Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Candysound / Andrew Skeet / Vana Mazi

July 30, 2015

candysound

Candysound‘s Past Lives is the sort of garage rock that seems born of good-natured experimentation, a genuine sense of joy in creation, and a dedication to writing catchy songs. This isn’t four-on-the-floor chord mashing–the trio makes lithe, lively, effervescent tracks full of rhythmic, melodic, and textural diversity.

I’m getting all adjective-y on it, but that’s because “Be Around” is a gleeful whirlwind, “Details” is all yelpy and groove-laden, and the title track is a mini math-rock tune. Closer “This Place” is a beautiful acoustic tune in the vein of Rocky Votolato and other even-handed tale-spinners. All of the tunes have a fresh, slightly gritty sheen about them, the sort of vibe that is confident but not super-invested in polishing every sound to its poppy ultimate. This feels like a document, not like a presentation: it’s the sort of indie-pop-rock that makes me want to hear more of it, maybe even write some myself. If you’re excited by a quirky melody and a yelpy vocal hook, Candysound should tickle your ears quite well. Here’s to that. Highly recommended.

findingtime

I knew this day was coming, both for me and for the indie-rock world. Andrew Skeet‘s Finding Time can be described as a delicate post-rock album that fits in next to The Album Leaf and the soundtrack work of Sleeping at Last or as an engaging work of post-minimalist modern classical music (it’s being put out on Sony Classical). Much alt-classical music has been made, but this is the first time it’s fit so neatly for me inside the music-listening frameworks I’ve already cultivated. My listening habits have been moving toward the classical, since my discovery of John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean and Philip Glass’s work, and now the loop has closed. It’s all one continuous line for me now.

And why shouldn’t it be? The keening repetition that opens “Passing Phase” calls to mind Philip Glass’s Glassworks, while the slow-moving elegy it morphs into is reminiscent of Sigur Ros’s work. “Reflect” is nearly ambient in its pacing; the sharp, brittle, electronic dissonance of “The Unforgiving Minute” would make Modest Mouse proud. The two worlds collide here, at least from my frame of reference. “Taking Off” and “Stop the Clock” feel more traditionally classical, with the latter’s nearly baroque flurry of keyed notes and the former’s heavy reliance on cello and violin. There are moments even in the aforementioned pieces that skew towards traditional sounds, like “The Unforgiving Minute,” but overall this is an album that can be appreciated both by the modern classical music enthusiast and the post-rock one.

Andrew Skeet’s Finding Time is an engaging, enigmatic, comforting and challenging listen. It has kept me company on long slogs of reading (particularly the electronics-laden title track) and warm afternoons. It’s just really impressive, regardless of what you call it.

vanamazi2

Like many people my age, my first introduction to the sounds of Armenian music was through the melodic structures that System of a Down fused to its already-wild metal song structures. Since then, those sounds (along with associated gypsy, Balkan, and Eastern European elements) have been floating around in my brain. Izam Anav by Vana Mazi puts those sounds squarely on the forefront on my brain once again, as the album features gypsy sounds played earnestly and enthusiastically.

With so much cultural weight surrounding sounds of this variety, it’s refreshing to hear the Austin-based outfit play their songs without theatrical bravado (a la Gogol Bordello) or overtly ominous vibes. These tunes, instead, feel like an tasteful interpretation of a long tradition. “Jove Malaj Mome” marries a complex percussion pattern with an intricate instrumental melody from the accordion and fiddle. The male and female vocals double the melody, creating a dramatic vibe without resorting to tricks. It’s just all right there, written in. If you start to sway your hips unintentionally, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

That call to dance is another distinctive element of Vana Mazi’s work: the songs here are miles away from dance rock or electronic music, yet they very distinctly beg to be moved to. It’s hard to deny the rumbling, percussive energy of “Don Pizzica”; the sultry, inviting “Celo Skopje”; and the major key perkiness of “Tarantella Del Gargano.” This ain’t an indie-rock show–crossed arms aren’t going to cut it. The most serious of the tunes here is “Fireflies,” which heavily draws on the ominous, quixotic Armenian vibe that System of a Down mined; the rest are more like “Sandansko Horo,” whose titular element is a Bulgarian folk dance. Eastern European music buffs, adventurous musical types, or fans of interactive live shows (their press assures me of what seems to be inevitable true: these shows are a party) should rush in the direction of Izam Anav. While dancing.

