Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Gray Young's maturity creates a gorgeous post-rock/folk album

September 8, 2011

The genres of folk and post-rock are bursting at the seams with new acts. It was only a matter of time before someone combined the two. Gray Young is the first band I’ve heard that treats both post-rock and folk with individual dignity, creating the incredible Staysail as a result.

The band doesn’t mash folk and post-rock together: this isn’t folktronica. Instead, they tie the disparate sounds together by a distinct mood that runs through each of the 11 tracks. Whether rocking out in a frantic manner (“Inside/Outside”), penning reflective post-rock (“The Dawning Low”) or strumming an acoustic guitar in a very Deja Entendu sort of way (“Unbound”), the band maintains a deeply affected atmosphere. The songs, while not expressly heavy in lyric or composition, maintain a mournful intensity in the background. You can tell they mean this.

That maturity sets Gray Young apart. They’re over post-rock as a statement, and they’re past folk for the earthiness of it. The band is creating art in the best way it knows how, and that requires banjo pluck on “Unbound” and Appleseed Cast-invoking riffs on the standout “Vermilion.” There are some tricks here and there: “Picture (Meridian)” is followed by “Meridian (Picture),” while “Seven:Fourteen” is a bit of a kitschy title. But for the most part, the band is not amazed at their own genre(s). They just write music.

The band does have a vocalist, but most of the time vocals are another instrument, much in the same way Appleseed Cast uses them. When his vocals become to close to the forefront they distract, but he fits in perfectly to tunes like “Cycles” and the first half of “Meridian (Picture).” Still, I could stand to hear less vocals due to their incredible instrumental talents.

Some may take offense that I put folk on par with post-rock in my description, even though just three songs here are led by acoustic guitar (and only two prominently feature banjo). Sure, this isn’t Mumford and Sons with a shoegaze guitarist. But the understanding of the melodic and structural requirements of folk underlie many songs on this album: the rhythm of the banjo on “Prescience” is slightly altered and transposed to electric guitar as the song turns into “Vermilion.” It’s an electrifying transition that shows Gray Young is in complete control of two genres, making them connect as the band decides is best. And, incredibly, the transition out to “Picture (Meridian)” is handled just as deftly.

I’ve heard several great post-rock albums this year, and Staysail is up there with the very best of them (Colin Stetson, Final Days Society). It’s an easy contender for the top ten list, because it’s just so expertly written. There’s not a moment here that gets away from the band. That complete control of mood and composition makes this the excellent album it is. Long live Gray Young.

The Ridges' debut is an exhibit of confident orchestral folk

June 25, 2011

One of the reasons I love working with Independent Clauses is that I like seeing things improve. Tracking a band from its very beginnings to success is a gratifying process, especially when I can hear bands improving on things I (and others) have pointed out in previous releases.

This is probably why The Ridges‘ self-titled EP is a bit baffling to me: there’s almost nothing I can recommend. The band has appeared fully-formed. The members have their orchestral folk rock down. People are going to like this or hate this not because it has to grow, but because people just do that with bands.

The EP fits the formula of what a great short-player should be almost to a T. There’s an establishment of the sound (“The Insomniac’s Song”), complete with pensive string intro. “Overboard” tweaks the formula by introducing sea shanty elements. “Not a Ghost” is their “single” – it’s an easily memorable, jaunty, interesting song with a good melody.

“Invented Love” is almost a perfect example of a third act turn, to prove the band isn’t a one-trick pony: it’s upbeat and enthusiastic without abandoning the core sound. “War Bonds” brings the sound back home to the beginnings with a killer closer. In short, they tick off everything I want to hear in an album/EP except a pensive acoustic track.

So as an Independent Clauses review, this is pretty unusual: I have no suggestions, really. It’s just plain good. I’d like to hear more of this, especially as their melodic strengths are honed to a fine point. As a statement of what this band can do, The Ridges’ EP is one of the strongest and most assured debut I’ve heard all year. Now they just need to dig world-conquering songs out of the vein they’ve already started to mine.

