Afterlife Parade started out as an artsy, experimental indie-rock group. Death & Rebirth is a wild, scattered, and often-powerful debut released in two parts. The band turned right around and dropped A Million Miles Away, which contains some of the most spot-on, adrenaline-pumping, emotion-charged pop-rock I’ve heard in years, losing some of their sweeping arrangements but amping up their melodic bonafides. Where did the tumultuous, textured, enigmatic, dramatic work go? Well, it all made its way into AWE: Volumes 1-3.
AWE is a set of three impressive five-song instrumental post-rock albums. Each of the three holds to a different theme (the passing of a day, the cycle of seasons, the span of a life), and each of the 15 songs explores a different mood of post-rock song. I know that sounds ambitious, but it’s true. What’s more impressive is that they sound seasoned in every single style. They’ve listened to a lot of post-rock, and their tunes distill a lot of post-rock ideas into (often) short spaces.
Volume One (about the passing of a day) opens with “Dusk Whipers,” a glacially-paced but gentle tune that builds on soft keys and ambient space until it reaches its apex. It doesn’t get heavy, which leads neatly into the perky, Devotchka-esque melodies and quiet-but-insistent rhythms of “Stretching Sunlight.” Here and elsewhere, they layer individual sounds expertly to create moods.
“Mount Sol” relies heavily on pizzicato strings to give it a Balmorhea vibe, while “Day’s End” builds off tape hiss, melancholy finger-picked guitar, ephemeral keys, and ghostly voices. (It’s like a post-rock Bon Iver.) “Midnight Waltzes” closes the set with a regal, stately solo grand piano performance. It’s a gorgeous, remarkable set all on its own, and there’s still two more!
Volume Two is a much grander affair than Volume One; where the first one was done in under 20 minutes, the follow-up is near 40 minutes long. Their interpretation of the changing of seasons is much heavier in tone than their sound of a day; Volume Two opens with the bass-heavy, ominous “Solstice” anchored by an ostinato piano line that is transformed in tone via the layers added to it (like LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends”). “July’s” spends several minutes developing a complex Latin-jazz percussive beat created by electronic and human drummers before transforming the connotatively-celebratory mood into an eerie soundscape that feels like a forest closing in on you.
“Fall Euphoria” is still pretty pensive at the beginning, but it transforms the uncomfortable vibes and percussive dominance of the first two tracks into a tender, beautiful piece that’s reminiscent of the Album Leaf. It’s a remarkable, deft, expert turn to move directly from one to the other through the same piece. Its wistful overtones lead into the nine-minute “Slow Cold,” which is exactly what it says on the tin. (Post-rock fans are nodding their heads.) It closes with a dissonant solo piano piece that experiments with the way that humans hear and interpret dissonance, holding out notes that don’t necessarily go together for long periods of time before resolving them. It’s basically modern classical music, and it’s remarkable. It’s not one of my favorite pieces emotionally, but musically it’s one of the most impressive.
Volume Three is quite different than the second; it barely covers 15 minutes. However, it’s the most emotionally evocative of the three for me. Covering the span of a life, it starts out with “Tippy Toes,” a 96-second tune with ukulele, toy piano, shaker and other small instruments that remind me of Lullatone’s twinkly, beautiful, but not pandering work. It’s a wonderfully charming start to the piece. “Hopscotch” is a perky tune built on guitars that is again reminiscent of Devotchka. It captures the freedom and uncomplicated joy of play in a surprisingly poignant way. A little growing up leads us to “Sixteen,” which combines confident ’80s-style electro beats and synths with some gently exploratory guitar work.
“Youngblood” is a more tentative work, scared even–showing the difficulties of growing up and getting out into the world. The sound is ambient, with bits of sound coming in and out at seemingly spontaneous times, but never sounding fully like a cohesive unit. The purposeful off-centering of the work tells a strong narrative, especially in the context of the pieces that came before it. A blaring organ starts off “Sage,” but it soon gets layers and layers of keys on top of it, turning it into a woozy, vaguely funereal dirge tinted with specks of joy. It’s a bold, risky conclusion to the release, and I like it.
