1. “Friends” – Marsicans. Marsicans appeared fully-formed writing masterful indie-pop-rock songs. I have no idea how that happened, but we’re all beneficiaries. This one manages to get heavy on the lyrical content and yet still manages to be one of the catchiest songs I’ve heard since … uh … “Swimming” by Marsicans.
2. “My Roommate Is a Snake and the Landlord’s a Bat” – Gregory Pepper and His Problems. If the conceit of Sleigh Bells is “hardcore guitars tamed by pop melodies,” the conceit of Pepper’s new album Black Metal Demo Tape is “sludge metal guitar and indie pop melodies.” This particular track starts off as a doomy dirge before transitioning into a early-Weezer power-pop tribute to metal. It’s a fun ride the whole way through the track. The rest of the album is equally inventive, charming, and gloomy (sometimes in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way, but also sometimes not).
3. “Weathering” – moonweather. Fans of the acoustic work on Modest Mouse’s Good News album will love the unique vocal style and swaying, shambling, enthusiastic folk arrangement of this tune. The lilting, floating horns/string arrangement is excellent.
4. “€30,000” – Emperor X. If John Darnielle had collaborated with Pedro the Lion in between his All Hail West Texas and Tallahassee days, the results would have sounded as enigmatic and engaging as this incredible track. It’s almost pointless to tag this with genres–it’s a thoughtful, passionate, wild indie-pop (okay, I did it anyway) track.
5. “Unbroken Chains” – WolfCryer. If you’re not listening to WolfCryer yet, you’re missing out on some of the most vital, important folk songs being sung today. Baumann’s vocal delivery, vocal melodies, and lyrics are all top-shelf in this weary, burdened protest tune.
7. “I Won’t Rest Until” – Brianna Gaither. Following in the vein of Moda Spira, this tune seamlessly blends electro-pop synths, instrospective singer/songwriter piano, soulful vocals, and indie-rock drums for a thoroughly modern-sounding take on serious pop.
8. “We Notice Homes When They Break” – Loyal Wife. An earnest, charming love song that’s part alt-country (via the blaring organ), part indie-pop (through the vocal tone and vocal melodies), and part singer/songwriter (through the lyrics).
9. “Hold On” – Midnight Pilot. The title track to Midnight Pilot’s latest EP is a distillation of their Paul Simon-meets-Americana sound, a yearning piano-driven ballad augmented by lovely fluttering strings and capped off by a beautiful male vocal performance. The vocal melodies in the chorus are catchy and sophisticated, a balance rarely struck well.
10. “Alone with the Stars” – Ofeliadorme. Portishead-style trip-hop with a heavy dose of spacey/ambient synths for atmosphere. The video is in black and white because the song sounds like it is in noir tones.
11. “Eternally” – Julia Lucille. Fans of the complex emotional states of Julianna Barwick will find much to love in this track, which has similar focus on wordless vocals (although not looped and layered ones) to convey the dramatic, almost mystical mood. This track does have a full band supporting Lucille’s voice, and the band’s patient, thoughtful accompaniment creates a dusky evening for her voice to wander through.
12. “Islands III” – Svarta Stugan. Instead of releasing a video, this Swedish post-rock outfit released a video game. Set in a gray, bleak warzone environment, the game has elements of Helicopter Game and a side-scrolling space shooter. (It’s fun!) The song itself is a slowly-moving, minor-key, guitar-heavy post-rock piece of the Godspeed You Black Emperor! school. The game and the song really mesh well–it was a great idea.
“If there’s no grand cultural war left for you to wage, how are you supposed make friction? Indie rock responded by fanning out into a thousand sub-genre deltas, each with their own set of reference points. The best stuff, every year, is the stuff that somehow leaps across those gaps, like a firing synapse.” -Jayson Greene, Pitchfork, “Making Overtures: The Emergence of Indie Classical”
I’ve been quoting this paragraph copiously in conversation and text since it was published, because it perfectly frames the situation in which indie rock currently sits. Should you be really, really good at one genre? The answer as an extension of this paragraph is “Probably not”: the genre already has a hero (or heroes), and you’re just going to be appropriating heroes if you aspire to greatness in a genre. You should mix and match, because that’s the stuff that gets applause these days: Bon Iver abandoning pure folk for a confluence of acoustic and ’80s synthscapes, Arcade Fire adopting a wiry ’80s touch for “Sprawl II: Mountains Beyond Mountains.” If we’ve heard it all before, we must repackage it in new ways. (This is why we have “new” lawyer dramas every year.)
I disagree that there is no room for purists; folksters The Low Anthem immediately come to mind as a great example of forging forward in a historically-established sound, as well as singer/songwriters like Brianna Gaither. Still, it’s true that the hip and cool stuff right now is interdisciplinary. (The technically appropriate term would intergenrenary, but that’s a clunky, made-up word.) Everything in the world is becoming interconnected; why not music?
Gabriel and the Hounds‘ Kiss Full of Teeth is the sound of a band working hard on its interdisciplinary mix. The basic elements of the sound are stark folk in the For Emma vein, The National-style gloomy indie rock, and a composer’s sense of symphonic instrumentation (more Firebird Suite, less “Eleanor Rigby”). Like my late grandfather’s attempts to recreate Bailey’s Irish Cream from his own personal brewing and mixing, the results aren’t perfect—but they still taste great.
