Moda Spira‘s self-titled debut album is a beautiful, intriguing work that combines pensive indie-pop, thoughtful electro-pop, R&B and more into a distinctive sound. The lyrics are just as impressive, tackling the little-discussed topic of marital commitment with candor, verve, and impact. The result is a deeply moving album that fires on all cylinders.
Moda Spira is, at core, a piano-led indie-pop album with nods to singer/songwriter lyrical sensibilities. Due to the impressive arrangements that Latifah Phillips and her collaborators develop, the final project is much more than that. It’s a credit to those diverse arrangements that this 12-song album is unusually tight for such a long work; the songs do not become monotonous. There’s a five-song suite in the middle of the album that perfectly shows off how that works.
“Shaking the Walls” is the most immediate of the tunes on the record: it’s the most electronic piece, sounding not that far off from School of Seven Bells material. The layering of multiple synths on top of traditional keyboards matches the complexity of the vocal layering that’s going on by the end of the song. At track five, this thoughtful-yet-fun pop song is a big turning point in the flow of the album. It’s followed by “Bet on Me,” which is probably the track most influenced by R&B: check the restrained guitar, heavily reverbed percussion, and the vocal melodies. It’s a big shift musically from the previous track, but the emotions behind Phillips’ vocals in both tunes carry the listener through.
“The Hard Way” is reminiscent of Jenny and Tyler’s cinematic folk/indie-rock sound, delivering some of the most indelible vocal melodies in an album chock full of them. There’s a little bit of electro sneaking in the arrangement, too, but it’s there to round out the sound instead of take it over. “What You Need” combines the straight piano rhythms of indie-rock/indie-pop with R&B vocals, pad synth arrangements, and strings, combining many of her influences in a sound that’s all Moda Spira’s own. It’s a very quiet, chill song, but not as quiet as “Stillness,” an intimate solo piano musing. In the span of five tunes, Phillips goes from her most noisy to her most serene while displaying a huge breadth of songwriting chops. It’s impressive. There are other impressive tunes (the harp-driven “We Hold On” is particularly rad), but I want to leave some surprises for you.
The lyrics are deeply important here as well. Many of the songs here are about how hard being married is, even if (especially if?) you’re committed to keeping it going through the hard times. (Marriage is also portrayed as incredibly beautiful: see “Shaking the Walls.”) As a husband myself, they resonated clearly and deeply with me. It’s also interesting that these topics are framed in vocal lines that draw from the R&B tradition; the phrases “What You Need” and “Bet on Me” sound like they could be any generic R&B come-on, but in Moda Spira’s wedded context, they have a much richer back story. The lyrics reach into a deep well of emotion and are uniquely strong because of it.
Moda Spira is a brilliant collection of inventive, honest, yearning, passionate tunes about staying together that subverts expectations in an astonishing number of ways. Fans of Imogen Heap, The Antlers, and all the aforementioned artists will find much to love. This is a remarkable album. Highly recommended.
Instead of writing new blurbs for each of these albums, I’m going to let the reviews stand as my comments about each of them except the album of the year. Since I had so many EPs on my EPs of the year list, there are less than my standard 20 albums of the year this year.
Album of the Year: Worn Out Skin – Annabelle’s Curse. (Review) This album came out of nowhere and established itself as a standard component of my listening life. It fits on the shelf right next to Josh Ritter and The Barr Brothers in terms of maturity of songwriting, lyrical depth, beauty, and overall engagement. Each of the songs here have their own charms, which is rare for an album: this one will keep you interested the whole way through. It’s a complete album in every sense of the word, and so it was the easy choice for album of the year.
Rob Williams‘ Southern FMis a quirky, impressive record that takes something familiar and makes it unusual and interesting again. Williams offers acoustic-driven work that falls in the timeworn space between folk and country, but his inherent charm and unique rhythmic sensibility make it all seem fresh and new. The most important element to Williams’ success is the idiosyncratic vocal lines delivered by his round, mellow tenor: instead of long, flowing melodies, Williams chops his lines into unusual patterns and shapes. This creates an endearing off-the-cuff, ad-hoc feel to tunes like the pickin’-and-grinnin’ “Best I Can Do,” the enthusiastic “Where You Hang Your Heart,” and the on-your-toes singalong “You’ve Been a Bad Christian.” Nothing feels forced in his delivery, even when his vocal patterns are at their most complex–it all seems to just float along on the airy, effortless arrangements.
