Underlined Passages‘ The Fantastic Questis 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.
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.
100 Watt Horse’s It May Very Well Dois 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
Fairmont has gone through a variety of permutations over the past decade: melodic indie-rock, theatrical pop-rock, folky indie-pop, and bitter rock’n’roll. With 8 1/2, they’ve returned to their roots as a melodic indie-rock band with a cynical cast to the lyrics. But when you come home after a decade, things are different no matter what. In Fairmont’s case, the lessons of seven and a half previous albums (hence the name) have honed their songwriting skills and arrangement aesthetics.
Where Fairmont was once a three-piece that got by on exactly three instruments, they’ve expanded comfortably into their current quartet lineup with a variety of support instruments. Female vocals, marimba, keys, synths, and other miscellaneous sounds fill out the songs here, giving songs like “Love & War,” “Don’t Wait Up,” and “The Connection” unique vibes. The first of those three benefits from the interplay of all those extra sounds in an upbeat indie-rock tune with a mid-song slow section (familiar territory for Fairmont).
“Don’t Wait Up” is a moodier tune that captures the nuance that Fairmont has earned over a decade of songwriting. Neil Sabatino’s voice, usually brash and nasal in Violent Femmes style, is tuned to sweeter sounds here. The female background vocals and glockenspiel melody temper some of the brittle edges on Fairmont’s sound, and the tune becomes a highlight.
Sabatino nuancing his vocals isn’t the only new element in the sung category: “The Connection” is the first Fairmont song ever to feature female lead vocals, making it a standout. The rainy-day vibes of “Gone” are largely sold by the descending keys, fitting drums, and guest vocals from IC faves The Maravines.
The tweaks that Fairmont made on 8 1/2 result in a more comfortable, relaxed version of the band. Sure, they’ve still got jittery, anxious energy (“Love & War”), but it’s set in the service of different goals here. If you’re into melodic indie-rock with strong melodies and textured arrangements, you’ll be into 8 1/2. The album drops on 3/3.
*Neil Sabatino of Fairmont owns Mint 400 Records, which is the record label of The Duke of Norfolk, whom I manage.
Classic-rock new kids Greylag, who have a single that you should listen to, put together a Spotify playlist of songs that influence them. The concept in itself is pretty cool, but their list is even cooler: aside from obvious influences Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, they’ve got Sonic Youth, Cocteau Twins and Kurt Vile. Get hip, y’all.
Singer/songwriter Stephen Kellogg is doing a PledgeMusic campaign to fund a four-album cycle based on the four cardinal directions. I’m all for ambitious projects and crowdfunding, so go jump on it.
The diverse Mint 400 Records, home of the band I manage, just released a free tribute to Lou Reed. You can download the short EP by clicking on this link.
A deluxe edition of Songs: Ohia’s Didn’t It Rain is getting a Nov. 11 release from Secretly Canadian. As a fan of Jason Molina’s work, this is exciting to me. Even more exciting is the new song released in celebration of the event, “Ring the Bell – Working Title: Depression No. 42.”
I’ve covered digital label Mint 400 Records before, because I think they do great work in the lo-fi indie/lo-fi folk realm and because they have an interesting business model. The label’s latest compilation Patchwork shows off 17 of their bands, giving a pretty good snapshot of what they’re doing. (Disclosure: I’m the manager of The Duke of Norfolk, who is signed to Mint 400.)
The lo-fi work doesn’t disappoint: Sink Tapes, Fairmont, and The Maravines all have compelling offerings near the beginning of the album. The Multi-Purpose Solution and The Mai 68s hold down the end of the record, making sure you didn’t forget about the indie-rock. The acoustic-based work is also exciting, as newcomer Murzik adds an attention-grabbing piano-and-voice entry. Dave Charles sings a chill song that references Star Wars and sounds like some sort of early Jason Mraz tune. Cropduster provides another standout, with a gravelly, creaking voice over an acoustic guitar until it explodes into a grungy sort of thing for a bit.
Cropduster’s rock isn’t an isolated thing: the label has developed some loud leanings. Shallows’ “Always” is aggressive, dissonant guitar rock that borders on post-hardcore; Tri-State’s tune is straight-up guitar rock; and Jack Skuller contributes some rockabilly with ’50s vocal leanings. Mint 400 has grown from a small label with a specific niche to a widely diverse roster of bands, and Patchwork shows off the best of all of them. Check it out at iTunes or Spotify.
It’s always a joy when a band from IC’s history reappears with new music. I first reviewed Justin Klaas‘ work in 2006, and 8 years later I’m writing about more music from him. What Changed? is a thoughtful, atmospheric album that challenges the boundaries between indie-rock and indie-pop. Klaas’ voice calls up comparisons to the howl of The Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser, which brings passion to the work no matter what the genre.
