Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Absurdity / surreality

November 3, 2014

Surreality and absurdity have specific meanings to me. Surreal is the type of weird that’s just left of normal; you can feel that it might be normal, but something is just off. It’s the creepy weird, the weird that everyone accepts as normal except you–and you don’t know why. Absurdity is when completely nonsensical things happen all at once and everyone realizes it’s bizarre. Creating absurdity is much easier than creating surreality. The Landing’s video for “We Are” is surreal, in the best way.

Springtime Carnivore’s video for “Name on a Matchbook” is the funniest video I’ve seen all year. Subverting gender stereotypes and tropes? Re-envisioning Springtime Carnivore as a girl-band Beatles? Be still, my fluttering heart.

Quiet Stories’ “When I Come Down” is not necessarily quiet in volume, but the story he tells in this video definitely is a quiet little tale.

Sometimes it’s a single image that gets me in a video. In Bobby Bare Jr.’s “North of Alabama By Morning,” it’s a two-second clip (0:37-38) of the keyboardist grooving so hard. Total dedication to the sound, right there. Also, this song rules.

I watched the whole 5:16 of Sharon Van Etten’s “Your Love is Killing Me” clip because I wanted to know what was happening. Let’s just call the end a baffling one. Van Etten is a towering presence on this track, so if you’re into huge, emotional songs, you can stay for that as well.

Get on up get on up get on up

November 2, 2014

1. “Cassius” – The Maytags. You want some fun, dance-around your kitchen vibes? The Maytags have perky horns, upbeat rhythm section, group vocals, and a totally infectious mood. My fiance likes it, and she likes good music. Jump on it, people.

2. “In a Desert of Plenty” – Sunmonks. Motown horns, distant vocals, funky vibes, and engimatic/intriguing rhythmic elements make this track a keeper.

3. “The Snowfalls” – Whyte Horses. Gentle psychedelia meets ’70s folk with some ’50s girl pop vibes in the vocals: it’s a really inviting overall effect.

4. “Center of the Universe” – Chris Staples. Remember that hyper-personal acoustic indie-pop movement from the early to mis ’00s? Some called it quiet is the new loud, but I called it deeply engaging, personal work with a priority on intimate recording styles. This Built to Spill cover nails all the right notes.

5. “i don’t need an advocate, i need an exorcist” – moyamoya. If Appleseed Cast’s wide-open, cinematographic motion from Mare Vitalis made into to the minor keys of Peregrine, we’d have this track. Tons of great guitar work throughout, beautiful production job.

6. “A Sunday Afternoon Epilepsy” – More than Skies. MTS continues their very intriguing campaign to mix lush, autumnal folk landscapes with angular, punk-inspired guitars and creaky vocals. I’m a fan.

7. “Ghostlight” – Alex Tiuniaev. Here’s a cinematic, pensive, romantic instrumental piece led by piano and strings.

8. “Opus No. 21” – The Greatest Hoax. Ambient classical? Dreamy no-guitars post-rock? Wistful dreamweave pop? Whatever this is, it’s pretty, moving, and sets a scene well.

Whiskey Shivers put good vibes and good musicians on display

October 28, 2014

whiskeyshivers

So I was listening to WKNC during a radio show about country music released from the 1920’s through the 1970’s, and I heard the funniest country and western song I’ve ever heard: David Alan Coe’s “Dakota the Dancing Bear Part 2.” It’s a rollicking, ridiculous, good-humored bit of country storytelling that has to be heard to be believed. Whiskey Shivers could get along with Coe quite nicely, as their self-titled album reps the old-school country and western sound with a gutbusting sense of humor.

The band has mad chops: they throw down rolling, fingerpicked banjo; swooping violin; upright bass; earnest vocals; and even some whistling. And instead of employing them in the service of exclusively serious tunes, they mix up their lovelorn ballads with goofy tunes. The relatively modern sounding “Angel in the Snow” calls up the Avett Brothers at their country-est both in sadsack lyric and melodic style, while “Hot Party Dads” is a million bpm hoedown tune about …. the title. “Pray for Me” and “Long Low Down” bring that old school Southern Baptist gospel sound into the mix, while opener “Free” doesn’t take itself too seriously in its rapidfire delivery. (They’re really fond of playing as fast as possible, which is fun all its own–even if it isn’t explicitly humorous.) These guys would get along with The Parmesans really, really well.

