Moda Spira‘s self-titled debut album is a beautiful, intriguing work that combines pensive indie-pop, thoughtful electro-pop, R&B and more into a distinctive sound. The lyrics are just as impressive, tackling the little-discussed topic of marital commitment with candor, verve, and impact. The result is a deeply moving album that fires on all cylinders.
Moda Spira is, at core, a piano-led indie-pop album with nods to singer/songwriter lyrical sensibilities. Due to the impressive arrangements that Latifah Phillips and her collaborators develop, the final project is much more than that. It’s a credit to those diverse arrangements that this 12-song album is unusually tight for such a long work; the songs do not become monotonous. There’s a five-song suite in the middle of the album that perfectly shows off how that works.
“Shaking the Walls” is the most immediate of the tunes on the record: it’s the most electronic piece, sounding not that far off from School of Seven Bells material. The layering of multiple synths on top of traditional keyboards matches the complexity of the vocal layering that’s going on by the end of the song. At track five, this thoughtful-yet-fun pop song is a big turning point in the flow of the album. It’s followed by “Bet on Me,” which is probably the track most influenced by R&B: check the restrained guitar, heavily reverbed percussion, and the vocal melodies. It’s a big shift musically from the previous track, but the emotions behind Phillips’ vocals in both tunes carry the listener through.
“The Hard Way” is reminiscent of Jenny and Tyler’s cinematic folk/indie-rock sound, delivering some of the most indelible vocal melodies in an album chock full of them. There’s a little bit of electro sneaking in the arrangement, too, but it’s there to round out the sound instead of take it over. “What You Need” combines the straight piano rhythms of indie-rock/indie-pop with R&B vocals, pad synth arrangements, and strings, combining many of her influences in a sound that’s all Moda Spira’s own. It’s a very quiet, chill song, but not as quiet as “Stillness,” an intimate solo piano musing. In the span of five tunes, Phillips goes from her most noisy to her most serene while displaying a huge breadth of songwriting chops. It’s impressive. There are other impressive tunes (the harp-driven “We Hold On” is particularly rad), but I want to leave some surprises for you.
The lyrics are deeply important here as well. Many of the songs here are about how hard being married is, even if (especially if?) you’re committed to keeping it going through the hard times. (Marriage is also portrayed as incredibly beautiful: see “Shaking the Walls.”) As a husband myself, they resonated clearly and deeply with me. It’s also interesting that these topics are framed in vocal lines that draw from the R&B tradition; the phrases “What You Need” and “Bet on Me” sound like they could be any generic R&B come-on, but in Moda Spira’s wedded context, they have a much richer back story. The lyrics reach into a deep well of emotion and are uniquely strong because of it.
Moda Spira is a brilliant collection of inventive, honest, yearning, passionate tunes about staying together that subverts expectations in an astonishing number of ways. Fans of Imogen Heap, The Antlers, and all the aforementioned artists will find much to love. This is a remarkable album. Highly recommended.
Kesang Marstrand‘s For My Lovecuts through the forests of average singer/songwriter work and shows off Marstrand’s impressive talents. Marstrand’s x factors are a commitment to spartan arrangements, a strong melodic sensibility, and an intriguing tension between her lyrics and her arrangements. Marstrand’s tunes consist mostly of an acoustic guitar, occasional sparse counterpoint instruments, her confident alto, and consistent use of tasteful reverb; due to this last element, the tunes have a fullness and a gravitas that I expect from songs with fuller arrangements.
It’s not just the reverb that creates gravitas, as the melodies that Marstrand writes for herself contribute heft to the work. “First Love,” “Arrow Breaks Skin,” and the title track each have indelible vocal lines that balance “fun to sing” and “serious music” deftly. The songs are catchy, yet without being “pop”–these are clearly singer/songwriter tunes, but ones that aren’t so introspective as to lose connection to a wider audience (a common complaint lodged against singer/songwriters). There’s a dignified, mature air to the tunes that shines through in the instrumental and vocal songwriting.
The lyrics provide a counterpoint to the songwriting, as they are direct, emotional, and raw. The title track conveys the blunt, unfettered pain of a murder ballad sung from the perspective of the bereaved; “First Love” is a sad, retrospective tale about the titular experience. “Walking Dream” and “Night Planes” are more impressionistic, stringing together a small number of short, poetic lines. Throughout, Marstrand infuses her words with the sorts of big emotions that aren’t as dramatically represented in the delicate, mature songs that accompany them. Marstrand’s For My Love is a moving, mature work that shows off a unique songwriting sensibility.
Wall of Trophies‘ Heliograph includes reverb as well, but they have the knob cranked way farther over than Kesang Marstrand. Their synth-driven indie-rock art music manages to have more reverb than seemingly possible without obscuring the songs that make this release so enjoyable.
While Heliograph is a debut under the Wall of Trophies moniker, it’s the second full-length collaboration between Brittany Jean and Will Copps. (They released Places under their own names in 2014.) The songs on Places were slow-moving, genre-defying creations, full of post-rock builds, clouds of reverb, and Jean’s towering vocals. In contrast, Heliograph‘s tunes are more traditionally song-oriented while still retaining the layers and layers of reverb, developing like a minor-key version of School of Seven Bells.
