Tim de Vil and His Imaginary Friends‘ Beating Off the Loneliness is an indie pop album with vocals that skew toward the speak/sing of Say Anything or MeWithoutYou. The arrangements are deeply layered, compiled from acoustic and electronic instruments: some songs pile up found sounds and synths and drums and all sorts of stuff into a wistful, rueful amalgam that yet retains energy (“Purge-atory,” “The Patron Saint of Lost Causes”). Songs like “Who’s Afraid of Sarah Little” and “It’s Not Me, It’s You” are indie-folk ramblers instead of collages. These latter songs have occasional vocal melodies (“Say It…”), but the gold moments appear when lead singer Justin Robbins expertly controls the mood and tone of his spoken word–he can pack a lot of emotional power into individual lines.
Lyrically, this one is very much a breakup album, but it’s more in the mold of Spiritualized’s punchy Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space and Josh Ritter’s “everything that happened after the breakup” lyrical approach to The Beast in Its Tracks than a mopefest. (Not that I don’t love a good mopefest.) As is often the case with speak/sing work, the lyrics are dense and carefully constructed, despite sounding off-the-cuff; there are pop culture references (“Sleepy Hollow,” for example), emotional monologues, and word games to be had (like the title of “Hail, Mary”). The sum of all these parts is a fully-realized statement of an album that clearly shows Tim De Vil’s songwriting and lyrical skills. Fans of collage artists, spoken word ramblers, or experimental indie-pop will find much to enjoy here.
The Jonah Project‘s self-titled EP packs more emotional punch into 16 minutes than most emo albums can get into a 40 minute full-length. The quartet, headed up by Drift Wood Miracle‘s Bryan Diver and Jvno‘s Tristan McGee, tell the story of Jonah from the Bible in a powerful, moving way. The EP has four songs, one for each chapter of the book, and each shows off a different side of their sound.
“Jonah 1” is a keys-led piece that leans toward the wistful side of the emo spectrum. The band does ratchet up to some screaming guitar noise at the end of the track, but this one is more focused on the lyrics depicting why Jonah ran and his emotional response upon realizing that he can’t run from God. (It’s a little-discussed element in the story, at least when I was growing up: Jonah expects that God will forgive the people that Jonah hates if Jonah follows through on God’s call. Jonah doesn’t want that to happen, so he flees.) Diver’s vocals lead the way with some dramatic, memorable lines.
“Jonah 2” also opens up with keys, but Tristan McGee takes over lead vocals in a spoken-word format. I tend to hate spoken-word, but this fits over a roiling, churning instrumental mix that feels more like MeWithoutYou than bad stereotypes of spoken-word. The first time I heard McGee holler out in anguish “Salvation belongs to the Lord!” I got shivers. (Even more rare, I got shivers the second and third time. It’s intense.) The winding, syncopated opening guitar riff of “Jonah 3” powers one of the most inventive rock songs I’ve heard in a long time. It sort of feels like The Collection’s rhythmic background, only punctuated with stabs of electric guitar chords and overlaid with chiming, heavily reverbed, floating guitar notes. It stumped my expectations.
“Jonah 4” caps off the set with more interplay between acoustic guitar, chiming electric, chunky chords and even group vocals. The drums are particularly exciting here, as Aaron Allred somehow manages to keep up as the rest of the band whips through mood change after mood change in rapid succession. The lyrics evocatively draw the story to a conclusion, with Jonah struggling to grasp the concept of grace. The whole thing comes together brilliantly, showing off a quartet that’s astonishingly tight for being brand-new. They’re writing some new material, so perhaps we’ll get to hear more from this impressive outfit. If you’re into early ’00s Deep Elm emo (Brandtson, Appleseed Cast, Pop Unknown, etc.), you’ll love this EP.
1. “Crickets” – Some Army. Some Army sounds seamless here, as if every instrument were playing together as one. That’s a credit to their mature, strong indie-rock songwriting, excellent arranging, and immaculate production. Quite a track here.
2. “Flashback” – Astral Cloud Ashes. If you’re into MeWithoutYou, you’ll have a strong connection with ACA’s approach here: speak/sing vocals over a moody, brooding indie-rock backdrop.
