Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Late February Singles

February 27, 2017

1. “Ich Cetera” – Austin Stahl. There’s not as much instrumental indie-rock in the world as I would like. This entry in the genre is a road-tripping song, a friendly and adventurous little tune underpinned by a stable drumline and guitar strum pattern. The Nick Drake-esque piano line is lovely as well.

2. “Retro Kid” – Retro Kid. “It comes into my head / the need to dance” is the refrain on this sleek, low-slung electro-pop gem. If all electro-dance were as slinky and winding, I might be out at the club more often. (And by the club, I mean “me in my living room, playing electro-pop at full blast”.)

3. “Stuck Between” – Klara Zubonja. An almost overwhelmingly twee introduction opens into an exuberant indie-pop track that’s a cross between the sass of Lily Allen, the coy subtlety of Regina Spektor, and the punchy arrangements of Ingrid Michaelson.

4. “Be Here Now” – Annabelle’s Curse. Genre-busting indie outfit Annabelle’s Curse returns with a song that, well, busts genres. There’s some alt-country, some indie-pop, some grungy indie-rock, and more crammed into this flowing, atypical song structure. Viva la invention.

5. “Pocketknife” – The Anchor Collective. The vocal melodies are front and center in this indie rock track, as not even a crunchy guitar section can take my ear away from the comforting, comfortable melodies that play out over the mostly-dreamy arrangement.

6. “Beth” – Paul Whitacre. Every now and then a song comes along that jumps out of the pack and says, “Listen to me!” This folk-pop tune with country guitar leads is a breath of fresh air in a crowded field, from the lovely melodies to the deft arrangement to the carefully organized lyrics to the immaculate production job. This is top-shelf work, people. Jump on it.

7. “Memorial Day” – Palm Ghosts. Dawes-esque Americana meets REM-style ’90s guitar-rock jangle in the sonic equivalent of a well-worn, trusty jacket. You may not have heard this song before, but it will feel familiar and great as soon as you do.

8. “Rosanna” – Mike Llerena. This song has punk rock vocal tone and melodies, doo-wop rhythms, and alt-country guitar tone. All three of those genres have heart-on-sleeve tendencies, and they’re on full display here in this “sad, spurned lover” lyric set. If you’re into 500 Miles to Memphis, you’ll be all up on this.

9. “Savior’s Hand” – Colin Onderdonk. Powerful vocals and a spartan arrangement consisting almost entirely of rumbling toms and wiry string bass creates a sonic environment that mirrors the lyrics that describe a weary traveler in an ominous, dangerous land.

10. “The Conversation of the Street Lights Will Pass as Quickly as Our Words” – The Bowling Alley Sound. This stuttering, wide-eyed, major-key post rock tune includes burbling guitars, soaring bass work, evocative (and high quality) found sound / spoken word clips, and a delightful sense of motion through the whole piece. Fans of The Album Leaf, Delicate Steve, Adebisi Shank, and other major-key post-rock will find much to love in this.

11. “The Naked Mind” – Ryan Svendsen. I’ve never heard a piece composed entirely of looped, layered trumpet lines and percussion. The trumpet is naturally an instrument prone to brash melodies, long melodic runs, and alternation between mellow and sharp tones, and all of that is on display here. There’s a hypnotic groove to the piece through the repetition of the theme that is only increased by the eruption of the percussion partway through. Adventurous listeners: rejoice!

12. “Himalaya” – Klangriket. By including lots of atmospheric, foley-type sounds, this song becomes both a minimalist soundtrack and the movie it is scoring. It’s a distinct, unique, very adventurous sonic experience that blends classical, post-rock, found sound, and soundtracks together.

Early February Singles: Folk and Pop

February 14, 2017

Folk and Pop

1. “Sun” – Cavegreen. Stomping toms, dense synths, heavily reverbed guitar squalls, and feathery female vocals drop this piece into a triangle between synth-pop, folk-pop, and earthy new-age work. It’s an impressive, unique sound.

2. “Back to Life” – Mama Ghost. It’s got a folk-pop chassis, but the engine is “Lean On”-levels of pop catchiness and chanting vocal hooks and the paint job is a sweet whistling hook. If this were the type of thing that was on the radio, I’d be listening to the radio more.

