Learning how to write in a genre can be a lifelong exploration, even for the most talented of musicians: Josh Ritter has made a whole career exploring the nooks and crannies of modern folk. The Mountain Goats spent a whole decade mastering the lo-fi recording before spending another 15 years doing indie-pop in tons of different styles. As a result of the difficulty and time required to be an expert in one genre, skepticism is warranted when an artist leaves their home genre for another.
This is an even more risky proposition when the target isn’t one new genre, but a multi-genre, broadly “pop” album. Yet despite these many cards stacked against Alex Dezen‘s second solo outing II, the former Damnwells frontman has created a fascinating, incredibly enjoyable album that dabbles in half-a-dozen pop genres. It’s proof of Dezen’s songwriting prowess that he’s not just great in one genre: he’s great in a bunch of them.
Dezen doesn’t try to hide that’s he indulging in any flight of fancy that comes his way: The album opens with “When You Give Up,” a Miami Vice-esque noir new wave tune. Dezen’s lithe voice shines here; not only could he sing the phone book and make it sound great, he could sing it in a wide variety of genres, as well. His knack for catchy melodies is on display everywhere, from the vocal melodies to acoustic guitar riffs to blocky synth blasts. “Holding on to You (Holding on to Me)” has more ’80s rock vibes–this time more Heart than Blondie (“Barracuda,” in particular). As ever, the chorus hook is polished till it glows–you’ll be mumbling “holdingontoyou / holdingontoME” for a long while afterwards.
From there on, Dezen goes in full-on world tour mode. “Randolph Tonight” is CCR-esque swamp rock; “I Am a Racist” is a straight-up doo-wop tune; “New York to Paradise” is a lost Billy Joel piano ballad; “Fuck or Fight” is an Eagles-style country-rock rambler. None of these songs feel insincere or mishandled; Dezen waltzes his way through each of them with a deft hand. It’s even more to his credit that he played almost every instrument on this album. It’s one thing to write a melody in a different genre, and it’s another thing entirely to have the chops on multiple instruments to pull off a whole arrangement in another genre.
My favorite tunes here are ones that pair excellent arrangements with incisive, carefully wrought lyrics. The REM jangle of “I Had a Band” relates anecdotes from a coming-of-age tale with the emotionally charged punch line “I never had much of a father / but I had a band / yeah, I had a band.” Anyone who’s been in a band will relate to the loving, wry tone that runs through the lyrics, whether or not your relationship with your father was great. IC had the distinct honor of premiering the Graceland-inspired “Everything’s Great (Everything’s Terrible),” which has a thoughtful set of lyrics about people in the contemporary moment just trying to make it through. The acoustic closer “The Boys of Bummer” is a lovely song about people who write sad songs by a person who writes sad songs. The dignity with which the characters meander through the tune makes me think of The Hold Steady.
Because of the herculean effort Dezen expends on every track, the album is only 9 songs. Yet in those nine songs he creates his own personal version of the radio, putting his imprint on pop music. It’s a rare album that manages to pull off all that Dezen does here: this is a fully-realized album on “extra difficulty” mode. If you like pop music in any way, shape, or form, you need to hear this album. Highly recommended.
1. “Home Away” – Valley Shine. This song excellently combines two things I love: enthusiastic folk-pop and Graceland-style African music influences. It’s the sort of jubilant yet suave work that transcends genre barriers and should be appreciated by people across the pop music spectrum. Just a fantastic song.
2. “Brother” – Jack the Fox. Doesn’t need more than an acoustic guitar, some warm pad synths and an arresting voice to totally take over a room. It’s quality on par with Josh Ritter and Fleet Foxes, but doesn’t sound like either artist.
3. “One Day I’ll Be Your Ears” – Mateo Katsu. Ramshackle, enthusiastic, chunky, herky-jerky acoustic indie-pop from the school of Daniel Johnston and Page France. It’s the sort of charmingly off-kilter work that lo-fi was meant to celebrate.
