Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Ars Moriendi is a towering, colossal achievement

July 21, 2014

thecollection

It appears that someone in Ukraine shot down a Malaysian jet liner, killing all 295 people on board. If this seems random, garish, and apropos of nothing, that’s because it is. Malaysia and Ukraine were not at war with each other. This serves no obvious purpose. Death appears, and it is absurd; we rage against it. It is this sense of outrage that powers The Collection‘s Ars Moriendi.

It must be said straight away: Ars Moriendi is unapologetically weighty. It tackles questions of death, life, and religion unflinchingly. Some people in this album don’t believe in God; others do. Narrators live. Narrators die. There are straight people, gay people, married people, lonely people, depressed people, and recovering people. The one thing that unites them all is that they’re all gonna die, and they’re all concerned about what this means for their lives. There are songs here that hit me hard in my particular current life experience–I’m willing to bet that there are different ones for other people. The Collection isn’t shying away from what they’ve got to say about life in the context of death, which is a rare thing. But don’t worry–there’s a great amount of hope and exultation in the tunes that accompany these thoughts.

The music here is by turns jubilant, pensive, and energetic, but it’s always passionate. This diverse sound is created by the Collection’s 16-piece folk orchestra–and when I say “orchestra,” I don’t mean there’s a string player and a horn player. The credits on this album are humongous, including 27 people. Lead songwriter David Wimbish takes the giant ensemble that he has and leads them to create some of the most incredible folk-inspired tunes I’ve ever heard.

Wimbish can write a mournful dirge (“The Doubtful One”), but he can also write a jubilant tune of celebration (lead single “The Gown of Green”). He can use every single instrument at once (“Garden”) or lead the orchestra to beautifully frame a trumpet solo (the Beirut-esque coda of “The Borrowers”). He knows how to write indelible vocal melodies–“Scala Naturae” and “Broken Tether” in particular, although you can sing along to almost every single tune here. Some of the crescendoes they hit are downright shiver-inducing; then again, it’s emotionally devastating when he drops out the orchestra and just sings against an acoustic guitar. The songs are about as varied as a cohesive album can get, moving from thrashy galloping drums backed by a full orchestra (“The Art of Dying”) to Wimbish barely holding his voice together in sadness over a solo piano (“Some Days I Don’t Want to Sing”). Ars Moriendi wrings me out emotionally as a listener. I can’t imagine writing and performing it.

It does sound like it wrings out Wimbish, though–as the primary voice of The Collection, he’s the one tasked with delivering the words that accompany all these tunes. His vocal styles are as diverse as the songs ask for: he whispers, sings, hollers, shouts and roars his way through the album. There are few vocalists as engaging as Wimbish: I don’t know if he’s going to break into falsetto or a terrifying roar at any given moment. It makes sense that Wimbish would collect an enormous number of instruments, because that seems like the only thing that could match the depth, disparity, and ferocity of his vocal stylings. My personal favorite line to yell along with is “and though my feet walk very slow, and there is death between my bones, I’ll make it home!” from “Broken Tether.”

I can remember individual lines, but keeping the incredible number of lyrics straight is challenge. Wimbish has written extremely detailed, thoughtful, and meaningful lyrics that don’t just skate the surface. There is hard-won experience documented here, and it’s difficult to look past it to just hear the beautiful, energetic music. Instead, the album is a whole experience. I very often listen to music while I work–this album does not allow that. This is an album that demands attention musically, lyrically, and emotionally. I can’t just hum a lyric here and there and not be moved. I mean, just go read his lyrics listed on the Bandcamp and see. This is not background music in any way, shape, or form. Again: Ars Moriendi is a whole experience.

I could go on about this album for 700 more words, but I’ll try to close here. Ars Moriendi is the sort of album that sucks you in with every song; there’s not a bad one in the bunch. That’s impressive in a 13-song album that’s nearly an hour long. Each song has an astonishing amount of carefully crafted lyrics, painstaking arrangements, moving performances, and brilliant production work. There are six or seven songs that would qualify as the best track on anyone else’s album. It is an album that challenges me emotionally, spiritually, and musically. It’s in the lead for my album of the year.

The last time someone seriously considered death and its consequences, it started The Arcade Fire on a course that resulted in the heights of musical success. Here’s to hoping the Collection sees that level of success–their work here merits it.

Beauty

March 6, 2012

I’m incredibly excited about Bowerbirds’ new album, which I will hear and review very soon. Until then, here’s a breathtakingly gorgeous video for “Tuck the Darkness In.”

This black and white period piece is an enthralling piece of storytelling. Kudos to Sunset Television for this beautiful mini-movie set to “Vagabonds” by Beirut.

