Kris Orlowski has come a long way since 2011, when his At theFremont Abbey EP crossed my desk. Often in the Pauseis his second LP of full-band indie rock tunes, and it is his most musically assured and confident work to date.
Opener “Something’s Missing” is a low-slung indie-rock tune with a bunch of reverb (a la The Walkmen) until it explodes satisfyingly into a Bloc Party-meets-Jimmy Eat World rocker. That interplay between the angular, dusky edges of Bloc Party and the mature, hummable pop-rock of Jimmy Eat World forms the basis of the album’s sonic palette–the acoustic guitars and pianos I love so much are thrown in for contrast and color, either within songs (“Walking In My Sleep,” “Stars and Thorns”) or as a whole song breather amid the noisier tunes (“Go,” “Lost,” “We Share the Moon”). Lead single “Walking in My Sleep” develops the noisier sound well, showing off Orlowski’s talent for combining intriguing rhythms and textures with song structures and vocal melodies that are immediately recognizable to indie rock listeners.
“Electric Sheep” expands this dark, brooding palette with a set of lyrics that blurs the line between the androids of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and an emotionally cold human being. Orlowski’s lyrics aren’t all literary references, though; most of them are direct, affecting, and effective, working through the tensions of young adulthood in the 2010s: relationships, politics, career fears, meaning-seeking.
The standout song on the record is unity-seeking political anthem “Stars and Thorns.” Lyrically it strikes just the right balance between patriotism, criticism, and optimism; musically it features a towering chorus that gave me shivers the first time I heard it. Orlowski doesn’t try to holler above guitar-rock din–instead, he lets the stomping arrangement punctuate his enthusiasm. It’s one that I immediately pressed repeat on.
Often in the Pause is a surprisingly diverse, satisfying record of crunchy indie-rock songs, ballads, and even some folk-pop tunes. If you’re looking for a big hook and a melody that’s going to sound great in a huge group (the whoa-ohs of “Stars and Thorns” will sound awesome live), Kris Orlowski should be in your listening habits.
Underlined Passages‘ The Fantastic Questis a grower: an album that doesn’t hit you with the same force the first time as it does the second, third or fourth time. In our attention-deficit culture, there’s not as much love for growers as there used to be, so I’m proud to be giving a shout-out to Underlined Passages’ second record on Mint 400 Records. (Full disclosure: I told Michael Nestor of Underlined Passages about Mint 400 Records.)
Instead of traversing the boundary between emo and dream pop as in their previous work, Quest falls firmly in the indie rock camp, anchored by ever-present guitars, firm drumming, and evocative vocal melodies. Tunes like “Everyone Was There” have an up-tempo approach that recall Jimmy Eat World more than American Football, with the guitars churning away (without getting too gritty). Other tunes like “Arabesque” set the guitars against the bass and drums in a tension–the production emphasizes the drumming without pushing it too far up in the mix. This choice gives the album a tight, cohesive feel.
The vocals are one of the main parts of the growing–at first Nestor’s vocal lines seem to blend in too well with the instruments, but subsequent listens adjusted my ear to the arrangement and started to draw me in to his unadorned, non-ostentatious vocal style. I found myself humming the vocal melodies after the second and third listen.
The Fantastic Quest is an unfussy, unpretentious album that reveals layers of careful thought over multiple listens. From the songwriting to the performances to the production, the work has charms for those who listen closely. Take some time with Underlined Passages; don’t be surprised if they win you over.
Supersmall‘s Silent Moon has a distinctly British feel, despite being a NYC-based duo. (Vocalist/songwriter Colin Dempsey is Irish, but that’s not the same.) It might be the formal pop angles on the songwriting, or perhaps the confident dignity with which the vocals are delivered. Maybe it’s the ability to convey emotion without getting maudlin.
Whatever it is, Supersmall know how to write walking-speed, acoustic-led tunes that wouldn’t feel out of place in a charming/quirky indie film. The duo leads off with “A Better Life,” which features perky strumming, joyous trumpets, peppy drumming, and a distant organ for color. If Beirut stripped out its world music aspirations, this sprightly work might be what resulted.
