Most of the things I choose to review at Independent Clauses are good, even if I don’t explicitly say the words “good” or “excellent” in the review. I try to reserve the words of high praise for works that truly go above and beyond the bounds that a genre has set for an artist. Come On Pilgrim‘s self-titled record clears the folk/indie bar by a long way.
Come On Pilgrim! is the sort of album that I and many others have cultivated a taste for over the past ten years. The folk-inspired acoustic songwriting, interesting arrangements, passionate performances, thoughtful lyrics and memorable melodies all come together to make something more than the sum of its parts. The album is also more than the sum of its predecessors. While the loudest moments are a continuation of the anthemic bent that lead songwriter Josh Caress struck on his last solo release Perestroika, Come On Pilgrim! is the work of a whole cast of musicians who push the best aspects of Caress’ previous LPs to new heights.
“Regenerator” elegantly displays Caress’ progression as a songwriter. The song starts off with a droning organ, reminiscent of the drone that marks the beautiful Letting Go of a Dream. It grows through a long, flowing, emotive section (The Rockford Files) before exploding into a howling finale that excellently incorporates some of the darker indie rock that characterized the back half of Perestroika. The result is a distinctive sound that Josh Caress has been working towards for years: beautiful, relatable, passionate, haunting.
But it’s not all Caress; as previously noted, there’s a whole band here that makes the sound. The keyboards, pedal steel and violin permeate every tune as fundamental elements. An acoustic version of “The Ashes and the Springtime (That Wild Feeling)” could be an outtake from the sparse, finger-picked Goes on an Adventure, but it is enhanced from the get-go with atmospheric pedal steel contributions. Piano carries the chorus; the violin brings in the motif that I can’t escape from this album. Caress later doubles the motif with his voice, but not before female vocals introduce the haunting lyrics: “Don’t you want that wild feeling?”
“The True New Fire” knows the wild feeling. The song takes its time to build into a soaring, wordless vocal line over rumbling toms, unfolding during five minutes. The unhurried songwriting allows each of the instrumental contributions to breathe. The results are breathtaking, like a city dweller seeing the stars in Kansas at midnight for the first time.
While those songs are impressive, the “best” tag goes to the 7 minutes and 40 seconds of “The Secret Songs,” which shows off Caress’s lyrical and vocal abilities in an absolutely gorgeous song. It’s about “That night you came over with your dress torn/and I held you while you cried”; Caress has been telling stories of emotional distress since (at least) Letting Go, but in this one everything comes together perfectly. Caress’s voice creaks in places, but it does so with confidence; the lyrics and tone of his voice sync up to deliver a powerful performance. If finding your voice in writing means coming to grips with your talents and embracing them, Caress has found his lyrical and melodic voices here.
The eight songs of Come On Pilgrim! sprawl over 40+ minutes, making this a listening experience as opposed to a quick hit. The songs are carefully, lovingly arranged, and it shows in the final product. Come On Pilgrim! is easily a highlight of the year, even in a year when Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers and Grizzly Bear released albums. I keep coming back to it over and over because it exceeds my expectations for folk/indie in almost every way.
I’m driving approximately 1000 miles today, and I will almost certainly be rocking “(I’m Gonna Be) 500 Miles” by the Proclaimers at least twice during that trip.
Some other road trip faves that will almost certainly spin:
1. Undercard by The Extra Lens, which I just picked up at Lawrence, KS’ Love Garden Records.
2. Graceland by Paul Simon, which I bought about a year ago at Oklahoma City’s Guestroom Records.
3. Letting Go of a Dream by Josh Caress, which is high on the list for my favorite album ever.
4. Rockin’ the Suburbs by Ben Folds, because I can sing every word.
5. Prolonging the Magic by Cake, because my brother’s girlfriend reminded me of much I love them earlier today.
Here’s to safe travels for everyone returning from their holiday travels over the next few days!
One of the weird things about music criticism (and there are a bunch of them that I’ll list someday) is that every critic approaches music with a different set of formative influences. In many fields, there’s a set of readings that you have to understand before you’re able/allowed to contribute to the conversation: in this field, you just have to listen to enough music to create an aesthetic that determines what music you call “good.”
