1. “Parking Lot Palms” – iji. This tune is a breath of fresh air: a gentle, lightly reverbed road song that fits quietly and warmly into your life. Is it the arrangement? The melody? I don’t know. But I do know that it makes me calmer and happier.
2. “California Song” – Patrick James. James might be from Australia, but he’s got his finger of the pulse of the breezy West Coast. This acoustic-led pop-rock song throws back to the ’70s and ’80s, calling up not just longing for the coast but nostalgia for the past. Doesn’t get much more sentimental than that.
3. “Comeback” – Cherokee Red. Recipe for a great beach song: Mash a surf-pop backline together with smooth, welcoming vocals and burbling melodic elements. Totally chill.
4. “Street Lights” – Mon Sai. A swift piano and cymbal-heavy drum kit create a helter-skelter pop vibe that gives way to a Pet Sounds-esque chorus: in other words, it’s a great pop song.
5. “Mind Your Manors” – The Bandicoots. Perky, summery, head-bobbin’ indie-pop-rock a la Generationals.
6. “Bracelets” – Mini Dresses. Basically a female-fronted, slow-jam version of a Generationals pop song: loping bass line, vintage guitar reverb, tabourine shake here and there. Yes, thank you, I’ll have another, waiter.
7. “Park It” – Karina Denike. Give me that ’50s girl pop (complete with honking saxes), then amp up the attitude in the lead female vocals, and you’ll be near Denike’s creation here.
8. “You Don’t Know Me” – Ghost Lit Kingdom. Everybody needs a shoot-for-the-stars, acoustic-led epic anthem, the type that Arcade Fire don’t make anymore.
9. “Right Talk” – French Cassettes. The ability to emerge from a dense section of noise into a perky, clear melody is a skill that will always be in season, from Paul Simon to The Strokes to Vampire Weekend and the Vaccines. French Cassettes put their skills to good use on this bright, confident guitar-pop track.
10. “A Single Case Study” – Palávér. Some of the most infectious guitarwork I’ve heard in an indie-rock song recently is paired up with low, swooning vocals.t’s kind of like an alternate-future Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.
11. “Wasted Youth” – Friday Night Trend. If you never stopped loving Jimmy Eat World, this track will satiate all your aggressively jangly rock needs. It’s got punk elements throughout it, but there’s no avoiding the Jimmy connection.
12. “Easy” – Readership. Some power-pop is head-down, bash-it-out-and-let’s-go-home rock. Readership is the opposite: wide-open, staring-at-the-clouds style. Big guitar chords, in-your-face vocals, and an overall upbeat atmosphere.
I was one of the millions stuck in airports over the weekend. I eventually made it to my destination, five days after my original boarding pass assured me I would. During the last of my three airport visits, I queued up The Yellow Dress‘ Faint Music / Ordinary Light. Opening track “Tummy in the Blood” (provided commentary: “what a gross thing to name a song”) has a chorus that I wanted to sing with all my soul: “We try, and climb, but we know that / mathematically speaking, it gets harder every day / the chances of finding ourselves home again / of finding ourselves in the same way.” It’s a beautiful, passionate call, made all the more wonderful by perfectly illustrating the seeming futility of my situation.
The music itself leans more toward non-traditionally passionate than traditionally beautiful, as The Yellow Dress sounds like an exuberant mix of latter-day Mountain Goats, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!. These speedy indie-pop tunes ooze DIY personality from instruments you’d expect (glockenspiel, horns, off-kilter vocals) and don’t expect (clarinet and the unusually prominent bass, which immediately calls up references to Peter Hughes of the Mountain Goats).
The songs move sprightly along, scattering quirky melodies from vocals and instruments throughout songs without concern for obvious mile-markers: there are choruses in some places, and then sometimes there aren’t, but it all sounds wonderful. “A Complete List of Fears Age 5-28 (aprox)” starts with Neutral Milk Hotel-esque heavy strumming, then builds until it’s a roaring Funeral-style indie-rock tune, complete with frenzied vocal delivery. It’s the sort of song I listen to over and over.