Instead of fighting for balance between loud and soft, Klaas holds the album together with those dueling ends of his sound. The yearning “Sunlight or Moonlight?” allows tension to manifest in the arrangement, giving the reins to the vocals to complete the mood. The walking-speed indie-pop songwriting of “Wait Here” lets the vocals take the forefront, giving a different feel to the song. The delicate instrumental “Moonlight” casts a Bon Iver-esque tranquility over the record, calming the tension momentarily. The whole album holds together beautifully, drawing on imagery of evening as a guide for the listener. What Changed? is a short film shot in the dusky woods, perhaps, or maybe a night spent on the street corner under the streetlight. If you’re into low-key, personal indie-rock, you should check out Justin Klaas’ work.
I’m not sure there’s a better way to start an album of jangly guitar-pop than with a song called “The Smiths.” You should thank The Maravines for figuring this out on their self-titled record. It’s not just jangle-pop here; the sound also draws on both the lush melancholy and occasionally the rough aggression (“I Say Go”) of early ’00s emo. Still, the primary mood throughout the album is a leisurely stroll through reverb-heavy indie-pop.
The album is purposefully cohesive; the band posted the whole release as a YouTube video so listeners could experience it as a free-flowing unit. If you’re pressed for time though, you can start at “Train Ride” (20:09) and let the dreamy feel both lull you into serenity and sell you on the album. Mint 400 Records seems to be specializing in acoustic-folk and guitar-based indie-pop albums as of late, and The Maravines are a worthy inclusion in the latter camp.
I’ve mentioned before how “The Lioness” by Songs:Ohia is one of my enduring favorites. Its raw, minimalist power is simply unimpeachable. Many have tried to appropriate that barely-contained energy, but it’s hard to emulate Jason Molina. Clara Engels‘ Ashes & Tangerines has moments that take on that hushed intensity–but in contrast to Molina, she often explodes these moments into their full potential for wrenching, dramatic conclusions.
The album is minimalist, but by no means ignorable. “Raven” begins the album with a simple plodding bass guitar strum and furious vocal performance, letting you know exactly what type of album this will be from moment one. “Heaven and Hell” introduces a delicate, forlorn piano line before opening up her voice to its full dramatic potential. The palm-muted guitar and rumbling toms of “X-Ray” go in an ominous lyrical and tonal direction, as opposed to a sad one. That’s the biggest marker of Engels’ sound: she has a lot of ominous (“Harvest”), eerie (“Decomposition”), even menacing (“X-Ray”) work on Ashes & Tangerines. By setting that tone, Engels puts herself outside the category of casual listening: this demands focus and attention. If that’s what you’re looking for in a musical experience, Clara Engels will give you a fascinating listen.
Fairmont has been a part of Independent Clauses for almost as long as it’s been alive. Over those almost 10 years I’ve seen Fairmont transition from an acoustic-fronted indie-rock band to a theatrical power-pop band and back. In short, it’s been REM to My Chemical Romance to a Violent Femmes/Shins hybrid. That last one spot is where Fairmont currently sits with Live & Acoustic from the Forest of Chaos.
Leaning heavily on acoustic guitar, marimba, and male/female duo vocals, the New Jersey band remakes some of its tunes from the last few years in a chill, stripped-down style. They never lose the friction-energy that powers Neil Sabatino’s songs, but they do smooth out some of the rough edges that the tunes can get from a gritty guitar line or pounding drum kit. “Black Heart Burns” is a great example of their sound on this release, as Sabatino and co. create a sparse but engaged backdrop for the vocal duet to play over. The song is a little morose (re: title), but it never comes off as depressing or overtly navelgazing.
That trend continues throughout: the tunes are surprisingly light and sprightly for their heavy content. “Elephant” has a carnivalesque wonder to it; “King and Queen” is an upbeat song in a major key that will have you tapping your foot and loving the fact that this acoustic album includes marimba. “I Am the Mountain,” a favorite of mine, is just as catchy as in its electric form.
If you’re into acoustic-fronted indie-rock/indie-pop (and who isn’t, these days?), Fairmont’s in-studio live set (no applause, which made me breathe a sigh of relief) is a great way to spend 25ish minutes. Live & Acoustic from the Forest of Chaos drops 1/28.
I was having lunch with a friend my age (mid-20s) a few weeks ago. He got a bachelor’s degree in music and now works as the music director at the church I go to. The topic veered toward orchestral music, which my friend lamented as dying. “I go to the symphony, and I’m the youngest person there by 30 years!” he said with frustration. And it’s true; composers aren’t the sexy, rebellious Liszts of old; hipsters don’t flock to traditional classical works. Still, there are people working in the idiom, and I don’t think we’ll sound the last playing of Mozart any time soon.