The Bellfuries / Kyle and the Pity Party

July 29, 2015

bellfuries

The BellfuriesWorkingman’s Bellfuries is a sonic upgrade on retro styles. The 11 tunes of this record apply hi-fi, modern production techniques to the sounds of Roy Orbison pop (“Beaumont Blues”) and early ’60s British Invasion rock–complete with a cover of a 1964 Beatles B-side (“She’s a Woman”). It avoids the retro-rock tribute trap through an assured grasp of the elements necessary in this type of songwriting, impressive arrangements, and immediately catchy melodies.

By the end of the first time that my wife and I heard “Why Do You Haunt Me,” we were both singing along almost unconsciously–the song’s structure is so natural, so deeply dedicated to the ’50s-rock palette that it passed the credibility threshold almost instantaneously. Joey Simeone’s wide singing range makes the vocals a central point in the sound: they’re passionate but still carefully controlled, dramatic without being sloppy. The fact that he can pull off the difficult vocal jumps iconic in this sound goes one more step toward showing why The Bellfuries are more than copycats or fetishists–these are musicians who’ve adopted a style and are pushing it forward. Their polished, structured, rewarding arrangements seal the deal. If you’re looking for some distinctly unique pop/rock, try out Workingman’s Bellfuries.

kyleandthepityparty

On the opposite side of the rock spectrum, Kyle & the Pity Party play early ’00s emo-rock on their EP Everything’s Bad. However, they’re just as dedicated as The Bellfuries to their genre proposition: they namecheck iconic emo band Brand New in “Young.” It’s an important reference, as a namecheck to Taking Back Sunday or Thursday would belie a different set of sonic principles. Kyle McDonough and co. play rock that has matured out of some punk brashness–while these minor key songs can get noisy, they have an atmospheric gravitas imported by the melodic commitment, the dense arrangements and the Doors-esque vocals.

McDonough’s vocals aren’t quite as low as Morrison’s, but the same sort of “brooding persona presiding over the rock proceedings” vibe prevails. His performances are attention-grabbing in the best sort of way. It’s a tribute to the vocal quality that he overshadows the instrumentals to a degree: the band’s careful attention to maintaining energy while sticking in a mid-tempo emo-rock style results in strong songwriting. From the piano that grounds opener “Spill It All” to the bass-heavy rock of “He Was / She Was” to the casio-led closer “He’ll Never Love You,” the band keeps things diverse but recognizably consistent on the six-song EP.

It’s their decision to keep melody central to their guitars and vocals (no screaming here) that sets them apart from their noisier brethren, but they haven’t gotten so quiet as to move into twinkly post-emo. Instead, they throw down their tunes in a melodic indie-rock sort of vein that probably wouldn’t get lumped in with the emo revival as a tag (although they could easily tour with bands like Football, Etc. or others). If you still listen to Deja Entendu, you should check out Kyle and the Pity Party.

The Talent of Jeremy Bass, Part 1

July 28, 2015

winterbare

It’s always interesting when an artist releases one album directly after another–what Jeremy Bass did this year is no exception. Releasing Winter Bare in April and New York in Spring in June, Bass gave us two different eight-song releases that sound worlds apart from each other. Next week, I will be reviewing the more recent release New York in Spring. For now, let’s take a look at the poetic, more low-key, ‘60s folk-sounding Winter Bare.

Although labeled “alt-country,” Winter Bare has a pretty distinct ‘60s folk feel. Bass’ voice takes on a blues feel in the first track, but it maintains much more of a Bob Dylan flavor in the rest of the album. More modern-day vocal comparisons would be Fleet Foxes and Margot & The Nuclear So and So’s, both of which seem to stem from this tradition. Take Bass’ “Lift Me Up,” for example: the guitar strumming gives off a very 60s folk vibe. The vocal harmonies of the track are reminiscent of Fleet Foxes, whose sound stems from artists like Peter, Paul, and Mary and Simon & Garfunkel. The lyrics of “Lift Me Up” are also very nature-focused, something which also links it to the forefathers and foremothers of modern folk. The more I examined the track and the whole album, the more the inspiration becomes evident, whether Bass meant it or not.

