Portland’s Wild Ones kept me company for the last legs of my Kickstarter journey (notably the handmaking mixtapes part). Their album Keep It Safe is a perfect summer album, so if you don’t have one yet, you can pick this one up. It’s mid-tempo indie-pop with some electro vibes: chill, but with enough head-bobbing propulsiveness that it keeps the wheels rolling in the car. When I turn it off, it feels like I’m turning off the mood in the room. It’s that pervasive in my mind.
Tracks like “Row” and “Golden Twin” let the female vocals dance breathily over a gently rolling keys-and-drums backbeat, augmenting every now and then with synths for flavor. The guitars flow in and out of the songs, never announcing their presence too hard or going unnoticed. It’s just beautifully executed indie-pop; the sort of album where every track works together and trying to pick singles is fruitless. You know, like how all the summer days run together? Jump on this.
In contrast, Cameron Blake‘s Without the Sound of Violence is surprisingly dark. The singer/songwriter has never shied away from heavy lyrical topics, but the music he couched those thoughts in was considerably buoyant (or at least hopeful). Without sees him match terse thoughts on social and political matters with similarly tense arrangements. Opener “Rugged Cross to Bear” sets the album in an ominous light, culminating in the mantra “hey, hey, hey, you better put your gun down/there ain’t nobody gonna hold you when the chips are down.” Choosing guitar as the lead instrument instead of his usual piano, Blake cultivates a heavy, tough feel to the tune. The sound continues directly into the title track, which includes a noise intended to mimic the sound of blades scraping as an interpretation of the lyrics. Even the fun, cheeky country hoedown “Cabin Fever” includes the love interest crying and being afraid. In short, this is not light summer reading.
So what is the end of all this heaviness? Blake uses the space to talk about hope, hopelessness, and steadfastness in the face of difficult times, whether that’s by singing from the perspective of Abraham traveling to sacrifice Isaac (“Abraham and Isaac”), channeling the perspective of a remorseful divorcee (the poignant, beautiful closer “Driftwood”), or getting Dylan-esque in lyrical structure for “Blood in Our Love.” That last track is my favorite of the album, as it ties the themes of the album to a piano-based sound that caused me to fall in love with Blake’s work in the first place. His performance is incredibly comfortable in “Blood in Our Love,” as he lets his voice loose to interpret the lyrics for him. It’s one of the only places that he gets unbridled in an album that’s marked by tight control over the arrangements; since the track doesn’t necessarily mesh well with the album musically (although it’s spot-on thematically), some may find it to be their least favorite. But I like it a lot.
Blake’s muse has taken him through some heavy places on Without the Sound of Violence, and he has come out with some memorable tunes for it. It’s definitely not dance music, but songs like “Driftwood” tap into deep, heavy emotions excellently. If you’d like to hear Josh Ritter do something darker, you may find your wish is granted in this album.
Independent Clauses exists to cover things that don’t get much coverage, and kindie rock doesn’t get much play in the circles I run in. But it certainly is worth the effort, because modern kids’ music is a far cry from Raffi and Harry Chapin (as much as I love Tom Chapin). I put Justin Roberts’ music on mixtapes for people and no one ever guesses it’s a kid song. So here’s two kindie rock albums that have crossed my path recently.
The Not-Its! are a power-pop band that probably sound less like a kid’s band than The Apples in Stereo sometimes did (Remember this song?!). They also come off as more of an indie band than some indie bands, dressed out in White Stripes-ian pink/black/white. Kidquake! is primarily female-fronted, although some songs (“Let’s Skateboard”) are fronted by a guy who’s voice is actually not that far off from Robert Schneider’s. “Let’s Skateboard” is one of the best tracks on the album, fitting both the term “no comply” and some infectious indie-punk-pop melodies into a sub-2:00 package. Legit. Also legit: the punk-ska attack of “Busy.” Less legit: the kid monologue opening the Blink 182-esque “Temper Tantrum.” But on the whole, this is a solidly enjoyable piece of power-pop that can be enjoyed on its own merits–not just as “kid’s music that doesn’t suck!”
