Some artists are so idiosyncratic that they become required listening despite whether you like that style or not. Depending on their popular success, these people are the greats or the “songwriter’s songwriter.” I’m talking Kendrick Lamar, Beyonce, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Daniel Johnston, The Gorillaz: people who are doing their own thing with a very specific, easily identifiable creative vision. Matthew Squires has been developing a very distinct creative vision for a while now, and Tambaleo brings his fractured, angular, skeptically-but-knowledgably-religious indie-pop to new heights.
The main focus of these songs is Squires’ weary, slightly off-kilter tenor. It’s not your standard voice, even for that particular region of the indie-pop map which celebrates the atypical and imperfect. Squires’ voice rotates between being a spot-on melody maker (“Welcome”), a speak/sing drawl (“Sex & Tragedy”), a slurry dartboard (“Unwholesome Health”), and an onomatopoeic sound machine (“Grace’s Drum”). Sometimes it’s all of these in the space of a single song or even the space of a few lines. For some, the singing will be the reason for attendance; for others, it will be the price of admission. Whichever end of the spectrum you land on, it’s a distinct voice.
The arrangements here are also excellent. Packed full of instruments that seem to be taking their own path through the track at loping tempos, these individual performances come together to fill out Squires’ unique songwriting sensibility. Squires is endlessly inventive and not afraid to experiment with tones, textures, rhythms, and instrument pairings. This makes for songs that clang (“Dead or Dying”), skip along in a twee fashion [“Hosanna (Devotional #3)”], push along in a recognizably indie-pop manner (“Welcome”), and even get their pop-rock on … sort of (“Shape of Your Heart”). All of them have a left turn about every 20 seconds. Some albums keep you on your toes; this one will have you en pointe.
One of the most interesting things about Squires is his continued relationship with religion in his lyrics. Squires is well versed: like any honest religious person, there are moments of certitude, moments of doubt, and moments of skepticism in his relationship to religion. “Unwholesome Health” opens with “Judas was all alone / when he called me on the telephone / and told me about the pain he had caused / about Mary’s face when her Son was torn apart,” while “Welcome” closes with Squires speaking to himself: “You were named after a friend of the son of God / now bracket for a moment whether God exists or not / Have you been kind? / Have you been kind? / Have you been kind?” “Hosanna (Devotional #3)” wears the references on its titular sleeve, while other songs weave religious characters, terms and ideas through the lyrics more subtly. It treats religion as not something to be partitioned away from life, but woven all through it. I dig it.
Not every song on Tambaleo is independently majestic (“Debt Song” isn’t my favorite), but the whole collection is a deeply thoughtful, incredibly well-crafted album from a musician who is hitting his stride. This is the sort of album that not very many people could have made; a wild array of influences mesh into a idiosyncratic, deeply interesting album. Recommended.
1. “Psychrocker” – Honeymilk (featuring De Montevert). This is an absurdly catchy, fuzzed-out piece of psych-rock that just does it all right. Mad props.
2. “Elsewhere” – Nevasca. The good will out–sometimes it takes a partnership of seven record labels, but the good will out. Nevasca’s early ’00s emo-inspired sound sounds much more like Midwestern America than Murmansk, Russia, with dramatic guitar delivery, swooping vocals, and a highly emotional approach. Great stuff here.
3. “He Who Cried, ‘Whore!’” – The Insurrectionists. Does anybody remember Calibretto? If so, the Insurrectionist’s fusion of vaudevillian horror music tropes and crunchy alt-rock will sound wonderfully familiar: the blaring organ, the scampering bass, the high-drama timing, the oh-so-intriguing mix that lets it all be heard. To everyone else, this will sound super-fresh.
4. “I Live My Broken Dreams” – Gramma’s Boyfriend. Quirky ’80s guitar, Casio-eque drums, and Haley Bonar’s assured vocals transform this Daniel Johnston cover into something all its own.
5. “Day Off” – Ryan Dwork. Sweet bass jams and insistent drums power this groove-heavy rock tune. The distorted vocals fit oh-so-nicely over the instrumentation.
6. “Trust Me” – The Maisons. Snarling vocals and grungy guitar can’t feel fresh, can it? The Maisons beg to differ.
7. “Fold a Winning Hand” – Calico. Take a trad jazz outfit and fuse some patterned, wiry guitar and atmospheric post-rock-ish vibes on it, and you’re beginning to approximate Calico’s adventurous work.
8. “Diev” – Big Harp. I could have thrown this with the pop songs, but that would do a disservice to the garage rock that Big Harp is about. Sure, it’s not as scuzzy, abrasive, or ominous as some, but it’s still got that crunch, that attitude, and the bare-bones instrumentation. Rock on.
9. “Shrink” – Tallows. If post-rock tried to abandon the conventions of rock, Tallows is a rock band that just tries to make the conventions of rock really, really weird. Some funkiness, some melodicism, some bombastic elements, some dance-rock beats–yet all spun in an unusual way.
