Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Mid-February Singles: 2

February 16, 2018

1. “When We Go” – Freedom Baby. Trumpet harmonies get me almost every time–there’s something just so beautiful about the way two horns can interact. Freedom Baby opens up with trumpets, which means that I am totally sold before the track barely has a chance to get anywhere. The rest of the track does not disappoint, as this contemporary folk has very indie-pop inspired melodies that are hugely singable. The burst of instruments and vocals halfway through calls to mind The Collection’s orchestral-folk enthusiasms, which is high praise from over here. This is a fantastic track. Highly Recommended.

2. “The Garden Song” – Cuchulain. Cuchulain’s sonorous voice and chipper low strings ground this romantic tune–it’s a love song, but one full of earthiness and real life. (Thus, the garden–a metaphor and/or a real place.) It hits all the right emotional buttons without getting maudlin.

3. “Presidential Silver Lining” – John Craigie. Protest songs can be disenchanted, violent, angry, apathetic, hopeful, determined, or some of all of that. But in my opinion, protest works best when it’s funny–and boy, John Craigie is hilarious. This song, written right after the last presidential election, is so great that it feels like ruining the punch line to explain it any more than than saying it’s more about music than politics (but there’s plenty ‘o politics in it). The folk itself is fantastic too, as Craigie has an excellent voice, a strong guitar strum, and fantastic melodies. He can also speak-sing with the best of them, which is a solid attribute in a folksinger. Man, this is just great.

4. “Keep Falling” – Gregory Ackerman. What if Grandaddy had been happier? What if Clem Snide had been less, uh, snide? Maybe Gregory Ackerman. This acoustic-fronted piece is full of little glittering things–little notes, small melodies, pieces that add together into a warm, enveloping whole. This is one of the happiest songs I’ve heard in a long time, in that explains its happiness in an unusual, but totally recognizable way.

5. “dawn song (morning pepper)” – the modern folk. A loping, lo-fi, instrumental folk piece that includes found sound, unusual percussion, twee melodies, and an overall inviting vibe. Sounds like a humble, backporch version of Sufjan Stevens’ weirdest acoustic moments.

6. “Give Me Back My Heart Again” – Bird in the Belly. Fans of the vocal folk tradition will love the opening minute of this track, a mournful a cappella duet. The rest of the track is sprightly folk of the British Isles–some Irish rhythms and some English melodic vibes power the (still-sad, but fast-sad, not slow-sad) song.

7. “New Sweden” – Marmalakes. There’s not a direct line between Marmalakes and The Mountain Goats, but I would wager that if you like TMG you’d like Marmalakes. There’s a confident, knowing sort of approach to this indie-pop; it starts off as a folk fingerpicking before jumping into a stomping distortion section and then drawing back down to something much more akin to the Kings of Convenience. These are faulty touchstones, but they’re what I’ve got. Marmalakes is doing something interesting in folk/indie-pop/indie-rock, and I commend it to you.

8. “Stay Off My Mind” – Skott. I just totally love the verses of this track: the drums, bass, and vocal performance come together amazingly well. Skott’s vocal tone fits perfectly into the lightly-forward-pressing indie-pop verses. The chorus is fun too, but the verses are what got me.

9. “Black Chemicals” – Rainbrother. The sort of lazy enthusiasm that marked the best of ’90s Brit-pop (save Blur) is present in this walking-speed indie track. The falsetto vocal lines from the verses feel sort of like they’re tossed over a fence, soaring up and then drifting downward comfortably. It’s a fun, easygoing, unavoidably cool track.

10. “Drifting” – Alex Tiuniaev. A delicate, relaxing piece gets a bit of dissonance thrown at it, and the work transforms from a wafting breeze to something more complex, more earned. A strong solo piano piece.

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B. Snipes: Making simplicity sound easy

February 9, 2018

B. Snipes‘ debut Away, Away established Snipes’ immense potential as a folk singer/songwriter, while his follow-up American Dreamer showed off his pop songcraft. With his new album My Mountain Home, Snipes circles back and makes good on the promise of his debut EP. My Mountain Home is a impressive collection of warm, deftly-handled folk songs. Snipes makes simplicity sound easy, as if there’s anything easy about writing concise, minimally-arranged songs that are each distinctly rewarding.

