Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Joe Kaplow: A diverse, impressive folk troubadour

July 21, 2015

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There’s a wide diversity of sounds you can make with an acoustic guitar and voice; being able to sing Missippi blues doesn’t ensure that you can play Irish folk tunes. Some people work to become a master at one style, while others can absorb the core elements of a variety of sounds.

Joe Kaplow is the latter, as his sound is grounded in troubadour folk with influences from a variety of other acoustic genres. His self-titled debut EP showcases a singer/songwriter with a huge amount of promise, as his songwriting and distinctive voice offer great rewards to the listener.

“Bookshop Blues” opens the release with a fast, strummed folk tune accompanied by his own foot stomping. Kaplow’s insistent, urgent tenor dances over a tune that sounds perfect for busking: an earnest, upbeat tune that balances lyrical introspection and smile-inducing melodies and chords. He follows it up with the harmonica-and-swift-fingerpicking tune “How Old is My Soul,” which evokes the raw, pure sound of The Freewheeling Bob Dylan. It stays out of tribute range due to (again) the swooping vocals, which flip from tender to insistent on a dime. This ability to control his delivery calls to mind a less-abrasive Kristian Mattson of The Tallest Man on Earth, especially in the “oh-oh” conclusion of the tune.

Kaplow can unhinge his voice, too–both “It’s Me Girl” and “When I Open Up at Last” allow Kaplow to let it all air out. The banjo-led blues of “It’s Me Girl” sees him scrubbing grit and wail into his delivery to fit the mood of the tune, while “When I Open Up at Last” contains Damien Rice-style howls. “Give My Eyes” provides a respite between the two songs, a delicate pastoral tune that reminds me of a cross between Irish folk tunes and Justin Townes Earle’s American sounds. The addition of a female voice turns this duet into a highlight of the already-strong EP.

There’s a lot going on in this self-titled EP, but it all hangs together because of the bright, mid-fi production vibe. This is clearly a man and his guitar (on most tracks), as the occasional ambient room noise, gentle tape hiss and sound of foot taps show. But Kaplow’s not reveling in the tracks’ smallness–this feels like an earnest document of work, not a bid to participate in the bedroom-folk scene. (“When I Open Up at Last” is about as far from whisper-folk as it gets.) There’s no intentional obscuring, no reverb, no distance placed between the listener and the song. These songs are immediate–they grabbed me on first listen, and they still grab me ten listens on. That’s a credit both to the songs and the way they’re recorded.

Kaplow’s self-titled EP is an energizing listen. Whether it’s a slow or fast song I’m listening to, the music is exciting. Kaplow’s well-controlled voice is employed in a diversity of styles, making for a sprightly, fast-paced 20 minutes. It’s tough to pick out highlight tracks, because each has its own charms; I’m personally partial to “How Old is My Soul” and “Give My Eyes,” but someone who likes darker, dramatic music more than I could find “When I Open Up at Last” or “It’s Me Girl” to be their highlight. It’s a rare artist who can make memorable tunes in diverse idioms, and that bodes well for Joe Kaplow. I can’t wait to see how his next releases develop. Highly recommended.

Quick Hits: Abandoned Delta / Charles Ellsworth / Hunters.

July 15, 2015

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Abandoned Delta‘s self-titled debut is a uniquely beautiful alt-country album that combines the delicate nature of Mojave 3’s work with thick arrangements that leave little space unfilled. However, the tightly constructed arrangements of tunes like “I Am Gold,” “Tulsa,” and “Cause and Effect” result in a tender–even sweet–whole instead of becoming impenetrable. Pedal steel, keys, gentle tenor vocals, wispy harmonies, pristine electric guitar strums, and loping acoustic guitar picking mesh into a dense web of sound that is always awash in warm, sunny vibes.

But this isn’t West Coast Laurel Canyon work; there’s a Midwestern lyrical and melodic groundedness permeating the whole work. It may make me want to float away, but the songs don’t sound like they’re going to get lost anywhere. “My Heart’s an Open Road” accelerates the tempo, amps up twang, and infuses a sense of humor to the proceedings–the Western Swing influences in the songwriting is a lot of fun. Elsewhere, contented horns hover above the slightly more ominous “Black Car,” and the acoustic guitar gets a feature in “I Never Lived in New Orleans.” It’s not folky, though–and that’s the most marvelous element of Abandoned Delta. The members have a consistent, distinctive sound that integrates elements of other genres seamlessly. If you like beautiful music, alt-country, or hearing musicians at the top of their game, you need to check out Abandoned Delta.

