Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Mid-November Acoustic Tracks

November 20, 2015

1. “Every Fight” – Lost Feeling. This complex, attention-grabbing track provides the electronic drama of a Baths track with more acoustic guitar and strings. Here’s a voice to watch.

2. “Hello Miss Lonesome” – Marlon Williams. Williams’ voice just fits so perfectly over this familiar-yet-strange rockabilly-meets-alt-country sprinter.

3. “Give It Up” – Animal Years. Any band sharing a name with a Josh Ritter album should make folk-rock as gleeful, catchy, and all-around fun as this. I can see myself jumping up and down to this song live.

4. “Oh, K” – Alma. Do you need a ray of acoustic pop-soul sunshine to cut through a gray day? Have this one.

5. “Holy Water” – Ed Prosek. Bear with me on this one, but I imagine this is what Mumford and Sons’ last album would have sounded like if they had not fully rejected their acoustic roots: it’s got high drama, but it’s contextualized in a mellow, lush, developed arrangement (check that choir).

6. “Winter Beat” – Michael Nau. Nau is half of Cotton Jones and–more importantly to me–the man behind Page France, one of Independent Clauses’s earliest loves. This walking-speed, bleary-eyed, Lou Reed-esque jam is a cool turn.

7. “No Stone” – Jenny Gillespie. Gillespie’s voice is wide and expansive, providing a nice tension against the close-cropped, keys-driven indie-pop below it. As a result, the tune has a unique vibe that makes its reference points tough to place.

8. “Darkness in Me” – Eight Belles. There’s a theatrical quality lurking just under the surface of this easygoing acoustic tune: you can find it in the piano, the surging strings, and the little swells at the middle of the song. It pairs nicely with Jessi Phillips’ confident alto voice to create a surprising, compelling track.

9. “The Broken Spoon” – Backyard Folk Club. Mad props for the name actually describing the sound. In addition to sounding like the most fun you can have on the back porch, this band has spoons, too!

10. “Chosen Peace” – Steamboats. We could all use a lot more peace in our lives, and if it’s delivered in a warm folk style, so much the better.

11. “Riot” – Supersmall. “Hello, is this Quiet is the New Loud HQ? Are y’all still open for business? Can we join? Here’s our credentials.”

12. “I Am Trying to Disappear” – Matt Bauer. Fresh, bright, and tentative, like if the lo-fi had been scrubbed out of all those early Iron and Wine records to hear how fragile things get when everyone can hear every bit of your plan. It picks up by the end very nicely, but that first half is delightful.

13. “Hollow Body” – Many Rooms. There’s something raw and powerful about the delicate acoustic exploration of this track.

Red Sammy hits its stride

November 13, 2015

redsammy5

I’ve often compared Red Sammy to Tom Waits, as Adam Trice’s gravelly baritone and minor-key acoustic musings drew a pretty clear line between the two of them. However, the relationship is less clear on Creeps and Cheaters: Trice moves his outfit into its own territory by incorporating swampy Southern rock (“King on the Road”) and CCR-esque country-rock (“Seeds”) alongside his ominous, minor-key acoustic tunes.

The base sound is still there: opener “Dirty Water” situates the listener in a dark, seedy bar and delivers the gravelly rasp that I’ve come to love.  The walking-speed tempo, subtly dramatic electric guitar and lyrical images of the underbelly of society (“I’m the dog that roams the streets” / “dirty water dripping down”) are all square in the wheelhouse–until the end, where Trice jumps an octave, gets all ratcheted up and pushes the bounds of his voice. It serves to change the mood, and that shift is continued throughout the record.

“I Got Creepy When Lou Reed Died” continues the vocal shift by being more akin to Reed’s work in the Velvet Underground than a country-rock song. Trice’s voice shines as the arrangement frames his pipes in an unique way. The aforementioned “King on the Road” and “Seeds” turn out different vibes too, allowing Trice to get out some great punctuating yawps in the rock’n’roll style. “Hanging with Uncle Elvis on Christmas” sees another turn, going more traditionally country with a dobro guitar and a clean vocal delivery. Trice’s vocals are still recognizably his own, but this performance shows that he can give the listener a lot of different looks. It’s one of the prettiest songs he’s ever put to tape–mostly because Red Sammy songs aren’t shooting for “pretty” in the conventional sense most of the time.

