Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Top 20 albums of the year: 20-11

December 31, 2012

Independent Clauses is somewhat of an alternate universe when it comes to music reviewing. I rarely cover the hip bands, often love things no one else does, and generally attempt to be true to what I hear. If there’s a radar to be on or under, we’re hanging out on a different screen altogether. This is more by happenstance than choice: I never set out to be contrarian. And I don’t feel like a curmudgeonly naysayer of popular music, as you’ll see tomorrow. I just have a different lens than many people. Here’s the view from that lens.

20. Summer of Sam – A-Okay. Lo-fi acoustic goodness that rings honest and true.

19. Ithica – St. Anselm’s Choir. I’m consistently amazed at this band’s ability to wring heartbreaking beauty out of what is basically industrial music.

18. Chris North – Lovedream. Angelic reverie comes via a bunch of guitar pedals, acoustic guitars and arresting vocals.

17. Andrea Caccese’s collected output: Songs for the Sleepwalkers’ Our Rehearsed Spontaneous Reactions and I Used to Be a Sparrow’s Luke. One man’s vision, applied to an ambient project and a indie-rock project that countered the ambience with an anthemic, U2-esque bent.

16. Elijah Wyman/Jason Rozen’s collective output: Tiny Mtns/The Seer Group/Decent Lovers. What started out as the artsy electro-pop project Tiny Mtns split into a heavily artsy electro project (The Seer Group) and a heavily artsy pop project (Decent Lovers), with the two splitting the tracks between them. Except when both kept a track and reworked it to their likings. Did I mention that this one time, one of these guys gave the other a kidney? Now you see why they get one mention.

15. Superstar Runner – Heritage/Lineage/Hand-Me Downs/Scars (Your Birthmarks Do Not Bother Me). Songwriters that forge their own path get remembered by someone. The size of that group determines their popularity, and I hope that this incredibly titled record has gotten Superstar Runner remembered by a lot more people for his unusual arrangements and song structures.

14. 4H Royalty – Where UFOs Go To Die. Hands down, the best lyrics of the year are here in this country/rock album.

13. Autumn Owls – Between Buildings, Toward the Sea. Radiohead? Is that you? No? Hey, whoa, I meant it as a compliment! But seriously, this band is thoughtful in composition and lyric, for a head-spinning, enveloping release.

12. The Parmesans – Uncle Dad’s Cabin EP. One of my favorite new bands of the year, this bluegrass outfit has serious chops to go along with its goofy demeanor.

11. Young Readers – Family Trees EP. I haven’t been floored as hard by an opening track all year as I was by “All I Have.” Beautiful whisper-folk in the vein of old-school Iron and Wine.

Chris North transcends dream-pop with perfectly imperfect arrangements

January 27, 2012

In the prologue to I’ll Take You There: Pop Music & The Urge for Transcendence, author Bill Friskics-Warren notes that he is interested in “those articulations of the urge for transcendence that have found their way into the popular zeitgeist without recourse to dogmatic or sectarian agendas.” He mentions both lyrics and music in his book, but I love the sound much more. And Chris North’s Lovedream, the first great album I’ve heard in 2012, offers up some incredibly transcendent sound.

Chris North, whose previous release under his own name I reviewed a few months ago, is not trying to fool anyone: there are a ton of people who will christen this dream-pop, nod at the name, and move on. But there’s more to Lovedream than just the back half of the name. The album fully encompasses its moniker: these aren’t coyly affectionate songs, these are jubilant hymns to the ecstatic, revelatory state of love. At its best, the modern conception of love feels like a utopian dream: this 11-track gem is the soundtrack to that delirious mutual infatuation. And if these songs appropriate sounds that are traditionally associated with heavenly arias, all the better.

North uses acoustic guitar as the base instrument for his dream-pop, using reverb, stacking and treble-boosting pedals/effects (I’m guessing on the last one) to turn these songs into soaring, jubilant paeans. The fact that he’s creating a musical interpretation of bliss while singing ostensibly sad things (“500 Miles,” “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean”) just confirms the transcendent power of the arrangements.

And these aren’t pristine pieces; that would take away from their effect. The strings and background vocals provide wonderful heft to the tunes, but are often wild and unkempt. There are instrumental parts that sound like mistakes. North’s low voice is captured as it is, not as some auto-tuner would make it. But these things only contribute to the sound: the album feels raw, ragged and real, even as it sounds completely otherworldly. “Indian Love Call” is a swirling instrumental piece, while “The Old Door” is a pop song with a melody that feels pulled from a hymnal. “The Road to Yesterday” is what bluegrass sounds like on the way up there, and “Stay Cool” features a great bass/drums groove. This is the sound of current “indie,” filtered through golden waves of light.

The major coup of Chris North’s Lovedream is not that it sounds dreamy; a lot of bands can do that. Instead, it sounds like more than a dream: this gives a form and a weight to the yearning for a greater, more beautiful plane of existence. Whether that’s a goal to be achieved in this life, the next or both, Lovedream is a reminder to those listening of what transcendence they seek. For me, it sounds like a high-up window letting in sounds from heaven which inspires reverence now.

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of instrumental music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.

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