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.
1. Sever Your Roots — The Felix Culpa. Hands down the best album of the year; nothing else even came close to approaching its masterful take on post-hardcore. The brilliant lyrics pushed it over the top.
Independent Clauses has always been a strange beast. I never intended it to be a music blog; I wanted it to be the starting point of a Pitchfork-style website or a Paste-style magazine. So when we did things differently, my thoughts ran thus: “Who cares? We weren’t trying to be like them anyway.” That’s why we would run best-of lists in February, eschew posting MP3s and publish very long articles.
But as people go, so do dreams. Just like mortality isn’t such a terrible bag if you’re ready for it, neither is the death of dreams. Independent Clauses is never going to be the size of Pitchfork, Paste or even Delusions of Adequacy (whom I have worked for and dearly love). And that’s perfectly okay.
To that end, it’s starting to look more and more like an MP3 blog over here, as I am accepting what Independent Clauses has become and embracing it. I’m considering getting some extra hosting for 2011 and throwing down d/ls to applicable tunes on posts. I’m also going to redesign this site as an mp3 blog, then not touch the aesthetics till 2012. I’m also going to start using the first person pronoun instead of the third person. It’s just me here now.
Also, I will cover more Pitchfork-level indie music than I have previously. Independent Clauses used to focus exclusively on undiscovered music, and I will still devote much of my time there. One does not throw the baby out with the bathwater, after all; there will just be more Frightened Rabbit and The Mountain Goats in the bath.
As part of the transition, I will be posting two best-of lists this year: one overall best of, and one of releases Independent Clauses reviewed this year. In the future, I will post one list. Without further adieu, here’s the overall top ten best releases this year.
4. The Suburbs – Arcade Fire. Music world dominance: headlining Madison Square Garden, nominated for album of the year, taking number one on the Billboard Charts. Even if I didn’t like this album it would be in my top ten. It’s a pretty great album, though, even if it does have a few too many ripoffs of The National on it.
5. This Is Happening – LCD Soundsystem. Indie world dominance: James Murphy prophesied his title and then backed it up with tracks that made it so. Easily my favorite LCD album, and “You Wanted a Hit” is vying for “favorite LCD song” status.
6. The Age of Adz – Sufjan Stevens. The man can do whatever he wants and still turn out pure gold. This is easily the most mind-blowing release of the year: it’s hard for me to listen to in heavy rotation because it’s so complex.
So, I took a week off from Independent Clauses. I was having a monster of a week, so I just mailed it in for a couple days. Compared to the eight-month hiatus that one time, this was nothin’.
But, it nicely coincided with the end of the quarter, so I thought I’d put a little list up of my top releases from the first three months (since I listened to more music in this quarter than I think I have at any other time in Independent Clauses’ existence). It’s been an awesome year for music so far, and I’m stoked that there are three more quarters yet.
1. Sever Your Roots – The Felix Culpa. This post-hardcore masterpiece has not yet ceased to amaze me. Every song reveals new gems with each listen, whether it be a buried guitar line, a line of lyrics I hadn’t yet caught, or something else. “Escape to the Mountain” is one of my favorite tracks of the year.
2. Hours From It – Holy Fiction. Jumped up my list in the last week or so, as “More than Ever,” “Song 10” and “Two Small Bodies” inserted themselves in my life and would not let go. Passionate, melodic, lush indie-rock that doesn’t brook any cliches, resulting in occasionally challenging listening. But it’s worth it to hear the vocalist holler out “I neeeeeed you moooore than everrrr…”
3. Mt. Chimaera – Brasstronaut. Any band that’s got the guts to eschew choruses for an entire album, send down trumpet solos like it’s nobody’s business, and write the equivalent of an indie-rock symphony deserves all the props they can get. The fact that clarinet-led klezmer also happens in there makes it jump my list.
4. Of the Blue Color of the Sky – OK GO. I heard that their new video has several million hits and their album has sold just over 25,000 copies. This is a freakin’ shame. It’s their best work yet, mature in ways that “Here it Goes Again”-era OK GO can’t understand, much less imitate. If you pardon the horrible autotune experiment, the whole thing is solid, with “Needing/Getting” being the fist-pumping, shout-it-out anthem.
