The first half of this list is marked by songs that rock out really hard. The second half is marked by songs that are outside your normal arrangements.
Rock Out / Quirk Out
1. “Station Wagon Apocalypse” – The Outfit. I’d just like to point out that this incredibly-named garage-rock tune is not even the best name on the two-song EP. (That would be “Tyrannosaurus Surfboard,” YOU’RE WELCOME.) As to the tune itself: Big drums, big guitars, big vocals, big fun.
2. “Be Cool” – Cancers. Cancers is the missing link that makes me think Sleigh Bells might not have been robots from the future and instead were just really, really hyped up ’90s kids.
3. “Last Forever” – Fenech-Soler. As a bassist myself, I appreciate it when a song is so thoroughly dominated by bass that the guitar and keys just kind of follow along. When those songs are also jubilant dance tracks with irresistible shout-it-out vocals, well. Well, well.
4. “Metronome” – The Yuseddit Brothers. There was a brand of ’90s grunge/slacker-rock that took pride in sounding like it was kind of underwater. This low-slung groove has that fuzzy-edged production value to match the not-so-ambitious tempo and tone. Chillax, y’all.
5. “Bright Eyes, Black Soul” – The Lovers Key. Sometimes I hear a song outside of genres I usually cover and think, “WHOA WHY DON’T I LISTEN TO THAT GENRE MORE.” Probably because I’m hearing an elite artist, but I don’t know. Anyway, The Lovers Key has me interested in aggressive Blue Eyed Soul with some serious motown horns stacked up on it. This makes me think of a James Bond movie. Can’t really explain that either.
6. “All in a Day’s Work” – Horizontal Hold. As a mid-point between rocking out and quirking out, I submit Horizontal Hold, which is out-Pixie-ing the Pixies at the moment.
7. “You Are My Summer (feat. Coleman Hell and Jayme)” – La+ch. This is a perfect electro-pop tune. In musical world that I ran, this would be the big hit of the summer. It’s got Icona Pop infectiousness and Cobra Starship restraint. What’s not to love?
8. “Old K.B.” – The Solars. Speaking of motown influences, here’s a piano-pop tune fronted by a guy who sounds like Jack White that features organ and horns. This thing grooves way more than piano-pop fans are probably comfortable with. THAT’S OK!
9. “Unrevenged” – Floating Action. Rubbery bass, ethereal background vocals, driving percussion? Clearly indie-pop, but not any like you’ve imagined recently. Has me all stoked for the album.
10. “I’m To Blame” – Anand Wilder and Maxwell Kardon. After sending us a folky tune for the first single, the second one is a incredible mash-up of jazz trumpet, Radiohead vocals, Muse craziness, and a totally rad guitar solo. It is, in a word, different.
11. “It Doesn’t Even Matter” – Onward Chariots! If the Kings of Convenience had more quirky pop arrangements, it might end up something like this.
12. “Rockingham” – Kasey Keller Brass Band. 58 seconds of found sound, gentle synths, and meandering acoustic guitar paint a sonic picture extremely well. Very cool stuff here.
13. “Shadow’s Song” – Foxes in Fiction. Chillwave + Owen Pallett? TOTALLY THERE, MY FRIENDS.
It’s the middle of the year! Independent Clauses always gets more music than it knows what to do with, so mid-year and end-of-year are a good time to clean out the files and point out all the amazing things that I missed the first time around. So here goes three days of that! These singles could have been released yesterday or months ago; these and the following posts are not time-sensitive whatsoever.
Mid-year, pt. 1: Rock, etc.
1. “A Place Called Space” – The Juan Maclean. LCD Soundsystem is gone, but The Juan Maclean is still around to fill that rubbery, propulsive dance tune-shaped space in our hearts. THE JUAN MACLEAN FOREVER.
2. “Mama Gold” – North by North. Pounding, fuzzy guitar, yelping vocals, heavy low end? Welcome to rock’n’roll, people.
