Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Highly Recommended Quick Hits: Builder of the House / Emperor X / Zach Winters

September 20, 2017

Builder of the House‘s Ornaments is way more Christmas in July than actually a December record. The acoustic album is warm, sunny, mellow, and happy. The tunes unspool at an easy pace, unhurried and unworried. If you’re in a bad mood and want to slowly rise out of it, I can’t think of a better record for it. The standout title track has a bit of Lord Huron in the melodic structure, while “When No One Is Here” feels like a mood-inverted Rocky Votolato song. Smooth, elegant, and yet crisp in its arrangements, this album just hits the spot for lazy summer days and aspirational winter ones. Highly recommended.

As jittery and frenetic as that last one was calm and relaxing, Emperor X‘s Oversleepers International is a feast for fans of that spot where pop-punk, alt-folk, indie-pop, literary studies, political science, and psychology intersect. In other terms, it’s as if late ’90s John Darnielle joined the Weakerthans instead of being compared to them.

“Wasted on the Senate Floor” is a verbal blitzkrieg married to a frantic acoustic-punk band; “Schopenhauer in Berlin” slows down the pace enough for the lyrics to be understandable but still requires you to look up who Schopenhauer is. Elsewhere, Emperor X goes all wacky Ben Folds (“Riot for Descendant Command”), references Anonymous and North Korea in a song called “Low Orbit Ion Cannon” (!!), and creates one of the weirdest travel journals ever (that also doubles as a breakup tune of sorts; it’s the title track, because of course).

Also there’s a techno-dance song and an ambient tune. The English town of Dorset and Vilnius, Lithuania are involved. The songs are crazy and memorable, musically and lyrically–what else could you ask for? Highly recommended.

Zach Winters‘ latest folk records were delicate-yet-intense constructions of great seriousness and import. On To Have You Around, Winters sounds downright loose. “Sometimes I Wonder” starts off in his traditionally ghostly acoustic vein, but turns into a more-than-subtly funky pop song by chorus. It is rad. “If the Sun is Shining” doubles down and gets a funky bass line on a stand-up bass and snazzily jazzy horns involved.

“Do You Really” starts off with the line “taking a shower with a known carcinogen” and proceeds to be a “chill out, stop worrying” song. “Love My Woman” is exactly what you would expect from the title and previous descriptions. Even the instrumental “Buffalo” has a chipper vibe. It’s a new look for Winters, and it’s a great one. If you’re looking for some acoustic-fronted, low-key-funky pop songs, look no further for a great time. Highly recommended.

December Singles: More Acoustic

December 11, 2016

1. “The Beginning” – Celebration Symphony Orchestra. I love the ambition of an 11-minute indie-orchestra suite, but I even more love the expertise with which it is pulled off. The piano and percussion throughout are great, and the overall arrangement doesn’t disappoint at any point in the track. Awesome.

2. “Dancer” – Sonder Saloon. The pairing of an exciting lead guitar/banjo melody with an electric chorus vocal melody make for an unusual, fantastic folk-pop song.

3. “Count On Me” – Moe Escandar. The best pop songs are ones that can be translated into different genres and still be awesome. This chipper-yet-suave acoustic-pop tune has the melodies, harmonies, rhythms and sunny vibes to be a power-pop song, an EDM song, or a punk-rock song. Instead, it’s a lovely, charming, high-quality acoustic-pop tune.

4. “Voyages” – Matt Garnese. Page France becomes a further distant memory as time goes on, but the sort of lullaby sweetness paired with an earnest exploration of religion and life that Matt Garnese conducts here is vintage Page France. For a more well-known touchstone, it’s sort of like an acoustic Weezer.

5. “Turning Leaves” – Woozles. Spartan bass guitar, low vocals, and tape hiss create a mesmerizing, hypnotic indie-pop sound. As a bassist, I love the thrumming, round sound of a solo bass guitar.

6. “Row“- Kyle Sturrock. The chorus of this folk/country tune shines like a diamond in a dusty trail. The arrangement is bright and attractive, too.

7. “Waiting in the Bliss” – Sylvette. Moves from moody to roaring and back with ease, like The National with more folk influences, Radiohead with more acoustic influences, or Muse with more ability to be restrained.