3. “Hold Us Together” – WILD. I am pretty sure I will always have room in my heart for an anthemic folk-pop song featuring group vocals, big melodies, clapping, and thumping tom hits.

4. “February” – Smith and Thell. These Swedes meld the soaring drama of Irish folk melodies (that fiddle!), the stomp-and-clap enthusiasm of folk-pop, and the soulful piano of Hozier-style work to come up with a bold, very catchy sound.

5. “Ghosts” – Mara Simpson. Theremin is a really cool concept, but it has to be used really well to connect with me. Simpson here implements long notes held by the instrument to contribute an eerie cast to a singer/songwriter tune.

6. “Portraits” – Runabay. Hypnotic, jangly guitar meets swooping cello and layers of percussion and vocals to create a thick, full sound. The jaunty violin melody at the very end seals the deal.

7. “What a Life” – Ziegler Co. Old-timey acoustic pop is a tough thing to pull off without sounding cheesy, but Ziegler Co. keep things simple enough that the vintage songcraft doesn’t sound cliche. Instead, it’s recognizable and smile-inducing.

8. “Cheap Words” – The Bergamot. Songs with a lounge-singer vibe usually aren’t mining a deep emotional vein, but this one is an exception. Fans of Josh Rouse, Josh Radin or Josh Ritter will find that the gentle vibraphone, male/female duet, and subtle groove create an engaging emotional experience that is right up their alley. The glitchy, unexpected coda makes the track even more exciting.

9. “Border Town” – Boom Gallows. A bed of dreamy pad synths; muted, trumpeting synths; rattling percussion; and casual guitar strum allows the female vocals to mosey through a environment that sounds as if Braids had gone acoustic. It’s a lovely, lush experience without being over-produced or overwhelming.

10. “Brother Mars” – L-Space. Here’s a tender, wide-eyed song depicting what it would be like emotionally to live on Mars. The vocal melodies and harmonies mesh wonderfully with the lyrics to create a real sense of wonder.

11. “Get Physical” – PEP. I’m not usually a fan of spoken word in pop songs, but the chorus here is so much fun that it’s hard to resist. Fans of Grouplove will be all into this.

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Quick Hit: Lights & Motion / Jake McKelvie / Tim Carr

February 13, 2017

Lights & Motion‘s Dear Avalanche delivers more of the high-drama, major-key post-rock that composer Christoffer Franzen has come to be known for. Fans of this style of post-rock already know what to expect from a Lights & Motion album, and Franzen does not disappoint: there are a lot of delicate melodies that grow into giant codas, big explosions of sound, and pounding percussion.

There are a few new touches (or old touches with new emphasis): Vocals appear in standout “Silver Lining,” which will appeal to fans of Sigur Ros; “Perfect Symmetry” includes some intriguing patterned piano playing; “DNA” is a stomping, aggressive minor-key piece. Beyond these small changes, Franzen sticks to what works: closer “We Only Have Forever” opens with a celebratory guitar melody underpinned by punchy drums and big pad synths, then grows to a giant, revelatory conclusion. Fans of enthusiastic, cinematic post-rock will find much to love in Dear Avalanche. 

Deep Elm, in celebration of the release, has given me ten free Download Codes to give away to IC readers! The codes can be redeemed at their website! They are first-come, first-serve, so get ’em while they’re hot: 9375-xvkd , nd5f-v8th , wq6v-gruv , cg37-ulj9 , e2da-ej8t , 8lq8-ugb7 , tc83-eu4v , vj9y-wvyp , 792n-x82n , v2lv-jrxj . If you find a code is taken, try another one, till they’re all gone.

Jake McKelvie‘s The Rhinestone Busboy EP is an alt-country record mostly because of the tone in which he sings and the lyrics he pairs with his traditional, spartan country arrangements. If McKelvie had a baritone drawl, this would be pretty close to vintage country. Instead, McKelvie’s voice is a wobbly tenor, and his lyrics include lines like “‘Cause I flat-out can’t kiss you with food in my mouth” and “I’m a brutal believer, you’re a tongue-tied late teether.” There’s a tension between these two elements, with neither the “alt” or the “country” winning out.