The low-key vibe of Winter Bare makes the album a relaxing one to listen to. The vocals are clear, and it honestly sounds as if Bass is just telling us story after story. The instrumentation is fairly simple: mainly accomplished through acoustic guitar, but occasionally switched out with a banjo (“Winterlude (Banjo for Annie)”) or mandolin (“Coming Back Home”). There are also subtle appearances from other instruments like trumpets (“Lift Me Up”) and the pump organ (“One More Cigarette”). Even with the added instruments, the songs remain generally relaxing and easy to listen to. You can certainly categorize Winter Bare as a “feel good” album, sonically.

Jeremy Bass is not only a brilliant musician and lyricist, but he is a poet as well–it certainly shows in the poetic nature of his lyrics. One theme that Bass focuses on in many of his songs is love. Yet, Bass doesn’t tackle the subject in an overly cheesy manner as many artists in the past have. Instead, Bass uses a more realistic approach in his lyrics. With lyrics like, “I can’t pretend that love’s not the sweetest salt in the wound/ that the heart gives,” Bass expresses the experience of true love with all of its flaws. That lyric found in “One More Cigarette” is followed up by the chorus ending in “We make our choices and we live with what we choose/That’s why I choose you.” So although in his lyrics, there is certainly a level of honesty about the messiness of love, Bass still maintains an overall optimistic view of love.

Bass also uses nature in his lyrics to express the deeper meaning of life and love. In “Red Tailed Hawk,” Bass uses an extended metaphor to depict an animal that is “white-winged and free.” He continues to describe the peaceful image of this “Red Tailed Hawk.” Finally, in the last lyric, Bass then asks, “Won’t you teach me what it means to be/ White-winged and free?” “Red Tailed Hawk” is but one example where Bass poetically uses nature as a mode to describe his emotional reality.

Winter Bare shows off Bass’ skills in a subtle way. His lyrics appear seamlessly written. The instrumentation is simple, yet more complex once examined. One may even wonder if the title relates to simple bareness of the album. Nevertheless, Winter Bare is a truly beautiful folk album, reaching back to the ‘60s. Stay tuned for next week, when you’ll find that New York in Spring shows off quite a different side of the talented Jeremy Bass. —Krisann Janowitz

Quick Hits: Glen Brady / Bendejo / Groove Squared

July 27, 2015

Glen Brady

Glen Brady’s Redeemer EP can light a deep house dance floor on fire with his trademark clean bass lines. But it’s the mix of smooth flow, deep grooves, and melodic downtempo tracks that makes Redeemer sure to win over the ears of electronic listeners.

While the title track and “Rathmines Rock” are pulsing house songs stacked with building, sexy synth, elevating bass lines, and quick vocal bits, I was most impressed with the more ambient soundscapes. Slo-house elements and stunning melodies unfold on “Baby Maker.” The closer,“Once Was Glamour,” boasts enough breaks and ambient guitar to qualify it for late-night, sunroof-cracked cruising. Each song of Redeemer has that chill trance energy to it. It must be the clean production overall that, even while uncontrollably head bobbing and toe tapping, made me want to slow down and soak in every aspect of these tracks.

Bendejo

Vienna producer Bendejo delivers raw emotion like he invented it in his latest EP Unravel, where soaring strings and piano compliment the rich synths and dark undertones this release is heaving with. Ambient and misty, Unravel is a scenic soundscape unto itself.

The title track exhales that emotion through quick bursts of grand piano and an undulating, heavy rhythm. Reverse Commuter’s eerie, dance-inducing “Swallowed Shadow Mix” heaps on the trippiness with warped, echoed synth. Stefny’s “In The Night Mix” is just as darkly atmospheric; for as foggy and wandering as the texturing gets, there is a breathtaking introduction of strings that made me think of a trippy version of The Secret Garden–if the film were ever lucky enough to have an electronic soundtrack.

But it’s Bendejo’s “Landscapes” that epitomizes Unravel’s “epic melancholy balanced out by progressive techno” approach. It churns things up with jumpy, hilly, minimal bits that sound, quite literally, like a rocky landscape. Unravel is just as much sonic terrain as it is an EP; if that doesn’t get your techno appetite growling, I don’t know what does.

