Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Silver Torches: Incisive, insightful songs of the blue-collar condition

December 8, 2017

Silver Torches‘ Let It Be a Dream speaks convincingly and heartbreakingly in a rural, blue-collar voice, along the lines of Jason Isbell or Hillbilly Elegy. (The excellent album art perfectly displays the culture the band is talking about.) But where Isbell’s work can get raucously loud, Silver Torches’ singer/songwriter work is intimate, drawing the listener close to the pain and difficulty of that life.

The lyrics throughout the record are powerful. Even in the most sonically expansive track, the ’80s-synth-led “If I Reach,” principal songwriter Erik Walters ties blue-collar concerns (“There’s no heaven or hell waiting for us / we punch the clock”) to the emotional realities of a dead-end situation (“If you leave before me / Don’t you know / I won’t be far behind / If you make your peace / Before me / I won’t mind”). Elsewhere, stories of small town bars (“Bartender”), rust belt unemployment (“Half a Heart”), and missed opportunities (“Keep the Car Running,” “At the Lantern”) call up comparisons to Bruce Springsteen’s lyrical concerns. In dealing with these nuanced, complex situations, Walters shows himself an skillful lyricist and observer of the human situation.

The music is just as impressive as the lyrics: this is a full-band effort, expanding singer/songwriter tunes with strong arrangements. The tone is different, but the work of Counting Crows has some of the same contours–songs that could be solo pieces, but are filled out. Walters knows how to write an inescapably catchy vocal hook (“Keep the Car Running,” “Like a Child,” “At the Lantern”)–these songs stuck with me for a long time after their runtime. Those aforementioned arrangements are strong: they allow the songs to surge, swell, and sway where necessary. The band offers up a quiet intensity that lends a vital urgency to the tunes of difficult life.

Every song on Let It Be a Dream is commendable, from the emotionally devastating “Let It Be a Dream” to the impressive vocal performance of “Half a Heart” to the soulful “I Can’t Lie” to spartan vibes of closer “Bartender.” It’s not a long record, but it’s one that stuck with me for a long time. If you’re looking for incisive lyrics, excellent songwriting, and intimate performances, Let It Be a Dream is a must-hear. It’s heavy, but it’s the right kind of heavy: the kind that lets you take something away that you didn’t think about before.

Quick Hits: Monk Parker / Ghost and Tape / Holy ’57

December 4, 2017

Clem Snide always seemed a little out of phase with the rest of the world: not quite country, not quite indie, heavily literate, deeply ironic, secretly hopeful. I loved their work, and it’s with great joy that I report this: Monk Parker has picked up their torch and run with it. But that’s only a starting point, as Parker’s slow-paced, dense, expansive, heavily atmospheric take on country music blazes its own path from Snide’s starting point. Crown of Sparrows is thus one of the most exciting alt-country releases of the year.

Parker’s voice is smooth and often elegant, leading the way through lush arrangements of pedal steel, broad horns, ambient sound (as in the opening of the title track) and more. The songs are melancholy but not depressing–they have an internal, almost subterranean, jubilance due to the vibrance of the arrangements. The songs are also long. There are only six tunes here in a runtime of over a half hour. This gives tunes like the title track and “Oh Cousin” the time they need to produce their magic. Hopefully Monk Parker will capture country’s attention the way Clem Snide never did–if so, country has another ship to add to the armada of new artists pushing country forward in unique ways.

Ghost and Tape‘s Vár is a perfect album to feature after Parker’s work. It is a warm, delicate, open-hearted ambient album that sounds matches some of the warm, patient qualities of Parker’s work. It is an album of intense detail and careful attention to the whole experience.

For example, the album art is some of the most fitting I’ve seen on a record this year: the colors are bright yet sun-dappled, the petals floating away convey a weightless feeling, and the image looks very sharp but starts to get a little soft as you get closer and closer. These are all apt descriptions of the music itself, from the drone of “Eostre” to the sound recording of walking through a forest (“hatch”) to the ocean waves and synth waves of closer “Seabird.” This is a beautifully calming record, a place to clear your mind and be made aware of the beauty around you. If you’re not into ambient music, this is a great place to start learning about how ambient can be amazing.

