The mix of an album can tell you a lot about the priorities of its creators. Dylan Dickerson’s frantic, fractured voice is cranked about as high in the mix of Dear Blanca‘s Pobrecito as possible, which tells me that they care about the raw, ragged, real aspects of performance. Look no farther than the wordless, anguished roar that is the chorus of “Showplace” for proof. The intense alt-country songwriting behind the pipes matches Dickerson’s careening, manic vocal quality. In other words, Conor Oberst and Dickerson would have plenty to talk about.
But like Bright Eyes, Dickerson and co. aren’t all raging fury. The (relatively) pensive “Noma” includes a musical saw that gives the tune a Neutral Milk Hotel feel (Mangum, of course, being another vocalist who celebrated the rough edges of his non-traditional voice). Dickerson can write a pop song, too: “Huff” has a great guitar riff and a (relatively) restrained vocal performance. But it’s loud, noisy alt-country rock that is his natural home, which is why even the rhythmically tight, acoustic-led “Priscilla” turns into a torrent of guitar distortion and a repeated hollering of the titular character’s name in the chorus. Closer “Cadmus” starts off quiet with acoustic guitar, organ, and female vocals before introducing pounding toms into the tune. Hey, if you’re good at a thing, do that thing.
You like the stomping work of the Drive-By Truckers? Dear Blanca is like the Drive-In-And-Stay-In-Your-Front-Yard-Yelling-Until-You-Come-Out Truckers. Pobrecito is a sweat-drenched, passionate, powerful set of noisy alt-country tunes that will occasionally give you shivers.
The mid-’00s were a good time for indie-pop music, with bands like Annuals, Decemberists, Grandaddy, and the Shins purveying a very particular type of giddy, instrument-stuffed pop music that wasn’t being well-represented on the radio. Koria Kitten Riot picks up that torch of shiny, acoustic-led, maximalist indie-pop on Rich Men Poor Men Good Men. It’s the sort of album that includes coconuts imitating horse clip-clops in a way that sounds totally natural (“The Lovers That You’ve Never Had”). It’s twee without being overly cute in the vocals, or serious vocals with a whimsical touch to the arrangements.
“A Last Waltz” stands out as one of the highlight tracks not because it’s particularly more charming that the rest of the tunes here, but because it’s a touch darker. The rest of the album can flow together as one wonderful experience, but track three points itself out as a great track by showing the diversity the band is able to deliver (while still not damaging the flow of the record). “Today’s Been a Beautiful Day” nicks not only the sound but the joyful irony of the era, pairing one of the most chipper melodies and arrangements on the record with a song about a person who gets hit by a car and dies. (Oops, spoilers.) Follow-up “Carpathia” sounds a bit like a brit-pop tune, what with the wistful reverb, processed strings, and discrete acoustic strumming; it’s a nice change of mood that stands out as a highlight.
If you’re into cheerful, instrument-stuffed indie-pop, you’ll find a ton to love in Koria Kitten Riot. You can listen to the whole album and let it wash over your mood, or you can listen to individual tunes; it matters not. It will make you smile either way.
Bishop Allen was also doing quirky indie-pop in the mid ’00s, and they’ve since gotten a bit noisier than their indie-pop masterpiece The Broken String. I think they still count as indie-pop on Lights Out, but they’re certainly creeping closer to power-pop.
They make it clear with opener “Start Again,” which is all buzzy synths, classy dance-rock guitars, and propulsive percussion. “Bread Crumbs” makes the dance-rock vibes even more explicit, putting together a wicked bass groove, a protoypical piano hook, and a minimum of lyrics. (And, because this is Bishop Allen, there’s also a bass-heavy horn section.) “Crows” involves some of their traditional quirky rhythms (Latin/island, a la “Like Castanets”), chill melodies, and pristine arrangements, but with a funky bass line. It’s way fun. “Skeleton Key” is another funky tune that’s worth remembering.
The overall sound of Lights Out is more matured, even with the dance-rock tendencies: it’s a poised, refined musicality that runs through the record. The lyrics reflect that aging as well; there are more references to hard times, the existential crises of adulthood (“No Conditions”), and that most adult of rituals: leaving the party early (“Why I Had To Go”). But they never get heavy-handed, morose, or grumpy. It’s a band that grew up, but kept their pop song skills with them. Mazel tov! Here’s to Bishop Allen: long may you write.
Wherein I Remember That I Mostly Listen to Music With Acoustic Guitars In It
1. “So, what exactly does it say?” – The Weather Machine. I loved Joe Pug’s first record lyrically, and I love Passenger’s vocal stylings now. Mash them together, and my heart melts. Add in steel drums, and you end up as the lead track on an MP3 mix. Super excited to hear more of this album.
2. “Passing Ships” – The Travelling Band. If you wish the Decemberists would go back to being flamboyant and triumphant musically, The Travelling Band might be your solution. Cello, piano, speedy drums and group vocals swirl around in a wonderfully theatrical way.