My repeated listens are enhanced by the excellent lyrics. Existential angst, growing up, and seizing the day are all things that a person in their mid-20s can relate to at times–especially while trapped in a travel-induced limbo. “FatherSunFunRun/Walk Towardson/Daniel Pennypacker” is a standout in this department, while the previous two mentioned are also wonderful. There are lines throughout each of them that I could see ending up on my computer wallpaper (which, let’s be real, is the equivalent of a middle school trapper-keeper). It’s all incredibly earnest stuff, so I suppose if you’re not into that it might curl your ears a bit. But I’m all about sincerity, so I’m excited about it.
Beyond the intriguing arrangements and captivating lyrics, The Yellow Dress can just be a ton of fun. “Isaac Fitzgerald (bum bum bum)” sees a ragtag choir singing the titular “bum bum bum bum ba-da-da-da” repeatedly as a sort of chorus. If you’re not singing along by the end of the song, we’re probably not on the same page musically: this tune is pretty much all that I ask for in a song. It’s got a great arrangement (check that bass! and saxophone!), strong lyrics, a part where you can yell along exuberantly with the band, and melodies I want to sing out loudly with my windows down. It’s just wonderful.
If you’re into indie-pop, you need to know about The Yellow Dress. Faint Music / Ordinary Light is a wonderful album that takes all the idiosyncrasies that make DIY indie-pop great and rolls them together. It’s the first great album of 2014, and I can see myself listening to this one way into the 2014. Happy new year, y’all, and safe travels.
Plants and Animals‘ The End of That enthusiastically and successfully combines “Wonderwall”-esque Brit-pop with modern indie bombast a la Frightened Rabbit (“Lightshow,” “2010”). If you’re excited about that sentence, check out the aforementioned tunes and then go forth to the album. If you think, “I’ve heard that before,” you’re correct—analysis of that sentiment follows.
Plants and Animals understands that in 2012, people ask a lot of indie bands. They’ve got to churn out a single, a viral video, and a fully-formed album to be seen as the complete package. Some bands excel so greatly at one aspect (Sleigh Bells, OK Go, Radiohead, respectively) that their attempts at the other two go underappreciated or even maligned.
That’s in the left hand. In the right hand is a growing “end of history” mentality in indie-rock, which was neatly encapsulated last week when Jayson Greene of Pitchfork pondered: “If there’s no grand cultural war left for you to wage, how are you supposed make friction?” (Greene’s response: “Indie rock responded by fanning out into a thousand sub-genre deltas.”) People are genuinely worried that there’s nothing left to say, not just in indie-rock but in, uh, everything. Simon Reynolds spends all of Retromania laying the death of creativity at the feet of a myriad of sources that include YouTube and Flying Lotus. What’s a band supposed to do when it’s asked to do more than ever, but people believe less than ever that it is saying and sounding something meaningful?
Answer: whatever it wants. In a critical environment that’s so hyper-analytical, so backward-referencing, so instantly affirmative or negative, there’s no recourse but to simply put stuff out. I hope this sounds reductive, because it is. Bands shouldn’t be afraid of or even antagonistic toward critics anymore, because hot on the heels of both the aforementioned quandaries is a third problem that is purely a critic’s concern: readers of criticism now have access to whatever they want. Critics don’t have exclusive access to the goods anymore, and that means that the original power of the critic is greatly reduced.
Lest I pull the trigger on the gun pointed at my foot, a clarification: The original power of the critic was the power to exalt or destroy, by telling people to not waste their cash on something terrible. Because cash is now not a bar to access, the writer’s power to destroy is much less; the critical backlash to Tapes’N’Tapes was almost a palpable thing at one point, but people still listened to the band’s music. (And the band still put out more music.) Critics, even the still-hugely-influential Pitchfork, can’t kill a band. (Not even Black Kids.)
With that in mind, there’s a conclusion here that relates to the very short but specific review of The End of That posited above: There is now no reason to write bad reviews. Why would space that could be given to something incredible be dedicated to something mediocre? Part of the reason indie music is wallowing in mediocrity (if you agree that it is, but that’s a different article altogether) is that we consistently foreground it. By giving bad reviews and mediocre reviews equal space and footing in our media outlets, critics create an environment that gives the all-coveted “exposure” to bands that are just okay. This is devastating to the state of music because “exposure” is the critic’s new power: a ready-made audience, dedicated to reading what the writer has to say. The access is available to all, but if “all” doesn’t know that the access is there to be had, no one accesses it.
