1. “Friends” – Marsicans. Marsicans appeared fully-formed writing masterful indie-pop-rock songs. I have no idea how that happened, but we’re all beneficiaries. This one manages to get heavy on the lyrical content and yet still manages to be one of the catchiest songs I’ve heard since … uh … “Swimming” by Marsicans.
2. “My Roommate Is a Snake and the Landlord’s a Bat” – Gregory Pepper and His Problems. If the conceit of Sleigh Bells is “hardcore guitars tamed by pop melodies,” the conceit of Pepper’s new album Black Metal Demo Tape is “sludge metal guitar and indie pop melodies.” This particular track starts off as a doomy dirge before transitioning into a early-Weezer power-pop tribute to metal. It’s a fun ride the whole way through the track. The rest of the album is equally inventive, charming, and gloomy (sometimes in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way, but also sometimes not).
3. “Weathering” – moonweather. Fans of the acoustic work on Modest Mouse’s Good News album will love the unique vocal style and swaying, shambling, enthusiastic folk arrangement of this tune. The lilting, floating horns/string arrangement is excellent.
4. “€30,000” – Emperor X. If John Darnielle had collaborated with Pedro the Lion in between his All Hail West Texas and Tallahassee days, the results would have sounded as enigmatic and engaging as this incredible track. It’s almost pointless to tag this with genres–it’s a thoughtful, passionate, wild indie-pop (okay, I did it anyway) track.
5. “Unbroken Chains” – WolfCryer. If you’re not listening to WolfCryer yet, you’re missing out on some of the most vital, important folk songs being sung today. Baumann’s vocal delivery, vocal melodies, and lyrics are all top-shelf in this weary, burdened protest tune.
7. “I Won’t Rest Until” – Brianna Gaither. Following in the vein of Moda Spira, this tune seamlessly blends electro-pop synths, instrospective singer/songwriter piano, soulful vocals, and indie-rock drums for a thoroughly modern-sounding take on serious pop.
8. “We Notice Homes When They Break” – Loyal Wife. An earnest, charming love song that’s part alt-country (via the blaring organ), part indie-pop (through the vocal tone and vocal melodies), and part singer/songwriter (through the lyrics).
9. “Hold On” – Midnight Pilot. The title track to Midnight Pilot’s latest EP is a distillation of their Paul Simon-meets-Americana sound, a yearning piano-driven ballad augmented by lovely fluttering strings and capped off by a beautiful male vocal performance. The vocal melodies in the chorus are catchy and sophisticated, a balance rarely struck well.
10. “Alone with the Stars” – Ofeliadorme. Portishead-style trip-hop with a heavy dose of spacey/ambient synths for atmosphere. The video is in black and white because the song sounds like it is in noir tones.
11. “Eternally” – Julia Lucille. Fans of the complex emotional states of Julianna Barwick will find much to love in this track, which has similar focus on wordless vocals (although not looped and layered ones) to convey the dramatic, almost mystical mood. This track does have a full band supporting Lucille’s voice, and the band’s patient, thoughtful accompaniment creates a dusky evening for her voice to wander through.
12. “Islands III” – Svarta Stugan. Instead of releasing a video, this Swedish post-rock outfit released a video game. Set in a gray, bleak warzone environment, the game has elements of Helicopter Game and a side-scrolling space shooter. (It’s fun!) The song itself is a slowly-moving, minor-key, guitar-heavy post-rock piece of the Godspeed You Black Emperor! school. The game and the song really mesh well–it was a great idea.
1. “Keys in the Lake” – Hillström and Billy. This Swedish indie-rock track starts out at a level of enthusiasm that many songs crescendo to. It grows from there, if you can imagine that.
2. “Everything at Once” – Her Magic Wand. Authentic drum sounds power this M83-meets-Interpol-meets-Air jam.
3. “This Picture’s Old” – Stereogramm. Arpeggiator-heavy synth-pop from the “faster faster faster” school of thought, tempered with a relaxed vocal delivery that creates a fun tension. In lesser hands it could have been goofy, but instead it’s endearing.
4. “Young Oblivion” – Memoryy. If the giddiness of MGMT could have been tempered by the darkling sheen of The Naked and Famous, we’d have had this jubilant track earlier than we do.