The Noise Revival’s Nathan Felix is the latest in this movement of young composers working to create full orchestral work, releasing his debut symphony The Curse The Cross & The Lion today. It is indeed a full symphony of almost a half-hour’s length. This isn’t pseudo-soundtrack music, although there are some moments reminiscent of good film scores. No, this is a consistent piece of music that takes full attention and full energy to enjoy. There are nuances. In some ways, I had to listen with a different set of ears than my usual “indie-pop” ones; there are different goals, different textures, different ways of being. There’s a heartbreaking oboe solo that stands out amid “V. Don’t Give It Up,” which is one of the most beautiful and powerful sections in the piece; that’s not going to happen in indie-pop all that often.
I’m not qualified to assess this symphony against other classical music, but I can say that it’s incredibly rewarding to listen to for those who don’t listen to a ton of classical music. If you’re into orchestral music, have an adventurous ear, or just like beautiful things, then The Curse The Cross & The Lion should be on your to-hear list.
I idolized the Beach Boys instead of The Beatles growing up, so Pet Sounds is a monument in my musical development. Even as a teenager, I was able to grasp how incredibly difficult everything was on that album. So it’s fairly ambitious to cover the whole album in an indie-pop/indie-folk idiom, as the bands on Mint 400 Records set out to do. (That’s a direct download link, btw.)
The Duke of Norfolk (whom I manage) kicks off the album with a singer/songwriter-esque take on “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” setting the mood for the rest of the album. The One & Nines conform their Motown soul bent into a passionate version of “I’m Waiting for the Day,” while Fairmont’s stand-out rendition of “God Only Knows” is probably very close to what Brian Wilson would have done in the power-pop idiom. A few of the tracks delve heavily into lo-fi arrangements and performances, so fans of that genre have plenty to love as well. It’s free, too! Enjoy Mint 400’s Pet Sounds.
This project has been a microcosm of my whole 10 years running this blog: a little idea that got bigger and bigger with help from all sorts of people who pitched in. Massive thanks go out to The Carradini Family, Uncle David and Aunt Rose, the Lubbers Family, Neil Sabatino & Mint 400 Records, Albert & Katy, Drew Shahan, Odysseus, Joseph Carradini, Jeffrey M. Hinton, Esq., @codybrom a.k.a Xpress-O, Conner ‘Raconteur’ Ferguson, Janelle Ghana Whitehead, Tyler “sk” Robinson, Jake Grant, Anat Earon, Zack Lapinski, Mila, Tom & April Graney, Stephen Carradini, Theo Webb, Jesse C, D. G. Ross, Martin & Skadi, Jacob Presson, Michelle Bui, and Elle Knop.
The first 200 downloads of the album are free, so go get ’em while they’re available! (The price is $4 a side once the freebies are gone.) The streaming will always be free, so if nothing else you can go listen to some sweet tunes from some of Independent Clauses’ favorite bands. Once again, thanks to all who contributed in any way, both to the project and to Independent Clauses’ last 10 years. It’s been a thrilling, wild ride.
Never Give Up: Celebrating 10 Years of the Postal Service
When I’m not covering music at Independent Clauses, I’m helping make other music: I’ve been booking/managing Oklahoma alt-folk singer/songwriter The Duke of Norfolk (aka Adam Howard) for the past two years. Because a review of his EP would be rather self-serving, here’s an interview in celebration of his new EP Le Monde Tourne Toujours, which releases today through Mint 400 Records on all digital retailers.
IC: Le Monde Tourne Toujours is your first release since a series of 5 EPs all named after birds. How did you decide to end that series and release this standalone EP?
AH: When I started planning that series I had a body of songs I had written specifically for the series. All of them fit loosely around the idea of birds naturally reacting to the changes in weather by migration. I grouped the songs by sub-themes and plotted out the series. So, in a sense, the series’ end was planned from its beginning. The second part of the question is a little more complicated.
The bird EPs were intended to lead up to my debut album, which is to be comprised of select songs from those EPs re-recorded for a unified feel. Before my tour last summer I started those recordings and then I toured those songs for the whole summer. So when I returned from the summer and took a look at my half finished recordings, I realised that I was rather burnt out on those songs. So I decided to take a break from them. And that’s essentially what this EP is, a break.
You’ve experimented with a variety of different sounds, from electronic to stark acoustic to piano-based. How did you choose the sound palette for Le Monde?
My reasoning for the experimentation that you’re talking about is twofold. I wanted to experiment for my own sake, to practice recording and composing with different sounds and to figure out what I can make work and what I can’t. More than that, though, I wanted to establish early on that my releases won’t all have the same sound palette and I don’t want people to expect them too.
The sound palette for Le Monde Tourne Toujours is by far less intentional. I sort of just let it happen. The first song that I recorded on the EP was ‘A Dream Waltz’, the fourth track, and I arranged and composed it on the fly. After I had mostly finished that recording, I used that as the sound palette for recording the rest of the EP.
