The saxophone is an oft-maligned instrument in indie rock that recently received some out-of-nowhere street cred by being the thing that Colin Stetson chose to blow minds with and the centerpiece of the masterful “Midnight City” by M83. But “Midnight City” only re-appropriates a past meaning of the saxophone: it’s hard to imagine that Anthony Gonzalez honestly believes in the smaltzy sound of the saxophone as much as he believes in turning that goofy sound into something revelatory through contrast with its surroundings. (Maybe he’s earnestly all up in it, I don’t know.) But using the saxophone for effect is vastly different than conceiving it as a whole part of your sound, which is what makes Dear Blanca‘s repeated use of the saxophone the most surprising and intriguing part of a very surprising and intriguing album.
First off, the genre of Talker can be described as Conor Oberst-esque alt-country hysterics, making this album an unusual place to deploy saxophones. Secondly, the level of saxophone integration into “Griping,” “No Protector,” and “King of Salters” strongly implies that the instrument was not a late addition, but an actual consideration in the songwriting process. It’s not just surprising that saxophone appears; it’s even more surprising that it’s awesome.
“Griping” is the best example of Dear Blanca’s work on the album. The tune opens up with a 20-second alt-country solo guitar riff before dropping into a groove with tight drums, distant saloon piano, and steady bass. It’s effectively a pensive Old ’97s song until 0:33, when saxophones come swooping in with a completely unexpected layer of atmosphere. They transform the song into something different: perched on the edges of what I know and expect, but putting a foot outside it as well. Dylan Dickerson’s passionate, ragged voice comes in and spins the mood in another direction again, creating an altogether unique listening experience for me. The breakdown in the middle of the song feels like a car speeding up inexorably towards a cliff, with the choppy drumming and staccato blasts of saxophones pressing Dickerson’s anguished wailing ever forward. Then the band stops abruptly and leans back to the pensive mood (except for the vocals). It’s one of the most engaging songs I’ve heard all year.
The rest of the album keeps up the unexpected directions. “Comrade” brings in a cello to contrast against Dickerson’s roaring voice, which works beautifully. “No Protector” might be the best pop song of the bunch, relying on great bass contributions, a strong saxophone bit, and a compelling vocal melody from Dickerson. It might also be “Havana Tonight,” which has a more folky arrangement (harmonica!) but amps up the vocal melody to “I’m singing along? When I did start singing along?” levels. “Hunny (Don’t Mind If I Tao)” closes out the album with a wiry, buzzy post-punk tune, which is a little out of character but enjoyable after a whole album of emotionally and sonically involving alt-country.
Dear Blanca’s Talker features clever arrangements of intriguing sounds and memorable melodies. If you’re a fan of bands that lay it all out on the line in vocal and instrumental performance, you should be all up in this. If you’re into restraint, well, you may look elsewhere. Oh, and if you love saxophone, this is your jam. I expect to be listening to Talker for a long time, and I look forward to what Dear Blanca will put out in the future.
As a music journalist, it’s impossible to cover any particular genre in its entirety–and that galls me. I want to know everything. One way that critics get around this is by having refined and efficient means of finding that stuff which will blow our (and your) minds. Another is by dedicating no more than a week or two to the note-gathering section of review writing. But an album as richly expansive as Lady Lamb the Beekeeper‘s Ripely Pine demands more than the average amount of time to parse its depths. Without getting hyperbolic (“You don’t just listen to this album, it listens to you,” etc.), this album is wildly engaging both musically and lyrically, shining a light on an idiosyncratic, fearless musician who could have an incredibly bright future.
The first thing to note about Lady Lamb the Beekeeper is that she has a commanding, distinct presence. Aly Spaltro writes with a powerfully feminine voice: she describes things in ways that men would not. This is the sort of absolutely fascinating work that we need to celebrate: these’s aren’t just men’s songs from a woman’s perspective; these are a woman’s songs. Too often we are treated to “the other side of the story” when really I just want to hear a woman’s story. Well, here it is: a 12-song album full of food language and body metaphors to tell intimate tales of interpersonal relationships as a woman sees them. I’m not saying that no one else is doing this; I’m just trying to celebrate the incredible example in front of me.
