Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Absinthe Junk combines modern rock, world music and powerful female vocals

March 21, 2010

Sometimes a band comes along that’s really good and I just don’t like very much for personal reasons. I call it my Dave Matthews Syndrome. I can acknowledge that Dave Matthews is a talented musician, but I very much do not like his music. It’s not interesting to me, despite my many friends who enjoy it and play me acoustic covers of his songs while we’re sitting around hanging out.

Absinthe Junk is one of those bands, and the reason I don’t like it is because of the female vocalist. I don’t like female vocalists in rock music, for whatever reason. I’m not saying women shouldn’t be in rock, nor that they can’t be excellent rock stars. I’m saying that I dislike frontwomen. Millions of people love Flyleaf and Paramore; I hold nothing against the fans or the bands. I just don’t like it.

On that note, it must be noted that fans of Flyleaf and Paramore will also be great big fans of Absinthe Junk. Absinthe Junk’s Living Ghosts rocks out hard in the modern rock vein, giving lead singer Blair (just Blair, in true rock star form) the platform to make a mark for herself in the pantheon of women rock vocalists. And she makes the best of it, turning out blistering performances where needed (“Commercialized Waste,” “Swear to Me,” “Sweet Vaccine”), slow-burning performances (“Precious Delirium”), or no performance (the instrumental freak-out “Road to Damnation,” dreamy “Living Ghosts”). Her powerful voice carries the sound and makes the band what it is.

The band is no slouch either, led by Blair’s violin-playing chops toward distinctly non-American tones in their music. “Road to Damnation” makes modern rock with Celtic and Middle Eastern overtures in the same tune. That’s impressive.  “Rust” combines those Middle Eastern sounds with brittle electronic sounds and charging riffs. Instrumental title track “Living Ghosts” further explores sounds from the Arab world.

And they do all this while playing tight, well-recorded modern rock. The production values on this disc are immaculate, which helps out the songs. If not recorded as confidently and perfectly as they are, this might sound campy or weird. But it all works perfectly, going off without a hitch.

If you’re a fan of modern rock, this is definitely up your alley. Flyleaf and Paramore fans should take note as well. It’s definitely good.

Cameron Blake is En Route to Greatness.

November 30, 2009

En Route, the second album from singer/songwriter Cameron Blake, is a refreshingly unique masterpiece.  Although the Baltimore musician has his master’s in violin performance, he is clearly a man of many talents.  With fantastic orchestrations from the young musician, the album will take you on a journey paved not only with violin, but beautiful vocals, piano, harmonica, cello, and acoustic guitar, to name a few.  In the beginning of your listening experience, you may find yourself struggling to pin him down under one genre.  The album is a smooth combination of acoustic, pop, blues, and largely folk sound.  It would do him an injustice to not give him credit for his wide range of appeal.  Let’s just label him as this: “talented.”

It’s hard to compare Blake to any one other artist, but fans of everyone from Dave Matthews to The Swell Season will surely enjoy this record.  The album opens with “This is All,” a track that instantly makes you feel like you are listening to a rebellious poet in the bottom of a dark jazz club.  Farther along on the record is “On the Way to Jordan,” which is more than suitable for a pub set in the heart of Dublin.  A favorite is “Interlude,” a slower-paced song that would be fantastic on the soundtrack of an indie flick.  The piano and delicate harmonies will chill you to the bone in the same way as the painfully beautiful songs written by Damien Rice.

Blake provides fascinating vocals through out the album, sometimes emanating a similar sound to Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie.  There is a pleasant clarity in his vocals that allows the listener to enjoy his unique lyrics.  In “Lonely Rooms” he writes, “I held her marigold smile-apple scent rain through slanting silver-lines/ I am the prince and the fool-survived by a breath, a thread, a single room.”  Pure poetry.

If you decide to check out one independent artist this year, make sure it’s Cameron Blake.  With excellent musicianship, thoughtful writing, and exceptional vocals, you won’t be disappointed.

John Calvin's debut EP impresses and confuses

April 22, 2009

Charlie Brown once uttered, “There is no heavier burden than great potential.” I kept coming back to this thought as I repeatedly listened to John Calvin‘s debut EP The Walls of the City. Calvin delivers several instances of remarkable pop/folk songwriting throughout the EP, but it seems that there are just as many puzzling occurences and glaring missteps to follow the highlights.

John Calvin at Second Wind, April 3, 2009

John Calvin at Second Wind, April 3, 2009

John Calvin’s sound owes a heavy debt to Joseph Arthur. I have no idea if Calvin knows of Arthur, but Calvin’s ideas on songwriting are very similar to Arthur’s. Both have the acoustic guitar as their main instrument, but dabble in piano and electric. Both have a kitchen-sink mentality to songwriting. Both have a pseudo-hippie feel to their lyrics and sound. That being said, John Calvin’s writing never worships or emulates Arthur; it would just be a really, really great split EP or tour idea.

The differences are important: where Arthur’s voice is low, Calvin’s is high. It’s not new-school emo high, but he’s definitely a tenor. And, most importantly, Calvin’s songwriting is not as refined as Arthur’s. If you thought Arthur had a lot of things going on in his work, you will be slightly astounded by the number of ideas that go into a standard Calvin song.

Both these differences are a blessing and a curse; John Calvin’s high voice makes his sound distinctly his own. While there are influences from Dave Matthews, Ben Harper, OAR, and many other hippie/pop/folk outfits, Calvin’s voice sets him apart. It is good. Unfortunately, his voice does not sustain warble or cover miscues very well, and this creates some rather unfortunate moments (“Spit That Out” is particularly difficult to listen to).

One of John Calvin's many guitar faces.

One of John Calvin's many guitar faces.

His kitchen-sink mentality makes tracks such as “Sleep Well” and “Song to Make the Stars Fall” really, really interesting. “Sleep Well” is just under six minutes, and the amount of musical ideas packed into the track (played by guitar, piano, dual violin, electric guitar, and female vocals) creates a mesmerizing effect. “Song to Make the Stars Fall” has a similar mentality with a similar effect. At its worst, strange things make their way into his songs and throw off the groove (“Spit it Out” has strangely distorted vocals and electronic blips and glitches throughout).

It is easy to declare that John Calvin is at his best when he’s singing chilled-out tunes with a lot of instrumentation. If Sufjan Stevens had a little more hippie in him, he and John Calvin could be best friends. In fact, at Calvin’s CD release show, he covered two Sufjan tracks: the jubilant “Chicago” and the sorrowful “Casimir Pulaski Day.” Both were standout moments of the show, as nearly ten musicians covered the stage and created a veritable orchestra.

His show showed a different side of him than his album presents; his album is focused on his acoustic-based pop/folk, while his live show was much louder and much more electric. John Calvin certainly knows his way around an electric guitar, and he was very entertaining to watch. He made several guitar faces that I have never seen before during guitar solos – it was fun.

His mellower work was more musically interesting, but no one would be able to say that seeing John Calvin rock out wasn’t entertaining. He worked the audience pretty well, and made the show rock until he unveiled his stronger, mellower pieces.

John Calvin has a love of many types of music, and his live shows and album display that love. There are plenty of great things about that: his songwriting is varied, his melodies are catchy, his instrumentation is not cliche, and his overall product has a very comfortable feel to it. But there is much room for improvement: his songwriting vision needs to clarify some more and his vocal performances need to solidify. John Calvin has set a good pace for himself with this release, but now he needs settle in to a groove  and figure out where he’s exactly going.

John Calvin, getting into it at Second Wind.John Calvin getting into it.

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of instrumental music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.

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