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Late September MP3s: Acoustic

October 8, 2015

1. “Bugs” – Patrick James. If you can resist the mopey lyrics, catchy melodies and smooth vocals of an acoustic guitar-toting Australian, you have more strength than me. Sounds kind of like a down-under Passenger with extra indie cred in the arrangements, if you need more motivation.

10. “We Have a Hope” – Nathan Partain. Fresh off the great Jaywalker, Partain drops an intimate, careful, beautiful rumination on hope in the midst of difficulty.

4. “Push and Pull (All the Time)” – Promised Land Sound. Lush, full acoustic-folk sound that calls to mind The Head and the Heart, but with some adventurous instrumental work of their own vintage. Those vocal harmonies, though. Man.

7. “January” – Mia Rose Lynne. There’s always room in my heart for a clean guitar strum, a tender vocal melody, and a swooping violin. This tune is fresh, bright, and charming.

2. “Motion Sick” – Casey Dubie. Dubie’s voice fits perfectly in the adult-alternative space constructed around it. It’s the sort of compelling track that I hate tagging with that genre name, because it’s so tight, evocative, and lively.

5. “Wait” – Lawrence Trailer. Subtle funkiness sneaks its way into this acoustic-led adult alternative track: the bass and vocal performance give the tune a gentle swagger that separates it from the pack.

3. “Long Beach Idyll” – Chris Forsyth & Koen Holtkamp. This meandering acoustic/synth collaboration sounds like some impossible combination of the beach and the desert, with some ’70s psych vibes thrown in. Far out.

8. “Wolvering” – Maiden Radio. Come for the Appalachian folk vibes, stay for the vocals: there’s a vocal surprise early on in this all-female trio’s tune that hooked me.

6. “Solo Sin Tu Amor” – Radio Free Honduras. As Monty Python might say, “And now for something completely different.” This Spanish-language tune uses Latin rhythms, nylon-string melodies, and tropical trumpets to create a smile-inducing, dance-inspiring track. I think this is what Bishop Allen wanted “Like Castanets” to sound like.

9. “Pretty Little Life Form” – Valley Maker. A rumination on life, death, and love in a woodsy, low-slung, minor-key folk environment. It’s got an easygoing flow, amid all that.

11. “Nitetime Moths” – Des Ark. Throw a clarinet at anything in the indie realm and I’m pretty much sold. Aimée Argote’s loud/soft project features the soft side here, singing mesmerizingly over a real piano, tape hiss, and that clarinet. It’s just remarkably pretty.

Dear Blanca / Koria Kitten Riot / Bishop Allen

September 24, 2014

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The mix of an album can tell you a lot about the priorities of its creators. Dylan Dickerson’s frantic, fractured voice is cranked about as high in the mix of Dear Blanca‘s Pobrecito as possible, which tells me that they care about the raw, ragged, real aspects of performance. Look no farther than the wordless, anguished roar that is the chorus of “Showplace” for proof. The intense alt-country songwriting behind the pipes matches Dickerson’s careening, manic vocal quality. In other words, Conor Oberst and Dickerson would have plenty to talk about.

But like Bright Eyes, Dickerson and co. aren’t all raging fury. The (relatively) pensive “Noma” includes a musical saw that gives the tune a Neutral Milk Hotel feel (Mangum, of course, being another vocalist who celebrated the rough edges of his non-traditional voice). Dickerson can write a pop song, too: “Huff” has a great guitar riff and a (relatively) restrained vocal performance. But it’s loud, noisy alt-country rock that is his natural home, which is why even the rhythmically tight, acoustic-led “Priscilla” turns into a torrent of guitar distortion and a repeated hollering of the titular character’s name in the chorus. Closer “Cadmus” starts off quiet with acoustic guitar, organ, and female vocals before introducing pounding toms into the tune. Hey, if you’re good at a thing, do that thing.

You like the stomping work of the Drive-By Truckers? Dear Blanca is like the Drive-In-And-Stay-In-Your-Front-Yard-Yelling-Until-You-Come-Out Truckers. Pobrecito is a sweat-drenched, passionate, powerful set of noisy alt-country tunes that will occasionally give you shivers.

