Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Premiere: townsppl’s twigs

November 8, 2017

The ukulele had a moment in the late ’00s: between “Hey Soul Sister,” “You and I” by Ingrid Michaelson, and a host of other ukulele-toting bands, things were getting downright cheery all over the place. Vibes have obviously changed in the culture and in musical scenes; ukulele is way less used today. However, the instrument’s ability to create a warm, sunshiny vibe is the same–it’s just waiting there for someone to champion it.

Enter twnsppl. twigs by townsppl is easily one of the most gleeful, charming, carefree albums released in 2017. For a year that’s been full of divorce albums and incisive protest music, twigs offers a heaping helping of respite.

The title track is the opener, and it’s a great tune. Bandleader Alexander Stanton’s tenor voice is smooth and clear, delivered over the aforementioned ukulele and some bouncing bass. The chorus shifts from straight-ahead indie-pop to Graceland-influenced pop with the addition of “whoa-oh-ohs,” African-harmony background vocals, and chanted “heys”. The vibe is spot-on, the recording is perfectly done, and the whole thing comes off like a million bucks. It’s a “sit-up-and-pay-attention” opener for an indie-pop fan.

“so so-so” slows down the tempo and introduces ukulele fingerpicking, which is lovely. The majority of the album lives in this mid-tempo indie-pop realm, exploring many different ways to chill with a ukulele in your arms (or ears). Both “so so-so” and “i’ll be home soon (can it wait till I get there)” have can’t-get-it-out-of-my-head chorus vocal lines, while “cut magazines” and “don’t blink” show off Stanton’s arrangement skills primarily. (Not to malign the great vocal melodies in those tunes.)

“don’t blink” is a highlight: sounding somewhat like a Sufjan Christmas take in both enthusiasm and warmly comforting mood, the tune hums along with an effervescent grin. The delicate closing piano line bowled me over the first time I heard it–it’s a simple thing, but it’s executed perfectly. In other words: #nailedit.

The tunes here are mostly chipper and bright, but one stands out from the pack as being more reserved: “the road to end up” is a somber, serious pop tune reminiscent of Blind Pilot’s vocal melodies and Ivan & Alyosha’s electric guitar use. It’s a strong counterpoint to the rest of the tunes, subverting expectations just enough to add a good break in the sound. The album concludes with the solo performance “sparks,” which is also a little more serious than the rest of the tunes. But even that can’t sustain a straight face for too long before bringing in a lo-fi arrangement to brighten the corners. It’s a great conclusion to a relentlessly appealing album.

Having reviewed music for 14.5 years, I’ve learned to be reserved in my initial response to a record. But some albums cause me to break my rules. I have enjoyed every track on this record unabashedly. It’s a dinger–there’s not a bad track on the whole thing. Each track of twigs is clever, thoughtful, and deeply enjoyable. It will easily land on my top ten albums of the year. If you’re into indie-pop, this is a must-hear. Highly Recommended.

You can check out townsppl at the twigs Album Release Show on Friday, 11/10, at Club Cafe in Pittsburgh. If I were anywhere near there, I’d be headed up. It’s bound to be a blast.

Late June MP3s

June 28, 2017

1. “Somethings” – Sariah Mae. This song sounds like it was blown out of a bubble wand: a round, gleaming, shimmery, light thing that lolls along in the wind. Indie pop at its shiny, bubbly best.

2. “Super Natural” – Turnover. Does the thing has emerged in my family as a term of high praise: you need to do something, you select a tool to do it, and the tool works perfectly. It does the thing. This dream-pop tune does the thing: it has reverby guitars, delicate vocals, loping bass, and enough energy from the drums to keep the “pop” part working. Just totally solid.

3. “Bright and Blue” – Tomo Nakayama. This indie-pop track feels like walking on clouds, what with the ethereal pad synths in the background, the walking-pace shuffle snare, and the friendly vocal approach. Very excited for this upcoming album.

4. “All My Faith” – The Last Dinosaur. An intimate-yet-sweeping acoustic indie track that calls to mind Michigan-era Sufjan and other lush-arrangement singer/songwriters.