L is the sound of a musician pushing himself. Holy ’57 knows how to write great Vampire Weekend-inflected indie-pop songs, and does not disappoint on that front (“Water // Chrome,” “Canary,” “A Fragile Thing,” “Alison, Pt. 1”). Each of them have bouncy rhythms, clever arrangements, hummable melodies, and bright moods.

Placed around this very solid collection of pop tunes are interstitial found sounds [“(voicemail)”], instrumental variations on a theme (“Alison, Pt. II”), an ambient album coda (“Walkie Talkie Reprise”) and a fantastically ambitious opener track called “Bombay – Nairobi – London (Repeater).” The first three elements I mentioned there give the release heft–they make this into a total artistic idea instead of just a bunch of tunes. The fourth is where the total artistic idea begins.

“Bombay – Nairobi – London (Repeater)” is a long, complex instrumental tune that draws in elements of ambient, indie-rock, jazz, afrobeat, and more. There are towering horns, shimmering synths, and melismatic vocals amid the more-layers-than-you-can-shake-a-stick-at. The instruments are the backdrop to the dramatic life story of songwriter Alex Mankoo’s grandmother, told autobiographically through a recorded interview. It’s an impressive, engrossing opening track that leads the way into the rest of the mini-LP. If you’re into adventurous work that pushes the bounds of pop but also delivers some solid pop tracks along the way, go for this one.

Premiere: Chaperone Picks’ Disappearing Better

November 29, 2017

Chaperone Picks’ Disappearing Better is a true-blue lo-fi album recorded four-track to cassette. Mr. Picks (the artist’s preferred moniker) doesn’t just maintain the recording aesthetic of the late ’80s and early ’90s–his successfully songs carry the torch for the songwriting style touted by The Mountain Goats, Sentridoh, and The Microphones.

Disappearing Better would probably be called an indie-pop record these days, or maybe a singer/songwriter record, but it’s best understood as a lo-fi record. These are sort-of pop songs, written quickly (but not sloppily) with an intentionally small amount of instrumental layers and preserved almost as soon as they were made. This type of songwriting is a specific, almost self-contained universe that contains masterpieces for those willing to make the trek. (All Hail West Texas by the Mountain Goats is the apex of this style for me; it contains two or three of my favorite songs of all time, but was written/recorded in a manner of weeks.)

Chaperone Picks nails the ethos here, producing some great songs along the way. “Calling You Out On Me” features lo-fi’s almost-trademark heavy acoustic guitar strum and an absurdly hummable vocal melody. Follow-up “And Let Live” includes drums to create a punchier vibe, but the core elements of acoustic guitar, great vocal melodies, and Mr. Picks’ front-and-center vocals remain. “Mouth to Mouth” tempers some of the chunky strum with high-mixed lead acoustic lines and charming tambourine, creating a quieter version of the Picks sound that retains all of the interest of the aforementioned songs.

Part of the intrigue of lo-fi is a function of its quickly-created premise: the songs are all (generally) mined from one vein. Instead of writing a bunch of songs over a long period of time that may have wide variations in style and content, a true lo-fi album is a snapshot of a moment in time. Disappearing Better has a clearly identifiable flavor, from the melancholy opener “I Suppose” to the frustration-outlet “And Let Live” to the speak/sing vocal performance of closer “True Lives.” This is a autumnal record, one that isn’t strongly minor key or strongly major key. There are some songs that sound melancholy but seem to have generally positive lyrics (“True Lives”) and vice versa. If you’re into seasonal listening, this may help you go from fall to winter in your listening regimen.

Disappearing Better is a record that gets better with time: the more I learn the subtle contours of the songs, the more the record endears itself to me. That’s another hallmark of lo-fi that Chaperone Picks doesn’t disappoint on. If you’re looking for some strong acoustic lo-fi work, look no further than Disappearing Better. You’ll be humming along soon.

Quick Hit: This Pale Fire

November 27, 2017

This Pale Fire‘s Alchemy is a svelte modern folk record that focuses on atmosphere and space. The delicate electric fingerpicking, emotion-wracked voice, and subtle arrangements of Corban Koschak’s project call up dusky visions and streetlight thoughts from the awestruck opener “Northern Lights” to the piano-led hush of “Outro.”