Jacob Furr releases a trio of flawless folk tunes

June 15, 2011

Much new folk music doesn’t sound like old folk music; it’s merely an appropriation of the instruments and aesthetic of folk (i.e. the West London Folk Scene, with the occasional exception of Johnny Flynn). There’s nothing wrong with playing strummy pop on acoustic instruments; I feel that the world could use more of that, not less. But in terms of rustic beauty, I’ve been coming up short recently without going deep into the country genre.

And not all folk music was country, so this is disappointing. That’s why Jacob Furr‘s music is so refreshing. His three-song EP Finches features opener “Running,” which appropriates the rustic sound of a single acoustic guitar and solo voice beautifully. The songwriting feels timeless in a way that many other folk songs don’t: there’s a bit of gospel undertone in the way he enters the chorus; the harmonica is mournful and high; the rhythm has a gentle, plodding bass line evocative of country music. By the time Furr gently sings, “Hold the world inside your hands” in his calm tenor halfway through, I’m totally sold.

“Still as My Heart” calls up Nick Drake comparisons in the guitar’s melodic structure, and that’s high praise over here. If you haven’t been introduced to Nick Drake, hear this now. If you have, be excited about Jacob Furr. It’s not rustic, but man, it’s just as great to hear someone enfolding Drake influences (or reinventing a rarely found wheel, if Furr came by it naturally).

If that weren’t enough, Furr flexes his modern folk muscles and a bit of Dylan influence on “Marching on to Zion.” Even though the first two thrill me, the third is the only one that gives me straight-up shivers. The poignantly delivered line “Don’t let your worry/steal your joy away” is followed by three percussive guitar taps and a sweetly played harmonica; I don’t know why it is such a powerful moment, but it is.

If you’re a fan of folk music of any variety, Finches by Jacob Furr should be in heavy rotation. It is a flawless trio of beautiful folk tunes, and I don’t use that word lightly. Get it right here for free.

O'Death recreates the feel of folk music instead of the structure

June 5, 2011

O’Death is definitely part of the new folk music movement, but they take a very different tack than most. Where many bands try to recreate the sound of guitar-based roots music, O’Death tries to recreate the feel of it. The songs on Outside are not anything like Mumford and Sons, nor are they like Iron and Wine. These songs sound like sea shanties (“Ourselves”), dirges (“Look at the Sun”) and other vaguely sinister tunes (“Black Dress,” “Ghost Head”).

To that end, these don’t have as developed a pop sentiment as the new folksters do. O’Death isn’t trying to make pop songs that appropriate a new idiom; they’re trying to inhabit an old idiom, quirks and all. Some lyrics a have a distinctly morbid Appalachian tinge to them (this band is called O’Death, after all). Banjo, violin, cello and non-standard percussion (claps, stomps, clicking things, etc.) play a much larger part in the sound than the usual suspects (guitar, bass, drums).That’s not to say those parts aren’t there, but O’Death doesn’t kowtow to modern sensibilities just because they’re modern sensibilities.

Another element that calls up the feel of a folk album is the reliance on group vocals. There are few moments of lead vocalist grandeur; the vocals are easy to sing along to, if not especially catchy at first blow. Theatrics are eschewed in favor of mood, and it’s a good tradeoff.

This album is like Southeast Engine’s Canary, in that it doesn’t just reward multiple listens: It requires them. This sound falls outside my consciousness, and I bet it will fall out of yours as well. It took me a few listens to understand and assimilate their modus operandi into my brain, and only then did I start to enjoy it for the fascinating album it is. I would like to see them live; I have a feeling that their intense control of mood would make for absolutely riveting gigs.

Outside isn’t for everyone, as it’s not a standard pop/folk album. But if you’re into thoughtful songwriting (or, on the other hand, sea shanties), O’Death’s latest album should be on your list of “to buy.”