5. “Altaïr” – Camel Power Club. Well, isn’t this a wild mix: synths, acoustic guitar, ’90s hip-hop beats, bongos, breathy vocals, theremin-esque sounds, and more are all wrapped up in a smooth, grooving electro-indie-pop tune. Whoa.

6. “Living in Fame” – Fever Kids. The feathery vocals that provide the lead hook for this tune fit perfectly with a slightly ominous, LCD Soundsystem-esque bass line and create a sort of post-disco indie-pop track. The vibe here is unusual and exciting.

7. “Duluoz Dream” – Sal Dulu. A bleary-eyed jazz trumpet provides the entry point into this low-key indie-electro instrumental, squiggly bits, mournful piano, and other sounds come together to create a chill, head-bobbin’ piece.

8. “July” – Ellie Ford. Some jaunty flamenco rhythms on a nylon-string guitar provide the base of this song, which then expands into a carefully-coordinated minor-key indie-rock tune led by Ford’s delicate voice.

9. “If You Saw Her” – Mark Bryan. The quirky, plunk-plunk lead melody in this folk/country tune is a weirdly infectious riff. The rest of the tune is a bright, clear, folk/country tune guided to its satisfying conclusion by an assured hand and a lithe voice.

10. “Stronger than My Fears (Naked Session)” – SHEL. This acoustic folk tune rides on beautiful melodies, a subtly excellent arrangement, and impressive harmonies throughout.

11. “Watching From a Distance” – David Ramirez. Ramirez updates his country sound with burbling electronics, Simon and Garfunkel-esque percussion, and a large arrangement more reminiscent of indie-folk than stark country ventures. It’s a surprising, excellent turn. His voice is still amazing–nothing changed there.

12. “I Wanna Go Down to the Basement” – Wooden Wand. Loopy, chilled-out folk that asserts “I am no longer afraid”; despite these reassurances, James Jackson Toth’s voice has a jittery quality that gives the song energy.

13. “Take Over” – Tom Rosenthal. Fans of Greg Laswell and Rush of Blood to the Head-era Coldplay will love this piano-driven tune, which pulses and pushes forward and yet still remains intimate.

14. “Killing Me” – Luke Sital-Singh. The emotional piano ballad is tough to pull off, but Sital-Singh here provides a master course on how to do it right. This song is emotionally devastating.

Late November Singles 1: Acoustic!

November 22, 2016

1. “Home Away” – Valley Shine. This song excellently combines two things I love: enthusiastic folk-pop and Graceland-style African music influences. It’s the sort of jubilant yet suave work that transcends genre barriers and should be appreciated by people across the pop music spectrum. Just a fantastic song.

2. “Brother” – Jack the Fox. Doesn’t need more than an acoustic guitar, some warm pad synths and an arresting voice to totally take over a room. It’s quality on par with Josh Ritter and Fleet Foxes, but doesn’t sound like either artist.

3. “One Day I’ll Be Your Ears” – Mateo Katsu. Ramshackle, enthusiastic, chunky, herky-jerky acoustic indie-pop from the school of Daniel Johnston and Page France. It’s the sort of charmingly off-kilter work that lo-fi was meant to celebrate.

4. “Lil to Late” – Brother Paul. Here’s a fun, easygoing acoustic blues shuffle with hints of rockabilly, vintage country and self-deprecating humor sprinkled throughout. It’s topped off with just the right amount of Motown soul-style horns.

5. “The Time It Takes” – The Show Ponies. This Americana outfit sounds like a Joe Walsh moonlighting as the leader of a Nashville country outfit: saloon-style piano, radio-rock ramblin’ vibe, and male/female duet vocals straight off your local country radio. It’s not usually what I’m into, but it hooked me and kept me.

6. “Return to the Scene” – Aaron Atkins. Weary yet sturdy, this alt-country/folk tune ambles along on the strength of great rumbling bass lines and a convincingly-achy vocal performance.

7. “Phoenix Fire” – Simon Alexander. From the Josh Garrels/Hozier school of intense singers comes this thoughtful, mature pop song with a great chorus.

