Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Del Bel's evocative, melodic indie-rock fills holes

November 15, 2011

Broken Social Scene is gone, which means that there’s a hole in the “absurdly large, Canadian indie-rock collaborative” part of the music universe. Thankfully, Del Bel is here to take up that space, both in size and sound.

And it’s quite a collective, encompassing at least ten people (according to the Facebook page). Some of them have been in Do Make Say Think, The Happiness Project, Ohbijou and (surprise, surprise) Broken Social Scene, among other bands listed. But all this pedigree wouldn’t matter if the songs sucked. Is Del Bel’s Oneiric worth the hype?

Very yes. The members of the band draw on their extensive indie rock histories to create a diverse album of gently rolling, evocative, moving indie rock held together by a cinematic strain running through the tunes. Opener “Dusk Light” is a slow-builder that falls between The National and Portishead, but with a lilting female vocalist. “Stirring Bones” falls next, and it falls on the New Pornographers side of things, even invoking She and Him a bit. But instead of being disparate, the two seem like logical extensions of each other, both held together by legato guitar lines living just beneath the surface of the tune. Even though the first uses the subterranean guitar to press the tempo and the latter uses it to rein in the shuffling groove, the sound locks in to the listener’s mind in the same way.

It’s not the only marker that transfers across these gentle, beautiful tunes. The forlorn mood that so invokes High Violet is on display in “Beltone” and “No Reservation,” although the latter jazzes it up a bit with woodwinds and rumbling toms. The Portishead comes out in the separated beats and immense space of “This Unknown” and “Slave to the Deep.” A dash of The Walkmen’s dramatism is applied throughout, although the band never appropriates the trademark Walkmen yowl. These songs are primarily gentle, not caterwauling.

The control that Del Bel Oneiric asserts over its sound is incredibly impressive. By restraining any impulse to get frenzied, they have created a well-tuned set of songs that translate into a well-coordinated album. It’s rare that I hear an album that works on an individual song (local) level and a whole-album (global) level, but Oneiric does. Highly recommended for fans of melodic, artistic, evocative music.

Said the Whale gets an A, said the reviewer

October 19, 2009

From what I’ve heard that’s come out of Canada, I have yet to be disappointed. Well, except for maybe Avril Lavigne. I’ll narrow the category: folk-influenced indie from Canada can’t seem to go wrong. And Said the Whale from Vancouver doesn’t break this reputation.

Islands Disappear is the quintet’s second full-length album, released October 14. It ranges from gorgeous, picturesque acoustic ballads to more up-tempo, danceable electric numbers, but all have a certain (Canadian?) quaintness that keeps the album cohesive. Even the harder, grittier songs still have a bounciness to them. Part of this charm can be attributed to the harmonies, sometimes inter-gender, that saturate Islands Disappear. Somehow they capture the essence of cute without crossing the line into cutesy, a fine line that’s easy to cross.

These harmonies are instantly wooing in the lovely opener “Dear Elkhorn,” a song about getting lost that is easy to get lost in. (See? I just crossed that fine line into cutesy.) Another gem is the album’s single, the high-spirited, fun, and absurdly catchy “Camilo (The Magician).”

Throughout Islands Disappear, I’m reminded of the vocal lines of The Format, the sunniness of The Shins, and the quirkiness of The Decemberists (a compliment). But Said the Whale doesn’t sound too much like any of them, incorporating their own special sound in each song. For example, the guitar sound in the electric songs is distinctly different in each. And they’ve also incorporated ukulele in several songs, a move I love for several reasons. Personally, as a very amateur ukulele player, I love to hear it being used well in good music that’s not from Hawaii. And this aside, the instrument has a lovely and unique timbre that doesn’t get taken advantage of often. Listen to Said the Whale’s “Goodnight Moon” if you don’t believe me.

Really the only downside of this album is that some of the songs can get repetitive, but this is always due to lyrics and not the music itself. In the grand scheme of Islands Disappear, this factor hardly makes a decisive impact. This album is still very much recommended for adding a youthful diversity to anyone’s music collection.

Library Voices create bookish indie-pop

September 9, 2009

What is it that makes pop music such a fitting background for philosophical and hyper-literary lyrics? This question comes up regularly for listeners of The Decemberists, Modest Mouse, Andrew Bird, Sufjan Stevens and the like. And the question has come up again while listening to Library Voices.

This ten-piece pop collective hails from Saskatchewan, Canada. Their Hunting Ghosts and Other Collected Shorts EP stays true to its bookish name, combining pop culture references, narrative structure, philosophical musings, and existential confusion with musical styles from uptempo, guitar-driven pop to ethereal pieces with delicate instrumental textures. Their Myspace says they sound like “drunk kids talking too openly and too honestly.” I’d have to agree, except these drunk kids are hip, have read lots of books and are probably drunk on craft beers and red wine. (After all, they have appeared in The New Yorker.)