Jenny and Tyler grow leaps and bound in songwriting on the amazing 'Faint Not'

March 30, 2011

I’ve been following Jenny and Tyler for some time now. I’ve heard their music, seen them live and talked with them. Their charming folk-pop fell a little to the more serious side of the Weepies, and that was just great.

Faint Not blows everything out of the water. It’s almost not worth it to compare their new work with their old songs, because they’re just so much better. In one album, they’ve matured from a duo making fun and romantic music to a band crafting powerful songs.

They make this very clear on opening track “Song For You,” which unfolds from a gentle mandolin and guitar strum to a pounding, enveloping track that includes drums, bass, piano, guitar, mandolin, dual lead vocals and choir background vocals. I usually hate cymbals, but when the drummer starts mashing the crash in the high point of the song, it gives me goosebumps. When I turn it up loud, I forget to breathe.

The incredible part about the opener is that it’s not even the best track on the album. “Song For You” has powerful instrumentation, but its lyrics pale in comparison to the devastating “Faint Not” and “Through Your Eyes.”  Even though “Through Your Eyes” doesn’t have as marked a music crescendo, the emotional power wrenched out in the phrase “No one else has to know/about this” is incredible. The desperate cling to hope that is “Faint Not” resonated with me almost instantly. The great piano and guitar work helped out, of course; the gorgeous music video just put it over the top.

Jenny and Tyler share the vocal duties much more comfortably on this album than in previous efforts; they’re growing into themselves as a songwriting duo, and it shows in dynamic, powerful songs that draw from raw and honest wells. There are no maudlin breakup tunes here; instead, they ask deep soul and life questions. Just an attempt at lyrical depth makes me perk up; successful shots at it are simply remarkable.

The love songs have been cut down in number, but “As Long As Our Hearts Are Beating” bears more weight than their previous charming tunes. When you’re married you get to know each other pretty well, and while it shows not just in this song, this love song seems more real for the shared experience it’s grown out of.

The songs of Faint Not are an astonishing jump from their previous work. The whole album hangs together with an excellent flow, which is the sign of attention to detail. No matter if the songs are fast or slow, these tunes make my heart pound. Their newly fleshed-out tunes are head and shoulders above their old stuff, and above almost everything else I’ve heard this year.

Faint Not is a deep, meaningful folk/pop triumph, and it’s only their third full album. You’re forgiven for the clapping and jumping around you’re doing right now. Okay, maybe that’s just me.

Quick Hits: Old Man's Beard

January 12, 2011

A lot can be done with an acoustic strum and a snare shuffle. Old Man’s Beard knows this and puts it to good effect on The River. They specialize in pristinely-recorded folk songs, making the familiar elements of folk and country into bright, shiny parts of pop songs.

This is not a bad thing; the instruments sound gorgeous, the vocals are beautiful, and the snare shuffle has never sounded more elegant. Purists will complain that Old Man’s Beard has more in common with Guster than Alan Lomax, and that’s true. But I don’t see that as something to complain about. There are plenty of Woody Guthrie wannabes, and not enough songs that sound like “Empty Pockets” (the purists will debate this point too, but I don’t care).

Most of these songs ease about at a stately pace, giving the listener time to enjoy the immaculate recording. Some of them move slowly because there are deep reggae influences (“Dawson Bound,” “Tofino”). The former even has the signature drumbeat and strum pattern as reggae. Still, the note-perfect production of the song ties it in with the rest in feel.

The River is an absolutely gorgeous record. There is nothing out of place and no mistakes: nothing but pristine sound. The songs are memorable, fun and interesting. And seriously, the production is amazing. I love The River. Highly recommended for fans of acoustic pop or a wide interpretation of the word “folk.”

On the Stairs makes a fascinating, unique folk/gospel/country album

June 23, 2010

Leonard Mynx‘s Vesper is easily one of the most depressing works I have ever had the pleasure of reviewing. I love sad folk music, and in sheer volume of misery, I think only Elliot Smith can trump Mynx. When I get a package endorsed by Leonard Mynx, I jump on that stuff.

