines heavy situations for musical and lyrical inspiration, A Beautiful World will please you.
Today, Independent Clauses has the distinct honor of premiering a stream of The Good Graces‘ Close to the Sun, which comes out September 30 digitally on Potluck Foundation and October 28 on vinyl from Fort Lowell Records. (You can pre-order the vinyl, if you’d like.) But you can hear it here now! So press play and hear the excellent record as you read a review of it.
I think about musical genres a lot, since I have to make a public proclamation of a song’s genre about once a day. Genre has gotten muddied and muddled through crossovers, influences, and incorporations; people no less humongous than Bob Boilen question the usefulness of the whole endeavor. I think it matters; genres have social realities. Saying an album is a singer/songwriter release makes different people interested than if I say it’s an alt-country release. The same goes with indie-pop. But when an album comes along that ties many genres together with elements that transcend all of them, I understand why people just want to throw the whole constraint overboard.
The Good Graces’ Close to the Sun incorporates obvious tonal markers of alt-country (“Cold in California”), indie-pop (“My Own Grace”), and singer/songwriter genres (“Under the Weather”). Just to prove I’m not purposefully making things difficult, those three songs I mentioned are tracks two, three, and four on the album; songwriter Kim Ware isn’t tightly allied to any particular sound from the get-go. By track five, “Something So Beautiful” is incorporating swirling guitars, pounding toms, found sound (a Grandaddy-esque indie-pop move) and alt-country harmonica to create something incredibly attractive that sits completely outside easy classifications. Oy.
Despite the varied genres, Close to the Sun does have an internal consistency. Ware expertly crafts a overlying mood of hard-earned, clear-eyed calm for the release. That’s not something that comes across in a specific instrument or genre: it’s an approach to songwriting, lyric writing, and vocal performance that influences whatever direction the song takes. “Curb Appeal” is a condemnation of a person who shows a false front to the world; the same lyrics and chord progression could have been used for an angry, guitar-heavy rocker or a whirring, keys-led indie-pop song. (Ware chooses the latter, resulting in a charming indie-pop tune.) There are lots of places where this album could go for dissonance and instead goes to resolve tensions, musically and lyrically.
That’s not to say that there’s no grit here; the grit is just written into unusual places, which grabs my attention. “Parts > Sum,” the most ominous and irritated of the tunes here, is a straight-up alt-country tune complete with reverb-heavy lead guitar. But instead of pouring vocal and lyrical fury into the track, it opens with Ware singing, “My God, my God, what have I done? / I have been untrue / My actions have hurt everyone / but mostly they’ve hurt you.” You have to go to the easy-going, open-road vibe of “Cold in California” to get the lyrics that might have fit with an angry alt-country track. It’s a consistent trend: the genre expectations are subverted throughout to take a gentler, even-handed tack. Even closing love song “Before You Go” starts out with a list of things that annoy her lover (a bold move, for sure). But starting there unveils a deeper, more mature love that looks past surface annoyances to the realities of relationship.
Even though the underlying calm and the twists of genre expectations carry through the record, it’s Ware’s clear, strong alto that ties the record together. Ware’s evocative voice can display the careful inflections and intonations of singer/songwriter fare (“A Gain, Again”), sell a tricky mood (the complex emotions of “Cold in California”), or carry a rock-ish tune (“Standing in Line”). Throughout it all, her vocal tone stays warm and open, instead of closed off and bitter. That tone often balances out the disparate sounds and lyrics, deftly tying the parts together. The final effect is that her voice sounds natural in these songs, and that’s an element that will elevate any record.
Close to the Sun is a brilliant collection of acoustic-led tunes across a number of genres. It’s a calm, pleasant record in the sense that watching seas from the shore can be calm and pleasant. It doesn’t mean that things aren’t happening on the surface or below the surface; it means that the overall product comes together in a way that is emotionally impressive, intellectually rewarding, and aesthetically pleasing. Ware has done an incredible job pulling together genre-subverting arrangements and lyrics with beautiful vocals, resulting in an album that is hard to stop listening to. If you’re into acoustic-led music, Close to the Sun should very much be on your to-hear list.
I’ve covered digital label Mint 400 Records before, because I think they do great work in the lo-fi indie/lo-fi folk realm and because they have an interesting business model. The label’s latest compilation Patchwork shows off 17 of their bands, giving a pretty good snapshot of what they’re doing. (Disclosure: I’m the manager of The Duke of Norfolk, who is signed to Mint 400.)