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I find the self-aggrandizing crowd screaming that attends most live records tiresome, so I don’t cover many of them. However, Charles Ellsworth‘s Live from the State Room has such great songwriting contained in it that I must commend it to you. (It also doesn’t have that much audience howling, which I appreciate.) Ellsworth is a guitar-and-voice troubadour, gifted with a melodic sense in his hands and throat. The ten songs of State Room show him breaking out his solo material first, then transitioning to a full-band set-up later. It allows him to show off his poignant lyrics and weighty vocals in an intimate setting first, then gently augment that core sound. “The Past Ain’t Nothin” is the highlight of this section, a tune that unspools several emotional narratives linked by a vocal motif. It hits home to me, musically and lyrically.

Once the band joins in, the poignant elements of his sound get amped up, notably on “In My Thoughts” (which IC had the privilege of premiering). A swooping cello and tasteful drums underscore the gravity of the tune. “Fifty Cent Smile” is another standout, built on train-rhythm drums and one of the most memorable vocal melodies of the record. Even with a full band, Ellsworth never lets the sound get weighed down; many of the lovely tunes keep a fragility about them. (A notable exception is the noisy “Take a Walk,” which is “about having anger issues.”) Live from the State Room is that rare live record that feels like a real experience captured on tape; it’s a great introduction to Ellsworth’s charms for the uninitiated. You can get now as part of his “Not a Kickstarter” campaign.

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We All Go Up the Mountain Alone Together by hunters. is a drama-filled folk album with strong female vocals. The 11-song album puts the spotlight on Rosa del Duca’s alto pipes, which have a mature quality not unlike those of Lilith Fair artists. Other ’90s singer/songwriting influences creep into the folk instrumentation too: a flourish here, a chord structure there, an unexpected vocal embellishment.

The band leans more toward chord-strummed folk than finger-picked folk, so tunes like “Firestarter” have lineage that can be drawn from many points. del Duca’s voice shines on “Firestarter,” as she ratchets up from an calm presence to an intense delivery and back several times. The band frames her performance with a tense arrangement of spacious, jazzy drums and nimble upright bass. “Painting the Roses Red” takes on a bit of a country vibe, while “Orion” recalls ballad-bluegrass guitar (but with their overarching mood of dramatic tension). Fans of female-fronted singer/songwriters and folk artists will find a mature, vocals-driven folk album in We All Go Up the Mountain Alone Together.

Jaylis: A harmonious gem

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Imagine a sound that combines the reggae upstroke with brilliant, harmonious vocal looping, ending with an epic ‘60s rock electric guitar solo. That sound is exactly what you will find in “Whatsoever” off of Jaylis’ latest EP My Lonely Shadow.

“Whatsoever” is the best example of how Jaylis combines a myriad of diverse elements. The track begins with a funky electric guitar, followed quickly by Jaylis’ smooth voice. Once the second harmonizing voice joins in, the funky guitar transitions into an off-beat upstroke typical of reggae music. After the chorus, the two voices split: Jaylis’ voice repeats the same melody from the first verse, while the second voice enters a measure later with the same harmony to create a harmonious loop. The dual-vocal layering is a unique way to add intrigue to the track.

In fact, Jaylis does these looping harmonies in every track off the EP. Each track begins with one female voice (Jaylis’), and the second female vocal always starts by adding harmony and ends up looping with Jaylis’ voice. Sometimes the second voice echoes many of the words the first is singing (“Whatsoever”); other times she provides mood-setting oohs and ahhs (“My Lonely Shadow”). Nevertheless, in each track the second voice provides harmony in a truly unique and beautiful way.

Jaylis’ lead singer, Jaylis, has a strong yet sweet voice that begins every track alone or with light instrumentation. In tone and range, her voice is akin to lead singer of Of Monsters and Men, Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir; it also contains the subtlety within Romy Madley Croft’s voice (The XX). Jaylis’ voice can be seen as an anchor for each of the songs. The vocal aspects of the album are really what sets Jaylis’ sound apart, although the instrumentation is also unique.

