Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Late February Singles

February 27, 2017

1. “Ich Cetera” – Austin Stahl. There’s not as much instrumental indie-rock in the world as I would like. This entry in the genre is a road-tripping song, a friendly and adventurous little tune underpinned by a stable drumline and guitar strum pattern. The Nick Drake-esque piano line is lovely as well.

2. “Retro Kid” – Retro Kid. “It comes into my head / the need to dance” is the refrain on this sleek, low-slung electro-pop gem. If all electro-dance were as slinky and winding, I might be out at the club more often. (And by the club, I mean “me in my living room, playing electro-pop at full blast”.)

3. “Stuck Between” – Klara Zubonja. An almost overwhelmingly twee introduction opens into an exuberant indie-pop track that’s a cross between the sass of Lily Allen, the coy subtlety of Regina Spektor, and the punchy arrangements of Ingrid Michaelson.

4. “Be Here Now” – Annabelle’s Curse. Genre-busting indie outfit Annabelle’s Curse returns with a song that, well, busts genres. There’s some alt-country, some indie-pop, some grungy indie-rock, and more crammed into this flowing, atypical song structure. Viva la invention.

5. “Pocketknife” – The Anchor Collective. The vocal melodies are front and center in this indie rock track, as not even a crunchy guitar section can take my ear away from the comforting, comfortable melodies that play out over the mostly-dreamy arrangement.

6. “Beth” – Paul Whitacre. Every now and then a song comes along that jumps out of the pack and says, “Listen to me!” This folk-pop tune with country guitar leads is a breath of fresh air in a crowded field, from the lovely melodies to the deft arrangement to the carefully organized lyrics to the immaculate production job. This is top-shelf work, people. Jump on it.

7. “Memorial Day” – Palm Ghosts. Dawes-esque Americana meets REM-style ’90s guitar-rock jangle in the sonic equivalent of a well-worn, trusty jacket. You may not have heard this song before, but it will feel familiar and great as soon as you do.

8. “Rosanna” – Mike Llerena. This song has punk rock vocal tone and melodies, doo-wop rhythms, and alt-country guitar tone. All three of those genres have heart-on-sleeve tendencies, and they’re on full display here in this “sad, spurned lover” lyric set. If you’re into 500 Miles to Memphis, you’ll be all up on this.

9. “Savior’s Hand” – Colin Onderdonk. Powerful vocals and a spartan arrangement consisting almost entirely of rumbling toms and wiry string bass creates a sonic environment that mirrors the lyrics that describe a weary traveler in an ominous, dangerous land.

10. “The Conversation of the Street Lights Will Pass as Quickly as Our Words” – The Bowling Alley Sound. This stuttering, wide-eyed, major-key post rock tune includes burbling guitars, soaring bass work, evocative (and high quality) found sound / spoken word clips, and a delightful sense of motion through the whole piece. Fans of The Album Leaf, Delicate Steve, Adebisi Shank, and other major-key post-rock will find much to love in this.

11. “The Naked Mind” – Ryan Svendsen. I’ve never heard a piece composed entirely of looped, layered trumpet lines and percussion. The trumpet is naturally an instrument prone to brash melodies, long melodic runs, and alternation between mellow and sharp tones, and all of that is on display here. There’s a hypnotic groove to the piece through the repetition of the theme that is only increased by the eruption of the percussion partway through. Adventurous listeners: rejoice!

12. “Himalaya” – Klangriket. By including lots of atmospheric, foley-type sounds, this song becomes both a minimalist soundtrack and the movie it is scoring. It’s a distinct, unique, very adventurous sonic experience that blends classical, post-rock, found sound, and soundtracks together.

I Hope You Carry This Record Home With You

September 1, 2009

The polish, space and patience in Austin Stahl‘s The Things You Carry makes it abundantly obvious that this is not his first go-round. As band-leader of Baltimore indie-poppers Private Eleanor, he’s put out albums with varying numbers of participants for a good while now. These experience lend a gravity to The Things You Carry that isn’t present in many other solo debuts.

Because Stahl has been in a band for so long, he’s picked up on how to write songs with more than just a main part and some filler instruments. While acoustic guitar is still the main instrument used, these songs aren’t acoustic songs with some stuff added in. These are full-band arrangements of acoustic-led indie-pop songs. This may be a solo project, but his songwriting aesthetic has molded over time into something that resembles a full band with equal contributors (much more so than some bands that actually say each member is an equal contributor).

On the pensive “Before the Skies Come Down,” for example, the acoustic guitar is the base for the song, but the just song wouldn’t work without the buzzing synthesizer in the background. It’s a vital part of what makes the song, not an afterthought or neat trick.

The same goes for the next track, “Shrug.” The bass guitar plods its way through the entire piece, but the chiming guitar and plinking piano do much more than just provide atmosphere. The pieces of the song are woven together so tightly that to separate out each part becomes an exercise. If you focus on the drums primarily, the song has one feel. If you focus primarily on the keys, guitar or bass in the same manner, the song mutates a bit; it doesn’t have exactly the same feel. When listened to all together (as, obviously, was intended), the song is dense and full of surprises, but never seems overwhelming in the least.

The metaphor of “Shrug” lends itself nicely to the rest of the album. It’s dense with charming moments that are incredible even if yanked out of context. But when the album is listened to in context, it is a fully-recognized vision of a season in Stahl’s life. It feels right. Short songs bump up against long ones. No song feels rushed, no song feels dragged out. The songs exist as they should, without being forced to be one thing or another.  “Stories of Us” is only 1:19, but it’s my favorite song here. “Band of Gold” is probably my second-favorite track; it’s an epic 6:48.

Austin Stahl’s The Things You Carry isn’t the type of record that spawns hits, even of the indie variety (“Dude, you don’t have that on your iPod? What’s wrong with you?!”). It is, however, an excellent album to listen to all the way through. It is a calm yet unfailingly interesting listen; it won’t rile you up, but it won’t bore you, either. This is mature songwriting; Stahl knows what he wants to say and how to say it to best effect within his songwriting style. Whether it be jangly, bumpy, folky, poppy, smooth, or however else, he does it with candor and quality. This is an undeniably outstanding record that you can download for free on his website.

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

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