Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Top 20 albums of the year: 20-11

December 31, 2012

Independent Clauses is somewhat of an alternate universe when it comes to music reviewing. I rarely cover the hip bands, often love things no one else does, and generally attempt to be true to what I hear. If there’s a radar to be on or under, we’re hanging out on a different screen altogether. This is more by happenstance than choice: I never set out to be contrarian. And I don’t feel like a curmudgeonly naysayer of popular music, as you’ll see tomorrow. I just have a different lens than many people. Here’s the view from that lens.

20. Summer of Sam – A-Okay. Lo-fi acoustic goodness that rings honest and true.

19. Ithica – St. Anselm’s Choir. I’m consistently amazed at this band’s ability to wring heartbreaking beauty out of what is basically industrial music.

18. Chris North – Lovedream. Angelic reverie comes via a bunch of guitar pedals, acoustic guitars and arresting vocals.

17. Andrea Caccese’s collected output: Songs for the Sleepwalkers’ Our Rehearsed Spontaneous Reactions and I Used to Be a Sparrow’s Luke. One man’s vision, applied to an ambient project and a indie-rock project that countered the ambience with an anthemic, U2-esque bent.

16. Elijah Wyman/Jason Rozen’s collective output: Tiny Mtns/The Seer Group/Decent Lovers. What started out as the artsy electro-pop project Tiny Mtns split into a heavily artsy electro project (The Seer Group) and a heavily artsy pop project (Decent Lovers), with the two splitting the tracks between them. Except when both kept a track and reworked it to their likings. Did I mention that this one time, one of these guys gave the other a kidney? Now you see why they get one mention.

15. Superstar Runner – Heritage/Lineage/Hand-Me Downs/Scars (Your Birthmarks Do Not Bother Me). Songwriters that forge their own path get remembered by someone. The size of that group determines their popularity, and I hope that this incredibly titled record has gotten Superstar Runner remembered by a lot more people for his unusual arrangements and song structures.

14. 4H Royalty – Where UFOs Go To Die. Hands down, the best lyrics of the year are here in this country/rock album.

13. Autumn Owls – Between Buildings, Toward the Sea. Radiohead? Is that you? No? Hey, whoa, I meant it as a compliment! But seriously, this band is thoughtful in composition and lyric, for a head-spinning, enveloping release.

12. The Parmesans – Uncle Dad’s Cabin EP. One of my favorite new bands of the year, this bluegrass outfit has serious chops to go along with its goofy demeanor.

11. Young Readers – Family Trees EP. I haven’t been floored as hard by an opening track all year as I was by “All I Have.” Beautiful whisper-folk in the vein of old-school Iron and Wine.

Thanksvideo jam

November 23, 2012

Takes about 40 seconds to get rolling, but Lushlife’s “Magnolia” is one of the most inventive, funny, and interesting videos I’ve seen all year.

LUSHLIFE “MAGNOLIA” [DIR. LAMAR+NIK] from LAMAR+NIK on Vimeo.

The Boxing Lesson’s “Better Daze” video shows paper monsters stalking and attacking a city in an impressively slick and visually arresting way.

The Boxing Lesson – Better Daze from The Boxing Lesson on Vimeo.

As your Elijah Wyman/Decent Lovers clearinghouse, here’s an oddly vintage-looking video of the band playing “Beautiful Houses” in Lowell, MA.

Eoin Glackin’s troubadour folk has elements of the best of ’em: Josh Ritter, Joe Pug, Damien Rice and more.

Video jam, pt. 4

October 11, 2012

Damien Jurado minimalist guitar + Frightened Rabbit vocals + Josh Ritter lyrics = Eoin Glackin. I love this.

Elijah from Decent Lovers rocks an autoharp next to a dumpster for a version of “I’m Happy All the Time.”

BONUS: Here’s fractured, dubby remix of the album version of “I’m Happy All the Time”! Despite the angles, it has a surprising groove.

Oh Look Out! is one of my favorite new indie-pop-rock bands, and this video for new tune “Monster Fiction” only solidifies that opinion. If you want a list of the action figures in order of appearance, check that out here. Mega-yes.

Video jam, pt 2

September 26, 2012

This is the always-excellent Elijah Wyman of Decent Lovers performing “Bad Thoughts Out” in an active bathroom.

A. The song is wonderful, whetting my desire for more DecLuv tunes.
B. That’s a cloth bird attached to his guitar strap.
C. “Lag?” Whose graffiti tag is “Lag?”

Here We Go Magic, purveyors of my favorite summer song (“How Do I Know”), have now followed that with one of my favorite videos of the year. “Hard to Be Close” is the surreal, quirky, and funny of three guys stuck in an elevator. The song’s pretty great too.

