Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Matthew Squires: A Unique Indie-pop Vision

February 9, 2017

Some artists are so idiosyncratic that they become required listening despite whether you like that style or not. Depending on their popular success, these people are the greats or the “songwriter’s songwriter.” I’m talking Kendrick Lamar, Beyonce, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Daniel Johnston, The Gorillaz: people who are doing their own thing with a very specific, easily identifiable creative vision. Matthew Squires has been developing a very distinct creative vision for a while now, and Tambaleo brings his fractured, angular, skeptically-but-knowledgably-religious indie-pop to new heights.

The main focus of these songs is Squires’ weary, slightly off-kilter tenor. It’s not your standard voice, even for that particular region of the indie-pop map which celebrates the atypical and imperfect. Squires’ voice rotates between being a spot-on melody maker (“Welcome”), a speak/sing drawl (“Sex & Tragedy”), a slurry dartboard (“Unwholesome Health”), and an onomatopoeic sound machine (“Grace’s Drum”). Sometimes it’s all of these in the space of a single song or even the space of a few lines. For some, the singing will be the reason for attendance; for others, it will be the price of admission. Whichever end of the spectrum you land on, it’s a distinct voice.

The arrangements here are also excellent. Packed full of instruments that seem to be taking their own path through the track at loping tempos, these individual performances come together to fill out Squires’ unique songwriting sensibility. Squires is endlessly inventive and not afraid to experiment with tones, textures, rhythms, and instrument pairings. This makes for songs that clang (“Dead or Dying”), skip along in a twee fashion [“Hosanna (Devotional #3)”], push along in a recognizably indie-pop manner (“Welcome”), and even get their pop-rock on … sort of (“Shape of Your Heart”). All of them have a left turn about every 20 seconds. Some albums keep you on your toes; this one will have you en pointe.

One of the most interesting things about Squires is his continued relationship with religion in his lyrics. Squires is well versed: like any honest religious person, there are moments of certitude, moments of doubt, and moments of skepticism in his relationship to religion. “Unwholesome Health” opens with “Judas was all alone / when he called me on the telephone / and told me about the pain he had caused / about Mary’s face when her Son was torn apart,” while “Welcome” closes with Squires speaking to himself: “You were named after a friend of the son of God / now bracket for a moment whether God exists or not / Have you been kind? / Have you been kind? / Have you been kind?” “Hosanna (Devotional #3)” wears the references on its titular sleeve, while other songs weave religious characters, terms and ideas through the lyrics more subtly. It treats religion as not something to be partitioned away from life, but woven all through it. I dig it.

Not every song on Tambaleo is independently majestic (“Debt Song” isn’t my favorite), but the whole collection is a deeply thoughtful, incredibly well-crafted album from a musician who is hitting his stride. This is the sort of album that not very many people could have made; a wild array of influences mesh into a idiosyncratic, deeply interesting album. Recommended.

Steven A. Clark: A new addition to the modern R&B pantheon

February 5, 2016

Steven A. Clark - Lonely Roller

For fans of Miguel and Frank Ocean, Steven A. Clark may be the freshest addition to the pop/contemporary R&B pantheon. His album Lonely Roller, which was released last September, rides an emotive rollercoaster of themes about fighting love, yearning for love, and letting the adrenaline of love throw one’s arms up right before the drop into epic unknown. It’s Clark’s talent for lyrics and ability to tell a story that makes Lonely Roller captivating — an album that could double as an audiobook.

From the beginning title track, Clark establishes a narrative of two people irresistibly attracted to one another during a weekend trip to Vegas. With handclaps and catchy, club-ready rhythm, I could feel the butterflies in my stomach at the slow, resisting moment between the two characters as they pull at each other through unblinking eyes and hungry, pursing lips. This club banger theme of two people magnetized by each other’s duende is echoed later on the retro-styled, synthetic sax-sparkling “Time Machine.”

The story continues into “Trouble Baby”: the honest lyrics about only knowing how to break hearts create a vibe similar to a Frank Ocean tune. Dramatic vocals that sound like they’re being emitted from a speaker system give “Trouble Baby” an appealing trippiness.

The ensuing tracks unwind the romance I was rooting for in the beginning. “Not You” is an honest admittance, through guilt-sodden vocals and tear-filled percussion, of wanting to be in love–just not with the person who’s in love with him. On the ‘80s-inspired pop track “Can’t Have,” Clark sings of a girl who claims to not believe in fairytales, but he makes the point that if it were a perfect world he wouldn’t have been, “distracted by them other girls.” Then Clark tells the tale of an “Ex beauty queen/Amongst other things/Face made for the big screen,” who enjoys the sumptuous pleasures of life in the city on “She’s in Love,” with slight disappointment in his voice.

Clark begins to sketch hachures of darkened seriousness onto the pages of this narrative. He does so via severe instrumentation, giving the album Kanye-like grit. “Bounty” includes a full chorus, sluggish beat, psychedelic instrumentation and catchy handclaps. The choir theme is carried into “Floral Print,” which sounds like Clark is reading the gospel behind a pulpit due to his use of organ and powerful vocals. “Part Two” has similar scarlet-colored severity to it, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if Kendrick made a visit on the track.

The narrative ends with “Young, Wild, and Free,” a song which offers smooth, sensual warmth that is yearned for throughout the record. It leaves Lonely Roller on a seemingly happy, hopeful note, but with enough playfulness that causes an eyebrow raise; I felt like an accumulation of all the girls he has been singing about, questioning love even when it’s presented. But as Clark sings, “Take my hand/Are you ready?” I found myself replaying Lonely Roller from the top. Yes, Steven A. Clark, I’ve been ready since track one.–Rachel Haney

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

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