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Sam Hale: Unafraid to Sing Out

February 19, 2016

samhale

Sam Hale‘s When in Roam EP opens with the triumphant title track, and that couldn’t be a better choice. Anchored by an indelible chorus melody that I hummed for several days after I first heard it, the enthusiastic acoustic-pop tune rambles and romps through its four-minute length. Hale’s clear, bright tenor is accompanied by Sara Clay’s similarly straightforward alto; the two voices intertwine beautifully. Hale matches the jaunty acoustic strum of the tune with fitting lyrics about wanderlust; the lyrics and sonic palette work together to create an overall experience. (There’s even a few “hey”s thrown in at the end for good measure.) The tune comes together to be a fun and meaningful tune, which is a rare thing.

The rest of the four-song When In Roam shows off the diversity of Hale’s songwriting skills while honing in on his vocals as the central element. “I’ll Wait” is a dramatic ballad grounded in piano that’s sold by a passionate vocal performance that has elements of Ben Folds’ tone in it. The guitar takes the lead again on “Atypical Romance,” which has a romantic narrative element that points toward Dashboard Confessional’s old work (although there’s more fingerpicking and less frantic strumming here). Hale closes out the set with a modern folk tune that incorporates elements of Rocky Votolato’s grim certainty and a full-band flair. Hale moves through these various styles with ease, and each song has its own charms to explore.

It’s Hale’s voice that ties each of these tunes together. He isn’t afraid to sing out on this EP, which gives each of the tunes a constant ability to explode into a huge vocal moment. There’s a fun uncertainty there–does he stay in his calm lower register in “Candle’s Wick”? When will he soar it on “I’ll Wait”? Even with the passionate delivery, he’s able to keep everything together, and he never loses control of his vocal performances. It’s just a fun EP to listen to. When In Roam is a strong introduction to a new voice in folk songwriting, literally and metaphorically.

Hale will officially release the EP at Bar Lubitsch in West Hollywood on the 20th of this month. Check it if you’re in the area of Tinseltown.

Mid-February Singles, pt. 2: Acoustic

1. “Evergreen” – The Tomes. This moving track pits a clear-eyed vocal performance and swift fingerpicking against a swooning violin and delicate piano performance. The results are light and yet weighty; dramatic, yet intimate.

2. “Modesto” – Jon Bennett. This creaky speakin’ folk made my heart leap in recognition and desire, reminded me of Jeffrey Lewis and Bob Dylan. What else do I need to tell you to get you to listen to this?

3. “Unpuzzle Me” – Kate Copeland. There’s something ghostly and close about the mandolin and vocal pairing here that comforts me.

4. “No Mercy in the Night” – Natalie Lurie. Lurie’s harp is insistent, her voice is glorious, and the arrangement frames it all perfectly to sound like a female-fronted Barr Brothers.

5. “Heroin Strings” – Jack Conman. The perfectly-recorded drums here sound just north of empty cans in a big room, which gives this ominous tune a bit of an extra pop. Conman’s vocal performance is also particularly evocative and moody.

6. “The Big Surprise” – Trickster Guru. Elements of Carrie and Lowell run through this moody, death-pondering track.

7. “Long Way Back” – Terri Binion. From the jaunty old-school country vibes, you wouldn’t know that this is a track about a tragic death of a wife and the attempts to cope with that.

8. “Fear of Music” – Tobie Milford. Fans of Antony and the Johnsons will connect with Milford’s theatrical vocals, complex orchestral arrangements, and intensely dramatic moods.

9. “Up There Listening” – Jordan Prince. Back porch picking on a banjo and guitar with Prince’s sweet, charming voice making the tune even more endearing.

10. “Child of the ’70s” – Derek Clegg. Evocative of flower-power folk (Jackson Browne! James Taylor!) but subverts the script by being a song about growing older. It’s like Ben Folds’ “The Ascent of Stan,” but chiller and more accepting of the realities entailed therein.

11. “I Will Follow You” – RIVVRS. Ah, home sweet home: tom thump, “hey,” upbeat strum, romantic lyrics, catchy melodies. This one’s for everyone who just loves a good, honest, earnest folk-pop tune.

