Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Shiloh Hill’s Wildflower

October 6, 2016

shilohhillwildflower

Shiloh Hill creates a vibe with their latest release Wildflower that feels like running barefoot through a summer rainstorm, fresh and alive. The eleven-song album combines eclectic instrumentation that embarks on a blend of New Orleans Bourbon Street combined with traditional folk. For the rest of the world that is not in the Greensboro, North Carolina, area where this band blossomed, Shiloh Hill is a treasure that has yet to be unearthed since the album dropped in August. 

Supported by regional touring, the band’s current lineup consists of Nick Wes (lead vocals, acoustic guitar), Mamie Wilson (lead vocals, mandolin, glockenspiel), Julian Jackson (background vocals, banjo, electric guitar, dobro), Zeke Churchill (background vocals, drums), and Michael Kuehn (bass guitar, piano, organ) with the regulars joined in studio with friends Benjamin Matlack (trumpet & flugelhorn) and Evan Ringel (fiddle).

“The Artist” begins with a simple pizzicato of strings, building a cinematic vibe with vocals  in layers  from Wes and Wilson. Drifting like a summer breeze with banjo and trumpet accompaniment, the parade that is “Better Fool” begins by clearly marching to a different drum. Admittedly love’s fool, lyrically closing out with a restrained chorus and banjo is brilliant. Creating separation within a song is a challenge that is achieved here with instrumentation and tempo.

Moving it down to to an easy roll, “Mama’s Boy” enhances that Americana quality this album embraces. Juxtaposed with lyrics that bleed anguish, the arrangement is downtempo in a sweetly triumphant way. With horns leading the parade, “Wildflower” is the closest to a pop song on the album. The vocals really shine here, possibly because they are the storytellers, metaphor spreading the seed on the wind. “Seasons” rests roughly halfway along the journey; it’s a traveling song with the anticipation of new things ahead. Mandolin is featured up front in the mix here, and it is a beautiful touch. “Dust” feels like something that bands like The Avett Brothers may have inspired, with banjo and guitar along with the harmonies of Wes and Wilson. Taking the genre in a new direction, horns are added in a subtle way here. The tune pulls out into a solo piano accompanied by a fine bit of banjo work, coming together in a haunted musicality.  

“Box of Pine” kicks the album into high gear with an opening that pulls fiddle and banjo to the front of the mix to highlight the roots of North Carolina musical tradition. Relying heavily on the familiar, the song is sweet with dobro and a toe-tapping infectiousness. “Stale” pulls that new folk thing back in with a fiddle squeal. An almost hypnotic piece is tossed on the table here with a dare. Something so fresh can never be considered old. Songs like “Six Months” and “Riverstone” are lyrically based: the things that are not wanted are usually things that are unavailable, smoothed by time to be less resistant to the currents of life. Closing out with “Oh My Love. Oh My Sweet,” Wildflower goes out in the way it came in, on a soft spring breeze: fragrant, brightly colored, and sweet. —Lisa Whealy

The Parmesans / Anamanaguchi / Twin Forks

October 16, 2013

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Pop-folk has started to take over the radio. I never would have guessed that I’d write that sentence, but there it is. We’ll know that the domination has become total when The Parmesans make it to the radio: they take pop-folk one step farther down the line, playing a very pop-friendly form of bluegrass. Debut album Wolf Eggs is 15 (!) songs of melody-heavy folk/bluegrass that will make you want to tap your foot, clap, and sing along. Opener “Spicy Cigarette” sets the mood for the rest of the album by introducing a guitar/mandolin/stand-up bass trio tracked live, with each of the members contributing harmonized vocals. They even shout “hey!” in the middle of the mandolin solo. How can you not love that sound? “Load Up on Eggs” features a trumpet to great effect; “JuJaJe” recalls the Avett Brothers in blocky, chord-based style; “The Riddle Song” will steal your heart away (or the heart of whatever significant other you play it for).

While “The Riddle Song” is beautiful musically, its title implies that the lyrics are the main point, and so they are. The Parmesans are not slouches in that department, which makes this album even more enjoyable. There are plenty of standard references to alcohol (“Spicy Cigarette,” “Wine in My Mustache”), food (“Load Up On Eggs”), and various agricultural things (“Hay,” “Chicken Yard”), but there’s also a knowing wit in these tunes. The tropes may be a beard, but they’re not fake: the lyrics use the goofy top layer to speak to real emotions and situations. It’s fun and real. How often do you get that?

