Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Sean Duncan’s Impressive Debut

August 18, 2016

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Sean Duncan’s first solo release Saturated Diluted is a surprising blend of acoustic and electronic elements. Some tracks (“Vultures With Human Hands”) show a heavy ‘80s electronic influence, while others (“The Story of Betty”) give off more acoustic/singer-songwriter vibes. Nevertheless, Saturated Diluted maintains a consistent aesthetic with the beauty of Duncan’s vocals and lyrics.

The instrumentation of Saturated Diluted is unexpected; each track has a sound all its own. The first track, “Everything is Sinking Pt 1,” sets the groundwork from which the album then takes off. The song feels very typical singer/songwriter at its start, with heavy use of the acoustic guitar. Yet, as the song progresses, more electronic elements are introduced. At about three-quarters into the track, there’s a quick build to an explosion of sound with the addition of the drums and electric guitar. Long-forgotten are the acoustic vibes from the beginning of the track. From that eclectic beginning, each song that follows goes off in its own direction.

The final track of the album, “Everything is Sinking Pt 2,” opens with spacey synth sounds and is quickly paired with the electric guitar. The track continues in this way until almost 2 minutes in, where everything fades away. We are left with the acoustic guitar and vocals, which doesn’t last very long. Once the chorus arrives, a heavily percussive outburst of sound takes over with the lyrics, “Everything is sinking … Everything is dying”.  (At this point in the track, I really wish I had better speakers to get the full effect.) Towards the track’s end, the explosive instrumentation slowly fades away as the acoustic guitar closes out the song. The album could not be ended any better.

Along with the diverse instrumentation, the crisp vocals and thoughtful lyrics glue the album together. Sean Duncan’s voice has the tonal qualities of Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard. The clarity of Duncan’s voice enables listeners easy access to the lyrics of the album. “The Story of Betty” provides the best example of the beautiful, raw lyrics. The track tells the story a lonely woman “all by herself / with just her thoughts / to keep her company”. As the song progresses, we find out that a man that was coming to meet her arrives and the song closes with the lyric– “he kisses her goodnight/ as he pulls her finger from/ the trigger.” It is unclear whether that means Betty committed suicide, and the ambiguous nature of the lyrics serve to make it even more poetic. The primarily acoustic guitar instrumentation pairs well with the thought-provoking lyrics.

Sean Duncan’s self- written, recorded, mixed and mastered album Saturated Diluted is an impressive combination of unique sounds, solid vocals, and gripping lyrics.–Krisann Janowitz

EP: Hand Drawn Maps’ Kites

July 7, 2016

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LA based three-piece Hand Drawn Maps’ latest EP Kites brings listeners a taste of the beach with a spritz of playful indie-pop. Like a well-garnished appetizer, Kites is a perfect taste of Hand Drawn Maps’ playful indie-pop-rock. Each track has a slightly different flavor, but what ties them together are the rock-solid vocals, poignant lyrics, and consistent instrumentation.

“Answer in Your Eyes” opens the album with a beachy guitar and subtle percussion. After a few measures, lead singer Stewart James enters in. The first thing I thought of when I heard James’ voice was Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie and The Postal Service. James’ voice is very similar to Gibbard’s in tonal qualities and range. If you are a fan of Death Cab, you will find particular enjoyment in Hand Drawn Maps.

The second track, “Diamond,” is a cutesy love song with lyrics like, “When I’m with you/ you make my heart an ocean.” The beachy electric guitar makes another dreamy appearance anchoring this track. Towards the end of the song, the instrumentation virtually goes away so that the listener focuses on James and his harmonic background vocal accompaniment.

