Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Albums of the year: 7-1

December 27, 2016

It’s been a good year of music, and these were the best I heard. With the notable exception of #7, all the quotes are pulled from my review of the record.

7. All A Shimmer – Cindertalk. This ostenstibly-indie-pop album transcends boundaries and genre labels, creating a mind-bending world of tensions: complex/spartan arrangements; huge/tiny lyrical concerns; vulnerable/brash emotive turns; dark/light moods; gentle/forceful instrumentation; gentle/powerful vocals. Jonny Rodgers’ work with tuned glass shows through consistently, but never dominates; instead, all the pieces come together into whirling, enigmatic, satisfyingly unusual pieces. If you’re into adventurous music, there was no more an adventurous album this year than this one. (full review forthcoming)

6. Mantra – Sunjacket. “Mantra is the rare “smart” rock album that isn’t hard to get. It’s weird, it’s quirky, it’s got a unique point of view, but it’s not grueling or punishing. You can listen to it through and hear the guitars and synths and take it at face value. (And its face value is great.) But for those who want to spend more time with their albums, Sunjacket has created an album full of nooks and crannies for listeners to explore.” (full review)

5. Skip a Sinking Stone – Mutual Benefit. “A beautiful, remarkable, even majestic album that bends the boundaries between folk, pop, and classical in the most pleasant way I’ve heard all year.” (full review)

4. Ghost of a King – The Gray Havens. Ghost expands “their core sound to include cinematic pop-rock, ambient art tunes, and even electro-pop. Their expansion of borders doesn’t diminish at all their continuing maturity in the folk-pop realm, as the album contains some of the best folk-pop tunes they’ve ever written. In short, Ghost of a King shows growth in every area, and that results in an incredible album.” (full review)

3. Young Mister – Young Mister. “So carefully and meticulously crafted that it doesn’t show any of the seams. An immense amount of effort went into making indie-pop-rock songs that sound effortless and natural. You can sing along with these songs, write the lyrics on your bedroom wall, or just let the experience wash over you.” (full review)

2. Great Falls Memorial Interchange – Kye Alfred Hillig. “Even though these songs deal with difficult emotions, nowhere do these songs become brittle or unrelatable–the clarity of the lyrics, the ease of the melodies and Hillig’s inviting voice make them fit like a new coat. I hadn’t heard any of these songs before, but they felt like old friends as soon as I had.” (full review)

1. Hope and Sorrow – Wilder Adkins. “An impeccable, gorgeous modern folk record that shows off the value of maturity. It’s the sort of record that stretches the limits of my writing ability, making me want to write simply: ‘Just go listen to this record. You won’t regret it.'” (full review)

Premiere: Kye Alfred Hillig’s Great Falls Memorial Interchange

February 11, 2016

kyehillig_greatfalls_cover

Kye Alfred Hillig is a roving wanderer when it comes to musical styles. 2013’s Together Through It All showed off the diversity of his musical interests, spanning emotive balladry, indie rock force, and electronic pop; since then, his last three albums have borne out specific interests in longform statements. The electro-pop of Real Snow showed off his ability to make a club jam (“None of Them Know Me Now” should be on every party play list, seriously), while The Buddhist impressed me with just a nylon-string acoustic guitar and Hillig’s poignant lyrics. Now Great Falls Memorial Interchange flexes his alt-country muscles (with indie-rock touches). Great Falls is a record that I felt immediately at home with, as Hillig’s confident songwriting, sharp lyrics, and indelible voice create an experience both comfortable and exciting.

Hillig’s calling this his “punk rock record,” which comes out perhaps more in his self-assured attitude toward the songs than in his actual songwriting. The most punk-rock moves here are the abrupt, mid-phrase ending of opener “Always Leaving Early Deb Lake Tahoe” and several wordy, complicated song titles–the approach to the tunes, however, does seem a little more confrontational, a little more brash, and a little more pointed. The music is actually more in line with alt-country than punk-rock fury, but hey–country can resist, and “The Church Street Saint Leads the Marching Band for Truth” has some prominent snare drive. Punk rock is what you make it.