The Parmesans know what’s up on Wolf Eggs: they give you a large set of tunes that are memorable melodically and lyrically. It’s fun, funny, and even sentimental. What else do you want out of a folk album? Wolf Eggs is one of the best releases I’ve heard all year, and I expect to see it in my end of year lists.

ENDLESS-FANTASY-DIGITAL-COVER-ART

I love chiptune. As I write this sentence, I’m listening to chiptune version of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” because seriously, I’m committed to this genre. Anamanaguchi is also wholly invested in the genre, as their Endless Fantasy shows. They’ve thrown down 22 songs on the album, and all of them are chock full of mostly-instrumental warp-speed pop-punk shot through with enough jubilant chiptune melodies to make 1988 Nintendo jealous. If you can’t get happy while listening to this music, I don’t know what can help you. This is the aural equivalent of drinking a Red Bull. It’s the most fun music I’ve heard all year. The members are sneakily talented at arranging these songs so that it doesn’t get boring, but that’s not the point. Bouncing off the flippin’ walls is the point. And you should do that. Heartily. With gusto.

twinforks

I’m not going to lie: I loved Dashboard Confessional. I was the right exact age for that to be my jam in high school, and there’s just no way I can sit here and say that I didn’t holler along with those songs unabashedly. I pulled out The Swiss Army Romance when I heard that the Chris Carrabba-fronted pop-folk band Twin Forks was among us, and it was one of the most nostalgic things I have ever experienced. I felt like I was 16 again, really and truly.

So it should not surprise you that I’m about to say that Twin Forks is awesome. I mean, how could it not be? This guy has tons of experience writing songs on an acoustic guitar, and now he gets to put banjos and mandolins around it. He sings like he sings. If you hate his voice, well, you’re probably not reading this sentence, because you already left. This is exactly what you think it would be, and that’s great. The more critical quandary goes something like this, a la Phillip Phillips: is this a shameless play on what is popular? Is it a “right time at the right place” thing? Is it simply boredom on Carrabba’s part? The populist in me has an answer: I DON’T CARE ONE BIT. If you need more Dashboard Confessional, or more pop-folk, jump on Twin Forks’ self-titled EP. You will sing and stomp and dance and I’m going to stop before I go all caps on this. I’m just all about it. Yes.

Sfumato's folk album offers brain-expanding arrangements

September 28, 2012

When you know the rules, even the decisions you make to break them are made in relation to the rules. Sometimes this results in Jackson Pollock, but mostly it results in field homogenization that takes the mysterious x factor called “genius” to transcend. But if you never knew the rules to begin with, all bets are off–anything can happen.

Sfumato‘s These Things Between… is the folky embodiment of the latter phenomenon. Singer/songwriter Daithí Ó hÉignigh is “essentially a drummer” who decided to write and arrange a complex folk album. As a result, these 11 songs feature all sorts of sounds, rhythms and arrangements that I didn’t expect. I listened to this album for far longer than I usually do when writing a review, because it took a long time for me to figure out what was happening.

Because the homogenization of a field doesn’t just affect what musicians write, it affects how listeners hear. People are in love with Babel because it pulls off all the pop-folk moves perfectly; These Things Between… is a difficult listen for someone conditioned to hear music in that way. Even though the signifiers of folk are present (strummed acoustic guitar, pensive moods, emotive voice), what is a gospel choir doing in “Ostia”? “Mo ghrá” is in Gaelic? “Fly to Me” features a calliope-style organ; “Pound” accentuates unusual rhythms. This is a brain-expander, and goodness knows I need it after the musical candy that is Mumford and Sons, Avett Brothers and The Mountain Goats all releasing albums within weeks of each other.

After an eclectic start, the center of the album is a bit more standard. “The Past” incorporates bass guitar and organ drone in familiar patterns (Decemberists!), while “Song to Myself” shows off a wheezing saxophone in a style similar to Bon Iver’s Colin Stetson. By the end of the album, the unusual arrangements have returned: the title track is a heavily rhythmic tune that relies on conga drums, an unrecognizable instrument and Celtic-inspired strings. Still, the closer is solo acoustic track “I Was Hoping You Might…,” which reminded me of Damien Jurado in its starkness.

These Things Between… is perfectly titled, as its songs walk down the line between familiarity and otherness. There are detours to both sides, but overall it exists in a space that will challenge your conventional listening habits. If you’re into something a little outside your (and my) Mumfordy comfort zone, Sfumato should be one place to check out.

