Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

The Wind Up Radio Sessions show they're at their best when they're easygoing

July 21, 2010

The Wind Up Radio Sessions is a band, and their album is titled Red Brick House. This took me a while to wrap my head around. If you like the easygoing beach vibe of old Jack Johnson tunes, but wish that there had been more substance to the arrangements, The Wind Up Radio Sessions is your band. Their acoustic pop tunes feature drums and other instruments to fill out the sound, but not in a too-complex way. When they’re at their best (“Let Me Go,” “Registration”), they crank out loose, relaxed songs with the chill vibe of Johnson but more guts; perhaps like a peppier Ben Harper or a seriously chillaxin’ early-era Switchfoot.

When their songs lose their looseness and develop a formality, they lose some of their charm. “Me and My Doe,” In the Morning” and “Oh Well” aren’t bad songs, but they have a bit of a stilted feel. The Wind Up Radio Sessions don’t need to pour their vibe into constricting song structures to make great songs, and that’s why “Let Me Go” and “Pigeons” have such a charming and sunshiny vibe. They just roll with how the songs come, and that produces magic.

They don’t all fall on the extremes of the stilted/easy-going spectrum; there are tunes in the middle that work to varying degrees. But it’s easiest to enjoy the Wind Up Radio Sessions when they’re taking it easy. And that’s good for everyone. Pre-beach party chillaxin’ music, or lazy summer day porch music; and seriously, who couldn’t use more of that in their life?

Jon and Roy release effortless, pristine beach music on Homes

June 2, 2010

Jon and Roy - HomesI can’t stomach Jack Johnson. I like “Bubble Toes” and assorted other singles by him, but on the whole it just strikes me as vapid. You can be minimalist and not useless; Damien Jurado’s made a career on it, to name just one.

Jon and Roy also are staking their career on it. Their Homes inhabits a space very similar to Jack Johnson’s camping grounds: mellow acoustic tunes with a surfer mindset. Where Johnson tosses in John Mayer-esque pop overtones, Jon and Roy throw in reggae underpinnings. Jon and Roy have soul, too, which makes the whole album go down even smoother.

Yes, this is thoroughly a beach album. It’s absolutely perfect for putting on when lounging about and relaxing. But it’s by no means filler or vapid; the tunes are solid in their songwriting, melodies and rhythms. Just because a thing is simple doesn’t mean it’s well-done, and Jon and Roy work hard to make their simplicity excellent. Not a thing is out of place on Homes: the casual-sounding acoustic strum is quite precise, the seemingly effortless vocals are measured and placed specifically, and the drums are so well-written that they seem entirely uninvasive. Jon and Roy so incredibly talented as songwriters and performers that it doesn’t even sound like they’re trying.

From the folk shuffle of “Boon Helm” to the beachfront sway of “947” to the Ben Harper strum of “Get Myself a Gun” to the inviting pop of “Any Day Now,” Jon and Roy conquer anything they try by making it seem utterly effortless. If there’s one serious criticism to be levied against the album, it’s that they make it sound too easy; if one is not paying close attention, Homes could be dismissed as repetitive, boring or uninspired. None of these things are true. After an initial recognition of that fact hooks you, the ease of mood becomes the glue that keeps you stuck on Homes instead of a detractor.

It is incredibly rare for me to be calmed by music as I review it. Reviewing requires being on my toes, scouring for the right words. Jon and Roy’s Homes disarmed my uptight writing and honestly chilled me out. I knocked out these words in one sitting with the tunes mellowing me the entire way. Homes is a brilliantly written, impeccably performed and astoundingly entertaining release. Fans of Jack Johnson, Ben Harper, early Switchfoot, Teitur or beach music in general will find a new candidate for album of the year.

John Calvin's debut EP impresses and confuses

April 22, 2009

Charlie Brown once uttered, “There is no heavier burden than great potential.” I kept coming back to this thought as I repeatedly listened to John Calvin‘s debut EP The Walls of the City. Calvin delivers several instances of remarkable pop/folk songwriting throughout the EP, but it seems that there are just as many puzzling occurences and glaring missteps to follow the highlights.

John Calvin at Second Wind, April 3, 2009

John Calvin at Second Wind, April 3, 2009

John Calvin’s sound owes a heavy debt to Joseph Arthur. I have no idea if Calvin knows of Arthur, but Calvin’s ideas on songwriting are very similar to Arthur’s. Both have the acoustic guitar as their main instrument, but dabble in piano and electric. Both have a kitchen-sink mentality to songwriting. Both have a pseudo-hippie feel to their lyrics and sound. That being said, John Calvin’s writing never worships or emulates Arthur; it would just be a really, really great split EP or tour idea.

The differences are important: where Arthur’s voice is low, Calvin’s is high. It’s not new-school emo high, but he’s definitely a tenor. And, most importantly, Calvin’s songwriting is not as refined as Arthur’s. If you thought Arthur had a lot of things going on in his work, you will be slightly astounded by the number of ideas that go into a standard Calvin song.

Both these differences are a blessing and a curse; John Calvin’s high voice makes his sound distinctly his own. While there are influences from Dave Matthews, Ben Harper, OAR, and many other hippie/pop/folk outfits, Calvin’s voice sets him apart. It is good. Unfortunately, his voice does not sustain warble or cover miscues very well, and this creates some rather unfortunate moments (“Spit That Out” is particularly difficult to listen to).

One of John Calvin's many guitar faces.

One of John Calvin's many guitar faces.

His kitchen-sink mentality makes tracks such as “Sleep Well” and “Song to Make the Stars Fall” really, really interesting. “Sleep Well” is just under six minutes, and the amount of musical ideas packed into the track (played by guitar, piano, dual violin, electric guitar, and female vocals) creates a mesmerizing effect. “Song to Make the Stars Fall” has a similar mentality with a similar effect. At its worst, strange things make their way into his songs and throw off the groove (“Spit it Out” has strangely distorted vocals and electronic blips and glitches throughout).

It is easy to declare that John Calvin is at his best when he’s singing chilled-out tunes with a lot of instrumentation. If Sufjan Stevens had a little more hippie in him, he and John Calvin could be best friends. In fact, at Calvin’s CD release show, he covered two Sufjan tracks: the jubilant “Chicago” and the sorrowful “Casimir Pulaski Day.” Both were standout moments of the show, as nearly ten musicians covered the stage and created a veritable orchestra.

His show showed a different side of him than his album presents; his album is focused on his acoustic-based pop/folk, while his live show was much louder and much more electric. John Calvin certainly knows his way around an electric guitar, and he was very entertaining to watch. He made several guitar faces that I have never seen before during guitar solos – it was fun.

His mellower work was more musically interesting, but no one would be able to say that seeing John Calvin rock out wasn’t entertaining. He worked the audience pretty well, and made the show rock until he unveiled his stronger, mellower pieces.

John Calvin has a love of many types of music, and his live shows and album display that love. There are plenty of great things about that: his songwriting is varied, his melodies are catchy, his instrumentation is not cliche, and his overall product has a very comfortable feel to it. But there is much room for improvement: his songwriting vision needs to clarify some more and his vocal performances need to solidify. John Calvin has set a good pace for himself with this release, but now he needs settle in to a groove  and figure out where he’s exactly going.

John Calvin, getting into it at Second Wind.John Calvin getting into it.

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

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