Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Jake McKelvie and The Countertops sing a million words at breakneck speed

July 7, 2014

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What we listen to says less about us than it used to, given the Internet’s ability to erode consistent listening patterns. But if what we listen to still says something about a person, then it should be noted that I am all about helter-skelter acoustic strumming with the most possible amount of words sung or spoken over it. If you throw down some la-la-las for a chorus, it’s all over. In other words, I’m all about literate folk-punk/indie-pop-rock like Jake McKelvie and the CountertopsSolid Chunks of Energy because so much is going on all the time.

McKelvie opens the appropriately titled 10-song salvo with “Mini Monster,” which sees the frontman singing as many words as possible over a pretty clean electric guitar, bass, and drum kit running at breakneck speed. Spitting everything from non-sequitur to Dylan-esque metaphor to puns to self-deprecating truth before bursting into a passionately jubilant “la” section for the chorus, McKelvie is either the motor or the sail. He’s the motor if you’re a fan of the “auteur with a backing band” theory, but he’s the one being pushed along if you’re of the “bands with band names are bands” school of thought. Doesn’t really matter which school you’re in, though–everyone can dance along to “Mini Monster” and feel good about themselves.

Elsewhere, McKelvie and co. get their Bright Eyes on, treating audiences to a quieter version of melodic machine gun vocal delivery. “Aside From Your Hair” is impressive not only for the number of words that are included, but for the fact that the band manages to wring a melody out of the delivery. The rhythm is possessing of its own, but the fact that you can sing along to certain parts is even more fun. “Woke Awake” has similar RIYLs, and is one of the most tender-sounding of the tunes. “Flock Hard, Lockhart” is a power-pop tune that relies more on gone-wild bass work and guitar riffing; “Time Is a Chew Toy” is beachy and kinda ’50s-ish, while still maintaining a brain-bending set of lyrics. “Lots and Lots and Lots of Money” is a straight-up punk song, ’cause why not close out the album that way?

Solid Chunks of Energy is a wildly entertaining album for lyric nerds and pop fans. McKelvie very clearly knows how to write a pop song and has decided to fill his with all sorts of unexpected magic. It just so happens that the magic happens with a very small set of instruments. Guy’s gotta tour somehow, you know? Fans of The Mountain Goats, Attica! Attica!, Bright Eyes, or other “wordy” singers of the indie-pop/alt-folk/folk-punk persuasion will have a new band to watch in Jake McKelvie and the Countertops.

November MP3 Drop 2: Sing It Smooth

November 11, 2013

Part two!

November MP3 Drop 2: Sing It Smooth

1. “It’s All Over Now” – Blair Crimmins and the Hookers. Vintage-style New Orleans jazz/rag doesn’t get much more fun that this. I mean, spoons!! You know you love this already.
2. “Break Away” – Afterlife Parade. AP’s triumphant indie-rock is sounding more and more like U2 by way of The Killers with every release, and I’m totally down with that. You hit those soaring group vocal lines, and I don’t care who you sound like. Sing it.
3. “Silver Boys” – Holyoak. Do you wish that Grizzly Bear was a little less obtuse? Maybe that Fleet Foxes was a little more direct? Holyoak delivers the goods.
4. “White Noise” – The Hand in the Ocean. Heavy on the folk, lite on the indie; heavy on the warbling vocals, lite on Bon Iver beauty-croon; heavy on the banjo, lite on the kick drum.
5. “Ghostflake” – Owls of the Swamp. This piano-led, indie-folk take is as delicate and gentle as the title would suggest.
6. “Vermona” – Take Berlin. Formal pop songcraft and singer/songwriter fare are coming closer and closer together, as the rambling Bob Dylan impulses of yore are turning more toward Paul Simon’s beautiful structuralism. This track’s guitar and analog synthesizer show off that shift.
7. “Broken Arrows” – Tracy Shedd also shows off her formal songcraft skills, adding in a touch of ’50s pop vocal flair to the precise acoustic strumming and melodicism.
8. “The Kids and the Rain” – Alex Tiuniaev. New classical piano composer Tiuniaev opens his album Blurred with this moody, atmospheric, scene-setting solo keys piece.

Wild Ones / Cameron Blake

July 19, 2013

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Portland’s Wild Ones kept me company for the last legs of my Kickstarter journey (notably the handmaking mixtapes part). Their album Keep It Safe is a perfect summer album, so if you don’t have one yet, you can pick this one up. It’s mid-tempo indie-pop with some electro vibes: chill, but with enough head-bobbing propulsiveness that it keeps the wheels rolling in the car. When I turn it off, it feels like I’m turning off the mood in the room. It’s that pervasive in my mind.

Tracks like “Row” and “Golden Twin” let the female vocals dance breathily over a gently rolling keys-and-drums backbeat, augmenting every now and then with synths for flavor. The guitars flow in and out of the songs, never announcing their presence too hard or going unnoticed. It’s just beautifully executed indie-pop; the sort of album where every track works together and trying to pick singles is fruitless. You know, like how all the summer days run together? Jump on this.