“Lightshow” and “2010” are great tunes, and that’s where the review kicked off. Honestly, the review could have ended there, and that would have said (most of) what I wanted to say. I left off naming any other songs, because in my analysis they should be left off, as they aren’t particularly as exciting as the first two. However, the album as a whole can be praised as a well-conceived long-player for a certain audience. That includes shades of the Jayson Greene analysis, for sure, but that is still a recommendation for people who are into that particular subgenre.
But does my par-for-the-course analysis of “Crisis!” and “Why & Why” mean that those songs don’t have as much worth as “Lightshow”? No. There are writers out there enthusiastically parsing their depths. With the myriad of available voices, a critic is only as quantifiably meaningful as the size of his audience. As Clap Your Hands Say Yeah will note, not even the whole current critical audience moving in one direction is all-powerful. So even though this review will not result in Plants and Animals ending up on my year-end list, it is entirely likely that someone will read it, hear “Lightshow,” and love it—which is what I intended the first line of this review to do, because “Lightshow” might end up on my 50 best songs of the year list. It’s that good.
So if critics can’t kill a band, but they might expose its work to the masses if it does something awesome, why not go make something completely, idiosyncratically its own? And critics, ignore those idiosyncratic things unless and until you love them. Readers, support the bands that you find and love with money (in the form of album sales, Kickstarter contributions, donations to the band while they’re on tour, whatever). The mediocrity be lessened; the good will out; music will grow.
Friendly Psychics Music is one of my favorite record labels of all time. It is basically composed of Chris Jones, John Wenzel, and their group of friends. People are occasionally grafted into the group, and each friend gets their own project name. The Jones/Wenzel aesthetic is extremely idiosyncratic, in that I could recognize an a FPM release in less than ten seconds, even if I’ve never heard it. Their vaguely psychedelic, fractured folk and indie rock is incredibly unique and difficult to break into, but it’s rewarding once you do.
Derecho is not far outside the FPM model. Dropped at 10,000 Feet features Dan Miller (a major player in the FPM catalog, although not as forefront as Jones/Wenzel) as the primary songwriter, with Jones on bass and Wenzel contributing on only two songs. Miller has a much more honed pop aesthetic than Jones/Wenzel, and that makes the songs on this EP some of the most straightforward indie-rock tunes that FPM has ever released.
It doesn’t mean they’re normal (I don’ t think FPM does normal), but they’re a lot more accessible than flagship artist Dishwater Psychics. Miller strums his guitar consistently (something that is taken for granted until you hear FPM artists that, well, don’t) and has driving bass and guitar to back it up. Miller’s vocals and lyrics are also much more caustic and bitter than Wenzel’s mournful baritone and overarching sense of disdain, giving the release a distinctly different attitude than other FPM releases.
The songs move quickly and induce head-bobbing, but the caustic delivery of the vocals may turn some off, especially in the self-loathing “Canadian Whiskey” (which, for the record, is my favorite type. I’m drinking some now, in honor). The highlight here is closer “Measured in Millions,” where Wenzel contributes vocals. Wenzel’s voice has become a part of my musical consciousness, but it’s almost always used in jarring and abstract atmospheres. Hearing it paired with the driving, reverb-washed indie-rock of Dan Miller’s invention is incredible. The two pieces fit together perfectly; if Wenzel had sung on each of the tracks on this EP, it would have been even better than it is now. Maybe that’s the next project?
Derecho’s Dropped at 10,000 Feet is a good turn for the FPM guys. It’s not my favorite release by them, but it certainly is high on my list. Reining in some of the more aesthetically challenging parts of the FPM ourve was a nice change. If you like cerebral indie pop (like Grizzly Bear, Beach House, etc) or off-kilter vocals (Modest Mouse, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, etc, although Miller is nowhere near as grating as Alec Ounsworth), this should be one to check out.
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.