Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Relient K / Koji

May 30, 2013

Relient K, who I have unabashedly and unapologetically loved since the year 2003, are back with a new song. “Lost Boy” is a charming tune that lyrically sounds like “Must Have Done Something Right” v2 and musically sounds more chipper than they’ve been in a long, long time. And there’s whistling. WHAT MORE DO YOU WANT.

Koji‘s Crooked In My Mind is a strong full-band singer/songwriter album that reminds me musically of The Mountain Goats’ last few albums. (In case you’re new here, that’s high praise.) The opener “Chasing a Ghost” is the best of the tracks on the record, as it pairs a charging acoustic guitar line with a wry-yet-earnest vocal delivery. The energy comes from a pop-punk affiliation (Koji is on punk label Run For Cover Records), and in summer, that’s what I want. Mr. Darnielle’s pensive existential ruminations are for the fall. Check out Crooked in My Mind if you enjoy beautiful, swooning strings in your acoustic indie-rock.

Quick Hit: Eric Schackne

September 19, 2012

Even though piano-centric singer/songwriters never seem to go out of style, piano-rock has had much less sustained success. Over the past two decades, the genre has flashes of critical and popular acclaim (Ben Folds Five! Something Corporate! Jack’s Mannequin! Relient K!) before diving back under the covers. Eric Schackne is the latest in a long line of musicians combining the melodious strains of piano with the pounding enthusiasm of pop/rock, and I greatly enjoy his tunes on the Hammers and Keys EP.

Schackne does include guitar in his tunes, unlike some piano-centric bands, but the keys take precedence. The pounding “This Classic Romance” takes it power from the clanging chords of the piano, while “Loud and Clear” pulls its energy from a frantic piano melody. Schackne’s smooth vocals offer a lot to the latter tune as well: the rapid-fire delivery and clever lyrics are reminiscent of Relient K’s Matt Thiessen. Schackne has a lower voice than Thiessen, and it fits with the bass-heavy mix that Schackne put together on most of the EP.

“The sound of my dreams coming true / is when I can leave the singing up to you,” belts Schackne, and it’s a sentiment than any pop musician can agree with wholeheartedly. A pop musician is what Schackne unabashedly is, as he throws down hummable melodies, crescendo-heavy choruses, and sweeping arrangements. He’s aiming high, and not just in musical quality; just from the titles of “Well Dressed Future” and “Art Can Change the World,” it’s clear that Shackne has aligned himself in the idealist optimist camp. And why not? Happy sounds, positive lyrics, great melodies; there’s a lot to be enthusiastic about in Hammers and Strings, both for Schackne and lovers of good piano-pop.

On letting go of The Felix Culpa

December 8, 2011

One of the weird things about music criticism (and there are a bunch of them that I’ll list someday) is that every critic approaches music with a different set of formative influences. In many fields, there’s a set of readings that you have to understand before you’re able/allowed to contribute to the conversation: in this field, you just have to listen to enough music to create an aesthetic that determines what music you call “good.”

Some people think that the best rock is subversive, while some think it’s that which has the best riffs. Authenticity is chased by some. Some rap critics are concerned primarily about production, while other critics are lyric obsessives. Those are highly simplified examples: If your aesthetic is coherent and easily understandable, you’re probably not idiosyncratic or “interesting” enough. (Being fickle, rarely a positive quality, seems kind of endearing in this field.)

But there’s usually an underlying commonality in how people form an aesthetic: people who write about music like or hate things for reasons that often have nothing to do with the band in question and much more to do with the first music that a critic ever loved. That is to say, it has much more to do with the way the person views what good music should be, because the first music a person loves automatically constructs a framework that is almost immutably set in synapses.

There’s a good reason for this: the emotional connection to a first musical love goes beyond rationality, which comes later in the process of becoming a music critic. Example: would you believe that the ~6 times I saw Relient K live in high school has a nearly direct correlation to why I’m so excited about Common Grackle‘s western swing and rockabilly? If so, you give me a lot more credit than I expect.

