1. “Dark” – Birds of Night. Dark is the massively impressive synthesis of Springsteen’s road-readiness, Arcade Fire’s sweeping drama, and The Walkmen’s trebly guitars and keening vocals. This is an impressive rock tune.
2. “Cooler” – Sancho. Why does some Weezer-esque rock push my emotional buttons and others not? I have no idea. But I heard the guitars, the vocals, and the start-stop moment that clinches the thing in this song, and I just got all mushy inside.
3. “Warrior” – SATE. If this jet-fueled, towering-guitar rocker doesn’t get your blood moving, I don’t know what will. There’s enough soul, sass, and vocal theatrics in this track to power four or five lesser tunes.
4. “Legend” – Parlement. If the sound of summer is a big, fat Queens of the Stone Age guitar riff, Parlement has a song for you. The straightforward, stomping rhythms are about as far from that other Parliament as you can be.
5. “I’m Dying on the Square” – Break the Bans. Thrashy, hoarse-throated protest punk from a Russian national that starts out with spoken words clips (that I can only assume are political/news clips)? This is pretty much what punk is for, y’all.
6. “Modern Phenomenon” – Northern American. Big, comforting synths welded to a downtempo rock song that sounds like it’s been through the Radiohead/The National/Bloc Party school of music.
7. “Optimists” – Mittenfields. Glammy, theatrical vocals can make anything sound more glam than it is–Mittenfields is laying down the rock, though. Check that sweet guitar solo.
8. “Mirror North” – Whoop-szo. Starts out all quiet and ponderous, but it ratchets up to a brittle, abrasive post-metal roar pretty quickly. If you’re into soft/loud/soft, jump on it.
9. “Cowboy Guilt” – Torres. The clear winner of SXSW this year, Torres was unknown to me before the event and absolutely everywhere afterwards. This tune, which deftly balances a minor-key gravitas and quirky melodic capriciousness, shows why she’s the big thing in indie-rock right now.
1. “Make Me Wanna Die” – White Reaper. If Oasis had been playing at 40 bpms faster and way thrashier, you’d end up with this catchy, snarling, fun track.
2. “Hard 2 Wait” – Iji. My first thought when I get a pseudo-disco tune is not, “Oh yeah, that’s my jam.” But somehow, Iji has won me over with this charming retro nugget. It helps that the disco is fused to a San Fran indie-pop sort of sensibility.
3. “Punk Band” – Conrad. Actually a synth-pop band with some chillwave inflections and post-punk rumbling bass singing about a punk band. Joins “The Best Ever Death Metal Band out of Denton” in the “odes to other genres” genre. It’s pretty great.
4. “Oh Josephine” – Vienna Ditto. Pulling back from their brittle ways, but not their noir drama ones, Ditto delivers a smooth, sultry indie-rock cut with a hint of trip-hop glamour to it.
5. “Bibleblack (demo)” – Autumn Owls. That sort of ominous, artsy, glitchy rock that Radiohead burst into the public consciousness is on display here. AO is following up on their debut of dark, melodic indie-rock with a new album later this year (after their lead singer recovers from–oh no!–a mugging).
6. “Asleep in the Pine” – Birds of Night. Do you remember that moment when Band of Horses was the biggest thing going? Birds of Night totally do.
7. “Aleph” – Battle Ave. The band’s raw, frantic rock has met atmosphere and jangle since we last heard it, resulting in less panic and more mumbly confidence (is that a paradox/oxymoron?). New York cool permeates this tune, even though Upstate New York is part of their story instead of the city.
8. “Singing Tower” – R. Ring. Two rock vets team up for a poignant, delicate acoustic lament. Seems like if you can write a song somewhere, you can write a song in a lot of places.
9. “Kote’w Te Ye” – Beken. Sometimes a song comes along that’s so fresh, warm, and bright that it just lifts the clouds of whatever’s going on. The raspy, gravitas-laden voice of Haitian Beken, who sings in Kreyol, is accompanied by an easygoing group of male singers, tom-heavy percussion, and a lively acoustic guitar.