Some people think that the best rock is subversive, while some think it’s that which has the best riffs. Authenticity is chased by some. Some rap critics are concerned primarily about production, while other critics are lyric obsessives. Those are highly simplified examples: If your aesthetic is coherent and easily understandable, you’re probably not idiosyncratic or “interesting” enough. (Being fickle, rarely a positive quality, seems kind of endearing in this field.)
But there’s usually an underlying commonality in how people form an aesthetic: people who write about music like or hate things for reasons that often have nothing to do with the band in question and much more to do with the first music that a critic ever loved. That is to say, it has much more to do with the way the person views what good music should be, because the first music a person loves automatically constructs a framework that is almost immutably set in synapses.
There’s a good reason for this: the emotional connection to a first musical love goes beyond rationality, which comes later in the process of becoming a music critic. Example: would you believe that the ~6 times I saw Relient K live in high school has a nearly direct correlation to why I’m so excited about Common Grackle‘s western swing and rockabilly? If so, you give me a lot more credit than I expect.
But it’s true that I love a band with:
a. melodies that I can sing along with (and get stuck in my head)
b. witty and occasionally sarcastic lyrics
c. meaningful things to say about culture via those lyrics
d. heavy rhythmic elements (that I can dance to)
e. absurd amounts of energy (so that I can scream along in catharsis at appropriate moments)
f. occasional group vocals (see point e)
g. the ability to write a killer ballad/slow’n'pretty/solo acoustic song (see a-c, e)
h. variety in song structure and sound
i. thoughtful arrangements
j. emotional issues (see all of the above)
This is because Relient K has all of those things, and when I first heard The Anatomy of the Tongue in Cheek, I was under the impression that the members had crafted the greatest piece of music ever created. When I realized that types of music other than pop-punk were also awesome (approximately two years later), it was too late. My brain had been imprinted with these characteristics as “The Fundamental Elements of Rock.” (Fun fact: One of the only other bands that has ever hit all of these fundamental elements over multiple releases is the-soon-to-be-gone post-hardcore powerhouse The Felix Culpa.)
I say all this because I am fascinated with Common Grackle’s The Great Repression, while many people will think it’s bizarre. This is because I see an album that embodies points a-j. Other people may only see a western swing album and run for the hills. As a music reviewer, it’s my job to convince you that Common Grackle is awesome, and hope that my argument will overtake your distaste for/lack of knowledge about western swing (which I will do tomorrow, because I don’t want to shortchange CG). This is a challenge because you have your own set of “fundamental elements” that have been ingrained over time.
This is why many blogs don’t write long essays about music: that’s not what people go there for (also: attention span). Blog readers don’t need to be convinced to hear new music in the way that readers of newspapers (or even journalism-heavy rock mags like Rolling Stone) do; if a reader is at the blog, he/she either passively or actively wants new music in his/her life. Words about that are nice, but are ultimately inessential to the goal: hearing new music.
So, why review music, right? Just post the MP3 and get out of there. Well, Independent Clauses isn’t really a blog trying to inform readers, because there are tons of those blogs. We’ve tried to be that before, but it’s not what we excel at. We’re best at being a blog written for the bands that we cover.
Blogs operate on a hierarchy: Independent Clauses is near the ground floor, and Pitchfork is the penthouse. Bands have to get press from one level of blog/media outlet before moving up to the next (i.e. getting a small break leads to bigger breaks leads to “the big break”). This isn’t some huge racket. It’s just the way that bloggers and media types find out about music: outwardly expanding concentric circles. It used to be that all bands wanted to move up to increasingly larger circles, being heard by more and more people. This is not always the case in the new music world. But Independent Clauses hopes to be a leg up for bands that do want to get bigger.
The Felix Culpa, whose final show is Friday, was a young band on a tiny indie label (Common Cloud Records) when we first reviewed their work in 2004. In 2011, Consequence of Sound included them on a list of the year’s most notable break-ups. (Good company: TFC placed behind Dear & the Headlights but in front of Kim Gordon/Thurston Moore.) That is incredibly meaningful to me; IC was a bit part in that. The band’s upward success means that IC has, in some small way, succeeded as well.