So, when I got Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt by On the Stairs, which Mynx not only recommended but played on, I was thoroughly interested. On the Stairs does not disappoint my interest, but it does take it in a different direction. Mynx has three songwriting moods: sad, sadder and “I’m rummaging around for the antidepressants.” Nate Clark, the main man behind On the Stairs, employs a much wider range of moods, although the two artists’ instrumentation is very similar.

The spare notes, distant strumming and sonorous tone of the acoustic guitars transfers over to both artists, but Clark uses it to balance his low voice. And by low, I mean his baritone dips into Johnny Cash range often. Opening track “Already Won” employs his voice to excellent ends, displaying his range and creating a memorable melody out of it. It fluctuates between tempered glee and pondering, which is an awkward sort of description, but the best I can do. Nate Clark creates intensely specific moods with his gospel-tinged folk, and that’s one of his strengths.

The ominous violins and distant drumming of “King” give the song all the drama and tension, as the lyrics don’t really tell the story. The ebb and flow of instruments does, though; if that’s not the mark of a powerful songwriter, I’m not sure what is. But on the other end of the spectrum, there are upbeat moments of similar power, as in the Southern Gospel-tinged “Heaven” and “No Trumpets.” I never thought I’d see the day where I praised anything even related to Southern Gospel music, but Nate Clark has pulled it out of me. Both songs are darn good and totally in line with the usually uncomfortable and overly-sincere genre of white gospel music. “Sing It Off Stage” starts off with found sound of a crowd milling and turns into an indie-pop gem of sorts. There are hardly any cliche or predictable moments on this album; Nate Clark’s vision is far past where I expect songs to go. That’s a good, good thing.

Nate Clark’s songwriting vision is similar to Leonard Mynx’s, but in a different direction. Both use spare instrumentation and lots of space in their primarily acoustic compositions to achieve a desired effect. Mynx’s is always depressing, while Clark opens up his emotional palatte to some genuinely happy moments amidst the pondering and meandering. The honest exploration of many of life’s facets makes On the Stairs’ Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt a highly enjoyable, incredibly interesting and very unique folk/gospel/country album.  For fans of classic country, modern folk, Johnny Cash, low voices and unique (but not difficult) songwriting.

BraAgas' world-traveling folk tunes score with unique success

March 22, 2010

Independent Clauses has a history of reviewing stuff that’s out of the ordinary. We like our folk, indie-rock and indie-pop here, but we also dabble in the more unique. Our tendency toward the unusual is part of the reason that you’re reading a review of BraAgas‘ world-traveling folk album Tapas. The other reason you’re reading it is because Tapas is really good.

It’s a folk band, which is right up IC’s alley, although we don’t usually get folk albums that hail from other continents and are sung entirely in foreign tongues. Thankfully, the melodic prowess and excellent performances on the album more than make up for the fact that I have no clue what’s being said. One of the things that makes their melodic prowess so strong is that the songs here span so many different moods and cultures. “Suricillo” has a lilting, medieval quality to it, while “Asentada en mi ventara” is an a cappella gypsy folk track accompanied only by clapping. Highlight “Csiki, Csiki” has a profoundly Spanish flair in the guitar and stand-up bass work. Haunting “Hajde Jano” combines several different cultures into one profoundly ethereal experience.

Where much “world music” is difficult to get acquainted with, Tapas is immediately accessible. It’s recorded immaculately, with the instruments and voices coming through excellently. The tunes themselves are incredibly engaging and, while unique to the listener unacquainted with world folk, not off-putting after the first few tracks. The biggest challenge for the listener will probably be getting over the idea of “world folk” and just listening to it. BraAgas will take care of your enjoyment if you just let them.

If you’re up for something new in your life musically, you should check out BraAgas’ Tapas from Indies Scope Records. It’s a beautiful, engaging world folk record that reveals many excellent moments on repeated listens.

