Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Fireships: Joy sprinkled with darkness

April 1, 2015

fireships

Fireships’ self-titled album is purely a joy to listen to. Their playful yet smart lyrics combine with brilliant instrumentation to make Fireships one you need to grab.

The album’s multifaceted influences will be sure to please a variety of audiences. With the overall feel of the album being rather uplifting, one might think that that’s all there is to the album. I mean, with an opener like “All We Got,” what more do we need than that driving beat, enlivening lyrics, and humble vocals? Yet, Fireships has even more to offer us!

With a closer look, you begin to hear folk, western, and even some African influences. Both “Chasing the Sun” and  “Countdown Time” show a Spaghetti Western influence. “Come Back To Me” enters with a very Caribbean feel done through its opening rhythms and instrumentation; “Going Down Fighting” is very reminiscent of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” The choral voices in “Fantasy” are reminiscent of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.”

One thing that stands out throughout the album is Fireships’ ingenious instrumentation. Each instrument is used to add different things for different songs: the guitar is playful in “Chasing the Sun”, yet soulful in “Long Shadow.” The sweetness in “Words Escape Me” comes from the guitar too; when paired with the violin, the six-string adds darkness to  “Carried Away.”

Although mostly cheery and upbeat, Fireships does have its moments of darkness, which serve to even out the sound. The best example of this is the juxtaposition between singles “Gush” and “Countdown Time,” both of which you can listen to now.  “Gush” begins with an opening guitar riff that is oddly reminiscent of Fountains Of Wayne’s “Stacy’s Mom.” As the track continues, it simply gets cuter and cuter (unlike “Stacy’s Mom,” which just gets creepier and creepier). And as “Gush” fades out and “Countdown Time” enters in, there’s a bit of uneasiness lingering.

Although “Countdown Time” sounds dark through it’s minor chords and ominous tone, the track is still just as playful as “Gush” (as evidenced by the track’s music video). The experience of hearing their most darling–but not cheesy–love song, then one of the darkest sounding tracks on the album, then the almost Bob Dylan-esque “Long Shadow” gives the listener a moment of darkness quickly swallowed up by folky happiness again. These transitions allow the album to be upbeat and happy, yet contain depth sprinkled with darkness.

Fireships was thoughtful enough to prepare us for the album’s end by closing with a song of preparation. “Unplug the Stars” serves as the perfect ending to a wonderful album. The repetition of the lyric “it’s time,” the gently driving beat, and calming strums of the guitar enable the listener to find reconciliation with the end of the album just in time for it to come to a close. Nothing could be a better example of Fireships’ brilliance.

Pre-order Fireships here!–Krisann Janowitz

The EP Report

June 2, 2014

silences

The three songs of Nevernames by Silences hold intimacy and expansiveness in close quarters due to impressive songwriting and an incredible production job. Silences’ sound fits neatly at the intersection of Grizzly Bear’s arrangements, Fleet Foxes’ casual vibes, and Death Cab for Cutie’s vocal styles; this makes for songs that are incredibly easy to listen to but also challenging enough to like with your hipster hat on. If you sometimes turn on music and want it to hug you, Silences might be your band. “Santa Cruz” culminates in soaring beauty that will make you want to hit repeat; “Emma” is inspired more by hushed Iron & Wine folk. It’s a very impressive outing from a band I hope to hear much more about.

popandobachan

The humble, earnest simplicity of Pop and Obachan‘s female-fronted singer/songwriter work reminds me of Waxahatchie. I get that comparison in early, because these raw, quiet tracks have that hard-to-qualify x factor that makes this really worth hearing and not just another person with a guitar. Is it the endearing vocal delivery? Is the vocal melodies? Is it the use of strummed banjo? I don’t know what it is, but I heard Unfurl and immediately said, “yes. that.” If you love the feel of punk bands that slowly turn into alt-country bands and then into straight-up folk-singers (you know who they are), then you’ll love the vibe of Pop and Obachan.

carolinastars

The Debonzo BrothersCarolina Stars does pop-rock that reminds of early 2000s bands like Grandaddy, Vertical Horizon, and the non-“Stacy’s Mom” things Fountains of Wayne did (and yes, they did plenty of those). There’s guitar crunch with some dreamy arrangement layered on it, plenty of emotional angst, but also a warm vibe that keeps this aimed at pop. The five tracks of Carolina Stars are catchy but also invested with sonic depth that keeps things interesting after multiple listens. The title track and “More than This” capture their vibe really well.

cereusbrightbig

Cereus Bright combines acoustic pop and folk in a way that doesn’t diminish either tendency. The band plays really bright, cheerful songs that feature mandolin in a way that sounds like a mandolin (not just like a mandolin playing a guitar part). Oddly, the one sad track is the title track of Happier Than Me. If you’re a fan of Nickel Creek, Cereus Bright will have you tapping your toes, singing along, and recommending them to friends. Not everyone can balance pop and folk without skewing toward one or the other, but Cereus Bright does an impressive job of it. “Stella” in particular will perk your ears.