The zinging pedal steel of “Louder Blonde” and “Jennifer Love Is Some Ghetto Behind Your Eyes” situates Hillig’s latest instantiation firmly within alt-country, while tracks like “To Be Good” and “Big Sleeping Nowhere” point back to his older sounds. Overall the songs are noisier and more-electric guitar-based than his previous two albums, but they never get so noisy as to obscure Hillig’s vocals or make the lyrics incomprehensible. Tunes here clang and clatter at their loudest, but they never lose a sweetness in the melodic content. The balancing act that Hillig manages to get all his disparate sounds and ideas to work together with a centering concept of alt-country is a pretty impressive feat. Hillig always sounds fully in control of what’s going on in this record, whether it’s the songwriting, the arrangements or the lyrics.

As impressive as songwriting is, the lyrics are the best indicator of Hillig’s confidence: he’s always been an incisive writer (see the title track of Together Through It All for early proof), but here he seems to have come into his own with a consistently high level of lyricism. Whether he’s questioning the foundations of morality (“To Be Good,” “Almighty God Flaccid River of Sorrow”), writing John Darnielle-level complex story songs (“Always Leaving Early Deb Lake Tahoe,” “Whitney Houston”) or writing a painfully honest (anti-?)love song (“In Tandem”), every lyric seems to stick in my mind and take up residence.

The story-songs in particular are memorable, as the narrators of Hillig’s tunes here accuse more than accommodate: third people are charged with not believing in romantic love or God after a breakup (“Throwing Up”), offering cheap sympathy that’s really more about the speaker (“Almighty God Flaccid River of Sorrow”), and doing various complicated and seemingly terrible things (“Yes Grinning Face of Death”). This is a rare album that can work in both directions: come for the music, stay for the lyrics; come for the lyrics, stay for the music.

And yet the punk-rock confidence in his songwriting and the refining of his lyrics are achievements that can be somewhat missed on first listen, because Hillig’s voice is so arresting here. Hillig’s vocal timbre is idiosyncratic in a pleasant way–he delivers his high tenor in a way that somehow manages to sound yelpy and round at the same time, coming off ultimately as deeply earnest. This allows him to create songs of great conviction and songs that float tenderly along with ease. His performances here are often mesmerizing in their melodic quality, as his vocal tone and timbre draws me in and won’t let me go. “Ancient Burial Ground” shows off his ability to sound calm and desperate in equally interesting measures–it’s just genuinely fun to listen to Kye Alfred Hillig sing on this record. That’s a rare thing.

Great Falls Memorial Interchange is an album that succeeds on all levels: the songwriting, the lyrics, the vocal performances. Everything is just top-notch. Even though these songs deal with difficult emotions, nowhere do these songs become brittle or unrelatable–the clarity of the lyrics, the ease of the melodies and Hillig’s inviting voice make them fit like a new coat. I hadn’t heard any of these songs before, but they felt like old friends as soon as I had. Highly recommended.

Great Falls comes out February 26 with a show at Seattle’s Conor Byrne. You can pre-order the record here.–Stephen Carradini

Last 2015 Singles, Pt. 2

January 5, 2016

1. “Mirrors” – Mos Eisley. Triumphant folk-pop that’s exciting without going over the top into cliche.

2. “Glow” – The National Parks. Big instrumental melodies, lots of instruments, charming vocal melodies, subtle-enough-to-not-be-gimmicky underlying electronic beats; this folky indie song is just a blast.

3. “Vintage” – High Dive Heart. Throw technicolor girl pop, white rap, a banjo, and folk-pop harmonies in a blender and you get out this enigmatically engaging song. This song doesn’t make any sense to me in so many ways and yet I love it. It just works. Amazing. (Video direct link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dDtZ__MOT20)

4. “Ancient Burial Ground” – Kye Alfred Hillig. Hillig gives us the demos of his new album before it’s released, and you can color me excited: this tune and the handful of others that come with it are chipper musically and intricate lyrically, just like his best work. Watch for Great Falls Memorial Interchange in 2016.

5. “Canada” – Nikki Gregoroff. “The people are nice cross the border,” sings Gregoroff, which is just a really nice thing to write into a Simon and Garfunkel-esque tune.