Hotel Eden’s smooth-groovin’ “I Saw You at the Laundromat” turns the titular location into a discotheque. This has never happened to me, but I sure wish it had.

It takes guts to cover Bon Iver; Justin Vernon has created such a hermetic world with his tunes that other covers seem to be trespassing on the real version’s turf. But Sunday Lane and Max Helmerich add in a female vocal counterpoint to “Skinny Love,” giving this version a great reason to exist. It also has a bit of a country air to it, which is interesting.

Tiny Mtns / 2 = Seer Group and The Decent Lovers!

June 20, 2012

I’ve been following Elijah Wyman’s music since 2006, when Why We Never Go Swimming and Other Short Stories enlightened me to his slightly off-kilter acoustic folk. I’ve been a huge fan ever since, going so far as to dub him “one of my favorite acoustic songwriters ever.” For a blog that’s predominantly about folk, that’s about as high as praise gets.

So when Wyman unveiled the hip-hop/indie-pop project Tiny Mtns, I was pretty confused but willing to listen. The unusual tunes did not disappoint: Wyman’s songwriting, even when applied to a different genre, retained an unique spin. Instead of going full pop on it, Wyman played around with instrumentals, chorus-less tunes, arty meanderings, and electronic noodling. The under-used autoharp was a primary instrument in the tunes, after all. He planned to keep releasing tunes in a rotating mixtape, and I was prepared to keep checking on it.

Then I was notified that Tiny Mtns was dead, and that the songs had been parceled out between two bands: Wyman’s The Decent Lovers, and collaborator Jason Rozen’s Seer Group. Wyman still sings and performs on Seer Group songs and owns one of Rozen’s kidneys, so it’s safe to say this was merely a division of labor as opposed to a breakup. The Decent Lovers is a pop band, taking the more upbeat tunes from Tiny Mtns and fleshing them out; Seer Group is an arty electronic project. They share a couple songs: “Decent Lovers” is a murky electro jam on Seer Group’s Owlpine and a speedy acoustic-based pop song on Decent Lovers’ Quit Trying, while “Year of the Flame” has Wyman on all vocals for the DL version and a female vocalist for some vocals on the SG version. You’d be forgiven for getting a little confused.

While both albums are eccentric in their own ways, Seer Group’s Owlpine is the more difficult of the two to parse. The album is built on the back of keys and synths, but not the Killers’ buzzy synths or post-rock’s pad synths. These are gritty, yet fluctuating; lithe, but not saccharine. Opener “Cold Hands” is a meandering, slow-paced tune with laconic vocals and cascading instrumental lines from those synths. It creates a pensive, uneasy mood, as if one has stepped off a spaceship onto an unknown planet of immense beauty. There’s an undercurrent of danger and fear, but on the surface it’s beautiful.

That space situation is a solid metaphor for all of Owlpine. (The name of another of his tunes, “Murky Glow,” could also describe the album well.) “Year of the Flame” has a beautiful melody, but it uses a metaphorical (or maybe literal?) hurricane as its main lyrical device. The ominous, pulsing bass of “Wounded Animal” contrasts with the dreamy keys and vocals swirling above it. Even “Local Honey,” another Tiny Mtns holdover, is far more claustrophobic and paranoiac than I remember; the dreamy, coked-out weirdness seems to be moving in slow-motion. On the whole, Owlpine is an uncommon experience; I found myself returning to its distinct and carefully crafted mood.

The Decent Lovers’ Quit Trying was much easier for me to understand and enjoy, because most of it falls into one form of indie-pop or another. Whether the strummy “Barricade the Doors,” the dance-oriented “Beautiful Houses,” the fractured keys of “Brooklyn Rules Football” or somewhere in-between (“I Don’t Wanna Be a Decent Lover,” “I’m Happy All the Time (Sad Hawaii Version)”), Wyman is singing pop songs here. To rip a Death Cab title, you can play these songs with chords. It’s just that sometimes they would be really, really weird chords.

Since several of these songs came from the autoharp-heavy Tiny Mtns project, the instrument still plays a huge role here. That gives the songs a very unusual sound and feel, which is to their advantage. “Bold as Lions” could have been a straight-forward pop-rock song, but it’s a chiming wonder instead. “Small Towns” is profoundly beachy, with ukulele-esque sound and strum augmented by a bell kit and chill group vocals. “Barricade the Doors” takes that similar strum but turns it pastoral, invoking folksters like Fleet Foxes.

