Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Mid-July Singles: Indie Rock

July 19, 2017

1. “I Wish I Was a Bird” – Luke Rathborne. Builds a cathedral of sound: a stomping, huge-screen affair that manages yet to have low-key fire embedded in it and a humble, earnest vocal performance. This sort of powerful songwriting and production is uncommon and wonderful–it’s indie-rock that manages to be slightly out of phase with the radio (it’s 8:33!) but oh-so-delightful for lovers of the genre. Anyone still rocking the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Maps” will be all up on this, or anyone who would wonder what Josh Ritter’s “Thin Blue Flame” would be like in indie rock format.

2. “DaDaDa” – secret drum band. I listen to a lot of music while I’m reading or writing. Great songs make me love what I’m working on more. The best songs make me stop what I’m doing and just listen. “DaDaDa” is a perfect amalgam of tons of different percussion elements, low-mixed synths, and the occasional found sound/vocal yawp. They manage to make these basic, skeletal pieces of music into a deeply compelling piece of polyrhythmic indie rock.

3. “Gone Away” – Stolen Jars. Turns fluttering flutes and squealing horns into urgent indie-rock, a la The Collection. The subtle, insistent press forward that underlies this track is a rare thing to capture.

4. “People Like You” – Thumbnail. This tune strides the line between American Football-style emo and old-school indie-rock (pre-major label Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie): complex drums, semi-mathy guitar lines, soft vocals, and gentle trumpet come together into a propulsive-yet-dreamy track.

5. “Tree Trunks” – Basement Revolver. The groove locks in and commands headbobbing. The lurching, loping, slow-moving-train of this indie-rock arrangement contrasts excellently against the intimate female vocal performance.

6. “Part3” – grej. Ominous piano, layered percussion, and stabbing flutes create a tense, atmospheric track the likes of which you would hear in a suspense film.

7. “Great Cop (Fugazi cover)” – New Tongues. All proceeds from this furious post-hardcore rendition of Fugazi’s song about police/policed tensions go to Black Youth Project 100.  Timely content, excellent performance.

Quick Hits: Underlined Passages / Supersmall / 100 Watt Horse

March 25, 2016

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Underlined Passages‘ The Fantastic Quest is a grower: an album that doesn’t hit you with the same force the first time as it does the second, third or fourth time. In our attention-deficit culture, there’s not as much love for growers as there used to be, so I’m proud to be giving a shout-out to Underlined Passages’ second record on Mint 400 Records. (Full disclosure: I told Michael Nestor of Underlined Passages about Mint 400 Records.)

Instead of traversing the boundary between emo and dream pop as in their previous work, Quest falls firmly in the indie rock camp, anchored by ever-present guitars, firm drumming, and evocative vocal melodies. Tunes like “Everyone Was There” have an up-tempo approach that recall Jimmy Eat World more than American Football, with the guitars churning away (without getting too gritty). Other tunes like “Arabesque” set the guitars against the bass and drums in a tension–the production emphasizes the drumming without pushing it too far up in the mix. This choice gives the album a tight, cohesive feel.

The vocals are one of the main parts of the growing–at first Nestor’s vocal lines seem to blend in too well with the instruments, but subsequent listens adjusted my ear to the arrangement and started to draw me in to his unadorned, non-ostentatious vocal style. I found myself humming the vocal melodies after the second and third listen.

The Fantastic Quest is an unfussy, unpretentious album that reveals layers of careful thought over multiple listens. From the songwriting to the performances to the production, the work has charms for those who listen closely. Take some time with Underlined Passages; don’t be surprised if they win you over.

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Supersmall‘s Silent Moon has a distinctly British feel, despite being a NYC-based duo. (Vocalist/songwriter Colin Dempsey is Irish, but that’s not the same.) It might be the formal pop angles on the songwriting, or perhaps the confident dignity with which the vocals are delivered. Maybe it’s the ability to convey emotion without getting maudlin.

Whatever it is, Supersmall know how to write walking-speed, acoustic-led tunes that wouldn’t feel out of place in a charming/quirky indie film. The duo leads off with “A Better Life,” which features perky strumming, joyous trumpets, peppy drumming, and a distant organ for color. If Beirut stripped out its world music aspirations, this sprightly work might be what resulted.