December is a tough month to release music: you’ve got orgs like Paste that have already released their year-end lists by the beginning of the month, blogs that are trying to clear out the files from November (or October, or September) to get all their 2014 commitments done, and listeners who are re-living the year instead of hearing new tunes. You should probably just wait till January. But if you don’t, and your release is really good, you might sneak one in under the radar. Morgan Mecaskey is 100% radar sneaking, because anyone who sounds like Sharon Van Etten fronting The National in an eclectic record store is going to get some good words from this camp.
Lover Less Wild is an adventurous, sultry, enigmatic EP that captured me on first listen. Mecaskey’s husky alto/tenor voice leads the charge on music that skirts boundary labels and ends up firmly in that catch-all camp of “indie rock.” Opener “White Horse” has soaring horns, female back-up vocals, churning guitars, push-tempo drums, and some royal fury in the vocals of Mecaskey herself. It sounds like she mentions the name “Jolene” in the chorus, which would hook her up to a long tradition of artists to find an admirable muse in that name. By the coda of the tune, Mecaskey is hollering “Sometimes I don’t feel like who I really am,” which is amazing, because she sounds completely like herself on that tune.
It’s followed up by three tunes that are a few notches down on the tour-de-force scale (but only a few; they all register). “Fighting Extinction” starts out as a distant, questioning mix between The Walkmen and Radiohead before erupting into some funky bass (?!), calling out some Motown horns, and bringing in a male vocalist for a contentious, exciting duet. It also includes the best saxophone solo this side of M83. Because it’s hard for Morgan Mecaskey to do anything twice, the title track opens with Wurlitzer and distant vocals before unfolding into a jazzy, hip-hop/R&B groove. Right about the time that I start to feel we should call up the Antlers and get them on the same tour, the song explodes into towering guitar walls and distorted bass. “Crushed” starts with nylon-string guitar in Spanish rhythms and ends with a full choir (a real one, not just a gang-vocal offering). In short, there is about as much happening in four songs as you can possibly imagine.
Mecaskey holds this whirlwind tour of music genres and styles together with her voice, which is a versatile, powerful, emotive engine. No matter what arrangement she’s leading, she’s in firm control of what’s happening. Her voice is at home wherever she lands it, which is as much a testament to her attitude and confidence as it is her immense songwriting chops. I don’t care if you’re listening to your favorite album of the year again (I know I am, no hate), you’ve got to check out Morgan Mecaskey’s Lover Less Wild. It will keep you spinning.
James Robinson‘s Start a Fire EP is a charming four-song release. Robinson’s acoustic-centric style fits somewhere between singer/songwriter confessionals and adult-alternative pop sheen, like a more mystical Matt Nathanson or a more polished Damien Rice. This mash-up results in the best of both worlds (instead of the dreaded inverse), with Robinson’s smooth vocals getting all silky around arrangements that have some indie mystery and ambiguity in them. Think less Ed Sheeran crooning and more of that feeling you felt the first time you heard Coldplay’s Parachutes.
The quartet of tunes works nicely together, moving along a high-quality clip without drawing attention to any song in particular. “Demons” has some great bass work and a nice, memorable vocal line; “Holes in the Sky” opens with some nice guitar and vocals that evoke Jason Mraz; “Smoke & Ashes” is the most tender of the collection. But it’s the title track that takes high marks here: its polished arrangement frames Robinson’s voice perfectly, making this an impeccably done song that you’ll be humming for a while. If you’re looking for some gentle singer/songwriter fare with some mystery in it, go for James Robinson.
Any discussion of Angelo De Augustine‘s Spirals of Silence must be prefaced by this information: de Augustine sounds, musically, vocally, and even lyrically, like Elliott Smith mashed up with Nick Drake. For many people, this is enough to send them running in its direction. I forwarded this to the resident Smith fan in my life and was promptly given compliments on my character after his first listen. It’s a hit.
But it’s not just that it sounds like Smith: the songs are incredibly well-done. de Augustine has the fingerpicking/breathy vocals/tape hiss thing down, but the things he chooses to fingerpick are beautiful, contemplative, melodic works that move sprightly along. Lead single “Old Hope” is a perfect example of this, as de Augustine whispers his way across a traveling, bouncy-yet-not-cheesy guitar line. (Side note: because this song sounds like Josh Radin, I realized that I’d never noticed how much Elliott Smith influenced Josh Radin.) Other highlights include the oddly heartbreaking “Married Mother,” the tender “I Spend Days,” and the intriguing “You Open to the Idea.”
