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.
I’ve been listening to Josh Caress for almost a decade now, through dozens of mentions on this blog, half a dozen albums, and two Kickstarter campaigns (his own for Come On Pilgrim! and mine for the Never Give Up project). Caress’ Little Lights is the sonic culmination of the last ten years that Caress has invested in creating lush, gorgeous work.
New listeners can jump in right here at Little Lights and experience an incredible album of beautifully-arranged indie-pop/singer-songwriter work–“When I Drove Across the Country” is as moving an 11 minutes as you could hope to hear. But for those who’ve been tracking with Caress’ catalog, there’s a wealth of connections, tip-offs, and tributes to ponder. “When I Drove” is the chronological and emotional centerpiece of the record, a sweeping travelogue that calls to mind the lyrics of Josh Caress Goes on an Adventure. The sonic palette is a wide-screen, romantic reading of the night sky that updates the template of the magnificent Letting Go of a Dream with crisper production and instrumentation while still creating great clouds of sound. That template is overlaid with digital blips called out of Perestroika, which lend an extra level of depth to the landscape. The central lyrical image of the travelogue is actually a domestic scene of the narrator having breakfast with his young son instead of being out on the road–shades of the family life present in The Rockford Files.
All of that comes together in one deeply affecting 11-minute opus that successfully pushes the bounds of what Caress is capable of. The arrangement is complex over the life of the song, building and fading out to emphasize elements: the central moment is delivered by just an acoustic guitar and Caress’ reverb-laden voice, before the song slowly grows back to a pivotal lyrical conclusion and long instrumental outro. The guitars, vocals, strings, synths, and piano that swirl their way through this tune are all played with a sophisticated, fine-tuned hand–the result is nothing less than stunning. There are songs before and after “When I Drove Across the Country,” but they all point to and lead away from this tune. “To Be Strong” is more overtly dramatic, while the title track is potentially more tightly arranged with the same instruments. But neither of those have such a strong synergy of lyrics, melodies, and arrangement. It’s a tour de force, especially if you’ve unwittingly watched it coming for a decade.
The only tune that gives “When I Drove Across the Country” a run for its money is its follow-up track (and polar opposite) “Feelings of Loss and Rejection (Are Not What You Think They Are).” Caress has never been afraid of using plain language for big emotions–where he delves deep into wordplay and scene-painting in “When I Drove,” he prefers to lay it out plain in this one: “I know it’s real / and I know it hurts / I know the suffering / I know what it’s worth.” The fact that the word “worth” connects with the word “cost” that appears in a critical soul-searching moment of “When I Drove” makes it even better. If you need some catharsis, Caress has some for you with this tune.
And not just lyrically, either–“Feelings of Loss and Rejection (Are Not What You Think They Are)” is a triumphant, jubilant indie-rock tune that makes me think of Bruce Springsteen leading The Arcade Fire (and recalls the full band sound of Perestroika). Starting with thumping toms and a great electric guitar line, the song bursts into snare rolls and synth licks, great ideas just stacked on top of great ideas. It’s a testament to a decade of songwriting that this doesn’t descend into chaos. Instead, it ratchets up to a hair-raising, spine-tingling moment when Caress howls out “Come up to the mountain! / Would you offer me the world?” over an all-out tempest. It’s the sort of thing that I didn’t know I wanted until I heard it, and then I couldn’t get enough. It’s the sort of thing I want to start getting hyperbolic about.
After the one-two punch of “When I Drove Across the Country” and “Feelings of Loss and Rejection (Are Not What You Think They Are),” the rest of album keeps the quality high. “Interlude (Across the Whole Desert Sky)” is particularly notable for introducing some weird arpeggiator effects that keep a mysterious edge to the album. “I Won’t Get This Low Again” is a highway rock song with some serious ’80s vibes going on. The intro and outro (a thing I deeply love from Letting Go of a Dream) set the scene beautifully. It’s just an incredible album.
Little Lights is the type of album we don’t get that often anymore: the album that is designed to be heard all in one sitting and (essentially) all as one song. There are almost no gaps in sound–this is a “through-composed” record, where each song blends into the next. As a result, it’s thoroughly cohesive musically and lyrically. (The lyrics seem to be a long goodbye to “all that” and a hello to a new life.) When we critics say something is a statement, we often mean that the effort expended is extraordinary and that the results are a calling card. Little Lights is a statement of a different type: it actually has something to say, musically and lyrically. It’s a rare treat to hear an artist on top of their game: check out Little Lights to get the experience. —Stephen Carradini
I’m thrilled by the new: new songs, new places, new tastes, and new ideas. One of my favorite things about Independent Clauses is that I get to hear the cutting edge sounds as they are happening.
