Here’s my recounting of the best EPs of the year that was.
1. Drift Wood Miracle – Between Three and Four. (Review) After a triumphant emo/punk debut, DWM built on their artsy sentiment and churned out a well-textured, complex, mature follow-up EP. Heavy and light intermingle in one consistent flow of music that honestly sounds like one really long track. The songwriting instincts are already incredibly well-developed, which makes me excited for their future work.
2. Afterlife Parade – A Million Miles Away. (Review) What can I say? It’s the best pop-rock EP I’ve heard all year: it’s basically Coldplay, U2, and Imagine Dragons in a blender. Haters gonna hate. Lovers gonna love.
3. Arctic Tern – Hopeful Heart. (Review) Romantic in both the literary and literal sense of the word, these lush, gorgeous tunes blew me away with their arrangement and production.
4. Morgan Mecaskey – Lover Less Wild. (Review) One of the most ambitious releases of the year, Mecaskey attempts to cram dozens of ideas into a very short space. The resulting adventure is a National-esque indie-rock base packed full of twists and turns.
5. Smoke Season – Hot Coals Cold Souls. (Review) Like Morgan Mecaskey, a whiplash bullet train ride through multiple genres. Smoke Season leans more toward the alt-rock end of things for their remarkable tunes, ending up like a folkier version of Muse.
Honorable Mention: Death and the Penguin – Accidents Happen. (Review) The first rush of listening to Death and the Penguin was an adrenaline jolt the likes of which I haven’t felt in a long time. Post-hardcore of the finest order.
Genres can be combined in any number of ways, as long as it makes sense to the listener. Smoke Season‘s Hot Coals Cold Souls EP mashes folk-style instrumentation and rhythms with the arch, electro-backed rock bombast of Muse. It’s not as weird as it sounds, because the duo knows how to set up the mood to make their tunes build from small beginnings to big conclusions. It’s a rare skill to be able to tip people off to things they haven’t imagined yet, but Smoke Season pulls mood-building tricks from country (the reverb and strum pattern in “Badlands”), R&B (the sultry vocals in “Badlands”), dancy indie (the rhythms of the opening guitar riff in “Simmer Down”), chillwave (the intro to “Opaque”) and more. This whole review feels kind of dumb, kind of like a reach, but I have to explain the sound somehow.
By the time you get to the electronic noise washes at the end of the EP, the connection to folk seems tenuous at best. But throughout the EP, it’s there. There are only subtle differences between a folk band exploding in every direction and a rock band dabbling in folk (and what is a rock band, anyway?), so maybe the distinction is silly. However you feel about the comparison, fans of folk, indie-rock, and alt-rock will enjoy the three songs of Hot Coals Cold Souls. Just go listen to it.
The album art for Conversations by Woman’s Hour is a perfect fit for the album. The smooth, pulsing, post-’80s electro-pop tunes here are pristine, streamlined and unified. They’re not exactly monochromatic, but they do all adhere to a very distinct sonic palette. Nothing is spiky or jagged here: everything is built on spacious, calming, warm vibes. The delicate “Two Sides of You” will especially appeal to fans of James Blake–as Woman’s Hour is (appropriately) fronted by a female singer, this provides an extra interesting hook to the sound. JB’s spaced-out post-dub melancholy/beauty is exactly what Woman’s Hour is offering here. (This is not chillwave; there’s little hazy or washed-out about this.) Conversations is a beautiful, calming, endearing chill-out record.
Emily and the Complexes is a male-fronted alt-rock band that takes its cues from Pedro the Lion: even though there’s significant crunch in the guitars, the emotions invoked are sad and complicated instead of angry. “Yer Boyfriend (Is a Cheapskate)” juxtaposes slow, dejected vocals with a torrent of gritty guitars and cymbal-heavy drums; that sort of quiet/loud is a staple throughout the four songs of Dirty Southern Love.
Tyler Verhagen hasn’t gotten much happier since 2012’s Styrofoam Plate Blues, as the last line of closer “Jersey City Blues” is “Rubbing alcohol or scotch / I don’t care.” He has matured some in his subject matter, as “Joshua” is about a man with a child, a mortgage, and life outlook concerns–there’s a dignity in the depiction of normal life (complete with joys and sorrows). But no matter how tough the subject matter, Verhagen is ace at writing compelling melodic lines for guitar and voice. He’s internalized the lessons of the ’90s and integrated them with the vocal and instrumental emotionality that the ’00s brought us. If you miss the desperate crunch of an alt-rock sadness, check out Emily and the Complexes.