3. “Ticks” – Vienna Ditto. This wildly inventive track requires some oddball words to be strung together, but here goes: sassy ’50s girl pop meets Spaghetti Westerns outside an arcade inside a dark carnival. Sometimes it is like dancing about architecture.
4. “The Joke” – Islands. A thrumming, inviting electro beat meshes with a claustrophobic mood and somehow keeps the song from going full dance-rock; big Bloc Party vibes abound.
5. “Johnny” – Basement Revolver. It takes a lot to get me interested in a mid-tempo garage rock song, because there are so many in the world. Basement Revolver’s perfectly-turned vocals, well-done guitars, and excellent build-ups result in a song that balances vulnerability and confidence neatly.
6. “Woman” – Dear Life,. Quirky, crunchy indie-rock with a multitude of influences that create interesting moments when I least expect them.
7. “Real” – Grace Joyner. Joyner’s lilting voice and engaging chorus hooks suck me in, and the bass/synths arrangement keep me swaying along to the rest of it.
8. “Young Green Eyes” – Leaone. This feels like a male-fronted version of a lost Adele song in its dramatic sweep, use of vocals, and general expansiveness. Could be poised for a big breakthrough.
9. “Even If” – Jesse Owen Astin. So it’s sort of a ballad, but there’s an electro-pop edge in Astin’s vocals that keeps this a little more raw than a ballad would otherwise be.
10. “I’m a Sea Creature” – Color Majesty. Space Age Bachelor Pad music meets some Pogo-esque glitchy vocals to result in another really smooth track. [Editor’s note: This song is no longer available. =( ]
1. “The Itch” – Brother O’ Brother. Stripping some of the Black Keys-esque arena-rock sheen from their guitar-and-drums approach ends up with a raging, distortion-laden tune that has The White Stripes on speed-dial. Ka-pow.
2. “The Dusty Song” – Sebastian Brkic. Brkic creates a swooping, diving panorama that relies just as much on creaky-voiced MeWithoutYou-style indie-rock as it does acoustic material.
3. “Ridiculous” – Mleo. Surprising vocal and instrumental range make this an impressive rock tune.
4. “Salvo” – CFIT. Serious music that reaches for the seriousness of Radiohead, the swirling development of shoegaze, some airy aesthetics of chillwave, and an overall sense that none of those influences take away from the inventiveness of the work.
5. “What’s Pesto” – The River Fane. Ominous clicking and clacking undergird this menacing, pondering, powerful indie rock track that’s anchored by thunderous piano chords and wavering vocals a la Thom Yorke.
6. “Rubbernecking” – Frog. Fresh off their triumphant Kind of Blah, Frog re-released their debut. This track points toward the ragged enthusiasm and vocal intricacies that made the guitar rock of KOB such a charm.
7. “End of Something” – Febria. This tunes’ an omnivorous beast, as prog, math-rock, laid-back ’70s psych, jazz, and guitar heroics blend together into a mindbending stew. It’s not as hectic as The Mars Volta, but it’s maybe in the zipcode next door.
8. “Golden Threads From the Sun (excerpt)” – yndi halda. This bit of a tune from a larger post-rock work points to the scope at which yndi halda feels comfortable: massive. As such, there are some group vocals, Sigur Ros-like distortion explosions and frantic drums, strings, and generally all manner of thing going on. Here’s to maximalist post-rock.
9. “Thank You For Your Time” – Citizen Shade. Soulful and dramatic, this piano-led romp starts off quiet and ramps way up.
In my academic research, I study genre–the socially-grounded understanding of categorization that individuals or groups have. (I look at it in terms of business writing, but my personal interest overflows those strict bounds.) So I’m intrigued by how people describe the music they make and how it signifies to themselves and others. Ava Marie‘s Kettle Steam lists “folk” and “folk rock” as tags, which seem to be describing a process or a community of choice more than the sound itself. (I have no problem whatsoever with this: I am no purist, nor I am the folk police.) Kettle Steam is a thought-provoking, intriguing album with a lot of angles to consider.
The six-song, 26-minute release is characterized immediately by several elements: minor keys, distorted electric guitars, hypnotic baritone vocals, and guitar solos. The sonic comparisons skew closer to the fractured tensions of MeWithoutYou and Modest Mouse than Josh Ritter or Joe Pug. Again, this doesn’t mean that this isn’t folk–it just means that the term folk here does not signify “fingerpicked acoustic guitars.”
