The vision of indie rock that Neutral Milk Hotel put forward is alive and well in Matthew Squires. Where the Music Goes to Die is a mindbending mix of melodic sophistication, off-kilter arrangements, highly literate and oft-enigmatic lyrics, idiosyncratic vocals, and an uncompromising attitude toward the creation of the work. Heidegger, Plato, and copious Biblical references weave their way through the album, as Squires spins indirect (“When Moses Sighed”) and direct eulogies (“American Trash”) of American society.
The songs that bear the lyrics are at turns jaunty indie-rock tunes [the excellent “Echo,” “Some Corny Love Song (Devotional #1)”], major-key alt-folk (the title track, “Plato’s Cave”), and doomy folk (“When Moses Sighed,” “A Strange Piece”). Squires’ high-pitched voice keeps the whole ship sailing, as he brings the listener through the collection with ease. The ultimate result of the collection is similar to that of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea: Where the Music Goes to Die delivers an almost-overwhelming amount of ideas to take in, but all those pieces unfold through repeated enjoyment of the impressively refined melodic surface level. If nothing else, you’ll love singing along to “Echo”–maybe the Heidegger reference will hit later.
The Maravines – Distelfink. It’s always a joy to hear a band build and grow from one release to another. The Maravines’ Distelfink follows their self-titled 2013 release by almost exactly 12 months. Their previous offering was a jangly, reverb-heavy indie-pop work; their new one takes those elements and crafts them into a pitch-perfect rainy-day indie-rock album.
From the album art, it’s clear that The Maravines know what they’ve got here: the gray skies and rain over a lush field and a colorful, nostalgic local business sign are a neat analog of the sound. The duo craft elegant, lush tunes that never turn into spectacles: the songwriting, arrangement, and recording are all purposefully tailored to create a consistent sound throughout the record. You can listen to the individual tunes like “Third Floor Statue,” “Maryland,” and “Flowers on Tonnelle” for their standalone beauty, or you can just let the whole album accompany you through (or transport you to) a dreary, relaxing day. That’s the secret weapon of the album: the green fields of the album art. This album ultimately plays not off the stark, forlorn beauty of Bon Iver or Michigan, but the lush beauty of Nightlands, Holy Fiction, and Sleeping at Last. Distelfink is a beautiful, evocative, wonderful album.
Lord Buffalo — Castle Tapes EP. Lord Buffalo is given to long, gritty, Southwestern, wide-open folk-esque landscapes that burn acoustic guitars into ashes and scatter them to the violent Santa Ana Wind. On the other end of the spectrum, they play terrifying post-rock with spoken/chanted/shouted vocals that sounds like the soundtrack to the apocalypse.
On this short EP, they focus more on their expansive, slow-burn sound than their fully-ramped-up version. A cover of Roky Erickson’s “Two-Headed Dog” sets the pace for the EP: it’s a pensive sort of jam with surreal lyrical imagery and a long wind-up that quits before the seemingly-inevitable explosion. The manipulated violins and ominous spoken word of “Valle De Luna” turn into a more abstract tune that’s a little harder to get into, but it still never gets near Armageddon. The final two tracks are essentially parts one and two of the same long song: the pounding, grumbling, low-grade roar of “Mineral Wells” leads directly into the instrumental “Form of the Sword,” which is a long tension release; it’s the sound of the metaphorical tide going out.
Even though Castle Tapes shows off the “lighter” side of Lord Buffalo, this is still a heavy, serious, thought-provoking release. Lord Buffalo says they’re building up to a full-length in 2015, which I can only expect will have more sweeping, booming, indignant folk/post-rock dispatches for us.
So, I took a week off from Independent Clauses. I was having a monster of a week, so I just mailed it in for a couple days. Compared to the eight-month hiatus that one time, this was nothin’.
But, it nicely coincided with the end of the quarter, so I thought I’d put a little list up of my top releases from the first three months (since I listened to more music in this quarter than I think I have at any other time in Independent Clauses’ existence). It’s been an awesome year for music so far, and I’m stoked that there are three more quarters yet.
