1. “I Wish I Was a Bird” – Luke Rathborne. Builds a cathedral of sound: a stomping, huge-screen affair that manages yet to have low-key fire embedded in it and a humble, earnest vocal performance. This sort of powerful songwriting and production is uncommon and wonderful–it’s indie-rock that manages to be slightly out of phase with the radio (it’s 8:33!) but oh-so-delightful for lovers of the genre. Anyone still rocking the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Maps” will be all up on this, or anyone who would wonder what Josh Ritter’s “Thin Blue Flame” would be like in indie rock format.
2. “DaDaDa” – secret drum band. I listen to a lot of music while I’m reading or writing. Great songs make me love what I’m working on more. The best songs make me stop what I’m doing and just listen. “DaDaDa” is a perfect amalgam of tons of different percussion elements, low-mixed synths, and the occasional found sound/vocal yawp. They manage to make these basic, skeletal pieces of music into a deeply compelling piece of polyrhythmic indie rock.
3. “Gone Away” – Stolen Jars. Turns fluttering flutes and squealing horns into urgent indie-rock, a la The Collection. The subtle, insistent press forward that underlies this track is a rare thing to capture.
4. “People Like You” – Thumbnail. This tune strides the line between American Football-style emo and old-school indie-rock (pre-major label Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie): complex drums, semi-mathy guitar lines, soft vocals, and gentle trumpet come together into a propulsive-yet-dreamy track.
5. “Tree Trunks” – Basement Revolver. The groove locks in and commands headbobbing. The lurching, loping, slow-moving-train of this indie-rock arrangement contrasts excellently against the intimate female vocal performance.
6. “Part3” – grej. Ominous piano, layered percussion, and stabbing flutes create a tense, atmospheric track the likes of which you would hear in a suspense film.
1. “Friends” – Marsicans. Marsicans appeared fully-formed writing masterful indie-pop-rock songs. I have no idea how that happened, but we’re all beneficiaries. This one manages to get heavy on the lyrical content and yet still manages to be one of the catchiest songs I’ve heard since … uh … “Swimming” by Marsicans.
2. “My Roommate Is a Snake and the Landlord’s a Bat” – Gregory Pepper and His Problems. If the conceit of Sleigh Bells is “hardcore guitars tamed by pop melodies,” the conceit of Pepper’s new album Black Metal Demo Tape is “sludge metal guitar and indie pop melodies.” This particular track starts off as a doomy dirge before transitioning into a early-Weezer power-pop tribute to metal. It’s a fun ride the whole way through the track. The rest of the album is equally inventive, charming, and gloomy (sometimes in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way, but also sometimes not).
3. “Weathering” – moonweather. Fans of the acoustic work on Modest Mouse’s Good News album will love the unique vocal style and swaying, shambling, enthusiastic folk arrangement of this tune. The lilting, floating horns/string arrangement is excellent.
4. “€30,000” – Emperor X. If John Darnielle had collaborated with Pedro the Lion in between his All Hail West Texas and Tallahassee days, the results would have sounded as enigmatic and engaging as this incredible track. It’s almost pointless to tag this with genres–it’s a thoughtful, passionate, wild indie-pop (okay, I did it anyway) track.
5. “Unbroken Chains” – WolfCryer. If you’re not listening to WolfCryer yet, you’re missing out on some of the most vital, important folk songs being sung today. Baumann’s vocal delivery, vocal melodies, and lyrics are all top-shelf in this weary, burdened protest tune.
7. “I Won’t Rest Until” – Brianna Gaither. Following in the vein of Moda Spira, this tune seamlessly blends electro-pop synths, instrospective singer/songwriter piano, soulful vocals, and indie-rock drums for a thoroughly modern-sounding take on serious pop.
8. “We Notice Homes When They Break” – Loyal Wife. An earnest, charming love song that’s part alt-country (via the blaring organ), part indie-pop (through the vocal tone and vocal melodies), and part singer/songwriter (through the lyrics).
9. “Hold On” – Midnight Pilot. The title track to Midnight Pilot’s latest EP is a distillation of their Paul Simon-meets-Americana sound, a yearning piano-driven ballad augmented by lovely fluttering strings and capped off by a beautiful male vocal performance. The vocal melodies in the chorus are catchy and sophisticated, a balance rarely struck well.
10. “Alone with the Stars” – Ofeliadorme. Portishead-style trip-hop with a heavy dose of spacey/ambient synths for atmosphere. The video is in black and white because the song sounds like it is in noir tones.
