Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

I'm Lost in The Woods

September 16, 2009

The Woods are an experimental folk band, heavy on experimental. There are five songs here that run for twelve minutes on The EP Logue, and not one of them is easily categorized. If the “blink and you miss it” nature of Half-Handed Cloud’s fragmented pop songs collided with the mellower moments of Good News for People Who Love Bad News and then became friends with the wide-eyed, carnival-esque folk of Page France, you might have a good cover band for the Woods.

But that still doesn’t appropriate all that they are. From spoken word sections to gorgeous melodies that appear only once (so maddening!) to clever guitar licks that don’t get the focus they deserve before morphing into something else (also maddening!) to the plaintive and picturesque “Place I” (which is the only fully-developed idea here, speaking from a purely traditional pop standpoint), The Woods cram more beauty and oddity into twelve minutes than some bands cover in a lifetime.

It’s more like a painting than an actual album, and (lo and behold) that’s exactly what they wanted to do. They didn’t name any of the pieces, per se; they titled them with “place”, “person” or “thing.” They want the listener to understand more about a certain point of reference because of these songs, as opposed to enjoying the songs for their melodies and rhythms. As Ian Dudley says in the final track, “Just because I’m singing, that don’t make this a song.”

The Woods seem to know exactly what they are doing, and they’ve created a very, very pretty release. It’s a very confusing release, if you’re not used to or not a fan of experimental work, but it is a good release nonetheless. For fans of Devendra Banhart, Animal Collective, and the like. You can download it for free here.

Library Voices create bookish indie-pop

September 9, 2009

What is it that makes pop music such a fitting background for philosophical and hyper-literary lyrics? This question comes up regularly for listeners of The Decemberists, Modest Mouse, Andrew Bird, Sufjan Stevens and the like. And the question has come up again while listening to Library Voices.

This ten-piece pop collective hails from Saskatchewan, Canada. Their Hunting Ghosts and Other Collected Shorts EP stays true to its bookish name, combining pop culture references, narrative structure, philosophical musings, and existential confusion with musical styles from uptempo, guitar-driven pop to ethereal pieces with delicate instrumental textures. Their Myspace says they sound like “drunk kids talking too openly and too honestly.” I’d have to agree, except these drunk kids are hip, have read lots of books and are probably drunk on craft beers and red wine. (After all, they have appeared in The New Yorker.)

The opening track “Step off the Map and Float” begins with some Nintendo-like sounds, a lighthearted group count-off to twelve, and then jumps into an up-tempo pop song whose chorus–“Your existence is a pinprick/On a paper continent/The patron saints all patronize me”–is tinged with just enough resignation and anguish. But, it is ultimately ebullient: “So step off the map and float.” This track is a balanced showing of their sound, which features clean guitar, multi-part vocals, and an array of quirky elements that at the same time both thicken the song and lighten the sound.

“Kundera on the Dance Floor” features a syncopated rhythm section (including a saxophone) and a sort of character vignette of the “golden girl.” She wears a Tom Waits t-shirt, is “piss drunk on red wine and melody,” and quotes Dando and Kafka. Library Voices’ sharp lyrics and the catchy melodies do exactly what pop lyrics and melodies should do: get stuck in your head and make you thankful for it. Oh, and as a consequence of singing the educated lyrics to yourself as you walk down the street, you get to be introspective and consider, among other ironies and tragedies of life, “the unbearable lightness of being.”

Yet at times Library Voices’ literary leanings can come off as too overt. The somewhat underwhelming “Things We Stole From Vonnegut’s Grave” is just as list-like as it sounds. Abstract items of contraband such as “consciousness of the human condition” and “a taste for science fiction” provide the list with some intrigue. Either way, it is impressive and humorous to listen to the band reel off obscure Vonnegut references, and they certainly leave no doubt that they read a lot of the man’s works. Musically it is one of their more unusual pieces in that its harmonic structure lies outside of the realm of traditional pop. It is only striking in contrast to their other songs. The factual lyrics are impersonal at worst, but the song works within the overall aesthetic of Library Voices in that themes often found in Vonnegut stories regularly show up in the band’s original lyrics. For instance, in “Love in the Age of Absurdity,” the band takes a somewhat prophetic tack, questioning the seeming normality of pop culture givens such as social networking and reality television and stirring the listener to examine his or her place.