 

February Singles: Mellow

March 10, 2015

Mellow

1. “The Giving” – Matthew Squires and the Learning Disorders. Squires plays the traveling troubadour here, finding “poverty and magic all around me” in a New Orleans full of found sound, delicate guitar, his signature vocal style, and fitting trumpet.

2. “Red” – Mt. Wolf. Here’s a slow-burning, tension-releasing amalgam of acoustic guitar, beats, and falsetto that sounds like Bon Iver 2.0. Mmm, mmm, mmm.

3. “Heart” – Pistol Shrimp. The falsetto-filled acoustic version of this dance-rock banger sounds somewhere between Ben Gibbard and Ben Folds, which is pretty impressive. Maybe they should do this more often.

4. “Odell” – Lowland Hum. Afflicted, pastoral, theatrical indie-folk has previously belonged in my mind only to Bowerbirds. Move on over, Bowerbirds–Lowland Hum are here with a beautiful tune in that very specific mood.

5. “Cops Don’t Care pt. II” – Fred Thomas. Thomas follows up his epic debut single with this one, which is a lot simpler musically but just as powerful lyrically.

6. “Other Suns” – Magic Giant. With mandolin, cello, and harmonica, Magic Giant is doing their best to act the folk part of their folk rave name in this mid-tempo ballad.

7. “Love or Die” – Magic Giant. I know I just put them in this list, but this Lumineers/Twin Forks stomp-along is just too much fun to pass up.

8. “If It Don’t Kill You” – Family Folk Revival. Get that outlaw alt-country feel on and enjoy this low-slung, rootsy jam.

Quick Hit: Supersmall

November 7, 2014

supersmall

New York folk/indie-rock duo Supersmall‘s This Other World captures the balance between composed and wide-open songwriting that is common in artists from across the pond: Johnny Flynn, Fionn Regan, and Eoin Glackin.

Big, warm, resonant acoustic guitar chords are held in line by calm, distinctly enunciated tenor vocals on the title track; rattling drums add to the ambiance. “Goodbye Old Friend” continues the cheery, upbeat folk vibes. The more serious “Wherever We Are” and “This Grenade Will Love You” invoke a little Ben Folds plaintiveness in the vocals, giving the EP some firm grounding and diversity. Tasteful keys appear in several areas, providing some atmosphere on tracks like the more romantic, swooning “Everywhere.”

Overall, This Other World is a neat introduction to a warm, friendly folk duo. There’s a lot of promise throughout in this short EP, as the band has given themselves a lot of ways to spread out from here. It will be interesting to see which of their strengths they play up as they continue to produce music. For now, there’s a cheery few minutes for you in This Other World.

The 21st Century's wide-eyed, bohemian indie-pop enchants

June 7, 2012

I love it when a specific scene has an identifiable sound. Sometimes I don’t like the specific sound that is happening, but I love the idea that people kicking around ideas among themselves over a long period of time will come up with iterations, similarities and variations that push toward the sum. And there almost always is a sum, even if it’s something seemingly unquantifiable like an artistic movement: the pinnacle of a form does not appear on the first try, by anyone. Rockin’ the Suburbs was nowhere near the first piano-pop album, nor Ben Folds’ first rodeo; it just happens to have assimilated all the ideas that had been kicking about in a particularly excellent way.

All that to say this: the lush orchestrations, wide-eyed lyrics, group vocals and bohemian charm make The City by The 21st Century sound very much like a Pacific Northwest indie pop band (The Morning Benders/Pop Etc, Grizzly Bear, Local Natives – although they’re from LA). And instead of that being a bad thing, it’s a great thing. “We Are Waiters” has familiar elements like plunking piano and big group vocals, but they invite the listener in so the band can drop the intoxicating chorus. I had the chorus on loop in my mind for days after I heard it the first time, and that’s incredibly rare for a guy who listens to music all day.