Even though the vocal harmonies and looping from My Lonely Shadow may be the first element we notice, let us not forget to take notice of its diverse instrumentation and sounds. Opener  “My Lonely Shadow,” mainly accompanied by the guitar, has a mellow singer/songwriter feel. As described before, “Whatsoever” adds a fun reggae element to the EP, along with introducing the 60’s rock electric guitar solo. “Regrets” continues the ‘60s rock feel through its smoky electric guitar. “Spleen” has a much more folky instrumentation, with the upright bass taking more prominence in this track than it did in the others. Percussive elements, along with unique uses of the piano, are also found throughout the My Lonely Shadow.

As a whole, Jaylis follows up their first album with a standout EP. My Lonely Shadow combines many musical elements, including brilliant vocal harmony done through vocal looping, to create a sound all its own. My Lonely Shadow is a harmonious gem. —Krisann Janowitz

EPs: Cassorla / Haring

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Cassorla‘s The Right Way is a quirky vision of pop music that draws on ’80s radio pop, skittering lo-fi electro-pop, and early ’00s bedroom pop like Aqueduct (new album coming soon!). I’ve already compared the title track to Steve Miller Band (and found out via Twitter that indeed, SMB is an influence); similar to ’80s pop giants, Cassorla creates wide sonic spaces by playing with reverbed vocals, electronic rhythmic elements, piano (“Our Power”), and herky-jerky starts and stops.

The electronics here, though, aren’t huge synths, but low-key beats reminiscent of The Postal Service et al. This isn’t electro-pop in any modern sense: it’s pop music that happens to engulf elements of electro, along with guitar, piano, and miscellaneous bouncy noises (“Be On”).

The four-song set passes by warmly, capped off by “Start Your Engines.” The closer elevates the beats (humorously, but not entirely incorrectly, tagged as “trap”) to the prime spot of the tune, with a laconic guitar line taking a backseat. Cassorla unspools a Beck-ian speak-sing on top of the brew, giving another lens through which to read these songs. Regardless of inspiration or point of connection, those with a yen for mid-tempo, unassuming pop music will enjoy The Right Way.

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My love affair with chillwave is somewhat my like my continued dedication to the reverse-chronological blog form: I loved it when everyone else loved it, and then I still loved it when it wasn’t cool anymore, and then I loved it when most people had stopped talking about it either way. Haring‘s Late Night Dream almost certainly has been assigned cooler descriptors than chillwave, but it fits so squarely in the sonic center of what the genre was/is about that I can’t help but say so. From the loopy, warm synths to the gentle underlying beats to the patient melodies to the overall summery mood, this could have been right there with Washed Out in the heyday.

The title track plays with needly synth notes in a way evocative of Teen Daze; “Floating Out to Me” inserts a section of frantic rhythms before dropping back to tubular-sounding synth grounding. The opening of “All I Can Give” turns trumpeting, grainy synths from celebratory to hazy/pensive with a neat arpeggiator crescendo. It resolves into a but of a thumping beat, which is cool–this is where whatever term people are using these days may get applied. Vocals are given a turn in closer “Time (feat. La Petite Rouge),” which returns to the sonic equivalent of floating on your back in a sunny pond. All the tunes here are commendable, but this one’s layering and vocal melodies make it particularly memorable. Haring’s Late Night Dream is a luscious, relaxing EP.

Quick Hits: Minimus the Poet / Burnside & Hooker / Rob Nance

July 14, 2015

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Minimus the Poet‘s Empathy EP is driven by evocative drums and punchy guy/girl vocals. It’s no surprise the EP opens with 14 seconds of toms before vocals and light guitar come in: the indie-rock sextet’s percussion gives more than just structure and rhythm to the tracks. In tunes like the title track and “Lightning Rod,” the mood is dictated by the kit’s contributions. The motion of “Empathy” fluctuates with the drumming patterns; “Lightning Rod” sees the rest of the band play off the consistent, complex beats.

The guy-girl vocal harmonies are part of the tension there, and they shine throughout (“Molasses,” “Rust”). The vocalists both temper and empower the drums: on “Rust,” the vocalists in several places sing directly over the drumming with the rest of the band (acoustic guitar, electric guitar, piano) out. It’s a fascinating pairing that gets at the core of Minimus the Poet’s sound. If you’re into driving indie rock with folky overtones, give Empathy a try.

