Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Opposite Sides of the Coin: Fiery Crash / Kye Alfred Hillig

July 25, 2013

Fiery Crash‘s Practice Shots and Kye Alfred Hillig‘s Together Through It All both have oddly deceptive titles: Practice Shots is breezy and relaxing, while Together Through the Years is way darker and heavier than the name would imply. Both achieve and exceed their goals admirably.

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The ever-prolific Fiery Crash has ditched the fuzzed-out dream pop for a much more straightforward acoustic guitar album on Practice Shots. The results sound something like an early M. Ward album on downers: Josh Jackson’s acoustic guitar sound is warm and gentle even while being played in precise rhythms, and his rambling/mumbling/singing vocal style calls up great memories of “Chinese Translation“–although Jackson’s voice is lower than Ward’s. Working with not much more than that throughout the album, Jackson constructs tunes that float the entire way through.

Jackson’s baritone voice could be a dominant feature, a la the National, but he balances it perfectly against the other elements. The result are tunes that flow smoothly on their own and as a cohesive whole. “Equinox” layers three guitar parts, a vocal line, and simple percussion without ever feeling cluttered; opener “Cada Ano” pulls a similar feat while featuring an arresting vocal melody. “For the Canopy” is a little duskier in its mood, allowing for a pleasant variety. Even the louder tracks fit with the lazy, slowly rolling mood: “Volleybeachball!” uses an electric guitar and a speedy drum machine but is dragged back into the mood with a lackadaisical vocal line.

Fiery Crash has kept the quality level incredibly high over this latest dispatch of prolific production. This is the second full album and fourth release in this calendar year, and Practice Shots is the best of the bunch so far. I don’t know when Jackson will let up, but at this point he’s clicking on all cylinders. Fans of cheery, breezy acoustic songwriting like (early) Shins, She & Him, and more will love this. I look forward to his next move.

togetherthroughitall

The title track for Together Through It All must have been an incredibly easy choice for Kye Alfred Hillig: in a 14-song album with few clunkers, “Together Through It All” stands head and shoulders above everything else on the record. Hillig’s forte is creating almost uncomfortably intense tunes, as if Ray LaMontagne’s vocal chords, Josh Garrels’ lyrical depth, latter-day Sam Beam’s arrangements, and David Bazan’s general passion were all crammed into one artist. “Together Through The Years” tracks the downward progression of a troubled son through the eyes of his loving, committed father: by the last verse, Hillig is roaring out over pounding drums and blasting horns that “the tombstone don’t make the man/And that’s not how I choose to remember him.” Hillig then returns to the devastating chorus: “I’m still his father/he’s still my son.” If you don’t get shivers or goosebumps or something during this tune, I don’t think this blog can help you much.

Hillig doesn’t just focus on heavy topics; there are some excellent love tunes here as well. “An Unedited Presentation of Souls,” “You and Me and Time,” and “Trampled/Triumphant” all take the average love ballad and crank up the intensity a few notches. The lyrics themselves are far more intimate and emotionally raw than I expect to hear, and the passionate vocal delivery is jaw-dropping at times. Hillig is a focused, powerful vocalist, but he can also deliver songs sweetly. It’s a rare thing to find.

It’s also rare to hear so much diversity fit so neatly on a record. The dense arrangement of opener “Breaking Lungs” makes it feel like a lost track from Iron and Wine’s Kiss Each Other Clean, while “War in Spring” is a perky piano-pop tune anchored by a Postal Service-esque beat. Closer “Does My Soul Still Sing?” is a majestic, reverential, synth-laden elegy, while “Free the Birds” is a garage-rock track anchored by campy organ. (Okay, “Free the Birds” does stick out a bit.) But other than that one, Hillig makes all of the tracks work by investing each of them with an equal amount of passion and care. No track here feels cast off on a whim: Together Through It All is completely and carefully organized.