Groove Squared

As soon as I read that Groove Squared is an Italian producer, it all made sense: the sexy ambiance, that unique European density, those beautifully restrained vocals. Chemistry is an EP made up of four remixes of Groove Squared’s original track “Chemistry,” with each song emphasizing certain aspects of the track’s soulful, deep house makeup.

Musumeci’s vocal and instrumental remixes stay true to the ambient soundscapes of Chemistry–his vocal remix a deep trance track whose powerful, intensified vocals stand out amongst twinkling synth and a punchy rhythm. Remixes from Dodi Palese offer both a melancholic side and a deep techno burst at the end, which left me with an embarrassing seizure-like twitch long after the music stopped–you go, Dodi Palese. Palese’s original edit plays up those soothing, lulling vocals, but it’s his final remix that reminds me Chemistry offers a provocative European club feel–one brimming with jabbing beats, dramatic vocals, punchy percussion, and some simply unforgettable electronica. —Rachel Haney

Nathan Partain’s Jaywalker: Tight, finely-tuned Southern rock with a couple surprises up its sleeve

July 24, 2015

8 Panel Poster Fold Insert.eps

I rarely go out of my way to comment on the religiosity or lack thereof espoused in the lyrics of the bands I cover here on Independent Clauses. While I’m not quite as agnostic as Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman on whether “Christian music” can exist, I focus pretty heavily on the music at IC. (This decision in and of itself points toward my answer on the question; a deeper philosophical treatise on this issue will have to wait.)

However, it’s almost not possible to talk about Nathan Partain‘s Jaywalker without mentioning that these Southern-rock/folk-oriented tunes are meant to be sung in churches. Partain’s melodic and arranging chops accent but never hinder the ability of these songs to be easily sung by congregations (or people in cars, or walking down the street, etc.).

“I Have Found a Hidden Fountain” opens the record with squalling electric guitar feedback before launching into a full-band Southern-rock vibe, complete with screamin’ organ. After the intro, the band tones it down to feature the dual vocals: Partain’s yearning tenor up front and female vocals supporting with harmonies and tasteful wordless counterpoint. The band doesn’t totally drop out–they merely make way for the vocals to take center stage. This allows the tune to feel tight and real while still leaving the vocal melody easily heard, a trend that continues throughout the album. They get soulful in an instrumental solo section, drop down the volume for dramatic effect, then ramp back up to full weight to close out the tune.

Partain rolls out more Southern rock vibes in follow-up “It’s God Who Saves,” unveiling a nicely arpeggiated lead guitar line on top of more tight band interplay. He also lets his voice get a bit ragged in points, giving the performance a grit that wasn’t present in the more straightforward opener. Even though there’s not as much guitar action in this one, this is a bit more wide-open full-band performance. Partain and co. max out the rock grit with the innocuously-titled “Love is a Gift,” which contains a thunderous guitar riff and roaring vocals in the chorus. (As a result, this is the song that least feels like a congregational possibility.) If you love a bass-heavy Southern rock tune, you should skip straight to this one.

Moving toward the folkier end of the spectrum are tunes like “A Son of God” and “In Tenderness He Sought Me”; these dial back the electric firepower and lean heavily on the polished, evocative vocal melodies. The former includes swinging syncopation that makes it straight-up fun to sing; the latter gives Sarah Partain a verse, and her gentle, affectionate alto softens the already-sweet tone of the tune. “Hold Thou My Hand” is a stark, vulnerable piano ballad whose lyrics and melodies helped develop a catch in my throat by the end.

The most intriguing two songs on the record transcend tunes identifiable by genre labels: “Jesus Is Mine” and “He Was Wounded” invert generic stereotypes to create unique tunes. “Jesus Is Mine” opens with heavy-handed piano whacks and insistent bass thump, then splays out into a vaguely minor-key jam: the piano goes all saloon, Partain distorts his “oh-oh” vocals in the verse breaks, and the guitar wails in engaging ways. It’s not your average Southern-rock jam. Ominous isn’t the right word for a worship song, but whoa. “He Was Wounded” uses organ and delicate clean electric guitar to open in an almost ambient drone; there’s a spacious, elegant, cathedral-esque glamour to the tune that doesn’t draw its strength only from the gentle reverb. It’s quiet and tense without being a solo acoustic performance, something that isn’t so common in folk (with the strong exception of the Barr Brothers).