The lyrics are by turns elegant and powerful, but consistently raw. When Spaltro hollers out, “I need your teeth around my organs,” in “You Are the Apple,” it’s far more sexual and jarringly personal than the explicit come-ons that pop music has routinely produced over the past twenty years. These lyrics cause me to pause and think. These lyrics shake me. It is rare that I can say that.
There are plenty of lyricists who can’t write a song to deliver the words, but never fear: Spaltro applies her unconventional lyrical angle to the music, creating a whirling, roaring album that includes more shifts and turns than I can keep track of. It should be noted that “Rooftop” was chosen as the single almost by default: it’s the track that most closely resembles recognizably normal indie rock. Guitars that alternate between single-note intricacy and chord mashing lock into a rhythm section that largely stays true to a consistent tempo and four/four time. This stability is notable because it almost never happens again.
Spaltro’s best tracks slow down, speed up, pause unexpectedly, and generally wind all over the map (“Crane Your Neck,” “Mezzanine”). This is almost always in service of the lyrics, creating a synthesis of sound and word that allows for maximum tension. Spaltro knows how to keep you hanging, and then how to pay off that tension; if you’re not breathless at the end of “You Are the Apple,” you’re probably doing too many things at once and not paying attention to Lady Lamb.
I don’t know how you could not pay attention, because Spaltro’s alto voice is mesmerizing: she uses her range to its fullest power, able to create a storm where a whisper was prevailing mere seconds before. Her voice inhabits the lyrics, muscling her way through angry tunes and gracefully gliding through quieter ones. In her voice, as with her songwriting and lyric-writing, she exercises an incredible level of control. She leverages what she has to its best ends, and the results are astonishing.
It is rare that an album comes along that absolutely captivates me. Ripely Pine, with its descriptive imagery, devastating vocals, and arresting tunes, is one of a rare few albums per year that make an indelible mark in my brain, like Colin Stetson’s New History Warfare Vol II: Judges and Titus Andronicus’ The Monitor. The same almost-outlandish ambition that powered those two achievements powers Ripely Pine. It’s not that Lady Lamb the Beekeeper is simply doing something different: it’s that she’s doing something so singularly different that she transcends the label for whatever it is she started out as. That is what an artist should do, and that is what Lady Lamb the Beekeeper has done here. Did I mention this tour de force is a debut?
When you know the rules, even the decisions you make to break them are made in relation to the rules. Sometimes this results in Jackson Pollock, but mostly it results in field homogenization that takes the mysterious x factor called “genius” to transcend. But if you never knew the rules to begin with, all bets are off–anything can happen.
Sfumato‘s These Things Between… is the folky embodiment of the latter phenomenon. Singer/songwriter Daithí Ó hÉignigh is “essentially a drummer” who decided to write and arrange a complex folk album. As a result, these 11 songs feature all sorts of sounds, rhythms and arrangements that I didn’t expect. I listened to this album for far longer than I usually do when writing a review, because it took a long time for me to figure out what was happening.
Because the homogenization of a field doesn’t just affect what musicians write, it affects how listeners hear. People are in love with Babel because it pulls off all the pop-folk moves perfectly; These Things Between… is a difficult listen for someone conditioned to hear music in that way. Even though the signifiers of folk are present (strummed acoustic guitar, pensive moods, emotive voice), what is a gospel choir doing in “Ostia”? “Mo ghrá” is in Gaelic? “Fly to Me” features a calliope-style organ; “Pound” accentuates unusual rhythms. This is a brain-expander, and goodness knows I need it after the musical candy that is Mumford and Sons, Avett Brothers and The Mountain Goats all releasing albums within weeks of each other.
After an eclectic start, the center of the album is a bit more standard. “The Past” incorporates bass guitar and organ drone in familiar patterns (Decemberists!), while “Song to Myself” shows off a wheezing saxophone in a style similar to Bon Iver’s Colin Stetson. By the end of the album, the unusual arrangements have returned: the title track is a heavily rhythmic tune that relies on conga drums, an unrecognizable instrument and Celtic-inspired strings. Still, the closer is solo acoustic track “I Was Hoping You Might…,” which reminded me of Damien Jurado in its starkness.
These Things Between… is perfectly titled, as its songs walk down the line between familiarity and otherness. There are detours to both sides, but overall it exists in a space that will challenge your conventional listening habits. If you’re into something a little outside your (and my) Mumfordy comfort zone, Sfumato should be one place to check out.