In contrast to the big pop record he just came from, Home is a much more intimate affair in arrangement and subject matter. The arrangements rarely get beyond a warm, round guitar; Snipes’ easygoing vocals; background harmonies; and occasional support instrument (violin, piano, or banjo). Far from being repetitive, the consistency gives a comfortable, familial feel to the work–these are all tunes that you can play on the back porch or around the fire without drastically changing the arrangement. That’s a true folk record right there: these are B. Snipes’ songs, but they can also be your songs. They can be anyone’s songs.

The subject matter is intimate and familial as well. As the title suggests, this is an album about growing up in the mountains. Snipes grew up there, and his father did too–four short interviews with Snipes’ father are woven through the record. They ground the record in lived experience and real places; they are the rare spoken word interstitials that contribute to the album instead of taking away from the flow.

Between and around those interviews are the songs, which run the gamut of topics: “40 Acres” a nostalgic stream of memories about living on the mountain, “Veggie Stew” (featuring a banjo) is a love song comparing the quality of love to the quality of vegetable stew, “Simple” is an indictment of the complexity of modern life, and “Last Night” is a murder ballad (!). Each of these tunes have a direct or indirect appreciation for rural life that ties them together almost as tightly as the shared arrangement style.

It’s opener “Oh Tennessee” that encapsulates the record best. All the themes of the record are there in the first three lines: “When I was young, I learned to comb my hair and shoot a gun / on a 40-acre farm there in those woods / I came to learn the simple life is sweet.” Those lyrics are delivered by Snipes’ effortless delivery and paired with guileless, delicate fingerpicking. Gentle vocal harmonies and resonant piano fill out the tune, creating a perfect opening track to set the tone for the record.

My Mountain Home is a true-blue folk record that evokes all of the best aspects of folk: personal-yet-univeral lyrics, warm arrangements, and great melodies. The results are an honest, earnest, intimate account of rural life that is easy to listen to and easy to love. It fulfills the promise of Snipes’ early work and establishes him as a thoughtful, careful songwriter. Snipes is one to watch. Fans of Sam Amidon’s quieter work should take to this one with great joy. Highly recommended.

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Quick Hit: The Good Graces’ The Hummingbird EP

February 6, 2018

I’ve been listening to The Good Graces for a long time, and I can say with some familiarity that they love a sad song. As a result, there are a few surprises in The Hummingbird EP. Hummingbird flits about like the titular avian, going from the full-band sad song “The First Girl” to the almost-happy love song “X my <3” to the knowingly-calling-it-out major-key jaunt “(I Should Probably Write a) Happy Song” and closing with the sort-of-sad “Waiting.” All throughout, Kim Ware gives some of her best vocal performances of her career, sounding confident and calm in the midst of a diverse set of indie-folk tunes.

“The First Girl” is a gut-wrencher, the sort of song that could have easily fit on previous breakup album Set Your Sights but got cut for some idiosyncratic reason. (Maybe it just didn’t fit in the final song sequence–songs have been cut for less.) “X my <3” is a pensive, brooding track that would fit sonically with the previous record (especially the fractured distorted guitar noise), but lyrically looks in a different direction. “(I Should Probably Write a) Happy Song” is a fantastic pop song that seems like a good reason to create an EP–it’s clever, fun, and (almost) totally out of character with the previous record. There are some references to the relational strain that caused Set Your Sights to exist, but it’s largely a self-deprecating look at the life of a folk singer.

“Waiting” closes out the short EP with a woozy, Clem Snide-esque alt-country take; it’s a lovely track instrumentally and vocally. As I mentioned before, Ware’s vocals are strong throughout, and this is no exception. If you’re looking for a quick primer on what The Good Graces can do before diving into the discography, The Hummingbird EP is a great place to start.

Late January Singles 3: Instrumental

February 5, 2018

1. “5.00am” – Raphaelle Thibaut. This piano-led piece opens almost ambiently due to the otherworldly, glowing pad synths that make their way around and through the gentle piano work. The track opens up into an almost Sigur Ros-ian culmination, with multiple string parts bursting into the arrangement in a triumphant manner. The whole piece does feel like the moments just as the sun is rising, as the darkness recedes and the rays break over the horizon. An incredible work. Highly recommended.