Jaywalker is a powerful album of Southern rock and acoustic-folk tunes that slots nicely next to bands like Hiss Golden Messenger, Megafaun, and Jason Isbell. Because of its roots, you can sing along every single tune (a highlight in my eyes!). On top of that, the arrangements are tight and finely calibrated to make the songs work right. I’ve been listening to it for weeks and haven’t gotten tired yet. Highly recommended.

Summer!

July 22, 2015

Summer! (Mid-month MP3s)

1. “Marina and I” – The Gorgeous Chans. The syncopated guitars, perky horns, and enthusiastic attack of this track took all of 1 second to steal my Vampire Weekend-loving heart.

2. “The Fringe” – Sego. If you miss James Murphy slurring into a microphone over rubbery bass and insistent dance grooves, Sego is LCD Soundsystem’s musical, lyrical, and spiritual successor. “You Wanted a Hit,” indeed.

3. “Even Fireworks” – Pushing Static. This electro-pop/dance-rock fiesta makes me want to crank the volume knob way up.

4. “Island” – Hey Anna. If Braids drank a Red Bull and went to a beach party, they might come up with this fragile-yet-peppy indie-rock track.

5. “Inside Your Heart” – Hectorina. Their previous work is chaotic, fractured, ecstatic, and mind-bending; this track sands down some of the eccentric flair and reveals the ecstatic rock band at their core. (The fact that their beating heart sounds like Prince is perfect.) Everybody clap your hands.

6. “That Kind of Girl” – All Dogs. The sort of melodies that I’d expect from a emo-focused band fused in to a huge punk-rock/pop-punk/power-pop stomper. It just works perfectly.

7. “Sleep Talk” – Diet Cig. The idiosyncratic indie-pop quirkiness of the Juno soundtrack + confessional pop-punk + female vocals + intimate lyrics = excellent track.

8. “Island Kids” – Holy ’57. Sometimes a chorus just works so perfectly that it feels like I’ve know it forever. The perky tropical indie-pop builds through the verse to a speak-sung chorus that just knocks it out of the park. Re: your summer parties.

9. “’82” – Death in the Afternoon. This electronic cut is a lot more breathy, chill, and smooth than I thought death would be.

10. “Good” – Ehmandah. This, right here, is a modern day (some might even say musically progressive) gospel tune. Get in on this infectious, irresistible vibe. Everybody clap your hands.

11. “Sugar Dream” – Valley Shine. The band’s press photos capture them lying on a bed of brightly-colored candy and showered with an absurd amount of confetti. These are excellent visual representations of their Beatles-on-a-sugar-high sound.

12. “Reach Out” – The Bone Chimes. The arrangement of this orchestral-folk-rock tune is clean, bright, and carefully organized: the band builds anticipation from the first reverbed guitar note to a big conclusion.

13. “Sensual People” – Lylas. If hypnotic groove is one of the things you seek in an indie-rock tune, Lylas’ dense textures, ostinato rhythms, and slowly-unfolding song development will catch your ear.

14, “Up of Stairs” – James Elkington and Nathan Salsburg. Watching two talented athletes go against each other can excite, but only rarely does that interaction produce beauty. It’s much more likely when two talented musicians play off each other, which is the basic premise of this track: two incredibly talented acoustic guitar players push each other and come up with relaxing, impressive acoustic gold.

15. “Repeat” – Sye Elaine Spence. An unconventional acoustic strumming pattern and a strong focus on Spence’s enveloping voice create an immersive, unique experience.

Paul Doffing: Beauty Inspiring Beauty

doffing

What does environmental activism have to do with indie folk music? For Paul Doffing and his latest album, Songs from the (quaking) Heart, the two are inseparable. Songs from the (quaking) Heart chronicles Doffing’s experience bicycling 7,000 miles around the United States and performing shows at places like houses, libraries and farms. The album combines unadorned instrumentation with raw storytelling lyrics that make you forget all of life’s worries as you enter into a world of hope and simplicity.