Wyman’s vocals are on full display in these tunes, which is great for a EW fan like myself. I’m partial to the strummier tunes, but I’m not so biased as to note that the still-highly-electronic “Year of the Flame” (which is credited to The Decent Lovers + Seer Group) is downright powerful in his hands. It’s a fun, unusual album that rewards multiple listens. I can’t chart it on a normal ebb and flow of a pop album’s ordering, and I like that. Fans of atypical pop music should definitely apply within.

Because Seer Group’s Rozen is super-thoughtful, he’s given IC two unreleased tracks to share with you all. Their titles speak for themselves. Enjoy!

Owlpine Instrumental Outtake 1
New Instrumental Song in Progress

Indie (and not indie) hip-hop

November 13, 2011


Tiny Mtns songwriter Elijah Wyman has stressed that If you like this, share it with yr friends. If you don’t, share it with yr enemies. will be a rotating mixtape, and he wasn’t kidding. In the time since we first mentioned it and now, he put another mix of “Bold as Lions,” then removed one to leave only the “Sexy Boyscout Mix.” I don’t remember which version was the “original” version, but with this sort of rotating project, that seems relatively unimportant. The hazy, herky-jerky indie-groove of “Underfence Passes” is brand new, and forges ahead in the vein of his previous tune “Local Honey.” The indie/hip-hop, organic/electronic collision is a unique and entertaining sound that I highly recommend.

I’m a couple weeks behind on posting the Run Hundred top songs list from October, and there’s really no excuse for that. Here they are, with links!

Tim Berg – “Seek Bromance (Avicii Vocal Edit)”
Alex Gaudino & Kelly Rowland – “What A Feeling (Hardwell Remix)”
Wolfgang Gartner & Will.I.Am – “Forever”
Hot Chelle Rae – “Tonight Tonight (Goldstein Remix)”
Taio Cruz & Flo Rida – “Hangover”
Enrique Iglesias, Pitbull & The WAV.s – “I Like How It Feels”
Kaskade & Skrillex – “Lick It”
Adrian Lux – “Teenage Crime (Axwell & Henrik B Remode)”
Flo Rida – “Good Feeling”
Kelly Clarkson – “What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger)

Tiny Mountains' indie hip-hop is intricate and intriguing

October 16, 2011

If I had to make a list of my favorite musical characteristics, it would look like this:

1. Melody
2. Rhythm
3. Bass
4. Lyrics

This means that I have a predisposition towards hip-hop and rap. The reason you don’t see more of it on IC is that I can’t stomach misogyny or braggadocio, effectively un-predisposing me to rap. K’Naan is the only rapper I’ve ever had any desire to see live, and he made us all leave more hopeful about the world than we were coming in. Yes x100.

This is why Tiny Mountains is such a fascinating project to me. Elijah Wyman — one of my favorite acoustic songwriters ever — decided to make some indie hip-hop. These tracks aren’t gimmicks, nor are they other people’s indie-rock appropriated as beats. The five tracks currently released on the humorously named If you like this share it with yr friends. If you don’t, share it with yr enemies. mixtape are original creations, musically and lyrically.

The tracks run the gamut. “Money In Yr Pocket” sounds like someone chopped and sped up an indie-pop tune, then added Wyman’s frantic vocals. “4Play” even further integrates hip-hop songwriting constructions with indie techniques: It is entirely unsurprising that Age of Adz-era Sufjan is a quick connection.

On the other hand, “I’m Happy All the Time (Sad Hawaii Version)” is some sort of alternate-universe, autoharp-heavy Bon Iver slow jam thing. It resists description, other than that I can’t get the sung chorus out of my head. “Local Honey (Brooklyn Rules Football Mix),” has an easy groove that provides the best showcase for Wyman’s indie-fied, occasionally inscrutable lyrics and versatile voice.

The songs of Tiny Mountains are intricately constructed, idiosyncratic (check all the self-imposed rules for the songwriting process), intriguing and engaging. Wyman has removed himself from the singer/songwriter game and made himself into a fascinating enigma. I’m looking forward to his future tunes as he gets better and better at being Tiny Mountains. You should be interested too. Check the tunes for free here.

The top twenty quest

September 7, 2010

I blew up my computer a few weeks ago, resulting in the lack of posts. I apologize for the deathly pallor that seemed to settle over Independent Clauses. It’s been a pretty crazy few weeks. I get my new computer Friday, and we should be rolling again.

I love and hate live shows. Transcendent, life-affirming and soul-expanding are all phrases I have lavished on excellent sets; soul-crushing, abrasive and interminable are all words with which I have belittled terrible performances. A thoroughly average act skews more to the interminable side, which means the room for error is large.

Making matters even more sketchy is this all-too-common occurrence: that band with lovely recordings which smushes my expectations into the dirt with a reprehensible live show. One band that shall remain nameless suckerpunched me twice: the first set I saw was so awful that I incorrectly passed it off as “an off night” and felt optimistic going in to the second set a year later, which ended up being exponentially worse. I don’t listen to that band any more.