And there are some of the back alley tunes that he’s come to specialize in: the ominous vibe of “Lawnchair” sounds just like it should, fitting like a coat that doesn’t quite keep out the cold. “Take a Ride” pulls out a similar vibe. The centerpiece of the record is the 6:31 of “Sometimes You Forget What’s Real,” which IC had the pleasure of premiering. The whole band sounds assured and tight, coming together to create a seamless tune that rolls along effortlessly, like a lazy river in fall. It distills all that this album is about into one track: starts off in his pensive style, but grows to a different mood with some excellent electric guitar work.

Creeps and Cheaters shirks genre barriers and instead makes excellent tunes. If you’re interested in any type of alt-country, you’ll be interested in Red Sammy’s take on things. The growth that this album shows points to great things in the future, but that shouldn’t minimize the great things now: Creeps and Cheaters is the sound of a band hitting its stride and not slowing down.

 

Lee Reit: Easygoing, Engrossing, Calming

August 21, 2015

leereit

Lee Reit‘s self-titled record is largely played on a nylon-stringed guitar. In addition to adding a gentle sonic quality to the tunes, those strings import Spanish and Latin American connotations to the nine songs included here. When Reit’s evocative vocal tone and narrative vocal delivery are added in, the result is an engrossing, calming album full of intriguing tunes.

Opener “Dream Another Night” gives a good look at Reit’s guitar playing and his suave, subtly dramatic baritone vocal tone. The rolling fingerpicking is underscored by an insistent, shuffling, brushed drumbeat that would fit in a country tune; the constant press forward creates a tension against the guitar line and Reit’s easygoing vocal delivery. That tension holds even when Caitlin Marie Bell takes the mic for a verse; it’s a pleasant sort of push and pull that engages me in the tune.

There are Spanish vibes in “Dream Another Night,” both sonic and visual. The sonic ones aren’t as pronounced as they are in later songs, but the choice of all-white clothes for the band in the video gives the clip a light, airy feel that makes me think of relaxing languidly in a Spanish vineyard. (We’re honored to premiere the video above today!) “The Pleasure of the Fall” has a dusky Spanish nightclub vibe–not Ibiza, but 1920s literary expat Spanish nightclub. (The distant trumpet and sighing strings reinforce the initial thought.) “Visions of Eternity” amps up this style by incorporating Dylan-esque, cryptic, religious/political/social commentary and ratcheting up the minor-key drama. “Thanks for the Lessons” calls back to that Spanish vineyard, while also pointing toward Parachutes-era Coldplay work.

Most of the tunes on the record benefit from the control Reit has of his voice. “The Pleasure of the Fall” allows him to accentuate different points of the narrative by modifying the register and tone of his voice, from light and high to low and serious. It sounds like a simple transaction, but it’s not: there’s a significant, mysterious gravitas that he’s able to conjure up with the vocal shifts. He’s also great at delivering phrases and words, filling particular ones with meaning just by inflecting them in a certain way (“Thanks for the Lessons” and “Grace Alone” in particular, although it’s evident everywhere).

It’s not all Latin American vibes–“Grace Alone” is folky, even with hints of blues and gospel vibes. The fast-paced, keys-laden “Here, As in Heaven” has a speak/sing, Lou Reed/CAKE thing going on, which presents a very different angle on Reit’s songwriting. But in general, this is a walking-speed, unhurried album. “Wheel Within a Wheel” and “Shangri La,” the chronological center of the record, are flowing, relaxed tunes that make me want to go on a low-stress beach vacation–they’re indicative of the overall response I have to the record.

