Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Phratry Week: State Song

July 22, 2011

Phratry‘s State Song has one of the strangest RIYLs I’ve ever seen: The Shins, Sunny Day Real Estate and Ziggy Stardust. I almost entirely disagree with The Shins reference, as there is nothing quirky, warm or bubbly about Dear Hearts & Gentle People whatsoever. Even when I sub in Death Cab for Cutie (a more appropriate RIYL), that’s still one of the weirdest lists ever.

But they are all real elements of State Song’s sound. The modus operandi of State Song’s members is to make songs that have the intensity and aesthetics of rock songs, but the drama and melodies of pop songs. The mix also skews more toward the vocal-centric engineering of pop music. The band that most closely appropriated this style was Deja Entendu-era Brand New, making that album the ultimate (if a bit esoteric) RIYL. Tunes like “4-6prn” move from from nuanced, quiet pop songs to an all-out rock attack, capped off by the mournful roar of Scot Torres.

Torres has the sort of voice I adore. His is on the high end of baritone, so he can ratchet up to a mindblowing intensity without succumbing to a whiny tone.  His comfortable range is somewhere around where most people talk, but he can command a muscly tone that borders on a scream (“Highway Machine (Loud Version)”) when he wants to make a point. But when he’s just singing comfortably, his voice sounds weary and real (“Skeleton Key”). If the voice is what makes pop music, he’s got a voice to make it happen.

The songs are brilliant as well; from the emo-rock of opener “Blank Lake” to the supremely Death Cab-esque chill of “The Concierge,” the songs are instantly enjoyable. In addition to its immediacy, it has staying power: It’s a rare album where each song reveals its own wonders, while still hanging together in a cohesive mood. “Houses” drops in some synths that create great atmosphere before the song explodes into throat-shredding, distortion-crushing angst. Then it goes back. “Dig” sounds like a tougher Bright Eyes, which is a huge compliment from over here.

Dear Hearts & Gentle People is an excellent album. Not much rock has impressed me this year, as it’s all just the same old same old.  But State Song‘s ten-song collection brings vitality to their songwriting and thus is currently sitting atop the list of “best rock in 2011.” Fans of Brand New will be all over this. Can we get the bands on tour together? Kthx.

The Seldon Plan's mature songwriting creates an impressive listen

January 24, 2011

I’ve never wanted to be in a stadium-booking arena band. I’ve always wanted, had I my dream, to be in a band beloved by an enthusiastic local community, perhaps 150 people. That way they would be able to pack out a small venue and sing along at the top of their lungs. That’s all I really want.

I don’t know if that’s The Seldon Plan‘s goal or not, but they’re the type of band that I’d like to be when I accomplish that dream. They play solid, mature songs that straddle the line between pop-rock and indie-pop; just enough cohesive song structures and production values for the former, just enough wistful moods and slow-building melodies to appropriate the former. This band is full of guys who have tons of experience writing songs (as proven by their previous releases), and I wouldn’t be surprised if they had tons of previous bands to their names as well. They know what they’re doing, and they’re doing it well.

“Fool’s Gold” builds from a kick-snare-kick-kick-snare plod to a whirling, full tune. It’s complex without being complicated, tight without being sterile. The band knows when to let things space out. This discipline gives “Fool’s Gold” and the rest of the tunes here breathing room, which results in a very comfortable listening experience.

The tunes have the kind of cathartic melodies and lyrics that late ’90s “emo” bands like The Promise Ring and Sunny Day Real Estate were trying to capture, but without all the burdensome youthful drama. It has the strong emotive instrumentals that bands like American Football were trying to capture, but without repetitiveness driving the point home. The Seldon Plan trusts its listeners to be like they are: older, well-versed, appreciative of the little things without being told to be so.

That trust makes the background vocals in “Starlette Pendant” great; they appear briefly, quietly, but with meaning. The mix of “Our Time In Rockland County” favors the clanging rhythm guitar over the twinkly lead guitar and ba-ba-ba background vocals, but both hidden elements bring an extra level to the song. Closer “A Letter to Satie” buries a keyboard in the chorus that enhances the mood. Those touches show that these aren’t nice pop/rock tunes; they’re deeply thought-out, planned and organized tunes, which is something much better.