Each genre has embedded strengths that double as weaknesses. The best bands in a genre will deal will those issues, either by subversion, exaggeration or infusion of other genres.
Oh Look Out has solved the fundamental problem/feature of video game-inspired music (playful, but not emotional) by meshing it with current guitar-based pop-rock (emotional, not playful). The result is the fascinating, fantastic Alright Alright Alright Alright Alright.
Alright‘s approximately 25 minutes leaves more of an impact than albums much longer because it knows what it can and can’t do. No riff is beaten into oblivion, no chorus sung repetitively, no song lasting longer than you wish it would. This is economical songwriting, as one might expect from a songwriter — who goes only by JP — so influenced by electronics (Can we tolerate slow, overstuffed computers?).
The one-two punch is “Analogatron” and “Bass, Not an 8-Track.” The most complete of the songs here, they have distinct vocal melodies, memorable vocal performances, meaningful rock sections, quirky video-game contributions, and deliberate song flow.
“Analogatron” can be appreciated by structuralists and pop-lovers alike. It builds like a standard rock song, opening with bass and vocals before bursting into acrobatic distorted guitar lines. The song adds evocative synths, then ratchets it up to a big conclusion. On the other hand, both the vocals and the guitars are catchy as anything, hinging on the line “When I’m dead, I’ll play cassettes!” Heck yes you will.
“Bass, Not an 8-track” is even better. It’s a fist-pumping, clapping, stomping anthem of a rock song. I got shivers when, at the climax of the song, JP hollers “TAKE! TAKE ME BACK! BASS! not an 8-TRACK!” over a stomping guitar line and synth majesty. This is pretty much all I could ask of a rock song.
But it’s not all herky-jerky pop-rock. The stark “Short Waves” and “Implode Alright” bring to mind keys-laden bedroom pop experiments of Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, Daniel Johnston and more — but in a much less frustrating, self-indulgent demeanor and tone than much bedroom pop. They’re delicate, emotional, hummable and able to be put on a mixtape for a girl. This is pretty much all I ask of a pop song.
Also, the persistent, perky keyboards of “Kam” are absolutely legit.
Alright Alright Alright Alright Alright is on my shortlist for best pop-rock album of the year, right up there with Generationals’ Actor-Caster and Laura Stevenson and the Cans’ Sit Resist. Its emotional and playful elements balance perfectly, giving me songs that I can feel good about but also feel something in while singing/yelling along. Seriously, what else do you want? Free? Oh, well, it’s that too.
Intimate, back porch folk tunes make up The Ashes‘ Photoplay Music, the success of whichrelies heavily on the goodwill engendered by the hushed vocals of lead singer and mastermind Shane Vidaurri. If you’re down for a gentler, folkier take on Daniel Johnston, you’ll love the mood created by Vidaurri and co. The length may get you (16 songs over 46 minutes), but you’ll be enthralled for at least the first third. If you’re not into childlike vocals, then you’ll want to pass on this one.
Depression State Troopers, who are labelmates with The Ashes on Mint 400 Records, recorded a similar album in The Reason for the Fall. The back-porch intimacy is there, but these tunes have a bit more meat on their bones. Tunes like “I Love You Like the Night Loves the Moon” are fully fleshed out (in this particular case, with violin, piano, drums, bass and background vox), sticking in memory easily. “Best Time to Die” creates a haunting atmosphere with rumbling toms and grumbling low background vocals, while “In Time (Everything Will Be Alright)” features an accordion and a timeless feel. Recommended for those who thought Bon Iver was a bit too whiny.
As a significant portion of the staff is at Austin City Limits, with the most of our other members pining to be there, a list is in order.
Bands Stephen Carradini is Most Excited to See at ACL
5. Daniel Johnston. I am not so much interested in his music as I am in actually witnessing him. Read my post here for more details. In fact, reading that essay again, I really recommend you do read it.
4. The Low Anthem. I really, really can’t wait to hear “Charlie Darwin” live. It’s a heart-breakingly beautiful song. The fact that the Low Anthem will be the first band I see at ACL makes it all the more desirable.
3. K’Naan. I have never been to a rap show where I actually knew the material. This, paired with the fact that K’Naan seems effortlessly effervescent, should prove to make an out-of-this-world show.
2. Bon Iver. The only folk artist who has intrigued and excited me more in the past year is Joe Pug. And I listen to lots of folk. I hope there’s a full band, because “For Emma” without the trumpets would make me sad, and defeat some of the joy of that song. Maybe he can jack the brass section from Los Amigos Invisibles.?
1. The Avett Brothers. This is more of a pilgrimage than a dedication to their music. “Ballad of Love and Hate” and “Murder in the City” (neither of which will get played, I think) are two of my most favorite songs in the world, and because there’s a slim glimmer of a chance that one or both may be played, I’m hustling on over for the entirety of their set. Also, I hear they rip it up live, which will be fun.