The early 2000s were a time of joy and splendor for independent music: people were putting Death Cab in TV shows! Modest Mouse was getting signed! Blogs were zooming bands to stardom in mere days! In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was slowly rumbling its way to cult stardom! Independent music culture, which had existed since the late ’70s, finally had some above-the-radar recognition. In this crucible appeared bands that were obvious pop successes, but also some band’s bands: shadowy, insider-baseball outfits that were revered and somehow kept secret from/didn’t resonate with the general populace. Jeff Mangum’s output is the example par excellence, but unassuming lo-fi bands like The Microphones and The Shivers also fell into that category. It is a vinyl re-release of The Shivers’ Charades I am here to praise today (even though I almost never cover re-releases).
If you haven’t heard of The Shivers and their cult classic Charades, don’t worry: until a 10-year anniversary vinyl was brought to my attention, I didn’t know about Keith Zarriello and co.’s gritty, lo-fi indie-pop. Zarriello fits in with The Microphones and other early ’00s bands that were trying (and largely succeeded) to make indie-pop into a dignified art form with aesthetic diversity and abilities. It was purposefully serious music, but it could be beautiful (and even a little funny, too). Charades is all of that: serious, diverse, artistic, beautiful, and even a bit humorous. It succeeds as a gorgeous album without sounding like it’s trying too hard (although we now know that certain level of disaffected attitude takes considerable effort).
“Beauty” is the highlight here: a gently strummed electric guitar, tape hiss, and a plunky bass guitar open the track and set the mood. Zarriello’s voice warbles confidently (no, I mean that) above the quiet backdrop, sounding every bit a bedroom track. But the lyrics open up from the concerns of one man’s head and encompass a general statement on love and life. It’s a statement that many artists try to make, and it’s not entirely clear why this one works so poignantly. Perhaps it’s the distinct combination of the elements. Perhaps it’s the wonderful chorus, sung by a multi-tracked vocal chorus. Maybe it’s none of those things. But it’s a gorgeous, memorable track that can’t be ignored. It has largely propelled Charades ongoing life.
But there are other songs going for it as well: “Sunshine” has a wistful lullaby feel about it. “The Shivers” and “Charades” are moody pieces that seek that artistic aesthetic. “I Could Care Less” and “L.I.E.” are a little more immediate in their take on things: the former by being loud and brash, the latter by tuning down the tape hiss and focusing right on the vocals and gentle guitars.
Charades gave me time machine joy: the passion and dreary excitement of the early ’00s are historical relics now, but Charades lets you relive what it was like to hear bands push those boundaries. The excitement of discovering songs in the way they would have been discovered a decade ago is an exquisite and rare joy. You get to have some nostalgia and get to hear some incredible new songs. I can’t think of much more to ask for in a re-release.
We’re getting to the point in history where long band names like Day Laborers & Petty Intellectuals are necessary. Instead of shrugging and repeating the “what’s in a name” platitude, it’s worth taking note of DLPI’s moniker. The indie/country/folk band puts great thought into its complex, verbose lyrics on this self-titled album; the Bright Eyes-esque profusion of religious musings in “The Beginning” echoes both Oberst’s memorable turns of phrase and penchant for ratcheting up to a frenzied delivery.
The highly structured chaos of Bright Eyes’ “Road to Joy” is a good RIYL for DLPI in musical as well as lyrical qualities. Every part of the sound is recorded with precision and clarity, moving in the opposite direction from Iron & Wine’s hazy folk sounds. Opener “What’s the Meaning of This Magic?” includes galloping drums, dramatic trumpet, sweeping violin, and vocals somewhere between the self-assured delivery of Cake and the apocalyptic fervor of Modest Mouse. The whole thing fits inside an ominous alt-country frame. It’s a vastly intriguing opening salvo, for sure.
“Irene, Goodnight” is a similarly dark but less overtly country tune; “What the Hell Happened?” is bouncy enough in the bass and acoustic guitars to be considered poppy. (If you’re into 4H Royalty’s work, you’ll be into this track.) But the core of the album is “The Beginning,” which uses all of the tools that DLPI puts forth to their best effect. Start there, for sure. This isn’t singalong folk-pop, yet it’s very involving.
