Iván Muela‘s Unsoundis a complex release of modern classical work that doesn’t spend too long in any one place. While Muela’s interests vary, the mood palette he creates spans a comfortable space along a whole spectrum of emotionality and doesn’t become overwhelming.
Experimental opener “Lemon” is 1:25 of sparse guitar and several types of keys one after the other, accompanied by the soundtrack of crickets chirping; “Bitter” warps cello sounds with technology and layers them over indistinct conversations, dripping water, and eerie clicking percussion. These pieces push the bounds of Muela’s sound, forming the outer edge of what he’s interested in accomplishing on Unsound; they are compelling in a compositional way.
At the other end of his emotional spectrum are slow, elegant, piano-led tunes like “Inwreathe” and “Sonder.” “Sonder” is purposefully delicate, surrounded only by distant strings–it plays with the major/minor key boundary, sounding like water gently burbling over rocks. “Inwreathe” is no less interested in beauty, but it’s darker in hue, more self-awarely sad. The majority of the work on Unsound is pitched in the sparse/beautiful/sad realm, making it a cohesive listen. There are flashes of light throughout, pushing through the melancholy, just enough to make the compositions feel warm instead of austere. If you’re looking for some beautiful piano compositions with a touch of experimental edge, Iván Muela’s Unsound should be up your alley.
1. “A Better Life” – Supersmall. A good-natured, walking-speed tune that gives more than it asks back from you: you don’t have to listen hard to enjoy, but there are charms for those who listen deeply to the early ’00s, Parachutes/Turin Brakes-style work.
2. “May the Stars Fall at Your Door” – Andrew Adkins. We all need an encouraging blessing every now and then–Adkins provides uplifting lyrics with an equally uplifting folk arrangement (complete with harmonica). Totally great work here.
3. “Nowhere” – Swaying Wires. Tina Karkinen’s confident vocals give a levity to this serious, acoustic-led indie-pop tune.
4. “Know It All” – Bitterheart. Brash, immediate, strum-heavy, full-throated folk-pop that marries the enthusiasm of folk-punk with the good-hearted charm of a folk-pop tune. If all their work is like this, their album’s going to be a blast.
5. “One Three Nine” – Jacob Metcalf. Fluttering, ethereal folk that stays grounded basically by force of will, a la Andrew Bird.
6. “Chandelier” – Russell Howard. This gender-flipped cover of Sia’s tune creates a stark atmosphere by modifying Howard’s vocals and putting them over a delicate guitar accompaniment and subtle percussive beat.
7. “White Light Doorway” – Florist. The band has mastered the skill of keeping a song together while lead singer Emily Sprague purposefully sounds like she’s falling apart. The tension there is beautiful and weighty.
8. “While You Stand” – Michael Nau. The wide-eyed naivete of Page France is long gone, but the absurd ease with which Nau pens a lyric and fits it to a simple guitar line persists. It hits me.
10. “Secrets” – Nick Zubeck. Laidback chill doesn’t get more laidback than this.
11. “Monde” – Stranded Horse. Fleet, powerful fingerpicking contrasts a laissez-faire vocal mood for a knotty, beautiful tune that feels like it fell out of a Wes Anderson movie somewhere.
12. “Black Gold” – Black Country. There are few substances so evocative as oil, with its viscous flow, vibrant sheen, wealth-making potential, and divisive opinion-making. Black Country spells out a narrative of the open spaces, where finding oil is the difference between emptiness of landscape and buzzing life–hanging the promise of oil over the head of a barren, windswept instrumental landscape.
13. “We’ll Get By” – The Singer and the Songwriter. One of the more un-Google-able bands working today drops a stately, moving tune that includes accordion and shuffling snare under a beautiful alto vocal melody.
14. “Wanderer’s Waltz” – Youth Policy. Here’s a wintry, stark tune composed of breathy, Elliott Smith-esque vocals, cascading fingerpicking, and a moody sense of melancholia.
15. “Ghost Blue” – Sparrows Gate. If I walked into a bar where Sparrows Gate was playing this moving, piano-driven ballad-esque tune, I hope it would be to work off a breakup instead of celebrate a success. “Gravitas” doesn’t sell it well enough.