11. “Eternally” – Julia Lucille. Fans of the complex emotional states of Julianna Barwick will find much to love in this track, which has similar focus on wordless vocals (although not looped and layered ones) to convey the dramatic, almost mystical mood. This track does have a full band supporting Lucille’s voice, and the band’s patient, thoughtful accompaniment creates a dusky evening for her voice to wander through.
12. “Islands III” – Svarta Stugan. Instead of releasing a video, this Swedish post-rock outfit released a video game. Set in a gray, bleak warzone environment, the game has elements of Helicopter Game and a side-scrolling space shooter. (It’s fun!) The song itself is a slowly-moving, minor-key, guitar-heavy post-rock piece of the Godspeed You Black Emperor! school. The game and the song really mesh well–it was a great idea.
1. “Devil Yellow Sun” – Small Town Glow. If the emotional indie-rock of Frightened Rabbit had been born in the grunge-laden ’90s, it would have been as gloriously slackery, goofy, and relatable as this tune.
2. “Fossil” – Readership. The present or future ghosts of Modest Mouse, The Rural Alberta Advantage, Arcade Fire, and Spoon dance to the beat of this impeccably crafted, relentlessly endearing indie-rock tune. It’s a rare tune that ends way before I wanted it to.
3. “You Know It’s True” – Quinn Devlin & The Bridge Street Kings. Van Morrison has been popping up in my life a lot recently. Whether it’s in essays, songs, or Spotify recommendations, Van the Man is calling my name. Is this a getting older thing? Is this like classical music? Whatever it is, here’s some earthy-yet-ethereal blue-eyed soul that carries that Van torch forward. Also there’s some Hall & Oates in there? I mean that in the most positive way possible. You know what, ignore all that. It’s just a great song.
4. “Be There” – Buddha Trixie. Hectic/loping, quirky/formal, exuberant/laidback, manic/careful; there’s a lot of duality going on in this joyous indie-pop tune.
5. “there’s nothing better” – Eugene Gallagher. A beautiful, tender, herky-jerky love-song that feels like Delicate Steve’s burbling enthusiasms mixed with a male version of Kimya Dawson’s vocals. (I think you’ll forgive the seemingly ridiculous comparisons once you hear it.)
6. “Bow Down” – TD Lind. Protest folk at its vocal belting, harmonica-toting, major-key best.
7. “The Swim” – Case Conrad. One of those alt-country tunes that balances on the edge of so many things (is it a singer/songwriter tune? is it about to go full-on rock? are the vocals about to explode?) that it keeps the listener on her toes the whole way. Surprisingly, it’s deeply satisfying through all the tension. A fantastic tune.
8. “Melting” – Lindy Vopnfjord. Have you ever walked up a forested mountain near dusk? The beauty of the setting sun unveils a sort of ominous beauty, where the unknown is both gorgeous and dangerous. Those tensions are encompassed in this acoustic/electric minor-key folk tune.
9. “Aelia Laelia (Edit)” – Christopher Chaplin. I can give this complex, complicated piece one of my highest compliments: it defied easy conventions, making me ask, “What is this?” Part post-rock, part ambient/industrial electronic, part neo-classical performance, part operatic vocal songcraft, this composition bends the boundaries. Chaplin is really inventive and engaging here.
10. “Bombs” – EDGES. Reverb can serve to obscure, but it can also make things more intimate, as if you’re sitting next to the musician in a huge church. This acoustic tune is the latter, as the patient guitar and gently yearning vocals create a sense of closeness and warmth amid a giant building.
11. “Like a Funeral (Joel Rampage Duet Remake)” – Erik Jonasson. There will be approximately 1,000,000 slow-jam electro ballads released this year, but I would wager that maybe five will make me want to cry. This heartbreaking, expansive tune is one of them.
12. “She Floats” – Van-Anh Nguyen. Ambient by dint of crackles, breaths, and distant noises that run throughout, this delicate, piano-driven piece evokes a seaside boardwalk in the early morning.
1. “Red Road” – Trevor Green. It’s hard for me to resist an uplifting, hopeful, fingerpicked folk tune sung in an earnest, clear voice.
2. “Shade in the Shadow” – Dan Lipton. Evocative and cinematic without piling on the instruments, Lipton’s story-song here reaches into the folk tradition for its lyrical and musical genesis (but never feels derivative).