But even those bands who are content to stay where they are in the world like to hear what people have to say about their music. It’s a fundamental human trait: we want to know what other people think about our work and (by extension) us.
This sort of egocentrism is not universally reviled or beloved: at its extreme, as many people love Chad OchoCinco as hate him for exactly the same reasons. It’s just the way things are. We have voices, and having those voices validated and appreciated is a vital thing. The extreme of not needing this approval is a sociopath; the extreme of needing this is codependency. Most of us exist in the middle, where it’s nice (even flattering) to know people care.
And I do care about people, even people that I haven’t met and won’t ever meet: I believe that everyone matters and should be taken seriously. No one is below me, my time, or my words. Everyone matters.
“Taken seriously” obviously differs for various artists: humorous bands want to know if their joke is funny, not if their album rivals OK Computer; bands that aspire to write pretty albums (like Josh Caress’ still-brilliant Letting Go of a Dream) want to know if their music is pretty.
I try to take people’s claims on their own terms, and see if they hold up. Often they do; sometimes they do not. And when they don’t, but I see what the claim was, I try to give some advice for next time. Even if an album stinks, there’s at least one musician behind it: there will be more music from that person (even reclusive Jeff Mangum bears this out). And the person is worth helping, even if the album can’t be helped.
I can’t help everyone; I have an aforementioned framework of what I consider good music, and I rave about bands that fit within it. Hopefully, other blogs continue to write about music that I don’t like, so that artists who fit into the frameworks of other writers can be celebrated too. I don’t “reject” artists because their work is universally terrible: it just doesn’t fit in my mental structures. It is not a reflection on the artist as a person; it is hardly a reflection on the artist as an artist. If anything, it’s a reflection on me. As hard as I try to be objective and open-minded, there are just some things I don’t like. That’s another weird thing about music criticism: I am just as disappointed when I don’t like a band as the band is, because I want to write well of everything. I want to use my skills to help people.
Do I love music? Yes, very much. But that’s not why I keep writing reviews: I could just live on Spotify if my aural passion was all that drove me. I would never have made it to here, post #1500, if all I loved was music.
But I don’t like Spotify, because it hurts artists. I care deeply about the well-being of those people whose music I listen to and whose albums I fund on Kickstarter (my new favorite moneysink). I want to help artists, in any way I can, to pursue their dream of being an artist. I want to validate their talent, point out where they can hone skills, and send them on to bigger and brighter things with a press quote in their pocket.
And that’s why I haven’t quit on this commitment: I don’t do this for the music (although it’s awesome), readers (ditto) or because it’s a good business move (there’s going to be less and less money in it). I run this site because everyone matters and deserves to be taken seriously. Thank you for helping me realize this, The Felix Culpa.
In other Josh Caress-related news, I heard from his brother Adam (whose old band I reviewed a very long time ago, and who co-runs the blog Mule Variations) that they have TWO MORE musical siblings, who are in this band Ponychase. The song sounds like it could have been lifted from (still) my favorite Josh Caress album, Letting Go of a Dream, which means it’s been chilling in the back of my consciousness since I first heard it. Do yourself a favor and jump on this dreamy wonder.
In still further related Caress news, Adam Caress just did an interview on MV with Red Wanting Blue’s songwriter Scott Terry. Red Wanting Blue has been covered here before, and their new album From The Vanishing Point comes out in January. But because they’re awesome, they’re streaming the album, one song at a time, until it’s all up and out in the universe. If you like good ’90s pop, you’ll love this.
And, finally, it’s October, which means Chris Lawhorn of RunHundred sent over the top running tracks of September from his website. I usually let the data stand, but his commentary (below) is quite interesting. —Stephen Carradini
This month’s list brings two questions to mind:
#1. For how many consecutive months will David Guetta turn up in these top 10 lists? (His new track with Usher made the cut–and he just barely missed making it again with his recent Nicki Minaj collaboration.)