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The mid-’00s were a good time for indie-pop music, with bands like Annuals, Decemberists, Grandaddy, and the Shins purveying a very particular type of giddy, instrument-stuffed pop music that wasn’t being well-represented on the radio. Koria Kitten Riot picks up that torch of shiny, acoustic-led, maximalist indie-pop on Rich Men Poor Men Good Men. It’s the sort of album that includes coconuts imitating horse clip-clops in a way that sounds totally natural (“The Lovers That You’ve Never Had”). It’s twee without being overly cute in the vocals, or serious vocals with a whimsical touch to the arrangements.

“A Last Waltz” stands out as one of the highlight tracks not because it’s particularly more charming that the rest of the tunes here, but because it’s a touch darker. The rest of the album can flow together as one wonderful experience, but track three points itself out as a great track by showing the diversity the band is able to deliver (while still not damaging the flow of the record). “Today’s Been a Beautiful Day” nicks not only the sound but the joyful irony of the era, pairing one of the most chipper melodies and arrangements on the record with a song about a person who gets hit by a car and dies. (Oops, spoilers.) Follow-up “Carpathia” sounds a bit like a brit-pop tune, what with the wistful reverb, processed strings, and discrete acoustic strumming; it’s a nice change of mood that stands out as a highlight.

If you’re into cheerful, instrument-stuffed indie-pop, you’ll find a ton to love in Koria Kitten Riot. You can listen to the whole album and let it wash over your mood, or you can listen to individual tunes; it matters not. It will make you smile either way.

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Bishop Allen was also doing quirky indie-pop in the mid ’00s, and they’ve since gotten a bit noisier than their indie-pop masterpiece The Broken String. I think they still count as indie-pop on Lights Out, but they’re certainly creeping closer to power-pop.

They make it clear with opener “Start Again,” which is all buzzy synths, classy dance-rock guitars, and propulsive percussion. “Bread Crumbs” makes the dance-rock vibes even more explicit, putting together a wicked bass groove, a protoypical piano hook, and a minimum of lyrics. (And, because this is Bishop Allen, there’s also a bass-heavy horn section.) “Crows” involves some of their traditional quirky rhythms (Latin/island, a la “Like Castanets”), chill melodies, and pristine arrangements, but with a funky bass line. It’s way fun. “Skeleton Key” is another funky tune that’s worth remembering.

The overall sound of Lights Out is more matured, even with the dance-rock tendencies: it’s a poised, refined musicality that runs through the record. The lyrics reflect that aging as well; there are more references to hard times, the existential crises of adulthood (“No Conditions”), and that most adult of rituals: leaving the party early (“Why I Had To Go”). But they never get heavy-handed, morose, or grumpy. It’s a band that grew up, but kept their pop song skills with them. Mazel tov! Here’s to Bishop Allen: long may you write.

Concert: Bishop Allen / Jesse Marchant / North Elementary

August 26, 2014

My favorite genres are acoustic folk, indie-pop, and indie-pop-rock, so it makes perfect sense that a North Elementary / Jesse Marchant / Bishop Allen show was my favorite I’ve been to all summer. The three bands converged on Carrboro’s Local 506 for a Sunday night show that didn’t disappoint those who stayed up late the night before the local university started back to school.

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I caught about half of the set from local indie-pop-rockers’ North Elementary. I would have caught more of it, but I never expect any venue to start on time. (Props to Local 506 for starting at 9 when the poster said 9.) Their enthusiastic, noisy, occasionally jubilant rock was fun to hear; closer “Hi-Lo” was especially smile-inducing. The guitars were noisy but not overly heavy; there’s a lot of levity in their tunes. As a bassist, I particularly enjoyed the great low end lines laid down by Jimmy Thompson.

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After knocking some of the rust off my concert-lacking ear drums with North Elementary, Jesse Marchant, also known as JBM, soothed my ears. Marchant’s calm, relaxing solo set was an astonishing success, especially considering that he was sandwiched between two loud bands. (He’s on tour with Bishop Allen right now, which I think is cool: I’m a big fan of cross-genre tours.) Marchant’s songs feature the delicate intimacy of Gregory Allen Isakov’s work, but also have a deep grasp of space and mood that reminds me of Jason Molina’s work. Those two songwriters are some of my favorite in my 13-year music-reviewing career; Marchant’s sound was on par with theirs.

His melodic skill, songwriting maturity, and instrumental dexterity are all sky high. Some quiet bands don’t know how to keep attention; Marchant kept me riveted to everything that he played. His new album comes out soon, and I’m very excited for it: his set was one of the most enjoyable I’ve seen all year. If you like quiet, emotional songwriters that can keep you hanging on every note, you need to know JBM (the name his old work is under)/ Jesse Marchant (which the new album will be under).

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You’d think it would be hard to top that sort of set, but Bishop Allen is a special band to me. I don’t often indulge in personal backstory for reviews, but BA requires it. Seven years ago, I was an undergraduate at the University of Oklahoma, doing my best to try to figure out my place in the world. I had a best friend, a mentor, a boatload of acquaintances, and a never-ending stream of girls I liked but never managed to date. My best friend was in pretty much the same boat. In the midst of this very normal college experience, he and I went to Guestroom Records in Norman, Oklahoma to get something to listen to. We didn’t have anything in mind.

After scouting through the store, I found Bishop Allen’s The Broken String. I know I liked the cover; this may have been the only reason I bought the album. (Maybe Paste had put Bishop Allen in a sampler; RIP, Paste printed edition.) We bought it, put it in my SUV, and started driving around the city to listen to it. It was amazing. (It is still amazing.) We did this several more times throughout that year, chasing the ennui away with “The News From Your Bed” and “Like Castanets.” It is a major touchstone in my life.

We were obsessive liner notes readers–me because of The Mountain Goats. We discovered during our first listen to the album that The Broken String had been recorded in Norman, OK–the very town we were living in. This odd coincidence was enough to cement my already burgeoning fanboyship into a full-blown crush on the album. I enjoy the rest of the Bishop Allen catalog (especially the tune titled “Oklahoma,” for obvious reasons), but The Broken String will always be where it’s at for me.

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Fast forward to now: Bishop Allen is back with a new album after five years off. Lights Out is a real fun record that I’ll be reviewing soon. Even though I couldn’t get a review done by the time the show rolled around, I wanted to go hear them perform live. Maybe they’d play one or two Broken String songs. I was thrilled by the end of the set: they played almost half the record (5 of 12 songs). So everything you read from this point on is going to be colored by the fact that I heard almost half of one of the more important albums in my life played. They could have played in pitch darkness and I would have been thrilled.

It was a thrill for hardcore fans of Bishop Allen, but I think it would have been a great time for new fans too. BA’s lyrics are often wry and funny, which was reflected in vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Justin Rice’s stage banter. The band ripped through traditionally quieter tunes with extra noise and energy, which made “Rain” in particular into a mini-anthem. With those slight updates to the older material, their new songs fit pretty seamlessly into their live show. The highlight of their new material was the funky, dance-oriented “Breadcrumbs,” which was a lot of fun to dance along to. I and several others were getting into it, dancing-wise. It was a blast–chipper music, fun stage banter, dancing, and singing along to my favorite songs. How can you ask for more?

Bishop Allen’s Lights Out is out now, while Jesse Marchant’s self-titled new album comes out September 9. North Elementary’s Honcho Poncho was released earlier this year.

August Videos 3

August 12, 2014

Usually it’s hard to find videos I like, but four of them hit me recently. Bottoms up!

Bishop Allen asks a bunch of people to hula hoop and then plays it back in slow motion. Is there any better metaphor for Bishop Allen’s quirky, understated, joyful pop?

Reighnbeau’s “Milk of Amnesia” is a glitchy, meandering chillwave-inspired tune with breathy vocals. The video is the exact opposite: crisp, tight visuals that tell a striking story. Gorgeous video here.

Tim Fitz pushes a shopping cart full of free lemons around Sydney, Australia. The reactions of passersby is really funny.

It looks like nothing is happening in this Castanets clip, but give the beautiful track your attention. Wait. Pace. Enjoy.

More MP3s!!!!!

August 1, 2014

1. “My Young Love Was as Blind as Ray Charles and Half as Cold as Heat” – Kye Alfred Hillig. Not content to drop one contender for album of the year in 2014, Hillig is gearing up for release #2. From the sounds of this, he’s still on a roll. Or, if you’d like…

2. “Start Again” – Slow Readers Club. There’s a dark, slinky, sexy groove that falls between Interpol and Bloc Party going on in this hook-filled tune.

3. “Feels Like Work” – The Slang. Jimmy Eat World seems to have a monopoly on the introspective rock song that is both emotionally powerful and actually rocking, but The Slang are throwing their hat in the ring with this tune. I’m a fan of this towering rock tune.

4. “The Lord’s Favorite” – Iceage. These Danes make this tune sound like some sort of high-speed, drunken Johnny Cash outtake, from the musical style to the depictions of drinking and hard living. (That’s high praise, in case you were wondering.)

5. “Why I Had to Go” – Bishop Allen. People who weren’t necessarily fans of Bishop Allen’s latest power-pop single will rejoice at this eclectic, affected indie-pop tune reminiscent of their previous work.

6. “Memories That You Call (feat. Monsoonsiren)” – ODESZA. My favorite post-dub electro group drops a quirky, upbeat, friendly tune that makes me want to go running.

7. “Hold Still” – Slow Magic. Threatening ODESZA’s place as my favorite electro artist right now, Slow Magic makes moody, ethereal moments out of the most minor of sounds. This one does open up into a bit of an epic slow jam, but never includes a ton of instruments to overwhelm you with.

8. “Trap” – Remedies. This smooth, well-crafted electro jam has strong Zelda/Final Fantasy vibes, and I’m totally down with that.

9. “Weightless” – Grand Pavilion. These newcomers take a slow jam/R&B angle on their electro work, complete with autotune reveries.

10. “Bark and Sticks” – Kosoti. I never thought I’d be into a fusion of alt-folk and funky rhythms, but lo and behold. Really unique mood here.

11. “We All Been There” – Chris Heller. Mmm, sometimes you just gotta have some piano-fronted blue-eyed soul/R&B in your life. Heller really nails the soulful chorus.

MORE VIDEOS THAN YOU CAN HANDLE pt 1

June 24, 2014

The best songs move me. The best music videos take the best songs and make them even more powerful. Andrew Judah, already one of the most inventive and creative songwriters I’ve discovered this year, just dropped an absolutely astonishing video for “I Know You Know” that ranks high among the best I’ve seen this year and this decade.

Exzavier Whitley’s “How Will You Be” channels Nick Drake, Alexi Murdoch and other chill fingerpickers of note. Don’t sleep on Exzavier Whitley–he’s got huge talent.

Kye Alfred Hillig performs his song “Ex” as part of an a capella trio, making the already excellent song even more haunting and unique. Hillig, people. HILLIG. GET ON HIS LEVEL.

Stellar power-pop band Bishop Allen with only 14,000 views? WHAT IS THIS?! Give them your view. You will not be disappointed.

New Bishop Allen! WOOOOOOOO!

May 28, 2014

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Bishop Allen’s The Broken String is one of my favorite albums of all time, but the quirky indie-pop band dropped off my radar a bit in the last few years. They haven’t released a full-length since 2009, although they’ve been keeping busy doing other things that musicians do.

Well, they’re back with the appropriately titled “Start Again.” It’s a summery pop-rock tune that keeps the underlying earnest calm that made them so lovable while adding some pep (and distorted guitars!). The song is way fun (check that sweet art), and it’s thrilling to hear Bishop Allen again. Seriously looking forward to Lights Out, which drops August 19 on Dead Oceans.

Colorfeels' lush indie-rock wears many masks

July 8, 2011

ColorfeelsSyzygy is pretty much a primer of indie rock circa 2011: Grizzly Bear’s rustic qualities (“Pretty Walk,” “Be There”), Fleet Foxes’ harmonies (“Mirrored Walls”), Vampire Weekend’s triumphant afro-beat rhythms and textures (“Unplanned Holiday”), alt-country (“Fun Machine”), Bishop Allen’s quirky enthusiasm (the clarinet in “Fun Machine”), Generationals’ perky bass contributions (everywhere) and The Dirty Projectors’ free-flowing song styles (everywhere again). Thankfully, the band eschewed the currently en vogue garage rock recording style for an immaculately clear one.

It’s this pristine engineering that saves this from being a pastiche; even if you’ve heard all of these sounds before, they sound incredibly gorgeous coming from Colorfeels. The clarinet and piano on “Be There” may call up notions of everyone from Wilco to the Beatles, but the sound is so striking that you may not care (or even really notice). This is true of almost every tune — with the exception of “Zenzizenzizenzic,” whose shameless Muse appropriation feels totally out of place. I really enjoyed Syzygy on my first listen, but several minutes later I couldn’t remember anything about it except that I wanted to hear those pretty songs again. And they are very pretty.

After a half-dozen listens with the same ending thoughts (which is saying something — this debut is an hour long), I realized that Colorfeels has no signature. This album is gorgeous and almost infinitely malleable, but there’s not a single thing that screams COLORFEELS WAS HERE!

It should be noted that there aren’t any gimmicks to make it look like the band has a stamp (see aforementioned garage rock). For this they should be lauded; they are not hiding anything. They are what they are, and they let you hear that. That is admirable.

Syzygy is a mesmerizing indie-rock album that wears a lot of masks. Whether or not this was the intent is something only the members of Colorfeels can say. But I would love to see a group of instrumentalists and songwriters this talented explore one area of songwriting more thoroughly and place their stamp on music. It’s comforting and familiar, but there’s more to music than that.

Quick Hits: Feldiken

January 12, 2011

There are few things I love more than a song celebrating life. There are plenty of break-up songs and misery tunes in the world, but not enough songs championing good things. Feldiken (the man) is on a mission to change that.

Feldiken (the musical project) has a new EP called Common Splendor, and it is six songs of relentless positivity. His sound primarily stays in the upbeat, bright-eyed pop that he showcased on his debut album Small Songs About Us. The notable exception is “Together in this Groove,” which is a surprisingly coherent and entertaining dance track. While the songwriting style hasn’t changed too much, the lyrics are much more memorable this time around.

Title track “Common Splendor” tells short stories of people taking care of other people, and it’s sincere enough to defeat any accusations of kitsch. Instead, the lyrics are genuinely uplifting and beautiful. “Everybody Loves You” does get a bit saccharine, but it’s redeemed by the funk-inflected pop of “Everything for Everyone.” It’s still not for everyone; I mean, it’s a funky song about helping people. There is no irony here.

Feldiken’s voice is solid, his songwriting is tight, and the EP wooshes by in with a grin and a dance step or two. Fans of Backyard Tire Fire, Bishop Allen and Guster will embrace Feldiken, as will anyone who loves an optimist.

Built By Animals writes energetic, melodic, smile-inducing indie rock

June 17, 2010

The members of Built by Animals are either oblivious or completely subversive. The songs  on this self-titled EP and the accompanying art absorb or pilfer everything possible from other bands and re-appropriate. The end product of a less talented band would simply be annoying and derivative. But the Brooklyn-based members of Built by Animals are talented, and the four songs shine all the more because of their total hipsterdom or hipster mockery (and I’m leaning toward believing it’s the latter).

Built By Animals’ guitar-based indie-rock is a mix of  Phoenix’s herky-jerky melodies and the hyperactive guitar strum of non-First Impressions of Earth Strokes. They aren’t trying to do anything new; they just do it well. The bridge in “Teenage Rampage” has the type of melody and counterpoint that the rest of the song has lead me to want. When they finally drop in the riff, it feels right and satisfying. That’s solid songwriting.

The band is composed of talented musicians, as well as talented songwriters. Bassist Nick Crane shows off his impressive chops with speedy runs in a particularly bouncy section of opener “Return to the Power Kingdom.” The mathy-yet-melodic counterpoint that guitarist Morgan von Ancken intertwines makes “Return to the Power Kingdom” one of the best tracks here. Crane also flexes his melodic muscle in the bass solo (!) in “Ducks.”

The band shows they know how to build tension with the aforementioned “Ducks,” and they show they can make a subdued tune with the Red Hot Chili Peppers-esque “Spreadsheets.” The dry vocal delivery deserves praise on “Spreadsheets,” as it sticks out in a pleasing way.

It’s hard to pick out specific reasons for why I like Built by Animals’ self-titled EP so much. They’re not doing anything even remotely groundbreaking, but they knock the songs out of the park. Their tunes are energetic, melodic and smile-inducing without being saccharine or pandering; it’s hard to knock a band that can pull that off. I eagerly anticipate what Built by Animals will do next; they’ve established a solid foundation and can go in many directions. Onward and upward! For fans of Phoenix, Strokes, The Cribs, Bishop Allen, and other New York guitar-rock bands.

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

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