Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Mid-March MP3s: Group One

March 16, 2016

This set of MP3 drops aren’t arranged by any particular mood or sonic space, as I usually do. Here’s a grab bag! Enjoy the surprises!

1. “Sisters” – ELY. There’s more suspense and payoff than in most novels packed into this four-minute instrumental wonder. The trumpet leads the way throught the deconstructed verses, teasing the listener with what could be, until the rousing full-band jaunt that appears twice. Hooky, interesting, and really worth your time.

2. “Sail” – Seckar. This song has a lot going on: post-rock instrumentation, danceable vibes, electronic grooves, acoustic solemnity, ghostly vocals, and overall a giant sense of fun.

3. “Lips” – Oyster Kids. The tension between the light, Foster the People-like melodies and the slow-moving guitars gives this pop song a neat vibe.

4. “Orange + Blue” – Colored In. Chaotic, hyperactive, multi-colored indie-pop held together through sheer force of will. It’s like some alternate-universe of the Flaming Lips where they didn’t get all paranoid but continued getting weird after Yoshimi.

5. “Plastic” – Howard. The grandeur of trip-hop, the instrumentals of maximalist post-dub, and a clicky percussive sensibility lead this indie-rock track. Sounds like a version of OK Computer, 20 years later.

6. “Tin” – Nearly Oratorio. Weary, dreary, bleary, and yet capable of woozing its way to memorable melodies and comforting moods.

7. “The Mahogany Tower” – Pyramid//Indigo. Dark, brooding, and evocative, this instrumental post-rock piece includes found-sound clips of sermons for extra atmosphere.

8. “Cove” – Kerosene (UK). Vocal gravitas and spartan electric guitar levity combine neatly here to make a serious, mature indie-rock tune that doesn’t feel overburdened or maudlin.

9. “Don’t Waste Another Day” – The Moves Collective. There’s a subtly funky groove, charming melodies, a friendly vibe, and rhythms that make me want to dance. This is acoustic jam done right.

10. “My Situation” – Joseph Tonelli. This gently fingerpicked tune is already enticing before it brings in subtle percussion and beautiful strings–after that it’s impressive.

11. “I Called to Cry” – Nate Henry Baker. For those who’ve gone the Sturgill Simpson / Chris Stapleton route and decided that full-on country music is alright by you, add Nate Henry Baker to your list. This one’s a traditional tears-in-your-beer ballad that wouldn’t feel out of place with The Louvin Brothers or Roy Orbison.

12. “Maybe I Won’t Come Home Tonight” – Meredith Baker. There are millions of troubled-relationship tunes, but this one sticks out above the rest with a gentle guitar, an engaging voice, and that x factor called charm.

Andrew Judah’s Monster: A whirlwind ride of unusually-juxtaposed instruments

September 30, 2014

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The toughest part of writing about Andrew Judah‘s Monster is trying to figure out how to explain the thing in genre terms. Is it OK Computer-era rock without the guitars? The Decemberists’ indie-pop having a nightmare? Lushly orchestrated trip-hop? Genre labels aside, it’s a whirlwind ride of unusually-juxtaposed instruments that knit together perfectly under Judah’s careful composer’s ear.

Judah is a highly sought-after commercial composer; you’ve probably heard his work without knowing it. His third album of artistic compositions sets wild, intricate foreground elements on top of cinematic backdrops for maximum immersion. Judah works mostly in minor keys here, building brooding, intense landscapes that build to bursting. “I Know You Know” turns a smooth, cascading guitar line into a stuttering, bewildering footrace; the song culminates in a furious maze of arpeggios surrounded by glitching keys, layered vocals, and complex drumming. It has a visceral, physical quality to it; I can almost feel the sounds happening to me.

“Better and Better” amps up the ominous qualities of the record, starting out with heavy pad synths (although he notes in the liner notes that this might be a banjo played with a violin bow), muted piano, and gurgling bass. This is an album where sounds take preeminence over the instruments that make them: it could be a banjo or steel drums, keys or guitar, bass or keys, electronic or live drums. The performer isn’t important: the fact that the sounds mesh perfectly takes precedence.

Back to “Better and Better”: Judah’s voice is digitally manipulated to sound alien and yet comforting, which is the same sort of tension that Radiohead perfectly captured in OK Computer. But Yorke and co. didn’t try to make that into the eerily joyful soundtrack for a dark carnival, as Judah does here. It’s a profoundly unexpected turn. The title track draws some musical composing tricks straight out of old horror films, with wavering theremin sounds floating uncomfortably above the acoustic guitar before unveiling some of the most delicate, tender work that Monster has to offer.

