One of my favorite things about Independent Clauses is developing relationships with young artists and writers. Declan Ryan is both: I covered his split EP with Josh Mordecai recently, and he has written for IC in the past. His new EP Introducing Close Calls marries his singer/songwriter sensibilities to a full band with great results.
Ryan comes from the Dylan/Oberst line of singers that allows the passion of vocals to trump their technical correctness. This is best shown in “Then Don’t Hipst,” which creates a spacious, open-highway feel to the tune for his voice to ramble around in. The first line of the song is “All my lovers name’s are on highway signs/so blow a kiss to the state line,” so the unfettered feel of the vocals perfectly interprets the lyrics. That’s gold. This spacious sound reappears in sparse closer “Two and Seven,” which calls up Two Gallants–another band that uses vocals in an unusual way. Some people aren’t into this style of vocals, but Ryan does it well; if you’re a fan of this sound, Ryan will be up your alley.
His band contributes well throughout, framing Ryan’s vocals and lyrics neatly without becoming the main focus. Opener “Manhattan Square” has a full arrangement, but never cranks any part so high that you don’t know who’s the main draw. The band also doesn’t play up the twang too much, relying on clean notes, straight rhythms, and gentle tones for most of the arrangements. It’s nice to hear an alt-country offering that starts from a different point than The Jayhawks or Old 97s, as this approach has a lot more in common with indie-pop and indie-rock. Still, the end result is strongly alt-country, even if it gets there an unusual way.
Declan Ryan’s Introducing Close Calls allows Ryan to stretch his musical legs and cover some new ground. With “Then Don’t Hipst” as a starting point, fans of alt-country with distinct vocals should find much to love.
Singer/songwriters can work for a decade to find a unique voice, which is what makes it astounding when a sophomore release contains a unique perspective on things, musically or lyrically. Eoin Glackin‘s Rain Finally Came provides a fresh take on both, delivering well-penned observations in a recognizably distinct melodic idiom.
Glackin’s sound falls between the sweeping melodic excursions of Josh Ritter and the soaring yawp of latter-day Mountain Goats, as he fills his strumming with sprightly vocal and instrumental melodies. Opener “Dancing Anymore” and the title track pair tight melody-writing with arrangements that never distract from his passionate voice. Highlight track “New World Blue” is an immediately arresting tune that includes clapping, a swooning violin, and a memorable vocal hook in the chorus; you’ll be humming this one for a while. If you listen to the whole album, you’ll start to recognize his cadence and delivery: it’s the little ways he inflects his words and rhythms that make his sound distinct.
Since he showed he can strum with the best of ‘em in “New World Blue,” Glackin decided to flex his lyrical muscles on the next track, “Mrs. Campbell.” It’s a protest song that doesn’t come off as cloying or privileged: it strikes just the right balance of pathos and logos to protest an innocent bystander killed by gang fighting. “It can only happen to bad people/in bad neighborhoods/I’m sorry, Mrs. Campbell/Your son is gone for good,” Glackin sings, in a stark indictment of the rhetoric of “safe.” “Last Night in This Town” is a descriptive story-song reminiscent of Counting Crows’ first album (which is a huge compliment from over here). The quiet “What Am I to You?” is a plea for clarity from a lover. Each of these lyric sets are pulled off with surprising clarity and turn of phrase that I would not expect from someone this young.
The first seven songs are incredibly dense collection, while tracks 8-10 provide a bit of breather: simpler songs that don’t aspire to as much complexity melodic or lyrical complexity. But the songwriting picks back up in difficulty for the closer: the nearly-8-minute “The Hour’s Gone Too Late (For Holding Hands)” pairs a pitch-perfect vocal delivery with a weary, descriptive lyric. It reminded me of Josh Ritter’s “Thin Blue Line,” which is another lengthy tune with huge impact.