Old school country and western is due for a glance from indie music; here’s to hoping that Whiskey Shivers find their people and make rowdy, alcohol-fueled string band music for a long time.

The Shivers’ Charades: An early ’00s gem gets a vinyl re-release

October 27, 2014

theshivers

The early 2000s were a time of joy and splendor for independent music: people were putting Death Cab in TV shows! Modest Mouse was getting signed! Blogs were zooming bands to stardom in mere days! In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was slowly rumbling its way to cult stardom! Independent music culture, which had existed since the late ’70s, finally had some above-the-radar recognition. In this crucible appeared bands that were obvious pop successes, but also some band’s bands: shadowy, insider-baseball outfits that were revered and somehow kept secret from/didn’t resonate with the general populace. Jeff Mangum’s output is the example par excellence, but unassuming lo-fi bands like The Microphones and The Shivers also fell into that category. It is a vinyl re-release of The Shivers’ Charades I am here to praise today (even though I almost never cover re-releases).

If you haven’t heard of The Shivers and their cult classic Charades, don’t worry: until a 10-year anniversary vinyl was brought to my attention, I didn’t know about Keith Zarriello and co.’s gritty, lo-fi indie-pop. Zarriello fits in with The Microphones and other early ’00s bands that were trying (and largely succeeded) to make indie-pop into a dignified art form with aesthetic diversity and abilities. It was purposefully serious music, but it could be beautiful (and even a little funny, too). Charades is all of that: serious, diverse, artistic, beautiful, and even a bit humorous. It succeeds as a gorgeous album without sounding like it’s trying too hard (although we now know that certain level of disaffected attitude takes considerable effort).

“Beauty” is the highlight here: a gently strummed electric guitar, tape hiss, and a plunky bass guitar open the track and set the mood. Zarriello’s voice warbles confidently (no, I mean that) above the quiet backdrop, sounding every bit a bedroom track. But the lyrics open up from the concerns of one man’s head and encompass a general statement on love and life. It’s a statement that many artists try to make, and it’s not entirely clear why this one works so poignantly. Perhaps it’s the distinct combination of the elements. Perhaps it’s the wonderful chorus, sung by a multi-tracked vocal chorus. Maybe it’s none of those things. But it’s a gorgeous, memorable track that can’t be ignored. It has largely propelled Charades ongoing life.

But there are other songs going for it as well: “Sunshine” has a wistful lullaby feel about it. “The Shivers” and “Charades” are moody pieces that seek that artistic aesthetic. “I Could Care Less” and “L.I.E.” are a little more immediate in their take on things: the former by being loud and brash, the latter by tuning down the tape hiss and focusing right on the vocals and gentle guitars.

Charades gave me time machine joy: the passion and dreary excitement of the early ’00s are historical relics now, but Charades lets you relive what it was like to hear bands push those boundaries. The excitement of discovering songs in the way they would have been discovered a decade ago is an exquisite and rare joy. You get to have some nostalgia and get to hear some incredible new songs. I can’t think of much more to ask for in a re-release.

Some CMJ’ers: Brook Pridemore / Blake Brown

October 24, 2014

brookpridemore

I tell every band that will listen that the long press cycle is a real thing. You’ve gotta get content out there at periodic and consistent intervals so that press people remember that you’re there and then therefore tell their readers. This means dribbling out content in ways that don’t necessarily fit with the last 30 or so years of music history (but actually fit real nicely with methods of the 30 before that; truly nothing is new under the sun).

There is no one who is a champ at this more than Brook Pridemore (person and band). Between 11 videos, a teaser EP, and a live release that started all the way back in early 2013, I feel like I’ve been listening to Gory Details for years already because I have. At its worst this could produce burnout, but with Brook it basically just makes me love the album. I mean, who doesn’t like an album where you can sing along with half of the songs the first time you press play?