Day Laborers and Petty Intellectuals’ self-titled album is quite impressive. The recording is immaculate, the songwriting is impeccable, the lyrics are strong, and the moods are enveloping. What else are you waiting for? Go get this one.
In recorded form, Lord Buffalo has been quiet since I highly recommended their 2012 self-titled EP. They’ve been spending time playing mighty live shows and recording a full album (to be released in 2014). A self-titled 7″ has appeared to whet the appetites of those invested in their spacious sound, and whoa does it ever deliver.
The only Stephen King novel I’ve finished was The Stand, and the post-epidemic landscape that King sets his characters upon could use these two tunes as a soundtrack. Helter-skelter vocal roaring reminiscent of Isaac Brock (Modest Mouse) ranges across the urgent, pounding “Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin”; the heavily rhythmic arrangement hearkens towards stereotypical Native American chant, which only ups the tension. Evocative might be too soft a word for the visceral reaction I feel when hearing the recording; it helps that I saw this one performed live at SXSW 2013, and it was suitably earthshaking. B-side “Black Mesa” is a more expansive track, giving the band more room to breathe. It’s just as dramatic and fascinating, but in a different way. Lord Buffalo are making unique and thrilling music, and I can hardly wait for the full album in 2014. Highly recommended (again!).
At their best, Son of Laughter‘s singer/songwriter tunes blend Paul Simon’s precise fingerpicking and melodies with Josh Ritter’s thoughtful, storytelling lyrics. The result is the 5-song The Mantis and The Moon EP, which gives much to enjoy while pointing to a bright future for musician Chris Slaten.
Opener “Cricket in a Jar” and the title track jump off the page as the clear standouts. The former delivers the most poignant line of the EP (“This is a law of loveliness/we love what never lasts”), while the latter gives us the most memorable chorus of the bunch. Slaten’s voice is in fine form through the chorus and beyond, moving sprightly across the gentle arrangement while maintaining nuance in the pathos. The nice subtlety of the lyrics helps with Slaten’s vocal nuance, as well. It’s hard for me to hear “The Mantis” and resist pushing repeat; that’s high praise from over here. The other three tunes are a little less immediate in their charms, but they each show promising aspects to Slaten’s sound. I’m looking forward to how this project grows and develops, as Slaten’s talent seems like it has a lot of good songs in it that are just waiting to emerge.
One of the most arresting pitches I’ve heard in a long while was from the songwriter of Filbert, who announced in his e-mail that “My only hope is to run out of free downloads on our Bandcamp!” Well, Daniel Gutierrez, I hope that I can help you meet that goal. Chronographic is a high-quality album that deserves all that and more.
I introduced Filbert to a group of my friends under the tag “Modest Mouse + Jeffrey Lewis + backpack rap + Bon Iver = Filbert,” and I’m standing by that assessment for this review. The core of Filbert’s sound is a dreary acoustic strum not all that different than Bon Iver’s cabin output, but the sound takes a hard left with what’s layered on top of it. Gutierrez has a humble, mumbly voice very similar to the vastly underrated Jeffrey Lewis, but he uses it to announce earnest musings on the often-ignored, normal bits of life (a la backpack rap) instead of Lewis’ surreal scenes. The final identifier (Modest Mouse) comes along in the arrangements, which skew toward the meandering and wandering–similar to the quieter moments of Good News for People Who Love Bad News.
It’s an absolutely glorious, riveting amalgam. Gutierrez and co. hold attention not through electrifying riffs or overtly clever turns of phrase, but through intricate, intimate tunes. Gutierrez includes several long clips of children talking to him and playing music as intros and outros, which give the whole album a distinctly “bedroom project of thoughtful, loving dad in his spare time” air. With folk’s recent self-importance in the era of Mumford and Sons saying big and important things to big and important audiences, it’s quite refreshing to hear an album that’s not targeted at the masses, but the Mrs. This one isn’t a world-conquering statement or important announcement, which paradoxically makes it both of those things. It’s not like slacker chic, where we’re celebrating largely unceremonious things; instead, it’s those guys who kept doing what they loved finally getting their due.