Cat Doorman sounds even more comfortable in the “grown up” world, as Songbook is a gorgeous chamber-folk album. This is made possible because songwriter Julianna Bright is a music veteran and Chris Funk of the Decemberists is on board. The balance between fanciful arrangements and tactful restraint is navigated easily, as a honking bass saxophone and a grumbling electric guitar are treated with equal care and taste (“Effervescing Elephant” and “So Many Words,” respectively). Bright’s vocal melodies sell the album perfectly, as they don’t pander to kids in that annoying way that kids’ albums can do. These are real songs, and they happen to have lyrics kids can sing along with. Given the current indie penchant for whimsy, and it’s not that hard to imagine these songs being sung by the next big thing. “Turn Around” is especially poignant and beautiful; when’s the last time you said that about a kid’s song? Yeah. Songbook is impressive by any standard.
Anathallo had a profound impact on my understanding of what indie rock should sound like. The early years of the band featured highly orchestrated arrangements, melodies that were catchy as much due to their complex rhythm as hummable qualities and surprising songwriting turns. Indie rock has moved away from this sound, but I have not. I’ll still up any band that gives me unexpected songwriting moves.
The Hague is on my good list in that regard. The band’s songs are nothing if not unpredictable. Whether ratcheting up to a crushing rush of guitar or dropping down to group vocals and tapped cymbal, the band plays with the ideas of how pop songs should work. To wit: those two parts I noted happen next to each other in “I’m Sorry.”
What sets The Hague apart from the pack and into Anathallo-excellent territory is patience in letting things unfold and excellent guitar work. All three tracks on the Stark House EP feature quick-paced, distinctive guitar runs that sound wonderful. They’re more prominent on “Valkyrie” and “I’m Sorry” than “California Curse,” but the goodness is present throughout. There are strings in and out of each piece. The tunes rock as well as quirk. That’s just awesome.
This type of indie-rock is embedded in my mind as Chicago-style, even if it’s not true. This is because of the way I view Chicago: less cut-throat than New York, less image-conscious than LA, less hip than Austin, less socially conscious than Portland, less jaded than Seattle. The Chicago of my mind is a place where smart guys have day jobs and also play rock shows of unusual music that they wrote in the basement with their friends. Someone played french horn/violin/other, because he had the instrument and he wanted to.
(Chicagoans are shaking their heads. Whatever. I’ve been to your city. It’s awesome. Let me compliment your hometown with half-truths if I feel like it.)
And that’s how I view The Hague (who were until recently tagged with the ironic moniker “And Then I Was Like, What?”, which only strengthens my opinion): A bunch of guys just doing their thing, even though they are in fact from Portland. And their thing (currently, the Stark House EP) is great. Check them out if you miss Anathallo or indie rock circa 2005 in general.
The Dimes are a band your history professors would love. The Portland-based folk-pop group recently released an EP, New England, in anticipation of their second full-length album tentatively scheduled to be released this coming September. The EP is not lazily titled. In fact, the subject matter of each song deals with 19th-century New England. The Dimes are historically aware, to say the very least.
The first track, “The Liberator,” is a simple song full of allusions to the American abolitionist movement of the 1800s. The song sings of a protagonist—the liberator—making up for his father’s inaction, saying what others will not say, continuing the legacy of John Brown. To some, the subject matter may sound dry or trite, but the with The Dimes it takes on an almost storybook feel, as if the lyrics belonged in the mental vaults of some revered oral tradition. The vocal delivery contributes to said effect through an even-keel tonality and a nostalgic glaze. The music consists of a single, plodding chord progression serving as a backdrop for whatever quirky element The Dimes choose to feature—say, for instance, mandolin tremolo, multi-part harmonies, or a duet featuring clarinet and melodica. The song’s pieces, and the band’s sound as a whole, are seductively congruous.
The historical narratives continue in “Clara,” whose title and lyrics refer to none other than Clara Barton—native New-Englander, abolitionist, suffragist, battlefield nurse, and founder of the American Red Cross. Using a wide range of old-time instruments The Dimes craft a personal account of Clara’s battlefield heroics as told by the unnamed narrator, presumably a mortally wounded soldier. The melody is wonderfully catchy, the foremost part of a musical texture that includes lap steel, harmonica, mandolin, guitar, and a deftly-written banjo riff. The lyrics give the music a gently despairing overtone as the soldier cries out for Clara to save him: “Hold me Clara, to keep me waiting/I don’t have long.” The song’s elements come together to create a mood that is both sorrowful and solid, and the music fades away with a sort of military cadence from the snare drum, cleverly and effectively implying a funereal resolution.