5. We’ve Built Up to NOTHING – 500 Miles to Memphis. This is country-punk at its finest, displaying both its country and punk roots, while extending out into places I’d never thought they’d go (full orchestras? really?). Standout track “Everybody Needs an Enemy” is outlandishly good in its nearly-ten-minutes-long-ness.
I’m not very rock’n’roll any more. In fact, I wonder if I ever was at all. I grew up on pop-punk, but only because it was hyperactive. The rebellion was packaged with it, but to me it was the free toy in the cereal box that you looked at a couple times and then threw away. I have lived a pretty rebellion-free life, other than low-grade cultural rebellions like not watching TV, biking places instead of driving, and wearing Vans without being a skateboarder.
Thus, it make sense that I have turned my focus away from the raging paeans to youth and fixed it squarely on less rambunctious music. Other than absolutely incredible rock albums (like The Felix Culpa’s Sever Your Roots, which I covered extensively yesterday), I prefer mellow, melodic, instrument-heavy music. At this rate, I will someday like classical music. May it never be.
I came to realize this truth about myself during Brasstronaut’s “Hand Behind.” The second track off their album Mt. Chimaera, it features an absolutely gorgeous horn line that is expertly played. The trumpeter knows what he’s doing, and it’s the icing on Brasstronaut’s expertly-crafted indie rock. Brasstronaut dominates their sound with lush piano, low bass lines, lots of brass and wind instruments and tight but spare drumming. The guitar mostly swoops around for atmosphere, and kudos to him for not getting in the way of the sound. If the guitarist contributed any more to the sound, the elegant, stately flow would have been significantly diminished.
And that elegant, stately flow continues through the entire album. From beginning to end, Brasstronaut plays with a confidence and passion that makes even fast, choppy songs like “Lo Hi Hopes” feel much more important and lofty than other bands’ work. It helps that this album is immaculately recorded; listened to on good speakers, it feels like Brasstronaut is in the room with you.
The only detriments to this album come in songwriting choices. “Ravan” and “Same Same,” which are two of the most engaging tunes on the album, cover the otherwise excellent vocals in a totally unnecessary cloak of reverb, plucking the songs out of the flow of the album somewhat. Also, Brasstronaut often seems more like a chamber orchestra than a rock band in the amount of times they play riffs. They are content to only play riffs one or two times, leaving listeners longing for more. It is somewhat frustrating, especially considering how infectious the trumpet riff on “Same Same” is.
But there is a significant amount of pop influence as well; “Hearts Trompet” has a bouncy feel and a singable hook, as well as an epic buildup section that repeats a satisfying number of times. “Slow Knots” is a sinister break-up song that would fit perfectly on an indie movie. “Six Toes” is a joyful klezmer tune, complete with clarinet and quick piano keying. It’s one of the best tracks here, as the band gels perfectly and cranks out a tune that no one else could even imagine, much less pull off.
Brasstronaut’s Mt. Chimaera is an astoundingly mature release. The musicians are incredibly talented, the songwriting is polished, and their lush aesthetic is incredibly well-developed for a sophomore release and debut album. Brasstronaut knows what they want to sound like, and they actually sound like it. Mt. Chimaera is an absolute gem to listen to, and easily the most beautiful album I’ve heard so far this year. Brasstronaut’s clever, tight, melodic sound is absolutely fantastic, and I will be listening to this release long after I’m done reviewing it.
The Felix Culpa‘s Sever Your Roots is the sound of men with brains and hearts resisting the complacency that creeps over young men when they are not watching and turns them into their fathers. The range of emotions underlying this theme is matched in the wide span of songwriting moods; while the bulk of these songs reside stylistically in the artistic post-hardcore that brought them initially to the forefront of Independent Clauses, the band pushes its boundaries outward in all directions.