4. “Lil to Late” – Brother Paul. Here’s a fun, easygoing acoustic blues shuffle with hints of rockabilly, vintage country and self-deprecating humor sprinkled throughout. It’s topped off with just the right amount of Motown soul-style horns.
5. “The Time It Takes” – The Show Ponies. This Americana outfit sounds like a Joe Walsh moonlighting as the leader of a Nashville country outfit: saloon-style piano, radio-rock ramblin’ vibe, and male/female duet vocals straight off your local country radio. It’s not usually what I’m into, but it hooked me and kept me.
6. “Return to the Scene” – Aaron Atkins. Weary yet sturdy, this alt-country/folk tune ambles along on the strength of great rumbling bass lines and a convincingly-achy vocal performance.
7. “Phoenix Fire” – Simon Alexander. From the Josh Garrels/Hozier school of intense singers comes this thoughtful, mature pop song with a great chorus.
8. “Melody, I” – Pluto and Charon. A warm, intimate acoustic performance that retains the fret squeaks and string buzz. It’s more rough in its fidelity than Damien Jurado ever was, but it has a similar sort of vibe in the dignified vocals.
9. “Waterski to Texas” – Budo and Kris Orlowski. Now this one really does sound like Damien Jurado, but the latter-day Jurado. Budo and Orlowski walk a fine line between big, sweeping arrangements of singer/songwriter work and a very personal, even raw, emotive quality. The vocals here are particularly fine.
10. “Gold Ring” – Redvers Bailey. This one’s a lovely, romantic, gently layered song that floats somewhere between Josh Radin’s delicate work and the wide-eyed wonder of “Casimir Pulaski Day”-style Sufjan Stevens.
11. “High Rolling” – Jake Aaron. This acoustic instrumental manages to be complex and inviting at the same time, subverting expectations by not just jumping to the highest treble notes for the lead melody. By keeping the melody low and close to the fingerpicked foundation of the piece, the tune feels both comfortable and complicated. It’s very worth your time, even for those who aren’t generally into acoustic instrumentals.
Midnight Pilot has spent a lot of time since their last release listening to new music. Their latest EP The Good Life expands on their previous alt-country-meets-Paul-Simon palette in all directions, throwing in sunshiny indie-pop melodies, Dawes-ian roots rock, and even some Muse-esque high drama rock. Listeners are in for some sharp lefts and unexpected detours, but they’ll end up with a smile nonetheless.
The opening cut makes their new approach obvious from the getgo, as “Offer Up My Love” has a “woo-woo-ooo” chorus that will put you in a breezy Southern California mood. It’s dropped right into their roots-rock verses, which isn’t as jarring as it would seem from writing that out. The rock has an American tinge, like Ivan and Alyosha’s. The title track is even more wide-open rock’n’roll, a major-key romp that declares: “I’m living the good life / nothing comes easy / I’m living the good life / for free / yeah-yeah / yeah-yeah.”
Things get a bit darker on “Follow Where You Lead,” which has disco vibes in the bass rhythms and stabbing string style, but has some Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois approaches to background vocals in the intro. The chorus is a bit sunnier than the minor key verses, but still the song has “drama” written over it. This is most spectacularly evident in the deconstructed bridge section, which drops to almost nothing before ramping up to an almost Muse-esque wall of noise. Closer “You’re My Friend” splits the difference between major and minor keys with some ’80s influences and Beach Boy ba-da-da-das. It’s eclectic, but it all hangs together.
The Good Life is an EP that shows a band experimenting and maturing rapidly. To hold together as many influences as they’ve included in this EP while still maintaining a recognizable core sound is no easy feat for any band. That all of the four songs are enjoyable is even more impressive; these aren’t just technical feats, they’re enjoyable ones. If you’re into good ‘ol American music, check out Midnight Pilot’s latest.