I could say more about Spirals of Silence, but I think I’ve said all I need to in order to get you to listen to this or not. Viva Angelo de Augustine, please and thank you.
The toughest part of writing about Andrew Judah‘s Monster is trying to figure out how to explain the thing in genre terms. Is it OK Computer-era rock without the guitars? The Decemberists’ indie-pop having a nightmare? Lushly orchestrated trip-hop? Genre labels aside, it’s a whirlwind ride of unusually-juxtaposed instruments that knit together perfectly under Judah’s careful composer’s ear.
Judah is a highly sought-after commercial composer; you’ve probably heard his work without knowing it. His third album of artistic compositions sets wild, intricate foreground elements on top of cinematic backdrops for maximum immersion. Judah works mostly in minor keys here, building brooding, intense landscapes that build to bursting. “I Know You Know” turns a smooth, cascading guitar line into a stuttering, bewildering footrace; the song culminates in a furious maze of arpeggios surrounded by glitching keys, layered vocals, and complex drumming. It has a visceral, physical quality to it; I can almost feel the sounds happening to me.
“Better and Better” amps up the ominous qualities of the record, starting out with heavy pad synths (although he notes in the liner notes that this might be a banjo played with a violin bow), muted piano, and gurgling bass. This is an album where sounds take preeminence over the instruments that make them: it could be a banjo or steel drums, keys or guitar, bass or keys, electronic or live drums. The performer isn’t important: the fact that the sounds mesh perfectly takes precedence.
Back to “Better and Better”: Judah’s voice is digitally manipulated to sound alien and yet comforting, which is the same sort of tension that Radiohead perfectly captured in OK Computer. But Yorke and co. didn’t try to make that into the eerily joyful soundtrack for a dark carnival, as Judah does here. It’s a profoundly unexpected turn. The title track draws some musical composing tricks straight out of old horror films, with wavering theremin sounds floating uncomfortably above the acoustic guitar before unveiling some of the most delicate, tender work that Monster has to offer.
Judah revels in the abrupt shift; many of the tunes here move from this to that unexpectedly. Sometimes it’s quiet/loud/quiet; other times the tone or mood shifts. Sometimes the time signatures change. “What Now?” draws on a relatively disorienting use of syncopation to throw you off. Yes, he employs a variety of tricks to keep you interested, and it works really well. The biggest element that draws me, however, is how it all hangs together. You can listen to Monster beginning to end without necessarily marking the titles of songs. You’ll definitely look back to see what the names of “Morning Light” and “I Know You Know” are, but you may find yourself feeling that the ballad “Willis” just kinda runs along with “Twitch & Shake” and “Better & Better.” You can enjoy it that way if you’d like–more power to you.
Monster is a dark record, but it’s not a grim or hopeless one. It explores brooding territory without getting overwrought, which is a tough balance to strike. Some albums feel like the songwriter is talking to you; this one feels like watching a movie by a director friend of yours. It’s not impenetrable, and you can see flashes of your friend’s hand, but it’s more about the unique experience of that particular media than the person behind the curtain. Andrew Judah gets out of his own way here, letting the intricate, complex, fascinating songs tell their tales. It pays off in spades.
The first half of this list is marked by songs that rock out really hard. The second half is marked by songs that are outside your normal arrangements.
Rock Out / Quirk Out
1. “Station Wagon Apocalypse” – The Outfit. I’d just like to point out that this incredibly-named garage-rock tune is not even the best name on the two-song EP. (That would be “Tyrannosaurus Surfboard,” YOU’RE WELCOME.) As to the tune itself: Big drums, big guitars, big vocals, big fun.
2. “Be Cool” – Cancers. Cancers is the missing link that makes me think Sleigh Bells might not have been robots from the future and instead were just really, really hyped up ’90s kids.
3. “Last Forever” – Fenech-Soler. As a bassist myself, I appreciate it when a song is so thoroughly dominated by bass that the guitar and keys just kind of follow along. When those songs are also jubilant dance tracks with irresistible shout-it-out vocals, well. Well, well.