It helps that Brook Pridemore’s work perfectly matches my favorite styles of music. Gory Details starts with the energetic strum of folk-punk, layers on impressively thoughtful lyrics sung via infectious indie-pop vocal melodies, then arranges the whole thing with an excellent band and even some horns. It’s like Andrew Jackson Jihad mellowed out into The Mountain Goats with some Josh Ritter thrown in for good measure (“Damage Control”). The weird way I’ve heard this album kind of skews the review: my favorite tracks are the tracks that were already my favorites. “Oh, E!” is tons of hyperactive, travelogue fun with an earworm melody; “Listening to TPM” is awesome for its horns as well as its tight control of mood. “Celestial Heaven or Leap of Faith” has a great instrumental hook and an urgent vibe throughout; the intelligent set of lyrics make it seem somewhat like a super-powered version of a Johnny Flynn song. “Brother Comfort,” one of the more aggressive tracks here (and new to me), is also fun in its neat complexity.

Gory Details is, above all things, a ton of fun. Brook Pridemore has a lot of things going for them on this album, and all the complex pieces have come together to make an album that transcends them all. Great lyrics, mature vocal control, excellent production job, solid contributing rhythm section; all of it comes together to make tracks like “Oh, E!” seemingly obvious songs: when has this not existed? When was it not amazing? To steal a song title, no one belongs here more than you. Of course you’re one of my favorite songs. Of course you are. You always were, as soon as I knew you existed. You need more Brook Pridemore in your life.

You can get more Brook Pridemore by going to his CMJ set at Muchmore’s in Brooklyn on Saturday.

blakebrown

Maybe it’s the World Series, but there’s all sorts of baseball metaphors I can make about Blake Brown and the American Dust Choir‘s Three EP. The band’s straightahead alt-country could be called a fastball straight down the pipe, because you know exactly what you’re going to get and you can smash a home run off it. You could also call it a change-up, since the band prefers mid-tempo, Jayhawks-style work as opposed to the hectic Old ’97s style. If I were really reaching, I could point out there are only a few baseball teams left that use organ as prominently as Blake Brown’s outfit does.

The first two tracks of the three-song outing are the sort of pedal steel/harmonica/organ/acoustic guitar fare that is most recognizable as ’90s-era alt-country. The band doesn’t give in to Wilco-style minimalism or Drive-by Truckers’ rock-oriented guitar walls; they just stay in the pocket and do their work on vocal vehicle “Get Out.” The band is tight and clean throughout the track, notably so. The band gets a little funky on “White Rose” (check those Wurlitzers!). But the standout here is the subdued, late-night mope “Surrender (La Di Da),” which allows Brown to show off his melodic sensibilities and nuanced arrangements. Brown and co. manage to glue me to the track that never gets faster than a mosey and never raises louder than speaking voice through a beautiful electric guitar tone, distant droning organ, and thoughtful percussion.

If you’re in the market for some alt-country at CMJ, I’d look up Blake Brown on Saturday at Wicked Willy’s. (He’ll be there with M. Lockwood Porter, too!)

Quiet Stories: Brash, punk-inspired folk/country

quietstories

There’s a striking immediacy to much punk music that endears me to it. Even more that rock, punk music feels connected to the life of the moment. No hook should be delayed, no element should be understated, nuance should be minimized; who knows how long that PA will hold up? If the show will get shut down? If the world ends? Nope, play fast and loud and do it all right now. Quiet Stories‘ Matt Moran cut his teeth in the short-lived punk/rock band The Typist, so he knows the world of sonic immediacy. Even though he’s playing acoustic folk/country right now, he’s maintained that brash, devil-may-care attitude in his melodies and arrangements. Per Aspera Ad Astra is a passionate album that feels both energetic and comforting.