Eoin Glackin is the sort of singer that I can’t remember hearing for the first time: the first time I heard Rain Finally Came, it seems like I had already known about the music forever. It’s a rare album that delivers that level of comfort on the first listen without shamelessly ripping off another artist. There are shades of Dylan, Counting Crows, Johnny Flynn, and more in Glackin’s sound, but the resulting mix is his own. I’m vastly impressed by Rain Finally Came, and I look forward to great things for and from Eoin Glackin. If you’re into singer/songwriters, do yourself a favor and check out the album. It’s wonderful.
Debuts are funny things. The cult of genius that critics are sometimes guilty of proliferating puts a lot of stock in the opening salvo of a career; whole careers (even masterful ones) can be defined by the first release. So it’s with trepidation that I heap praise on any debut: there’s a lot at stake for the artist. Still, it feels disingenuous to not convey how impressed I am at Lights and Motion‘s Reanimation.
The origin story of is that of a 24-year-old, self-taught musician working long hours alone to craft an album of sweeping, cinematic post-rock. The album leans toward the “start small, end huge” trope of post-rock, but there are some songs that just hang out in the “start small, stay small” zone (“Requiem”). Guitar, piano and atmospheric synths carry the day, as they often work together to create the big crescendos. Strings also play a large role in the construction of the tunes. It is, above all else, beautiful music: there are no Tortoise-style jaunts into gritty landscapes or Isis-style dissonant roars. If you’re looking for some gorgeous post-rock, Reanimation is in your corner. As Lights and Motion continues his career, I look forward to seeing him expand his sonic palette into some more adventurous waters. But as a debut, it’s an assured and deeply enjoyable listen.
The debut of Bluskreen happened in 1996, but it’s just being unearthed now. After finding a brown paper bag full of tapes, Tony Ianutti was able to salvage four albums’ worth of glitchy, minimalist post-rock/soundscapes created on fully analog equipment. The unnamed songs on the four volumes of XLIIS90 – The Cassette Archives range from immersive to downright oddball, but they present a very recognizable prefiguring of Bluskreen’s later, more melodic work.
I’m particularly fond of the openers of each volume, as they cover a lot of the ground that the rest of albums tread. The opener of Volume 1 pairs a highly rhythmic backdrop with a slow-moving, mysterious keyboard line to create an intriguing tension that’s reminiscent of a good video game soundtrack. Volume 2 kicks off with a modified spoken-word clip and a murky melodic motif that set a noir-ish, trip-hop feel. It’s one of the most memorable tracks in the collection.
The high-pitched, Postal Service-esque beat that opens Volume 3 sets a very different tone than the first two. Though maintaining the heavily rhythmic beats, the tune is much more optimistic than the previous contributions. The profoundly eerie synth sweeps that open Volume 4 give way to some strange sonic and melodic experimenting, which shows yet another side of Bluskreen.
Bluskreen’s XLIIS90 volumes are a treasure trove of downtempo, minimalist post-rock/soundscapes. I’ve loved all of Bluskreen’s work thus far, and so it’s fascinating to hear the very beginnings of the project. Highly recommended.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: no one likes everything musically. Show me someone who loves klezmer, Kreayshawn, Liturgy, Neutral Milk Hotel, soca, Tears for Fears and “Call Me Maybe,” and then maybe we’ll talk. I know that I’m not such a big fan of rap, but I’m a huge fan of folk/alt-country. As a result, my tolerance for the excesses of the folk/alt-country genre (playing fast and loose with the concept of vocal tone, thanks to Bob Dylan and Neil Young) is higher than most, while my tolerance for the excesses of other genres is low. That’s just the way it is.
St. Anthony of Shipwrecks EP by Friends of Mine will charm fans of folk/alt-country, but it won’t convert non-fans to the genre: the vocals privilege passion over tone, the snare shuffles like you might expect, and the bass goes up and down in a very country way. You’ve heard these parts before, but they rattle and scuffle together in endearing ways throughout the EP. The melodies that the band puts together stick in my head, especially in the winking “Pop Song (Be My Girlfriend).” The band does occasionally throw in a garage-rock/surf-rock edge (“Dear John Proctor,” “Girls”), and it’s in the latter track that the worst vocal tone excesses nearly derail the song at the climax of its six-and-a-half-minute length.
