Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Red Sammy & Some Charming Trespassers: True Believer

September 27, 2016

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Indie folk rock musicians Red Sammy & Some Charming Trespassers channel some greats here in their latest release, True Believer, dropping this fall. Taking a page from the song book of Tom Waits is a challenge, often landing in a crash. This is definitely not the case here, with a collection of eight songs that feel like a throwback to something past, a campfire along the train tracks of life.

Adam Trice is Red Sammy, and that is an important distinction to make. His songwriting is inspired, simple and down to earth. Storytelling is a lost art to many indie musicians; a few come to mind, like Sedona’s decker. and Brooklyn transplant Charles Ellsworth. Both pull in ghosts from the greats as shadows to call on. Some Charming Trespassers are a band of highly skilled musicians including Sarah Kennedy (violin), John Decker (resonator), and Rebecca Edwards (backing vocals) who, with the help of sparse arrangements, play a simple part in the success of this album. They are vehicles that get out of the way and let the music soar.

Opener “Caribou” takes this release out in a stampede for people not yet familiar with Red Sammy. Subtle and powerful, it weaves together a beautiful violin and loaded lyricism. At a little over three minutes, a lifetime is a picture the song paints. “Barefoot in Baltimore” is a love song in the tradition of Appalachian bluegrass, except this is coming out of Maryland, which makes it all the more transcendent of race and economic status. Music is a great equalizer, and “Barefoot” is just that.

“Chickenwire” is poetry bleeding with pain, and “Western Bound” is pain bleeding with hope, all done with skilled arrangements and poetry. Strange thing is, the message is the same, just wrapped in different ribbon. “Heaven the Electric Sky” is filled with harmonic echoes that flesh out the song, reinforcing the band’s stated desire for sparse arrangements on this album. The music shines. Choices like this make this album, and indie music in general, such a force.

“I Knew You Better” is a testament to thinking and how this is a dangerous pastime. Violin-driven, it is terrific. “Santa Ana Wildfire” is that drawn out feeling that isolates us all. As a bit of sequencing genius, it tells a beautiful story that is a complete contradiction and paradox to the previous song. True Believer closes with “Aunt Mary”: sometimes all there is in life is the comfort of an old song, a campfire, a cold beer or a cup of coffee with friends. Desperation is a shared and palpable thing, with taste, sound, and feel. Let this one settle in like a pair of well-worn boots. —Lisa Whealy

Brother Moses cranks the saturation knob

September 26, 2016

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Brother Moses‘ sophomore EP Legends builds on their debut Thanks for All Your Patience by upgrading the sonics of their rubbery, laidback, Spoon-meets-Pavement indie-rock. Their debut EP was almost preternaturally chill; Raymond Richards (Local Natives) gives their sound some punch, while not losing their goofy, waltz-through-it-all charm.

The easiest place to see this is in “Older,” the lone track present on both EPs. The opening synth has become fatter, the drums are more resonant, the tempo is slightly sped up, and the guitars are brighter. The overall effect is like cranking up the saturate knob on a picture: it’s the same thing, but bigger, brighter, and warmer. Elsewhere, the saturation holds in the form of more reverb (the guitars on “Time to Leave”), more ambiance (“Crazy Eyes”), and more expansive songwriting touches (“Pretend”). Some tracks sound like post-punk; some sound like Vampire Weekend chilling way, way out. Throughout, the band is playing with what they can do in a studio, experimenting with what exactly the sounds in their heads can be with a lot of equipment at their disposal.

Closer “Please Stop” is probably the furthest push of their experiments, putting all of their sonic elements together into one track. Mashing all of their ideas into one place results in a tune that doesn’t quite sound like anyone: James Lockhart’s lolling drawl amps up to an anthemic soar over an indie-rock band that has thoroughly ingested modern indie music and spit out their own distinct version of it. It’s a fantastic tune that is more than the sum of its parts–and the parts are all pretty great on their own.

Legends is a brief six songs, but the growth and development from their first EP shows that they’ve got a lot of ideas. Brother Moses has got a great thing going, and you should jump on that.