3. “Love Sweet Love” – Taylor Grey. Fun folk pop a la The Lumineers, Twin Forks, and the like, with a female vocalist: prepare for “whoa-oh”s, romantic lyrics, and lots of strumming.
4. “Untethered” – Halcyon Drive. Quirky, affected electro-pop with some crunch amid the smile-inducing pop.
5. “Everyone Wants to Love You” – Japanese Breakfast. This is just an amazing pop song. It sounds like it should already be on classic rock radio and permanently in our subconscious memories.
6. “Warpaint On” – Risley. It’s a tough thing to achieve gravitas, but this indie-rock tune has an emotive gravity to it that makes it hard to stop listening to. The sounds are modern, but it’s got the sort of weight that early ’00s indie-rock (Shins, Death Cab, Modest Mouse) had.
Candysound‘s Past Lives is the sort of garage rock that seems born of good-natured experimentation, a genuine sense of joy in creation, and a dedication to writing catchy songs. This isn’t four-on-the-floor chord mashing–the trio makes lithe, lively, effervescent tracks full of rhythmic, melodic, and textural diversity.
I’m getting all adjective-y on it, but that’s because “Be Around” is a gleeful whirlwind, “Details” is all yelpy and groove-laden, and the title track is a mini math-rock tune. Closer “This Place” is a beautiful acoustic tune in the vein of Rocky Votolato and other even-handed tale-spinners. All of the tunes have a fresh, slightly gritty sheen about them, the sort of vibe that is confident but not super-invested in polishing every sound to its poppy ultimate. This feels like a document, not like a presentation: it’s the sort of indie-pop-rock that makes me want to hear more of it, maybe even write some myself. If you’re excited by a quirky melody and a yelpy vocal hook, Candysound should tickle your ears quite well. Here’s to that. Highly recommended.
I knew this day was coming, both for me and for the indie-rock world. Andrew Skeet‘s Finding Time can be described as a delicate post-rock album that fits in next to The Album Leaf and the soundtrack work of Sleeping at Last or as an engaging work of post-minimalist modern classical music (it’s being put out on Sony Classical). Much alt-classical music has been made, but this is the first time it’s fit so neatly for me inside the music-listening frameworks I’ve already cultivated. My listening habits have been moving toward the classical, since my discovery of John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean and Philip Glass’s work, and now the loop has closed. It’s all one continuous line for me now.
And why shouldn’t it be? The keening repetition that opens “Passing Phase” calls to mind Philip Glass’s Glassworks, while the slow-moving elegy it morphs into is reminiscent of Sigur Ros’s work. “Reflect” is nearly ambient in its pacing; the sharp, brittle, electronic dissonance of “The Unforgiving Minute” would make Modest Mouse proud. The two worlds collide here, at least from my frame of reference. “Taking Off” and “Stop the Clock” feel more traditionally classical, with the latter’s nearly baroque flurry of keyed notes and the former’s heavy reliance on cello and violin. There are moments even in the aforementioned pieces that skew towards traditional sounds, like “The Unforgiving Minute,” but overall this is an album that can be appreciated both by the modern classical music enthusiast and the post-rock one.
Andrew Skeet’s Finding Time is an engaging, enigmatic, comforting and challenging listen. It has kept me company on long slogs of reading (particularly the electronics-laden title track) and warm afternoons. It’s just really impressive, regardless of what you call it.
Like many people my age, my first introduction to the sounds of Armenian music was through the melodic structures that System of a Down fused to its already-wild metal song structures. Since then, those sounds (along with associated gypsy, Balkan, and Eastern European elements) have been floating around in my brain. Izam Anav by Vana Mazi puts those sounds squarely on the forefront on my brain once again, as the album features gypsy sounds played earnestly and enthusiastically.
With so much cultural weight surrounding sounds of this variety, it’s refreshing to hear the Austin-based outfit play their songs without theatrical bravado (a la Gogol Bordello) or overtly ominous vibes. These tunes, instead, feel like an tasteful interpretation of a long tradition. “Jove Malaj Mome” marries a complex percussion pattern with an intricate instrumental melody from the accordion and fiddle. The male and female vocals double the melody, creating a dramatic vibe without resorting to tricks. It’s just all right there, written in. If you start to sway your hips unintentionally, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
That call to dance is another distinctive element of Vana Mazi’s work: the songs here are miles away from dance rock or electronic music, yet they very distinctly beg to be moved to. It’s hard to deny the rumbling, percussive energy of “Don Pizzica”; the sultry, inviting “Celo Skopje”; and the major key perkiness of “Tarantella Del Gargano.” This ain’t an indie-rock show–crossed arms aren’t going to cut it. The most serious of the tunes here is “Fireflies,” which heavily draws on the ominous, quixotic Armenian vibe that System of a Down mined; the rest are more like “Sandansko Horo,” whose titular element is a Bulgarian folk dance. Eastern European music buffs, adventurous musical types, or fans of interactive live shows (their press assures me of what seems to be inevitable true: these shows are a party) should rush in the direction of Izam Anav. While dancing.
