1. “Friends” – Marsicans. Marsicans appeared fully-formed writing masterful indie-pop-rock songs. I have no idea how that happened, but we’re all beneficiaries. This one manages to get heavy on the lyrical content and yet still manages to be one of the catchiest songs I’ve heard since … uh … “Swimming” by Marsicans.
2. “My Roommate Is a Snake and the Landlord’s a Bat” – Gregory Pepper and His Problems. If the conceit of Sleigh Bells is “hardcore guitars tamed by pop melodies,” the conceit of Pepper’s new album Black Metal Demo Tape is “sludge metal guitar and indie pop melodies.” This particular track starts off as a doomy dirge before transitioning into a early-Weezer power-pop tribute to metal. It’s a fun ride the whole way through the track. The rest of the album is equally inventive, charming, and gloomy (sometimes in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way, but also sometimes not).
3. “Weathering” – moonweather. Fans of the acoustic work on Modest Mouse’s Good News album will love the unique vocal style and swaying, shambling, enthusiastic folk arrangement of this tune. The lilting, floating horns/string arrangement is excellent.
4. “€30,000” – Emperor X. If John Darnielle had collaborated with Pedro the Lion in between his All Hail West Texas and Tallahassee days, the results would have sounded as enigmatic and engaging as this incredible track. It’s almost pointless to tag this with genres–it’s a thoughtful, passionate, wild indie-pop (okay, I did it anyway) track.
5. “Unbroken Chains” – WolfCryer. If you’re not listening to WolfCryer yet, you’re missing out on some of the most vital, important folk songs being sung today. Baumann’s vocal delivery, vocal melodies, and lyrics are all top-shelf in this weary, burdened protest tune.
7. “I Won’t Rest Until” – Brianna Gaither. Following in the vein of Moda Spira, this tune seamlessly blends electro-pop synths, instrospective singer/songwriter piano, soulful vocals, and indie-rock drums for a thoroughly modern-sounding take on serious pop.
8. “We Notice Homes When They Break” – Loyal Wife. An earnest, charming love song that’s part alt-country (via the blaring organ), part indie-pop (through the vocal tone and vocal melodies), and part singer/songwriter (through the lyrics).
9. “Hold On” – Midnight Pilot. The title track to Midnight Pilot’s latest EP is a distillation of their Paul Simon-meets-Americana sound, a yearning piano-driven ballad augmented by lovely fluttering strings and capped off by a beautiful male vocal performance. The vocal melodies in the chorus are catchy and sophisticated, a balance rarely struck well.
10. “Alone with the Stars” – Ofeliadorme. Portishead-style trip-hop with a heavy dose of spacey/ambient synths for atmosphere. The video is in black and white because the song sounds like it is in noir tones.
11. “Eternally” – Julia Lucille. Fans of the complex emotional states of Julianna Barwick will find much to love in this track, which has similar focus on wordless vocals (although not looped and layered ones) to convey the dramatic, almost mystical mood. This track does have a full band supporting Lucille’s voice, and the band’s patient, thoughtful accompaniment creates a dusky evening for her voice to wander through.
12. “Islands III” – Svarta Stugan. Instead of releasing a video, this Swedish post-rock outfit released a video game. Set in a gray, bleak warzone environment, the game has elements of Helicopter Game and a side-scrolling space shooter. (It’s fun!) The song itself is a slowly-moving, minor-key, guitar-heavy post-rock piece of the Godspeed You Black Emperor! school. The game and the song really mesh well–it was a great idea.
The seven songs of Cable Street Collective‘s The Best of Times are exciting: can’t-stop-moving, mood-lifting, first-time-you-heard-Vampire-Weekend exciting. The London six-piece plays ecstatic, polyrhythmic indie-pop that snags Afro-cuban rhythms and harnesses them in the service of giddy pop songs.
They don’t just do the upbeat, herky-jerky melodic style; they also know how to lay back on the beat, dub-style. The contrast of laying back and then pushing way to the front with syncopations creates an atmosphere of gleeful uncertainty: you don’t know what’s going to happen, but you know it’s going to be fun. Whether it’s the four-on-the-floor, rat-a-tat female speak/sing vocal delivery of “He’s on Fire,” the iconic Latin percussive vibes in “Yin & Prang,” or the Givers-esque perkiness of lead single “Can’t Take Me Under,” Cable Street Collective know how to give the listener what they didn’t know they wanted. They even slow things down a little for the last track, turning Vampire Weekend back into Paul Simon’s Graceland and knocking out an uplifting, “All These Things That I’ve Done”-style coda.
