Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Unrelated to SXSW, pt. 2

March 12, 2014

The back half of my SXSW-agnostic MP3 drop lands, featuring quieter sounds.

1. “Hold on Hurricane” – Cancellieri. The production balances a delicate vocal performance with a crisp, fingerpicked acoustic guitar line for a moving tune that’s one of the best singles of the year so far.

2. “Comatose” – Hayden Calnin. Can you imagine The National and James Blake getting together? Calnin is the best we have of that approximation piano/rich baritone/post-dub mashup. A gorgeously evocative and theatrical (but not flamboyant) performance from Calnin. One to watch in 2014.

3. “Foreverever” – Daniel G. Harmann. DGH has cultivated a distinct mood to his solo work over the years, and this mournful cut fits neatly with his oeuvre of longing, yearning, intimate recordings. A beautiful cut.

4. “Faultlines” – Field Division. Indie folk with Local Natives’ sense of rhythm, Fleet Foxes’ vocal arrangements, and First Aid Kit’s hushed intensity & towering female vocals. Way yes.

5. “Chris Bell” – M. Lockwood Porter. A moving country-rock song for the gone-too-soon former guitarist of Big Star. If you sense Neil Young and The Jayhawks in here, you’re not the only one.

6. “Onwards” – Bird Friend. Anything that echoes the early years of The Mountain Goats’ lo-fi recordings gets my attention. That strum! That lyricism! That brash mood! Wonderful.

7. “Who We Are” – Sonali. This thoughtful female-fronted adult-alternative track shows incredible restraint: after introducing a massive hook up front, that super-catchy vocal melody appears only sparingly throughout the tune. That’s one way to get people listening.

8. “Stay There, I’ll Come to You (Sleepers Work Remix)” – Jonah Parzen-Johnson. JPJ writes spiky, intense, amazing tunes on baritone saxophone and analog recorder. This remix sees one of those tracks get a spaced-out, lush re-envisioning that removes a lot of the raw brazenness of the original.

9. “Snowy Mountain“- Sebastian Brkic. The prolific Brkic (Cyan Marble) takes a break from post-punk freakouts to drop some synthy, walking-speed indie-pop. This’ll make your head bob.

10. “Dreaming While Awake” – Professor Bashti. Brkic also does psych-inspired instrumental/experimental guitar music. Because prolific.

11. “Ellis Bell” – The Cold and Lovely. Moody, wall-of-sound indie-rock that calls up Silversun Pickups, but with a female vocalist.

Horizon: Dylan Michael Bentley

November 19, 2013

Front Cover

Horizon is a recurring feature where a brand-new artist with promise and room to grow gets featured.

Multi-instrumentalist Dylan Michael Bentley has a wide Neil Young streak and really loud drums. I don’t usually mention the percussion in country-rock releases, but Bentley has put a great amount of emphasis on it throughout Change in the Wind. When the skins are at their finest, the thumping bass drum and snappy snare give a punchy, raw feel to his sound (the title track, “Candle”); when they go a little awry, it gives his sound a chaotic, impassioned sound (“Knock, Knock,” “Blame It on the Weather”). Since the whole album is clearly an artist making the most of the materials at hand, the latter is more on the endearing side than the annoying one. “Woman in a White Dress” is the sort of exciting instrumental digression that makes me overlook erratic rhythms; the solid acoustic-based songwriting within more than makes up for it. There are always drummers around waiting to jump in on hot projects, you know?

Those who are interested in clockwork perfection will find elements of this release not to their ken, but did I mention there’s a big dose of Neil Young involved? Bentley’s yearning, Young-esque voice will be enough to scare off haters and pique the interest of new fans. Bentley’s got a way with a harmonica, an enthusiasm for traditional songwriting, and tons of motivation. Change in the Wind isn’t perfect, but it’s a strong opening statement from a young artist. I look forward to see where he goes from here. And I hope he picks up a drummer.

M. Lockwood Porter sings the song of the ex-Oklahoman

July 17, 2013

judahgone

I’ve been listening to M. Lockwood Porter‘s bands since 2005. In that time, he’s been in an early 2000s emo band, an energetic post-rock band that held my personal “favorite band ever” title for a good five years, and a San Fran indie-pop band. Now he’s stepping out on his own with a solo record called Judah’s Gone. And although it’s been almost a decade since he’s lived in Oklahoma, the record is largely about that place which Lockwood and I share as a home state.