But sometimes I want something comforting and familiar–I’ve listened to Josh Caress’ Letting Go of a Dream probably more than 100 times. Josh Caress’ way with melody and mood are two reasons that I love his record so much, but another is that Letting Go sits in the timeless genre of singer/songwriter. You don’t have to be in that genre to become timeless, but it sure helps.
Ordinary Elephant is firmly situated in a time-honored folk/bluegrass milieu. Their songs sound new and old at the same time: songs I’ve never heard, but wrapped in a style and arrangements that are very recognizable. Crystal Hariu-Damore’s alto pairs with Peter Damore’s tenor over acoustic guitar, banjo, and stand-up bass. The songs on dusty words & cardboard boxes are essentially warm blankets of sound: you can wrap yourself up in them without effort. You don’t have to penetrate any gnarly lyrical difficulties or quirky arrangements; you can just enjoy the songcraft. It’s kind of like a folk version of The Weepies.
“damage is done” is a perfect example of this songwriting style. It’s a mid-tempo tune that contrasts a chipper banjo line with a world-weary vocal performance from Hariu-Damore. The resulting mood is easy-going but a little melancholy; a good “summer porch, warm afternoon” song. Not giddy, not morose–somewhere between, in that muddle and mix. “the great migration” features a violin and mandolin, giving it a fuller flair; closer “could have” is a bright, major key song.
You can pick anywhere in the album to start and you’ll be treated to comfortable, calm, organic tunes. If you’re looking for wild fits of fancy, this is not your jam. If you’re looking for earnest, honest folk music, dusty words & cardboard boxes is going to give you what you’re after. For fans of old-school Caedmon’s Call (when Derek Webb was still in it), stand-up basses, Gillian Welch, and the phrase “good ‘ol fashioned.”
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
Independent Clauses’ 10th birthday is coming up, and we promised loyal IC readers a present/surprise at the beginning of the year. Today is the day that we unveil that present. We are putting out a 20-band compilation album of covers from Give Up by The Postal Service called Never Give Up: Celebrating 10 Years of The Postal Service. It will be out May 15 on Bandcamp.
We’re running a Kickstarter campaign to finish up the funding of the mechanical licenses. We’re only looking for $695, because this project isn’t looking to change the world: we just want everyone to get paid legally. So, if you want to support Independent Clauses, get some sweet free tunes, support one of the bands below, or generally be awesome to each other, you should hit up the Kickstarter Page and check out the prizes. I’ll handmake you a mix CD! With art!
So I spend a lot of time doing reviews here, but I only occasionally throw down a thinkpiece. Independent Clauses is not really the place for long ruminations. So that’s why I’m thrilled that I’m now contributing pieces to online music magazine Mule Variations. The magazine is co-edited by Adam Caress, whose band T/The Troubadours I reviewed 7 years ago. And yes, he’s the brother of Josh Caress, who I write about all the time.
My first piece is up now at MV: “The Flattening of Professional and Amateur” is about the strangely small distance in sound quality between the pros and the up-and-comers at the moment, and what that means for music. Check it out!
I’m driving approximately 1000 miles today, and I will almost certainly be rocking “(I’m Gonna Be) 500 Miles” by the Proclaimers at least twice during that trip.
Some other road trip faves that will almost certainly spin:
1. Undercard by The Extra Lens, which I just picked up at Lawrence, KS’ Love Garden Records.
2. Graceland by Paul Simon, which I bought about a year ago at Oklahoma City’s Guestroom Records.
3. Letting Go of a Dream by Josh Caress, which is high on the list for my favorite album ever.
4. Rockin’ the Suburbs by Ben Folds, because I can sing every word.
5. Prolonging the Magic by Cake, because my brother’s girlfriend reminded me of much I love them earlier today.
Here’s to safe travels for everyone returning from their holiday travels over the next few days!
One of the weird things about music criticism (and there are a bunch of them that I’ll list someday) is that every critic approaches music with a different set of formative influences. In many fields, there’s a set of readings that you have to understand before you’re able/allowed to contribute to the conversation: in this field, you just have to listen to enough music to create an aesthetic that determines what music you call “good.”
Some people think that the best rock is subversive, while some think it’s that which has the best riffs. Authenticity is chased by some. Some rap critics are concerned primarily about production, while other critics are lyric obsessives. Those are highly simplified examples: If your aesthetic is coherent and easily understandable, you’re probably not idiosyncratic or “interesting” enough. (Being fickle, rarely a positive quality, seems kind of endearing in this field.)