The three releases in the AWE series are each incredibly beautiful. The fact that one band made music of this many varieties while also being able to throw down incredible pop-rock tunes points to an intimidating, towering talent. The songwriting is amazing; AWE is amazing; Afterlife Parade is amazing.
1. “Holy Ghost” – Michael Flynn. Flynn spent more time in the Radiohead school of electronica than in the club, it appears: Haunting, hooky, high falsetto.
2. “Time Between” – Bear in Heaven. I think we have reached the point where classic rock and indie rock are essentially the same. We could put Bear in Heaven on tour with like half the bands from the ’80s OR The Steve Miller Band and it would be totally cool. This song rules, by the way.
3. “Retro” – After Party. Autotune meets gospel towering meets pulsing electro. Get your slinky dance on.
4. “God’s Oscillator” – Vial of Sound. PROTIP: If you want to catch my attention, namedrop LCD Soundsystem in your press release. Vial of Sound’s new track features some ex-LCD musicians, even though it sounds more like Daft Punk.
5. “I Never Knew” – Wonderful Humans. Big synths, big melodies, airy harmonies: it’s the formula these days. And it still works.
6. “The Dancer” – Villiers. This dark synth-pop track rides the line between ominous and sultry.
7. “Fancy” – Starlight Girls. WHOA, THEY WENT DISCO. FULL DISCO.
8. “My Heart” – Werebearcat! It’s a ballad! It’s a slow jam! It’s an indie electro track! It’s Superman!
Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: Captain Baby combines Indian vocal stylings, Bloc Party’s guitar rhythms, and LCD Soundsystem’s rubbery bass. Sugar Ox opener “I Say You” features songwriter Asher Rogers singing in a lilting, soaring, Indian-inspired vocal line over LCD’s signature thrum-thrum-thrum bass line and some twinkly guitar work, creating a haunting yet still comforting mood. It’s difficult to imagine those two moods together, but it’s difficult to imagine Captain Baby’s music (unless you’re Asher Rogers, apparently). It’s also difficult to capture in words, so I’m going to keep this short and refer you to the singles.
“Bury Your Head” and single “Forest Charm” pick up the pace with Bloc Party’s helter-skelter drum/bass/guitar style–if you were into Silent Alarm, you’ll find much to love here; Bloc Party also toed that line between tension and catharsis. But where Bloc Party stayed firmly in a “midnight on an urban freeway” vibe, Captain Baby strays into some Of Montreal joy occasionally. The quirky, frenetic songwriting quality of Tokyo Police Club also gets roped in every now and then (second single “Row On”).
It’s a fair bet that when I have this many RIYLs in a review, I’m struggling to encapsulate something truly unique and interesting. Captain Baby displays a vision not often captured with Sugar Ox; what’s even more impressive is that it doesn’t have to dip into the avant-garde to do it. (You can still dance to this!) Sugar Ox is commended to anyone who seeks out adventurous and challenging music that is still fun.
1. “Into the River” – The Quick and the Dead. This exclusive download toes the line between power-pop and Old ’97s alt-country and includes a killer harmonica solo. Back to the Future Part Three was rad.
2. “Primitive Style” – Johnny Delaware. I am in a roadtrip movie. I am in an ’80s convertible. Johnny Delaware is riding on the back of the car and playing guitar, somehow standing upright at 60 mph. My feathered hair is flying in the wind. I feel like yelling “FREEDOM” into the air in a Breakfast Club sort of way, not a William Wallace sort of way. Did Molly Ringwald listen to Bruce Springsteen? She would have loved Johnny Delaware.
3. “Dybbuk” – Remedies. I am transported to a kids’ movie in the ’80s, where I am wandering through an enchanted cave. Something awesome or maybe terrible is about to happen. My hair is still feathered. My jean jacket is on. The viewers are holding their breath. Let’s do this.
4. “Lost Track of Time” – MTNS. The Antlers, How to Dress Well, Vondelpark, and MTNS would be an absolutely incredible soundtrack to a 16 Candles-type movie. You know it’s true.
