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Risk Pays Off: Kye Alfred Hillig goes full electro to great results


I was knocked out by Kye Alfred Hillig‘s ability to convey emotions on last year’s eclectic Together Through It All: through pop-rock, indie-pop, singer/songwriter, and even electro-indie, Hillig showed he knew how to bowl the listener over. Hillig is back with Real Snow, and it’s an even better offering: his emotional power is fine-tuned even further, and he’s chosen a specific sound to investigate. Hillig has gone full electro-pop on Real Snow, and the focus makes it into an excellent album.

Opener “Cold Front” establishes the rules of the game. Good: synths, beats, live percussion, bass, cascading electric guitar riffs, soaring vocal melodies. Less Good: acoustic guitar, piano, ballads. Bad: things you can’t dance to. If you know Hillig’s previous work, “Cold Front” will be a little bit of a shock, but his signature emotive power, vocal tone, and engaging melodies are there. It’s just in a different genre this time. By the time you get to “None of Them Know Me Now,” you won’t even remember that Hillig’s last album was predominantly Americana. He sounds like he belongs in this genre, not as a toy or a lark, but as a genuine pop hitmaker.

I know that sounds weird from an artsy indie songwriter, but don’t worry–the word “slaughterhouse” appears in the chorus, and the narrator of the tune sounds positively solipsistic. Hillig is flexing other muscles, you might say–and when those muscles introduce the triumphant guitar solo in the breakdown section, you’ll be dancing right along without concern. It is truly wonderful. “None of Them Know Me Know” is basically what we wanted MGMT to mature into.

It’s not all neo-club-bangers in here: “Useless Keys,” “Like God” and “Bells of Doom” explore different elements of electro-pop. “Bells of Doom” pairs an insistent acoustic guitar strum with a twitchy, urgent low-key electro section reminiscent of The Postal Service. “Like God” ups the nervousness ante and moves straight into outright dread (complete with terrifying spoken-word section from a guest poet closing the piece). “Useless Keys” relies heavily on real electric bass guitar for its plodding yet bouncy vibe.

Hillig can’t get through a whole album without busting out a few ballads, and so “When You Were a Waitres” and “The Night Obscene” appear. “When You Were a Waitress” is a wrenching piano ballad depicting the remorse at the end of a one-night-stand/relationship that probably shouldn’t have happened, while “The Night Obscene” seems to depict quiet despair in an otherwise normal life via Americana-style acoustic guitar-heavy arrangement. Hillig delves this lyrical mine deeply in Real Snow; everyone seems sad about something. Even the funkiest track “Ugly We Were Born” opens up with, “Heavenly gates, Oh! Don’t you want me?/Don’t you think I’d make a great slave?” Whoa there.

So maybe the grating despair of some tracks makes interesting juxtaposition to the dance-oriented music; maybe the perky arrangements hide the heaviness somewhat. It probably depends on the listener. I know that I’m all about the sounds here; it’s some of the most interesting and enjoyable electro-pop I’ve heard all year. If you need to get down and you want something a little more cerebral than “Selfie,” Real Snow should be your jam.

Summer’s comin!

Even though spring is officially today, it iced two days ago in Raleigh. It’s been a long winter, so it’s nice to start thinking about and hearing summer (even if I can’t see it yet). Here are some summery tunes for you, with occasional interjections from fall (everything folky sounds like fall, sorry bout that).

Summer’s Comin’

1. “The Sun” – Sleepers Bells. Jesse Alexander keeps busy: he’s in IC favorites Battle Ave. and The Miami, as well as releasing a solo project under the name Sleepers Bells. This track combines the Titus Andronicus punk fervor of BA with the wild vocals and mournful sadness of The Miami for a completely fascinating track.

2. “Ether” – Gentle Robot. Is night-time rock a thing? (Bloc Party says yes?) If so, that’s where Gentle Robot lives: dark but not angry, melancholy but not brooding, loud but not abrasive.

3. “Raise a Glass” – Monsenior. Bouncy indie-pop that evenly balances weight and effervescence. This one never loses its grounding as a bass-heavy tune, but it’s still a ton of fun.

4. “Beauty’s Bones” – Villa Kang. Combinines giant, thwomping ’80s electro-pop beats with some wistful ’00s indie-vibes in the vocals. The ghost of MGMT hangs low over this summer banger. [Editor’s note: This track is no longer available.]

5. “Concorde” – Incan Abraham. No better title for this Springsteen-meets-’80s electro cut than the sadly-no-more jet.

6. “Til Tomorrow” – DWNTWN. We have entered “summery pop” season. It couldn’t get here fast enough, for my money.

7. “Lucid Dream” – Glue Trip. #ChillwaveForever

8. “Dare the Dream (Challenger Remix)” – Pure Bathing Culture. IC faves Challenger give the dreamy PBC cut an even dreamier take, turning it into an ethereal-yet-triumphant take on the tune.