If listening through the whole 45+ minutes is a bit of an exhausting experience, it’s a thrillingly exhausting one. There’s more charm and care crammed into this album than most bands can get into three albums. If you love singer/songwriters who aren’t necessarily out to make you happy, but are definitely out to make you feel, you need to know Kye Alfred Hillig. Trust me on this one. Kye Alfred Hillig will make you smile, laugh, and cry.

Red Sammy / Fiery Crash

February 10, 2013

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I love reading and writing poetry. (I am likely one of the few people in the world who was so moved as to do a happy dance when Natasha Trethewey was named United States Poet Laureate.) So I was thrilled to hear that folk/country outfit Red Sammy had teamed up with poet Steve Matanle for these poems with kerosene. The gritty, gravelly-voiced country fits perfectly with Matanle’s detailed scenes, making for a fascinating album. The two only team up for “Nightriff,” instead preferring to trade spread the four spoken-word tracks among the eight songs. This creates an intriguing flow for the album, making both the songs and the poems memorable.

The tunes are low-slung, largely eschewing treble, cymbals, and screaming guitar solos. This melodic breathing room allows for more nuance in the tunes, giving “Rank & File” a solemn beauty.  “Monstertruck” throws in an acoustic slide-guitar solo from the low end of the frets, something I love to hear in this pop-friendly era. The low-end riffing continues on the collaborative track “Nightriff,” foregrounding Matanle’s dry but still evocative voice over the guitar. The descriptive, abstract poem itself is eclipsed in quality by the much more concrete “Hobbies of the Damned,” “Man with a Suitcase,” and “Bar,” all of which tether their small revelations to finely explained events. Matanle gets a lot done in a few words, as none of his spoken word pieces go over 1:30; this is the perfect length to serve as powerful interludes between the longer Red Sammy songs (roughly 4 minutes each).

these poems with kerosene isn’t near as volatile as its title would suggest: it’s more of a slow-burner, working its way into your consciousness bit by bit. Both Steve Matanle and Red Sammy have contributed pieces that give you space to think: they don’t hit you over the head anything. That’s a welcome blessing. kerosene is a must-hear for alt-country fans.

(p.s.: I would love to hear more pairings like this, songwriters. And I’d love to be a part of one, too.)

fierycrash

Fiery Crash is a prolific songwriting project by Josh Jackson (not the Paste editor-in-chief) that specializes in hazy, acoustic-led dream-pop. There are occasional moments of noisy clutter, but Carbondale is largely a chill affair that finds its stride on ambling, easy-going tunes which allow Jackson’s mid-range voice to meander in an M. Ward-esque way (“Forward,” “Caroline”).

The best tracks show off Jackson’s ability to create and sustain moods through subtle, appealing instrumental arrangements:  “Drought Finale” pairs a quirky lead guitar line with an ethereal arrangement while Jackson casually tosses off a speak/sung vocal melody.  These moves result in an engaging idiom that could be mined for a long time.

There are still some youthful missteps, as in the vocally overbearing “Headrone” and the grating “Half Life,” but they are balanced out by sublime instrumental moments like “Fever Song No. 2” and “The First Moment.” If you’re interested in hazy/dreamy pop, Fiery Crash is a name to watch for in the coming years.

Timber Timbre has a creepy clarity of vision

May 31, 2011

Creep On Creepin’ On is an excellent name for Timber Timbre‘s latest full-length, as the word “creep” serves multiple purposes. In addition to being a fun pun (underlying the hidden but totally there pop sensibilities), the songs here creep along at slow paces and are purposefully eerie.

At first blush, Timber Timbre’s 2010 tourmates (Jonsi and The Low Anthem, both IC favorites) seem to be mismatches for Timber Timbre’s weird-folk sound. Nick Cave might tap them, or maybe even M. Ward on a grumpy day, but the transcendent pop tunes of Jonsi? The hymnal folk of The Low Anthem?

Yet after several listens, the doo-wop pop influences started to sink in (“Lonesome Hunter,” “Black Water”) . The purposefully murky arrangements congealed in my mind as purposeful choices. There may be skronking horns, shrieking strings, and heartbeat bass marking instrumentals like “Swamp Magic” and “Souvenirs,” but “Black Water” is a straight-up pop song that starts off with Taylor Kirk singing, “All I need is some sunshine.” Not a very creepy sentiment at all.

