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Top Albums of 2014: 20-11

January 2, 2015

Merry holidays, everyone! Now, back to the music. I sometimes get talky here, but let’s get straight to the best ofs instead, since I’m already late on this. Here’s 11-20, listed from top to bottom. 1-10 comes tomorrow!

11. The Yellow DressFaint Music / Ordinary Light (Review) Most of indie rock used to be rickety, pastiche, oddball, and endearingly weird. Now only certain parts of it are: The Yellow Dress is certainly in that category, as their enthusiastically unusual indie-rock winds, warps, and wanders its way across the landscape. My wife and I sing “Isaac Fitzgerald (bum bum bum)” to ourselves absentmindedly.

12. WolfcryerWild Spaces / The Prospect of Wind / Singles. (Reviews) Wolfcryer’s two EPs escaped the short-player list because his total 2014 output was closer to double-album length. His strum-heavy troubadour style gives a shot of energy to the often ponderous singer/songwriter game, and his engaging vocals deliver great melodies. Wolfcryer is going places, so you should jump on that train now.

13. Falcon ArrowTower. (Review) Falcon Arrow’s post-rock sounds nothing like anything I’ve ever heard in the genre: a drum-and-bass duo, the bassist uses what must be an army of pedals to create octaves upon octaves of notes, patterns aplenty, and looped bits galore. The results are soaring tunes that evoke the title of the record.

14. Zach WintersMonarch. (Review) Snuck in at the end of the year, Monarch is the sort of unassuming album that works its way into your life and then acts like it never wasn’t there. Winters’ powerful arrangement skills are put to use in slowly-developing work that never roars but often washes over you.

15. SummeroomsS/t. (Review) Everything that Josh Jackson does is fun to listen to. Even this lo-fi “side project” that he amused himself with during the production of his new, hi-fi Fiery Crash record is awesome: it has that warm, lovely, dreamy glow that makes me think of summers by the pool.

16. Andrew JudahMonster. (Review) Monster is a technically impressive marvel: an indie-pop record that juxtaposes instruments, styles, and moods with ease. It’s dark and not always fun, but it’ll drop your jaw at places.

17. Leif VollebekkNorth Americana. (Review) I fell in love with Gregory Alan Isakov’s gentle, smooth work last year; Vollebekk’s work isn’t as quiet all the time, but it does rarely get noisy. His drawling, attitude-filled vocal delivery gives a shot of intrigue into the elegant singer/songwriter work.

18. The Lovely FewThe Geminids. (Review) Wide-open, mood-evoking electronic music that uses outer space as its muse and touchstone. Entirely transporting and enveloping.

19. The Good GracesClose to the Sun. (Review) Alt-country and indie-pop meet and mingle throughout this thoughtful record, which includes lots of surprising lyrical and musical moments.

20. Brook PridemoreBrook Pridemore’s Gory Details. (Review) If you sped up a latter-day Mountain Goats record, or if you put a full band behind an early MG record, you’d end up with the folk-punk theatrics of Brook Pridemore. Great melodies, great arrangements, a lot of fun.

Honorary Mention: Colony HouseWhen I Was Younger. (Review) Colony House doesn’t need my help, but their album is the best pop-rock album I heard all year.

Honorary Mention: The Weather MachineThe Weather Machine. (Review) This one came out in 2013 and isn’t eligible for best of 2014, but it came to my attention this year. Brilliant songwriting reminiscent of Josh Ritter, The Mountain Goats, and more: what’s not to love

Summerooms

July 18, 2014

summerooms

One of the many things I do is teach at a university, which means that my summers are a little less hectic than “real life” strictly demands that they be. I’m not sitting around and playing Skyrim every day, but I am a little more in touch with the lazy summers of youth than some. That’s why Summeroomsself-titled album appeals to me so much: it’s perfect lazy summer pop.

It also helps that Summerooms is the side project of the prolific Josh Jackson (of Fiery Crash, not of Paste). Jackson usually splits his time between fuzzed-out dream pop and bleary-eyed acoustic work, but in Summerooms he lets those lines blur in a delightful, delicious way. It’s a testament to Jackson’s thoughtfulness and status as a student of music that he tagged the release as dream pop, folktronica, hypnagogic pop, indie folk, jangle pop, and neo-psychedelia. All of these tags are fitting, which proves A. how many people will love this release and B. how diverse he manages to make the offerings here. The best part about B is that even with the varieties throughout, the mood remains consistent. This is for the dreamy, chill, relaxing days of summer.

“Try to Wake Up” is a perfect example of Jackson’s cross-genre mash. The twinkly guitar line has the rhythms of The Last Man on Earth-style indie folk, while it has the tone of dream pop and the subtle energy of hypnagogic pop. Outside of genre labels, it’s a happy, quiet, dreamy tune that doesn’t get ponderous. He follows it with the ambient/chillwave interlude “Seth’s Backyard” before delivering a drum set, some guitar chords, and more tons of reverb in the neo-psychedelia/dream pop of “Ohm I, Ohm E.” All of these tunes are delivered with a guileless, wonderfully relaxed tone. You just can’t beat it for relaxing to.