Williams’ charms don’t just stem from his quirky delivery: he can write remarkable songs. “Sometimes It’s a Song” is a poignant, evocative ballad that never drags or commits navelgazing, while “Henry and Maria” is a lovely tale delicately told. It’s the melodies, the structure, and the arrangements that make these songs shine. “Sometimes It’s a Song” is sold by a beautiful piano performance and strengthened by just-the-right-amount of percussion; “Henry and Maria” displays some nimble acoustic guitar work and perfectly-placed accordion. (I’m a sucker for an accordion.) Williams knows what his songs need to sound their best, and as a result the vast majority of these tunes shine. With Williams’ comfortable voice, unique vocal lines, and well-suited arrangements all contributing, Southern FM becomes one of the most enjoyable listens of the year. Check out the album and keep Williams on your radar.
(This one comes out December 14, so it’s not technically an ICYMI, but it fits with the rest of the reviews I’m running today.)
You don’t have to listen beyond Of This I’m Sure‘s first track to hear how Jenny and Tyler‘s sound has progressed and matured from Open Your Doors–everything on the title track sounds tighter, fuller, and more urgent. In that way, it echoes some of the drama of Faint Not–they even re-recorded “Song for You”–but with a maturation of lyrical themes and arrangement styles.
Their folk-pop roots are becoming just that: roots. There are shades of U2 and Coldplay–as there always have been–but the biggest change is the fullness that was occasional in their previous releases is the modus operandi here. Yet it doesn’t sound like their “gone electric” album. The songs feel like a natural progression of their work over time; for example, “Where to Begin” echoes Faint Not‘s “Through Your Eyes” in sonic quality, but it expands the palette to include the subtle electronic elements that wend their way through the record. There are truly quiet moments, for those worried about a big rock shift: they’ve not completely abandoned the folk-pop that drew me to them. That’s a testament to the immaculate arranging, recording, and engineering efforts that went into this record–they’re growing without sacrificing their foundation to the new-shiny of added instrumentation.
The intimacy that characterized their previous work is retained here, but in different ways. It’s hard to argue that “My Dear One” isn’t one of the most towering tunes they’ve ever put together, but the lyrical concerns and pristine vocals point to the unchanged core of their work. Each tune is about love in some way, shape or form, which has always been at the heart of their work–however, as new parents, the love of child is included in “Where to Begin” and “In Everything You Do.” They both are honest and not saccharine, as tunes about children can be, which is a strong compliment to their ability to self-edit the massive bursts of emotion that appear as new parents. They’ve managed to change without alienating the old listeners, and delivered a spectacular album along the way. Overall, it’s a brilliant, beautiful album.
(This J&T review is an expanded and, sadly, spell-checked version of a review posted on iTunes.)
Jared Rabin‘s Something Left to Say melds Southern Rock guitar theatrics to gentle acoustic-led country tunes for a mellow, easygoing sound. The title track opens the record with the distinctive bass drum thump, guitar strum, and patterned clapping of folk-pop, but Rabin seasons his take on the genre with zinging pedal steel and a big guitar solo bridge. It doesn’t turn the song into a Southern anthem, but it does help the song fit into the rest of the record. Follow-up “Eight Trips Around the Sun” starts out with crunchy distorted guitars, but layers a John Mayer-esque vocal line on top of it to temper the arrangement. The two tunes set up the poles of Rabin’s sound (except for closer “Ride the Wheel,” which reprises the approach of “Eight Trips” but perhaps even a little crunchier).
From there, Rabin settles into his groove: “A Memory Forever,” “I Remember Last December,” and “Not Heart Broken” are emotive tunes that rely on the tension between acoustic country-pop and electric guitar-driven country-rock. The lyrics and music of “A Memory Forever” evoke the poignant side of saloon troubadours, while the ballad “I Remember Last December” amps up the country-pop melodies and arrangement. “Not Heart Broken” is an “over you” song that includes banjo and weeping pedal steel. The lyrics of love and loss evoke Taylor Swift et al, while the bit of southern rock thrown in on every track keeps things fresh. Something Left to Say is an easy listen, great for putting on while you relax on a back porch somewhere.
Some tunes are slow burners, and others smack you in the face with their immediacy. Valley Shine‘s “See You Soon” is the latter: the verse melody is so infectious, carefully delivered, and beautifully arranged that it gave me goosebumps on first listen.
The band marries delicate folk-pop with joyous indie-pop with such skill that it seems obvious, which is the first sign that there are a lot of non-obvious things going on. Digging into the song reveals sonic and structural complexity, from the many melodic lines the vocals deliver to the delicate balance of intimacy vs. oversharing in the lyrics (they fall on the former side, of course). The overall effect of the tune is remarkable: it’s the sort of thing that you want to play for everyone you know; that soundtracks the joyful conclusion of indie movies; that rolls your windows down almost of its own accord. It’s a powerful tune, but it’s also not trying to hard to be that. These are the sort of songs that I started this blog to cover: songs I can’t stop thinking about. Cheers, Valley Shine.