8. “Sounds Like Help” – Austin Basham. Basham is one of the rare few that could sing the phone book and it would sound deeply moving. His tenor tone is pure, his melodies are inviting, and his control over his pipes is incredible. Fans of Rocky Votolato will celebrate.

9. “17 {Demo}” – Beau Davison Turrentine. A relaxed, easygoing, expansive acoustic tune that sounds like someone musing on a front porch under a dim yellow streetlight.

10. “Holy Grail” – Zorita. Even there’s some mournful trumpets and strings floating above the guitar/vocals, this one is really all about the vocals. Carlos’ delivery of the lyrics is full of nuance and care, and his tone is the perfect mix of rough and smooth.

11. “John Lingers” – Fingers and Cream. Slowcore alt-country with big harmonies and a scuffling, trudging-through-the-desert atmosphere. For fans of Songs:Ohia and Calexico.

12. “Habanero Top Knot” – Lit AF. This is a fascinating, intriguing instrumental tune with some Indian melodic and percussive influences, some Album Leaf influences, and some unidentifiable connections that are Lit AF’s own. Adventurous listeners, take note.

13. “Spinning Tops” – Lena Natalia. The mix of engaging lead melodies counterpointed by deft left hand work help this solo piano work stand out.

14. “Destruction” – Raphaël Novarina. Some might call the tension between the rumbling low end and the arching right hand lines in this solo piano piece melodramatic, but the high drama of the piece is appealing and stays on the right side of overly emotional for me.

15. “Burning Bright” – Mike Vial. This tune flows like a gentle brook, burbling quietly with the occasional burst of energy. The smooth guitar and lithe vocals recall the best elements of James Taylor without being a knockoff.

Mid-May MP3s: Acoustic

May 13, 2016

1. “Firefly” – Brave Bones. The vocal enthusiasm of folk-punk bands bolted onto the hypercharged alt-country of The Old ’97s? Sign me up.

2. “The Pilot and the Flying Machine: Part Two” – Ben Bedford. The hardest thing about being a blogger is the X factor. What makes a song good? Sometimes you can break it down to a guitar line, a vocal line, an auxiliary instrument, the lyrics, or the overall mood. Sometimes we throw a RIYL band at it to help you figure out whose X factor this band’s is most like. But not this time. Bedford brings it all together here for an excellent acoustic tune that stands on its own, no comparison artists needed.

3. “Whispers of the Night” – Rowan McGuire. The intricate, delayed guitarwork here is totally mesmerizing.

4. “Thunder Road” – Adam Hanna and The Class of ’18. I’m of the opinion that doing any cover well is hard, and covering iconic tunes is exponentially harder. Hanna successfully reinterprets the Boss in an acoustic vein by delivering a solid vocal performance and choosing good instrumentalists. He doesn’t try to thoroughly reinvent it (a smart move), and the results are good.

5. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – Freedom Fry. This band chooses the “completely reinvent” method of covering an iconic song, turning the monumental grunge tune into a major-key indie-pop jaunt with reggae rhythms. You have never heard “Teen Spirit” like this before. Mad props.

6. “I Will Try” – The Two Romans. If you’re into Lord Huron’s early tropical-meets-folk jams, you’ll be all about this giddy, party-friendly tune.

7. “Inside Your Heart” – The Two Romans. Or if you’re not down for tropical vibes, maybe you can go for ecstatic hoedown folk, Twin Forks-style. This is the sort of song that makes you why we liked this type of song in the first place, before a lot of people got all folk’ed out.

8. “Hattie Barlow” – Jack Hotel. If you drew a triangle with bluegrass, old timey music, and modern folk-pop at the corners, you’d find Jack Hotel in the middle. Those who like their folk with lots of fiddle sawing, banjo rolling, and acoustic strumming will be into this. Alternately, if “holler” is a positive term to you, also apply within.

9. “Fiery Eyes” – Prinz Grizzley. “Prinz Grizzley” is a name for a TV show host, a rapper, or a country singer–we got the last one. The horns in this song bring a memorably bouncy enthusiasm to this mid-tempo alt-country jaunt.

