Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Two Takes on Folk: Chris Jamison / Martin Van Ruin

February 11, 2014

chrisjamison

Chris Jamison puts a light reverb on his vocals in “Carousel,” the opening track of five-song EP Sleeping with the T.V. On. That effect gives his voice a nostalgic, romantic air reminiscent of Gregory Alan Isakov’s vocal performances. Jamison’s contemporary-folk has a bit more of a concrete feel to it than Isakov’s ethereal constructions: stand-up bass, shuffling snare, and acoustic guitar strum anchor the sound tightly to this mortal coil. Still, Jamison’s beautiful voice is the feature in “Carousel” and throughout the EP.

Even in tracks where the instruments are more in the fore, they play second fiddle to Jamison’s arresting voice. The subtle pedal steel of “Summer Comes Tomorrow” and the engaging acoustic work of “Joseph” can’t steal the focus from the evocative tone and timbre of the leading tenor. In that way, it’s a bit like Death Cab for Cutie–although their instrumental sounds are completely different, the focus on instruments supporting the vocal melody and performance is present in both artists. If you’re into folk-singin’ troubadours that can tell a song with the tone of their voice alone, you should check out Sleeping with the T.V. On. You’ll very much enjoy yourself.

martinvanruin

Martin Van Ruin‘s Every Man a King has a much more muscular take on folk music. “Gold and Love and Gin” starts out with a sludgy distorted guitar reminiscent of ISIS (for real) before transitioning into a dry, clanging acoustic strum. Lead guitar, slide guitar, harmonica, background vocals and shaker-heavy drums give the song a very Western, wide-open, frontier feel. When lead vocalist Derek Nelson hollers “she’s got something strange always coming out her mouth” near the climax of the tune, it’s a genuine shiver-inducer in the adrenaline-pounding sort of way, not the romantic sort of way.

Part of their energy-creating powers come from backgrounds in genres other than folk; MVR is a new group from a bunch of Chicago music vets that have a wide range of sounds in their past (and present). “Easy Answer” is a perky power-pop tune led by neat male/female vocal interactions and bouncy bass work. “This Time Around” has similar power-pop vibes, but with a bit of Southern-rock crunch; “Wilderness” has a lot of guitar crunch going on. “Sayanora” has a ’50s ballad sort of feel to it. The drums are powerful and prominent throughout; never becoming overwhelming, but definitely giving a bit of pep to the sound in almost every tune they appear. This ain’t Bon Iver over here, just in case anyone was still wondering.

But no matter where they dally, Every Man a King is held together by an underlying folk sentiment. “American Moon” employs a fiddle and a droll vocal line to tell a heartfelt tale of woe. Sure, it’s noisier than your average folk tune, but it’s got a songwriter’s soul. And they’re the sort of people that took the time to list the lyrics to every song on their Bandcamp page. Maybe that doesn’t count for purists, but it counts for me. There’s always the acoustic Americana of “Storm Coming” and the traditional “Give Me Flowers (While I’m Living)” to settle those anxieties.

If you’re up for some folk-inspired music that steals from southern rock, indie-pop, and more, Martin Van Ruin will scratch that itch. Every Man a King is a strong, varied release that never loses its way.

Tri-State / Kira Velella / U137

October 15, 2013

tristate

When you’ve been in music for a while, nuance and subtlety become more important to you. This is true for listeners and creators; although I can still appreciate a mighty guitar riff, I find myself entranced by complex lyrical turns and less obvious arrangements. Tri-State is a band composed of people who have been in bands, and you can tell from the songs they write. These pop-rock tunes, while poppy, are not constructed as instant hits. These are measured tunes, tunes that take their time on little guitar bits (“All Different,” “Back Before”) just because. This unhurried, “let’s give this some space” method is much like that of IC fave The Brixton Riot.

