Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

ICYMI: MD Woods / Gregory Pepper / Tyto Alba

November 17, 2015

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MD Woods‘ Young and Vain, Vol. 2 may describe the lifestyles of characters with the titular qualities, but it approaches the studies from a world-weary perspective instead of an impetuous one. The alt-country band, led by the whiskey-soaked voice of Nicholas Moore, comes off desperate and ragged in its moods, like Damien Rice on the alt-country frontier. It should be noted that these are strictly compliments: tunes like “Vomit” make being emotionally wracked seem like a noble idea, if not a desirable one. The melodies are compelling, the lyrics are tight, and the song styles are varied–there’s definitely a lot going on despite the general timbre of the lyrics.

The arrangements compliment the emotional damage by being surprisingly tight: from background vocals to swooping strings to rock-steady drums, the band provides a framework for Moore to get unhinged in. The bright, clear recording and engineering make the final product more accessible, providing a clean window to see the band through. The results are compelling mix of major key and minor key tunes that you can sing along to and enjoy in a Frightened Rabbit sort of way.

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It’s easy to put Gregory Pepper‘s Chorus! Chorus! Chorus! in the ICYMI category, because if you blink you’ll miss it: Pepper blitzes through 10 songs in under 14 minutes. This uncommonly aggressive approach to the “hit it and quit it” songwriting mentality creates an album of perfect melodies that appear once or twice, lodge in your brain forever, and then disappear into the next tune. The post-Weezer pop-rock that blazes its way through your eardrums is undeniably, irresistibly pristine: “Crush On You” and “Smart Phones for Stupid People” are fuzzed-out midtempo glory; “There In The Meadow (Was I Not a Flower At All​?​)” is a pseudo-metal pop-rock stomper; “Come By It Honestly” is an “Only in Dreams”-esque slow jam and the longest tune on the record, tipping the scales at 1:40.

But it’s not all Weezer-esque crunchy guitars. Pepper has an idiosyncratic vocal and melodic sensibility that delivers highly sarcastic and ironic lyrics in an earnest pop-rock style reminiscent of It’s a King Thing, only without the breathy sweetness. Pepper is singing straightforward melodies that still manage to bend my mind, as the endlessly fascinating, gymnastic opener “Welcome to the Dullhouse” shows. But it’s not enough to just create wild melodies, clever tunes and ironic lyrics: occasionally all the sarcasm drops and reveals pretty raw honesty as an extra layer to the tune (“I Wonder Whose Dick You Had to Suck?,” “There In The Meadow (Was I Not a Flower At All​?​)”). It’s a lot to ride on songs that barely (or don’t) break 60 seconds, but Pepper masterfully handles the incredible amount of things going on. It’s not easy to edit yourself down to the bare bones and still deliver a multi-layered experience that’s both fun and deep, but Chorus! Chorus! Chorus! is that rarest of albums that pulls it off. If you’re into indie-pop-rock, you need this one in your life.

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I try to keep up with what’s cool in indie rock so that I’m not constantly namechecking the Hives and Death Cab for Cutie, but keeping up with what’s going on in alt-rock is way harder for me. As I was casually reading through Spin’s (biased, subjective, etc.) list of 50 best rock bands right now, I was pleasantly surprised to see Paramore up at number 9. I thought they had been lumped in with Flyleaf as lame, but I was wrong! (Is Flyleaf cool?) Which is great, because I feel totally guiltless comparing Tyto Alba’s Oh Tame One EP to a more mood-heavy Paramore. Melanie Steinway’s vocals soar and roar in front of an alt-rock backdrop that isn’t as gritty as everyone’s favorite indie grunge band Silversun Pickups (check the arpeggiated guitar on “Passenger”) but isn’t as post-rock-flavored as bands like Athletics.

Instead, they prefer to mix artsy rhythms and nuanced guitarscapes with rock song structures: “Deer” mixes a carefully patterned rhythm guitar line with a moseying lead guitar line that echoes back to The Photo Album-era Death Cab before exploding into guitar theatrics for the chorus (of sorts). The careful picking of the lead guitar line in “Divide” juxtaposes with groove-heavy bass and drums (but not as dance-tastic as in standout “New Apathy,” which is simply impressive) before building into the most memorable chorus on the EP, driven by multiple vocal melodies interacting. It’s the sort of work Tyto Alba excels at: twisting your expectations of what a rock song should do without totally overhauling the model. If you’re into thoughtfully distorted guitars with some groove-heavy elements, Oh Tame One will fit nicely in your collection.

In Honor of Deep Elm: A List.