The tune is a fine primer for the release, which includes the Nick Drake-ian guitar vibe and beautiful vocal melodies of “Silent Moon” and “Siren,” the major-key folk of “Riot,” and the country-esque “Home.” There are some more serious tunes, but Supersmall is at their best when they’re creating major-key work with an eye toward thoughtful arrangements and careful pop elements. Silent Moon is where elegant meets excitable with an acoustic guitar in its hand–in other words, it’s worth the time of a wide swath of music listeners, from indie-pop lovers to hardcore acoustic fans.
100 Watt Horse’s It May Very Well Dois an experimental folk/indie-pop release: it’s one fifteen-minute track with interludes connecting various sections that are distinct enough to elsewhere be called songs. The duo incorporate tape hiss, nature sounds, acoustic guitars, distant synths, modulated vocals, static, and more into their inventive, attractive amalgam.
The opening salvo features precise, measured guitar work and a dreamy female vocal line before unfolding into the sounds of a swamp as a transition to a hazy indie-pop section. A woozy guitar line is matched by a leisurely male/female duet and balanced by a steadfast drumbeat and bass line. It all feels very open, raw, and natural–even when it transitions into a power-pop tune a la The Cars. I could go on explaining the release, but that should be enough to hook your interest and not spoil all the surprises (we’re about a third through the release at this point).
Suffice it to say, 100 Watt Horse has a lot of ideas, the talent to pull them off, and the skill to arrange it all into one impressive sitting. If you’re up for clever, intricate, thoughtful work from people pushing their own boundaries (and maybe yours), check this one out.–Stephen Carradini
The Sound of Rescue‘s Aperture is a smart fusion of post-rock and drone that strips some of the traditional slow-fast, quiet-loud post-rock tropes and instead substitutes long, thick synths to create their own songwriting logic. It takes 1 minute and 33 seconds before a recognizable guitar comes in on opening cut “Slowly, Then All At Once,” relying on synths and loping yet insistent bass to push the album into existence. The instrumental outfit does retain the song length that many outfits are enamored with; no song runs shorter than 5:41, all but two top 7 minutes, and the closer is 11 and a half.
Yet the album never drags–it’s a testament to their refined palette (this is their sixth major outing in five years) and their clear focus. There is still variation: “Footfalls Echo” almost gets up to post-metal range, as does “Falls the Shadow” before it turns out a nearly-4-minute drone coda. The title track echoes Sigur Ros’ grainy Super 8/ethereal vibe, but never dismisses it in the 6:43 of the tune. It’s a rare band that can get the hammering “Footfalls Echo” and the light-washed “Aperture” next to each other, but The Sound of Rescue is that group. Post-rock fans, pay attention.
Beach Moon / Peach Moon‘s Kite Without a Stringis dreamy early ’00s emo that could have been on Deep Elm or Vagrant records, paired with an artsy sensibility that wants to tug some post-rock, atypical structure sensibility into it (“Firefly Stars”). My first thought was the work of another band with an unruly name (Empire! Empire! I Was A Lonely Estate), but instead of making me want to go listen to that, BM/PM kept me fully engaged in their tunes. The vocals are wide-eyed and child-like, pointing toward the sort of intimate/widescreen tension that is going on in these tunes. Opener “Philosophy at 23/at 24” plays with this particularly well, opening with spacious reverb and an intriguing drumbeat before stripping the tune down to its bare essentials for the coda. Elsewhere the drums play a significant role in directing the sound: the meticulous rhythm that opens the “The Fog” keeps it from being a Lullatone atmosphere piece, while follow-on “Firefly Stars” balances out the low-slung guitars with perky rim-clicks. It’s unusual for the percussion to be such a big part of the sound in a dreamy work, but the pieces all work together here beautifully to keep the tunes from floating off into the ether. Instead, it’s a well-rounded, beautiful release that sticks with me.