Best of the Rest: Pop

January 7, 2013

Independent Clauses is but one man at the moment, and that means that it’s impossible for me to cover everything that comes through the front doors. Some notable music flies under the radar for lack of time. To remedy these oversights, I’ve created two shout-out lists. Today’s is for the more pop-oriented stuff, while tomorrow’s is for indie-rock and singer/songwriter.

Alex and the XO’sNorth to the Future Here’s some fun ukulele-fronted pop-rock with a female vocalist. Don’t confuse this for an Ingrid Michaelson copy: there’s a lot of crunch in these pop-rock tunes alongside the ukulele strum.

Christian HansenC’mon Arizona. This driving-ready synth-pop features a baritone vocalist for a change. Fans of Talking Heads should check the infectious “Spirit Guide” and the money-titled “You Were a Juggalo.”

Coed PageantThe Seasons EPs Vol. 4: The Fallout. Boy/girl pop that goes for the grand sweep instead of the intimate coo. If Mates of State thought that their loudest arrangement could use a couple more instruments for scope, they might end up in this arena.

Hostage CalmPlease Remain Calm. Gonna throw my hat in here with the rest of the punk world: this one is pretty stellar. I’m a huge Menzingers fan, and this pushes all the same buttons lyrically and musically (only with a bit less gruffness).

Nora and One LeftBicycle. Enthusiastic, girl-fronted indie-pop that occasionally includes accordion.

The World RecordFreeway Special. Similar to Fountains of Wayne, TWR goes to great lengths and many sub-genres in search of the perfect pop song. And check that sweet album art.

Wise GirlWise Girl EP. Straight-up power-pop with a great female vocalist. Turn it up loud.

Single: "When I Write My Master's Thesis"

January 26, 2012

I listen to so much pop music that I’m impervious to humming all but the catchiest of tunes. But even my melodically jaded self can’t stop from singing along with “When I Write My Master’s Thesis” by John K. Samson. The leader of the Weakerthans’ new solo album is called Provincial, and it includes the aforementioned power-pop gem. Samson’s excellent vocals carry a thoughtful, wry set of lyrics about the difficulty of monumental tasks which will appeal to an audience far larger than just graduate students. Add to that a perky Weezer/Fountains of Wayne guitar line, and you’ve got gold.

Dr. Pants grows up and makes even better pop songs

October 6, 2011

Dr. Pants often gets compared to Weezer, but The Trip, Side 2: Breaking the Feel should do a great deal to get some other RIYLs on the list. The second of four EPs in a release cycle features nuanced songs that sound a great deal more like They Might Be Giants and Fountains of Wayne than Rivers Cuomo and co.

Songwriter David Broyles’ clever, geeky sense of humor is still thankfully intact. “Calling Chewbacca” is literally about the Wookiee leaving messages on his cell phone, which I thought was mildly quirky until I remembered that Chewbacca speaks in unintelligible howls. The only conclusion? David Broyles is Han Solo.

But for all the gleeful ridiculousness of the opener (the band even throws in the Star Wars theme as a guitar solo), Breaking The Feel has more serious topics than outlandish ones. “The Live and the Lecherous” is a critical look at our culture’s obsession with social media: “Like me now please!” begs the chorus. “The Cassette Song” is about the titular item on the surface, but it’s really about abusive relationships. (Gulp.) “This is What It Looks Like” is an incredibly tender, mature love song to his wife. The only clunker is “Magic Airplane,” which gets lost in its own metaphors.

Broyles’ lyrics take the front seat here, but the music hasn’t suffered. His ’90s-leaning vocal melodies are top-notch. The music, while dialed back in volume from the power-pop that garnered them so many Blue Album comparisons, hasn’t lost any vitality. “This is What It Looks Like” and “The Live and The Lecherous” are actually more dialed-in because they take the focus off the chord mashing: the former is a subdued acoustic vehicle, while the latter noticeably mixes the rock so that Broyles can be front and center.

Breaking the Feel is not as goofy as Dr. Pants’ past work, but we get older and our goofiness is tempered by wisdom. I’m teaching a unit on musical authenticity right now in my day job, and Broyles’ balance of geekery, music knowledge, and life observations is much more true to Broyles’ life than most Great Depression-appropriating alt-country. If we care about authenticity—if it matters at all—then we should celebrate it when it appears. It’s definitely on display here.