Instead of sounding goofy or unrealistic, McKelvie’s slightly warped delivery and alternately quirky/incisive lyrics are lent gravitas by the precise guitar strum and subtle arrangements. The results are a set of tunes that sound like a usually-cheery person trying to cope with a broken heart, trying to be mature about things but really just not wanting to. Like this set of lines from standout “Fantasy Team”: “And it’s time for me to leave / To practice my cursive and eat lots of ice cream  / And buy a new weight set to leave / In the box that it comes in and draft my new fantasy team.” Pretty real, man. If you’re not into stark alt-country, these six tunes may all sound similar; but if you’re a card-carrying sad-song-person, this one will be a great friend in your next sad-song-binge.

Side projects can be confusing whims, cross-genre experimentations, or weird one-off collaborations. They can also be unhurried, easygoing works that reveal new facets of musicians.

Tim Carr‘s The Last Day of Fighting has that unhurried ease in spades. His indie-pop/folk album has overtones of French pop in the meandering vocal melodies, airy guitars, and lazy rhythms; these together create a short album that’s relaxing to listen to.  “Easy for Me” is not just a fitting title to add on such a flowing album, it’s a standout tune that sees Carr’s room-echo vocal performance mesh beautifully with a rolling, tumbling acoustic guitar performance. Carr’s sleepy-around-the-edges tenor recalls Paul Simon’s at times in this Simon and Garfunkel-esque tune. “Beyond You” and “The Last Day of Fighting” also show off his folky bonafides, while “Kindred One” has some rhythmic alterations that give the tune a different, slightly African feel.

No matter what track you’re listening to on The Last Day of Fighting, you’re sure to hear some relaxing, enjoyable acoustic music. Lots to love here.

Early February Singles: Folk

Folk

1. “Hollow” – Musketeer. Control of line length is a very fine skill that is deeply under-appreaciated when thinking about what makes a song good. But Musketeer’s careful control of where words start and end, how many syllables get in a line, and how long each syllable should be held give this a very distinct air. His lovely vocal tone and deft, airy arrangement help as well, but it’s those vocal lines that make this the excellent track it is.

2. “Blue” – Ziegler Co. The glockenspiel (kalimba? so hard to tell sometimes) that opens this track sets the stage for a beautiful back-porch rumination that I could listen to on loop for a very long time.

3. “Marjorie” – Reddening West. The almost-reverent, elegaic arrangement to this folk tune creates a gorgeous frame for mournful vocals. Fans of Blind Pilot and The Low Anthem should latch on.

4. “Beggar Woman” – Eden Hana. Hana makes dusky, soulful magic here with nothing but two female vocalists and a banjo.

5. “Tall Towers” – Wolfcryer. Matt Baumann’s baritone and incredible way with melodies make him one of my favorite troubadour-style folk singers. Wolfcryer will donate all the proceeds from this particular political tune to the ACLU.

6. “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” – Hayde Bluegrass Orchestra. This is a moving, arresting version of the traditional spiritual. The non-traditional part: Hayde Bluegrass Orchestra is from Norway.

7. “Waltz” – Andrea Silva. The vocal tone and performance here grab me and don’t let go for the duration of the four-minute singer/songwriter tune.

8. “Dalliance” – Ziegler Co. Impressive three-part harmonies give this good-natured acoustic track a sunshiny cast.

9. “Dance Dance” – No Ninja Am I. Somewhere between the forlorn serenity of Sufjan’s Michigan, the mystical side of Simon and Garfunkel, and the William Fitzsimmons’ subtle depths of emotion lies this beautiful track.

10. “New York” – Passing Pines. I love a good brushed snare, and that particular percussion style underpins a rolling, expansive, pastoral folk track. It sounds like a peaceful walk through a breezy, bright forest. (Not the dark, thick ones of Fleet Foxes tracks.)

11. “Alice” – Timid, the Brave. Some songwriters know how to combine a vocal melody, an arrangement, and production job to create maximum gravitas. This mature, fully-realized folk mosey makes me feel like Timid, the Brave could be a great opener on a The Barr Brothers, Josh Ritter, and Alexi Murdoch super-tour. Check the lovely, distant trumpet.