Living Decent‘s self-titled EP also could have been on Vagrant Records in the early ’00s, but from the more punk rock side. Vic Alvarez’s latest punk rock outfit offers a contemplative (but not navel-gazing) gaze in their tunes, drawing on some shoegaze/”wall of sound” vibes (“Close Enough to Keep You Close”), pop-punk energy (“Bad Collections,” “Borrowed Bike”), and acoustic-pop sweetness (“Antique Store”) to fill in. The results are songs that feel accomplished–Alvarez has a long history of songwriting, and it feels like all those songs and all those bands have resulted in a “know thyself” sort of maturity evident here. Jimmy Eat World’s stable-yet-productive run in the mid-’00s with Futures and Chase This Light is the best analogue I can think of: both band’s songs are well-crafted, memorable, not ostentatious, and thoroughly focusing on the best characteristics of the band. In Living Decent’s case, that’s Vic Alvarez’s voice, the specific moods the trio pulls out of guitar tone and drum style, and the lyrics. The spartan yet evocative words point toward a concern with “listening,” as three of the five songs mention it–the older we get, the more important it seems to become to just listen and appreciate. If you’re interested in thoughtful punk rock with a lot of maturity in it, please go listen to Living Decent.
The Black Watch has released somewhere between 13-17 albums and somehow hadn’t come to my attention until the last couple of years. Highs and Lowsis a rock’n’roll album the impressive likes of which they hardly make anymore, combining big guitars with psychedelic touches, baritone vocals that don’t veer into monotone post-punk territory (thank you, thank you, thank you), melodies that fit with the rock attack, and a backing band that just nails it. Extra bonus: the band has the ability to peel it all back for an acoustic ballad that doesn’t get maudlin (“Eleanor’s Not Hiding”). Tunes like “Pershing/Harvard Square,” “Love’s Fever Dreams” and “There’s No Fucking Way” get stuck in my head, with “Love’s Fever Dreams” in particular standing out for high praise. I could break down the tunes for you, but in an album like this that’s totally not the point. If you’re into rock’n’roll, you’ve probably already heard of The Black Watch and you’re wondering why I’m late to the show. If on the off chance you’re new here like me, you should jump on this one for real.
1. “Keep It Coming” – Topher Mohr. It’s hard to write a timeless pop song, but Mohr has put together a wonder of a tune that feels like it could have come out of the ’70s AM Radio scene or the mid-’00s MGMT-esque pop stuff. It’s just a great track all around.
2. “Ice Fishing” – The Cairo Gang. The sort of guitar-rock tune that splits the difference between classic rock, Beatles pop, and San Fran garage rock with ease. Between God? and Burger (and its many offshoots) Records, it feels like we’re in a genuine moment for hooky garage rock.
3. “Sugar Coated” – Jessie Jones. It sounds like everyone, from the bassist to the drummer to the vocalist, is having fun on this hooky garage-rock track.
4. “Timepiece” – Ripple Green. Classic rock guitar and vocals meet a radio-ready modern pop chorus, putting a foot in each world.
5. “Dusty Springfield” – The Fontaines. A little bit of indie-rock, a little bit of ’50s girl-pop, a whole lot of catchy.
6. “Long Way Down” – Vienna Ditto. Minor-key surf-punk? Why not? Vienna Ditto own it, complete with whirring organ, honking saxes, and frantic tom rolls.
7. “Big Bright World” – Jeremy Pinnell. This is about as authentic as country gets: western swing rhythms, weeping pedal still, deep-voiced sadness, and a narrator with a former(?) drug problem. Still, the sun shines through, just like the title suggests.
8. “The Night Before” – No Dry County. You don’t have to sound like Bob Wills to catch my ear with a country tune; this modern country tune has a great melody, a solid arrangement, and an evocative vocal performance. It’s like a country Jimmy Eat World, maybe.
9. “Soaring” -WindfallFound. Post-rock of the beauty-inclined variety, complete with distant, processed vocals, Appleseed Cast-style.
10. “She Knows It” – Shannen Nicole. Goes from “ooh” to “whoa” in no time flat: starts off as a dusky torch song, then amps up to a thunderous torcher by the end. A formidable performance.
11. “The Gold Standard” – Marrow. The Hold Steady’s wry, jubilant mantra “Gonna walk around and drink some more” drops the jubilant part here: this low-slung, slow-build indie-rock tune has a woozy calm that belies the sort of difficult, composed walking that comes of one too many drinks.