Tom Brosseau will live well with Posthumous Success

August 14, 2009

Listening to  Tom Brosseau‘s Posthumous Success was definitely something of a surprise for me. A singer-songwriter folk artist hailing from North Dakota, Brosseau has been releasing albums since 2002, this one being his eighth. What surprised me is how someone with such talent has flown under the radar for so long.

Posthumous Success is a winding odyssey of an album, with music that sounds like it should be accompanying road trips or, as it was for me the first time I listened to it, gloriously long walks on a pleasant evening. Brosseau’s sound is best described like a mix of Pete Yorn, Bright Eyes’ Connor Oberst and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. However, the music just feels hard to nail down and describe. It comes at you with a sort of joyful sorrow, as the songs can sound both ecstatic and melancholy at the same time.

While the album sticks very much in a folk/indie-rock style, there’s a remarkable amount of diversity with variances in instrumentation and mood. From the opening, “My Favorite Color Blue” with its simple vocals and acoustic guitar, to the distortion and synth of  “You Don’t Know My Friends,” Brosseau avoids the monotony that can often overtake artists that perform in a similar genre. These songs are all individually noticeable and manage to avoid blending together, a failing that regular readers will know that I particularly dislike.

Brosseau’s voice can take a little getting used to, and some might be turned off from it. His voice is full of tremolo and wavering, as if he could just stop and cry at any moment. The best comparison I can think of to this is Connor Oberst.

Musically, Brosseau shows off his talents well, as he is an accomplished guitarist. The acoustic work on “My Favorite Color Blue” is excellent, and I never felt that the song could use more instrumentation. Likewise, “Youth Decay,” an instrumental track that features only one electric guitar, is oddly moving in its use of minor chords.  Brosseau also smartly uses instrumental tracks like “Youth Decay” and “Miss Lucy” to transition one song from another, using similar instrumentation to make them flow better into one another. “Miss Lucy,” in fact, sounds like an extended outro for “Give Me A Drumroll,” yet doesn’t sound out of place right before “Axe & Stump.”

Anyone who appreciates smart songwriting or indie-folk would probably enjoy Posthumous Success greatly. Brosseau has a great amount of talent and the album displays it well. Standouts include “My Favorite Color Blue,” “Give Me a Drumroll,” “Axe & Stump,” and “Wishbone Medallion.” The track “Been True” is actually available right now via iTunes’ Facebook page in its “Indie Spotlight Sampler.” I’d recommend checking it out.

D.B.G. releases a solid folk concept EP

May 16, 2009

D.B.G., also known as Dan Barnaby Goddard, has released an EP called Earthling, and it has an unusual premise – it’s a folk concept album. The four songs on the EP are called, in order, “Man,” “Woman,” “Boy,” and “Girl.” Earthling is quite short, but these sleepy folk tunes are soothing and pleasing to listen to.

The first song, “Man,” is probably the darkest song on the EP, especially with lines like “man was the warrior, man drew the lines.” I almost think that it could be a better closer than an opener for this reason, but maybe that would mess up the song order and flow. From the beginning of this song, the listener can feel the philosophical vibes, which continue throughout the EP. But “Man” also gives the listener a false idea of what the rest of the EP will be like, because it sounds so moody and mysterious.

For example, the lazy-summer-day-sounding “Woman” really fits the feel of the rest of the songs on the EP. The organ in this song is a great addition – it gives “Woman” a nice fullness. And speaking of organ, a neat aspect of Earthling is that D.B.G plays every instrument, including guitar, bass, viola, mandolin, drums, and the pleasant organ in this song.

“Boy” picks up the pace a little bit, and D.B.G. does a great job of writing a youthful-sounding melody. Would it be weird to say that this song actually sounds like a boy? And the happy, delicate “Girl” also reflects its subject matter well using mandolin as the main instrument.

D.B.G.’s Earthling is recommended for fans of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young who doesn’t mind a little philosophizing or for anyone who wants some good, calming morning music.

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

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