The tune is a fine primer for the release, which includes the Nick Drake-ian guitar vibe and beautiful vocal melodies of “Silent Moon” and “Siren,” the major-key folk of “Riot,” and the country-esque “Home.” There are some more serious tunes, but Supersmall is at their best when they’re creating major-key work with an eye toward thoughtful arrangements and careful pop elements. Silent Moon is where elegant meets excitable with an acoustic guitar in its hand–in other words, it’s worth the time of a wide swath of music listeners, from indie-pop lovers to hardcore acoustic fans.

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100 Watt Horse’s It May Very Well Do is an experimental folk/indie-pop release: it’s one fifteen-minute track with interludes connecting various sections that are distinct enough to elsewhere be called songs. The duo incorporate tape hiss, nature sounds, acoustic guitars, distant synths, modulated vocals, static, and more into their inventive, attractive amalgam.

The opening salvo features precise, measured guitar work and a dreamy female vocal line before unfolding into the sounds of a swamp as a transition to a hazy indie-pop section. A woozy guitar line is matched by a leisurely male/female duet and balanced by a steadfast drumbeat and bass line. It all feels very open, raw, and natural–even when it transitions into a power-pop tune a la The Cars. I could go on explaining the release, but that should be enough to hook your interest and not spoil all the surprises (we’re about a third through the release at this point).

Suffice it to say, 100 Watt Horse has a lot of ideas, the talent to pull them off, and the skill to arrange it all into one impressive sitting. If you’re up for clever, intricate, thoughtful work from people pushing their own boundaries (and maybe yours), check this one out.–Stephen Carradini

Swan Songs by Lakefield: Canadian Shakers for Specific Ears

February 10, 2014

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Independent Clauses (IC): Who are your major influences (musicians to your music and movie or TV stars to your look and painters to the way your apartment looks)?

Steven Luscher of Lakefield (SL): We think we’re pretty transparent with respect to our influences. Kate and I are big fans of Mates of State, and we place our guy/girl harmonies front and centre accordingly. Another guy/girl duo we love is Stars’ Amy Milan and Torquil Campbell; we love the way they weave stories in their back-and-forth way, atop epic cinematic arrangements. Lakefield’s visual aesthetic is mostly my doing. I’m a fan of capital-M: modernism, minimalism, and high-concept design, which should be evident when looking at things like the brand system on all of our albums, posters, and press materials, or our “Awkward Turtle” and “Camping With Bears” photoshoots. It’s less punk rawk and more Dwell magazine.

IC: Does Vancouver have a lot to do with your lyrics?

SL: For most of us, having moved to Vancouver counts as a pretty significant life-event. This city means so much to me; I’m sure that no matter what I write a song about, something about this place, or an experience that I had here will sneak its way in.

IC: Do past relationships have a lot to do with your lyrics?

SL: It seems that way, doesn’t it? You know, I’ve heard people refer to our debut album Sounds From The Treeline as a breakup album. I would tend to agree, though even I can’t tell you who’s being broken up with; those secrets will die with Kate.

IC (aside): Well, Blood on the Tracks….

IC: Who’s your go to for fiction/or creative writing? Authors, TV writers, loudmouths, comedians?

SL: I’m about to read Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, a book about living in a modern surveillance state (so, you know, real life). Have you seen the bit where Russell Brand roasts MSNBC’s anchors for being an embarrassment to journalism? It’s poetic. And of course, all of us go nuts for Louis CK.

I’ve never seen anything Russell Brand has ever done. Louis CK is the bread, butter, plate, and table… yes.

IC: Does having a major influence (I saw this on Facebook and they happen to be one of my favorite bands ever) like Mineral leave you feeling a bit pigeonholed as maybe a leftover emo-era-sounding (this is not a critique or a criticism. This was very much so MY big coming of age genre: the late 90’s emo-indie bands) and expound, please. Or, have you never felt this way at all or heard this before?