16. “Goes Without Saying” – Melaena Cadiz. A relaxing, unspooling, wandering tune that just feels lovely.
17. “Kicking You Out” – Merival. Few things get me more than a raw, open-hearted acoustic tune with some room echo. Merival’s strong songwriting skills are on full display here, with nothing else added but some harmony vocals. As they say: all the feels.
The album art of a horseback-riding knight on a material flag was enough to pique my interest for Knight, but the 32-second-long intro of medieval monk-chanting confirmed I was listening to one of the most eccentric EPs I have ever heard. Greg Buzzer’s Knight cleverlycombines thick-cut electronic textures with material you haven’t heard since the 12th century.
Bass, vibrato, and deep vocal pauses bestow upon Knight a Renaissance feel, while electronic aspects appear later in the songs, such as the house beat in “Rise Water.” The sound of a chain clanking tugs and weighs on the percussive beast, adding a gritty, metallic lag to the tempo. For as deep and masculine as the vocals are, they fare lightly, resulting in Buzzer sounding like a singing, railway-working, grave-digging ghost. His vocals are like the lightweight, impenetrable armor Kate the blacksmith makes for Heath Ledger in A Knight’s Tale.
Speaking of A Knight’s Tale, I imagine the track “Knight” to be the pump-up song before Heath Ledger slams down his armor and raises his lance in the final jousting battle against his nemesis. The unexpected string section in the military drumline of “All the Vultures” instills a similar fiery determination and excitement. And the last track, “Oven,” as well — it hauls a serious heaviness, but adds an exotic Eastern flair with the sound of belly dancers clinking their brass finger cymbals.
“Slave to my VoDoO” has a rough, kids-I-never-hung-out-with-but-admired sensibility that reminded me of The Gorillaz. Guitar plucking and subtly-accented vocals give it an all-American, bluesy twang — an O Brother, Where Art Thou? vibe, if you will.
With phrases like, “Mother, can you hear me? / I think I got lost in the dead space / help me remember the earth,” “Mother” presents a series of attention-demanding lyrics and a battle-time drumline that gives way to a synth vortex. It sounds like a crusade of knights is about to fight an army of extraterrestrial beings.
Knight is the uncensored, enrapturing battle between musical elements from a feudal age and modern-day rock-n-roll-inspired electronica. Greg Buzzer is the rock-n-roll King Arthur. —Rachel Haney
Swedish band Muxika77’s third release, Death and the Magpie, is a difficult album to describe: there are eight songs, each one different from the rest. The overall sound of the album is both vocally and instrumentally layered–each song contains so many instruments that I don’t think I even caught all of them. Listening to Death and the Magpie is unlike anything else; it’s an experimental experience, where each track serves as a unique excursion on the journey.
The album starts off eerie-sounding with guitar quaking and screechy noises in “Agelstern Varwe.” After about a minute, the song transitions into a calmer instrumentation with what sounds like a steel-stringed guitar, an instrument often used throughout. A drumset accompanies the guitar, and Krantz’s voice joins the mix. Frontman Johan Krantz’s effortless tenor voice has tonal qualities similar to the lead singer of Fleet Foxes, yet deeper and darker. Harmonic background vocals pop in and out of the track. A collection of wonderfully ominous baritone “oh”s (also seen elsewhere: “B.Y.F.M.,” “Resan,” “Scythe, Pilatus”) splits the long track into two. Spanish-inspired guitar rhythms enter immediately after the “oh”s. The instrumentation eventually transitions into being more orchestral-heavy with multiple beautiful violins and other string instruments. The more than eight-minute-long song is nothing less than the first stretch of a journey in another world: the world of Muxika77.
The next few excursions on the trip, “B.Y.F.M.,” “Corvidae Necklace,” and “Resan” are less complex than “Agelstern Varwe,” but that does not mean that they are at all simple. “B.Y.F.M.” pairs the banjo with the violin, which makes this track’s instrumentation rather melancholic. “Corvidae Necklace” picks up at the chorus, but in general maintains a slower pace and a simpler sound. Fittingly, “Corvidae” is a term that refers to the family of birds containing crows, ravens, and rooks, etc.; the first lyric is, “I asked a blackbird to teach me/ And I listened closely when she spoke.”
