Classical music has a long history of being intense; The Rite of Spring nearly caused a riot on its debut. But “intense,” “aggressive,” and “forceful” are probably not words many people think of when thinking of music for strings today. Enter Nonsemble, a chamber orchestra from Australia. Their Spaceship Earth EP wrecks expectations left and right, from their inclusion of kit drums to their revolving cast of vocalists to their powerful arrangements.
“Bricks” moves from an oddly syncopated piano line supported by kit drums to a roaring high point with dramatic strings and Shem Allen belting out “Monsters!” at the top of his lungs. “Trucksea” also gets pretty wild at its conclusion. “Sovereign Murders” (not your grandpa’s classical music titles here) includes speedy violin bowing and abstract, almost math-rock patterns for the rest of the strings. When a hip-hop kit beat comes in, the song is something completely other: Nonsemble has transcended the labels of chamber orchestra and indie-rock altogether.
Even when Nonsemble chooses to conform to the traditional understanding of chamber-pop with rapidfire pizzicato notes and delicate melodies (“Sonambulists”), they do with such fervor and panache that it doesn’t feel like anything else happening. If you’re into strings, adventurous listening, or Joanna Newsom-style re-imagining of what indie-rock means, Spaceship Earth should be on your radar.
X and the Ys is a fluid concept with two poles: “X writes everything but has played with the same backing band for years and is giving them some love” on one end and “this is really one band that writes all the songs together from the ground up” on the other. Every X and the Ys is constantly in the process of moving toward one pole and away from the other. Jonas Friddle and the Majority is moving closer to the “one band” concept, which is probably partly why their latest record is a self-titled one. As a result of this full-band focus, Jonas Friddle and the Majority is a big record, full of horns, strings, vocalists, and fun.
Another tip-off that The Majority had a much bigger role on this record than in Friddle’s previous work: they re-record two of Friddle’s tunes from the last double-album. “Belle de Louisville” and “String to a Bell” include much more of the band, letting Friddle’s banjo songwriting become the foundation instead of the focus. “String to a Bell” does this slowly, bringing in parts incrementally before opening up into a horns/strings/bass/drums jam (completely with a Mountain Goats-esque “whoo!” from Friddle). The results sound like a more jovial version of The Collection. “Belle de Lousville” integrates the band more thoroughly into a dense, unified arrangement throughout (although Friddle can’t resist a big “whoa!” here either–gosh, it must be fun watching this show live).
Elsewhere The Majority pulls back from Friddle’s role as “troubadour with some people backing him” and embraces the idea of a full-band outfit. The rhythmic “Hook and Harness” sounds like a slightly more country-rock version of a Illinois-era Sufjan track. “Music Wherever I Go” and single “Sugar Moon” are giddy pop-folk-country tunes that also have some Sufjan-esque wide-eyed wonder running through them. (“Sugar Moon” has a charming percussion joke in it.) “Live in This World” sounds like The Majority wandered onto the set of a Western and was asked to make a brass-heavy Buddy Cop Sitcom theme song for it. (No apologies for that explanation.) Right when you get used to their giddy fusions, “And Your Bird Can Sing” is just a country song. Sort of. I can say for sure that “Corina’s Lullaby” is a tender lullaby.
All throughout Jonas Friddle and the Majority, horns, strings, backing vocalists, percussion, and probably the kitchen sink are melded together into jubilant, exciting songs. It’s very different than Friddle’s previous work, so those expecting more of his troubadour work should be warned that this is a full band now, and they do full band things. If you’re on board for a wild, fun ride, then you shouldn’t have any concerns or worries as The Majority pulls through the curves and loops of its rollercoaster.
Chamber pop gets thrown around a bit as an impressionistic term that vaguely means (to the best of my understanding) dignified, serious songcraft, often with strings and piano. (I could be wrong.) The six tunes of Roan Yellowthorn‘s self-titled EP very much adheres to this particular understanding of songwriting, except that it actual sounds like she has a chamber quartet backing her up in places. Opener “Lie With Me” has distinctive melodic and rhythmic elements in the string arrangements that are much more common to classical than pop songwriting. This unexpected element gives her work a surprising quality. (The great “So Fast” reiterates this sort of mood.)
She contrasts this chamber understanding of songwriting with leading piano, thumping drums, pad synths, and a bright, immediately magnetic voice. The arrangement somehow meshes perfectly with the chamber elements, creating a unique sound that’s somewhat like Regina Spektor in an orchestra hall. But it’s Yellowthorn’s voice that makes this album a can’t-miss. Her confident alto has a unique personality and sonic profile that is the rarest of things to hear in a pop singer. Once you’ve heard her once, you’ll know her again–and that’s rare.