5. “Wherever You Are” – New Arcades. If you’re looking for a huge, synthy pop track, here’s a strong candidate.
6. “Me vs. I (Rimski Bronski Mix)” – Hannah Schneider. Schneider is a neo-classical/electro/singer-songwriter somewhat in a more-recognizable-Bjork vein. This remix gives her sound bounce, lift, and vaguely African rhythms for a really fun time.
7. “Part of the Problem” – Trey Mumz. With a name like that, I’d expect auto-tuned R&B slow jamz. Instead, it’s auto-tuned psych slow jamz. Mad skillz.
8. “Me, Liquor & God” – Night Beds. If you go electro, you better know what you’re doing. Night Beds does a good job of keeping his melodic gifts on display while transitioning from soaring country to club-friendly, arch electronica.
9. “Sudden Acts” – Temple Invisible. Portishead-style trip-hop vocals meet witch house-style synths: a dark rave ensues.
10. “Raise the Gate (ft. Body Games)” – T0W3RS. First rule of electronica: know when to get out. This two-and-a-half-minute slice of ominous vibes and slinky rhythms hits it right on.
11. “Reykjavik, January 2015” – Teen Daze. My favorite “started as chillwave” outfit is now augmenting their core sound with the icy/warm tension of pensive melodies and pushing rhythms. The result is a beautiful piano-led tune.
1. “Great White Shark” – Hollands. Maximalist indie-rock/pop music with groove, noise, melodic clarity, effusive enthusiasm, strings, harp, and just about everything else you can ask for. If the Flaming Lips hadn’t got so paranoid after At War with the Mystics…
2. “Coyote Choir” – Pepa Knight. Still batting 1.000, Pepa Knight brings his exuberant, India-inspired indie-pop to more mellow environs. It’s still amazing. I’m totally on that Pepa Knight train, y’all. (Hopefully it’s The Darjeeling Limited.)
3. “Peaks of Yew” – Mattson 2. I love adventurous instrumental music, and Mattson 2 cover a wide range of sonic territory in this 10-minute track. We’ve got some surf-rock sounds, some post-rock meandering, some poppy melodies, some ambient synths, and a whole lot of ideas. I’m big on this.
4. “Firing Squad” – Jordan Klassen. Sometimes a pop-rock song comes along that just works perfectly. Vaguely dancy, chipper, fun, and not too aggressive (while still allowing listeners to sing it loudly), “Firing Squad” is just excellent.
5. “Droplet” – Tessera Skies. There’s a tough juggling act going on in this breathtaking indie-pop tune: flowing instruments, flailing percussion, cooing vocals, and an urgent sense of energy. It’s like if Jonsi’s work got cluttered up with parts and then organized neatly.
6. “Available Light” – David Corley. If Alexi Murdoch, Tom Waits, and Joseph Arthur all got together and jammed, it might sound something like this gruff yet accessible, vaguely alt-country track.
7. “Blue Eyed Girl” – Sam Joole. I’d like to make a joke about blue-eyed soul here, but it’s actually closer to Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” than that. Lots of laidback guitars, good vibes, but not Jack Johnson twee, if you know what I mean.
8. “By the Canal” – Elephant Micah. I’m a big fan of people who aren’t afraid to let an acoustic guitar and voice splay out wherever they want and however long they want. Here, EM acts as an upbeat Jason Molina, putting the focus on his voice instead of the spartan-yet-interesting arrangements. Totally stoked for this new album.
9. “If It Does” – Robin Bacior. In this loose, smooth, walking-speed singer-songwriter tune with maximum atmosphere, shades of early ’00s Coldplay appear. That’s a compliment, people.
10. “Storm” – Dear Criminals. Not that often do I hear trip-hop, even in an updated melodic form. Way to go, DC–you pick up that torch that Portishead put down.
11. “You Open to the Idea” – Angelo De Augustine. Beautiful, delicate, wispy, earnest whisper-folk. They don’t make ’em like this very often anymore.
12. “Billowing Clouds” – Electrician. The mournful, affected spoken word over melancholy, trumpet-like synths makes me think of an electro version of the isolated, desolate Get Lonely by The Mountain Goats.