2. “Another World” – firosuke. This long, flowing solo piano piece seems to explore a wide, unknown space–a spacious underground cavern, a deep forest, or a castle. There’s all manner of small moments in the piece that strike different moods and tones, just as the internal excitement of exploring can sometimes give way to monotony–until a huge moment of external action. Very narrative, but not a soundtrack piece–this work has its own internal logic and is not handmaiden to other visual action. A distinct, interesting work.

3. “Intro (“Paradisum”)” – Dubbini. Big organ, gothic bell-hits, orchestral grounding, thick choral vocals, medieval-chant-style vocals, woodwinds, and more create a fantastically complex and evocative piece of composed music. This sort of high-drama, mysterious, powerful work is why video game designers sometime in the last 25 years were like, “OH MAN we could use CLASSICAL MUSIC and it would be GREAT!”

4. “Murmurations” – Michael Perera. Wave after wave of speedily cascading piano notes coalesce into a mesmerizing flow, like staring at a rapidly moving creek. Connections to mid-century minimalist composition techniques are tempered by a melodic sensibility that calls to mind Carly Comando. An excellent composition.

5. “Adrift” – Jesse Brown. This brief, low-key piano track balances traditional solo piano introspection with an unusually bluesy streak. It’s cool, calm, and collected–an unusual (and unusually interesting) effort in the genre.

6. “Swim Safety” – Legumina. Glitchy yet still dreamy, this instrumental track sidles its way up next to you and slowly starts dancing sinuously. It’s got trip-hop cool without having the trip-hop rhythmic identifiers.

7. “Reminisce” – Jabbar. Lo-fi instrumental hip-hop that sounds strongly influenced by dungeon crawling video game soundtracks. Artsy and intriguing, yet still danceable.

8. “Letters from India” – Kevin Cryderman. Adventurous, high-intensity acoustic guitar work is the centerpiece of this folk tune. Cryderman’s voice is strong and the melodies are memorable, but it’s the various sections of intriguing solo acoustic guitar work that really set this track apart.

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Late January Singles 2: Indie pop and folk

February 4, 2018

1. “Hold Your Head Up” – Darlingside. A cross between the icy reverie of Bon Iver and the mystical, quiet folk of Sufjan’s Michigan creates one of the most lovely folk tracks I’ve heard all year. The vocal melodies and harmonies are just astounding. Highly recommended.

2. “RUN” – DANSU. A sleek-yet-punchy indie-pop track that’s a little dancy, a little dreamy, a little guitar-rock-y, and a little Vampire Weekend-y. All of that comes together into a bright, fun track.

3. “Wild Heart” – The Singer and the Songwriter. This is an huge, major-key folk-pop explosion, complete with charging drums and surging guitar. The dignified, careful vocal performance is the perfect counterpoint to the instrumental enthusiasm. The music video does everything right too: a perfect match for the lyrics, the choreography the dance troupe performs is wonderful and inspiring.

4. “Crane Song” – TOLEDO. A waltzing, lilting acoustic guitar strum is matched by a softly crooning voice to create some quiet indie-pop in the vein of Jens Lekman, Belle and Sebastian, and Fionn Regan. The song passes through different movements over its nearly five minutes, showing off different angles of TOLEDO’s sound, and all of them are impressive.

5. “Childhood Ghosts” – Alan Barnosky. Fans of old-school Joe Pug will hear the creaky voice, fans of old Tallest Man on Earth will hear the fingerpicking, and fans of folk will rejoice. This is the second Barnosky track of the last few days, because I’m just so taken with his sound. Great stuff here.

6. “Stay With Me” – The Minnesota Child. Dusky, full-bodied folk-pop that has the gravitas of Fleet Foxes and the enthusiasm of The Oh Hellos. The wordless vocal lines in the bridge are just beautiful, and the organ in the last chorus caps it off perfectly. This is how it’s done, folks. Highly recommended.