“Resan,” Swedish for “trip,” takes its listeners on quite a spanish-inspired trip by highlighting both Krantz’s amazing voice and the steel-stringed guitar that sounds very flamenco-esque when accompanied by rhythmic clapping. One of my favorite moments from “Resan” is a soft moment accompanied by gentle strums of the guitar, where Krantz sings, “Goodbye for now./ We are set free.” Then the dark baritone “oh”s take over.
“Löftet, for Fardoe” is my favorite song off the album. The piano is the primary instrument for this song, although other elements such as percussion, strings and the electric guitar round out the instrumentation. The song itself has this wonderful circus-like guitar rhythm that comes at the chorus and keeps the song playful. The lyrics at the chorus are also really fun: “ We’ll keep singing / we’ll keep dancing / we’ll keep drinking.” And then, out of nowhere, a squealing guitar disrupts us midway through the song. It also repeats later on. The guitar serves as a type of antivenom that keeps the playfulness in check. Afterall, an album entitled Death and the Magpie can’t get too light.
“Scythe, Pilatus” closes out the album. Unlike the other tracks, this one begins with brass, including multiple trumpets, which echo throughout the song. Besides the intermittent brass, a pristine piano is the track’s main form of accompaniment. Pilatus is a majestic mountain in Central Switzerland, and this song sounds peaceful like a mountain, until the electric guitar explodes the track in a very rock & roll way. Those awesome deep baritone “oh’”s then close out the album.
Death And The Magpie is an experience unlike any other. Even in my explanation, I feel I fall too short. The only thing I can really say is listen and take the journey for yourself. Muxika77 will surprise you.–Krisann Janowitz
Benjamin Verdoes’ latest EP The One and the Other drips like the steady precipitation of his native Seattle. It’s melancholy and moist, with recordings of chirping birds and nighttime city sounds. Verdoes has tamed these eerie textures with soothing vocals to create a definite style of clean, concise wistfulness.
Starting with the somewhat jarring sound of a car driving by, “Highly Emotional” portrays alienation in a place that seems lively and urban. Verdoes uses dark, electronic texturing and echoing vocals to render a humanistic, raw, internal loneliness that’s imprinted on the rest of the EP.
“Night Walk” commences with a similar sound of a car kicking up rainwater from a curbside puddle, but the rhythm on this track is groovier, more dense, and bewitching. The percussion remains hauntingly steady, the synth creeps, and the whole mood is so darkly ambient, I expected to hear an owl hooting in the background.
One of the more upbeat tracks, “Above Ground,” culminates in a strange, circus vibe as the vocals soar and sweep along high notes. The mood reminded me of The Internet’s “Cocaine,” because of the similar dreamlike quality that Verdoes portrays. “It’s too beautiful to argue/You forgive me, and I’ll forgive you,” the male vocalist sings warmly. A sudden, beautiful interruption of R&B then elevates the instrumentation, and a swirl of that carnival techno pulses even harder.
Tracks such as “Is This All That We Are” and “Eight Oh Eight” are patient and calculated. “Is This All That We Are” utilizes a gorgeous touch of piano and horn, while “Eight Oh Eight” plays on bursts of vocals. But “Beautiful Dying World” is the most angelic, sounding like a big-bodied choir singing a church hymn. Strumming guitar builds up to a celestial drop, which– while not as earth shattering as an Odesza drop–has a parallel euphoric rush.
These six tracks are united in their darkly contoured style, haunting vocals and R&B tendencies, but they each offer something different in terms of tempo and shades of fragility and seriousness. The One and the Otheris an EP to digest solo, with only the rain-washed walls of your city to keep you company. —Rachel Haney
I have thoroughly enjoyed my first year writing reviews for Independent Clauses and discovering new music. The following is a list of my top five releases from what I have reviewed this year, including both full length albums and EPs. It was difficult to choose a top five since I have loved every artist I wrote about, but here are a few of my favorites.
Paul Doffing – Songs from the (quaking) Heart(Review) Paul Doffing’s heartfelt release is, simply put, beautiful. As soon as I turn the album on, I feel so deeply that it almost brings me to tears every time. Not only the lyrics but the very instrumentation of Songs from the (quaking) heart exude raw emotion. Every time I listen, the album inspires me to go out to nature and write or paint.