Neither of us live there anymore, but apparently an Oklahoma flag hangs in the background of both our minds. The three highlight tracks from the record (“Judah’s Gone,” “Now My Time Has Come,” and “Osage County”) all reference the state specifically and neatly lay out the narrative of the album. Opener “Judah’s Gone” tells the story of Lockwood’s childhood and parentage in the state (spoiler: it doesn’t go so well), which leads to him fleeing the state as soon as he graduated high school (“Now My Time Has Come”). A bunch of relationships and regrets occur in his forays on both coasts (all the other songs on the record), before he looks back longingly at Oklahoma in a complicated, attached sort of way (“Osage County”). It’s the story of many, many Oklahomans, this one included. If there’s an ex-pat Oklahoman Facebook group somewhere, Lockwood should be promoting this there. It would sell like dry-rub chicken barbecue.

The fact that Judah’s Gone sounds largely like a lost Neil Young record would help the sales pitch as well. The arrangements are twangy, but in that laid-back, Southern sort of way that Neil Young virtually patented. Lockwood’s voice breaks and bends over notes (a la Neil), but largely stays in a recognizably “correct” range. Porter is a lot less nasally than Young, which is also great. The album only has one rockish tune: the fast-paced “Tonight,” which barely gets over 2:00. Porter puts some distortion on his voice for the tune, and it fits nicely. It’s nowhere near an art-rock tune from his previous ventures, but you can tell that Porter has a rock background. Otherwise, this is a folky alt-country record the whole way.

The few quibbles that could be lobbed at the record have to do with this being his debut in the genre: tunes like “Darkside” and “Higher Home” fit perfectly into the proscribed narratives of what folky alt-country should sound like, both in sound and word. The tunes sound fine, but they don’t show off Porter’s skills as a storyteller or melodist very well because of their adherence to tried-and-true formulas. Porter shows on tracks like “Stephen” (not about me) that he can bend the formulas to his skill set: the track is a mid-tempo song about the guy with vast promise who never left home. The tune is memorable because of the melodic chorus and the detailed care with which the lyrics are composed. So even if some tracks are a bit less shiny than the rest, it’s not something that a few more albums of songwriting can’t polish up.

M. Lockwood Porter has established himself as a talent to watch on Judah’s Gone. Tracks like the title track and “Osage County” show a melodic and lyrical talent with range and depth. It will be interesting to see where Porter goes from here as he gets familiar with the genre. I’ll be listening attentively to whatever it is. (Especially if there’s more Oklahoma angst.)

Quick Hits: Friends of Mine

June 6, 2012

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: no one likes everything musically. Show me someone who loves klezmer, Kreayshawn, Liturgy, Neutral Milk Hotel, soca, Tears for Fears and “Call Me Maybe,” and then maybe we’ll talk. I know that I’m not such a big fan of rap, but I’m a huge fan of folk/alt-country. As a result, my tolerance for the excesses of the folk/alt-country genre (playing fast and loose with the concept of vocal tone, thanks to Bob Dylan and Neil Young) is higher than most, while my tolerance for the excesses of other genres is low. That’s just the way it is.

St. Anthony of Shipwrecks EP by Friends of Mine will charm fans of folk/alt-country, but it won’t convert non-fans to the genre: the vocals privilege passion over tone, the snare shuffles like you might expect, and the bass goes up and down in a very country way. You’ve heard these parts before, but they rattle and scuffle together in endearing ways throughout the EP. The melodies that the band puts together stick in my head, especially in the winking “Pop Song (Be My Girlfriend).” The band does occasionally throw in a garage-rock/surf-rock edge (“Dear John Proctor,” “Girls”), and it’s in the latter track that the worst vocal tone excesses nearly derail the song at the climax of its six-and-a-half-minute length.

But the misstep is redeemed by closer “Coffee House,” a folky strummer with killer melodies and harmonies. Again, there’s nothing groundbreaking in the tune, but it just stays up there in my mind. Once the harmonica comes in, the tune is reminiscent of Two Gallants’ best work. Sometimes you don’t need to be innovative to be brilliant; you just need to be well-versed. Friends of Mine’s St. Anthony of Shipwrecks sounds incredibly knowledgeable about their subject. Here’s to tradition, and great things within it. I look forward to what the band turns out next.

Ash Gray and Girls steal everything and make new songs out of it, much to the ears' delight

March 12, 2010

I’ve always enjoyed the name Pop Will Eat Itself. I’ve never heard a single song by them (although the tune “Get the Girl! Kill the Baddies!” sounds awesome), but their name has been about as prophetic as MTV’s ominous and prescient first choice of music video. Pop certainly has started eating itself. Example: I had a yelling fight with a close relation over the fact that Imogen Heap, not Jason DeRulo, wrote the hook to DeRulo’s “Whatcha Say.” It was a low point in music history for me.

But DeRulo’s thievery (thievery, I say!) is different than Ash Gray and Girls’ reinventing of pop. They’re both eating pop music, but DeRulo’s not even chewing, while Ash Gray is messing the peas and mashed potatoes on the plate before it even gets to the mouth. Okay, enough with that analogy.