The first half of this list is marked by songs that rock out really hard. The second half is marked by songs that are outside your normal arrangements.
Rock Out / Quirk Out
1. “Station Wagon Apocalypse” – The Outfit. I’d just like to point out that this incredibly-named garage-rock tune is not even the best name on the two-song EP. (That would be “Tyrannosaurus Surfboard,” YOU’RE WELCOME.) As to the tune itself: Big drums, big guitars, big vocals, big fun.
2. “Be Cool” – Cancers. Cancers is the missing link that makes me think Sleigh Bells might not have been robots from the future and instead were just really, really hyped up ’90s kids.
3. “Last Forever” – Fenech-Soler. As a bassist myself, I appreciate it when a song is so thoroughly dominated by bass that the guitar and keys just kind of follow along. When those songs are also jubilant dance tracks with irresistible shout-it-out vocals, well. Well, well.
4. “Metronome” – The Yuseddit Brothers. There was a brand of ’90s grunge/slacker-rock that took pride in sounding like it was kind of underwater. This low-slung groove has that fuzzy-edged production value to match the not-so-ambitious tempo and tone. Chillax, y’all.
5. “Bright Eyes, Black Soul” – The Lovers Key. Sometimes I hear a song outside of genres I usually cover and think, “WHOA WHY DON’T I LISTEN TO THAT GENRE MORE.” Probably because I’m hearing an elite artist, but I don’t know. Anyway, The Lovers Key has me interested in aggressive Blue Eyed Soul with some serious motown horns stacked up on it. This makes me think of a James Bond movie. Can’t really explain that either.
6. “All in a Day’s Work” – Horizontal Hold. As a mid-point between rocking out and quirking out, I submit Horizontal Hold, which is out-Pixie-ing the Pixies at the moment.
7. “You Are My Summer (feat. Coleman Hell and Jayme)” – La+ch. This is a perfect electro-pop tune. In musical world that I ran, this would be the big hit of the summer. It’s got Icona Pop infectiousness and Cobra Starship restraint. What’s not to love?
8. “Old K.B.” – The Solars. Speaking of motown influences, here’s a piano-pop tune fronted by a guy who sounds like Jack White that features organ and horns. This thing grooves way more than piano-pop fans are probably comfortable with. THAT’S OK!
9. “Unrevenged” – Floating Action. Rubbery bass, ethereal background vocals, driving percussion? Clearly indie-pop, but not any like you’ve imagined recently. Has me all stoked for the album.
10. “I’m To Blame” – Anand Wilder and Maxwell Kardon. After sending us a folky tune for the first single, the second one is a incredible mash-up of jazz trumpet, Radiohead vocals, Muse craziness, and a totally rad guitar solo. It is, in a word, different.
11. “It Doesn’t Even Matter” – Onward Chariots! If the Kings of Convenience had more quirky pop arrangements, it might end up something like this.
12. “Rockingham” – Kasey Keller Brass Band. 58 seconds of found sound, gentle synths, and meandering acoustic guitar paint a sonic picture extremely well. Very cool stuff here.
13. “Shadow’s Song” – Foxes in Fiction. Chillwave + Owen Pallett? TOTALLY THERE, MY FRIENDS.
There’s also rock’n’roll in the summer, for those of us who like it a little heavier when the sun is shining.
Oh So Summery (and Loud)
1. “Right on Time” – The Addies. You might turn down the volume before you hit play: this chunky slab of guitar-rock takes off at full blast before dropping into a groove of sorts.
2. “Brix-tone” – Mangoseed. Reggae + Rage against the Machine = whoa bro.
3. “Forgiveness” – Turn to Crime. The song name and band name seem incongruous, but whatevs. This is a refreshing bit of laid-back rock’n’roll that makes me think of Velvet Underground.
4. “Human Imitation” – Rayne. We’re going to look back in 20 years and realize that, while there were more popular bands, Muse was the most important band of the generation. Those soaring piano lines! High drama! Mmm. Anyway, Rayne knows how to write a high-drama ballad, which is what you get here.
5. “i am laid back no pressure” – pjaro. Some of that late ’80s/early ’90s post-hardcore churn, some of that mid-’90s indie-rock malaise, some punk hollering/singing–pjaro is a clever, interesting rock band.
New Lungs‘ Lanterns is an incredible release that ties together the best parts of post-rock, serious indie-rock and optimism. I know it seems like these things would not mesh conceptually, but New Lungs does a bang-up job combining them.