Marc with a C is a pop culture-addicted goofball with an insightful eye on culture at large. He’s the sort of guy who can and will critique the unspoken presumptions of our culture (“Ethics in Gaming”–a Gamergate reference, but the song isn’t about Gamergate), dedicate a whole song to an elaborate dick joke (“The Ballad of Dick Steel”), incisively analyze interpersonal relationships (“Epic Fail”), ask the hard questions that we all wonder about under the guise of joking statements (“Where’s My Giant Robot”) and suckerpunch listeners with a beautiful love song that includes one of the best twists I’ve heard in a long time (“Make You Better”) in one album. All that right there is enough to commend Unicorns Get More Bacon to you.
The music is solid too. The bulk of the tunes on Unicorns Get More Bacon are stripped down power-pop tunes played on electric or acoustic guitar, although towards the end Marc invests in some larger arrangements to go with some of his longer songs. The tunes have hummable melodies and instruments that don’t get in the way of the lyrics or the melodies, which is important–this album is pretty squarely about the lyrics.
This is also a bit of a “solo” record; you want to hear this one on your own to get to know it and love it. Or, you can get to know it with friends who will learn the lyrics and sing along with you very loudly. That would work too. But it’s not a record that works as background music–Marc with a C wants to talk with you on Unicorns Get More Bacon, and if you’re interested in Marc’s fourth-wall-breaking, here-there-and-everywhere lyrical style, you’ll have a great time in that conversation.
Trevor Green‘s Voice of the Wind is somewhat like an Indigenous Australian Graceland; the Californian Green, who already included didgeridoo in his music, actually traveled to Australia to learn more about the music of that country before making this album. The songs are a mix of laidback folk, Australian music, and modern indie-rock touches.
The main difference from Graceland is that Paul Simon wanted to make a pop record that celebrated South African sounds with his own, very American lyrics on top–Green’s songs draw heavily not only from the sounds of the land, but the lyrics and religious themes of the land. The second difference is in seriousness: Voice sounds more like The Shepherd’s Dog-era Iron & Wine than a pop record, as the folk and Australian sounds mesh in ways that evoke Sam Beam’s attempts at expanding his intimate sound to include more instruments.
This means that the album is by turns incredibly intense and then very solemn; tunes like “Red Road” are a breath of fresh air next to tunes which sound like Tusk-era Fleetwood Mac. But throughout the whole record, there’s a very clear sense of being outside the normal bounds of what acoustic music is generally like. If you’re adventurous, Trevor Green’s Voice of the Wind is a trip worth taking.
Joel Michael Howard’s clip for “Something Different” is indeed something different. I didn’t really understand it until I got to the end, when I had a sudden burst of ’90s nostalgia. I don’t know if it was the hackey sack, the Windows 95 screensavers, the goofy dancing, or Howard’s quirky entrances and exits; maybe it was all of that together. But the result is a charming, smile-inducing clip that I can’t help but like.
The song itself is an unusual breed as well: Howard combines soft-rock keys with funky bass and guitar rhythms, then layers gentle, breathy vocals on top of it. It feels like a modern person trying to recreate ’80s pop and ending up with a cross between Hall & Oates* and Graceland. I know, that sounds like a horrible mix, but Howard pulls the whole thing off with a convincing confidence. It’s just as winsomely engaging as the accompanying video. Check it.
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.
Silences‘ Sister Snow EP builds on last year’s debut of delicate, intricate acoustic indie. In these four tunes, the five-piece from Northern Ireland captures an intimacy that is rarely heard in singer/songwriters doing everything on their own–much less with a big outfit.
The songs have the internal strength of Parachutes-era Coldplay tunes: the sparse arrangments lock together tightly to create striking moods and earnest swells of emotion. It helps that tunes like “Stones” and “Sister Snow” have inflections of early Sigur Ros’ icy-yet-gentle guitar work, lending some grit and gravity to the otherwise ethereal tunes. “Cops and Robbers” is the outlier among the set, sounding more like a warm, hummable adult alternative tune than an indie construction. It’s still quite beautiful; it shows their diversity well. Silences’ second EP shows them in full flower, making beautiful, complex, involving work that will both calm and excite.
