Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Ringer T/Brendan James

July 22, 2013

ringert

Ringer T has honed their alt-country to a near-perfect point on Nothing But Time. Their sound is equal parts Paul Simon melodicism, Jayhawks crunch, and Switchfoot-style tension between the two, which results in some of the most beautiful, listenable alt-country you could ever hope to hear. The songs spring out of my speakers, fit and fine: nothing seems left to chance, nothing seems out of place. Fans of lo-fi stuff need not apply, as everything from vocal performances to drum rhythms is spot-on. For example, the crunchy “Into Your Own” aligns on a strict meter that sees everything clicking together: had the song been in the hands of a band less concerned with precision, it would have a much different feel and effect.

While the band can throw down the guitar distortion, I prefer their gentler, beautiful songs like “What Lies Ahead” and “Good Morning.” These strip out the crunch from the alt-country and focus on intricate strumming/fingerpicking, subtle melodicism, and well-developed moods. “Good Morning” is a lilting instrumental track that just stole my heart with its rolling melodies and strong arrangement. (Sleigh bells!!) Grant Geertsma’s voice really soars on quieter tracks like “What Lies Ahead,” as it’s the primary focus of the tune. His voice is a proverbial “phone book voice,” making it difficult for me to tear my ears away. The excellent backup vocal contributions on “What Lies Ahead” put it over the top and make it a highlight. These quieter tunes give Geertsma room to really move, and that’s wonderful.

That’s not to say that there aren’t strong vocal performances in the louder songs: the title track features excellent efforts from the lead and backup vocalists, who stand out amid the distorted guitars. Then they bring in horns to cap off the tune, so you can definitely count that one as a highlight. That’s the sort of album that Ringer T has crafted in Nothing But Time: things are going great, and then they go even better than that. If you’re into alt-country, you need to hear Ringer T now. This is an album that should go places.

BrendanJames_Simplify

I hold a special place in my heart for pianists: I play several instruments, but I got my start in bands and solo work on the ivories. I keep a flame for lyricists with a lot to say, as well, so it was an easy fit to fall in love with Brendan JamesSimplify. James splits time between being Josh Ritter on the keys and Billy Joel in the modern era, both treats that we don’t get very often.

James’ 13-song album splits roughly into two parts: the first half adheres toward indie-pop principles in arrangement, production, and lyrical topics; the back half leans toward Joel-esque piano-pop storytelling and balladry. James has highs in both of these arenas, although I prefer the indie-pop leanings more. I’m a big Joel fan, so it’s not any anti-The Kid bias; I think it’s purely that his indie-pop is more consistently strong. This is evident from the one-two punch of “Windblown” and the title track, where James sets up catchy but relatively simple piano lines as the base for his intricate, syncopated vocal lines to play over. This playful approach to songwriting caught my ear immediately and kept my attention for the duration of both songs. “Windblown” is an introspective piece about the toils of a longsuffering artist, while “Simplify” is a bit more wide-ranging manifesto. Both are beautiful, clever and engaging, making me want more.

On the other end of the spectrum is “Hillary,” which even apes some vocal rhythms and tics from Joel. There’s also a pronounced Paul Simon influence in the arrangement, which is another excellent inclusion. The story-song tells of a student who works with the narrator’s wife, detailing the conversations between the wife and Hillary. It’s a great song lyrically, and it includes clapping and a “whoa-oh” section to charm my soul. “He Loved” dips into ballad mode while maintaining the storytelling, showing off a different set of skills.

“Constellations” and “Counting Hours” also stand out for special note. Both struck me as very quiet tunes of the variety that Josh Ritter would have included on The Animal Years; their expansive, wide-open feel is refreshing and rewarding. Brendan James’ varied skills (lyricism, songwriting, arrangements) are on great display in Simplify, creating a thoroughly entertaining album. The highlight tracks are some that I can see myself spinning for a long, long time.

Josh Caress vaults forward in his songwriting skill with Perestroika

October 20, 2010

My love of Josh Caress is extremely well documented on this site. Ever since Letting Go of a Dream, I have been in his musical thrall. I have liked some of his albums more than others, but I have eagerly awaited each of them.

Perestroika, his latest and maybe last solo album for a while (nooooo!), contains the seven best songs that Josh Caress has ever written. There is a slight issue with this (there are twelve songs on the disc), but that’s still an incredibly high percentage of powerful tunes.