“Follow the Sun” is probably my favorite track off the EP. It’s somber and darker than the other tracks. Hand Drawn Maps does a really great job matching the lyrics with the instrumentation. For this one, the chorus is basically a percussive/electric guitar build that tries three times to meet its climax, but instead keeps fizzling out. With lyrics like, “I know that I’m gone like a star that disappears at the first light of dawn,” you can see how the instrumentation matches the lyrics: they both are unable to reach their mountain-top experiences. It is not until the last attempt that the instruments reach their climax, paired with the repeated lyric “Gonna let the sunlight in,” the most hopeful lyric of the song. Eventually, that also fades away, and the track ends sounding exactly how it began, showing the cyclical nature of hopelessness. Sometimes, even glimmers of hope can’t take the emptiness away.

“Kites” opens with a playful combination of the electric guitar and bass. This song sounds like one big self-pep talk, as seen in the title lyric: “Relax and let the breeze/ take control and carry me/ just like a kite.” The final track, “Cast Away the Night,” begins with the use of chimes, which echoes the more meditative route the track takes. This softer track is a nice way to close an otherwise adventurous EP. —Krisann Janowitz

MP3s: Electro / pop

September 22, 2015

I’ve got a lot of singles to catch up on. All these that I’m posting over the next few days have been sent my way over the past two months.

Electro / pop

1. “it was gone” – Orchid Mantis. Somehow combines found sounds, heavily processed vocals, insistent synths and stuttering drums into great clouds of sound. It’s a gem.

2. “Iron & Wood” – Quinn Erwin. Erwin, of the brilliant Afterlife Parade, turns his impeccable songwriting talent toward synth-driven pop-rock. The results are just as dynamic and exciting as his band’s forays into anthemic guitar rock and artsy post-rock. The lyrics, the vocal melodies, and the arrangement just all work together like clockwork.

3. “Nothing Can Stop Us Now” – Summer Heart. The song title and band name are perfect for this tune that balances wiry energy and dreamy vocals to create the soundtrack to a carefree summer afternoon.

4. “Go” – Sunday Lane. Lane isolates the chorus and lets that hook live on its own, letting the rest of the song draw its energy from the perky declaration, “Where we gonna go?”

5. “Everything at Once” – Her Magic Wand. Sonic texture is something I don’t call out that often, but this electro-pop track has some really nice layering of disparate sounds that give the tune a compelling sonic consistency.

6. “We Are Golden” – Nova Heart. Burbling synths, LCD Soundsystem-esque bass riffs, a buttery smooth mood, and luscious vocals make this mesmerizing electro-rock jam an easy fit for the dancefloor or the rock club.

7. “Broken” – Featurette. The herky-jerky rhythms of this tune rub up against the silky synths to create that juxtaposition that plays so nicely in electro: the jagged smooth, the spiky soft.

8. “Shake It Loose” – Astronauts, etc. If you need any suave, svelte, seductive babymaking music, this tune has my vote.

9. “Beachside” – Heather Larose. This acoustic-pop song makes me want to dance in my computer chair. ‘Nuff said.

10. “Tied Up” – Level and Tyson. Scandinavians have the most eccentric lenses when it comes to pop music: we’ve got Surrounded-style distorted vocals, walking-speed acoustic-vibes, ’90s-esque drum beat and some humming background vocals. The results are unique, to say the least.

11. “Lovers Can Be Monsters” – Roger Harvey. Harvey bears the burden of having a voice and genre similar to Ben Gibbard’s, but it would be a shame to pass up this addictive, oddly tender indie-rock track due to unasked-for similarities. I want to listen to this over and over.

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.

City Light / DL Rossi

July 29, 2013

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It blows my mind that Matt Shaw’s Ghosts in the Concrete came out in 2004. Matt Shaw created an electronic indie-pop world that was more lush and developed than The Postal Service’s take on the genre, and Ghosts has remained one of my favorite releases I’ve ever reviewed at Independent Clauses. Shaw’s band City Light just released its sophomore album Memory Guide, and it builds out his indie-pop sensibilities with hip-hop and electronica overtones to make a very engaging album.