But the misstep is redeemed by closer “Coffee House,” a folky strummer with killer melodies and harmonies. Again, there’s nothing groundbreaking in the tune, but it just stays up there in my mind. Once the harmonica comes in, the tune is reminiscent of Two Gallants’ best work. Sometimes you don’t need to be innovative to be brilliant; you just need to be well-versed. Friends of Mine’s St. Anthony of Shipwrecks sounds incredibly knowledgeable about their subject. Here’s to tradition, and great things within it. I look forward to what the band turns out next.
The Oklahoma four-piece’s debut has a lot of promise in it, as well as a lot of homages to their influences (hello, cover art). And although they also mention “the taxman” in the almost-title track “Midwest,” their love of the Beatles is more in connection with their dedication to the hard work of songwriting than any particular musical inferences. Their songs temper the pop-punk tropes of uncontrollable enthusiasm and huge guitar sound with a dose of determined populism that lands the band close to both the wide-open Midwestern rock sound (old-school Wilco, Mellencamp, Horse Thief) and Midwestern folk lyrical tradition (Woody Guthrie, Bob “People forget I’m from rural Minnesota” Dylan, etc.).
The melodies are appropriately huge; it sounds like the members know how to rile up a crowd. “Gone Gone Gone” features rumbling toms, blaring organ and group vocals, while opener “Let Me Live” employs the same basic elements but with a bell kit on top of it for charm. The verses of the latter cut to tom rolls, sleigh bells and nakedly honest vocals, and I am not kidding when I say they make me miss Oklahoma something fierce. It’s a dangerous move for a band to put its best track first, but man, “Let Me Live” absolutely knocks it out from the get go.
Their aforementioned populist strain is on full display: “All I know is the American Dream / All I know is what I see on TV / All I know is the American Dream / All I know is what I can’t reach” in “Connecticut to Paris (I Don’t Know)”; “The taxman came to my home / Said we might have to foreclose / But I said this is where I’ve spent my whole life” in “Midwest”; and “My God I’ve got to find a better way / Before I suffer Gatsby’s fate” in “Gone Gone Gone.” If you dig it, you dig it – that’s all there is to it.
The Typist is a young band composed of seasoned vets, and it shows: their careful attention to detail in the arrangements allows the entire album to flow in one consistent mood. This is a double-edged sword: it’s easy to hear in one sitting, but it’s a bit tough to distinguish between songs toward the end of the album. As individual tracks, nearly every song works, but they all work for the same exact reason. As the band grows over time and gets more comfortable with its chemistry, I expect some more melodic and rhythmic variation. This will greatly improve the overall experience and produce some even more interesting tunes.
Midwestern High Life is quite a rocking start for The Typist. I thoroughly expect to hear more from this outfit, as their energy, passion, and understanding of both historical lyrics and songwriting have me excited.
Leonard Mynx‘s last album Vesperwas a stately wonder, composed of hopelessly depressing folk songs that hung on every note he let fall from his mouth. It was an absolutely riveting album, if an unsettling one. Son of the Famous So and So finds him in a more upbeat idiom, and while it’s less discomforting, it’s less attention-grabbing as well.
Like Dylan went, so goes Mynx; there’s a lot more instrumentation here, and if it can’t exactly be called rock, it’s something close. There’s intimations of everyone from Tom Waits to Bob Seger here (On ”Sing Radio,” Mynx calls up both), making for a mini-tour of American roots rock. Son has its own charms and joys, but it inches a little closer toward what the rest of the folk world is doing right now.
Mynx has shifted his focus from vocal melodies to overall songwriting. It doesn’t seem like a big deal until you hear how different “Stolen” and “Last Time” sound. The forlorn horns of “Stolen” accent the vocal performance; the horns of “Last Time” are part of the structure (along with bass/acoustic guitar/electric guitar/drums/piano/organ) that rope in Mynx’s vocals.
Even the gorgeous, relatively stark “My Old Friend” fits Mynx’s vocals into a song, a departure from his former idea of letting the vocals dominate the proceedings. The result is a collection of tunes that mid-to-late-era Dylan fans will love, both for vocal and instrumental reasons.
