Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Late February Singles

February 27, 2017

1. “Ich Cetera” – Austin Stahl. There’s not as much instrumental indie-rock in the world as I would like. This entry in the genre is a road-tripping song, a friendly and adventurous little tune underpinned by a stable drumline and guitar strum pattern. The Nick Drake-esque piano line is lovely as well.

2. “Retro Kid” – Retro Kid. “It comes into my head / the need to dance” is the refrain on this sleek, low-slung electro-pop gem. If all electro-dance were as slinky and winding, I might be out at the club more often. (And by the club, I mean “me in my living room, playing electro-pop at full blast”.)

3. “Stuck Between” – Klara Zubonja. An almost overwhelmingly twee introduction opens into an exuberant indie-pop track that’s a cross between the sass of Lily Allen, the coy subtlety of Regina Spektor, and the punchy arrangements of Ingrid Michaelson.

4. “Be Here Now” – Annabelle’s Curse. Genre-busting indie outfit Annabelle’s Curse returns with a song that, well, busts genres. There’s some alt-country, some indie-pop, some grungy indie-rock, and more crammed into this flowing, atypical song structure. Viva la invention.

5. “Pocketknife” – The Anchor Collective. The vocal melodies are front and center in this indie rock track, as not even a crunchy guitar section can take my ear away from the comforting, comfortable melodies that play out over the mostly-dreamy arrangement.

6. “Beth” – Paul Whitacre. Every now and then a song comes along that jumps out of the pack and says, “Listen to me!” This folk-pop tune with country guitar leads is a breath of fresh air in a crowded field, from the lovely melodies to the deft arrangement to the carefully organized lyrics to the immaculate production job. This is top-shelf work, people. Jump on it.

7. “Memorial Day” – Palm Ghosts. Dawes-esque Americana meets REM-style ’90s guitar-rock jangle in the sonic equivalent of a well-worn, trusty jacket. You may not have heard this song before, but it will feel familiar and great as soon as you do.

8. “Rosanna” – Mike Llerena. This song has punk rock vocal tone and melodies, doo-wop rhythms, and alt-country guitar tone. All three of those genres have heart-on-sleeve tendencies, and they’re on full display here in this “sad, spurned lover” lyric set. If you’re into 500 Miles to Memphis, you’ll be all up on this.

9. “Savior’s Hand” – Colin Onderdonk. Powerful vocals and a spartan arrangement consisting almost entirely of rumbling toms and wiry string bass creates a sonic environment that mirrors the lyrics that describe a weary traveler in an ominous, dangerous land.

10. “The Conversation of the Street Lights Will Pass as Quickly as Our Words” – The Bowling Alley Sound. This stuttering, wide-eyed, major-key post rock tune includes burbling guitars, soaring bass work, evocative (and high quality) found sound / spoken word clips, and a delightful sense of motion through the whole piece. Fans of The Album Leaf, Delicate Steve, Adebisi Shank, and other major-key post-rock will find much to love in this.

11. “The Naked Mind” – Ryan Svendsen. I’ve never heard a piece composed entirely of looped, layered trumpet lines and percussion. The trumpet is naturally an instrument prone to brash melodies, long melodic runs, and alternation between mellow and sharp tones, and all of that is on display here. There’s a hypnotic groove to the piece through the repetition of the theme that is only increased by the eruption of the percussion partway through. Adventurous listeners: rejoice!

12. “Himalaya” – Klangriket. By including lots of atmospheric, foley-type sounds, this song becomes both a minimalist soundtrack and the movie it is scoring. It’s a distinct, unique, very adventurous sonic experience that blends classical, post-rock, found sound, and soundtracks together.

Quick Hits: Eric and Happie / The Soldier Story / M. Lockwood Porter

December 19, 2016

Eric and Happie‘s It’s Yours is a pristine example of a male/female duo folk-pop album in 2016. The eight songs of the album rarely feature more than guitar/bass/drums, which is just the way I like it. The subtle inclusions of ukulele, strings, and accordion provide great accent to the tracks. Eric and Happie are credited with vocals on every track. It’s an uncomplicated collection of tunes that works excellently.