But there’s usually an underlying commonality in how people form an aesthetic: people who write about music like or hate things for reasons that often have nothing to do with the band in question and much more to do with the first music that a critic ever loved. That is to say, it has much more to do with the way the person views what good music should be, because the first music a person loves automatically constructs a framework that is almost immutably set in synapses.
There’s a good reason for this: the emotional connection to a first musical love goes beyond rationality, which comes later in the process of becoming a music critic. Example: would you believe that the ~6 times I saw Relient K live in high school has a nearly direct correlation to why I’m so excited about Common Grackle‘s western swing and rockabilly? If so, you give me a lot more credit than I expect.
But it’s true that I love a band with:
a. melodies that I can sing along with (and get stuck in my head)
b. witty and occasionally sarcastic lyrics
c. meaningful things to say about culture via those lyrics
d. heavy rhythmic elements (that I can dance to)
e. absurd amounts of energy (so that I can scream along in catharsis at appropriate moments)
f. occasional group vocals (see point e)
g. the ability to write a killer ballad/slow’n’pretty/solo acoustic song (see a-c, e)
h. variety in song structure and sound
i. thoughtful arrangements
j. emotional issues (see all of the above)
This is because Relient K has all of those things, and when I first heard The Anatomy of the Tongue in Cheek, I was under the impression that the members had crafted the greatest piece of music ever created. When I realized that types of music other than pop-punk were also awesome (approximately two years later), it was too late. My brain had been imprinted with these characteristics as “The Fundamental Elements of Rock.” (Fun fact: One of the only other bands that has ever hit all of these fundamental elements over multiple releases is the-soon-to-be-gone post-hardcore powerhouse The Felix Culpa.)
I say all this because I am fascinated with Common Grackle’s The Great Repression, while many people will think it’s bizarre. This is because I see an album that embodies points a-j. Other people may only see a western swing album and run for the hills. As a music reviewer, it’s my job to convince you that Common Grackle is awesome, and hope that my argument will overtake your distaste for/lack of knowledge about western swing (which I will do tomorrow, because I don’t want to shortchange CG). This is a challenge because you have your own set of “fundamental elements” that have been ingrained over time.
This is why many blogs don’t write long essays about music: that’s not what people go there for (also: attention span). Blog readers don’t need to be convinced to hear new music in the way that readers of newspapers (or even journalism-heavy rock mags like Rolling Stone) do; if a reader is at the blog, he/she either passively or actively wants new music in his/her life. Words about that are nice, but are ultimately inessential to the goal: hearing new music.
So, why review music, right? Just post the MP3 and get out of there. Well, Independent Clauses isn’t really a blog trying to inform readers, because there are tons of those blogs. We’ve tried to be that before, but it’s not what we excel at. We’re best at being a blog written for the bands that we cover.
Blogs operate on a hierarchy: Independent Clauses is near the ground floor, and Pitchfork is the penthouse. Bands have to get press from one level of blog/media outlet before moving up to the next (i.e. getting a small break leads to bigger breaks leads to “the big break”). This isn’t some huge racket. It’s just the way that bloggers and media types find out about music: outwardly expanding concentric circles. It used to be that all bands wanted to move up to increasingly larger circles, being heard by more and more people. This is not always the case in the new music world. But Independent Clauses hopes to be a leg up for bands that do want to get bigger.
The Felix Culpa, whose final show is Friday, was a young band on a tiny indie label (Common Cloud Records) when we first reviewed their work in 2004. In 2011, Consequence of Sound included them on a list of the year’s most notable break-ups. (Good company: TFC placed behind Dear & the Headlights but in front of Kim Gordon/Thurston Moore.) That is incredibly meaningful to me; IC was a bit part in that. The band’s upward success means that IC has, in some small way, succeeded as well.
But even those bands who are content to stay where they are in the world like to hear what people have to say about their music. It’s a fundamental human trait: we want to know what other people think about our work and (by extension) us.
This sort of egocentrism is not universally reviled or beloved: at its extreme, as many people love Chad OchoCinco as hate him for exactly the same reasons. It’s just the way things are. We have voices, and having those voices validated and appreciated is a vital thing. The extreme of not needing this approval is a sociopath; the extreme of needing this is codependency. Most of us exist in the middle, where it’s nice (even flattering) to know people care.
And I do care about people, even people that I haven’t met and won’t ever meet: I believe that everyone matters and should be taken seriously. No one is below me, my time, or my words. Everyone matters.