SL: Recently, in conversation with a well-respected Vancouver area producer, I had a small epiphany. He warned me that I’ve been writing music for a very narrow audience of people like me: musicians. Most people who listen to music are, generally speaking, not musicians. They don’t hear music the way a musician does – thankfully, some might say. Where I might perceive a reference, a mistake, or a cliché, most might hear a summer’s day, a first kiss, or nothing at all. Puzzled though I am at the fact that bands like Mineral, Battles, Cornelius, The Appleseed Cast, and American Football aren’t massive commercial success stories, maybe it’s because they just don’t resonate with the masses like they do with me. I accept that as a criticism of Lakefield; though we’re undoubtedly more pop than emo, in some small way I’ve been writing music that my 19-year-old musician-self would love. And let me tell you, there aren’t enough of my 19-year-old self left to turn Lakefield into an international success story today.

IC: Also, I think the vocals in Lakefield sound akin to and maybe are written to sound very much in the JeJune and Rainer Maria vein. Again… just what I’m hearing (not necessarily even going to make it into my review).

SL: I flew from Vancouver to New York City to see Rainer Maria’s farewell show at the Bowery Ballroom. When I was 17 years old, my band opened for Rainer Maria at The Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto – Caithlin said that she loved my band. I saw Rainer Maria’s very first show in Vancouver. If you hear Rainer Maria in Lakefield, it’s because they’re in my blood.

I have some funny stories about running into Rainer Maria a bunch in my past, too. I’ll save them for another time, though.

IC: Are you all married or single or happily involved? If not, do you meet a lot of hotties because you make music… or because you’re at bars more than an average person (performing)… or after performing (after a sweaty rave-up or after an awkward stage to front two rows too-long eye contact)?

SL: The band elected Bryan to be the official Lakefield hottie. Whenever there were Hott™ duties to perform, we could count on Bryan to come through.

IC: Who’s the most famous musician you’ve ever met? Is there a story there?

SL: I’ve been backstage / around back with Sufjan Stevens, Sarah Slean, Caithlin De Marrais (Rainer Maria), and Hayden. The entire Appleseed Cast stayed at my house once, on their way through Vancouver. I won’t name the musician, but once an industry friend of mine took me backstage to meet someone famous (well… Canada-famous anyway). The musician thought we had met before – I have this face that everyone thinks they’ve seen somewhere – and I replied, without hesitation: “not in real life.” My industry friend doesn’t talk to me anymore.

I bet it was Anne Murray. In fact, I KNOW it was.

IC: Why did you start writing songs? The catalyst?

SL: I remember watching Daniel Johns from Silverchair play on Saturday Night Live when I was a kid. My face was 3 centimeters from the screen, and I was soaking it up. Here was a young band, playing three-chord ditties to a massive audience, and I remember thinking: “I can do that.”

IC: I remember seeing Jawbox on 120 Minutes on MTV, and being like… what you just said, but more chords, and all jangly and shouty. I wanted to shout.

In my humble opinion, this conversation IS the review of Lakefield’s new album Swan Songs. Here are a few blurbable blurbs about it. The lead track, “Good Guy,” grabs the listener so tightly. You can’t touch Kate’s voice on this song. She’s “sorry for this heartache, but it’s all for you.” This reviewer’s favorite track is “Your Conviction Is So Sweet.”  “Don’t give up before the end of this song;” if one did, they’d miss a powerful denouement. The guitars light up, and the keys and drums kick like a corrected toddler…like the last few beats of a heart once in love. Lakefield is a really focused band with great songs and, most importantly, great vocals. They tug at one’s heartstrings a lot, so get ready for that. Hear their new album, Swan Songs, when it comes out. There’s a count-down clock on their website. Exciting!–Gary Lee Barrett

Oh Three, Experimentalists

December 13, 2012

Avant-garde music generally doesn’t agree with me, so I don’t cover it much on IC. But there are exceptions, such as Kai Straw‘s To Pearl Whitney, From Howland Grouse In Loathing. The album was pitched to me as “experimental poetry”; that might make you think of rap, but lead track “sexlovesoul” is an intense a capella piece that blurs the lines between rap and spoken word. The story it tells is one of a relationship found and lost and found, spread over an entire life. It was deeply moving, inspiring me to check out the rest of the 21-song album. What proceeds is a highly idiosyncratic mix of poetry, rapping, electronica, jazz and even some acoustic guitar. The lead is always Straw’s voice, which he has fine-tuned to be precise and highly tonal (even when speaking). The lyrics he sings and speaks are varied, from songs of death and destruction (“The Champion,” “2,000”) to elaborate daydreams (the near-parody “Vanity Fair,” “Boogie Nights”) to relationship troubles (“Drunk,” “sexlovesoul”).