#2. Will Calvin Harris, Benny Benassi or Afrojack be the one that unseats him? (All three are making their second appearances on the charts this month. And, like Guetta, each has begun being billed as the artist on his tracks—rather than being credited as the producer/remixer, which was the case a couple years ago.)
This month’s top 10 is rounded out by a new track from LMFAO, a Britney remix, and a song by Young The Giant—brought most folks’ attention by the band’s surprise inclusion on this year’s MTV Video Music Awards.
Here’s the full list, according to votes placed at RunHundred.com–the web’s most popular workout music blog.
Rihanna & Calvin Harris – “We Found Love”
Dev – “In The Dark”
Afrojack & Eva Simons – “Take Over Control”
LMFAO – “Sexy And I Know It”
Chris Brown & Benny Benassi – “Beautiful People”
Shortee & Faust – “Friday Night Special”
Kelly Rowland & Lil Wayne – “Motivation (Rebel Rock Remix)”
Britney Spears – “I Wanna Go (Oliver Remix)”
Young The Giant – “My Body”
David Guetta & Usher – “Without You” —Chris Lawhorn
Perestroika, his latest and maybe last solo album for a while (nooooo!), contains the seven best songs that Josh Caress has ever written. There is a slight issue with this (there are twelve songs on the disc), but that’s still an incredibly high percentage of powerful tunes.
While his rate of success is somewhat astonishing, his formula is not that surprising: Caress has taken the best parts out of each of his last four releases and made a cohesive sound. The dramatic, sweeping, romantic pop soundscapes of Letting Go of a Dream form the core of the tunes. The inventive, complicated, Sufjan-esque instrumentation of The Rockford Files layers on top of this, bringing a depth to Perestroika‘s songs not present anywhere else in his catalog. The distorted guitar oomph that first appeared on Wild Wild Love lends an Arcade Fire-esque bombast to the tunes. The insightful lyrics of Josh Caress Goes on an Adventure! cap off the entire experience, lending meaning to the moving musical proceedings.
Add in the mix the unique voice of Josh Caress, and you’ve got a distinct set of songs that ranks highly in my top albums of the year.
While Caress splits the album into two sides of six songs each, I find it easier to analyze the album is in three parts: tracks 1-4, 5-8, and 9-12.
Tracks 1-4 take the Jayhawks-style Alt-country of Wild Wild Love and replace the twang with an epic indie rock flair. Each tune is an anthem in their own right, and I mean that in the very best possible way. In the opener and title track, he’s yelling “Perestroika! On! My! Mind!” as suitcases thump and bells ring. “Is That What You Want?” sees the pulsing guitar line making the song into an epic instead of the vocal line. “We Will Fight” features a choir yelling/singing its way through the whole song, culminating in the chorus: “We will fight! We will fight! But not with violence! We will fight! We will fight! We will fight to strengthen the things that we’ve made!”
The final song of the suite is “You Are the Light,” which sounds like a lost Joseph Arthur song on uppers. The chorus is a glorious singalong. It is a blissful cap to this set of tunes. There are literally no parts to complain about in these songs. They are nigh on perfect.
Tracks 5-8 are a bit of a headscratcher, as Caress takes a sharp turn into Radiohead sounds. There’s some Kid A electronic work (“Deconstruct”), some Hail to the Thief/In Rainbows-style rock (“Searching at the Edge of the Real Thing”), and more. They’re not bad at all; he appropriates their sound nicely. Even his vocals, which have always been a bit wavery and high, fit well in context. They’re good tunes, but they make little sense in the context of the album, and they’re just not as good as tracks 9-12.
While it is somewhat disappointing that the middle of the album turns away from the formula he spends two-thirds of the album perfecting, there is an upside. Josh Caress has gotten better by testing out sounds before incorporating them fully into his songwriting. If considering the melancholy electronica and rock as a potential future inclusion to Caress’ sound, this becomes a less frustrating suite of songs. Imagining his current powerful sound with electronic underpinnings helps me get over the fact Perestroika would be an incredibly cohesive album if not for the middle.