While his rate of success is somewhat astonishing, his formula is not that surprising: Caress has taken the best parts out of each of his last four releases and made a cohesive sound. The dramatic, sweeping, romantic pop soundscapes of Letting Go of a Dream form the core of the tunes. The inventive, complicated, Sufjan-esque instrumentation of The Rockford Files layers on top of this, bringing a depth to Perestroika‘s songs not present anywhere else in his catalog. The distorted guitar oomph that first appeared on Wild Wild Love lends an Arcade Fire-esque bombast to the tunes. The insightful lyrics of Josh Caress Goes on an Adventure! cap off the entire experience, lending meaning to the moving musical proceedings.

Add in the mix the unique voice of Josh Caress, and you’ve got a distinct set of songs that ranks highly in my top albums of the year.

While Caress splits the album into two sides of six songs each, I find it easier to analyze the album is in three parts: tracks 1-4, 5-8, and 9-12.

Tracks 1-4 take the Jayhawks-style Alt-country of Wild Wild Love and replace the twang with an epic indie rock flair. Each tune is an anthem in their own right, and I mean that in the very best possible way.   In the opener and title track, he’s yelling “Perestroika! On! My! Mind!” as suitcases thump and bells ring. “Is That What You Want?” sees the pulsing guitar line making the song into an epic instead of the vocal line. “We Will Fight” features a choir yelling/singing its way through the whole song, culminating in the chorus: “We will fight! We will fight! But not with violence! We will fight! We will fight! We will fight to strengthen the things that we’ve made!”

The final song of the suite is “You Are the Light,” which sounds like a lost Joseph Arthur song on uppers. The chorus is a glorious singalong. It is a blissful cap to this set of tunes. There are literally no parts to complain about in these songs. They are nigh on perfect.

Tracks 5-8 are a bit of a headscratcher, as Caress takes a sharp turn into Radiohead sounds. There’s some Kid A electronic work (“Deconstruct”), some Hail to the Thief/In Rainbows-style rock (“Searching at the Edge of the Real Thing”), and more. They’re not bad at all; he appropriates their sound nicely. Even his vocals, which have always been a bit wavery and high, fit well in context.  They’re good tunes, but they make little sense in the context of the album, and they’re just not as good as tracks 9-12.

While it is somewhat disappointing that the middle of the album turns away from the formula he spends two-thirds of the album perfecting, there is an upside. Josh Caress has gotten better by testing out sounds before incorporating them fully into his songwriting. If considering the melancholy electronica and rock as a potential future inclusion to Caress’ sound, this becomes a less frustrating suite of songs. Imagining his current powerful sound with electronic underpinnings helps me get over the fact Perestroika would be an incredibly cohesive album if not for the middle.

The last third of the album returns to the sound that Caress established in the first third. While “Everything I Wasn’t Meant To Be” is probably the least engaging of the eight folk/indie tracks, “Pulling the Curtain Back” is one of my favorites. It grooves hard, has a great melody and includes a stylistic throwback to Letting Go of a Dream. But the cascading guitar riff doesn’t revisit the style near as much as “Prodigal Son,” which uses the heavy reverb that was the trademark of Letting Go. The very specific mood it creates (and recalls) makes the track one of my favorites.

The closer, “By the Light of the Lantern We Go,” is true to its name, as the track is a nearly eight-minute-long journey. From the glockenspiel at the beginning to the full-on roar that occurs at the end of the tune, Caress takes the listener through all of his styles, motifs and ideas in one symphonic burst. It is a fantastic way to cap off a brilliant album.

The lyrics of Perestroika are relentlessly optimistic in the first and third acts, which matches the sound neatly. They include some of the most poignant that Caress has penned, especially in  “Perestroika On My Mind” and “You Are The Light.” The middle third’s melancholy and conflicted verses match the sound. Again, the middle isn’t bad; it’s just not near as good as the rest.

If this review seems disjointed, it’s because I feel that way about Perestroika. If this had been an eight-song album, or if something else had happened in the middle, I would be hailing this as the album of the year. It’s still going to be in my top ten for sure: the songs are just that good. Heck, the first four tunes alone constitute the best EP of the year. It’s my favorite JC release since Josh Caress Goes on an Adventure, certainly.

Josh Caress is edging ever closer to his masterpiece, and Perestroika is an enormous step in that direction. Do yourself a favor and get this CD.

