Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Oh Three, Experimentalists

December 13, 2012

Avant-garde music generally doesn’t agree with me, so I don’t cover it much on IC. But there are exceptions, such as Kai Straw‘s To Pearl Whitney, From Howland Grouse In Loathing. The album was pitched to me as “experimental poetry”; that might make you think of rap, but lead track “sexlovesoul” is an intense a capella piece that blurs the lines between rap and spoken word. The story it tells is one of a relationship found and lost and found, spread over an entire life. It was deeply moving, inspiring me to check out the rest of the 21-song album. What proceeds is a highly idiosyncratic mix of poetry, rapping, electronica, jazz and even some acoustic guitar. The lead is always Straw’s voice, which he has fine-tuned to be precise and highly tonal (even when speaking). The lyrics he sings and speaks are varied, from songs of death and destruction (“The Champion,” “2,000”) to elaborate daydreams (the near-parody “Vanity Fair,” “Boogie Nights”) to relationship troubles (“Drunk,” “sexlovesoul”).

The best tunes are the ones that don’t invest the most in the arrangement; while tunes like “Yakuza 21” and “Dionysius” have well-developed backing beats (squelching electronica and traditional R&B, respectively), taking the focus off the vocals is not the best move for Straw. That’s not because the beats aren’t strong; it’s that his voice is so engaging and intriguing that I want to hear it unfiltered. If you’re into hip-hop for the lyrical prowess, you should check out Kai Straw’s work. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

Me and My Ribcage by The Widest Smiling Faces doesn’t sound that experimental on first blush. The wistful title track opens the album and introduces the listener to a sound somewhere between the moving soundscapes of The Album Leaf and the minimalist slowcore of Jason Molina and Red House Painters. The high, tentative, child-like vocals tip this off as slightly out of the ordinary, however. The album unfolds as a collection of beautiful, relaxing tunes, not so far off from bands like Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate) or Pedro the Lion at its quietest. None of the elements in the album are particularly virtuosic in their performance, but the arrangements of piano, guitar and voice are arresting. If you’re looking for a quiet, melodic, gorgeous album, you should look the way of The Widest Smiling Faces.

I was aware that The Miami had some experimental in them when I reviewed their album “I’ll Be Who You Want Me to Be”, but they ratchet that mode up in their exciting EP “Ring Shouts”. The Miami is a duo that recreates old spirituals, hymns and folk tunes in often-mournful style, stretching the source material in unusual and unexpected ways. “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” has a grating noise butting up against the plain, acoustic accompaniment; this juxtaposition seems to inspire fear in the vocalist/narrator and uneasiness in this listener. The 78 seconds of “Barbed Wire” are an a capella tune with only one person clapping and stomping to back it up, while the swirling, mysterious synths of “Motherless Child” combine with the acoustic guitar and vocals for a heartwrenchingly sad piece.

Then, they throw all that sad stuff overboard and close out the EP with “Kneebone,” a call-and-response tune that is easily the catchiest and happiest tune they’ve ever put out. It’s still got a long introduction that abruptly quits before the vocals come in and a drowsy coda to connect it with the rest of the tunes, but it’s a fun song to hear and to sing along with. Because even the most experimental of us enjoy a good singalong every now and then.

The Miami's reinvented songs strike a modern chord

September 20, 2011

Slave songs developed to encode the experience of temporal suffering and the longing for Earthly emancipation into the language of religious suffering and heavenly freedom. The hopes and fears of slaves are memorialized in those oft-mournful songs.

The Miami‘s “I’ll Be Who You Want Me To Be” is a translation of eight traditional African-American, but not exclusively slave, lyrics into a very modern indie genre that emphasizes the world-weary, beaten down aspects. The Miami, a duo of self-proclaimed “middle-class, secular, well-educated college kids,” sounds a lot like the most downtrodden moments of Pedro the Lion and Damien Jurado. In fact, my favorite Pedro the Lion song (a heartbreaking version of traditional hymn “Be Thou My Vision”) is similar to The Miami’s reinvention techniques. The Miami, however, eschews all familiar markers from the songs — you’ll never recognize “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” — to bring the tragedy of the words to the forefront.

It’s interesting that The Miami wears its secular background on its sleeve. Some lyrical meaning dissipates if the songs are being understood outside of an eternal hope – the afterlife wasn’t the only meaning of the words, but it was certainly a part of it. However, in translating not only the lyrics of the songs but the meaning of the tunes into a world-weary (“Keep Your Eyes on the Prize”), “lo-fi,” occasionally avant garde (“If He Changed My Name”) genre, The Miami is free to make reference to the modern music world’s redemption stories.

And lo-fi (which at this point in history is an aesthetic choice, not an actual fidelity level) is about as redemptive as the current story runs. There are stops and starts in performance throughout the album; the album isn’t perfect, nor is it intended to be. There are intentionally unfixed “mistakes” (what a modern radio-listener would call mistakes, at least).

This, I believe, points out that The Miami is not broadcasting from some high tower: they are normal people, just like the listener. The acknowledgment of human collective (which is what the original slave songs produced) is here as well: the erratic, idiosyncratic aspects of the album were chosen to show that this is how we do mourning these days – and we can all tap in to that.

At least, “all” of those who ascribe to a Pitchforkian ideal of lo-fi recording as ideological purity. The vocal performance of “I Shall Not Be Moved” can be described as hysterical, strangled and occasionally atonal; it sounds glorious as juxtaposed against a beautiful, stately keys backdrop. There are large swaths of people who would only hear the vocals and hate it. The atypically loud and distorted ending to “I Danced in the Morning” will call up all sorts of garage-rock comparisons, which will turn off other people. Just the fact that I invoked Pedro the Lion will turn away some.

“I’ll Go Where You Want Me To Go” is not for everyone. It’s as much (if not more) fun to think about than to actually listen to, especially in the more difficult songs. But it does possess a beauty for those willing to look and listen deeply (“Ring Out, Wild Bells,” especially). It’s an unusual album, but it has distinct worth and merit that I enjoy.

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

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