Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Best EPs of 2015

January 4, 2016

EPs are becoming more popular than ever, and I love the trend: there’s no room for filler on an EP. As a result, a lot of artists brought their A game to the smaller format this year. Here’s to them:

1. Thanks for All Your Patience – Brother Moses. (Review) I spun this one the most often because the easygoing, almost effortless indie-rock vibe gave rise to some seamless, indelible melodies. Clean, tight, clever, and earnest, I gravitated to this one early and often in 2015.

2. On Separation – David Wimbish. (Review) Wimbish, frontman of The Collection, stripped out some of the intricate arrangements of his day job for a more intimate set of portraits that focused in on the lyrics. Elegant, haunting, and beautiful.

3. Loca EP – Valley Shine. (Review) Folk-pop can be a formula these days, but Valley Shine is all about exploding the formula with raw enthusiasm, brash melodies, and surprising pathos.

4. Magic Giant – Magic Giant. (Review) Rave-folk is a thing now (thanks, Avicii!), and Magic Giant are the next big thing on that front.

5. Linton // Oslo EP – Austin Basham. (Review) I rarely heard singer/songwriter work this assured, pristine, and strong during 2015. Top-shelf.

6. Regards – We are the West. (Review) A wisp of an EP that barely has time to meet you before it’s gone, but oh does it deliver: this Low Anthem-style Americana sounds like a warm blanket around my ears.

7. Joe Kaplow EP – Joe Kaplow. (Review) One of my favorite debuts of the year, as Kaplow showed off his versatility in several different acoustic-based styles. Looking forward to more from Kaplow.

8. Away, Away – B. Snipes. (Review) Another excellent debut that introduces Snipes’ low-slung troubadour singer/songwriter voice to the world, taking the lyrics of Rocky Votolato in a more Americana direction.  

9. Elegant Freefall – Ira Lawrences Haunted Mandolin. (Review) Lawrence turns one mandolin into an enormous array of sounds, turning out some wildly inventive pop songs along the way.

10. River Whyless – River Whyless. (Review) Gentle, quiet, and worthy of your time.

11. Your Friendly Neighborhood Demo – Your Friendly Neighborhood. (Review) Takes R&B, blue-eyed-soul, ambient, and indie-rock into something greater than the sum of its parts.

12. The Best of Times – Cable Street Collective. (Review) Do you want to dance? Because the Vampire Weekend meets the Caribbean meets UK rap sounds here are built for that. —Stephen Carradini

David Wimbish: Elegant voice and lyrics

October 8, 2015

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David Wimbish‘s lyrics are incredible, but with so much going on in his 7-to-18-piece indie-rock orchestra The Collection, the lyrics sometimes take a backseat to the enormous amount of things going on around them. His solo EP On Separation strips away some (some) of the musicians to put the focus squarely on his voice and lyrics. The tender, gentle acoustic tunes that result will please fans of the Collection and gather new fans of quiet music under his wing.

In a nod to the solo nature of the work, Wimbish takes the time to write out some explanatory liner notes in the first person. In explaining the title, he writes, “Each song on On Separation deals with different aspects of disconnection, whether it be marital divorce experienced by my friends lately, or self-imposed loss of close friendships from the past.” To whit, standout “Circles and Lines” begins with, “Today she dropped the glass and shattered many things / and you had not yet thought of where you’d set your ring.” Yet not all of the lyrics are so literal, as Wimbish prefers to plumb the interior spaces of the involved parties and observers of the events (“A Ghost and A Scale,” “Back and Forth”). They’re complex, multi-layered lyrics, full of personal musings, places, and religious allusions: Cain and Abel make appearances in their eponymous tune, and the prodigal son makes a reappearance (from the Collection’s “Broken Tether”) in “Lost and Found.” Wimbish’s ability to turn a phrase that both sounds great and has meaning is in top form here.

