Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Premiere: townsppl’s twigs

November 8, 2017

The ukulele had a moment in the late ’00s: between “Hey Soul Sister,” “You and I” by Ingrid Michaelson, and a host of other ukulele-toting bands, things were getting downright cheery all over the place. Vibes have obviously changed in the culture and in musical scenes; ukulele is way less used today. However, the instrument’s ability to create a warm, sunshiny vibe is the same–it’s just waiting there for someone to champion it.

Enter twnsppl. twigs by townsppl is easily one of the most gleeful, charming, carefree albums released in 2017. For a year that’s been full of divorce albums and incisive protest music, twigs offers a heaping helping of respite.

The title track is the opener, and it’s a great tune. Bandleader Alexander Stanton’s tenor voice is smooth and clear, delivered over the aforementioned ukulele and some bouncing bass. The chorus shifts from straight-ahead indie-pop to Graceland-influenced pop with the addition of “whoa-oh-ohs,” African-harmony background vocals, and chanted “heys”. The vibe is spot-on, the recording is perfectly done, and the whole thing comes off like a million bucks. It’s a “sit-up-and-pay-attention” opener for an indie-pop fan.

“so so-so” slows down the tempo and introduces ukulele fingerpicking, which is lovely. The majority of the album lives in this mid-tempo indie-pop realm, exploring many different ways to chill with a ukulele in your arms (or ears). Both “so so-so” and “i’ll be home soon (can it wait till I get there)” have can’t-get-it-out-of-my-head chorus vocal lines, while “cut magazines” and “don’t blink” show off Stanton’s arrangement skills primarily. (Not to malign the great vocal melodies in those tunes.)

“don’t blink” is a highlight: sounding somewhat like a Sufjan Christmas take in both enthusiasm and warmly comforting mood, the tune hums along with an effervescent grin. The delicate closing piano line bowled me over the first time I heard it–it’s a simple thing, but it’s executed perfectly. In other words: #nailedit.

The tunes here are mostly chipper and bright, but one stands out from the pack as being more reserved: “the road to end up” is a somber, serious pop tune reminiscent of Blind Pilot’s vocal melodies and Ivan & Alyosha’s electric guitar use. It’s a strong counterpoint to the rest of the tunes, subverting expectations just enough to add a good break in the sound. The album concludes with the solo performance “sparks,” which is also a little more serious than the rest of the tunes. But even that can’t sustain a straight face for too long before bringing in a lo-fi arrangement to brighten the corners. It’s a great conclusion to a relentlessly appealing album.

Having reviewed music for 14.5 years, I’ve learned to be reserved in my initial response to a record. But some albums cause me to break my rules. I have enjoyed every track on this record unabashedly. It’s a dinger–there’s not a bad track on the whole thing. Each track of twigs is clever, thoughtful, and deeply enjoyable. It will easily land on my top ten albums of the year. If you’re into indie-pop, this is a must-hear. Highly Recommended.

You can check out townsppl at the twigs Album Release Show on Friday, 11/10, at Club Cafe in Pittsburgh. If I were anywhere near there, I’d be headed up. It’s bound to be a blast.

B. Snipes’ American Dreamer

September 22, 2016

americandreamersmall

Last time I checked in with B. Snipes, he was singing a pristine, delicate folk tune about death taking him on a tour of a city.  So it was quite a surprise to find that American Dreamer opens up with a wide-open, convertible-top-down, vintage American pop-rock tune. It’s a double surprise to realize that it’s the title track. (“We’re going somewhere new, y’all!”) I may miss folky B. Snipes, but his new direction is just as satisfying. If you’re into American pop, 1950-now, you’ll be all over this record.

After the blast of AM radio that is the opener, Snipes throws down a tune that’s an Isbell-style country rocker in the verses with a sunshiny ’50s pop chorus. It comes off a bit like Ivan and Alyosha’s work. The middle of the record hearkens back to a time when Roy Orbison was huge (“Amy, in Chicago”), country was turning into rock via pop music (“Sweet Eleanor”), and unironic sentiment was cool (“Easy Things,” which has a spiritual sibling in Jason Mraz’s non-rapping work). If you love the Avett Brothers at their most pensive, “Completely” will scratch an itch that probably hasn’t been touched much since “Murder in the City.”