The songs are not as high-drama as those of The Civil Wars, nor as perky as The Weepies’; it’s not as radio-curated as The Lumineers’ work (with the exception of “Falling For You,” which is a romp complete with “hey!”s). Instead, these are folk songs with pop melodies that you can sing along to with ease. There are romantic songs (the title track, “Falling for You,” “A Dream”), travel songs (“Louisiana,” “Oklahoma,” “Stranger”), and more poetic offerings (“They’ll Never Take Us Alive”).

The tunes often land in the realm of Jenny and Tyler’s early work, which was warm, friendly, and pop-oriented. It’s a pure, unadulterated sound that often doesn’t last past a few albums, as the lure of larger arrangements draws so many. (And those larger arrangements can be awesome too.) But there’s a special glow that shines off an intimate, simply-wrought album like this; that lightning in a bottle is rarely caught.

The Soldier Story‘s Flowers for Anonymous inhabits a dusky, complex space triangulated between the suave nighttime antics of Bloc Party, the howling reveries of The Walkmen, and the manic fever of MuteMath’s first record. The songs of this record absorb the best bits of each of those bands and synthesize them into something new and fresh. The trick here is that Colin Meyer has the chops to pull off frantic, mathy indie-rock, but he distills those melodic and rhythmic tendencies into tension-laden mid-tempo pieces that are just as ghostly as they are grounded.

Tunes like “Drifting Apart” have patterned guitar leads, syncopated drumbeats, whirling vocals, and more, but in the service of a subdued, push-and-pull mood. Follow-up “Talk With Our Eyes” barely contains the underlying power and passion, as it spikes up through the tension in the form of synths, drums, glitchy beats, and more. It’s a tune that carries the OK Computer torch, updating the “contemporary technological fears in sonic form” palette. (It’s not surprising that various eras of Radiohead are a touchstone for these pieces as well.)

But Meyer isn’t all chaotic rock filtered through massive restraint filters. Elsewhere Meyer turns his penchant for complex, burbling guitar lines into an indie-pop mold, creating beautiful, subtle tunes like “Life is Short” and “An Overdue Farewell.” These tunes balance Meyer’s complicated arrangements with his smooth, airy, at-times-feathery vocal melodies. He can soar with the best of them, but he can also disappear off into the distance. This tension between the chaotic and the delicate is a powerful element in making Flowers for Anonymous a big success. There aren’t many people making music like this; adventurous listeners will greatly enjoy hearing Meyer’s carefully constructed sonic landscapes.

I’m pretty far behind the bandwagon on reviewing M. Lockwood Porter‘s How to Dream Again, even though I have it on vinyl. It’s been getting a ton of accolades from people like Paste and No Depression, so it’s been doing pretty well without me chiming in. But as a person who’s reviewed both Judah’s Gone and 27, I did have a few thoughts that maybe haven’t been said before. (Probably not.)

The new lyrical direction of How to Dream Again has been getting a lot of play: it’s a protest record, save for three love songs at the beginning of the record, and it’s an incisive, thoughtful turn. It pushes on both on internal problems (“Sad/Satisfied”) and external issues (every other song) in a style that’s more Woody Guthrie than Bob Dylan; there aren’t a whole lot of stacked metaphors, but there is a whole lot of direct analysis. Porter also continues to grapple with religion, this time taking God to task over the question of God’s lack of direct intervention on issues of injustice. It’s a question that has resonated through the ages, and one that fits in a protest album. Even if Porter and I come to different conclusions on the matter, the question is real and remains.

The musical direction is also different, albeit more slightly. The songs here are a synthesis of the folk of Porter’s first record and the American rock’n’roll of his second; the troubadour folk style that comes along with protest lyrics is present throughout as well. The three sounds come together to make a mature sound for Porter, one that may not be his last stop (who among us can claim to be in our final form?), but certainly indicates his direction. There are dashes of Dawes (“Sad/Satisfied”) in the rhythmic vocal delivery, rattling ’50s rock’n’roll throughout, and more things thrown in the pot. The title track, which closes the album, brings it all together into a very American amalgam. It’s Porter’s distinct voice that leads the way, adding the final element to make the sound unique. If you’re into protest music or American folk/rock/other, How to Dream Again should be on your to-hear list. It probably already is.