In between, there are moments of pristine chill (“The Sky,” “Mountains”) solid popcraft (“Float Out”), and post-rock fury (“End of Science”), although the album is much more heavily weighted to the former two (“Wolf,” “The Stag”). Strings, percussion, and other elements wend their way through the work, but it’s Koschak’s confident, engaging voice that takes center stage throughout. Fans of Hozier, Vance Joy, Passenger, and other serious singer/songwriters will find much to love here.

Alchemy releases December 1.

Premiere: Two Sets of Eyes’ debut self-titled adventure / EP

November 26, 2017

Two Sets of Eyes‘ self-titled debut EP is a mind-bending release that manages to seamlessly mesh moments of wildly inventive, almost avant-garde weirdness into songs that were already clever, intricate indie-rock pieces. From the bold-move instrumental opener to the ten-minute closer extravaganza, Two Sets of Eyes doesn’t cover the same patch of earth twice.

Opener “Sunshine, You’re Standing in My Sunlight” opens with a fuzzed-out arpeggiator and a hip-hop kit beat before morphing into a vaguely dystopian mood with the addition of melodies from what sounds like a heavily manipulated guitar or keyboard. The sci-fi intensity ratchets up with the addition of various synth layers, creating something that sounds like Muse on its best day or instrumental hip-hoppers Jaw Gems scoring a Mad Max film. The track consistently throws curveballs at the listener, providing an exciting standalone experience and a clue as to the mayhem that is to come.

Lead single “For the Last Time” zips in a different direction, fusing early ’00s emo (a la Promise Ring), smooth jazz saxophone, and quirky indie-pop vocals with some beachy vibes and sleigh bells for spice. Yet (as with the opening track) the song sounds internally consistent–at no point does a switch in sonics lose me as a listener. Those with wide sonic interests will love the diversity between tracks, too.

And that diversity gets even wider with “Cash Me Out (ft. Bardo)” — even though this one’s the most straightforward of the tracks (ha!), it’s a woozy, complex R&B backdrop with Bardo’s smooth, even flow over it. The trio can’t resist going from moderately chill to intense even within the confines of an R&B banger, though: the culmination of the track is a spiraling, thrashy punk-jazz blast.

“No Simple Words” continues the intensity by starting off with a post-punk/post-hardcore guitar line, but throws some cooing melismas on top of it to make it weird. The track bends expectations (even those expectations of chaos set up earlier in the EP) with glee. But all of this is just prologue to the monster ten-minute closer “Waiting/Reacting,” which is one of those songs that makes me think, “How do they remember all of these parts in order?” The tune combines many of the aforementioned references in the EP (post-hardcore, emo, indie-pop vocals, dystopian space rock, synth mania, as well as impressive bass work) into a marathon of creativity.

Two Sets of Eyes’ debut EP has enough inventive ideas to fill an album two or three times its length. The fact that they wind them tightly into five songs is a win for the listener, who is treated to a ton of things blasting out of the speakers at breakneck pace. Adventurous listeners should be thrilled to hear such a fascinating new entry into the indie rock world. Highly recommended.

Two Sets of Eyes released yesterday.

Nina de Vitry’s Sweet Treat: Trust a Dream

November 20, 2017

Nina de Vitry’s soulful voice, jazzy composition, and creative lyrics make her breakout EP, Trust A Dream, a sweet treat for the ears. De Vitry’s soothing vocals are reminiscent of an early Norah Jones (think “Come Away with Me”) mixed with a neo-soul/India.Arie influence. The EP’s instrumentation provides the perfect backdrop for de Vitry’s beautiful voice to shine. Each track off the album contains a playfully unique combination of percussion, acoustic guitar, brass, and stand-up bass. For me, what stands out most on this EP are the thoughtful lyrics that drive the music forward.

Through examining the lyrics, it becomes clear that this EP represents a journey of discovering oneself. Even though that may sound like a cliche, Trust a Dream doesn’t feel cliche at all; it’s too inventive. The first track starts off the EP with question over question: “Can you trust a dream?” “Does it melt your mind?” “Do you feel at home?” and “Do you feel it in your bones?”. Yet, the opening of the chorus– “O, there’s plenty of time, my darling, to be rigid as a stone”– shows that the speaker already has a solid foundation to help figure out some of the answers to these questions. Perhaps the questions are more for the listener to know the kind of weighty things that this collection will explore. Particularly the repeated, “Can you trust a dream?” feels akin to Langston Hughes’ “What happens to a dream deferred?” from Harlem. As we know, Hughes already has an idea–he just wants to make sure his readers are thinking about the same things he is.