Then, somewhere around that time, the complexity and beauty of the arrangements shone through. I suddenly realized that it’s an indie-rock in the original sense of the word: a band doing what it feels like doing. No trends are being followed here. This is a take-it-or-leave-it enterprise, and it’s all the better for it. The fact that it’s hard for me to describe is good.

That’s not to say that there are no easy points of entry. “Too Old to Die Young” is a jam that could have been on a “with strings!” version of Good News For People Who Love Bad News if M. Ward was singing. Kirk has a low voice, but when he puts it in a higher range, it starts to sound like the vintage-obsessed singer/songwriter. Which is fitting, because Timber Timbre mines old horror/suspense films idioms to create the more out-there pieces of Creep On Creepin’ On.

If hearing a singular songwriting vision fully completed excites you, Timber Timbre’s Creep On Creepin’ On should be on your list to check out. It’s a bit confusing on first listen, but give it some time and it will grow on you. Here’s to indie rock.

Fairmont picks up a girl and an acoustic guitar, making good use of both.

August 29, 2009

The most striking thing about Fairmont‘s The Meadow at Dusk EP is the relative calm it espouses. While Fairmont has never been the speediest of the indie-rock set tempo-wise, they’re anything but calm when it comes to their lyrical content. “Kicking and screaming, doused with bits of resigned bitterness” is a more apt description of the words that accompany Fairmont’s guitar-heavy indie-rock/pop.

With that calm comes a shift in instrumentation (or, perhaps, the shift in instrumentation causes the calm). Previous albums featured tracks that built towards overflowing endings crammed full of vocal tracks, electric guitar swells and pounding rhythm sections. There’s still some of that happening on Meadow.  The crashing guitars and staccato rhythms of “From High Above the City”  sound musically like a transplant from their last effort Transcendence.

The bridge, however, puts Fairmont’s direction in much greater focus, musically and lyrically. A bass riff on a keyboard takes over with a complicated riff, and an electronic beat keeps time for it. It flows seamlessly back into crashing electric guitars, but the point is made musically. The dual vocals feature a girl, a first for Fairmont. The lyrics portray a sort of normalcy that is uncharacteristic of Fairmont’s discography but in line with Meadow‘s themes: “This could be heaven, this could be hell; this is life, this is how it’s going.”

With that new vocalist, addition of keyboard, and calmer outlook on life, the whole feel of Fairmont is slightly different. Those additions lead naturally to more acoustic guitar presence in their music, something that hasn’t been a major, effective part of Fairmont’s sound since 2003’s Anomie. “The King and Queen” is a folk-rock song supported by a sweet acoustic guitar riff, “The Embalmer” is a straight-up folk lullaby (albeit one with a chorus that says “Song for the suffering, song for the dead;” can’t stray too far from their roots), and “My One and Only One” is (get this) a love song. Yes, it does have “Sometimes you wear me out” as its main line, but its contrasted by “When times were tough, you were there” and the almost-weird-to-hear-coming-out-of-Neil-Sabatino’s-mouth “You are my one and only one.”

The tracks that make best use of the new female vocalist and feature the acoustic aesthetic are the more successful tracks on this album. “I am the Mountain” is the best meld of old and new, but it doesn’t hold a candle to “The King and Queen” and “The Embalmer.”

If you’re a fan of girl/guy interplay, you should add Fairmont to your library. You haven’t had a reason to before this, but Meadow at Dusk EP establishes new sounds and new angles to Fairmont’s sound that should intrigue you. It features some of their most accomplished and entertaining songwriting, and that’s saying something: I own half a dozen Fairmont releases. The tracks have an immediate glow and yet still grow in enjoyment as you hear them more; that’s something most bands wish they could accomplish. Highly recommended for fans of the Hold Steady, M. Ward, and/or Peter, Bjorn and John.

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

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