1. “Marina and I” – The Gorgeous Chans. The syncopated guitars, perky horns, and enthusiastic attack of this track took all of 1 second to steal my Vampire Weekend-loving heart.
2. “The Fringe” – Sego. If you miss James Murphy slurring into a microphone over rubbery bass and insistent dance grooves, Sego is LCD Soundsystem’s musical, lyrical, and spiritual successor. “You Wanted a Hit,” indeed.
3. “Even Fireworks” – Pushing Static. This electro-pop/dance-rock fiesta makes me want to crank the volume knob way up.
4. “Island” – Hey Anna. If Braids drank a Red Bull and went to a beach party, they might come up with this fragile-yet-peppy indie-rock track.
5. “Inside Your Heart” – Hectorina. Their previous work is chaotic, fractured, ecstatic, and mind-bending; this track sands down some of the eccentric flair and reveals the ecstatic rock band at their core. (The fact that their beating heart sounds like Prince is perfect.) Everybody clap your hands.
6. “That Kind of Girl” – All Dogs. The sort of melodies that I’d expect from a emo-focused band fused in to a huge punk-rock/pop-punk/power-pop stomper. It just works perfectly.
7. “Sleep Talk” – Diet Cig. The idiosyncratic indie-pop quirkiness of the Juno soundtrack + confessional pop-punk + female vocals + intimate lyrics = excellent track.
8. “Island Kids” – Holy ’57. Sometimes a chorus just works so perfectly that it feels like I’ve know it forever. The perky tropical indie-pop builds through the verse to a speak-sung chorus that just knocks it out of the park. Re: your summer parties.
9. “’82” – Death in the Afternoon. This electronic cut is a lot more breathy, chill, and smooth than I thought death would be.
10. “Good” – Ehmandah. This, right here, is a modern day (some might even say musically progressive) gospel tune. Get in on this infectious, irresistible vibe. Everybody clap your hands.
11. “Sugar Dream” – Valley Shine. The band’s press photos capture them lying on a bed of brightly-colored candy and showered with an absurd amount of confetti. These are excellent visual representations of their Beatles-on-a-sugar-high sound.
12. “Reach Out” – The Bone Chimes. The arrangement of this orchestral-folk-rock tune is clean, bright, and carefully organized: the band builds anticipation from the first reverbed guitar note to a big conclusion.
13. “Sensual People” – Lylas. If hypnotic groove is one of the things you seek in an indie-rock tune, Lylas’ dense textures, ostinato rhythms, and slowly-unfolding song development will catch your ear.
14, “Up of Stairs” – James Elkington and Nathan Salsburg. Watching two talented athletes go against each other can excite, but only rarely does that interaction produce beauty. It’s much more likely when two talented musicians play off each other, which is the basic premise of this track: two incredibly talented acoustic guitar players push each other and come up with relaxing, impressive acoustic gold.
15. “Repeat” – Sye Elaine Spence. An unconventional acoustic strumming pattern and a strong focus on Spence’s enveloping voice create an immersive, unique experience.
The Weather Machine‘s self-titled record was a marvel powered by inventive folk-inspired acoustic songwriting, deft lyrics, and an earnest DIY sheen. The “hyper-literate story songs and Dylan-esque prophetic jams” of their 2013 release are still present in Peach, but they’re tucked inside a new-found appreciation for Americana rock. Peach‘s focus is squarely on the sounds that The Weather Machine is able to wring from a well-rounded quintet, and this results in new charms.
But before I start detailing the changes, let me not get too carried away. Peach is still The Weather Machine’s doing. The ominous “Lilium” is right there with “Skeleton Jack” and “Alexei Mikhail.” The jaunty folk of “Some Evenings Are for Dancing” has the same wonderful tension between wry and passionate that characterized so much of their previous release. Okay, so, there’s a little more electric guitar, and it’s not “So, what exactly does it say?” (To paraphrase the genius’ refrain: “But what is?”) There’s still enough acoustic work to appease fans of that which was–and I am one of them.
So, about that electric guitar. The Weather Machine is now very firmly a rock band (among other things), because you can’t write a Springsteen-esque rock song as good as “Wannabe Cowboys” and not at least throw -rock on the end of your genre. There’s a cello* swooping its way through the track, but it’s not a folk-rock tune in the same way that The Low Anthem occasionally makes folk-rock. This is not a rocked-out folk tune: this is a rock song that has some folk instruments in it. The distinction is important for tunes like the super-fun “As Long as We Get Along,” because there’s more screamin’ guitar in that tune than you could possibly expect from a folk outfit. But it still has cello running all through it. It’s a tension–something The Weather Machine is good at.