The last third of the album returns to the sound that Caress established in the first third. While “Everything I Wasn’t Meant To Be” is probably the least engaging of the eight folk/indie tracks, “Pulling the Curtain Back” is one of my favorites. It grooves hard, has a great melody and includes a stylistic throwback to Letting Go of a Dream. But the cascading guitar riff doesn’t revisit the style near as much as “Prodigal Son,” which uses the heavy reverb that was the trademark of Letting Go. The very specific mood it creates (and recalls) makes the track one of my favorites.
The closer, “By the Light of the Lantern We Go,” is true to its name, as the track is a nearly eight-minute-long journey. From the glockenspiel at the beginning to the full-on roar that occurs at the end of the tune, Caress takes the listener through all of his styles, motifs and ideas in one symphonic burst. It is a fantastic way to cap off a brilliant album.
The lyrics of Perestroika are relentlessly optimistic in the first and third acts, which matches the sound neatly. They include some of the most poignant that Caress has penned, especially in ”Perestroika On My Mind” and “You Are The Light.” The middle third’s melancholy and conflicted verses match the sound. Again, the middle isn’t bad; it’s just not near as good as the rest.
If this review seems disjointed, it’s because I feel that way about Perestroika. If this had been an eight-song album, or if something else had happened in the middle, I would be hailing this as the album of the year. It’s still going to be in my top ten for sure: the songs are just that good. Heck, the first four tunes alone constitute the best EP of the year. It’s my favorite JC release since Josh Caress Goes on an Adventure, certainly.
Josh Caress is edging ever closer to his masterpiece, and Perestroika is an enormous step in that direction. Do yourself a favor and get this CD.
Country has long been a component of Josh Caress’ singer/songwriter sound, so it’s not surprising that he’s dedicated Wild Wild Love to exploring that element of his style. While he plays within the conventions for most of his first foray into Ryan Adams-esque alt-country, he does create a handful of beautiful, adventurous tracks that make this album worth it.
Josh Caress Goes on an Adventure! was the first real display of Caress’ country leanings, anditis still one of my favorite Caress albums. Adventure! worked because Caress displayed what he was made of. There wasn’t any Sufjan-esque instrumentation (The Rockford Files) or fuzzy drone underneath (Letting Go of a Dream). It displayed Caress as an introspective troubadour with complex arrangements, catchy melodies, folk/country leanings, and a cinematic bent. There’s nowhere to hide in Adventure!, and it is all the better for it.
The ability to hide the songwriting within the surrounding instruments is part of what makes Wild Wild Love a decent but not astounding release. The title track opens with a forlorn harmonica and some weary guitarwork. It had my attention immediately; it’s great. Then, at around forty seconds, pedal steel, electric guitar, bass, drums and old timey violins come in. There’s nothing wrong with any of these things, but collectively they feel like overkill. The message could be sent that this is a country album without several of these markers.
Josh Caress knows this, too; the chorus of “Wild Wild Love” drops out the violins and bass, leaving only pedal steel, acoustic, gentle electric guitar and voice. It’s still a lot, but it sounds like not much (in context) and it’s beautiful. It’s a problem that was present on Rockford Files as well; just because Caress can do something doesn’t mean he should.
But it’s not just massive instrumentation that allows his to hide. Caress busts out his electric guitar for several songs, dropping into honky-tonk mode (“Be My Baby Tonight”), righteous anger mode (“I Won’t Let You Strip Me of My Soul”) and even straight-up American rock and roll (“Don’t Believe the Rock and Roll”). It’s not that these songs are bad (although “Be My Baby Tonight” does stretch the limits of credibility); it’s just that they don’t seem fully honest. Perhaps it’s the initial learner’s curve of writing rock, I don’t know; but these songs don’t connect as well as his quieter work.