“If there’s no grand cultural war left for you to wage, how are you supposed make friction? Indie rock responded by fanning out into a thousand sub-genre deltas, each with their own set of reference points. The best stuff, every year, is the stuff that somehow leaps across those gaps, like a firing synapse.” -Jayson Greene, Pitchfork, “Making Overtures: The Emergence of Indie Classical”
I’ve been quoting this paragraph copiously in conversation and text since it was published, because it perfectly frames the situation in which indie rock currently sits. Should you be really, really good at one genre? The answer as an extension of this paragraph is “Probably not”: the genre already has a hero (or heroes), and you’re just going to be appropriating heroes if you aspire to greatness in a genre. You should mix and match, because that’s the stuff that gets applause these days: Bon Iver abandoning pure folk for a confluence of acoustic and ’80s synthscapes, Arcade Fire adopting a wiry ’80s touch for “Sprawl II: Mountains Beyond Mountains.” If we’ve heard it all before, we must repackage it in new ways. (This is why we have “new” lawyer dramas every year.)
I disagree that there is no room for purists; folksters The Low Anthem immediately come to mind as a great example of forging forward in a historically-established sound, as well as singer/songwriters like Brianna Gaither. Still, it’s true that the hip and cool stuff right now is interdisciplinary. (The technically appropriate term would intergenrenary, but that’s a clunky, made-up word.) Everything in the world is becoming interconnected; why not music?
Gabriel and the Hounds‘ Kiss Full of Teeth is the sound of a band working hard on its interdisciplinary mix. The basic elements of the sound are stark folk in the For Emma vein, The National-style gloomy indie rock, and a composer’s sense of symphonic instrumentation (more Firebird Suite, less “Eleanor Rigby”). Like my late grandfather’s attempts to recreate Bailey’s Irish Cream from his own personal brewing and mixing, the results aren’t perfect—but they still taste great.
“Lovely Thief” is the most memorable track of the album, both for its successes and head-scratching excesses. The first minute consists of a grooving, lightly distorted guitar rhythm and comfortable tenor vocals. Trumpets, horns and oboes arrive without warning, colliding with the rhythmically solid guitar in erratic foxhunt calls. The guitar and foxhunt end simultaneously, giving way to an elegant symphonic break. Drums and guitar are then introduced on top of the continued symphonic elements. It’s a beautiful tune, especially in its final, fully-realized minute.
However, its abrupt switches show either a desire to rupture normative ideas of modern songwriting or an unfamiliarity with the delicate balance between all the song’s moving parts (or both!). The first is admirable, the second understandable; both show that they’re trying stuff. When the band sticks to one genre, they make very consistent songs that are less dynamic and interesting that their experiments: “The World Unfolds” uses strings as a support element to a straight-forward indie-rock tune; “What Good Would That Do” is Tom Waits for electric guitar.
So it’s pleasing that Gabriel and the Hounds try more ambitious tunes than standard ones: the very pretty “When We Die in South America” uses an unexpected entry point of strings to disrupt usual songwriting structure, while “Wire and Stone” sets an orchestra as the grounding point instead of traditional rock instruments. The swelling, building “An In-Between (Full Where You Are)” provides even more emphasis on symphonic composition—Colin Stetson listeners will nod and smile. “Who Will Fall on Knees” sets the symphonic arrangement against a pensive folk piece, using the strings as the forceful element in the piece.
Gabriel and the Hounds’ Kiss Full of Teeth is a wildly interesting piece of work packed with vitality and thought. The unique ideas shine, even if the pieces don’t come together in a completely unified way. It’s like listening to Regina Spektor’s Soviet Kitsch: It’s clear that she is either purposefully ignoring conventions of songwriting or isn’t yet skilled enough to write proper songs she hears in her head—regardless, Soviet Kitsch is wonderful. (Based on the markedly less erratic quality of her later output, I’d bank the latter idea.) Put another way: formal success does not ensure quality. Sometimes the half-baked mistakes are far more interesting and vital than the fully-formed, conventionally-sound work, and that’s the case for Gabriel and the Hounds. Hopefully more bands follow their lead and risk putting out this sort of genre-bending, might-be-a-mess-but-who-cares work.