The Seldon Plan’s latest set is easily the best that I’ve heard from them. They’ve grown into a sound and a style that makes the best of their skills and talents. This album is a gem that should not be overlooked by anyone listening for true musicianship and song craftsmanship. I don’t know what their ambitions are, but if they were in my hometown, I’d go see them whenever I could. And I’d sing along.

Contribute to their Kickstarter campaign to make a vinyl of the album here.

This Fair City decided to throw a viola into the power-pop blender

April 1, 2009

What happens when pop-rock in the heritage of Sunny Day Real Estate collides with an oft-haunting viola? Portland-based This Fair City is one place to begin looking for an answer. The edge of their sound falters between hard and soft, as a large part of their sound plays off contrasting elements: clean guitar obligattos versus thickly distorted power chords; lower-register sneers versus long-drawn falsetto; electric instruments versus a stray chamber orchestra voice. That is not to say that those pairs are irreconcilable, and thus the question becomes, “Can This Fair City pull that off?” At times, yes, they do. Although at other times, potential overshadows execution.

The opening track, “what comes our way,” opens with a dark, legato viola line from Brandi “Charlotte” Grahek, followed by tight, melodic interaction between two guitars–a la Emery–to add texture. Jason Charles Franklin’s vocals choose a surprising moment in which to quietly enter, giving a first taste of the intriguing interplay between viola and vocals that inhabits the rest of the album. One wonders exactly who the primary melodic voice is. Such contrasts in timbre between the traditional rock instruments and the viola weaves the entire album together. The effect rewards attentive listening, as the conflict and ambiguity between voices enhances the listening experience.

The most impressive element of the opening track is its density: for better or worse, each instrument is heavily involved in the piece. Franklin’s scream (he averages about one per song) near the end of the piece sounds slightly too forced and, at worst, dishonest, as can some of his lyrics. Franklin’s upper register, to which he easily ascends, resounds with varieties of emotional texture. His falsetto, of which he is in superb control, is incredibly impressive and moving. The piece finishes with a net gain in energy. What comes the listener’s way in the opening track is an honest preview of the general “sound” of This Fair City.

The next track–“tonight we’re running back”–follows right on the heels of its precedent, but brings us starkly (and effectively) down into a mellow mood. Here, This Fair City exhibits its penchant for creating moments of complex texture, interweaving multiple guitar lines (played by Franklin and Travis Schultz), viola obligattos, and vocal harmonies while the rhythm section provides a dependable point of reference. (See also the bridge and last ninety seconds of “thank you mr. king,” the rhythm section on “always,” and the layering of instruments that begins “associated press.”)

Stephen Burnett plays a richly solid bass guitar throughout the album. He avoids the common problems of rock bassists and excels at playing primarily rhythmic bass lines without being overbearing and, what is more, without sacrificing tonality and expression. His rhythmic partner, drummer Robin Marshall, exhibits consistency. Yet at times that consistency and reliability bleeds into repetition and an over-reliance on particular patterns and fills. However, Marshall’s playing is nothing short of tasteful on “associated press” and what I consider to be their best composition, the closing track, “in transit.”

Their last presentation to the listener exceeds the rest. “in transit” departs from the standard verse/chorus structure and the composition shows that, although This Fair City can hammer out measures in distorted and energetic unison, the band has an awareness of the power of nuance. A pluralism of voices slides deftly in and out of perception. The members draw a wide variety of tones and moods from their instruments, challenging the straightforwardness of previous tracks. The mood of the piece is at once impenetrable and self-evident. It moves fluently within its subdued nature. The title is apt; the song feels transitive. In fact, “in transit” is a fitting metonymy for This Fair City: it goes places, but is fittingly cyclical…and the viola gets the final word. –Max Thorn

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

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