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If alt-country was an antidote to the musically and lyrically whitewashed pastorals of Hot Country, Burnside & Hooker‘s All the Way to the Devil adheres to the third option: aggressive country. By the time that we’ve made it to the end of track six, people have been murdered (and/or framed for murder, and/or dragged to hell), souls have been sold to the devil, and several bad breakups have occurred. (There are eight more songs to go.) To accompany these tunes of the West’s seedy side are tunes that sound like country mashed up with hard rock–the apex of which being “Momma Said,” which is essentially a Joan Jett song that includes no acoustic instrumentation whatsoever.

“Mistaken” is more indicative of their general approach: there’s a clearly recognizable ominous western guitar chassis, outfitted with searing electric guitar and garnished by Rachel Bonacquisti’s ferocious vocals. (No one dies in this one, though.) Bonacquisti’s impressive roar is a staple throughout these 14 tunes, as she can create a menacing howl or a sultry come-hither. All the Way to the Devil is the crunchy, seedy, violent music that would be playing in Wild West saloons, should they still exist in 2015. (That’s a compliment, lest anyone in Burnside & Hooker take that the wrong way and track me down.)

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Before alt-country, though, there was Laurel Canyon country–that laid-back, California-born style that was as indebted to sunny vibes, highway driving, and beach surf as the high desert. Rob Nance‘s Signal Fires is a perfect example of the warm, relaxed style. (Dawes is also plying a version of the sound recently, although All Your Favorite Bands has a significantly more somber vibe than Nance’s latest.) Just because you can turn it on and chill out doesn’t mean that the songwriting is lazy or slacker-y; on the contrary, Nance’s songwriting here is tight and clear. With acoustic-laden recordings this transparent, every mistake would have shown up–no fuzzed-out, heavy-reverb guitar to hide the faults.

No, Signal Fires is the work of a musician paying deep attention to his craft. Just check out opener “No Gold” for an example: there are few better examples of sun-dappled country that I’ve heard. Elsewhere Nance focuses more on his husky low-tenor voice than sprawling song structures; “Landslide Town” and the title track are just as good for the choice. Nance pays homage to his forebears with the traditional country tune “On My Way,” and it fits nicely between the jazzy “Shelter” and the more upbeat “Dear Shadow.” Signal Fires is an album that can keep you company on no-deadlines journeys and lackadaisical afternoons–it’s an impeccably written and recorded album that succeeds in sounding like it wasn’t that much work at all.

Ava Marie and the thoughtful guitar solo

July 13, 2015

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In my academic research, I study genre–the socially-grounded understanding of categorization that individuals or groups have. (I look at it in terms of business writing, but my personal interest overflows those strict bounds.) So I’m intrigued by how people describe the music they make and how it signifies to themselves and others. Ava Marie‘s Kettle Steam lists “folk” and “folk rock” as tags, which seem to be describing a process or a community of choice more than the sound itself. (I have no problem whatsoever with this: I am no purist, nor I am the folk police.) Kettle Steam is a thought-provoking, intriguing album with a lot of angles to consider.

The six-song, 26-minute release is characterized immediately by several elements: minor keys, distorted electric guitars, hypnotic baritone vocals, and guitar solos. The sonic comparisons skew closer to the fractured tensions of MeWithoutYou and Modest Mouse than Josh Ritter or Joe Pug. Again, this doesn’t mean that this isn’t folk–it just means that the term folk here does not signify “fingerpicked acoustic guitars.”

The definition, perhaps, aligns more closely with a resistance to something else: even though “indie rock” and “alternative” have always been constructed in opposition to mainstream rock, indie rock currently is as close to a mainstream rock as we have (since the rarified pop-rock world that Nickelback and Lifehouse live in bears little resemblance to the rest of the music world at this point in time). Ava Marie is definitely not playing the same game as indie rock bands like Arctic Monkeys or Two Door Cinema Club–these are thoughtful tunes that reference specific time periods and places (WWII in the title track; Casco, Maine in “Motel Room in May”) and are more committed to lyrical beauty than sloganeering.

So one takeaway from this is that maybe folk is becoming what indie-rock used to be: a refuge from a particular type of music, a space where possibilities are opened back up. One piece of data does not a conclusion make, but the strength of the anecdote is compelling: tunes like “Kathleen Carter” and “Only Sea” combine instrumental melodies and arrangements, a refined vocal approach, and a deep sense of mood to come up with impressive sonic wholes. There’s a lot of reverb (but not too much to cloud the individual elements); space is respected and used carefully; the band knows how amp up so that a guitar solo has its full, incendiary effect. Hints of a more traditional folk past shine through in the fingerpicked moments of “Motel Room in May,” but the single-note work in “White Hides” is all wiry post-punk rock. There are tensions on both ends, as with most middle entries.