Shaw has always used his melodic gifts to create tunes of foreboding or downright dread; even in the musically chipper Ghosts the main themes were urban malaise and future panic. City Light’s debut album fashioned a fitting musical sheath for these ideas, creating “moody, haunting, electronic indie-rock.” Memory Guide swings back toward the balance in his solo work: upbeat songs that deliver downbeat lyrics. The album does have some dark, haunting arrangements, like the excellent instrumental “Memory Loss,” but the overall tone is much brighter. “Sweet Death” is a buoyant dance song about getting old, while “Waste Away” is a stomping rock track with sparkly lead guitar. As you can see from the titles, however, Shaw hasn’t gotten any more optimistic in his musings.

My favorite moments apart from the surprisingly dance-able pessimism are “Wrecking Ball” and “You Know This Song,” which both strip away the bravado of a full band and operate much more like the small, cohesive, claustrophobic Shaw tunes I so adored on Ghosts. “Wrecking Ball” pairs a lazy, fingerpicked, clean guitar line with a trip-hop beat, some fuzzy organs and bgvs; it works beautifully. “You Know This Song” employs a similar strategy, letting the focus fall squarely on Shaw’s beautiful, evocative voice.

Shaw’s blurry, bleary tenor is one of the things that attracted me most to his work, and it is in fine form here. Comparisons to Ben Gibbard miss the gauzy/gritty edge that Shaw cultivates; references to pop-era Flaming Lips don’t give Shaw enough credit for hitting notes (which, as an avowed Flaming Lips fan, is something I can fully admit that Wayne Coyne does not often try to do). It is a distinct, passionate, memorable voice, and one that can suck me into any tune. It’s worth your price of admission just to hear it.

City Light’s indie-pop tunes have a complexity far beyond what I’ve described; the arrangements are strong, the songwriting is tight, and the performances are spot-on. There’s a lot going on and a lot to love. The most important things to note, though, are that these are fun, clever, and interesting tunes by some experienced hands. I highly recommend Memory Guide to any fan of indie-pop, electronic or no.

——–

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Pedro the Lion’s work was raw and honest, musically and lyrically: David Bazan grappled with his faith, his insecurities, and his culture in an alt-rock-ish idiom that hadn’t generally been reserved for that sort of work. Bazan’s retirement of the moniker was a sad day for me. With PTL long since gone, there aren’t that many bands holding a torch for the sort of emotionally vulnerable rock that can range in volume from forlorn slowcore to cymbal-rush pounding.

DL Rossi aims for that space with his music. His self-titled record is composed of confessional alt-rock (“The Fool,” “12 Step Plan”) and instrospective acoustic work (“Worked Up,” “Be Alone”) that complement each other in tone. Rossi also takes after Bazan lyrically, covering religion, relationships, and culture in a cynical-yet-hopeful sort of way. “12 Step Plan” is bitingly critical of mega-church Christianity, while “The Fool” is possibly even more vitriolic on the subject. Both tunes are hooky, energetic pop-rockers with a low-end crunch and indie-pop melodies; while these tunes would fit in on rock radio, they have a different flair and feel to them than your average rock track.

Other tunes tackle relationships, including the bombastic single “Strange Thing” and the Parachutes-esque “Suckers and Chumps.” (You probably don’t need me to tell you what they’re about, based on the titles.) The quieter tunes, like the latter, land gently, showing ache and pain without getting (too) maudlin. As soon as the emotions start to get a bit much, Rossi lightens the mood with some rock. It’s a good balance throughout.

I don’t listen to too many rock albums straight through anymore, but I’ve heard this one from end to end several times because of its diversity in sound. Rossi simply churns out high-quality tunes. He may be the spiritual and melodic successor to Pedro the Lion, but he could be much more than that as he matures as an artist. Very worth watching.