Josiah and the Bonnevilles: A stake in the ground, a magnetic voice

July 5, 2016

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Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning left an indelible mark on my musical brain. I’ve never liked anything that Conor Oberst has put out so thoroughly: the neurotic energy, youthful fervor, and surrealist lyrics fit perfectly with that specific rambunctious alt-country backdrop. I seek out shades of those raw, impassioned blasts of acoustic guitar and barked vocals wherever I can. Josiah and the Bonnevilles‘ Cold Blood EP is the direct successor of that landmark album. It’s a stake in the ground that establishes the outfit as one to watch: a specific vision expertly handled within the goalposts of a genre framework that people are already familiar with.

The title track took five seconds to entrance me: Josiah calls out into empty space “I’ve got a girl / she only puts out water in the night, in the day, and in the morning”  over a nimble fingerpicking pattern. His tenor has a rough edge on it, tempered a bit by the gentle reverb added to it: it’s a magnetic, arresting voice. The rest of the band tag-teams their band through the song: a solitary tambourine is joined by a shaker to create the full percussion line; the round, full bass opens the song up; and the marimba (what) gives a mysterious air to the tune. Instruments come in and fall out (strings! background vocals!), but the whole thing is guided confidently toward a full product by Josiah’s bent, worried lyrics and evocative vocal performance. It’s an expertly crafted tune that you need to hear.

The other three tunes build on the promise of the first track. “Can You Hear It” amps up the singalong vibe and throws down a jaunty piano line to buoy the major-key song. “Lie to Me” returns to the minor key and bashes out a full-band apology to a girl in a relationship that’s falling apart; this one reprises the tambourine from “Cold Blood” and the piano of “Can You Hear It,” but puts in a full drumkit to come up with the most rock-oriented track here. It would sound like Dawes if Josiah’s voice sounded anything like Taylor Goldsmith’s. Closer “Long Gone” features more fingerpicking in a slightly unusual pattern that seems to be tripping over itself trying to get to the end of the riff, perfectly mirroring the narrator’s activity in the song. The band floats in for a final chorus, but it’s most a solo effort, showing Josiah’s troubadour abilities.

The four-song EP is gone much too quickly, but the songs are of such diversity (and such high quality) that you can just loop it back to the beginning and you’ll be good to go for another twelve minutes (or 24, or 36, or…). It’s that good. Call it alt-country, alt-folk, whatever; you’ll know what it is when you hear it. The shadow of youthful alt-countriers past hangs over it but never engulfs it; instead Josiah points the way toward his own path. I’m verging on the purple prose here, but the songs really are that good. Josiah and the Bonneville’s Cold Blood EP is a remarkable first effort that shows off unique arranging skills, intriguing vocals, and strong overall songs. I can’t wait to hear more from this outfit. Highly recommended.

Premiere: A Valley Son’s “Lights in the Sky”

June 10, 2016

Folk-rock, alt-country, and indie-rock fuse in A Valley Son’s “Lights in the Sky”: it’s got call-and-response vocals, crunchy guitar twang, and a breakdown instrumental outro. The song is such a tight marriage of the three genres that it’s not entirely productive to discuss it more than to get you interested.

Trey Powell’s baritone vocals lead the tune, giving way occasionally to bright, crunchy electric guitar work between sections. The band is really tight: the arrangement feels comfortable and assured, giving the vocals just the right amount of space without blending amorphously into the background. (And check out that rad instrumental outro, too.) The backup vocalists play a big part in the atmosphere of the song, coming in consistently as support at the end of verse lines and throughout the chorus. Their efforts contribute to the warm, collective feel of the tune.

“Lights in the Sky” is a top-shelf tune that should help put the band in the conversation with much more established bands. It’s more alt-country than The Low Anthem, but not so much as the Old ’97s; I immediately thought of the major-key alt-country of Denver’s 4H Royalty as a comparable sound. Dawes and Ivan & Alyosha also would fit as peers. If you’re into noisier folk-inspired work, this track will be right up your alley.