5. “Electricity” -FMLYBND. It’s like M83, The Rapture, and The Temper Trap collaborated on an ’80s club jam. SET PHASERS TO STUN.
6. “The Day We Both Died” – Vial of Sound. I’m always afraid to namecheck Daft Punk and LCD Soundsystem at the same time but screw it SET PHASERS TO KILL
7. “Told You Twice” – Milo’s Planes. Because sometimes you just need a thrashy, scream-it-out tune to blast in your car.
*I’m aware that BTTF3 came out in 1990, but let’s be real. 1990 was still the ’80s.
I thought I was going to a Wild Child show at Maggie Mae’s, but I ended up at a Wild Cub show instead. Instead of folky pop, Wild Cub purveys dance-friendly indie-pop; I’m down with that. The best moment came in their closer “Summer Fires,” where they toned down the perkiness and amped up the dance elements. By the time the song reached its whirling, enveloping conclusion, I felt like I was listening to an LCD Soundsystem song. That’s about the highest praise this guy can give to a dance band: when the parts come together to be more than their individual sum, and it seems like a song might not and shouldn’t ever end, you’ve reached the peak of dance-rock performance. Good work, Wild Cub.
I found Leagues through a compilation, where the stark, memorable guitar riff of “Magic” caught my attention instantly. The restrained, thoughtful pop-rock that Leagues purveys puts them in the same category as bands like Spoon and Elbow that take small elements of a tune and elevate them to monumental status. The set I caught at SXSW put the unique cohesiveness of their sound on full display.
The band plays largely off empty spaces, populating the songs with tensions that are resolved by the interplay between the guitar, bass, drums and Thad Cockrell’s voice. The fact that guitarist Tyler Burkum, drummer Jeremy Lutito and Cockrell all have long careers in music shows, as the tunes shine by being pared down to the bare essentials. You can always add more to a song, but taking away things and still making successful tunes is impressive. Their songs are just a blast to listen to, and although they don’t particularly inspire dancing, they made me smile.
I trekked over to The Palm Door for the Team Clermont showcase, and I was pleased to find that it was in a rental space instead of a “dirty rock club” (as the lead singer of Fol Chen would later announce). It’s funny that the venue was so squeaky-clean, because the low-slung, southern, rootsy rock of Roadkill Ghost Choir would be the perfect fit for some hole-in-the-wall joint. The six-piece band’s sound filled the venue with melodic, earnest tunes that dropped down to near-silence before roaring to life again. The vocals were a focal point, as Andrew Shepard’s voice displayed unbridled fury and creaky uncertain in equal turns. Listening to such an evocative voice work its magic is one of my favorite things in music; hearing a band back that up with equal passion and fervor is even more of a joy. Roadkill Ghost Choir is highly recommended for fans of Drive-By Truckers, My Morning Jacket and the like.
So our Kickstarter is going splendidly, as we’re 84% funded after less than 48 hours of being open. The rapid success thrills and humbles me, as this little project (and by extension, I) have been the recipient of much generosity over the last two days.
But even with golden days about us, there’s still work to be done! Here’s a large mix of solid singles that have floated my way recently.
IC fave Kickstarter had a humongous third year, and you can see all their stats and stuff from it here. Cool information design for an even cooler site. They are literally changing the way the world does art.
Super Visas, James Hicken’s ambient folk project, has a new video for “The Hum That Keeps Us Cool.” It’s incredibly disorienting and fascinating:
I’m incredibly excited that I’ve finished my year-end lists actually correspond with the end of the year. Without further pontificating, here’s the first half of the year’s best.
Honorable Mention: LCD Soundsystem – Madison Square Garden Show. It’s not an official release, but it proves that the tightest live band in the world only got tighter with time. “Yeah” is an absolute powerhouse.
Matt Carney and I are doing a collaborative best-of list for OKSee, the blog that we each ran for half the year. It’s going to be awesome, and I’ll post a link when it happens.
Horse Thief‘s Grow Deep, Grow Wild appeared in our conversation, and Matt exhorted me to check it out. Matt shares my love of LCD Soundsystem and has rocked out to Colourmusic’s “Yes!” in a moving vehicle with me, so I trust his judgment. His judgment was in fine form when he recommended this album to me.
