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.
I promise that it’s not Double Album Week at Independent Clauses: it just happened that More than Skies and The Local Strangers‘ Take What You Can Carry saw coverage on back-to-back days. The latter, a Seattle folk/alt-country outfit, put a slight twist on the concept by releasing a full-band studio record and an live album of their core acoustic duo performing the same songs in a different order. The results are diverse, engaging tunes that highlight both their arrangement skills and raw live electricity.
In both sets, the impeccable alt-country songwriting stands out. Some alt-country gets too invested in sounding gritty, while some rushes too far into the open arms of pop. The Local Strangers walk the line between the two perfectly, incorporating both melodies that you can’t say no to and arrangements that feel fresh, tight, and sufficiently country. In the full-band set, “Red Dress” and “Up in Smoke” are adrenaline-fueled Spaghetti Westerns, complete with sordid narratives; both amp up to roaring, wild conclusions with powerful female vocals, tasteful arrangements and a delicious sense of drama. “Crown” and “Goodbye/Goodnight” take a more mid-tempo approach to alt-country, leaning hard on the Jayhawks model of acoustic guitars, drums, and general grit.
But it’s not just an alt-country outing here: “Gasoline,” “Pilot Light” and “Touchstone” take the set down a notch. All three are love songs, much in contrast to the alternately defiant and down-and-out country work that’s so attractive. “Touchstone” starts out as a gentle, soul-inspired torch song before crescendoing to a towering pop conclusion–it’s impressive in its difference from the rest of the album. “Gasoline” opens the album on a complex note: the song’s vibe is low-slung, driving, and thick in the rhythm and bass, but it opens up into a gentle, thoughtful chorus. It’s closer to Bloc Party than Drive-by Truckers, which is pretty cool.
“Pilot Light,” though, is my personal favorite. It’s a calm, optimistic tune that starts with a jauntly staccato strum, reminiscent of Josh Ritter. The tune is led by the male vocalist, and his delivery contributes to the modern/urban folk vibe. It’s a beautiful love song, perfectly arranged so as to unfold just as I wanted and expected it to. You don’t want to be able to totally predict a song, but when they let on where they’re going, you want to it to deliver as promised. The Local Strangers know how to set up that sort of anticipation without being derivative, which is a rare skill.
The live album strips out the arrangements and focuses tightly on the dual vocals. Songs like “Always Me” and “W.W.,” good tunes which aren’t among my favorites on the full album, take on new life in the acoustic setting. The power of Aubrey Zoli’s voice was present in the first setting, but it’s even more on display here. She doesn’t just know how to belt, she knows how to take control of a room. That’s something you can’t hear on a studio record.
Take What You Can Carry is a passionate, powerful record that shows off songwriting chops, vocal prowess, and arrangement skill. The tunes here are crisp, tight, intriguing and inviting. Like some cross between Adele, the Jayhawks, and Josh Ritter, the Local Strangers are doing great things.
I tell every band that will listen that the long press cycle is a real thing. You’ve gotta get content out there at periodic and consistent intervals so that press people remember that you’re there and then therefore tell their readers. This means dribbling out content in ways that don’t necessarily fit with the last 30 or so years of music history (but actually fit real nicely with methods of the 30 before that; truly nothing is new under the sun).
There is no one who is a champ at this more than Brook Pridemore (person and band). Between 11 videos, a teaser EP, and a live release that started all the way back in early 2013, I feel like I’ve been listening to Gory Details for years already because I have. At its worst this could produce burnout, but with Brook it basically just makes me love the album. I mean, who doesn’t like an album where you can sing along with half of the songs the first time you press play?
It helps that Brook Pridemore’s work perfectly matches my favorite styles of music. Gory Details starts with the energetic strum of folk-punk, layers on impressively thoughtful lyrics sung via infectious indie-pop vocal melodies, then arranges the whole thing with an excellent band and even some horns. It’s like Andrew Jackson Jihad mellowed out into The Mountain Goats with some Josh Ritter thrown in for good measure (“Damage Control”). The weird way I’ve heard this album kind of skews the review: my favorite tracks are the tracks that were already my favorites. “Oh, E!” is tons of hyperactive, travelogue fun with an earworm melody; “Listening to TPM” is awesome for its horns as well as its tight control of mood. “Celestial Heaven or Leap of Faith” has a great instrumental hook and an urgent vibe throughout; the intelligent set of lyrics make it seem somewhat like a super-powered version of a Johnny Flynn song. “Brother Comfort,” one of the more aggressive tracks here (and new to me), is also fun in its neat complexity.