John John Brown’s The Road is brilliant, laid-back folk

September 23, 2016

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John John Brown‘s The Road is brilliant, drawing heavily from traditional Appalachian sounds and modern folk revivalists to create 10 songs of back-porch folk that are fully realized in scope and yet casual in mood.

Brown’s dusky voice, an immaculate production job, and a deft arranging hand makes this duality possible. “Dust and Bones” pairs a laid-back percussion line with a spacious fingerpicking rhythm at the beginning, before introducing subtle bass work and two different organ sounds for color. Brown’s superbly comfortable vocal delivery caps off the song beautifully. Even from the first listen, it’s as familiar and lovely as a shirt you put on for the first time and immediately know it will be your favorite one.

“On Our Own” pulls the same trick: the yearning solo violin, distant pedal steel, and hushed background vocals accentuate a lyric set of loss and redemption beautifully. “The Wind” is about as ominous as Brown gets, creating a sense of adventurous danger via keening harmonica. The title track is a jubilant folk tune grounded in big, round bass and a huge chorus vocal melody. “Spirits in the Silence” and “What I Really Want to Do” are a bit more pop-oriented-folk, sort of like Counting Crows, Five for Fighting, or Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” Brown carefully crafts each tune to have individual elements that set the songs apart, yet never deviate from the overall chill experience.

This album is magnetic: it’s hard to stop listening once you start. You’ll know all the sounds on each of the songs in The Road, but they way Brown makes them come together is barely short of magic. It’s a rare artist that can make the familiar sound brand new and exciting; Brown is that artist.

B. Snipes’ American Dreamer

September 22, 2016

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Last time I checked in with B. Snipes, he was singing a pristine, delicate folk tune about death taking him on a tour of a city.  So it was quite a surprise to find that American Dreamer opens up with a wide-open, convertible-top-down, vintage American pop-rock tune. It’s a double surprise to realize that it’s the title track. (“We’re going somewhere new, y’all!”) I may miss folky B. Snipes, but his new direction is just as satisfying. If you’re into American pop, 1950-now, you’ll be all over this record.

After the blast of AM radio that is the opener, Snipes throws down a tune that’s an Isbell-style country rocker in the verses with a sunshiny ’50s pop chorus. It comes off a bit like Ivan and Alyosha’s work. The middle of the record hearkens back to a time when Roy Orbison was huge (“Amy, in Chicago”), country was turning into rock via pop music (“Sweet Eleanor”), and unironic sentiment was cool (“Easy Things,” which has a spiritual sibling in Jason Mraz’s non-rapping work). If you love the Avett Brothers at their most pensive, “Completely” will scratch an itch that probably hasn’t been touched much since “Murder in the City.”

The record is smooth, clean, clear, and deeply listenable. It’s a pop record shorn of the high glitz that the wall of sound and its children would put on the pop sound. They don’t make ’em like this much anymore.

But right when it seems like B. Snipes is ready to cap off a timeless-sounding record, he makes another shift. “Red White Blues” is a gentle yet concerned rebuke of political polarization couched in a tune that sounds like a mix of Bright Eyes, Sufjan Stevens, and the Arcade Fire. That’s a lot of referents to pack into one song, but there’s a lot of song to go around. It’s the easy highlight of the record, made all the more impressive because it still manages to hang with the rest of the record in mood despite being completely different thematically. The sonics here are louder, but they’re still in the same, very American vein. (Which is funny, because The Arcade Fire is Canadian.) The tune provides a fitting bookend to the opener, which puts faith in being an American dreamer; “Red White Blues” is full of practical exhortations about what we need to do to keep being American dreamers.

American Dreamer is an American pop record through and through. It draws from earlier eras of pop’s history but makes statements about our current condition through them. The songs are fun, pretty, interesting and thought-provoking. How much more can you ask for in a pop record? This is great work. Highly recommended.