When track two comes around, “Baby in the Shade”, we see that the EP contains a lot of hope and optimism, with the repetition of “it’s gonna be ok, gonna be ok, cuz it’s always ok” in the bridge. The playful brass, bass, and keys further reinforce the track’s whimsical nature.

The third song feels like a jazzier version of Randy Newman’s Toy Story classic “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”; but instead of the “you” being a person, de Vitry is addressing the land in the title of the song, “Golden County”. The creative wordplay of the lyrics particularly stands out, for example: “But fear not Golden County, they’ll be silver while the gold is still ours” and “I’ll be out chasin’ freedom, leavin’ sun and takin’ moon as my guide”. “Darling” then carries the whimsy along, while “Broken Cities” diverts the journey of the album to look at the other side– those who have been robbed of their hope and optimism.

With the EP’s fifth track, “Broken Cities”, de Vitry takes an honest look at cities, opening with the lyrics: “Broken cities empty fast when lights are more than day”. The lyrics of this track are more socially focused than the other songs off the EP. A prime example is Broken cities disinfect, then cauterize our minds / Clean em’ out, then close em’ up, in hopes that we don’t find / We just wanna fly away/ We just wanna find our way”. In case you don’t know (I also had to look it up), “cauterize” means “to burn with a hot iron”. So, here de Vitry is saying that “broken cities” burn resident’s minds with a hot iron in the name of disinfecting, all the while really just wiping them clear in order to make residents forget that they too can dream and have hope.

“Live like Water Lives” could not close out the EP more beautifully. The peaceful strumming of the acoustic guitar reflects the tranquil focus of the lyrics. The chorus repeats the title “live like water lives” and throughout the song, the verses expound and give light to what that really means. A few snippets of what it means to “live like water lives” are: “Fall soft like the rain,” “Be bold like the storms,” “Kiss like the mist, caress like the sea,” “Run brave as a river,” “Be open like the ocean’s plain,” and “Shift free like the waves”. Here, it seems the artist shares her words of advice that perhaps helped her attain the hope she shares with her listeners in the other five songs.

Trust A Dream is a powerful collection of soulful tracks. Nina de Vitry’s EP contains a level of depth that is not found in a lot of music today. And its playful yet soothing sound leaves listeners relaxed and ready for more. If you happen to live in the Lancaster, PA, region, de Vitry’s CD release party is on December 20th. I’m sure it will be wonderful.–Krisann Janowitz

Fear Not: An album of immense scope and distinctive vocals

November 16, 2017

Cameron Blake‘s previous album Alone on the World Stage was aptly titled: the music was mostly Blake’s voice accompanied by a single instrument, while the lyrics were often internally-focused. Fear Not is Blake at the opposite end of the spectrum: a crew of almost fifty musicians rushes from Tiananmen Square to Jerusalem to Baltimore to rural farm country to send the titular message to all of humanity. It is an album of unprecedented scope for Blake. The risk pays off in spades, as this is Blake’s most distinctive, accomplished work to date.

Blake’s voice remains front and center through it all. His low, drama-laden voice is a singular one that I can pick out instantly wherever I hear it. Blake’s vocal performances are the type that’ll grow on you; his tone is often-brash, he pairs a love of unexpected chord changes with unexpected vocal melodies, and he is unafraid to roar. Those who love atypical vocal presentations like those of Frightened Rabbit, Damien Rice, The Walkmen/Hamilton Leithauser and others will find much to love in Blake’s voice.

One of the big transformations in this record is Blake’s comfort level with the vocal lines he writes. He’s never been afraid to go for a soaring line, but here he is clearly in the zone. Between the rock-solid pop lines of “The Only Diamond,” the thrilling theatrics of “Old Red Barn,” the powerful emotion in “Tiananmen Square,” and the subtle inflections in the delivery of “Philip Seymour Hoffman,” Blake shows that he can confidently use his voice in a wide array of situations.