The lo-fi work doesn’t disappoint: Sink Tapes, Fairmont, and The Maravines all have compelling offerings near the beginning of the album. The Multi-Purpose Solution and The Mai 68s hold down the end of the record, making sure you didn’t forget about the indie-rock. The acoustic-based work is also exciting, as newcomer Murzik adds an attention-grabbing piano-and-voice entry. Dave Charles sings a chill song that references Star Wars and sounds like some sort of early Jason Mraz tune. Cropduster provides another standout, with a gravelly, creaking voice over an acoustic guitar until it explodes into a grungy sort of thing for a bit.
Cropduster’s rock isn’t an isolated thing: the label has developed some loud leanings. Shallows’ “Always” is aggressive, dissonant guitar rock that borders on post-hardcore; Tri-State’s tune is straight-up guitar rock; and Jack Skuller contributes some rockabilly with ’50s vocal leanings. Mint 400 has grown from a small label with a specific niche to a widely diverse roster of bands, and Patchwork shows off the best of all of them. Check it out at iTunes or Spotify.
North Carolina’s Old Quarter is a country band giving in to the basic musician desire to play things very loudly. The five-song Gone, Not Forgotten opens with slide guitar, acoustic finger-picking, and baritone vocals that all scream “country!” But by halfway through “Gone,” a crunchy electric guitar forcefully announces its presence. “Starlight” also toes the line between crunchy riffs and country vibes, letting the dusky, perhaps even ominous, mood be enhanced by the gritty guitar work.
Closer “Kerosene,” however, amps up the rock’n’roll elements, playing out more like a psych-rock track with some rolling folk vibes than an alt-country tune. It’s no wonder the band has picked “cosmic country” as their genre of choice; they definitely start with country and rocket off in other directions. But it never feels like dabbling; the chiming, building guitars in “Kerosene” make it a great track, no matter who’s writing it or what genre they’re from. Sometimes an over-adherence to generic constraints causes us to overlook things we’d otherwise love. Here’s to some adventure in your life: check out Old Quarter’s Gone, Not Forgotten.
Genres can be combined in any number of ways, as long as it makes sense to the listener. Smoke Season‘s Hot Coals Cold Souls EP mashes folk-style instrumentation and rhythms with the arch, electro-backed rock bombast of Muse. It’s not as weird as it sounds, because the duo knows how to set up the mood to make their tunes build from small beginnings to big conclusions. It’s a rare skill to be able to tip people off to things they haven’t imagined yet, but Smoke Season pulls mood-building tricks from country (the reverb and strum pattern in “Badlands”), R&B (the sultry vocals in “Badlands”), dancy indie (the rhythms of the opening guitar riff in “Simmer Down”), chillwave (the intro to “Opaque”) and more. This whole review feels kind of dumb, kind of like a reach, but I have to explain the sound somehow.
By the time you get to the electronic noise washes at the end of the EP, the connection to folk seems tenuous at best. But throughout the EP, it’s there. There are only subtle differences between a folk band exploding in every direction and a rock band dabbling in folk (and what is a rock band, anyway?), so maybe the distinction is silly. However you feel about the comparison, fans of folk, indie-rock, and alt-rock will enjoy the three songs of Hot Coals Cold Souls. Just go listen to it.
The album art for Conversations by Woman’s Hour is a perfect fit for the album. The smooth, pulsing, post-’80s electro-pop tunes here are pristine, streamlined and unified. They’re not exactly monochromatic, but they do all adhere to a very distinct sonic palette. Nothing is spiky or jagged here: everything is built on spacious, calming, warm vibes. The delicate “Two Sides of You” will especially appeal to fans of James Blake–as Woman’s Hour is (appropriately) fronted by a female singer, this provides an extra interesting hook to the sound. JB’s spaced-out post-dub melancholy/beauty is exactly what Woman’s Hour is offering here. (This is not chillwave; there’s little hazy or washed-out about this.) Conversations is a beautiful, calming, endearing chill-out record.
Emily and the Complexes is a male-fronted alt-rock band that takes its cues from Pedro the Lion: even though there’s significant crunch in the guitars, the emotions invoked are sad and complicated instead of angry. “Yer Boyfriend (Is a Cheapskate)” juxtaposes slow, dejected vocals with a torrent of gritty guitars and cymbal-heavy drums; that sort of quiet/loud is a staple throughout the four songs of Dirty Southern Love.
Tyler Verhagen hasn’t gotten much happier since 2012’s Styrofoam Plate Blues, as the last line of closer “Jersey City Blues” is “Rubbing alcohol or scotch / I don’t care.” He has matured some in his subject matter, as “Joshua” is about a man with a child, a mortgage, and life outlook concerns–there’s a dignity in the depiction of normal life (complete with joys and sorrows). But no matter how tough the subject matter, Verhagen is ace at writing compelling melodic lines for guitar and voice. He’s internalized the lessons of the ’90s and integrated them with the vocal and instrumental emotionality that the ’00s brought us. If you miss the desperate crunch of an alt-rock sadness, check out Emily and the Complexes.
