Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

April MP3s: 2

April 2, 2016

1. “War and Opera” – Montoya. The careful, restrained arranging that Montoya deploys in this melodic indie-pop tune gives it a maturity and dignity that separate it from other tunes. The delicate guitar and alto vocals still create thoroughly enough interest to power this intriguing song.

2. “ALIEN” – Laura and Greg. The duo has transformed from a pristine acoustic duo into a punchy, noisy indie-pop-rock outfit. It’s not exactly Sleigh Bells, but they’re heading in that direction–but Laura’s charming vocals and fun keys keep the song on this side of full-on-indie-rock assault.

3. “Call Me Out” – Jesse Alexander. A former member of Cobalt and the Hired Guns keeps the ska / indie-pop fusion tunes coming: this one has horns and organ to keep the good vibes flowing.

4. “Fire Up the Bilateral Brain and Draw” – Word to Flesh. Here’s a quirky tune that employs the keys-focused sound structures of formal pop, but has no real formal structure: the only phrase in the two minute tune is the titular mantra, surrounded by guitar noodling. It’s remarkably engaging, and then it’s over–sort of like a less manic They Might Be Giants.

5. “Rainer” – Lull. A hammering rock intro flips on its head and unveils a delicate, early ’00s emo sound. They get back to the rock, but they take their sweet time getting there and make it worth your while when they do.

6. “A Moment to Return” – Why We Run. Moody bass/drums meets The National vocals with some U2 ambient/anthemic guitars on top. The results are a surprisingly uplifting post-punk tune–post-punk generally doesn’t make me want to dance or smile, and there’s some of both to be had here.

7. “When We’re Clouds” – Slow Runner. So indie-rock used to be shorthand for “rock songs that are definitely rock but kinda don’t play by the same rules.” Slow Runner’s tune is a song of (government?) scientific experimentation on human subjects (I think?). The music itself is slightly off-kilter rock, like a louder Grandaddy, a chillaxed Flaming Lips, or something altogether different. Here’s to Slow Runner.

8. “Dance Baby” – Luxley. That rare electro-rock song which doesn’t hammer listeners over the head with massive synth blasts–instead, there’s a bit of Cobra Starship restraint in the vocal-heavy arrangement. There is a bit of punk-pop attitude in the vocals (Good Charlotte came to mind), giving this a bit of a unique flair.

9. “Maria, Mine” – Don Tigra. Former folkie Stephen Gordon has slickly and impressively reinvented himself as an indie-rocker with post-punk vibes, coming off as a cross between Interpol, Cold War Kids, and Leagues. (Full disclosure: I’ve given some professional advice to Gordon over the years.)

10. “Psychopaths and Sycophants” – Keith Morris & the Crooked Numbers. Bluesy, swampy roots rock with whiskey-sodden, raspy vocals and all sorts of swagger. The great backup vocal arrangement and performances put the song over the top.

11. “Polaris” – Shiners. Minimalist electro-pop usually doesn’t have enough structure and melody to keep me interested, but Shiners do a great job of creating a cohesive, immersive whole out of small parts.

MP3s: Upbeat Indie-Rock

September 25, 2015

Upbeat Indie-rock

1. “Don’t Go Quietly” – Light Music. Is this indie-rock? Post-rock? Electronica? All of the above? All I know is that this gorgeous track is one of my favorite songs of the year.

2. “Our Little Machine” – Last Good Tooth. The lyrics here sound straightforward till you read them a second time; the dense, melodic sounds here are similarly deceptive, unveiling their details as you listen repeatedly.

3. “The Closing Door” – LVL UP. Balances Weezer-esque guitar-wall crunch with “aw, shucks,” nose-in-a-book indie-pop for a unique, pleasant tension.

4. “Brother in Arms” – Annabelle’s Curse. The smooth easiness of indie-pop meets the complexity of indie rock while the spectre of alt-country hangs over it all. Taking the best of multiple genres and creating something new is a worthy goal, and Annabelle’s Curse knocks it out of the park here with a great tune.

5. “Modern Language” – Postcards from Jeff. Intertwined flute and guitar open this nearly-seven-minute indie-rock title jam from PfJ’s new record. It’s the sort of arrangement that balances delicate sounds with the drum-forward enthusiasm that makes a great live track.

