Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

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

August 30, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Jonah Project: Shiver-inducing emo-rock

August 29, 2016

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

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

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

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

August MP3s: Loud / Quiet / Loud

August 28, 2016

1. “New Moon” – Namesayers. The lead guitar here is angular, cranky, and brittle, contrasting against the swirling, low-key psychedelia laid down by the rest of instruments and Devin James Fry’s mystical croon. It makes for an intriguing rock that sounds like midnight in the desert with a big bonfire going. (Which is pretty much what the title and the album art convey, so this one has its imagery and soundscapes really tight in line.)

2. “O Zephyr” – Ptarmigan. It’s tough to be a serious alt-folk band without sounding over-earnest or overly ironic. Ptarmigan finds the perfect center, where it sounds like a bunch of people who love folk and have something to say are making their noise how they want. Fans of River Whyless, Fleet Foxes (often violators of the over-earnest, but nonetheless), and Barr Brothers will enjoy this.

3. “Axolotl” – Lord Buffalo. Lord Buffalo specializes in primal, pounding, apocalyptic pieces that build from small beginnings to terrifying heights. This is an A+ example of the form.

4. “A Miracle Mile” – St. Anthony and the Mystery Train. Equally apocalyptic as above, but in a more Southern Gothic, Nick Cave, howl-and-clatter style of indie-rock than the all-out-sonic assault. A wild ride.

5. “Spring” – Trevor Ransom. A tone-poem of a piece, illustrating the arrival of spring with found sounds, distant vocals, and confident piano.

6. “Not Enough” – Sunjacket. This inventive indie-rock song draws sounds and moods from all over the place, creating a distinct, unique vibe. There’s some Age of Adz weirdness, some Grizzly Bear denseness, some giant synth clouds, and more.

7. “Bushwick Girl” – CHUCK. A goofy, loving parody of NYC’s hippest hipsters in appropriately creaky, nasally, quirky indie-pop style.

8. “Ghost” – Mood Robot. Chillwave meets ODESZA-style post-dub with some pop v/c/v work for good measure. It’s a great little electro-pop tune.

9. “Da Vinci” – Jaw Gems. All the swagger, strut, stutter, and stomp of hip-hop and none of the vocals. Impressive.

10. “Disappearing Love” – Night Drifting. If the National’s high drama met the Boss’s roots rock, you’d end up with something like this charging tune with a huge conclusion.

11. “Black and White Space” – Delamere. Britpop from Manchester with a catchy vocal hook and subtle instrumentation that comes together really nicely.

12. “Plastic Flowers” – Poomse. Predictions of human doom over crunchy guitars give way to a densely-layered indie-rock track with claustrophobia-inducing horns. If you’re into Mutemath or early ’00s emo (non-twinkly variety), you’ll find some footholds here.

13. “Lake, Steel, Oil” – Basement Revolver. There’s something hypnotic about Chrisy Hurn plaintively singing her heart out as if there isn’t a howling wall of distortion raging around her.

August Singles: Acoustic

August 27, 2016

1. “The Devil Bird” – Albert af Ekenstam. An unhurried, expansive acoustic-led song reminiscent of Leif Vollebekk or Gregory Alan Isakov’s work.

2. “The Beast That Rolls Within” – Dietrich Strause. A troubadour’s confident vocals, abstract lyrics, and gently rolling guitar make Strause an artist to watch in the vein of Joe Pug and Josh Ritter. This song is excellent.

3. “I Love Immigration” – This Frontier Needs Heroes. Refocuses the talk of immigration by pointing out that unless you’re a Native American, literally everyone in this country is the relative of an immigrant. As Brad Lauretti and I are both descended from Italian immigrants, I felt a special resonance with this charming, shuffling, upbeat acoustic pop tune with a deeply important message.

4. “Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin” – The Chairman Dances. The finely detailed lyrics of the Mountain Goats paired with indie-pop that has a wider range, from dreamier at one end to more formal and Beatles-esque at the other. But there’s still a great “hey!” thrown in. Always a good yawp, you know. Highly recommended.

5. “A Lonely Road” – Jordan O’Jordan. It’s hard to make rattling banjo chords sound delicate, but O’Jordan’s oh-so-sweet voice tempers the rough edges and creates a warm, immersive song. (Toss-up on the “ahs” section: some people are going to think it’s lovely, and some are going to wonder what just happened. Just so you know.)