Does that make the songs better? In this case, it does: you can tell that Broyles (and Dr. Pants as a whole) care about these tunes, and that makes me want to care. And I do, both in “Calling Chewbacca” and “This Is What It Looks Like.” That’s impressive. I am eagerly anticipating the third volume.

Quick Hits: The Workaholics

June 2, 2011

I admire The Workaholics. While I’ve reviewed bands from Greece before, I’ve never received an e-mail entirely in Greek until the Workaholics sent me their self-titled EP. The only words in the entire (lengthy) e-mail that I can read are EP, download, 272 Records, Amazon, and a download link. I’ve done the whole self-promo thing before, but I’ve never done it in another language. While The Workaholics’ method may not be the most effective method, it did get them this review.

The four songs of their self-titled EP compose a release a lot like Fountains of Wayne’s Welcome Interstate Managers. The four songs each inhabit a different subgenre of pop, and rock the heck out of it. They don’t quite have the melodic touch of the “Stacy’s Mom” hitmakers yet, but they do have the deft touch and easy-going moods. The songs are all quite well produced, as well. The vintage garage-rocker “The Secret” is my favorite, as it calls up early 2000s revivalists like The Hives and The Vines.

The band is on the right path, but they’re not there yet. Put the name in the back of your mind and watch for it. If they’re true to their name, there should be more music soon.

Quick Hits: Like Clockwork

January 16, 2011

Here Are Some Things is a teaser EP for Like Clockwork‘s very long awaited album These Are All Things, which could be as big as a triple LP. The current press says “full-length record,” so make of that what you will.

The EP contains four pop songs. “Grappling Hook” dabbles in Cobra Starship-esque dance pop, while “Televisionary” is like a Fountains of Wayne power-pop song. “Method Act” is a Guster-esque acoustic tune. “Starchild” is a distorted garage-rock tune. None of them are bad, but the vast array of genres makes it feel like nothing more than a teaser. There’s no coherence, nor does it seem that any was attempted. It’s literally “some things.”

Like Clockwork has experience with dance-pop, so his skills in that area are a bit more refined in “Grappling Hook” than in other areas. Ending track “Starchild” is a bit of a mess, but it’s an enjoyable crash. The most ambitious of the set, it starts off at a punk-fueled clip and then spins out into a spaced-out, flowy jam before throwing down some intermittent guitar noises for a long outro.

The EP certainly shows the breadth of Like Clockwork’s songwriting interests. I don’t know how the album is going to pan out after hearing this EP, because it could go in any direction. But the EP certainly has me looking forward to the album, so it’s done its job very well.

The Honest Mistakes write guitar pop and poignant lyrics that don't mesh

July 19, 2010

One of the great things about The Honest Mistakes Break Up is that it’s a breakup album with little to no wallowing in depressing sounds. The members of The Honest Mistakes made an upbeat pop album with jangly guitars, cheery organs, snappy drums and tambourines to chronicle their breakup (or breakups). While this is a refreshing take on the breakup album (seriously, I only need one Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space), the music nearly indicates at some points that breakups are flippant or even to be celebrated. It’s a bit incongruous.

The lyrics are firmly grounded in breakupland, (“days all measured in defeat/nights spent wandering the streets” from the musically perky “Feel Good”), meaning they’re sometimes at odds with the music. Even “If It Isn’t Me,” the most heartbreaking lyric on the album, has an upbeat feel.

The songs themselves are great. The jangly guitars support buoyant vocal melodies and tight harmonies; the rhythm section holds its own nicely. The songs range from charmingly twee (“Tell Everybody,” complete with whistling and tap dancing) to bouncy (“Long Way Around,” which is a highlight) to beach-party-groovin’ (the excellent “Stay”).

If these songs were paired with any other set of lyrics (like, perhaps, Fountains of Wayne’s Welcome Interstate Managers, which draws off corporate suburban America for lyrical matter), this would be an amazing album. The songs themselves are awesome, but the juxtaposition with the lyrics is odd and difficult for me to get over. If you’re one of those people who never hears lyrics anyway, jump all over The Honest Mistakes Break Up. You will wordlessly hum the totally poppy tunes and necessarily be summery and enthused. It’s just that type of wonderful album. But if you’re a lyric-ponderer, this will leave you scratching your head. You’ll still tap your toe, but with confusion.

The Fools release an astounding, gorgeous acoustic album

May 5, 2010

I maintain a playlist on my iTunes called “Songs I Wish I’d Written.” This list is composed of beautiful, powerful songs so deeply ingrained in my brain that I cannot remember ever not knowing them. They’re mostly acoustic songs, as those resonate most with me. There are only three bands that have two tracks on the roughly thirty-song list: quirky chart-toppers Fountains of Wayne, indie mainstay Sufjan Stevens and unsigned acoustic duo The Fools.