Grow Deep, Grow Wild is one of that rare class of albums that appropriates a specific feel as opposed to a specific genre. I suppose it’s vaguely indie-rock/alt-countryish, but what it really sounds like is the beginning of a road trip across the Midwest. The music is wide-open and spacious, and the energy bubbles just below the surface.
Opener “Colors” sets the mood with Springsteen-esque drums, foundational organ, distant background vocals, and rattling guitars in the chorus. The whole arrangement is held together by an affected, unusual vocal tone. The song comes together brilliantly, setting the rest of the album on a course that it rarely deviates from. Think or the Walkmen if they toned down the brittle guitar distortion, or Kings of Leon if the sheen of Only By the Night had a lot more country in it. I know I just repped a band with maximum cred and no cred back-to-back, but it is what it is.
The complete control of a very specific mood is the album’s strength and weakness. The call-and-response vocal delivery of “Warrior (Oklahoma)” is one of the few tracks that sticks out in the album, because the rest of the tunes feel like movements of one greater suite. The relatively small number of instruments used contributes to this sameness; I would love to see Horse Thief experiment with other sounds more extensively in the future. The one extremely memorable break from this is “Down By The River,” which busts out Walkmen-like horns to great effect. But to Horse Thief’s credit, there are no downside tracks: this is a totally enveloping atmosphere.
I’ve mentioned the Walkmen several times, and I’m going to do it again: if you’re down with Lisbon, you really should check Grow Deep, Grow Wild out. Horse Thief’s wide-open plains intensity is the Oklahoman answer to the aforementioned’s Brooklynite yowl. The album drops today, so if you’re in Oklahoma, head out to ACM@UCO and hear it, as well as the all-star supporting line-up of The Non, Deerpeople and Feathered Rabbit (all of whom are dear to my heart).
I pine for LCD Soundsystem so hard that if someone even mentions their name in a RIYL, I will listen to that album. Pikachunes‘ press mentioned the James Murphy Machine, and so I rushed to the self-titled album. This particular tactic sets everyone up for disappointment: the music of Miles McDougall deserves to be analyzed on its own, not as greater or less than LCD.
However, this particular dance vehicle does draw some comparisons in the both arrangement and recording style. The rhythm-heavy, muscly songs are lovingly treated to a warm production sheen that contrasts nicely with the cold vocals: McDougall’s pipes are reminiscent of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis and his followers (pre-stadium rockin’ She Wants Revenge, especially). The vocal melodies unfold most often over a simple beat, rubbery bass and a melody instrument, but McDougall has enough savvy as a songwriter to make sure a pulse runs through these tunes.
In that regard, Pikachunes is at even more of a disadvantage: by showing significant aptitude in the genre, it’s even easier to draw comparisons to James Murphy. Murphy, however, had 15+ years of indie-rock, DJ, and cultural critic experience to draw on before he started putting together the songs that turned indie music on its ear. McDougall is a relative young’un, and that youth is belied in the pacing of the songs.
Almost all of the songs here are self-contained entities. They share a vague mood and sound palette, but there’s no ebbing/flowing energy from song to song in the collection that would compel me to listen in this order or all at once. There’s nothing wrong with this approach (clubs don’t care about yr album, suckaaa, just yr hitz), but it makes the album less of an meaningful unit. His press says it’s kind of a concept album, so he’s going to have to improve on his cohesiveness in the future if he wants to achieve his concept goals.
But is “Metronome” a bodymovin’ dance track? Yes. Is “Nervous” an earworm deluxe? Also yes. Is “Disco Baby” suave as anything? Very, very yes. This stuff is fun to listen to, and that’s something that you can’t take from him.
But LCD Soundsystem raised the bar for indie kids making dance music. You can’t just throw it down anymore; you’ve gotta build great songs within great albums. I know, I know, that’s what we ask of anyone. But when Miles McDougall’s debut is this promising, I want to be that guy who challenges him to greater heights.
Pikachunes is an entertaining album and impressive debut of club-ready indie dance tracks. Here’s to hoping this is the start of something even greater.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.