6. “Fingers Crossed” – The Marrieds. Bright, clear, female-led acoustic-pop with a little more Americana than the Weepies but not as much as the Civil Wars. It’s remarkably pretty, especially when the strings come in. You could dance to this at a wedding.

7. “Suite pour Justin” – Yves Lambert Trio. Traditional Quebecois folk music includes accordion, fiddle, guitar and percussion, in case you (like me) didn’t know. It sounds sort of like a mix of bluegrass and Zydeco, which is incredibly rad. The rest of the album includes vocals in French; this one’s instrumental. The musical quality is elite, so if you’re an adventurous listener I would highly recommend checking the whole album out.

8. “Generation, Love” – Jon Reynolds. Doo-wop, Beach Boys harmonies, and old-school rock’n’roll vibes come together to be pleasantly, nostalgically retro, while yearning for love instead of hate (a very modern concern).

9. “How Quickly Your Heart Mends” – Courtney Marie Andrews. This woman has the female version of Jason Isbell’s voice. I kid you not: the stress on certain syllables, the swoops in volume, the vocal strain on the fronts of lines…it’s all there. It’s awesome. The songwriting is a great trad-country vibe, but whoa. That voice. Check this out.

10. “Brink of Love (ft. Ladysmith Black Mambazo)” – Vian Izak. While we’re on the topic of love, why not indulge in a adult alternative acoustic tune that includes a hugely famous African choir? (You may know them from Graceland, only one the best albums of all time.)

11. “The Other Side” – VACAY. A romantic folk-pop song with some solid falsetto; a little less Lumineers and a little more adult alternative.

12. “the fall” – Andrea Silva. Somewhere between haunting and lilting, Silva’s vocal performance is an enigmatic, engaging figure over an acoustic guitar.

Two Countrymen: The Hasslers / Will Bennett and The Tells

August 24, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JPH – Songs of Loss

August 22, 2016

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

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

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

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

Daniel G. Harmann: Occupying a Distinctive Songwriting Space

August 20, 2016

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Daniel G. Harmann has been recording, solo or with previous band The Trouble Starts, for the last 15 years. It is not surprising that Slowing Down spends time exploring and investigating the intricacies of the sound he’s created over that time span. His early days as a lushly-orchestrated indie rock songwriter meet his crunchy guitar side and mingle with the sparseness he cultivated all along the way. What results is a thought-provoking album of distinctive indie rock.

Harmann’s most distinctive feature is his voice: he has a sonorous tenor that swoops, swoons, quavers, and warbles elegantly. He is fond of rapid interval leaps and drops in his vocal lines, which gives his melodies an inherently dramatic quality. In his early work (The Books We Read Will Bury Us), the songs were built around these giant moments, but here Harmann integrates his vocal stylings into the arrangements much more. Opener “Carbondale” buries his voice in a shoegaze-like way under a barrage of percussion and synthetic sonic haze, but that’s an extreme case. “Hesitations” is as much about the martial stomp of the drums and synth as it is his voice; the melancholy of “Volition” is powered equally by the guitar performance and his pipes.

That trio of tunes holds down the rock end of the spectrum here; on the other end lie delicate tunes “Dues,” “Zocalo” and “Tectonic.” Harmann has always shown an affinity for the acoustic guitar and has often released guitar and voice songs (Westroy Sessions); here he’s polished those skills to a shine. But Harmann’s acoustic songs are not standard singer/songwriter fare. The unique vocal melodies he is fond of give the work surprising twists and turns. “Dues” is as pretty a song as Harmann has penned in his long career, challenging my personal favorite “Last Swim of the Year” for the crown.

The central piece of the album is “Endless,” which brings together his rock interests and his beauty-minded writing in one package. It starts off with a brittle, distorted slice of guitar work before dropping into mid-tempo minor-key rock. His voice soars over the guitar twice: once as lead, once as ethereal backup. The ghostly vocals usher the transition from the minor-key verses to the major-key “chorus,” where the gritty guitar returns with a bright, muscly, uplifting vibe. It strongly echoes early ’00s Deep Elm Records work, like the White Octave, Appleseed Cast, and the like. After the chorus, the guitar fluctuates again, sending the song out on a chunky, powerful riff and repeating square synth. It’s breathtaking, showcasing the nuance and thoughtfulness that can come from 15+ years in the game. It’s a bit noisier than his early work, but there’s a direct line between then and now in this tune.