The band makes its living on gleeful tunes that incorporate guitar noodling, horns, organ solos and a well-developed sense of space. These songs may have a lot going on, but they’re not crowded: the production allows for everything to breathe. “The Good Things (Act I and II)” is the best example of this, as the band throws the kitchen sink at the tune and it still doesn’t feel as heavy as a power-pop trio with a huge guitar riff. “A Funeral March (The State of Our Parade)” is another melodic highlight, filled out with lyrics about the meaning of life (no, for real). “The Parisian Translation” gets its Decemberists on in the melodic structures, but not so much that it feels like a rip-off. It’s just incredibly fun. (And yes, there’s French spoken in the song!)

So where does the line draw between inhabiting a sound and retreading a sound? I think the difference lies in each person’s desire for the genre, just like I mentioned yesterday: The 21st Century’s game is the same as Friends of Mine. (This style of indie-pop is just as divisive as country, and I would guess mostly for the same reasons: two parts backlash to its related culture, one part resistance to the idiosyncrasies of the sound). The 21st Century takes an established sound and builds something inside it; those with a low threshold for the genre’s quirks won’t get this and feel that it’s just some more of that stuff, while those who love the genre will enjoy the new entrant into the field.

Given that ideas ruminate and kick around, the entry of another band into the field allows for another possible group who could come up with the definitive statement (or statements!) for this genre. If you’re a fan of the type of music that The Morning Benders purveyed on Big Echo, this one’s going to make you sit up and take notice.

The Ashes send off the ironic era with ragtime and hoedown

June 5, 2012

I will always remember that September 11th happened on a Tuesday because of an odd, unfortunate coincidence: Ben Folds’ poignant depiction of ’90s life Rockin’ the Suburbs was released on the same day that the ’90s truly ended. (For example, the Y2K scare seems quaint compared to the actual disasters we’ve had to put up with in the post-9/11 years.) Kicking off Folds’ masterpiece is “Annie Waits,” which is effectively about the fear of “if we’re both still lonely when we’re old.” This sort of thinking was relatively paranoiac in the successful ’90s, Radiohead excepted, and yet it’s the first thing that Folds says about his vision of suburban life: It’s lonely and scary.

Flash forward 11 years and The Ashes deliver “Talk Like They Talk on TV,” which is also about the suburbs and “if we’re both still single when we’re getting close to 40.” But instead of earnest paranoia, this one’s coated in irony and sarcasm. Just as Suburbs was a referendum on an earnest decade closing, The Ashes Sing! is a jab at an ironic era ending.

The irony that is being parodied and skewered (or, if this reviewer is getting it completely wrong, simply presented) does not extend only to the lyrics. The music itself is an exaggeration of the folk tendencies of indie in the 2000s, as Shane Vidaurri and co. mine truly old-time sounds like ragtime, hoedown country, rockabilly and country/gospel. “Her Blue Eyes” includes washboard, stand-up bass, fiddle and barbershop harmonies; “Leaving Port” goes way back and includes what sounds like a harpsichord as a featured instrument. “Shane’s Blues” does its very best to appropriate the rhythms and melodies of New Orleans Jazz. Some will find the high vocals to be a confusing addition to the sound, but it just serves to point out the quirkiness of a folk uptick in the 21st century.

This is an eclectic stew, to be sure, but it’s a fun one: it’s impossible to tell what will be around the corner. With 15 songs spread over 47 minutes, there are plenty of twists and turns to love. If you’re into folk or sounds like it, The Ashes Sing! should be on your list.

Music for the road

January 4, 2012

I’m driving approximately 1000 miles today, and I will almost certainly be rocking “(I’m Gonna Be) 500 Miles” by the Proclaimers at least twice during that trip.

Some other road trip faves that will almost certainly spin:

1. Undercard by The Extra Lens, which I just picked up at Lawrence, KS’ Love Garden Records.
2. Graceland by Paul Simon, which I bought about a year ago at Oklahoma City’s Guestroom Records.
3. Letting Go of a Dream by Josh Caress, which is high on the list for my favorite album ever.
4. Rockin’ the Suburbs by Ben Folds, because I can sing every word.
5. Prolonging the Magic by Cake, because my brother’s girlfriend reminded me of much I love them earlier today.

Here’s to safe travels for everyone returning from their holiday travels over the next few days!

