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Some thoughts on folk, Bon Iver, and Sunny Jim Brown

September 28, 2013

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The emergence of Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago was an incredibly important event for folk. Although the water had been getting murky for years (decades?), that heavily stylized album broke the dam that separated indie-pop and folk. Now we have Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers and Phillip Phillips and we don’t even think twice about it. My thesis here is that we can’t have “Babel” hollered through your radio without Justin Vernon mournfully ruminating over Emma. What that means for indie-pop and folk as individual genres is complex and interesting. One tiny element is that trad-folk/Americana (which is what we now have to call the stuff that most people who aren’t ethnomusicologists used to call “folk”) has received a boost from the indie-folk scene. Sunny Jim Brown playing the traditional “Darling Corey” may not have been of any interest to people who liked Belle and Sebastian in the early 2000s. Now it seems like the two are near to kindred spirits.

Which is all to say that even if Sunny Jim Brown’s Sweet Virginia EP features primarily guitar and banjo in a very traditional idiom, it’s still a blast from the imagined past. Brown’s earthy baritone imbues passion equally over the aforementioned traditional, the gorgeous original “Black Gold,” and No Use For A Name cover “Pacific Standard Time.” It hardly matters that one was written in time immemorial, one in 2007/2008, and one probably in 2012/2013. This is a testament to Sunny Jim Brown’s vision: these tunes could be disparate and disjointed, but instead they’re coherent and wonderful. “Black Gold” is the sort of fingerpicked guitar line that I got into this business to hear more of, and the world-weary vocals give the song even more to love. “Lonesome” and “Sweet Virginia” are strummers that sway excellently. You want honest, raw, and beautiful? Here you go.

These tunes feel as real and raw as For Emma ever did, and maybe as real and raw as folk did before that. What does that mean for folk in general? Well, probably that what is good never dies, it just gets pushed to the top in different amounts at different times. Culture is weird like that. Maybe in 10 years the folk moment will be over and we’ll be on to something else. What does that mean for this particular EP? That you should go listen to it right now. Start with “Black Gold,” and impress your Tallest Man on Earth-loving self.

Fauntella Crow's Lost Here is a wonder

July 11, 2013

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Sunday Lane’s cover of Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love” is a good place to start talking about Fauntella Crow‘s debut EP Lost Here. Piano-playing singer/songwriter Lane, half of Fauntella Crow, plays predominantly upbeat pop in her solo work. I first discovered her pensive, emotive side on that 2012 cover of Justin Vernon’s keening, beautiful tune. Lane’s voice fit perfectly in the mood, and I longed for her to do more with that combination. It’s like she heard my thoughtwaves, because Lost Here explores her melancholy side.

The title track of the EP makes a conscious effort to pilfer some sonic touches from For Emma, Forever Ago, and it works like a charm: the song steals the show, as Lane’s voice and Jessy Greene’s violin form a perfect pair to convey a familiar form of tragic beauty. There’s a difference in mood on “Lost Here” from the rest of the EP, which falls more in the ’90s singer/songwriter, Lilith Fair vibe. That’s not a bad thing at all–“Delicate” shines in its own right. But “Lost Here” channels the skills of both members into a tune that can stand up with the best indie ballads of the past ten years. That’s a hugely bold statement (“Maps“! “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.“! “For Emma“!), but I’m prepared to make it. The song is wonderful.

The rest of the EP is strong, composed of the aforementioned singer/songwriter vibes. “Grow” meshes Lane and Greene perfectly, as the piano, both vocals, plucked violin, and bowed violin come together for a wonderful first stanza. Opener “Delicate” deftly balances bitterness and vulnerability, both lyrically and vocally; it’s the most well-developed and mature of the offerings that aren’t “Lost Here.” The rest of the tunes fall somewhere between the poised pop of track 1 and the fragility of track 5; all very pretty, but not as immediately arresting as the twin pillars they support.

Lane is a strong songwriter who has found a perfect foil in Greene; the latter brings out the melancholy melodic gifts that I knew Lane had lying dormant. Lost Here is hopefully an opening salvo in a long career for Fauntella Crow–this is too excellent to languish as a one-off side-project. Even if these five tunes are all we get, I’ll be thankful for them, and you should be too.

