Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Unified Alarm System is disorienting in its abstract electronic compositions

February 18, 2010

Friendly Psychics Music has a long history of challenging releases. They rarely make things easy for the listener, and that’s one of the things that attracts me to them. The releases are like good alcohol; whether beer, wine or other spirits, they all take getting used to before full appreciation can be had.

This, however, is not the case with Unified Alarm System‘s This Is Only a Test. While I don’t have scientific evidence to prove it, I’m relatively certain this is the longest FPM release ever, at fourteen tracks averaging five minutes each. The fact that it’s over an hour wouldn’t be a problem except that this is some of the most abstract music I’ve ever heard. Each and every track is composed of synthesizers, theremin, static, vocals, reverb and white space. The difference between songs comes in changing the amount that each individual element is featured in the track.

Although odd, those pieces aren’t entirely foreign. What makes this release so frustrating is the compositions, which are incredibly long, drawn-out pieces that sound like the beginnings of techno songs looped over and over. Almost every track begs for a thumping beat beneath it to fill it out. But we are never treated to that, and the album becomes a study in tension without release. It’s incredibly discomforting to listen to This Is Only a Test, because there is rarely (if ever) resolution to the moods presented. The overall effect of the album is disorienting.

Making things more confusing is the fact that this is one of the best-recorded releases FPM has put together. The soundscapes made are pretty hi-fi in their recording – it’s just that they’re obtuse, peculiar and off-putting hi-fi recordings. If this is the direction that FPM is heading, I’m pretty excited; they’ve kept their very idiosyncratic songwriting sense and upgraded the parts that took away from the success of that vision. I hope that these striking production values will be used in future FPM releases.

In all, this is a point on a larger FPM line rather than a stop on it. This is Only a Test is more than an hour’s worth of unresolved tension, and I’m not sure who signs up for that. But as a marker on the FPM line toward the future, this is a sign of good things to come. If FPM in general interests you, I would still point you toward Derecho’s latest.

Brainswarm's weirdness causes my brain to itch

February 10, 2010

Friendly Psychics Music, as I have recently explained, is a bit out there. Sometimes their weirdness is endearing. Sometimes it’s visionary. Sometimes it’s just weird.

“Just plain weird” is the case with Brainswarm‘s self-titled 5-song EP. I’m used to odd vocals, disjointed song structures and peculiar sound choices from FPM, but Brainswarm is confusing on top of that. Instead of just being fully weird, Brainswarm’s modus operandi is to fuse the peculiar aesthetics indigenous to FPM onto pop songs. And not just indie-pop songs, but straight-up, guitar-jangle, REM-esque pop songs. “Perspectives” has wildly swooping vocals, weird background vocals, and odd noises in the background. But the majority of the song sounds like it could have busted out of the late eighties or early nineties. The bridge redeems the song significantly, but the whole thing is just a tough swallow. The goofy asides at the beginning of songs don’t help the feel that something is off, either.

“Soulship,” however, injects some direction into this otherwise peculiar release. Somewhere between a power-ballad and a wasted-earth pan shot (the latter of which comprises some of the best songs in the FPM catalog), the song pulses along with an otherworldly energy. The vocals sound desperate and certain at the same time, lending an eerie mood to the already off-putting precedings. It’s the track with the most atmosphere and the most successful outcome. Also, it doesn’t sound anything like Michael Stipe. And that helps.

“Brain Swarm” taps into the same vein that “Soulship” hit at the beginning, but it proceeds into guitar stomp that sets it back. It just feels weird against the mood that they had previously set up.

Brainswarm’s self-titled EP is one of the more confusing things that I’ve heard in a while. It is a strange brew, and not one that sits well with me. “Soulship” is great, but the rest of the release leaves me scratching my head. I’d suggest a Dishwater Psychics release or Derecho’s latest for those interested in Friendly Psychics.

Derecho contributes well to the Friendly Psychics catalog

February 5, 2010

Friendly Psychics Music is one of my favorite record labels of all time. It is basically composed of Chris Jones, John Wenzel, and their group of friends. People are occasionally grafted into the group, and each friend gets their own project name. The Jones/Wenzel aesthetic is extremely idiosyncratic, in that I could recognize an a FPM release in less than ten seconds, even if I’ve never heard it. Their vaguely psychedelic, fractured folk and indie rock is incredibly unique and difficult to break into, but it’s rewarding once you do.

Derecho is not far outside the FPM model. Dropped at 10,000 Feet features Dan Miller (a major player in the FPM catalog, although not as forefront as Jones/Wenzel) as the primary songwriter, with Jones on bass and Wenzel contributing on only two songs. Miller has a much more honed pop aesthetic than Jones/Wenzel, and that makes the songs on this EP some of the most straightforward indie-rock tunes that FPM has ever released.

It doesn’t mean they’re normal (I don’ t think FPM does normal), but they’re a lot more accessible than flagship artist Dishwater Psychics. Miller strums his guitar consistently (something that is taken for granted until you hear FPM artists that, well, don’t) and has driving bass and guitar to back it up. Miller’s vocals and lyrics are also much more caustic and bitter than Wenzel’s mournful baritone and overarching sense of disdain, giving the release a distinctly different attitude than other FPM releases.

The songs move quickly and induce head-bobbing, but the caustic delivery of the vocals may turn some off, especially in the self-loathing “Canadian Whiskey” (which, for the record, is my favorite type. I’m drinking some now, in honor). The highlight here is closer “Measured in Millions,” where Wenzel contributes vocals. Wenzel’s voice has become a part of my musical consciousness, but it’s almost always used in jarring and abstract atmospheres. Hearing it paired with the driving, reverb-washed indie-rock of Dan Miller’s invention is incredible. The two pieces fit together perfectly; if Wenzel had sung on each of the tracks on this EP, it would have been even better than it is now. Maybe that’s the next project?

Derecho’s Dropped at 10,000 Feet is a good turn for the FPM guys. It’s not my favorite release by them, but it certainly is high on my list. Reining in some of the more aesthetically challenging parts of the FPM ourve was a nice change. If you like cerebral indie pop (like Grizzly Bear, Beach House, etc) or off-kilter vocals (Modest Mouse, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, etc, although Miller is nowhere near as grating as Alec Ounsworth), this should be one to check out.

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

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