Quick Hit: Lac La Belle

August 20, 2012

Lac La Belle is a folk/bluegrass duo from Michigan that sounds like they’re from Appalachia. Banjo, chop-strumming mandolin and guitar all feature in Bring on the Light, which mixes traditional instruments, sounds and rhythms with a vocal directness that comes from pop songs and modern folk bands like the Avett Brothers and Noah and the Whale.

But Lac La Belle is not so easily pinned down. Their female vocalist has an amazing set of pipes that got her crowned 2000 Hollerin’ Champion of Wise Co., Virginia and Letcher Co., Kentucky. You can hear her go for it in “A Fine Line” and “Autumn Song,” the latter of which may actually be too much of a good thing.

But that’s about the only element of the album for which that can be said, as Lac La Belle mixes up moods consistently. Cheery? Go for “Around the World.” Calm? Call up “New Memories of Oklahoma.” Feeling sinister? “Novocaine” has your back. Pensive? “A Fine Line.” Want more evidence? Those are the first four songs.

The album does have a few missteps (“I am a Hammer” is way repetitive), but on the whole, this is a really enjoyable album of bluegrass/folk. It isn’t a heavy album by any means (you can put it on and read just fine, as I have done!), but it does have subtle beauty (“To the Sun”: accordion!!!) to be uncovered if you give it attention. Bring on the Light, indeed.

SXSW Artists I've Fallen For, Batch One

February 5, 2012

I’m heading back to hipster Christmas SXSW this year, freelancing for the Oklahoma Gazette with talented chap Matt Carney. I’m scouring through the announced bands so that I’m ready when it comes time to suit up make my schedule. Here’s some A’s and B’s that I hope to check out in Austin:

The Black and White Years play indie-rock with electro influences, but it’s their insightful lyrics that really hooked me. Okay, and the melodies.

The Barr Brothers. Josh Ritter’s gravitas + The Low Anthem’s transcendent beauty + Avett Brothers’ brotheriness. This is solid folk gold, people.

Benjamin Francis Leftwich. Bon Iver’s dreaminess meets ascendant beauty.

Adam and the Amethysts. Gleeful folky/calypso/whatevery goodness. Givers and Lord Huron should be all up on them as tourmates.

The American Secrets. You know this band as the FreeCreditScore.com Band. But did you know that all five are long-time indie-rock vets? And one of the members is in Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.? And that they write pretty brilliant songs when not composing ditties for commercials?

There will be oh so many more to come. I hope to post these weekly until SXSW.

Barry's folk incorporates humor and indie-rock elements

July 15, 2011

Barry (three dudes, not one guy) is a folk trio that ate an indie-rock band whole and had a comedian for dessert. Still, their songs are more firmly entrenched in the folk tradition than most new folk artists, in that I can see “Drink One More” being covered to the point that no one remembers who actually wrote it.

Even though “For Your Own Good” has harmonica, acoustic guitar and tom-heavy drumming, the vocals contribute the twitchy energy of a Titus Andronicus or Replacements song. The bowed stand-up bass of “Carnival(e)” contributes to the dark, pulsing Modest Mouse feel. The aforementioned “Drink One More” has a lot ripped from the indie-pop camp: melodies, background vocals, synths (yes, airy synths).

And that comedian’s streak? The title track is a a cappella foot-stomper about how they are tired from not sleeping enough. Not even kidding. It’s hilarious, in that they not only thought it was a good idea, they made it the title track. Rock that.

In fact, it’s the straight folk/country tunes that fare worst, as “Three Years in Carolina” and “Love Something Too Much” don’t match up to the engaging, entertaining amalgam of the other tunes. They aren’t bad, they’re just totally faceless. “Great Unknown” barely avoids this fate due to a nice set of lyrics and a dramatic vocal performance, but it’s still a bit too long at five minutes.

That’s an argument that can be levied at all of the songs, actually; most hang out around the five-minute mark, with only the 48-second title track as an outlier. “For Your Own Good” is close to four, and it’s a solid length.

Is it any surprise that the tracks that seem least serious are the winners, or that they’re the ones that incorporate the extra-folk-ular influences? That comedian’s streak runs deep, and it’s important to the success of Barry’s Yawnin’ in the Dawnin’. Here’s to hoping they keep bein’ chilled out incorporators of good influences into folk structures. Can we get these guys on tour with O’Death? Or maybe Avett Brothers? Thanks, justice.