The best tunes are the ones that don’t invest the most in the arrangement; while tunes like “Yakuza 21” and “Dionysius” have well-developed backing beats (squelching electronica and traditional R&B, respectively), taking the focus off the vocals is not the best move for Straw. That’s not because the beats aren’t strong; it’s that his voice is so engaging and intriguing that I want to hear it unfiltered. If you’re into hip-hop for the lyrical prowess, you should check out Kai Straw’s work. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

Me and My Ribcage by The Widest Smiling Faces doesn’t sound that experimental on first blush. The wistful title track opens the album and introduces the listener to a sound somewhere between the moving soundscapes of The Album Leaf and the minimalist slowcore of Jason Molina and Red House Painters. The high, tentative, child-like vocals tip this off as slightly out of the ordinary, however. The album unfolds as a collection of beautiful, relaxing tunes, not so far off from bands like Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate) or Pedro the Lion at its quietest. None of the elements in the album are particularly virtuosic in their performance, but the arrangements of piano, guitar and voice are arresting. If you’re looking for a quiet, melodic, gorgeous album, you should look the way of The Widest Smiling Faces.

I was aware that The Miami had some experimental in them when I reviewed their album “I’ll Be Who You Want Me to Be”, but they ratchet that mode up in their exciting EP “Ring Shouts”. The Miami is a duo that recreates old spirituals, hymns and folk tunes in often-mournful style, stretching the source material in unusual and unexpected ways. “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” has a grating noise butting up against the plain, acoustic accompaniment; this juxtaposition seems to inspire fear in the vocalist/narrator and uneasiness in this listener. The 78 seconds of “Barbed Wire” are an a capella tune with only one person clapping and stomping to back it up, while the swirling, mysterious synths of “Motherless Child” combine with the acoustic guitar and vocals for a heartwrenchingly sad piece.

Then, they throw all that sad stuff overboard and close out the EP with “Kneebone,” a call-and-response tune that is easily the catchiest and happiest tune they’ve ever put out. It’s still got a long introduction that abruptly quits before the vocals come in and a drowsy coda to connect it with the rest of the tunes, but it’s a fun song to hear and to sing along with. Because even the most experimental of us enjoy a good singalong every now and then.

Football, Etc.'s late '90s emo sounds great, hopefully wins new fans to the genre

April 12, 2011

Some bands hate being pigeonholed. Some bands invite it. Football, etc. says straight-up in its press materials that it plays late ’90s emo. The info is sort of unimportant, because they make it clear from seconds into the first tune that this is Mineral, Promise Ring and American Football territory. They love the sound, so they’re making more of it. Nothing wrong with that at all.

So, there’s your first barrier: do you like late ’90s emo? Are you down with the prettier side of guitar-based rock? If yes, continue. If no, do not.

The second barrier: Is Football, etc. good?

The band certainly has a lot going for it. They have a strong female vocalist who fits in well to the sound. They write solid songs that fit neatly within the constraints of the genre. They reference Lambeau Field in a song title, which makes me giddy. The three musicians all know their stuff, chops and pedals included. This sounds right.

As to innovation? Closing track “Mouthguard” features some excellent, quick-paced guitar work that held my attention tighter than anything else on the album. Unfortunately, “Mouthguard” is only 1:24. The rest of the tunes will be beloved by those who miss the days when bookish dudes played wistful rock and ruled the open road, but could shoot over the heads and/or under the radar of those unfamiliar with the genre.

Bonus: each of the ten tracks on “The Draft” is named after a football term (“Safety,” “Incomplete,” “Sideline,” “Hail Mary,” etc.). It also serves as a mild subversive tactic in showing how much the English language has been changed by sports phrases, as each of these terms (except my beloved “Lambeau”) has a double entendre to an event or emotional state. Super-cool.

Football, Etc.’s “The Draft” is a good album that will thrill fans of the genre. The songs are strong enough that they may be able to bring new fans into the fold, if people haven’t heard it. It has been almost ten years since people were rockin’ this thing. I certainly enjoy “The Draft.” I hope other people do as well. You can hear a preview here.