8. “Melody, I” – Pluto and Charon. A warm, intimate acoustic performance that retains the fret squeaks and string buzz. It’s more rough in its fidelity than Damien Jurado ever was, but it has a similar sort of vibe in the dignified vocals.

9. “Waterski to Texas” – Budo and Kris Orlowski. Now this one really does sound like Damien Jurado, but the latter-day Jurado. Budo and Orlowski walk a fine line between big, sweeping arrangements of singer/songwriter work and a very personal, even raw, emotive quality. The vocals here are particularly fine.

10. “Gold Ring” – Redvers Bailey. This one’s a lovely, romantic, gently layered song that floats somewhere between Josh Radin’s delicate work and the wide-eyed wonder of “Casimir Pulaski Day”-style Sufjan Stevens.

11. “High Rolling” – Jake Aaron. This acoustic instrumental manages to be complex and inviting at the same time, subverting expectations by not just jumping to the highest treble notes for the lead melody. By keeping the melody low and close to the fingerpicked foundation of the piece, the tune feels both comfortable and complicated. It’s very worth your time, even for those who aren’t generally into acoustic instrumentals.

September Singles: Acoustic 1

September 27, 2016

1. “Galatians 2:20” – The Welcome Wagon. TWW is almost genetically engineered specifically to be a perfect fit with my musical tastes: acoustic-based indie-pop married duo inspired to start a band by Sufjan Stevens who sing humble yet joyfully melodic tunes (often with many voices) whose lyrics are sometimes entirely Bible verses (as in this one). I love it all. If you do too, hit up their Kickstarter.

2. “Be My Girl” – Anna Lee Warren. Warren’s strong, clear alto voice is the centerpiece of this vocal/ukulele/stand-up bass/shaker piece, and it shines bright.

3. “The Swells” – Second Husband. A joyful little ditty about (potentially metaphorically) being eaten by a shark that includes a very Juno-esque flute solo and overall attitude.

4. “When I Arrive” – Bryan Diver. Somewhere between Needtobreathe and Josh Garrels lies this high-drama folk tune with an arresting chorus.

5. “Cold Fact” – I Have a Tribe. Gentle trembling at the top of some vocal notes gives a sense of a particular type of intimacy; not theatrical but not entirely restrained either. Just honest, in a certain way. There’s a very European precision about the spacious indie-pop arrangement here.

6. “Uncomfortably Numb” – i.am.hologram. A hypnotic acoustic guitar line that sounds more like a sitar than a six-string anchors this song. Nihil’s barely contained, sneering voice provides an astute counterpoint to the instrumental base.*

7. “Over You” – Pony Hunt. A vintage walking-speed country loll, but fronted by a clear-eyed alto voice, doo-wop background vocals, and delicate–even sweet–pedal steel.

8. “Eggs and Toast” – Redvers Bailey. This charming, quirky, jubilant ode to breakfast food reminds me of the melody of the Boss’s “Dancing in the Dark.” Pretty much everything else possible is different.

9. “Stay a Little Longer” – Knaan Shabtay. Passenger’s vocal style meets a sped-up version of Josh Radin’s delicate intricacies in a charming, engaging tune.

10. “dirt” – Andrea Silva. It’s amazing how arresting a subtle voice, a guitar, and reverb can be.

11. “Used to Be” – Luca Fogale. A dreamy, lovely tune about running out of nostalgia that nonetheless has a deep sense of memory running through it.

12. “Settle Down” – Dark Mean. Jason Molina and Bonnie Prince Billy would approve of this moving, slowly-unfolding tune constructed of simple elements that are imbued with huge emotional importance.

13. “The Thrill of Loneliness” – Honey Stretton. Goes hard for the pastoral feel: a burbling brook, various animal/insect noises, and the hiss of the outdoors accompany a meandering guitar and a fluttering female vocal. You’ll probably want to walk outside after hearing this–it won’t be as pretty as the sonic picture (unless you’re very lucky locationally).

14. “UURKIDNI” – Emily & the Complexes. Most of E&tC’s work is distortion heavy indie-rock, a la Silversun Pickups and the like. But this is a gentle yet sturdy love song of just an acoustic guitar, even-handed vocals, and atypical lyrics that draw me in. Stunning.