The tune comes off their upcoming Loca EP, which is just as gush-worthy as “See You Soon.” “To the Sea” presents a different side of Valley Shine’s sound: one that does reach for the epic sweep. The broad, wide-open sound evokes big emotions but stays grounded (through great banjo use!) in it all. It’s reminiscent of the Oh Hellos or Jenny and Tyler’s work. The delicate “If I Was a Bird” strips out the indie-pop affectation and reveals the oh-so-satisfying shuffle-snare country/folk roots of their sound (they even throw in some Simon & Garfunkel, “The Boxer”-esque booms, to prove bonafides).
Jenna Blake leads the song, with Sam Sobelman providing the harmonies. The two switch off throughout the EP, with Sobelman taking the reins for the Beatles-esque opener “Sugar Dream” and “See You Soon” and Blake taking the darker “Don’t Let It Slip Away.” “To the Sea,” naturally, has both of their vocals together in a choir-esque arrangement. It’s like if Fleet Foxes got really, really stoked about something, or maybe if they met the Polyphonic Spree.
I can’t talk about Loca without returning to the term “immediate.” Everything about the five songs here just jumps off the page and demands your attention. They have diverse arrangments, generic range, varied vocalists, and impeccable melodicism. Valley Shine sounds like a band that has been around a lot longer than it has: they’ve created the sorts of songs that can hold up for a long time. This should be the start of something big for Valley Shine. Highly recommended.
I’m pretty sparing with the Kickstarters I post–I don’t post nearly as many as get sent to me. The ones I do post, I’m behind 100%. I’ve covered Jenny & Tyler’s work since 2009 with great enthusiasm. They’re able to create heavily-orchestrated folk-pop (as shown on their cover of “We Will Become Silhouettes,” which IC commissioned as part of its 10th birthday) as well as intimate acoustic tunes that leave me misty-eyed. They’re one of my favorite bands I’ve covered here at Independent Clauses (another thing I don’t say very often).
Their $15,000 Kickstarter will fund their first-ever full-band tour and live record. That’s a pretty giant undertaking for any independent artist. They’ve got the normal rewards (digital download, physical albums, t-shirts, etc.) at the lower levels, but the upper levels have some really impressive stuff going on (handmade instruments!). So when I say, “check out their Kickstarter!” I really mean “check out their Kickstarter!!!!”
Again, generally I don’t do the whole salesman thing, but Jenny & Tyler!
When I was in an art-rock band in high school, we managed to agree on only three cover songs in our four-year history: Coldplay’s “Parachutes,” Fall Out Boy’s “Dance Dance,” and “Hotel California.” (If you can figure out what those have in common, let me know.) My latest endeavor with the cover song was much more coherent, as I got 22 bands to contribute to a Postal Service covers album. I’m still incredibly thrilled with the final product, although I certainly do not want to run a similar project any time soon.
Folk-pop duo Jenny & Tyler, who were featured on Never Give Up, have put together their own covers album in For Freedom. As the title would suggest, the 7-song album is a project that benefits International Justice Mission‘s work to end slavery. Not only do you get their excellent arrangement skills, songs you love, and guest musicians (Sara Groves! JJ Heller! A virtual choir of hundreds of J&T fans!), you get to support justice in the world. What are you waiting for?
“We Will Become Silhouettes” is included here in remastered form, sounding even more gorgeous than before. It would easily be my favorite (and not just for sentimental value; the crescendo from beginning to end is heart-pounding) except for the absolutely stunning “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Jenny & Tyler temper Bono’s original desperation with their warm, gentle arrangement skills, using oboe, clarinet, and cello to create an alternate vision of what that place we’re all looking for sounds like. If that wasn’t enough, they enlist the excellent Sara Groves and a choir of fans to guest vocal, creating a simply masterful take on the song. I could listen to this one all day.
They turn Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” from an angsty rager into a twee-pop tune, complete with glockenspiel. “The Sound of Silence” is suitably haunting, with their voices and clarinet (aside: I just love that they give the clarinet good press) giving a new tension to Simon & Garfunkel’s original. “The Scientist” includes a harpsichord/autoharp sound, but no piano; it’s an ambitious move that pays off.
Overall, Jenny & Tyler have set their unique and particular vision on these tracks, and that’s all that I ask from covers. The fact that the tunes are alternately heartbreaking and heart-pounding is a testament to the skill with which they can realize that vision. Highly recommended.