13. “Blue Chicago Moon (demo)” – Songs: Ohia. Until Jason Molina, I’ve never had a personal connection to the art of a troubled artist who died too early–Elliott Smith was gone before I knew of his work. Now with unreleased demos coming out consistently after Mr. Molina’s death, I feel the sadness of his passing over and over. Each new track is a reminder that there was work still to be made; it also feels like a new song from him, even though it’s objectively not.
Is this how a legacy gets made in the digital era? How long will we keep releasing new Molina songs, to remind us that he was there, and now he is not? (Please keep releasing them.) Will the new songs push people back to “The Lioness”? Will we keep these candles burning to light our own rooms, or will we bring them to other people? “Endless, endless, endless / endless depression,” Molina sings here. Is it truly endless? Are you still depressed? Does your permanent recording of the phrase make it truly “unchanging darkness”? “Try to beat it,” he intones, finally. Try to beat it, indeed. Keep trying until you can’t anymore. And then let your work stand forever. I guess this is how I mourn.
Lotta good stuff trying to cram its way into 2013! Here’s a varied mix.
1. “No Sleep Tonight” – Family Cave. The precision of indie-pop, the aesthetics of indie-rock, and the mood of indie-folk create an incredibly intriguing tune. Watch for Family Cave in 2014.
2. “Keep It Together” – Decent Lovers. Not a cover of a Guster tune, this DL jam is ironically pretty separated and hectic. It’s held together by a strong mood and a deep internal rhythm. Elijah Wyman is getting better and better at this really unique style of pop.
4. “Don’t Shoot the Messenger” – Miles Hewitt. Reminiscent of ’60s and ’70s protest rock, Hewitt combines old and new into a hypnotic mix.
5. “Belfast” – William Steffey. Takes cues from Oasis with dashes of Portishead and Blur, this tune sounds completely British but is totally from Chicago.
6. “Heartbreakers” – Tomorrows. The Jim Ivins Band rebrands and revamps, moving from an adult-pop template to sounds more akin to Anberlin’s early modern rock. The prominence of vocal melodies has not changed, which is good.
7. “Love Is Not Allowed” – Gap Dream. Obligatory Eno namecheck. Aside from that, this is a gorgeous, swirling mass of analog-sounding synths, modulated vocals, and electronic drums that makes me swoon.
8. “Get In It” – Nyteowl. Funky, spacey, mostly-instrumental R&B. “Do you want to get in it?” Yes. Yes, I do.
9. “Get Down Baby” – Blacktop Daisy. You’ve got to hand it to a band which unabashedly labels its music disco. No violins here, but those harmonies!
10. “Can’t Let Go” – Black Checker. This pop-rock-punk tune comes from an EP called Fast. Yup, that’s pretty much all you need to know.
11. “The Ah Ah Song” – Stand Up and Say No. I miss the days when The Flaming Lips made jubilant, illogical, bright pop tunes. This joyful, exuberant pop-rock tune is exactly that.
12. “Ain’t No Sunshine” – Magi. This Bill Withers cover is minimalist lo-fi glory: the distant recording, the raw passion in the imperfect vocals, the deep sense of mood.
Another mixtape! This one’s predominantly dark indie rock, instrumental hip-hop, and lush indie.
0. “Need Parmesan” – Pjaro. From the surrealistically named Why Is No One Here I Can Make You Alt comes a crazy instrumental indie-rock piece that’s like a post-rock piece if Two Gallants were trying to play the genre and out of frustration they gave up and played really loud. This one’s surprising and intriguing.
1. “Waiting” – Program. Remember the mid ’00s, when everything was super-epic because The Arcade Fire ruled and everyone wanted to be like them? I loved that time. Program remember that time well, with synths and toms and all the right stops’n’starts.
2. “Liar Liar” – Vienna Ditto. Someday, all genres will be one genre, and I’ll be out of a job. Until then, it’s my job to tell you that tribal drums, Portishead-style vocals and swaggering guitar riffs come together for some crazy, gripping music here.
3. “View of My Sanity” – Anna Lena and the Orchids. Another singer/songwriter indebted to the icy soundscapes and incisive vocals of Portishead, another beautiful tune.
4. “Endless Possibilities” – The Boxing Lesson. Space rock that consumed an orchestra? Sign me up.