The history of musicians leaving punk for acoustic music is long, but it’s one of punk’s lesser-known defects that was most successful as an acoustic performer. Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba was in punk/emo band Further Seems Forever in the early ’00s before starting DC. Since DC is pretty much sad songs sung to punk strumming on an acoustic guitar, it’s not surprising the first time you hear that fact. Moran has more than a little bit of the brash vocal stylings and energetic arrangements of Carrabba. “1987” and “Seven Years” particularly show off this vibe: the former sees Moran singing loudly and hammering a piano from the outset of the song, while the full band arrangement of the latter includes full-keyboard slides, hollered punk vocals, iconic punk whoas, and punchy drums. This may be a folk/country album, but it’s not Bon Iver by any stretch of the imagination.

“When It’s Over” starts with full arrangement and vocals from the beginning, a no-nonsense approach to getting into a song. It’s a bit more of a melancholy track, per its title. Even though it jumps in with both feet, it still shows a reflective musical and lyrical side. Fingerpicked ballad “This is 25″ will be the high point for fans of quiet/sad tunes–it’s a really strong track that shows Moran could play ball with the best of the solo singer/songwriters if he so chose. But when you can holler with the best of them and play loud songs like closer “American Summer,” why would you play only quiet ones? Moran is comfortable with the mix of sounds, as none of the songs here sound out of place to my ear. It’s just a fun album to listen to.

That diversity of sound turns Per Aspera from a collection of tunes into a true album. There are many facets to the album, even though the predominant sound is a brash, punk-inspired folk/country idiom. Moran knows his way around a guitar, and that shows throughout. If you want some folk/country with energy, passion, and strong songwriting, check out Quiet Stories.

News and stuff and October

So here’s the news!

Classic-rock new kids Greylag, who have a single that you should listen to, put together a Spotify playlist of songs that influence them. The concept in itself is pretty cool, but their list is even cooler: aside from obvious influences Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, they’ve got Sonic Youth, Cocteau Twins and Kurt Vile. Get hip, y’all.

Singer/songwriter Stephen Kellogg is doing a PledgeMusic campaign to fund a four-album cycle based on the four cardinal directions. I’m all for ambitious projects and crowdfunding, so go jump on it.

Nate Allen (of exuberant acoustic-punk outfit Destroy Nate Allen!) has a solo project coming out that also is looking for some crowdfunding. Allen’s campaign is for dat vinyl.

The diverse Mint 400 Records, home of the band I manage, just released a free tribute to Lou Reed. You can download the short EP by clicking on this link.

A deluxe edition of Songs: Ohia’s Didn’t It Rain is getting a Nov. 11 release from Secretly Canadian. As a fan of Jason Molina’s work, this is exciting to me. Even more exciting is the new song released in celebration of the event, “Ring the Bell – Working Title: Depression No. 42.”

Here’s to you, Mr. Molina.

Videos videos videos!

October 23, 2014

Andrew Judah’s amazing clip for “I Know You Know” gets the pop-up fact treatment. The facts are cool, but mostly I’m putting this up here so that you have to listen to it again.

The Gray Havens sing their infectious, memorable folk-pop song “Songs in the Night” … in the night. It is great.

The ominous folk/country sound of Suzanne Jarvie’s “Spiral Road” is worth your time.

The Lone Bellow has a whole lot of motown horns and soul band members backing him up, making his moniker questionable and his tune impeccable.

I have no idea what’s happening in this Purmamarca clip for “I Don’t Need Your Love,” but it’s compelling to watch.

Ed Prosek’s video for “Hold On Tight” is gorgeous cinematographically.

Singles 3: It was a dark and stormy … club

It Was a Dark and Stormy … Club

1. “Substance” – Germany Germany. Moving from clubby electro bangers to artsy, flowing dance-rock isn’t a huge jump. But when the results are this infectious, it feels like a revelation and a turned corner in Germany Germany’s career.

2. “Never Easy” – We Are Magnetic. Gotta love a big “Midnight City”-style chorus.

3. “Recycled Words” – Lectures. Twinkly/angular guitar leads backed up by pounding chords, thrashed cymbals, and anguished vocals in a high tenor? No chorus, just one long line of song? This is early ’00s, Deep Elm-style emo, my friends. I am so down with this.

