Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

THE (not so timely) NEWS

October 9, 2014

I’m not very good at telling the news on this blog, but here are some things that happened and/or are happening.

  • Hi-res audio’s time seems to have come, what with Pono breaking huge. Hi Res Audio Central wants to be your one-stop shop for all things HRA. Jump on it, if applicable!
  • NWCZRadio.com is running a Kickstarter to get new gear to keep growing their indie-focused radio station. Three days left!
  • IC faves The Trouble Starts, Kye Alfred Hillig, and Cloud Person are all part of the initial offering of The Good Pack, which is a system that lets you download (excellent) albums for free, with all donations for that music going to a youth shelter in Seattle. Good music, good cause! LET’S DO IT!
  • And, finally, it’s time for fall, and that means cooler weather, and that means more running for me. That means RUNHUNDRED. See below. -Stephen Carradini

The Top 10 Workout Songs for October 2014

Fort Wayne, IN – September 30, 2014 – Pop rules in this month’s workout music recap. First off, you have the lingering effects of this year’s MTV Video Music Awards. Collaborations pairing Ariana Grande with Zedd and Iggy Azalea with Rita Ora both received a significant boost in popularity following performances on this year’s broadcast. Moreover, the show is where Taylor Swift debuted the first single from her new album. “Shake It Off” was the most popular, workout song in our monthly poll. Moreover, at 160 beats per minute (BPM), it’s the best song in the list for running.

Remixers also racked up three big tunes this month. Zedd makes his second appearance in the the list with an uptempo version of the summertime smash “Rude.” OneRepublic also find their latest release reworked for the club. Though both of those tracks are geared for the dancefloor, they’d be equally great for a jogging or walking. For a lower rep routine—like kettlebells or Pilates—you might check out the Surkin remix of Charli XCX’s “Boom Clap.” At 93 BPM, it’s on the slower side of things, but it’s lives up to its title with thunderous production that’ll power you through your next session.

On the whole, Top 40 tracks dominate this month’s list. But, there should also be enough alternate versions—plus some crossover hits from upstarts like Kongos and Echosmith—to keep things interesting. So, if you’re looking for something new to freshen up your gym playlist, you’ll find 10 great places to start below.

Here’s the full list, according to votes placed at Run Hundred–the web’s most popular workout music blog.

Echosmith – Cool Kids – 130 BPM

Magic – Rude (Zedd Remix) – 130 BPM

Kiesza – Hideaway – 123 BPM

Demi Lovato & Cher Lloyd – Really Don’t Care – 121 BPM

Iggy Azalea & Rita Ora – Black Widow – 82 BPM

Charli XCX – Boom Clap (Surkin Remix) – 93 BPM

Kongos – Come With Me Now – 104 BPM

Ariana Grande & Zedd – Break Free – 130 BPM

OneRepublic – Love Runs Out (Grabbitz Remix) – 124 BPM

Taylor Swift – Shake It Off – 160 BPM

To find more workout songs, folks can check out the free database at RunHundred.com. Visitors can browse the song selections there by genre, tempo, and era—to find the music that best fits with their particular workout routine. -Chris Lawhorn

September MP3s 1: Shining Eyes

The next four MP3 posts are going to have impressionistic names, because I’m out of descriptive words after writing this many song reviews.

Shining Eyes

1. “Comin’ for Ya North Georgia Blues” – Eliot Bronson. Upbeat in a way that isn’t cloying, folky in that old-school Bob Dylan way, hooky as if it were folk pop (but it’s not). “Comin’ for Ya” is one of my favorite singles in a while. Bronson, it should go without saying, should be on your watch list.

2. “White Circles” – Stephen Ward. Got that traveling itch? The insistent acoustic strumming and yearning vocals here will make you want to hit the open road.

3. “Scaffolding” – Emilyn Brodsky. I can’t resist ukulele-led indie-pop, especially when sung with such disarmingly mature and comforting lyrics as these. Even though the ukulele leads, this never devolves into cuteness for cute’s sake.

4. “Said and Done” – Joe Con. Joe Con has a quiet assuredness in his vocal tone that gives his back-porch acoustic-pop/hip-hop (a la Mat Kearney, G. Love, and early Mraz) an immediately undeniable quality. This is a slick, slick tune.

5. “Ride It Out” – Elijah Ocean. There’s just something about an acoustic guitar, a piano, and a brush-hit snare that snags my heartstrings. Ocean’s world-weary yet hopeful voice just seals the deal.