Philip Boone's voice shines in A Light and a Line

December 17, 2012

Philip Boone – Songs Albums

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Indie and country have been mingling freely since the ’80s, but the trend picked up a ton of steam in the ’00s. Yet Philip Boone is able to bring a new light to the subject because of his seamless integration of both sensibilities into one sound. Boone’s A Light and a Line meshes confident vocals with strong instrumentation and recording style to create an wonderfully comfortable album.

Boone’s voice is similar to Ben Gibbard’s: smooth, lithe, emotive and incredibly calming to listen to. It’s a bit lower than the Death Cab for Cutie and Postal Service singer, but not by much. Boone plays to this strength, as the arrangements of these twelve songs never impede his voice from shining. He knows that when you’ve got striking melodies at your disposal, like in the Eagles-esque “Either Way” and piercing ballads of “The Truth Is” and “Don’t You Know,” you should use ’em to their full effect.

This isn’t to say that the band is slouching along; the instrumentalists keep the tunes moving, showing off their skill tastefully. This isn’t heart-stopping rock’n’roll; this is swoon-worthy indie-country. The band plays in that framework, and doesn’t ever create any difficult tensions for Boone’s voice (unless they’re intended to be there). The exception is the solo piano closer, which eschews vocals to great emotive effect.

Boone’s A Light and a Line is strong throughout; I could list off tracks with excellent qualities, but I’d be taking up hundreds of words and repeating myself. He knows his strengths, plays to them well, and produces one of my favorite country-rock albums of the year. The vocals simply shine throughout; in a genre where the telling of the thing is everything, Boone knows how to deliver a melody and a story. Highly recommended for fans of indie-folk and alt-country.

Everyone who listens to Cobalt and the Hired Guns will indeed win

September 11, 2012

I don’t usually promote bands before I post about them, but my enthusiasm for some bands can’t wait the several weeks it takes for things to appear in the queue. Avalanche City was one notable exception to this, and Cobalt and the Hired Guns is another. Everyone Wins is just what it sounds like: a rollicking, optimistic blast of rock music by a band that has it all clicking perfectly.

It’s somewhat intriguing that this a X and the Ys band name, because I hear two distinct lead singers in the band. Opener “Like You Like Me Like Me” has a direct, snarky voice that wouldn’t be out of place in sneering ’00s indie rock. Follow-up “Leaving” features a vocalist with a more melodic, sing-song style that invokes comparisons to Ben Gibbard in tone and melodic line structure. Both singers contribute memorable turns in the album, with neither really taking the front seat in my mind and becoming the titular Cobalt.

It’s all to the better of the album, however. Both vocalists are adept at matching their voice to the instruments, leading the song without dominating it. The horn section and the traditional band set-up (guitar/bass/drums) are equal players in creating the sound of this album, and that’s why two vocalists works out. This fluid approach to the sound allows The Hired Guns to whip through early ’00s pop-punk (“Leaving”), hand-clapping country-punk (“You Left Your Sweater…”), the wide-eyed indie-pop of “Of Summer,” and ooh-la-la-la surf-punk (“Ghost of the Road”) with ease, without turning the album into a herky-jerky trainwreck. Instead of a weakness, the album’s diversity is its greatest strength: there’s not a boring second on the first listen – or the second, or the third.

“Tailgunner of the Flying Fortress” is a historical character study crammed into a country-punk tune, “Lazarus” is a saloon-piano theatrical ballad, and “Last August” is a scream-it-out jam. It would be the jam of this album, if “The Argument” didn’t take that honor. As it stands, it’s the best piece of storytelling the band throws down, narrowly edging the more linear but less visceral “You Left Your Sweater…” in sheer memorable factor: “It’s not batting your lashes/you swing for the fences/You were hitting 1.000/it was almost offensive/in Boston.” (Also, it’s got some sweet “whoa-ohs” to shout out.) But, “The Argument”! The blatant kiss-off track, it’s also the only one where they yell “one-two-three-four” and bring in what sounds like an accordion. They also have a really fun double-time section, which I absolutely adore.