This song is the first single off A Valley Son’s debut release Sunset Park, which will drop late July/early August. If you’re going to be in the Northeast, you can check the band out on these dates:

June 11th, The Fire (Philly Single Release) – Philadelphia, PA
June 18th, The Waystation, Brooklyn, NY
June 24th, DROM (NYC Single Release), NY, NY
July 8th, Hometown, Brooklyn, NY
August 13th, Union Hall, Brooklyn, NY

Trio: Midnight Pilot / Marc with a C / Trevor Green

March 31, 2016

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Midnight Pilot has spent a lot of time since their last release listening to new music. Their latest EP The Good Life expands on their previous alt-country-meets-Paul-Simon palette in all directions, throwing in sunshiny indie-pop melodies, Dawes-ian roots rock, and even some Muse-esque high drama rock. Listeners are in for some sharp lefts and unexpected detours, but they’ll end up with a smile nonetheless.

The opening cut makes their new approach obvious from the getgo, as “Offer Up My Love” has a “woo-woo-ooo” chorus that will put you in a breezy Southern California mood. It’s dropped right into their roots-rock verses, which isn’t as jarring as it would seem from writing that out. The rock has an American tinge, like Ivan and Alyosha’s. The title track is even more wide-open rock’n’roll, a major-key romp that declares: “I’m living the good life / nothing comes easy / I’m living the good life / for free / yeah-yeah / yeah-yeah.”

Things get a bit darker on “Follow Where You Lead,” which has disco vibes in the bass rhythms and stabbing string style, but has some Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois approaches to background vocals in the intro. The chorus is a bit sunnier than the minor key verses, but still the song has “drama” written over it. This is most spectacularly evident in the deconstructed bridge section, which drops to almost nothing before ramping up to an almost Muse-esque wall of noise. Closer “You’re My Friend” splits the difference between major and minor keys with some ’80s influences and Beach Boy ba-da-da-das. It’s eclectic, but it all hangs together.

The Good Life is an EP that shows a band experimenting and maturing rapidly. To hold together as many influences as they’ve included in this EP while still maintaining a recognizable core sound is no easy feat for any band. That all of the four songs are enjoyable is even more impressive; these aren’t just technical feats, they’re enjoyable ones. If you’re into good ‘ol American music, check out Midnight Pilot’s latest.

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Marc with a C is a pop culture-addicted goofball with an insightful eye on culture at large. He’s the sort of guy who can and will critique the unspoken presumptions of our culture (“Ethics in Gaming”–a Gamergate reference, but the song isn’t about Gamergate), dedicate a whole song to an elaborate dick joke (“The Ballad of Dick Steel”), incisively analyze interpersonal relationships (“Epic Fail”), ask the hard questions that we all wonder about under the guise of joking statements (“Where’s My Giant Robot”) and suckerpunch listeners with a beautiful love song that includes one of the best twists I’ve heard in a long time (“Make You Better”) in one album. All that right there is enough to commend Unicorns Get More Bacon to you.

The music is solid too.  The bulk of the tunes on Unicorns Get More Bacon are stripped down power-pop tunes played on electric or acoustic guitar, although towards the end Marc invests in some larger arrangements to go with some of his longer songs. The tunes have hummable melodies and instruments that don’t get in the way of the lyrics or the melodies, which is important–this album is pretty squarely about the lyrics.

This is also a bit of a “solo” record; you want to hear this one on your own to get to know it and love it. Or, you can get to know it with friends who will learn the lyrics and sing along with you very loudly. That would work too. But it’s not a record that works as background music–Marc with a C wants to talk with you on Unicorns Get More Bacon, and if you’re interested in Marc’s fourth-wall-breaking, here-there-and-everywhere lyrical style, you’ll have a great time in that conversation.

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Trevor Green‘s Voice of the Wind is somewhat like an Indigenous Australian Graceland; the Californian Green, who already included didgeridoo in his music, actually traveled to Australia to learn more about the music of that country before making this album. The songs are a mix of laidback folk, Australian music, and modern indie-rock touches.

The main difference from Graceland is that Paul Simon wanted to make a pop record that celebrated South African sounds with his own, very American lyrics on top–Green’s songs draw heavily not only from the sounds of the land, but the lyrics and religious themes of the land. The second difference is in seriousness: Voice sounds more like The Shepherd’s Dog-era Iron & Wine than a pop record, as the folk and Australian sounds mesh in ways that evoke Sam Beam’s attempts at expanding his intimate sound to include more instruments.