It’s good that his voice is versatile, because this album is a whirlwind of moods. “Sandtown” is a ten-car pileup of thrashing drums, skronking jazz horns, and vocal howls that seems to accurately describe the chaos of a Baltimore police raid. On the other end of the spectrum, the title track opener is about as delicate as the album gets, with an angelic choral backdrop and cello supporting Blake’s voice and piano. “Queen Bee” is a train-whistle folk-rock rave-up, while “Old Red Barn” is a jubilant dixieland track. Several of the tracks slot into his core sound of dramatic singer/songwriter tracks with folk influences (“Tiananmen Square,” “Wailing Wall,” “Monterey Bay”), but the diversity here is huge.

And yet, as much as “Queen Bee,” “The Only Diamond,” and “Old Red Barn” are a blast, it’s “Tiananmen Square” that is the standout here. The hugely emotive song is based on fingerpicked acoustic guitar, filled out with trebly piano keys, noodly lead guitar, solemn cello, reverent vocal melismas, and thoughtful drums.

Blake’s voice swings from calm to booming in the huge conclusion to the song, as the strings ratchet up and the drums push hard. The reason for the drama is the story of Tank Man, who defied Chinese tanks in 1989. Blake draws the listener into the story, then poses and answers a central question to the listener: “Was I born for this? / I was born for this.” The global scope of the incident and the personal nature of the questions in light of that important event are expertly juxtaposed. This tension between the lofty and the minor is balanced in the lyrics throughout the record.

Cameron Blake’s Fear Not is an intense experience of great scope and depth. It is an album that is in turns wrenching and fun. Its impact is in clear relationship to its scope: there’s a lot to hear here, and a lot to think about once you’ve heard it. If you’re into adventurous work from a thoughtful writer, Fear Not should be on your must-hear list for the year. Highly recommended.

Fear Not comes out tomorrow.

Premiere: townsppl’s twigs

November 8, 2017

The ukulele had a moment in the late ’00s: between “Hey Soul Sister,” “You and I” by Ingrid Michaelson, and a host of other ukulele-toting bands, things were getting downright cheery all over the place. Vibes have obviously changed in the culture and in musical scenes; ukulele is way less used today. However, the instrument’s ability to create a warm, sunshiny vibe is the same–it’s just waiting there for someone to champion it.

Enter twnsppl. twigs by townsppl is easily one of the most gleeful, charming, carefree albums released in 2017. For a year that’s been full of divorce albums and incisive protest music, twigs offers a heaping helping of respite.

The title track is the opener, and it’s a great tune. Bandleader Alexander Stanton’s tenor voice is smooth and clear, delivered over the aforementioned ukulele and some bouncing bass. The chorus shifts from straight-ahead indie-pop to Graceland-influenced pop with the addition of “whoa-oh-ohs,” African-harmony background vocals, and chanted “heys”. The vibe is spot-on, the recording is perfectly done, and the whole thing comes off like a million bucks. It’s a “sit-up-and-pay-attention” opener for an indie-pop fan.

“so so-so” slows down the tempo and introduces ukulele fingerpicking, which is lovely. The majority of the album lives in this mid-tempo indie-pop realm, exploring many different ways to chill with a ukulele in your arms (or ears). Both “so so-so” and “i’ll be home soon (can it wait till I get there)” have can’t-get-it-out-of-my-head chorus vocal lines, while “cut magazines” and “don’t blink” show off Stanton’s arrangement skills primarily. (Not to malign the great vocal melodies in those tunes.)

“don’t blink” is a highlight: sounding somewhat like a Sufjan Christmas take in both enthusiasm and warmly comforting mood, the tune hums along with an effervescent grin. The delicate closing piano line bowled me over the first time I heard it–it’s a simple thing, but it’s executed perfectly. In other words: #nailedit.

The tunes here are mostly chipper and bright, but one stands out from the pack as being more reserved: “the road to end up” is a somber, serious pop tune reminiscent of Blind Pilot’s vocal melodies and Ivan & Alyosha’s electric guitar use. It’s a strong counterpoint to the rest of the tunes, subverting expectations just enough to add a good break in the sound. The album concludes with the solo performance “sparks,” which is also a little more serious than the rest of the tunes. But even that can’t sustain a straight face for too long before bringing in a lo-fi arrangement to brighten the corners. It’s a great conclusion to a relentlessly appealing album.