Even though tension is their forte, they’re making steps toward integration: “Wild West Coast” and “How to Get to Roseburg” are the minor and major key exemplars, respectively, of melding the ideals and instrumentaion of folk and rock on this record. “Wild West Coast” is a low-slung tune that calls up some “The National lost in Arizona” thoughts, while “Roseburg” fuses hyperactive drums and insistent bass to a string-led hoedown stomp.
But right when you think you’ve got them figured out, the title track includes feathery arpeggiators, dreamy bossa nova vibes, and prominent acoustic fingerpicking in a track that sounds like Braids ft. Josh Ritter. (And what a track that would be.) “Breakup Song” and “MC vs. The Digital Age” are as theatrical as a good show tune should be. Things are happening on this record, y’all.
Peach is a record that expands on the template set out by their self-titled record, pushing them in all sorts of directions. Purists need not apply, but those who are interested in what else creative minds* have up their sleeves will enjoy the record immensely.
*correction: originally written as “violin.” It’s way high, though.
**correction: originally written as “the minds that set steel drums in a folk tune.” Apparently the thing that sounds like steel drums is also a cello. I’m as surprised as you are.
I’ve always found myself pulled between two sides. I’m an editor/writer; I create technical writing and fiction; I have friends and family in the extreme liberal and extreme conservative camps. I span many distances, with the moderate center being my home. This goes for my taste in electronic music as well: I am thoroughly on board with electronic music, as long as it retains some sense of being remotely a pop song. I’m not into deep house trance and such, which is very definitely music but perhaps not actually a song. So I’m (surprise) on the fence about White Blush‘s self-titled EP, as it makes overtures toward being both a project that creates discrete song-style entities and one that creates free-flowing music.
Carol Rhyu is the mastermind behind the project, and she creates a lush, dusky environment on the EP. This is best shown on “Jolene,” where a mechanical, post-Portishead beat is filled out melodically by all manner of synths and Rhyu’s cooing vocals. The environment could be called dark (it’s certainly not a summery song), but there’s no malice in the tune. It simply puts forward a distinctive mood evocative of night and develops it in a song-style structure, pulling together repeated parts into a semblance of verse/chorus/verse. “808 Myst,” on the other hand, is a soundtrack-style piece reminiscent of its title reference. It’s not bad at all, it just doesn’t appeal to me. I can’t hum it, nor recognize it as a discrete entity.
So it’s good for me that Rhyu skews more toward the pop end of the spectrum. “Mirror” starts off with a bouncy bassline reminiscent of goth rock, but layers Rhyu’s tentative, reverb-laden vocals over it for a nice tension. Even though the song doesn’t have a chorus to speak of, it’s still treated more like a pop tune in that she sings directly instead of treating her voice as another instrument in the mix. It ends up sounding a bit like Braids’ work, which is another band that treats pop music structures as things to be morphed and challenged in odd ways without losing their essential nature. (This is not the case with “Tru Luv,” which takes a similarly bouncy bass line and slowly builds in into an instrumental piece complete with distant cooing.)
Not being an expert in electronic music, I don’t know all the right and proper names for the genre or genres that White Blush falls into. I can say with definition, though, that Carol Rhyu can make an absolutely gorgeous song when she wants to, whether it’s in a pop idiom or not. “Jolene” is a fabulous song, one that only gets more interesting with time. And that’s the best sort of pop song.
4: Laura Stephenson and the Cans – Sit Resist. There’s not a single bad tune on this album, you can sing along to almost all of them, and they pull off the “multiple genres but overarching mood” thing perfectly.
3: Jenny and Tyler – Faint Not. Their cute pop turned into churning folk-rock overnight, and the effect is hair-raising and goosebump-inducing. There were few moments as dramatic as the full-band entry in “Song for You” this year; Faint Not was the only album that made me write the sentence “I forget to breathe.”
2: The Collection – The Collection EP. The melodies and instrumentation seem effortlessly perfect on this folk album. David Wimbish’s lyrics and deft and quick, delivered in a vastly adaptable voice that seals the deal. “Stones” is just a wonder.
I’ve rarely been on-the-ball enough to get my year end lists done by December 31, but this year I made a concerted effort to have all my 2011 reviewing done early. As a result, I was able to put together not just a top 20 albums list, but a top 50 songs mixtape and a top 11 songs list. Here’s the mixtape, organized generally from fast’n’loud to slow’quiet. Hear all of the songs at their links, with one exception of a purchase link (#27). The other lists will come over the next few days.