This means that the album is by turns incredibly intense and then very solemn; tunes like “Red Road” are a breath of fresh air next to tunes which sound like Tusk-era Fleetwood Mac. But throughout the whole record, there’s a very clear sense of being outside the normal bounds of what acoustic music is generally like. If you’re adventurous, Trevor Green’s Voice of the Wind is a trip worth taking.

Dan Hubbard: Confident, world-weary folk-rock

March 4, 2016

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Dan Hubbard‘s self-titled record is an intimate, world-weary collection of folk-rock tunes penned by a veteran songwriter.

Hubbard has a smooth tenor voice that hits like a Midwestern Jason Isbell or Adam Duritz (of the Counting Crows)–the sort of lithe, confident voice that uses vibrato and other flourishes to display tension and emotion easily. “February” and “More I Live, Less I Know” are incredible vocal performances that are both seemingly effortless and also weighted down with the tension of years of woe. (Relatedly, these tunes have a kindred spirit with Bruce Springsteen’s work, both musically and lyrically–check “She Gives It Everything” for more proof.)

Musically Hubbard is a pro–the songwriting here is tight, the arrangements are impeccable, and the songs seem to roll off his guitar. The pickin’-and-grinnin’ “Straw Hat,” the Civil Wars-style ballad “Tired of Loving You,” and the Dawes-esque roots-rock tune “Come Tomorrow” are confident entries in their respective songwriting veins, despite being different from each other in a variety of ways. “And The Music” is the quiet end of his sonic spectrum, as stand-up bass thrums imperially to underpin a gently tumbling fingerpicking pattern and Hubbard’s most memorable vocal melodies of the record. The coda of the tune is the sort of melody that people latch on to and don’t forget, a “Ho Hey” for people ten years later.

That lyric that accompanies the indelible melody is representative of the lyrics throughout: “I remember when God left / and the angels left / and you were there / you were there.” The world-weariness, questioning of religion, and hope in relationships (in this case, an old friend) to get us through are all over the record. Whether you agree with his conclusions or not, the lyrics push hard on the way the world is, could be, and perhaps should be. That’s the sort of lyrics I want to hear.

Hubbard’s self-titled record is a confident record of folk-rock from a veteran of the genre. It shows in strong songwriting, well-developed lyrics, and an overall sense that Hubbard was really going for it on this one. Dan Hubbard should be on your to-hear list.

 

Annabelle’s Curse: Everything all at once in their own way

December 10, 2015

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Sometimes there’s a singular moment that pulls together everything you need to know and delivers it on a crystal platter. That moment comes early on Worn Out Skin by Annabelle’s Curse. When Carly Booher picks up the second verse of opener “Lovedrunk Desperado,” her voice floats perfectly above the yearning banjo, the pressing drumbeat, and the thrumming bass. It’s a contrast of fragility and intensity. Her delivery is confident yet vulnerable, assured yet emotional and open to possibility. It seems like hyperbole to pack this much into a single performance, but the rest of the album backs up the shivers that track one gave me. As a result, Worn Out Skin is one of the best releases of the year in any genre.

Annabelle’s Curse is ostensibly some sort of alt-country band, but that’s only a starting place for reference points: Josh Ritter, Dawes, Lumineers, Civil Wars, you name it, they’ve got a toe in the sound. But they combine their influences so deftly that from song one they’ve got their own take on the genre. “Rich Valley” is a jubilant folk-pop song with a beautiful/powerful chorus; “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothes” is a soft, careful, ominous tune that calls up the masterful moods of The Barr Brothers before opening up into a shuffling country rumination of sorts. The enthusiastic “Brother In Arms” has serious indie-rock cred with a non-ironic saxophone leading the melody, while “Skinny Dipping” throws evocative synths and flutes under a flying banjo riff and a Needtobreathe vocal line. “Snake in the Rafters” is a vulnerable but sophisticated confessional that Josh Ritter or Paul Simon could have penned, paired with a nimble guitar line the equal of both those luminaries. I could go on, but you get the point: these songs are diverse.