Dustin Wong, whose optimistic prog-rock is purveyed under his own name and as part of Ponytail, is doing a cool fan-based project. He encouraged each fan to record himself or herself retelling a dream he or she has had and upload it to Soundcloud. Wong chose the most evocative of them and created songs around the words. He then completed the tune by setting the spoken word recordings on top of these instrumentals. The first of these, “Dave Sutton’s Dream: Gold Dust and Skateboarding” is online now. There are four more of these to come. I hope they will all be this interesting.

Top Albums of the Year, pt. 1

December 29, 2011

I’m incredibly excited that I’ve finished my year-end lists actually correspond with the end of the year. Without further pontificating, here’s the first half of the year’s best.

Honorable Mention: LCD Soundsystem – Madison Square Garden Show. It’s not an official release, but it proves that the tightest live band in the world only got tighter with time. “Yeah” is an absolute powerhouse.

20: Beirut – The Rip Tide. The mellower, less brash Zac Condon won me over.

19: The Antlers – Burst Apart. Mostly because “Putting the Dog to Sleep” is my favorite song of the year, although the rest of the album stands up well.

18: Gray Young – Staysail. Post-rock with heart and technical abilities.

17: Bon Iver – Bon Iver. It took a while to grow on me, but now I think that Vernon out-James Blaked James Blake.

16: David Ramirez – Strangetown EP. Moving songwriting, evocative lyrics and a beautiful voice make this a brilliant collection of tunes.

15: Restorations – Restorations. The sound of punk rockers growing old without giving up.

14: Battle Ave. – “War Paint.” A more indie-fied Titus Andronicus? Sign me up twice.

13: Brianna Gaither – Love is Patient. Piano-led singer/songwriter fare rarely sounds this confident, powerful or memorable.

12: Pete Davis – The Pottsville Conglomerate. The instrumentation of Sufjan Stevens meets the acrobatic enthusiasm of a pop-punk band. Fireworks ensue.

11: Oh Look Out! – Alright Alright Alright Alright Alright. Electrifying, intricate indie-pop that loves video games just as much as music. “Kam” is brilliant.

Archer Black's video actually means something!

October 26, 2011

I’m already starting to spread the word on Pete Davis’ The Pottsville Conglomerate, because it’s 95 minutes of awesome. Because it’s the length of 3ish albums and 6ish EPs, it’s gonna take a little longer than usual to review. But fans of Sufjan’s most bombastic moments should start listening to it now.

In lieu of a review, here’s a stunner of a video from Archer Black, for “Onward and Down.” I love videos that tell a story, and this one’s simple but powerful. The song is also incredible, like Beirut channeling The National.

I thought Tin Can Radio’s “Hot Trash” proved that the whole continent of Australia has a Bloc Party thing, but then there’s a Vampire Weekend/Phoenix chorus that throws a really interesting wrench in my snarky aside.

Finally, SLTM the Podcast just posted edition #125, which is a pretty big milestone. Congrats to Brad Bugos and the rest of the SLTM!

St. Even's calming Spirit Animal soars

October 14, 2011

I had two presentations and classes to teach this week, so I spent an unusual amount of time doing mental exercises to keep myself calm and focused. One of those was “pushing play on my iPod to hear St. Even‘s Spirit Animal.” It worked almost as well as deep breaths and [nerdy Wheel of Time joke redacted].

It’s easy to chill when listening to St. Even, who longtime readers may recognize from Steve Hefter and Friends (and Friends of Friends), as Spirit Animal‘s acoustic-based folk/indie-pop combines the preternatural chill of Breathe Owl Breathe with the downtrodden theatricality of Dan Mangan. Hefter’s baritone adds to the effect, as his few moments of urgency only serve to reinforce that Spirit Animal is predominantly a leisurely stroll.

Hefter’s low, calming tone spreads from his voice to the arrangements. They are meticulously crafted, but never invasive or heavy: the violins float along in “The Piano Inflates,” while the horns in “Cocksure” are poignant instead of flamboyant. This is due in part to the fact that Hefter hits it and quits it: Most songs hover around 2:40, with some falling near or under two minutes. Nothing has time to overstay its welcome.

The resulting tunes range from the chipper “Blinding Love” and very pleasant “Dreams/My Rope” to the self-effacing “Ariel” and the wrenching sadness of “Long Distance Calls.” The major exception is the Mangan-esque, self-aware closer “This Is Not a Song,” which ends in a ten-car folk pile-up of erratic guitar strum, flutes, choirs, vocal soloists, saloon piano and cello. It’s markedly different than the rest of the album, but it feels fine as an outro.

I listen to a great deal of music, but some albums stick with me past their week. St. Even’s latest seems quite promising to end up on the list with Beirut’s The Rip Tide as most recent entries. Fans of mature, thoughtful songwriting (Mangan, Breathe Owl Breathe, Josh Ritter, Josh Radin, Damien Jurado) should get their paws on a copy of Spirit Animal.