“Taken seriously” obviously differs for various artists: humorous bands want to know if their joke is funny, not if their album rivals OK Computer; bands that aspire to write pretty albums (like Josh Caress’ still-brilliant Letting Go of a Dream) want to know if their music is pretty.
I try to take people’s claims on their own terms, and see if they hold up. Often they do; sometimes they do not. And when they don’t, but I see what the claim was, I try to give some advice for next time. Even if an album stinks, there’s at least one musician behind it: there will be more music from that person (even reclusive Jeff Mangum bears this out). And the person is worth helping, even if the album can’t be helped.
I can’t help everyone; I have an aforementioned framework of what I consider good music, and I rave about bands that fit within it. Hopefully, other blogs continue to write about music that I don’t like, so that artists who fit into the frameworks of other writers can be celebrated too. I don’t “reject” artists because their work is universally terrible: it just doesn’t fit in my mental structures. It is not a reflection on the artist as a person; it is hardly a reflection on the artist as an artist. If anything, it’s a reflection on me. As hard as I try to be objective and open-minded, there are just some things I don’t like. That’s another weird thing about music criticism: I am just as disappointed when I don’t like a band as the band is, because I want to write well of everything. I want to use my skills to help people.
Do I love music? Yes, very much. But that’s not why I keep writing reviews: I could just live on Spotify if my aural passion was all that drove me. I would never have made it to here, post #1500, if all I loved was music.
But I don’t like Spotify, because it hurts artists. I care deeply about the well-being of those people whose music I listen to and whose albums I fund on Kickstarter (my new favorite moneysink). I want to help artists, in any way I can, to pursue their dream of being an artist. I want to validate their talent, point out where they can hone skills, and send them on to bigger and brighter things with a press quote in their pocket.
And that’s why I haven’t quit on this commitment: I don’t do this for the music (although it’s awesome), readers (ditto) or because it’s a good business move (there’s going to be less and less money in it). I run this site because everyone matters and deserves to be taken seriously. Thank you for helping me realize this, The Felix Culpa.
Come On Pilgrim! (which includes IC fave Josh Caress) successfully completed its Kickstarter campaign today. I am so stoked about this that I’m reposting the band’s Kickstarter video, because it has “The Region of the Summer Stars” in it. I am so, so excited for this album.
In celebration, I spent the whole day listening to my favorite Josh Caress album, Letting Go of a Dream. I listened to it five times straight through.
In other Josh Caress-related news, I heard from his brother Adam (whose old band I reviewed a very long time ago, and who co-runs the blog Mule Variations) that they have TWO MORE musical siblings, who are in this band Ponychase. The song sounds like it could have been lifted from (still) my favorite Josh Caress album, Letting Go of a Dream, which means it’s been chilling in the back of my consciousness since I first heard it. Do yourself a favor and jump on this dreamy wonder.
In still further related Caress news, Adam Caress just did an interview on MV with Red Wanting Blue’s songwriter Scott Terry. Red Wanting Blue has been covered here before, and their new album From The Vanishing Point comes out in January. But because they’re awesome, they’re streaming the album, one song at a time, until it’s all up and out in the universe. If you like good ’90s pop, you’ll love this.
And, finally, it’s October, which means Chris Lawhorn of RunHundred sent over the top running tracks of September from his website. I usually let the data stand, but his commentary (below) is quite interesting. —Stephen Carradini
This month’s list brings two questions to mind:
#1. For how many consecutive months will David Guetta turn up in these top 10 lists? (His new track with Usher made the cut–and he just barely missed making it again with his recent Nicki Minaj collaboration.)
#2. Will Calvin Harris, Benny Benassi or Afrojack be the one that unseats him? (All three are making their second appearances on the charts this month. And, like Guetta, each has begun being billed as the artist on his tracks—rather than being credited as the producer/remixer, which was the case a couple years ago.)
This month’s top 10 is rounded out by a new track from LMFAO, a Britney remix, and a song by Young The Giant—brought most folks’ attention by the band’s surprise inclusion on this year’s MTV Video Music Awards.
Here’s the full list, according to votes placed at RunHundred.com–the web’s most popular workout music blog.
Rihanna & Calvin Harris – “We Found Love”
Dev – “In The Dark”
Afrojack & Eva Simons – “Take Over Control”
LMFAO – “Sexy And I Know It”
Chris Brown & Benny Benassi – “Beautiful People”
Shortee & Faust – “Friday Night Special”
Kelly Rowland & Lil Wayne – “Motivation (Rebel Rock Remix)”
Britney Spears – “I Wanna Go (Oliver Remix)”
Young The Giant – “My Body”
David Guetta & Usher – “Without You” —Chris Lawhorn
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.