Cobalt and the Hired Guns mash the best parts of rock’n’roll, pop-punk, indie-pop and pop into one gigantic exclamation point of an album. Everyone Wins has half a dozen amazing tracks and and a handful more great ones in a 13-song album, and all but one or two are specifically created to make you smile. How could you avoid this album? I couldn’t. Get on it, blast it out your car windows, and enjoy those fading days of summer meshing into fall.

Cameron Blake's distinctive voice and lyrics set his songwriting apart from the pack

May 15, 2011

If you haven’t read Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, you probably shouldn’t start unless you have a lot of time to kill. The series is currently 13 books long, with a fourteenth (and final, thankfully) coming; worse than that, the books range from 600-1000 pages each. The word “timesink” doesn’t do the phenomenon enough justice.

But since I read with music going, it’s given me plenty of time to listen to music. And as enveloping as the tale of three taveren has been, it’s been even better with Cameron Blake‘s musical accompaniment.

Blake’s two most recent albums show an unique songwriter who has the ability to be a staying power in folk music for years to come, based on his lyrical skill and vocals.

Blake’s guitar and piano skills are formidable, but that’s not what makes him so great. His voice is a finely-tuned instrument recalling the best elements of John Darnielle, Colin Meloy and indie hero Ben Gibbard without losing its distinctiveness.

His latest studio album Hide and Go Seek is a low-key but focused affair that features his voice over spare songwriting. Gospel arrangements permeate his best works, as in the standard “I’ll Fly Away” and the excellent, jaunty original “Down to the River.” Both are anchored by piano: the former church-inspired, and the latter almost in an almost honky-tonk style that fits his smooth vocals perfectly.

His lyrics are also a high point, as he shows in “Moonshiner,” the title track and opening track “Every Hundred Miles.” The spacious arrangements give his lyrics room to breathe, and when floated by his excellent vocals, the songs become much more than the sum of their parts.

In that way, Blake functions like a mellower, more user-friendly version of The Mountain Goats; Blake takes on less heady themes in a much more palatable voice, but he gives the same attention to each word that Darnielle does. He tells stories with the same panache and flair, making the quoting of lines relatively unhelpful in showing the reasons why his lyrics are great.

The inflections that Blake employs on his higher vocal register recall those of Gibbard, although Blake’s range is much lower. The pleasing way that Meloy chops some of his vowels finds an analogue in Blake occasionally, as well.

Hide and Go Seek is the rare album that has layers to reward the serious listener. It’s entirely possible to listen and hear some lithe folky pop, but there is so much more here to get, lyrically and musically.

Blake develops another dimension of his sound in Cameron Blake with Strings: Live. Having already used tasteful string arrangements on his latest collection, this is not so much an exploration as an expansion of his sound. It also serves to introduce listeners to work from his previous album En Route. From that disc, “The Love Song Never Died” is the highlight of this album, as the complex song structure lends itself beautifully to the emotionally powerful crescendo that the strings afford it.

The depressing “Hudson Line” is made all the more poignant by the inclusion of strings, as well. Even more impressive than the arrangements is the success with which the recording is pulled off. Rarely do the strings get whiny, and Blake’s voice is steady as a rock. The only misstep is the 8-minute string piece “Hymn,” which is marked as “by Geoff Knorr.” It’s about 5 minutes too long and bears absolutely no connection to the rest of the work. Other than that, the album is a triumph.

Both albums show off Blake’s lyrical power and ease in his own skin. With his distinctive voice, memorable songwriting and that easy showman’s touch, Blake could go very far. I would love to see him support Josh Ritter or another songwriter of that caliber sometime soon. Highly recommended.

