Deep Elm Records, whose mail I have been getting since Independent Clauses first started in 2003, has done something entirely unprecedented with its 200+ releases: made them all pay-what-you-want. All of them. This is simply mind-boggling. 200 releases spanning almost 20 years? It’s a treasure trove of everything from raging hardcore to emo to post-rock to post-punk to dance-rock to garage-rock to indie-pop to folk-pop. If it has a guitar in it, Deep Elm has probably put it out. In honor of their 200th, as well as their generosity, here’s a list of my Top Ten Favorite Deep Elm Releases.
10. So Close to Life – Moonlit Sailor. “Hope” is one of my favorite songs of all time, although not my favorite Deep Elm song (that one comes later). A great post-rock album.
9. This is Indie Rock, Vol. 2. The second compilation that I deeply loved from Deep Elm, and they do have a ton of them to keep up with. That’s one thing I’ve always loved about Deep Elm–they go all out for their artists, and that makes them one of the best in the business.
8. Sunshine in a Shot Glass – 500 Miles to Memphis. This album literally does everything I want a country-punk album to do. It could be a blueprint.
7. Why Aren’t I Home? – Athletics. I used to run to this album at a really low point in my life. The dramatic tensions between beautiful and crushing, artsy and muscly, longing and being… This was a wonderful soundtrack to those days.
6. We’ve Been Here Forever – Merkabah. Churning, roiling emo-rock: a blast from their early ’00s past displaced into the early ’10s. This album will have your fists in the air and your throat hoarse.
4. Nuet – Dorena. Deep Elm has gone on a serious post-rock bender as of late. Although Lights and Motion is deservedly soaking up tons of press, Dorena’s latest album just blows my mind.
3. There Should Be More Dancing – Free Diamonds. Way on the other end of the spectrum, this spazzy dance-rock masterpiece has some of the most impressively frantic (yet hooky!) bass lines I have ever heard.
2. Mare Vitalis – The Appleseed Cast. Not entirely because it contains the literally perfect song “Fishing the Sky,” but seriously. An art-rock epic capped off by what is, for my money, the best song Deep Elm has released.
1. Deep Elm: Too Young to Die – Various. The one that started it all for me; I’ve listened to this comp backwards and forwards more times than I can remember. Absolute gold.
When you’ve been in music for a while, nuance and subtlety become more important to you. This is true for listeners and creators; although I can still appreciate a mighty guitar riff, I find myself entranced by complex lyrical turns and less obvious arrangements. Tri-State is a band composed of people who have been in bands, and you can tell from the songs they write. These pop-rock tunes, while poppy, are not constructed as instant hits. These are measured tunes, tunes that take their time on little guitar bits (“All Different,” “Back Before”) just because. This unhurried, “let’s give this some space” method is much like that of IC fave The Brixton Riot.
Tri-State’s tunes unfold in pleasing ways: “Back Before” creates an ominous mood that builds and builds, while follow-up “Country Squire” toes the line between pop-rock and alt-country. It doesn’t feel disjointed at all; the songs feel like outworkings of the same thought process. If you’re into ’90s indie-rock (Pavement, Guided by Voices) or mature songwriting that appreciates with multiple listens, you should give Tri-State’s self-titled EP a spin.
Kira Velella‘s gentle voice is the primary feature of her singer/songwriter tunes, and for good reason. Her second soprano/alto voice commands the arrangements, sucking the listener in. “Lover, Move” and “Barn Swallow” both feature strong instrumental songwriting that is totally eclipsed by the endearing confidence of Velella’s voice. She accomplishes the rare feat of encapsulating confidence and vulnerability in a single performance, which keeps me coming back to the tunes.
This uncommon tension buoys the six-song Daughter EP, making it consistently interesting to the invested listener. The wintry arrangements accomplish a second improbable feat: the Damien Jurado-esque characteristic of feeling both lush and sparse at the same time. It gives Velella’s vocals both the forefront and a space to inhabit; it is easy to imagine Velella in a video clip of a snow-covered field for any of these tracks. The mood here is strong throughout tunes, giving a polish to the release. All told, this is an impressive debut offering from Kira Velella.
Categories can be stultifying and abrasive, but they are helpful starting points for conversation. Saying that U137 plays post-rock is mildly helpful to get the conversation started, but saying that the band plays “pretty” post-rock (Moonlit Sailor, Dorena, The Album Leaf) instead of “heavy” post-rock (Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Isis, Tyranny is Tyranny) is far more descriptive. You’re going to hear a lot of arpeggios, humongous crescendoes to jubilant melodies, and ethereal synths in Dreamer on the Run. If you’re into that, then the 40 or so minutes you spend listening will be breathtaking.
It’s not the sort of album where one particular track sticks out: it’s simply a forty-minute excursion into a beautiful section of the world. If you’re feeling down about the government shutdown, gun violence, poverty, or any other modern malaise, Dreamer on the Run can help you forget that for a few minutes and remember that there are so many beautiful things in the world to comfort you. This, simply put, is a gorgeous record.