1. Sever Your Roots – The Felix Culpa. This post-hardcore masterpiece has not yet ceased to amaze me. Every song reveals new gems with each listen, whether it be a buried guitar line, a line of lyrics I hadn’t yet caught, or something else. “Escape to the Mountain” is one of my favorite tracks of the year.
2. Hours From It – Holy Fiction. Jumped up my list in the last week or so, as “More than Ever,” “Song 10” and “Two Small Bodies” inserted themselves in my life and would not let go. Passionate, melodic, lush indie-rock that doesn’t brook any cliches, resulting in occasionally challenging listening. But it’s worth it to hear the vocalist holler out “I neeeeeed you moooore than everrrr…”
3. Mt. Chimaera – Brasstronaut. Any band that’s got the guts to eschew choruses for an entire album, send down trumpet solos like it’s nobody’s business, and write the equivalent of an indie-rock symphony deserves all the props they can get. The fact that clarinet-led klezmer also happens in there makes it jump my list.
4. Of the Blue Color of the Sky – OK GO. I heard that their new video has several million hits and their album has sold just over 25,000 copies. This is a freakin’ shame. It’s their best work yet, mature in ways that “Here it Goes Again”-era OK GO can’t understand, much less imitate. If you pardon the horrible autotune experiment, the whole thing is solid, with “Needing/Getting” being the fist-pumping, shout-it-out anthem.
5. We’ve Built Up to NOTHING – 500 Miles to Memphis. This is country-punk at its finest, displaying both its country and punk roots, while extending out into places I’d never thought they’d go (full orchestras? really?). Standout track “Everybody Needs an Enemy” is outlandishly good in its nearly-ten-minutes-long-ness.
Holy Fiction has six members, and not a single one of them doesn’t have prior experience in a meaningful rock band. The members hail from past and current bands Ethan Durelle, Hemyah, Winter Wallace, Pilot Drift, and A Pacific Model. With all that experience, there is no reason why this shouldn’t be an outstanding release. And Hours From It, despite being a debut, often delivers on that expectation of excellence.
Holy Fiction’s sound would be easy to pin down if there were less members. If only the guitars and strings were around, it would be a folk band for sure. If drums and bass constituted the sound, it would be a rock band. The synthesizers and auxiliary instruments turn the sound in a soupy dream-pop direction. The high, clear vocals sound like they belong in a pensive indie-rock band. Holy Fiction is all of those ideas thrown into eight tightly constructed songs. Forgive me if it’s a bit challenging to describe the release.
Despite all the players and sounds, the vocals cut through the mix as the torchbearer. Some songs feature the bass guitar, others the acoustic guitar, but the vocals, provided by Evan Lecker, stay true throughout. Their clear, high tone gives a direction to the rest of the music, as the songwriting either accentuates (“Song Ten”) or contrasts (“Iron Eyes”) with Lecker’s straightforward delivery. This distinct tension or lack thereof is the source of much of the interest that Holy Fiction creates in their dense songs.
Close readers will notice the title of “Song Ten” contrasts with the fact that there are only eight songs on Hours From It. That’s most likely because one of the stated goals of Holy Fiction was to write songs and albums without filler. I assume there were songs that got cut, but “Song Ten” made the list. I’m glad that it did, because it is one of the best songs on the album. The songs do have meaning in every beat, as no space goes wasted in the entire album. But it’s on “Song Ten” that density and complexity come together in a truly beautiful result. Songs like “More Than Ever” are solid and exciting, but the band clicks together on “Song Ten” and creates truly transcendent beauty. Following track “Two Small Bodies” does this to a lesser extent as well. The band only fires on all cylinders like that a few times, but there are so many cylinders to fire that even the relatively unremarkable “Golden City Lights” has a gravity and complexity that rewards close and invested listening.
When heard as a whole, Hours From It leaves quite an impression. The album transforms a setting, whether it be a car, room, or venue (I would guess, having not seen them live). The maturity, complexity and sheer confidence with which these eight songs were written and recorded is extremely rare. If this is what Holy Fiction can do on its first try as a band, I can’t wait to see what they can put out when they know each other a little better. Hours From It is a melodious, complex, rewarding indie-rock listen.
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.