Two EPs: The Coconut Kids / The Wild Reeds

September 6, 2016

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The Coconut Kids’ debut release This Time Last Year  proves to be a delightful and complex four-track EP. The instrumentation is comprised of trumpet, two lovely ukuleles, an acoustic guitar, and relaxing percussive elements to create a jazzier Jack Johnson sound. And the powerful vocals pair so well with the relaxed jazzy instrumentation. Finally, the moody lyrics pair with the relaxed, jazzy sound to create an emotional texture all its own.

The tug-and-pull lyrics combine with the delightful instrumentation to create a beautiful incongruity. Right off the bat, the first track showcases this as the repeated lyric “It all went wrong” is paired with a flirty combination of the ukulele and trumpet. The vocal pairings on this EP also prove beautiful. “Richman” showcases the perfect sassy soprano/seductive baritone combination that works so well. In fact, the whole EP gives off Once vibes; I can picture these two people singing these songs to each other in a Once-like world.

“Lullaby (Don’t Say A Thing)” stands out from the rest of the tracks in the many layered vocals and more melancholic sound with the guitar and ever-present trumpet. It’s a slower track with a powerful Adele-like voice that will be sure to blow you away. “Lullaby (Don’t Say A Thing)” is a pleasant way to close out the EP.

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The Wild Reeds’ three-track EP Best Wishes is like an assorted candy sampler displaying the range of sounds The Wild Reeds is capable of producing. The lyrics showcase a variety of human emotions such as hope, dejection, and self-awareness. Similarly, the overall sound varies from classic singer/songwriter to folk-country. The one thing that ties the tracks together is the perfect harmonization from the array of female vocalists.

The lyrics of “Everything Looks Better (In Hindsight)” explore the emotions of dejection, balancing regret and acceptance. The emotive lyrics eventually lead up to the track’s lyrical and instrumental climax, going from gentle fingerpicking to a voracious guitar/drum kit/keys combination. “What I Had In Mind” gives off a very Eisley sound, showcasing the band’s perfectly harmonizing vocal layering. Then “Love Make Me A Fool” comes on and a more cheery folk-country track enters my senses. The track’s classic country rhythms, self-aware lyrics and robust instrumentation make a refreshing end to an eclectic EP.  

The Wild Reeds’ Best Wishes EP is an assorted delight to the senses. —Krisann Janowitz

Some piano for your listening regimen

August 31, 2016

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I’ve been doing a lot of long, uninterrupted work sessions lately, so I’ve been getting deep into instrumental modernist classical and new-classical work to accompany them. (“Canto Ostinato” by Simeon Ten Holt blows my mind.) Mattias Phillips‘ Provisations is a solo piano work that fits into that listening regimen: the short pieces here range from high modernist abstract (“She doesn’t like it”) to classical delicacy (“Decision”) to Liszt-esque romantic-era blitzes (“Everyday Labor”) to minimalist-influenced pieces (“Moral Hangover”).

Phillips shows off his breadth as a composer here; that diversity will help listeners who may not be as familiar with solo piano work. This album does not feel like 14 tracks of the same thing; there are obvious peaks and valleys throughout the work. The tunes themselves maintain a passionate energy. Phillips notes that these are more than impromptu improvisations but not much more; the thrill of creation is still audible. It will be interesting to see if further work from Phillips hones in on one of the many styles he puts forth here and goes longform on it, or continues in the “diverse short piece” vein. Either could be interesting. A whole album of solo piano music probably isn’t what readers of this blog usually are listening to, but I think y’all could dig this.

Quick Hits: Strangers by Accident / Holy ’57 / Deer Scout

August 30, 2016

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Strangers by Accident‘s five-song EP establishes the male/female duo as somewhere between the wistful, major key acoustic pop of the Weepies and the spartan acoustic delicacy of Joshua Radin’s early work. They can get a little bit noisier than either outfit (“Straight to Space,” “Borderline”), but their sweet spot is a bright, clear, open sound garnished with a twist of sadness (or two).