6. “Lecimy” – Tara Fuki. Two women’s voices and two cellos comprise the base of this track. It’s a fresh, light, and unique track.

7. “Tapes” – Andrew St. James. The ragged passion of Joe Pug, the vocal swagger of Justin Townes Earle, and an x factor all his own.

8. “In Our Galaxy” – Andrew Foster. Like a Lovely Few song, Foster builds this song from a delicate guitar melody to a fully-realized tune that sings of the mystic, beautiful qualities of outer space.

9. “Balloon” – ErelPilo. Remember the twee, romantic charms of Chairlift? ErelPilo have that sort of doe-eyed, guy/girl romantic pop going on, but with an acoustic guitar instead of a synthesizer. The quirk is still there, though!

September videos, a little late, pt 1

I didn’t post hardly any MP3s or videos in September, so a slew of them are about to come down the pipe. For the next few days, there could be up to three IC posts a day. I know, crazy. We’re turning into a content mill. (Just a joke. Seriously a joke.)

Sometimes modern dance strikes me as garish, but performances like those in Una Lux’s “Simon” remind me how evocative and moving it can be.

Starina’s clip for “This I Know” is the sort of surrealism that hooks me: I have only a vague impression of what’s happening, but I want to keep watching.

The Midnight Faces marry modern dance and surrealism into one clip that kept me watching in a bit of confusion until the very end.

EPs: Drift Wood Miracle / Midway Fair / Eoin Glackin

October 8, 2014

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Drift Wood Miracle impressed me from the word go, and every interaction I’ve had with them or their music since then has only grown that admiration. The Between Three & Four EP takes their disparate ideas (punk, artsy emo, acoustic singer/songwriter) and melds them into a cohesive experience that ranks with some of the best artistic rock music being made today.

“41 (Blue)” starts off with morose vocals over dreamy guitars (emo revival!) before seguing into a snappy acoustic singer/songwriter section; it shifts into an arty, woozy, vaguely psychedelic coda, then closes with traditional classical piano. If you’re scratching your head, no shame there. It’s only held together by force of Drift Wood Miracle’s collective will. The band then smashcuts into the raging punk/emo track “Typical,” complete with their quickly-becoming-signature sliding guitar riff style. The type of guitar work here makes me immediately think of verse/chorus/verse style of Brand New and Taking Back Sunday, but they subvert those markers of familiarity by not complying with that standard songwriting style. Instead, they throw riff after riff, never returning to any of them. You can make three or four songs out of the ideas in “Typical,” especially if you include the pensive guitar ballad at the end. If you’re not impressed at this point, this type of music probably isn’t for you.

In the rest of the all-too-short EP (12 minutes?!), we get a spoken-word French section, a squalling instrumental emo breakdown, group vocals over an acoustic guitar in a haunting melody, the drummer singing a song he wrote (!), more piano, complicated drum rhythms, and a towering post-hardcore wall of guitars. It’s a tour-de-force collage of sounds and ideas that all come together in a consistent mood. Drift Wood Miracle has come into its own here, asserting their innovative artistic vision with impressive maturity and clarity. Between Three & Four is a dizzying, astonishing performance that will make you want to play it over and over.

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Midway Fair‘s 2011 offering The Distance of the Moon at Daybreak leaned heavily on traditional English folk rhythms and melodies, throwing in some Springsteen-esque chug to cap it off. On their latest EP Most Distant Star, the band has grown into its sound quite a bit: the influences are still there, but they’re much tighter wound around each other. The result is a sharp four-song outing that gives me a feel for what Midway Fair is trying to accomplish as a band.

The opener/title track starts off with a strong piano riff and brash male/female vocals. By the middle of the first verse, they’ve introduced galloping drums to speedily pace the tune. They build the song throughout to a great, pounding high-point at about two minutes in, showing off their instrumental chops (those drum fills!), songwriting ability, and style. It’s a great song, totally appropriate to be the title track. The quartet keeps that energy and passion going through the rest of the EP, not letting any track drag. “Gone to California” features folk-style storytelling lyrics on top of a jaunty backdrop. “Ones and Zeros” incorporates some ’50s pop influences, while “Be What You Like” loops in some light soul and funk elements. It’s fun to see a band that’s comfortable with itself start to push the boundaries of its sound.