Having reviewed music for 14.5 years, I’ve learned to be reserved in my initial response to a record. But some albums cause me to break my rules. I have enjoyed every track on this record unabashedly. It’s a dinger–there’s not a bad track on the whole thing. Each track of twigs is clever, thoughtful, and deeply enjoyable. It will easily land on my top ten albums of the year. If you’re into indie-pop, this is a must-hear. Highly Recommended.

You can check out townsppl at the twigs Album Release Show on Friday, 11/10, at Club Cafe in Pittsburgh. If I were anywhere near there, I’d be headed up. It’s bound to be a blast.

Trevor James Tillery makes an artistic statement about social media

November 3, 2017

Each day is a reinvention. For Nashville’s Trevor James Tillery, the process has been performed in front that fickle demographic that has been labeled millennial. To say that this has been a bad thing would be unfair to a creative talent like this songwriter, who is set to release Together, Alone November 10, 2017 (pre-order).

It could be said that the artist, who lists both Los Angeles and Nashville as home base, embraces that duality within his songwriting: a mirror for personal experiences with themes exploring a range of perspectives on the isolation within today’s climate of disconnection. This lyrical expression of disconnect as a result of social media, religion, sexuality, and interpersonal relationships was produced by Joshua D. Niles between the winter of 2016 and the summer of 2017. Though the artist is proud to say that this is a collaborative album, there is a strong identity for listeners to hear, a foundation that is carried throughout the ten song album.

The album cover art comes from London-based photographic duo Stefano and Alberto Scandeberg. Elegant and lyrical, the album art encompases the ideas that pull this artist’s work together, making each element of the release part of a greater whole. For an album decrying social media’s effects, there is a subtle irony in the artwork: Tillery connected with the artists via Twitter after seeing their work, which has been published in Vogue and elsewhere. Small world, big possibilities.

With an eye on the attack of social media and the alienated repercussions of that separate-but-together existence, “In Your Atmosphere” is a taste of brilliance. “Silver Sea” features a landscape of sound enveloped by authentic lush vocals. “Lonely With You” has that echo of Grizzly Bear: a bit less dark and haunting, and more accepting of the isolation. “Numb” may be the standout track of the album, as it encompasses everything thematically. It is hauntingly disjointed, with an almost rave-like tempo and a falsetto kicking in on the chorus.  

Creating a different feel within the songs, “Immortalize” could feel out of place if not for the way that the album was released: Tillery chose to release the album one single at a time. Dripping out each song on its own gave the tunes a chance to breathe and find their audience. Like many people today, Trevor agrees that most listeners are unable to commit to immersing in an entire album at one sitting. While admittedly critical of the lack of patience that listeners have when sitting down, embracing, and digesting an album in one listen, there is a method to Tillery’s madness with Together, Alone.

The space trip of “Equilibrium” is an invitation for the listener to contrast much of the rest of the record. It is a little jarring, but that may be the point. Throughout Together, Alone, Trevor James Tillery is urging his listeners throughout to stop, wake up, and connect on a real plane. —Lisa Whealy

Quick Hit: Glen Phillips’ Swallowed by the New

October 27, 2017

I’m pretty worn out from divorce records this year, but Glen PhillipsSwallowed by the New is a divorce record so good that I’m breaking my moratorium on the form to tell you about it. Phillips is the former songwriter of Toad the Wet Sprocket who has turned himself into a songwriter approximately like Glen Hansard crossed with Alexi Murdoch while living in America. In other words, these are rich, fully-developed singer/songwriter songs that can be hushed or roaring with equal emotional impact.

The highlights of the record are the emotionally-wrung-out opener “Go,” the gospel-inflected major key of “Grief and Praise,” the Brill Building popcraft of “Reconstructing the Diary” and the stomping neo-blues rave-up that is “Held Up.” The rest of the tunes are strong as well, showing off Phillips’ oh-so-perfect vocal tone and smooth songwriting (“The Easy Ones,” “Baptistina,” “Leaving Oldtown”). The whole thing is about as warm and lovely as the thoroughly attractive album art. In other words, it doesn’t drag you through the dirt to get to the gold–at least, not too much.

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

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