6. “Chantilly Grace” – Granville Automatic. Bell-clear female vocals lead this tune that looks back to vintage Americana (that fiddle!) and forward to modern alt-country melodies.

7. “Bliss Mill” – Matthew Carter. The laid-back chill vibe and unhurried vocals of Alexi Murdoch meets the shuffle-snare of traditional country/folk for a memorable tune.

8. “Set Sail” – Matt Monoogian. Monoogian’s calm voice leads this acoustic track with an intricate arrangement that pulls the Gregory Alan Isakov trick of feeling both comfortingly small and confidently big.

9. “Bentonville Blues” – Adam Hill. A protest song for the modern day working poor, Hill captures the everyman ethos with great delivery of relatable lyrics, simpple arrangement of singalong melodies, and a the burned-but-not-killed mentality similar to old-time protest work songs.

10. “Itasca County” – Rosa del Duca. The frontman of folk outfit hunters. releases her own album of singer/songwriter tunes that focus on her voice and lyrics, both of which are in fine form on this rolling, harmonica-splashed tune.

11. “Tongue Tied” – Oktoba. That space between soul, folk, and singer/songwriter keeps getting more populated: let in Oktoba, whose offering isn’t as overtly sensuous as some but is just as romantic (and hummable)!

12. “The Blue” – David Porteous. Canadian Porteous beautifully splits the difference between two UK singer/songwriters here by invoking Damien Rice’s sense of intense romantic intimacy and David Gray’s widescreen pop arrangements.

13. “Whirlpool Hymnal” – Matthew Squires and the Learning Disorders. Squires expands his yearning, searching alt-folk to include found sounds–the lyrics are just as thought-provoking and honest as ever.

14. “Playground” – Myopic. The fragile swoon of a violin bounces off the stately plunk of melodic percussion in this thoughtful instrumental piece.

15. “Siphoning Gas” – Luke Redfield. This gentle, ambient soundscape is the sound of looking out the window when rain is coming down and you don’t have to go anywhere or do anything but cuddle up with a blanket and a book in a big bay window and enjoy it.

 

Top Albums of the Year: 1-10

January 3, 2015

Without further adieu, numbers 1-10 in the best albums of the year.

Album of the Year: The CollectionArs Moriendi. (Review) This album epitomizes the type of music I look for: intricate, complex arrangements of acoustic-led, folk-inspired indie-pop tunes with deeply thoughtful lyrics about life, death, and religion. The fact that you can shout along to half of the tunes only makes this more impressive. This was a no-contest winner for album of the year.

2. Kye Alfred HilligReal Snow. (Review) Temporarily shedding the acoustic singer/songwriter mantle, Hillig struck gold with a set of electro anthems cut through with his well-developed indie-pop songwriting techniques and evocative, thought-provoking lyrics. “None of Them Know Me Now” is the jaaaaaaam.

3. St. EvenSelf-titled. (Review) I love concrete poetry that relies on images to portray meaning instead of adjectives. St. Even knocks that type of work out of the ballpark here, pairing it with playful, unexpected, herky-jerky, innovative arrangements of horns, piano, and strings. “Home Is Where You Hang Your Head” is a stand-out among stand-outs.

4. Brittany Jean and Will CoppsPlaces. (Review) Giant washes of sound meet indie-rock emotion over acoustic instruments to create something that’s not exactly electronica, indie-rock, or singer/songwriter. It hit me in unexpected ways, and always from unexpected angles.

5. The Fox and the BirdDarkest Hours. (Review) The folk-pop boom is largely over, meaning that we can get back to people doing folk-pop because it’s their thing, not because it’s a trend. The Fox and the Bird produced the best straight folk-pop this year, both lyrically and musically. Challenging lyrics and breezy, easy-to-love music is a great combo for folk-pop, and Darkest Hours has both.

6. CancellieriCloset Songs. (Review) Welcome to Mount Pleasant was a gorgeous album, but this collection of demos, b-sides, and covers was the Cancellieri release that stole the most of my listening time this year. Ryan Hutchens’ delicate voice is beautifully juxtaposed against a single acoustic guitar, putting his songwriting, song re-envisionments, and impeccable taste in covers on display. A perfect chill-out album.