Jeremy Bass – New York in Spring (Review) This EP is quite a unique cup of tea, and I love it. Bass’ New York in Spring oozes the kind of whimsy that can brighten any day. My favorite track from the EP, “Work,” showcases the album’s bossa nova flair while containing a string of brilliantly crafted lyrics that sardonically comment on our relationship with the inevitable: work.
The Lowest Pair- The Sacred Heart Sessions(Review) I remember the days when anything close to country music was something I did not listen to. Now, I find myself giddy over minimalist bluegrass album The Sacred Heart Sessions. Kendl Winter and Palmer T. Lee might be one of the best vocal pairings I have ever heard.
Tidelands- Old Mill Park(Review) This EP also effortlessly interweaves both male and female vocals throughout. Yet, the unique mix of classical and rock instrumentation is really what makes this collection stand out. Every song has a distinctly different sound from the next. I shared a few of these tracks with my picky husband, and he loved them all.
Thayer Sarrano- Shaky(Review) Hauntingly beautiful really is the best phrase to describe this album. This is yet another album that makes me feel deeply just from the instrumentation. Sarrano’s vocals and lyrics leave me truly awed. Shaky’s southern gothic sound makes me a little bit uncomfortable in the best way; in my opinion, the best art does.–Krisann Janowitz
1. “The Itch” – Brother O’ Brother. Stripping some of the Black Keys-esque arena-rock sheen from their guitar-and-drums approach ends up with a raging, distortion-laden tune that has The White Stripes on speed-dial. Ka-pow.
2. “The Dusty Song” – Sebastian Brkic. Brkic creates a swooping, diving panorama that relies just as much on creaky-voiced MeWithoutYou-style indie-rock as it does acoustic material.
3. “Ridiculous” – Mleo. Surprising vocal and instrumental range make this an impressive rock tune.
4. “Salvo” – CFIT. Serious music that reaches for the seriousness of Radiohead, the swirling development of shoegaze, some airy aesthetics of chillwave, and an overall sense that none of those influences take away from the inventiveness of the work.
5. “What’s Pesto” – The River Fane. Ominous clicking and clacking undergird this menacing, pondering, powerful indie rock track that’s anchored by thunderous piano chords and wavering vocals a la Thom Yorke.
6. “Rubbernecking” – Frog. Fresh off their triumphant Kind of Blah, Frog re-released their debut. This track points toward the ragged enthusiasm and vocal intricacies that made the guitar rock of KOB such a charm.
7. “End of Something” – Febria. This tunes’ an omnivorous beast, as prog, math-rock, laid-back ’70s psych, jazz, and guitar heroics blend together into a mindbending stew. It’s not as hectic as The Mars Volta, but it’s maybe in the zipcode next door.
8. “Golden Threads From the Sun (excerpt)” – yndi halda. This bit of a tune from a larger post-rock work points to the scope at which yndi halda feels comfortable: massive. As such, there are some group vocals, Sigur Ros-like distortion explosions and frantic drums, strings, and generally all manner of thing going on. Here’s to maximalist post-rock.
9. “Thank You For Your Time” – Citizen Shade. Soulful and dramatic, this piano-led romp starts off quiet and ramps way up.
Instead of writing new blurbs for each of these albums, I’m going to let the reviews stand as my comments about each of them except the album of the year. Since I had so many EPs on my EPs of the year list, there are less than my standard 20 albums of the year this year.
Album of the Year: Worn Out Skin – Annabelle’s Curse. (Review) This album came out of nowhere and established itself as a standard component of my listening life. It fits on the shelf right next to Josh Ritter and The Barr Brothers in terms of maturity of songwriting, lyrical depth, beauty, and overall engagement. Each of the songs here have their own charms, which is rare for an album: this one will keep you interested the whole way through. It’s a complete album in every sense of the word, and so it was the easy choice for album of the year.
1. “Mirrors” – Mos Eisley. Triumphant folk-pop that’s exciting without going over the top into cliche.
2. “Glow” – The National Parks. Big instrumental melodies, lots of instruments, charming vocal melodies, subtle-enough-to-not-be-gimmicky underlying electronic beats; this folky indie song is just a blast.