Tri-State’s tunes unfold in pleasing ways: “Back Before” creates an ominous mood that builds and builds, while follow-up “Country Squire” toes the line between pop-rock and alt-country. It doesn’t feel disjointed at all; the songs feel like outworkings of the same thought process. If you’re into ’90s indie-rock (Pavement, Guided by Voices) or mature songwriting that appreciates with multiple listens, you should give Tri-State’s self-titled EP a spin.

kiravelella

Kira Velella‘s gentle voice is the primary feature of her singer/songwriter tunes, and for good reason. Her second soprano/alto voice commands the arrangements, sucking the listener in. “Lover, Move” and “Barn Swallow” both feature strong instrumental songwriting that is totally eclipsed by the endearing confidence of Velella’s voice. She accomplishes the rare feat of encapsulating confidence and vulnerability in a single performance, which keeps me coming back to the tunes.

This uncommon tension buoys the six-song Daughter EP, making it consistently interesting to the invested listener. The wintry arrangements accomplish a second improbable feat: the Damien Jurado-esque characteristic of feeling both lush and sparse at the same time. It gives Velella’s vocals both the forefront and a space to inhabit; it is easy to imagine Velella in a video clip of a snow-covered field for any of these tracks. The mood here is strong throughout tunes, giving a polish to the release. All told, this is an impressive debut offering from Kira Velella.

dreamerontherun

Categories can be stultifying and abrasive, but they are helpful starting points for conversation. Saying that U137 plays post-rock is mildly helpful to get the conversation started, but saying that the band plays “pretty” post-rock (Moonlit Sailor, Dorena, The Album Leaf) instead of “heavy” post-rock (Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Isis, Tyranny is Tyranny) is far more descriptive. You’re going to hear a lot of arpeggios, humongous crescendoes to jubilant melodies, and ethereal synths in Dreamer on the Run. If you’re into that, then the 40 or so minutes you spend listening will be breathtaking.

It’s not the sort of album where one particular track sticks out: it’s simply a forty-minute excursion into a beautiful section of the world. If you’re feeling down about the government shutdown, gun violence, poverty, or any other modern malaise, Dreamer on the Run can help you forget that for a few minutes and remember that there are so many beautiful things in the world to comfort you. This, simply put, is a gorgeous record.

Post-Rock Trio: Dorena / Tyranny is Tyranny / Cmn ineed yr hlp

August 6, 2013

dorenanuet

Dorena‘s Nuet slipped under my radar when it came out in March, but it’s far too good to not extol. Dorena’s brand of post-rock is of the beautiful, cinematic variety: there are major keys, soaring guitar lines, twinkly keys, and an overall feel of hope. This wouldn’t be anything startling if the members weren’t incredibly strong songwriters. The Swedish quintet know how to use space in tunes not just as a contrast to density, but as an emotive player. Anyone can be quiet and then be loud. It takes skill to make that quietness mean something in and of itself.

Opener “Semper” and highlight track “My Childhood Friend” have loud sections that are enhanced by their quiet backdrops, but the quiet sections themselves are moving. The former sounds like the very best moments of Sigur Ros, while the latter puts me into a reverie sort of state before snapping me out of it with a huge, dramatic, fist-pumping riff. Dorena knows how to write a beautiful melody, but they also know how to write a whole song around that great moment. That’s what makes post-rock stick for me. I highly recommend Nuet.

tyrannyistyranny

Tyranny Is Tyranny is named after a chapter from Howard Zinn‘s A People’s History of the United States, which you can read in full online via History is a Weapon. Their debut Let It Come From Whom It May features songs called “The American Dream Is a Lie,” “Manufacturing Truth,” and “Owned by Thieves.” The band’s sound very effectively combines Isis’ sludgy soundscapes with punk’s furious tempos. At this point, you should know if you want to check out Tyranny is Tyranny or not.

But if you’re still on the fence, consider “The American Dream Is a Lie” as a litmus test. It starts out quietly, with a ponderous, winding guitar riff that leads into a section of building through the dissonant two-guitar setup. Two and a half minutes in, the vocalist finally appears, yelling atonally the phrase “opiate the brutish life.” The guitars get heavier as the band starts to pick up steam through minutes three and four. At 4:45, there’s a tonal shift that could maybe be called a breakdown, before it leans back into that winding riff from the beginning. Then it reprises the heaviest section of the tune, bashing its way to the end of the track.