If you’re into serious indie-rock, Slowing Down should be on your to-hear list. Harmann has spent years tweaking and refining his sound, creating a distinct sonic space for himself. Those interested in clear, strong songwriting voices will have much to celebrate in Slowing Down. 

Sean Duncan’s Impressive Debut

August 18, 2016

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Sean Duncan’s first solo release Saturated Diluted is a surprising blend of acoustic and electronic elements. Some tracks (“Vultures With Human Hands”) show a heavy ‘80s electronic influence, while others (“The Story of Betty”) give off more acoustic/singer-songwriter vibes. Nevertheless, Saturated Diluted maintains a consistent aesthetic with the beauty of Duncan’s vocals and lyrics.

The instrumentation of Saturated Diluted is unexpected; each track has a sound all its own. The first track, “Everything is Sinking Pt 1,” sets the groundwork from which the album then takes off. The song feels very typical singer/songwriter at its start, with heavy use of the acoustic guitar. Yet, as the song progresses, more electronic elements are introduced. At about three-quarters into the track, there’s a quick build to an explosion of sound with the addition of the drums and electric guitar. Long-forgotten are the acoustic vibes from the beginning of the track. From that eclectic beginning, each song that follows goes off in its own direction.

The final track of the album, “Everything is Sinking Pt 2,” opens with spacey synth sounds and is quickly paired with the electric guitar. The track continues in this way until almost 2 minutes in, where everything fades away. We are left with the acoustic guitar and vocals, which doesn’t last very long. Once the chorus arrives, a heavily percussive outburst of sound takes over with the lyrics, “Everything is sinking … Everything is dying”.  (At this point in the track, I really wish I had better speakers to get the full effect.) Towards the track’s end, the explosive instrumentation slowly fades away as the acoustic guitar closes out the song. The album could not be ended any better.

Along with the diverse instrumentation, the crisp vocals and thoughtful lyrics glue the album together. Sean Duncan’s voice has the tonal qualities of Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard. The clarity of Duncan’s voice enables listeners easy access to the lyrics of the album. “The Story of Betty” provides the best example of the beautiful, raw lyrics. The track tells the story a lonely woman “all by herself / with just her thoughts / to keep her company”. As the song progresses, we find out that a man that was coming to meet her arrives and the song closes with the lyric– “he kisses her goodnight/ as he pulls her finger from/ the trigger.” It is unclear whether that means Betty committed suicide, and the ambiguous nature of the lyrics serve to make it even more poetic. The primarily acoustic guitar instrumentation pairs well with the thought-provoking lyrics.

Sean Duncan’s self- written, recorded, mixed and mastered album Saturated Diluted is an impressive combination of unique sounds, solid vocals, and gripping lyrics.–Krisann Janowitz

Al Scorch: Ragged, rowdy, frantic, immediate

August 14, 2016

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Al Scorch‘s Circle Round the Signs combines country-rave-up fervor, frantic banjo playing, and an assured sense of melody that creates one of the most immediate, electric offerings I’ve heard all year.

Opener “Pennsylvania Turnpike” is a madcap 2:21 that feels even shorter than that, as Scorch blazes his way through the tune with barely-contained abandon. If you miss the ragged, rowdy first four Avett Brothers records, you’ll have found a new best friend by the time that “Everybody Out” makes it to your ears: Scorch’s unhinged voice manages to make klezmer music even more vital than it already intrinsically is. (Potentially because this klezmer outfit contains a bone-rattling banjo.) If you’re not convinced, the wild, staccato, who-cares-about-time-signatures center of “Want One” could not be closer to a lost Mignonette song–in the best way possible. It pains me a little to think how many banjo strings Scorch goes through. (But only a little–never change.)

