1. “War and Opera” – Montoya. The careful, restrained arranging that Montoya deploys in this melodic indie-pop tune gives it a maturity and dignity that separate it from other tunes. The delicate guitar and alto vocals still create thoroughly enough interest to power this intriguing song.
2. “ALIEN” – Laura and Greg. The duo has transformed from a pristine acoustic duo into a punchy, noisy indie-pop-rock outfit. It’s not exactly Sleigh Bells, but they’re heading in that direction–but Laura’s charming vocals and fun keys keep the song on this side of full-on-indie-rock assault.
3. “Call Me Out” – Jesse Alexander. A former member of Cobalt and the Hired Guns keeps the ska / indie-pop fusion tunes coming: this one has horns and organ to keep the good vibes flowing.
4. “Fire Up the Bilateral Brain and Draw” – Word to Flesh. Here’s a quirky tune that employs the keys-focused sound structures of formal pop, but has no real formal structure: the only phrase in the two minute tune is the titular mantra, surrounded by guitar noodling. It’s remarkably engaging, and then it’s over–sort of like a less manic They Might Be Giants.
5. “Rainer” – Lull. A hammering rock intro flips on its head and unveils a delicate, early ’00s emo sound. They get back to the rock, but they take their sweet time getting there and make it worth your while when they do.
6. “A Moment to Return” – Why We Run. Moody bass/drums meets The National vocals with some U2 ambient/anthemic guitars on top. The results are a surprisingly uplifting post-punk tune–post-punk generally doesn’t make me want to dance or smile, and there’s some of both to be had here.
7. “When We’re Clouds” – Slow Runner. So indie-rock used to be shorthand for “rock songs that are definitely rock but kinda don’t play by the same rules.” Slow Runner’s tune is a song of (government?) scientific experimentation on human subjects (I think?). The music itself is slightly off-kilter rock, like a louder Grandaddy, a chillaxed Flaming Lips, or something altogether different. Here’s to Slow Runner.
8. “Dance Baby” – Luxley. That rare electro-rock song which doesn’t hammer listeners over the head with massive synth blasts–instead, there’s a bit of Cobra Starship restraint in the vocal-heavy arrangement. There is a bit of punk-pop attitude in the vocals (Good Charlotte came to mind), giving this a bit of a unique flair.
9. “Maria, Mine” – Don Tigra. Former folkie Stephen Gordon has slickly and impressively reinvented himself as an indie-rocker with post-punk vibes, coming off as a cross between Interpol, Cold War Kids, and Leagues. (Full disclosure: I’ve given some professional advice to Gordon over the years.)
10. “Psychopaths and Sycophants” – Keith Morris & the Crooked Numbers. Bluesy, swampy roots rock with whiskey-sodden, raspy vocals and all sorts of swagger. The great backup vocal arrangement and performances put the song over the top.
11. “Polaris” – Shiners. Minimalist electro-pop usually doesn’t have enough structure and melody to keep me interested, but Shiners do a great job of creating a cohesive, immersive whole out of small parts.
1. “Russian Roulette” – Sons of London. Well, damn. Right when I thought Deep Elm was out of the game for post-Blink-182 emo-punk-pop, they go and drop this on us. This is one of the most memorable, can’t-stop-listening pop-punk tunes I’ve heard in a long, long time.
2. “Solitude” – Alpenglow. The good people of Alpenglow seem like the sort of good-natured, thoughtful, interesting people who I’d like to get a beer with and talk about water rights politics. I think they’d most likely have an interesting stance, tell me an anecdote or two, and leave me feeling better off in my intellectual life. I think I mean that this song is smart and fun in equal parts, but that’s reductive and makes it look like I didn’t try (although I think Alpenglow would probably be cool with either description, because when you know yourself, you care less about what others are thinking about it.)
3. “Roll It” – Nap Eyes. Nap Eyes has my vote for breakout band of the year–their loping, engaging indie-rock tips its hat to all the coolest references without feeling derivative. “Roll It” just sounds so immediate and fresh that it’s hard to imagine people won’t jump on this train.
4. “Walking In My Sleep” – Kris Orlowski. Orlowski takes another step farther from his folk roots and closer to an indie-rock home with the debut single from his upcoming record Often in the Pause. Crunchy guitar noise, headbobbing rhythms, and his unchanged ability to write/deliver a compelling vocal melody power this tune that seems always ready to burst but never quite explodes, giving a nice tension.
5. “The Uninvited Guest” – Gladiola. If there’s a Weakerthans-sized hole in your heart, Gladiola is here to fill it with tight power-pop melodies, tight lyrics and an overall sense of weary-yet-determined urban knowledge.