Songs like “Headphones” and “Breath” show that there are indeed some musical chops at play beyond the humble lyrics. The former builds to a desperate, striking conclusion via a slow but persistent crescendo; the latter creates a tune off a memorable guitar line and a surprisingly complex percussive section (complete with essential tambourine). “Breath” ties that commendable arrangement to a perfectly matched lyric set about weariness: “My legs won’t let me get out of the shower / … I just want to let the water hit me for a little while longer.” Yo, if we haven’t all been there, right?
There’s only seven songs in the unassuming Chronographic, and those small aims are part of the charm. It’s a mesmerizing, enveloping release that draws its power from the fact that it’s not trying to be a rock star move. This is not an indictment of the band’s effort: the arrangements are great (check the inventive “Race Cars and Chocolate”), performances are spot-on, and the production quality is immaculate. It’s just that the unpretentious, non-ironic vibe of the tracks really shines. Here’s to all those who do their thing without fuss or concern for what others think. Here’s to celebrating that. Here’s to Chronographic, which is definitely on my short list for end of year lists.
I can’t believe it’s been almost two weeks since I posted. Crazy times. Here’s a bunch of quick hits to clear my slate and get back to lengthy reviews I am such a fan of writing.
The fractured melodies and herky-jerky energy of Good News-era Modest Mouse meet the moody ponderousness of Tom Waits’ work in More Than Skies‘ I Am Only Above The Ground. The lyrics are far more positive than either party is accustomed to writing, making the album a unique experience of positive-to-wistful lyrics led by a raspy singer and backed by an enthusiastic band that often breaks out into group vocals. Instrumental chops abound (“Introduction,” “The One Who Wanders Is Not Lost”) and the melodies shine (“Life Declines at Twenty-five,” the title track), but it’s the exuberant “We’re Getting Older” that will stick in your mind and heart. Highly recommended for fans of a full-bodied folk sound that’s still raw and real.
Nonagon‘s People Live Everywhere EP offers up technical post-hardcore that’s big on dissonant melodies, tempo changes, odd time signatures, and shouted vocals. The unusual juxtaposition of guitar lines in opener “Vikings” should tip you off that this is loud music to appreciate with your brain as much as your body. You can definitely mosh to it (the dissonant “Fresnel Lens,” the manic “The Swifts”), but it’s the atypical rhythms and melodic ideas in “Fadeout” and the aforementioned “Vikings” that get me. Nonagon’s working at a high level here.
The Woodrow Wilsons‘ Devil Jonah focuses more on mood and arrangement than hummable melodies, making their acoustic amalgam much less of a traditional “folk” album and more of a chamber-pop album. “I Love the Atlantic” is a beautiful tune that experiments with tempo and arrangement for effect, while “Anthropomorphics” is a jubilant tune with a horn chorale in it. Songs like “The Ocean is Rising to Meet You” and “Heat” play with the conventions of songwriting to great effect. Male and female vocals lead the band in turns, only lending more variety to the album. The highlight is the tense, emotive “The Size of My Fist,” which calls up what Andrew Bird might sound like if he had an interest in conveying emotions. On the whole, fans of The Decemberists and old-school Sufjan Stevens will find much to love in The Woodrow Wilsons.
Barry (three dudes, not one guy) is a folk trio that ate an indie-rock band whole and had a comedian for dessert. Still, their songs are more firmly entrenched in the folk tradition than most new folk artists, in that I can see “Drink One More” being covered to the point that no one remembers who actually wrote it.
Even though “For Your Own Good” has harmonica, acoustic guitar and tom-heavy drumming, the vocals contribute the twitchy energy of a Titus Andronicus or Replacements song. The bowed stand-up bass of “Carnival(e)” contributes to the dark, pulsing Modest Mouse feel. The aforementioned “Drink One More” has a lot ripped from the indie-pop camp: melodies, background vocals, synths (yes, airy synths).
And that comedian’s streak? The title track is a a cappella foot-stomper about how they are tired from not sleeping enough. Not even kidding. It’s hilarious, in that they not only thought it was a good idea, they made it the title track. Rock that.
In fact, it’s the straight folk/country tunes that fare worst, as “Three Years in Carolina” and “Love Something Too Much” don’t match up to the engaging, entertaining amalgam of the other tunes. They aren’t bad, they’re just totally faceless. “Great Unknown” barely avoids this fate due to a nice set of lyrics and a dramatic vocal performance, but it’s still a bit too long at five minutes.