These lyrics are paired with some of the most beautiful music Wimbish has yet written. “Circles and Lines” pairs the heavy lyrics against a beautiful, fingerpicked, cascading acoustic guitar line. The song builds to the loudest moment on the EP with the inclusion of strings and slapped cello for percussion, but it returns to its delicate roots for the conclusion of the tune. That underscores the approach here: while these are songs that deal with dramatic events, the overall tone and timbre of this EP is quiet and even understated at times (at least in comparison to the weightiness of the lyrics). The rhythms and string arrangement of “Back and Forth” seem a little like a Collection song with the bombast removed–the chiming autoharp of “A Ghost and a Scale” recalls his band as well. But other than those occasional flourishes, these songs do feel like a statement by Wimbish instead of stripped-out versions of full-band work. They’re elegant, not empty.

Part of the understatedness of the release is realized in the sharp focus that Wimbish puts on his voice delivering the lyrics, to the exclusion of complexity elsewhere. This is particularly true in “Cain and Abel,” which uses Wimbish’s voice as both lead and background vocals. Gentle marimba and cello occasionally show up, but this one’s about the voice. Wimbish’s tenor, so often used for roaring in The Collection’s work, is gorgeous in this quieter setting, as his range, tone, and nuances of delivery stand out. (All those are present in The Collection’s work, but as previously noted, there’s a lot more elements going on there.) His voice is soft, clear, and comforting–if you didn’t listen to the lyrics, these tunes would be the sort of thing to lull you peacefully to sleep.

David Wimbish’s On Separation is a beautiful EP that showcases a singer/songwriter with a clear sonic and lyrical vision. Fans of Damien Jurado, Josh Ritter, or Gregory Alan Isakov will find much to love in the music, while fans of the dense, thoughtful lyrics of The Mountain Goats or Sufjan Stevens’ Michigan/Illinois work will celebrate this one. Highly recommended.

Ars Moriendi is a towering, colossal achievement

July 21, 2014

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It appears that someone in Ukraine shot down a Malaysian jet liner, killing all 295 people on board. If this seems random, garish, and apropos of nothing, that’s because it is. Malaysia and Ukraine were not at war with each other. This serves no obvious purpose. Death appears, and it is absurd; we rage against it. It is this sense of outrage that powers The Collection‘s Ars Moriendi.

It must be said straight away: Ars Moriendi is unapologetically weighty. It tackles questions of death, life, and religion unflinchingly. Some people in this album don’t believe in God; others do. Narrators live. Narrators die. There are straight people, gay people, married people, lonely people, depressed people, and recovering people. The one thing that unites them all is that they’re all gonna die, and they’re all concerned about what this means for their lives. There are songs here that hit me hard in my particular current life experience–I’m willing to bet that there are different ones for other people. The Collection isn’t shying away from what they’ve got to say about life in the context of death, which is a rare thing. But don’t worry–there’s a great amount of hope and exultation in the tunes that accompany these thoughts.

The music here is by turns jubilant, pensive, and energetic, but it’s always passionate. This diverse sound is created by the Collection’s 16-piece folk orchestra–and when I say “orchestra,” I don’t mean there’s a string player and a horn player. The credits on this album are humongous, including 27 people. Lead songwriter David Wimbish takes the giant ensemble that he has and leads them to create some of the most incredible folk-inspired tunes I’ve ever heard.

Wimbish can write a mournful dirge (“The Doubtful One”), but he can also write a jubilant tune of celebration (lead single “The Gown of Green”). He can use every single instrument at once (“Garden”) or lead the orchestra to beautifully frame a trumpet solo (the Beirut-esque coda of “The Borrowers”). He knows how to write indelible vocal melodies–“Scala Naturae” and “Broken Tether” in particular, although you can sing along to almost every single tune here. Some of the crescendoes they hit are downright shiver-inducing; then again, it’s emotionally devastating when he drops out the orchestra and just sings against an acoustic guitar. The songs are about as varied as a cohesive album can get, moving from thrashy galloping drums backed by a full orchestra (“The Art of Dying”) to Wimbish barely holding his voice together in sadness over a solo piano (“Some Days I Don’t Want to Sing”). Ars Moriendi wrings me out emotionally as a listener. I can’t imagine writing and performing it.