1. “Parking Lot Palms” – iji. This tune is a breath of fresh air: a gentle, lightly reverbed road song that fits quietly and warmly into your life. Is it the arrangement? The melody? I don’t know. But I do know that it makes me calmer and happier.
2. “California Song” – Patrick James. James might be from Australia, but he’s got his finger of the pulse of the breezy West Coast. This acoustic-led pop-rock song throws back to the ’70s and ’80s, calling up not just longing for the coast but nostalgia for the past. Doesn’t get much more sentimental than that.
3. “Comeback” – Cherokee Red. Recipe for a great beach song: Mash a surf-pop backline together with smooth, welcoming vocals and burbling melodic elements. Totally chill.
4. “Street Lights” – Mon Sai. A swift piano and cymbal-heavy drum kit create a helter-skelter pop vibe that gives way to a Pet Sounds-esque chorus: in other words, it’s a great pop song.
5. “Mind Your Manors” – The Bandicoots. Perky, summery, head-bobbin’ indie-pop-rock a la Generationals.
6. “Bracelets” – Mini Dresses. Basically a female-fronted, slow-jam version of a Generationals pop song: loping bass line, vintage guitar reverb, tabourine shake here and there. Yes, thank you, I’ll have another, waiter.
7. “Park It” – Karina Denike. Give me that ’50s girl pop (complete with honking saxes), then amp up the attitude in the lead female vocals, and you’ll be near Denike’s creation here.
8. “You Don’t Know Me” – Ghost Lit Kingdom. Everybody needs a shoot-for-the-stars, acoustic-led epic anthem, the type that Arcade Fire don’t make anymore.
9. “Right Talk” – French Cassettes. The ability to emerge from a dense section of noise into a perky, clear melody is a skill that will always be in season, from Paul Simon to The Strokes to Vampire Weekend and the Vaccines. French Cassettes put their skills to good use on this bright, confident guitar-pop track.
10. “A Single Case Study” – Palávér. Some of the most infectious guitarwork I’ve heard in an indie-rock song recently is paired up with low, swooning vocals.t’s kind of like an alternate-future Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.
11. “Wasted Youth” – Friday Night Trend. If you never stopped loving Jimmy Eat World, this track will satiate all your aggressively jangly rock needs. It’s got punk elements throughout it, but there’s no avoiding the Jimmy connection.
12. “Easy” – Readership. Some power-pop is head-down, bash-it-out-and-let’s-go-home rock. Readership is the opposite: wide-open, staring-at-the-clouds style. Big guitar chords, in-your-face vocals, and an overall upbeat atmosphere.
1. “Just What I Needed” – Wonderful Humans. Whatever the opposite of “reign of terror” is, WH is on that path. Their seemingly endless stream of high-energy, ’80s-inspired dance-pop singles continues with this tropical track.
2. “Summertime” – Ships Have Sailed. ShS are also on a hot streak: this latest tune is some combination of the Cars and All-American Rejects.
3. “Eternal Sunshine” – Memoryy. Yep, you can hook me with any invocation of steel drums. (They’re just so happy!) The rest of the track besides the chorus splits the difference between nu-disco and glitchy clicking–always fun.
4. “Too Damn Good” – JOA. The inimitable Jesse Owen Astin is back to making guitar-rock/electro-pop mini epics, and this one is a builder that grows to a huge apex and then fades away.
5. “She Speaks the Wave” – The Nursery. This song would have fit right in on radio when Interpol, The Killers, and The Bravery were all towering. Some real sleek, solid dance-rock here.
6. “Drive” – Ships Have Sailed. You know when Jimmy Eat World goes for a ballad but still gotta have the angsty energy? Ships Have Sailed power through this track with that same feel.
7. “Tears” – Prints. Dark, clubby electronic pop songs.are a dime a dozen, but Prints float above the pack by balancing your emotional needs with your club needs.
8. “Earth Not Above” – HÆLOS. Cinematic, evocative trip-hop mixed with some modern beats? Sign me up.