6. “Answered Prayers” – Terribly Yours. This quirky indie-pop tune includes the fattest bass sounds and thickest groove I’ve heard in the genre this side of Of Montreal’s “Wraith Pinned to the Mist.” The song floats along like a tropical breeze on a vacation where you’re really and truly not worrying about going back to work.

7. “New Colors” – Kennan Moving Company. Sometimes you need that blast of horns in your life, no matter if you’re a soul tune or a pop-rock tune (as this one is).

8. “Glory Days” – 1955. The high-drama indie-rock (equal parts early ’00s Hives, early ’00s Elbow, and Cold War Kids) is perfectly tuned to be in one of those adventure-laden Heineken ads (and their spin-offs–what’s up with those Kohler ads?). In other words, it’s the sort of way-too-cool thing you want to score your life’s soundtrack.

9. “Swings & Waterslides” – Viola Beach. Straddling the line between Hot Chelle Rae’s radio-pop-rock and Tokyo Police Club’s left-field take on the same, this tune pushes all the right buttons.

10. “Porch” – Long Beard. All emo-inflected indie-rock bands want to sound effortlessly nostalgic, but few of them hit the mix of guitar tone, vocal reverb, walking-speed energy, and gentle melodicism.

11. “Mamma’s Gotta Secret” – Them Vibes. Rootsy rock with enough ’70s vibes to keep things unusual.

12. “New Vibration” – ALL WALLS. Grumbling guitar distortion and a chiming guitar riff collide with falsetto “oohs” to make a funky/poppy/fun track that would make Prince jealous.

13. “Rock N Roll Disco” – James Soundpost. Do you need a primer in how to write timeless pop-rock music? If so, listen to this tune and learn how to write a no-nonsense guitar line, sing a catchy hook, and rip off a guitar solo. Rad.

Cause you're a cutie and I need you in my Death Cab

September 24, 2010

Since Drake, Chiddy Bang and even Jason DeRulo (okay, not really a rapper, but hear me out) have been rhyming over indie music backing tracks, I’ve been a lot more interested in rap. While I don’t seek it out (yet), I do enjoy it when it falls in my lap. And that’s exactly what Pep Rally by Hoodie Allen did.

Awesome name aside (I love hoodies), this white boy can rap. He spits fast, and he can hold complicated rhythms and rhyme schemes together for several lines. His lyrics are quirky, fun and winning the “who can drop the most pop culture references in one album?” contest. His voice is smooth enough that you can tell what he’s saying, but not so flaccid that there’s no bite. His flow by itself is pretty impressive.

But that’s not all you get with Pep Rally. Allen’s producer, RJ Ferguson, knows indie music really well, and elevates Allen’s game substantially. When a dude’s rapping over Marina and the Diamonds, Cold War Kids, Black Keys, Death Cab for Cutie and Two Door Cinema Club (among others!), it’s pretty hard to completely dislike any track, even if the rap isn’t your favorite.

Ferguson’s beats actually work with the chosen tracks/samples to make new pieces of art (as opposed to Childish Gambino’s “turn down the track and turn up my vox” approach), and it’s incredibly impressive. My favorite instances of this are “You Are Not a Robot” and “So Much Closer,” which use “I Am Not a Robot” by Marina and the Diamonds and “Transatlanticism” by Death Cab for Cutie, respectively. “You Are Not a Robot” screws with Marina’s voice and turns her into Hoodie’s personal hook singer. You will have that stuck in your head, trust me.

But “So Much Closer” is the best track here, as Ferguson and Allen transform the glacially-paced anthem into a pep rally-worthy anthem without making it feel like sacrilege. The song also namechecks Death Cab (see title) and Hype Machine, which made me smile. That’s totally where I heard the album first. Things just got meta.

If you’re into the whole indie-rock + rap = yesyesyes fad that’s been going on, Hoodie Allen’s Pep Rally is for you. I like the whole album more than Chiddy Bang’s The Swelly Express (my previous standard for this genre), although Allen has not yet produced any song as solid gold as Chiddy’s “The Opposite of Adults.” This is more of RJ Ferguson’s coming out party than Hoodie Allen’s, as I’m far more impressed with his half of the work than Allen’s. But I suppose that’s because I’m still getting in to this whole rap thing.

In mixtape fashion, you can get the whole eleven-song album for free right here. Go! Go get it. Go, Go, Go get it.

