Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Oh '80s, We Loved You

December 26, 2012

challenger

The title of Challenger‘s The World Is Too Much For Me is an apt interpretation of both its lyrics and music, but in opposite ways. The lyrics throughout the album are about the byproducts of modern life: fear, desperation and confusion over an amorphous other. The size of the world and its problems are conspiring to overwhelm the lyricist, but the lyrics fight back with a commitment to hope. The music, on the other hand, is more manic than morose, invoking the sounds of Paul Simon’s Graceland, Peter Gabriel’s catalog and ’80s synth pop. Songs like “Takers” sound like the output of people who can’t get enough of everything, who have music just spilling out the ears.

Challenger knows its way around a pop hook, creating incredibly memorable tunes like “Are You Scared Too?”, “Don’t Die,” “Life in the Paint” and single “I Am Switches.” But each of these tunes drag some melancholy into the songwriting, to give the highs an extra edge. Good always looks better when it’s beating evil. And so it goes with Challenger, who are at their best when playing with the juxtapositions of light and dark. But it’s all done in a framework of electro-pop that will put a huge smile on your face. The World Is Too Much For Me is easily one of the best releases of the year, recommended for anyone who likes thoughtful, happy music.

ohlookout

Oh Look Out‘s Orchestrated Fuzz is also titled well: the latest from the geek-friendly power-pop band relies heavily on arrangements and album structure. Last year’s Alright Alright Alright Alright Alright was dominated by riffs and melodies, causing each song to stick out as its own piece of the puzzle. Orchestrated Fuzz is intended to hang together as one giant experience, like the soundtrack to a video game binge session.

While the tunes pop out less at me in this one, the overall sound is still strong: buzzy guitars and retro-sounding synths are undergirded by big drums and capped off by JP Pfertner’s high-pitched (but not annoyingly so) voice. The songs all run into each other, with opener “Velcro Wolf” snapping off as “Or Be Destroyed” kicks in. Things continue in this vein throughout, to good (aforementioned) effect. Lead single “Monster Fiction” is a standout, as the melody is a killer hook; “Monotone Hurray” sticks out because its awesome title leads me to remember the song. It’s worth noting that the whole thing has a lovably bedroom/garage feel to it; in a world where everything is rushing to sound professional, it’s nice to hear something that sounds lovably like a human made it. The handwritten online zine (!) also adds to that feel. Fans of Weezer, Math the Band, and Matt and Kim will all find much to love in Orchestrated Fuzz.

ponychase

Also reppin those ’80s hard is Ponychase, which takes the arch synth-pop of Tears for Fears and other hyper-emotive bands of the era and uses it for modern ends. The self-titled EP combines towering synths with twinkling guitar, sparse percussion and Jordan Caress’s commanding but not overbearing voice to create a timeless, otherworldly sound. The modern lyrical cadence and vocal melody structure are what sink their teeth into me, as the joyful synth blast that opens “Believer” is elevated by Caress’s strong vocal performance.

While “Believer” is the most upbeat (and most striking) of the tunes, the rest of the songs on the six-song EP aren’t slouching. Opener “Cup of Hearts” employs many of the same sounds to a more pensive effect, while “Two Times” sounds almost beachy. “Brainwasher” closes out the EP in grand fashion, delivering the best melody of the bunch amid heavily gated snare and Caress’s voice at its torchiest. “Brainwasher, come set me free,” she pleads, and it’s a request that the EP can answer, should you ask of it: just let the sound wash over you. Ponychase’s unique sound is markedly different than other synth-indie-pop, and that’s a great thing.

Stellar Vector's debut full length exudes a high quality, post-modern vibe

April 11, 2010

The five-piece, self-proclaimed “post-modern rock band” Stellar Vector are set to release their debut full-length album, A Flock of Cowards, in April and it would be well worth your time check it out.  While the Minneapolis-based group claims to be creatively influenced by the likes of David Bowie and Peter Gabriel, I can’t help but feel that fans of  more recent bands like Of Montreal, Muse and the Cold War Kids will all find something they like in the sound of A Flock of Cowards.  The album has a playfulness similar to Of Montreal but also a raw vibe similar to Death Cab’s “Meet Me at the Equinox.”

The synthesizer-infused, 12-track album starts out blasting “Buffalo Jump” with clean, ear-tingling guitar riffs that channel classic rock yet combine strong, edgy vocals that add a modern tweak.  The second track,”Lacking Self-Control,” is a fantastic example of a musical narrative.  One moment you are tapping your foot to a near reggae beat; then the chorus hits, picking up the pace and lending to a more commercially-appealing alternative rock sound.  In a sense, the instrumental work really allows you to “feel” the story behind the sound as the song progresses.

The band is very upfront about their narrative-driven, lyrical styling.  I could almost hear a hint of Ben Folds in their upfront and at times sarcastic lyrics. There is an especially strong lyrical resemblance on “E.D.” with lines like, “No I don’t wanna be your friend/but I know that I can’t pretend/I’m a pretty damn good actor baby.”

A favorite surprise on the record was the incorporation of a few keyboard-driven melodies on songs such as “Titanic Work Ethic” and the fun little album-ending tune, “The Not So Hidden Song.”  Clearly the song titles alone should be enough to get the potential listener a little intrigued as to what this group is really about.

As you listen to the record, you can’t help but feel your ears smoothly move in and out of the different decades of rock.  They have mastered the art of taking the best from the past while looking to the future. They embody a post modern success.

Overall, Stellar Vector has succeeded in achieving a truly high-quality independent album.  A clean and polished recording is already putting them miles ahead.  They have the kind of sound that could really get a film music supervisor excited, as great soundtrack music.  Keep an eye out for these guys. I have a feeling they won’t be staying in the Midwest for long.

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

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