The Zs: Teen Daze/Kazyak

June 6, 2013

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As I have written before, I loved and still love chillwave. I love the idea of optimistic, beautiful music that is unsullied by vocals. I love vocals, but the idea that we can have happy music that is also musically challenging is just wonderful. (It’s also why I love Fang Island.) Teen Daze‘s The House on the Mountain is about as good as I can imagine chillwave (or whatever we’re calling it these days) can be.

Single-named producer Jamison takes small melodies and builds them up with fluttery background synths, flowing guitar, and gentle beats to create deeply moving electronic pieces. Blissful is the word I would use to describe opener “Hidden,” but the low-end piano inclusions on “Eagles Above” puts a more pensive spin on the sound. “Classical Guitar” benefits from some great midi synths (as opposed to atmospheric pad synths), a heavier beat than usual and (yes) the titular instrument. While leaning toward the gentle euphoria of “Hidden,” it still forges its own path. (Is it heresy if I say it sounds like Owl City a bit? I swear it’s a compliment.)

The lead single and semi-title track “Morning House” combines the best elements of all three tracks, as it takes a unique rhythmic beat and melds it to atmospheric synths in an optimistic key. Fluttery synths and midi synths come in, giving a great amount of texture to the tune. It’s a beautiful, memorable tune: a star among stars.

If you’re sick of chillwave, sorry. I’m not, and The House on the Mountain is absolutely gorgeous. If you love blissing out, Teen Daze is here to help.

kazyak

Kazyak used to be a groove-laden jam band of sorts, so it’s a bit surprising that they’ve reinvented as a alt-folk band. However, it’s not surprising that they’ve done it in a unique way, given that they came from another genre. This EP could bridge the gap perfectly between the forlorn For Emma, Forever Ago and lush Bon Iver, if Peter Frey were Justin Vernon. But he’s not, and we instead meet a Kazyak on See the Forest, See the Trees that tries to reunite disparate sounds that currently fall under the same name.

It’s a fitting title, then: the trees of the individual songs stand up, and the entire album fits neatly as a whole. A few tunes can be plucked from the runtime without injuring their effectiveness; others must be heard in context of the whole 26-minute piece. It’s a rare album that can pull off this trick, and it’s what makes me so excited about Kazyak.

The best combo move is opener “Pieces of My Map,” which introduces Kazyak’s love of atmospheric banjo, sweeping guitar swells, and lush arrangements. But amid the mini-symphony, the vocal melody cuts through, shining as the focus on the piece. This splits the difference between vocals-centric and arrangement-centric folk neatly.

“Part I: Rabbiting Fox” and “Part II: Pitch Thick” show off the arrangement-centric side of the sound, with dramatic melodies, intimate moods, and careful arrangements. The gorgeous opening 1;30 of “Rabbiting Fox” is some of the most engaging music on the album. The unique “Tar Baby” shows off the vocals by having the vocalist slide back and forth between falsetto and chest voice repeatedly to accentuate the lyrics. It is an unusual move that some may reject, but it definitely shows a creative mind at work.

Kazyak’s See the Forest, See the Trees is beautiful and substantial; the melodic qualities don’t get lost in the arrangements or vice versa. Instead, it stands as a strong testament to varied songwriting. I hope to hear more from Kazyak’s unique perspective in the future.

May end with videos.

May 28, 2013

Mike Dillon Band features a guitarist/bassist, a drummer, a trombonist, and Mike Dillon on percussion and vocals. They play an unclassifiable mix of punk, ska, hip-hop, jazz, rock and more. I don’t want to waste any more words trying to explain it:

Lightning Dust’s video for “Diamond” is the epitome of a video style that I really like: a meaningful clip that doesn’t get too obsessed with cinematic perfection and instead portrays the song well. Just watch:

Metaform’s post-dubstep minimalist electronica is really cool sounding. The video for “In My Mind (I Will Wait)” features the producer in a trashed, abandoned building, which fits in an odd sort of way.

Volcano Choir, one of the quickly-becoming-innumerable projects that include Justin Vernon, is back. Check the trailer for the Repave, which includes vocals from Justin Vernon that sound way more earnest than his falsetto-heavy Bon Iver work. The album drops September 3.

Saint Popes / The Silver Lake Chorus

April 19, 2013

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Vic Alvarez has a long history with IC. By talking about his new project Saint Popes, I’ve now covered three of his bands, stretching all the way back to (incredibly) 2004. He’s also written for the site at points. So it’s with a certain confidence that comes from seeing the whole backstory that I can tell you this: The gentle singer/songwriter tunes of Saint Popes’ self-titled EP are my favorite songs that Alvarez has ever attached his name to.