9. “Towers” – Orphan Mothers. Smooth, delicate R&B-esque tune with some indie-rock flair in the guitar. Remember The Antlers? They’d be jamming to this.

10. “She’s Falling” – Breanna Kennedy. It seems like I’m including one adult alternative track per mix. This week’s AA track features a nicely understated chorus; it’s great to not hear a gigantic instrumental explosion every now and then.

11. “Flaws” – Vancouver Sleep Clinic. Falsetto over electro/acoustic jams is either going to invoke James Blake or Bon Iver until further notice. Still, this is a beautiful track.

12. “Burning Promises” – GreenHouse. Piano, synths, found sound, and dry percussion come together to make a relaxing tune. [Editor’s note: This track is no longer available.]


A ton of great singles have come my way in January, so I thought I’d put them all in one big post arranged quiet to loud. Enjoy!


1. “Pacific (Acoustic)” – Indigo Wild. Were you looking for a rolling, intricate, acoustic mountain jam? Like Fleet Foxes if they were less hazy, this will make you long for the pines.

2. “Anna” – Daniel G. Harmann. After graduating his solo project The Trouble Starts up to a full-on rock outfit, Harmann gives old-school fans a few tracks that hearken back to his early, dreamy days. His trembling, soaring voice over spare guitar chords is just wonderful to these ears.

3. “Alone You Stand” – Fairmont. A mysterious, even a touch ominous, tune anchored by ghostly marimba and poignant duet vocals. (Check a full review.)

4. “Slow & Easy” – Scott H. Biram. Less gospel and more ominous vibes mark the second Biram single off Nothin’ But Blood. It’s still incredibly engaging, what with the crisp production and Biram’s voice.

5. “Celeste” – Ezra Vine. If you’re of the opinion that you can never have enough hand claps, whoa-ohs, and happy melodies, raise your hand. Then lower that hand and click on this peppy, wonderful tune.

6. “Girl Don’t Fight It” – Phone Home. Optimistic, keys-heavy, proggy indie-rock in the vein of Fang Island, And So I Watch You From Afar, and others. It’s giddy and heavy and intelligent!

7. “Planets” – Little Earthquake. Peppy acoustic-pop + massive MGMT synth melodies = this unique song.

8. “We Fall Down” – ASTR. Fans of Icona Pop, take notice.

9. “Violent Shooting Stars” – Robot Princess. Mostly RP is a heavy, exuberant, video-game-infused garage-pop band (WEEZER FOREVER!!). This track puts them more in a pensive mood (at least for them) before ratcheting up to some stomping guitars. Get your power-pop on, dudes.

10. “Bird in the Water” – The Trouble Starts. Harmann’s band, throwing down pop-rock a la Snow Patrol. This would be fun to hear live.

11. “Tangle” – Acid Fast. Starts out with a nostalgic, emo-esque half-time section, then blasts off into a punk rock second half. The melodies bounce off those basement walls with almost more cymbals and passion than you can handle.

12. “Countermanded Orders to Preserve the Space-Time Continuum” – Heavier Than Air Flying Machines. Frantic, spazzy rock reminiscent of At the Drive-In or Coheed & Cambria; I’m always impressed at dudes who can soar vocal notes like that while pounding through heavy riffs and drums.

June/July Singles: Loud

So I didn’t post much in June, so all of the June singles are getting posted now. This means that instead of one mix, there are two: a loud one and a quiet one. I’ll start today with the loud one.

June/July: Loud

1. “Strange Thing” – DL Rossi. Pedro the Lion has left few followers in the emotive alt-rock space, but DL Rossi is a welcome addition to the space. He also brings in Bazan’s qualms with Christianity, although Rossi seems to hold fast to the tenets of the faith while contending with some practices of Christianity. Also, he has a Mumford-ian penchant for dramatic f-bombing.
2. “Glaciers” – The Trouble Starts. Daniel G. Harmann has completed his transition from bedroom indie-pop hero to rock band by dropping his name off the front of the group. Here’s a roiling, churning example of the newly-christened group’s output. Foo Fighters’ fans will approve.
3. “All the Lights in New York” – Autumn Owls. The fractured folk of Autumn Owls casts its foggy, urban, streetlight glow on you. You smile uncertainly, and step forward into the gloom.
4. “We Are the Dreamers” – The Stargazer Lilies. Shoegazer Lilies, maybe, plus some Portishead dread and staccato stomp. Overall, a very different dream than Teen Daze’s chillwave dreaming. But still quite engaging!
5. “Be Someone” – Post War Years. The Postal Service + Passion Pit = Post War Years. Clicky, hooky, fun, and now with 100% more xylophone!
6. “Cut Free” – The Alibis. Yo, this ’90s-style Brit-pop track is all about the excellent bass player. I look forward to more fascinating work from this band.
7. “Bystander” – Shotgun No Blitz. Shotgun No Blitz might be the best possible pop-punk name, calling up youthful games, playful but aggressive contact, friendly agreement, and speed. And the spread offense, which I just like.
8. “We’re the Kids” – Parade of Lights. New formula for massive single: use the word kids, employ that specific synth noise, and crank the bass. MONEY.