7. Little ChiefLion’s Den. (Review) Arkansas folk-pop outfit Little Chief took the path trod by The Head and the Heart in creating chamber-pop arrangements to fit on their pastoral, rolling songwriting ways. The subtlety and maturity in the songwriting is astonishing from such a young outfit. If you need an album to drive around to in fall or winter, here’s your disc.

8. Novi SplitIf Not This, Then What / Keep Moving Disc 2 / Spare Songs / Split. (Reviews) My favorite hyper-personal, intimate songwriting project got a massive bump in exposure this year. David J took the recordings of a decade that were spread about the internet and finally compiled them in one place. I’ve heard almost all of them before, but the fact that they’re official and can be easily accessed caused me to listen through them again. They’re all still amazing examples of painfully poignant bedroom singer/songwriter work. Do yourself a favor and get acquainted with Novi Split.

9. M. Lockwood Porter27. (Review) Porter’s second full-length expanded his alt-country sound in dynamic ways while developing his lyrical bent. The results are memorable rock tracks (“I Know You’re Gonna Leave Me”) and memorable ballads (“Mountains”), a rare thing indeed.

10. Jacob FurrTrails and Traces. (Review) The subject matter of Trails and Traces is even heavier than Ars Moriendi, but Furr takes a nimble, light approach to his alt-country. Instead of wallowing in despair, Furr’s heartbreaking lyrics are backed up with hopeful, searching melodies. I’d usually say “not for the faint of heart” on matters like these, but Furr has truly put together one that speaks hope for the hurting and hopeless. Search on, friends.

THE (not so timely) NEWS

October 9, 2014

I’m not very good at telling the news on this blog, but here are some things that happened and/or are happening.

  • Hi-res audio’s time seems to have come, what with Pono breaking huge. Hi Res Audio Central wants to be your one-stop shop for all things HRA. Jump on it, if applicable!
  • NWCZRadio.com is running a Kickstarter to get new gear to keep growing their indie-focused radio station. Three days left!
  • IC faves The Trouble Starts, Kye Alfred Hillig, and Cloud Person are all part of the initial offering of The Good Pack, which is a system that lets you download (excellent) albums for free, with all donations for that music going to a youth shelter in Seattle. Good music, good cause! LET’S DO IT!
  • And, finally, it’s time for fall, and that means cooler weather, and that means more running for me. That means RUNHUNDRED. See below. -Stephen Carradini

The Top 10 Workout Songs for October 2014

Fort Wayne, IN – September 30, 2014 – Pop rules in this month’s workout music recap. First off, you have the lingering effects of this year’s MTV Video Music Awards. Collaborations pairing Ariana Grande with Zedd and Iggy Azalea with Rita Ora both received a significant boost in popularity following performances on this year’s broadcast. Moreover, the show is where Taylor Swift debuted the first single from her new album. “Shake It Off” was the most popular, workout song in our monthly poll. Moreover, at 160 beats per minute (BPM), it’s the best song in the list for running.

Remixers also racked up three big tunes this month. Zedd makes his second appearance in the the list with an uptempo version of the summertime smash “Rude.” OneRepublic also find their latest release reworked for the club. Though both of those tracks are geared for the dancefloor, they’d be equally great for a jogging or walking. For a lower rep routine—like kettlebells or Pilates—you might check out the Surkin remix of Charli XCX’s “Boom Clap.” At 93 BPM, it’s on the slower side of things, but it’s lives up to its title with thunderous production that’ll power you through your next session.

On the whole, Top 40 tracks dominate this month’s list. But, there should also be enough alternate versions—plus some crossover hits from upstarts like Kongos and Echosmith—to keep things interesting. So, if you’re looking for something new to freshen up your gym playlist, you’ll find 10 great places to start below.

Here’s the full list, according to votes placed at Run Hundred–the web’s most popular workout music blog.