Stellar Vector's debut full length exudes a high quality, post-modern vibe

April 11, 2010

The five-piece, self-proclaimed “post-modern rock band” Stellar Vector are set to release their debut full-length album, A Flock of Cowards, in April and it would be well worth your time check it out.  While the Minneapolis-based group claims to be creatively influenced by the likes of David Bowie and Peter Gabriel, I can’t help but feel that fans of  more recent bands like Of Montreal, Muse and the Cold War Kids will all find something they like in the sound of A Flock of Cowards.  The album has a playfulness similar to Of Montreal but also a raw vibe similar to Death Cab’s “Meet Me at the Equinox.”

The synthesizer-infused, 12-track album starts out blasting “Buffalo Jump” with clean, ear-tingling guitar riffs that channel classic rock yet combine strong, edgy vocals that add a modern tweak.  The second track,”Lacking Self-Control,” is a fantastic example of a musical narrative.  One moment you are tapping your foot to a near reggae beat; then the chorus hits, picking up the pace and lending to a more commercially-appealing alternative rock sound.  In a sense, the instrumental work really allows you to “feel” the story behind the sound as the song progresses.

The band is very upfront about their narrative-driven, lyrical styling.  I could almost hear a hint of Ben Folds in their upfront and at times sarcastic lyrics. There is an especially strong lyrical resemblance on “E.D.” with lines like, “No I don’t wanna be your friend/but I know that I can’t pretend/I’m a pretty damn good actor baby.”

A favorite surprise on the record was the incorporation of a few keyboard-driven melodies on songs such as “Titanic Work Ethic” and the fun little album-ending tune, “The Not So Hidden Song.”  Clearly the song titles alone should be enough to get the potential listener a little intrigued as to what this group is really about.

As you listen to the record, you can’t help but feel your ears smoothly move in and out of the different decades of rock.  They have mastered the art of taking the best from the past while looking to the future. They embody a post modern success.

Overall, Stellar Vector has succeeded in achieving a truly high-quality independent album.  A clean and polished recording is already putting them miles ahead.  They have the kind of sound that could really get a film music supervisor excited, as great soundtrack music.  Keep an eye out for these guys. I have a feeling they won’t be staying in the Midwest for long.

Raymondale and the Family Band show gold in their youthfulness

February 6, 2010

The defining characteristic of Raymondale and the Family Band is youth. The band looks young, sounds young and has lots of room to grow in their piano-pop sound. It’s no dig to them that they’re young; on the contrary, more power to them for figuring out what they want to do and doing it. But there are flashes of brilliance that are dampened by youthful peculiar decisions.

The piano pop here is of a stately, indie variety, as if Sufjan Stevens’ aesthetic choices were distilled into Ben Folds’ piano with Billy Joel playing it. RD Bonner (who is also Raymondale, both names I’m assuming as affectations of Raymond Dale) handles the piano and the vocals,  Kiah Bonner holds down the percussion, and Alyson Bonner takes on most of the other instruments (trumpet,  vocals, etc). The songs are dominated by pop piano stylings, similar to the way that Ben Folds’ piano dominates most of his songs. While the approaches are the same, the Bonners do a good job of not nicking Folds’ shtick. The closest they come to ripping off Mr. Rockin’ the Suburbs is on “For Her,” where the smooth piano line and the background “ahs” just scream “Fred Jones Pt. 2.” They kill the comparison by significantly altering the mood at the end of the song (and not really in a good way, unfortunately). But they are taking pains to distinguish themselves, and that’s a good thing.

The lyrics fall somewhere between the incredibly emotional tales of Bright Eyes and the incredibly detailed story songs of The Mountain Goats. “Rosa de Chiapas” details a failed attempt to cross the border from Mexico to America. “For Her” tells of a boy dying in a hospital before an girl can get to him from six states away. Highlight “God Bless You, Archbishop” tells of a South American peasant uprising. The lyrics are clever and interesting, if a little bit stilted at times by trying to cram too many or too few syllables into a line.

All of these parts together create the Raymondale and the Family Band sound: a wide-eyed, piano-heavy pop sound. There are harmonies, rounds, counterpoints, and more tricks up their sleeve. But they never fill the sound, as Sufjan does. The band is content to let the piano carry the band, and that sets them apart. The songs don’t always flow perfectly, as there are odd jumps and mood shifts occasionally, but it’s the sound of a band discovering its own sound. It’s not a sign of incompetence; it’s a sign of overshooting their experience at the moment. Raymondale and the Family Band want to be great, and they’re gunning for it hard.