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.
Yeesh‘s No Problem is the fantastic result of 40 years of rock experimentation. If you scour through the impressive sonic melange of tracks like “Slip,” “Linda Lee,” and “Genesis Pt. 1,” you’ll find traces of (deep breath) Black Flag, the Minutemen, various grunge howlers, Blur, Modest Mouse, The Strokes, The Vaccines, The Pixies, Hot Water Music, The Menzingers, countless unnamed punk bands, and post-rock bands that emphasize the rock. What’s not included might be easier to list than what is. (No reggae or folk, for example.)
This level of sonic re-appropriation and pastiche makes it difficult to review; each song is its own distinct head trip. “Friends/Shadows” is the most frantic Menzingers song never recorded, with a math-rock breakdown for the heck of it. “Different Light” is a mid-tempo singalong made unusual by atypical reverb settings on the guitar; the propulsive “Watch Yr Step” lives on the boundary of punk and post-hardcore. “Zakk Radburn Teenage Detective” starts out with chiming guitars reminiscent of early ’00s indie-pop, then layers the most brutal guitar noise of the entire album on top of it. They never resolve the tension there, instead using it to power some start/stop acrobatics.
Listening to all of No Problem is a mind-bending experience. Yeesh doesn’t see any contradiction in having soaring guitar lines compete with gnarly low-end rhythm guitar (closer “Shock” most prominently, but it’s everywhere); they don’t see any problem in mixing poppy melodies, brute force guitars, polyrhythmic rhythm section, and artistic guitar effects. This kitchen sink approach to songwriting results in something truly inventive and creative: a set of ten songs that kept me guessing the entire time. If you think that complex arrangements can and should be set in the service of pummeling eardrums, No Problem may be high on your year-end list.
Brother Moses‘ Thanks For All Your Patience is the sound of slackers who listened to a lot of Beck and the chill parts of Modest Mouse growing up. I mean that literally and figuratively; the lyrics explain the foibles and fears of maturing (just check the titles “Older,” “Wake You Up,” “Eyes Open”), while the music is a refined take on minimalist indie rockers like Spoon.
The line “I’m tired of sleeping in” from “Wake You Up” pretty much sums up the EP lyrically, as Moses Gomez’s lyrics all have to do with that process (sometimes a single sudden moment, sometimes several years’ worth of stuff) where you realize that you’re an adult and you have responsibilities. It’s the soundtrack of the mid-to-late ’20s in 2015. The lyrics are tight and quotable; they’ll appeal to people in that process, as well as people looking back on it.
The music is a streamlined, bouncy, minimalist form of indie rock that relies heavily on the interplay of the easygoing baritone, wiry guitar, rubbery bass, and tasteful drums. Sometimes this takes the form of The Walkmen-esque towers of hollowed-out guitar sound (“Wake You Up”) and sometimes there’s a hectic mashup between all the parts (“Eyes Open”), but most often Brother Moses isolates one aspect of the sound and features it against a backdrop of space (“Older,” “Hopeless”). “Older” takes its cues from a warm-yet-staccato synth, rim-rapping percussion, and occasional guitar to build an infectious, enigmatically beautiful tune. The parts are all there (this isn’t totally minimalist work), but there aren’t a lot of overt rock moves here. There’s a lot more warm vibe and unique mood-building going on.
That’s the thing that sticks the most from Thanks for All Your Patience: the lyrics are memorable, the melodies are tight, and the instrumental work is solid, but the overall mood of the piece is its greatest takeaway. (Slackers trying to grow up don’t necessarily get 100% business-like, at least not all at once.) The work here is strong, high-quality work, yet it’s all read through an easygoing, relaxed perspective. You can get old and not grow up, but you can also grow up and not become stodgy. Brother Moses’ Thanks for All Your Patience is a remarkable debut EP that leaves a big impression.