Look no further than “Concrete” for your example, where a tom-heavy rhythm anchors a speedy, rhythmically complex guitar/bass fusion. The surprisingly bright guitar and bass tone drop out without warning and give way to an a cappella chorale. Just out of nowhere, you know? Because that’s what we do here. Just about the time you get used to it, they blast off into a punk-inspired section that wouldn’t be out of place on a Deep Elm post-punk circa ’05 release. To signal the second verse, they throw in an 8-bit video game noise low in the mix. Not obvious, but totally there. Are you guys reading my mind or something? In short, “Concrete” is almost certainly going to be on my “top songs of the year,” even if it was released three days before 2013 started.
The rest of the five-song release, while not as mind-blowing as “Concrete,” has much to praise. “A Wallflower (The Price of Being)” uses a math-rock-inspired riff as the lead on the track, but wraps it in a warm, friendly guitar tone. It’s dizzying in its execution, and it’s not as sterilized as some technical math rock can become. (This same sort of incredible guitar work appears in the spunky “Euro.”) The bass and drums follow the guitar around, snaking through time changes and mood changes at the guitar’s whim. It all works beautifully. The vocalist is also throwing down the best vocal line outside of “Concrete” while this is all going on. Yes. This band knows what is up when it comes to songwriting.
Steven Hyden suggests in his piece on Muse that we’re headed for “a future where all music sounds like everything at once.” If mind-bending music like New Lungs’ is the result of having all genres accessible to us at all times, I’m all for it. I could use a few more shiver-inducing moments like “Concrete”‘s unexpected chorale in my music-listening life.
Speaking of “all genres at once,” Swedish spazz-rockers Cyan Marble have dropped a new EP. Maya is almost twenty minutes of frenetic, whiplash-inducing rock spread out over three tunes. Comparisons to the Mars Volta will abound, both for the sky-high vocals and the penchant for pairing absurdly technical sections of math-rock with melodic ideas yanked from every imaginable permutation of rock music. Still, with MV gone, it’s good to see someone carrying on that spazz-rock torch.
If there’s a breakout star of the EP, it’s bassist André Hayrapetian, whose intimidating chops are put front and center in “Purple Testament.” Instead of providing incredible work in the background as he did in previous EP Mirror, Hayrapetian carries the whole 7-minute tune with his rhythmic, melodic riffing. Now that Cyan Marble has established itself with two solid EPs of extremely intriguing rock, I’m interested to see where the muse takes them next. They’ve got the ambition and the chops to create some really incredible things, so we could be in for an impressive ride with Cyan Marble.
I don’t cover much rock these days. It’s not because I’m anti-rock; it’s just not my primary interest. Since I don’t seek it out, I don’t have a network of rock bands that are passing my name among them (as I do with folk bands). But every now and then a rock album or two crosses my desk that is simply too good to resist.
Miaow by Kursed is just such an album. The French trio makes rock with the crunch and pop hooks in a strong balance, and the airtight production helps as well: I haven’t heard a set of independent rock tunes sound so clean and tight in a long while. The sound is anchored by stomping guitars and a powerful male vocals that sit nicely between the sky-high tenor of pop-rock bands and the baritone of The National. The vocalist sounds completely comfortable in his own sound, which is an incredibly important and impressive aspect of Kursed’s sound. When he’s singing soaring lines (“Pirate Song”) or sounding ominous (“Tarantino”), he sounds right at home. He struggles a bit when he tries to get overly emotional (“I Feel You”), but there are more hits than misses.
The same can be said for the band: they absolutely crush what they’re good at, and they stick to it most of the time. Dark, pounding rock is where’s it at for them: opener “Tsa Tsa Tsu” is a wiry, riff-driven adrenaline kick, while the buzzy intensity of “Wall” is a remarkable turn for the band. When they get too bluesy, it starts to fall a bit far from the tree: “Movie Star” and “Modern Politician fell a bit too much like Clutch without the intensity. But tunes like “Exam,” which incorporate unique melodies and rhythms into their heavy rock, sell the whole thing excellently.
Miaow by Kursed has some completely dominating tracks when all of their elements are on. They still have some kinks to work out in their sound, but this release proves that they’ve got some really good songs in them, now and in the future.
American Wolf has fewer stomping rock moments in their tunes, hearkening back to old-school Muse’s mix of elegant melodic sections and huge riffs. Myriad also incorporates Radiohead-esque moody sections and Mars Volta-style vocal contributions. The mix comes off surprisingly well: opener “A Dark Matter” fits a heavily patterned guitar work and rhythm synths into the pounding of a hyperactive drummer. The vocalists, pulled far back in the mix, coo and call over the turbulent arrangement, creating a remarkable tension. It’s a pretty powerful opening statement.