But it’s true that I love a band with:

a. melodies that I can sing along with (and get stuck in my head)
b. witty and occasionally sarcastic lyrics
c. meaningful things to say about culture via those lyrics
d. heavy rhythmic elements (that I can dance to)
e. absurd amounts of energy (so that I can scream along in catharsis at appropriate moments)
f. occasional group vocals (see point e)
g. the ability to write a killer ballad/slow’n'pretty/solo acoustic song (see a-c, e)
h. variety in song structure and sound
i. thoughtful arrangements
j. emotional issues (see all of the above)

This is because Relient K has all of those things, and when I first heard The Anatomy of the Tongue in Cheek, I was under the impression that the members had crafted the greatest piece of music ever created. When I realized that types of music other than pop-punk were also awesome (approximately two years later), it was too late. My brain had been imprinted with these characteristics as “The Fundamental Elements of Rock.” (Fun fact: One of the only other bands that has ever hit all of these fundamental elements over multiple releases is the-soon-to-be-gone post-hardcore powerhouse The Felix Culpa.)

I say all this because I am fascinated with Common Grackle’s The Great Repression, while many people will think it’s bizarre. This is because I see an album that embodies points a-j. Other people may only see a western swing album and run for the hills. As a music reviewer, it’s my job to convince you that Common Grackle is awesome, and hope that my argument will overtake your distaste for/lack of knowledge about western swing (which I will do tomorrow, because I don’t want to shortchange CG). This is a challenge because you have your own set of “fundamental elements” that have been ingrained over time.

This is why many blogs don’t write long essays about music: that’s not what people go there for (also: attention span). Blog readers don’t need to be convinced to hear new music in the way that readers of newspapers (or even journalism-heavy rock mags like Rolling Stone) do; if a reader is at the blog, he/she either passively or actively wants new music in his/her life. Words about that are nice, but are ultimately inessential to the goal: hearing new music.

So, why review music, right? Just post the MP3 and get out of there. Well, Independent Clauses isn’t really a blog trying to inform readers, because there are tons of those blogs. We’ve tried to be that before, but it’s not what we excel at. We’re best at being a blog written for the bands that we cover.

Blogs operate on a hierarchy: Independent Clauses is near the ground floor, and Pitchfork is the penthouse. Bands have to get press from one level of blog/media outlet before moving up to the next (i.e. getting a small break leads to bigger breaks leads to “the big break”). This isn’t some huge racket. It’s just the way that bloggers and media types find out about music: outwardly expanding concentric circles. It used to be that all bands wanted to move up to increasingly larger circles, being heard by more and more people. This is not always the case in the new music world. But Independent Clauses hopes to be a leg up for bands that do want to get bigger.

The Felix Culpa, whose final show is Friday, was a young band on a tiny indie label (Common Cloud Records) when we first reviewed their work in 2004. In 2011, Consequence of Sound included them on a list of the year’s most notable break-ups. (Good company: TFC placed behind Dear & the Headlights but in front of Kim Gordon/Thurston Moore.) That is incredibly meaningful to me; IC was a bit part in that. The band’s upward success means that IC has, in some small way, succeeded as well.

But even those bands who are content to stay where they are in the world like to hear what people have to say about their music. It’s a fundamental human trait: we want to know what other people think about our work and (by extension) us.

This sort of egocentrism is not universally reviled or beloved: at its extreme, as many people love Chad OchoCinco as hate him for exactly the same reasons. It’s just the way things are. We have voices, and having those voices validated and appreciated is a vital thing. The extreme of not needing this approval is a sociopath; the extreme of needing this is codependency. Most of us exist in the middle, where it’s nice (even flattering) to know people care.

And I do care about people, even people that I haven’t met and won’t ever meet: I believe that everyone matters and should be taken seriously. No one is below me, my time, or my words. Everyone matters.

“Taken seriously” obviously differs for various artists: humorous bands want to know if their joke is funny, not if their album rivals OK Computer; bands that aspire to write pretty albums (like Josh Caress’ still-brilliant Letting Go of a Dream) want to know if their music is pretty.

