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.
I was one of the millions stuck in airports over the weekend. I eventually made it to my destination, five days after my original boarding pass assured me I would. During the last of my three airport visits, I queued up The Yellow Dress‘ Faint Music / Ordinary Light. Opening track “Tummy in the Blood” (provided commentary: “what a gross thing to name a song”) has a chorus that I wanted to sing with all my soul: “We try, and climb, but we know that / mathematically speaking, it gets harder every day / the chances of finding ourselves home again / of finding ourselves in the same way.” It’s a beautiful, passionate call, made all the more wonderful by perfectly illustrating the seeming futility of my situation.
The music itself leans more toward non-traditionally passionate than traditionally beautiful, as The Yellow Dress sounds like an exuberant mix of latter-day Mountain Goats, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!. These speedy indie-pop tunes ooze DIY personality from instruments you’d expect (glockenspiel, horns, off-kilter vocals) and don’t expect (clarinet and the unusually prominent bass, which immediately calls up references to Peter Hughes of the Mountain Goats).
The songs move sprightly along, scattering quirky melodies from vocals and instruments throughout songs without concern for obvious mile-markers: there are choruses in some places, and then sometimes there aren’t, but it all sounds wonderful. “A Complete List of Fears Age 5-28 (aprox)” starts with Neutral Milk Hotel-esque heavy strumming, then builds until it’s a roaring Funeral-style indie-rock tune, complete with frenzied vocal delivery. It’s the sort of song I listen to over and over.
My repeated listens are enhanced by the excellent lyrics. Existential angst, growing up, and seizing the day are all things that a person in their mid-20s can relate to at times–especially while trapped in a travel-induced limbo. “FatherSunFunRun/Walk Towardson/Daniel Pennypacker” is a standout in this department, while the previous two mentioned are also wonderful. There are lines throughout each of them that I could see ending up on my computer wallpaper (which, let’s be real, is the equivalent of a middle school trapper-keeper). It’s all incredibly earnest stuff, so I suppose if you’re not into that it might curl your ears a bit. But I’m all about sincerity, so I’m excited about it.
Beyond the intriguing arrangements and captivating lyrics, The Yellow Dress can just be a ton of fun. “Isaac Fitzgerald (bum bum bum)” sees a ragtag choir singing the titular “bum bum bum bum ba-da-da-da” repeatedly as a sort of chorus. If you’re not singing along by the end of the song, we’re probably not on the same page musically: this tune is pretty much all that I ask for in a song. It’s got a great arrangement (check that bass! and saxophone!), strong lyrics, a part where you can yell along exuberantly with the band, and melodies I want to sing out loudly with my windows down. It’s just wonderful.
If you’re into indie-pop, you need to know about The Yellow Dress. Faint Music / Ordinary Light is a wonderful album that takes all the idiosyncrasies that make DIY indie-pop great and rolls them together. It’s the first great album of 2014, and I can see myself listening to this one way into the 2014. Happy new year, y’all, and safe travels.
There are many reasons that people love Neutral Milk Hotel: great songs, brilliant lyrics, perfected moods, indie mainstay, etc. But one thing that people don’t think about as often is how many ideas are jam-packed into its songs. Every moment bursts with riffs, melodies, rhythm and instruments. It’s just entirely unexpected the first (and 40th) time you hear their work.
The Ascetic Junkies‘ This Cage Has No Bottom is much the same way. These twelve songs jam more ideas into 40 minutes than some bands have in a discography. Instruments appear and disappear unexpectedly. Tempos suddenly drop, then raise just as quickly. Songs lead you in one direction, only to jerk you in another. This album is an experience, and it only helps its case (at least, here at Independent Clauses) that This Cage Has No Bottom is a post-folk indie-rock album much in the same way that In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is.
It also reminds me of O Fidelis, as the vocal duties are shared between Matt Harmon and Kali Giaritta. They both have voices strong enough to carry a band, so having both of them only makes the album that much stronger. The wildly varied instrumentation only backs up their solid voices, not just including but often pairing banjos, synthesizers, bell kits and mandolin in addition to bass, guitar and drums. It’s an enthusiastic party inside a hip music store.
How hip? “(Don’t) Panic” is a folk/funk song, as they create a supremely get-down dance-floor groove with nothing but acoustic instruments and a clean electric guitar. I mean, there’s a ukulele in it. It doesn’t get cooler than that.
“Get What You Want, Get What You Need” opens as an old-timey bluegrass tune, which sounds great with the guy/girl harmonies. But that’s not enough to be an Ascetic Junkies song. They throw in some celebratory horns, bombastic drums, a laughing section (!) and bluegrass fiddle for good measure. “Crybaby” is a straightforward country-rock stomper that was apparently recorded totally live. You’d never be able to tell – it’s that tight. This band must kill it live.
“God/Devil/Gov’t” is amazing as well. It’s the most intricately constructed tune here, lyrically and musically. The lyrics sing of looking for help wherever it will come from, and rejecting those sources of help if they fail. The satirical tune punctuates the proceedings with a refrain of “Hallelujah!”, which making various points about the organizations mentioned through different instrument and mood choices in the particular verses. I’m telling you, it’s amazing.
I could go on for much longer about this album, but it would be overkill. If you like indie-rock with acoustic guitars and horns featured prominently in the mix, you’re gonna love the Ascetic Junkies’ This Cage Has No Bottom. It’s one of my top ten of 2010, for sure. There’s just nothing as well written, performed and produced in indie-folk this year. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.
My relationship with Shorthand Phonetics is somewhat complicated. That’s all right, though; almost all of Shorthand Phonetics’ lo-fi rock’n’roll proclaims the ins and outs of complicated relationships (or lack thereof).