That’s an argument that can be levied at all of the songs, actually; most hang out around the five-minute mark, with only the 48-second title track as an outlier. “For Your Own Good” is close to four, and it’s a solid length.
Is it any surprise that the tracks that seem least serious are the winners, or that they’re the ones that incorporate the extra-folk-ular influences? That comedian’s streak runs deep, and it’s important to the success of Barry’s Yawnin’ in the Dawnin’. Here’s to hoping they keep bein’ chilled out incorporators of good influences into folk structures. Can we get these guys on tour with O’Death? Or maybe Avett Brothers? Thanks, justice.
“I think it’s important for bands to be older,” Hendrix said. “They have more to say, and what they have to say isn’t related to being mad at parents.”
I hadn’t thought much about age/maturity as a factor in making great music, but since then it’s been on my radar. I’ve seen Paul Simon in an entirely different light; I’ve noticed castoff lines in Good News For People Who Love Bad News that wouldn’t have been noted by a younger Modest Mouse. There are evidences of it everywhere. Ringer T‘s Sorry Verses is yet another example.
The releases I’ve reviewed from the Michigan alt-country band have all been heart-wrenching affairs, wringing every ounce of emotion out of the travails of young love. Their pristine production values and tight songwriting structures honed the misery to a fine point. The most downtrodden of their tunes are right up there with Elliott Smith’s and Damien Jurado’s in the “too sad to listen to more than once in a while” tracks.
Then the band went their own ways for a while, and the time off seems to have been just the thing the members needed. Their regrouped effort is a much brighter, calmer and more enjoyable effort. The songwriting, now freed from the weight of tragedy, is able to be as infectious as it should have been previously. Both the pristine production and tight songwriting have only become more so.
The smooth-toned tenor vocalist isn’t singing too much about lost love, and even when he does, he does it in a way that doesn’t aspire to tear down the walls on himself. Not that these tunes are sparkly indie-pop; this is still firmly alt-county. But there are a lot of Paul Simon touches, like the little strum pattern on “The Easy Road” and just about everything on “Upon a Hill.” It’s Ringer T as I always wanted them to be: they’re making great melodies (“Sorry Verses,” “Here I Am”) in a consistent mood that’s calm and contained. There’s a difference between restraint and restrained, and Ringer T falls firmly on the self-induced, positive, former side for the songs here.
The instrumentation is simple and direct: Acoustic guitar, gentle electric guitar, drums, bass, occasional keys, some auxiliary instruments here and there. Instead of dazzling with the kitchen sink (i.e. Typhoon), Ringer T leans heavily on their formidable songwriting skills. And with their newfound calm and maturity, they crank out some incredible tunes that way.
Sorry Verses has several great mixtape tracks: the poignant “The Sweet Release,” the whoa-ohs of “Sorry Verses,” and the yearning “Let Me Be Your Man.” But it’s best experienced as a whole piece, just like Paul Simon’s best albums. The charms of one song build into the next.
Growing up some gives perspective and allows people to see all that they do in a new light. Whether people grow or fold in that instance is the difference between a success story and an also-ran.
Ever since Nirvana became the world’s most prestigious rock band by playing distorted pop songs, the line between pop and rock has been blurred. To me, it’s pretty much an attitude at this point. Modest Mouse is a rock band, mostly because they sneer at anything and everyone who doesn’t fit into their ideas of the way things should be. Even though Three Days Grace, Hinder, and even Nickelback play “rock’n’roll” by modern standards, they are pop bands. They are pop bands because they act like preening pop stars and not like rock stars (i.e. hedonistic excess does not a rock band make).
Play the Angel is one of the best pop bands I’ve heard in years. They play “rock” by the radio’s standards, but they don’t have any of the attitude of a rock band. And that’s a good thing, because they embrace their pop star aesthetics and give the people what they want. There are five songs on this EP: straightforward rock’n’roller, major-key powerballad, dance-rock tune, whoa-oh pop-punk tune, and Gavin DeGraw-style emotive piano ballad. They have real names, of course, but they each fit excellently into their own radio niche. “So what?” you say. “Bands do that crap all the time.”