Midway Fair’s Most Distant Star may have started out as a folk EP, but by the end it morphed into a quick sampler of American pop music. Their tight instrumental interplay results in a light mood throughout: none of these tunes sound forced or heavy. If you’re looking for a fun pick-me-up today, look to Most Distant Star.

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Eoin Glackin also sounds like an amped up version of himself on his new EP Pretty Girl. While the title track is a smooth adult alternative cut in the vein of David Grey, the other three tracks are louder, faster, and fuller than Glackin has experimented with in the past. “Morning Take Us Easy” turns rumbling toms into a punk-inspired, push-tempo pattern in the chorus; the bass, guitar, and speedy vocal patterns follow suit, making this somewhat like a Frank Turner song or a Ryan Adams song on speed. There’s still harmonica and piano in there for sure, but this ain’t your usual laidback singer/songwriter fare.

“Ride It Out” expands the sound even wider, pulling in some widescreen soundscapes reminiscent of U2. Glackin gets a tenor howl going on against a reverbed guitar riff–I can totally see him throwing his head back and going full Bono on it. He fills out the EP with a punchy alternate version of “Rain Finally Came” from his previous album, using the drums and bass to once again help create the energetic vibe of the tune.

Sometimes an artist loses all their charm when they “go electric,” but Glackin is able to transfer his appealing aspects to the new situation and incorporate new tricks. His vocals are perhaps even more suited to the electric style than the troubadour folk he was previously doing. Pretty Girl is a fun, exciting EP that shows a new direction for Glackin that could pay off in spades.

Premiere Stream: M. Lockwood Porter’s 27

October 7, 2014

I have the honor of premiering 27 by M. Lockwood Porter today! You can preorder a vinyl or CD of the record at Black Mesa Records.

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The deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and more have inspired the myth that 27 is the age past which no musical youth icon can live. M. Lockwood Porter, also aged 27 but definitely alive, thoughtfully grabbed the number for the title of his sophomore alt-country/country-rock/just plain rock album. His debut Judah’s Gone focused on the past (just look at that title); 27 is a coming-of-age rumination that turns his gaze from youthful aches to the troubles of living in the adult world.

27 does not contain fluffy or stereotypical lyrics: while there are a couple jilted-lover tunes, they fit into a larger paradigm of the difficult questions Porter is asking about life. Thoughts about mortality (“Chris Bell,” about another lost 27-year-old musician), the possibility of not achieving dreams (“Restless”), religion (“Couer D’Alene”), and leaving behind a legacy (“Mountains”) paint a picture of a person standing at the edge of adulthood and grappling with what he’s found so far. I may not agree with every conclusion, but I’m deeply glad that the sentiments are expressed with enough depth and clarity that I can actually agree or disagree with them. That’s a pretty rare accomplishment in the rock world.

The album’s centerpiece is the ballad “Mountains,” which pulls all of these thoughts about life together. It starts with tom hits that sound like a heartbeat before Porter wearily sings, “When I was young my father said / that faith could move a mountain / now there’s mountains as far as I can see.” Striking piano, tasteful percussion, and an earnest guitar line fill out the raw, earnest tune. I wish I could write out all the lyrics for you, but Porter distills it all into one sweeping statement to close the tune: “And as I stare across the vast expanse / I can hear my father shouting / but mountains are all that I can see.”

Porter serves up these musings in expertly crafted alt-country/country-rock tunes. Porter’s been in a bunch of bands of various genres over the past dozen years, and he’s learned things from all of them. Opener “I Know You’re Going to Leave Me” crescendoes to a pounding, ragged, desperate, shiver-inducing rock ending; he follows it up with “Chris Bell,” which is about as perfect an alt-country song as Gram Parsons could hope to hear. “You Only Talk About Your Band” is a rollicking, impassioned ’50s rock’n’roll tune that sounds like it fell out of a time machine somewhere, while Bruce Springsteen would approve of the insistent piano and urgent vocals in “Restless.” “Secrets” sounds like a San Francisco indie-pop mosey, an influence holdover from his time in The 21st Century. “Couer D’Alene” is a delicate acoustic-and-voice tune to close out the record. All of these songs are impressive in their own right, and yet none feel out of place on the record.

Porter keeps these disparate sounds and ideas held together through a consistent vocal presence on the record. No matter what genre Porter writes, he works to make his voice inhabit the song. There are no bad vehicles here: Porter sounds completely at home in each of these tunes. Instead of sounding pristine, the opposite is true: by feeling comfortable throughout, he’s able to allow his voice some fluctuations and character without needing to edit it out. It gives the whole album a careworn, comfortable feel, similar to a Justin Townes Earle song or Josh Ritter’s The Beast In Its Tracks.