“Stolen” and “Sail On” best reference his last album with haunting moods created by letting his voice and lyrics paint the whole scene. The lyrical structure on Son is modified to fit the new songwriting style, meaning that he’s less a literal storyteller than a scene painter on much of the album. “Sail On” dispels that, returning to his wordy, lengthy lyrical style that I love. He sticks a beautiful acoustic coda there, too; major props to that.
“Miss You” best matches his morose mastery of drawn-out, creaky vocal performances with his new songwriting idiom. It is easily the best song on the album, hinting that the best is yet to come from Leonard Mynx.
Son of the Famous So and So never drops below “solid.” ”Stolen,” “Sail On” and “Miss You” are next-level pieces that stand up next to tracks by Iron and Wine, Bon Iver and Damien Jurado; the rest are average-to-good pieces that show a (hopefully) transitional stage in Mynx’s songwriting. Leonard Mynx is an artist you need to watch closely; he’s right on the verge of breaking through.
There are artists in this world that cut a huge swath across their genre. They’re the Bob Dylan, Arcade Fire, Death Cab for Cutie and Shins-type bands; their sound is so distinct that it’s hard for them to escape it, much less anyone who sounds like them. This is a shame, because as any hipster will tell you, Nirvana wasn’t the first band to sound like Nirvana. There were people before and after Nirvana who sounded just like ‘em, but those before didn’t get the glory and those after glommed onto the glory without earning it or were shunted to the side as copycats.
I hope that Derek Porter can fall into the former category; it would be easy to shove him aside as a Bon Iver disciple, but that’s not a fair judgment. There are striking similarities in the folk tunes of the two men: both have a rustic sound, favor spare arrangements and feature a high, trembling vocalist. But where Bon Iver makes paeans to the cold desolation of heartbreak, Derek Porter’s Strangers, Vol. 1 is a humble and inviting exploration of memory.
It’s probably good that these tunes aren’t as wholesale despair-laden as Bon Iver’s work. I don’t know if I could take much more of that. I much prefer Porter’s lively, bluegrass-inflected “I Remember” to the atmospheric density he employs in “All I Know Will Be Forgotten.” When “I Remember” drifts off into a weary haze, it still doesn’t meander into navel-gazing depression. This is because Porter takes careful care of the moods he creates; he’s not creating standard depressing fare, but his strength is still the moods he is putting out.
“I Forgot” is a cheery, wide-eyed tune, incorporating an accordion to great effect. It doesn’t have the direct, powerful melodies that some bands make their living on, but the overall mood cultivated is just as satisfying in this and other cases. There are good melodies sprinkled throughout, but the moods are much more consistent and thereby more praiseworthy.
Derek Porter’s Strangers, Vol. 1 is a solid EP. If you’re big on atmosphere (or a film scorer), Derek Porter should jump high up in your queue. He’s got a composer’s ear and skills. The tunes aren’t as direct, clear and elegant as Avett Brothers or Low Anthem tunes, but his command of mood transforms a room. It will be interesting to see if he develops his melodic prowess in the future or whether he pours himself even more into the atmosphere work. No matter which way he goes, Strangers, Vol. 1 is a great EP to put on during a lazy day and just be with.
One of my best friends and I are huge folk fans. We share some of the same loves (Josh Ritter, Simon and Garfunkel, Iron and Wine), but we diverge pretty hard at one point: he’s a big fan of the British folk sound, and I’m a big fan of the American folk sound. The British folk sound has a very open sound: capturing the sound of rolling hills on the English countryside, the music often abounds with flutes, mandolin, and other optimistic sounds. American folk has a much less optimistic air about it; Dylan’s strum-heavy protest songs and Simon and Garfunkel’s world-weary pop/folk tunes set the stage for the depressing world that American folk resides in.
The Points North take a distinctly British approach to folk, although they hail from Boston. Accordion, flute, delicately fingerpicked guitar, piano, mandolin and more permeate the sound, creating a rollicking sound. But even though these songs are charming, melodic, and sunny, they never become less weighty. Page France was one of the only other bands I know of that was able to capture the balance between giddy music and serious content. And The Points North don’t geek out on a Michael Nau-esque level; they’re much more tempered than that. Stately, as the Brits might say.