Peter Galperin‘s 2013 album A Disposable Life skewered materialism in a boffo bossa nova style that supported the parody of the lyrics. His new EP Just Might Get It Right pulls a hard 180 in lyrical quality and musical content: it’s an uncategorizable EP about lost love with folk, classic-rock, zydeco, and bossa nova influences.
Galperin’s bossa nova background hasn’t entirely disappeared, as these five tunes have a sprightly spring in their step that points to a quirkier, happier past. The rhythms in “Angel Tonight” and “Hate to Admit It” point prominently toward Galperin’s unusual influences, creating infectious tunes that call to mind the genre mashups that made Paul Simon’s Graceland such a brilliant piece of work. Accordion plays prominently in these tunes (like “Not a Day Goes By”), which also references Graceland, and it gives the tunes another bouncy element beyond the rhythms.
The lyrics aren’t as pointed and powerful as in his previous work, but Galperin sounds perhaps more comfortable delivering them than he did before. His vocal delivery is an assured tenor that can ratchet up in Springsteen-esque intensity (“Not a Day Goes By”) or deliver a quiet speak-sing (“Hate to Admit It”). Just when you think you know what to expect, another curveball gets thrown. It’s pretty impressive.
Galperin’s Just Might Get It Right is a complex, unique work built out of an unusual variety of influences. If you’re into adventurous, challenging work, Peter Galperin should be on your playlists right now.
There’s a long history of happy sounds that contain sad lyrics. My mom’s favorite one is the absurdly happy breakup tune “Smoke from a Distant Fire” by Sanford-Townsend Band. I’m fond of the entirety of Paul Simon’s Graceland (except “That Was Your Mother”). Human Behavior‘s Golgotha might be my favorite “actually kind of devastating when you really listen close” album for 2013.
If you just press play instead of thinking about how the band name, title and album art go together, you’re treated to perky indie-folk-punk. Bandleader Andres Parada has a voice that works perfectly for the genre: it’s warbly, a touch nasal, and completely earnest. If you’re intrigued by Aaron Weiss of MeWithoutYou, early John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats), Andrew Jackson Jihad, and the like, you’ll be immediately sucked in to Golgotha. The rest of the sound fits perfectly around Parada’s voice: a small choir of female voices (who sing in the same earnest manner), instrumental performances that retain an urgent “first takes only” feel, and arrangements that are large without feeling pretentious. It’s all grounded in Parada’s voice, and all flows back to his voice.
It’s “Crag” that opens the album, a jaunty tune that calls up vintage-y, Pinterest-y hipsters who attach deer antlers to their heads and such. It’s all fun and games, right? Right. “Yeshua at 12” is dark, but the enthusiastic “Odocoileus Virginianus” is 40 seconds of wonderful! (That’s the Latin name for the whitetail deer, incidentally.) But as I progressed through the album, a dark undercurrent started to suck me in. “Vintage Dad” ends with the band forlornly, repeatedly singing “I am raccoon, and your father thinks that I am beautiful,” which is intriguing/discomforting in a Neutral Milk Hotel sort of way. “Raphus Cucullatus” is the Latinate of the dodo, and it’s a despondent acoustic strum with spoken word that seems to draw a little too close of a metaphor. It’s not overtly depressing, like Brand New or anything, but it’s, you know, just kinda hanging out in background of my brain as maybe not what it seems.
But then I listen to “Crag” again, and the phrases of the chorus are “I’ll strap antlers to my head/and I’ll attract wild dog packs/and I’ll make the woods walkable,” which is either a threat to wild dogs or a commitment to sacrifice in a bizarre way. Also the lines “I don’t want to be attractive,” “I know that I don’t love you two too,” “I’ll probably die sad/and I’ll probably do it by my hand” appear, all of which make me deeply reconsider the wisdom of sending this to my girlfriend because it’s perky and fun. In short, the layers at which you can appreciate Golgotha are multiple, but the deeper ones may render your shallower ones a little bit impotent.