Yeah, they do, but they do one of the genres better than the other. Play the Angel does all five right. They could release every song off this EP as a radio single and, with proper label backing, they would have five number one hits. Their songwriting is just that good. Their vocalist has an incredibly appealing voice that’s a tad lower than Tyson Ritter of the All-American Rejects but just as emotive. Their production values are pitch-perfect. The band knows when to get out of the way of the vocals and when to crash in for the emotional payoff. Play the Angel does everything right.
If you like anything on rock radio right now, from Fall Out Boy to Hinder to Panic! at the Disco to Paramore to All-American Rejects and anything in between, you’re going to absolutely fall in love with Play the Angel. I don’t have a clue why this band hasn’t shot to the top of the charts yet. They’ve got every piece of the puzzle in line. They just need to see the right guy at the right gig who turns them into mega-stars. Cause, geez, they’re infinitely better than Nickelback. And that crap still sells millions. Again, if you turn on the radio and like anything you hear, Play the Angel is there for you. It’s that good.
Friendly Psychics Music is one of my favorite record labels of all time. It is basically composed of Chris Jones, John Wenzel, and their group of friends. People are occasionally grafted into the group, and each friend gets their own project name. The Jones/Wenzel aesthetic is extremely idiosyncratic, in that I could recognize an a FPM release in less than ten seconds, even if I’ve never heard it. Their vaguely psychedelic, fractured folk and indie rock is incredibly unique and difficult to break into, but it’s rewarding once you do.
Derecho is not far outside the FPM model. Dropped at 10,000 Feet features Dan Miller (a major player in the FPM catalog, although not as forefront as Jones/Wenzel) as the primary songwriter, with Jones on bass and Wenzel contributing on only two songs. Miller has a much more honed pop aesthetic than Jones/Wenzel, and that makes the songs on this EP some of the most straightforward indie-rock tunes that FPM has ever released.
It doesn’t mean they’re normal (I don’ t think FPM does normal), but they’re a lot more accessible than flagship artist Dishwater Psychics. Miller strums his guitar consistently (something that is taken for granted until you hear FPM artists that, well, don’t) and has driving bass and guitar to back it up. Miller’s vocals and lyrics are also much more caustic and bitter than Wenzel’s mournful baritone and overarching sense of disdain, giving the release a distinctly different attitude than other FPM releases.
The songs move quickly and induce head-bobbing, but the caustic delivery of the vocals may turn some off, especially in the self-loathing “Canadian Whiskey” (which, for the record, is my favorite type. I’m drinking some now, in honor). The highlight here is closer “Measured in Millions,” where Wenzel contributes vocals. Wenzel’s voice has become a part of my musical consciousness, but it’s almost always used in jarring and abstract atmospheres. Hearing it paired with the driving, reverb-washed indie-rock of Dan Miller’s invention is incredible. The two pieces fit together perfectly; if Wenzel had sung on each of the tracks on this EP, it would have been even better than it is now. Maybe that’s the next project?
Derecho’s Dropped at 10,000 Feet is a good turn for the FPM guys. It’s not my favorite release by them, but it certainly is high on my list. Reining in some of the more aesthetically challenging parts of the FPM ourve was a nice change. If you like cerebral indie pop (like Grizzly Bear, Beach House, etc) or off-kilter vocals (Modest Mouse, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, etc, although Miller is nowhere near as grating as Alec Ounsworth), this should be one to check out.
Clock Hands Strangle suffered from a peculiar syndrome when I was reviewing this album. I enjoyed this album so much that I put it in my car and started listening to it like I would if it were an album that I purchased from a record store. But when I do that, I don’t think about things like “when I need to have it reviewed by” and things of that nature. Hey, we’re definitely not pros here at IC. Only here will producing a fantastic album actually delay your review. Sorry.
But Disticatti is an incredible album that deserves the words I’m about to lavish on it. It’s a folk/punk album, and the punctuation is chosen particularly. It’s not folk-punk, where the folk has a whole lot of punk strumming and attitude (O Death comes to mind) or folk punk, which is a punk band playing folk instruments (The Violent Femmes, for example). This is a band that plays folk and punk in equal measure. Continue readingThere's Folk and Punk in Clock Hands' Stranglehold…
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.