27 has the sort of musical and lyrical depth that causes me to come up with more things to say than I have space for. (Two things that got cut: 1. comparing the lyrics of “Mountains” with my favorite Ryan Adams track “Rock and Roll,” which you should do on your own time; 2. The production job is excellent.) Personally Porter is in transition, but lyrically Porter is hitting his stride to be able to describe the struggles so compellingly. Musically he’s creating work that shines as a whole and as individual tracks, which shows a rare maturity. You need to hear this one.

Fri, 10/10 – San Francisco, CA @ Brick and Mortar w/ Victor Krummenacher
Fri, 10/17 – Oklahoma City, OK @ The Blue Note
Sat, 10/18 – Tulsa, OK @ Mercury Lounge
Sun, 10/19 – Lawrence, KS @ Jackpot Music Hall
Mon, 10/20 – Iowa City, IA @ Gabe’s
Tues, 10/21 – Chicago, IL @ Reggie’s
Wed, 10/22 – Eaton, OH @ Taffy’s
Thurs, 10/23 – Philadelphia @ The Grape Room
Sat, 10/25 – NYC @ Wicked Willy’s at 6:30 pm (Official CMJ Showcase)
Sun, 10/26 – NYC @ Rockwood Music Hall Stage 1
Mon, 10/27 – Charlotte @ Thomas Street Tavern
Tues, 10/28 – Chapel Hill @ The Cave (I’ll be at this one)
Wed, 10/29 – Nashville, TN @ The 5 Spot
Thurs, 10/30 – Huntsville, AL @ Maggie Meyer’s Irish Pub
Fri, 10/31 – Clarksdale, MS @ Shack Up Inn
Sat, 11/1 – Lafayette, LA @ Artmosphere
Sun, 11/2 – Austin, TX @ Sahara Lounge
Mon, 11/3 – Dallas @ Opening Bell

Matthew Oomen / Jesse Marchant

October 6, 2014

matthewoomen

Folk music can sound like any season: spring (The Tallest Man on Earth), summer (Josh Ritter), fall (The Head and the Heart), and winter (Bon Iver). Matthew Oomen is from Norway, and his acoustic-led singer/songwriter tunes definitely take inspiration from the arctic surroundings and lean into the wintry side of things. In contrast to Bon Iver’s impressionistic emoting, the strengths of Oomen’s Where the Valley Is Long lie in spacious arrangements, distinct rhythms, meticulous performances, and crisp production.

“Master’s Row” opens the album with precise, separated acoustic guitar and banjo fingerpicking, stating very quickly what sort of album this will be. Oomen comes in with gentle whispered/sung tenor vocals, then brings in a swooping cello. The overall effect is a romantic, wintry vibe: the space in the arrangements gives room for listeners to breathe, and the gentle mood has wistful, amorous overtones. The song would fit perfectly in a day where you cuddled up with your lover next to a warm fire as snow falls.

The rest of the songs doen’t stray far from that mood, creating a warm, open, resonant album. “Called to Straw” is one of the slowest on the record, leisurely creating a beautiful atmosphere with the banjo, guitar, and dual-gender vocals. “Camp Hill” is an instrumental track that excellently displays the melodic gift that Oomen has. Some may find that the dominant fingerpicking style can result in some difficulty of differentiation between the tunes, but the specific mood of the album is so consistent that it’s just as good to me as a whole unit as in individual bits. Where the Valley is Long is a beautiful, enchanting, comforting album of pristine singer/songwriter folk. Fans of Young Readers, The Tallest Man on Earth, and Joshua Radin’s early work will find much to love here.

jessemarchant

Jesse Marchant‘s self-titled record is far more masterful than a debut would usually be, because Marchant has released several albums under the JBM moniker. (I’m particularly fond of Not Even In July.) Marchant’s first offering under his real name brings his powerful brand of serious music to great results at two different poles. When I first reviewed Marchant’s live show earlier this year, I compared him to a mix of Gregory Alan Isakov and Jason Molina. Here he largely separates those influences, splitting his wistful/romantic and churning/tension-laden elements into different tunes.