7. “Where the Good Buzz Goes” – John John Brown. Brown knows how to spin a story, play a mean folk guitar, and sing like it’s no work at all. This particular track is a blues for a veteran, and Lord knows there aren’t enough blues for them to go around. John John Brown is someone you need to hear. Highly recommended.

8. “The Herpetologist” – Driftwood Scarecrow. If you wished that folk sounded more like Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, boy do I have a tune for you. This slightly strummed, delicately sung, fairly twee track has the chord structure and melodic structures to suggest the most disciplined version of Conor Oberst. As a result, this fantastic song is a glistening soap bubble, a beautiful feather floating upward, and a lazy day in a hammock all combined into one.

9. “Savannah” – Brooks Dixon. This alt-country tune features strong instrumental performances in the verses and a knock-out chorus. Dixon’s vocal melodies in the chorus will stick in your head for a long time. There’s a lot of charm and heart in this tune.

10. “Forth Year” – Jack Shields. A gritty vocal performance flows over a smooth, warm west-coast country track. The multiple layers of vocals really make this track special.

11. “Richmond, Meet Richard” – Richard Sherfey. Sherfey knows how to use his voice to best effect: he’s able to subtly sing over delicate fingerpicking and also soar a huge line out of nowhere for the chorus. Fans of serious songwriters (Joseph Arthur, Damien Rice, and Richard Buckner for starters) have a new songwriter to track.

12. “Lone Bulb” – Crooked Cat Adams. Starts off slow, but builds to include electronic percussion, horn, organ, and electric guitar crunch in a very impressive arrangement. It’s hard to come up with comparisons for something so unique, but I guess it sounds somewhat like Neutral Milk Hotel (the horns at 2:50!) merged with a mellowed-out Lord Huron (?). It’s just good music, okay? You should go listen to it.

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The Wood Brothers’ One Drop of Truth: Diverse sounds and ideas come together

January 31, 2018

When it comes to truth, The Wood Brothers have proclaimed that their new album One Drop of Truth was the most fun the band has had making a record. This concept might be hard to believe ten records in, but this self-produced album feels free. That happiness shows. Featured in both Rolling Stone and NPR as a preemptive strike, the force of this musical tsunami of talent is not to be taken lightly.

The Wood Brothers have something to say on their sixth studio album One Drop of Truth via Honey Jar Records/Thirty Tigers. This trio, comprised of Chris and Oliver Wood along with Jano Rix, created a ten-track collection that drifts away from their normal, concept-oriented fare into a deeper level of sonic genius. Simple and elegant, this is authentic beyond belief. “Often, when you’re making an album in the traditional way, there will be a unifying concept, whether that be in the approach to the music stylistically or lyrically in terms over the overall narrative. And even though there are some themes that revealed themselves later, this one is all over the place,” explains Oliver Wood. “What I really love about this record is that each one of these songs has its own little world. There are diverse sounds and vibes from one track to the next.”

The band’s embrace of a diverse release has offered up a collection of tracks that slide through vibes effortlessly. A stellar showcase of dense instrumentation and lush rich vocals, this is not 2015’s  Paradise. That one was called “the warmest, most sublime and occasionally rowdiest Wood Brothers release yet” by American Songwriter. One Drop of Truth is a revolution and evolution; rather than recording all at once in the same studio, one or two songs a day were tracked then allowed to rest.  

Sliding in with “River Takes the Town,” a comfortable flood of familiarity eases in lyrically. Oliver Wood’s poignant delivery envelops the listener with a flood of emotion. Featuring a groove that will not quit, “Happiness Jones” (the first single from the album) dips into the sublime contradictions of love and life. “Laughing or Crying” is a gem of folk composition, as Jano Rix makes this a great adventure in a gypsy-esque romp through the haunts of the city. The tune is a dark narrative of decay and contradiction. Listeners get a visual with the music here: this is songwriting at its best.

Soft and sensual, “Strange As It Seems” is a love song for the ages. Beautifully arranged cello and guitar shine along with simple vocals. Earthy and real, this is a picture of love painted with musical notes. A masterful bit of sequencing happens with “Sky High” here taking love from the bedroom out into a strut on the street; a completely different different experience.