Throughout the album, the instrumentation is plain and simple: acoustic guitar. Yet what Doffing does with the guitar is anything but simple. Acoustic guitar strumming (“Reason”) or intricate fingerpicking (“Sure Doesn’t Matter Any More”) beautifully begin each track off the album; Doffing’s voice typically follows after a few measures. A slight deviation, “New Day Dawning” begins first with birds chirping–fitting for the title and optimistic feel of the song–then the guitar enters and the voice enters.

The two instrumental tracks (“The Drifter,” “(No Path Up) Cold Mountain”) are even larger exceptions to that rule. In both songs, Doffing tells the story through the fingerpicking done on his guitar instead of with lyrics. The title “The Drifter” gives away a bit of the storyline, but it’s as if each pluck of the guitar tells us a different aspect about this “Drifter.” Specifically in the chorus, lower register notes seem to remind the listener that even though some parts of the Drifter’s life are good, there does remain a level of drudgery in the end. Some plucking is done in the lower register of the acoustic, while other plucks venture to higher notes, appearing slightly more hopeful. “(No Path Up) Cold Mountain” tells a very different, more pleasantly adventurous story with its guitar melodies and plucking rhythms. It’s really amazing how Doffing tells us stories through an instrument, no lyrics needed.

Two tracks off Songs from the (quaking) Heart tell stories with instruments; the rest do it with lyrics. Generally, Doffing’s voice is crisp and easily understood, making it easier for the listener to catch all of the lyrics and the stories they tell. For example, “The Legend of Mick Dodge” tells the titular story through Doffing’s reverent perspective. The exception is found in “Reason,” where Doffing’s voice is synthesized, so it’s more difficult to hear the lyrics.

“Sure Doesn’t Matter Anymore” stands out in the tone of the story that Doffing tells us. Although some details are left out, in this song I thought of the brilliant “based on a true story” book/movie Into The Wild. Picture those scenes where Chris McCandless begins to get lonely, and his latest kill starts to spoil with a meat-worm infestation. This is where Chris begins to truly learn that living off the land in Alaska is not what will fix all of life’s problems. “Sure Doesn’t Matter Anymore” speaks into that situation and solemnly explains that “Nothing that we cling to ever sets us free.” No offense, Eddie Vedder, but I think Songs from the (quaking) heart should have totally been the movie score for Into The Wild.

On the other end of the emotional spectrum, “New Day Dawning” and “Slow I Go” tell much happier stories. “New Day Dawning” narrates those days where you wake up, “the sun is shining down on me” and you feel “so free.” Similarly, “Slow I Go” begins as a sort of self-pep talk, and, as the multiple voices enter in, the hope is extended to all. This then culminates in the outro repetition of the phrase, “We’ll change the world.” Listen to “Slow I Go”  and hear the notes of hope for yourself.

Songs from the (quaking) heart makes me want to grab a journal and head to the woods to write poetry. Paul Doffing’s music is not only inspirational, but his life is too. You can even read his bicyling/music tour blog and learn the true stories behind Doffing’s contemplative songs. Paul Doffing and his Songs from the (quaking) heart is one of the few albums that truly provokes me to create art as a response to art. I encourage you to do the same. —Krisann Janowitz

Joe Kaplow: A diverse, impressive folk troubadour

July 21, 2015

JoeKaplow

There’s a wide diversity of sounds you can make with an acoustic guitar and voice; being able to sing Missippi blues doesn’t ensure that you can play Irish folk tunes. Some people work to become a master at one style, while others can absorb the core elements of a variety of sounds.

Joe Kaplow is the latter, as his sound is grounded in troubadour folk with influences from a variety of other acoustic genres. His self-titled debut EP showcases a singer/songwriter with a huge amount of promise, as his songwriting and distinctive voice offer great rewards to the listener.

“Bookshop Blues” opens the release with a fast, strummed folk tune accompanied by his own foot stomping. Kaplow’s insistent, urgent tenor dances over a tune that sounds perfect for busking: an earnest, upbeat tune that balances lyrical introspection and smile-inducing melodies and chords. He follows it up with the harmonica-and-swift-fingerpicking tune “How Old is My Soul,” which evokes the raw, pure sound of The Freewheeling Bob Dylan. It stays out of tribute range due to (again) the swooping vocals, which flip from tender to insistent on a dime. This ability to control his delivery calls to mind a less-abrasive Kristian Mattson of The Tallest Man on Earth, especially in the “oh-oh” conclusion of the tune.