There was a point in the mid-’00s when people knew almost exactly what you meant when you said, “We’re an indie-rock band.” With Death Cab for Cutie, Modest Mouse, The Shins, and dozens more running around, “indie rock” meant melodic rock songs with quirky affectations in one or more categories of lyrics, arrangements, song structures, and public persona (Flaming Lips were totally an indie-rock band for a minute, even though they were on a major label–whatever).
Quiet Company‘s Transgressor is an indie rock album in that fine tradition, drawing off all the influences that were impressing themselves on that wave of bands. It’s a melodic, enthusiastic, thoughtful, impressive record that creates surprises where I thought there could be no more surprises.
The first clue is lead single and opener “Seven Hells,” which is a frantic, manic tune in a major key. (Almost all the tunes here are in a major key.) The tune shows the versatility of Taylor Muse’s voice, going from smooth, friendly melodist to freaked-out rager in a span of seconds. It’s the sort of subversive moment that appeared in the mid-’00s and made you think that maybe these buttoned-up kids weren’t as okay as they looked on the cover of the album. Maybe it’s okay to not be totally okay. Maybe we should keep spinning this album for a few more aimless car rides around the city.
“Mother of a Deal” also packs personality and punch into spaces you wouldn’t expect. The casual, lackadaisical refrain of “this is how we play the game” contrasts to the passionate guitars, stomping drums and wailing organ, making another of the whiplash moments that are so cathartic and exciting. It’s that sort of giddy play with expectations that makes most of the tunes here so engaging. You might think, “Wait, didn’t we play that out in like 2009?” Well, maybe you did, but Quiet Company totally didn’t. The Shins could have written the excellent standout “The Road to Perdition,” but they didn’t, and now I’ve got plunking piano, ba-da-das, syncopated vocals, whizzing synths, stomps and handclaps trapped in my mind on loop. “I can’t get you off my mind,” indeed. If you can stop your feet from tapping in “The Road to Perdition,” then the emo revival has hit you a bit too hard, friend.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t some really sad things going on in Transgressor (“A Year in Decline,” “Wherever You Take Me”). It’s just that Quiet Company attacks difficult songs like “I Heard the Devil Say My Name” with almost pop-punk enthusiasm: blaring, wiry synths; galloping drums; big choruses; jubilant horns. There are some nuanced guitar lines, and there’s some heaviness in the lyrics, but if you left the lyrics out, you could dance gleefully to it. You can dance gleefully to basically any track on Transgressor, which is an irony inherent in the title.
The tale is about the courtship, consummation, and subsequent difficulties of marriage, and the title points out the narrator as the transgressor. But it’s still transgressive to dance at sadness and pain, no matter how many times we do it. “I’m begging you to know me / I’m begging you to figure me out / Are you brave enough to love me? / Are you smart enough to have your doubts?” Doesn’t get much rawer than that, even though that section is bookended by perky ba-da-da-da horns.
I could go on, but it would just diminish the beauty and power and excitement of Transgressor. There are alleys and paths and fields and caves to find for your own here. If you’re into mid-’00s indie-rock, late ’00s pop-punk like Relient K, or Death Cab for Cutie at any point in their career, you’ll be into Quiet Company’s impressive Transgressor.
The seven songs of Cable Street Collective‘s The Best of Times are exciting: can’t-stop-moving, mood-lifting, first-time-you-heard-Vampire-Weekend exciting. The London six-piece plays ecstatic, polyrhythmic indie-pop that snags Afro-cuban rhythms and harnesses them in the service of giddy pop songs.
They don’t just do the upbeat, herky-jerky melodic style; they also know how to lay back on the beat, dub-style. The contrast of laying back and then pushing way to the front with syncopations creates an atmosphere of gleeful uncertainty: you don’t know what’s going to happen, but you know it’s going to be fun. Whether it’s the four-on-the-floor, rat-a-tat female speak/sing vocal delivery of “He’s on Fire,” the iconic Latin percussive vibes in “Yin & Prang,” or the Givers-esque perkiness of lead single “Can’t Take Me Under,” Cable Street Collective know how to give the listener what they didn’t know they wanted. They even slow things down a little for the last track, turning Vampire Weekend back into Paul Simon’s Graceland and knocking out an uplifting, “All These Things That I’ve Done”-style coda.
I haven’t even touched the lyrics: The Best of Times is an only-slightly-more-subtle version of Modest Mouse’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News: “It is the best of times / to be at number one / it is the worst of times / for all the other ninety-nine.” Social commentary and heavy-hitting dance grooves? Sign me up. The Best of Times is the best EP of the year so far.
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.