6. “In This Lifetime” – Scary Little Friends. Big, punchy power-pop with a bit of glam creeping in around the edges of the vocals.
7. “Lava” – Pleasant Grove. The distillation of an expansive divorce record that took a decade to complete, “Lava” combines the tough guitar exterior and gentle melodic interior that comprise the tensions of The Heart Contortionists’ early -to-mid ’00s indie-rock. Death Cab for Cutie and Grandaddy fans will find much to love here.
8. “Butterflies” – Wyland. Do you miss The Joshua Tree? Fear no more: Wyland’s got your back with this arena-filling, stadium-rocking anthem.
9. “Come Down” – Water District. Remember that weird, brief moment where Silversun Pickups made grunge into a cool indie-rock thing? Water District remembers, creating their own pensive, emotive brand of grunge-inspired indie-alt-rock.
10. “From Far Away” – SayReal. This infectious, smile-inducing tune will thrill those who like good pop songs and those wished that Michael Franti and Spearhead sounded more like their one unusual pop hit all the time.
11. “Start Right Here” – Jennifer O’Connor. O’Connor takes the basic elements of modern indie-pop songwriting (jangly guitars, plain vocal style, catchy melodies, full-but-not-noisy drums) and turns out gold. I don’t know how that works, but it does.
12. “Guns” – Andy Metz. Punchy, rhythmic piano-pop verses open up into a smooth, memorable chorus, complete with timely political commentary on gun control.
After a long, slow climb, Jason Isbell has hit the burners: five years ago I saw him in a dive bar in Auburn, Ala., and just last month I declined to see him again in a 2700+ person venue in Durham. He has officially made it. If you’re looking for your next up-and-coming dive bar Americana champion, I volunteer Edward David Anderson. Anderson’s Lower Alabama: The Loxley Sessionsdoes everything you want an Americana record to do and then some.
Americana starts with the voice, and Anderson’s is great: a smooth, comfortable tenor delivered just right. His melodies fit in between Isbell’s gravitas and Nathaniel Rateliff’s infectious enthusiasm (see “Silverhill” for more on that idea). The tunes surrounding the vocals are spartan and carefully arranged to not clutter anything: there’s not much you can do to help a melody so pure as “Cried My Eyes Dry,” so the band backs off and lets Anderson sing it. This is their approach almost everywhere, except for the hustlin’ crime tale “Jimmy & Bob & Jack” that’s closer to a rock arrangement than anything else here. And it’s the right approach, because Anderson himself is the centerpiece, whether he’s singing over a gently rolling banjo in “Hidin’ at the Hollow” or leading the back porch picker “Sadness” (surprisingly cheery). The songwriting is just right there.
Lower Alabama: The Loxley Sessions offers up spot-on vocals-centric Americana songwriting. It does its thing and does it well. If you’re looking for more Southern songwriting pathos in your life, here’s to Edward David Anderson.
Archie’s EP by Aryl Barkley is an intimate release that combines the intense focus and breathy vocals of Elliott Smith with the fingerpicking of early Iron and Wine. “High on Inhibition” is a tune right out of Sam Beam’s wheelhouse, a tender major-key rumination on the past. The fingerpicking is just lovely, fitting beautifully with the whispered vocals. The minor key and gentle strumming of “Inside the Playhouse” speak Smith’s language, pondering something heavy without ever becoming heavy itself. “Two of the Ten Best” closes the three-song EP with a tune which includes ghostly background vocals over minor-key fingerpicking, something like a mash-up of the two previous tunes into something that starts to point toward his unique strengths. The ghost of Bon Iver holds out somewhere in the distance, but this last track is where Aryl Barkley really starts to put his name out there. I look forward to hearing more from this Aussie.
Haleiwa‘s Palm Trees of the Subarcticcombines acoustic guitar, Scandinavian dream-pop, and the occasional post-rock touch to create songs that feel bright, fresh, and cinematic.
The trick is that they’re cinematic in a low-key, indie-movie type way, not is a surging melodrama sort of way: “Wall of Blue Sky” feels like a pensive roadtrip scene, while the quiet expansiveness of standout “Seals and Sharks” points more in the direction of the “personal revelation” scene. The blend of acoustic instruments, electronic sounds, and live drumming is arranged and mixed perfectly, creating warm pieces that feel effortlessly pulled off. Just check out the title track or “The World Beyond” for a seamless melding. “All Sparked” focuses more on a flowing acoustic guitar line, which makes the song one of my personal favorites.