I was originally attracted to Marchant’s music for his quiet tunes, but his noisier offerings are just as compelling here. The muscly “In the Sand/Amelia” relies on a seriously fuzzed-out guitar riff and heavy bass tones to create an emotional, powerful tune. He caps the song with a brief yet impressive bit of squalling guitar solo. “All Your Promise” has a bit of Keane-style dramatic flair to its intro, leaning on cinematic, back-alley tenion before settling into a quieter, synth-laden verse. “Adrift” starts off with a big pad synth and a serious drumkit groove; it doesn’t exactly resolve into a rock tune, but it’s pretty close.

But even “In the Sand/Amelia” has an abrupt return to quietness in its middle section. Marchant knows how to wring emotion out of a repetitive guitar riff, a mournful vocal line, and time, and that hasn’t changed here. Opener “Words Underlined” shows him in full form, building a six-minute experience out of a uncomplicated, gently strummed electric guitar. He’s still in Jason Molina territory there. He does turn his attention to less brooding tunes, like the upbeat “The Whip”–not nearing power-pop by any means, but Isakov fans will know the vibe intuitively. “Stay on Your Knees” has a bit more of a rock feel, but the swift fingerpicking pulls it from his Songs:Ohia pole closer to the Isakov one. But even within the song there are dalliances: synths appear, a piano section pops up, etc.

Marchant is building his own style here, and it’s working really well: he’s identifiable with other musicians but not copying them. Jesse Marchant is a satisfying album that should make fans of those not in the know and please those who have followed him as JBM. If you’re into musicians like Leif Vollebekk, Isakov, Molina or Bowerbirds, you’ll find a kindred spirit here.

Quick Hits: Slow Magic / Remedies / ODESZA

October 3, 2014

slowmagic

Slow Magic‘s How to Run Away combines chillwave and chiptune, two of my favorite niche genres, to create a whole album that lives in the tension between lush and staccato. “Hold Still” shows off the dichotomy best, where flowing synths and chill beats in the bulk of the song give way to a mini-dubstep coda with screamin’ single-note synths straight out of a video game somewhere.

Slow Magic does have songs that show off both sides: “Youth Group” sounds like Final Fantasy-inspired chiptune, while “Girls” is right in line with Pogo and Blackbird Blackbird in terms of chopped-vocals/smooth synths chillwave construction. But it’s the songs where the elements cross (and are augmented by insistent piano, as is often the case) where the songs shine. It’s not as high-energy as Anamanaguchi, but this isn’t sit-back-and-relax music either. It strives to make its own path, and that’s commendable no matter what genre you’re in.

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Remedies also has some serious chiptune influences, but they choose trip-hop as their second ingredient. Slow Magic chooses upbeat, bright moods; Remedies chooses downtempo, midnight-blue moods to go along with high-pitched synths. The sounds from all your SNES dungeon gaming have found new life in Believers, re-appropriated in unique ways.

This is most clearly shown in single “Trap,” where the opening riff sends me back to Zelda: Link to the Past, while the dreamy synths and autotuned vocals take the song in a different direction. The vocals appear throughout the album, graduating the tunes of Believers from easily-classified electro jams to a more complex and rewarding description: a hybrid R&B/alt hip-hop project. “Time” is a particularly evocative example of their hip-hop grooves, while follow-up “Good Books” shows off their R&B chops in vocal melodies and spurned-lover lyrics. Chiptune, trip-hop, hip-hop, and R&B in a blender seems like a tough thing to imagine, but Remedies sounds surprisingly assured and mature in pulling it off.

odesza

ODESZA‘s In Return also has some R&B influences, particularly in the Shy Guys feature “All We Need” and the smooth instrumental banger “Kusanagi.” But it’s a side effect of ODESZA’s main mission: absorb every possible electro-based genre into its own version of what electronic music should be. Call it post-dub if you like, but there’s hardly a drop to be found here (even of the artsy version they originally came to prominence on). Instead, there’s flashes of clubby electro-pop (“Sun Models”), soundtrack-ready mood backdrops (“Sundara”), laconic electronic estimations of quirky indie-pop (“Memories That You Call”), and more. The opening of “For Us” sounds like the start of Coldplay’s “Strawberry Swing,” which is more compliment than not from this party.

By absorbing the lessons of many different strains of electronic music (including chiptune!), ODESZA has crafted an album that blows past all of them. There’s not a cloying or cheesy moment on this whole album, which is a testament to the group’s skill and nuance. (I love Anamanaguchi, because cheesiness is the point. When cheesiness is not the end goal, that’s when it gets problematic.) If you’re into electronic music, you really should be listening to ODESZA. For my money, they’re making the most interesting electronic music around.