*Full disclosure: i.am.hologram’s PR contact recently began writing for Independent Clauses. This happened after selection of this song for coverage and did not affect the selection of the song.

B. Snipes’ American Dreamer

September 22, 2016

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Last time I checked in with B. Snipes, he was singing a pristine, delicate folk tune about death taking him on a tour of a city.  So it was quite a surprise to find that American Dreamer opens up with a wide-open, convertible-top-down, vintage American pop-rock tune. It’s a double surprise to realize that it’s the title track. (“We’re going somewhere new, y’all!”) I may miss folky B. Snipes, but his new direction is just as satisfying. If you’re into American pop, 1950-now, you’ll be all over this record.

After the blast of AM radio that is the opener, Snipes throws down a tune that’s an Isbell-style country rocker in the verses with a sunshiny ’50s pop chorus. It comes off a bit like Ivan and Alyosha’s work. The middle of the record hearkens back to a time when Roy Orbison was huge (“Amy, in Chicago”), country was turning into rock via pop music (“Sweet Eleanor”), and unironic sentiment was cool (“Easy Things,” which has a spiritual sibling in Jason Mraz’s non-rapping work). If you love the Avett Brothers at their most pensive, “Completely” will scratch an itch that probably hasn’t been touched much since “Murder in the City.”

The record is smooth, clean, clear, and deeply listenable. It’s a pop record shorn of the high glitz that the wall of sound and its children would put on the pop sound. They don’t make ’em like this much anymore.

But right when it seems like B. Snipes is ready to cap off a timeless-sounding record, he makes another shift. “Red White Blues” is a gentle yet concerned rebuke of political polarization couched in a tune that sounds like a mix of Bright Eyes, Sufjan Stevens, and the Arcade Fire. That’s a lot of referents to pack into one song, but there’s a lot of song to go around. It’s the easy highlight of the record, made all the more impressive because it still manages to hang with the rest of the record in mood despite being completely different thematically. The sonics here are louder, but they’re still in the same, very American vein. (Which is funny, because The Arcade Fire is Canadian.) The tune provides a fitting bookend to the opener, which puts faith in being an American dreamer; “Red White Blues” is full of practical exhortations about what we need to do to keep being American dreamers.

American Dreamer is an American pop record through and through. It draws from earlier eras of pop’s history but makes statements about our current condition through them. The songs are fun, pretty, interesting and thought-provoking. How much more can you ask for in a pop record? This is great work. Highly recommended.

Mutual Benefit: Bend the boundaries of classical and folk

July 6, 2016

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Alex Ross makes a compelling case at the beginning of his second book Listen to This that a large group of classical music’s proponents have been systematically enshrining older music as better, minimizing the praise of modern composers, and insisting that classical music is dying for over 200 years. He then performs a deconstruction of this mentality by discussing everyone from Mozart to Bjork, from Schubert to Sonic Youth, with the same critical lens in one so far deeply enjoyable tome. (I know a book is good when I can’t even get all the way through before I want to talk about it; I’m a little under halfway through its 345 pages.) That sort of “toss out the rules” mentality should be applied to Mutual Benefit‘s Skip a Sinking Stonewhich draws just as much from “classical music” as it does the folk-pop of the outfit’s immediate history to create a beautiful release that transcends both labels.

The first thing to note about Skip a Sinking Stone is that strings are almost omnipresent. They are employed in a multitude of ways, from huge riffs to quiet melodies to subtle background work to mountainous crescendos reminiscent of John Luther Adams’ slowly unfolding work (which also gets loving treatment in Listen to This). Their use is not auxiliary, but essential: they largely lay down the sonic palette that Lee paints with throughout Stone. Look no further than the title track, which follows an instrumental intro, for evidence: the strings carry the weight here, building the base of the song and owning the highest points of excitement almost by themselves. It’s deeply unusual to hear strings so thoroughly integrated into a sound taking place in the popular realm: instead of an orchestra supporting a pop song (as has been done expertly by everyone from The Arcade Fire to The Decemberists to The Collection), the orchestra and the pop song are coterminous; they are part and parcel of the same thing. They are inseparable in listening and in criticism.