Lee Reit’s self-titled record is one that can be appreciated for its beauty immediately and for its subtlety over multiple listens. Like John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats (although in a very different milieu), Reit has developed his voice to be a fine-tuned instrument for delivering melodies and lyrics that stick in my head and keep me coming back. You could cover a Lee Reit song, but you wouldn’t sing it the way that he does. That’s a distinctive mark. If you’re into slowcore acoustic (Mark Kozelek, Songs: Ohia, Mojave 3) or thoughtful acoustic work (Josh Ritter, Joe Pug, Jason Isbell), you’ll enjoy Lee Reit’s work.

Fireships: Joy sprinkled with darkness

April 1, 2015

fireships

Fireships’ self-titled album is purely a joy to listen to. Their playful yet smart lyrics combine with brilliant instrumentation to make Fireships one you need to grab.

The album’s multifaceted influences will be sure to please a variety of audiences. With the overall feel of the album being rather uplifting, one might think that that’s all there is to the album. I mean, with an opener like “All We Got,” what more do we need than that driving beat, enlivening lyrics, and humble vocals? Yet, Fireships has even more to offer us!

With a closer look, you begin to hear folk, western, and even some African influences. Both “Chasing the Sun” and  “Countdown Time” show a Spaghetti Western influence. “Come Back To Me” enters with a very Caribbean feel done through its opening rhythms and instrumentation; “Going Down Fighting” is very reminiscent of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” The choral voices in “Fantasy” are reminiscent of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.”

One thing that stands out throughout the album is Fireships’ ingenious instrumentation. Each instrument is used to add different things for different songs: the guitar is playful in “Chasing the Sun”, yet soulful in “Long Shadow.” The sweetness in “Words Escape Me” comes from the guitar too; when paired with the violin, the six-string adds darkness to  “Carried Away.”

Although mostly cheery and upbeat, Fireships does have its moments of darkness, which serve to even out the sound. The best example of this is the juxtaposition between singles “Gush” and “Countdown Time,” both of which you can listen to now.  “Gush” begins with an opening guitar riff that is oddly reminiscent of Fountains Of Wayne’s “Stacy’s Mom.” As the track continues, it simply gets cuter and cuter (unlike “Stacy’s Mom,” which just gets creepier and creepier). And as “Gush” fades out and “Countdown Time” enters in, there’s a bit of uneasiness lingering.

Although “Countdown Time” sounds dark through it’s minor chords and ominous tone, the track is still just as playful as “Gush” (as evidenced by the track’s music video). The experience of hearing their most darling–but not cheesy–love song, then one of the darkest sounding tracks on the album, then the almost Bob Dylan-esque “Long Shadow” gives the listener a moment of darkness quickly swallowed up by folky happiness again. These transitions allow the album to be upbeat and happy, yet contain depth sprinkled with darkness.

Fireships was thoughtful enough to prepare us for the album’s end by closing with a song of preparation. “Unplug the Stars” serves as the perfect ending to a wonderful album. The repetition of the lyric “it’s time,” the gently driving beat, and calming strums of the guitar enable the listener to find reconciliation with the end of the album just in time for it to come to a close. Nothing could be a better example of Fireships’ brilliance.

Pre-order Fireships here!–Krisann Janowitz

News and stuff and October

October 24, 2014

So here’s the news!

Classic-rock new kids Greylag, who have a single that you should listen to, put together a Spotify playlist of songs that influence them. The concept in itself is pretty cool, but their list is even cooler: aside from obvious influences Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, they’ve got Sonic Youth, Cocteau Twins and Kurt Vile. Get hip, y’all.

Singer/songwriter Stephen Kellogg is doing a PledgeMusic campaign to fund a four-album cycle based on the four cardinal directions. I’m all for ambitious projects and crowdfunding, so go jump on it.

Nate Allen (of exuberant acoustic-punk outfit Destroy Nate Allen!) has a solo project coming out that also is looking for some crowdfunding. Allen’s campaign is for dat vinyl.

The diverse Mint 400 Records, home of the band I manage, just released a free tribute to Lou Reed. You can download the short EP by clicking on this link.