5. “Proto” – Ryan Hemsworth. This one comes from Mitsuda, the hip-hop tribute to video game soundtrack creator Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono Trigger). YES TO THE YES.
6. “I Still Think of You From Time to Time” – Louville. Trombones, pulsing beats, and wiry synths come together to form … euphoric electronica? Whatever, just roll with its beauty.
7. “Nothing Left to Say” – Poldoore. Super cool heist movies, take notice: here’s a candidate for your next soundtrack inclusion.
8. “Staying In” – Ola Podrida. Mysterious tune that kinda sounds like a dungeon level soundtrack, until the beautiful chorus kicks in.
9. “Chinese Paper Cuts” – Own Goal. The sparse instrumentation creates a unique indie-soul atmosphere that will appeal to fans of The Antlers.
10. “Blue Elvis” – Peals. It sounds like two guys sitting on the porch making beautiful, low-key, beautiful instrumental music because they can. I dig it.
11. “Seven” – Qualia. Loose, chill, moving post-rock that evokes The Album Leaf, lazy Saturday afternoons and/or epic realizations. Wonderful stuff.
So our Kickstarter is going splendidly, as we’re 84% funded after less than 48 hours of being open. The rapid success thrills and humbles me, as this little project (and by extension, I) have been the recipient of much generosity over the last two days.
But even with golden days about us, there’s still work to be done! Here’s a large mix of solid singles that have floated my way recently.
Dreamy Winters Mix
1. “Make Believe” – Sleepy Tea. The ease with which Sleepy Tea pulls off nuanced confidence made me sit up and take notice. Put your radar on for this band.
2. “Fields” – Tiger Waves. Hazy, gauzy, chilled-out indie-pop reminiscent of The Shins.
3. “Lead Balloon” – Carroll. Calm, quirky tune reminiscent of Grandaddy, recent Death Cab, and even a bit of Tokyo Police Club.
4. “Spinoza” – Generationals. Seriously, what type of world are we in that Generationals isn’t adored?
5. “Glowing” – Dream Curtain. Didn’t we call this chillwave once upon a time? Whatever it’s called, I still love it.
6. “Burn It Down” – Dark Colour. For a second I felt like I was in a LCD Soundsystem track, which is about the highest compliment I can give a dance track.
7. “Mysterieux” – White Blush. If you hadn’t guessed, I’m getting seriously into downtempo, pretty music. Or maybe the world is just catching up with something I always loved.
8. “Locks and Keys” – Glyphs. Beautiful, intriguing Postal Service-esque electro-pop with a perfectly corresponding video. I can’t wait to hear more from this band.
9. “Don’t Stop” – Odesza. Got some trip-hop, Portishead-esque vibes going on in this instrumental.
10. “I Remember the World Begin to Sway” – Antennas to Heaven. Named after a Godspeed You! Black Emperor album, Antennas to Heaven deliver some slow-building, post-rock beauty.
11. “I’ve Got the Feeling We’re Not in Kansas Anymore” – I Used to Be a Sparrow. The jubilation of post-rock meets the concrete vocal melodies of indie-rock in a powerful tune. Totally stoked for their new record.
12. “Peace In The Valley” – Cliff Dweller. Old-timey gospel? And beautifully, unabashedly so.
I’ve always found myself pulled between two sides. I’m an editor/writer; I create technical writing and fiction; I have friends and family in the extreme liberal and extreme conservative camps. I span many distances, with the moderate center being my home. This goes for my taste in electronic music as well: I am thoroughly on board with electronic music, as long as it retains some sense of being remotely a pop song. I’m not into deep house trance and such, which is very definitely music but perhaps not actually a song. So I’m (surprise) on the fence about White Blush‘s self-titled EP, as it makes overtures toward being both a project that creates discrete song-style entities and one that creates free-flowing music.
Carol Rhyu is the mastermind behind the project, and she creates a lush, dusky environment on the EP. This is best shown on “Jolene,” where a mechanical, post-Portishead beat is filled out melodically by all manner of synths and Rhyu’s cooing vocals. The environment could be called dark (it’s certainly not a summery song), but there’s no malice in the tune. It simply puts forward a distinctive mood evocative of night and develops it in a song-style structure, pulling together repeated parts into a semblance of verse/chorus/verse. “808 Myst,” on the other hand, is a soundtrack-style piece reminiscent of its title reference. It’s not bad at all, it just doesn’t appeal to me. I can’t hum it, nor recognize it as a discrete entity.