4. “Metronome” – The Yuseddit Brothers. There was a brand of ’90s grunge/slacker-rock that took pride in sounding like it was kind of underwater. This low-slung groove has that fuzzy-edged production value to match the not-so-ambitious tempo and tone. Chillax, y’all.
5. “Bright Eyes, Black Soul” – The Lovers Key. Sometimes I hear a song outside of genres I usually cover and think, “WHOA WHY DON’T I LISTEN TO THAT GENRE MORE.” Probably because I’m hearing an elite artist, but I don’t know. Anyway, The Lovers Key has me interested in aggressive Blue Eyed Soul with some serious motown horns stacked up on it. This makes me think of a James Bond movie. Can’t really explain that either.
6. “All in a Day’s Work” – Horizontal Hold. As a mid-point between rocking out and quirking out, I submit Horizontal Hold, which is out-Pixie-ing the Pixies at the moment.
7. “You Are My Summer (feat. Coleman Hell and Jayme)” – La+ch. This is a perfect electro-pop tune. In musical world that I ran, this would be the big hit of the summer. It’s got Icona Pop infectiousness and Cobra Starship restraint. What’s not to love?
8. “Old K.B.” – The Solars. Speaking of motown influences, here’s a piano-pop tune fronted by a guy who sounds like Jack White that features organ and horns. This thing grooves way more than piano-pop fans are probably comfortable with. THAT’S OK!
9. “Unrevenged” – Floating Action. Rubbery bass, ethereal background vocals, driving percussion? Clearly indie-pop, but not any like you’ve imagined recently. Has me all stoked for the album.
10. “I’m To Blame” – Anand Wilder and Maxwell Kardon. After sending us a folky tune for the first single, the second one is a incredible mash-up of jazz trumpet, Radiohead vocals, Muse craziness, and a totally rad guitar solo. It is, in a word, different.
11. “It Doesn’t Even Matter” – Onward Chariots! If the Kings of Convenience had more quirky pop arrangements, it might end up something like this.
12. “Rockingham” – Kasey Keller Brass Band. 58 seconds of found sound, gentle synths, and meandering acoustic guitar paint a sonic picture extremely well. Very cool stuff here.
13. “Shadow’s Song” – Foxes in Fiction. Chillwave + Owen Pallett? TOTALLY THERE, MY FRIENDS.
1. “Holy Ghost” – Michael Flynn. Flynn spent more time in the Radiohead school of electronica than in the club, it appears: Haunting, hooky, high falsetto.
2. “Time Between” – Bear in Heaven. I think we have reached the point where classic rock and indie rock are essentially the same. We could put Bear in Heaven on tour with like half the bands from the ’80s OR The Steve Miller Band and it would be totally cool. This song rules, by the way.
3. “Retro” – After Party. Autotune meets gospel towering meets pulsing electro. Get your slinky dance on.
4. “God’s Oscillator” – Vial of Sound. PROTIP: If you want to catch my attention, namedrop LCD Soundsystem in your press release. Vial of Sound’s new track features some ex-LCD musicians, even though it sounds more like Daft Punk.
5. “I Never Knew” – Wonderful Humans. Big synths, big melodies, airy harmonies: it’s the formula these days. And it still works.
6. “The Dancer” – Villiers. This dark synth-pop track rides the line between ominous and sultry.
7. “Fancy” – Starlight Girls. WHOA, THEY WENT DISCO. FULL DISCO.
8. “My Heart” – Werebearcat! It’s a ballad! It’s a slow jam! It’s an indie electro track! It’s Superman!
Here’s the last MP3 drop of 2013. Some punk, some rock, some electronic, but mostly folk and indie-pop. It’s a good microcosm of how we rolled in 2013. Here’s to 2014!
1. “Hot Dad Calendar” – Cayetana. Female-fronted punk rock that sounds completely natural and inhabited. Pretensions = 0%. Good music = 100%.
2. “Double Secret Agent” – Commitment Bells. From that Bruce Springsteen school of rock that’s not so much rebellious as world-weary yet celebratory in sound, Commitment Bells!