Italian Japanese restrain the rock, yet suck listeners in for a ride

June 8, 2010

With a goofy name like Italian Japanese and an even goofier title of The Lush, Romantic Weirdness, it was hard for me to take this album seriously at the onset. Both of those sins were forgiven by the end of the first song, though. Italian Japanese know their stuff.

Italian Japanese appropriates the moody anthems of Silversun Pickups, sprinkles in the punchy riffs of Cold War Kids, then tops off the mix with the insistent melodies of Interpol.  The eerie, minor keys are lightened by the vocal tone and melodies, which are instantly memorable. The vocalist has a smooth, inviting tone that draws listeners in. Then he keeps them with infectious melodies.

When I listened to this album a second time, I felt like I was listening to it for the hundredth time, because the melodies were that familiar and that lovable. “Jaguar Paw” has a fantastic, “where have you been all my life?” guitar line. “Le Pony” has a vocal melody that will stick in your head. So does “The Knife,” although it is helped along by stellar composition techniques and a firm grasp on mood.  “Ladybird” does the same, as the barely restrained power in the band underscores the calm but passionate vocals. It’s fantastic songwriting on both sides of the ball.

The mood is the slow burner on this album. Yes, the vocal melodies are spontaneously lovable. Appreciation for individual instruments and their performers filters through my consciousness as I appreciate this album more and more. But it’s the atmosphere that The Lush, Romantic Weirdness creates that leaves the longest-lasting impression. Italian Japanese is the type of band that should be scoring movies, because their songs control the feel of whatever room or vehicle I’m playing them in. As Italian Japanese plays pensive, somber, thoughtful indie-rock, and I live in a house of dudes, changing the entire mood of my room/house toward that end of the spectrum is quite a feat indeed.

Italian Japanese’s The Lush, Romantic Weirdness is a thoroughly endearing record. Its ability to suck in listeners and not let them go makes it a fantastic album to put on when you just want to chill. The distortion isn’t too heavy, the melodies aren’t too saccharine, the performances are restrained but not stripped of passion, and the overall product comes together perfectly. If you’re a fan of Silversun Pickups, Smashing Pumpkins, Arcade Fire, the Small Cities, The Fire Theft, or other minor-key-but-not-especially-angry indie rock bands, you’re going to love Italian Japanese. I guarantee it.

Stellar Vector's debut full length exudes a high quality, post-modern vibe

April 11, 2010

The five-piece, self-proclaimed “post-modern rock band” Stellar Vector are set to release their debut full-length album, A Flock of Cowards, in April and it would be well worth your time check it out.  While the Minneapolis-based group claims to be creatively influenced by the likes of David Bowie and Peter Gabriel, I can’t help but feel that fans of  more recent bands like Of Montreal, Muse and the Cold War Kids will all find something they like in the sound of A Flock of Cowards.  The album has a playfulness similar to Of Montreal but also a raw vibe similar to Death Cab’s “Meet Me at the Equinox.”

The synthesizer-infused, 12-track album starts out blasting “Buffalo Jump” with clean, ear-tingling guitar riffs that channel classic rock yet combine strong, edgy vocals that add a modern tweak.  The second track,”Lacking Self-Control,” is a fantastic example of a musical narrative.  One moment you are tapping your foot to a near reggae beat; then the chorus hits, picking up the pace and lending to a more commercially-appealing alternative rock sound.  In a sense, the instrumental work really allows you to “feel” the story behind the sound as the song progresses.

The band is very upfront about their narrative-driven, lyrical styling.  I could almost hear a hint of Ben Folds in their upfront and at times sarcastic lyrics. There is an especially strong lyrical resemblance on “E.D.” with lines like, “No I don’t wanna be your friend/but I know that I can’t pretend/I’m a pretty damn good actor baby.”

A favorite surprise on the record was the incorporation of a few keyboard-driven melodies on songs such as “Titanic Work Ethic” and the fun little album-ending tune, “The Not So Hidden Song.”  Clearly the song titles alone should be enough to get the potential listener a little intrigued as to what this group is really about.

As you listen to the record, you can’t help but feel your ears smoothly move in and out of the different decades of rock.  They have mastered the art of taking the best from the past while looking to the future. They embody a post modern success.

Overall, Stellar Vector has succeeded in achieving a truly high-quality independent album.  A clean and polished recording is already putting them miles ahead.  They have the kind of sound that could really get a film music supervisor excited, as great soundtrack music.  Keep an eye out for these guys. I have a feeling they won’t be staying in the Midwest for long.

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

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