10. “White Lies” – Darryl Rahn. Sometimes I want to write “It’s just really good” and leave it at that, but I suppose you want me to tell you that the vocals sound like Brett Dennen reappropriated into a sped-up Rocky Votolato song. Or you could go with “It’s just really good.” Either way.

11. “Wounded Wing” – The Duke Spirit. This ballad-esque song seems like it was written for maximum gravitas: heavy piano, distant atmospherics, solemn alto vocals, and a Mark Lanegan guest spot. Rad.

12. “I’m Not This Layer of Skin” – Yvonne McDonnell. It successfully combines ancient and modern: A brash vocal style with traces of traditional British folk tone leads this emotionally engaging fingerpicked folk tune that features melodies equally reminiscent of the UK’s traditions.

13. “Leave” – Sea Offs. A tone poem of a song, floating beautifully off in the distance, making me carefully reconsider my surroundings, like the most freeflowing moments of Bowerbirds.

Mid-April MP3s: Acoustic, pt. 1

April 14, 2016

1. “Who Are You” – The March Divide. Jared Putnam turns to formal popcraft, creating a splendid little perky acoustic pop tune. Somewhere between “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” and a Shins song, this tune is a lovely surprise.

2. “I’ll Be True” – Crockett Hall. Standing in front of a big Stax Records sign, a raw, rough-throated reverie with soulful, mournful horns in the background.

3. “Low Hymnal” – Told Slant. The dark flipside of twee shows its sleepy, anxious head here. This song is somehow both tiny and expansive in how it sounds.

4. “Already Gone” – Travis Smith. Like a less hyperactive version of Dan Mangan, Smith has a bouncy, chipper flair to his troubadour folk.

5. “Vanishing Shores” – Tom West. Here’s a big, Australian indie-folk singalong with gentle, marimba-esque arpeggiator below it. Hard for me to dislike anything with that description.

6. “C’Mon and Sing” – Chaperone Picks. While we’re on the topic of singalongs, here’s a song about singing along. A rootsy, bass-laden guitar strum creates the structure and most of the arrangement for this not-quite-folk-punk tune, and the results are smile-inducing and foot-tapping.

7. “Burning Bridges” – 2/3 Goat. Led by a clear, bright, strong female vocal, this alt-country tune has a killer chorus that stuck in my mind.

8. “Francesca” – Thurdy. Sometimes you need a gentle, kind ukulele instrumental in your life.

9. “Windfall” – Kalispell. The majestic folk spaciousness of Bon Iver paired with striking, disarming, immediate tenor vocals creates a unique, deeply enjoyable atmosphere. The arranging and recording engineering here are truly remarkable.

10. “Curse the Road” – Austin Miller. The easygoing shuffle of a old-school country song meets careworn vocals to create a tune reminiscent of Rocky Votolato’s early work.

11. “Rattlesnake” – Fog Lake. An appropriate band name to fit this hazy, swaying tune. There’s some angular guitar and some abstract sounds thrown in for good measure, but other than that this is grade-A strength walking-speed bedroom pop.

12. “Everything” – Cavalry. First it made me feel like the first rays of dawn coming over the horizon, then like a gem opening up to the light for the first time, then the great expanses of wide canyons and huge mountains. It’s indie-rock that uses the same instruments you would expect, but their sense of wonder and careful restraint make this an incredible track.

13. “Ruelle (feat. Olivia Dixon)” – Trevor Ransom. Starts off in beautiful piano-based minimalism, grows to dramatic post-rock grandeur, then drops off to develop again.

 

Sam Hale: Unafraid to Sing Out

February 19, 2016

samhale

Sam Hale‘s When in Roam EP opens with the triumphant title track, and that couldn’t be a better choice. Anchored by an indelible chorus melody that I hummed for several days after I first heard it, the enthusiastic acoustic-pop tune rambles and romps through its four-minute length. Hale’s clear, bright tenor is accompanied by Sara Clay’s similarly straightforward alto; the two voices intertwine beautifully. Hale matches the jaunty acoustic strum of the tune with fitting lyrics about wanderlust; the lyrics and sonic palette work together to create an overall experience. (There’s even a few “hey”s thrown in at the end for good measure.) The tune comes together to be a fun and meaningful tune, which is a rare thing.