3. “Vintage – High Dive Heart. Throw technicolor girl pop, white rap, a banjo, and folk-pop harmonies in a blender and you get out this enigmatically engaging song. This song doesn’t make any sense to me in so many ways and yet I love it. It just works. Amazing.
4. “Ancient Burial Ground” – Kye Alfred Hillig. Hillig gives us the demos of his new album before it’s released, and you can color me excited: this tune and the handful of others that come with it are chipper musically and intricate lyrically, just like his best work. Watch for Great Falls Memorial Interchange in 2016.
5. “Canada” – Nikki Gregoroff. “The people are nice cross the border,” sings Gregoroff, which is just a really nice thing to write into a Simon and Garfunkel-esque tune.
6. “Chantilly Grace” – Granville Automatic. Bell-clear female vocals lead this tune that looks back to vintage Americana (that fiddle!) and forward to modern alt-country melodies.
7. “Bliss Mill” – Matthew Carter. The laid-back chill vibe and unhurried vocals of Alexi Murdoch meets the shuffle-snare of traditional country/folk for a memorable tune.
8. “Set Sail” – Matt Monoogian. Monoogian’s calm voice leads this acoustic track with an intricate arrangement that pulls the Gregory Alan Isakov trick of feeling both comfortingly small and confidently big.
9. “Bentonville Blues” – Adam Hill. A protest song for the modern day working poor, Hill captures the everyman ethos with great delivery of relatable lyrics, simpple arrangement of singalong melodies, and a the burned-but-not-killed mentality similar to old-time protest work songs.
10. “Itasca County” – Rosa del Duca. The frontman of folk outfit hunters. releases her own album of singer/songwriter tunes that focus on her voice and lyrics, both of which are in fine form on this rolling, harmonica-splashed tune.
11. “Tongue Tied” – Oktoba. That space between soul, folk, and singer/songwriter keeps getting more populated: let in Oktoba, whose offering isn’t as overtly sensuous as some but is just as romantic (and hummable)!
12. “The Blue” – David Porteous. Canadian Porteous beautifully splits the difference between two UK singer/songwriters here by invoking Damien Rice’s sense of intense romantic intimacy and David Gray’s widescreen pop arrangements.
13. “Whirlpool Hymnal” – Matthew Squires and the Learning Disorders. Squires expands his yearning, searching alt-folk to include found sounds–the lyrics are just as thought-provoking and honest as ever.
14. “Playground” – Myopic. The fragile swoon of a violin bounces off the stately plunk of melodic percussion in this thoughtful instrumental piece.
15. “Siphoning Gas” – Luke Redfield. This gentle, ambient soundscape is the sound of looking out the window when rain is coming down and you don’t have to go anywhere or do anything but cuddle up with a blanket and a book in a big bay window and enjoy it.
The number of things Deep Elm Records has been over the past 21 years is impressive: an upstart label of emo bands before they were cool, the premier emo label in the world, an elite indie-rock label, the source for some of the finest post-rock in the game, and now a hub of dramatic piano-led music (and some dramatic acoustic-guitar-led folk-rock, too). Their last incarnation stems from their continued support of the great Carly Comando and the new signing of Inward Oceans, a “post-rock” trio that spends most of its time working its magic on a single piano.
There are moments of full-band development to augment the sonorous sound (“Homecoming,” “Amelioration,” “Fields of White”), but the majority of the sounds on Paths from Home are intricate, slowly-unfolding single note patterns that tend toward the left end of the keyboard (like “Consequences”). This creates a full, round sound that maximizes the melodic lines of the tunes instead of cluttering it with high-pitched trills or other development. Even when there is more of a post-rock arrangement around a tune, the arrangement tends to be atmospheric and mood-building (“A Road Inside,” “Fields of White”) than creating soft-loud transitions (although “Homecoming” and to a lesser extent “Fields of White” do employ kit drums to this effect). The pieces here are calming and pensive–not melancholy, exactly, nor as enthusiastic as Comando’s work. Instead, Inward Oceans is exploring mid-tempo beauty, moving closer to modern/contemporary classical work in comparison than post-rock. The focus is on beauty, and they succeed with Paths from Home.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.