Bass saxophonist extraordinaire Colin Stetson’s New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges was IC’s 2011 Album of the Year. When I informed Colin’s camp about this, they sent back an e-mail with the following list and no other explanation. (I added the links and album art.) Colin Stetson, everybody:
Never in my knowledge has there been a lasting example of a single piece of music framing the entirety of one’s life and career so completely as these recordings. They are perfect snapshots of a man and his vision, heart, and mind, both at the beginning and end of his all too short life and have always been precious to me.
When I was growing up, my father had only a few records in the house and most of them were Jimi Hendrix. It was no mystery that I found myself years later learning his solos, attempting to mimic them in every way, but on the saxophone. The translation of sound and technique across instruments is something that has always been exciting to me and in this case was absolutely formative to almost every aspect of my sound and musical approach.
Goodbye Babylon is a six cd set of american pre-war gospel music, transferred from the original vinyl, and it is a priceless archive of a singular time in history. The music captured in these recordings embodies all of the suffering and hope that has defined humanity for all our history and I feel is essential listening for understanding who we are,where we come from, and what we could do to make a better world for eachother.
This record absolutely destroyed me. On first listen, it was simultaneously a thrilling surprise and a familiar comfort, feeling like some sort of inevitable epiphany. Liturgy’s is the most exciting music I’ve heard in recent years and you can hear it’s influence already in my last EP, Those Who Didn’t Run.
Tom Waits’ music came over me like a conquering army, populating every inch of my mind. From first hearing Bone Machine I was in a fever for everything he had made and I didn’t come up for air until I had experienced it all.
Not just a scene from 8 Mile, hanging out in Detroit, driving a long, brown oldsmobile and listening to this record was how I used to roll back in the mid-90’s. There was something limitless to that town back then, like some vast old ruins. Like this record, It was hard and unapologetic and is forever etched in my memory.
When I first heard the song Icefall I was about 19 and had just started to scratch the surface of what the saxophone was capable of. Immediately, the sounds that comprise this song translated effortlessly onto the saxophone. The cd skipping clicks turning into key noise in my head, the frenetic post minimalist cascade of melody and repetition fell idiomatically perfect onto the instrument. It is perhaps still the single track that has had the most influence on my music.
This is a rare and patient beauty that has no equal in my mind. It is music that stops the machinations of the world and inhabits you so fully that if there is such a thing as “what it means to be human”, your understanding of it is deepened.
Nusrat throws the best parties out there. He’s put out what seems like hundreds of records, but this one was my first and maybe for that reason or maybe just because it’s awesome, it has always been my favorite.—Colin Stetson
4: Laura Stephenson and the Cans – Sit Resist. There’s not a single bad tune on this album, you can sing along to almost all of them, and they pull off the “multiple genres but overarching mood” thing perfectly.
3: Jenny and Tyler – Faint Not. Their cute pop turned into churning folk-rock overnight, and the effect is hair-raising and goosebump-inducing. There were few moments as dramatic as the full-band entry in “Song for You” this year; Faint Not was the only album that made me write the sentence “I forget to breathe.”
2: The Collection – The Collection EP. The melodies and instrumentation seem effortlessly perfect on this folk album. David Wimbish’s lyrics and deft and quick, delivered in a vastly adaptable voice that seals the deal. “Stones” is just a wonder.
I’ve rarely been on-the-ball enough to get my year end lists done by December 31, but this year I made a concerted effort to have all my 2011 reviewing done early. As a result, I was able to put together not just a top 20 albums list, but a top 50 songs mixtape and a top 11 songs list. Here’s the mixtape, organized generally from fast’n’loud to slow’quiet. Hear all of the songs at their links, with one exception of a purchase link (#27). The other lists will come over the next few days.
The genres of folk and post-rock are bursting at the seams with new acts. It was only a matter of time before someone combined the two. Gray Young is the first band I’ve heard that treats both post-rock and folk with individual dignity, creating the incredible Staysail as a result.
