Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Quick Hits: Underlined Passages / Supersmall / 100 Watt Horse

March 25, 2016

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Underlined Passages‘ The Fantastic Quest is a grower: an album that doesn’t hit you with the same force the first time as it does the second, third or fourth time. In our attention-deficit culture, there’s not as much love for growers as there used to be, so I’m proud to be giving a shout-out to Underlined Passages’ second record on Mint 400 Records. (Full disclosure: I told Michael Nestor of Underlined Passages about Mint 400 Records.)

Instead of traversing the boundary between emo and dream pop as in their previous work, Quest falls firmly in the indie rock camp, anchored by ever-present guitars, firm drumming, and evocative vocal melodies. Tunes like “Everyone Was There” have an up-tempo approach that recall Jimmy Eat World more than American Football, with the guitars churning away (without getting too gritty). Other tunes like “Arabesque” set the guitars against the bass and drums in a tension–the production emphasizes the drumming without pushing it too far up in the mix. This choice gives the album a tight, cohesive feel.

The vocals are one of the main parts of the growing–at first Nestor’s vocal lines seem to blend in too well with the instruments, but subsequent listens adjusted my ear to the arrangement and started to draw me in to his unadorned, non-ostentatious vocal style. I found myself humming the vocal melodies after the second and third listen.

The Fantastic Quest is an unfussy, unpretentious album that reveals layers of careful thought over multiple listens. From the songwriting to the performances to the production, the work has charms for those who listen closely. Take some time with Underlined Passages; don’t be surprised if they win you over.

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Supersmall‘s Silent Moon has a distinctly British feel, despite being a NYC-based duo. (Vocalist/songwriter Colin Dempsey is Irish, but that’s not the same.) It might be the formal pop angles on the songwriting, or perhaps the confident dignity with which the vocals are delivered. Maybe it’s the ability to convey emotion without getting maudlin.

Whatever it is, Supersmall know how to write walking-speed, acoustic-led tunes that wouldn’t feel out of place in a charming/quirky indie film. The duo leads off with “A Better Life,” which features perky strumming, joyous trumpets, peppy drumming, and a distant organ for color. If Beirut stripped out its world music aspirations, this sprightly work might be what resulted.

The tune is a fine primer for the release, which includes the Nick Drake-ian guitar vibe and beautiful vocal melodies of “Silent Moon” and “Siren,” the major-key folk of “Riot,” and the country-esque “Home.” There are some more serious tunes, but Supersmall is at their best when they’re creating major-key work with an eye toward thoughtful arrangements and careful pop elements. Silent Moon is where elegant meets excitable with an acoustic guitar in its hand–in other words, it’s worth the time of a wide swath of music listeners, from indie-pop lovers to hardcore acoustic fans.

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100 Watt Horse’s It May Very Well Do is an experimental folk/indie-pop release: it’s one fifteen-minute track with interludes connecting various sections that are distinct enough to elsewhere be called songs. The duo incorporate tape hiss, nature sounds, acoustic guitars, distant synths, modulated vocals, static, and more into their inventive, attractive amalgam.

The opening salvo features precise, measured guitar work and a dreamy female vocal line before unfolding into the sounds of a swamp as a transition to a hazy indie-pop section. A woozy guitar line is matched by a leisurely male/female duet and balanced by a steadfast drumbeat and bass line. It all feels very open, raw, and natural–even when it transitions into a power-pop tune a la The Cars. I could go on explaining the release, but that should be enough to hook your interest and not spoil all the surprises (we’re about a third through the release at this point).

Suffice it to say, 100 Watt Horse has a lot of ideas, the talent to pull them off, and the skill to arrange it all into one impressive sitting. If you’re up for clever, intricate, thoughtful work from people pushing their own boundaries (and maybe yours), check this one out.–Stephen Carradini

Underlined Passages: Rainy Day Indie-rock

May 21, 2015

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While Underlined Passages’ self-titled release is a debut, my roots with the band go back deeper. The two principal band members were formerly in The Seldon Plan, a Baltimore indie-rock band that I started reviewing in 2006. After some time off, Michael Nestor and Frank Corl have regrouped as Underlined Passages. Their debut release is on Mint 400 Records (a connection I helped make), and their rainy-day indie-rock fits perfectly with other M400 bands like the Maravines and the Sink Tapes.

The nine songs of Underlined Passages sport various amounts of energy, but each have some sense of melancholy about them. Even when the drums are thrashing away and the guitars are chiming wildly on “Magic, Logic, Life,” Nestor’s vocals are bereft of aggression. The guitar arpeggios and slow pace of “It’s Ok” are more stereotypically melancholy, with emotively-driven lyrics, mournful melodies, and a warm sense of nostalgia/affection. There’s a lot of emotion in these songs, but it never goes over-the-top; like so much on this album, it just fits.

Considering the emotive push, Underlined Passages could definitely hang with the emo revival bands: the one-two punch of opener “Perspective” and “Every Night” are right there with Football, Etc. in aesthetic similarity. But for the most part, Underlined Passages doesn’t have the brash, punchy aspect that many emo bands inherit from their punk roots. These are earnest, passionate, mid-tempo songs for grey days. You don’t have to look farther than the swirling “Sonata” and the intimate “Like 2009” to get where Nestor and Corl are coming from.

Underlined Passages is an excellent companion on a rainy day. The melancholy arrangements, the hooky melodies, and nostalgic overall mood invite you to curl up under a blanket and watch the rain come down. If you’re looking for some moody, earnest indie-rock today, look no farther.

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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