Judah revels in the abrupt shift; many of the tunes here move from this to that unexpectedly. Sometimes it’s quiet/loud/quiet; other times the tone or mood shifts. Sometimes the time signatures change. “What Now?” draws on a relatively disorienting use of syncopation to throw you off. Yes, he employs a variety of tricks to keep you interested, and it works really well. The biggest element that draws me, however, is how it all hangs together. You can listen to Monster beginning to end without necessarily marking the titles of songs. You’ll definitely look back to see what the names of “Morning Light” and “I Know You Know” are, but you may find yourself feeling that the ballad “Willis” just kinda runs along with “Twitch & Shake” and “Better & Better.” You can enjoy it that way if you’d like–more power to you.

Monster is a dark record, but it’s not a grim or hopeless one. It explores brooding territory without getting overwrought, which is a tough balance to strike. Some albums feel like the songwriter is talking to you; this one feels like watching a movie by a director friend of yours. It’s not impenetrable, and you can see flashes of your friend’s hand, but it’s more about the unique experience of that particular media than the person behind the curtain. Andrew Judah gets out of his own way here, letting the intricate, complex, fascinating songs tell their tales. It pays off in spades.

Quick Hits: Cloud Person / Cfit / Inner Outlaws

October 26, 2013

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Cloud Person‘s Monochrome Places mashes up Irish folk arrangements, Spaghetti Western drama, folk-pop melodies, and a dash of indie-pop flair to create a unique amalgam that is anything but monochromatic. From the Gaelic rhythms and sounds of “Robber Barons” to the ominous Western/Southern mash-up of “Old Demeter” to the Neutral Milk Hotel-ish “Lamppost Eyes,” Cloud Person never lets the listener’s attention wane.

Despite the variety of sounds, the albums hangs together: each part has its turn in the spotlight before all sharing the stage in triumphant closer “Men of Good Fortune.” It’s a full and fascinating album, showing off the significant songwriting skills of Pete Jordan. It takes a strong imagination to even conceive of a thing like this; it takes a humongous amount of work to pull it off with the seeming ease and easy confidence that Jordan and company do. Monochrome Places is a work that should be of great interest to those who like seeing boundaries pushed and disparate sounds integrated into a cohesive whole.

Cfit‘s Morning Bruise EP is an aptly titled release, dousing a hazy, early-morning feel with a deep melancholy. Instead of going the fuzzy, chillwave route, the band modifies the trip-hop format: opener “Coke and Spiriters” transforms strings and stark vocals with a brittle drumbeat to create tension. The ambiguity of the mood is repeated in the lyrics; say the name out loud and listen to what you’re saying. “Heliophelia” uses the same musical tactics of loose, smooth vibe vs. structured rhythmic elements; the morose-yet-soaring “Tenderfoot” sounds like Cfit’s version of “Karma Police” (which is high praise, over here). The vocalist doesn’t sound exactly like Thom Yorke, but it’s close enough for a good comparison–and comparing Cfit to mid/late-era Radiohead isn’t that bad a comparison either. Both are fond of creating disorientation and discomfort out of musical pieces that we’re otherwise very comfortable with. Artsy indie-rock will always have a place in my heart, and so it goes with Cfit.

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Inner Outlawsself-titled two-song EP also can be compared to a Radiohead work, both in scope and mood. “Points of Fire” is almost six and a half minutes long, while “Bodies of Water” is nine and a half. The two tunes are rock tunes that subsume all sorts of things within them: pseudo-funky breakdowns, folky asides, ’70s rock sections, crunchy riffs of harder indie rock, even psychedelic bits.

The songs are journeys that are impossible to predict: that’s half the joy in listening, to follow around the whims and fancies of the band. The other half is their melodic prowess, which allows for discrete memorable sections within the overall wholes. One of the most memorable is a dreamy, Lord Huron-esque section toward the end of “Bodies of Water;” another highlight is the OK Computer-esque rock just after the intro of “Points of Fire.” If you’re into adventurous music that will defy your expectations, Inner Outlaws is your band.

A new definition of post-rock

November 12, 2012

There’s already a genre called post-rock, but I think that’s not thinking big enough about the term. Post-rock implies an ideology shift, a movement past whatever “rock” meant. While the genre that includes Explosions in the Sky, Godspeed! You Black Emperor, Tortoise, and Mogwai definitely was one of the earliest adapters of the “after rock” mindset, their cinematic music should not be allowed to lay claim to the whole of the term.