Salesman: Avant garde alt-country

October 2, 2014

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If first lines are important for setting the tone of an album, then the opening salvo from Salesman on Escalante lets you know that things aren’t going to progress in the normal fashion: “I believe the dead have to climb / up the narrow road that’s thinner than a chalk line / but they climb / like wine up my throat.” What unspools in the next 37 minutes is a hypnotic, haunting, eerie set of tunes that don’t adhere to any rules of genre or style. Escalante is its own thing, and that’s not something I get so say very often.

Opener “7×7″ sets things in an ostensibly Americana/alt-country setting, with fractured but still recognizable alt-country guitar work and thrumming bass. It’s got those real wild lyics, but you can reasonably call it an alt-country song (albeit one that the Jayhawks never would have imagined). But by the second track, all genre markers are largely obliterated. “Horn” is the sort of song that seems fit for the desert: disjointed bass lines, spartan drumming, occasional dispatches of modified guitar noise, and distant sleigh bells accompany ghostly, mournful vocals for the first true taste of eerie. There is an impressive, grinding guitar bit (guitar solo?) halfway through, but it’s more like Tom Morello’s guitar solos than a surf-rock one.

Things get really wild on “Clear Cold Heaven,” which is a solo vocal piece accompanied only by unsettling clicking, buzzing, and whirring sounds. It is truly avant-garde, and more than a little creepy. (Bonus track “Bringing Upbringing” is constructed in a similar vein, but is less uncomfortable due to the mix of sounds around the vocals.) The members of Salesman know that they’ve been a bit rough on their listeners, so they close out Side A with the acoustically soothing “Spirit Jar,” a beautiful, pensive, slow, acoustic-led folk tune that’s about waking up in a spirit jar. (No rest for the eccentric.)

“Four Legs” counts as one of the more standard tracks here, a helter-skelter indie-rock track that invokes Pontiak and other swamp-lovin’ rock bands. It nears the levels of sonic aggression of Lord Buffalo, the noisy/apocalyptic alt-country band that shares members with Salesman. (“When You Face It” also cultivates this sort of deep-night, gritty-dusty groove.) “Loving Dead” also nears normalcy, opening with beautiful violin and guitar harmonics. So it’s totally possible for Salesman to make songs that adhere to genre patterns, but they just prefer to subvert them most of the time.

Escalante is a fearless, unrestrained record that makes a definite mark. It is not content to get in line with the other bands’ stuff. If you think there’s not enough alt in alt-country these days, Salesman might be on your avant-garde wavelength. Adventurous types, forge ahead!

Jacob Furr: Life and death without despair

October 1, 2014

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Breakups are tough, no way around it–but there are things that are harder. When Jacob Furr sings “Does love still sit on our front porch / although your chair is empty?” in “Drift Away,” he’s not referencing some girl who ran off (or that he chased off with bad behavior); he’s talking about his wife, who died of cancer suddenly. I’m not a man to spill other people’s news, so here’s a long article about the album’s backstory from the Dallas Observer. But I mention it because it gives an accurate perspective on Trails and Traces.

With such heavy subject matter, it’s particularly impressive that these alt-country songs are so nimble, light, and upbeat. I don’t mean that we’ve got party rock going on here, but that songs like “Mockingbird,” “One More Round” and “Blakes Song” all rely on swift fingerpicking, major keys, gentle moods, and an overall melodic feeling of wistful calm. To have gone through the wringer and come out alive and intact is one thing; to be able to sing calmly, even hopefully, about it is another thing altogether.

There are some louder country-rock tunes here: opener “Branches” and follow-up “Lines” both get that Texas feel into the full-band arrangements. “Branches” has a wide-open rock feel, while “Lines” gets some honky-tonk vibe going on. Single “Falling Stars” is led by a squalling, reverb-heavy guitar line that evokes The Walkmen (a cross-genre reference, but an apt one). The end of the wrenching “I Remember You,” one of the few times that the depths of sorrow and angst emerge, is a crushing stomp populated by towering distorted guitars, staccato drums, and howling vocals. So there’s definitely some oomph and crunch here, if you’re into that.