4. “Boxing Day” – Carroll. Carroll’s making their indie-pop darker, dancier, and more electro-heavy. I feel like we should all be dressed in our best clothes for this one.

5. “Colors” – Dream Stretcher. Stuttering beats, hazy synths, and mystical female vocals power this late-night drive home electro jam.

The Last Builders of Empire / The Slang

October 22, 2014

lastbuildersofempire

I review a lot of music. Like any person who does a particular action thousands of times, I’ve come up with better and more refined ways of accomplishing this task. For me it means listening while doing certain types of other actions, keeping track of any stray thought whatsoever I have while listening, and so on. But sometimes an album comes along that blows up my method. Post-war by Last Builders of Empire forces me to encounter it on the creator’s terms instead of my own, which results in a really satisfying listener experience and (as you’re about to see) a relatively difficult writer experience.

My natural reaction to post-rock is to describe the quality of the sounds and point out the defining characteristic of those sounds. Post-War resists that. The post-rock here is largely dark, heavy, and emotional; it aims for the widescreen angles. The band’s scenes are framed by delicate guitar work; they often build from sweet, subtle beginnings to heavy, dissonant, distorted conclusions. That all sounds like standard post-rock fare, right? That’s because the individual aspects of the sound aren’t really the point of the album (as opposed to, say, an Adebisi Shank album, where they are 100% the reason to listen). The care and attention that Last Builders of Empire invest in the details of the songwriting and wordless storytelling are what make this an engaging, enveloping listen.

The band wrote this work with a specific arc in mind; this isn’t a haphazard collection of songs without context. Set up in a tripartite “Inferno,” “Purgatorio,” “Paradiso” format, this album seeks to be a whole unit. (This is why it is so difficult to talk about its individual songs or even the individual sounds.) Yes, this is a fully-realized achievement, an album that has the plodding dissonance of “Huida Hacia El Sol” as an equally important part of the album as the urgent, yearning “Quiet Like a Knife.”

Closer “For Those Who Have Faith” brings both of those leanings together, pairing a yearning guitar line that finally edges its way over into a major key with a thumping, low-slung rhythm section. The middle section represents a style closer to the soaring, upbeat Lights and Motion style of post-rock than the heavy, brutal Godspeed You! Black Emperor style. It’s still very clearly Last Builders of Empire, but they’re able to transform their songwriting accordingly to fit their overall arc. By the end they’ve come back around to their home base of dark, heavy, dissonant, and emotional–which presents an interesting conclusion to the album. Perhaps “Paradiso” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be–returning home from war is never easy.

Post-war by Last Builders of Empire is not the sort of album you can digest in one song or even one sitting of the whole record. It’s an experience that you have simmer in and immerse yourself in. Last Builders of Empire have taken the time to craft their art in deep and thought-provoking ways, which I always appreciate. If you’re into post-rock, Last Builders of Empire should be on your to-hear list.

Slang_EP_Album_Cover

I’m a big fan of two mid-era Jimmy Eat World records, Futures and Chase This Light, that perfectly captured the blend of riffs, rhythmic variety, clever vocal melodies, and mood diversity that I’m looking for in rock. The Slang have a ton of sonic similarities with Jimmy Eat World, which makes me a huge fan of their self-titled EP. Opener “Far from Over” has a vaguely disco opening before dropping into a guitar-laden groove that manages to keep energy going through a midtempo tune (an admirable feat).

Lead single “Feels Like Work” nails the quiet/loud dichotomy in creating a solid radio-rock tune. It feels mature, powerful, and not kitschy–especially when the lead guitar lines come in. The vocals take the lead in “One Step at a Time,” which makes it feel even more like a Jimmy Eat World song. Throughout the EP, there are strong riffs and a great sense of control that keeps this from turning into pedestrian rock. The Slang has an x factor that’s hard to quantify in rock, but it’s very clearly there. If you like thoughtful rock’n’roll that doesn’t turn into sterilized thought experiments, The Slang will scratch your itch. It’s melodic comfort food for me. I look forward to hearing much more from The Slang.

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

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