So it’s good for me that Rhyu skews more toward the pop end of the spectrum. “Mirror” starts off with a bouncy bassline reminiscent of goth rock, but layers Rhyu’s tentative, reverb-laden vocals over it for a nice tension. Even though the song doesn’t have a chorus to speak of, it’s still treated more like a pop tune in that she sings directly instead of treating her voice as another instrument in the mix. It ends up sounding a bit like Braids’ work, which is another band that treats pop music structures as things to be morphed and challenged in odd ways without losing their essential nature. (This is not the case with “Tru Luv,” which takes a similarly bouncy bass line and slowly builds in into an instrumental piece complete with distant cooing.)
Not being an expert in electronic music, I don’t know all the right and proper names for the genre or genres that White Blush falls into. I can say with definition, though, that Carol Rhyu can make an absolutely gorgeous song when she wants to, whether it’s in a pop idiom or not. “Jolene” is a fabulous song, one that only gets more interesting with time. And that’s the best sort of pop song.
Should you put your best song first on an album? The Finest Hour falls on the affirmative side of the argument, as “Never Heard of Dylan” opens up These Are the Good Old Days on the highest of notes. “Never Heard of Dylan” bears more than a passing resemblance to the energetic rock of The Vaccines, as the scruffy British quartet offers up infectious melodies and great guitar/bass interactions. They make the most of what they’ve got, which shows in later tunes like the slightly calmer “Reasons to Complain” and the fist-pumping “See for Miles,” which has serious Green Day vibes. They do incorporate some fun ska elements, but they work best when they’re sticking to four-on-the-floor rock/pop. And although “Never Heard of Dylan” is tops, it only barely edges the 14-minute (!) finale “Indigo Night,” which includes a shout-it-out use of the album title in its excellent songwriting. If you’re looking for a fun album, you should be all over The Finest Hour’s These Are the Good Old Days–cause they are.
Michael Glader’s When On High is a fascinating amalgam, mixing ’60s psychedelic pop, rock, modern pop, and folk without succumbing to the excesses of any genre. This creates a uniquely idiosyncratic stew that keeps its own counsel. Opener “Strawberry Eyes” is a distortion-drenched, bass-driven stoner groove that features Glader modifying his keening tenor voice. Highlight “Big Spoon Little Spoon” is a solo guitar love song with the energy of a pop song, the fingerpicking of a folk tune, and the groove of a blues song. “Chasing Footsteps in the Sand” is a rhythm-and-bass-heavy pop tune. “Is This My Afterlife?” has a distant, eerie New Orleans vibe to its doo-wop. In short, this album goes all over the place, but none of Glader’s moves feel significantly out of his control. Each tune retains a dreamy, hazy sort of mood, and that keeps the album together. I’m a big fan of his quieter stuff (“Big Spoon Little Spoon,” “That’s It”), but there’s plenty for anyone to love in When On High. [Editor’s note: Michael Glader is now known as Red Francis.]
The Weeping Tree by The Knitted Cap Club is a very stately record. The acoustic songwriting is very structured, and the emotion delivered by the female vocalist is quite measured. I don’t mean this as a criticism; fans of Portishead treasure those same characteristics. But this does go against the grain of modern singer-songwriter/folk, establishing a very formal entry in a world of passionate confessionals. The tone of the album has much in common with slowcore artists like Songs:Ohia, Elephant Micah, and Red House Painters, but with fewer self-pitying vocal performances.
Instead, the sparse but effective arrangements, which often include other voices, carry the mood of the tunes. Standout opener “Crown of Roses” features a whole verse accompanied only by ghostly multitracked voices, while “Eight-Thirteen” incorporates distant recorded voices for a similar effect. Even though the vocal performances don’t telegraph hurt, the lyrics of the album often do (“Heart Exchange,” “The Weeping Tree”), which enhances the ghostly, somber feel of the album. If you’re looking for something different in your singer/songwriter listening habits, try out this one.