A note on the guitar solos: it’s fun to hear a band just let rip on an instrumental section, especially when pitched against thoughtful lyrics and unadorned vocals (as happens directly on “White Hides”). It’s entirely possible to construct a careful mood and then let roar against it, as bands like The Walkmen and occasionally The National have discovered. But they do it without getting gaudy or turning into a punk band: they have carefully framed their own idiom and let the lead guitar work from from and through it. The intro to “Kathleen Carter” is a perfect example of this.

This review has been a bit more oblique than my usual work, but I feel that it’s a fitting response to Kettle Steam. The work here is carefully crafted so as to be thoughtful but not ponderous, intriguing without being enigmatic, and melodic without becoming a pop-rock band. It’s an album that I wanted to return to repeatedly, to parse out the sounds and lyrics therein. It’s not something to be consumed and filed away; you can sit with this one a while. It will reward you.

Brooks Brown: Enchantingly explosive electro

Brooks Brown

Yes, the moment I have been waiting for: a summer-ready electronic EP that has the honor of making its way into my car stereo. The new addition is Sidetracked from 17-year-old ambient, trip hop, indie electronica, whatever-genre-you-want-to-file-it-as producer Brooks Brown. Just picture Justin Bieber’s way cooler, low-key electronic producer cousin whose parties are still the raddest Justin has ever been to, and you’ve got somewhat of an idea of the talent we’re talking about here.

The title track, featuring trip hop artist Madi Walsh, has whirling builds iced with elegant drops and even cleaner synth. “Sidetracked” is beautifully eruptive. The sensual melodies are eyes-closing, one-sided-grinning good. To say Walsh’s vocals are mature for her sixteen-year old self would be an embarrassing understatement.

“Countdown” begins like your ears need to pop–a dazed, slow motion feeling. Hand clapping breaks up the blurriness and builds anticipation for what is ecstasy in electronic drop form. It dips down into something just as ambient, continuing to get heavier, fatter, thicker. Between sharp synth and carnival ride twinkling, I imagined a clip from a college-version Project X: a hotel party’s slow-motion pillow fight with feathers flying, champagne flowing in red solo cups, the whole bit.

If “Countdown” is the party banger track, then “Lights Out” is the 4 a.m. buzzy trance song that appears at the same time as the early morning dew. It has patient builds that take their time, and with Brown’s casually flirtatious lyrics like, “Baby girl, I’m in my zone/Come get next to me,” it’s a steamy track that doesn’t try too hard.

Continuing along this sonic nighttime-into-morning journey, “Awake” is a slow-to-rise track, playing like an alarm set to meditation music. It’s the type of song you smoke, shower, and brew something to. Mellow electronic texturing and a care-free, feel-good buzz makes this the smoothest on Sidetracked.

After listening to Sidetracked my only question is: Brooks Brown, where can I get this on vinyl? This deserves more than the personal nightclub that is my car stereo. Brown’s EP is effortlessly, enchantingly explosive, adding so many electronic elements that it would be silly to categorize it when you could spend that whole time enjoying four dynamite tracks. —Rachel Haney

 

Trio: Hermit’s Victory / Chuck Burns and Ty Rone / Moa Bones

July 10, 2015

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I don’t know if the term “left-field pop” still or ever meant anything to anyone, but that’s the first thing I thought of to describe the self-titled release from Hermit’s Victory–essentially an indie-pop band that is maybe sitting in a forest while they compose and perform. All the elements of indie-pop are there, just with an extra layer of found sound and recording techniques that makes everything sound like you’re outdoors.

This is most obvious in “Mooch”– where the found sounds literally appropriate the bird calls and running water of the outdoors–but is more subterraneanly evident in the unusual synthesizers of “Night Owl,” the subtle reverb of “Novice” and the tape hiss of “Swerve.” By the time that lo-fi closer “Sleeping Evil” comes around, the context makes me imagine that the two performers are sitting out on the porch of a cabin somewhere (even though nothing necessarily conjures this idea up from this track in particular). All that to say, this album is a true album, not just a random collection of songs: you should listen to this as a whole, and you will hear wonderful things that you wouldn’t hear by just listening to tracks on their own.