It does sound like it wrings out Wimbish, though–as the primary voice of The Collection, he’s the one tasked with delivering the words that accompany all these tunes. His vocal styles are as diverse as the songs ask for: he whispers, sings, hollers, shouts and roars his way through the album. There are few vocalists as engaging as Wimbish: I don’t know if he’s going to break into falsetto or a terrifying roar at any given moment. It makes sense that Wimbish would collect an enormous number of instruments, because that seems like the only thing that could match the depth, disparity, and ferocity of his vocal stylings. My personal favorite line to yell along with is “and though my feet walk very slow, and there is death between my bones, I’ll make it home!” from “Broken Tether.”

I can remember individual lines, but keeping the incredible number of lyrics straight is challenge. Wimbish has written extremely detailed, thoughtful, and meaningful lyrics that don’t just skate the surface. There is hard-won experience documented here, and it’s difficult to look past it to just hear the beautiful, energetic music. Instead, the album is a whole experience. I very often listen to music while I work–this album does not allow that. This is an album that demands attention musically, lyrically, and emotionally. I can’t just hum a lyric here and there and not be moved. I mean, just go read his lyrics listed on the Bandcamp and see. This is not background music in any way, shape, or form. Again: Ars Moriendi is a whole experience.

I could go on about this album for 700 more words, but I’ll try to close here. Ars Moriendi is the sort of album that sucks you in with every song; there’s not a bad one in the bunch. That’s impressive in a 13-song album that’s nearly an hour long. Each song has an astonishing amount of carefully crafted lyrics, painstaking arrangements, moving performances, and brilliant production work. There are six or seven songs that would qualify as the best track on anyone else’s album. It is an album that challenges me emotionally, spiritually, and musically. It’s in the lead for my album of the year.

The last time someone seriously considered death and its consequences, it started The Arcade Fire on a course that resulted in the heights of musical success. Here’s to hoping the Collection sees that level of success–their work here merits it.

Sinai Vessel impresses with thoughtful lyrics amid emo adrenaline

April 24, 2014

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There’s an emo revival on, which is cool, because I loved emo in the early 2000s. (My copy of Andy Greenwald’s Nothing Feels Good is permanently within arms’ reach on my desk.) I loved that emotional vulnerability, adrenaline, and beauty could all be appreciated in the same band. It became uncool there for a while to be earnest, but I’m glad that irony is at least allowing enough space in the culture to let earnest thought to regroup a little bit.

Sinai Vessel doesn’t call their music emo, but they do call it “punk for sissies.” Both descriptors are thick with positive, negative, and re-appropriated positive connotations, which is a perfect situation for Sinai Vessel’s complex music. Songwriter Caleb Cordes does instill his brand of pop-punk with thoughtful lyrics and twinkly guitar reveries common of emo, but neither of these feel self-indulgent or trend-following. The songs on profanity [ep] are very catchy while being thoughtful, retaining that adrenaline that I so treasure in emo. I love Damien Jurado, but sometimes I want to scream about my introspection. Sinai Vessel offers that.

The majority of opener “cats” is actually not very punk-rock in its songwriting style; the mid-tempo tension is much more reminiscent of Dashboard Confessional or Death Cab for Cutie than The Wonder Years or Blink-182. The unassuming beginning allows for a shiver-inducing moment when the ratchet up to a pounding, hollering conclusion. “You mean everything to me,” indeed.

“Cuckold” reminds me of Say Anything in the vocal delivery and rhythmic style, while “Drown Around” makes good on the Pedro the Lion RIYL they sent me. (Longtime David Bazan collaborator TW Walsh mastered profanity.) “Flannery” invokes the Catholic author’s work and words to continue her conflicted feelings about the evil in the world and ourselves. It’s one of the most interesting lyrically and most enjoyable musically.