Ben Fisher‘s Roanoke EP comes on the heels of his 2011 debut album Heavy Boots and Underwoods. The latter showed flashes of brilliance and foreshadowed a bright future for folk-singer Fisher; Roanoke is where he starts to build on that foundation. Since The Tallest Man on Earth’s nasally voice is a high price of entry, opener “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” becomes instantly likable by aping Kristian Matsson’s carefree strum and pairing it with Fisher’s low voice. “Dublin Blues Pt. 2” puts some forlorn but interesting lyrics into a country mold, with good results. But it’s “Hibernation” that sticks with me, as the gently fingerpicked tune sounds like a calmed-down Tallest Man in both the vocals and the guitar. The melodic flourishes that fill it out give a sense of Josh Ritter-esque gravitas, while not feeling too much like a Ritter tune. The title track is a high-desert tune with pedal steel, shakers and a wide-open feel; “To Conclude…” is a quiet strummer, but the vocals push a little hard against the gentle track.
That push and pull between gentle and intense is where Fisher lives on this EP (his bio says that he “tends to bellow”), but he doesn’t turn gentle songs into roars (like Damien Rice) or speed them way up (The Tallest Man on Earth). Instead, he fills his gentle performances with a confident energy. It’s a tough thing to explain, but that’s why it’s great: it sets Fisher apart. I’m looking forward to more tunes from Fisher, as Roanoke is a satisfying chapter in Fisher’s songwriting that points towards more good in the future.
White Blush‘s bedroom electronica is of the claustrophobic, moody and sparse type. I’m not too familiar with the genre, but I checked it out due to the Portishead connections I heard in the sound. Carol Rhyu’s music is much more mellow and free-flowing than Portishead’s lock-step trip-hop, but both share the ability to traverse in dark sounds without sounding particularly evil or sad. They just like hanging out in the nighttime, it seems. “Without You” builds from some fragmented melodic elements into a swirling, pensive tune. “808 Myst” is an eerie sort of chiptune piece that traffics in the same moody vein as “Without You,” while “Wait” is a stark tune that strips her sound down to vocals, a casio and soft rhythmic thumps. It’s oddly intriguing, just as the other two tunes. White Blush has delivered three beautiful tunes here; fans of ambient or other quiet electro would really enjoy this.
Broken Social Scene is gone, which means that there’s a hole in the “absurdly large, Canadian indie-rock collaborative” part of the music universe. Thankfully, Del Bel is here to take up that space, both in size and sound.
And it’s quite a collective, encompassing at least ten people (according to the Facebook page). Some of them have been in Do Make Say Think, The Happiness Project, Ohbijou and (surprise, surprise) Broken Social Scene, among other bands listed. But all this pedigree wouldn’t matter if the songs sucked. Is Del Bel’s Oneiric worth the hype?
Very yes. The members of the band draw on their extensive indie rock histories to create a diverse album of gently rolling, evocative, moving indie rock held together by a cinematic strain running through the tunes. Opener “Dusk Light” is a slow-builder that falls between The National and Portishead, but with a lilting female vocalist. “Stirring Bones” falls next, and it falls on the New Pornographers side of things, even invoking She and Him a bit. But instead of being disparate, the two seem like logical extensions of each other, both held together by legato guitar lines living just beneath the surface of the tune. Even though the first uses the subterranean guitar to press the tempo and the latter uses it to rein in the shuffling groove, the sound locks in to the listener’s mind in the same way.
It’s not the only marker that transfers across these gentle, beautiful tunes. The forlorn mood that so invokes High Violet is on display in “Beltone” and “No Reservation,” although the latter jazzes it up a bit with woodwinds and rumbling toms. The Portishead comes out in the separated beats and immense space of “This Unknown” and “Slave to the Deep.” A dash of The Walkmen’s dramatism is applied throughout, although the band never appropriates the trademark Walkmen yowl. These songs are primarily gentle, not caterwauling.
The control that Del Bel Oneiric asserts over its sound is incredibly impressive. By restraining any impulse to get frenzied, they have created a well-tuned set of songs that translate into a well-coordinated album. It’s rare that I hear an album that works on an individual song (local) level and a whole-album (global) level, but Oneiric does. Highly recommended for fans of melodic, artistic, evocative music.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.