What follows is a short song entitled “Ballad of Winslow Homer.” Homer was a 19th-century artist from, you guessed it, New England. As an artist Homer worked a lot in watercolors, and this ballad by The Dimes has a similar feeling to the medium: light and fluid, but, in the right hands, not lacking in richness or depth. The piece features minimal percussion and simple guitar-picking akin to that of Iron and Wine or Simon and Garfunkel. Such rhythmic minimalism lets The Dimes display their knack for tasteful accents (this song features bells) and, more noticeably, their vocal talents. In case the listener has not yet been convinced, “Ballad of Winslow Homer” features another catchy melody backed up by tight pop harmonies, as well as some light and tasteful background “aah’s.” The Dimes demonstrate their creative vocal powers best on this pop ballad.
The fourth and final piece on the New England EP is a cover of John Lennon’s “Watching the Wheels.” The Dimes’ version features a bit slower tempo and, instead of Lennon’s piano, The Dimes leave it to their reliable acoustic guitar playing to handle the harmonic structure. A minimal instrumental arrangement again pushes the spotlight on the vocals, which are arranged and executed in the folk-pop style that The Dimes excel at.
New England is well-balanced, smartly arranged, lyrically clever and exceptionally performed. The Dimes have made a memorable folk-pop EP, subtle in its sound but lasting in its impression. I ardently look forward to their full-length album. -Max Thorn
What happens when pop-rock in the heritage of Sunny Day Real Estate collides with an oft-haunting viola? Portland-based This Fair City is one place to begin looking for an answer. The edge of their sound falters between hard and soft, as a large part of their sound plays off contrasting elements: clean guitar obligattos versus thickly distorted power chords; lower-register sneers versus long-drawn falsetto; electric instruments versus a stray chamber orchestra voice. That is not to say that those pairs are irreconcilable, and thus the question becomes, “Can This Fair City pull that off?” At times, yes, they do. Although at other times, potential overshadows execution.
The opening track, “what comes our way,” opens with a dark, legato viola line from Brandi “Charlotte” Grahek, followed by tight, melodic interaction between two guitars–a la Emery–to add texture. Jason Charles Franklin’s vocals choose a surprising moment in which to quietly enter, giving a first taste of the intriguing interplay between viola and vocals that inhabits the rest of the album. One wonders exactly who the primary melodic voice is. Such contrasts in timbre between the traditional rock instruments and the viola weaves the entire album together. The effect rewards attentive listening, as the conflict and ambiguity between voices enhances the listening experience.
The most impressive element of the opening track is its density: for better or worse, each instrument is heavily involved in the piece. Franklin’s scream (he averages about one per song) near the end of the piece sounds slightly too forced and, at worst, dishonest, as can some of his lyrics. Franklin’s upper register, to which he easily ascends, resounds with varieties of emotional texture. His falsetto, of which he is in superb control, is incredibly impressive and moving. The piece finishes with a net gain in energy. What comes the listener’s way in the opening track is an honest preview of the general “sound” of This Fair City.
The next track–“tonight we’re running back”–follows right on the heels of its precedent, but brings us starkly (and effectively) down into a mellow mood. Here, This Fair City exhibits its penchant for creating moments of complex texture, interweaving multiple guitar lines (played by Franklin and Travis Schultz), viola obligattos, and vocal harmonies while the rhythm section provides a dependable point of reference. (See also the bridge and last ninety seconds of “thank you mr. king,” the rhythm section on “always,” and the layering of instruments that begins “associated press.”)
Stephen Burnett plays a richly solid bass guitar throughout the album. He avoids the common problems of rock bassists and excels at playing primarily rhythmic bass lines without being overbearing and, what is more, without sacrificing tonality and expression. His rhythmic partner, drummer Robin Marshall, exhibits consistency. Yet at times that consistency and reliability bleeds into repetition and an over-reliance on particular patterns and fills. However, Marshall’s playing is nothing short of tasteful on “associated press” and what I consider to be their best composition, the closing track, “in transit.”
Their last presentation to the listener exceeds the rest. “in transit” departs from the standard verse/chorus structure and the composition shows that, although This Fair City can hammer out measures in distorted and energetic unison, the band has an awareness of the power of nuance. A pluralism of voices slides deftly in and out of perception. The members draw a wide variety of tones and moods from their instruments, challenging the straightforwardness of previous tracks. The mood of the piece is at once impenetrable and self-evident. It moves fluently within its subdued nature. The title is apt; the song feels transitive. In fact, “in transit” is a fitting metonymy for This Fair City: it goes places, but is fittingly cyclical…and the viola gets the final word. –Max Thorn
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.