I hope we get to a day where every band is “post-rock,” and no band subscribes to the hollow myths of “rock” as they were once sold to us. The part of the rock mythos that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is the big rock move: the idea that a big guitar riff is its own explanation. (Think of “Immigrant Song” or “Thunderstruck” for the best examples of this, or any hair metal song for average to poor examples of this idea.)

The antithesis of the big rock move is thoughtful consideration of how riffs work together with other things as part of songwriting, not necessarily to rock less, but to mean things. In a sense, thoughtful consideration of riffs may even cause them to rock more, because “meaning something” often produces a more real emotional connection with listeners than a big rock move and thereby heightens the pleasure of experiencing the riff.

Here are three bands that are thinking about how riffs combine with other things to make meaning, even though none of the three would be in the “post-rock” genre. (There are also a whole boatload of sociological ideas associated with the “rock star” that I’m thrilled to see go the way of the buffalo, but they are for another day.)

Autumn OwlsBetween Buildings, Toward the Sea is a spiritual descendant of Radiohead’s OK Computer. Radiohead’s masterpiece subverted big riff rock by making the monster guitar licks serve the moods they wanted (mindless and frantic in “Paranoid Android,” grating and brittle in “Electioneering”), and Autumn Owls do the same thing. The angular, slightly dissonant guitarwork in opener “Semaphores” fluctuates between nervous uncertainty and frightened certainty, situating the listener right in the middle of Autumn Owls’ ideas. Autumn Owls’ instrumentals and vocals have a symbiotic relationship, with the oft-deadpan vocalist coming off like Cake frontman John McCrea fronting an apocalyptic art band instead of sardonic pop one.

The music, vocals and lyrics can’t be separated: the album is full of frightened surprise (see the lyrics and heavy guitar entrance in “Unconvinced”), malaise (note the gently rolling sounds and “ignore the tension” line in standout “Kiss the Wine”), and ominous confusion (the spiky, tense “Quarantine”). When they let the guitars go, they do so for a reason; when the drums rattle, there’s a reason for that. They don’t do things simply because that’s what rock does; they’ve put thought into every last bit of this album.

Between Buildings, Toward the Sea is an incredibly constructed record, full of intricate patterns and delicate touches. Whether it’s a guitar glitching (and there’s a lot of that), a voice being modified, or deceptively pretty melodies being eerily contrasted (“The Arched Pines”), Autumn Owls know what they’re doing. This is easily one of the best albums of the year.

I was searching for this application of the term post-rock when I reviewed both of Ithica‘s previous releases. Ithica creates beautiful tunes that float amorphously between genres: industrial beats, pretty synths, and deeply emotional vocal melodies create an unnameable amalgam. It results in beautiful, haunting music with real depth. St. Anselm’s Choir comes together flawlessly, as incisive lyrics are delivered by a vocalist with astonishing control of emotive tone and inflection over a brilliant soup of vocal samples, synthesizers, and drums. The songs are set up to have impact similar to rock songs, as “riffs” come in and then leave, giving way to verses and choruses. But the sounds that compose these structures are atypical, giving the tunes the unique quality of feeling altogether new and intimately familiar at the same time. I can’t speak highly enough about these six songs. Rare is the fully-realized vision that crosses my desk, but St. Anselm’s Choir is that unusual EP.

On first glance, The Foreign Resort‘s Scattered and Buried might seem an odd place to talk about the post-rock ethos: distorted bass and dark guitars abound. On the other hand, their sound is a Joy Division-esque new wave/post-punk one; both genres have a history of sticking it to the man.

But the thing that pointed out their diffidence toward the big rock move was how closely tied the vocal tone was to the timbre of the instruments. When the arrangement surges, so do the vocals; when the vocals tremble in uncertainty during “Lost My Way (2012),” so do the instruments. The frantic tempo and tough bass rhythms of “Buried” are mimicked by the vocals–or is it the opposite? That inability to determine which element is the most important is what makes this distinctly post-rock to me; the vocals aren’t serving the guitars, and the guitars aren’t serving the vocals. The song is all, and each of the elements contributes to that. This creates a wildly enjoyable set of tunes, from the fragile beauty of “Rocky Mountains” to the club-friendly synths of “Tide.” The remixes make the release even better. Highly recommended.

Hello Morning creates atmospheric rock on the coattails of giants

March 8, 2010

Hello Morning’s music isn’t for morning people. Their self-titled EP is a moody, atmospheric affair that would resonate more with people who wake up in a haze and don’t really get their crap together until about 11 a.m. By no means is it morose, meandering or plodding; it just doesn’t really agree with the sun. It feels like the soundtrack to an indie thriller like Push (which I would highly recommend to you).