There are moments of intense clarity, though: “Lake Michigan” takes motifs from Adventure and ideas of instrumentation from Rockford Files to create one of the best tracks he’s ever created. It’s beautiful because the pedal steel, mandolin, drums,organ, secondary guitar and background vocals are used perfectly. I could listen to “Lake Michigan” over and over; if I had to put together a Josh Caress greatest hits album, this would be on it. “Everybody’s Got Something to Prove” provides heart-crushing lyrics and one of the most steady vocal performances Caress has ever produced; it’s another stand-out. The control that Caress exercises over his voice on this track is impressive; this track alone is a major step forward in his songwriting style.
“I Wanna Be Your Man” is one of the better louder tracks here, as the vocals are memorable. The blue-collar, Joe Anybody feel of “A Path, Through Suffering” channels Springsteen (sorta). They’re louder and enjoyable; so it’s not like Caress can’t write a good loud song. It’s just that his quieter, more introspective stuff (at this point) works better.
There are lots of tracks here that are enjoyable, but the sum definitely feels like the experiment it is. “Lake Michigan” and “Everybody’s Got Something to Prove” are almost worth the price of admission on their own, so the recommendation here is definitely “buy.” But there are definitely some things that Josh Caress needs to get adjusted to in the alt-country genre if he’s going to keep chillin’ there for a while.
Band Name: Josh Caress
Album Name: Letting Go of a Dream
Best element: Strong command of layers and mood.
Genre: Indie songwriter
Label name: -
Band e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Some genres are trendy—fads like nu-wave emo, pop-punk, and post-grunge that have all come into their own in the past ten years. As soon as the media binge on those genres stops, bands will stop forming in those genres. The only bands that will play post-grunge in twenty years will be hardcore believers in the sound of post-grunge, which is the way I think it should be.
But there are a few genres that are consistently bloated—and the genre of singer/songwriter is the easy choice for that crown. That’s why it’s so exciting to me when a singer/songwriter of true merit comes along- an artist bucking the trends, ignoring the naysayers, and putting full faith in what they’re doing. Josh Caress is one of those rare songwriters.
By no means is Josh Caress’ debut album Letting Go of a Dream perfect- there are moments when his low, Dylan-esque voice warbles so much that it feels wrong (“A Summer Night When We Were Young”), sections of lyrics that should’ve been left on the cutting room floor (The musically excellent “The Bus Shot Through the Night and I Believed”), as well as a little bit of musical narcissism (the excessive length of “A Summer Night…”), but on the whole, this album is a dramatic statement from a new artist.
Josh Caress’ emphasis isn’t on virtuoso guitar playing or perfect vocals or immaculate production. Caress’ emphasis is on the mood of the songs he writes. This album flows beautifully, and although there’s a song here or there that doesn’t match up to the quality of the rest, the flaw can be ignored when you see how it connects to the rest of the songs in the context of the album.
“Sally’s on My Side” is the song to hear if you want to know what Josh Caress is about. It starts off with a muffled, distant electronic beat until a simple electric guitar strum comes in. A world-weary, downtrodden voice comes in, accompanied by an acoustic guitar on top of all that already is. The chorus brings in another layer of guitar and a tambourine. And it’s still quite mellow. The next verse brings in a far-off drumbeat and a doubled vocal. The song is building and building, and the changes flow right. The song surges upward in a crescendo until the very end when Caress takes his vocals up an octave over pounding layers of music, in a beautifully cathartic cry of “Wish you never loved him, wish he never hurt you!” Then the song drops back to its beginnings, with a simple beautiful guitar strum and an electronic beat.
All of these songs funnel the themes of loss, regret, and hopeful optimism through motifs of stars, night, wind, travel, and many more. The sound is lush, full, and beautiful- a legato indie-pop orchestra. From the tenderly forlorn “Opening Theme” to the final dying chords of “Letting Go of a Dream”, this album is beautiful.
I was once told to listen to a copy of Confusion Ends.’ album Hello, I’m Noah while riding a city bus. I was told that you would never feel more alive then to watch life pass while listening to the music. I’m telling you this: You will never feel more alive then when you listen to Josh Caress while watching life go by. The beauty in the CD makes life seem so much more beautiful than it is. Or maybe it unlocks the beauty that life already has.