“Steal” is the opener and the tone-setter, with a single acoustic guitar, a tambourine, two vocalists, and ambient guitar marking out the sonic space that the duo explore for the rest of the EP. Standout “Borderline” opens as the quietest track: the lyrics are poignant and unafraid to take on the darkness in the world, like a Rocky Volotato song. It grows to one of their noisiest, with a raucous electric guitar line crashing in intermittently. “Busted Heart” and “Hold Me Down” are both just great acoustic pop songs; sometimes you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to make a really great car. If you’re into the Civil Wars, The Local Strangers, or other classy male/female duos I’m not familiar with, you’ll love Strangers by Accident.

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O by Holy ’57 owes an incredible debt to the carefree first two albums of Vampire Weekend. The four tracks here are all sun-drenched and wrapped in the swaying-yet-choppy rhythms that Ezra Koenig and co. virtually trademarked. Holy ’57 trades out the helter-skelter guitar runs for tropical synths, making a sound even more upbeat and sunshiny than VW did. The songs bounce, leap, skip, and twirl their way through my speakers, making it impossible not to smile.

The topics fit with the vibe: “Venice, CA” is about having youthful adventures in the titular city, “1.9.9.0” deals with a breakup and/or social failures by a nostalgic longing for the ’90s, and “Jep Shuffle” builds its chorus around a dance (although it doesn’t tell you how to do the Jep Shuffle, just that it exists). That last track is the unavoidable track: it’s a nigh-on-perfect summer pop song, with verses that build, a chorus that pays off in spades, and rhythms that make me want to move. It’s a sin that this song isn’t everywhere, because it is awesome. Those looking for a song to close out their summer with need to look no farther than O, where there’s at least one (if not three!) tunes that can do that for you. Awesome.

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Deer Scout‘s customs is a slight, intimate object: Dena Miller’s four-song EP barely breaks 10 minutes. But in those 10 minutes, her unadorned songwriting makes a statement. She opens with “holy ghost,” which is nothing more than delicate guitar picking, earnest alto vocals, and beautifully complex lyrics. Fans of the dense stylings of Lady Lamb will see similar sparks here. The song is beautifully balanced: there’s not much to it, but it all sounds vital and immediate. It grabbed my attention and didn’t let go.

“little state” and “up high” feature strumming more and have more of a distinct song structure, recalling Waxahatchee’s early stylings. Although there are referents, Miller’s vocal melodies are put together in her own way (the interval jumps on the chorus of “little state,” the confident delivery of everything in “up high”); she is establishing herself as a songwriting voice here. The short set closes with “train song,” which splits the difference between the dense lyrics and fingerpicking of the opener and the concrete song structures of the center two pieces. Her voice is excellent here as well. Fans of women singer/songwriters, intimate sketches, and minimalism will find much to love in customs.

The Jonah Project: Shiver-inducing emo-rock

August 29, 2016

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The Jonah Project‘s self-titled EP packs more emotional punch into 16 minutes than most emo albums can get into a 40 minute full-length. The quartet, headed up by Drift Wood Miracle‘s Bryan Diver and Jvno‘s Tristan McGee, tell the story of Jonah from the Bible in a powerful, moving way. The EP has four songs, one for each chapter of the book, and each shows off a different side of their sound.

“Jonah 1” is a keys-led piece that leans toward the wistful side of the emo spectrum. The band does ratchet up to some screaming guitar noise at the end of the track, but this one is more focused on the lyrics depicting why Jonah ran and his emotional response upon realizing that he can’t run from God. (It’s a little-discussed element in the story, at least when I was growing up: Jonah expects that God will forgive the people that Jonah hates if Jonah follows through on God’s call. Jonah doesn’t want that to happen, so he flees.) Diver’s vocals lead the way with some dramatic, memorable lines.