3. “Walk Away” – The Bone Chimes. There’s a lot of musical theater going on in this interesting indie-pop track, from the vocal stylings to high-drama arrangements to even a carnival music section.
4. “Sour” – Tim Fitz. There’s downers psych, uppers psych, and giddy psych. This shimmery track fits that latter category. Its favorite color is probably neon green and neon pink, because it can’t pick just one.
5. “Doin’ It to You” – Luke Sweeney. Everybody needs a slice of happy-go-lucky, charming, perky SanFran indie-pop every now and then.
6. “Way Out Weather” – Steve Gunn. Gunn opens up a classic space with this rolling arrangement, as if Joe Walsh got a little folkier.
7. “Roll the Dice” – Charles Mansfield. If The Mountain Goats had a bit more ’50s-pop nostalgia, they might turn out charming, perky, intelligent songs like this one.
8. “Noma” – Dear Blanca. With outrage in the left hand, depression in the right, and a singing saw in the third hand, “Noma” manages to be brash and raucous without being fast or particularly noisy. Impressive tune!
9. “Get Your Fill of Feelin’ Hungry” – Jay Brown. James Taylor is underappreciated in indie circles for his pristine melodies, tight guitarwork, and general great songsmithing. Jay Brown appreciates those qualities; “Get Your Fill” is smooth, tight, and melodically memorable. Whatever you call it (pop, folk, singer/songwriter, etc.), this is great songwriting.
10. “Under the Weather” – The Good Graces. Alt-country and indie-pop haven’t had enough crossover, I think. The Good Graces are making that happen, with the swaying arrangements of the former and the quirky vocal melodies of the latter in this fun tune. Also, horns!!
11. “Seasons” – Palm Ghosts. Folk loves its sadness, but this beautiful song is warm nostalgia in song form.
12. “Childhood Home” – The Healing. This pensive alt-country tune has that rare, magical male/female duet connection. The chorus is haunting and yet comforting; it’s a powerful tune.
13. “Lion’s Lair” – Red Sammy. “I like Megadeth / I don’t like Slayer,” relates the narrator in this quiet, lovely, lonely alt-country track reminiscent of Mojave 3. Caught my attention for sure.
I’ve been behind on MP3s and videos, so there’s going to be a lot of them posted in the next few days in addition to album reviews. I’m breaking my “one post a day” rule, but I’ll get back there shortly enough.
Fun in the Sun
1. “Bring You Down” – Ships Have Sailed. Oh man, remember early 2000s indie pop-rock? Like Watashi Wa and stuff? The bright-eyed sound, the self-abasing lyrics, the high harmonies, the twinkly guitars? It’s all here. I can’t help but love this song entirely. That lead riff is just so great.
2. “Bitter Branches” – Static in Verona. I’ve always got room in my heart for a pulse-pounding, towering power-pop song. This one features high, melodic, non-aggressive vocals. It’ll be in your head for a while.
3. “Silhouettes” – Colony House. Are you looking for a fun, upbeat rock track to blast in a car? Here’s my pick for this week.
4. “Boulders” – Dear Blanca. Dear Blanca’s Talker was one of my favorite records of 2013, so it’s thrilling to hear the noisy folk/rock band back with an even tighter sound and lyrical sense. Can we get this band on tour with Conor Oberst already? Please and thank you.
5. “Figure Eight” – Pageant. Peppy acoustic guitars get kicked into overdrive by electric organ and hyperactive drums, turning a folky/poppy tune into a charging pop-rock tune. Fresh, tight, and fun.
6. “Insults and Polemics” – Wall-Eyed. I bet you’ve never head a punk band mashed up with a Norteño band. I bet you’ve never heard a Norteño band. I bet you’re really going to like it.
8. “Come Up and See” – Tree Dwellers. Instrumental hip-hop with an acoustic bent: we’ve got acoustic guitars, cello, and Spanish guitar vibes going on here. Totally cool.
9. “Could Be Real” – Diners. Lazy, chilled-out, but not chillwave, this acoustic (but not folk!) band carves out the hardest space: the space that’s always been there. This is pop music, for real.
10. “Licorice the Dog” – Kye Alfred Hillig. Hillig has been on a songwriting bender lately, pushing the bounds of prolific by doing all of his songwriting in vastly different genres. “Licorice” sees him return to his hometown of intimate singer/songwriter music with great results.
The album is not endangered, but it certainly hasn’t been as interesting to me as EPs this year. That’s not because people aren’t making good albums, but because people have been seriously upping their EP game. Still, there are a bunch of great albums that came out this year that rightly deserve praise.
10. Talker – Dear Blanca. Frantic alt-country with unusual instrumentation (saxophone!) and influences.
9. Third Generation Hymnal – Venna. Passionate, female-led modern folk that balances earnest performances and high-quality songwriting deftly.