Among the standouts on this masterful album, “Seasick Emotions” is a seascape blowing in with a hollow wind. Chris Wood’s bass paints a seascape of metaphors lyrically. Beautifully executed with harmonies reminiscent of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, this song is stellar.  Finding listeners over halfway through a great album, “This Is It” brings it backs to the porch or barn dance: simple life, rustic and real. Chris and Oliver Wood are so good together, and this song is that toe-tapping damn good time. No pretense, no confusion. Just love.

With an acapella opening “One Drop Of Truth” wraps up this album with a raw, swanky groove that earns its place as the title track. Honky tonk instrumentation is just damn cool, fading out with an echo of hope toward the final track.  Hitting it home with “Can’t Look Away,” this is the partner to the title track; rather than selling one’s soul, it is best to walk away, The Wood Brothers say. It’s the perfect haunting bluesy punctuation mark on the album. Regardless of what the band says about no concept going in, there is definitely one for the listener going out. Truth is all about seeing the train wreck and the love while not losing hope in between. —Lisa Whealy

Jan. 25 – Charlottesville, VA – Jefferson Theatre
Jan. 26 – Washington, DC – Lincoln Theatre
Jan. 27 – Washington, DC – Lincoln Theatre
Jan. 28 – Philadelphia, PA – Union Transfer
Jan. 30 – Albany, NY – The Egg (Sold Out)
Jan. 31 – New York, NY – Irving Plaza
Feb. 1 – New York, NY – Irving Plaza
Feb. 2 – Portland, ME – State Theatre
Feb. 3 – Boston, MA – House of Blues
Feb. 10 – Miami Beach, FL – Groundup Music Festival
Feb. 21 – Phoenix, AZ – MIM Music Theater (Sold Out)
Feb. 22 – Solana Beach, CA – Belly Up
Feb. 23 – Los Angeles, CA – Fonda Theatre
Feb. 24 – San Francisco, CA – The Fillmore
Feb. 25 – San Francisco, CA – The Fillmore
Feb. 27 – Arcata, CA – Kate Buchanan Room
Feb. 28 – Ashland, OR – Southern Oregon University
Mar. 1 – Portland, OR – Crystal Ballroom
Mar. 2 – Seattle, WA – Neptune
Mar. 17 – Nashville, TN – Ryman Auditorium
Apr. 11 – Minneapolis, MN – First Avenue
Apr. 12 – Madison, WI – Majestic Theatre
Apr. 13 – Chicago, IL – Vic Theatre
Apr. 14 – Chicago, IL – Vic Theatre
Apr. 15 – St. Louis, MO – The Pageant
Apr. 17 – Cincinnati, OH – Taft Ballroom
Apr. 18 – Ann Arbor, MI – The Ark
Apr. 19 – Indianapolis, IN – The Vogue
Apr. 20 – Knoxville, TN – Bijou Theater
Apr. 22 – Charlotte, NC – Tuck Fest 2018
May 25 – Morrison, CO – Red Rocks Amphitheatre
May 27 – Cumberland, MD – DelFest 2018

Jeremy Bass’ The Greatest Fire

January 30, 2018

As I sit here with the sun shining on my face, sipping my peppermint tea, Jeremy Bass’ latest release, The Greatest Fire, gently caresses my ears. The well-orchestrated indie-pop/ alternative masterpiece is comprised of many moving parts. Each track contains a unique combination of the guitar, bass, percussion, brilliant background vocals, and an occasional appearance from instruments suited for a symphony. The album mellows out as it goes along–each song moving further away from its indie-pop beginnings.

The album starts off on a very chipper note. Both “CA, Plz” and “The Greatest Fire” feel very happy-go-lucky, in the best kind of way. “CA, Plz” begins with delightful acoustic guitar plucking, paired with soothing male background vocals “bababa”ing us into the album. Jeremy Bass’ voice soon enters in and the ode to a state (California) lifts off with synth sounds drifting us into the “ocean blue”. Female background vocals also provide support in the chorus and transition us into the next track.

