Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

City Light / DL Rossi

July 29, 2013

CL_NEW_ART_COVER

It blows my mind that Matt Shaw’s Ghosts in the Concrete came out in 2004. Matt Shaw created an electronic indie-pop world that was more lush and developed than The Postal Service’s take on the genre, and Ghosts has remained one of my favorite releases I’ve ever reviewed at Independent Clauses. Shaw’s band City Light just released its sophomore album Memory Guide, and it builds out his indie-pop sensibilities with hip-hop and electronica overtones to make a very engaging album.

Shaw has always used his melodic gifts to create tunes of foreboding or downright dread; even in the musically chipper Ghosts the main themes were urban malaise and future panic. City Light’s debut album fashioned a fitting musical sheath for these ideas, creating “moody, haunting, electronic indie-rock.” Memory Guide swings back toward the balance in his solo work: upbeat songs that deliver downbeat lyrics. The album does have some dark, haunting arrangements, like the excellent instrumental “Memory Loss,” but the overall tone is much brighter. “Sweet Death” is a buoyant dance song about getting old, while “Waste Away” is a stomping rock track with sparkly lead guitar. As you can see from the titles, however, Shaw hasn’t gotten any more optimistic in his musings.

My favorite moments apart from the surprisingly dance-able pessimism are “Wrecking Ball” and “You Know This Song,” which both strip away the bravado of a full band and operate much more like the small, cohesive, claustrophobic Shaw tunes I so adored on Ghosts. “Wrecking Ball” pairs a lazy, fingerpicked, clean guitar line with a trip-hop beat, some fuzzy organs and bgvs; it works beautifully. “You Know This Song” employs a similar strategy, letting the focus fall squarely on Shaw’s beautiful, evocative voice.

Shaw’s blurry, bleary tenor is one of the things that attracted me most to his work, and it is in fine form here. Comparisons to Ben Gibbard miss the gauzy/gritty edge that Shaw cultivates; references to pop-era Flaming Lips don’t give Shaw enough credit for hitting notes (which, as an avowed Flaming Lips fan, is something I can fully admit that Wayne Coyne does not often try to do). It is a distinct, passionate, memorable voice, and one that can suck me into any tune. It’s worth your price of admission just to hear it.

City Light’s indie-pop tunes have a complexity far beyond what I’ve described; the arrangements are strong, the songwriting is tight, and the performances are spot-on. There’s a lot going on and a lot to love. The most important things to note, though, are that these are fun, clever, and interesting tunes by some experienced hands. I highly recommend Memory Guide to any fan of indie-pop, electronic or no.

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dlrossi

Pedro the Lion’s work was raw and honest, musically and lyrically: David Bazan grappled with his faith, his insecurities, and his culture in an alt-rock-ish idiom that hadn’t generally been reserved for that sort of work. Bazan’s retirement of the moniker was a sad day for me. With PTL long since gone, there aren’t that many bands holding a torch for the sort of emotionally vulnerable rock that can range in volume from forlorn slowcore to cymbal-rush pounding.

DL Rossi aims for that space with his music. His self-titled record is composed of confessional alt-rock (“The Fool,” “12 Step Plan”) and instrospective acoustic work (“Worked Up,” “Be Alone”) that complement each other in tone. Rossi also takes after Bazan lyrically, covering religion, relationships, and culture in a cynical-yet-hopeful sort of way. “12 Step Plan” is bitingly critical of mega-church Christianity, while “The Fool” is possibly even more vitriolic on the subject. Both tunes are hooky, energetic pop-rockers with a low-end crunch and indie-pop melodies; while these tunes would fit in on rock radio, they have a different flair and feel to them than your average rock track.

Other tunes tackle relationships, including the bombastic single “Strange Thing” and the Parachutes-esque “Suckers and Chumps.” (You probably don’t need me to tell you what they’re about, based on the titles.) The quieter tunes, like the latter, land gently, showing ache and pain without getting (too) maudlin. As soon as the emotions start to get a bit much, Rossi lightens the mood with some rock. It’s a good balance throughout.

I don’t listen to too many rock albums straight through anymore, but I’ve heard this one from end to end several times because of its diversity in sound. Rossi simply churns out high-quality tunes. He may be the spiritual and melodic successor to Pedro the Lion, but he could be much more than that as he matures as an artist. Very worth watching.

Matt Shaw-Ghosts in the Concrete

November 28, 2004

mattshawBand Name: Matt Shaw
Album Name: Ghosts in the Concrete
Best element: Great flow throughout the entire album.
Genre: Indie electronica
Website: www.mattshaw.us
Label name: Burning Building Records www.bbrecords.com
Band e-mail: matt’mattshaw.us

Call it a wake-up call. Call it a check-up. Call it OK Computer, Pt. II. But most importantly, call your friends, because Matt Shaw’s debut full-length is not only musically entrancing, it’s lyrically enveloping.

The first thing that hits the ear when “Ghosts in the Concrete” hits your stereo is an electronic ditty that instantly caught my attention. Having been a fan of the Postal Service since I got their album about a year ago, I’ve been snapping up anything that has to do with electro-indie, or as my friends call it, mellow techno. Whatever, guys.

Anyway, of all these mellow electronic indie popsters, I’ve never found one as good as the Postal Service- no one seems to be able to carry the melody, the instrumentation, the beat, and the mood as well as Tamborello and Gibbard can. Until Matt Shaw, that is.

After that little introduction, “Constant Movement” cues up- a paced little song with a highly downtrodden, highly indie vocal line and a rather simple backdrop. It basically establishes who Matt Shaw is and what he does- Take the Postal Service’s ideas, drop the corporate sheen from them, rub some dirt in the cracks, and show up at a coffee shop full of beatniks and disaffected college students.

“Transition” comes next- a continuing the lyrical themes of “Constant Movement” while placing more emphasis on the beat, creating a hollowed out sound that fits the forlorn vocals perfectly. The lyrical theme that runs constant through the first two songs as well as the rest of the album is life in the 21st century- rushed back and forth, feeling paranoia (“Android”) and frustration (“The Argument”), all the while becoming slaves to money (“Currency”), medicines (“The Remedy”), and memories (“The Fields”).

The tough part about this album is that after the first two songs, there’s really nowhere to go in this review. The first two songs that I showered praise on? They’re the least rewarding tracks on the album. The rest are segued together from song to song- creating a solid string of music in the listener’s mind, and imprinting both the message and the melodies. The most resonant statement is the poignant “The Argument”, which stretches the limits of syncopation and spoken word to create a genuine tug between the vocals and the instruments, accenting the internal chaos of our age. The genuinely inspired song segues out with Matt Shaw repeating the ominous portent of “repetition”- then fades into what can only be classified as an electronic hymn. The stark, jittery, regal presence of the ditty that appears is nothing short of mind-blowing- and it’s just one little electronic instrument! It’s tough to come away from Matt Shaw not feeling inspired in some way, whether it’s out of happiness after hearing “The Fields”, or out of paranoia after hearing the grave “Android”, or out of sheer awe after hearing “Descartes”.

The gravity of the experiment that Matt Shaw has pulled off here is fantastic- he’s managed to craft a mellow electronic indie-pop concept album that never alienates the listener, never freaks out into self-indulgent tangents, never languishes by inserting filler songs, and never loses the hummable qualities that make good indie-pop. This album can’t come along at a better time- we need to remember what living is all about, and what good music is. Matt Shaw gives some insight on both here.

-Stephen Carradini

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

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