Quick Hits: Minimus the Poet

June 8, 2011

Minimus the Poet‘s five-song EP Married in the Mud will sound quite familiar to fans of the Avett Brothers. Minimus has similar ideas on songwriting: play rock on folky instruments, sing easily memorable memories, toss off a great riff here and there. Minimus even sounds like the lower of the Avett Brothers in singing tone; they both have the wry yet animated tone and booming mid-range voice.

The great riff comes in the title track, which is a rhythmic riff that interlocks with the drums for a very post-punk feel. It’s a really sweet aside, and it fits the no-holds-barred feel of the song.

The rest of the EP is less frantic than that rock song; “Drying Out” features accordion and familiar folk/country drum rhythms, while “Indigo” and “Poison” are mellow ruminations — the latter has a great instrumental break featuring subdued banjo and piano. The easy vocal and instrumental swagger of “Prudence” could have been ripped from Emotionalism; some may find the comparison as a downside, but if it’s an enjoyable tune, does it have to re-invent the wheel? I say no.

Minimus the Poet’s music will appeal to those who are fond of the hyper-kinetic folk of the Avett Brothers. He’s yet to establish a signature sound that sets him apart from the pack, but his songwriting skills show that he could do so if he continued to experiment with his craft and hone his solid voice and songwriting potential into something more.

The Top Twenty Quest: The Avett Brothers

September 30, 2010

When I was in high school, almost every concert I attended was a highly anticipated, heart-fluttering event. I marked my calendars and hyped myself up for just about anyone coming anywhere near me. For example, I was pumped to see Gavin Degraw. I rest my case.

As I put a whole bunch of concerts in the rearview mirror, I realized that some shows I anticipated flopped miserably, while others I attended on the spur of the moment became landmark moments in my life.

This inability to predict who will be good live makes it now mean much more to me when a band puts on a masterful show. This deep appreciation for a truly fantastic set is precisely what motivates me to see as many Avett Brothers concerts as I can.

It’s hard to dislike the Avett Brothers in the first place. The four members are primarily armed with the non-threatening instruments of banjo, acoustic guitar, upright bass and cello. Other instruments make appearances (electric guitar/electric bass/drums/piano), but those are outliers. The band mostly makes its music on unassuming, downhome instruments.

With these sounds at their disposal, they craft pop songs that draw heavily from folk and bluegrass. This is not a particularly groundbreaking sound, except that both of the real-life Avett Brothers (Scott and Seth) have laser-guided senses of melody. Their songbook has such a high level of success that it’s almost unbelievable that they’ve written all of the songs they lay claim to. Many bands struggle to fill a two-hour set without resorting to covers and extraneous junk; The Avett Brothers struggle to cut down their piles of great songs into manageable sets. When one of the Avetts mentioned during the encore that they wished they could play all night for us, it not only seemed to ring true as a sentiment; it probably could have happened if the lights stayed on longer.

Which brings me to the particular set they played on Sunday, September 26, at Coca-Cola Convention Center in Oklahoma City.  After being accosted by Grace Potter and the Nocturnals for an hour (seriously, the two bands had nothing in common whatsoever), the Avetts jumped up on stage and kicked off with “Laundry Room.”

“Laundry Room” contains everything an Avett Brothers tune should have. The song is relatively simple, with a heartfelt vocal melody that invites group singing. The guitar and banjo interact neatly, with the upright bass contributing spine to the song. The cello layers beautiful flourishes, swooping in and out.

The song builds in complexity as it goes. The brothers harmonize on lyrics espousing romantic, but not saccharine, sentiments. A gentle call and response comes in, which translated beautifully to the live setting. Scott Avett (banjo) called, and the several hundred people in attendance responded with Seth Avett (guitar) leading the charge. It was shiver-inducing.

Suddenly, the band broke out into a bluegrass jam augmented by a foot-controlled kick drum and a high-hat (I think Scott was the percussionist, although this excellent video has Seth controlling the percussion). The audience clapped, jumped, yelled and stomped their way through it. I was delighted.

The song set the stage for the rest of the evening, with the Avetts pinballing between poignant sentiments and raucous shoutalongs. Sometimes the two occurred in the same tune, as in “The Perfect Space” and “Kickdrum Heart.” I went bonkers during the latter, because they hadn’t played it at the last show I’d seen them play. It was excellent.

