Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Jonathan Vassar is a great folk songwriter.

December 23, 2009

I’ve been reading reviews of Regina Spektor’s far with some confusion. Many of them say that it is not her best work because it’s less experimental and more “normal.” Then I read an essay by David Hajdu in which he asserts that Jack White is beloved because he never really finishes songs. These together cause me to think that there are two types of great songwriter in the world: the great songwriter that is actually incompetent of being a “normal” songwriter and thus writes unusual and wacky works that stick in our head (which is why Spektor’s disjointed breakout album Soviet Kitsch is wonderful, and why everything that Jack White does with a real band is hopelessly boring), and the songwriter that those wacky ones aspire to be.

The problem is that the wacky ones often mature out of their wacky phase, but they don’t often mature into the great songwriters they aspire to be. far has some wonderful tracks on it, but it’s not a Ben Folds album by any stretch of the imagination. Neither is it a Fiona Apple album (although there is some debate as to whether that is something to aspire to, these days). The Dead Weather doesn’t sound normal, but it’s a lot closer to normal than “Black Math” or “Hotel Yorba” or “Seven Nation Army.” The Raconteurs sound, for better or for worse, incredibly average.

It seems that the great songwriters appear full-formed. Ben Folds was cranking out the great songs while he was still in his earliest stages with the Ben Folds Five; Damien Jurado’s best work is spread throughout his fantastic career. They just, you know, show up being awesome.

I think Jonathan Vassar is in the Ben Folds category of great songwriters. The reason for this is that the best tracks on The Fire Next Time are not the minimalist, eccentric ones, but the fully-realized folk/Americana songs. “A Match Made in Heaven” features some great mandolin, a violin, a cello, and a warbling saw in addition to his plaintive acoustic guitar and voice. But instead of feeling cluttered of amateur, each piece locks in. The song wouldn’t be the song without all the parts. It’s a perfectly written song, in that there’s nothing I can knock about it. It has a great melody, it has solid lyrics with meaning and wit, the song sways, and it has a deeply felt emotive quality that refrains from becoming maudlin. In short, it’s perfect. If you like acoustic Americana/folk/country, you will like “A Match Made in Heaven.” It’s impossible not to.

“Saint Josephina” is another fully-realized track that suceeds admirably. “San Jacinto” isn’t quite as engaging as the previous two, but it’s still a solid song. These filled-out songs are the cream of the crop; it would behoove Vassar to stay in this vein. The more experimental tracks, while interesting, aren’t up to part with these songs.

Opener “Nearer My Father’s Wounded Side” starts out with a minute-long intro that serves to confuse more than set the scene. It segues neatly into the rest of the track, which is a profoundly minimalist composition that runs for over five minutes. It’s not a bad song, but it’s just not as engaging as the tightly woven “Match Made in Heaven.” I’ll take “Nearer…” over most folk, but it’s just sad to me that one of the six tracks Jonathan Vassar treats us to is simply not his best work.

To bring it all together, Jonathan Vassar and the Speckled Bird don’t need to get wacky to be heralded as good. Vassar is simply a good songwriter, and the Speckled Bird plays tight and close to that vision. I hope that Vassar and the Speckled Bird continue their partnership and write much more work together, honing their already tight vision. Then they will be huge. They should already be there, but that’s just a matter of time. The Fire Next Time is an excellent EP of tight songwriting, strong melodies, and great mood. It’s a must for folk-lovers.

Take a walk with Ring Of Truth

May 28, 2009

A little bit punk, a little bit alt rock, and a whole lot of 1960s-style pop rock, Ring of Truth’s album Everything’s The Same But In A Different Place is a musical adventure that takes you along as the band explores variations on a signature sound. That sounded weird, let me rephrase. They experiment a bit, but you’ll easily be able to identify a common, unifying thread through the album. It’s an enjoyable if somewhat short work, clocking in at just over half an hour. Their sound seems like a mix of Sons and Daughters, the Raconteurs, and the Beatles. It’s energetic and earnest, the kind of stuff where you can tell they’re really enjoying performing.

The song “Well, I Walked” caught my ear almost immediately; it’s one of the most distinctive on the album, and quite representative of their sound. Generally Ring of Truth have a 1960s sound not unlike the Beatles or Beach Boys, and it works quite well for them. A sweet little guitar lick in the middle completes the track, and tempted me to air guitar a bit. “Maybe this is heaven, maybe this is hell / it seems to me these days they’re one and the same.” You won’t find any deep lyrics here, just light, catchy pop-rock.

The 1960s-styling continues into “Why Should This Be?,” albeit with a different tone near the end. It took on an almost psychedelic feel to it, a sonic blending of guitars, multiple vocal parts, and what sounded suspiciously like a sitar (correct me if I’m wrong, guys). The vocalist’s full potential shows through on the track as he gives it a bit more energy and emotion, with a sound that’s a bit rough on occasion. The end melts into a guitar-heavy instrumental session, a fitting end to the song.

Ring of Truth’s punk influence shows through in “Never Compromise,” which takes on a slightly 1980s, doomsday-ish tone in the chorus. They sing, ” I never compromised / you never compromised / we never compromised / there’s no compromise.” Amusingly enough, they can’t seem to leave out that 1960s influence, as the style mutates back into pop-rock for five or ten seconds at a time. “A Spanish Hunger” further fleshes out the album with a sound that is distinctly Ring of Truth, but also a clear break from earlier songs. Frantic hand claps and easygoing rhythm guitar create a fun, almost tropical style.

That potential I mentioned the vocalist had on “Why Should This Be?” comes out full-force on “Smile,” the next-to-last song of the album. It’s raucous and a bit crazy, with the lead singer wailing his lyrics over distorted guitar that has a touch of soul to it. It’s a strong performance from Ring of Truth, and I absolutely loved it. The album progresses well, going from the pop-rock, lighter fare of the opening, to more of a mellow tone in the middle, ending with the likes of “Smile” that are pure, unadulterated rock in all its vibrant and energetic glory.

Everything’s The Same But In A Different Place is a strong offering from Ring of Truth . It’s clean and polished, with a sound that at once pays homage to music of an earlier time and makes its own way. It makes for a fun listen, and I’d recommend it for listeners of diverse tastes – as long as you like some form of rock, you’ll probably like this one.

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

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