Some bands are scattered as a way of life. Some bands are just scattered on this particular pit stop as they get their things together. Raymondale and the Family Band is definitely the latter. The melodic quality and aesthetic ideas of this band point toward great things for the band, even if it’s not exactly all together on this release. I would highly recommend Consider the Birds to any fan of piano pop, as RD Bonner is going to be a name that you hear more often, with or without the Family Band. I hope that he sticks with it and gets the success he (and the rest of the band) will soon deserve.

Jonathan Vassar is a great folk songwriter.

December 23, 2009

I’ve been reading reviews of Regina Spektor’s far with some confusion. Many of them say that it is not her best work because it’s less experimental and more “normal.” Then I read an essay by David Hajdu in which he asserts that Jack White is beloved because he never really finishes songs. These together cause me to think that there are two types of great songwriter in the world: the great songwriter that is actually incompetent of being a “normal” songwriter and thus writes unusual and wacky works that stick in our head (which is why Spektor’s disjointed breakout album Soviet Kitsch is wonderful, and why everything that Jack White does with a real band is hopelessly boring), and the songwriter that those wacky ones aspire to be.

The problem is that the wacky ones often mature out of their wacky phase, but they don’t often mature into the great songwriters they aspire to be. far has some wonderful tracks on it, but it’s not a Ben Folds album by any stretch of the imagination. Neither is it a Fiona Apple album (although there is some debate as to whether that is something to aspire to, these days). The Dead Weather doesn’t sound normal, but it’s a lot closer to normal than “Black Math” or “Hotel Yorba” or “Seven Nation Army.” The Raconteurs sound, for better or for worse, incredibly average.

It seems that the great songwriters appear full-formed. Ben Folds was cranking out the great songs while he was still in his earliest stages with the Ben Folds Five; Damien Jurado’s best work is spread throughout his fantastic career. They just, you know, show up being awesome.

I think Jonathan Vassar is in the Ben Folds category of great songwriters. The reason for this is that the best tracks on The Fire Next Time are not the minimalist, eccentric ones, but the fully-realized folk/Americana songs. “A Match Made in Heaven” features some great mandolin, a violin, a cello, and a warbling saw in addition to his plaintive acoustic guitar and voice. But instead of feeling cluttered of amateur, each piece locks in. The song wouldn’t be the song without all the parts. It’s a perfectly written song, in that there’s nothing I can knock about it. It has a great melody, it has solid lyrics with meaning and wit, the song sways, and it has a deeply felt emotive quality that refrains from becoming maudlin. In short, it’s perfect. If you like acoustic Americana/folk/country, you will like “A Match Made in Heaven.” It’s impossible not to.

“Saint Josephina” is another fully-realized track that suceeds admirably. “San Jacinto” isn’t quite as engaging as the previous two, but it’s still a solid song. These filled-out songs are the cream of the crop; it would behoove Vassar to stay in this vein. The more experimental tracks, while interesting, aren’t up to part with these songs.

Opener “Nearer My Father’s Wounded Side” starts out with a minute-long intro that serves to confuse more than set the scene. It segues neatly into the rest of the track, which is a profoundly minimalist composition that runs for over five minutes. It’s not a bad song, but it’s just not as engaging as the tightly woven “Match Made in Heaven.” I’ll take “Nearer…” over most folk, but it’s just sad to me that one of the six tracks Jonathan Vassar treats us to is simply not his best work.

To bring it all together, Jonathan Vassar and the Speckled Bird don’t need to get wacky to be heralded as good. Vassar is simply a good songwriter, and the Speckled Bird plays tight and close to that vision. I hope that Vassar and the Speckled Bird continue their partnership and write much more work together, honing their already tight vision. Then they will be huge. They should already be there, but that’s just a matter of time. The Fire Next Time is an excellent EP of tight songwriting, strong melodies, and great mood. It’s a must for folk-lovers.

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

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