As a result, Stone has a unique mood and temperament throughout: it feels organic, bright, almost alive. The sense that it has grown up out of the earth and become a rose-filled garden strikes me in almost every song. “Lost Dreamers” has the warm, mid-tempo feel of a gentle walk with a good friend; “Not for Nothing,” the closest thing to a folk-pop song presented here, is a subtly magnificent piece of work that induces swaying and smiling. “Nocturne” gets literal and includes the recorded sounds of a forest in a delicate interlude. The incredible secret of Stone is not just that it feels deeply organic, but that it manages to fold in electronics to heighten the sense of earthiness instead of divorce from it. Fluttery synthesizers come in with the piano and strings on the opening instrumental “Madrugada,” helping to create the oversaturated-with-light vibe. (Synths/theramin-sounding-like-synth has another moment on the carefully constructed, dusky ballad “Many Returns.”) It’s a rare fusion that comes off as more than the sum of its parts, creating a beautiful sonic space.

The strings’ ubiquitous presence in that sonic space is matched in importance only by sonorous piano and Jordan Lee’s delicate voice. Lee does use his acoustic guitar in some of these songs (“Slow March” and “Many Returns,” most notably), but the piano is the most valuable player here. By taking his folk-pop songwriting sentiments and translating them to the piano, he has created the ability for his songwriting to be infused with strings to the great degree that it is. It’s not to say that a meshing of acoustic guitar and strings can’t happen–but here the delicate yet solid presence of the keys matches the fluttery yet concrete nature of the strings beautifully. It’d be easy to point to “City Sirens,” which contains only piano and strings, as proof, but the better example is the majestic “Skipping Stones,” which would be a considerably different song if it were played on acoustic guitar.

Lee’s voice is the last major element here: his delicate, innocent-sounding tenor conveys wide sweeps of emotion without resorting to dramatic lengths. Through strong development of melodies, careful use of background vocals, and a keen sense of how to arrange the band for maximum vocal effect, Lee gives his voice power without ever losing its wide-eyed sense of wonder. The performance of the vocals throughout echoes the damaged but insistent hope that plays throughout “Skipping Stones” and the rest of the album: Lee’s vocals can go from assured to lost to hopeful and back through all those emotions in a single section of song. His voice never strains or grasps for notes, fitting beautifully into the bright, light, lithe sonic environment he has created.

Skip a Sinking Stone has so much to admire that I can’t fit it all into one review; I didn’t even get a chance to touch the lovely lyrics or the smart percussion. It’s a beautiful, remarkable, even majestic album that bends the boundaries between folk, pop, and classical in the most pleasant way I’ve heard all year. If you’re into bands with orchestral aspirations (Lost in the Trees, Sufjan Stevens, The Collection, et al), you will absolutely love this record. It’s going to be high on my list of albums of the year, for sure. Highly recommended.

Nearly Oratorio’s Beautiful Melancholy

June 13, 2016

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Out of Melbourne, Australia, Nearly Oratario–aka Simon Lam–recently released his sophomore EP Tin. Tin is a refreshing combination of melancholic singer-songwriter and the avant garde. Nearly Oratario’s unique instrumentation and modest vocals create an emotive album that is both soothing and utterly enthralling.

Nearly Oratario does not truly sound exactly like anything, yet The Dirty Projectors and Sufjan Stevens do come to mind. All three artists have created sounds very much their own; in a sense, that ties them together. I also think that Simon Lam’s voice is a softer version of David Longstreth’s, The Dirty Projectors’ lead singer. Similarly, the avant garde nature of Tin is comparable to Sufjan Steven’s later experimental work.

Nearly Oratario uses different looping techniques to arrive at the album’s sound. Lam anchors each song with a primary instrument like the piano (“I Would Not,” “Devonport”) along with the guitar (“Veracity”) and keyboard (“Tin,” “Occlude”) and then builds and loops on top of it. The looping includes other instruments, random sounds through the use of an electronic launchpad, and vocals. All of these layers come together to create a sound that gives you new discoveries at each listen. Tin is a multi-layered onion, but what do we find when we peel back the layers?