Dorena‘s Nuet slipped under my radar when it came out in March, but it’s far too good to not extol. Dorena’s brand of post-rock is of the beautiful, cinematic variety: there are major keys, soaring guitar lines, twinkly keys, and an overall feel of hope. This wouldn’t be anything startling if the members weren’t incredibly strong songwriters. The Swedish quintet know how to use space in tunes not just as a contrast to density, but as an emotive player. Anyone can be quiet and then be loud. It takes skill to make that quietness mean something in and of itself.
Opener “Semper” and highlight track “My Childhood Friend” have loud sections that are enhanced by their quiet backdrops, but the quiet sections themselves are moving. The former sounds like the very best moments of Sigur Ros, while the latter puts me into a reverie sort of state before snapping me out of it with a huge, dramatic, fist-pumping riff. Dorena knows how to write a beautiful melody, but they also know how to write a whole song around that great moment. That’s what makes post-rock stick for me. I highly recommend Nuet.
But if you’re still on the fence, consider “The American Dream Is a Lie” as a litmus test. It starts out quietly, with a ponderous, winding guitar riff that leads into a section of building through the dissonant two-guitar setup. Two and a half minutes in, the vocalist finally appears, yelling atonally the phrase “opiate the brutish life.” The guitars get heavier as the band starts to pick up steam through minutes three and four. At 4:45, there’s a tonal shift that could maybe be called a breakdown, before it leans back into that winding riff from the beginning. Then it reprises the heaviest section of the tune, bashing its way to the end of the track.
If that’s the sort of music that’s intriguing to you (and it’s very intriguing to me), then you’re going to be all about the rest of the album. Heavy, left-leaning, but never gratuitously brutal, Tyranny is Tyranny makes angry music for a reason. There’s not enough of that going around these days (and a lot of self-obsessed yuppie anger), which makes Tyranny is Tyranny all the more valuable.
The band name and title of Cmn ineed yr hlp’s It Came Without Warning…As Most Disasters Do also tells you almost everything you need to know before you even hear it, but in a very different way: this post-rock band has big aspirations but also a good sense of humor. Their five-track release is instrumental post-rock that tells the story of a giant sea monster via vocals that are recorded to sound like they’re from ’50s radio broadcasts. (Or maybe they’re actual found sound? That would be boss.) The music itself is densely textured rock that leans toward the mathy end of things: dissonant chords, patterned guitar riffs, acrobatic drumming, and a strong bass presence mark the tunes.
The story is pretty important to the enjoyment of the album: no particular song stands out as the hook. It makes good on the original promise of post-rock: trying to achieve other artistic goals with the rock idiom. There are impressive moments, like the opening bass work in “The prognostication is murder” and the gymnastic guitar riffs on “Without a sail in view,” but they aren’t given any particular preference over the churning, full-band attack of closer “Cold, airless, forbidding.” The band really operates the album as an album, and that’s a cool thing to hear. Recommended for fans of math rock or “something different.”
Canyons of Static‘s post-rock is the type that builds from a single element to jubilant roar and thrash, like the best moments of Sigur Ros. The big moment is often a pedal stomp that overdrives the guitar into the stratosphere. I wish I knew the name of it, as it’s an iconic sound: Final Days Society and others use it to great effect.
The “heavens just opened up” pedal is a powerful songwriting move, especially when paired with wailing drums and thumping bass. The beautiful “Wake,” which juxtaposes a monster wall of sound against delicate keys, is the perfect example of their oeuvre. If their show is anything like the towering epics of Farewell Shadows, CoS is absolutely overwhelming live.
The five tunes create an energetic, passionate atmosphere for almost all 34 minutes. This is a double-edged sword; while the release is consistent, it doesn’t show the variety of CoS’s songwriting ability. In future releases, I hope to see them diversify their songwriting moods and structures.
Canyons of Static’s well-established sound is foregrounded in Farewell Shadows. The band has chemistry, instrumental chops and experience (first release: 2006); now they need to grow in diversity. If you’re into Sigur Ros, Moonlit Sailor, Unwed Sailor or Dorena, you’ll be a big fan of Canyons of Static.
Dorena‘s About Everything and More is the type of post-rock I love. Clean, single-note melodies traipse about hopefully on top of a yearning rhythm section, building to the big payoff. The best moments of early Appleseed Cast (“Fishing the Sky”) and Unwed Sailor’s whole discography play with the ebb and flow of hopeful post-rock, and Dorena is taking their place next to Moonlit Sailor as my favorite up-and-coming post-rock bands. It’s no wonder that they’re both on Deep Elm Records; when those guys decide to do a genre, they do it up right.
Dorena lets loose from the first song: “The Morning Bus” sets a groove with a bass line, augments with distant atmospheric synths, introduces an intricate-but-casual-in-intensity drum beat, drops in crunchy but not overblown guitars, sprinkles some clean guitar melodies on top, then garnishes with some wordless ohs. They build it up to the payoff, where the melody comes via synth AND guitar in over the top of a crushingly distorted rhythm guitar while the drums spazz out (but without losing the overall sense of wonder). It’s a veritable blueprint of a great post-rock song. They’ve either done their homework or been born to play the genre. Either way, the listener wins.
If you like optimistic, building post-rock, get your hands on Dorena’s About Everything and More. You will not regret it.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.