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Early February Singles: Indie Rock

February 12, 2017

Indie Rock

1. “Holy Moly” – The Forgotten Man. This super-charged indie-rock tune has the whoa-ohs of street punk, the thrashing drums of a rock band, and country touches in the vocals. Yet there remains an overall sense that this could have been a folk tune at one point, albeit in a slower tempo. It’s a blast to hear lead singer Wilson Getchell belt out, “HOOOO-lllly MOOOO-llllyyyyy” in the chorus.

2. “Spring” – The Shifts. Manages to bring together the “bum-bum-da-da-da”s of indie-pop, the melancholy arrangements of minor-key indie-rock and the fury of post-rock vocals together into one eclectic, electrifying, impressive whole.

3. “Bravo Sierra” – Glories. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel to make it work really well: here’s some Explosions in the Sky-style, controlled-chaos post-rock, complete with thrashing drums, soaring guitar leads, crunchy distortion, and memorable melodies you can hum along to.

4. “Sea Six” – Datura Daydream. This nearly-nine-minute journey starts off a post-rock piece, then transitions into a driving rock piece with classic-rock tones in the guitar; the murky, distant, heavily reverbed vocals add more texture. The bass then gets in on the action with a bass solo. Then it’s back to post-rock guitar screaming, followed up by some more rock, then some post-metal. Radness.

5. “Thunderbolts I Scatter” – The Angelus. The tag on the Angelus’ work is “Dark Hymnal Slowcore,” which sort of gets at the spirit of the thing, if not the sonics of it. The Angelus is equal parts post-rock (in stormy instrumental fury) and indie rock (via Emil Rapstine’s Nick Cave-esque, occasionally apocalyptic howl and some slightly dialed-back instrumentals in places). This particular track is a furious, ominous, thrashing instrumental that’s almost post-metal in its approach. Fans of Russian Circles will find much to love throughout the record, but especially here.

6. “Deep Blue Heart” – Solhund. This tightly arranged, carefully engineered instrumental track has “movie soundtrack” written all over it, from the pulsing synths/percussion mix to the dramatic string section.

7. “Obsessed” – The Co-Founder. Here’s a crunchy emo/indie-rock tune featuring complex instrumental interplay in the verses, leading into a chorus of churning drums and roiling guitars. Strong, emotive vocals layer on throughout.

8. “Cross” – AB7VN. The cascading strings, thrumming bass, and syncopated drumming make for one of an air of cool all throughout this instrumental piece. Could easily pass for the soundtrack to a really intense section of a dungeon-crawling RPG.

9. “Encore” – Roast Apple. Right when I’d given up on dance-oriented, Interpol-esque post-punk giving me a thrill, Roast Apple come along with tight melodies, slick production, and an attitude of cool. It might get harder to get the gold out of a well-tapped vein, but the best can still do it.

10. “Mexican Jackpot” – Flagship. A tight, focused, lightly-dancy indie-rock song with connections to Capital Cities’ and Cold War Kids’ sonic spaces.

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Early February Singles: Indie Pop

February 11, 2017

Indie Pop

1. “Outlandish Poetica” – Jonathan Something. A wild, whirling track that takes bits of Pavement slacker rock, lo-fi enthusiasm, kitchen sink-arrangement, and mystical/religious fervor and blends them into something unclassifiable. Also, Larry Bird is involved. Not kidding.

2. “Jungle – Saint Mesa. Starts off as a deconstructed electro-pop song and slowly edits all the missing parts back in until it’s just a big, towering, Bastille x ODESZA jam. Whoa now.

3. “Unsymmetrical” – Eli Raybon. A spitfire vocal attack and groove-heavy bass anchor this deconstructed post-punk/indie-rock blitz.

4. “Dear Abby” – Rees Finley. This song operates exactly in the space where indie-pop meets pop-punk, which is an area where Relient K and Say Anything have spent a lot of time. The vocal and instrumental melodies are infectious.