A deluxe edition of Songs: Ohia’s Didn’t It Rain is getting a Nov. 11 release from Secretly Canadian. As a fan of Jason Molina’s work, this is exciting to me. Even more exciting is the new song released in celebration of the event, “Ring the Bell – Working Title: Depression No. 42.”

Here’s to you, Mr. Molina.

Singles 2: You Play That Acoustic Guitar However You Want

October 22, 2014

You Play That Acoustic Guitar However You Want

1. “Old Hope” – Angelo de Augustine. It’s like Elliott Smith is alive. Maybe there’s some Joshua Radin and Nick Drake in there, but mostly the whispered vocals and style of acoustic guitar remind me of Smith.

2. “Amarillo” – Anna Vogelzang. Combine the charm of Ingrid Michaelson with the full arrangements of Laura Stevenson, and you’ve got a little bit of an idea of Vogelzang’s talent. She’s one to watch.

3. “Red River” – Tyler Sjöström. Fans of Mumford and Sons will love this theatrical, finger-picked folk-pop tune.

4. “Forever Gone” – Andrew Marica. The morose romanticism of Damien Rice + the distant reverb-heavy atmospherics of Bon Iver create this downtempo ballad.

5. “Delilah” – Tony Lucca. This one’s pretty boss: Wide-open, sneering, engaging full-band country-rock with an eye toward Coldplay-style, radio-friendly vocal melodies. Also, there’s some awesome saloon-style piano playing.

6. “Angel Tonight” – Peter Galperin. Musical adventurer Galperin moves from his bossa nova experiments towards ’80s country-flavored classic rock. There’s some Springsteen, some Paul Simon, and more all combined here.

7. “Time” – Night Windows. Acoustic-based indie-pop a la David Bazan that teeters on the edge between twee and melancholy.

8. “I Got Creepy When Lou Reed Died” – Red Sammy. The husky, gravel-throated country of Red Sammy gets an electric makeover for this tribute tune. The title a weird thing to chant, but you’ll probably want to sing along repeatedly to the mantra-esque chorus.

Quick Hits: A Day in The Life of a Traveling Shoelace Salesman – Aglets, not Ferrules, Ma’am.

March 5, 2014

goldlight

Gold Light sits at the altar, fists bored to its chin, waiting for the hymn to end, so it can get to the real songs… the ones waiting at the fellowship hour to follow.

There’s an obvious throwback vibe on this self-titled record to Velvet Underground or more modernly The Tyde. Joe Chang, Gold Light himself, has a distinct voice, though. The lyrics are rife with simple wisdom, bent clichés, and plenty of baby-you-better-believe-its. The vocals (swathed in hall reverb) with just a Pixies bass line supporting–like Jonathan Richman with a story-time, Springsteen flow–on the song “Gold” say, “Well, darling, don’t you know that your heart of made of gold? How come you set the price so low?” Memorable and classic. “True Love Never Dies,” the album closer, has a Phil Spector shimmer and a da doo ron clippy clop, arpeggiated beauty.

Cool that it’s a cassette, but here’s what Gold Light should do. Tour the US really quickly supporting this release. Only Joe can drive the van, so he can focus on the lights and the destination, his delivery and the maddening lines–upon the highway and furrowed brow alike. Meanwhile, the other band members get to really tour the nation, burping up ethanol-boiled pizza slices, watching deer play on the side of the highway. Put out another full-length really soon after this one…like start recording it the day they get back. Then, put the new one and Gold Light out on vinyl. Lou Reed said, “There’s only X amount of time. You can do whatever you want with that time. It’s your time.”

Thirteen words on watching the sun rise to this album: I am not still drunk. I can run my hands over iridescent clouds.

mathmajor

Math Major by Art Contest is a catapult crock completely crammed with cottage cheese. Now, where are we going to aim it, and who gets to release the ropes?