The album’s first single, “The Greatest Fire,” echoes the chipperness of the first track with the great addition of keys layered into the guitar/percussion combination. The message of the track also seems very optimistic, yet grounded. The lyric, “Don’t you ever feel there’s a truth deeper than your point of view?” shows off that mixture well.

Unlike what the title of the next track may lead you to think, “(So Glad) Everyone’s Happy” is seeping with irony, as the repeated lyric “so glad everyone’s happy” seems more sardonic than authentic. Instead, the lyrics “I’m not ready to go” and “Breathe, breathe, breathe” seem to get at the heart of the track. Unlike the other songs, the bass guitar leads us through a playful arrangement of percussion, a beachy guitar, and Jeremy Bass’ steady vocals filling out the track.

“1,000 Yrs” and “‘Till the Summer Ends” both contain softer sets of instrumentation. “1,000 Yrs” is the cutesie love song on the album, with lyrics like “I wanna be here for a 1,000 years with you”. The violin-heavy instrumentation ensures the track’s romantic sound. Meanwhile “‘Till the Summer Ends” shows off Bass’ talented acoustic guitar playing. In general, this track’s sound is softer than the previous ones. Similar to Fleet Foxes, the soothing background vocals and instrumentation take the listener drift to a peaceful place.

“Halfway Sane”, “Trees for the Forest”, and “(theme music for a desert lightning storm)” continue to steer away from the chipper indie-pop sound that kickstarted the album. “Halfway Sane” does this through a certain edginess in its arrangement, with the help of a heavy use of the electric guitar. “(theme music for a desert lightning storm)” is the only instrumental track off the album. The acoustic guitar serves as its anchor, as percussive elements enter and exit as they please. The cyclical sound of the track seems to echo the pattern of a lightning storm, as the title suggests. And before you know it, the storm has passed and the track is over. “We Will Be You” brings the album to an eerie close, as it begins with a slowly played banjo, progresses with an organ, and ends with creaking wood floor sounds.

Before I close out my review of this masterful album, I must draw attention to the creative way Bass titled his tracks. From “CA, Plz” to “1,000 Yrs” and “(theme music for a desert lightning storm)”, his use of parentheses and text-speech are brilliant. The Greatest Fire is an album created for those of us who are tired of the same old indie-pop productions playing over and over again.–Krisann Janowitz

Premiere: Via Intercom’s “The Photographer”

January 18, 2018

Lots of people want their songs and music videos to be surreal, but few can pull it off. Via Intercom‘s song and associated clip for “The Photographer” nail the balance between atypical weirdness and utter banality that creates truly surreal moments.

We’re premiering the video, so I’ll start with that first. The video is ostensibly a lyric video, but the lyrics are mostly difficult to read–they scroll right to left with the lines running away from the reader. It’s like the beginning of Star Wars out of a misaligned projector. The squinting I had to do for most of the lyrics creates an unusual atmosphere; the jolt of the occasionally-right-side-up lyrics makes the situation even more interestingly uncomfortable.

Once we get past the atypical lyrical presentation, there’s the nature of what’s going on around the lyrics: the members of Via Intercom are dancing inside a dollhouse with giant shadows creeping around outside the house. That’s weird enough, but the dollhouse is icy blue, the dancers are only partially present (no head, no legs, no hands), and the shirts of the dancers are contrasting colors to the icy blue of the dollhouse. Everything seems perfectly calculated to be weird. But it’s not overtly weird–it all seems plausible, as if this would be normal if not viewed through this specific camera lens. That level of unusual-yet-almost-usual is compelling.

If this were some psych-rock nugget, this unusual video might be par for the course. But the song is not some technicolor freakout–it is a measured, considered, detailed indie song. It’s almost slowcore in its arrangement, as a glacial-pace fingerpicked pattern is the main motion of the tune. Strings sway in and out, the occasional glockenspiel note hits, background vocals sigh mysteriously, and the whole song lopes onward under some unseen internal power. Pairing this slow-paced tune with the video isn’t jarring–it’s revealing, influencing how I interpret the video and the song.