It’s very telling that Kevin McMahon produced Battle Ave.‘s War Paint, as McMahon had a hand in both Titus Andronicus releases, work by The Walkmen and Frightened Rabbit’s The Midnight Organ Fight. Each of these bands feature an extremely emotional singer going nuts in an atypical musical setting, and War Paint is not outside McMahon’s oeuvre in that regard.
Battle Ave’s unhinged frontman is Jesse Alexander, whose anguished voice ranges from indignant slurring to full-on roar. It’s highly reminescent of Patrick Stickles’ voice (Titus Andronicus). But instead of couching it in a workingman’s punk ethos, Battle Ave. sets Alexander in the midst of an indie-rock maelstrom.
The band can get just as furious and frantic as TA (“Whose Hands Are These?”, every other song on the album), but the bands start at different ends of the spectrum. Andronicus’ pathos comes after a calming down of rage, while Battle Ave ratchets up to a cacophony.
Battle Ave. strangely calls to mind the band that Patrick Stickles least likes to be compared to: Bright Eyes. Those who love the catharsis of “Road to Joy” and the conviction of tunes like “Train Underwater” and “Another Traveling Song” will find emotional analogues here, especially in the gorgeous, horn-filled “Complications w/The Home (Hernia)”. Most of BA’s tunes blow up past the heavy end of “Road to Joy” at their apex, but you’ll feel a similar emotional connection.
In stark contrast to I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, however, the songs sprawl all over the place. Their length and seeming formlessness (exactly zero choruses) call to mind Braids’ Native Speaker, although these guitars definitely go to 11 (“Puke Lust”). Because of that, it’s a tough album to grab onto. It’s not designed to be catchy, nor is it organized in easily digestible bits. This is art. The band is saying something, and if that’s not your thing, then this isn’t your thing.
Thanks to the vocal delivery, however, it’s difficult to make out what the point is. Track titles, album art and snatches of lyrics here and there make out the beginnings of a picture, but this (like The Monitor) is an album to which listeners should dedicate time. That’s an incredible artistic risk in this day and age, but I believe music is worth that, so time it will get (from me, at least).
I realize that I’ve spent less time describing songs and sounds than I usually do. I can explain that “Complications w/Traveling” is a noise-laden dream dirge, but that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Battle Ave.’s compositions are pretty unique, so I don’t want to waste time explaining every detail. I do, however, want to convince the people who might listen to it that they should – and the import of the album is the best way to discuss that.
The album really does have weight. The guitar tones and styles lend the album a cohesive feel, even when the band incorporates carnivalesque rhythms (as in the standout, 10-minute “”K. Divorce” (For Mildred)”). This was painstakingly written, crafted and ordered, and as a result War Paint is one of the most interesting indie-rock albums I’ve heard all year. If you’re into noisy indie-rock as art, then you should do yourself a favor and pick up Battle Ave.’s latest – you’ll find many moments of bliss.
Just like IC puts out its year-end best-of list in February, my half-year best-of doesn’t hit until August. This list includes the music I covered while at the Oklahoma Gazette.
If you would like to see this list visually, I’ve created an Independent Clauses Pinterest page that also includes the best artwork that’s crossed IC’s path in 2011 and a list of best books about pop music.
16. Chad Valley – Equatorial Ultravox. ’80s dance-pop revivalism that captures both the playful nonchalance and wistful romanticism of the first disposable music era.
In my day job at Oklahoma Gazette, I also write about music. I spend a significant amount of time making websites happen, but I do have duties that involve writing about people strumming and hitting things. It’s a fun thing that I’m incredibly thankful for. Here are links and teasers to a few of my favorite recent CD reviews from there.
Braids — Native Speaker. “An album that fuses the vaguely optimistic, digital-created moods of chillwave to the full-band power of indie rock and the cinematic scope of post-rock.”
Typhoon — A New Kind of House. “Typhoon accomplishes more in 21 minutes than some bands can accomplish in a career. These songs are endearing, invigorating, mature, well-orchestrated, brilliantly performed, immaculately recorded and summarily astounding.”
Chikita Violenta — Tre3s. “They take after the late, great Grandaddy in that they write indie-rock songs that exist somewhere between pop and rock; not quite as rebellious as real rock, but not as melody-centric as real pop.”
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.