I try to take people’s claims on their own terms, and see if they hold up. Often they do; sometimes they do not. And when they don’t, but I see what the claim was, I try to give some advice for next time. Even if an album stinks, there’s at least one musician behind it: there will be more music from that person (even reclusive Jeff Mangum bears this out). And the person is worth helping, even if the album can’t be helped.

I can’t help everyone; I have an aforementioned framework of what I consider good music, and I rave about bands that fit within it. Hopefully, other blogs continue to write about music that I don’t like, so that artists who fit into the frameworks of other writers can be celebrated too. I don’t “reject” artists because their work is universally terrible: it just doesn’t fit in my mental structures. It is not a reflection on the artist as a person; it is hardly a reflection on the artist as an artist. If anything, it’s a reflection on me. As hard as I try to be objective and open-minded, there are just some things I don’t like. That’s another weird thing about music criticism: I am just as disappointed when I don’t like a band as the band is, because I want to write well of everything. I want to use my skills to help people.

Do I love music? Yes, very much. But that’s not why I keep writing reviews: I could just live on Spotify if my aural passion was all that drove me. I would never have made it to here, post #1500, if all I loved was music.

But I don’t like Spotify, because it hurts artists. I care deeply about the well-being of those people whose music I listen to and whose albums I fund on Kickstarter (my new favorite moneysink). I want to help artists, in any way I can, to pursue their dream of being an artist. I want to validate their talent, point out where they can hone skills, and send them on to bigger and brighter things with a press quote in their pocket.

And that’s why I haven’t quit on this commitment: I don’t do this for the music (although it’s awesome), readers (ditto) or because it’s a good business move (there’s going to be less and less money in it). I run this site because everyone matters and deserves to be taken seriously. Thank you for helping me realize this, The Felix Culpa.

Awkward Age throws down 8 minutes of no-frills punk glory

November 20, 2011

Awkward Age‘s Demo 2011 is four punk tunes in 8 minutes and 1 second. The band isn’t into economy because it doesn’t know what it’s doing: the three-piece features ex-members of The Knockdown, New Bruises, Ghost Tales and Independent Clauses (yes, an old writer for this magazine!). These vets cram the material that would compose a whole three- or four-minute song in younger hands into two. The result is an EP that rules.

I’ve been a sucker for a drum intro ever since I heard Dave Douglas hammering away on Relient K’s “Kick-Off,” which opened The Anatomy of the Tongue in Cheek—the first rock album I ever heard. It is unsurprising that I fell in love with the pounding bass/tom/snare intro to “New Teen Fiction.” The rest of the song sets the template for the other tunes: block-chord guitars, uncomplicated bass lines, forceful yet hooky melodies and an irrepressible energy.

“Lucky Man” is a perfect eff you song (literally), and I can only imagine how much fun it is for audiences to yell it out live. “It Never Stops” sounds most like a snare-kick pop-punk song, and that’s totally fine. These guys are self-admittedly about ten years past high school, so this is the sound they were hearing when they were hanging out in the halls. It sounds authentic.

It’s only eight minutes, but it’s a great eight minutes. If you’re into punk, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be all over Demo 2011.

The top twenty quest

September 7, 2010

I blew up my computer a few weeks ago, resulting in the lack of posts. I apologize for the deathly pallor that seemed to settle over Independent Clauses. It’s been a pretty crazy few weeks. I get my new computer Friday, and we should be rolling again.

I love and hate live shows. Transcendent, life-affirming and soul-expanding are all phrases I have lavished on excellent sets; soul-crushing, abrasive and interminable are all words with which I have belittled terrible performances. A thoroughly average act skews more to the interminable side, which means the room for error is large.

Making matters even more sketchy is this all-too-common occurrence: that band with lovely recordings which smushes my expectations into the dirt with a reprehensible live show. One band that shall remain nameless suckerpunched me twice: the first set I saw was so awful that I incorrectly passed it off as “an off night” and felt optimistic going in to the second set a year later, which ended up being exponentially worse. I don’t listen to that band any more.