“Jonah 2” also opens up with keys, but Tristan McGee takes over lead vocals in a spoken-word format. I tend to hate spoken-word, but this fits over a roiling, churning instrumental mix that feels more like MeWithoutYou than bad stereotypes of spoken-word. The first time I heard McGee holler out in anguish “Salvation belongs to the Lord!” I got shivers. (Even more rare, I got shivers the second and third time. It’s intense.) The winding, syncopated opening guitar riff of “Jonah 3” powers one of the most inventive rock songs I’ve heard in a long time. It sort of feels like The Collection’s rhythmic background, only punctuated with stabs of electric guitar chords and overlaid with chiming, heavily reverbed, floating guitar notes. It stumped my expectations.

“Jonah 4” caps off the set with more interplay between acoustic guitar, chiming electric, chunky chords and even group vocals. The drums are particularly exciting here, as Aaron Allred somehow manages to keep up as the rest of the band whips through mood change after mood change in rapid succession. The lyrics evocatively draw the story to a conclusion, with Jonah struggling to grasp the concept of grace. The whole thing comes together brilliantly, showing off a quartet that’s astonishingly tight for being brand-new. They’re writing some new material, so perhaps we’ll get to hear more from this impressive outfit. If you’re into early ’00s Deep Elm emo (Brandtson, Appleseed Cast, Pop Unknown, etc.), you’ll love this EP.

Two Countrymen: The Hasslers / Will Bennett and The Tells

August 24, 2016

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The Hasslers‘ State Center and Will Bennett and the Tells‘ Wichita have a few things in common: an expansive view of country music, a perceptive eye toward life in the flyover states, and melodies you’re going to be humming for a while. As a ex-pat Midwesterner, I have a deep affection for both these records that goes beyond their excellent music.

Both albums drew me because of their state-specific lyrical content. State Center mentions my native Oklahoma and highway I-19; Wichita is named after the largest city in Kansas and references I-35 (the spine of the great plains states). Both albums mention far-off places (Hasslers: San Jose; Tells: Ann Arbor, Manassas) but are firmly concerned with the inner workings of life in the flyovers. The Hasslers’ detailed stories of hard drinkin’, tough livin’, and bad lovin’ are the sort of jam-packed, witty, and clever lyrics that beg to be called incisive and literary; Will Bennett’s wry ruminations on relationships point out elements of love that don’t get discussed much (“She’s Got a Problem”) along with those that do (“Paloma,” “I Hope You Hear This on the Radio”). Both bands prominently discuss that they need to be inebriated to dance. Welcome to the Midwest.

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Where the two albums diverge is in the way they treat country music. The Hasslers’ country-inspired music leans toward indie-pop and folk, while the Tells’ music is more of a country-punk creation.

The Hasslers’ music is an impressively smooth fusion of country, indie-pop and folk; they’re so adept at handling the genre mashing that it’s hard to pick out exactly where one stops and the other starts. Opener “Falling Out of Love” segues directly into  “Tall Orders,” creating a nearly-8-minute tune that features lazy horns, an easygoing full-band vibe, and a zooming organ solo. “Oh My Dear, Oh My Darling” is a straight-up country song, complete with pedal steel, walking bass, and saloon-style piano. (“What Is Wisdom Anyway” reprises this turn.)

“Loves Company” is the standout ballad, merging folk verses into a pretty country chorus. “I did” is a beautiful solo acoustic tune that draws on indie-pop and even some acoustic singer/songwriter tricks.  “Little Blue House” sounds like Counting Crows meets Old Crow Medicine Show in the most raucous possible mashup. Each song has individual charms, which is a rare thing. There’s a lot going on in State Center, but the whole thing has a warm, comfortable feel that keeps it cohesive.

Even though the songwriting and instrumentals are brilliant, Matt Hassler’s vocal performances are even more stellar. He has the sort of lithe, evocative voice that can sell any line, whether it’s a wisecrack, a confession, or an observation. By the end of the album, I felt like I was friends with him–both through his lyrical candor and his precise, careful, delivery, he worked his way into my heart. It’s a remarkable album-long performance that should not go overlooked; rarely are artists able to capture this level of quality over a whole album.