March 21, 2014

Deep Elm Records, whose mail I have been getting since Independent Clauses first started in 2003, has done something entirely unprecedented with its 200+ releases: made them all pay-what-you-want. All of them. This is simply mind-boggling. 200 releases spanning almost 20 years? It’s a treasure trove of everything from raging hardcore to emo to post-rock to post-punk to dance-rock to garage-rock to indie-pop to folk-pop. If it has a guitar in it, Deep Elm has probably put it out. In honor of their 200th, as well as their generosity, here’s a list of my Top Ten Favorite Deep Elm Releases.

Good Job, Deep Elm

Honorable Mentions: She Bears’ I Found Myself Asleep, The Lions Rampant’s It’s Fun to Do Bad Things

10. So Close to Life – Moonlit Sailor. “Hope” is one of my favorite songs of all time, although not my favorite Deep Elm song (that one comes later). A great post-rock album.

9. This is Indie Rock, Vol. 2. The second compilation that I deeply loved from Deep Elm, and they do have a ton of them to keep up with. That’s one thing I’ve always loved about Deep Elm–they go all out for their artists, and that makes them one of the best in the business.

8. Sunshine in a Shot Glass – 500 Miles to Memphis. This album literally does everything I want a country-punk album to do. It could be a blueprint.

7. Why Aren’t I Home? – Athletics. I used to run to this album at a really low point in my life. The dramatic tensions between beautiful and crushing, artsy and muscly, longing and being… This was a wonderful soundtrack to those days.

6. We’ve Been Here Forever – Merkabah. Churning, roiling emo-rock: a blast from their early ’00s past displaced into the early ’10s. This album will have your fists in the air and your throat hoarse.

5. If Arsenic Fails … Try Algebra – Pop Unknown. One of the first Deep Elm releases I bought, this emo-rock gem has some strikingly beautiful songs on it.

4. Nuet – Dorena. Deep Elm has gone on a serious post-rock bender as of late. Although Lights and Motion is deservedly soaking up tons of press, Dorena’s latest album just blows my mind.

3. There Should Be More Dancing – Free Diamonds. Way on the other end of the spectrum, this spazzy dance-rock masterpiece has some of the most impressively frantic (yet hooky!) bass lines I have ever heard.

2. Mare Vitalis – The Appleseed Cast. Not entirely because it contains the literally perfect song “Fishing the Sky,” but seriously. An art-rock epic capped off by what is, for my money, the best song Deep Elm has released.

1. Deep Elm: Too Young to Die – Various. The one that started it all for me; I’ve listened to this comp backwards and forwards more times than I can remember. Absolute gold.

Over the Ocean / Light Company

April 23, 2013

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I’ve written before about how I’d like to expand the definition of post-rock to include all bands who reject the rock mythos. Over the Ocean‘s Be Given to the Soil is a perfect example of this mindset. The band’s complex, intricately constructed album ranges from thrashy post-hardcore (“God in My Own Image”) to ambient compositions (“Kiss the Ground”) to forlorn piano elegies (“Ecology”) in service of the overall success of the work. It’s relevant that this was initially released on vinyl earlier this month (it will drop April 30th on digital retailers), as the ebb and flow of the mood throughout the 55 minutes is much more in line with a continuous listening experience than the erratic, 3-minutes-and-out listening style that our digital era promotes.

In some ways, the gloomy, wintry album (check that totally prescient album art) has more in common with classical music than pop, rock or metal, as the composition treats every part of the songs as relevant (and mostly equal) in delivering meaning. Vocals aren’t the most important thing here, nor are they even always present: “Obscene” features spoken word, while “God in My Own Image” includes the post-hardcore screaming I previously mentioned. “Air in My Lungs” features mumbled sung vocals. These songs are all next to each other in the album. If you come from a place where post-rock means thinking deeply about composition, you’ll be very interested in Over the Ocean’s excellent Given to the Soil. This is what it means to push boundaries in post-rock.

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Light Company takes a different view on post-rock that is closer to Athletics’ view of the genre on their debut EP The Boy Who Sat on Ocean Floors. The band takes the heavy guitars, thrashing drums, poppy vocal melodies and dark moods of modern rock and stretches them out, extracting every bit of emotion that can be had. The band does add in some clean guitar work for foundation and some soaring guitar work for the highpoint of the crescendos, which are genre-savvy moves. The best example of their sound is “Giants and Hammers,” which opens with rapidly strummed guitars and frantic drumming before breaking into a groove for the verse. They ratchet the rock riffs back up for the “chorus” of sorts, demanding that stereotypical rock moves bend and twist to their emotive ends.

While their co-opting of modern rock is fun, their best move comes in the title track. Here they’re able to appropriate the familiarity of rock songwriting structures without adhering to the roaring guitars of the genre; the guitars intertwine with the meticulous drumming to create a fascinating piece. They let the song meander down to its smallest element–a single guitar elegantly plucking sporadic note–before snapping to attention in the heaviest, loudest section of the album. Quiet/loud isn’t a new trick, but Light Company employs it to devastating effect in their title track. They don’t let the heavy section run out very long, either, curtailing it in just over 40 seconds. It’s these sorts of songwriting moves that intrigue me.