3. “Blood::Muscles::Bones” – Street Eaters. This punk band is composed entirely of distorted bass guitar, drums, female vocals, and male vocals. THIS IS ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW.
4. “Everybody Pretends” – Ostrich Run. A high-drama violin riff kicks off this dark indie-rock tune. The vocals keep me going the rest of the way.
5. “Serious Things Are Stupid” – Cayetana. The rise of Cayetana in the punk scene has been fun to watch, as innate songwriters start to match the talent with the ability. Impressive tune here.
6. “Dirty Roofs” – Edmonton. Do you like The Offspring? You’ll love Edmonton, which sounds similar, but with a heart that The Offspring haven’t had for a while (/ever).
7. “You’re Cold” – The Black Tibetans. Stuff that Dan Auerbach (The Black Keys) produces is starting to be as distinctive as Stuff Steve Albini or Jack White does: rifftastic, slightly scuzzy, classic-rock-inspired blues heaviness with melodies galore. The Black Tibetans deliver on that promise.
8. “Every Night, Every Day” – The Sheens. Sometimes it doesn’t have to be complicated. Sometimes it just sounds right. Here we have female-fronted rock with punk and new wave-y overtones, and it’s just a ton of fun.
9. “Hi-Lo” – North Elementary. Check that opening riff on this power-pop tune. The vocals and arrangement have some Arcade Fire vibes thrown in for good measure.
10. “Pack of Cards” – Wood Ear. Straightforward rock’n’roll, Glossary-style, doesn’t get enough love here on Independent Clauses. Wood Ear throws down some organ-laden rock that just feels right.
11. “Loving You Is Hard” – The Parrots. Sometimes you just want some brash, off-the-cuff, speedy, infectious surf-rock. The Parrots are here for you.
12. “We’ll Be Fine” – Action Item. So I really like big, shiny pop-rock like Hot Chelle Rae, and Action Item delivers it in spades. HAVE FUN, Y’ALL!
13. “Always” – Annabel. Jangly guitars, tom-heavy percussion, and yearning male vocals satisfy my craving for earnest, serious indie-pop-rock.
14. “House” – Thunderhank. The tension builds and builds in this electro-influenced rock song, but it resolves in ways other than you’d expect. Keep ’em guessing, Thunderhank.
15. “Whistle for My Love” – Jimmy & The Revolvers. If the Beatles had kept cranking out the pop tunes instead of going all psych, they could have ended up here. Total old-school pop bliss (with some modern rhythms, of course).
16. “Pool Guard” – Inspired and the Sleep. Sometimes the title really does tell you everything you need to know.
Having just taught an entire unit of classes on authenticity in music, it’s prescient that Nikki Lane‘s Walk of Shame is next up on my slate for review. The primary draws of Lane’s debut album are her voice and ability to create songs that are a dead ringer for old-school country tunes from that ambiguous past that reviewers liberally reference.
First the easy stuff: Lane’s husky, dusky drawl does reach back to the time of Loretta Lynn and other full-voiced singers. It’s mesmerizing in both its evocative quality and its rarity; you just don’t hear singers that sound like Lane that often. She celebrates the unique qualities of her voice, using her pipes to roar on tracks like “Lies,” get indignant on “Hard Livin’,” and deliver an earthy gravitas to the romantic “Comin’ Home To You.” It’s possible to enjoy this whole album simply by listening solely to the vocals.
But she’s not singing a capella, of course. The tunes are definitely country, but it’s a modern approximation of what old-school country should sound like. There’s nothing wrong with that at all; that pretty much what Jack White did in collaboration with the aforementioned Lynn.
It’s not all up-down bass lines, plucked guitar strings and pedal steel (okay, there actually is a lot of that third thing). The title track is very nearly an early ’00s retro-rock song, what with the organ, rumbling toms, syncopated distorted guitar and charging chorus. The only thing that marks it as a country song is her drawl, giving the song a fascinating flair.