5. “Big Deceiver” – Foresteater. Fans of twee indie-pop with full-band arrangements (like It’s a King Thing) will find much to love in the distinctly charming vocal style, twinkling guitars, and warm background vocals.

6. “The Shield” – Syntax Club. They hail from Oklahoma and have the least tropical name I’ve ever heard, but this outfit has the reverb-heavy, super-laid-back, beach-friendly indie-pop thing on lock. The earnestness with which it is all pulled off keeps them just shy of yacht rock. And that’s a great thing.

7. “The Glow” – Mateo Katsu. Fans of Neutral Milk Hotel will have their eyes brightened by this rambling, shambling indie-pop tune led by a wistful, winsome accordion melody. There’s also some Weezer influences in the chug to the strum and the arc of the melodies. In short: long live the indie ’90s.

8. “Up” – Ships Have Sailed. SHS follows in the vein of Grouplove, Magic Giant, and Moon Taxi in creating really fun dance-oriented pop-rock out of primarily acoustic parts. This one’s a mid-tempo piece, but that makes it no less fun.

9. “No Going Back” – Ghosts of Social Networks. If Funeral-era Arcade Fire and the Killers had a child, it would sound a lot like this enthusiastically dancy indie-rock track.

10. “Honey Honey” – SISTERS. Subtle things sometimes make all the difference: the claves here match perfectly with the guitar tone and the soft vocals to create a great atmosphere. From that beginning, the song blossoms out into an expansive, post-Transatlanticism indie-pop-rock track. They incorporate synths well too, creating a synthesis of a lot of different ideas on indie-rock into one very exciting track.

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Premiere: “Sun & Air” by Hybird

February 10, 2017

Jonny Rodgers (Cindertalk) is starting up a new record label called Off Atlas, and artists who are getting involved are catching my ear. Beyond Cindertalk’s ever-interesting work, The Soldier Story and now Hybird have joined up.

Hybird’s  “Sun and Air” is a delicate-yet-weighty indie-pop track, with songwriter Ravi Krishnaswami balancing left-hand piano chords against glockenspiel lead melodies and wavering, trebly electric guitar lines.

The song builds from humble beginnings to a big conclusion, but the tune never feels expansive; even at the apex of the final crescendo, the song sounds more claustrophobic than grand. Krishnaswami’s twee-sounding voice contributes to the feeling of nearness, as its hushed, twee tone makes the vocal melodies drip with vulnerability.

This pervasive sense of intimate closeness, even a little too much closeness, mirrors the lyrics. Written while Krishnaswami’s wife was in bad condition at a hospital, the words try to grapple with the many emotions and fears of having a loved one in an uncertain state. The titular elements are given to the sick loved one “to stay with you / when I’m not there,” a heartbreaking situation to be in. (But yet, the hope of the sun and air!) These uncertainties and tensions match the song’s sonic quality, which shines in the light of hope amid the darkness of a minor key arrangement. Overall, the tune shows a careful attention to the contours of how an arrangement and lyrics fit together, creating an evocative, memorable tune. Fans of Sufjan Stevens’ Michigan-era work or William Fitzsimmons’ delicate-yet-devastating work will find much to love here.

Hybird’s debut album Gemini will be out in 2017 via Off Atlas. Krishnaswami will perform this tune and others at the Vermont College of Fine Arts singer/songwriter showcase tonight. Check out VCFA’s social media for more info (including maybe a livestream/livetweet?).

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Early February Singles: Instrumental

1. “Jessie” – Morricone Youth. This inventive track blends lounge-y jazz saxophone with a Spaghetti western percussion backdrop and an Album Leaf-esque, dreamy digital/analog arrangement. Definitely not something you’ve heard before.

2. “Weather Spirits – Yellowhead. Zinging, ping-ponging synth bonks rattle around over a staccato percussion line and neat samples (static, as well as what sounds like someone breathing) in this instrumental hip-hop track. It’s a way fun ride.

3. “Yamakuza Sunrise” – Sky Vettel. Breakbeats percussion, dj scratching, UFO noises, and funky vocal samples: sign me up for that instrumental hip-hop throwdown.