But I’m most excited about the calmer tracks: “Drift Away,” “Sunrise Slow” and the three I mentioned earlier, where Furr’s wandering troubadour spirit shines. When Furr lets his voice and guitar do the heavy lifting, the songs push past their rock counterparts in moving quality. “Drift Away” is not the saddest sounding song on the record, nor is it the most devastating in lyric (although it’s pretty close). It does have a expertly nuanced vocal performance that grabs me and vaults the song above its counterparts into a highlight. “Blakes Song” pairs a beautiful guitar line with a mournful vocal line. These are gorgeous songs that are so neatly constructed that you can miss the depth if you don’t pay attention. Listen close.

“Mockingbird” closes the record on an upbeat note. It’s particularly telling of Furr’s intention with the album that he didn’t close with “I Remember You” or “Blakes Song”; he could have sent the listener away with a brutal reminder of loss and the difficulties of this world. Instead, he closes the whole album with a proclamation: “I sing to break the dying calm.” There is a darkness and a heaviness to death, and it affects the living. But it doesn’t have to define the living, as Furr knows. It’s a wonderful thing to discover; it’s an amazing thing to leave a listener with.

Furr labels Trails and Traces as Americana, as many people have been doing these days. He does bring in elements of folk-rock, country-rock, and folk fingerpicking; maybe that sound is what Americana means these days. Regardless of the genre labels, Trails and Traces is a powerful record about life and death that doesn’t get bogged down in morose musings–a rare and remarkable release, indeed.

Andrew Judah’s Monster: A whirlwind ride of unusually-juxtaposed instruments

September 30, 2014

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The toughest part of writing about Andrew Judah‘s Monster is trying to figure out how to explain the thing in genre terms. Is it OK Computer-era rock without the guitars? The Decemberists’ indie-pop having a nightmare? Lushly orchestrated trip-hop? Genre labels aside, it’s a whirlwind ride of unusually-juxtaposed instruments that knit together perfectly under Judah’s careful composer’s ear.

Judah is a highly sought-after commercial composer; you’ve probably heard his work without knowing it. His third album of artistic compositions sets wild, intricate foreground elements on top of cinematic backdrops for maximum immersion. Judah works mostly in minor keys here, building brooding, intense landscapes that build to bursting. “I Know You Know” turns a smooth, cascading guitar line into a stuttering, bewildering footrace; the song culminates in a furious maze of arpeggios surrounded by glitching keys, layered vocals, and complex drumming. It has a visceral, physical quality to it; I can almost feel the sounds happening to me.

“Better and Better” amps up the ominous qualities of the record, starting out with heavy pad synths (although he notes in the liner notes that this might be a banjo played with a violin bow), muted piano, and gurgling bass. This is an album where sounds take preeminence over the instruments that make them: it could be a banjo or steel drums, keys or guitar, bass or keys, electronic or live drums. The performer isn’t important: the fact that the sounds mesh perfectly takes precedence.

Back to “Better and Better”: Judah’s voice is digitally manipulated to sound alien and yet comforting, which is the same sort of tension that Radiohead perfectly captured in OK Computer. But Yorke and co. didn’t try to make that into the eerily joyful soundtrack for a dark carnival, as Judah does here. It’s a profoundly unexpected turn. The title track draws some musical composing tricks straight out of old horror films, with wavering theremin sounds floating uncomfortably above the acoustic guitar before unveiling some of the most delicate, tender work that Monster has to offer.

Judah revels in the abrupt shift; many of the tunes here move from this to that unexpectedly. Sometimes it’s quiet/loud/quiet; other times the tone or mood shifts. Sometimes the time signatures change. “What Now?” draws on a relatively disorienting use of syncopation to throw you off. Yes, he employs a variety of tricks to keep you interested, and it works really well. The biggest element that draws me, however, is how it all hangs together. You can listen to Monster beginning to end without necessarily marking the titles of songs. You’ll definitely look back to see what the names of “Morning Light” and “I Know You Know” are, but you may find yourself feeling that the ballad “Willis” just kinda runs along with “Twitch & Shake” and “Better & Better.” You can enjoy it that way if you’d like–more power to you.

Monster is a dark record, but it’s not a grim or hopeless one. It explores brooding territory without getting overwrought, which is a tough balance to strike. Some albums feel like the songwriter is talking to you; this one feels like watching a movie by a director friend of yours. It’s not impenetrable, and you can see flashes of your friend’s hand, but it’s more about the unique experience of that particular media than the person behind the curtain. Andrew Judah gets out of his own way here, letting the intricate, complex, fascinating songs tell their tales. It pays off in spades.

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

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