8. Forty Bells – Brave Baby. This is what indie-rock sounds like in 2013: chiming guitars, pushing rhythms, yawping vocals, and a great sense of atmosphere to cap it all off.
7. Ripely Pine – Lady Lamb the Beekeeper. In the best debut of the year, Aly Spaltro has crafts whole worlds in her songs. Her winding, unexpected, sensational arrangements are matched with her powerful, even shocking voice. Incredibly unique, incredibly strong.
6. Wolf Eggs – The Parmesans. Three guys in a room playing easygoing, charming bluegrass/folk. All the trapping you’d expect in bluegrass are here (harmonies, solos, riffing, goofy asides), and they bring poignant, romantic lyricism to the tunes as well.
5. The Weatherman – Gregory Alan Isakov. Gentleness that doesn’t fade away into blandness is rare, and Isakov has crafted a wonder of a quiet album here. These songs just make me smile.
3. Everything All at Once – Jonny Rodgers. Jonny Rodgers uses the ethereal tones of tuned wine glasses as the basis of his indie-pop sound, but the rest of the arrangements and Rodgers’ high, soaring voice complete the beautiful sound. I’ve not heard anything like this before. Throw in intimate, personal lyrics and you’ve got an impressive work.
2. The Beast in Its Tracks – Josh Ritter. Ritter is a master lyricist, and he turns his pen to the fine details of his divorce. But instead of weeping, he celebrates what life comes thereafter. It’s a rare look inside the life of an artist from an unusual perspective. The fact that he’s one of the best folk songwriters working today helps: the songs here are light but not insubstantial, upbeat but not flippant, and romantic without being maudlin. This is Ritter’s first must-own work since the amazing The Animal Years.
1. Chronographic – Filbert. As a reviewer, I have set expectations of genres. Filbert blew up my frameworks for folk, singer/songwriter, indie-pop, and hip-hop, which resulted in a breathless review that I still fully believe. “Modest Mouse + Jeffrey Lewis + backpack rap + Bon Iver = Filbert” is a reductive way to say it, but it’s still true. This was easily the most inventive album of the year.
And now, for the Run Hundred Top 10 songs of the month! —Stephen Carradini
This month’s top 10 is dominated by duos. There are two songs by M83 and Imagine Dragons that have been out awhile but are just now getting their due from gym-goers. There are a couple tracks by Capital Cities and Bruno Mars that cracked the top 10 already and are re-entering in remixed form. Lastly, there’s a pair of dueling singles from Lady GaGa and Katy Perry’s forthcoming albums.
Here’s the full list, according to votes placed at Run Hundred–the web’s most popular workout music blog.
To find more workout songs, folks can check out the free database at RunHundred.com. Visitors can browse the song selections there by genre, tempo, and era—to find the music that best fits with their particular workout routine. —Chris Lawhorn
James Younger’s video for “Monday Morning” is a tribute to VHS culture in the ’80s and early ’90s. As a kid who grew up in that era, I am all about this, from the goofy subtitles to the white noise that intermittently drops in, to the overall fuzz of the video. Thank you, James Younger.
While we’re on the topic of media cultures, here’s a video from The Gorgeous Hands about cell phone culture. It’s less a tribute and more a critique of said culture, but it’s still pretty fun. Also, “Generator” the song is pretty awesome if you’re into Spoon but have approximately twice as much give-a-rip as Britt Daniel.
Wampire’s “Orchards” starts out as a piece about car culture and then becomes something, uh, completely different.
< And, rounding out our cultural journey, Post-Echo Records has commissioned a five-video project called "Passage," which celebrates the sort of culture that makes you think about what you're watching. Post-Echo, home to IC faves Pan and Dear Blanca, has my attention.
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.
February-April is Spring release season, and there’s always more than I can cover as a single man. However, I can mitigate this partially through mixtapes! Today I’ve got a folk/country one; tomorrow I have an indie-pop-rock one.
Alt Your Country Are Belong to Us
1. “You Don’t Know Better Than Me” – Luke Winslow-King. Easy-going folk/country vibe hits some New Orleans swing with gorgeous results.
2. “Beneath the Willow Tree” – The Lonesome Outfit. This yearning, gospel-inflected country tune features great vocals.
3. “Grandstanders” – Sunjacket. Carl Hauck is in a band? Of course it’s wonderful. Fans of Animal Collective and My Morning Jacket will enjoy this moody, rumbling, intricate tune.
4. “Ramona” – Night Beds. Everyone’s all up in Night Beds. They are totally right.
5. “Fall With You” – Mikaela Kahn. Snare shuffle, a beautiful voice and a strong mood: yup, you’ve sold me.
6. “Griping” – Dear Blanca. The horns and vocals in this song are absolutely excellent.
7. “Secret” – Time Travels. If there is clapping and singing in your song, I will cheer. This jaunty, indie-pop by way of alt-country tune makes me cheer.
8. “Junior Year” – Case Closed. A little bit country, a little bit pop-punk, a little bit The Format.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.