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In contrast, Cameron Blake‘s Without the Sound of Violence is surprisingly dark. The singer/songwriter has never shied away from heavy lyrical topics, but the music he couched those thoughts in was considerably buoyant (or at least hopeful). Without sees him match terse thoughts on social and political matters with similarly tense arrangements. Opener “Rugged Cross to Bear” sets the album in an ominous light, culminating in the mantra “hey, hey, hey, you better put your gun down/there ain’t nobody gonna hold you when the chips are down.” Choosing guitar as the lead instrument instead of his usual piano, Blake cultivates a heavy, tough feel to the tune. The sound continues directly into the title track, which includes a noise intended to mimic the sound of blades scraping as an interpretation of the lyrics. Even the fun, cheeky country hoedown “Cabin Fever” includes the love interest crying and being afraid. In short, this is not light summer reading.

So what is the end of all this heaviness? Blake uses the space to talk about hope, hopelessness, and steadfastness in the face of difficult times, whether that’s by singing from the perspective of Abraham traveling to sacrifice Isaac (“Abraham and Isaac”), channeling the perspective of a remorseful divorcee (the poignant, beautiful closer “Driftwood”), or getting Dylan-esque in lyrical structure for “Blood in Our Love.” That last track is my favorite of the album, as it ties the themes of the album to a piano-based sound that caused me to fall in love with Blake’s work in the first place. His performance is incredibly comfortable in “Blood in Our Love,” as he lets his voice loose to interpret the lyrics for him. It’s one of the only places that he gets unbridled in an album that’s marked by tight control over the arrangements; since the track doesn’t necessarily mesh well with the album musically (although it’s spot-on thematically), some may find it to be their least favorite. But I like it a lot.

Blake’s muse has taken him through some heavy places on Without the Sound of Violence, and he has come out with some memorable tunes for it. It’s definitely not dance music, but songs like “Driftwood” tap into deep, heavy emotions excellently. If you’d like to hear Josh Ritter do something darker, you may find your wish is granted in this album.

The Lion of Tallasi

July 12, 2013

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The Never Give Up Kickstarter officially ended yesterday, as I mailed out the last of the rewards and got covered on Cover Lay Down (which was a huge thrill). It was an incredible project that I’m extremely proud to have completed. We did the whole thing right at budget, too, which is exciting. The Lion of Tallasi contributed a really fantastic version of “Recycled Air” that put a whole new spin on the tune, and it ended up being one of my favorite renditions in the whole project. So it’s with great excitement that I tell you about the Lion’s debut album, God, Love, and Death. (And yes, the band did include the Oxford Comma. Take that, Vampire Weekend.)

The album is built off heavy folk strum and Matt Howard’s Conor Oberst-esque roar. A full band accompanies, but they are firmly supporters of Howard, who stands front and center throughout the record. The most prominent member of the band is Kristen Durrett, who provides vocal counterpoint in many of the tracks; the rest of the band makes sure that things keep pushing forward without drawing too much attention to themselves.

That forces all listeners to contend with Howard’s voice and lyrics as the make-or-break points of the band. Howard has the Oberstian roar, as I noted; but he goes farther back in the folk history to draw heavily off Dylan’s lyrics. “A Million Dark Roads” calls up the poetic stylistics of “The Times, They Are A’Changing” and “A Hard Rain’s A’Gonna Fall,” while the downtrodden, stark “Down to the River” reminds of some of Dylan’s more impressionistic work. Highlight track “Don’t Put Me in the Grave” is the catchiest tune of the lot, sounding like a lost track from the chipper sessions of I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning in melody and arrangement. An organ peals, a tambourine shakes, and a mandolin chirps out the instantly memorable melody. It’s an excellent song, and it’s placed right after the intro track as a sign of things to come. It’s not all protest anthem shout-alongs, as there are some love songs sprinkled through, too.

If you’re not down with Dylan or Oberst, then God, Love, and Death is maybe not for you. If you like either of those artists, even just a little, you definitely should listen to The Lion of Tallasi: you will find much to love.

Declan Ryan stretches his alt-country legs

June 14, 2013

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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.

Eoin Glackin delivers folk tunes with the poise and skill of a veteran

May 7, 2013

Rain Finally Came by Eoin Glackin

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.

Post-rock debuts

February 20, 2013

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Quick Hits: Friends of Mine

June 6, 2012

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 Typist's Midwestern rock and lyrics resonate

January 11, 2012

With that big ‘ol space in my heart for pop-punk, I am drawn by charging guitars and restless youth sounding Whitman’s “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” It’s not pop-punk, but The Typist‘s Midwestern High Life has both in spades.

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 morose vocal mastery takes a trip through roots rock

May 30, 2011

Leonard Mynx‘s last album Vesper was 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.

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

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