4. “Post Mortem Muscle Memory” – London Missile. This instrumental hip-hop track skews closer to a chillwave or twee tune, as subtle beats give frame to hushed fuzz, light glitching, a mini-breakbeat section, and sun-dappled moods. Pogo would love this.

5. “Corfu Town” – Hauture. Some chillwave tunes are reverb-heavy fuzz-taculars, but Hauture takes the opposite approach here in creating a precise, pristine electro tune with dreamy atmospheres created through the tones of the synths instead of giant clouds of reverb. The results are a tight, snappy tune that will appeal to fans of Teen Daze.

6. “Lumière” – Noel. There’s so much gravitas packed into this little piano-led instrumental piece that it feels like it could suck the air right out of a room. Made me think of the visual and emotional tension of Inception (but thankfully, the giant foghorns of the soundtrack are not present).

7. “Suddenly Overcome” – Theo Alexander. Like casting stones in swiftly moving water, this piece features left hand chords dropped into a rushing, tumbling right-hand pattern that slowly fades into the background. It’s like a classical piano version of the trick LCD Soundsystem pulls in “All My Friends,” put to very different ends. It’s an emotionally satisfying piece.

8. “INSTYNKT V” – Wojtek Szczepanik. This solo piano piece manages to balance the tensions of soothing and driving, chords and individual melodies, high drama and serene emotions.

9. “Why Go To Paris?” – Alex Tiunaev. A delicate, tender, atmospheric solo piano piece that evokes romantic, mysterious, and melancholy images of the dusky urban cafes in the titular city.

10. “Stairs” – Elgin Thrower Jr. Gentle reverb and hands shifted to the right of the keyboard create an ethereal, soft, pretty piano piece that gracefully moves through space.

11. “Edinburgh” – Nick Watson. Having visited the titular city in 2016, I appreciated the subtle themes that run through this piano-and-strings composition. There’s some city noise in the background, but a gentle set of chords and melodies from the piano take the forefront. (Edinburgh is a bustling place, but there’s also quite a bit of serenity there.) When the strings come in, there’s a sense of arch elegance in the tone contrasting with some severe, serious bowing and rhythms. The city is beautiful but also Scottish: grey, wet, dark, and gloomy. My visitor’s impression of the city is well-captured in this piece.

Matthew Squires: A Unique Indie-pop Vision

February 9, 2017

Some artists are so idiosyncratic that they become required listening despite whether you like that style or not. Depending on their popular success, these people are the greats or the “songwriter’s songwriter.” I’m talking Kendrick Lamar, Beyonce, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Daniel Johnston, The Gorillaz: people who are doing their own thing with a very specific, easily identifiable creative vision. Matthew Squires has been developing a very distinct creative vision for a while now, and Tambaleo brings his fractured, angular, skeptically-but-knowledgably-religious indie-pop to new heights.

The main focus of these songs is Squires’ weary, slightly off-kilter tenor. It’s not your standard voice, even for that particular region of the indie-pop map which celebrates the atypical and imperfect. Squires’ voice rotates between being a spot-on melody maker (“Welcome”), a speak/sing drawl (“Sex & Tragedy”), a slurry dartboard (“Unwholesome Health”), and an onomatopoeic sound machine (“Grace’s Drum”). Sometimes it’s all of these in the space of a single song or even the space of a few lines. For some, the singing will be the reason for attendance; for others, it will be the price of admission. Whichever end of the spectrum you land on, it’s a distinct voice.

The arrangements here are also excellent. Packed full of instruments that seem to be taking their own path through the track at loping tempos, these individual performances come together to fill out Squires’ unique songwriting sensibility. Squires is endlessly inventive and not afraid to experiment with tones, textures, rhythms, and instrument pairings. This makes for songs that clang (“Dead or Dying”), skip along in a twee fashion [“Hosanna (Devotional #3)”], push along in a recognizably indie-pop manner (“Welcome”), and even get their pop-rock on … sort of (“Shape of Your Heart”). All of them have a left turn about every 20 seconds. Some albums keep you on your toes; this one will have you en pointe.