I’ve been posting singles and videos from Colony House since January, because their alt-rock had that anthemic edge which usually portends great things. And while “Keep On Keepin’ On,” “Silhouettes,” and “Waiting for My Time to Come” are great by themselves, they’re amazing when crammed together and packaged with 11 other great tunes on When I Was Younger.
“Moving Forward” is the sort of deep cut that bands realize is amazing late in the album’s cycle, haphazardly throw to radio, and manage to get a career-defining hit from (see “All These Things That I’ve Done” by the Killers). It has a jubilant riff that turns into a revelatory, shiver-inducing “whoa-oh” coda; that arching melody is the sort that Coldplay at its Viva La Vida finest was putting out. It’s the type I wear out the repeat button over.
“Waiting For My Time To Come” is still great in album version–more whoa-ohs, horns, and general good vibes. In other places Colony House echoes an amped-up Black Keys (“2:20″), the Killers, U2, Imagine Dragons, ’80s new-wave (“Roll With the Punches”), and more. Those influences might read like a derivative mess, but they sound like a eye-opening wonder. I haven’t heard anything this immediately engaging and potentially career-launching since I heard .fun’s Some Nights. And we all know how that turned out. If you like fun, cheery alt-rock-pop music, you’ll love Colony House.
Americo‘s style of rock would fit neatly in with Spoon: the rhythms, melodies, and instrumental performances fit together in a very tight, almost clockwork-like way. As a result, their recent release I is a tight, polished EP instead of a frantic, shoot-from-the-hip garage-rock set of tunes. “Stylized” doesn’t mean a lot in its dictionary definition, but the music-world connotations of restless aesthetes crafting and honing sounds seems to (mostly) fit here.
I say “mostly” because the duo also has laidback vibes as one of the core tenets of the sound. Opener “Blastin’ Off” has a stuttering strum and a liberal use of space as its calling cards, not giant guitar antics. (You have to wait for second track “Sled” for those.) “Slingshot” has a ’90s slackerish vibe in the way the chords lazily morph into each other; “Perfect World” relies on rim-clicks and jazzy vibes. This is a band that has both chops and restraint–most bands don’t even have one of those things. (Some of my favorite bands are just fine without either one.) They can even get a little weird and experimental if you’d like (“Prizes”).
Americo’s I shows off a well-developed songwriting sensibility that will appeal to fans of thoughtful rockers. The duo has made it clear that they can rock out and a lot of other things. That versatility could blossom into a particular style down the road, or they could stick with the Swiss Army Knife approach. Either way, I is commendable.
Depending on your interest in the genre, Brother O’ Brother is either carrying on the tradition of or thoroughly indebted to The White Stripes and The Black Keys. The guitar and drums duo rips through heavy blues rock stompers with screaming guitars, howling vocals, and basic drumming. The band’s self-titled record doesn’t let up for the 30+ minute runtime; there are no pop-friendly arena rock tunes or quirky acoustic ditties to break the mood. From the outraged opener “Without Love” to the last high-hat snap of “Mice & Men,” Chris Banta barrels, blasts, struts, strains, and powers his way through through riff-heavy tunes galore.
“Means to Be a Woman” is a highlight of the set. After its bluesy guitar intro reminiscent of the White Stripes, Banta lets his voice take most of the drama. He alternates between snarling speak-singing in the verses and outright howling in the chorus. If you’re into heavy guitars and moral indignation at how the media portrays women, you’ll be all over this tune. Throughout the album, Banta is interested in spiritual and moral themes; it gives another edge to the screaming guitars. Everyone needs some good righteous indignation over the injustices of the world now and then. If that sounds like a good time, Brother O’ Brother can hook you up.
It is hard to put together an album that holds a consistent instrumental palette, melodic thrust, and overall mood without getting repetitive. Palm Ghosts has accomplished this difficult task on their self-titled record. Palm Ghosts lives in a warm, relaxed space with just a touch of ominous haze on the horizon, carving out a space for itself next to artists like Damien Jurado.
Bandleader Joseph Lekkas takes great care in setting moods; the album opens with a tender track that uses the wordless voice as an instrument to convey a peaceful feeling. The follow-up “Seasons” begins with breathy “ahs” as well, carrying the mood over to a perkier version of his acoustic-led sound. Even though there are some drums pushing the tempo here, the dreamy piano line pulls back against the motion. The guitar and vocals sit right in the tension, not celebrating but resolving the dual issues. The result is a track that is both comforting and nimble; beautiful but sturdy. It’s a good analogy for the rest of the album.