Ash Gray and Girls is a pop band that sounds a little bit like all of these people: Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, Garth Brooks, Fleetwood Mac, Heart, America, Neil Young, the Clash, and the B-52s. There is absolutely nothing here that hasn’t been done before. But that doesn’t matter, because Ash Gray has taken all the pieces of pop music and put them together in odd ways. “Your Gun is Out” is the Clash playing with the B-52s singing. “Rock’n’Roll Record” sounds like Heart’s “Barracuda” being played by John Cougar Mellencamp. “Fire Away” sounds like Garth Brooks fronted by Neil Young. These are all great songs.

The only thing holding these tunes together is Ash Gray’s acoustic guitar, which is almost omnipresent, and a bright tone to all of the proceedings. There are also plenty of female backup vocals (I assume these are Girls of the band name).  There’s only seven songs on This Could Be a Wild Night, but each is its own adventure, from a face-melting guitar solo (“Fire Away”) to the Lou Reed impersonation that is “Rules.”

Ash Gray and Girls is the type of band that gets everyone in the bar dancing because they remind them of some other band that they usually shake their moneymaker to. Ash Gray seems to have recognized this and capitalized on it, yanking shtick after shtick and combining them into memorable songs. Ash Gray and Girls seem to have become the acoustic pop version of Girl Talk, jacking stuff from everywhere and turning it into something new and different. Highly recommended for fans of any of the gazillion bands I’ve name checked so far, plus Jason Mraz and anyone else with an acoustic guitar and a pop hook. This Could Be a Wild Night is one heck of an EP.

Americans Abroad Amuse an American Abroad

September 17, 2009

Blitzen Trapper at Camden Barfly, London—9/14/09

“Welcome to the wild forests of Oregon,” singer/guitarist Marty Marquis advised the multinational crowd at the Camden Barfly in Camden Town, London Monday night. The pre-show air of international banter revealed an odd mix of Germans, Canadians, local Brits, and Scottish, though by the end of the evening all stood in the mysterious, foreign foliage that serve setting for the lyrical stuff of Blitzen Trapper’s full-blown pastoral Americana indie rock.

And what full-blown pastoral indie rock it is. Continue readingAmericans Abroad Amuse an American Abroad…

Ringer T refines their Midwestern sound to a T

April 20, 2009

For those of you who have never heard Ringer T, Hello, Goodbye is the perfect introduction to their folk-laden, Americana rock sound. Unfortunately, the things that make this album such a good primer also bring up some potential problems for the future.

There are few bands that sound more genuinely American than Ringer T. Their deeply Midwestern sound incorporates a heavy dose of Paul Simon-esque pop songwriting, folksy drumming and strumming, old school rock n’ roll, some country twang, and a large amount of earnestness in the vocals. It may sound like a lot going on, but it never is. In fact, these songs are very easy to listen to. The first time I listened to this album, I felt like I had known these songs forever. They are comfortable to the ear; the songwriters have crafted songs with structures that never feel cliche but still  make pleasant use of resolution and familiar chords.

One of the reasons that the songs sound so familiar is that at least four out of the ten tracks have been previously recorded on Ringer T albums or EPs. While this is mildly frustrating for veteran listeners, it brings no hindrance to those who are listening for the first time. They get to hear the best tracks of Ringer T, without any of the filler or weaker tracks.

The problem lies in that even though the four old tracks are re-recorded, they still fit perfectly into Hello, Goodbye. Ringer T is not growing. While they have refined their craft to a razor-sharp edge (the new version of “Cut the Cords” makes mincemeat of the old version in terms of precision, clarity and power), they haven’t pushed the musical envelope at all with Hello, Goodbye. The songs are great; any first time listener that gets past Grant Geertsma’s voice is going to be enamored with Ringer T. But if Ringer T puts out many more albums in this distinct motif, they’re going to run into problems.

One thing they can do is stop writing about breakups; it seems that every Ringer T song is based on the same traumatic breakup. There is a long-standing American pop music tradition of writing about breakups, but Ringer T practices this tradition without respite (except for the still-mildly-depressing “Where I Long to Go”). Even Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen, We are Floating in Space (one of the most despondent breakup albums ever) has upbeat moments in it that have nothing to do with the relationship. Ringer T needs to break out of their funk and move on to new things in their lives, musically and lyrically.

There is strong evidence that Hello, Goodbye will be the culmination of this era of Ringer T’s musical life. They have refined their deeply affecting and superbly crafted folk/pop/rock to a T. If they use this album as a springboard to better and bigger things, they have a bright future ahead of them. If they keep rehashing their formula, they will only get so far. I hope that they have some tricks up their sleeve for the next release. In the meantime, Hello, Goodbye is highly recommended for fans of Wilco, Ryan Adams, the Jayhawks, Damien Jurado, The Elected and Neil Young.

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.

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