Haleiwa’s unique blend of sounds puts it in the same league as The Album Leaf, Teen Daze, and Grandaddy, but different from each of those. Palm Trees of the Subarctic is an exciting work that should be celebrated.
Here’s November’s singles, over the next few days.
Sing Yr Song
1. “Echo” – Matthew Squires and the Learning Disorders. Some people have the greatness inside them, and it’s present in flashes that don’t reveal the whole thing. That was Squires’ previous work, and “Echo” is the revelation: the yelpy vocals, the singer/songwriter lyrics, and propulsive indie-rock arrangements all come together to give me shivers. Color me thrilled for the new album.
2. “Strange the Way” – James Hearne. Here’s a tight country arrangement paired with a great chorus. There is some great country in the world, y’all. I’m not even throwing “alt” on this. It’s country. And it’s good. You won’t be aurally injured by listening, I promise. You’ll like the chorus, for sure. You like Jason Isbell, you know? It’s okay. Admit it. Country.
3. “Pretend With Me” – Great Spirit. Remember a couple of years ago when back porch-style folk was in? Great Spirit is on that porch, still doin’ its loose, warm, optimistic string band thing. Break out your mason jars. (I love mason jars. This is not ironic.)
4. “Breathe Your Last” – Jameson. Banjo, bright production, swamp shuffle percussion, and some grit on the edges of the vocals make this track a keeper. Oh, also the giant chorus.
Afternoons‘ Say Yes is a fun, nostalgic indie-pop album that knows how to hit pop high notes with indie nuance. The album seems plucked out of the mid ’00s, when the populous-friendly psych of The Flaming Lips’ At War with The Mystics and the dance-heavy electro of MGMT were having their moments. (For good reason: If you check their convoluted history, it sort of was.)
The album has that sort of gentle production wash over it that softens every edge and warms (almost) every mood. Opener “Graffiti Artist” has a chant-able vocal hook (one of many) and a propulsive but not too aggressive synth hook (also one of many). The killer cut is the stomping, boisterous, utterly infectious title track, which drops second–the vocal melodies are magnetic, the rhythm is just-right, the chorus has people hollering “say yes!”, and the whole thing comes off as a pro-adventure anthem. Yup, sign me up for that.
“Saturday Morning” and “Bored Teenagers” bring in softer vibes that recall Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.’s work, while touches of the high-brow work Grandaddy did appear throughout. “Gloria” and “Love is a Western Word” are two more upbeat tracks worth noting. The back part of the album gets darker and creepier in both lyric and sound, making it less interesting to me, but the first part of the album is so infectious and joyful that it’s worth checking out just for that. Say yes, indeed. Stream the album here.
The mix of an album can tell you a lot about the priorities of its creators. Dylan Dickerson’s frantic, fractured voice is cranked about as high in the mix of Dear Blanca‘s Pobrecito as possible, which tells me that they care about the raw, ragged, real aspects of performance. Look no farther than the wordless, anguished roar that is the chorus of “Showplace” for proof. The intense alt-country songwriting behind the pipes matches Dickerson’s careening, manic vocal quality. In other words, Conor Oberst and Dickerson would have plenty to talk about.
But like Bright Eyes, Dickerson and co. aren’t all raging fury. The (relatively) pensive “Noma” includes a musical saw that gives the tune a Neutral Milk Hotel feel (Mangum, of course, being another vocalist who celebrated the rough edges of his non-traditional voice). Dickerson can write a pop song, too: “Huff” has a great guitar riff and a (relatively) restrained vocal performance. But it’s loud, noisy alt-country rock that is his natural home, which is why even the rhythmically tight, acoustic-led “Priscilla” turns into a torrent of guitar distortion and a repeated hollering of the titular character’s name in the chorus. Closer “Cadmus” starts off quiet with acoustic guitar, organ, and female vocals before introducing pounding toms into the tune. Hey, if you’re good at a thing, do that thing.
You like the stomping work of the Drive-By Truckers? Dear Blanca is like the Drive-In-And-Stay-In-Your-Front-Yard-Yelling-Until-You-Come-Out Truckers. Pobrecito is a sweat-drenched, passionate, powerful set of noisy alt-country tunes that will occasionally give you shivers.
The mid-’00s were a good time for indie-pop music, with bands like Annuals, Decemberists, Grandaddy, and the Shins purveying a very particular type of giddy, instrument-stuffed pop music that wasn’t being well-represented on the radio. Koria Kitten Riot picks up that torch of shiny, acoustic-led, maximalist indie-pop on Rich Men Poor Men Good Men. It’s the sort of album that includes coconuts imitating horse clip-clops in a way that sounds totally natural (“The Lovers That You’ve Never Had”). It’s twee without being overly cute in the vocals, or serious vocals with a whimsical touch to the arrangements.