Gory Details is, above all things, a ton of fun. Brook Pridemore has a lot of things going for them on this album, and all the complex pieces have come together to make an album that transcends them all. Great lyrics, mature vocal control, excellent production job, solid contributing rhythm section; all of it comes together to make tracks like “Oh, E!” seemingly obvious songs: when has this not existed? When was it not amazing? To steal a song title, no one belongs here more than you. Of course you’re one of my favorite songs. Of course you are. You always were, as soon as I knew you existed. You need more Brook Pridemore in your life.
You can get more Brook Pridemore by going to his CMJ set at Muchmore’s in Brooklyn on Saturday.
Maybe it’s the World Series, but there’s all sorts of baseball metaphors I can make about Blake Brown and the American Dust Choir‘s Three EP. The band’s straightahead alt-country could be called a fastball straight down the pipe, because you know exactly what you’re going to get and you can smash a home run off it. You could also call it a change-up, since the band prefers mid-tempo, Jayhawks-style work as opposed to the hectic Old ’97s style. If I were really reaching, I could point out there are only a few baseball teams left that use organ as prominently as Blake Brown’s outfit does.
The first two tracks of the three-song outing are the sort of pedal steel/harmonica/organ/acoustic guitar fare that is most recognizable as ’90s-era alt-country. The band doesn’t give in to Wilco-style minimalism or Drive-by Truckers’ rock-oriented guitar walls; they just stay in the pocket and do their work on vocal vehicle “Get Out.” The band is tight and clean throughout the track, notably so. The band gets a little funky on “White Rose” (check those Wurlitzers!). But the standout here is the subdued, late-night mope “Surrender (La Di Da),” which allows Brown to show off his melodic sensibilities and nuanced arrangements. Brown and co. manage to glue me to the track that never gets faster than a mosey and never raises louder than speaking voice through a beautiful electric guitar tone, distant droning organ, and thoughtful percussion.
If you’re in the market for some alt-country at CMJ, I’d look up Blake Brown on Saturday at Wicked Willy’s. (He’ll be there with M. Lockwood Porter, too!)
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.
I don’t get sent very many radio sessions, but I think they’re real cool. As a fan of acoustic music, radio sessions often offer me a chance to hear noisy bands in the quieter arrangements I so dearly love.
Raleigh Southern rock/folk band Jack the Radio played a three-song set for WUNC recently, and it’s a really engaging set. The six-piece band sounds crisp and clear, with their vocal melodies really played up in the acoustic environment. If you’re a fan of Old Crow Medicine Show, Drive-by Truckers, or Jason Isbell, you’ll find much to love in Jack the Radio. If you find yourself in Raleigh tomorrow night, JtR is playing at Lincoln Theater.
I thought I was going to a Wild Child show at Maggie Mae’s, but I ended up at a Wild Cub show instead. Instead of folky pop, Wild Cub purveys dance-friendly indie-pop; I’m down with that. The best moment came in their closer “Summer Fires,” where they toned down the perkiness and amped up the dance elements. By the time the song reached its whirling, enveloping conclusion, I felt like I was listening to an LCD Soundsystem song. That’s about the highest praise this guy can give to a dance band: when the parts come together to be more than their individual sum, and it seems like a song might not and shouldn’t ever end, you’ve reached the peak of dance-rock performance. Good work, Wild Cub.
I found Leagues through a compilation, where the stark, memorable guitar riff of “Magic” caught my attention instantly. The restrained, thoughtful pop-rock that Leagues purveys puts them in the same category as bands like Spoon and Elbow that take small elements of a tune and elevate them to monumental status. The set I caught at SXSW put the unique cohesiveness of their sound on full display.
The band plays largely off empty spaces, populating the songs with tensions that are resolved by the interplay between the guitar, bass, drums and Thad Cockrell’s voice. The fact that guitarist Tyler Burkum, drummer Jeremy Lutito and Cockrell all have long careers in music shows, as the tunes shine by being pared down to the bare essentials. You can always add more to a song, but taking away things and still making successful tunes is impressive. Their songs are just a blast to listen to, and although they don’t particularly inspire dancing, they made me smile.
