Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Daniel G. Harmann takes a Risk and hears it pay off loudly

October 22, 2010

Even listeners who obsess over their favorite bands do not spend as much time with the tunes as the artist who created them does. This uncomplicated fact should be reason enough for artists to routinely change sounds and for listeners to accept those changes. Sadly, this is often not the case. “I’ve just got a connection to that one album, y’know?” For that reason, I try to give a wide berth to bands that want to change it up.

I say that because Daniel G. Harmann‘s Risk is a change of sound. It’s not a dramatic change in sound (i.e. Plans –> Narrow Stairs), but it is a fundamental shift in the purpose of the tunes. While Harmann still makes grand, sweeping, morose tunes, he’s making them this time with the express intent of rocking while doing it. Note the fact that he’s brought along a band, cleverly titled “the Trouble Starts.”

While Harmann was no stranger to distorted guitars, pre-Risk, they weren’t the central mood marker in most tunes. Here, they are: Harmann’s voice, which previously drove the proceedings, takes an equal seat with the guitars in many songs. This is not a bad thing, but for a guy who absolutely loves The Books We Read Will Bury Us, it’s disorienting to hear a distorted version of Books’ “Solidarity” appear on Risk. I could write a whole post on the differences between the two versions, but that wouldn’t tell you much about the album as a whole.

On the other hand, it’s comforting that he did include some old tracks (the entirety of Our Arms EP appears), as it eases the transition some. If he had just dropped a whole album of tunes like “Estrella” on us oldtimers with no warning, there would have been a lot of weeping.

That’s because “Estrella,” in the vernacular of rock’n’roll, absolutely kills it. I’m talking charging guitars, pounding drums, rushing cymbals, Daniel G. Harmann yelling unintelligibly in the roar and epic strings to top it all off. It sounds like Explosions in the Sky. It is absolutely fantastic, and totally unexpected. It is far and away the highlight of the album, as it’s the one that you’ll be pressing repeat for.

There are other moments on the album of similar but not greater caliber. The playful riff of “Auckland to Auckland” is underscored by a complicated tom pattern. “The Horse and the Sistine Chapel” is a straightforward rock song, albeit with Harmann’s decidedly unstraightforward vocal tone. “Lions” even starts out with a guitar riff as opposed to a big sheet of distortion. In short, Daniel G. Harmann really wants to rock out. So he does.

Is it good? Yes. It’s definitely good. Harmann’s aforementioned vocals and unique melodies keep the proceedings from turning into a Silversun Pickups album (although “Lions,” with its male/female vocals, tries really hard to ape their sound), and the band is incredibly tight behind him. They manage to keep Harmann’s more ambient tendencies in check, which is good for his new rock sound. Things never get monotonous, as they well could have, had he just slapped distortion over his old songwriting ideas.

I like Risk. It’s a well-composed album of rock tunes with occasional forays into mellow romanticism. As I skew toward the calmer side of music most of the time, I prefer the fewer moments of mopey emotionalism (” Knob Creek Neat”) to the squalling stomp of “Brass Tacks,” which is the majority sound. Be not swayed, though: Risk has definitive charms (again: “Estrella” destroys it) that I would be slighting if I passed over the album. If you’re a fan of art-powered, moody rock like Silversun Pickups, Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins, and things of that ilk, you will find many joys in Risk.

Daniel G. Harmann and the Trouble Starts’
Risk
drops Tuesday. Get it here.

Daniel G. Harmann changes up his lush songwriting, but not too much

December 25, 2009

Daniel G. Harmann‘s Our Arms has been kicking around my iTunes far too long without a review. I sat down to listen to it so I could review it, and I realized that I’ve already been listening to it. The three songs on this EP have been through my shuffle, at the end of DGH’s other albums in my iTunes, and generally in my brain for longer than I have realized.

It makes it incredibly easy to sit down and write this review. Harmann’s basic sound is a hyper-romantic, extra-melodic, beauty-washed soundscape; I coined the term “rainy day makeout music” while listening to a Harmann album. That’s just what the music sounds like. This time out, though, DGH has himself a band named The Trouble Starts, making the proper name of this release Our Arms by Daniel G. Harmann and the Trouble Starts. Does the band make a difference in the sound that I so love from DGH?

Well, sort of. Opener “I Became the Ground” is much more upbeat than anything I can remember previously. It still retains the extremely emotional, hyper-romantic vibe, but it’s not as rainy in tone. It’s oddly reminiscent of the jangly pop that Death Cab for Cutie has been churning out these days, and even a little similar to Anberlin’s slower-tempo work. It doesn’t stray too far from the tree, but it’s definitely a new seed in the ground.

“Dee,” however, is a return to normalcy. The song plods along gloriously, with each individual part making stately entrances and exits. The mood is the same one that I have come to know of DGH, and after hearing a deviation from it in “I Became the Ground,” it’s very welcome. The chiming guitar line pushes this song forward as the vocals try to drag it back; the tension makes this an incredibly effective song.

“Knob Creek Neat” is somewhere in the middle. The presence of the Trouble Starts is felt, as there’s a less dreamy feel to the work and much more aggressive moments throughout. But it never breaks the morose tempo that DGH is most comfortable with. The song may be a lot more direct than his previous work, but the Trouble Starts haven’t broken him of slow, dreamy soundscapes: the chorus of the song features his trademark vocal trick (it’s a certain interval jump that I wish I was smart enough musically to name), and the aggressiveness falls out in favor of layered guitar parts and melodicism.

This three-song EP shows that Daniel G. is spreading his wings a bit by heading out with a band in tow. But he’s still the performer that I love, and a couple new members isn’t going to change that. This EP is the best possible way to move forward: one foot in the new, one foot in the old, and one in the middle. I’ll let you deal with the mental image of a three-legged man. Good work, Mr. Harmann. Good work.

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

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