3. “The Church Street Saint Leads the Marching Band for Truth (Demo)” – Kye Alfred Hillig. Hillig burst into my consciousness with the impressive Together Through It All this year, working in a variety of genres to get his emotive songcraft out. This new demo shows off his Paul Simon-esque restraint and melodic skills in a tight, spry, acoustic-based setting. I am thoroughly excited for his 2014 album.
4. “I Saw Three Ships” – Good Shepherd Band. Starts off as a rousing sing-along, then expands into a humongous, impressive arrangement for choir, orchestra, and folk/rock band.
5. “Broke, Not Broken” – Jamie Kent. Working-class, populist folk-rock with a Springsteen bent and great vocal delivery.
6. “For My Young Lord Drake” – Nettie Rose. This old-school country tune is not about the rapper. This tune is, however, excellently balanced between strong fingerpicking and uniquely interesting female vocals.
8. “All of Your Love (ft. Kotomi)” – Germany Germany. I love really kitschy techno, so anytime that a song even hearkens a little bit toward ’90s house and trance, I’m just super-happy. Rest assured there is more nuance here than that, but the influences are there.
9. “I Know You Love to Fall” – Message to Bears. Ambient/trip-hop/breakbeat with pressing piano and swooning strings. It’s super pretty.
11. “The Big Game Is Every Night” – Songs: Ohia. A heretofore unreleased 10-minute tune by the late Jason Molina in his slowcore style. The band here has a stronger presence than in some of his later, sparser work, allowing for some concreteness to Molina’s often vast, amorphous tunes.
12. “Hurricane” – Snowflake. A similar sense of forlornness and longing characterize this track; the vocals here echo Molina’s, while the arrangements are similarly in a foreboding but not ominous mood. A little more peppy than Molina’s work, but not by much; the guitars do get way heavy though.
13. “Dingy” – Elim Bolt. If you took out the rage from grunge but left the music largely intact, you’d have this track. Or, conversely, this is a less polished Blur. Either way: pop songs with careening vocals and dirty guitars.
Cloud Person‘s Monochrome Places mashes up Irish folk arrangements, Spaghetti Western drama, folk-pop melodies, and a dash of indie-pop flair to create a unique amalgam that is anything but monochromatic. From the Gaelic rhythms and sounds of “Robber Barons” to the ominous Western/Southern mash-up of “Old Demeter” to the Neutral Milk Hotel-ish “Lamppost Eyes,” Cloud Person never lets the listener’s attention wane.
Despite the variety of sounds, the albums hangs together: each part has its turn in the spotlight before all sharing the stage in triumphant closer “Men of Good Fortune.” It’s a full and fascinating album, showing off the significant songwriting skills of Pete Jordan. It takes a strong imagination to even conceive of a thing like this; it takes a humongous amount of work to pull it off with the seeming ease and easy confidence that Jordan and company do. Monochrome Places is a work that should be of great interest to those who like seeing boundaries pushed and disparate sounds integrated into a cohesive whole.
Cfit‘s Morning Bruise EP is an aptly titled release, dousing a hazy, early-morning feel with a deep melancholy. Instead of going the fuzzy, chillwave route, the band modifies the trip-hop format: opener “Coke and Spiriters” transforms strings and stark vocals with a brittle drumbeat to create tension. The ambiguity of the mood is repeated in the lyrics; say the name out loud and listen to what you’re saying. “Heliophelia” uses the same musical tactics of loose, smooth vibe vs. structured rhythmic elements; the morose-yet-soaring “Tenderfoot” sounds like Cfit’s version of “Karma Police” (which is high praise, over here). The vocalist doesn’t sound exactly like Thom Yorke, but it’s close enough for a good comparison–and comparing Cfit to mid/late-era Radiohead isn’t that bad a comparison either. Both are fond of creating disorientation and discomfort out of musical pieces that we’re otherwise very comfortable with. Artsy indie-rock will always have a place in my heart, and so it goes with Cfit.
Inner Outlaws‘ self-titled two-song EP also can be compared to a Radiohead work, both in scope and mood. “Points of Fire” is almost six and a half minutes long, while “Bodies of Water” is nine and a half. The two tunes are rock tunes that subsume all sorts of things within them: pseudo-funky breakdowns, folky asides, ’70s rock sections, crunchy riffs of harder indie rock, even psychedelic bits.