Light Company’s take on the post-rock genre is vastly different than Over the Ocean’s, and that’s not bad. Light Company’s work is energetic and engaging in ways that a more measure approach is not. Each side of the genre will have its advocates, but it’s enough for this review to note that Light Company write interesting songs with room to grow and experiment.

Quick Hits: Athletics / Keystone Kids

August 8, 2012

ProTip: Wrecking your car during a cross-country move is not a good idea. It will, at very minimum, bankrupt your productivity for the week.

I felt that AthleticsWhy Aren’t I Home? was “easily the most emotional rock experience that I’ve ever heard and/or been a part of.” So when the band announced that four of their tunes would be released in a piano and voice setting, I was thrilled. Stop Torturing Yourself does not let me down: these arrangements are beautiful. The band’s control of tension and melody transfer from the originals to here, as atmospheric instrumental performances are replaced by the resonance of the piano and the beautiful vocals. “Speaking for Everyone” is the winner here, as the haunting tune takes on an even more poignant air. The musicians in Athletics know how to convey emotions, and this release is an outstanding reminder of that.

Things Get Shaky by Keystone Kids also features some beautiful piano playing, but it’s augmented by another instrumentalist. The duo plays guy/girl indie-pop that will resonate with Mates of State fans. Both bands share a love of ’80s music in addition to piano-pop, and that’s a divide: if you’re into one but not the other, there will be moments that you want to skip. But if you’re down for both those things, the synth blast and drum machine of “What They’re Saying” will score points with you just as easily as the poignant confessional “Falling.” Fun and heavy, by turns.

Athletics marry post-rock and modern rock for an adrenalized, emotional experience

January 14, 2011

I don’t review modern rock on Independent Clauses very much. This is not because I don’t like it; on the contrary, I like good modern rock very much. It’s just that there’s not a lot of it to be had. I love everything Anberlin releases, because it has the emotional impact that much indie rock and folk has while still retaining the guitar bombast, cavernous drums and throat-shredding vocals. But most other bands just can’t stay artsy when they throw down a double pedal roll.

Thankfully, Athletics is championing good modern rock in an incredibly subversive way. By marrying the power of modern rock to the melodic thrust of post-rock (which is, as a backlash to modern rock’s posturing, one of the most emotional genres we currently have), they created Why Aren’t I Home?, which is a consistently amazing debut.

The press for Athletics gushes “It’s one of those albums that reminds you why it is you listen to music in the first place,” and for once the music lives up to the exuberant PR.

The band starts off with the title track, which lays down a distant atmosphere before bringing in rapidly arpeggiated, cascading guitar work. The drummer rolls expectantly on the cymbals. A second guitar comes in with a building guitar line. A tom pound punctuates the preceedings, leading to a snare roll. The vocals, clear and strong roar out as a bell kit comes in. The music leads to the breaking point.

and then nothing happens. They pause entirely.

And THEN they bring in the whole band, with screaming guitars, pounding drums, thundering bass to create an absolutely triumphant feel. It’s post-post-rock; it’s music to think about and mosh to. At the same time, if you can.

The band spends the entire album messing with people’s ideas of what rock is. “See You on the Other Side” is a straight-up rock tune, with a cascading guitar line on top of the mix as the only sign that this band isn’t on tour with Anberlin. The song whips into a frenzy by the end, and you’re probably dead if you aren’t excited as well. “Fairview” is a slow, churning mood piece that would be in perfect company with Sigur Ros. “Jordan” is a vocals-heavy indie rock song, honestly. “Lullaby” isn’t a lullaby at all, but one of the most tense pieces on the album, complete with distorted hollering and a crushing sense of doom underpinning the piece.

But it’s speaking for everyone that gives the most shivers (and trust me, I had more shivers listening to this album than I have in any other album this year). It’s a hollowed-out tune, with the vocals reverbed and the guitars amorphously shifting the atmosphere in the background. It’s incredibly mournful, put over the top by the devastating cry “Have mercy/on everyone/but me” which takes over the last minute of the song and turns into an emotional destroyer. Haunting isn’t a strong enough word.

I could write about each song here, but that would be doing the music a disservice. If you like adrenaline and distorted guitars in your music, but can’t stand posturing of any variety, you need to track down Why Aren’t I Home? It’s easily the most emotional rock experience that I’ve ever heard and/or been a part of, thanks to their brilliant songwriting and spot-on execution. This band deserves to “make it,” whatever making it means to them. This band is amazing, and this album must only be the beginning. Please, for the love of all that is good and right in music, stay together, Athletics.

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

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