1. “Galatians 2:20” – The Welcome Wagon. TWW is almost genetically engineered specifically to be a perfect fit with my musical tastes: acoustic-based indie-pop married duo inspired to start a band by Sufjan Stevens who sing humble yet joyfully melodic tunes (often with many voices) whose lyrics are sometimes entirely Bible verses (as in this one). I love it all. If you do too, hit up their Kickstarter.
2. “Be My Girl” – Anna Lee Warren. Warren’s strong, clear alto voice is the centerpiece of this vocal/ukulele/stand-up bass/shaker piece, and it shines bright.
3. “The Swells” – Second Husband. A joyful little ditty about (potentially metaphorically) being eaten by a shark that includes a very Juno-esque flute solo and overall attitude.
4. “When I Arrive” – Bryan Diver. Somewhere between Needtobreathe and Josh Garrels lies this high-drama folk tune with an arresting chorus.
5. “Cold Fact” – I Have a Tribe. Gentle trembling at the top of some vocal notes gives a sense of a particular type of intimacy; not theatrical but not entirely restrained either. Just honest, in a certain way. There’s a very European precision about the spacious indie-pop arrangement here.
6. “Uncomfortably Numb” – i.am.hologram. A hypnotic acoustic guitar line that sounds more like a sitar than a six-string anchors this song. Nihil’s barely contained, sneering voice provides an astute counterpoint to the instrumental base.*
7. “Over You” – Pony Hunt. A vintage walking-speed country loll, but fronted by a clear-eyed alto voice, doo-wop background vocals, and delicate–even sweet–pedal steel.
8. “Eggs and Toast” – Redvers Bailey. This charming, quirky, jubilant ode to breakfast food reminds me of the melody of the Boss’s “Dancing in the Dark.” Pretty much everything else possible is different.
9. “Stay a Little Longer” – Knaan Shabtay. Passenger’s vocal style meets a sped-up version of Josh Radin’s delicate intricacies in a charming, engaging tune.
10. “dirt” – Andrea Silva. It’s amazing how arresting a subtle voice, a guitar, and reverb can be.
11. “Used to Be” – Luca Fogale. A dreamy, lovely tune about running out of nostalgia that nonetheless has a deep sense of memory running through it.
12. “Settle Down” – Dark Mean. Jason Molina and Bonnie Prince Billy would approve of this moving, slowly-unfolding tune constructed of simple elements that are imbued with huge emotional importance.
13. “The Thrill of Loneliness” – Honey Stretton. Goes hard for the pastoral feel: a burbling brook, various animal/insect noises, and the hiss of the outdoors accompany a meandering guitar and a fluttering female vocal. You’ll probably want to walk outside after hearing this–it won’t be as pretty as the sonic picture (unless you’re very lucky locationally).
14. “UURKIDNI” – Emily & the Complexes. Most of E&tC’s work is distortion heavy indie-rock, a la Silversun Pickups and the like. But this is a gentle yet sturdy love song of just an acoustic guitar, even-handed vocals, and atypical lyrics that draw me in. Stunning.
*Full disclosure: i.am.hologram’s PR contact recently began writing for Independent Clauses. This happened after selection of this song for coverage and did not affect the selection of the song.
Genres can be combined in any number of ways, as long as it makes sense to the listener. Smoke Season‘s Hot Coals Cold Souls EP mashes folk-style instrumentation and rhythms with the arch, electro-backed rock bombast of Muse. It’s not as weird as it sounds, because the duo knows how to set up the mood to make their tunes build from small beginnings to big conclusions. It’s a rare skill to be able to tip people off to things they haven’t imagined yet, but Smoke Season pulls mood-building tricks from country (the reverb and strum pattern in “Badlands”), R&B (the sultry vocals in “Badlands”), dancy indie (the rhythms of the opening guitar riff in “Simmer Down”), chillwave (the intro to “Opaque”) and more. This whole review feels kind of dumb, kind of like a reach, but I have to explain the sound somehow.
By the time you get to the electronic noise washes at the end of the EP, the connection to folk seems tenuous at best. But throughout the EP, it’s there. There are only subtle differences between a folk band exploding in every direction and a rock band dabbling in folk (and what is a rock band, anyway?), so maybe the distinction is silly. However you feel about the comparison, fans of folk, indie-rock, and alt-rock will enjoy the three songs of Hot Coals Cold Souls. Just go listen to it.