Kaplow can unhinge his voice, too–both “It’s Me Girl” and “When I Open Up at Last” allow Kaplow to let it all air out. The banjo-led blues of “It’s Me Girl” sees him scrubbing grit and wail into his delivery to fit the mood of the tune, while “When I Open Up at Last” contains Damien Rice-style howls. “Give My Eyes” provides a respite between the two songs, a delicate pastoral tune that reminds me of a cross between Irish folk tunes and Justin Townes Earle’s American sounds. The addition of a female voice turns this duet into a highlight of the already-strong EP.

There’s a lot going on in this self-titled EP, but it all hangs together because of the bright, mid-fi production vibe. This is clearly a man and his guitar (on most tracks), as the occasional ambient room noise, gentle tape hiss and sound of foot taps show. But Kaplow’s not reveling in the tracks’ smallness–this feels like an earnest document of work, not a bid to participate in the bedroom-folk scene. (“When I Open Up at Last” is about as far from whisper-folk as it gets.) There’s no intentional obscuring, no reverb, no distance placed between the listener and the song. These songs are immediate–they grabbed me on first listen, and they still grab me ten listens on. That’s a credit both to the songs and the way they’re recorded.

Kaplow’s self-titled EP is an energizing listen. Whether it’s a slow or fast song I’m listening to, the music is exciting. Kaplow’s well-controlled voice is employed in a diversity of styles, making for a sprightly, fast-paced 20 minutes. It’s tough to pick out highlight tracks, because each has its own charms; I’m personally partial to “How Old is My Soul” and “Give My Eyes,” but someone who likes darker, dramatic music more than I could find “When I Open Up at Last” or “It’s Me Girl” to be their highlight. It’s a rare artist who can make memorable tunes in diverse idioms, and that bodes well for Joe Kaplow. I can’t wait to see how his next releases develop. Highly recommended.

Quick Hits: Abandoned Delta / Charles Ellsworth / Hunters.

July 15, 2015

abandoneddelta

Abandoned Delta‘s self-titled debut is a uniquely beautiful alt-country album that combines the delicate nature of Mojave 3’s work with thick arrangements that leave little space unfilled. However, the tightly constructed arrangements of tunes like “I Am Gold,” “Tulsa,” and “Cause and Effect” result in a tender–even sweet–whole instead of becoming impenetrable. Pedal steel, keys, gentle tenor vocals, wispy harmonies, pristine electric guitar strums, and loping acoustic guitar picking mesh into a dense web of sound that is always awash in warm, sunny vibes.

But this isn’t West Coast Laurel Canyon work; there’s a Midwestern lyrical and melodic groundedness permeating the whole work. It may make me want to float away, but the songs don’t sound like they’re going to get lost anywhere. “My Heart’s an Open Road” accelerates the tempo, amps up twang, and infuses a sense of humor to the proceedings–the Western Swing influences in the songwriting is a lot of fun. Elsewhere, contented horns hover above the slightly more ominous “Black Car,” and the acoustic guitar gets a feature in “I Never Lived in New Orleans.” It’s not folky, though–and that’s the most marvelous element of Abandoned Delta. The members have a consistent, distinctive sound that integrates elements of other genres seamlessly. If you like beautiful music, alt-country, or hearing musicians at the top of their game, you need to check out Abandoned Delta.

chuck-live-cover

I find the self-aggrandizing crowd screaming that attends most live records tiresome, so I don’t cover many of them. However, Charles Ellsworth‘s Live from the State Room has such great songwriting contained in it that I must commend it to you. (It also doesn’t have that much audience howling, which I appreciate.) Ellsworth is a guitar-and-voice troubadour, gifted with a melodic sense in his hands and throat. The ten songs of State Room show him breaking out his solo material first, then transitioning to a full-band set-up later. It allows him to show off his poignant lyrics and weighty vocals in an intimate setting first, then gently augment that core sound. “The Past Ain’t Nothin” is the highlight of this section, a tune that unspools several emotional narratives linked by a vocal motif. It hits home to me, musically and lyrically.