When we peel back the layers in Tin, we find melancholy. The last track, “Devonport,” is the most peeled-back song off the album, with Lam primarily using a piano and his voice as instruments. The tonal qualities of Lam’s voice are a little like what happens when you talk after having cried for a bit. Yet I wouldn’t call his voice whiny; it’s way too beautiful for that. The track’s slow pace, raw use of the piano, and emotional lyrics soldify the somber sound of the song. Over and over, “It burns,” repeats throughout the track. The song then comes toward an end with an array of eerie vocals and closes on the piano.

Tin’s soothing, emotive sound and interesting instrumentation come together to create an EP I could forever listen to on repeat.–Krisann Janowitz

Nonsemble / Jonas Friddle and the Majority

April 21, 2016

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Classical music has a long history of being intense; The Rite of Spring nearly caused a riot on its debut. But “intense,” “aggressive,” and “forceful” are probably not words many people think of when thinking of music for strings today. Enter Nonsemble, a chamber orchestra from Australia. Their Spaceship Earth EP wrecks expectations left and right, from their inclusion of kit drums to their revolving cast of vocalists to their powerful arrangements.

“Bricks” moves from an oddly syncopated piano line supported by kit drums to a roaring high point with dramatic strings and Shem Allen belting out “Monsters!” at the top of his lungs. “Trucksea” also gets pretty wild at its conclusion. “Sovereign Murders” (not your grandpa’s classical music titles here) includes speedy violin bowing and abstract, almost math-rock patterns for the rest of the strings. When a hip-hop kit beat comes in, the song is something completely other: Nonsemble has transcended the labels of chamber orchestra and indie-rock altogether.

Even when Nonsemble chooses to conform to the traditional understanding of chamber-pop with rapidfire pizzicato notes and delicate melodies (“Sonambulists”), they do with such fervor and panache that it doesn’t feel like anything else happening. If you’re into strings, adventurous listening, or Joanna Newsom-style re-imagining of what indie-rock means, Spaceship Earth should be on your radar.

JonasFriddleandthemajority

X and the Ys is a fluid concept with two poles: “X writes everything but has played with the same backing band for years and is giving them some love” on one end and “this is really one band that writes all the songs together from the ground up” on the other. Every X and the Ys is constantly in the process of moving toward one pole and away from the other. Jonas Friddle and the Majority is moving closer to the “one band” concept, which is probably partly why their latest record is a self-titled one. As a result of this full-band focus, Jonas Friddle and the Majority is a big record, full of horns, strings, vocalists, and fun.

Another tip-off that The Majority had a much bigger role on this record than in Friddle’s previous work: they re-record two of Friddle’s tunes from the last double-album. “Belle de Louisville” and “String to a Bell” include much more of the band, letting Friddle’s banjo songwriting become the foundation instead of the focus. “String to a Bell” does this slowly, bringing in parts incrementally before opening up into a horns/strings/bass/drums jam (completely with a Mountain Goats-esque “whoo!” from Friddle). The results sound like a more jovial version of The Collection. “Belle de Lousville” integrates the band more thoroughly into a dense, unified arrangement throughout (although Friddle can’t resist a big “whoa!” here either–gosh, it must be fun watching this show live).

Elsewhere The Majority pulls back from Friddle’s role as “troubadour with some people backing him” and embraces the idea of a full-band outfit. The rhythmic “Hook and Harness” sounds like a slightly more country-rock version of a Illinois-era Sufjan track. “Music Wherever I Go” and single “Sugar Moon” are giddy pop-folk-country tunes that also have some Sufjan-esque wide-eyed wonder running through them. (“Sugar Moon” has a charming percussion joke in it.) “Live in This World” sounds like The Majority wandered onto the set of a Western and was asked to make a brass-heavy Buddy Cop Sitcom theme song for it. (No apologies for that explanation.) Right when you get used to their giddy fusions, “And Your Bird Can Sing” is just a country song. Sort of. I can say for sure that “Corina’s Lullaby” is a tender lullaby.