But more than diverse, they’re deeply moving. “Snake in the Rafters,” as I noted, is the highlight on that front, as Tim Kilbourne opens up with a sober, spare look at what’s in the hearts of men: “hold me down/crush my sins/tell me I’m different from evil men/won’t you tell me I’m different from evil men.” I don’t know about you, but I felt those lyrics go pretty deep down. Elsewhere they reminisce about the innocence of youth (“Skinny Dipping”) and the goodness of finding a partner (“Cornerstone”) in ways that spin cliches on their head. “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” doesn’t spin the cliche: instead, the narrator inhabits and expands it to great effect. It’s rare for me to find a lyricist that just nails me to the wall on the first listen, but Kilbourne’s got a whale of a hammer in his pen.

So the songwriting is astonishing and the lyrics are brilliant, but what of the performances and recording? Worry not–they’re spot-on. The performances are each of the beautiful quality that I mentioned earlier, and the production job corrals all their disparate ideas and wide-ranging influences into warm, inviting wholes. From tip to tail, this album knocks it out of the park. I can’t recommend this highly enough. Worn Out Skin by Annabelle’s Curse is just a remarkable album that you really need to hear. I expect to be listening to it for years to come.

Quick Hits: Minimus the Poet / Burnside & Hooker / Rob Nance

July 14, 2015

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Minimus the Poet‘s Empathy EP is driven by evocative drums and punchy guy/girl vocals. It’s no surprise the EP opens with 14 seconds of toms before vocals and light guitar come in: the indie-rock sextet’s percussion gives more than just structure and rhythm to the tracks. In tunes like the title track and “Lightning Rod,” the mood is dictated by the kit’s contributions. The motion of “Empathy” fluctuates with the drumming patterns; “Lightning Rod” sees the rest of the band play off the consistent, complex beats.

The guy-girl vocal harmonies are part of the tension there, and they shine throughout (“Molasses,” “Rust”). The vocalists both temper and empower the drums: on “Rust,” the vocalists in several places sing directly over the drumming with the rest of the band (acoustic guitar, electric guitar, piano) out. It’s a fascinating pairing that gets at the core of Minimus the Poet’s sound. If you’re into driving indie rock with folky overtones, give Empathy a try.

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If alt-country was an antidote to the musically and lyrically whitewashed pastorals of Hot Country, Burnside & Hooker‘s All the Way to the Devil adheres to the third option: aggressive country. By the time that we’ve made it to the end of track six, people have been murdered (and/or framed for murder, and/or dragged to hell), souls have been sold to the devil, and several bad breakups have occurred. (There are eight more songs to go.) To accompany these tunes of the West’s seedy side are tunes that sound like country mashed up with hard rock–the apex of which being “Momma Said,” which is essentially a Joan Jett song that includes no acoustic instrumentation whatsoever.

“Mistaken” is more indicative of their general approach: there’s a clearly recognizable ominous western guitar chassis, outfitted with searing electric guitar and garnished by Rachel Bonacquisti’s ferocious vocals. (No one dies in this one, though.) Bonacquisti’s impressive roar is a staple throughout these 14 tunes, as she can create a menacing howl or a sultry come-hither. All the Way to the Devil is the crunchy, seedy, violent music that would be playing in Wild West saloons, should they still exist in 2015. (That’s a compliment, lest anyone in Burnside & Hooker take that the wrong way and track me down.)

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Before alt-country, though, there was Laurel Canyon country–that laid-back, California-born style that was as indebted to sunny vibes, highway driving, and beach surf as the high desert. Rob Nance‘s Signal Fires is a perfect example of the warm, relaxed style. (Dawes is also plying a version of the sound recently, although All Your Favorite Bands has a significantly more somber vibe than Nance’s latest.) Just because you can turn it on and chill out doesn’t mean that the songwriting is lazy or slacker-y; on the contrary, Nance’s songwriting here is tight and clear. With acoustic-laden recordings this transparent, every mistake would have shown up–no fuzzed-out, heavy-reverb guitar to hide the faults.