So, are you into folk-punk? Are you into depressed singer/songwriters? Are you into both? If you’re into either of the first two, Golgotha is a fascinating and engaging album. If you’re in the third camp, I suspect that Human Behavior will be quite a find. It’s like a dark mirror of Illinois-era Sufjan, or an alternate-reality Mountain Goats.
When I first heard Graceland by Paul Simon, I was originally very confused. I wondered, “This is the same guy who wrote ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ and ‘The Boxer’?” But I got used to amalgam of unusual musical stylings with Simon’s confident vocal melodies and insightful commentary on middle age. Peter Galperin‘s A Disposable Life had me thinking the same thoughts: “Bossa nova lounge music? About cell phones?” But after some adjustment to the sound, I’ve come to appreciate its uniqueness. It’s certainly not for everyone, but Galperin brings a fresh perspective to the table.
A Disposable Life consists of eight songs that wrap tightly around the theme of consumerism in American life. While the lyrics can occasionally feel jarringly specific in their references, the overall scope of the tunes is prescient and interesting. (It’s not all doom and gloom, either, which is nice.) It’s a solid group of lyrics, which is a something one should expect from an album that so clearly screams “this is a pop album”–albeit a weird one.
The songs don’t hide their lyrical content: the songs are shaped around Galperin’s vocal delivery. This is where Galperin’s idiosyncratic approach works for and against him: in true lounge style, the vocals have a casual, even smaltzy air to the delivery. This is honest to the style and also a continuation of the lyrical themes: the is-it-painfully-earnest-or-mocking veneer of the delivery fits perfectly with consumerism’s conflicted premises. This tension shown most effectively in “There’s No Future” and the title track, which are protest songs (of a sort) that poke at the problems we could cause for Earth with our consumerism in a totally straight face. The cognitive dissonance of the lyrics with the cheery bossa nova sounds forces me to think about the tunes and what they mean. That’s a win.
The music, like I noted earlier, is pretty standard lounge and bossa nova: lots of sprightly pianos, gently strummed acoustic guitar chords, and rim-clicking percussion. It’s not a very common sound for indie-pop singer/songwriters to pick up, which makes it interesting on that front. In addition to the protest songs (which skew more “serious” in their musical construction), there are some genuinely fun songs. “Bubblewrap” is an ode to the plastic poppable that sounds the most like Graceland, with a vaguely African beat and perky instrumentation. “(No One’s) Better Off Dead” punches the cheese button in aping chill ’50s and ’60s pop, even opening the track with a cascading harp. It’s a goofy track, but it’s hard to not smile knowingly. Irony is still kind of fun, you know?
A Disposable Life is a quirky, weird, interesting album. It’s not for everyone, because there are few who are going to immediately think oh snap I’ve been waiting for somewhat ironic bossa nova protest songs. But if you’ve got an adventurous listening habit, Peter Galperin is doing some fascinating work. I’d suggest checking it out.
The title of Challenger‘s The World Is Too Much For Me is an apt interpretation of both its lyrics and music, but in opposite ways. The lyrics throughout the album are about the byproducts of modern life: fear, desperation and confusion over an amorphous other. The size of the world and its problems are conspiring to overwhelm the lyricist, but the lyrics fight back with a commitment to hope. The music, on the other hand, is more manic than morose, invoking the sounds of Paul Simon’s Graceland, Peter Gabriel’s catalog and ’80s synth pop. Songs like “Takers” sound like the output of people who can’t get enough of everything, who have music just spilling out the ears.
Challenger knows its way around a pop hook, creating incredibly memorable tunes like “Are You Scared Too?”, “Don’t Die,” “Life in the Paint” and single “I Am Switches.” But each of these tunes drag some melancholy into the songwriting, to give the highs an extra edge. Good always looks better when it’s beating evil. And so it goes with Challenger, who are at their best when playing with the juxtapositions of light and dark. But it’s all done in a framework of electro-pop that will put a huge smile on your face. The World Is Too Much For Me is easily one of the best releases of the year, recommended for anyone who likes thoughtful, happy music.