The lyrics tell the story of a house party gone totally awry in a specific level of detail that adds another layer of complexity. Multiple characters weave in and out of the song. Tiny details are juxtaposed against sweeping emotional statements. Adding this level of lyrical detail on top of the songwriting and the video results in a unique, fascinating experience. It should go without saying that this is one of the best, most interesting videos I’ve seen in a long time.

“The Photographer” comes from Buzz Buzz Buzz Vertigowhich released in December.

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Early January Singles 2: Folk, Instrumental and Other

January 17, 2018

1. “You” – David Gorman. The first 45 seconds are a beautiful a cappella chorale reminiscent of the best moments of early Mumford and Sons. At 45 seconds, a delicate, pristine, fingerpicked acoustic guitar line comes in. The rest of the track continues to expand, somewhere between Mumford and Fleet Foxes. It is an excellent track. Highly recommended.

2. “Dollar General Blues” – John John Brown. Gentle, finger-picked, back porch folk that rolls off Brown’s tongue with unbelievable ease. Brown could sing anything and it would sound great, but he chooses to sing a song of (very) contemporary rural America. It’s an unusual type of protest song (probably has too many words for Woody Guthrie’s taste), but it’s one all the same, and it is a poignant (instead of brash) example of the form. This is exemplar: this is how folk should work. Highly recommended.

3. “Tearing Seams” – Micah McCaw. If you’re into major-key folk, you need to jump on this track immediately: this one has the major-key strumming of Josh Ritter, the smooth vocals of Josh Rouse, and the lyrics of early Joe Pug. The triumphant conclusion of the track, led by blaring organ, is just off the charts in terms of satisfying endings. I got shivers. Highly recommended.

4. “Let This Wind Blow” – Sam Alty. The flamenco influences that Alty brings to the table are more subtle in this evocative, expansive acoustic tune. The interest in ostinato rhythms, bass patterns, and pushing forward motion are all present, but in ways that put Alty’s own stamp on the work. His specific vision is coming into focus before our ears.

5. “Mischief” – Dead Seem Old. Flamenco influences always create tunes that seem unable to sit still: there’s always insistent motion, bass groove, big melodies, and punchy moments. This acoustic tune wears its flamenco influences on its sleeve and pairs it with vocals tempered in an contemporary vocal performance fire. Groovy and fun.

6. “A Dog’s Humanity” – Bashful Hips. Insistent, off-kilter speak-sing vocals elevate an unusual folk/indie-rock arrangement into a unique, experimental tune. There’s some pizzicato strings, theremin and thrumming string-bass all threaded between each other. The lyrics are somewhere between the apocalyptica of Modest Mouse, the detailed observations of Emperor X, and personal/collective tensions of I’m Wide Awake-era Bright Eyes.

7. “Good Times” – The Macarnos. The vocals have a touch of Colin Meloy in them and there’s a guitar solo (!), both of which perked my ears up in this heavy-strummed folk/acoustic tune. The acoustic strum meshes tightly with the drums, creating a impressively solid base for the track.

8. “Lull” – Cherophobiac. A slow-burning, minor-key piano tune that would fit easily in a companion to OK Computer, what with the long introduction that includes computer sounds, the lyrical emphasis on human senses (seeing/feeling), and the grumbling bass. The layered vocals throughout the piece create a bit of Imogen Heap flavor, as well. The piece, as a result, is satisfyingly unusual.

9. “Goin’ Home” – Barzo. I’m not really into funk, but every now and then a band can catch my ear with a bass groove, a solid rhythm section, and a lead melody. This one does that, as the bass is thick and rubbery, the drums have some flair, and the lead sax melody is juuuuuuuust right.

10. “you cant repeat the past” – Behind Clouds. Melds trip-hop influences, future bass sounds, and delicate piano into a unique instrumental vision. This is a head-bobber for sure.

11. “Exploration” – Floris Boere. Layers on layers of piano sounds are undergirded by a cascade of piano notes that sound like rushing water. The complexity here is what drew me in: there are a lot of ideas going on in the 5:48 of this track. A very impressive, very soothing track. Highly recommended.

12. “Hamerstraat” – Klangriket & Sjors Mans. A lilting, floating, waltz-style tune that marries piano and strings together in a beautiful way. The pensive, restrained mood is perfectly conveyed by the strings.