“Lovely Thief” is the most memorable track of the album, both for its successes and head-scratching excesses. The first minute consists of a grooving, lightly distorted guitar rhythm and comfortable tenor vocals. Trumpets, horns and oboes arrive without warning, colliding with the rhythmically solid guitar in erratic foxhunt calls. The guitar and foxhunt end simultaneously, giving way to an elegant symphonic break. Drums and guitar are then introduced on top of the continued symphonic elements. It’s a beautiful tune, especially in its final, fully-realized minute.
However, its abrupt switches show either a desire to rupture normative ideas of modern songwriting or an unfamiliarity with the delicate balance between all the song’s moving parts (or both!). The first is admirable, the second understandable; both show that they’re trying stuff. When the band sticks to one genre, they make very consistent songs that are less dynamic and interesting that their experiments: “The World Unfolds” uses strings as a support element to a straight-forward indie-rock tune; “What Good Would That Do” is Tom Waits for electric guitar.
So it’s pleasing that Gabriel and the Hounds try more ambitious tunes than standard ones: the very pretty “When We Die in South America” uses an unexpected entry point of strings to disrupt usual songwriting structure, while “Wire and Stone” sets an orchestra as the grounding point instead of traditional rock instruments. The swelling, building “An In-Between (Full Where You Are)” provides even more emphasis on symphonic composition—Colin Stetson listeners will nod and smile. “Who Will Fall on Knees” sets the symphonic arrangement against a pensive folk piece, using the strings as the forceful element in the piece.
Gabriel and the Hounds’ Kiss Full of Teeth is a wildly interesting piece of work packed with vitality and thought. The unique ideas shine, even if the pieces don’t come together in a completely unified way. It’s like listening to Regina Spektor’s Soviet Kitsch: It’s clear that she is either purposefully ignoring conventions of songwriting or isn’t yet skilled enough to write proper songs she hears in her head—regardless, Soviet Kitsch is wonderful. (Based on the markedly less erratic quality of her later output, I’d bank the latter idea.) Put another way: formal success does not ensure quality. Sometimes the half-baked mistakes are far more interesting and vital than the fully-formed, conventionally-sound work, and that’s the case for Gabriel and the Hounds. Hopefully more bands follow their lead and risk putting out this sort of genre-bending, might-be-a-mess-but-who-cares work.
I’m incredibly excited that I’ve finished my year-end lists actually correspond with the end of the year. Without further pontificating, here’s the first half of the year’s best.
Honorable Mention: LCD Soundsystem – Madison Square Garden Show. It’s not an official release, but it proves that the tightest live band in the world only got tighter with time. “Yeah” is an absolute powerhouse.
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.
Elizaveta initially comes off as Regina Spektor/Ingrid Michaelson follower, but there’s a sharp left hook in the chorus that has me very excited for the future. Don’t worry; you’ll know it. Hers is a career to watch closely. (As for the video? Well, it’s got serious wtf factor.)
Noisetrade’s Fall Sampler includes several artists that IC has featured among its 30-strong ranks: Brianna Gaither, Jenny and Tyler, Joe Pug, David Ramirez and Sleeping At Last, the last of which was covered so early on in Independent Clauses’ history that the review isn’t even on this version of the site. There are also several bands we highly recommend that haven’t been officially covered here at IC: The Middle East, Derek Webb + Sandra McCracken, Ivan & Alyosha, Josh Rouse and Josh Garrels. I’m guessing the other third is full of joy and wonder as well – I’ll be checking it out soon.
If you’re into the whole ’80s nostalgia thing that’s going around, you’re going to be all over Geoffrey O’Connor. His album Vanity is Forever is streaming in full over here. Seriously, it’s 1985 on that webpage.
Beirut’s The Rip Tide is still keeping me company, and now a visual aid has been supplied! Sunset Television made this bizarre yet somehow fitting clip for “Santa Fe,” and while I’m not really sure what’s happening, I enjoy it.
As computers go, so does electronic pop. In the ’80s, electro-pop was this magnificent other (and if you’re Chad Valley, it! still! is!!!). As computers became more ubiquitous, electronic pop did as well; The Postal Service’s Give Up triggered pop culture’s awareness that electronic pop could be gentle. Now we’ve come all the way to The Shoes, whose song “Wastin’ Time” makes electronic pop sound downright organic by integrating it seamlessly into “real” sounds. And I do mean seamlessly.
The video, on the other hand, is a throwback to an era when film meant something. The cinematographic style, story, camera angles and immense attention to detail all point to a time before disposable YouTube vids. (It’s telling that this is hosted on Vimeo and not YouTube, but that’s another post.) The attention to craft and the perfection with which the visuals match the feel of the song make this music video my favorite of the year so far, barely edging out Brianna Gaither’s “Find You.” It’s a bit unfair competition, however: Director Yoann Lemoine‘s recent work also includes videos for Katy Perry and Taylor Swift.
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.