Echosmith – Cool Kids – 130 BPM

Magic – Rude (Zedd Remix) – 130 BPM

Kiesza – Hideaway – 123 BPM

Demi Lovato & Cher Lloyd – Really Don’t Care – 121 BPM

Iggy Azalea & Rita Ora – Black Widow – 82 BPM

Charli XCX – Boom Clap (Surkin Remix) – 93 BPM

Kongos – Come With Me Now – 104 BPM

Ariana Grande & Zedd – Break Free – 130 BPM

OneRepublic – Love Runs Out (Grabbitz Remix) – 124 BPM

Taylor Swift – Shake It Off – 160 BPM

To find more workout songs, folks can check out the free database at RunHundred.com. Visitors can browse the song selections there by genre, tempo, and era—to find the music that best fits with their particular workout routine. -Chris Lawhorn

Kye Alfred Hillig: Intense vignettes, nylon strings

September 26, 2014

thebuddhist

Kye Alfred Hillig introduced himself to me with the powerful and incredibly diverse Together Through It All in 2013: it powered through a half-dozen discrete genres with ease. This year’s Real Snow honed in on his electro-pop side, becoming an album-of-the-year contender in the process. Then he bought a nylon string guitar, became obsessed with it, wrote a whole album’s worth of voice-and-guitar material in a week and a half, recorded it, and released it two months later as The Buddhist. Must be tough to choose set lists now.

Together Through It All was a series of almost uncomfortably intense vignettes, carefully constructed for maximum emotional impact. The Buddhist is the polar opposite of that songwriting style. Several of these songs have too many words in particular lines to fit the scheme; instead of meticulously rewriting them, Hillig just sings the extra words faster and crams them in. The guitar lines, lyrics, and vocal delivery are paramount here: the vocal melodies, not so much. There are several memorable vocal lines (“Come Play with Me” and “I’m Alive Because of Nuclear Bombs” in particular) but that’s not the point of this record. If you want to hum, go for Real Snow. Start with “None of Them Know Me Now.”

But if you want to hear some heavy, heady lyrics, you need to plant yourself on a couch and listen carefully to The Buddhist. The titular character appears to sing many of the songs in first person, identified by particular recurring characters (one named Barbara, another named Sarah). The album can be reverse-engineered into a whole life history of a person, or seen as vignettes from a bunch of different characters. Either way, the poem-like attention to detail in the lyrics of each of these songs is astonishing; there are all manner of little touches to the lyrics (descriptions of things, stray names of people, place names, etc.) that give this an intimate quality. Instead of being intense by being grandiose epics, these songs are powerful because of their lack of pretense. Hillig is just sitting there, picking and singing about a tough life in highly literate fashion. It’s disarming.

Each song could be a highlight in its own way, but “I’m Alive Because of Nuclear Bombs” is the most single-like in that it has an obvious chorus, upbeat tempo, and a sort of jaunty mood (sort of because look at that title). “Riverside Park: Devil Mask & Wings” is one of the most emotionally devastating tunes, although “Come Play with Me” is a close second. “Buried a Cop” is a gorgeous tune melodically that splits the difference between the two previous ideas. But I could go on and on.

I believe that you find the core of a songwriter when you take away all of the surroundings. (Nothing against the other sounds or members of the band; I’m a bassist, after all.) Pulling away Hillig’s arrangements reveals something even more impressive than I expected. Instead of becoming an acoustic version of a indie-pop songwriter, he transforms and applies his skills to fit the situation. The Buddhist is a remarkable album, one that has initial charms and grows on you. It requires you to really listen, but you’ll be highly rewarded if you do. Fans of The Mountain Goats, Red House Painters, Damien Jurado, and Josh Ritter will all swoon for this.

More MP3s!!!!!

August 1, 2014

1. “My Young Love Was as Blind as Ray Charles and Half as Cold as Heat” – Kye Alfred Hillig. Not content to drop one contender for album of the year in 2014, Hillig is gearing up for release #2. From the sounds of this, he’s still on a roll. Or, if you’d like…

2. “Start Again” – Slow Readers Club. There’s a dark, slinky, sexy groove that falls between Interpol and Bloc Party going on in this hook-filled tune.