“Open Door” and “For My Mother” are the tracks that made it to the list; both come off the Fools’ Lost and Found. It should be noted that Lost and Found consists of eight songs that run barely over twenty minutes. The Fools wrote two near-perfect songs in a fraction of the time it took artists like Damien Jurado and the Mountain Goats (two of my favorite bands) to write one.

Near-perfect tracks “Open Door” and “For My Mother” fuse genuine emotion with incredible melodies, uncluttered arrangements, an intimate recording style, a hopeful musical tone, thoughtful lyrics and a refreshing lack of needless repetition. “Open Door”  is over in 1:34; “For My Mother” is over in 2:54. The band states its points passionately and lets them stand. If that’s not a sign of mature, assured songwriting, I’m not sure what is.

And they are great songwriters and musicians. Their mellow, gentle acoustic songs are simple and executed beautifully. “Open Door” features a warm keyboard in the background, accompanying the insistent acoustic guitar and lithe bass notes. The calm but passionate female vocals seal the deal; they’re not high, but they’re not low, either. Her alto range fits the music perfectly, giving the already easy-going tunes an air of uncomplicated ease. It honestly feels like The Fools sat down and just tossed off these recordings; they’re not overproduced, overthought, or overwrought. At the same time, they don’t feel rushed or hurriedly made. It feels like The Fools are playing a live show for me.

There are six other tunes on this all-too-short LP; five of them are nearly as good as the two I’ve been lauding for three hundred words now. The sixth, “A Good Day,” would still be a standout anywhere else, but the percussion makes it feel slightly gimmicky compared to the passionate, intimate feel of the rest of the tracks. The alarm clock at the beginning of the song doesn’t help out either.

“The Dream” has just the right amount of reverb attached to the vocals to create a gorgeous, dreamy mood without becoming a strange psychedelic piece. “The Great Whale” has a great bass line to accompany a unique vocal line. “Cosmic Love” features a bit darker tone, but it’s still gentle and lovely. The wistful “Always Tomorrow” has the power to sway my mood to the melancholy. I could go on.

Lost and Found is easily in my top three releases of the year thus far. Their songwriting is immaculate, the recordings are gorgeous, and the finished product is astounding. I can’t say enough good things about this album; it’s beautiful and it’s not going to leave my heavy rotation for a long, long time. I just hope there’s more where this came from.  You need this album if you like mellow music.

New Grenada shows songwriting skill but covers it with distortion

February 27, 2010

New Grenada doesn’t have the same dark sound that most early nineties grunge bands had, but they do have an aesthetic in common with them: they write pop songs, then distort their guitars and play them at ear-deafening levels. The disappointing thing about Energy Shortage is that New Grenada’s non-distorted tunes far outweigh their distorted ones in quality.

Songs like “Lightning Bolt” and “Modern Communication” are pop songs that wouldn’t sound much different from the Fountains of Wayne if they just dropped out the mega distortion. All the distortion serves to do is make the songs more bland; these songs are very diverse in the songwriting ideas employed, but covering half the album in a massive wall of distortion makes half of those decisions negligible.

But the other half of the album is excellent. The slow and quiet verses/wild and frantic chorus of “Years of Decay” show what can be accomplished when the wall of distortion is used sparingly. The low-fi intro to “Pitfall” makes the rest of the song great. The totally acoustic “I Hope Not” is one of the most memorable tracks here, although it can be argued that it is only so noticeable because of its starkly different surroundings, and not because of its songwriting merit.  I would disagree, but it is an arguable point.

What’s not arguable is that “It Doesn’t Matter Now” is the strongest artistic statement here, combining a fuzzy sample with a clean electric guitar, accordion, saxophone and trip-hop drumming to create a song that sounds like the Rural Alberta Advantage on uppers (which is no small feat). It’s the track that hooked my ear and kept me listening. With songwriting skills this unique and interesting in their arsenal, it boggles me that the band would want to go cover everything by stomping on the distort pedal.

Energy Shortage is inappropriately named; there’s no shortage of energy anywhere on this album. Even though I’m not the biggest fan of their songwriting choices, they pull them off with an undeniable passion and energy – even the acoustic-based tracks.

New Grenada’s ten-song LP Energy Shortage is not my favorite release, but the band is talented and has a lot of songwriting skill. It will be interesting to see where they go with their next release, as they set up two distinct directions the band could go: off into the rockin’ future, or more toward their less-distorted songwriting selves. Only time will tell.

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

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