The opening track “Step off the Map and Float” begins with some Nintendo-like sounds, a lighthearted group count-off to twelve, and then jumps into an up-tempo pop song whose chorus–“Your existence is a pinprick/On a paper continent/The patron saints all patronize me”–is tinged with just enough resignation and anguish. But, it is ultimately ebullient: “So step off the map and float.” This track is a balanced showing of their sound, which features clean guitar, multi-part vocals, and an array of quirky elements that at the same time both thicken the song and lighten the sound.

“Kundera on the Dance Floor” features a syncopated rhythm section (including a saxophone) and a sort of character vignette of the “golden girl.” She wears a Tom Waits t-shirt, is “piss drunk on red wine and melody,” and quotes Dando and Kafka. Library Voices’ sharp lyrics and the catchy melodies do exactly what pop lyrics and melodies should do: get stuck in your head and make you thankful for it. Oh, and as a consequence of singing the educated lyrics to yourself as you walk down the street, you get to be introspective and consider, among other ironies and tragedies of life, “the unbearable lightness of being.”

Yet at times Library Voices’ literary leanings can come off as too overt. The somewhat underwhelming “Things We Stole From Vonnegut’s Grave” is just as list-like as it sounds. Abstract items of contraband such as “consciousness of the human condition” and “a taste for science fiction” provide the list with some intrigue. Either way, it is impressive and humorous to listen to the band reel off obscure Vonnegut references, and they certainly leave no doubt that they read a lot of the man’s works. Musically it is one of their more unusual pieces in that its harmonic structure lies outside of the realm of traditional pop. It is only striking in contrast to their other songs. The factual lyrics are impersonal at worst, but the song works within the overall aesthetic of Library Voices in that themes often found in Vonnegut stories regularly show up in the band’s original lyrics. For instance, in “Love in the Age of Absurdity,” the band takes a somewhat prophetic tack, questioning the seeming normality of pop culture givens such as social networking and reality television and stirring the listener to examine his or her place.

“Hunting Ghosts” and “The Lonely Projectionist” are easily the most in keeping with the title of the EP. Both are extensive narratives, and “Hunting Ghosts” is unique in that it features soft, female lead vocals. This quiet, ethereal song contains tighter backing harmonies, more reverb, and a deftly-written string section to create the more intimate texture of this song. The narrative-confessional lyrics add to such a texture. Instrumentally, “The Lonely Projectionist” shares similarities with the other pieces, such as an extensive use of organs and synths, with the bass and drums driving the song forward. However, this song is their best-arranged piece; the instrumental elements of the song move seamlessly together through a larger range of dynamics and moods. About two-thirds of the way through the song they take a chance on a bridge that veers away from the earlier part of the song, and it is a most pleasant surprise. The lyrics narrate two parallel existences of loneliness, and this more oblique approach to existential questions sounds less cathartic.

Library Voices pull off their sound and the pop collective aesthetic with just the right amount of ease. It isn’t polished, but it isn’t chaotic, and doesn’t seem forced. Hunting Ghosts and Other Collected Shorts EP makes me eager for a full-length album. –Max Thorn

"Starlite" doesn't shine so bright in places

August 21, 2009

At his best, the Canadian Nathaniel Sutton on his new album Starlite sounds catchy, but at his worst, the album feels unimaginative and repetitive. Unfortunately the misses are more frequent than the hits. Yet, the better songs from Starlite show how Sutton can grow and improve.

Sutton’s sound is a bit like a spacey, electronic version of Modest Mouse, with a hint of Grandaddy mixed in. The problem is that a lot of the songs repeat the same themes over and over without making any changes, which tempt the listener to skip to the next track. The first two songs fall into this category, but the album picks up with “High Holy Day.”

“High Holy Day” has an interesting, sporadic and hectic-sounding riff that gives the album a darker feel, which is truer to the remainder of the songs than the peppy opener “Starlite” would initially lead you to believe. It is also much more high-energy, like the other better songs on the album.

Several of the songs on Starlite are so dark that they’re actually quite creepy to listen to, like the ominous “Serious Crime,” “Subliminal Messages,” which is downright frightening, and the slightly-too-weird “Killer in the House.” Part of what really makes these songs so sinister is the way that Sutton sings them, with exaggerated wavering bass, overbearing special effects in places, and especially over-breathiness in “Subliminal Messages.”

“Blow My Mind” in the middle of the album surprises with its extreme DJ-type sound which the songs preceding it don’t come close to in terms of electronics. “Creepy Crawlers” also falls into this genre, but both of these songs feel a bit out of place on the album overall. However, the all-important “dancibility factor” is high in “Blow My Mind” and “Creepy Crawlers.”

The slow-paced, sentimental lullaby “Photo Album” sounds like it belongs on the same album as the opener “Starlite,” but these songs don’t really mesh with the others well. Sutton could really improve if he narrows his focus and doesn’t attempt so many clashing styles.

What is interesting to consider about this album is that it is entirely Nathaniel Sutton. He plays all the instruments, and he also recorded, mixed, and produced the album in his own home. While this is an impressive accomplishment, it seems that Sutton would also benefit greatly by with others. Maybe with a band, he could develop a tighter sound, and could grow as a songwriter working with others.

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

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