Tim de Vil and His Imaginary Friends‘ Beating Off the Loneliness is an indie pop album with vocals that skew toward the speak/sing of Say Anything or MeWithoutYou. The arrangements are deeply layered, compiled from acoustic and electronic instruments: some songs pile up found sounds and synths and drums and all sorts of stuff into a wistful, rueful amalgam that yet retains energy (“Purge-atory,” “The Patron Saint of Lost Causes”). Songs like “Who’s Afraid of Sarah Little” and “It’s Not Me, It’s You” are indie-folk ramblers instead of collages. These latter songs have occasional vocal melodies (“Say It…”), but the gold moments appear when lead singer Justin Robbins expertly controls the mood and tone of his spoken word–he can pack a lot of emotional power into individual lines.
Lyrically, this one is very much a breakup album, but it’s more in the mold of Spiritualized’s punchy Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space and Josh Ritter’s “everything that happened after the breakup” lyrical approach to The Beast in Its Tracks than a mopefest. (Not that I don’t love a good mopefest.) As is often the case with speak/sing work, the lyrics are dense and carefully constructed, despite sounding off-the-cuff; there are pop culture references (“Sleepy Hollow,” for example), emotional monologues, and word games to be had (like the title of “Hail, Mary”). The sum of all these parts is a fully-realized statement of an album that clearly shows Tim De Vil’s songwriting and lyrical skills. Fans of collage artists, spoken word ramblers, or experimental indie-pop will find much to enjoy here.
1. “e. silver” – Roco. Noises, riffs, rhythms, and vocals collide in atypical ways, creating an exciting, “what will happen next?” environment. Sort of like The Avalanches, or weird trip-hop, or a Beck fever dream, or none of the above.
2. “Where I’ll Be Waiting” – Why We Run. This Snow Patrol-esque tune that falls between alt-rock and indie-rock rides a memorable guitar riff with an engaging guitar tone. The tune’s about a friend with a mental illness, which many of us can relate to.
3. “Permission” – Slow Falling Sun. If you’re into ’90s Britpop, you need to be listening to this bouncy track.
4. “Fatal Vision” – Brice Randall Bickford. Bickford uses his smooth baritone to turn out a vulnerable, engaging vocal performance. His voice leads the way through this almost-weightless, pristinely recorded indie rock tune that will be appreciated by fans of Spoon.
5. “The Great Attractor” – Qualms. Big, round bass and an attractive variety of synth sounds build out this midtempo tune; the vocals ride the waves nicely. Comes out like some mix between Spiritualized and Manchester Orchestra.
6. “The Blue Hour” – Brand New Moon. BNM fuses folk, slowcore electro, and trip-hop to create a unique, fascinating, imaginative track.
7. “Books for the Holidays” – Halcyon Drive. Hits you with the Antlers-style blue-eyed soul/R&B vibe that’s so popular right now, then shifts gears with a ratatat snare into a charging, Bloc Party-esque rock tune without changing vocal style. Now that’s a hook.
8. “Imaginary You (feat. Stahalamora)” – Lyfe Indoors. Ambient? Chillwave? Found sound? Whatever you want to call this, it’s got admirable movement, melody, and arrangement skills. Chill, hypnotizing, mesmerizing.
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.
Precise yet fluid, the clean electric guitar work of Coldplay’s debut album Parachutes was a hallmark, even though its smash “Yellow” was not a good depiction of the characteristic. The band abandoned the sound for piano-rock on its follow-up and hasn’t looked back, leaving a hole that Australians Sleepy Tea are finally starting to fill. It’s tough for me to hear opener “Make Believe” or closer “Ghosts” without thinking of how well they would fit on Parachutes. Thankfully, that’s a massive compliment from this corner, as I mean that Sleepy Tea’s debut The Place Where We Lay contains beautiful, lithe vocals that intertwine with immaculate arrangements which belie how much work it takes to make a perfect-sounding song.
“Make Believe” establishes the mood of the five-song EP right off the bat, with an easygoing confidence in the gently swaying arrangement of tasteful drums, burbling atmospherics, and spot-on vocal performance that calls to mind a theoretical male-fronted version of Braids. It’s a rare tune that catches my attention like this one. The rest of the EP lives up to the billing, whether the tense juxtaposition of energetic trip-hop drumming and pensive piano in “At World’s End” or the towering crescendo throughout the entirety of “Safer.” This is a band with a tightly constructed idea of what it wants to sound like, and that’s rarely a bad thing. Sleepy Tea has chops and taste, so I look forward to much more from them.