Summerooms is a beautiful, chill, sun-dappled album that doesn’t need me to explain it to death. If you like lo-fi pop that will put you in a good mood, you’re going to love it. Here’s to lazy evenings by the pool and in the hammock.

Fiery Crash: Relaxin, Chillaxin, and Actin All Cool

November 21, 2013

fierycrashEP

For Tomorrow Will Worry About Itself EP is the fifth release from the immensely productive Fiery Crash in 2013. Instead of being a glut of same-y material, each release has seen Josh Jackson (not the Paste editor) grow as a songwriter. Jackson splits his time between hazy dream pop (heavy on the guitar pedals) and no-frills singer/songwriter fare (early Iron & Wine-style), and he executes both quite well.

Due to my genre loyalties, I’m a bigger fan of the guitar-and-voice ruminations that populate the back half of the album: “Cada Ano (Version Two)” upgrades the standout from June’s Practice Shots by sweetening the vocal performance and tweaking the arrangement to a gentler end. Stealing the show on two different releases, it reminds me of bands like Mojave 3 and Peter Bradley Adams. “Headed Our Way” is the only brand-new song on the back half, and it pairs Jackson in a duet with himself: his baritone low range and his tenor high range. It’s a really effective move that I hope Jackson continues to explore. A relaxed, back-porch rendition of The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” adds a nice variety to the set.

The instrumental title track opens the album with intricate guitarwork that shows off Jackson’s composing chops. “Make Sure” and “Close to Big Star” are chill indie-pop tunes which scale back the garage-y vibes that Jackson has explored on previous releases but still keep the dreamy feel.

But it’s “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” that grabbed my attention most. His version of the traditional hymn splits the difference between singer/songwriter and dream-pop, building from humble beginnings to a fully-arranged wonder at the end of the tune. It’s a beautiful rendition of a song that I didn’t think had a lot of creative room left in it after Sufjan Stevens’ masterful version, but Fiery Crash wrings the potential out of it with ragged drums, pedal steel, guitar pedals, and voice. Just beautiful.

Fiery Crash has had quite a 2013, transforming from a untempered outfit awash in reverb to a fine-tuned singer/songwriter project with a clear vision. To say that I expect great things from Fiery Crash is to undersell the great things he’s already accomplishing; I expect that many, many more people will discover Fiery Crash’s greatness soon. For Tomorrow Will Worry About Itself EP is a release you need to hear.

Opposite Sides of the Coin: Fiery Crash / Kye Alfred Hillig

July 25, 2013

Fiery Crash‘s Practice Shots and Kye Alfred Hillig‘s Together Through It All both have oddly deceptive titles: Practice Shots is breezy and relaxing, while Together Through the Years is way darker and heavier than the name would imply. Both achieve and exceed their goals admirably.

fierycrashpracticeshots

The ever-prolific Fiery Crash has ditched the fuzzed-out dream pop for a much more straightforward acoustic guitar album on Practice Shots. The results sound something like an early M. Ward album on downers: Josh Jackson’s acoustic guitar sound is warm and gentle even while being played in precise rhythms, and his rambling/mumbling/singing vocal style calls up great memories of “Chinese Translation“–although Jackson’s voice is lower than Ward’s. Working with not much more than that throughout the album, Jackson constructs tunes that float the entire way through.

Jackson’s baritone voice could be a dominant feature, a la the National, but he balances it perfectly against the other elements. The result are tunes that flow smoothly on their own and as a cohesive whole. “Equinox” layers three guitar parts, a vocal line, and simple percussion without ever feeling cluttered; opener “Cada Ano” pulls a similar feat while featuring an arresting vocal melody. “For the Canopy” is a little duskier in its mood, allowing for a pleasant variety. Even the louder tracks fit with the lazy, slowly rolling mood: “Volleybeachball!” uses an electric guitar and a speedy drum machine but is dragged back into the mood with a lackadaisical vocal line.

Fiery Crash has kept the quality level incredibly high over this latest dispatch of prolific production. This is the second full album and fourth release in this calendar year, and Practice Shots is the best of the bunch so far. I don’t know when Jackson will let up, but at this point he’s clicking on all cylinders. Fans of cheery, breezy acoustic songwriting like (early) Shins, She & Him, and more will love this. I look forward to his next move.

togetherthroughitall

The title track for Together Through It All must have been an incredibly easy choice for Kye Alfred Hillig: in a 14-song album with few clunkers, “Together Through It All” stands head and shoulders above everything else on the record. Hillig’s forte is creating almost uncomfortably intense tunes, as if Ray LaMontagne’s vocal chords, Josh Garrels’ lyrical depth, latter-day Sam Beam’s arrangements, and David Bazan’s general passion were all crammed into one artist. “Together Through The Years” tracks the downward progression of a troubled son through the eyes of his loving, committed father: by the last verse, Hillig is roaring out over pounding drums and blasting horns that “the tombstone don’t make the man/And that’s not how I choose to remember him.” Hillig then returns to the devastating chorus: “I’m still his father/he’s still my son.” If you don’t get shivers or goosebumps or something during this tune, I don’t think this blog can help you much.