13. “Tucson” – Hautefort. Rather than lock into a specific song structure or pattern, this piece flows in many directions, following melodic ideas and rhythms as they appear. The song’s mood is held down by the ghostly synths that hover just outside the frame and the occasional intrusion of a synth bass pulse. Overall, it creates a mysterious, expressive experience.

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Early January Singles 1: Indie Pop

January 16, 2018

1. “Ride Down the Avenue” – Walter Martin. If you threw dance-rock, Vampire Weekend, CCR, and Jimmy Buffet into a blender, you still probably couldn’t come up with this unusually fun and exciting tune about getting older. Martin’s blurry vocals are the perfect counterpoint to the wall of cheer that he so convincingly creates. Wow.

2. “In Darkness We Feel Our Way” – Delorentos. The impassioned lead vocal performance steals the show here, and there’s quite a show to steal: the tropical-inspired indie-rock arrangement of the sound is pierced by vocal melismatics and occasional choir. The percussion here does unsung hero work in keeping the many parts of this piece on track. The results are spectacular.

3. “With Me” – Language Arts. This flickering, fluttering indie-pop/emo tune has all the best qualities of Braid and Football, etc.– lots of dreamy soundscapes paired with zinging guitar lines that make the whole thing shine like a diamond under a light. The ability to firm up into a straight-forward emo/rock phase is also a bonus, giving some diversity to the piece.

4. “The Emperor” – The Gold Web. Where At War With the Mystics was The Flaming Lips’ response to a Republican administration, “The Emperor” is The Gold Web’s response to another one. This is a huge, whirling, technicolor psych-pop nugget that draws heavily from the aforementioned era of The Flaming Lips, glam-rock, and the Beatles (if you listen close to the vocal lines and back up vocals).

5. “Giants” – Sure Sure. Recipe for this ray of sunshine: the perkiness of Ben Folds, the off-the-cuff holler of Generationals, and the precise rhythms of Bishop Allen. The piano and vocals both deserve mad props for their contributions to this fantastically summery track.

6. “Soul No. 5” – Caroline Rose. Is this a parody of money rap? Or of indie rock? Or both? Or neither? What the lyrics suggest, the video only amplifies–there is definitely something going on here lyrically. But beyond the lyrics, this is a rambunctious, rollicking rock’n’roll song with a delectable indie-pop chorus vocal melody. Whatever conclusions you come to about the tune, I can guarantee you’ll have a blast figuring it out.

7. “Portrait of Arthur Russell” – Similar Fashion. Sounds like a jazz combo and a math-rock band in a contemporary West Side Story rumble. By the time that Logan Hone starts chanting “research and dancing,” I’m all in on this totally madcap, how-does-this-all-hold-together vision of collaborative music. Also I’m researching and dancing. I can at least vouch that you will want to do the latter, but maybe even the former!

8. “Hiding Places” – Rain on Monday. Solid popcraft sometimes is codewords for “sounds like the Beatles,” but I would suggest that it has wider implications now. This solid pop song builds out of chipper acoustic guitar, bass punched way up in the mix, solid percussion contributions, well-placed synths (including arpeggiator, man I love those things), and a low-key memorable lead vocal melody in the chorus. There’s no big eruption of sound, no curveballs, just really great indie-pop throughout.

9. “Strange But True” – Western Scene. This indie-pop jam spends the first minute teasing you with what a jubilant, exuberant track this could be, then lets you have it. Big guitars, lots of cymbals (thankfully turned down low in the mix–enough to get the point across but not to shred ears), and soaring keys make this a shake-your-hips-whip-your-hair jam.

10. “Easy Company” – Safari Gold. A perfect name for the song and band. This track is an easygoing, easy-to-love indie-pop track. The whole vibe of the tune is warm and bright, just like the gold of the band name. If Lord Huron got some MGMT mixed in his drink, we might end up with something like this.

11. “10,000 Year Old Woman” – Long Neck. An immersive, convincing breakup-or-is-it? tune that goes beyond the tropes and reveals a little more of the story. The strong, clear vocal performance is the thing to write home about musically; the well-done acoustic work is also compelling.

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

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