Movin' and shakin'

September 30, 2011

The latest edition of SLTM the Podcast is sponsored by Independent Clauses. You don’t want to miss it, especially if you’re a fan of heavy music, 1800s poetry, or The Parson Red Heads.

Elizaveta initially comes off as Regina Spektor/Ingrid Michaelson follower, but there’s a sharp left hook in the chorus that has me very excited for the future. Don’t worry; you’ll know it. Hers is a career to watch closely. (As for the video? Well, it’s got serious wtf factor.)

Noisetrade’s Fall Sampler includes several artists that IC has featured among its 30-strong ranks: Brianna Gaither, Jenny and Tyler, Joe Pug, David Ramirez and Sleeping At Last, the last of which was covered so early on in Independent Clauses’ history that the review isn’t even on this version of the site. There are also several bands we highly recommend that haven’t been officially covered here at IC: The Middle East, Derek Webb + Sandra McCracken, Ivan & Alyosha, Josh Rouse and Josh Garrels. I’m guessing the other third is full of joy and wonder as well – I’ll be checking it out soon.

If you’re into the whole ’80s nostalgia thing that’s going around, you’re going to be all over Geoffrey O’Connor. His album Vanity is Forever is streaming in full over here. Seriously, it’s 1985 on that webpage.

Beirut’s The Rip Tide is still keeping me company, and now a visual aid has been supplied! Sunset Television made this bizarre yet somehow fitting clip for “Santa Fe,” and while I’m not really sure what’s happening, I enjoy it.

An older, calmer Beirut delivers on massive potential

August 25, 2011

I rode a fixed-gear bike for about two weeks as a result of an uninformed impulse purchase. (“Frame and chain for ten bucks? IN!”) After the initial shock and subsequent few days of learning curve, I deeply enjoyed the soothing rhythm of constant but leisurely motion. The pleasant experience ended in defeat and bike modification when I realized that Auburn is literally the hilliest place I’ve ever seen.

I was reminded of my fixie weeks when listening to Beirut‘s The Rip Tide. I’ve respected Zach Condon as a unique and important voice in indie rock since his debut album, but I haven’t spent much time listening recreationally to his music. The force with which he projected his signature tenor warble on the world turned me off, despite my affection for his horn/string/piano/auxiliary instrument arrangements.

That’s not a problem here, as Condon tones everything back (including his voice!) for a short but fully-realized album. In nine tunes and about 33 minutes, Condon does more to engender my affection than he has in all his previous work combined: each tune sparkles, but the gentle “East Harlem,” Sufjan-esque “Santa Fe,” sleepy “The Peacock” and swaying “Payne’s Bay” command my attention.

“Sway” is a good word for the whole collection, as the pieces seem to share a subtle rhythmic consistency. That’s what brought me to the bike: the tunes unspool at a speed faster than walking but slower than driving. It’s constant leisurely motion, otherwise known as the perfect soundtrack for lazy (bike) commutes home.

The mood is also consistent. Where Condon has been forceful or energetic in the past, he’s relaxed now. He never goes for the throat with any arrangement or vocal line, and the album is all the better for it. There’s enough variation in his horn-heavy orchestrations to distinguish between each song, but not so much as to strip the flow. You can still tell it’s Condon (no worries there, you’ll always know when it’s him singing), but I appreciate that it’s an older, calmer version.

The Rip Tide surprised me. I always give Beirut a chance, but this time Condon delivered on as much of his initial immense promise as can be expected. (So he’s not the next Jeff Mangum. And you are?) I have a feeling this will be in my year-end top ten, and that’s a big compliment, considering what made it into the half-year top list. But yes, The Rip Tide is that good. Go get it.

Happy Birthday to IC, vol. 8: The Duke of Norfolk

June 19, 2011

For Independent Clauses’ seventh birthday last year, I put out a small, limited-time compilation of unreleased songs by my favorite bands that IC has covered.  I stepped it up this year for IC’s eighth birthday: I helped put a real release of new material into the world.

The goal of IC over the past eight years has always been to help undiscovered artists; it’s a natural extension to move into producing and management.

Alt-folk singer/songwriter The Duke of Norfolk is the first artist I’m partnering with in this new venture; his new EP Barnacle Goose came out Tuesday. I helped produce it. The five-song release is free, and I’d recommend it to fans of Freelance Whales, Beirut, Guster and/or the banjo.

Thanks in advance for giving the tunes a listen! I’m pretty proud of the project, and hope you’ll enjoy it. Feel free to leave feedback  in the comments or send it to indieclauses@gmail.com. Thanks for being a part of Independent Clauses over the last octade; it’s been a fun, fascinating and sometimes fretful ride, but I love it. Here’s to eight more!