I’ve written before about running out of band names, but if I hadn’t, Here Is Your Temple would be a good reason to question whether or not all the good band names have already been taken. Besides the name, though, HIYT are worthy of discussion for the quality of their music: The Swedish quintet plays music that sounds like all of Spiritualized’s discography jammed together onto one EP. Opener and title track “So High” is a propulsive piece marked by a marching rhythm, fuzzed-out bass, a choir, and synths. It’s like something that might appear on Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space. “Big Way” is built on a dominating guitar riff and synthesized vocals, which also sounds like Ladies and Gentlemen. “Once Rich” is a quieter tune, pairing the omnipresent synths with downtempo acoustic guitar (as in J. Spaceman’s Amazing Grace era), while “Say Hey” adds an optimistic edge to the acoustic sound. It’s a very varied EP.
The one thing that holds the sound together is HIYT’s commitment to melody; all of these songs hinge on either a vocal or guitar melody that is punched way up in the mix. Whether creating Fleetwood Mac-esque mystery (“Say Hey”) or rock’n’roll (of a sort), the band zeros in on melody. And that’s what keeps this wildly varied EP from being disjointed: their melodic center remains true, showing off a band with many facets. If you’re into synth-rock or synth-pop without cheesiness, So High should be in your ears.
In ESPN’s 30 for 30 film “Jordan Rides the Bus,” Michael Jordan is noted as being relieved that his first professional baseball spring game experiences were terrible. He wanted to get the initial mistakes out of the way and get on to playing. Artists’ debuts are often like that: “let’s get it done and learn from it.” In an age where “release” is a shifting concept, this sometimes means as much as a whole album of uneven content or as little as sporadic singles released on unheralded Soundcloud accounts. But the mantra stands: you have to start somewhere.
The Phusion starts with In the Shadows of Giants, which does the neat side-step of acknowledging in the title that there are a lot of influences on display. And there are: the jazz/funk/indie group throws down chord progressions generally associated with jazz (“Moving Fast,” “Birdbrain”), ripping bass lines (“All That You Are,” “Comfortable Prison”), and a liberal dose of Ladies and Gentlemen-era Spiritualized synth wash (“Where Did They Go?”). The ph/fusion is the thing on display here. The band does a pretty good job of synthesizing, yet it’s still clear that these are disparate influences mashed together with a great deal of rehearsal. The evidence of thought and practice show up all over, however, in the precision with which the instrumentalists interact. If they keep this work ethic together (or even work harder), then they will be on their way to building their own little corner of the indie-verse.
The Phusion hasn’t found its unique voice yet, and that’s totally fine. Radiohead didn’t figure out who they were on Pablo Honey, either. But they throw down some intriguing ideas on In The Shadow of Giants, and that’s what a debut should do.
I just read a piece about the early ’80s Athens, GA, scene by Anthony DeCurtis, and he asserts that the main thing people did there was dance. Seeing as the B-52s erupted from that college town, I can get behind that. Androcles and the Lion, however, do not share this body rockin’ predisposition with their geographical forebears. The Athenians in A+L are pensive indie-rockers, although their sound occasionally skews harder than your average rainy day band.
“All We Were” opens As Far as Blindness Could See with a sheet of morphing distortion that blends into some humming synths before breaking out into a pulsing rhythm. It’s vaguely spacey, in a Spiritualized sort of way; it’s a familiar and comforting experience. “Eulogy” is as loud as A+L gets, with clanging guitar offsetting the mopey vocals and oscillating synths. While it’s not bad, it’s easily the least memorable track, as A+L’s melodic bent is showcased much better in their quieter tunes.
“The Creek That Ran Behind Our House” depends on acoustic guitar and banjo for the basis of the tune, and calm vocals (recalling Damien Jurado) sell the tune perfectly. It’s the type of tune you put near the end of mixtapes and just chill to. Even when the arrangement fills out and speeds up, it’s still pretty downtempo (although the clanging guitar is a bit unnecessary). “Tired Voices” is just that, and it’s an apt closer to the 7-song EP.
Androcles and the Lion have a slow-paced, sad-eyed take on indie-rock. If Pedro the Lion and Ladies and Gentlemen-era Spiritualized had gotten together and covered each other’s songs, this may have sounded like it. If that’s as intriguing to you as it is to me, you’ll have a lot to shout about in As Far as Blindness Could See.
I’ve spent a lot of time and thought on what Independent Clauses should be. It’s gone through many iterations, and I’ve been realizing over the past two months that it’s about to go through another. I’ve always wanted to be the first line of defense for young bands: I’ll review your album if you have zero press, bad spelling and a 3-song demo. If it’s great, it’s great. If it’s not, I’ll tell you what I thought and hopefully you don’t think I’m a jerk. That’s been SOP for IC since day one.
But back in the day, I thought I could do that for every genre. That’s just entirely unfeasible. I can’t be knowledgeable at every style of music. I may like a couple hardcore and metal bands, but I have no idea what makes them good other than the fact that I enjoy it. Even if I heard a great unsigned metal band, I would have little idea how to describe it (and even less clue about RIYLs), because I don’t know the ins and outs of metal.