“A Last Waltz” stands out as one of the highlight tracks not because it’s particularly more charming that the rest of the tunes here, but because it’s a touch darker. The rest of the album can flow together as one wonderful experience, but track three points itself out as a great track by showing the diversity the band is able to deliver (while still not damaging the flow of the record). “Today’s Been a Beautiful Day” nicks not only the sound but the joyful irony of the era, pairing one of the most chipper melodies and arrangements on the record with a song about a person who gets hit by a car and dies. (Oops, spoilers.) Follow-up “Carpathia” sounds a bit like a brit-pop tune, what with the wistful reverb, processed strings, and discrete acoustic strumming; it’s a nice change of mood that stands out as a highlight.
If you’re into cheerful, instrument-stuffed indie-pop, you’ll find a ton to love in Koria Kitten Riot. You can listen to the whole album and let it wash over your mood, or you can listen to individual tunes; it matters not. It will make you smile either way.
Bishop Allen was also doing quirky indie-pop in the mid ’00s, and they’ve since gotten a bit noisier than their indie-pop masterpiece The Broken String. I think they still count as indie-pop on Lights Out, but they’re certainly creeping closer to power-pop.
They make it clear with opener “Start Again,” which is all buzzy synths, classy dance-rock guitars, and propulsive percussion. “Bread Crumbs” makes the dance-rock vibes even more explicit, putting together a wicked bass groove, a protoypical piano hook, and a minimum of lyrics. (And, because this is Bishop Allen, there’s also a bass-heavy horn section.) “Crows” involves some of their traditional quirky rhythms (Latin/island, a la “Like Castanets”), chill melodies, and pristine arrangements, but with a funky bass line. It’s way fun. “Skeleton Key” is another funky tune that’s worth remembering.
The overall sound of Lights Out is more matured, even with the dance-rock tendencies: it’s a poised, refined musicality that runs through the record. The lyrics reflect that aging as well; there are more references to hard times, the existential crises of adulthood (“No Conditions”), and that most adult of rituals: leaving the party early (“Why I Had To Go”). But they never get heavy-handed, morose, or grumpy. It’s a band that grew up, but kept their pop song skills with them. Mazel tov! Here’s to Bishop Allen: long may you write.
Today, Independent Clauses has the distinct honor of premiering a stream of The Good Graces‘ Close to the Sun, which comes out September 30 digitally on Potluck Foundation and October 28 on vinyl from Fort Lowell Records. (You can pre-order the vinyl, if you’d like.) But you can hear it here now! So press play and hear the excellent record as you read a review of it.
I think about musical genres a lot, since I have to make a public proclamation of a song’s genre about once a day. Genre has gotten muddied and muddled through crossovers, influences, and incorporations; people no less humongous than Bob Boilen question the usefulness of the whole endeavor. I think it matters; genres have social realities. Saying an album is a singer/songwriter release makes different people interested than if I say it’s an alt-country release. The same goes with indie-pop. But when an album comes along that ties many genres together with elements that transcend all of them, I understand why people just want to throw the whole constraint overboard.
The Good Graces’ Close to the Sun incorporates obvious tonal markers of alt-country (“Cold in California”), indie-pop (“My Own Grace”), and singer/songwriter genres (“Under the Weather”). Just to prove I’m not purposefully making things difficult, those three songs I mentioned are tracks two, three, and four on the album; songwriter Kim Ware isn’t tightly allied to any particular sound from the get-go. By track five, “Something So Beautiful” is incorporating swirling guitars, pounding toms, found sound (a Grandaddy-esque indie-pop move) and alt-country harmonica to create something incredibly attractive that sits completely outside easy classifications. Oy.
Despite the varied genres, Close to the Sun does have an internal consistency. Ware expertly crafts a overlying mood of hard-earned, clear-eyed calm for the release. That’s not something that comes across in a specific instrument or genre: it’s an approach to songwriting, lyric writing, and vocal performance that influences whatever direction the song takes. “Curb Appeal” is a condemnation of a person who shows a false front to the world; the same lyrics and chord progression could have been used for an angry, guitar-heavy rocker or a whirring, keys-led indie-pop song. (Ware chooses the latter, resulting in a charming indie-pop tune.) There are lots of places where this album could go for dissonance and instead goes to resolve tensions, musically and lyrically.