Quick hits: Alcoholic Faith Mission

February 21, 2011

Denmark’s Alcoholic Faith Mission plays a Beirut/Arcade Fire-style indie-folk that rides the fine line between style and substance. On first listen it seems that the band is all bark and no bite; the moods are solid and the instrumentation is strong, but no song jumps out and demands attention. There are choirs, acoustic guitars, horn sections, et al., but as an overall whole, And the Running With Insanity EP takes a very unassuming stance.

But as more listens follow the initial impression, these songs wormed their way into my head. A few weeks after I got this EP, “Running With Insanity” popped up on a shuffle list. While I was hard-pressed to remember who wrote the song or what it was called, I knew I liked it and could hum along. When I looked down at the title, I decided I liked the EP. Not because it stands out for virtuosic instrumentation or immediate tunes, but for the fact that I really like this EP for an almost inexplicable reason. It’s like enjoying The National. No matter how many times I disliked High Violet, I kept being drawn to it. Now I go to it as comfort music. I have no idea when I started liking that album; it just happened somewhere in there.

So it is for Alcoholic Faith Mission and its And the Running With Insanity EP. I really like it, because it’s a part of my brain now. I can’t explain how or why it got there, but I’m relatively certain this sort of thing will happen to you too if you listen.

La Strada makes energetic folk-infused indie rock with a small orchestra in tow

May 9, 2010

I came into an appreciation of folk music at about the same time the folk revival was beginning to gain prominence (roughly four or five years ago). I was finally lucky enough to catch a thing at its peak; it seems I always go back and discover the goodness of a thing after the fact (point: I saw Death Cab for Cutie on their Plans tour, the Mountain Goats on their Get Lonely tour, Coldplay on its X&Y tour, and Guster on its Ganging up on the Sun tour; all of which were one album after their best album). But this time, I’m on the edge with the rest of the people rocking out to Mumford and Sons, because folk finally reclaimed energy.

La Strada’s New Home does Mumford and Sons one better. Instead of just being a folk band on speed (which, as M+S’s immense popularity shows, is quite alright), they’re a folk band on speed eating an indie band. It’s like gentler Beirut with a guy who can sing; it’s like Arcade Fire with acoustic guitars. This album is so incredibly hip and current that I’m afraid I’m not cool enough to review it. But I reject that notion, because the songs are brilliant. These songs aren’t just for the cool; they’re for people who like anything related to pop music.

“The Traveler” features a bouncy drum line, a mini-orchestra and a jaunty vocal line. The smooth quality of the vocals is immensely reassuring from the beginning of the album; he has the best elements of many different vocalists. His ability to convey emotion without oversinging recalls Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard; his effortless delivery recalls people with gifted voices like Novi Split’s David Jerkovich. The fact that he meshes so well with the band makes me think of the National, even though their voices seem separated by (several?) octaves.

The ragged yet gentle rhythms of “The Traveler,” plus the immensely reverbed guitar solo, strings, trumpets, tubas, and keys make for a richly ornamented, impossible-to-dislike song. There’s tons going on here, but as in an Anathallo song, it all works together. Even when they kill the beat, punch up the accordion and turn the song into a Parisian street waltz (not kidding), it sounds amazing.

Then they kick into “Wash On By,” which brings a indie-rock surge of energy to their still-instrument-heavy mix. This song will make you move, as well as yell and cheer with the band. The rhythms, which are distinctly foreign but not exactly easy to pin down, simply bring the house down. I wish I could be in the audience for a performance of “Wash on By.”

Then there’s the title track, which for once is appropriately chosen. I hate it when bands don’t choose the right title track, but this one is far and away the most memorable track of the album (and you thought I’d lavished all the exuberant praise I had in me? naaa). The song is sparse, but it’s not sparse in the lack of instruments; they use the instruments sparingly, locking them in together to pull a distinct and certain mood out of the tune. The word masterful is not an exaggeration of this tune’s quality.

The whole thing is held together by the vocals, again, which are glorious and command several beautiful melodies. The brass band and strings contribute significantly to this tune. You will be singing “Hello strange familiar, you’re my new home; oh, wha-o, wha-o wha-o.” Trust me, it looks goofy there, but you’ll know exactly what I mean when it happens. You will be powerless to resist it.

My highest praise for an album is “I could write a small book about this album.” And it is very, very true of New Home by La Strada. I didn’t even get to talk about the lyrics, the art, the rest of the tunes (and seriously, that’s a tragedy to me, because “Baptism” and “Where You Want to Go” and “Go Forward” are all wonderful and worthy of covering). All I can say is, for your own good, buy this album. It will improve your mood for weeks.

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

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