Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Top 20 albums of the year: 20-11

December 31, 2012

Independent Clauses is somewhat of an alternate universe when it comes to music reviewing. I rarely cover the hip bands, often love things no one else does, and generally attempt to be true to what I hear. If there’s a radar to be on or under, we’re hanging out on a different screen altogether. This is more by happenstance than choice: I never set out to be contrarian. And I don’t feel like a curmudgeonly naysayer of popular music, as you’ll see tomorrow. I just have a different lens than many people. Here’s the view from that lens.

20. Summer of Sam – A-Okay. Lo-fi acoustic goodness that rings honest and true.

19. Ithica – St. Anselm’s Choir. I’m consistently amazed at this band’s ability to wring heartbreaking beauty out of what is basically industrial music.

18. Chris North – Lovedream. Angelic reverie comes via a bunch of guitar pedals, acoustic guitars and arresting vocals.

17. Andrea Caccese’s collected output: Songs for the Sleepwalkers’ Our Rehearsed Spontaneous Reactions and I Used to Be a Sparrow’s Luke. One man’s vision, applied to an ambient project and a indie-rock project that countered the ambience with an anthemic, U2-esque bent.

16. Elijah Wyman/Jason Rozen’s collective output: Tiny Mtns/The Seer Group/Decent Lovers. What started out as the artsy electro-pop project Tiny Mtns split into a heavily artsy electro project (The Seer Group) and a heavily artsy pop project (Decent Lovers), with the two splitting the tracks between them. Except when both kept a track and reworked it to their likings. Did I mention that this one time, one of these guys gave the other a kidney? Now you see why they get one mention.

15. Superstar Runner – Heritage/Lineage/Hand-Me Downs/Scars (Your Birthmarks Do Not Bother Me). Songwriters that forge their own path get remembered by someone. The size of that group determines their popularity, and I hope that this incredibly titled record has gotten Superstar Runner remembered by a lot more people for his unusual arrangements and song structures.

14. 4H Royalty – Where UFOs Go To Die. Hands down, the best lyrics of the year are here in this country/rock album.

13. Autumn Owls – Between Buildings, Toward the Sea. Radiohead? Is that you? No? Hey, whoa, I meant it as a compliment! But seriously, this band is thoughtful in composition and lyric, for a head-spinning, enveloping release.

12. The Parmesans – Uncle Dad’s Cabin EP. One of my favorite new bands of the year, this bluegrass outfit has serious chops to go along with its goofy demeanor.

11. Young Readers – Family Trees EP. I haven’t been floored as hard by an opening track all year as I was by “All I Have.” Beautiful whisper-folk in the vein of old-school Iron and Wine.

A new definition of post-rock

November 12, 2012

There’s already a genre called post-rock, but I think that’s not thinking big enough about the term. Post-rock implies an ideology shift, a movement past whatever “rock” meant. While the genre that includes Explosions in the Sky, Godspeed! You Black Emperor, Tortoise, and Mogwai definitely was one of the earliest adapters of the “after rock” mindset, their cinematic music should not be allowed to lay claim to the whole of the term.

I hope we get to a day where every band is “post-rock,” and no band subscribes to the hollow myths of “rock” as they were once sold to us. The part of the rock mythos that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is the big rock move: the idea that a big guitar riff is its own explanation. (Think of “Immigrant Song” or “Thunderstruck” for the best examples of this, or any hair metal song for average to poor examples of this idea.)

The antithesis of the big rock move is thoughtful consideration of how riffs work together with other things as part of songwriting, not necessarily to rock less, but to mean things. In a sense, thoughtful consideration of riffs may even cause them to rock more, because “meaning something” often produces a more real emotional connection with listeners than a big rock move and thereby heightens the pleasure of experiencing the riff.

Here are three bands that are thinking about how riffs combine with other things to make meaning, even though none of the three would be in the “post-rock” genre. (There are also a whole boatload of sociological ideas associated with the “rock star” that I’m thrilled to see go the way of the buffalo, but they are for another day.)

Autumn OwlsBetween Buildings, Toward the Sea is a spiritual descendant of Radiohead’s OK Computer. Radiohead’s masterpiece subverted big riff rock by making the monster guitar licks serve the moods they wanted (mindless and frantic in “Paranoid Android,” grating and brittle in “Electioneering”), and Autumn Owls do the same thing. The angular, slightly dissonant guitarwork in opener “Semaphores” fluctuates between nervous uncertainty and frightened certainty, situating the listener right in the middle of Autumn Owls’ ideas. Autumn Owls’ instrumentals and vocals have a symbiotic relationship, with the oft-deadpan vocalist coming off like Cake frontman John McCrea fronting an apocalyptic art band instead of sardonic pop one.

The music, vocals and lyrics can’t be separated: the album is full of frightened surprise (see the lyrics and heavy guitar entrance in “Unconvinced”), malaise (note the gently rolling sounds and “ignore the tension” line in standout “Kiss the Wine”), and ominous confusion (the spiky, tense “Quarantine”). When they let the guitars go, they do so for a reason; when the drums rattle, there’s a reason for that. They don’t do things simply because that’s what rock does; they’ve put thought into every last bit of this album.

Between Buildings, Toward the Sea is an incredibly constructed record, full of intricate patterns and delicate touches. Whether it’s a guitar glitching (and there’s a lot of that), a voice being modified, or deceptively pretty melodies being eerily contrasted (“The Arched Pines”), Autumn Owls know what they’re doing. This is easily one of the best albums of the year.

I was searching for this application of the term post-rock when I reviewed both of Ithica‘s previous releases. Ithica creates beautiful tunes that float amorphously between genres: industrial beats, pretty synths, and deeply emotional vocal melodies create an unnameable amalgam. It results in beautiful, haunting music with real depth. St. Anselm’s Choir comes together flawlessly, as incisive lyrics are delivered by a vocalist with astonishing control of emotive tone and inflection over a brilliant soup of vocal samples, synthesizers, and drums. The songs are set up to have impact similar to rock songs, as “riffs” come in and then leave, giving way to verses and choruses. But the sounds that compose these structures are atypical, giving the tunes the unique quality of feeling altogether new and intimately familiar at the same time. I can’t speak highly enough about these six songs. Rare is the fully-realized vision that crosses my desk, but St. Anselm’s Choir is that unusual EP.

On first glance, The Foreign Resort‘s Scattered and Buried might seem an odd place to talk about the post-rock ethos: distorted bass and dark guitars abound. On the other hand, their sound is a Joy Division-esque new wave/post-punk one; both genres have a history of sticking it to the man.

But the thing that pointed out their diffidence toward the big rock move was how closely tied the vocal tone was to the timbre of the instruments. When the arrangement surges, so do the vocals; when the vocals tremble in uncertainty during “Lost My Way (2012),” so do the instruments. The frantic tempo and tough bass rhythms of “Buried” are mimicked by the vocals–or is it the opposite? That inability to determine which element is the most important is what makes this distinctly post-rock to me; the vocals aren’t serving the guitars, and the guitars aren’t serving the vocals. The song is all, and each of the elements contributes to that. This creates a wildly enjoyable set of tunes, from the fragile beauty of “Rocky Mountains” to the club-friendly synths of “Tide.” The remixes make the release even better. Highly recommended.

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

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