That’s not to say that these tracks don’t hold up to individual scrutiny: “Money in the Evenings” is an intriguing, beguiling slow-jam that takes its time getting where it wants to go. “Islands” is some cross between Bossa Nova and the verdant landscapes of the rest of the album. The power of these songs is in their intricate, idiosyncratic, deeply enveloping arrangements. “Sleeping Evil” eschews even that lovely cloak and sits apart as a pure songwriting gem: it would take only a guitar and voice to cover satisfactorily (which is slighting the subtle sounds and second guitar surrounding those elements, but in comparison to the complexity of the previous tunes there’s a different focus). These tracks are solid through and through, from their roots to the leaves. Hermit’s Victory is an entrancing album that can be enjoyed at a surface level and at depth: it has intricacies galore to explore, but you can also just let it wash over you.

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Chuck Burns and Ty Rone‘s Leave of Absence is a elegant mash-up of Mississippi blues, New Orleans jazz, and traditional Southern guitar/harmonica folk. Sometimes the duo works out a genre separate from its brethren (the folky “Ferguson/Plan B,” the bluesy “Someday When I’m Older”), sometimes they get married (the everything-at-once aspect of “New Orleans”), and sometimes they get blown out to epic proportions (the rockin’ “The Heights”).

Despite these various sounds and moods, the acoustic guitar and harmonica are a constant through-line. The major-key fingerpicking and the wailing harmonica fit together neatly, creating the sort of timelessly wonderful sound that you can get in this genre. Burns’ vocals don’t peg the tunes in any particular era either: smooth and sultry and occasionally roaring, he locks the parts together in a great collage.

I’ve mentioned it already, but the predominant feeling I get while listening to this record is one of “fit.” Burns and Rone are fitting themselves into a long-standing tradition, making their own way down a well-trodden path. The songs sound right, the vibe is strong, and the album just takes off on its own. Whether it’s the slightly funky vocals of “East Coast Sun,” the female background vocals and organ of “Private Devil,” or the rolling fingerpicking of “Hours on Hours,” the duo grabs parts that seem endlessly reusable and combine them into songs that seem like I’ve always had them in my life. Yet the spark of the new is in them too, as a fresh accent, vocal line, or harmonica bite sounds and strikes me off-guard a bit. In short, Leave of Absence is really good stuff.

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I was attracted to The Tallest Man on Earth by his fantastic fingerpicking skills, not particularly his arranging skills, so it’s with great excitement that I’ve listened (repeatedly) to Moa BonesSpun. In some ways, Dimitris Aronis’ creations are even more suited to my tastes than those of Kristian Matsson: Aronis’ voice isn’t as abrasive and his song structures are more grounded in the American South’s musical tradition. I note the American South there because Aronis is from Greece (although you can’t tell from the songwriting).

Tunes like “Old Days,” “Skopelitis,” and “Come On” feature Aronis’ endearing, enchanting fingerpicking skills on guitar and banjo. The tunes seem to float along on lazy waves of down-home friendliness. “Skopelitis” is the purest expression of that mode, an instrumental track that almost emits sun rays. But Moa Bones isn’t a one-trick pony, and tunes like “Hey” draw off the Mississippi walking blues tradition in strum pattern, harmonica inclusion, and overall rhythm. “The Journey” even includes some scratchin’ electric guitar and organ for bluesy cred. (“Take It All Away” amps up the organ usage, creating the noisiest song on the record.)

But it’s in gentle, quiet tunes like “Long for a Change” that Aronis steals my heart. The pensive, relaxed songwriting allows the nuances of his creaky voice and melodic sense to shine through. It’s similar to the type of song that The Tallest Man on Earth doesn’t write much anymore. If you miss the fingerpicking glee of Matsson’s work, Moa Bones will make you sigh and smile. Spun is not to be missed for fans of Southern-flavored acoustic songwriting.

Exohxo’s Memorable Mashup

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Picture early Yellowcard: “Ocean Avenue” and “Way Away.” My fellow ‘90s kids know the picture well–the pop-punk sound infused with a violin, which they used as if it was another electric guitar. Exohxo’s latest EP The Ghost is Clear is along a similar violin-heavy pop-punk vein, yet contains a higher level of maturity. The EP’s sound is like Yellowcard all grown up (similar to when Rugrats became “All Grown Up,” but with fewer disappointments).