Will Bennett and the Tells start off Wichita with “I Hope You Hear This on the Radio,” which sets up a country-punk template for a lot of these tunes: traditional country arrangements sped way up with high tenor, pop-punk-esque vocals. Following tracks “She’s Got a Problem” and “The Villain” slow down the tempo to show that this really is a country band, and both are great successes; “The Villain” has one of the most indelible vocal melodies set against a snare shuffle and an acoustic guitar strum.

Still, it’s tunes like the punchy “Somewhere Down in Texas” and the bouncy “Paloma” that stick most with me. The mid-tempo rockers, like “Ann Arbor” and “Jolene” (every country band needs a song about Jolene), are also tight–Bennett’s vocal melodies are crisp and memorable wherever he deploys them, so each of the songs have that going for them. The good-natured quality of the album–much of it is in the major key–make it perfect summer festival or summer cookout music.

If you’re looking for a country album to pair with the dog days of summer, both of these would fit the bill excellently. Both have great lyrics, strong vocals, and melodies that could turn out to be the engine in your song of the summer.

JPH – Songs of Loss

August 22, 2016

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Mourning itself is so personal that it is largely insulated from standard interpretation of people’s actions: unbeatable legends stumble and expectations falter. It is so hard to deal with that some people would rather call it a mental illness. Some people write albums in response. Grief albums are not common (at least, not near as common as breakup albums), but they do exist. The Collection’s Ars Moriendi is a revelatory example. However, grief albums are uncommonly hard to review. How do you explain the sound of someone’s ache, nevermind judge whether it’s good or not? Yet people who write about music are called upon to do this from time to time, and JPH‘s Songs of Loss is the latest call to somehow muddle through.

Songs of Loss would be hard to explain even if it weren’t so openly dealing with the loss of the artist’s father. The music itself draws a triangle between outsider atonality and erratic rhythm (“Song 7,” “Song 2”), ambient electro-acoustic music (“Song 8,” “Song 4”), and atypical but recognizable singer-songwriter work (“Song 1,” “Song 6”). Each individual song leans toward one point of the triangle, but the traces of each influence stamp themselves on every piece. Imagine if LCD Soundsystem had committed to only using acoustic instruments but still wanted to make the same sort of rhythms, or if Jandek had become dancier. These are strange things to try to imagine, I am aware.

There’s one other connection to LCD Soundsystem: “Someone Great” is the rare song that sees an artist obviously deep in the mourning process turning out complex, idiosyncratic work that fits within a pre-existing ouerve. (“I Hope You Die” by Wye Oak also falls in this category.) JPH’s work here is raw with grief: the lyrics of each tune, insofar as they exist, are specifically about questions of death and dying. But the work is also carefully developed within a specific vision. Jordan Hoban’s modus operandi on this release is to create a drone and manipulate what goes on atop it. However, the drones are unusual, as “Song 0” loops a hiccuping tom-and-snare-rim beat; “Song 3” puts a distant casio on repeat; “Song 6” uses a chanted lyric stream as the base for dissonant piano; and first part of “Song 8” builds a complicated ostinato from accordion, shaker, and palm-muted guitar. The 8 and a half minutes of “Song 8” are almost minimalist in a Reich-ian way, as the guitar noodling on top of the structure is almost more “variation” than riffing.

On top of those structures Hoban’s whispery voice alternates between talking, singing, and whispering. This is a very personal record, and so I am not going to talk about the lyrics at all beyond that. The overall effect of the instruments + lyrics is much different than a standard album. I am not much for the “art can create empathy with other people” argument, because not much art has ever made me feel like I was walking in other people’s shoes. However, the atypical musical environment and close proximity with the lyrics about death made me aware that I would definitely not have thought to create this. I am aware of being very near someone else’s experience of grief. But it’s not an overtly crushingly sad release; the sadness is omnipresent, but often in the spaces between the background and the frontmatter. There’s a palpable sense of absence that Hoban has carefully cultivated. Songs of Loss is an unique album that lets you enter into a grieving process both artistically and emotionally. That’s valuable time spent, regardless of whether you’ve been through a death recently.

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

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