9. “Underlined Passages From Your Books” – Underlined Passages. Here’s some lush, walking-speed romance from members formerly of indie-rockers The Seldon Plan. Combining early ’00s indie-pop melodies with early ’00s emo guitar tone is a sweet spot these days.
I review a lot of music. Like any person who does a particular action thousands of times, I’ve come up with better and more refined ways of accomplishing this task. For me it means listening while doing certain types of other actions, keeping track of any stray thought whatsoever I have while listening, and so on. But sometimes an album comes along that blows up my method. Post-war by Last Builders of Empire forces me to encounter it on the creator’s terms instead of my own, which results in a really satisfying listener experience and (as you’re about to see) a relatively difficult writer experience.
My natural reaction to post-rock is to describe the quality of the sounds and point out the defining characteristic of those sounds. Post-War resists that. The post-rock here is largely dark, heavy, and emotional; it aims for the widescreen angles. The band’s scenes are framed by delicate guitar work; they often build from sweet, subtle beginnings to heavy, dissonant, distorted conclusions. That all sounds like standard post-rock fare, right? That’s because the individual aspects of the sound aren’t really the point of the album (as opposed to, say, an Adebisi Shank album, where they are 100% the reason to listen). The care and attention that Last Builders of Empire invest in the details of the songwriting and wordless storytelling are what make this an engaging, enveloping listen.
The band wrote this work with a specific arc in mind; this isn’t a haphazard collection of songs without context. Set up in a tripartite “Inferno,” “Purgatorio,” “Paradiso” format, this album seeks to be a whole unit. (This is why it is so difficult to talk about its individual songs or even the individual sounds.) Yes, this is a fully-realized achievement, an album that has the plodding dissonance of “Huida Hacia El Sol” as an equally important part of the album as the urgent, yearning “Quiet Like a Knife.”
Closer “For Those Who Have Faith” brings both of those leanings together, pairing a yearning guitar line that finally edges its way over into a major key with a thumping, low-slung rhythm section. The middle section represents a style closer to the soaring, upbeat Lights and Motion style of post-rock than the heavy, brutal Godspeed You! Black Emperor style. It’s still very clearly Last Builders of Empire, but they’re able to transform their songwriting accordingly to fit their overall arc. By the end they’ve come back around to their home base of dark, heavy, dissonant, and emotional–which presents an interesting conclusion to the album. Perhaps “Paradiso” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be–returning home from war is never easy.
Post-war by Last Builders of Empire is not the sort of album you can digest in one song or even one sitting of the whole record. It’s an experience that you have simmer in and immerse yourself in. Last Builders of Empire have taken the time to craft their art in deep and thought-provoking ways, which I always appreciate. If you’re into post-rock, Last Builders of Empire should be on your to-hear list.
I’m a big fan of two mid-era Jimmy Eat World records, Futures and Chase This Light, that perfectly captured the blend of riffs, rhythmic variety, clever vocal melodies, and mood diversity that I’m looking for in rock. The Slang have a ton of sonic similarities with Jimmy Eat World, which makes me a huge fan of their self-titled EP. Opener “Far from Over” has a vaguely disco opening before dropping into a guitar-laden groove that manages to keep energy going through a midtempo tune (an admirable feat).
Lead single “Feels Like Work” nails the quiet/loud dichotomy in creating a solid radio-rock tune. It feels mature, powerful, and not kitschy–especially when the lead guitar lines come in. The vocals take the lead in “One Step at a Time,” which makes it feel even more like a Jimmy Eat World song. Throughout the EP, there are strong riffs and a great sense of control that keeps this from turning into pedestrian rock. The Slang has an x factor that’s hard to quantify in rock, but it’s very clearly there. If you like thoughtful rock’n’roll that doesn’t turn into sterilized thought experiments, The Slang will scratch your itch. It’s melodic comfort food for me. I look forward to hearing much more from The Slang.
2. “Start Again” – Slow Readers Club. There’s a dark, slinky, sexy groove that falls between Interpol and Bloc Party going on in this hook-filled tune.
3. “Feels Like Work” – The Slang. Jimmy Eat World seems to have a monopoly on the introspective rock song that is both emotionally powerful and actually rocking, but The Slang are throwing their hat in the ring with this tune. I’m a fan of this towering rock tune.