The album art for Conversations by Woman’s Hour is a perfect fit for the album. The smooth, pulsing, post-’80s electro-pop tunes here are pristine, streamlined and unified. They’re not exactly monochromatic, but they do all adhere to a very distinct sonic palette. Nothing is spiky or jagged here: everything is built on spacious, calming, warm vibes. The delicate “Two Sides of You” will especially appeal to fans of James Blake–as Woman’s Hour is (appropriately) fronted by a female singer, this provides an extra interesting hook to the sound. JB’s spaced-out post-dub melancholy/beauty is exactly what Woman’s Hour is offering here. (This is not chillwave; there’s little hazy or washed-out about this.) Conversations is a beautiful, calming, endearing chill-out record.
Emily and the Complexes is a male-fronted alt-rock band that takes its cues from Pedro the Lion: even though there’s significant crunch in the guitars, the emotions invoked are sad and complicated instead of angry. “Yer Boyfriend (Is a Cheapskate)” juxtaposes slow, dejected vocals with a torrent of gritty guitars and cymbal-heavy drums; that sort of quiet/loud is a staple throughout the four songs of Dirty Southern Love.
Tyler Verhagen hasn’t gotten much happier since 2012’s Styrofoam Plate Blues, as the last line of closer “Jersey City Blues” is “Rubbing alcohol or scotch / I don’t care.” He has matured some in his subject matter, as “Joshua” is about a man with a child, a mortgage, and life outlook concerns–there’s a dignity in the depiction of normal life (complete with joys and sorrows). But no matter how tough the subject matter, Verhagen is ace at writing compelling melodic lines for guitar and voice. He’s internalized the lessons of the ’90s and integrated them with the vocal and instrumental emotionality that the ’00s brought us. If you miss the desperate crunch of an alt-rock sadness, check out Emily and the Complexes.
The album isn’t dead, as you’ll see when my top albums of the year list rolls around tomorrow. But these songs stuck out over and above the albums that encompassed them–or not, as #4’s album has yet to be released. Viva la album, viva la single.
I usually like to get this post to a nice round number, but I didn’t get it there this year. Here’s what my year sounded like, y’all! This post isn’t ranked; instead, it’s a playlist of sorts. My ranked post will come tomorrow.
If you make art about brothers, you’ve pretty much got me. The Darjeeling Limited, “Murder in the City” by The Avett Brothers, and “Brother” by Annuals are all way up in my list because of my own two brothers. (I just finished talking to one of my two brothers before I wrote this.) So when I found that the opening track of Emily and the Complexes‘ Styrofoam Plate Blues is named “Brother Don’t Wait,” I was hooked.
It helps that “Brother Don’t Wait” is a beautiful tune, strummed quietly on a solo electric guitar. Tyler Verhagen’s evocative tenor can barely contain his emotions as he encourages his brother to move on with his life after a difficult breakup. Its simple, but it’s powerful. This highly emotional, spartan sound doesn’t appear again until the album closer “Andy.” “Andy” is even more raw lyrically and musically, closing the album on a beautiful, wrenching note. If Verhagen’s got a solo project kicking around, I really want to hear it.
I like the sound of the rest of the album too, just not as much. The majority of this album is Verhagen and his bandmates throwing down rock’n’roll that sounds like a cross between Bright Eyes and a ’90s slacker-rock band. Verhagen inhabits the no-motivation, nothing-to-do stance in most of these lyrics, seeing travel as a way to escape all the ills that befall him. From “Social Skills” to “I Don’t Wanna Brush My Teeth” to “Would You,” Verhagen writes the slacker effectively.
The music fits in a loud, grungy mode, with lots of distortion. But this isn’t really riff-driven rock; it’s powered primarily by Verhagen’s voice, just as with much of Bright Eyes’ work. There’s even a hint of country in the way the lead guitar plays. This leads to dramatic soft/loud juxtapositions (“Would You,” “Styrofoam Plate Blues”) as well as more straightforward tunes (“Pillar of Salt,” “Two States Away”). Still, at no point does the band lose the vocal line in the instrumentals. This is a rock band that wants you to know what they’re saying.
The album is named after its most memorable rock track. The band starts off the tune with a dreary, dreamy, slow-paced section before snapping to attention with some rigid, sharp rhythms. The guitars and drums work together to accentuate the heavy rhythmic qualities of the song, creating a powerful tune that is more than the sum of its parts.
Styrofoam Plate Blues features some incredibly memorable tunes in two different styles. It never strays far from its singer/songwriter roots, even when rocking out; this makes for a unique, fun listening experience. Recommended for fans of emotive, vocals-centric rock’n’roll.
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.