Paul Phillips' folk/country is a work in progress

February 2, 2010

The most satisfying breakup album I’ve ever heard is the Postal Service’s Give Up. It’s not that Tamborello and Gibbard pinned the sound of breaking up perfectly (that honor goes to Spiritualized’s miserable/wonderful Ladies and Gentlemen, We are Floating in Space). It sits above the rest because the whole thing is told in chronological order. Attentive listeners can know exactly what’s happening at every point in the album. It turns the collection of songs into an experience.

Paul Phillips’ Every Time I Leave might be a breakup album. There are breakup songs on it, but there are also love songs and worship songs. The jumble makes it difficult to discern what the point of this folk/country album is. And, alas, there may not be one. It may simply be a collection of songs. As a collection of songs, it’s not bad at all, but I feel like Phillips could aspire to so much more than just a collection of songs.

Phillips comes from the Bob Dylan school of vocals: they’re an immediate turn-off that slowly grow on you to the point of affection. His tenor is warbling and creaky, similar to Dylan’s, but thankfully, Phillips doesn’t have that horrible nasal tone that Dylan has. When Phillips keeps his voice low on songs like “Time, Time,” it’s hard to even discern the warbles and breaks.

Taking the focus off the vocals allows the songwriting to shine. I wish it would happen more often, as Phillips crafts some excellent tunes on Every Time I Leave. “Time, Time,” “Come What May” and “Until We Meet Again” are simply gorgeous tunes. The common denominator in all of these is the removal of the excess instrumentation. When Phillips gets down to the bare bones of songwriting, he strikes gold with fingerpicked melodies, subtle keys, and a calm mood. His upbeat tunes accentuate the problems of his songwriting; the slower, quieter ones play up his strengths. He even busts out a solid falsetto on “Come What May,” which surprised me.

There are upbeat tunes here as well, but they’re standard for the genre. The downtempo work is what shines. If Phillips could apply the lessons learned from the slow tracks to the aesthetics of the uptempo tracks, he would be able to accomplish a lot. He’s got solid songwriting skills that need to be refined. His voice needs to be reined in. Future albums could be structured to not be so confusing to the listener.  Still, Every Time I Leave is a solid effort from a developing songwriter. I hope to hear more from Paul Phillips in the future.

Cameron Blake is En Route to Greatness.

November 30, 2009

En Route, the second album from singer/songwriter Cameron Blake, is a refreshingly unique masterpiece.  Although the Baltimore musician has his master’s in violin performance, he is clearly a man of many talents.  With fantastic orchestrations from the young musician, the album will take you on a journey paved not only with violin, but beautiful vocals, piano, harmonica, cello, and acoustic guitar, to name a few.  In the beginning of your listening experience, you may find yourself struggling to pin him down under one genre.  The album is a smooth combination of acoustic, pop, blues, and largely folk sound.  It would do him an injustice to not give him credit for his wide range of appeal.  Let’s just label him as this: “talented.”

It’s hard to compare Blake to any one other artist, but fans of everyone from Dave Matthews to The Swell Season will surely enjoy this record.  The album opens with “This is All,” a track that instantly makes you feel like you are listening to a rebellious poet in the bottom of a dark jazz club.  Farther along on the record is “On the Way to Jordan,” which is more than suitable for a pub set in the heart of Dublin.  A favorite is “Interlude,” a slower-paced song that would be fantastic on the soundtrack of an indie flick.  The piano and delicate harmonies will chill you to the bone in the same way as the painfully beautiful songs written by Damien Rice.

Blake provides fascinating vocals through out the album, sometimes emanating a similar sound to Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie.  There is a pleasant clarity in his vocals that allows the listener to enjoy his unique lyrics.  In “Lonely Rooms” he writes, “I held her marigold smile-apple scent rain through slanting silver-lines/ I am the prince and the fool-survived by a breath, a thread, a single room.”  Pure poetry.

If you decide to check out one independent artist this year, make sure it’s Cameron Blake.  With excellent musicianship, thoughtful writing, and exceptional vocals, you won’t be disappointed.

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

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