Each of the songs here are memorable, but “Thirty Years” is the standout: a piano and voice tune that tells a tragic story with a surprising ending. Yellowthorn relates the story of two characters with grace, poise, and careful attention to the nature of the story and the people in it. It’s a fitting ending to a EP that establishes a fresh new voice in indie-pop. Recommended.
Ryan Downey‘s Me and Heris an a capella mini-LP that doesn’t sound like a joke, a fad, or a bad idea. That alone should be enough to get you to check it out, but there are charms beyond the great execution of a concept: Downey’s baritone voice is smooth and lithe, and the songs he chooses are clever and interesting. Downey’s voice is necessarily the centerpiece of the record, and his voice has enough character and experience in it to keep things fresh throughout the seven songs. The only backdrop to his voice is often his multi-tracked voice, snapping, (“Tidings”), stomping and clapping (“Only Time”), and a female voice (“On a Good Day”). Yet he keeps the arrangements varied and fresh, never letting things stagnate.
The choice of songs helps with the variety: instead of writing seven songs, he re-interpreted two previous tunes and picked five covers. You’ve probably heard Enya’s “Only Time” and Joanna Newsom’s “On a Good Day,” but you may not be as familiar with Tiny Ruins’ “Chainmail Maker” and the McGarrigle Sisters’ “Cool River.” The variety encapsulated in those four tunes alone is incredible. If you’re an adventurous sort and want to hear something unusual, check out the vastly interesting Me and Her by Ryan Downey.
If you’re like me, you have a draw toward things that are different. This holds true across many spectrums, but it’s especially true in the music department. Hearing the same songs or structures again and again bores me like none other. I’d assume most of you are at least partially like this, otherwise you wouldn’t be checking out a music discovery site such as IC.
Thankfully, there are many acts out there that satisfy my desire to hear the unique and creative. Neal Morgan’s 2012 LP In The Yard is one of those albums.
Morgan is most noted for his drumming on Joanna Newsom’s album Have One On Me, but In The Yard, released January 24th on Drag City Records, marks his second solo LP release. The record is a drum and voice masterpiece that includes soloing, poetry, spoken word, improvisation, and Simon & Garfunkel-esque background vocal melodies. Morgan covers all the bases.
Tracks like “I Stand on a Roof” feature brilliantly-written, poetic lyrics with eccentric drum fills spacing about the whole cut. Other cuts, like “Thinking Big,” combine vocal harmonies, killer grooves and more of Morgan’s signature spoken word over the top and interlaced throughout the track. As a drummer, I naturally am drawn to this work for Morgan’s groove behind the kit.
A small disclaimer here: I would definitely recommend Morgan to the adventurous listener. If nothing else, it feels good to try something new. But for me, this certainly deserves several more listens to fully grasp just how unique and refreshing this album is.
In The Yard is a tough album to capsulate into one post. The sound is unique and not something that is heard every day. For an artistic change of pace, Morgan’s album is the perfect fit. —Clark Foy
Shenandoah Davis is not messing around. She and her two-man backing band started touring August 14, toured through September, will keep going through October, then will close out the run with 20+ shows in November. By the end, she will have played a self-booked show almost every day for four. solid. months.
The new music industry takes work ethic, but that’s far beyond anything I’ve ever seen. I would write about that insane tour schedule even if I didn’t like her music. That is worthy.
The Company We Keep, however, is also worthy. Her album features distinctive, precise piano-based songwriting. Davis has a high, affected, trilling voice that calls up Joanna Newsom comparisons, and it’s the centerpiece of the album. The songwriting is accompanied by stark arrangements that play up the wintry tones that she invokes. Tunes like “Sewn Up Tight” and “Oh Way Oh” use strings to condense the sound, making it even more claustrophobic than her songwriting would otherwise make it.
She strikes an odd and mesmerizing balance in The Company We Keep; she and Newsom have the weird songwriter vibe in common, but there’s also a distinct element of Bon Iver-esque beauty encompassed in the tunes (“White Wind”). Regina Spektor’s more brusque and brittle moments are called up as well (“Duet,” “Proof”). “Proof” is an especially interesting case, as it funnels all of her borrowed idiosyncrasies through a jaunty saloon-style piano. It’s easily the most distinctive and unique tune here. You’ll be humming it at the end, most likely.
The Company We Keep is a beautiful, unique collection of tunes. And since songs only get more broken in when you play them repeatedly, Davis is probably sporting even better renditions of these on the road (today: Providence, RI). Even so, picking up a Bandcamp copy of The Company We Keep is recommended.
You need to go to Shenandoah Davis’ show when she comes through your town. Because she probably is coming through your town. Heck, she might even come to my small town. I am not kidding. This is how dedicated she is.
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.