The problem with Hello Morning is that it falls squarely into the genre “indie-rock.” When there’s no genre-creating crutch to rely on (punk’s energy, downtempo’s beats, pop’s singalong qualities, metal’s riffing, etc), the songwriting gets thrust into the spotlight very quickly. Especially since these songs are meant to be epic and meaningful (read: OK Computer), there’s a lot of weight borne on the collective talent of these four men to produce great songs. They can’t hide behind any tricks. And, like shining a bright light on a dark spot exposes all the flaws, this no-tricks approach leaves Hello Morning wide open to praise and criticism.

The criticism first: most of these songs don’t have an attention-grabber. The songs are tightly constructed, excellently played and recorded brilliantly, but there’s nothing in them to snag a casual listener. The chorus of “Coldbreakers” is one of the better moments on the EP, but its melody still seems like a Radiohead cast-off. “Come Home” has a sprightly ’80s feel to it, but the guitar melodies are not significantly different enough to be distinct from, say, “Everything is You.” The songs aren’t difficult to listen to; they’re difficult to tell apart.

The exception is “Mercury (Once Again),” which opens with a distinctive single-note melody, then throws in a counterpoint and a slinky bass line. Their decision to forego the full-on atmospheric treatment (no keys) actually creates a more memorable atmosphere for the song to reside in. Throw in an excellent (although still Thom Yorke-esque) performance by the lead vocalist and a great bridge, and you’ve got a winner. It sticks out on the album, and it’s the one that I keep returning to.

Hello Morning has a lot going for them, but they haven’t found their exact voice yet. They play and write with confidence, but I have a hard time connecting with the songs. If you’re a big fan of OK Computer and albums of its ilk, this will interest you. Otherwise I’d give Hello Morning a little more time to grow.

Their Planes Will Block Out the Sun have more than just a cool band name

February 9, 2010

Confession: if you have a cool name, I will listen to your band. I listened to White Dancer by Their Planes Will Block Out the Sun because, well, that’s a heck of a lot planes.  Say it out loud. It just flows. See? Undeniably awesome.

Their music fits their name incredibly well, but not in the way I would expect. I expected some brooding, epic post-rock (perhaps only because the names Explosions in the Sky and Their Planes Will Block Out the Sun go together thematically). Instead, I found meticulously-crafted, calculated indie-rock.

The members of Planes have their sound down on this album. They start off with a mood cornerstone, like an arpeggiated guitar riff, a synthesizer, a piano line, or some combination of those. Then they build on it. A snappy, precise drummer adds the backbone of the sound. Buoyant bass lines bring a lot of energy to the otherwise very organized sound. The guitars add a layer of mood, not often strumming consistently. The vocals dispatch the lyrics with a disaffected, almost sinister intonation. When the band takes darker turns, the vocals truly get pointed, but throughout there’s an underlying disdain and sarcasm that comes through in the lyrics and/or the melodies.

The whole sound is incredibly tight. It’s hard to compare to, because none of the comparisons are exactly correct. “The Flood, The Dead, The Escape” brings to mind the Arcade Fire. “How I Learned to Love the Bomb” makes me think Muse. If Coldplay’s X&Y scrubbed the majority of its emotions, the synthesizer-laden interlocking parts would resemble White Dancer. If the epic aspirations and huge guitar washes of OK Computer were removed, the stark, cold sound left might be somewhat akin to Planes. Planes’ songwriting doesn’t match that of either Coldplay or Radiohead (because of the aforementioned parts that would have to be removed for the comparisons to work), but that’s the track that Planes is on. They aren’t making warm, fuzzy pop music; they’re making serious music. They mean it, and it shows.

So, if you’re a fan of any of the aforementioned bands, you will find things to like in Their Planes Will Block Out The Sun. It’s not the most joyous music in the world, but it’s a meticulously crafted, very well-done release. They know their idiom, they have their niche, and they’re churning out the tunes the way they want to. Unique and enjoyable indie-rock.

Oregon Donor challenges listeners artistically with A Pageant's End

February 7, 2010

I’m a really emotional person. As a result, I connect best with really emotional people, art and situations. I get really into music when I can tell an artist put full emotional weight into the work. But there are more types of music than just emotional purges (thank goodness), and I like a lot of those too. But it’s always the emotional ones that I come back to.

My bias toward emotional music (there, I admitted it) is why I’ve listened to the Oregon Donor‘s A Pageant’s End on and off for six months without ever reviewing it. While there is emotion in A Pageant’s End, there’s a strong rhythmic and technical aspect to the songs that puts me off. I recognize it as talented and enjoyed it aesthetically, but it doesn’t stick. Even now, I can remember a specific riff that was solid, but I have no idea which track it’s in.