And yet, through all of this potential for letdown, I keep anticipating live shows (I’m resisting a comparison to love and relationships). That anticipation has translated into a new and ongoing project: I’m going on a quest to see all top twenty of my most-listened-to bands (according to my Last.FM).  Here’s the list, complete with current statuses. Bold indicates I have plans to see them before the end of the year.

1. The Mountain Goats (1,063 plays) – Seen twice, once in Norman and once in Dallas
2. Sufjan Stevens (1,010 plays)
3. Novi Split (597 plays)
4. Coldplay (490 plays) – Seen once: Ford Center, Oklahoma City.
5. Damien Jurado (487 plays) – Seen once: Opolis, Norman.
6. Joe Pug – Seen once: The Conservatory, Oklahoma City.
7. Low Anthem – Seen once: Rose State Auditorium, Midwest City.
8. Elijah Wyman
9. Death Cab for Cutie – Seen once: Cain’s Ballroom, Tulsa.
10. Relient K – Seen 4-6 times, various Tulsa and Oklahoma City locations.
11. Josh Caress
12. Owl City – Seen once: McCasland Fieldhouse, University of Oklahoma, Norman.
13. Josh Ritter
14. Rocky Votolato
15. Switchfoot – Seen once: Cain’s Ballroom, Tulsa.
16. Bleach – Seen 3 times: various Tulsa locations. RIP
17. Mumford and Sons
18. The Avett Brothers – Seen twice: Austin City Limits 2009; Rose State Auditorium, Midwest City.
19. The Tallest Man on Earth
20. Before Braille – RIP

And to get myself back into writing about music, I’ll be writing about each of the bands, in order.

Counter Intelligence posits some brainy, precise, emotive folk

December 9, 2009

Carl Hauck is a folksy singer who sounds like Andrew Bird if Andrew Bird knew how to have emotions. All of Bird’s work suffers from a disaffected whimsy; it seems that Bird takes bemusement from everything he’s singing and writing about, but does not actually engage with it. Thankfully, Carl Hauck takes the best parts of Bird’s amalgam, adds some of his own, and slathers emotion on it to create Counter Intelligence.

That’s not to say that this is a Damien Rice-esque wailer of an album (not that Damien Rice is bad, but it’s a fair bet that there will be wailing in a Rice album). Hauck’s voice and songwriting are both very pristine, distinct and precise. The lyrics that Hauck produces are all understandable due to his easy tone and clear pronunciation. This is great, because his lyrics are solid. Whether storytelling (“The Rebel”), reminiscing (“Schmaltz”), or speak-singing semi-stories (“Zhuangwho”), you can clearly discern what Hauck has to say.

What’s great is that even though his lyrics are solid (the anti-war “The Rebel” is probably the best anti-war diatribe I’ve heard this year), he doesn’t have to hang his hat on them. His music is just as clever, witty and talented as his tongue. He primarily plays the acoustic guitar, and it’s from that instrument and its melodies that much of the emotiveness of these tunes is drawn. But the acoustic guitar doesn’t bear the whole burden: piano (“The Rebel”) and dreamy electric guitar (“Herrick, You Devil”) make occasional appearances. The extra instruments work perfectly in the context of his folk songs; they fill in gaps instead of taking over songs.

“Herrick, You Devil” is especially enhanced by its extra instrumentation; the eerie feel that Hauck and a female back-up vocalist create is mimicked by the dreamy, cascading guitar. It creates an overall feel of impending dread that only ratchets up higher when they kick in heavy reverb on a piano and the vocals; it turns Hauck and his foil into ghostly apparitions, drawing the song into the transcendent. “Herrick, You Devil” is a highlight track that you probably won’t hum; the mood will just stick with you and the reverb will take up residence in your head.

There are other highlights as well: the oft-mentioned “The Rebel” is a ten minute epic that swoops and leaps through various styles in its story, but it all holds together in a memorable way; “…And Their Hair Looks Like Flocks” invokes the meandering guitar lines of Elijah Wyman. “They Come in Flocks”, which is the companion (at least in title) to the previously mentioned piece feels vaguely like a Nick Drake piece in mood.

Carl Hauck’s folk songs do have nods to many other artists, but the completed product is distinctly Carl Hauck. The album feels tight and cohesive, as there is no letdown between tracks. Each of the songs unfold their own treasures, and because each is a little different, the album travels at a consistent pace. The album is ultimately held together by his clear, distinct vocals, as it’s a real treat to hear them. I would recommend Counter Intelligence to anyone wanting to hear some precise, emotive folk.

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

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