The rest of the four-song When In Roam shows off the diversity of Hale’s songwriting skills while honing in on his vocals as the central element. “I’ll Wait” is a dramatic ballad grounded in piano that’s sold by a passionate vocal performance that has elements of Ben Folds’ tone in it. The guitar takes the lead again on “Atypical Romance,” which has a romantic narrative element that points toward Dashboard Confessional’s old work (although there’s more fingerpicking and less frantic strumming here). Hale closes out the set with a modern folk tune that incorporates elements of Rocky Votolato’s grim certainty and a full-band flair. Hale moves through these various styles with ease, and each song has its own charms to explore.

It’s Hale’s voice that ties each of these tunes together. He isn’t afraid to sing out on this EP, which gives each of the tunes a constant ability to explode into a huge vocal moment. There’s a fun uncertainty there–does he stay in his calm lower register in “Candle’s Wick”? When will he soar it on “I’ll Wait”? Even with the passionate delivery, he’s able to keep everything together, and he never loses control of his vocal performances. It’s just a fun EP to listen to. When In Roam is a strong introduction to a new voice in folk songwriting, literally and metaphorically.

Hale will officially release the EP at Bar Lubitsch in West Hollywood on the 20th of this month. Check it if you’re in the area of Tinseltown.

Best EPs of 2015

January 4, 2016

EPs are becoming more popular than ever, and I love the trend: there’s no room for filler on an EP. As a result, a lot of artists brought their A game to the smaller format this year. Here’s to them:

1. Thanks for All Your Patience – Brother Moses. (Review) I spun this one the most often because the easygoing, almost effortless indie-rock vibe gave rise to some seamless, indelible melodies. Clean, tight, clever, and earnest, I gravitated to this one early and often in 2015.

2. On Separation – David Wimbish. (Review) Wimbish, frontman of The Collection, stripped out some of the intricate arrangements of his day job for a more intimate set of portraits that focused in on the lyrics. Elegant, haunting, and beautiful.

3. Loca EP – Valley Shine. (Review) Folk-pop can be a formula these days, but Valley Shine is all about exploding the formula with raw enthusiasm, brash melodies, and surprising pathos.

4. Magic Giant – Magic Giant. (Review) Rave-folk is a thing now (thanks, Avicii!), and Magic Giant are the next big thing on that front.

5. Linton // Oslo EP – Austin Basham. (Review) I rarely heard singer/songwriter work this assured, pristine, and strong during 2015. Top-shelf.

6. Regards – We are the West. (Review) A wisp of an EP that barely has time to meet you before it’s gone, but oh does it deliver: this Low Anthem-style Americana sounds like a warm blanket around my ears.

7. Joe Kaplow EP – Joe Kaplow. (Review) One of my favorite debuts of the year, as Kaplow showed off his versatility in several different acoustic-based styles. Looking forward to more from Kaplow.

8. Away, Away – B. Snipes. (Review) Another excellent debut that introduces Snipes’ low-slung troubadour singer/songwriter voice to the world, taking the lyrics of Rocky Votolato in a more Americana direction.  

9. Elegant Freefall – Ira Lawrences Haunted Mandolin. (Review) Lawrence turns one mandolin into an enormous array of sounds, turning out some wildly inventive pop songs along the way.

10. River Whyless – River Whyless. (Review) Gentle, quiet, and worthy of your time.

11. Your Friendly Neighborhood Demo – Your Friendly Neighborhood. (Review) Takes R&B, blue-eyed-soul, ambient, and indie-rock into something greater than the sum of its parts.

12. The Best of Times – Cable Street Collective. (Review) Do you want to dance? Because the Vampire Weekend meets the Caribbean meets UK rap sounds here are built for that. —Stephen Carradini

SVALL, pt 2

October 10, 2014

Trebuchet’s “The End” is a magnificent song: a synthesis of everything we’ve learned from The Lumineers, Mumford and Sons, and The Head and the Heart. Instead of being derivative, it feels like they’ve finally unlocked the pattern. The video is fun too.