But Oregon Donor is in good company in this problem. I prefer Muse to Radiohead, because once Kid A happened, Radiohead just seemed emotionally sterile to me (I still love The Bends and OK Computer). I prefer Rage Against the Machine to Primus, even though Primus is way more talented. This is not a problem with Oregon Donor. This is a personal issue.

I stated those previous bands to give you somewhat of a framework to contextualize Oregon Donor. A Pageant’s End isn’t post-hardcore, post-rock, emo, punk, or rock. It’s an album of music that pulls from all of those genres. It’s very technical music, as the bass and drums have incredibly complex parts, and the guitar lines occasionally exist more for their rhythmic power than their melodic power. If someone put a gun to my head and told me to categorize Oregon Donor, I’d gladly say “serious rock’n’roll.” They don’t write music to make people dance; if anything, they write music to make people think.

“What Good Hate Did” sticks out to me because it has the strongest melodies of the bunch and the most emotional content (“had you any pity, dear, you could have put a bullet in my head/you could have spared me this grief”). It’s also over seven minutes long, which always gets my attention. It’s an excellent tune, and one worthy of much praise. “Older” takes songwriting conventions and turns them on their head, pairing odd rhythms and moods with peculiar guitar riffs and ideas. “Morse Code” is nigh on a math-rock song (does anyone still play math-rock?), with its complicated, interlocking riffs and rhythms.

I should clarify that this isn’t a cold-hearted slab of notes and rhythms. There’s plenty of heart that comes through in the tunes. It’s just that Oregon Donor isn’t primarily looking to pull heartstrings or incite fury in traditional, simple ways. All of the emotions of a regular human being are channeled through A Pageant’s End; it just takes more thought, focus and concentrated listening than usual to discern and understand them. There’s no huge major chord crashing in, nor very many telegraphed emotive parts. Oregon Donor’s complex music makes for rewarding listening if one really pays attention and digs in. I haven’t been able to do that on a large scale, but I have become acquainted with “What Good Hate Did.”

So, there you have it. Should you pick up A Pageant’s End by Oregon Donor? If you like thoughtful, artistic rock, most definitely. But be warned. It’s not easy listening, and Oregon Donor didn’t intend it to be that way. Those who expend the effort will be rewarded, though. I can guarantee you that.

ZUU falls a bit short with the serious tunes

January 19, 2010

Making “serious music” is always kind of a gamble. When you’re making standard pop music, you can pretty much guarantee that at the very least, drunk guys at the bar are going to think you’re freakin’ awesome and buy a CD. But when you’re making a statement and causing people to think about your music, dudebro is actually disinclined to like your music. You need real fans, or you need leathery skin to keep doing it in the face of animosity.

I’m not sure which side of the fence ZUU falls on, but they fall somewhere.Everywhere is  serious music in the vein of OK Computer, Bloc Party’s Intimacy, and the like. There’s few hooks to hang your ears on, and there’s enough foggy mood and atmosphere to make Seattle jealous. ZUU’s chops are on display, and they’re writing songs that are powerful.

The problem is that I have no idea what they’re trying to say. While the mood is consistent throughout, there are few to no clues as to the meaning of the album. The title is unhelpful, the art is pretty but not revealing, and the lyrics don’t seem to have any overt theme tying them together. I could be missing something on the lyrical front, but if you have to try that hard to even glean the slightest hint of what’s going on, that’s a problem.

So, scratching the album as a whole (which is unfortunate, because I really think they’re trying to say something), the songs individually are pretty solid. Their best work comes when the bass player dominates the song and the guitarist does atmospheric work, a la the Edge. “Sigh,” “Only One” and “Resolve” are the tracks that really shine, as they flaunt their talents (interlocking guitar parts, smooth vocals, rhythm, cohesiveness of songwriting). When the guitars kick it into distortion (“Wasted Today,” “Loaded”), a lot of the songwriting chemistry is covered up. The heavier songs, while not bad, are just not impressive, because much of the draw of ZUU is lost.

There’s a slight psychedelic edge to these songs, as well as a slight African bent because of the percussion choices. But it’s not enough to make a huge difference on the overall feel of the album, which lands somewhere between a piano-less The National and a less-guitar-happy Radiohead. “Weaning Nettles” and “Only One” are the best tracks here, and worth a look even if you don’t do the whole album.

ZUU has significant chops and great songwriting skills. They just didn’t tie the whole package together right this time. I think that they can definitely accomplish a project of major magnitude if they set out to do so. If that’s not their goal, then I’m a little lost. Recommended for major fans of serious music, but the world at large should wait for ZUU’s next offering.

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

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