They did not disappoint on either end of the spectrum. Seth Avett especially impressed, displaying a pretty fearsome scream as well a delicate singing voice while performing the fragile “In the Curve” all by his lonesome. The band made sweet harmonies and displayed incredible musicianship, as well as jumping all over the place like a punk band. In one tune, Seth was literally running in place for the entire song.

The Avett Brothers concert formula looks something like this: great songs + strong musicianship + wild stage antics + endurance + genuine appreciation for audience. They put on an absolute gem of a show Sunday, which is a feather in their cap next to the two other great shows I’ve seen them do. They are not to be missed live, period. Seriously.

Derek Porter has a composer's ear for atmospheric folk

April 27, 2010

There are artists in this world that cut a huge swath across their genre. They’re the Bob Dylan, Arcade Fire, Death Cab for Cutie and Shins-type bands; their sound is so distinct that it’s hard for them to escape it, much less anyone who sounds like them. This is a shame, because as any hipster will tell you, Nirvana wasn’t the first band to sound like Nirvana. There were people before and after Nirvana who sounded just like ’em, but those before didn’t get the glory and those after glommed onto the glory without earning it or were shunted to the side as copycats.

I hope that Derek Porter can fall into the former category; it would be easy to shove him aside as a Bon Iver disciple, but that’s not a fair judgment. There are striking similarities in the folk tunes of the two men: both have a rustic sound, favor spare arrangements and feature a high, trembling vocalist. But where Bon Iver makes paeans to the cold desolation of heartbreak, Derek Porter’s Strangers, Vol. 1 is a humble and inviting exploration of memory.

It’s probably good that these tunes aren’t as wholesale despair-laden as Bon Iver’s work. I don’t know if I could take much more of that. I much prefer Porter’s lively, bluegrass-inflected “I Remember” to the atmospheric density he employs in “All I Know Will Be Forgotten.” When “I Remember” drifts off into a weary haze, it still doesn’t meander into navel-gazing depression. This is because Porter takes careful care of the moods he creates; he’s not creating standard depressing fare, but his strength is still the moods he is putting out.

“I Forgot” is a cheery, wide-eyed tune, incorporating an accordion to great effect. It doesn’t have the direct, powerful melodies that some bands make their living on, but the overall mood cultivated is just as satisfying in this and other cases. There are good melodies sprinkled throughout, but the moods are much more consistent and thereby more praiseworthy.

Derek Porter’s Strangers, Vol. 1 is a solid EP. If you’re big on atmosphere (or a film scorer), Derek Porter should jump high up in your queue. He’s got a composer’s ear and skills. The tunes aren’t as direct, clear and elegant as Avett Brothers or Low Anthem tunes, but his command of mood transforms a room. It will be interesting to see if he develops his melodic prowess in the future or whether he pours himself even more into the atmosphere work. No matter which way he goes, Strangers, Vol. 1 is a great EP to put on during a lazy day and just be with.

Happy First Day of ACL!

October 2, 2009

As a significant portion of the staff is at Austin City Limits, with the most of our other members pining to be there, a list is in order.

Bands Stephen Carradini is Most Excited to See at ACL

5. Daniel Johnston. I am not so much interested in his music as I am in actually witnessing him. Read my post here for more details. In fact, reading that essay again, I really recommend you do read it.

4. The Low Anthem. I really, really can’t wait to hear “Charlie Darwin” live. It’s a heart-breakingly beautiful song. The fact that the Low Anthem will be the first band I see at ACL makes it all the more desirable.

3. K’Naan. I have never been to a rap show where I actually knew the material. This, paired with the fact that K’Naan seems effortlessly effervescent, should prove to make an out-of-this-world show.

2. Bon Iver. The only folk artist who has intrigued and excited me more in the past year is Joe Pug. And I listen to lots of folk. I hope there’s a full band, because “For Emma” without the trumpets would make me sad, and defeat some of the joy of that song. Maybe he can jack the brass section from Los Amigos Invisibles.?

1. The Avett Brothers. This is more of a pilgrimage than a dedication to their music. “Ballad of Love and Hate” and “Murder in the City” (neither of which will get played, I think) are two of my most favorite songs in the world, and because there’s a slim glimmer of a chance that one or both may be played, I’m hustling on over for the entirety of their set. Also, I hear they rip it up live, which will be fun.

Honorable Mentions: Flogging Molly, Andrew Bird, The Walkmen.

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

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