Zach Winters‘ Monarch is a gentle, calming, delicate album of pristine singer/songwriter work reminiscent of Sleeping at Last. Winters’ modus operandi is to develop a single quiet element into a whole array of sounds without ever crossing the threshold into noisy.
The lack of kit drums throughout much of the album helps greatly in building this lush, soothing sound: strings, voice, two guitars, and auxiliary instruments can still sound intimate if there’s no snares and cymbals marshaling them forward. Instead, the sounds and songs here unfold tenderly, one part after another. This is not a pop album; these songs are not built for instant gratification. Monarch sets the mood for an hour, or a day, or a week.
The high points, insofar as can be picked out from the gorgeous whole, are the swells where Winters exercises his arrangement skills: the title track soars as Winters puts everything he has into the six-minute tune; “Deep Deep” shows his “poppiest” vocal melody, which makes the song sound like a lost Josh Garrels tune. “Meant” is a beautiful love song that calls up the closest Sleeping at Last comparisons, while “Tonight” is one of the warmest tracks I’ve heard in a while. Monarch is a romantic wonder in the literary and literal senses of the world: the emphasis on beauty appeals to those eloquent novels and poetry of yore, while lovers of all types will find a sonic analogue to tender affection. Highly recommended.
Naïm Amor‘s Hear the Walls is also quiet, but in a different way. Hear the Walls is a stark, enticing album that relies on mystery and intrigue. The album’s allure starts with its lyrics: the songs are sung in both English and French, giving some of these songs the mystique of a foreign tongue. The ones that do appear in English draw on lightly reverbed guitar, distant arrangements, and whispered vocals to create their enticing moods.
Lead single “No Way Back” is one of the most full arrangements, incorporating prominent strings and a second guitar into the mix. The result is a tune something like Joseph Arthur or an acoustic Teitur might make: a mature, full-bodied song that just happen to be quiet. Follow-up track “Cherche Dans la Brume” features Andrew Bird-style whistling into a tune that’s far more tense than the small arrangement should be able to create. There are some lovely moments, such as the beautiful closing instrumental “Learning America”; the overall impression, however, is one of intrigue.
Amor’s offerings here are equally as mood-creating as Zach Winter’s, but in a very different way. The quiet tension throughout the release makes me look always just around the corner, waiting for the next element to emerge. If you’re into serious music a la Andrew Bird, Patrick Watson, or Joseph Arthur, Hear the Walls will provide a treat.
Gary B and the Notions‘ How Do We Explode is completely aptly named. The band that I praised for ’50s stylings on its last aptly titled release has largely dropped those for noisy, distorted late ’80s/ early ’90s guitar rock. This isn’t grunge, but it certainly comes from a similar spirit: these are pop songs played extremely loudly and with plenty of overdrive. From the Pavement-esque tones of “How to Eat a Brick Sandwich” to the dissonant crunch of “Too Busy for an Ambulance Ride” and “Street Drugs,” Gary B takes listeners through a rock’n’roll album. Those with a penchant for rock that features huge guitars, loud drums, dissonance and sung/hollered vocals will celebrate How Do We Explode. Also, I love the album art.
In my review of The Fierce and the Dead‘s last album, I desperately wanted the post-rock band to buckle down and make a statement. Their follow-up EP On VHS does that, pointing out a direction for the quartet. The four tracks here set out a gameplan of distorted bass, patterned guitar melodies/riffs, and aggression. This is best shown in “Hawaii,” which is not incorrectly described as thrashy in parts. There are melodies and tension in between the heavy sections, but the underlying feel is not one of tension/release; instead, the more apt metaphor is one of a boxer throwing a blitz of punches before retreating back to his stance to reload. It’s a punishing, powerful twenty minutes. If you’re into the heavy side of instrumental rock (Explosions in the Sky’s loudest, Sigur Ros’s loudest, Athletics, etc.), you’ll love On VHS. I’m interested to see where they take this approach in a full-length. Also, the album art creeps me out.
Patrick Watson‘s glorious chamber-pop tune “Into Giants” is impeccably orchestrated, inventively melodic, and intricately constructed. Watson’s tune evokes the complexities of Andrew Bird’s work, while his emotional falsetto cures the sterility that puts me off from much of Bird’s work. While “Into Giants” was an immediate lock in my mind, the rest of Adventures in Your Own Backyard took a while to grow on me. It’s still growing on me, but I’m not sure when it will come to a final resting place, so I just had to write the review.
The chiming “Blackwind,” comforting “Strange Crooked Road” and gentle “Words in the Fire” are all tunes that I had an “aha!” moment with; tunes like the sparse “Swimming Pools” and the woozy “Morning Sheets” still feel a little bit too much like Mark Richardson’s Faberge egg for me (beautiful, but without the ability to connect to me). Still, having a gorgeous album that’s a grower is absolutely no knock: it just means you’re going to have to spend some time with Watson to get the full effect of his album. If that sounds like your sort of invitation, there’s 48 minutes of music with your name written on it here. Also, I’m indifferent to the album art.
Trip-hop has been popping up on my radar with increasing frequency lately; I don’t know if there’s been a recent bump in its creation, or if I’m just getting exposed to it more. Whichever it is, I’m thankful for it: the slinky, wintry cool of “Stealin’ Hearts” by the awesomely-named Chrome and the Ice Queen should do to you just what the title states. Download “Stealin’ Hearts” here.
The incredible Patrick Watson has released a mind-bending, beautiful video for “Into Giants” that morphs from its Skype opening into a Broadway musical. It is mesmerizing. (And they get snow thrown on them!)
Red Wanting Blue, who I’ve covered several times, are finally coming to my home state of Oklahoma for Norman Music Festival 5; sadly, it’s the first year of the festival that I won’t be there from the earliest shows to the end of the main stage. My personal problems aside, the band is on the rise: RWB just booked its first gig on Letterman for July 18. Check out “White Snow.” (More winter! But only metaphorically.)
Speaking of things related to my home state, The Rock’n’Roll Dreams of Duncan Christopher was shot completely in Oklahoma. Check the comedy’s trailer:
We love Hoodie Allen at Independent Clauses, largely because of his way with samples. Even though his new EP All American does not include any samples, the original beat in “No Interruption” has the same buoyant flair that he previously appropriated out of other people’s music. It’s an impressive transition, and one that has me hoping and thinking about all the directions he could take his sound now that he’s making songs instead of flipping songs. (Live instruments? Eh?) “No Interruption” has me excited for the rest of the EP, and that’s what a good lead single should do. Buy it on iTunes, and here’s the vid: