Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Elephant Micah conjures up beautiful, elegant, weighty tunes

February 21, 2012

Songs:Ohia plays a critical role in my musical history, somewhat akin to the lack of respect Bob Welch gets for keeping Fleetwood Mac together until they could get around to recording awesome things.

In my transition from “Super Good Feeling” to “Get Lonely,” Songs:Ohia was one of two artists who would entice me to jump from the poppy precipice of Transatlanticism to the downtempo jeremiads of Damien Jurado and The Mountain Goats. Without the influence of those latter two bands, this blog would probably not still exist. So, indirectly, you and I both owe a debt to Jason Molina (and David J of Novi Split, who was the second guide).

The emotions that Elephant Micah‘s Louder Than Thou conjures up in me match almost exactly the ones I felt while listening to Songs:Ohia’s “The Lioness” as a teenager. This is an incredible statement: I had chalked up this intense connection with S:A’s slow, weighty songs up to “my first time.” For a band to repeat in me that sort of emotion amid my now-steady diet of folk and singer/songwriter is stunning.

Pre-Magnolia ELectric Co. Jason Molina originally intrigued me for several reasons. I am intrigued by Joseph O’Connell (the songwriter behind EM) for the same reasons:

1. He is very talented, although the simple musicianship bears no ostentatious markers of technical skill.
2. He imbues songs with honest, weighty emotion.
3. He is unafraid to play a slow, quiet song for a very long time.

I started to feel the old longing during the second track, “Won These Wings.” A slowly thumped tom and sparse yet terse notes on an acoustic guitar create the backdrop for O’Connell’s plaintive voice; far-off background vocals and some sort of woodwind form intermittent ghostly asides. The whole thing just feels heavy; but more than that, it feels compelling. Instead of being wallpaper music, this is gripping. You know those movies where the soundtrack is so integral and vital that it should be credited as a supporting actor? The 7:25 “Won These Wings” is that sort of tune.

The length here is notable in the context of everyone else’s work, but not so much in comparison to the rest of the album. The six songs on Louder Than Thou run just over 36 minutes, meaning that one EM song averages the span of two pop songs. The shambling, uplifting “My Cousin’s King,” the shortest song, clocks in at 4:29. It could have gone longer and been totally fine: these songs sprawl, and they’re all the better for it.

That’s the lesson to be learned from “If I Were a Surfer,” which is the song that caused me to think of Songs:Ohia for the first time in years. The strum pattern isn’t complicated, the drum part isn’t difficult, and the vocal line isn’t virtuosic. But the parts come together in such a heart-rending way that none of that matters. “Let it lie where it lands / I’ll start all over again,” O’Connell sings with female harmony over a graceful, whirring organ. It’s no lyric shooting for the heart of reality, nor is it a hugely orchestrated epic moment. It is, instead, a testament to patience, dignity and craft. It is beautiful.

The skill and hard work it takes to write songs of such seemingly effortless elegance is hard to overstate. Elephant Micah‘s Louder Than Thou is not louder than much, really. But it is far more resonant than most, and that’s why I can’t stop listening to it.

The top twenty quest

September 7, 2010

I blew up my computer a few weeks ago, resulting in the lack of posts. I apologize for the deathly pallor that seemed to settle over Independent Clauses. It’s been a pretty crazy few weeks. I get my new computer Friday, and we should be rolling again.

I love and hate live shows. Transcendent, life-affirming and soul-expanding are all phrases I have lavished on excellent sets; soul-crushing, abrasive and interminable are all words with which I have belittled terrible performances. A thoroughly average act skews more to the interminable side, which means the room for error is large.

Making matters even more sketchy is this all-too-common occurrence: that band with lovely recordings which smushes my expectations into the dirt with a reprehensible live show. One band that shall remain nameless suckerpunched me twice: the first set I saw was so awful that I incorrectly passed it off as “an off night” and felt optimistic going in to the second set a year later, which ended up being exponentially worse. I don’t listen to that band any more.

And yet, through all of this potential for letdown, I keep anticipating live shows (I’m resisting a comparison to love and relationships). That anticipation has translated into a new and ongoing project: I’m going on a quest to see all top twenty of my most-listened-to bands (according to my Last.FM).  Here’s the list, complete with current statuses. Bold indicates I have plans to see them before the end of the year.

1. The Mountain Goats (1,063 plays) – Seen twice, once in Norman and once in Dallas
2. Sufjan Stevens (1,010 plays)
3. Novi Split (597 plays)
4. Coldplay (490 plays) – Seen once: Ford Center, Oklahoma City.
5. Damien Jurado (487 plays) – Seen once: Opolis, Norman.
6. Joe Pug – Seen once: The Conservatory, Oklahoma City.
7. Low Anthem – Seen once: Rose State Auditorium, Midwest City.
8. Elijah Wyman
9. Death Cab for Cutie – Seen once: Cain’s Ballroom, Tulsa.
10. Relient K – Seen 4-6 times, various Tulsa and Oklahoma City locations.
11. Josh Caress
12. Owl City – Seen once: McCasland Fieldhouse, University of Oklahoma, Norman.
13. Josh Ritter
14. Rocky Votolato
15. Switchfoot – Seen once: Cain’s Ballroom, Tulsa.
16. Bleach – Seen 3 times: various Tulsa locations. RIP
17. Mumford and Sons
18. The Avett Brothers – Seen twice: Austin City Limits 2009; Rose State Auditorium, Midwest City.
19. The Tallest Man on Earth
20. Before Braille – RIP

And to get myself back into writing about music, I’ll be writing about each of the bands, in order.

The latest plan

August 13, 2010

You don’t need much more than two eyes to realize that things have been slow around here. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the main one is this: My personal life has caused me to be stressed out of my mind for the past month. When I get stressed, the last thing I want to do is sit down and write.

So, to get things rolling again at Independent Clauses, I’m going to write stuff that I don’t consider to be work. I’m going to go through the top five/ten/fifteen/twenty/who knows how many bands on my Last.FM and write about why I love them so much. It will not be hard to write about the Mountain Goats, Sufjan Stevens or Bleach; that is the precisely the point.

So, to get my brain moving in the music-writing direction again, I’m going to be writing about the Mountain Goats next time I sit down to write. I don’t know when that is, and I’m not going to force myself into a schedule. It will come when it comes. Here’s to hoping I get back on track.

ACL Explains It All: MuteMath

July 27, 2009

So, in addition to coming from a pop-punk background, I came from a Christian rock background. The weeping and the gnashing of teeth need not apply, because I was birthed on bands that actually did something meaningful with their careers: Relient K, Switchfoot, OC Supertones, and Earthsuit. I listened to a lot of other bands (Bleach in particular) in Christian rock, but those four names were meaningful outside of Christian rock circles (although the ‘tones were only big in ska circles, literally and metaphorically).

While Switchfoot went on to modern-rock fame and Relient K went into piano-pop-punk, Earthsuit broke up. And then they formed MuteMath, and left Christian rock.

This is distressing to me on many levels. One, it’s distressing that the remnants of what was probably the most creative Christian band of the past twenty years (no, really; Kaleidoscope Superior is earth-shatteringly, mind-bendingly good) abandoned the genre, but two, it’s distressing that there is a need to.

Christian rock has a problem. For several reasons, it’s just not as good as its secular brethren. It suffers from lowered expectations (“well, it’s just a cleaned-up version of real music, who would expect it to be good?”); too much focus on lyrics; less competitive market, letting less-talented work slip through; less critical audiences (audiences less interested in musical quality than moral quality); and many more. In short, people are rewarded (with listeners and money) for making music that wouldn’t cut it in the secular scene. And that lack of quality hurts the perception of Christian music, which hinders the possibility of any great Christian  artists ever emerging. Which is distressing, because I like hearing people sing about things I like in a style I like. At this point, my chances of that happening are slim and falling.

This is not to say that there aren’t Christian bands putting out quality, quality work. Tooth and Nail keeps some great artists; Jonezetta is fantastic. Gotee harbors some talented musicians. But for the most part, stuff that gets played on Christian radio wouldn’t make it to modern rock radio (and with the state of our radio, that’s saying something).

Christians used to be on the cutting edge of art, science and thought. Now, we’re not. That’s a sad statement to me, and I wish that we could change it. Sufjan Stevens is working very hard to change this perception, as he is almost universally loved, and no one in their right mind would be able to listen to a Sufjan record without acknowledging that he must be a Christian. This is the way it should go; bands should strive to be the best band they can be in comparison to the secular market, and go from there. If I had my way, this distinction of “Christian music” wouldn’t exist, except for explicitly worship music, and perhaps CCM (which is, apparently, the distinction for Christian Adult Contemporary). It would just all be lumped in with your regular music, and the themes in the lyrics wouldn’t separate out the music into “secular” and “Christian.”

The whole idea that there is a Christian music scene is a tad ridiculous, but I’ll spare you the “you don’t see any Christian plumbers” shtick. I wish that MuteMath could have been in Christian music and respected as indie rockers; we’ll never know if they would have, had they tried it. But the odds were against them, so I don’t blame them for bailing. Christian market isn’t one for experimental indie-rock; their possibilities were limited (ever heard of the Myriad? I didn’t think so). They had to bail for the secular scene. And that makes me sad. Hopefully we have some more Sufjans make it in the indie-rock world, and make it safe to be unabashedly Christian again.

Bleach

September 11, 2004

Bleach has been around a long time. BUT, this is their first release on Tooth and Nail, and first with the new members. They were always punk, but what are they now?

Answer: Better Punk. It’s much more raw, real, and better sounding. After a short acoustic intro, “Baseline” features, coincidentally, a great bass line. Also, a catchy chorus, and a cool solo are prominent. The lyrics talk about moving on to better things, which is a theme throughout the album. The lead riff of “Celebrate” almost sounds like part of “Baseline”, but it’s abandoned almost immediately. It’s not that interesting of a song. “Broke In the Head” laments an argument between two people where nothing is being said. It is extremely catchy, in chorus and verse, which is uncommon. It’s great. The lead single, “We Are Tomorrow” opens with a great drum riff and hopeful, inspiring lyrics about youth has promise. I’ve personally moshed to this song….and let me tell ya, it’s awesome. Great song. “Fall Out” is an apology to a girlfriend. Definitely the most successful one ever, it’s a complex song that is as fun as it is varied. The mostly unoriginal mid-tempo song “Weak At The Knees” follows. It features a great breakdown though. “Found You Out” is one of the catchiest anthems on the CD, which begs to be sung to, and has a positive message that “I can’t say that it’s figured out, but everything will work out somehow.” The riff is infectious, and this is hands down my favorite song on the album. “Said a Lot” follows the same pattern as the previous song, but doesn’t have as cool a riff. A driving, different style riff creates an odd mood for “Almost Too Late”. I don’t know why it’s different than all the others, but it is. It’s good anyway, and they play an awesome solo. The next song, veritably the most creative, is called “Andy’s Doin Time”. It’s about leaving friends and family while touring. It’s funny, poignant, and features really interesting instrumentation in the verses. “Knocked Out” is the worst of the three songs with ‘out’ in the title on this cd. It’s a midtempo lead in to “Jenn’s Song”, which is a really pretty but short acoustic song. It ends with the same ditty the CD started with, which is very fitting.

Bleach is ready to get a move on. This whole CD is about moving on, moving to better things, and moving to make things right. I say you should move to go get this if you like catchy, fun, good for you punk. 8 out of 10

Bleach Ain’t Cheap in Oklahoma

July 20, 2003

When: Aug. 18

Where: The Edge Building, Grace Fellowship Church, Tulsa, OK

Bleach always puts on a good show. That’s why I have no less than three Bleach shirts- they blow me away every time. This time was no exception. I missed the opener bands, and even the first one or two songs of Bleach’s set. Thankfully, that wasn’t a problem, as they played for over an hour.

The small yet dedicated crowd (how many innocent bystanders are you going to get in a Wednesday night show?) of about 100-150 was in full blast. The boys in Bleach responded by blasting through their usuals, such as “Get Up”, “December”, and “Knocked Out” with amazing energy and presence. I was one of the most active members of the audience, skanking, headbanging, dancing, jumping, and altogether just having a great time. Because of this, I only remember fragments of Bleach’s set- “Jaded Now”, “We are Tomorrow”, and the encore- but those things I did see were completely amazing.

“Jaded Now” is Bleach’s epic song- it builds from a simplistic, basic guitar line by adding in more and more elements until the climactic finale where Dave Baysinger screams out “I’m not scared!” to which the band unleashes a torrent of anguished sound that can only be described as outpour. It was absolutely stunning live, as Dave’s scream took on a whole new passion and the band seemed to feed off of it. That’s the definition of a good live band.

Their last ‘official’ song in the set was the ubiquitous “We Are Tomorrow”. I’ve seen them four times, and three out of the four times they’ve done this song. It’s one of the top crowd-rousing anthems I know of- and it made the crowd go nuts. A mosh started in here, and the security broke it up- but that’s how passionate everyone was. The song was electric, from start to finish. Dave Baysinger crowdsurfed. While singing.

But they couldn’t go away like that. No- they had to come back. The encore was three songs long, and worth every second. They played a song about Oklahoma (if I had lived here longer, I would probably know where it’s from), to which the crowd clapped along and even sang a bit. I thought it was a great kudos to Oklahoma that Bleach likes it here so much as to learn a song about us to play. Good job Oklahoman scene. The second song was “Baseline”- the crowd went berserk again. We didn’t know what they were going to do for the last Bleach song ever performed in Oklahoma, but we knew it had to be big.

So they went for the rarely played “Super Good Feeling”. This is quite possibly my favorite Bleach song, and I’ve never heard them play it live. I don’t think anyone else in the crowd had either- which made that last song special to me. Even better, all throughout the encore, Baysinger was taking phones from people in the audience, putting them right up next to the microphone, and singing into both at once- I think he did this for 4 or 5 cell-phones. How awesome is that?!?

Suffice to say, Bleach blew everyone away. I can’t believe Bleach is gone- it makes me genuinely depressed. But there are rumors that they’ll stick around as an album-only no-tour band….I hope those pull through right, and we can get some new Bleach music out of it. God Bless Bleach.

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

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