This is true for me of rap, metal, hardcore, modern rock/post-grunge, blues and jazz. I like a bit of each (K’Naan, Isis, Dillinger Escape Plan, Traindodge, The Flavor and John Coltrane, for starters), but I just feel unqualified to review it. So I’m pretty much going to stop reviewing those genres and focus in on folk, alt-country, indie-pop, indie-rock and post-rock. I’m taking a break from punk so that I can love it again in the near future.
The reason I bring this up is that The Boxing Lesson falls on the outskirts of my knowledge, just on this side of the border. I don’t listen to much psychedelic music, partially because I’ve never had the desire to be high. I say “much” because The Flaming Lips are Oklahoma’s rock heroes, and I listen to their music almost de facto.
The Boxing Lesson has the space-rock/psych thing going on its Muerta EP. “Darker Side of the Moog” features synths galore in a sweeping, atmospheric way. The song transforms into a slow-moving but cohesive bit of pop-influenced songwriting; it’s not exactly go-for-the-hook songcraft, but the melodies are recognizable to those who love a v/c/v setup (me). “Muerta” and “Cassiopeia” are much the same, calling up some Pink Floyd references in their expansive, slow-moving folds.
Closer “Drone to Sleep” is most like a pop song, in that fuzzed out guitar strum and a dominant vocal melody carry the song. It’s still got the synths and spaced-out vibe; its woozy self will definitely still to the core demographic of psych-heads. But people who enjoy meandering pop and folk will find much to love in the track. It really does make me want to go to sleep as the sound washes over me, in a Spiritualized sort of way. It’s kind of like Jonsi, honestly – and that’s really cool. It’s easily my favorite track on the EP.
So, I’m not the best guy to be evaluating The Boxing Lesson, and I’m not too proud to admit it. But it does have some elements that can be appreciated by all — and that’s the mark of great songwriting.
Youth Sounds‘ 10-minute, three-song EP The Bit Parts is the sort of pop music that makes me remember why I like pop songs. There’s nothing here that’s especially groundbreaking: mid-range female vocals sing over a soundscape that’s half Spiritualized and half pop-rock. But the band goes at it with such enthusiasm and with such feeling that it’s hard not to like it.
It helps that the production is gorgeous. I’ve become more and more interested in production as grotty lo-fi bands have become popular again, and everything here is praiseworthy: The acoustic instruments sound perfect, the consistent drone sounds warm and full instead of grating, and the vocals sound real instead of tweaked. It makes the hushed beginning of “Smoke and Mirrors” resonate, while the majority of “As Strangers Would” hums for the same reason. “What Is It Like” is a bit too ’80s in places, but other than that it’s beautiful too.
I can’t wait to hear more from this band. They have a solid grasp on what they want to do and the production to back it up. This is the type of music that causes me to lay in bed, stare at the ceiling and bliss out. There’s not enough of that in the world.
The most satisfying breakup album I’ve ever heard is the Postal Service’s Give Up. It’s not that Tamborello and Gibbard pinned the sound of breaking up perfectly (that honor goes to Spiritualized’s miserable/wonderful Ladies and Gentlemen, We are Floating in Space). It sits above the rest because the whole thing is told in chronological order. Attentive listeners can know exactly what’s happening at every point in the album. It turns the collection of songs into an experience.
Paul Phillips’ Every Time I Leave might be a breakup album. There are breakup songs on it, but there are also love songs and worship songs. The jumble makes it difficult to discern what the point of this folk/country album is. And, alas, there may not be one. It may simply be a collection of songs. As a collection of songs, it’s not bad at all, but I feel like Phillips could aspire to so much more than just a collection of songs.
Phillips comes from the Bob Dylan school of vocals: they’re an immediate turn-off that slowly grow on you to the point of affection. His tenor is warbling and creaky, similar to Dylan’s, but thankfully, Phillips doesn’t have that horrible nasal tone that Dylan has. When Phillips keeps his voice low on songs like “Time, Time,” it’s hard to even discern the warbles and breaks.
Taking the focus off the vocals allows the songwriting to shine. I wish it would happen more often, as Phillips crafts some excellent tunes on Every Time I Leave. “Time, Time,” “Come What May” and “Until We Meet Again” are simply gorgeous tunes. The common denominator in all of these is the removal of the excess instrumentation. When Phillips gets down to the bare bones of songwriting, he strikes gold with fingerpicked melodies, subtle keys, and a calm mood. His upbeat tunes accentuate the problems of his songwriting; the slower, quieter ones play up his strengths. He even busts out a solid falsetto on “Come What May,” which surprised me.
There are upbeat tunes here as well, but they’re standard for the genre. The downtempo work is what shines. If Phillips could apply the lessons learned from the slow tracks to the aesthetics of the uptempo tracks, he would be able to accomplish a lot. He’s got solid songwriting skills that need to be refined. His voice needs to be reined in. Future albums could be structured to not be so confusing to the listener. Still, Every Time I Leave is a solid effort from a developing songwriter. I hope to hear more from Paul Phillips in the future.
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.