Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Top 20 albums of the year: 20-11

December 31, 2012

Independent Clauses is somewhat of an alternate universe when it comes to music reviewing. I rarely cover the hip bands, often love things no one else does, and generally attempt to be true to what I hear. If there’s a radar to be on or under, we’re hanging out on a different screen altogether. This is more by happenstance than choice: I never set out to be contrarian. And I don’t feel like a curmudgeonly naysayer of popular music, as you’ll see tomorrow. I just have a different lens than many people. Here’s the view from that lens.

20. Summer of Sam – A-Okay. Lo-fi acoustic goodness that rings honest and true.

19. Ithica – St. Anselm’s Choir. I’m consistently amazed at this band’s ability to wring heartbreaking beauty out of what is basically industrial music.

18. Chris North – Lovedream. Angelic reverie comes via a bunch of guitar pedals, acoustic guitars and arresting vocals.

17. Andrea Caccese’s collected output: Songs for the Sleepwalkers’ Our Rehearsed Spontaneous Reactions and I Used to Be a Sparrow’s Luke. One man’s vision, applied to an ambient project and a indie-rock project that countered the ambience with an anthemic, U2-esque bent.

16. Elijah Wyman/Jason Rozen’s collective output: Tiny Mtns/The Seer Group/Decent Lovers. What started out as the artsy electro-pop project Tiny Mtns split into a heavily artsy electro project (The Seer Group) and a heavily artsy pop project (Decent Lovers), with the two splitting the tracks between them. Except when both kept a track and reworked it to their likings. Did I mention that this one time, one of these guys gave the other a kidney? Now you see why they get one mention.

15. Superstar Runner – Heritage/Lineage/Hand-Me Downs/Scars (Your Birthmarks Do Not Bother Me). Songwriters that forge their own path get remembered by someone. The size of that group determines their popularity, and I hope that this incredibly titled record has gotten Superstar Runner remembered by a lot more people for his unusual arrangements and song structures.

14. 4H Royalty – Where UFOs Go To Die. Hands down, the best lyrics of the year are here in this country/rock album.

13. Autumn Owls – Between Buildings, Toward the Sea. Radiohead? Is that you? No? Hey, whoa, I meant it as a compliment! But seriously, this band is thoughtful in composition and lyric, for a head-spinning, enveloping release.

12. The Parmesans – Uncle Dad’s Cabin EP. One of my favorite new bands of the year, this bluegrass outfit has serious chops to go along with its goofy demeanor.

11. Young Readers – Family Trees EP. I haven’t been floored as hard by an opening track all year as I was by “All I Have.” Beautiful whisper-folk in the vein of old-school Iron and Wine.

Songs for the Sleepwalkers release beautiful, wintry tunes upon us

January 10, 2012

Here in Auburn, Ala., winter is a color and not a weather pattern. The 40-60 degree temperatures are not much colder than “fall” or “spring,” but the sky turns (and apparently stays) various shades of gray. From ivory to gunmetal, it’s all washed out, all the time. This, however, is the perfect situation to hear Songs for the SleepwalkersOur Rehearsed Spontaneous Reactions.

I’m willing to bet it’s gray a lot of the time in Lake Mälaren, Sweden, where bandleader Andrea Caccese and his cohorts probably see a lot more snow than Auburn does to create the color. The de-centered, dreamy feeling that comes from not seeing the natural color of the sky is at least an analogue and perhaps a motivator to these delicate, unusual tunes.

Fellow cold-weather dreamers Sigur Ros provide a fine starting point for discussion of Our Rehearsed Spontaneous Reactions. Beauty-minded arrangments, atypical song structures and uniquely transcendent moods are shared goals between them; while the tunes of Sigur Ros can ratchet up to an impressive roar from their starting point, the songs of SFTS often dissipate into a wispy haze. To that end, it’s probably more fair to call SFTS post-pop than post-rock; it does not appear that the members aspire to rock in any way, although people who are fond of post-rock will be quite understanding of what the band is trying to do. “Down the Line” is built off a gently strummed acoustic guitar, a shaker egg and strings; it measures its own weight by fading in and out through the song, then abruptly ending. It’s not constructed in any specifically defined way; it meanders about at its own pace, keeping its own counsel.

But where the gray winter provides a downward slope into disappointment, the songs of SFTS have a levity about them that precludes a doleful interpretation. Keeping the listener off-balance with the unique song structures is their first tactic, while creating carefully arranged moods is the second: note the use of barely-distorted electric guitar on “We Are Still Here” and the depth of field in the arrangement of standout “Tell Me How.” In an era where post-rock is defined by the dichotomies of loud/soft, fast/slow, and heavy/delicate, it’s refreshing to hear a take that blissfully ignores all pretense of what “should” be done. The wordless, cascading “Asleep” is the best example of this, and putting an acoustic guitar and voice track (“What If I Do”) at the end is certainly another tally mark under that category.

Our Rehearsed Spontaneous Reactions does feel spontaneous, but not in the hyperactive sense of my connotation. These are tunes that feel like the audio equivalent of drawing directly from subconscious: raw, but not in a calculated way; honest, but not in a truly focused way. The meandering aspect (Caccese describes it as “like a drunk man staggering over here and there”) is the element that most surprises and delights. Here’s to hoping Songs for The Sleepwalkers’ work never sobers up, and we hear more beautiful tunes like these in the future.

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

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