Just like IC puts out its year-end best-of list in February, my half-year best-of doesn’t hit until August. This list includes the music I covered while at the Oklahoma Gazette.
If you would like to see this list visually, I’ve created an Independent Clauses Pinterest page that also includes the best artwork that’s crossed IC’s path in 2011 and a list of best books about pop music.
16. Chad Valley – Equatorial Ultravox. ’80s dance-pop revivalism that captures both the playful nonchalance and wistful romanticism of the first disposable music era.
Aaron Robinson is one of my favorite songwriters. Surprisingly, this is an objective statement as well as a subjective one: my Last.FM declares that I’ve played the demo of his excellent tune “Price is Right” 125 times. It hasn’t tracked the numerous times I’ve spun Robinson’s A Dying Art EP, because my home iTunes isn’t scrobbling right (suck). My all-time plays puts him above Regina Spektor and just below Mates of State. Pretty good company.
And with A Dying Art, Robinson has upped his game. He’s become a master of making infectious melodies out of serious pop music; much “adult” music becomes maudlin or watered down in an attempt to relate, and Robinson doesn’t do that here. Robinson has crafted five adult pop tunes here that are all catchy, but none in a bright-shiny pop way. His control of mood is impressive, to maintain a weary-yet-determined feel while singing stuff that you genuinely want to hum.
Robinson’s lithe voice helps. He’s got a comfortable tenor with a good range, and a gentle falsetto (“You Will Be Called Home”). It’s the type of voice that makes it seem as if he’s not even trying to sing — he just opens his mouth and the notes fall out.
But the songwriting is what’s incredible here. “Price is Right” is a master pop song, matching earnest thoughts of religion and weariness to a distant tom beat and delicate electric guitar work before opening up into a full arrangement that I could live inside. I have had entire seasons of my life that were “Price is Right.” I can give no higher praise.
“You Will Be Called Home” employs a similar template and mood to great effect. “Short Division” is a folkier tune, similar to those on his debut “We Are Racing Ghosts” and indicative of his Nashville home. “Heaven Sent You” gets a bit Mayer-esque for my tastes, but it never devolves into blues guitar heroics, so I’ll let it pass. Girls will love it (you can guess from the title just why). The lyrics, however, are above average for this sort of song.
The title track is the real revelation, though. I’ve had this demo for a while, but I’ve never really seen past its easygoing strum and nice harmonies. The lyrics hit hard. Aaron Robinson truly has created a well-rounded tune with this one, and if it’s a little less poignant than “Price is Right,” it’s only because of the charming “do-doo-doo” section. It’s an endearing bit — just not emotionally killer like “Price is Right.” You can underestimate it if you’re not paying attention.
This five-song EP of adult pop is some of the most poignant, clear, melodically powerful pop I’ve heard ever. I usually try to hang the “folk” tag on a band so I can not admit that I like adult alternative pop, but man, if Aaron Robinson can churn out songs this good in the genre, sign me up as a pop fan. You need to hear this album, and you can, at his Bandcamp.
I seek out the stark beauty of songs that are composed of acoustic guitar and voice. Aaron Robinson has several songs on his Myspace that fit that bill. There’s a purity to the expression that draws me to the songs; they are the barest elements, the first-fruits of the songwriting. There’s nowhere to hide in an acoustic song; if you can’t hack it, we’ll know really quickly.
That’s why a perfectly constructed and performed acoustic song is so much more interesting to me than a full-band performance; if a punk band gets sloppy, it goes by fast enough that it’s hardly noticeable, and someone will probably cover the mistake with their noise. In “A Dying Art,” there’s nowhere to hide. It’s a man and his baritone ukelele (!), both double-tracked. The delicate, intricate performances are real; not studio. It feels honest and passionate, even in its calm mood. “You Will Be Called Home” is beautiful in much the same way; although the piano in the song makes it feel a little less like what I’m relating and more like a full song. It’s still beautiful; let it not be said otherwise. But “A Dying Art” makes a much stronger impression on me because it is simple and powerful.
But even more engaging than the demos is a live version of “Price is Right,” which maintains much of the morose, beautiful feel of acoustic-only pieces, but incorporates some percussion and graceful, twinkling keys. Robinson pleads with the listener through sweeping, elegant vocal lines; the jagged strum pattern is tempered against the smooth croon of “The price is right for me.” The song never lets go of its sweeping, tragic feel; if the audience didn’t clap at the end, this would be the perfect end to a mixtape or a depressing movie.