And yet, through all of this potential for letdown, I keep anticipating live shows (I’m resisting a comparison to love and relationships). That anticipation has translated into a new and ongoing project: I’m going on a quest to see all top twenty of my most-listened-to bands (according to my Last.FM).  Here’s the list, complete with current statuses. Bold indicates I have plans to see them before the end of the year.

1. The Mountain Goats (1,063 plays) – Seen twice, once in Norman and once in Dallas
2. Sufjan Stevens (1,010 plays)
3. Novi Split (597 plays)
4. Coldplay (490 plays) – Seen once: Ford Center, Oklahoma City.
5. Damien Jurado (487 plays) – Seen once: Opolis, Norman.
6. Joe Pug – Seen once: The Conservatory, Oklahoma City.
7. Low Anthem – Seen once: Rose State Auditorium, Midwest City.
8. Elijah Wyman
9. Death Cab for Cutie – Seen once: Cain’s Ballroom, Tulsa.
10. Relient K – Seen 4-6 times, various Tulsa and Oklahoma City locations.
11. Josh Caress
12. Owl City – Seen once: McCasland Fieldhouse, University of Oklahoma, Norman.
13. Josh Ritter
14. Rocky Votolato
15. Switchfoot – Seen once: Cain’s Ballroom, Tulsa.
16. Bleach – Seen 3 times: various Tulsa locations. RIP
17. Mumford and Sons
18. The Avett Brothers – Seen twice: Austin City Limits 2009; Rose State Auditorium, Midwest City.
19. The Tallest Man on Earth
20. Before Braille – RIP

And to get myself back into writing about music, I’ll be writing about each of the bands, in order.

A Road to Damascus' pop-punk is highly enjoyable

April 19, 2010

Even though it’s been raining for the last few days, summer is indeed coming. And that means it’s time for summer music. It’s just hard to rock the Bon Iver with the sun shining and the windows down. Then again, I wouldn’t really consider Last Tuesday, Relient K or The Bee Team during the doldrums of December. Everything in its right place.

A Road to DamascusSo Damn Close EP is an excellent slice of summer music. Pop-punk with enough pop to roll the windows down but enough punk to keep the energy high, the three tracks here sport a sheen that could be construed as annoying if you weren’t taking it at face value. Don’t try to read anything in to these songs; they’re not made for it.

But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t great tunes. The vocal melodies of “So Damn Close” are bright without being sugar-coated, perfect for singing along. The darker mood of “Sweetheart” evokes AFI in all the right ways, from the dour but catchy chorus to the breakdown in the bridge to the minor but not dissonant guitarwork. Equally as catchy as the first track, but in different ways. That’s what I want out of a band.

“Sang 3″ yanks Yellowcard’s rhythmic and melodic shtick, but it does it with so much enthusiasm and candor that it’s entirely forgivable. While not the best track here, it’s certainly enjoyable and interesting. It features the only moment on this EP to give me shivers, at 2:40. I won’t ruin it for you.

A Road to Damascus’ So Damn Close EP is loads of fun. The tracks are fun to listen to, beg to be sung along with, and would almost certainly inspire fist-pumping at a concert. There’s not much more that I want out of a pop-punk band, and I don’t think that’s much more than the band wants to be. Highly recommended.

The Jim Ivins band releases warm, exciting pop/rock

February 27, 2010

The Jim Ivins Band‘s five-song EP is expertly constructed late-nineties and early 2000s pop. The Goo Goo Dolls, Mae, Train, and more of their ilk are all sonically referenced throughout this EP. To some, that’s the kiss of death. To me, it’s pretty stinkin’ awesome. I may be a sucker, but I’m friggin’ in love with Train’s hit  “Hey Soul Sister,” and I’m excited about the Jim Ivins band.