The record is smooth, clean, clear, and deeply listenable. It’s a pop record shorn of the high glitz that the wall of sound and its children would put on the pop sound. They don’t make ’em like this much anymore.

But right when it seems like B. Snipes is ready to cap off a timeless-sounding record, he makes another shift. “Red White Blues” is a gentle yet concerned rebuke of political polarization couched in a tune that sounds like a mix of Bright Eyes, Sufjan Stevens, and the Arcade Fire. That’s a lot of referents to pack into one song, but there’s a lot of song to go around. It’s the easy highlight of the record, made all the more impressive because it still manages to hang with the rest of the record in mood despite being completely different thematically. The sonics here are louder, but they’re still in the same, very American vein. (Which is funny, because The Arcade Fire is Canadian.) The tune provides a fitting bookend to the opener, which puts faith in being an American dreamer; “Red White Blues” is full of practical exhortations about what we need to do to keep being American dreamers.

American Dreamer is an American pop record through and through. It draws from earlier eras of pop’s history but makes statements about our current condition through them. The songs are fun, pretty, interesting and thought-provoking. How much more can you ask for in a pop record? This is great work. Highly recommended.

Premiere: A Valley Son’s “Lights in the Sky”

June 10, 2016

Folk-rock, alt-country, and indie-rock fuse in A Valley Son’s “Lights in the Sky”: it’s got call-and-response vocals, crunchy guitar twang, and a breakdown instrumental outro. The song is such a tight marriage of the three genres that it’s not entirely productive to discuss it more than to get you interested.

Trey Powell’s baritone vocals lead the tune, giving way occasionally to bright, crunchy electric guitar work between sections. The band is really tight: the arrangement feels comfortable and assured, giving the vocals just the right amount of space without blending amorphously into the background. (And check out that rad instrumental outro, too.) The backup vocalists play a big part in the atmosphere of the song, coming in consistently as support at the end of verse lines and throughout the chorus. Their efforts contribute to the warm, collective feel of the tune.

“Lights in the Sky” is a top-shelf tune that should help put the band in the conversation with much more established bands. It’s more alt-country than The Low Anthem, but not so much as the Old ’97s; I immediately thought of the major-key alt-country of Denver’s 4H Royalty as a comparable sound. Dawes and Ivan & Alyosha also would fit as peers. If you’re into noisier folk-inspired work, this track will be right up your alley.

This song is the first single off A Valley Son’s debut release Sunset Park, which will drop late July/early August. If you’re going to be in the Northeast, you can check the band out on these dates:

June 11th, The Fire (Philly Single Release) – Philadelphia, PA
June 18th, The Waystation, Brooklyn, NY
June 24th, DROM (NYC Single Release), NY, NY
July 8th, Hometown, Brooklyn, NY
August 13th, Union Hall, Brooklyn, NY

Trio: Midnight Pilot / Marc with a C / Trevor Green

March 31, 2016

midnightpilotgoodlife

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.

marcwithacunicorns

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.

W139

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.

32 Songs I Loved in 2015 (In no particular order)

January 1, 2016

Here’s a non-comprehensive, unordered list of 32 tunes that I just really loved in 2015. They approximately go from fast and loud to quiet. Happy 2016, y’all.

Let’s Go Jump Into the Fire” – Devin James Fry and the Namesayers
Glass Heart” – Magic Giant
Seven Hells” – Quiet Company
Shiny Destination” – The Rutabega
The Fringe” – Sego
In the Woods” – Bobby’s Oar
Run with Me” – Heather LaRose
Don’t Go Quietly” – Light Music
Marina and I”  – The Gorgeous Chans
Bad Blood” – Fred Thomas
Golden Coast” – Billy Shaddox
Flare Gun” – In Tall Buildings
All This Wandering Around” – Ivan and Alyosha
See You Soon” – Valley Shine
Through the Night and Back Again” – Michael Malarkey
By the Canal” – Elephant Micah
Everglow” – Jared Foldy
Father’s Day” – Butch Walker
Muscle Memory” – Laura and Greg
Odell” – Lowland Hum
Waking Up Again” – Emily Hearn
Pilot Light” – The Local Strangers
Death Came Knocking” – B. Snipes
Hold On” – We are the West
Money in the Evenings” – Hermit’s Victory
California Song” – Patrick James
Winter is for Kierkegaard” – Tyler Lyle
Paperback Books” – The Pollies
Closet” – John Vournakis
Ein Berliner” – Jacob Metcalf
Spring” – Sam Burchfield
Vacation” – Florist