If Sufjan Stevens were a little more obsessed with flute, he could have written “Cape Tryon”; the background vocals and general feel of the song would have fit perfectly on Illinoise! If the Low Anthem cracked a smile every now and then, they would be happy to claim the elegaic accordion intro of “I Awoke a Child.” If Nick Drake had found friends to play with him, he could have written half these songs, from the peculiar picking rhythm of “Ever Bright White” to the carefree feel of “Tires & the Pavement.” There are elements of Nickel Creek’s joyful pop (minus the bluegrass), and Novi Split’s goofy swooping musical instruments.
Although I’ve spent most of this album saying who the Points North sound like, that’s not to their discredit. This isn’t an album that causes me to wince every time I hear a musical familiarity. On the other hand, these references (intentional or otherwise) cause excitement and increase enjoyment. The sound isn’t as intimate as my favorite folk bands, due to the myriad of sounds going on, but that’s not what The Points North were shooting for.
The Points North’s I Saw Across the Sound is a unique release, written and recorded with clarity of idea. It’s a very distinctive brand of folk that draws off all the aforementioned bands, but copies none of them. Quite enjoyable and talented.
The best artists have distinct phases of their work. Some confine their phase to a single album (i.e. Coldplay), a few albums (Radiohead), wide swaths of albums (The Mountain Goats). Some artists jam all of their phases together (uh, Low Anthem? Are you a rock band or a folk band?).
Gerard Daley, longtime member of The Stuntcar Drivers and Delta House (two bands I’ve never heard), decided to release all of his solo demos from a nine-year period on one CD and call it Diff’rent States. The overlying problem is not his songwriting skill, but the fact that there are an incredible amount of genres and moods on this CD. It’s very clearly a collection of demos. For a person who doesn’t have a love affair with either of the main bands, it’s difficult to muster up enough enthusiasm to power through the myriad of mood changes to make sense of the material.
And I do mean myriad. There’s Counting Crows-esque pop (“Diff’rent States”), a downtempo Pink Floyd-esque number (“Romantic”), punk rock with shoegaze-style vocals (“Superstar”), folky protest tunes (“Stranded Generation”), and a pensive acoustic guitar track with the sound of the waves playing through the entire track. That’s just the first five tracks.
The three things that are constant on Diff’rent States are Daley’s prowess with an acoustic guitar, his lyrical themes and his vocals. Whenever he drops the distortion and goes for the acoustic, his results are solid and enjoyable. His distorted tracks can not consistently lay claim to that honor. From the dramatic beginning of “Buildings” to the romantic “My Lady” to the full-band folk of “The Wrongness of Righteousness,” the results of the acoustic-heavy tracks are just more reliably good than their distorted brethren.
The lyrics are consistently searching throughout. He talks consistently about seeking out truth, understanding what he believes, and questioning perceptions. It’s a refreshing change from breakup albums and love songs, which is what I’ve been encountering tons of lately. Not that there aren’t love songs here (the aforementioned “My Lady”), but it’s not the main focus. And that’s nice.
Daley’s vocals are consistent as well. He has a folk-singer’s voice; it breaks, it cracks, and it generally isn’t perfect. If you’re into the Bob Dylan sound, you may even find Daley’s vocals endearing. If you think that Bob Dylan was one of the worst things to happen to pop music (and there are those people), you should not check out Daley. You will not be pleased.
Diff’rent States is the type of release I would be all over if one of my favorite bands released it. Nine years of unheard demos is just a treasure chest of unheard ideas. But if you’re not familiar with the original work that made the artist worth listening to in the first place, it’s like looking in someone’s attic to try to get to know them. It doesn’t make much sense. There are some good tunes here (“Stranded Generation,” “Forgotten How to Fake” and more), but it’s just hard to “get” it.
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.
Stephen Carradini writes far too many words about music you may or may not have heard of. Sometimes he takes pictures of aforementioned bands.