I haven’t even touched the lyrics: The Best of Times is an only-slightly-more-subtle version of Modest Mouse’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News: “It is the best of times / to be at number one / it is the worst of times / for all the other ninety-nine.” Social commentary and heavy-hitting dance grooves? Sign me up. The Best of Times is the best EP of the year so far.
I can’t believe it’s been almost two weeks since I posted. Crazy times. Here’s a bunch of quick hits to clear my slate and get back to lengthy reviews I am such a fan of writing.
The fractured melodies and herky-jerky energy of Good News-era Modest Mouse meet the moody ponderousness of Tom Waits’ work in More Than Skies‘ I Am Only Above The Ground. The lyrics are far more positive than either party is accustomed to writing, making the album a unique experience of positive-to-wistful lyrics led by a raspy singer and backed by an enthusiastic band that often breaks out into group vocals. Instrumental chops abound (“Introduction,” “The One Who Wanders Is Not Lost”) and the melodies shine (“Life Declines at Twenty-five,” the title track), but it’s the exuberant “We’re Getting Older” that will stick in your mind and heart. Highly recommended for fans of a full-bodied folk sound that’s still raw and real.
Nonagon‘s People Live Everywhere EP offers up technical post-hardcore that’s big on dissonant melodies, tempo changes, odd time signatures, and shouted vocals. The unusual juxtaposition of guitar lines in opener “Vikings” should tip you off that this is loud music to appreciate with your brain as much as your body. You can definitely mosh to it (the dissonant “Fresnel Lens,” the manic “The Swifts”), but it’s the atypical rhythms and melodic ideas in “Fadeout” and the aforementioned “Vikings” that get me. Nonagon’s working at a high level here.
The Woodrow Wilsons‘ Devil Jonah focuses more on mood and arrangement than hummable melodies, making their acoustic amalgam much less of a traditional “folk” album and more of a chamber-pop album. “I Love the Atlantic” is a beautiful tune that experiments with tempo and arrangement for effect, while “Anthropomorphics” is a jubilant tune with a horn chorale in it. Songs like “The Ocean is Rising to Meet You” and “Heat” play with the conventions of songwriting to great effect. Male and female vocals lead the band in turns, only lending more variety to the album. The highlight is the tense, emotive “The Size of My Fist,” which calls up what Andrew Bird might sound like if he had an interest in conveying emotions. On the whole, fans of The Decemberists and old-school Sufjan Stevens will find much to love in The Woodrow Wilsons.
“I think it’s important for bands to be older,” Hendrix said. “They have more to say, and what they have to say isn’t related to being mad at parents.”
I hadn’t thought much about age/maturity as a factor in making great music, but since then it’s been on my radar. I’ve seen Paul Simon in an entirely different light; I’ve noticed castoff lines in Good News For People Who Love Bad News that wouldn’t have been noted by a younger Modest Mouse. There are evidences of it everywhere. Ringer T‘s Sorry Verses is yet another example.
The releases I’ve reviewed from the Michigan alt-country band have all been heart-wrenching affairs, wringing every ounce of emotion out of the travails of young love. Their pristine production values and tight songwriting structures honed the misery to a fine point. The most downtrodden of their tunes are right up there with Elliott Smith’s and Damien Jurado’s in the “too sad to listen to more than once in a while” tracks.
Then the band went their own ways for a while, and the time off seems to have been just the thing the members needed. Their regrouped effort is a much brighter, calmer and more enjoyable effort. The songwriting, now freed from the weight of tragedy, is able to be as infectious as it should have been previously. Both the pristine production and tight songwriting have only become more so.
The smooth-toned tenor vocalist isn’t singing too much about lost love, and even when he does, he does it in a way that doesn’t aspire to tear down the walls on himself. Not that these tunes are sparkly indie-pop; this is still firmly alt-county. But there are a lot of Paul Simon touches, like the little strum pattern on “The Easy Road” and just about everything on “Upon a Hill.” It’s Ringer T as I always wanted them to be: they’re making great melodies (“Sorry Verses,” “Here I Am”) in a consistent mood that’s calm and contained. There’s a difference between restraint and restrained, and Ringer T falls firmly on the self-induced, positive, former side for the songs here.
The instrumentation is simple and direct: Acoustic guitar, gentle electric guitar, drums, bass, occasional keys, some auxiliary instruments here and there. Instead of dazzling with the kitchen sink (i.e. Typhoon), Ringer T leans heavily on their formidable songwriting skills. And with their newfound calm and maturity, they crank out some incredible tunes that way.
