Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Top 20 albums of the year: 20-11

December 31, 2012

Independent Clauses is somewhat of an alternate universe when it comes to music reviewing. I rarely cover the hip bands, often love things no one else does, and generally attempt to be true to what I hear. If there’s a radar to be on or under, we’re hanging out on a different screen altogether. This is more by happenstance than choice: I never set out to be contrarian. And I don’t feel like a curmudgeonly naysayer of popular music, as you’ll see tomorrow. I just have a different lens than many people. Here’s the view from that lens.

20. Summer of Sam – A-Okay. Lo-fi acoustic goodness that rings honest and true.

19. Ithica – St. Anselm’s Choir. I’m consistently amazed at this band’s ability to wring heartbreaking beauty out of what is basically industrial music.

18. Chris North – Lovedream. Angelic reverie comes via a bunch of guitar pedals, acoustic guitars and arresting vocals.

17. Andrea Caccese’s collected output: Songs for the Sleepwalkers’ Our Rehearsed Spontaneous Reactions and I Used to Be a Sparrow’s Luke. One man’s vision, applied to an ambient project and a indie-rock project that countered the ambience with an anthemic, U2-esque bent.

16. Elijah Wyman/Jason Rozen’s collective output: Tiny Mtns/The Seer Group/Decent Lovers. What started out as the artsy electro-pop project Tiny Mtns split into a heavily artsy electro project (The Seer Group) and a heavily artsy pop project (Decent Lovers), with the two splitting the tracks between them. Except when both kept a track and reworked it to their likings. Did I mention that this one time, one of these guys gave the other a kidney? Now you see why they get one mention.

15. Superstar Runner – Heritage/Lineage/Hand-Me Downs/Scars (Your Birthmarks Do Not Bother Me). Songwriters that forge their own path get remembered by someone. The size of that group determines their popularity, and I hope that this incredibly titled record has gotten Superstar Runner remembered by a lot more people for his unusual arrangements and song structures.

14. 4H Royalty – Where UFOs Go To Die. Hands down, the best lyrics of the year are here in this country/rock album.

13. Autumn Owls – Between Buildings, Toward the Sea. Radiohead? Is that you? No? Hey, whoa, I meant it as a compliment! But seriously, this band is thoughtful in composition and lyric, for a head-spinning, enveloping release.

12. The Parmesans – Uncle Dad’s Cabin EP. One of my favorite new bands of the year, this bluegrass outfit has serious chops to go along with its goofy demeanor.

11. Young Readers – Family Trees EP. I haven’t been floored as hard by an opening track all year as I was by “All I Have.” Beautiful whisper-folk in the vein of old-school Iron and Wine.

All my favorite bands live in Boston

July 3, 2012

IC fave Chris North won Best Folk Act in Best of Boston, so IC faves The Decent Lovers and Seer Group made their recent albums Quit Trying and OWLPINE available for free! It’s like ICeption in here.

Come On Pilgrim! is finally finished with its debut record! All y’all in Boston need to be at The Rhumb Line (Upstairs) in Gloucester, MA, on August 11. I will sadly not be there, but I will be thinking of it from afar as it happens. Here’s the video for the album’s first cut.

Icona Pop’s new jam is called “I Love It,” and I love it. This is the late-night, scream-it-out summer jam.

The somber mood of Scarlett Parade’s “March of the Fallen” caught my ear recently; this organ-led tune is quite arresting. You know those empty, bleak moods that Songs:Ohia and Pedro the Lion used to make? This tune is heading that way.

Chris North transcends dream-pop with perfectly imperfect arrangements

January 27, 2012

In the prologue to I’ll Take You There: Pop Music & The Urge for Transcendence, author Bill Friskics-Warren notes that he is interested in “those articulations of the urge for transcendence that have found their way into the popular zeitgeist without recourse to dogmatic or sectarian agendas.” He mentions both lyrics and music in his book, but I love the sound much more. And Chris North’s Lovedream, the first great album I’ve heard in 2012, offers up some incredibly transcendent sound.