See, Shorthand Phonetics always has and probably will always have an aesthetic that challenges listeners. Ababil Ashari, mastermind of Shorthand Phonetics, writes and plays with Jeff Mangum-esque disregard for other people’s conventions of what is good and not good. Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is Jeff Mangum’s masterpiece because it is a total, singular vision that no one else could possibly have put together. While Ashari’s works haven’t reached that level of mastery yet, each release of hyper-distorted, giddy, super-emotional, crazy-long-titled pop and rock’n’roll songs comes closer and closer to reaching perfect idiomatic success (perfect idiomatic success: in which it doesn’t really matter what everyone else is doing, because what the band is doing is so awesome. See also: The Format’s Dog Problems).
Errors in Calculating Odds, Errors in Calculating Value is by far the most unique release that Shorthand Phonetics has revealed yet. From songs whose full titles are 50 words long to ten-minute songs to Firefly and anime references, this album is a distinct vision from Ababil Ashari’s mind. The whole low-to-mid-fi thing is over an hour long, as no song drops below four minutes in length. Several run for more than six minutes.
The length is the ultimate problem with Errors. It’s not the length of any particular track that does it in, but this much Shorthand Phonetics is hard to take in one sitting. The songwriting is consistently good, although a bit abrasively recorded. It’s the high, occasionally grating vocals that get in the way. For a few songs, the unique and exciting epic power-pop covers the problem. But tracks like “To the Girl I Think Might be Similar to the Girl Flight of the Conchords Were Thinking About When They Were Writing “The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room)”” just have grating, screechy vocal efforts that cannot be redeemed. It’s just too much to ask of listeners.
That being said, there are moments here that shine when pulled from the hour-plus context. “Fear and Loathing in Jikyoku-to” is one of the best songs that I’ve heard by SP (although I have by no means heard them all, as SP is quite prolific). Its riff and melodies are engaging, resulting in head-bobbing and much approval. That’s the primary thing that’s different about Errors: there’s a lot more headbobbing than rocking out. And that’s just fine, as tunes like “The Hardest Achievement” and “Fear and Loathing…” are excellent. The melodic solo intro to “Natalies for Glasses IV…” (which is the song with the fifty-word title that I’m not reproducing here) also is excellent, except for the untuned bass guitar in the back guitar (remember kids: lo-fi doesn’t have to mean sloppy).
To sum up this review: Ababil Ashari of Shorthand Phonetics is an incredibly talented pop songwriter recording in a low-fi manner with a voice that’s hard to take in large doses. In 1998, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats was an incredibly talented pop songwriter recording in a low-fi manner with a voice that was hard to take in large doses. Then he grew up some and became amazing. Not saying that’s the road that Shorthand Phonetics is going to take, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the next ten years produce some great stuff from Shorthand Phonetics. If you have a high tolerance for unusual vocals, then Errors is in your department. If you don’t, then tune in to tomorrow’s review, in which you will receive a treat.
Glad Hearts’ The Oak and the Acorn is a fascinating album. The band has a bevy of ideas, but treats each of them cursorily. There are thirteen tracks on this debut, but the whole album can be listened to in under a half hour. The release seems like an ADD tour of a band more than a proper album, but it’s an incredibly interesting tour nonetheless.
Glad Hearts’ basic sound is that of a folk band idolizing Neutral Milk Hotel. From the nasally vocals to the peculiar instrumental songs to mega distortion on some tracks to kitchen-sink jams (in terms of number of instruments), there are shades of NMH all over this. I don’t know if that’s coincidental or a result of much listening to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, but it’s there nonetheless.
And even that’s not all the experimentation Glad Hearts throws at their listeners. “Come July” features an ethereal percussion instrument in the background of a harmonica/acoustic guitar folk song. “I’m at Sea” is a thirty-second accordion spot that brings to mind Sufjan short tracks like “Let’s Hear That String Part Again, Because I Don’t Think They Heard It” and “One Last “Whoo-hoo!” for the Pullman,” both of which are exactly what their titles entail. It leads directly into the buzzing, slightly apocalyptic “Tinderbox.” That’s directly followed by a tune so bass-heavy and strumtastic that it’s nearly folk-punk on the merits of the bass guitar work alone. Glad Hearts aren’t making standard folk tunes; they’re going for a specific vision.
And that specific vision is pretty well established. It’s not accomplished (they have a long way to go before all of these ideas become an album; see also Enjoy Your Rabbit by Sufjan Stevens), but they definitely set out a roadmap for where they’re going. My only disappointment in all of this is that the undisputed best track on this album has almost no experimentation whatsoever.”Nothing If We’re Not Moving” is a unadorned, delicate duet between a guy and a girl. There’s guitar, some dainty piano, and an underlying synthesizer for the majority of the tune, which makes it the most standard of almost any track here. And yet, it’s the only one that demands to be replayed on its own. The album as a whole is worthy of repeated listens, but “Nothing…” is the only track that you’re going to push the back button on when it’s finished the first time.
What does that mean for Glad Hearts? I don’t know. It could mean that their next album is going to be stripped down, now that they’ve got their studio fix. It could be an anomaly on the radar, and the delicate romanticism could disappear forever. It could mean the two extremes are going to meet in the middle somewhere. All I know for sure is that “Nothing If We’re Not Moving” is the prettiest track here, and the experimentation everywhere else is incredibly interesting (if not always incredibly successful).
Glad Hearts’ The Oak and the Acorn is not a plug-and-play album. You’ll have to listen to it a couple times and get used to it. But it has treasure in it if you want to look for it. I hear a lot of promise in Glad Hearts, and look forward to seeing them hone their sound more, however it is they do that.
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.