The other five tracks on the record are varied without losing the poignant mood developed in the first two tracks. “Oh, Sleepytime!” manages to get squealing trumpets and booming electric guitar into the tune without breaking the mood of the album, which is an impressive feat. “All My Life (I’ve Been Waiting)” is an alt-country tune not unlike The Jayhawks or Mojave 3’s work. “Airplane Jane” combines indie cuteness with alt-country ominousness, which is a odd combination that Lekkas somehow pulls off seamlessly. Lekkas has very clearly written many songs before; even though this is a debut, the deft skill with which Lekkas combines disparate genres into an enjoyable fusion is impressive.
Palm Ghosts is the sort of record that you can enjoy without much thought or delve deeply into. The mood and melodies are surface joys; the intricacies of the arrangements and the subtle ways Lekkas makes various genres work together are pleasures that take a little more work to achieve. Either way you go, it’s a great album. I look forward to hearing more from Palm Ghosts.
I’ve been getting so much good acoustic music lately that I’ve been pulling back from reviewing albums of anything else. (I still cover everything in the MP3 and video drops, don’t worry!) But Inner Outlaw’s I/O is so immediately attention-grabbing that I had to review it.
I/O is rock without garage rock trappings: even at their noisiest, the sounds here are slinky, smooth and polished. Inner Outlaws has the art of cool down pat, whether it’s the dusky back alley of “Easy Life,” the punchy guitar and low-slung rhythm section of opener “Rich City,” or the acoustic-led folk/psych of the twilit “Dead Man’s Game.” The band knows how to make sounds live between vaguely optimistic and outright dark; I/O mines the spaces inbetween, whether they be eerie, dangerous, intriguing or comforting (“Rich City Two”). “Cloak of Lichen” is all of those at once, even. It’s a very cohesive album, which is rare these days. I/O showcases a particular mood from a variety of angles, like a diamond with its many facets.
Inner Outlaws took the best parts of classic rock and updated them with indie-rock cool. If you’re into anything from Fleetwood Mac to The Strokes to Bloc Party to Grizzly Bear, you’ll find things to enjoy in I/O. This album shows off a band with talent and vision; it’s also a ton of fun. Can’t ask for much more.
Justin Klump‘s three-song release The Night Is Young delivers fresh-faced folk-pop with a strong ear for gentle arrangement. Instead of taking the Mumford-esque “shout it out” method, Klump finds kindred spirits in early work by both The New Amsterdams and Joshua Radin: strong melodies that work their way into your heart by charm, not by force.
The title track does eventually get a bass drum thumping as a pulse, but it’s not invasive; it feels like a heartbeat that the accordion, cello and guitar play over. I was reminded also of a less frantic Twin Forks in the interplay between the woah-ohs and the instrumental arrangement. “Slow Life Down” and “Pictures and Stains” both lean on tender, romantic emotions; they’re lovely as a result. Klump knows how to use his voice to best effect, and he frames his vocal melodies beautifully with the trappings you’d expect: banjo, glockenspiel, reverb-heavy piano. It doesn’t have to be groundbreaking to be excellent; Klump is working within a framework and doing a great job of it.
I love it when I find calm, beautiful, well-arranged work. If you’re into the sound of earnest, tender folk-pop or the moods and lyrics of adult alternative pop, you’ll find much to love in Justin Klump’s The Night Is Young.
The two extremes of specialization and increasing generalization are always at work. Muse is all-inclusive of sounds; hypnagogic pop is exclusive of all but a particular subset of sounds. These elements will always exist in the pop music world. Stolen Silver‘s We Have Everything, We Have Nothing trends toward the all-inclusive side of things: although an acoustic guitar anchors almost all their songs, they span the range from modern folk (“A River Only Borrows”) to adult alternative pop (“Prefontaine”) to NeedToBreathe-style Southern-pop-rock (“Blue”) to upbeat indie-folk-pop (“Carbon Copy”). Stolen Silver can do a lot of different things, and it can do many of them well.
If you’re going to go chameleon on your listeners, you need to have a strong vocalist and a versatile band. Stolen Silver has both, as the evocative tenor is comfortable with all sorts of rhythms and melodies. There’s an available falsetto, as well as a strong range before the head voice. The vocals fit neatly into the diverse song structures, because the band gives excellent songs to put vocals on top of. The band is strong in creating moods, which helps when there’s a variety of styles conveyed. I believe the airtight, pop-friendly arrangement of “Prefontaine” as much as the quieter alt-country arrangement of “Come Back to Chicago,” and that’s a testament to the band’s strength of songwriting.
If you’re interested in a diverse set of acoustic-based sounds that trend toward Matt Nathanson/David Gray acoustic pop, you’ll really enjoy Stolen Silver’s We Have Everything, We Have Nothing.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.