All throughout Jonas Friddle and the Majority, horns, strings, backing vocalists, percussion, and probably the kitchen sink are melded together into jubilant, exciting songs. It’s very different than Friddle’s previous work, so those expecting more of his troubadour work should be warned that this is a full band now, and they do full band things. If you’re on board for a wild, fun ride, then you shouldn’t have any concerns or worries as The Majority pulls through the curves and loops of its rollercoaster.

Trio: Midnight Pilot / Marc with a C / Trevor Green

March 31, 2016

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Midnight Pilot has spent a lot of time since their last release listening to new music. Their latest EP The Good Life expands on their previous alt-country-meets-Paul-Simon palette in all directions, throwing in sunshiny indie-pop melodies, Dawes-ian roots rock, and even some Muse-esque high drama rock. Listeners are in for some sharp lefts and unexpected detours, but they’ll end up with a smile nonetheless.

The opening cut makes their new approach obvious from the getgo, as “Offer Up My Love” has a “woo-woo-ooo” chorus that will put you in a breezy Southern California mood. It’s dropped right into their roots-rock verses, which isn’t as jarring as it would seem from writing that out. The rock has an American tinge, like Ivan and Alyosha’s. The title track is even more wide-open rock’n’roll, a major-key romp that declares: “I’m living the good life / nothing comes easy / I’m living the good life / for free / yeah-yeah / yeah-yeah.”

Things get a bit darker on “Follow Where You Lead,” which has disco vibes in the bass rhythms and stabbing string style, but has some Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois approaches to background vocals in the intro. The chorus is a bit sunnier than the minor key verses, but still the song has “drama” written over it. This is most spectacularly evident in the deconstructed bridge section, which drops to almost nothing before ramping up to an almost Muse-esque wall of noise. Closer “You’re My Friend” splits the difference between major and minor keys with some ’80s influences and Beach Boy ba-da-da-das. It’s eclectic, but it all hangs together.

The Good Life is an EP that shows a band experimenting and maturing rapidly. To hold together as many influences as they’ve included in this EP while still maintaining a recognizable core sound is no easy feat for any band. That all of the four songs are enjoyable is even more impressive; these aren’t just technical feats, they’re enjoyable ones. If you’re into good ‘ol American music, check out Midnight Pilot’s latest.

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Marc with a C is a pop culture-addicted goofball with an insightful eye on culture at large. He’s the sort of guy who can and will critique the unspoken presumptions of our culture (“Ethics in Gaming”–a Gamergate reference, but the song isn’t about Gamergate), dedicate a whole song to an elaborate dick joke (“The Ballad of Dick Steel”), incisively analyze interpersonal relationships (“Epic Fail”), ask the hard questions that we all wonder about under the guise of joking statements (“Where’s My Giant Robot”) and suckerpunch listeners with a beautiful love song that includes one of the best twists I’ve heard in a long time (“Make You Better”) in one album. All that right there is enough to commend Unicorns Get More Bacon to you.

The music is solid too.  The bulk of the tunes on Unicorns Get More Bacon are stripped down power-pop tunes played on electric or acoustic guitar, although towards the end Marc invests in some larger arrangements to go with some of his longer songs. The tunes have hummable melodies and instruments that don’t get in the way of the lyrics or the melodies, which is important–this album is pretty squarely about the lyrics.

This is also a bit of a “solo” record; you want to hear this one on your own to get to know it and love it. Or, you can get to know it with friends who will learn the lyrics and sing along with you very loudly. That would work too. But it’s not a record that works as background music–Marc with a C wants to talk with you on Unicorns Get More Bacon, and if you’re interested in Marc’s fourth-wall-breaking, here-there-and-everywhere lyrical style, you’ll have a great time in that conversation.

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Trevor Green‘s Voice of the Wind is somewhat like an Indigenous Australian Graceland; the Californian Green, who already included didgeridoo in his music, actually traveled to Australia to learn more about the music of that country before making this album. The songs are a mix of laidback folk, Australian music, and modern indie-rock touches.