Thoughtful, intense arrangements characterize the rest of the album: it’s easy to miss some of the pieces on first glance, but there are touches all throughout for the discerning listener. With diverse influences ranging from math rock (the shiver-inducing middle section of “Mahrz”) to atmospheric downtempo (“Skin Tight”) to acoustic folk (“The Secret to Passing Through”), this fascinating album has surprises galore for someone who likes listening deep in the mix. If you’re a fan of complex rock that rewards multiple listens, Myriad is a strong bet.
The Future Elements is a group of writers and musicians from all over the world (but primarily India) who love “shoegaze, ambient, modern classical, drone and experimental music.” Those genres, along with post-rock, form the bulk of their 35-song (!) debut compilation album Elements 01. Since it’s almost three hours of music, it’s gonna take you a while to listen to, but it’s pretty worth it. If you sub out the Absent Hearts’ misplaced modern rock track, the quality of the compilation is quite high.
The majority of the compilation is of instrumentals, and its roughly organized around genre: the post-rock stuff with full-band set-ups is at the front, followed by more electronic takes on post-rock, which segues into modern classical, then ending in the full ambient section. The ambient section takes up most of the back half of the compilation. The least compelling work is the modern classical works, but that’s only because the rest of the ambient and post-rock stuff is just beautiful. Picking out individual tracks from the three-hour mass is a bit silly, so I’ll leave you to that yourself. This is a great, great release, and I look forward to what bands the label chooses for its releases. They’ve displayed a well-tuned ear so far.
If at some point you see me write on this blog, “I’m moving to Australia,” do not doubt the veracity of that statement. I am apparently enamored of every musical thing that comes out of the land down under. My latest Aussie crush is Monks of Mellonwah, who play high-drama rock, reminiscent of Muse without the keys. The band’s four-song EP Neurogenesis features a lot of soaring, spacy guitars, heavy drumming and melodic vocals. Highlight “Kyoto” adds a distorted bass into the mix, meshing with the furious drumming and soaring guitar work for a killer tune. The intro especially grabs attention. The rest of the album isn’t as frenetic as “Kyoto”: “Neverending Spirit” brings a neo-reggae vibe to the table in the guitars and vocals, while the title track keeps the chilled-out vibes going. “You Shine” is a ballad of sorts, but one with pounding drums. The EP is a nice introduction to the group, and “Kyoto” is a keeper.
The remixes within largely replace the gentle evocative nature of the tunes with heavy beats and propulsive rhythms, which works excellently for the Gregory Pepper remix of the already-highly-rhythmic “Stirring Bones.” But the MadadaM remix of “Beltone” gives the tune a dubby vibe that just doesn’t sit right with me, given the sparse, tense original. The rest of the tunes fall somewhere between the two: The Adverteyes remix of “Slave to the Deep” plays up that tunes jagged separation for a jarring track, while Live Action Fezz and Skene turn in takes on “No Reservation” and “This Unknown” (respectively) that work well. If you’re into electronic music, this will be a fun listen.
I love doing long reviews, but SXSW has thrown me off my game. To catch up, here’s a rare quartet of quick hits.
Dana Falconberry‘s four-song Though I Didn’t Call It Came is a beautiful, immersing release. The thirteen minutes pass rapidly, as Falconberry’s uniquely interesting voice plays over intricate yet intimate acoustic arrangements. Highlights include the complex and beautiful songwriting structure of “Petoskey Stone,” the Michigan-era Sufjan Stevens fragility of “Muskegon,” and the casual wonder of whistling-led closer “Maple Leaf Red (Acoustic).” It’s a rare songwriter that has tight control over both individual songwriting elements and overall feel, marking Falconberry as one to enjoy now and watch in the future.
England in 1819‘s Alma will quickly remind listeners of British piano-rock bands: Rush of Blood to the Head-era Coldplay is checked on “Air That We Once Breathed,” Muse gets its nod in the title track, and the melodic focus of Keane is familiar throughout. But 2/3rds of the band is conservatory-trained, and those influences show. “Littil Battur” is a chiming, gently swelling post-rock piece with reminiscent of The Album Leaf; “Emily Jane” is another beautiful, wordless, free-flowing piece. There’s enjoyment in their emotive piano-pop, but there’s magic in their instrumental aspirations. That tension shows promise past this sophomore release.