The connection to Mae is very strong, as Jim Ivins and Dave Elkins have very high, warm voices and similar melodic ideas. The connection to the Goo Goo Dolls comes through the recording style, which punches the acoustic guitar way up in the mix and puts the electric guitar behind it as support. It results in a very full pop sound, but not in a wall-of-sound way. When you hear it, you’ll know it. You’ll most likely like it, too; it’s a very warm, pleasing sound.

The songs here are great on their own merits, too. Some albums make a great sound but create interchangeable songs within it; that’s not the case here. “The Chance” has a wonderful chorus hook that will stick in your head. “Back to Reality” has a great guitar riff throughout the chorus that will make you want to put the song on repeat. “How to Hold On” has a melody that Relient K would have been proud to write, and that’s high honors from this guy.

Jim Ivins Band’s self-titled EP is a bright, warm, charming release. I can see myself rocking this in my car on a road trip with the sun shining down. It’s the type of music that just begs to be sung along to. Pop songs may only be three minutes long, but if you put them on repeat, they last a whole lot longer. So it goes with the Jim Ivins Band.

ACL Explains It All: MuteMath

July 27, 2009

So, in addition to coming from a pop-punk background, I came from a Christian rock background. The weeping and the gnashing of teeth need not apply, because I was birthed on bands that actually did something meaningful with their careers: Relient K, Switchfoot, OC Supertones, and Earthsuit. I listened to a lot of other bands (Bleach in particular) in Christian rock, but those four names were meaningful outside of Christian rock circles (although the ‘tones were only big in ska circles, literally and metaphorically).

While Switchfoot went on to modern-rock fame and Relient K went into piano-pop-punk, Earthsuit broke up. And then they formed MuteMath, and left Christian rock.

This is distressing to me on many levels. One, it’s distressing that the remnants of what was probably the most creative Christian band of the past twenty years (no, really; Kaleidoscope Superior is earth-shatteringly, mind-bendingly good) abandoned the genre, but two, it’s distressing that there is a need to.

Christian rock has a problem. For several reasons, it’s just not as good as its secular brethren. It suffers from lowered expectations (“well, it’s just a cleaned-up version of real music, who would expect it to be good?”); too much focus on lyrics; less competitive market, letting less-talented work slip through; less critical audiences (audiences less interested in musical quality than moral quality); and many more. In short, people are rewarded (with listeners and money) for making music that wouldn’t cut it in the secular scene. And that lack of quality hurts the perception of Christian music, which hinders the possibility of any great Christian  artists ever emerging. Which is distressing, because I like hearing people sing about things I like in a style I like. At this point, my chances of that happening are slim and falling.

This is not to say that there aren’t Christian bands putting out quality, quality work. Tooth and Nail keeps some great artists; Jonezetta is fantastic. Gotee harbors some talented musicians. But for the most part, stuff that gets played on Christian radio wouldn’t make it to modern rock radio (and with the state of our radio, that’s saying something).

Christians used to be on the cutting edge of art, science and thought. Now, we’re not. That’s a sad statement to me, and I wish that we could change it. Sufjan Stevens is working very hard to change this perception, as he is almost universally loved, and no one in their right mind would be able to listen to a Sufjan record without acknowledging that he must be a Christian. This is the way it should go; bands should strive to be the best band they can be in comparison to the secular market, and go from there. If I had my way, this distinction of “Christian music” wouldn’t exist, except for explicitly worship music, and perhaps CCM (which is, apparently, the distinction for Christian Adult Contemporary). It would just all be lumped in with your regular music, and the themes in the lyrics wouldn’t separate out the music into “secular” and “Christian.”

The whole idea that there is a Christian music scene is a tad ridiculous, but I’ll spare you the “you don’t see any Christian plumbers” shtick. I wish that MuteMath could have been in Christian music and respected as indie rockers; we’ll never know if they would have, had they tried it. But the odds were against them, so I don’t blame them for bailing. Christian market isn’t one for experimental indie-rock; their possibilities were limited (ever heard of the Myriad? I didn’t think so). They had to bail for the secular scene. And that makes me sad. Hopefully we have some more Sufjans make it in the indie-rock world, and make it safe to be unabashedly Christian again.

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