The main difference from Graceland is that Paul Simon wanted to make a pop record that celebrated South African sounds with his own, very American lyrics on top–Green’s songs draw heavily not only from the sounds of the land, but the lyrics and religious themes of the land. The second difference is in seriousness: Voice sounds more like The Shepherd’s Dog-era Iron & Wine than a pop record, as the folk and Australian sounds mesh in ways that evoke Sam Beam’s attempts at expanding his intimate sound to include more instruments.

This means that the album is by turns incredibly intense and then very solemn; tunes like “Red Road” are a breath of fresh air next to tunes which sound like Tusk-era Fleetwood Mac. But throughout the whole record, there’s a very clear sense of being outside the normal bounds of what acoustic music is generally like. If you’re adventurous, Trevor Green’s Voice of the Wind is a trip worth taking.

March MP3s: Acoustic

March 5, 2016

Acoustic

1. “Days With Wings” – Black Balsam. In a post-Mumford world, folk-pop is seen with some suspicion. Tunes as genuinely engaging and fun as this one should help with the fears of those who are over-banjoed.

2. “Sugar Moon” – Jonas Friddle. Folk-pop can also regain its footing by not taking itself too seriously, and Friddle’s artwork of a man playing a banjo that turns into a pelican by the end of the fretboard is a good start. The tune itself sounds like Illinois-era Sufjan mashed up with a Lumineers track at a Beirut concert. In other words, it pulls from everywhere and ultimately becomes a Friddle tune. Totally stoked for this album.

3. “Star of Hope” – Mairearad Green (feat. King Creosote). Green is what Frightened Rabbit would sound like if they weren’t constantly thinking about death: chipper, major-key, acoustic-led indie-rock led by a vocalist with an unapologetically Scottish accent. It’s just fantastic.

4. “We’ll Live” – Stephen Douglas Wolfe. Wolfe’s tenor voice carries this alt-country tune with great aplomb. The pedal steel also provides a great amount of character here.

5. “Only Time” – Ryan Downey. I know you’re not going to believe this, but this is a multitracked-vocals-and-clapping version of the Enya staple. It seems remarkably honest in its intentions, and it’s remarkably engaging as a result. You think you’ve seen it all, and then…

6. “If I Could Fly Away” – Alan Engelmann. The warm brightness of this acoustic pop song makes me think of the spring with a great longing.

7. “Where Am I?” – Amy Virginia. A clear, bright voice cutting across a stark folk frame makes for engaging listening.

8. “Either Way” – Sorority Noise. We’ve come a long, long way from “Good Riddance” on the punk-bands-with-acoustic-guitars front: Cam Boucher’s musing on suicide and loss is a heartrendingly beautiful, spare tune that can fit right next to any early Damien Jurado track (who, of course, was once a punk with an acoustic guitar).

9. “The Curse (Acoustic)” – The Eastern Sea. An intimate performance of rapid fingerpicking and emotional vocals. Not much more I could ask for.

10. “Prologue” – Letters to You. A gentle, pensive acoustic ditty expands into a beauty-minded post-rock bit.

11. “what if i fall in love (with you)” – Isaac Magalhães. A soothing, nylon-stringed guitar performance matches a bedroom-pop, lo-fi vocal performance to create something deeply personal-sounding. Impressionistic RIYLs: Iron and Wine and Elliott Smith.

12. “Most of the Time I Can’t Even Pay Attention” – Crocodile. An off-the-cuff sort of air floats through this one, as if you showed up at your friend’s house and he was already playing a song, so you let him finish and then you both go off to hang out. The lyrics are a bit heavy, but the soft, kind vocal performance calms me anyway. It won’t ask too much of you, but it gives you a lot if you’re into it. You could end up writing a lot about it, you know?

13. “Pickup Truck” – Avi Jacob. It’s hard to quantify maturity, but it’s sort of a mix between knowing your skills, knowing how to maximize them, and not trying to push beyond that. It’s the “sweet spot.” Avi Jacobs hits it here, putting accordion, piano, fingerpicked guitar, and female background vocals into an arrangement that perfectly suits his just-a-bit-creaky-around-the-edges voice. From the first second to the last, it hits hard. Keep a close watch on Jacob.

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

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