Scorch does have a balladeer hiding inside himself: “Lonesome Low” is a swaying singalong with female vocals and an unforgettable vocal melody, while “City Lullaby” is exactly what it sounds like. And these songs are definitely great, but it’s the rocket-speed approach to songwriting that is the real treasure here. After the ballads, we get “Slipknot” (an old-time band on uppers) and closer “Love After Death” (an album highlight that combines his frantic approach with a real sense of loss over friends that have died). Scorch can slow down, but he’s at his best when he’s blazing. If you’re into any sort of acoustic music, this is a must-hear. Highly recommended.

Young Mister: Breezy, expansive, and effortless

August 10, 2016

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Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism was an important guide in my transition from pop-punk to indie-rock (and then, via “Passenger Seat,” to acoustic music). I pulled it out earlier this summer to find that it sounds more like a pop-rock record than I remember. The songs are in no way diminished, but they feel noisier than I wanted them to be–I was looking for the distinctively indie-pop set of aesthetics (soft sounds, crisp edges, less clang, more clatter). But it’s an indie-pop-rock record, probably one of the best. We can get into a discussion of power-pop (early Weezer) vs. indie-pop-rock (Tokyo Police Club), but the point is that Young Mister‘s self-titled indie-pop-rock record feels like the direct successor to Gibbard et al’s masterpiece work, from its breezy California milieu, expansive take on indie-pop, and straightforward-yet-arresting lyrics.

Young Mister blasts put of the starting gate with “The Best Thing,” where Stephen Fiore marshals a sunshiny a.m. radio guitar radio riff, bouncy bass, and wryly honest vocal delivery to apologize for oversleeping his girlfriend’s hour of need: “I heard your car stalled on the interstate / I hope you got where you were going.” The chorus is a bubble of air breaking the surface, a rush of horns and lightness after the restrained verses. “Would It Kill You” and “Pasadena” continue this chipper, breezy pop vibe; the tunes pop out of the speakers with clarity and confidence. The deft hand with which oft-subtle musical and emotional shifts is handled shows Fiore as a songwriter with great skills. The shifts also echo the great sweeps of “Tiny Vessels,” “We Looked Like Giants,” and even “Transatlanticism” itself.

Elsewhere the tunes tend toward the expansive rather than the speedy, just as in its predecessor album: “Sound of Settling” is the single, but “Title and Registration” is the home base. Fiore gives “Would It Kill You” and “Take Me Away” some edge to keep things fresh into the album’s depths, but the composure of quieter tunes like “American Dream Come True,” “Carolina,” and “Everything Has Its Place” makes them shine brightest. “American Dream Come True” is a mid-tempo pop song with beautiful guitar work, a lovely vocal performance, and a devastating lyrical turn. It recalls Fountains of Wayne’s more pensive work. “Carolina” is a rueful, mourning break-up tune, wishing a lost lover the best. The sonic palette isn’t that different from “American Dream,” but the distinctive, anthemic chorus moves it into “songs other people might want to cover” territory. Dropping everything to its bare bones,”Everything Has Its Place” creates a floating world couched in delicate reverb, very precise melodies, and a deep sense of romanticism. It’s as if the sparseness of “Lightness” and the emotional ballast of “Transatlanticism” were merged into one daydreamy tune.

The lyrical punch of “American Dream Come True” is not an isolated incident: Fiore is an excellent lyricist. He’s as comfortable singing about “the fucked-up systems that failed you now” (“Would It Kill You”) as he is petitioning Christ for grace (“Carolina”) and sighing at the incredible effort of dating when you’re not in your early ’20s anymore (“Take Me Away,” “Anybody Out There”). His turns of phrase are clever, his topics are more than your standard stock, and his work is highly polished. But the lyrics don’t stray into the esoteric or the hyper-specific; he grounds his lyrics firmly in well-observed and carefully described experience. It’s the rare indie-pop-rock album that can add to the quality of the album with the lyrical effort, but Fiore has certainly done that here.

Young Mister is so carefully and meticulously crafted that it doesn’t show any of the seams. An immense amount of effort went into making indie-pop-rock songs that sound effortless and natural. You can sing along with these songs, write the lyrics on your bedroom wall, or just let the experience wash over you–all the things that my friends and I did with Transatlanticism. Whatever you choose to do, you should start by giving the album a thorough listen. Fans of pop music won’t be disappointed. I’ll be spinning this one for a long time. Highly recommended.

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

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