This project has been a microcosm of my whole 10 years running this blog: a little idea that got bigger and bigger with help from all sorts of people who pitched in. Massive thanks go out to The Carradini Family, Uncle David and Aunt Rose, the Lubbers Family, Neil Sabatino & Mint 400 Records, Albert & Katy, Drew Shahan, Odysseus, Joseph Carradini, Jeffrey M. Hinton, Esq., @codybrom a.k.a Xpress-O, Conner ‘Raconteur’ Ferguson, Janelle Ghana Whitehead, Tyler “sk” Robinson, Jake Grant, Anat Earon, Zack Lapinski, Mila, Tom & April Graney, Stephen Carradini, Theo Webb, Jesse C, D. G. Ross, Martin & Skadi, Jacob Presson, Michelle Bui, and Elle Knop.
The first 200 downloads of the album are free, so go get ’em while they’re available! (The price is $4 a side once the freebies are gone.) The streaming will always be free, so if nothing else you can go listen to some sweet tunes from some of Independent Clauses’ favorite bands. Once again, thanks to all who contributed in any way, both to the project and to Independent Clauses’ last 10 years. It’s been a thrilling, wild ride.
Never Give Up: Celebrating 10 Years of the Postal Service
It appears that I can’t get enough of guy/girl duos. Venna, Jenny and Tyler, Destroy Nate Allen!, Matt and Kim, and Mates of State are some of my favorite bands that I’ve covered here at Independent Clauses, and each fall into the aforementioned category. You can add The Gray Havens to that list, as their EP Where Eyes Don’t Go has swept me off my feet.
The duo fits somewhere between Mates of State’s piano-heavy indie-pop and Jenny and Tyler’s pop-folk. Dave and Licia Radford combine ukulele, piano and acoustic guitar to create pop songs with folk instrumentation that are near-impossible to wrest from my brain. From the perky, Weepies-esque strum and clap of “Let’s Get Married” to the orchestrated sweep of “Where It Goes” and “Music from a Garden,” The Gray Havens show their melodic talents in diverse ways. Dave Radford is the primary vocalist, and his smooth voice fits perfectly in the genre; his rhythmic and tonal flair in delivering the melodies is one of the most engaging elements of their sound. Although featured less, Licia Radford’s soprano voice is charming as well (“Let’s Get Married”).
The duo has more than just pretty melodies up their sleeves. “Silver” incorporates a horn section and accordion, which are both sure-fire ways to get me on board with your tune. While “Silver” is the most triumphantly catchy tune of the bunch (due to the horns and some great background vocals), the most unique tune is “Train Station,” which actually mocks up the sound of a train moving with guitar rhythms and percussion. But even with their arrangement skills, the simple “Let’s Get Married” is the tune that I keep humming to myself. It’s just wonderful.
If you’re into precise, upbeat indie-pop with an acoustic bent, you need to check out The Gray Havens’ Where Eyes Don’t Go. Their infectious melodies and creative songwriting touches make for a very engaging listen. Expect to hear much more from this duo in the future.
7. The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth. Turning its back on the morose portraits that characterized All Eternals Deck, TY was a verifiable romp through the psyches of doomed characters fighting that good fight to stay alive. The addition of horns and enthusiasm worked wonders for Darnielle’s mojo.
6. Challenger – The World is Too Much For Me. Beautiful synth-pop that was equal parts trembling and exultation. Dancy moods and undeniable melodies met a sense of late-night, modern-society dread in a masterful combination. Quite an astonishing debut.
5. The Menzingers – On the Impossible Past. This tightly constructed album is one of the heaviest lyrical statements I’ve ever heard in a punk album, taking on the past and Americanism in a profound way. Their prowess of gruff pop-punk continues, leaving an album that won’t let go of your throat in its wake.
4. Cobalt and the Hired Guns – Everybody Wins. It doesn’t get more enthusiastic than Cobalt. This pop-punk/indie-pop mashup resulted in some of the best “shout-it-out” tunes of the year, while showing that you can indeed still make gold with just three chords, enthusiasm, and a solid lyric. Oh, and horns. Lots of horns.
3. Jenny and Tyler – Open Your Doors. The only artist to appear on 2011’s list and this list, Jenny and Tyler followed up their turbulent, commanding Faint Not with a gentle release looking expectantly toward peace. Its highest moments were revelatory.
2. Come On Pilgrim! – Come On Pilgrim!. Josh Caress and co. lovingly made an expansive, powerful collection of tunes that spanned the wide breadth of modern folk. Leaning heavily on rumbling, low-end arrangements, this was everything that I expected it to be from the first moment longtime solo artist Caress announced he was putting together a band.
1. Jonas Friddle & The Majority – Synco Pony and Belle De Louisville. You should never release a double album as your debut, unless you’ve really got the goods to back it up with. Friddle’s folk explosion is worth every second, as he deftly explores just about every nook and cranny of modern folk, from revivalist antique appropriation to protest songs to modern love songs. The immaculate arrangements would sell it, if his lithe voice hadn’t already given it away. Amazing stuff.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.