“Sleep For You,” “Blue Star in the Sky” and “Look Away” are more traditional country tunes, adhering to strictures of the slow-dance two-step that was quite popular in the Texas of yesteryear. “Coming Home To You” is reminiscent of Kenny Rogers. “Come Away Joe” sounds like country as filtered through Coldplay (no, for real). The songs all sound like modernized, hi-fi versions of themselves and that’s not a bad thing; if they literally sounded like their time-period, people would be confused. But it certainly doesn’t sound like Taylor Swift, either; be it far from me to claim that.
Nikki Lane‘s Walk of Shame has good songs, a good vibe, great charm and repeat factor. It’s not for those who are (still) allergic to country, but if you’ve got country kickin’ around in your heart, you need to be on this train.
I’ve been reading reviews of Regina Spektor’s far with some confusion. Many of them say that it is not her best work because it’s less experimental and more “normal.” Then I read an essay by David Hajdu in which he asserts that Jack White is beloved because he never really finishes songs. These together cause me to think that there are two types of great songwriter in the world: the great songwriter that is actually incompetent of being a “normal” songwriter and thus writes unusual and wacky works that stick in our head (which is why Spektor’s disjointed breakout album Soviet Kitsch is wonderful, and why everything that Jack White does with a real band is hopelessly boring), and the songwriter that those wacky ones aspire to be.
The problem is that the wacky ones often mature out of their wacky phase, but they don’t often mature into the great songwriters they aspire to be. far has some wonderful tracks on it, but it’s not a Ben Folds album by any stretch of the imagination. Neither is it a Fiona Apple album (although there is some debate as to whether that is something to aspire to, these days). The Dead Weather doesn’t sound normal, but it’s a lot closer to normal than “Black Math” or “Hotel Yorba” or “Seven Nation Army.” The Raconteurs sound, for better or for worse, incredibly average.
It seems that the great songwriters appear full-formed. Ben Folds was cranking out the great songs while he was still in his earliest stages with the Ben Folds Five; Damien Jurado’s best work is spread throughout his fantastic career. They just, you know, show up being awesome.
I think Jonathan Vassar is in the Ben Folds category of great songwriters. The reason for this is that the best tracks on The Fire Next Time are not the minimalist, eccentric ones, but the fully-realized folk/Americana songs. “A Match Made in Heaven” features some great mandolin, a violin, a cello, and a warbling saw in addition to his plaintive acoustic guitar and voice. But instead of feeling cluttered of amateur, each piece locks in. The song wouldn’t be the song without all the parts. It’s a perfectly written song, in that there’s nothing I can knock about it. It has a great melody, it has solid lyrics with meaning and wit, the song sways, and it has a deeply felt emotive quality that refrains from becoming maudlin. In short, it’s perfect. If you like acoustic Americana/folk/country, you will like “A Match Made in Heaven.” It’s impossible not to.
“Saint Josephina” is another fully-realized track that suceeds admirably. “San Jacinto” isn’t quite as engaging as the previous two, but it’s still a solid song. These filled-out songs are the cream of the crop; it would behoove Vassar to stay in this vein. The more experimental tracks, while interesting, aren’t up to part with these songs.
Opener “Nearer My Father’s Wounded Side” starts out with a minute-long intro that serves to confuse more than set the scene. It segues neatly into the rest of the track, which is a profoundly minimalist composition that runs for over five minutes. It’s not a bad song, but it’s just not as engaging as the tightly woven “Match Made in Heaven.” I’ll take “Nearer…” over most folk, but it’s just sad to me that one of the six tracks Jonathan Vassar treats us to is simply not his best work.
To bring it all together, Jonathan Vassar and the Speckled Bird don’t need to get wacky to be heralded as good. Vassar is simply a good songwriter, and the Speckled Bird plays tight and close to that vision. I hope that Vassar and the Speckled Bird continue their partnership and write much more work together, honing their already tight vision. Then they will be huge. They should already be there, but that’s just a matter of time. The Fire Next Time is an excellent EP of tight songwriting, strong melodies, and great mood. It’s a must for folk-lovers.
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.