The Wild Reeds’ “Blind and Brave” is a love letter to Los Angeles in song and video. Their female-fronted folk sound starts in pristine First Aid Kit mode, but swells to a lovely, full conclusion.

Brian Lopez’s “Persephone” video is the sort where I started watching and forgot that the song was playing. It’s a visually interesting piece that tells a good story, and also is accompanied by some great folky music.

Matthew Fowler walks down a city street, strumming and singing. He happens to come across his trumpet player. Great things ensue. His calm, composed songwriting makes me think of Damien Rice’s quietest moments or Rocky Votolato.

Austin Miller’s calm candor results in beautiful tunes

February 14, 2014

austinmiller

I don’t listen to Rocky Votolato much anymore, because the intensity of his emotion deeply impacted me at a pretty pivotal point in my life. Rocky is stuck as a historical moment for me, but Austin Miller has a similar vibe that I hope to listen to for a long time.

More Than One Way sees Miller in thoughtful troubadour mode, dispensing calm, comfortable songs with an easy gravitas. “When the Rain Comes” sticks with me long after I stop listening to it; the melodies are arresting, but it’s the tone of his voice and the lyrics that keep coming back to me. “When the rain comes / I will welcome it with open arms / what else am I supposed to do?” Miller posits, and it’s the delivery that turns that from a prosaic statement into a haunting-yet-optimistic one.

Miller doesn’t traffic in overwrought emotions: he’s no Damien Rice, or even Damien Jurado. Miller pulls me in with his calm appraisals of actions, people, and emotions. There’s a lot of action in this album, despite it being a quiet, walking-speed collection of tunes; the titles “Moving On,” “Moving Along,” “I’ll Walk,” and “How Far” show his concern with all things going. His arrangements aren’t big, but they flesh out and differentiate the songs: “How Far” features a pedal steel guitar, “Moving On” includes harmonium, and “Where We Fell” displays piano and stand-up bass. No matter what he uses, it sounds sweet and winsome; Miller sings and plays with beautiful candor.

I’m reminded of Iron & Wine a little, in the tender way which the songs come off, but the arrangements and vocals aren’t that similar there. It’s a mood sort of thing, I suppose. Rocky Votolato really is the best comparison, which is why I started with him. But I don’t want to sell Miller short; these songs can stand on their own, without any RIYLs. If Miller had invented the genre, it’d be quite a nice genre indeed. Those into earnest, calm, beautiful singer/songwriter tunes should go for More Than One Way.

Quick Hit: PJ Bond

February 16, 2012

In all my reading, I haven’t yet come across a book making a connection between punk and alt-country. Perhaps I’m overlooking a book, or perhaps I should get to work: The two seem to overlap in musicians more often than I would expect. Barring a long and drawn-out intro, I’ll just say this: the tunes of PJ Bond‘s Ten Degrees and the Floor EP all started off their lives at the heavily punk Alternative Press’s website as streams. Chuck Daley at Beartrap PR sent them over to me, and he’s a punk lifer.

And the tracks have, uh, nothing to do with punk. Two of the tunes are acoustic and voice pieces, while the third is an Old 97s-style mid-tempo rocker. The first two have pedal steel in the arrangement. These are alt-country songs that seem to come out of the punk world, and this is not the first time I’ve encountered this.

But enough of that. PJ Bond is great at writing songs, and so you should listen to them. He sings from a weary soul on “I’m in a Bad Way” and “Reasons,” but his sturdy strum patterns and grounded acoustic guitar tone contrast with the weeping pedal steel and keep these songs from getting woozy or meandering. (See also: Joe Pug, Rocky Votolato.) Bond has a firm vision of where these songs are going, and they go there. Both of the tunes have memorable vocal melodies as anchors; the latter has a noteworthy lyrical turn.

“Nevermind,” the full-band tune, frames Bond’s voice even better, augmenting it with harmonies. It’s a solid tune; I prefer the first two songs, but this one is no bad mark on his record.

You can check out the tunes’ Tumblr online home or download them for free from Bandcamp.

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.

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

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