Chris North, whose previous release under his own name I reviewed a few months ago, is not trying to fool anyone: there are a ton of people who will christen this dream-pop, nod at the name, and move on. But there’s more to Lovedream than just the back half of the name. The album fully encompasses its moniker: these aren’t coyly affectionate songs, these are jubilant hymns to the ecstatic, revelatory state of love. At its best, the modern conception of love feels like a utopian dream: this 11-track gem is the soundtrack to that delirious mutual infatuation. And if these songs appropriate sounds that are traditionally associated with heavenly arias, all the better.

North uses acoustic guitar as the base instrument for his dream-pop, using reverb, stacking and treble-boosting pedals/effects (I’m guessing on the last one) to turn these songs into soaring, jubilant paeans. The fact that he’s creating a musical interpretation of bliss while singing ostensibly sad things (“500 Miles,” “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean”) just confirms the transcendent power of the arrangements.

And these aren’t pristine pieces; that would take away from their effect. The strings and background vocals provide wonderful heft to the tunes, but are often wild and unkempt. There are instrumental parts that sound like mistakes. North’s low voice is captured as it is, not as some auto-tuner would make it. But these things only contribute to the sound: the album feels raw, ragged and real, even as it sounds completely otherworldly. “Indian Love Call” is a swirling instrumental piece, while “The Old Door” is a pop song with a melody that feels pulled from a hymnal. “The Road to Yesterday” is what bluegrass sounds like on the way up there, and “Stay Cool” features a great bass/drums groove. This is the sound of current “indie,” filtered through golden waves of light.

The major coup of Chris North’s Lovedream is not that it sounds dreamy; a lot of bands can do that. Instead, it sounds like more than a dream: this gives a form and a weight to the yearning for a greater, more beautiful plane of existence. Whether that’s a goal to be achieved in this life, the next or both, Lovedream is a reminder to those listening of what transcendence they seek. For me, it sounds like a high-up window letting in sounds from heaven which inspires reverence now.

Quick Hits: Chris North/The Pizza Thieves/Stream City

November 27, 2011

Chris North, who previously fronted folksters The Points North, has a new dream pop project under his own name called The Story of My Light. In a James Blake/Bon Iver synth-laden era of dreamy music, North sticks mostly to acoustic guitar and reverb (lots of echo) to achieve his intended mood.

He also breaks from the former pair by having a full, low voice that expresses in its cracks and breaks, not in falsetto warbling. The result is a 9-song, 25-minute collection that deftly balances the weightlessness of dream state with the heft of real instruments (saxophone on “Liberation Sound,” low flute on “Cold Company”). There are some ups and downs throughout the EP, as North doesn’t balance all the parts of the sound against his vocals perfectly yet, but the overall effect is good. An intriguing starting point for future releases.

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I praised The Pizza Thieves‘ “Real American Boy” as a post-Pixies wonder, and their debut follows up on that promise. Hippopotamus employs skronked-out surf rock guitars, reverb, howling vocals, and propulsive drums to wrest a mighty, fidelity-irrelevant noise out of just two members. A surprising amount of keys and acoustic guitar (“Skeleton Bride,” “Run, Run, Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Rabbit Run!”) could point in a future direction, but the majority of this one is gleeful thrash and mash.

The amount you’ll enjoy Hippopotamus is directly proportional to how much of your listening time is spent to bands like Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees; at 55 minutes, casual fans of surf-damaged garage rock will check out long before the 7-minute “Vitrification/Pt. 2” (check the intentional nod/debt owed to “Where is My Mind”) wraps up. But it’s a fun blast for as much as you can take.

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I’ve been going through a personal pop-punk revival as of late, but I’ve found the outer extremes of what my current self enjoys in Stream City‘s Welcome Paramnesia. The hyperkinetic snare-drum gallop and mashing guitar strum that the band starts uses as a foundation is standard SoCal fare, but the Danish band incorporates touches of metal (“Shores of Lethe,” “Hello Gravity”), folky melodic interludes (“Paramnesia”), faux-Gothic harpsichord (“In Limbo”) and Irish/klezmer/old world traditional violin melodies (“Fisherman’s Tale”) to differentiate from other bands. The result is a varied six-song effort that plays out like a less-morbid AFI or a less drama-intensive My Chemical Romance at twice the speed.

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of instrumental music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.

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