The band doesn’t mash folk and post-rock together: this isn’t folktronica. Instead, they tie the disparate sounds together by a distinct mood that runs through each of the 11 tracks. Whether rocking out in a frantic manner (“Inside/Outside”), penning reflective post-rock (“The Dawning Low”) or strumming an acoustic guitar in a very Deja Entendu sort of way (“Unbound”), the band maintains a deeply affected atmosphere. The songs, while not expressly heavy in lyric or composition, maintain a mournful intensity in the background. You can tell they mean this.
That maturity sets Gray Young apart. They’re over post-rock as a statement, and they’re past folk for the earthiness of it. The band is creating art in the best way it knows how, and that requires banjo pluck on “Unbound” and Appleseed Cast-invoking riffs on the standout “Vermilion.” There are some tricks here and there: “Picture (Meridian)” is followed by “Meridian (Picture),” while “Seven:Fourteen” is a bit of a kitschy title. But for the most part, the band is not amazed at their own genre(s). They just write music.
The band does have a vocalist, but most of the time vocals are another instrument, much in the same way Appleseed Cast uses them. When his vocals become to close to the forefront they distract, but he fits in perfectly to tunes like “Cycles” and the first half of “Meridian (Picture).” Still, I could stand to hear less vocals due to their incredible instrumental talents.
Some may take offense that I put folk on par with post-rock in my description, even though just three songs here are led by acoustic guitar (and only two prominently feature banjo). Sure, this isn’t Mumford and Sons with a shoegaze guitarist. But the understanding of the melodic and structural requirements of folk underlie many songs on this album: the rhythm of the banjo on “Prescience” is slightly altered and transposed to electric guitar as the song turns into “Vermilion.” It’s an electrifying transition that shows Gray Young is in complete control of two genres, making them connect as the band decides is best. And, incredibly, the transition out to “Picture (Meridian)” is handled just as deftly.
I’ve heard several great post-rock albums this year, and Staysail is up there with the very best of them (Colin Stetson, Final Days Society). It’s an easy contender for the top ten list, because it’s just so expertly written. There’s not a moment here that gets away from the band. That complete control of mood and composition makes this the excellent album it is. Long live Gray Young.
Just like IC puts out its year-end best-of list in February, my half-year best-of doesn’t hit until August. This list includes the music I covered while at the Oklahoma Gazette.
If you would like to see this list visually, I’ve created an Independent Clauses Pinterest page that also includes the best artwork that’s crossed IC’s path in 2011 and a list of best books about pop music.
16. Chad Valley – Equatorial Ultravox. ’80s dance-pop revivalism that captures both the playful nonchalance and wistful romanticism of the first disposable music era.
I’ve been getting heavily into post-rock recently, as Of the Vine, Colin Stetson, Industries of the Blind and Isis have all been in my rotation. Final Days Society is the latest post-rock group to be added to their number, and I may be most obsessed with it.
Y’see, I’m a sucker for crescendo. If you can take a tiny, clean guitar line and turn it into a raging maelstrom in about seven minutes, I’ll love it. This means that Final Days Society has tailor-made several songs for me on their album “Ours Is Not a Caravan of Despair.”
“Aeons” takes only twenty seconds to transfrom an arpeggiated, clean guitar riff into a raging wall of sound, but they spend the next 9+ minutes fleshing that idea out. And by wall of sound, I do mean wall: the Swedes (of course!) in Final Days Society have found the right combination of pedals to produce a humongous overdrive which, when strummed at high velocity, sounds like it’s about to crush the world/transport you to the next one. In fact, “Beauty” is all about showing off this pedal combo, as they just hammer the listener with it for approximately five minutes. It’s a revelation. I felt like I was going to lift off the ground the first time I heard it.
But this band isn’t all about destroying eardrums, as “60” and “To Calm Sea” revel in the moods created without going all aggro, as one of my friends would say. The sparingly-used vocals are employed to great effect on both tracks, using them as instruments. “60” heavily modifies the voice in a completely fitting way, while the vulnerability of “To Calm Sea” enhances the mood of the song.
The 7 songs on “Ours Is Not a Caravan of Despair” clock in at just shy of 56 minutes, meaning each averages 8 minutes in length. This is not a band that shys away from lengthy pieces. And that’s to the listener’s benefit, because any way that you get more Final Days Society is a win.
This band is poised for big things if they can keep it together. They’ve got the sound, the songs and the chops to make it in post-rock. Long live Final Days Society.
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.