The definition, perhaps, aligns more closely with a resistance to something else: even though “indie rock” and “alternative” have always been constructed in opposition to mainstream rock, indie rock currently is as close to a mainstream rock as we have (since the rarified pop-rock world that Nickelback and Lifehouse live in bears little resemblance to the rest of the music world at this point in time). Ava Marie is definitely not playing the same game as indie rock bands like Arctic Monkeys or Two Door Cinema Club–these are thoughtful tunes that reference specific time periods and places (WWII in the title track; Casco, Maine in “Motel Room in May”) and are more committed to lyrical beauty than sloganeering.
So one takeaway from this is that maybe folk is becoming what indie-rock used to be: a refuge from a particular type of music, a space where possibilities are opened back up. One piece of data does not a conclusion make, but the strength of the anecdote is compelling: tunes like “Kathleen Carter” and “Only Sea” combine instrumental melodies and arrangements, a refined vocal approach, and a deep sense of mood to come up with impressive sonic wholes. There’s a lot of reverb (but not too much to cloud the individual elements); space is respected and used carefully; the band knows how amp up so that a guitar solo has its full, incendiary effect. Hints of a more traditional folk past shine through in the fingerpicked moments of “Motel Room in May,” but the single-note work in “White Hides” is all wiry post-punk rock. There are tensions on both ends, as with most middle entries.
A note on the guitar solos: it’s fun to hear a band just let rip on an instrumental section, especially when pitched against thoughtful lyrics and unadorned vocals (as happens directly on “White Hides”). It’s entirely possible to construct a careful mood and then let roar against it, as bands like The Walkmen and occasionally The National have discovered. But they do it without getting gaudy or turning into a punk band: they have carefully framed their own idiom and let the lead guitar work from from and through it. The intro to “Kathleen Carter” is a perfect example of this.
This review has been a bit more oblique than my usual work, but I feel that it’s a fitting response to Kettle Steam. The work here is carefully crafted so as to be thoughtful but not ponderous, intriguing without being enigmatic, and melodic without becoming a pop-rock band. It’s an album that I wanted to return to repeatedly, to parse out the sounds and lyrics therein. It’s not something to be consumed and filed away; you can sit with this one a while. It will reward you.
I’ve been covering More than Skies for a while, because their blend of folk, indie-rock, and emo/punk is a unique one. On their self-titled double album, Adam Tomlinson’s brainchild sprawls out in all directions, delivering a powerful sound that encompasses all three of its genres on a spectrum. The band is adept at switching between the three within the same song, often staging them back to back for maximum effect. Their adherence to any particular sound is only so great as is called for by the tune: The emotions powering these tracks are what dictate how loud or quiet they should be. This allows center stage to be taken by swooping cellos, soaring violins, crunchy electric guitar riffs, gentle finger-picked acoustic lines, and Tomlinson’s creaky voice at different points throughout the album.
Tomlinson’s voice is an important point here: his nasal vocal tones aren’t hidden in any way, shape, or form. People who like the vocals (which could be compared to those of MeWithoutYou’s Aaron Weiss, Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum, and early John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats) will have a great shot at loving the record; people who aren’t down with atypical vocal styles might struggle a bit. A second make-or-break point is its titanic length: it’s a full 24 songs, and they aren’t short tunes. This album runs almost 100 minutes. Settle in, friends.
However, if you’re into it, you’ll be very into the total scope of the album: wild, moody, frantic, despondent, and everything in between. Tunes like 8-minute closer “New Year’s Retribution” show off the impressive range of emotion that More than Skies is capable of, moving from gentle folk to string-accompanied indie-rock, then to unaccompanied acoustic guitar, before ramping back up in a punk/emo style (but with soaring strings on top of it). It’s an uncompromising, adventurous song that encompasses this spirit of this uniquely realized release. More than Skies drops March 24.
There’s a long history of happy sounds that contain sad lyrics. My mom’s favorite one is the absurdly happy breakup tune “Smoke from a Distant Fire” by Sanford-Townsend Band. I’m fond of the entirety of Paul Simon’s Graceland (except “That Was Your Mother”). Human Behavior‘s Golgotha might be my favorite “actually kind of devastating when you really listen close” album for 2013.