I’ve gotten this far without noting that David Wimbish of IC faves The Collection played brass, recorded, and mixed the record, but he totally did, and that’s awesome. Thoughtful lyrics, punk-rock adrenaline, David Wimbish, TW Walsh, and free? How can you pass this up? You shouldn’t. Sinai Vessel is an impressive outfit that I look forward to hearing more from. Highly recommended.

The Collection! Kickstarter! Important! Yes!

June 27, 2013

It is a profound mystery to me: when I have the most to do, I get inundated with beautiful music. I am all for it, as it makes the work pleasant; however, it’s hard to find time to tell everyone about it. I’m taking a break from the mixtapes (they’re almost done! truly!) to tell you about The Collection’s new album.

The Collection is one of my favorite bands that I’ve been blessed to find and know through this blog. David Wimbish and co.’s version of “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” was the opener on Never Give Up: 10 Years of Celebrating The Postal Service, and I couldn’t have been happier about it. When Wimbish sent over the Kickstarter for a new Collection album, I was so excited that I started telling all my friends personally about why they should support Ars Moriendi.

And boy, are there a lot of reasons.

1. Ars Moriendi is about the death of loved ones and how to deal with it. The last time this was the hook on an album, we got Funeral. This album has just as much potential as that one.

2. I once wrote, “If Wimbish keeps on this tack, his future music is going to be absolutely incredible.” It very much looks like both ends of that sentence have come to pass.

3. Since the band has 12 members, they have the largest amount of Kickstarter rewards I have ever seen, including multiple rewards at the same cost level. That’s just mindboggling.

4. This shiver-inducing song will be on the album. Tl;dr? Skip to 1:30 and let it wash over you.

So here’s their Kickstarter. And here’s their Kickstarter video:

Help them out! Put more good music into the world!!

ElisaRay offers powerful, beautiful folk/bluegrass songwriting

October 29, 2012

That old trope that “he/she could sing the phone book and I’d listen” does belie a fundamental truth: some artists connect with us in amounts that far surpass the normal (some would say appropriate) level of interest. Singer/songwriter David Wimbish is one of those for me. He exploded into my listening world with The Collection’s self-titled record, which I called “the most exciting album of the year” in 2011. Wimbish informed me about his more bluegrass-oriented group ElisaRay, and I found All Creatures thrilling as well.

The Collection is a new-folk group, based in the singer/songwriter tradition. Wimbish is not the primary songwriter here (Tommy Chesebro writes most of the songs and sings lead), so the trio’s primary sound on All Creatures is slightly different. The album is bluegrass-inspired, as guitar, string bass, banjo, and fiddle dominate the proceedings. Oh, and vocals; the group harmonies here are absolutely delightful. One of the most sublime moments in the whole album is the half-song “Intro,” which pairs a plaintive guitar line against three-part harmony. It falls in that perfect space between a hymn and a folk tune, as it segues perfectly into “Anxious,” one of the most singer/songwriter-oriented tunes on the album. Their voices are simply shiver-inducing; that element alone is enough to recommend this album to you.

“Rocks in My Stomach” is a downtrodden country tune, augmented by pedal steel and echoing percussion. It comes to a crashing conclusion, with Wimbish summoning a powerful roar from within him. When Wimbish puts his mind to something, he is a commanding presence. That roar also makes an appearance in the conclusion of the title track. “All Creatures” melds a gentle guitar line, swooping strings, and restrained vocals to allow for a cathartic conclusion. Oddly, the tune doesn’t include the banjo, making it the most like The Collection of the tunes here. I love it for that.

But Chesebro’s songwriting has its own charms aside from the influence of David Wimbish’s songwriting style. “Brother Caleb” uses interactions between the fiddle, bass and banjo to stand out, while “Hoping” is a heartrendingly beautiful boy/girl love song duet accompanied only by acoustic guitar. “Profound Distractions” employs a rattling, shuffling snare in its bluegrass/country amalgam.

