Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Change and the modern music landscape

February 3, 2012

The essays in Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs come off gleefully: even when discussing sordid or depressing material, there’s an underlying enthusiasm which I have chalked up to “WHOA, I GET PAID TO WRITE THIS!” His second collection of essays, Eating the Dinosaur, contains a larger number of memorable and insightful pieces than the first book, but it’s not as manic in its style. The excitement of the format has worn off, and now the arguments are foremost instead of the style. Eating the Dinosaur is better, but it’s not as much fun as the first one. This is very nearly the same situation that Cosmonauts find themselves in with The Demise of Daniel Raincourt.

The Cosmonauts’ previous EP The Disfiguration of Emily Malone established the central part of a story that the new one starts and finishes. Emily Malone is a hyperactive blast of My Chemical Romance-esque rock, complete with huge riffs and hooky vocal melodies. If it’s the middle of the story, then the whole tale is a crescendo to and decrescendo from the center: Daniel Raincourt is a more calculated, atmospheric take on Cosmonauts’ sound.

The five songs contained in this EP espouse songwriting that gives the instruments a great more breathing room. “The Slow Decay” has a preamble that goes on for 1:28; “Emily’s Surprise” is introduced by a forlorn guitar line and strings. The predominant emotion of the tunes is not adrenalized passion, but brooding.

The songs doesn’t stray too far from the previously established sound, but there’s a definite emotive shift that precludes the “BURYMEBURYMEBURYMEBURYME!” bravado of previous work. Even the upbeat Latin rhythms and sounds of “The Heritage Day Parade” manage to sound ominous (the roared vocals in this particular tune help, of course). This isn’t to say these songs don’t rock; it’s merely that the point of reference is different. These songs sound more like No Devolucion-era Thursday than MCR.

As a full album, the tunes of the previous EP would compliment these to complete a wide, satisfying range of moods. The idea of producing a concept album over three releases (two EPs and a vinyl) is the sort of ambition and forward-thinking that I love to see in bands; a) for even attempting a concept album, and b) for acknowledging the fact that distribution models are changing. This alone is enough to praise.

The songs deserve their props as well, especially the genre-morphing of “The Heritage Day Parade”; the growth in depth to Cosmonauts’ songwriting suggests a dedication to craft. Although I miss some of the ecstatic chord mashing of the previous EP, the change is good. Bands that change survive and thrive, while bands that stay static get tossed aside quicker than ever in this day and age. The Demise of Daniel Raincourt establishes Cosmonauts as a thoughtful, engaged rock band on both the musical and business fronts.

Keeps' songwriting carries a torch for thoughtful rockers

December 4, 2011

I’ve been a fan of Josh Ramon’s work since 2006, when I discovered his bands Theanti and Lamps on the label Inderma Music; I liked them so much that it appears I reviewed their Dot With a Dot in a Dot Dot Dot split EP twice. (I liked it more the second time, apparently.)

Ramon is back with one old and one new collaborator as Keeps, and the band’s sophomore album No Bridges has been keeping me off-guard for the last few weeks. Ramon and co. are comfortable playing both improvised indie-rock and the traditional, song-based variety, and Keeps is the latter: The arrangements are comparatively tight and song lengths hover around four minutes. The big difference from then to now is the weight of the songs.

The band still has elements of their erratic, spontaneous self of old, but No Bridges incorporates those elements into thoughtful songwriting and deft atmosphere control. Excellent use of abrupt entries and exits makes opener “Cantland” and closer “Arkansas Blackbird” into the highlights they are: sections roil and churn in guitar sludge, only to snap into wiry riffs before blasting off to more sections of rock. The forlorn guitars/distant vocals/pounding drums outro of “Arkansas Blackbird” is one of the more haunting ends to an album I’ve heard this year, especially since it appears suddenly.

There are some songs of both sides of the spectrum: “Midwest Urn” is a raging rocker that makes me think of the thoughtful anger of late ’90s and early 2000s post-hardcore. But even that song has a slow section toward the end before picking up for the conclusion. “Someone Wanted More” is a pensive, acoustic-led post-rock-type piece, albeit with some distortion and dissonance thrown in to keep the vibe going.

No Bridges works better as a whole album, like the aforementioned late ’90s post-hardcore and similar-era math rock. I didn’t really listen to music in theose genres for particular songs: I listened for how the music felt and made me feel. (This is the argument Chuck Klosterman makes for ’80s metal, and, by extension, pretty much all music in Fargo Rock City.) Post-hardcore’s aesthetic of getting the emotion down instead of being technically perfect is big here as well; Ramon’s oft-desperate, impassioned voice is a great emotive vehicle. He ekes out some memorable melodies (“Arkansas Blackbird”), but the more important thing is that it all sounds slightly unhinged (the ironically titled “Stayble,” “Old Tangled”). Whether leading with an acoustic guitar melody, an erratic guitar line or churning distortion, No Bridges seems teetering over the edge of something.

Keeps’ No Bridges reminds of the early 2000s, when dark, heavy, thoughtful rock was trying to maintain artistic integrity by staving off those who would turn it into emotionally abrasive hardcore, simplify it into pop-punk, or become whatever Brand New is now. But the “everybody else” sides of the sound won, leaving pretty much only Thursday to carry the flag for thoughtful, aesthetically-refined rockers. Keeps does not sound like Thursday, nor does Keeps have a telegraphed political bent. However, the aesthetic ideals seem correlated, and it’s really encouraging to hear Keeps go to bat for loud, intricate, thoughtful rock without pretension, irony or coat-tailing in some other genre. Highly recommended.

Download “Someone Wanted More.”
Download “Its Hard when Its So Easy.”

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

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