The last minute of “An Instrument” is a step removed from spastic hardcore thrashing, while the title track is a minute-long lo-fi acoustic rumination. There are digital undertones in “The Constant” and “Unwriting Our Songs,” while there are wiry dance-rock riffs in several tunes. The piano makes several important appearances. In short, this album is about as perfect musically as post-hardcore can get. If you like anything even resembling rock, emo, post-hardcore, or hardcore, you need this album. It is that simple.
Now that you’re buying the album (and you are buying the album), we can talk about the more important aspects of Sever Your Roots. Not only is this album near-perfect musically, it’s near-perfect thematically. The Felix Culpa sets up the album like a novel: they set up themes of remorse, longing for home and growing up in the first track, then hit them over and over again in different ways for the rest of the hour that they have your attention. They tell life like it is: there are insecurities, pride, fears, despair and (most of all) hope. This album met me right when I graduated college, and I was (and am) dealing with exactly these things. I think everyone who grew up on punk rock and emo is feeling these things right now, as we all hit mid-to-late twenties (good grief, what are emo kids like at 30?).
The Felix Culpa is the only band I know of that is tackling these issues head-on. Whereas other bands have turned their faces away from the bright lights to look at “greater evils”/easier problems (social ills, class war, or retreading romantic love), The Felix Culpa spent the last three years staring into the sun and dealing with this shit. They are subsequently sunburned and enlightened, which is why the lyrics on Sever Your Roots are the real treasure. As shiver-inducing as it is to hear the choir singing on “Escape to the Mountain, Lest Thou Be Consumed,” it’s more powerful to hear Marky Hladish calmly proclaim “and a day is coming soon when the banner of youth/will be dropped somewhere between/writing songs in our parents’ basement/and basing our lives on what they mean.”
Okay, it does help that there’s polyrhythmic bass and drum work happening under most of these lyrics. The music here is so distinct that it can’t help but lend credibility to the poetry that Hladish is frantically espousing. The drummer is one of the most talented I’ve ever heard, pounding out complex rhythms that I can’t even fathom how to play. The bassist compliments this by not only matching the rhythms but often interlocking his own rhythms into the drummer’s. There are only a few genuine riffs in this album, which is one of the only downsides. The band is too busy being amazing to settle down and let themselves just kick it, like they did on their previous release Thought Control.
Case in point: This album is sixty-eight minutes long, and they still don’t have enough time to beat a riff repetitively for more than twenty or thirty seconds. They simply have too many ideas. A string section makes an appearance for a brief moment in “What You Call Thought Control, I Call Thought Control.” Digital beats snake in and out. Some sort of percussion instrument (a marimba?) makes an appearance on “New Home Lives.” Acoustic guitars carry several short tunes.
There’s just more here than I can possibly discuss. The songs average five minutes in length, with five going over seven minutes. If you count “Escape to the Mountain, Lest Thou Be Consumed” and “First One to the Scene of the Accident Always Gets Blood on His Hands” as one song (which they really are), that one’s over ten minutes long. And every second is packed with rhythms, riffs, melodies, lyrics, poetry and passion. There is zero filler. And on a sixty-eight minute album, that’s absolutely unheard of.
I could write a small book about Sever Your Roots. I’ve listened to it probably a dozen times through, and I’ve listened to “Escape to the Mountain” and “Because This is How We Speak” a dozen extra times each. “Because This is How We Speak” is the heart of the album, where everything gets laid out lyrically. Its one of the simplest musically (which means that I can comprehend what’s happening, but would never be able to do it in a million years); it’s a punch to the gut lyrically and musically, nonetheless. I wish I could run all the lyrics in this space so you could see how amazing they are, but that’s why you’re going to buy the album, so that you hear how amazing they are.
If you like poetry, rock’n’roll or thinking, you need The Felix Culpa’s Sever Your Roots. I waited three years for a masterpiece since their last EP, and lo and behold, one was dropped in my lap. If this isn’t my best album of the year in December 2010, I will have forgotten how amazing this album is or simply witnessed the best year in music ever. This album is in my top ten I’ve ever heard, because Sever Your Roots is the pinnacle of musicianship, lyricism and songwriting to this point in post-hardcore.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.