Once the band joins in, the poignant elements of his sound get amped up, notably on “In My Thoughts” (which IC had the privilege of premiering). A swooping cello and tasteful drums underscore the gravity of the tune. “Fifty Cent Smile” is another standout, built on train-rhythm drums and one of the most memorable vocal melodies of the record. Even with a full band, Ellsworth never lets the sound get weighed down; many of the lovely tunes keep a fragility about them. (A notable exception is the noisy “Take a Walk,” which is “about having anger issues.”) Live from the State Room is that rare live record that feels like a real experience captured on tape; it’s a great introduction to Ellsworth’s charms for the uninitiated. You can get now as part of his “Not a Kickstarter” campaign.

huntersmountain

We All Go Up the Mountain Alone Together by hunters. is a drama-filled folk album with strong female vocals. The 11-song album puts the spotlight on Rosa del Duca’s alto pipes, which have a mature quality not unlike those of Lilith Fair artists. Other ’90s singer/songwriting influences creep into the folk instrumentation too: a flourish here, a chord structure there, an unexpected vocal embellishment.

The band leans more toward chord-strummed folk than finger-picked folk, so tunes like “Firestarter” have lineage that can be drawn from many points. del Duca’s voice shines on “Firestarter,” as she ratchets up from an calm presence to an intense delivery and back several times. The band frames her performance with a tense arrangement of spacious, jazzy drums and nimble upright bass. “Painting the Roses Red” takes on a bit of a country vibe, while “Orion” recalls ballad-bluegrass guitar (but with their overarching mood of dramatic tension). Fans of female-fronted singer/songwriters and folk artists will find a mature, vocals-driven folk album in We All Go Up the Mountain Alone Together.

Jaylis: A harmonious gem

jaylis

Imagine a sound that combines the reggae upstroke with brilliant, harmonious vocal looping, ending with an epic ‘60s rock electric guitar solo. That sound is exactly what you will find in “Whatsoever” off of Jaylis’ latest EP My Lonely Shadow.

“Whatsoever” is the best example of how Jaylis combines a myriad of diverse elements. The track begins with a funky electric guitar, followed quickly by Jaylis’ smooth voice. Once the second harmonizing voice joins in, the funky guitar transitions into an off-beat upstroke typical of reggae music. After the chorus, the two voices split: Jaylis’ voice repeats the same melody from the first verse, while the second voice enters a measure later with the same harmony to create a harmonious loop. The dual-vocal layering is a unique way to add intrigue to the track.

In fact, Jaylis does these looping harmonies in every track off the EP. Each track begins with one female voice (Jaylis’), and the second female vocal always starts by adding harmony and ends up looping with Jaylis’ voice. Sometimes the second voice echoes many of the words the first is singing (“Whatsoever”); other times she provides mood-setting oohs and ahhs (“My Lonely Shadow”). Nevertheless, in each track the second voice provides harmony in a truly unique and beautiful way.

Jaylis’ lead singer, Jaylis, has a strong yet sweet voice that begins every track alone or with light instrumentation. In tone and range, her voice is akin to lead singer of Of Monsters and Men, Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir; it also contains the subtlety within Romy Madley Croft’s voice (The XX). Jaylis’ voice can be seen as an anchor for each of the songs. The vocal aspects of the album are really what sets Jaylis’ sound apart, although the instrumentation is also unique.

Even though the vocal harmonies and looping from My Lonely Shadow may be the first element we notice, let us not forget to take notice of its diverse instrumentation and sounds. Opener  “My Lonely Shadow,” mainly accompanied by the guitar, has a mellow singer/songwriter feel. As described before, “Whatsoever” adds a fun reggae element to the EP, along with introducing the 60’s rock electric guitar solo. “Regrets” continues the ‘60s rock feel through its smoky electric guitar. “Spleen” has a much more folky instrumentation, with the upright bass taking more prominence in this track than it did in the others. Percussive elements, along with unique uses of the piano, are also found throughout the My Lonely Shadow.

As a whole, Jaylis follows up their first album with a standout EP. My Lonely Shadow combines many musical elements, including brilliant vocal harmony done through vocal looping, to create a sound all its own. My Lonely Shadow is a harmonious gem. —Krisann Janowitz

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

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