The songs are journeys that are impossible to predict: that’s half the joy in listening, to follow around the whims and fancies of the band. The other half is their melodic prowess, which allows for discrete memorable sections within the overall wholes. One of the most memorable is a dreamy, Lord Huron-esque section toward the end of “Bodies of Water;” another highlight is the OK Computer-esque rock just after the intro of “Points of Fire.” If you’re into adventurous music that will defy your expectations, Inner Outlaws is your band.
I don’t cover much rock these days. It’s not because I’m anti-rock; it’s just not my primary interest. Since I don’t seek it out, I don’t have a network of rock bands that are passing my name among them (as I do with folk bands). But every now and then a rock album or two crosses my desk that is simply too good to resist.
Miaow by Kursed is just such an album. The French trio makes rock with the crunch and pop hooks in a strong balance, and the airtight production helps as well: I haven’t heard a set of independent rock tunes sound so clean and tight in a long while. The sound is anchored by stomping guitars and a powerful male vocals that sit nicely between the sky-high tenor of pop-rock bands and the baritone of The National. The vocalist sounds completely comfortable in his own sound, which is an incredibly important and impressive aspect of Kursed’s sound. When he’s singing soaring lines (“Pirate Song”) or sounding ominous (“Tarantino”), he sounds right at home. He struggles a bit when he tries to get overly emotional (“I Feel You”), but there are more hits than misses.
The same can be said for the band: they absolutely crush what they’re good at, and they stick to it most of the time. Dark, pounding rock is where’s it at for them: opener “Tsa Tsa Tsu” is a wiry, riff-driven adrenaline kick, while the buzzy intensity of “Wall” is a remarkable turn for the band. When they get too bluesy, it starts to fall a bit far from the tree: “Movie Star” and “Modern Politician fell a bit too much like Clutch without the intensity. But tunes like “Exam,” which incorporate unique melodies and rhythms into their heavy rock, sell the whole thing excellently.
Miaow by Kursed has some completely dominating tracks when all of their elements are on. They still have some kinks to work out in their sound, but this release proves that they’ve got some really good songs in them, now and in the future.
American Wolf has fewer stomping rock moments in their tunes, hearkening back to old-school Muse’s mix of elegant melodic sections and huge riffs. Myriad also incorporates Radiohead-esque moody sections and Mars Volta-style vocal contributions. The mix comes off surprisingly well: opener “A Dark Matter” fits a heavily patterned guitar work and rhythm synths into the pounding of a hyperactive drummer. The vocalists, pulled far back in the mix, coo and call over the turbulent arrangement, creating a remarkable tension. It’s a pretty powerful opening statement.
Thoughtful, intense arrangements characterize the rest of the album: it’s easy to miss some of the pieces on first glance, but there are touches all throughout for the discerning listener. With diverse influences ranging from math rock (the shiver-inducing middle section of “Mahrz”) to atmospheric downtempo (“Skin Tight”) to acoustic folk (“The Secret to Passing Through”), this fascinating album has surprises galore for someone who likes listening deep in the mix. If you’re a fan of complex rock that rewards multiple listens, Myriad is a strong bet.
Independent Clauses is somewhat of an alternate universe when it comes to music reviewing. I rarely cover the hip bands, often love things no one else does, and generally attempt to be true to what I hear. If there’s a radar to be on or under, we’re hanging out on a different screen altogether. This is more by happenstance than choice: I never set out to be contrarian. And I don’t feel like a curmudgeonly naysayer of popular music, as you’ll see tomorrow. I just have a different lens than many people. Here’s the view from that lens.
16. Elijah Wyman/Jason Rozen’s collective output: Tiny Mtns/The Seer Group/Decent Lovers. What started out as the artsy electro-pop project Tiny Mtns split into a heavily artsy electro project (The Seer Group) and a heavily artsy pop project (Decent Lovers), with the two splitting the tracks between them. Except when both kept a track and reworked it to their likings. Did I mention that this one time, one of these guys gave the other a kidney? Now you see why they get one mention.