One of the most interesting things about Squires is his continued relationship with religion in his lyrics. Squires is well versed: like any honest religious person, there are moments of certitude, moments of doubt, and moments of skepticism in his relationship to religion. “Unwholesome Health” opens with “Judas was all alone / when he called me on the telephone / and told me about the pain he had caused / about Mary’s face when her Son was torn apart,” while “Welcome” closes with Squires speaking to himself: “You were named after a friend of the son of God / now bracket for a moment whether God exists or not / Have you been kind? / Have you been kind? / Have you been kind?” “Hosanna (Devotional #3)” wears the references on its titular sleeve, while other songs weave religious characters, terms and ideas through the lyrics more subtly. It treats religion as not something to be partitioned away from life, but woven all through it. I dig it.

Not every song on Tambaleo is independently majestic (“Debt Song” isn’t my favorite), but the whole collection is a deeply thoughtful, incredibly well-crafted album from a musician who is hitting his stride. This is the sort of album that not very many people could have made; a wild array of influences mesh into a idiosyncratic, deeply interesting album. Recommended.

Alex Dezen plays you his excellent version of the radio

February 8, 2017

Learning how to write in a genre can be a lifelong exploration, even for the most talented of musicians: Josh Ritter has made a whole career exploring the nooks and crannies of modern folk. The Mountain Goats spent a whole decade mastering the lo-fi recording before spending another 15 years doing indie-pop in tons of different styles. As a result of the difficulty and time required to be an expert in one genre, skepticism is warranted when an artist leaves their home genre for another.

This is an even more risky proposition when the target isn’t one new genre, but a multi-genre, broadly “pop” album. Yet despite these many cards stacked against Alex Dezen‘s second solo outing II, the former Damnwells frontman has created a fascinating, incredibly enjoyable album that dabbles in half-a-dozen pop genres. It’s proof of Dezen’s songwriting prowess that he’s not just great in one genre: he’s great in a bunch of them.

Dezen doesn’t try to hide that’s he indulging in any flight of fancy that comes his way: The album opens with “When You Give Up,” a Miami Vice-esque noir new wave tune. Dezen’s lithe voice shines here; not only could he sing the phone book and make it sound great, he could sing it in a wide variety of genres, as well. His knack for catchy melodies is on display everywhere, from the vocal melodies to acoustic guitar riffs to blocky synth blasts. “Holding on to You (Holding on to Me)” has more ’80s rock vibes–this time more Heart than Blondie (“Barracuda,” in particular). As ever, the chorus hook is polished till it glows–you’ll be mumbling “holdingontoyou / holdingontoME” for a long while afterwards.

From there on, Dezen goes in full-on world tour mode. “Randolph Tonight” is CCR-esque swamp rock; “I Am a Racist” is a straight-up doo-wop tune; “New York to Paradise” is a lost Billy Joel piano ballad; “Fuck or Fight” is an Eagles-style country-rock rambler. None of these songs feel insincere or mishandled; Dezen waltzes his way through each of them with a deft hand. It’s even more to his credit that he played almost every instrument on this album. It’s one thing to write a melody in a different genre, and it’s another thing entirely to have the chops on multiple instruments to pull off a whole arrangement in another genre.

My favorite tunes here are ones that pair excellent arrangements with incisive, carefully wrought lyrics. The REM jangle of “I Had a Band” relates anecdotes from a coming-of-age tale with the emotionally charged punch line “I never had much of a father / but I had a band / yeah, I had a band.” Anyone who’s been in a band will relate to the loving, wry tone that runs through the lyrics, whether or not your relationship with your father was great. IC had the distinct honor of premiering the Graceland-inspired “Everything’s Great (Everything’s Terrible),” which has a thoughtful set of lyrics about people in the contemporary moment just trying to make it through. The acoustic closer “The Boys of Bummer” is a lovely song about people who write sad songs by a person who writes sad songs. The dignity with which the characters meander through the tune makes me think of The Hold Steady.

Because of the herculean effort Dezen expends on every track, the album is only 9 songs. Yet in those nine songs he creates his own personal version of the radio, putting his imprint on pop music. It’s a rare album that manages to pull off all that Dezen does here: this is a fully-realized album on “extra difficulty” mode. If you like pop music in any way, shape, or form, you need to hear this album. 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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