I picture seeing this band live and remarking, “Wow, they were different than every other band on this bill.” Hyper, stand-out fun is tangible with every soaring guitar overture. Then, the rhythm section crashes in, swoops with emphasis showing the backbone and the corners of each song. RIYL Truman’s Water (yet not as musically reckless–“Banana Boat”), The Wicked Farleys (in frenetic vibe “Sugar Bay”), Weekends (but with bass guitar–“Riff Raff”). On “Tripp Pants” the words are, “I was kissing my dad, and I didn’t even know it. I was crashing my car, and no one ever told me.” Five gold stars.

Thirteen words on sun-tanning & eating lunch to this album:  Pass me the gigantic Christmas tin of Cracker Jack. The peanuts are disgusting.

wecamefromexplodingstars

We Come From Exploding Stars is a reflective, hopeful dream of light… a reach from despair for the young and the restless. We just stayed right out there under the pines… a beach in the air for the dumb and thus tentless. Moonlit Sailor comes from Boras, Sweden where they often experience weeks without sunlight*.

The Sailors do epic, instrumental, ambient, triumphant post-rock. I think they sound like a tight band that does what they do very well: putting space between swells and sinking boats by the end of a song. It sounds like they have an Ibanez AD999, an Akai Head Rush, a tube bass head, and a great drummer. The tunes are well composed. They swell up and duck down, crushing you into a ball of foil. Unball that foil to reveal an imprint of a fossilized fish. Give it to your nephew on his 7th birthday. Watch him grow. Be proud when he becomes an archaeologist and finds all the dinosaurs the way they really looked. This band has grown up over the course of four albums, all on Deep Elm Records*. Their uncles should be proud.

Thirteen words on watching the sun set to this album: Time was once the decider; now, the Universe has sent space to me.–Gary Lee Barrett

*These were all words from a press kit.

Derek Porter's second volume of Strangers is quite strange, in a good way

May 17, 2011

Derek Porter’s Strangers, Vol. 1 was a atmospheric, folky affair that called up Bon Iver comparisons. Strangers, Vol. 2 is an experimental pop affair that has almost nothing to do with the warm tones and acoustic guitars of the first installation. This doesn’t mean that it’s bad, but it’s certainly an adjustment the listener has to make.

Porter’s new sound revels in juxtapositions, unusual sounds and unexpected chord changes. “Roger the Engineer” features a catchy chorus (“Lord, can’t take much more of this!”) that subverts expectations by swinging up at the end to an unusual chord. Then there’s the frantic, interesting outro, that shows up, is awesome, and then leaves before I wish it would.

Then again, “All is Loss” is a pretty standard piano tune that is not that far off from Vol. 1. But then the Lou Reed-influenced “When I Forget My Name” ratchets up the unusual again. It’s not totally avant-garde; just enough to keep listeners on their toes. But then “I’ve Been Walking” and “Tongue in Cheek” are jazzy lounge pieces, and full avant-garde pop returns with the seven-minute “Chestnut Tree” balancing morose atmospherics seemingly straight out of Vol. 1 with weird, Grandaddy-esque pop that abruptly stops and starts. It’s the best of the seven, as it meshes what I expected with the new thing he wanted to say.

And then it’s over. It is a bizarre little journey, but it’s one that leaves me scratching my head and repeating it, instead of scratching my head and deleting it. I’m not sure where Derek Porter is going or what he wants to be, but the tunes he turns out keep my interest. That’s for sure.

Ash Gray and Girls steal everything and make new songs out of it, much to the ears' delight

March 12, 2010

I’ve always enjoyed the name Pop Will Eat Itself. I’ve never heard a single song by them (although the tune “Get the Girl! Kill the Baddies!” sounds awesome), but their name has been about as prophetic as MTV’s ominous and prescient first choice of music video. Pop certainly has started eating itself. Example: I had a yelling fight with a close relation over the fact that Imogen Heap, not Jason DeRulo, wrote the hook to DeRulo’s “Whatcha Say.” It was a low point in music history for me.

But DeRulo’s thievery (thievery, I say!) is different than Ash Gray and Girls’ reinventing of pop. They’re both eating pop music, but DeRulo’s not even chewing, while Ash Gray is messing the peas and mashed potatoes on the plate before it even gets to the mouth. Okay, enough with that analogy.