Country with an indie spin creates a stir

September 14, 2009

I like country music, and I’m glad that the number of indie-rockers in country bands (which, really, is what an alt-country band is) is growing. In addition to the obligatories (Wilco, Jayhawks, Old 97s; you can’t really say the phrase alt-country without mentioning them), the late Drag the River (and the rest of Suburban Home Records’ artists), Clem Snide, 500 Miles to Memphis, and now Any Day Parade have crossed my path and made it okay for me to say “I like country music.”

Yes, Any Day Parade is undeniably country. They have the walking bass, the distinctly country guitar tone, and the shuffling drums. There’s harmonies galore: males harmonizing male leads, females harmonizing male leads, males harmonizing female leads, and duets where both are equally important. In fact, if this weren’t all delivered with sneer, grit and adrenaline, this album would be a straight-up country record.

But the sneer, grit and adrenaline take what could be a flat country palate and transform it. It’s not even a heavy edge of adrenaline (not like 500 Miles to Memphis’ liberal application of the double pedal), sneer (Clem Snide has them way beat), or grit (there’s plenty of bands that have them covered on the gritty front), but their combination is just the right mix. It’s the desperation in the female lead’s voice in “Where We Fall” and “Water Bucket”; it’s the ominous overtones to “Water Bucket.” It’s the almost-too-honest lyrics of “A Couple Hours.” It’s all these little moments and parts that take Any Day Parade from just your average country band to one that you want to blast with your windows down on a lonely highway.

So, it’s hard to explain exactly why Where We Fall EP is so good. It just is. There’s nothing innovative here; they’re just great songwriters and passionate performers. This is good music, without any gimmicks. It’s worth your time, if you’re the least bit interested in country (or expanding your musical tastes).

Ringer T refines their Midwestern sound to a T

April 20, 2009

For those of you who have never heard Ringer T, Hello, Goodbye is the perfect introduction to their folk-laden, Americana rock sound. Unfortunately, the things that make this album such a good primer also bring up some potential problems for the future.

There are few bands that sound more genuinely American than Ringer T. Their deeply Midwestern sound incorporates a heavy dose of Paul Simon-esque pop songwriting, folksy drumming and strumming, old school rock n’ roll, some country twang, and a large amount of earnestness in the vocals. It may sound like a lot going on, but it never is. In fact, these songs are very easy to listen to. The first time I listened to this album, I felt like I had known these songs forever. They are comfortable to the ear; the songwriters have crafted songs with structures that never feel cliche but still  make pleasant use of resolution and familiar chords.

One of the reasons that the songs sound so familiar is that at least four out of the ten tracks have been previously recorded on Ringer T albums or EPs. While this is mildly frustrating for veteran listeners, it brings no hindrance to those who are listening for the first time. They get to hear the best tracks of Ringer T, without any of the filler or weaker tracks.

The problem lies in that even though the four old tracks are re-recorded, they still fit perfectly into Hello, Goodbye. Ringer T is not growing. While they have refined their craft to a razor-sharp edge (the new version of “Cut the Cords” makes mincemeat of the old version in terms of precision, clarity and power), they haven’t pushed the musical envelope at all with Hello, Goodbye. The songs are great; any first time listener that gets past Grant Geertsma’s voice is going to be enamored with Ringer T. But if Ringer T puts out many more albums in this distinct motif, they’re going to run into problems.

One thing they can do is stop writing about breakups; it seems that every Ringer T song is based on the same traumatic breakup. There is a long-standing American pop music tradition of writing about breakups, but Ringer T practices this tradition without respite (except for the still-mildly-depressing “Where I Long to Go”). Even Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen, We are Floating in Space (one of the most despondent breakup albums ever) has upbeat moments in it that have nothing to do with the relationship. Ringer T needs to break out of their funk and move on to new things in their lives, musically and lyrically.

There is strong evidence that Hello, Goodbye will be the culmination of this era of Ringer T’s musical life. They have refined their deeply affecting and superbly crafted folk/pop/rock to a T. If they use this album as a springboard to better and bigger things, they have a bright future ahead of them. If they keep rehashing their formula, they will only get so far. I hope that they have some tricks up their sleeve for the next release. In the meantime, Hello, Goodbye is highly recommended for fans of Wilco, Ryan Adams, the Jayhawks, Damien Jurado, The Elected and Neil Young.

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

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