The bouncy garage-pop of Eux Autres‘ Sun is Sunk EP has been honed for almost a decade to a tight mix of modern sensibilities and historic glee. “Right Again” and “Home Tonight” call up ’60s girl-pop groups but don’t overdo it; “Ring Out” features male lead vocals in a perky, jumpy, infectious tune that includes bells and tambourine. The 1:23 of “Call It Off” is thoroughly modern songwriting, though—the band is no one trick pony. There’s just no resisting the charms of Sun is Sunk, and since its six songs only ask for 15 minutes of your time, why would you?
After seeing part of a breathtaking set by Sharon Van Etten at SXSW 2011, I jumped at the chance to give some press for her new album Tramp. Turns out all the big hitters (NPR, Pitchfork, Paste) are already on it. The tunes powered by Van Etten’s emotive croon are in full form, developed from her sparse beginnings into complete arrangements. At 46 minutes, this mature version of Van Etten is a complete vision; still, the haunting, delicate closer “Joke or a Lie” is what sticks with me.
The piano-based pop of Red Wolf Forest‘s self-titled album presents a unique problem: does 1+1+1 equal three or one? In a perfect world, the band’s combination of ’90s-style pop melodies, ’00s-style modern pop song structures and Muse-style stadium pop embellishments would mesh neatly into a striking, original sound — and its best moments, it does. The three parts stand apart from each other in other tunes, making for some ambiguous math.
The songs are enjoyable when they stick firmly in a genre: “No Regrets” calls up David Gray comparisons in the highly emotive melody and mood, “Keep a Secret” is extremely evocative for fans of “Creep”-era pop, and the synths and distorted guitars of “A Stitch in Time” will make fans of Matthew Bellamy and co. stand up and take notice. Other tunes appropriate the genres to lesser extent (“Live,” “Sinking”).
The reason I’m making a qualms with “enjoyable” is that closer “Endless Love” combines all three of their favorite affectations and creates something bigger (and potentially interesting) than the three genres alone. The synths are there, but they’re not the point; the vocals have ’90s inflections, but they don’t overdo it; the song’s structure will be quite familiar to anyone versed in pop or indie rock in the last ten years, but it’s not derivative.
The song is unique and interesting, although not quite as engaging or confident as some of the songs that remain firmly in a genre. This is no knock to the skill of Red Wolf Forest: Expansion on established work is one thing, while synthesis is quite another. I applaud the band for taking a risk, and hope they continue to put themselves out there.
Red Wolf Forest has the beginnings of a unique vision waiting to be developed. The band needs to grow into this sound, which is why they’re on my horizon. But in sports language, they’ve got a ton of upside built in.
Colorfeels‘ Syzygy is pretty much a primer of indie rock circa 2011: Grizzly Bear’s rustic qualities (“Pretty Walk,” “Be There”), Fleet Foxes’ harmonies (“Mirrored Walls”), Vampire Weekend’s triumphant afro-beat rhythms and textures (“Unplanned Holiday”), alt-country (“Fun Machine”), Bishop Allen’s quirky enthusiasm (the clarinet in “Fun Machine”), Generationals’ perky bass contributions (everywhere) and The Dirty Projectors’ free-flowing song styles (everywhere again). Thankfully, the band eschewed the currently en vogue garage rock recording style for an immaculately clear one.
It’s this pristine engineering that saves this from being a pastiche; even if you’ve heard all of these sounds before, they sound incredibly gorgeous coming from Colorfeels. The clarinet and piano on “Be There” may call up notions of everyone from Wilco to the Beatles, but the sound is so striking that you may not care (or even really notice). This is true of almost every tune — with the exception of “Zenzizenzizenzic,” whose shameless Muse appropriation feels totally out of place. I really enjoyed Syzygy on my first listen, but several minutes later I couldn’t remember anything about it except that I wanted to hear those pretty songs again. And they are very pretty.
After a half-dozen listens with the same ending thoughts (which is saying something — this debut is an hour long), I realized that Colorfeels has no signature. This album is gorgeous and almost infinitely malleable, but there’s not a single thing that screams COLORFEELS WAS HERE!
It should be noted that there aren’t any gimmicks to make it look like the band has a stamp (see aforementioned garage rock). For this they should be lauded; they are not hiding anything. They are what they are, and they let you hear that. That is admirable.
Syzygy is a mesmerizing indie-rock album that wears a lot of masks. Whether or not this was the intent is something only the members of Colorfeels can say. But I would love to see a group of instrumentalists and songwriters this talented explore one area of songwriting more thoroughly and place their stamp on music. It’s comforting and familiar, but there’s more to music than that.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.