Seattle-based chamber rock band Exohxo’s The Ghost is Clear collects six diverse tracks that provide different combinations of chamber pop and pop-punk, with a little bit of jazz and bluegrass flavor thrown in. The Ghost is Clear will feel nostalgic at times and in the very same track feel completely new and unique.

Throughout the album, Exohxo uses the violin to accomplish an array of sounds. The combination of the violin, driving and jazzy organ makes opener “Past Lives” a feel-good summer song. Here, Exohxo uses the violin much like early Yellowcard did, in a fairly punk rock kind of way, driving the song. In “Parting Shots,” the violin adds theatrics to the track; in “Same As Always,” the violin becomes a fiddle and surprisingly takes on some bluegrass flavor. And in “You Can’t Know,” the introduction of the violin throws off the rock vibe and halfway through takes over the song by adding much more of a chamber orchestra feel to the track.

The vocals found in The Ghost is Clear also combine two worlds: the pop-punk and the theatrical. In tracks like “Trains That Look Like Towns,” the vocal aspect of the song sounds like it could come right out of a musical–picture the voice of fun.’s lead singer Nate Ruess. Yet in other songs, the vocals sound more like they came off of a pop-punk album–slightly emotional and crisp, so you can hear every sardonically hopeful lyric (“Past Lives,” “Parting Shots”). In the second verse of “Parting Shots,” the introduction of a second vocalist adds harmonization that sounds distinctly pop-punk.

Exohxo’s The Ghost is Clear is a mashup of musical worlds. The unique combination of typical rock instruments with the violin and organ spice up each track in a different way. By combining instrumental diversity with theatrical pop-punk vocals and introspective yet hopeful lyrics, The Ghost is Clear is a remarkable adventure you won’t want to miss.  —Krisann Janowitz

Terrible Terrible: Surfers + Tech = The Future

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Terrible Terrible’s recent EP Get the New Computer is the illustrative, 1960s Hawaiian-style label on Kona Brewing’s Island Hopper variety pack. Like, if you picked up a case of it, this EP may just start spilling out of its cardboard handle holes. Get the New Computer is a unique blend of indie rock, baroque pop, and futuristic elements, making for an unforgettable meshing of retro surfer music and techy swag.

The title track starts off like some frantic arcade game player pinging their avatar around a neon screen and adds clanking in the background that had me imagining factory workers welding metal. Synthesized builds are quick to rise and fall, and by the time we hear a child’s voice counting off numbers, it’s like we’re waiting for a live rocket to launch on a black and white television set. “Get the new computer,” is the repeated phrase, a cassette tape recording whose human voices are eventually washed out completely by digital sounds. In just over four minutes, Terrible Terrible tells the tale of the Industrial Revolution mutating into the Tech Revolution.

“Dog Days” transports us to a shoreline a few decades back with its drifting, dreamlike melodies. The twangy guitar, East coast beach bar percussion, and splatters of synth underscore the four-track journey of two contrasting time periods melting together. The vocals paddleboard atop that wave of instrumentation, gently riding above it.

Beachy groove spills over to “Between a Breath,” but with a jam-band feel that has me dying to see a Terrible Terrible live set. The swaying, layered vocals are Passion Pit-esque, but the vibe–and all of Get the New Computer, for that matter–leans more toward the indie groove of Real Estate. “Oh, what a mess I’ve made,” the vocalist sings breezily and with saddened realization of past mistakes. He had me wondering if this is more self-reflective than necessarily asking for forgiveness. Groovy guitar lines push it forward, giving that sense of “what happened, happened,” but heavy percussion is what keeps it grounded in contemplation.

Bubbling, twinkling guitars set an amber-colored shade on “Tasting the Marrow,” where lines like, “You never sleep at night and speak with the grace of a carnivore” and “Close your mouth, you animal” provide a deliciously weird edge to the EP. The vocals are distant-sounding, but sensual. Jazzy percussion comes out to play, and I kept waiting for some classic finger snapping to take things fully into that 1950s boy band sound. But instead, synth leads us out, re-emphasizing that two-worlds-collide theme.

Terrible Terrible has a way of making me feel nostalgic about something I’ve never genuinely experienced; the advent of color TV, pocket-sized transistor radios, tortoise Ray-Ban aviators. But Get the New Computer has added another dimension to that dream; a synth-driven electronic soundscape, ready to blast into the future. —Rachel Haney

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

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