4. “The Lord’s Favorite” – Iceage. These Danes make this tune sound like some sort of high-speed, drunken Johnny Cash outtake, from the musical style to the depictions of drinking and hard living. (That’s high praise, in case you were wondering.)
5. “Why I Had to Go” – Bishop Allen. People who weren’t necessarily fans of Bishop Allen’s latest power-pop single will rejoice at this eclectic, affected indie-pop tune reminiscent of their previous work.
7. “Hold Still” – Slow Magic. Threatening ODESZA’s place as my favorite electro artist right now, Slow Magic makes moody, ethereal moments out of the most minor of sounds. This one does open up into a bit of an epic slow jam, but never includes a ton of instruments to overwhelm you with.
8. “Trap” – Remedies. This smooth, well-crafted electro jam has strong Zelda/Final Fantasy vibes, and I’m totally down with that.
9. “Weightless” – Grand Pavilion. These newcomers take a slow jam/R&B angle on their electro work, complete with autotune reveries.
10. “Bark and Sticks” – Kosoti. I never thought I’d be into a fusion of alt-folk and funky rhythms, but lo and behold. Really unique mood here.
11. “We All Been There” – Chris Heller. Mmm, sometimes you just gotta have some piano-fronted blue-eyed soul/R&B in your life. Heller really nails the soulful chorus.
The moment from Again, for the Win‘s We’ve Been Here Forever which imprints itself on my mind occurs in the opener “Merkabah,” when lead singer Carter Francis first hollers, “We came on chariots!” above the crescendoing roar of thumping toms and accelerating guitars. The chorus comes pounding in directly afterwards, the physical presence of the incantation Francis has just let loose.
It’s a good microcosm of the album, as the music falls into that nearly visceral space where “heavy” is shared by post-rock, radio-rock and art-rock. It seems that Jimmy Eat World, Radiohead, and Sigur Ros probably get equal play in the band van: the satisfying crash of “Merkabah” gives in to the poppy “The Legend Of”; later, “Your Heaviest Light” apes the skyscraping guitars of post-rock for some beautiful moments.
But no matter which genre the band is conforming their work to, the sense of raw, untamed grit remains. Even when you can sing along to the chorus, there’s a feel that these songs have weight, shape and power. To call it art would give it the wrong connotation: this is meaningful music, and it just so happens that you’ll have the melodies stuck in your head later too. That’s a sound I can get behind.
The members of Dr. Pants have self-appointed the music they make as geek rock, so it’s not surprising that The Trip, Side 3: Watching the World End opens with a tune about the unsuccessful love life of a man who programs robot spiders that will destroy the human race. But relegating it to only geeks would be doing a grave disservice those not listening: these songs feature a musicianship and lyrical skill that far surpasses your average pop-rock band.
“Natalie” is a perfect example of both categories. Disguised as a late ’90s/early 2000s synth-pop-rock song (think “Flavor of the Weak”/”My Own Worst Enemy”/”The Middle”) is a pop song with a killer hook and strong lyrics that describe a girl playing hard to get. It’s not in the topic, it’s in the execution: the song is airtight, from the opening synth to the guitar solo to the rhythmic patterns in the lyrics to the outraged group vocals in the punchline. It’s just a fantastic tune.
“Dog -> Hurricane” is a lighthearted, acoustic-pop take on the Butterfly Effect; “No Funkies” is a goofy, white-funk retelling of the Good Samaritan. “Collections” is a fun instrumental track, while “I Am Yours” turns up the serious for a Collective Soul sort of tune. Oh, and “Robot Spiders”? It’s the most fun track on the album, telling a story and setting up a satisfying conclusion while throwing down an earworm of a chorus. You will want to hear that one again.
If you’re even remotely interested in sounds that came out of rock in the ’90s, you’ll be all up in The Trip, Side 3: Watching the World End. It’s funny, melodic, consistently witty yet varied; there’s a ton to love here and not that much to dislike– that is, unless you don’t like the ’90s. But man, “Lightning Crashes” “In the Garage” for me, so I’m totally on board with this.