Ivan and Alyosha: Distinctive and Attractive

June 29, 2015

ivanalyosha

Ivan and Alyosha‘s It’s All Just Pretend is deeply American music. The songs here take cues from straight-ahead major-key rock (“All This Wandering Around”), country (“Drifting Away”), piano-hammering ’50s pop (“Let Me Go East”), and timeless balladeering (“Tears in Your Eyes,” “Don’t Lose Your Love”) to pull together an attractive, affecting collection. The diversity of song styles and structures is held together by Tim Wilson’s inviting voice and the familial lyrical themes.

Wilson’s tenor has a uniquely magnetic quality: vocalists that are both distinctive and attractive in their tone are rare. It’s tough to describe the X factor, but it’s all over the chorus of “Bury Me Deep,” the first single and most rocking tune of the album. Wilson’s excellent delivery is one of the things that draws me back to the album over and over. The lyrics also help: the album explores the thoughts, fears, and joys of having a family and growing older. The moving expression of familial love in “Come Rain, Come Shine” slots it right near Ben Folds’ “Still Fightin’ It,” while the tender acoustic ballad “Don’t Lose Your Love” reiterates that love in pleas/advice. The title track combines the sentiment of “Don’t Lose Your Love” with a sweet guitar riff and another stellar vocal performance from Wilson. In short, It’s All Just Pretend is an album that clicks on all cylinders. Knowing that their live show is excellent (I saw them in Chapel Hill in May–the songs sound just as great live, if not better in some cases), it leaves me very excited for Ivan and Alyosha’s future.

MP3s: Pop and Folk

February 13, 2015

Pop and Folk

1. “The Last Generation of Love” – The Holy Gasp. Hugely theatrical vocals, driving conga drums, stabbing horns, and an overall feel of wild desperation permeate this wild track. It feels like a lost ’60s bossa nova played at triple the speed with an apocalyptic poet dropping remix bars over it. In short, this one’s different.

2. “Hot Coffee” – Greg Chiapello. Somewhere between Brill Building formal pop songcraft and Beatles-esque arrangement affectations sits this perky, smile-inducing, timeless tune.

3. “Wake Up and Fight” – Gaston Light. If you’re looking for a widescreen folk creed, this tune builds from a single bass note to a fist-raised anthem. Gaston Light attempts to channel Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Conor Oberst, and more.

4. “Evil Dreams” – Elstow. ’50s girl-pop mixed with some 9 p.m. vibes and reverb = solid track.

5. “Nothing But a Heartbeat” – Say Lou Lou. Need a world-conquering pop song in your life?

6. “All This Wandering Around” – Ivan and Alyosha. Ivan and Alyosha are back with a chipper indie-rock song that will get you tapping your toes.

7. “Less Traveled” – Johanna Warren. A lilting soprano supported by low flutes and burbling fingerpicking developed into technical guitarwork that lifted my eyebrows. There’s a lot of talent going on here. I love what Team Love is up to this year.

8. “Folding” – Martin Callingham. Callingham has crafted the sort of tune that’s almost inarguable: it floats lightly on your consciousness, gently working its way through to the end of the tune. If Joshua Radin had gotten a few more instruments involved without going rock…

9. “Wild at Heart” – Trans Van Santos. Does Calexico have a patent of the sound of the high desert? Mark Matos hopes not, as the baritone-voiced songwriter of Trans Van Santos has a way with the guitar delays and reverbs of that venerable sound. Perfect for your jaunts to or from Flagstaff.

10. “Don’t You Honey Me” – Timothy Jaromir. Here’s a bluesy country duet with excellent come-hither female vocals, muted horns, and romance on the mind.

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

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