Annie Crane's gentle acoustic tunes call up Nick Drake comparisons

My perception of music is inextricably tied to seasons. I can’t hear Bon Iver’s self-titled without at least pining for a “good winter,” and MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular is quintessential summer listening. The fall listening is dominated by the heartbreakingly gorgeous Nick Drake album Pink Moon.

Annie Crane‘s Jump With a Child’s Heart is also fall listening, not in small part because the delicate acoustic constructions owe a structural debt to Drake. At her best, Crane produces gently rolling songs of peace and quiet wonder from her guitar. The tasteful strings (“You & Me & The Evergreen,” “Copenhagen Heart”) only draw more comparisons.

Her lilting, Celtic-inspired voice is prone to soaring. It’s quite beautiful, and she knows it: when she tosses off words quickly and casually during “Salinger Said,” the variation is so surprising and welcome that the tune becomes a highlight of the album. Crane also adds some force to her delivery in the exciting, vaguely sinister “Lookin’ Out.” There’s nothing wrong with having a gorgeous set of pipes, but using them the same way the whole album makes for a charming beginning and a tedious middle.

Crane does mix up her arrangements, however: Background vocals, steel guitar, stand-up bass, trumpet, sparse percussion and even some clapping on “Money Only Hates Me” spice up the tunes.

Jump With a Child’s Heart has a gentle walking pace to it, only enhancing my desire to stroll down a path shaded by trees with leaves turning while playing the album. This is a very good album: Annie Crane has clearly established a recognizable modus operandi. In the future she will need to introduce people to other sides of her (and her voice) while retaining that clarity of mood and construction which makes her best music so engaging. The album drops October 4.

Wallscenery Demos melds beats, indie, pop and folk into an excellent whole

Wallscenery DemosWallscenery DemosCheck This! is exactly the type of release that I love covering in Independent Clauses. James Hicken,  the mastermind behind Wallscenery Demos, is a gifted songwriter who combines disparate genres and seemingly incoherent elements into one seamless album. Hicken’s reach extends from rap to indie dance to Beach Boys-esque pop to modern folk, and yet the songs never sound kitschy or amateur.

The album plays out not as individual songs, but a full album.  This is encouraged by Hicken’s prominent use of interludes, which range from twelve to fifty-five seconds. A recording of rain, a voice sample clipped from an advertisement and crowds cheering are just some of the elements he uses to segue one song to the next. And the segues are important, because of the aforementioned genre span that Hicken creates. Folk guitar-led gem “I’m Not Around” would butt up against the low-end thump of the downtempo, Portishead-esque piece “Ain’t Got Nuthin to Say” unless the low-fi buzz of “[one of these days one]” wasn’t a transition.  Similarly, the stuttering beats of “Watch Your Back” would overrun the gloriously sedate “My Highest Regards” if the messy dissolution of “[one of these days two]” didn’t intervene.

The best part about Check This! is that there’s not a quality distinction between Hicken’s various genre choices. He makes everything flow perfectly; he knows when to combine genres, and when to leave well enough alone. “My Highest Regards” is a straight-up melancholy indie-pop song, and it is great. Adding anything else to it would have made it kitschy. Hicken’s solid decisions as a songwriter and incredibly strong control of mood make this album into the great piece of music that it is.

There are some problems; Hicken’s voice is often the weak point in his music. He knows it; he often covers his voice in reverb or distortion, drops it low in the mix, and even sings about it. It’s not the fault of his songwriting skill: the compositions are solid, and the vocal parts he writes for himself are good. It’s just that his voice is often unsuited to pull off the things that his brain creates. This is unfortunate, as several songs here are not as good as they could be simply because of a poor vocal performance. But at points he shows that he knows how to use his voice to his advantage, as “My Highest Regards” is excellent because of the way his vocals work within the music.

Check This! is an incredibly interesting album. It plays like a downtempo indie-rock band (like Pedro the Lion) collaborating with a downtempo producer (like Danger Mouse or Portishead), guesting the indie-fied pop skills of MGMT. There’s enough energy to keep the album from dragging, but the thing revels in being morose. And because Hicken doesn’t try to hide who he is behind slick studio production, Check This! becomes a unique and interesting album that could not have been made by anyone else. I sincerely hope that Hicken keeps writing under the Wallscenery Demos name, or finds a collaborative foil or two to enhance his songwriting prowess with vocal expertise. Either way, there’s gonna be a lot more interesting music from James Hicken, because his songwriting vision is unique.