If that’s the sort of music that’s intriguing to you (and it’s very intriguing to me), then you’re going to be all about the rest of the album. Heavy, left-leaning, but never gratuitously brutal, Tyranny is Tyranny makes angry music for a reason. There’s not enough of that going around these days (and a lot of self-obsessed yuppie anger), which makes Tyranny is Tyranny all the more valuable.

cmnineed

The band name and title of Cmn ineed yr hlp‘s It Came Without Warning…As Most Disasters Do also tells you almost everything you need to know before you even hear it, but in a very different way: this post-rock band has big aspirations but also a good sense of humor. Their five-track release is instrumental post-rock that tells the story of a giant sea monster via vocals that are recorded to sound like they’re from ’50s radio broadcasts. (Or maybe they’re actual found sound? That would be boss.) The music itself is densely textured rock that leans toward the mathy end of things: dissonant chords, patterned guitar riffs, acrobatic drumming, and a strong bass presence mark the tunes.

The story is pretty important to the enjoyment of the album: no particular song stands out as the hook. It makes good on the original promise of post-rock: trying to achieve other artistic goals with the rock idiom. There are impressive moments, like the opening bass work in “The prognostication is murder” and the gymnastic guitar riffs on “Without a sail in view,” but they aren’t given any particular preference over the churning, full-band attack of closer “Cold, airless, forbidding.” The band really operates the album as an album, and that’s a cool thing to hear. Recommended for fans of math rock or “something different.”

Quick Hits Megamix

April 11, 2013

charlotteandmagon

I’ve covered French duo Charlotte and Magon since January 2011, and I’ve been mesmerized by their pensive, mysterious indie-rock that draws just as much from trip-hop and Fleetwood Mac as it does any current band. Life Factory is their first full release, and it delivers on the promise. Charlotte’s alto voice commands the stark, crisp tunes with easy authority, and the whole project comes off with a dramatic flair. They can go a bit overboard on the drama in places (“Dice,” “Shellshock”), but tunes like “Motoroïde” and “Black Horses” are excellent songs that make me excited for the future of this band.

bloodroot

Italian band OfeliaDorme is the perfect companion to Charlotte and Magon, as the bands share similarities in sparse, stark mood and atmosphere. The veterans in OfeliaDorme make Bloodroot a standout by not wasting a single moment: every bit is thoughtfully considered, causing the tunes to seem effortless. (Isn’t that always the way?) Vocalist Francesca Bono sits atop the mix, delivering her vocals in a straightforward, almost entrancing voice. Her voice melds equally well to spacious, gloomy tunes (“Brussels,” “Predictable”) and upbeat pop moments (“Ulysses,” “Stuttering Morning”), which results in a nicely varied group of songs. It’s a credit to the band’s songwriting skill that the album still holds together well as a unit. Bloodroot is an album that you can put on and enjoy in its entirety. If you’re into music that makes small arrangements sound gorgeous, this one’s for you.

e321

Swedish outfit E321 adheres more closely to the post-rock idiom than the two previous bands, but they still keep a candle for gloomy, spare atmospheres on three-song release Among the Trees. Opener “The Naked Sea” builds from a lone guitar playing forlorn melodies to a heavy rock section, complete with spoken/yelled vocals that give it a vaguely post-hardcore vibe. “They Call Us Human” and “Among the Trees” follow a similar pattern, but make the quiets quieter and the louds louder. The band shines when it’s turning morose moments into aggressive ones, although E321 doesn’t go all the way by attempting Isis levels of earsplitting clamor. Instead, the band dials in to their comfort zone and turns out really effective, evocative tunes. If you’re into things that have a post- attached to their name, you should check out E321.

signalstovega

Signals to Vega is from Lake Charles, Louisiana, which is interesting because A. it breaks the streak of international bands in this post and B. I once spent a weekend marooned there because of a car wreck. I hold no hard feelings against the town, but if I did I think STV would help exorcise them. This duo does aspire towards the towering metal/post-rock fusions of Isis, as the 10-minute-long lead track “Fear Not the Cycle of Life” alternates between poignant sections of twinkling beauty and roaring double-pedal excursions. The band does both well on Into the Arms of Infinity , as they never lose sight of the melody in the crush of hugely distorted background guitar. No vocals on this one; you’ve just got lots of trilling, soaring guitar to admire. This will make answering e-mails sound way more dramatic and important.