3. “Feels Like Work” – The Slang. Jimmy Eat World seems to have a monopoly on the introspective rock song that is both emotionally powerful and actually rocking, but The Slang are throwing their hat in the ring with this tune. I’m a fan of this towering rock tune.

4. “The Lord’s Favorite” – Iceage. These Danes make this tune sound like some sort of high-speed, drunken Johnny Cash outtake, from the musical style to the depictions of drinking and hard living. (That’s high praise, in case you were wondering.)

5. “Why I Had to Go” – Bishop Allen. People who weren’t necessarily fans of Bishop Allen’s latest power-pop single will rejoice at this eclectic, affected indie-pop tune reminiscent of their previous work.

6. “Memories That You Call (feat. Monsoonsiren)” – ODESZA. My favorite post-dub electro group drops a quirky, upbeat, friendly tune that makes me want to go running.

7. “Hold Still” – Slow Magic. Threatening ODESZA’s place as my favorite electro artist right now, Slow Magic makes moody, ethereal moments out of the most minor of sounds. This one does open up into a bit of an epic slow jam, but never includes a ton of instruments to overwhelm you with.

8. “Trap” – Remedies. This smooth, well-crafted electro jam has strong Zelda/Final Fantasy vibes, and I’m totally down with that.

9. “Weightless” – Grand Pavilion. These newcomers take a slow jam/R&B angle on their electro work, complete with autotune reveries.

10. “Bark and Sticks” – Kosoti. I never thought I’d be into a fusion of alt-folk and funky rhythms, but lo and behold. Really unique mood here.

11. “We All Been There” – Chris Heller. Mmm, sometimes you just gotta have some piano-fronted blue-eyed soul/R&B in your life. Heller really nails the soulful chorus.

MORE VIDEOS THAN YOU CAN HANDLE pt 1

June 24, 2014

The best songs move me. The best music videos take the best songs and make them even more powerful. Andrew Judah, already one of the most inventive and creative songwriters I’ve discovered this year, just dropped an absolutely astonishing video for “I Know You Know” that ranks high among the best I’ve seen this year and this decade.

Exzavier Whitley’s “How Will You Be” channels Nick Drake, Alexi Murdoch and other chill fingerpickers of note. Don’t sleep on Exzavier Whitley–he’s got huge talent.

Kye Alfred Hillig performs his song “Ex” as part of an a capella trio, making the already excellent song even more haunting and unique. Hillig, people. HILLIG. GET ON HIS LEVEL.

Stellar power-pop band Bishop Allen with only 14,000 views? WHAT IS THIS?! Give them your view. You will not be disappointed.

MP3 Catchup, pt 1: Fun in the Sun

June 18, 2014

I’ve been behind on MP3s and videos, so there’s going to be a lot of them posted in the next few days in addition to album reviews. I’m breaking my “one post a day” rule, but I’ll get back there shortly enough.

Fun in the Sun

1. “Bring You Down” – Ships Have Sailed. Oh man, remember early 2000s indie pop-rock? Like Watashi Wa and stuff? The bright-eyed sound, the self-abasing lyrics, the high harmonies, the twinkly guitars? It’s all here. I can’t help but love this song entirely. That lead riff is just so great.

2. “Bitter Branches” – Static in Verona. I’ve always got room in my heart for a pulse-pounding, towering power-pop song. This one features high, melodic, non-aggressive vocals. It’ll be in your head for a while.

3. “Silhouettes” – Colony House. Are you looking for a fun, upbeat rock track to blast in a car? Here’s my pick for this week.

4. “Boulders” – Dear Blanca. Dear Blanca’s Talker was one of my favorite records of 2013, so it’s thrilling to hear the noisy folk/rock band back with an even tighter sound and lyrical sense. Can we get this band on tour with Conor Oberst already? Please and thank you.

5. “Figure Eight” – Pageant. Peppy acoustic guitars get kicked into overdrive by electric organ and hyperactive drums, turning a folky/poppy tune into a charging pop-rock tune. Fresh, tight, and fun.

6. “Insults and Polemics” – Wall-Eyed. I bet you’ve never head a punk band mashed up with a Norteño band. I bet you’ve never heard a Norteño band. I bet you’re really going to like it.