It’s worth noting that “Outro” is a reprise of the gorgeous melody from “Intro,” but played on a piano; it sounds even more like a hymn than it did the first time. All Creatures doesn’t just get better from beginning to end, it gets better as you hear it more and more. This is an album you can live inside, and not just from a musical perspective; there’s a lot going on lyrically that I haven’t even touched on. It’s a beautiful, powerful release, and one that deserves your attention. Maybe you’ll become as taken by David Wimbish’s skills as I am.

Here it is: the most exciting album of the year.

November 28, 2011

Once in a blue moon I will come across a opening track so arresting that I start telling people about the album before I’ve even heard the whole first song. The Collection, the nom de plume of songwriter David Wimbish, has put out just such a song in “Dirt”: before the song ended, I was Facebooking my Jon Foreman-loving friend to say I’d found him a new favorite band. This ultimately turned out to be untrue: Foreman doesn’t ever end up yelling at the top of his lungs over his acoustic-led tunes, as Wimbish does in the electrifying “Lazarus” and powerful “Leper.” But it’s “Dirt” that glued me to this album.

“Dirt” is a perfect opener not because it’s flawless, but because it encapsulates everything I want to say about the Collection’s self-titled EP in a single unit. The first sound in the song is a poignant banjo melody, and the second is Wimbish’s gentle tenor vocals. The banjo underscores the fact that this is alt-folk of the Sufjan/Freelance Whales variety, but the sobriety of the melody evokes the gravitas of Damien Rice. The horns, strings and everything else that compose the EP’s extravagant arrangements show up later in the tune.

Wimbish’s pleasant, evocative vocals are a bit of a red herring, as he can use his voice in a number of different ways: quiet singing, falsetto, loud singing, full-bodied roaring, all-out screaming. This diversity of vocals is necessary due to the variety of emotions that Wimbish displays throughout the incredible 7-song EP: calm confidence, fear, desperation, enthusiasm, hope. Most of Wimbish’s songs form a lyrical arc, starting in one emotion and ending in another; this lets the music and lyrics unfold in a symbiotic relationship that creates incredibly satisfying tunes and enables the huge sweeps in emotion to be natural instead of forced.

But Wimbish isn’t just a brilliant lyricist: he also played literally every instrument (except a couple guest spots in “Jericho”) on this album, marking him an instrumental virtuoso that can play piano, horns, accordion, strings, flute, drums, auxiliary percussion and all manner of stringed strummers and pluckers. That’s absolutely incredible.

His melody and songwriting skills are top-shelf as well. “Stones” is a chipper tune that puts horns and glockenspiel to charming use, while the unusual strings of “Fever” create a brilliant foundation for a melody. “Jericho” lets a beautiful piano elegy lead the tune, while the aforementioned “Lazarus” has more adrenaline in its folky soul than I do most days. The raw emotional power of “Leper” is absolutely stunning. (Wimbish has ripped a page from the Page France book in naming all his tunes single words.)

As I alluded to earlier, it’s not perfect. It’s easily the most exciting display of raw songwriting talent that I’ve heard this year, but it still needs refining. Wimbish is prone to big, slab-like string-and-horn arrangements; think of the over-arching orchestra on Coldplay’s track “Viva La Vida” and you’ll get why “Dirt” isn’t my song of the year. He also has a tendency to over-arrange; “Dirt” could have stood with far less instruments, because the melody and lyrics are so incredibly powerful. Wimbish has a problem that I have rarely, if ever, encountered in ten years of reviewing: his lyrics and melodies are so good that they actually ask for less things happening than more. A stripped-down version of this EP would be just as good, if not better, than this full-out version. And you’ve just read how I’ve been gushing about the full-out version.

This is the most exciting album I’ve heard all year, and it’s almost December. If Wimbish keeps on this tack, his future music is going to be absolutely incredible. I’ve been listening to this for a month to make sure I’m not just blowing smoke, and I’m not. The Collection EP is a must-listen for everyone interested in folk, pop, singer/songwriter, and just good music. Sign me up on the “huge fan” list for The Collection.

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

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