Quick Hits: Em Eff / Martha Redbone / Red Swingline

November 29, 2012

So I’ve been hammering away at semester’s end, preparing documents, administering papers and writing finals. It has sadly forced me to direct my writing attentions elsewhere as of late. But now I’m back!

Em Eff’s We Don’t Know is a collection of mostly-electronic tunes that span the distance between chiptune, ambient and IDM. The tunes skew toward the minimal side of things, trafficking more in mood and feel than in big beats, infectious melodies or heavy rhythms. This is best shown in the pensive, eerie “Ghosts Are Just T-Shirts Napping on Door Knobs,” which layers measured synths on top of a rattling wooden noise that serves as the “backbeat” for the song. “Hibernating Metropolis” and “okay, blue ether” further explore this vein of intricately constructed, highly structured tunes. Even farther toward the mood-based end of the spectrum is “Blue Ether,” a beautiful piano piece so soft and gentle that you can hear squeaking and rattling of the instrument.

There are upbeat tunes as well, like the chiptune-friendly, pulsing “1-Up Down” and the rhythm-heavy “Were We The Machine,” but even these have atmospheric elements throughout. We Don’t Know is an engaging, enveloping release that shows off Em Eff’s strengths as an arranger of atmospheric pieces for great effect. The album is out now on Cloud Collective Records.

Martha Redbone‘s take on things is old. Real, real old. Not only does she mine O Brother, Where Art Thou?-style Americana for the sounds on her latest release, she pulls the lyrics from English poet William Blake (1757-1827). Such an ambitious project as The Garden of Love – Songs of William Blake could fall flat, but Redbone sells the whole thing excellently by treating the lyrics reverently but not sacredly. She cares about the sentiments, but she doesn’t let that stop her from putting her own flair and spin on the delivery. This feels less like a reinvention of Blake and more like a celebration of his work from an admirer in a different field.

Tunes like “Hear the Voice of the Bard,” “On Anothers Sorrow” and “I Rose Up at the Dawn of the Day” benefit from the jaunty instrumental rhythms and soulful inflections of Redbone’s alto voice, creating instantly memorable tunes. Redbone is best when sticking in this vein, as experiments in spoken word (“Why Should I Care for the Men of Thames”), Carpenters-esque folk (“The Fly”), and a cappella (“The Ecchoing Green”) are less successful than the joyous, soulful Americana. The highest honors are reserved for the melodious and calming “I Heard an Angel Singing” and “Sleep Sleep Baby Bright,” which are simply gorgeous. If you’re into Americana, you should have this one in your collection.

Metal and post-rock have long been related, as some of metal band Isis’ work sounds remarkably chill and some of Sigur Ros’ stuff is incredibly loud. Red Swingline continues this tradition in Cloud, creating dreamy post-rock and straightforward metal riffs. Erich Dylus, the sole musician behind the project, sets the two genres apart much of the time, as dreamy tunes like “Virtue” and “Spaceman Spiff” never ratchet up to heavy distorted guitar mashing. Instead, he relies on jazzy melodies and chords to do the heavy lifting. “Spaceman Spiff” gets a bit overly jazzy for me, but “Virtue” is quite a beautiful tune. Tunes like “Spiral” focus on his metal inclinations, throwing down some chugging guitar. Title track “Cloud” is the only track that really tries to integrate the two sounds, resulting in the most interesting and unique track of the set. I’d like to hear more of this angle in the future. If you’re interested in metal and post-rock, Red Swingline is one to keep your eye on.

The Boxing Lesson teaches me a thing or two about psych (and myself, and IC)

June 30, 2011

I’ve spent a lot of time and thought on what Independent Clauses should be. It’s gone through many iterations, and I’ve been realizing over the past two months that it’s about to go through another. I’ve always wanted to be the first line of defense for young bands: I’ll review your album if you have zero press, bad spelling and a 3-song demo. If it’s great, it’s great. If it’s not, I’ll tell you what I thought and hopefully you don’t think I’m a jerk. That’s been SOP for IC since day one.