If you just press play instead of thinking about how the band name, title and album art go together, you’re treated to perky indie-folk-punk. Bandleader Andres Parada has a voice that works perfectly for the genre: it’s warbly, a touch nasal, and completely earnest. If you’re intrigued by Aaron Weiss of MeWithoutYou, early John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats), Andrew Jackson Jihad, and the like, you’ll be immediately sucked in to Golgotha. The rest of the sound fits perfectly around Parada’s voice: a small choir of female voices (who sing in the same earnest manner), instrumental performances that retain an urgent “first takes only” feel, and arrangements that are large without feeling pretentious. It’s all grounded in Parada’s voice, and all flows back to his voice.
It’s “Crag” that opens the album, a jaunty tune that calls up vintage-y, Pinterest-y hipsters who attach deer antlers to their heads and such. It’s all fun and games, right? Right. “Yeshua at 12” is dark, but the enthusiastic “Odocoileus Virginianus” is 40 seconds of wonderful! (That’s the Latin name for the whitetail deer, incidentally.) But as I progressed through the album, a dark undercurrent started to suck me in. “Vintage Dad” ends with the band forlornly, repeatedly singing “I am raccoon, and your father thinks that I am beautiful,” which is intriguing/discomforting in a Neutral Milk Hotel sort of way. “Raphus Cucullatus” is the Latinate of the dodo, and it’s a despondent acoustic strum with spoken word that seems to draw a little too close of a metaphor. It’s not overtly depressing, like Brand New or anything, but it’s, you know, just kinda hanging out in background of my brain as maybe not what it seems.
But then I listen to “Crag” again, and the phrases of the chorus are “I’ll strap antlers to my head/and I’ll attract wild dog packs/and I’ll make the woods walkable,” which is either a threat to wild dogs or a commitment to sacrifice in a bizarre way. Also the lines “I don’t want to be attractive,” “I know that I don’t love you two too,” “I’ll probably die sad/and I’ll probably do it by my hand” appear, all of which make me deeply reconsider the wisdom of sending this to my girlfriend because it’s perky and fun. In short, the layers at which you can appreciate Golgotha are multiple, but the deeper ones may render your shallower ones a little bit impotent.
So, are you into folk-punk? Are you into depressed singer/songwriters? Are you into both? If you’re into either of the first two, Golgotha is a fascinating and engaging album. If you’re in the third camp, I suspect that Human Behavior will be quite a find. It’s like a dark mirror of Illinois-era Sufjan, or an alternate-reality Mountain Goats.
Rare is the person who likes everything that Phratry puts out; that’s why there a billion different blogs in the world. Although I love The United Sons of Toil‘s name, their also-excellently-titled When the Revolution Comes, Everything Will Be Beautiful is just alright to me.
It’s certainly not bad. When The Revolution is nine tracks of straightforward, heavy rock with dissonance (not just distortion, but actual dissonance). “Sword of Damocles” has a twitchy opening guitar bit that is very cool; the uber-heavy “The Contrition of the Addict” is enjoyable for its pounding wall of sound and screamed refrain “We want to wake!” “State-Sponsored Terrorism” sounds like MeWithoutYou post-hardcore, which is always appreciated.
The lyrics and liner notes are the best part of the release; thanks to the wonderful site Bandcamp, you can read them all. I would recommend it (especially “State-Sponsored Terrorism”), even if you don’t like heavy, wall-of-sound rock. I think they’re spot-on with their political theories.
Two of my all-time faves are Bloc Party and LCD Soundsystem. Both are currently not in existence (although BP is supposedly coming back!), which is a depressing state of affairs. But Teleprompter made my day as soon as I pulled up their self-titled EP, as the band sounds almost exactly like Silent Alarm-era Bloc Party. And I love them for it.
When I say exactly, I mean down to the guitar tone. The vocals are higher in pitch than Kele Okereke’s, but other than that, these songs could be outtakes from BP’s masterful debut. Again, this is nothing but a compliment: the reason these could be outtakes is because the songs are the same quality as the A-sides these are aping. And if you cry foul, I dare you to listen and discredit. These songs are legit.