The title track is the best example of the subtle shift: the tune opens with a driving piano line and drum machine beat before introducing low-key vocals from Jean. Her vocals, instead of creating noisily dramatic effect, tend to fade off into the distance on high notes. This allows her to mesh with the rest of the instrumentation on the song: by the time a huge synth section comes in at two minutes, the focus is split between her vocals and the rest of the song arrangement. The results recontextualize the ideas of Places into a more understandably indie-rock realm.
This approach allows both band members’ skills to shine: the synths are more distinct (“Break All the Rules”!!), the vocal lines are more easily singable, and overall tracks are more memorable. The songs are big and noisy, but they’re distilled into distinct, digestible chunks. There are some moments of respite in the rush: “Dirt” features the acoustic guitar that Jean writes her songs on before bringing in a burbling arpeggiator, while the beginning of “Debt” has a bit of a James Blake-ian downtempo vibe.
Wall of Trophies’ work builds on the creators’ own ideas as well as established sounds to create a unique album. Where Places landed as an artistic whole, Heliograph allows people to break the sound down into individual parts with distinct instrumental and vocal melodies. Both are approaches I’ve lauded before and will laud again. It’s a little weird to be talking about “distinctness” as a primary quality of a heavily-reverbed synth-indie-rock album, but that’s the world they’ve set up. If you’re into School of Seven Bells, you need to hear this.
And now for something completely different: Reversalis Takénobu‘s 5th album of instrumental cello compositions. His work relies heavily on intertwining cello lines and pizzicato plucking, which places the legato and staccato in conversation with each other.
You can hear this on “Reversing,” the first full track after the introduction–a cinematic arpeggio comes in over a legato bed of strings, then transforms into a pizzicato backdrop for an smooth, expressive solo. The combination of the note types, as well as his ability to use elements of the cello as percussion, shows his versatility in using the whole of the cello’s abilities. These sonic pieces come up over and over again, in the gentle opening of “Snow Day,” the speedy/frantic “Moonshine Still,” the charming “Swimmin’,” and more.
The surprise on Reversal is “Curtain Call,” where Takénobu sings. His voice is an urgent, vibrato-laden tenor that fits neatly with the composition, where rhythmic clicks, staccato “chords,” and weaving lead lines all come together to create a sum larger than the parts. Even if there had been no vocals, “Curtain Call” would have been a great piece–with the vocals, it’s a lovely surprise. In fact, the whole album is lovely, and should be appreciated by more than just those who are into modern composition. The beauty, complexity, and diversity of the work on Reversal should appeal to anyone interested in acoustic music.
1. “Saturday” – SPORTS. This evanescent (1:13!), earnest, perky garage-rock track hits all the right notes and touches a chord in me. It’s the perfect mix of enthusiasm and grit. Father/Daughter Records is on a roll.
2. “Vultures” – Delta Mainline. Call it Spiritualized at its most arch or acoustic-based ’90s Britpop (Oasis, The Verve) at its most early-morning woozy–this track is a memorable one.
3. “Wall Ball” – Art Contest. Any band that can make math-rock accessible and hooky is greatly to be praised. Art Contest’s impressive technical chops are only overshadowed by their incredible songwriting ones. This song is an adventure.
4. “There’s No Love” – We Are Magnetic. It’s summer, so I need a continuous stream of brash, upbeat dance-rock tunes. This one plays out like a less yelpy Passion Pit, complete with a giant chorus anchored by a soaring melody and backed with a choir. Get your dance on.
5. “Pistoletta” – North by North. Imagine My Chemical Romance had a little more rock and a little less theatrics, or think of late ’60s/early ’70s rock, right as glam was breaking out and wasn’t really there yet. Soaring vocals, rock drama, and crunchy guitars sell it.
6. “Get on the Boat” – Little Red Lung. This female-fronted outfit calls up Florence and the Machine comparisons through its adventurous arrangements (check that booming cello), minor-key vibes, and front-and-center vocals.
7. “Then Comes the Wonder” – The Landing. An ecstatic mishmash of handclaps, burbling synths, piano, and falsetto vocals creates a song that makes me think of a half-dozen disparate sonic influences (Foals, Prince, Fleet Foxes, and the Flaming Lips among them).
8. “Dust Silhouettes” – CFIT. Glitchy electro-pop noises give way to psych-influenced guitar and vocals, all stacked on top of an indie-rock backline. It’s a head-spinner in the best sort of way.
9. “Take Me Away” – Late Nite Cable. The chorus in this song is the electro-pop equivalent of the sun coming out from behind clouds after two days of rain.
10. “ONE” – Moving Panoramas. Sometimes I wonder what people are listening to when they’re walking down the street with headphones in. This feels like it could be one of those things: a walking-speed indie-pop-rock song with excellent bass work, down-to-earth vocals, and a little sense of wonder.
11. “Alien Youth” – The Albino Eyes. Calls back to the time when synth-rock meant The Cars: the zinging, charming synths over slightly-smoothed out garage-rock is nostalgic in the best of ways.
12. “Strangers” – Balaclade. Balancing guitar crunch with feathery vocals makes this an engaging post-’90s-indie-rock track.
13. “Falling” – Here We Go Magic. This warm, swirly, electronics-laden pop-rock tune calls to mind School of Seven Bells, if their sound was a little more tethered to acoustic instrumentation.
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.