Your output can certainly be considered prolific. How often do you write? How many songs do you have unrecorded at one time? How do you decide which songs go on what releases?
I feel like I don’t write often enough, but at the same time, I would never have time to record all the songs that I write. On a good week I might write three or four songs that I am happy with. But on a bad week I usually at least start writing a song or two that I may or may not give up on.
I don’t know how many songs I have unrecorded… at any point it could range from ten to fifty, depending on how much I remember. When I started recording the bird EPs, I had close to fifty songs. Right now I have probably fifteen that I plan on recording at some point.
As far as what goes on what release, it’s mostly just what fits thematically with the rest of that release. A lot of the songs I write with a specific theme in mind, but there are still a lot that I just write.
What are the songs you are writing now sounding like?
The songs that I am writing now involve a fair bit of fingerpicking, so the guitar is not as forceful as it is on some of my other songs and mostly they deal with ideas of home and travel and the uncertain future.
Le Monde is about seizing the day. How did you decide to write on this topic?
Like I’ve mentioned before, Le Monde is something that I kind of just let happen. So it was mostly songs that I had already written that I liked enough but, for the most part, hadn’t yet recorded. Because seizing the day is a concept that I think about quite often, a lot of my straggling songs dealt with it and when I grouped up this collection it was sort of at the heart of all of the songs.
Related question: How do you write lyrics? Do you write them all at once, or do you do it spurts, or does it vary?
It varies for sure. I think that my favourite songs have all been ones that I’ve written in like fifteen minutes… but there are definitely songs that I spend weeks on.
You toured the nation this past summer; what was one great story or performance from those 73 days?
A lot of things happen when you travel the country in a van for 73 days. So the summer was full of stories and, naturally, also full of performances. But one of the many memorable stories took place when we were driving through the Catskills. It was one of the members of our little company’s birthday and we were on the lookout for something out of the ordinary to do to commemorate that when we spotted a slew of rowboats banked by a quite picturesque lake. We found one that wasn’t tied up and risked the possibility of getting shot for thieves to borrow it for a cruise around the lake.
It’s not that exciting of a story and there were plenty more adventurous things that happened, but that one felt sort of like I was in a Mark Twain story for a few minutes.
What are your plans for the rest of 2013?
2013 is going to be busy for me, though not as busy as 2012 appeared. I am planning to record my debut album, at long last, start recording my sophomore, and play a few shows but I’m also working on some other projects. I am helping several friends by recording and producing some of their songs, and I’m also planning on writing an album that I’m going to release under some other name detailing a friend’s experience living in Moscow.
Le Monde Tourne Toujours is available for purchase on digital retailers, as well as for streaming on Spotify and Bandcamp.
It’s not just XKCD that has noticed a lack of popular Christmas songs written and/or recorded after 1980. Shane Vidaurri of The Ashes noticed this as well, and pitched the idea of a Christmas compilation album to his record label, Mint 400 Records. Label owner Neil Sabatino (Fairmont) agreed, and now we have A Very Merry Christmas Compilation to bring cheer in.
The comp is excellent because everyone here turns in a stellar effort. None of the seven bands phone in it or get schmaltzy. These are honest-to-goodness Christmas tunes, worthy of being replayed on radio until no one remembers who the artist is anymore and no one cares. This would especially work because the comp doesn’t stick to one genre, but ranges from The Duke of Norfolk’s folky “Lovely Winter” to Fairmont’s jangly “This Song is Your Christmas Gift” to the ‘50s style rock ‘n ‘roll of The Ones and Nines’ “I’m Gonna Lasso Santa Claus.”
The lattermost is a perfect opening track to the compilation, as it sets a jubilant tone for the album. It’s like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” and I love it. Adam N. Copeland apes the Killers’ tradition of putting out a soaring, modern pop tune for the holiday, with a tune that reaches to the same vocal heights as Brandon Flowers’.
There’s some melancholy as well: The Ashes’ “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” can’t even staunch the somber elements of the tune with an almost island-flavored take on the tune. “Sorry I’m Broke” and “This Song Is Your Christmas Gift” are both about the stress of being poor at Christmas.
No compilation would be complete without a hymn or two: The Duke of Norfolk’s “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” brings banjo and beatboxing together for an overall reverent take on the classic. I know, that sounds weird; you’ll just have to check it out.
A Very Merry Christmas Compilation takes Christmas music seriously, and the results are some incredible originals and traditionals. Since it’s varied in genre, you can put it on the stereo and let the wildly varied emotions of the season wash over you. If you sprinkled the tunes into your current list of standards, they wouldn’t stand out at all; they’re that good.
Full disclosure: I worked on The Duke of Norfolk’s tracks as a set of critical ears.
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.