From the guitar storm at the end of “Dinobot” to the herky-jerky riffs and dance-rock drums of “Banshee” to the chiming melodic patterns of “Lung-Tied,” these songs evoke all the best parts of early ’00s indie-rock. But then there’s a hard right midway through “Lung-tied” and into “Lambda”; the band starts showing off its post-hardcore elements as opposed to its post-punk forebears. MeWithoutYou fans, eat your heart out: the vocalist starts hollering like Aaron Weiss, and the band drops into a groove that wouldn’t be out of place on Catch For Us the Foxes. Did I mention that one of the first bands that got me into serious music was MeWithoutYou?
Is Teleprompter’s self-titled EP stuff you’ve heard before? Yes. But it’s stuff that you can’t get anymore; MeWithoutYou and Bloc Party have long since shed these personas. Teleprompter shows a lot of promise to grow into something fantastic; they’re definitely on my top newcomers of the year based on the strength of this five-song EP (There’s a clubtastic remix of an old tune tacked on the end; it’s fun but not indicative of their future).
And if they don’t change at all? I’ll still love ’em.
In late 2004/early 2005, I bought a copy of Scales of Motion‘s self-titled EP. I admired them as elder statesmen in the Tulsa scene; as a high-school kid in my first band, I was awestruck that high-quality indie-rock existed in my hometown.
Jump forward to mid-2011, and Scales of Motion is still at it. If they members were elder statesmen then, they’re Methuselahs now. Yet, not much has changed: 2004’s Scales of Motion and 2011’s Nocturnes feature the same three guys: Chris Skillern (bass/vocals), Kevin Skillern (Guitar/bgvs) and Craig Maricle (drums). The band used the same studio for both sessions (Valcour Sound, in which I have recorded twice). Their 2011 wiry, post-punk-influenced indie-rock songs are not drastically different than their 2004 tunes.
But there is some variation. Nocturnes shows the band leaning toward the more pop-oriented side of its sound: slow-paced opener “Darkness” hangs on the vocal performance instead of the instrumentals. The band is content to set a mood than pummel the listener with riffs, as there are less breakdowns and gritty guitar sections than I expected to hear on Nocturnes.
Chris Skillern has always propelled the sound with his bass work; his angular, forceful riffs play the role of bass and rhythm guitar. Kevin Skillern contributes melodic, single-note runs and riffs over that work. That’s still the case for the majority of the album, but “Darkness” shows that they’ve grown in their confidence enough to not rely entirely on their tried-and-true formula. And while following track “Still We Sing” definitely is a classic Chris Skillern bass riff, the vocal melodies are just as important to the mood.
I noted in my quick overview that their post-punk influences add some edges to their pop songs, and their pop side knocks some of the edges off their post-punk work . “Still We Sing” is the former, but third track “Winter Heart” is very clearly the latter.
For my money, I enjoy the “Winter Heart” style most. Skillern’s high voice sounds best when it’s matched with some tough indie-rock to ground it — without a tether, Scales starts to sound like just another indie-pop band, and that’s not what they are at all. Chris Skillern even drops in a MeWithoutYou-esque spoken-word section, which just amps up the intensity even more. It’s a highlight of the album, and an example of what makes them special.
The bass, guitar and vocals lock into the inspired drum work on the rhythmic “Holier Mysteries.” It’s hard to explain how powerful Craig Maricle is when he’s drumming, but he’s one of the most intense skinsmen I’ve ever witnessed. He makes “Holier Mysteries” into the powerhouse it is. The rawness of the performance helps draw comparisons to The Felix Culpa, which, if you’ve read me gush about TFC, you know is high praise.
The rest of the album splits its time between nice pop tunes and tough indie-rock. On one side, “Hope” includes a harmonica and “My Beloved” sounds like what you think it might; the other, “A Better Dream” shows Kevin Skillern mashing out chords.
But the two sounds aren’t completely disparate; the mood overall is cohesive, and the album definitely feels of one piece. The lyrics also help the unity of the disc, being predominantly concerned with the day-to-day workings of the Christian life.
“Winter Heart,” “Holier Mysteries” and “A Better Dream” are some of the most satisfying rock tunes I’ve heard yet this year. The rest of the album, while not as arresting, is good. If old-school Appleseed Cast ate Death Cab for Cutie, it might sound something like this. Also, the album artwork (not just the cover, but the whole CD package) is gorgeous, and it has my vote for art of the year so far.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.