But back in the day, I thought I could do that for every genre. That’s just entirely unfeasible. I can’t be knowledgeable at every style of music. I may like a couple hardcore and metal bands, but I have no idea what makes them good other than the fact that I enjoy it. Even if I heard a great unsigned metal band, I would have little idea how to describe it (and even less clue about RIYLs), because I don’t know the ins and outs of metal.

This is true for me of rap, metal, hardcore, modern rock/post-grunge, blues and jazz. I like a bit of each (K’Naan, Isis, Dillinger Escape Plan, Traindodge, The Flavor and John Coltrane, for starters), but I just feel unqualified to review it. So I’m pretty much going to stop reviewing those genres and focus in on folk, alt-country, indie-pop, indie-rock and post-rock. I’m taking a break from punk so that I can love it again in the near future.

The reason I bring this up is that The Boxing Lesson falls on the outskirts of my knowledge, just on this side of the border. I don’t listen to much psychedelic music, partially because I’ve never had the desire to be high. I say “much” because The Flaming Lips are Oklahoma’s rock heroes, and I listen to their music almost de facto.

The Boxing Lesson has the space-rock/psych thing going on its Muerta EP. “Darker Side of the Moog” features synths galore in a sweeping, atmospheric way. The song transforms into a slow-moving but cohesive bit of pop-influenced songwriting; it’s not exactly go-for-the-hook songcraft, but the melodies are recognizable to those who love a v/c/v setup (me). “Muerta” and “Cassiopeia” are much the same, calling up some Pink Floyd references in their expansive, slow-moving folds.

Closer “Drone to Sleep” is most like a pop song, in that fuzzed out guitar strum and a dominant vocal melody carry the song. It’s still got the synths and spaced-out vibe; its woozy self will definitely still to the core demographic of psych-heads. But people who enjoy meandering pop and folk will find much to love in the track. It really does make me want to go to sleep as the sound washes over me, in a Spiritualized sort of way. It’s kind of like Jonsi, honestly – and that’s really cool. It’s easily my favorite track on the EP.

So, I’m not the best guy to be evaluating The Boxing Lesson, and I’m not too proud to admit it. But it does have some elements that can be appreciated by all — and that’s the mark of great songwriting.

Long live the post-rock of Final Days Society

June 11, 2011

I’ve been getting heavily into post-rock recently, as Of the Vine, Colin Stetson, Industries of the Blind and Isis have all been in my rotation. Final Days Society is the latest post-rock group to be added to their number, and I may be most obsessed with it.

Y’see, I’m a sucker for crescendo. If you can take a tiny, clean guitar line and turn it into a raging maelstrom in about seven minutes, I’ll love it. This means that Final Days Society has tailor-made several songs for me on their album “Ours Is Not a Caravan of Despair.”

“Aeons” takes only twenty seconds to transfrom an arpeggiated, clean guitar riff into a raging wall of sound, but they spend the next 9+ minutes fleshing that idea out. And by wall of sound, I do mean wall: the Swedes (of course!) in Final Days Society have found the right combination of pedals to produce a humongous overdrive which, when strummed at high velocity, sounds like it’s about to crush the world/transport you to the next one. In fact, “Beauty” is all about showing off this pedal combo, as they just hammer the listener with it for approximately five minutes. It’s a revelation. I felt like I was going to lift off the ground the first time I heard it.

But this band isn’t all about destroying eardrums, as “60″ and “To Calm Sea” revel in the moods created without going all aggro, as one of my friends would say. The sparingly-used vocals are employed to great effect on both tracks, using them as instruments. “60″ heavily modifies the voice in a completely fitting way, while the vulnerability of “To Calm Sea” enhances the mood of the song.

The 7 songs on “Ours Is Not a Caravan of Despair” clock in at just shy of 56 minutes, meaning each averages 8 minutes in length. This is not a band that shys away from lengthy pieces. And that’s to the listener’s benefit, because any way that you get more Final Days Society is a win.

This band is poised for big things if they can keep it together. They’ve got the sound, the songs and the chops to make it in post-rock. Long live Final Days Society.