Having a strong collaborator helps: Michelle Keating handles a lot of the vocals. Her strong, clear mezzo-soprano voice fits perfectly with the unadorned, stark arrangements. Even though there are only five entries on the EP, they are varied in style: “Atlas” is a tune reminiscent of the Weepies in its perky yet not overly energetic strumming; “Warm” and “Paperbag” evoke Jason Molina’s slowcore in different ways; “Somewhere” is a charming, peppy pop song. I hear a lot of singer/songwriters, but the spare, tight production cuts through the clutter of what I usually hear.

Even though this band doesn’t share the country affectations that The Civil Wars included in their sound, those looking for a band to fill the post-CW hole in their hearts could do real well to check out Saint Popes. It’s beautiful, crisp, emotional music played without pretense; I don’t ask for much more out of bands.

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There are few things more soothing and beautiful than an a cappella choir used to its full potential. The Silver Lake Chorus understands this, and has released the two-song EP Wreckage to prove it. They’ve got Ben Lee producing and A.C. Newman writing on the track, so it can be understood why “Wreckage” is a quirky, upbeat indie-pop tune with piano. It’s fun and clever, but it’s not the jewel. “From the Snow Tipped Hills” is a gorgeous piece that hearkens directly back to what a cappella means in Italian: “in the manner of the chapel.” It shows off what sort or reverent magic choirs can produce for an audience that (potentially) has never heard a full SATB go for an Eric Whitacre piece. Need more proof that it’s worth your time? Justin Vernon of Bon Iver wrote it. Yes. You need to hear this thing right now.

Video jam, pt 2

September 26, 2012

This is the always-excellent Elijah Wyman of Decent Lovers performing “Bad Thoughts Out” in an active bathroom.

A. The song is wonderful, whetting my desire for more DecLuv tunes.
B. That’s a cloth bird attached to his guitar strap.
C. “Lag?” Whose graffiti tag is “Lag?”

Here We Go Magic, purveyors of my favorite summer song (“How Do I Know”), have now followed that with one of my favorite videos of the year. “Hard to Be Close” is the surreal, quirky, and funny of three guys stuck in an elevator. The song’s pretty great too.

Hotel Eden’s smooth-groovin’ “I Saw You at the Laundromat” turns the titular location into a discotheque. This has never happened to me, but I sure wish it had.

It takes guts to cover Bon Iver; Justin Vernon has created such a hermetic world with his tunes that other covers seem to be trespassing on the real version’s turf. But Sunday Lane and Max Helmerich add in a female vocal counterpoint to “Skinny Love,” giving this version a great reason to exist. It also has a bit of a country air to it, which is interesting.

The End of America shows flashes of folk brilliance amid the variety

February 19, 2011

The End of America‘s Steep Bay is nine songs and twenty-one minutes long. It is a very intimate affair, as it features live performances and found sound among its tracks. It’s the latest in a string of folk albums to come out of self-imposed banishments to rural areas to write (as popularized by Bon Iver). But For Emma, Forever Ago worked because of Justin Vernon’s slavish attention to mood and detail. Even though the guys in The End of America have the details down, they don’t have the mood hammered out on Steep Bay.

It’s a bummer, because the best moments of Steep Bay show that The End of America has something great to offer. The effortless calm of Novi Split’s intimate bedroom pop applied to the folk revival’s rustic songwriting ideals is a beautiful thing. Imagine if Mumford and Sons could be every bit as powerful without having to go for the jugular in every coda, and you’ve got a good approximation of “Fiona Grace” and “Oh Mousey.” But “These Things Are Mine” is an upbeat bluegrass meditation of sorts, and “Running” is a step removed from an old-school Dashboard Confessional acoustic emo song in strum pattern, melody and lyric. “Are You Lonely” is a meandering, morose tune. It all just doesn’t mesh at all.

The best moments here are the found sounds of “Diving Rock” and “Steep Bay.” “Diving Rock” is a recording of the members jumping off a rock into the bay, which leads directly into “Fiona Grace.” “Steep Bay” is a banjo rumination with the sound of pouring rain providing percussion, which is the single most beautiful moment on the album.

The End of America can write a great album if they spent more time at it, I think. They’re just not the “collective goes to cottage, produces masterpiece” type of band. There are flashes of brilliance on Steep Bay, but the overall product is a bit muddled by the lack of a coherent mood.

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

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