Ash Gray and Girls is a pop band that sounds a little bit like all of these people: Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, Garth Brooks, Fleetwood Mac, Heart, America, Neil Young, the Clash, and the B-52s. There is absolutely nothing here that hasn’t been done before. But that doesn’t matter, because Ash Gray has taken all the pieces of pop music and put them together in odd ways. “Your Gun is Out” is the Clash playing with the B-52s singing. “Rock’n’Roll Record” sounds like Heart’s “Barracuda” being played by John Cougar Mellencamp. “Fire Away” sounds like Garth Brooks fronted by Neil Young. These are all great songs.

The only thing holding these tunes together is Ash Gray’s acoustic guitar, which is almost omnipresent, and a bright tone to all of the proceedings. There are also plenty of female backup vocals (I assume these are Girls of the band name).  There’s only seven songs on This Could Be a Wild Night, but each is its own adventure, from a face-melting guitar solo (“Fire Away”) to the Lou Reed impersonation that is “Rules.”

Ash Gray and Girls is the type of band that gets everyone in the bar dancing because they remind them of some other band that they usually shake their moneymaker to. Ash Gray seems to have recognized this and capitalized on it, yanking shtick after shtick and combining them into memorable songs. Ash Gray and Girls seem to have become the acoustic pop version of Girl Talk, jacking stuff from everywhere and turning it into something new and different. Highly recommended for fans of any of the gazillion bands I’ve name checked so far, plus Jason Mraz and anyone else with an acoustic guitar and a pop hook. This Could Be a Wild Night is one heck of an EP.

Mittens on Strings excels at psychedelic indie

December 21, 2009

The eighties killed psychedelic music. The electronic sounds, materialistic excess, and posturing of the lost era of good music put the screws to trippy sounds. There hasn’t been a real resurgence of the signature sound of the sixties and seventies since. There have been scattered bands here and there, but the closest thing to a real resurgence was shoegazer, which was couched in so much elitism and depression that it really doesn’t even count, as it completely misses the easy-going waves of psychedelic tunes.

Mittens on Strings originally confused me, because they’re the sound of modern psychedelic music. The word that kept coming back to mind was “woozy.” The music, when played at appropriate volumes, puts whatever room/car/headphones is playing Let’s Go to Baba’s into a drowsy, hazy state. This isn’t because the music is boring; it’s because songs like “Lou Reed Says” are set up to make you slowly bob your head back and forth. From the swaying tempo to the drooping vocal lines and swooping violin duet, the song just ambles along. That’s not to say it doesn’t get exciting. The song builds to an impressive climax with distorted guitar, huge bass work, and lots of cymbals. It’s just that Mittens on Strings has nailed how to make psychedelic music that you can actual enjoy in the modern realm.

And they’ve done an impressive job of making the whole album listenable as well. The Fleet Foxes-esque indie/folk of “La Middle Ages” is distinct from the bass intro of the appropriately named “Lumbering Giant.” The mournful background vocals of “Flaming Pig” distinguish it from the plucked string section of “A Mountain of Light.” Even the few uptempo tracks are their own entities: the whoa-oh’s in standout “Big Brother” aren’t anything like the plaintive chorus of “Big Black Car,” which is entirely separate from the island sounds (!) of “Vacation.”

But even with all this individuality, each of these tracks retain the Mittens on Strings stamp: low vocals with a morose streak, prominent use of dueling violins, lots of bass work, and dreamily distorted guitars (whether they be chords, distortion walls, or single-note melodies). In short, Mittens on Strings figured out how to write good songs that sound enough like each other to not be jarring next to each other, but different enough that you want to keep listening to each of them over and over.

The only problem with Let’s Go to Baba’s is that since it resurrects a style so often forgotten, the sound will come off as foreign and uncomfortable to some. “A Mountain of Light” is not something that is often heard, and it may be difficult to connect with at first blush. But those who are interested in uniquely creative music or psychedelic music should be very pleased to discover the surprising songwriting prowess of Mittens on Strings.

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

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