Classical music has a long history of being intense; The Rite of Spring nearly caused a riot on its debut. But “intense,” “aggressive,” and “forceful” are probably not words many people think of when thinking of music for strings today. Enter Nonsemble, a chamber orchestra from Australia. Their Spaceship Earth EP wrecks expectations left and right, from their inclusion of kit drums to their revolving cast of vocalists to their powerful arrangements.
“Bricks” moves from an oddly syncopated piano line supported by kit drums to a roaring high point with dramatic strings and Shem Allen belting out “Monsters!” at the top of his lungs. “Trucksea” also gets pretty wild at its conclusion. “Sovereign Murders” (not your grandpa’s classical music titles here) includes speedy violin bowing and abstract, almost math-rock patterns for the rest of the strings. When a hip-hop kit beat comes in, the song is something completely other: Nonsemble has transcended the labels of chamber orchestra and indie-rock altogether.
Even when Nonsemble chooses to conform to the traditional understanding of chamber-pop with rapidfire pizzicato notes and delicate melodies (“Sonambulists”), they do with such fervor and panache that it doesn’t feel like anything else happening. If you’re into strings, adventurous listening, or Joanna Newsom-style re-imagining of what indie-rock means, Spaceship Earth should be on your radar.
X and the Ys is a fluid concept with two poles: “X writes everything but has played with the same backing band for years and is giving them some love” on one end and “this is really one band that writes all the songs together from the ground up” on the other. Every X and the Ys is constantly in the process of moving toward one pole and away from the other. Jonas Friddle and the Majority is moving closer to the “one band” concept, which is probably partly why their latest record is a self-titled one. As a result of this full-band focus, Jonas Friddle and the Majority is a big record, full of horns, strings, vocalists, and fun.
Another tip-off that The Majority had a much bigger role on this record than in Friddle’s previous work: they re-record two of Friddle’s tunes from the last double-album. “Belle de Louisville” and “String to a Bell” include much more of the band, letting Friddle’s banjo songwriting become the foundation instead of the focus. “String to a Bell” does this slowly, bringing in parts incrementally before opening up into a horns/strings/bass/drums jam (completely with a Mountain Goats-esque “whoo!” from Friddle). The results sound like a more jovial version of The Collection. “Belle de Lousville” integrates the band more thoroughly into a dense, unified arrangement throughout (although Friddle can’t resist a big “whoa!” here either–gosh, it must be fun watching this show live).
Elsewhere The Majority pulls back from Friddle’s role as “troubadour with some people backing him” and embraces the idea of a full-band outfit. The rhythmic “Hook and Harness” sounds like a slightly more country-rock version of a Illinois-era Sufjan track. “Music Wherever I Go” and single “Sugar Moon” are giddy pop-folk-country tunes that also have some Sufjan-esque wide-eyed wonder running through them. (“Sugar Moon” has a charming percussion joke in it.) “Live in This World” sounds like The Majority wandered onto the set of a Western and was asked to make a brass-heavy Buddy Cop Sitcom theme song for it. (No apologies for that explanation.) Right when you get used to their giddy fusions, “And Your Bird Can Sing” is just a country song. Sort of. I can say for sure that “Corina’s Lullaby” is a tender lullaby.
All throughout Jonas Friddle and the Majority, horns, strings, backing vocalists, percussion, and probably the kitchen sink are melded together into jubilant, exciting songs. It’s very different than Friddle’s previous work, so those expecting more of his troubadour work should be warned that this is a full band now, and they do full band things. If you’re on board for a wild, fun ride, then you shouldn’t have any concerns or worries as The Majority pulls through the curves and loops of its rollercoaster.
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.
David Wimbish‘s lyrics are incredible, but with so much going on in his 7-to-18-piece indie-rock orchestra The Collection, the lyrics sometimes take a backseat to the enormous amount of things going on around them. His solo EP On Separation strips away some (some) of the musicians to put the focus squarely on his voice and lyrics. The tender, gentle acoustic tunes that result will please fans of the Collection and gather new fans of quiet music under his wing.
In a nod to the solo nature of the work, Wimbish takes the time to write out some explanatory liner notes in the first person. In explaining the title, he writes, “Each song on On Separation deals with different aspects of disconnection, whether it be marital divorce experienced by my friends lately, or self-imposed loss of close friendships from the past.” To whit, standout “Circles and Lines” begins with, “Today she dropped the glass and shattered many things / and you had not yet thought of where you’d set your ring.” Yet not all of the lyrics are so literal, as Wimbish prefers to plumb the interior spaces of the involved parties and observers of the events (“A Ghost and A Scale,” “Back and Forth”). They’re complex, multi-layered lyrics, full of personal musings, places, and religious allusions: Cain and Abel make appearances in their eponymous tune, and the prodigal son makes a reappearance (from the Collection’s “Broken Tether”) in “Lost and Found.” Wimbish’s ability to turn a phrase that both sounds great and has meaning is in top form here.
These lyrics are paired with some of the most beautiful music Wimbish has yet written. “Circles and Lines” pairs the heavy lyrics against a beautiful, fingerpicked, cascading acoustic guitar line. The song builds to the loudest moment on the EP with the inclusion of strings and slapped cello for percussion, but it returns to its delicate roots for the conclusion of the tune. That underscores the approach here: while these are songs that deal with dramatic events, the overall tone and timbre of this EP is quiet and even understated at times (at least in comparison to the weightiness of the lyrics). The rhythms and string arrangement of “Back and Forth” seem a little like a Collection song with the bombast removed–the chiming autoharp of “A Ghost and a Scale” recalls his band as well. But other than those occasional flourishes, these songs do feel like a statement by Wimbish instead of stripped-out versions of full-band work. They’re elegant, not empty.
Part of the understatedness of the release is realized in the sharp focus that Wimbish puts on his voice delivering the lyrics, to the exclusion of complexity elsewhere. This is particularly true in “Cain and Abel,” which uses Wimbish’s voice as both lead and background vocals. Gentle marimba and cello occasionally show up, but this one’s about the voice. Wimbish’s tenor, so often used for roaring in The Collection’s work, is gorgeous in this quieter setting, as his range, tone, and nuances of delivery stand out. (All those are present in The Collection’s work, but as previously noted, there’s a lot more elements going on there.) His voice is soft, clear, and comforting–if you didn’t listen to the lyrics, these tunes would be the sort of thing to lull you peacefully to sleep.
David Wimbish’s On Separation is a beautiful EP that showcases a singer/songwriter with a clear sonic and lyrical vision. Fans of Damien Jurado, Josh Ritter, or Gregory Alan Isakov will find much to love in the music, while fans of the dense, thoughtful lyrics of The Mountain Goats or Sufjan Stevens’ Michigan/Illinois work will celebrate this one. Highly recommended.
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.