7. “New York, I Love It When You’re Mean” – Julian Velard. Piano singer/songwriter in the Billy Joel vein? Yes, please! Great melodies here.

8. “Come Up and See” – Tree Dwellers. Instrumental hip-hop with an acoustic bent: we’ve got acoustic guitars, cello, and Spanish guitar vibes going on here. Totally cool.

9. “Could Be Real” – Diners. Lazy, chilled-out, but not chillwave, this acoustic (but not folk!) band carves out the hardest space: the space that’s always been there. This is pop music, for real.

10. “Licorice the Dog” – Kye Alfred Hillig. Hillig has been on a songwriting bender lately, pushing the bounds of prolific by doing all of his songwriting in vastly different genres. “Licorice” sees him return to his hometown of intimate singer/songwriter music with great results.

Risk Pays Off: Kye Alfred Hillig goes full electro to great results

April 15, 2014

realsnow

I was knocked out by Kye Alfred Hillig‘s ability to convey emotions on last year’s eclectic Together Through It All: through pop-rock, indie-pop, singer/songwriter, and even electro-indie, Hillig showed he knew how to bowl the listener over. Hillig is back with Real Snow, and it’s an even better offering: his emotional power is fine-tuned even further, and he’s chosen a specific sound to investigate. Hillig has gone full electro-pop on Real Snow, and the focus makes it into an excellent album.

Opener “Cold Front” establishes the rules of the game. Good: synths, beats, live percussion, bass, cascading electric guitar riffs, soaring vocal melodies. Less Good: acoustic guitar, piano, ballads. Bad: things you can’t dance to. If you know Hillig’s previous work, “Cold Front” will be a little bit of a shock, but his signature emotive power, vocal tone, and engaging melodies are there. It’s just in a different genre this time. By the time you get to “None of Them Know Me Now,” you won’t even remember that Hillig’s last album was predominantly Americana. He sounds like he belongs in this genre, not as a toy or a lark, but as a genuine pop hitmaker.

I know that sounds weird from an artsy indie songwriter, but don’t worry–the word “slaughterhouse” appears in the chorus, and the narrator of the tune sounds positively solipsistic. Hillig is flexing other muscles, you might say–and when those muscles introduce the triumphant guitar solo in the breakdown section, you’ll be dancing right along without concern. It is truly wonderful. “None of Them Know Me Know” is basically what we wanted MGMT to mature into.

It’s not all neo-club-bangers in here: “Useless Keys,” “Like God” and “Bells of Doom” explore different elements of electro-pop. “Bells of Doom” pairs an insistent acoustic guitar strum with a twitchy, urgent low-key electro section reminiscent of The Postal Service. “Like God” ups the nervousness ante and moves straight into outright dread (complete with terrifying spoken-word section from a guest poet closing the piece). “Useless Keys” relies heavily on real electric bass guitar for its plodding yet bouncy vibe.

Hillig can’t get through a whole album without busting out a few ballads, and so “When You Were a Waitres” and “The Night Obscene” appear. “When You Were a Waitress” is a wrenching piano ballad depicting the remorse at the end of a one-night-stand/relationship that probably shouldn’t have happened, while “The Night Obscene” seems to depict quiet despair in an otherwise normal life via Americana-style acoustic guitar-heavy arrangement. Hillig delves this lyrical mine deeply in Real Snow; everyone seems sad about something. Even the funkiest track “Ugly We Were Born” opens up with, “Heavenly gates, Oh! Don’t you want me?/Don’t you think I’d make a great slave?” Whoa there.

So maybe the grating despair of some tracks makes interesting juxtaposition to the dance-oriented music; maybe the perky arrangements hide the heaviness somewhat. It probably depends on the listener. I know that I’m all about the sounds here; it’s some of the most interesting and enjoyable electro-pop I’ve heard all year. If you need to get down and you want something a little more cerebral than “Selfie,” Real Snow should be your jam.

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

Recent Posts

Independent Clauses Monthly E-mail

Get updates and information about IC, plus opportunities for bands.
Band name? PR company? Business?
* = required field

powered by MailChimp!

Archives