No, Signal Fires is the work of a musician paying deep attention to his craft. Just check out opener “No Gold” for an example: there are few better examples of sun-dappled country that I’ve heard. Elsewhere Nance focuses more on his husky low-tenor voice than sprawling song structures; “Landslide Town” and the title track are just as good for the choice. Nance pays homage to his forebears with the traditional country tune “On My Way,” and it fits nicely between the jazzy “Shelter” and the more upbeat “Dear Shadow.” Signal Fires is an album that can keep you company on no-deadlines journeys and lackadaisical afternoons–it’s an impeccably written and recorded album that succeeds in sounding like it wasn’t that much work at all.

Midnight Pilot: Strings! Organ! Horns! Alt-country!

May 5, 2015

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Bands come and go through the doors of Independent Clauses–some shine bright and disappear, while others put on the slow burn to the top. Midnight Pilot is one of the latter, as I’ve been covering them (under the name Ringer T) since 2005.

In an era with fewer “sure things” in terms of economics, it’s remarkable that bands like Midnight Pilot just keep on keepin’ on. Their self-titled debut album under their rebranded new name is a crunchy slice of Americana-tinged alt-country that shows off their depth of songwriting experience.

I’ve often compared the work that Grant Geertsma, Kyle Schonewill and Kris Schonewill create to Paul Simon mixed with the alt-country band du jour. While the vocals still can attain a Rhymin’ Simon sweetness, Midnight Pilot sees them cranking the guitars a bit. Standout “Let Loose” is a perfect title for a biting, ominous rocker that has some Drive-by Truckers influences in the verses. They don’t go full guitar onslaught, though: the chorus includes hooky “ba-ba” and “whoa-oh-oh” vocals.

No matter where the band takes the sound, their core competency is memorable, hummable melodies. The slow-build roar of “Give Me What You Gave to Him,” the NeedtoBreathe-esque “Take Me There,” the piano-driven ballad “Better Man”–Midnight Pilot is in the business of hooks.

Where their previous albums were often intimate affairs, Midnight Pilot is a hugely orchestrated effort. Opener “Give Me What You Gave To Him” signals this by bringing a full gospel choir for the final crescendo. (There’s no better way to telegraph you’re going big than that.) “Takin My Chances” and “Birds Fly South” employ horn sections in two very different ways: the former in a Motown milieu, the latter in a flamenco flamboyance.

“Better Man” and “By My Side” incorporate big string sections (okay, several songs include big strings), while tunes like “Taking My Chances” and “Break In” put the contributions of their newest member, Dustin Wise on keys, to great use. “Break In” stacks strings and keys, making it a standout track. It helps that Geertsma can still really soar a vocal line, too. He gets his snarl on in a couple songs, giving them a bit of a gritty scrub. While the overall sound is upbeat and friendly, those rockers let frustration peek out.

Midnight Pilot is an album that shows the band in full-out, going-for-it mode. The quartet has poured their efforts into these songs, and it shows. The final product is akin to a more highly orchestrated version of Dawes’ alt-country and Americana rock, with some downtempo Simon-esque pop songs thrown in. It’s an impressive collection of tunes that unveil charms with every subsequent listen. If you’re into Americana/alt-country, Midnight Pilot needs to be on your radar. Their album drops today.

Quick Hit: The Painted Horses

March 17, 2015

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I’ve listened to The Painted Horses‘ full-length debut Ponderosa Pines maybe half a dozen times through, and the element that always strikes me is how thoroughly it inhabits my expectations of alt-country. The band plays earnest, acoustic-led, wide-open tunes with Laurel Canyon sweetness, down-home vibes, and a relaxed ethos.

There aren’t any genre mash-ups, curveballs, or left hooks in the ten-song collection. Instead, the band delivers a set of earnest tunes that are solid through and through. From gentle single “Much Too Long” to the pure harmonies of “Desert Skies” to the rolling fingerpicking of “In the Garden” to the saloon piano of “September Rain” and the high lonesome-esque “Black Water,” there are no weak points in the album.

Piano graces the scene here and there; violins waver in and out; the bass bounces up and down like you expect it to. Pedal steel and organ make a cameo in “Georgia.” The whole thing is capped off by tenor vocals that seem to be the human embodiment of the sound they float above (or vice versa, I suppose). If you’re looking for a gentler Dawes, a more upbeat Mojave 3, or something beautiful, I can heartily recommend The Painted Horses’ Ponderosa Pines to you on March 27.

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

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