That’s not to say that there’s no grit here; the grit is just written into unusual places, which grabs my attention. “Parts > Sum,” the most ominous and irritated of the tunes here, is a straight-up alt-country tune complete with reverb-heavy lead guitar. But instead of pouring vocal and lyrical fury into the track, it opens with Ware singing, “My God, my God, what have I done? / I have been untrue / My actions have hurt everyone / but mostly they’ve hurt you.” You have to go to the easy-going, open-road vibe of “Cold in California” to get the lyrics that might have fit with an angry alt-country track. It’s a consistent trend: the genre expectations are subverted throughout to take a gentler, even-handed tack. Even closing love song “Before You Go” starts out with a list of things that annoy her lover (a bold move, for sure). But starting there unveils a deeper, more mature love that looks past surface annoyances to the realities of relationship.
Even though the underlying calm and the twists of genre expectations carry through the record, it’s Ware’s clear, strong alto that ties the record together. Ware’s evocative voice can display the careful inflections and intonations of singer/songwriter fare (“A Gain, Again”), sell a tricky mood (the complex emotions of “Cold in California”), or carry a rock-ish tune (“Standing in Line”). Throughout it all, her vocal tone stays warm and open, instead of closed off and bitter. That tone often balances out the disparate sounds and lyrics, deftly tying the parts together. The final effect is that her voice sounds natural in these songs, and that’s an element that will elevate any record.
Close to the Sun is a brilliant collection of acoustic-led tunes across a number of genres. It’s a calm, pleasant record in the sense that watching seas from the shore can be calm and pleasant. It doesn’t mean that things aren’t happening on the surface or below the surface; it means that the overall product comes together in a way that is emotionally impressive, intellectually rewarding, and aesthetically pleasing. Ware has done an incredible job pulling together genre-subverting arrangements and lyrics with beautiful vocals, resulting in an album that is hard to stop listening to. If you’re into acoustic-led music, Close to the Sun should very much be on your to-hear list.
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.
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.
The Debonzo Brothers‘ Carolina 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.
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.
So our Kickstarter is going splendidly, as we’re 84% funded after less than 48 hours of being open. The rapid success thrills and humbles me, as this little project (and by extension, I) have been the recipient of much generosity over the last two days.
But even with golden days about us, there’s still work to be done! Here’s a large mix of solid singles that have floated my way recently.
Indie rock is not a very good term. As I have noted before, it doesn’t really delineate anything very effectively when used as a blanket term. But there is a sense in which “indie rock” means something: it’s that type of music which The Walkmen, The Arcade Fire, and Brave Baby play. I mean, how else can you explain those first two bands? And Brave Baby is in the same mold.
Brave Baby‘s debut Forty Bells is not just good: it sets the bar for the rest of the year’s releases. With crashing, glorious tunes like “Foxes and Dogs,” “Cooper River Night,” and “Lakeside Trust,” the trio has made a huge mark on my mind to start off the year.
“Lakeside Trust” is the most immediate of the tunes, as it meshes jangling electric guitar, steady acoustic guitar, impressively spry bass lines, driving drums and a horns-like synth into a tune that feels like the Arcade Fire and Fleetwood Mac got together with Springsteen to make a tune for your American convertible to blare with the top down. Special notice needs to be given to the bassist, who really makes the song with his swagger. At track four, it’s the first real sign that Brave Baby has something special going on.
“Cooper River Night” incorporates some Walkmen yowl and ominous-or-is-it? guitar jangle into their sound, foregrounding the excellent vocal contributions. (I hummed this one for a while.) But it’s “Foxes and Dogs” that leaves the deepest impression. The mid-tempo tune starts off with a choir, clapping and world-weary lead vocals before exploding into a tune that gives “Lakeside Trust” a run for its money in epic scope and sprawl. The synths (or are they horns this time?) play a huge role here, pushing the tune over the top. It’s the sort of song that makes the world seem a bit brighter than it was before you were listening to the tune.
Other tunes have memorable turns as well: “Last Gold Rush” has a really nice bass and drums groove, while title track “Forty Bells” has a powerful vocal hook. “Grandad” has a lackadaisical vibe that is vaguely reminiscent of the band Grandaddy, which is a cool coincidence.
Forty Bells is a sweeping, moving album that feels like a complete statement. I review a lot of albums that are trying to get there, but Forty Bells is a fully-realized album that does what it wants to do. Love it or hate it, but this is Brave Baby. I love it, and I think a lot of other people will like this too. Do yourself a favor and meet up with “Lakeside Trust.”
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.