Sorry Verses has several great mixtape tracks: the poignant “The Sweet Release,” the whoa-ohs of “Sorry Verses,” and the yearning “Let Me Be Your Man.” But it’s best experienced as a whole piece, just like Paul Simon’s best albums. The charms of one song build into the next.
Growing up some gives perspective and allows people to see all that they do in a new light. Whether people grow or fold in that instance is the difference between a success story and an also-ran.
Creep On Creepin’ On is an excellent name for Timber Timbre‘s latest full-length, as the word “creep” serves multiple purposes. In addition to being a fun pun (underlying the hidden but totally there pop sensibilities), the songs here creep along at slow paces and are purposefully eerie.
At first blush, Timber Timbre’s 2010 tourmates (Jonsi and The Low Anthem, both IC favorites) seem to be mismatches for Timber Timbre’s weird-folk sound. Nick Cave might tap them, or maybe even M. Ward on a grumpy day, but the transcendent pop tunes of Jonsi? The hymnal folk of The Low Anthem?
Yet after several listens, the doo-wop pop influences started to sink in (“Lonesome Hunter,” “Black Water”) . The purposefully murky arrangements congealed in my mind as purposeful choices. There may be skronking horns, shrieking strings, and heartbeat bass marking instrumentals like “Swamp Magic” and “Souvenirs,” but “Black Water” is a straight-up pop song that starts off with Taylor Kirk singing, “All I need is some sunshine.” Not a very creepy sentiment at all.
Then, somewhere around that time, the complexity and beauty of the arrangements shone through. I suddenly realized that it’s an indie-rock in the original sense of the word: a band doing what it feels like doing. No trends are being followed here. This is a take-it-or-leave-it enterprise, and it’s all the better for it. The fact that it’s hard for me to describe is good.
That’s not to say that there are no easy points of entry. “Too Old to Die Young” is a jam that could have been on a “with strings!” version of Good News For People Who Love Bad News if M. Ward was singing. Kirk has a low voice, but when he puts it in a higher range, it starts to sound like the vintage-obsessed singer/songwriter. Which is fitting, because Timber Timbre mines old horror/suspense films idioms to create the more out-there pieces of Creep On Creepin’ On.
If hearing a singular songwriting vision fully completed excites you, Timber Timbre’s Creep On Creepin’ On should be on your list to check out. It’s a bit confusing on first listen, but give it some time and it will grow on you. Here’s to indie rock.
Clock Hands Strangle suffered from a peculiar syndrome when I was reviewing this album. I enjoyed this album so much that I put it in my car and started listening to it like I would if it were an album that I purchased from a record store. But when I do that, I don’t think about things like “when I need to have it reviewed by” and things of that nature. Hey, we’re definitely not pros here at IC. Only here will producing a fantastic album actually delay your review. Sorry.
But Disticatti is an incredible album that deserves the words I’m about to lavish on it. It’s a folk/punk album, and the punctuation is chosen particularly. It’s not folk-punk, where the folk has a whole lot of punk strumming and attitude (O Death comes to mind) or folk punk, which is a punk band playing folk instruments (The Violent Femmes, for example). This is a band that plays folk and punk in equal measure. Continue readingThere's Folk and Punk in Clock Hands' Stranglehold…
The Woods are an experimental folk band, heavy on experimental. There are five songs here that run for twelve minutes on The EP Logue, and not one of them is easily categorized. If the “blink and you miss it” nature of Half-Handed Cloud’s fragmented pop songs collided with the mellower moments of Good News for People Who Love Bad News and then became friends with the wide-eyed, carnival-esque folk of Page France, you might have a good cover band for the Woods.
But that still doesn’t appropriate all that they are. From spoken word sections to gorgeous melodies that appear only once (so maddening!) to clever guitar licks that don’t get the focus they deserve before morphing into something else (also maddening!) to the plaintive and picturesque “Place I” (which is the only fully-developed idea here, speaking from a purely traditional pop standpoint), The Woods cram more beauty and oddity into twelve minutes than some bands cover in a lifetime.
It’s more like a painting than an actual album, and (lo and behold) that’s exactly what they wanted to do. They didn’t name any of the pieces, per se; they titled them with “place”, “person” or “thing.” They want the listener to understand more about a certain point of reference because of these songs, as opposed to enjoying the songs for their melodies and rhythms. As Ian Dudley says in the final track, “Just because I’m singing, that don’t make this a song.”
The Woods seem to know exactly what they are doing, and they’ve created a very, very pretty release. It’s a very confusing release, if you’re not used to or not a fan of experimental work, but it is a good release nonetheless. For fans of Devendra Banhart, Animal Collective, and the like. You can download it for free here.
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.