Oh Look Out‘s Orchestrated Fuzz is also titled well: the latest from the geek-friendly power-pop band relies heavily on arrangements and album structure. Last year’s Alright Alright Alright Alright Alright was dominated by riffs and melodies, causing each song to stick out as its own piece of the puzzle. Orchestrated Fuzz is intended to hang together as one giant experience, like the soundtrack to a video game binge session.
While the tunes pop out less at me in this one, the overall sound is still strong: buzzy guitars and retro-sounding synths are undergirded by big drums and capped off by JP Pfertner’s high-pitched (but not annoyingly so) voice. The songs all run into each other, with opener “Velcro Wolf” snapping off as “Or Be Destroyed” kicks in. Things continue in this vein throughout, to good (aforementioned) effect. Lead single “Monster Fiction” is a standout, as the melody is a killer hook; “Monotone Hurray” sticks out because its awesome title leads me to remember the song. It’s worth noting that the whole thing has a lovably bedroom/garage feel to it; in a world where everything is rushing to sound professional, it’s nice to hear something that sounds lovably like a human made it. The handwritten online zine (!) also adds to that feel. Fans of Weezer, Math the Band, and Matt and Kim will all find much to love in Orchestrated Fuzz.
Also reppin those ’80s hard is Ponychase, which takes the arch synth-pop of Tears for Fears and other hyper-emotive bands of the era and uses it for modern ends. The self-titled EP combines towering synths with twinkling guitar, sparse percussion and Jordan Caress’s commanding but not overbearing voice to create a timeless, otherworldly sound. The modern lyrical cadence and vocal melody structure are what sink their teeth into me, as the joyful synth blast that opens “Believer” is elevated by Caress’s strong vocal performance.
While “Believer” is the most upbeat (and most striking) of the tunes, the rest of the songs on the six-song EP aren’t slouching. Opener “Cup of Hearts” employs many of the same sounds to a more pensive effect, while “Two Times” sounds almost beachy. “Brainwasher” closes out the EP in grand fashion, delivering the best melody of the bunch amid heavily gated snare and Caress’s voice at its torchiest. “Brainwasher, come set me free,” she pleads, and it’s a request that the EP can answer, should you ask of it: just let the sound wash over you. Ponychase’s unique sound is markedly different than other synth-indie-pop, and that’s a great thing.
I have never heard anything like Ghost Heart. For starters, there are no snare drums on their album The Tunnel. There are shakers, cymbals, three million tom hits, bass drum and more, but not a single snare. Most of the vocals are modeled after soaring tribal chant style, but with a distinctly Western melodic bent. The guitars range from indie-rock to mathy patterns. The bass guitar is about the only normal thing in this whole album.
It sounds glorious. It’s really confusing and convention-busting, but it’s a good confusing. The tunes are very long, too; the eight songs here run forty minutes, with one outlier at 1:29. Surprisingly, their unique uncategorizable genre encompasses several different moods; “Salty Sea” is indeed a sea shanty, while “No Canticle” is something Sufjan could write if he spent a week or two in South Africa (Sufjan’s Graceland would be a thing to behold). “Whoever You Are” is an odd, Pontiak-esque mellow rumination. After forty seconds of weirdness, “Black Air” turns into an incredibly surprising indie-rock tune featuring the aforementioned mathy guitar work.
Again, The Tunnel is unlike anything I’ve ever heard. Also, The Tunnel is brilliant. It’s bands like these that test reviewers’ moxie: can this incredibly original sound be translated to text well enough to convince unsuspecting listeners to check it out? I don’t know if I have succeeded. But here’s a list of RIYL bands: Funeral-era Arcade Fire, Sigur Ros, Fleet Foxes, American Football, Coldplay (any album except Parachutes), American Football, Journey, yodeling. No, for real.
Get this album.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.