I trekked over to The Palm Door for the Team Clermont showcase, and I was pleased to find that it was in a rental space instead of a “dirty rock club” (as the lead singer of Fol Chen would later announce). It’s funny that the venue was so squeaky-clean, because the low-slung, southern, rootsy rock of Roadkill Ghost Choir would be the perfect fit for some hole-in-the-wall joint. The six-piece band’s sound filled the venue with melodic, earnest tunes that dropped down to near-silence before roaring to life again. The vocals were a focal point, as Andrew Shepard’s voice displayed unbridled fury and creaky uncertain in equal turns. Listening to such an evocative voice work its magic is one of my favorite things in music; hearing a band back that up with equal passion and fervor is even more of a joy. Roadkill Ghost Choir is highly recommended for fans of Drive-By Truckers, My Morning Jacket and the like.
I love St. David’s Episcopal Church, because they host not one but two of my favorite venues in all of SXSW. Their chapel and hall are both excellent places to watch shows: no hustle and bustle, (usually) no noisy electronica, no nonsense, just good singer/songwriters. This year is no exception. I stepped in during Henry Wagons‘ set of rockabilly-inflected folk and was immediately impressed. Wagons’ pointed sense of humor, arresting baritone voice and jaunty tunes struck a great chord in me. The audience laughed through the punchlines and his fun stage antics, even getting involved when Wagons would call out various members of the audience as the “inspiration” or “dedication” of the song. I absolutely loved the set, and was glad to “point my head in the general direction of” Henry Wagons.
Amanda Shires played her whole set on a ukulele, which made this uke player incredibly happy. Her deeply lyrical tunes hung on each word she delivered, with husband Jason Isbell’s intricate single-note guitarwork providing melodic counterpoint to her voice and uke. She played several songs off her new album, which will be released at a date to be announced: fans of women songwriters with strong lyrical and melodious voices should take notice.
I was there in St. David’s to see Jason Isbell, who I first saw on one of my first days in Auburn, AL. As I am about to voyage out of Alabama in search of the next adventure, seeing Isbell was a fitting bookend to my time in the Yellowhammer State. Isbell’s roaring voice and emotional storytelling were absolutely gripping in St. David’s chapel; his voice and guitar filled the space. He played tunes off his new album Southeastern, which comes out June 11th, and I can tell you that I can hardly wait for the album. The new tunes were evocative lyrically and melodically, made even more poignant by Shires’ keening fiddle accompaniment. Isbell also played the crowd favorite “Alabama Pines” (which will most likely be how I remember Alabama) and even the Drive-by Truckers’ “Decoration Day.”
The audience was in his thall: when he sang a few tunes about war veterans returned to the South, the crowd was especially noisy in its appreciation. At the end of the set, he received a well-earned standing ovation immediately. It’s not often that you get to hear a master songwriter perform in an intimate setting, but that’s what happened last night. I thoroughly recommend Jason Isbell to you.
So I’ve arrived in Auburn, AL, which means I have a whole new music scene to discover. The early frontrunner for band with the best name is Bottle Up and Explode, closely followed by The Bandar-Log. I’ll be seeing Bottle Up and Explode Saturday (hopefully).
But the first local band I saw in Auburn was Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. Yes, Jason Isbell (ex-Drive By Truckers) is from North Alabama, which makes him local enough for me. He showed up minus a guitarist that was on the poster, but hey – I wasn’t familiar with Isbell or DBT before this show, and I didn’t notice the hole.
The audience, however, was familiar with his DBT work (the crowd loudly requested and then went nuts for “Outfit”) and his new stuff. His rootsy, folkier stuff held the audience in sing-a-long thrall, while his more Southern rock-tinged stuff seemed to lose some of the audience hanging out on the fringes of the venue.
I was one of those wallflowers, most impressed by the tender folk-pop of “Alabama Pines.” Isbell’s descriptive, emotional storytelling was best displayed on quieter tunes like these. His engaging between-song banter made the show even more enjoyable. All in all, I’m very interested in checking out “Here We Rest,” Isbell’s new album.
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.