“Hunting Ghosts” and “The Lonely Projectionist” are easily the most in keeping with the title of the EP. Both are extensive narratives, and “Hunting Ghosts” is unique in that it features soft, female lead vocals. This quiet, ethereal song contains tighter backing harmonies, more reverb, and a deftly-written string section to create the more intimate texture of this song. The narrative-confessional lyrics add to such a texture. Instrumentally, “The Lonely Projectionist” shares similarities with the other pieces, such as an extensive use of organs and synths, with the bass and drums driving the song forward. However, this song is their best-arranged piece; the instrumental elements of the song move seamlessly together through a larger range of dynamics and moods. About two-thirds of the way through the song they take a chance on a bridge that veers away from the earlier part of the song, and it is a most pleasant surprise. The lyrics narrate two parallel existences of loneliness, and this more oblique approach to existential questions sounds less cathartic.

Library Voices pull off their sound and the pop collective aesthetic with just the right amount of ease. It isn’t polished, but it isn’t chaotic, and doesn’t seem forced. Hunting Ghosts and Other Collected Shorts EP makes me eager for a full-length album. –Max Thorn

"Starlite" doesn't shine so bright in places

August 21, 2009

At his best, the Canadian Nathaniel Sutton on his new album Starlite sounds catchy, but at his worst, the album feels unimaginative and repetitive. Unfortunately the misses are more frequent than the hits. Yet, the better songs from Starlite show how Sutton can grow and improve.

Sutton’s sound is a bit like a spacey, electronic version of Modest Mouse, with a hint of Grandaddy mixed in. The problem is that a lot of the songs repeat the same themes over and over without making any changes, which tempt the listener to skip to the next track. The first two songs fall into this category, but the album picks up with “High Holy Day.”

“High Holy Day” has an interesting, sporadic and hectic-sounding riff that gives the album a darker feel, which is truer to the remainder of the songs than the peppy opener “Starlite” would initially lead you to believe. It is also much more high-energy, like the other better songs on the album.

Several of the songs on Starlite are so dark that they’re actually quite creepy to listen to, like the ominous “Serious Crime,” “Subliminal Messages,” which is downright frightening, and the slightly-too-weird “Killer in the House.” Part of what really makes these songs so sinister is the way that Sutton sings them, with exaggerated wavering bass, overbearing special effects in places, and especially over-breathiness in “Subliminal Messages.”

“Blow My Mind” in the middle of the album surprises with its extreme DJ-type sound which the songs preceding it don’t come close to in terms of electronics. “Creepy Crawlers” also falls into this genre, but both of these songs feel a bit out of place on the album overall. However, the all-important “dancibility factor” is high in “Blow My Mind” and “Creepy Crawlers.”

The slow-paced, sentimental lullaby “Photo Album” sounds like it belongs on the same album as the opener “Starlite,” but these songs don’t really mesh with the others well. Sutton could really improve if he narrows his focus and doesn’t attempt so many clashing styles.

What is interesting to consider about this album is that it is entirely Nathaniel Sutton. He plays all the instruments, and he also recorded, mixed, and produced the album in his own home. While this is an impressive accomplishment, it seems that Sutton would also benefit greatly by with others. Maybe with a band, he could develop a tighter sound, and could grow as a songwriter working with others.

Prepare for Take-off with Bears in the Yukon

February 10, 2009

You May Die In The Desert started out as a guitar and bass duo from Seattle before morphing into what they are today—a three-piece instrumental group. Bears in the Yukon is a purely instrumental album, consisting of seven tracks. I automatically assume that boredom will ensue when it comes to purely instrumental albums, but this day I was in luck. You may Die In The Desert (YMDITD) has immense technical skill. One of the first bands I thought of in comparison was the technical, instrumental aspect of Between the Buried and Me.

The sound could be described as ambient, atmospheric, spacey; the type of music that would be playing if you were to suddenly take flight. Seriously–if I was so lucky as to have a spaceship come into my possession, this is what I would be pumping through the speakers. It’s the kind of music that inspires the listener to get off their butt and embark on some sort of creative enterprise of their own; I love that in music.

It’s refreshing that the sound of the guitar is played with and changed up—there isn’t just a barrage of distortion or acoustic, which is extremely important in an instrumental album. The tracks all are very cohesive, but I found “The Writer’s Audience is Always Fiction” to be the most enchanting. Amidst flashbacks to songs by Modest Mouse and The Postal Service, I found myself immensely enjoying this track. Its tempo is set by what sounds like a digital high hat drum beat—it stands out from the rest. There are definite elements of jazz infused throughout, not only in this song but in the entire album.

They obviously know what they are doing; the technicality of the layering of sounds, the implications of the drum beats, the airy reverb and delay of the guitars; it all makes for a very intelligent, mystic-feeling musical sojourn through the eardrums.

YMDITD possesses enough skill to keep the listener alert yet relaxed throughout their songs. They go to prove that words aren’t needed where music can suffice and thrive on its own.

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.

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