Hillig doesn’t just focus on heavy topics; there are some excellent love tunes here as well. “An Unedited Presentation of Souls,” “You and Me and Time,” and “Trampled/Triumphant” all take the average love ballad and crank up the intensity a few notches. The lyrics themselves are far more intimate and emotionally raw than I expect to hear, and the passionate vocal delivery is jaw-dropping at times. Hillig is a focused, powerful vocalist, but he can also deliver songs sweetly. It’s a rare thing to find.

It’s also rare to hear so much diversity fit so neatly on a record. The dense arrangement of opener “Breaking Lungs” makes it feel like a lost track from Iron and Wine’s Kiss Each Other Clean, while “War in Spring” is a perky piano-pop tune anchored by a Postal Service-esque beat. Closer “Does My Soul Still Sing?” is a majestic, reverential, synth-laden elegy, while “Free the Birds” is a garage-rock track anchored by campy organ. (Okay, “Free the Birds” does stick out a bit.) But other than that one, Hillig makes all of the tracks work by investing each of them with an equal amount of passion and care. No track here feels cast off on a whim: Together Through It All is completely and carefully organized.

If listening through the whole 45+ minutes is a bit of an exhausting experience, it’s a thrillingly exhausting one. There’s more charm and care crammed into this album than most bands can get into three albums. If you love singer/songwriters who aren’t necessarily out to make you happy, but are definitely out to make you feel, you need to know Kye Alfred Hillig. Trust me on this one. Kye Alfred Hillig will make you smile, laugh, and cry.

Red Sammy / Fiery Crash

February 10, 2013

redsammy

I love reading and writing poetry. (I am likely one of the few people in the world who was so moved as to do a happy dance when Natasha Trethewey was named United States Poet Laureate.) So I was thrilled to hear that folk/country outfit Red Sammy had teamed up with poet Steve Matanle for these poems with kerosene. The gritty, gravelly-voiced country fits perfectly with Matanle’s detailed scenes, making for a fascinating album. The two only team up for “Nightriff,” instead preferring to trade spread the four spoken-word tracks among the eight songs. This creates an intriguing flow for the album, making both the songs and the poems memorable.

The tunes are low-slung, largely eschewing treble, cymbals, and screaming guitar solos. This melodic breathing room allows for more nuance in the tunes, giving “Rank & File” a solemn beauty.  “Monstertruck” throws in an acoustic slide-guitar solo from the low end of the frets, something I love to hear in this pop-friendly era. The low-end riffing continues on the collaborative track “Nightriff,” foregrounding Matanle’s dry but still evocative voice over the guitar. The descriptive, abstract poem itself is eclipsed in quality by the much more concrete “Hobbies of the Damned,” “Man with a Suitcase,” and “Bar,” all of which tether their small revelations to finely explained events. Matanle gets a lot done in a few words, as none of his spoken word pieces go over 1:30; this is the perfect length to serve as powerful interludes between the longer Red Sammy songs (roughly 4 minutes each).

these poems with kerosene isn’t near as volatile as its title would suggest: it’s more of a slow-burner, working its way into your consciousness bit by bit. Both Steve Matanle and Red Sammy have contributed pieces that give you space to think: they don’t hit you over the head anything. That’s a welcome blessing. kerosene is a must-hear for alt-country fans.

(p.s.: I would love to hear more pairings like this, songwriters. And I’d love to be a part of one, too.)

fierycrash

Fiery Crash is a prolific songwriting project by Josh Jackson (not the Paste editor-in-chief) that specializes in hazy, acoustic-led dream-pop. There are occasional moments of noisy clutter, but Carbondale is largely a chill affair that finds its stride on ambling, easy-going tunes which allow Jackson’s mid-range voice to meander in an M. Ward-esque way (“Forward,” “Caroline”).

The best tracks show off Jackson’s ability to create and sustain moods through subtle, appealing instrumental arrangements:  “Drought Finale” pairs a quirky lead guitar line with an ethereal arrangement while Jackson casually tosses off a speak/sung vocal melody.  These moves result in an engaging idiom that could be mined for a long time.

There are still some youthful missteps, as in the vocally overbearing “Headrone” and the grating “Half Life,” but they are balanced out by sublime instrumental moments like “Fever Song No. 2” and “The First Moment.” If you’re interested in hazy/dreamy pop, Fiery Crash is a name to watch for in the coming years.

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

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