And if you’re in Norman for Norman Music Fest, you should check their set at Opolis at 6 p.m. Friday, April 29. I will be there. I am excited about it.

Ghost Heart's American tribal melodies melt brains

February 28, 2011

I have never heard anything like Ghost Heart. For starters, there are no snare drums on their album The Tunnel. There are shakers, cymbals, three million tom hits, bass drum and more, but not a single snare. Most of the vocals are modeled after soaring tribal chant style, but with a distinctly Western melodic bent. The guitars range from indie-rock to mathy patterns. The bass guitar is about the only normal thing in this whole album.

It sounds glorious. It’s really confusing and convention-busting, but it’s a good confusing. The tunes are very long, too; the eight songs here run forty minutes, with one outlier at 1:29. Surprisingly, their unique uncategorizable genre encompasses several different moods; “Salty Sea” is indeed a sea shanty, while “No Canticle” is something Sufjan could write if he spent a week or two in South Africa (Sufjan’s Graceland would be a thing to behold). “Whoever You Are” is an odd, Pontiak-esque mellow rumination. After forty seconds of weirdness, “Black Air” turns into an incredibly surprising indie-rock tune featuring the aforementioned mathy guitar work.

Again, The Tunnel is unlike anything I’ve ever heard. Also, The Tunnel is brilliant. It’s bands like these that test reviewers’ moxie: can this incredibly original sound be translated to text well enough to convince unsuspecting listeners to check it out? I don’t know if I have succeeded. But here’s a list of RIYL bands: Funeral-era Arcade Fire, Sigur Ros, Fleet Foxes, American Football, Coldplay (any album except Parachutes), American Football, Journey, yodeling. No, for real.

Really.

Get this album.

The Seldon Plan's mature songwriting creates an impressive listen

January 24, 2011

I’ve never wanted to be in a stadium-booking arena band. I’ve always wanted, had I my dream, to be in a band beloved by an enthusiastic local community, perhaps 150 people. That way they would be able to pack out a small venue and sing along at the top of their lungs. That’s all I really want.

I don’t know if that’s The Seldon Plan‘s goal or not, but they’re the type of band that I’d like to be when I accomplish that dream. They play solid, mature songs that straddle the line between pop-rock and indie-pop; just enough cohesive song structures and production values for the former, just enough wistful moods and slow-building melodies to appropriate the former. This band is full of guys who have tons of experience writing songs (as proven by their previous releases), and I wouldn’t be surprised if they had tons of previous bands to their names as well. They know what they’re doing, and they’re doing it well.

“Fool’s Gold” builds from a kick-snare-kick-kick-snare plod to a whirling, full tune. It’s complex without being complicated, tight without being sterile. The band knows when to let things space out. This discipline gives “Fool’s Gold” and the rest of the tunes here breathing room, which results in a very comfortable listening experience.

The tunes have the kind of cathartic melodies and lyrics that late ’90s “emo” bands like The Promise Ring and Sunny Day Real Estate were trying to capture, but without all the burdensome youthful drama. It has the strong emotive instrumentals that bands like American Football were trying to capture, but without repetitiveness driving the point home. The Seldon Plan trusts its listeners to be like they are: older, well-versed, appreciative of the little things without being told to be so.

That trust makes the background vocals in “Starlette Pendant” great; they appear briefly, quietly, but with meaning. The mix of “Our Time In Rockland County” favors the clanging rhythm guitar over the twinkly lead guitar and ba-ba-ba background vocals, but both hidden elements bring an extra level to the song. Closer “A Letter to Satie” buries a keyboard in the chorus that enhances the mood. Those touches show that these aren’t nice pop/rock tunes; they’re deeply thought-out, planned and organized tunes, which is something much better.

The Seldon Plan’s latest set is easily the best that I’ve heard from them. They’ve grown into a sound and a style that makes the best of their skills and talents. This album is a gem that should not be overlooked by anyone listening for true musicianship and song craftsmanship. I don’t know what their ambitions are, but if they were in my hometown, I’d go see them whenever I could. And I’d sing along.

Contribute to their Kickstarter campaign to make a vinyl of the album here.

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

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