Industries of the Blind makes gorgeous, freeflowing post-rock to love

May 12, 2011

Industries of the Blind‘s “Chapter 1: Had we known better” is just over thirty minutes of heavily orchestrated post-rock. It’s split into three parts: 13 minutes, 5 minutes, and 13 minutes. It’s important to note that, because if you didn’t pay close attention, you’d feel that it’s all one piece. Seeing as they did in fact title it “Chapter 1,” I don’t think it’s too out of place to consider it all one piece.

“I Just Wanted To Make You Something Beautiful” is the final track and the second of the 13-minute pieces. It follows a predictable but desirable post-rock formula: start with forlorn guitar, bring in the strings, slow build from there to crashing finale. If post-rock were a country, Industries of the Blind would be making their way through Sigur Ros, with Explosions in the Sky coming up over the horizon.

There are no vocals, and that, along with the fact that the 30+ minutes are only divided into three (or one, as I previously noted), it’s hard to pick out parts of this to admire or criticize that would really mean anything to you. But it is helpful to note that the composers were on to something with the title of “I Just Wanted To Make You Something Beautiful” : the half hour is absolutely gorgeous.

Put it on repeat and you’ll fall asleep (and have beautiful, Michel Gondry-ian dreams, I bet). Put it in on in your car and you’re suddenly in a Wes Anderson movie. Put it on during a party and you’re in the weird slo-mo part of a Charlie Kaufman film. I have no idea what would happen if you made out with this in the background, but I would sure like to find out. This is the type of music that dramatic things happen to. It’s really good.

If you like post-rock, you should check out Industries of the Blind. It’s not going to blow your mind like Isis or The Non, but it’s not going to require as much effort on your part either. It is music to be heard and loved. Get it here for “essentially free,” as they note in their website. They only ask that you share it and/or donate if you love it. And you should very much do both.

tHE POLES' metal/rock has the soul of an indie-rock band

March 1, 2010

Yesterday I praised Self-evident for perfectly capturing indie-rock. Labelmates tHE POLES have a similar mindset, although they swing out to further extremes than Self-evident does. tHE POLES’ Twelve Winds sounds like a metal band with the soul of an indie-rock band.

If you play Self-evident right into tHE POLES, it works perfectly. Both bands have a middle-of-the-road stance when it comes to mood and volume. Neither band dedicates the majority of their time on one extreme or the other, preferring to play in the middle ground. tHE POLES, though, have a decidedly more dissonant idea of where the middle is. It’s still not chugga chugga very often, but “We Dine in White” features a Tool-esque bass riff, pressing drums, and dissonant rhythm guitar in addition to the calm, melodic guitar work on top of it all. It is this dynamic that tHE POLES play with the entire album; the tension between gritty sounds and pretty ones. And while there is rhythmic interplay here, it’s not nearly as pronounced as on the Self-evident’s Endings. That’ not what they were going for.

No, this album is all about mood, from the rough-throated vocals to the clanging rhythm guitars to the weird keys that come in at places. Especially toward the end of the album, tHE POLES get into a groove, cranking out several tunes in a row that ebb and flow at an incredibly natural pace. These songs feel like they already existed and were simply captured out of the air by the band, such is the ease with which they seem played and recorded. From the coming-out-of-the-bunker weariness of “Night Has a Smile” to the lost-in-the-woods paranoia of “Gasoline” through to starts-at-nothing-ends-at-thrashing build of “Fire in the Woods” and even on further, tHE POLES have constructed intense tunes that thrash your psyche more than your ears.

This is less likely to stay in my permanent rotation because it does ratchet up toward the heavier end of things, and it’s a rare day that I dial up a heavy album for the heck of it. But if I had to listen to heavy music, this is where I’d want it to be at. These songs are occasionally heavy, but thoughtfully so. They more often fall in that in-between space where it’s so hard to stand out. And tHE POLES stand out in that space, which is a testament to their songwriting skills. Definitely an album to check out for fans of MeWithoutYou, Explosions in the Sky, Isis, and other metal/rock that cares more about mood than ripping your face off (although it does enjoy the face-melting once it gets there).

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

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