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 Stone, which 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.
I’ve been listening to Josh Caress for almost a decade now, through dozens of mentions on this blog, half a dozen albums, and two Kickstarter campaigns (his own for Come On Pilgrim! and mine for the Never Give Up project). Caress’ Little Lights is the sonic culmination of the last ten years that Caress has invested in creating lush, gorgeous work.
New listeners can jump in right here at Little Lights and experience an incredible album of beautifully-arranged indie-pop/singer-songwriter work–“When I Drove Across the Country” is as moving an 11 minutes as you could hope to hear. But for those who’ve been tracking with Caress’ catalog, there’s a wealth of connections, tip-offs, and tributes to ponder. “When I Drove” is the chronological and emotional centerpiece of the record, a sweeping travelogue that calls to mind the lyrics of Josh Caress Goes on an Adventure. The sonic palette is a wide-screen, romantic reading of the night sky that updates the template of the magnificent Letting Go of a Dream with crisper production and instrumentation while still creating great clouds of sound. That template is overlaid with digital blips called out of Perestroika, which lend an extra level of depth to the landscape. The central lyrical image of the travelogue is actually a domestic scene of the narrator having breakfast with his young son instead of being out on the road–shades of the family life present in The Rockford Files.
All of that comes together in one deeply affecting 11-minute opus that successfully pushes the bounds of what Caress is capable of. The arrangement is complex over the life of the song, building and fading out to emphasize elements: the central moment is delivered by just an acoustic guitar and Caress’ reverb-laden voice, before the song slowly grows back to a pivotal lyrical conclusion and long instrumental outro. The guitars, vocals, strings, synths, and piano that swirl their way through this tune are all played with a sophisticated, fine-tuned hand–the result is nothing less than stunning. There are songs before and after “When I Drove Across the Country,” but they all point to and lead away from this tune. “To Be Strong” is more overtly dramatic, while the title track is potentially more tightly arranged with the same instruments. But neither of those have such a strong synergy of lyrics, melodies, and arrangement. It’s a tour de force, especially if you’ve unwittingly watched it coming for a decade.
The only tune that gives “When I Drove Across the Country” a run for its money is its follow-up track (and polar opposite) “Feelings of Loss and Rejection (Are Not What You Think They Are).” Caress has never been afraid of using plain language for big emotions–where he delves deep into wordplay and scene-painting in “When I Drove,” he prefers to lay it out plain in this one: “I know it’s real / and I know it hurts / I know the suffering / I know what it’s worth.” The fact that the word “worth” connects with the word “cost” that appears in a critical soul-searching moment of “When I Drove” makes it even better. If you need some catharsis, Caress has some for you with this tune.
And not just lyrically, either–“Feelings of Loss and Rejection (Are Not What You Think They Are)” is a triumphant, jubilant indie-rock tune that makes me think of Bruce Springsteen leading The Arcade Fire (and recalls the full band sound of Perestroika). Starting with thumping toms and a great electric guitar line, the song bursts into snare rolls and synth licks, great ideas just stacked on top of great ideas. It’s a testament to a decade of songwriting that this doesn’t descend into chaos. Instead, it ratchets up to a hair-raising, spine-tingling moment when Caress howls out “Come up to the mountain! / Would you offer me the world?” over an all-out tempest. It’s the sort of thing that I didn’t know I wanted until I heard it, and then I couldn’t get enough. It’s the sort of thing I want to start getting hyperbolic about.
After the one-two punch of “When I Drove Across the Country” and “Feelings of Loss and Rejection (Are Not What You Think They Are),” the rest of album keeps the quality high. “Interlude (Across the Whole Desert Sky)” is particularly notable for introducing some weird arpeggiator effects that keep a mysterious edge to the album. “I Won’t Get This Low Again” is a highway rock song with some serious ’80s vibes going on. The intro and outro (a thing I deeply love from Letting Go of a Dream) set the scene beautifully. It’s just an incredible album.
Little Lights is the type of album we don’t get that often anymore: the album that is designed to be heard all in one sitting and (essentially) all as one song. There are almost no gaps in sound–this is a “through-composed” record, where each song blends into the next. As a result, it’s thoroughly cohesive musically and lyrically. (The lyrics seem to be a long goodbye to “all that” and a hello to a new life.) When we critics say something is a statement, we often mean that the effort expended is extraordinary and that the results are a calling card. Little Lights is a statement of a different type: it actually has something to say, musically and lyrically. It’s a rare treat to hear an artist on top of their game: check out Little Lights to get the experience. —Stephen Carradini
Another mixtape! This one’s predominantly dark indie rock, instrumental hip-hop, and lush indie.
0. “Need Parmesan” – Pjaro. From the surrealistically named Why Is No One Here I Can Make You Alt comes a crazy instrumental indie-rock piece that’s like a post-rock piece if Two Gallants were trying to play the genre and out of frustration they gave up and played really loud. This one’s surprising and intriguing.
1. “Waiting” – Program. Remember the mid ’00s, when everything was super-epic because The Arcade Fire ruled and everyone wanted to be like them? I loved that time. Program remember that time well, with synths and toms and all the right stops’n’starts.
2. “Liar Liar” – Vienna Ditto. Someday, all genres will be one genre, and I’ll be out of a job. Until then, it’s my job to tell you that tribal drums, Portishead-style vocals and swaggering guitar riffs come together for some crazy, gripping music here.
3. “View of My Sanity” – Anna Lena and the Orchids. Another singer/songwriter indebted to the icy soundscapes and incisive vocals of Portishead, another beautiful tune.
4. “Endless Possibilities” – The Boxing Lesson. Space rock that consumed an orchestra? Sign me up.
5. “Proto” – Ryan Hemsworth. This one comes from Mitsuda, the hip-hop tribute to video game soundtrack creator Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono Trigger). YES TO THE YES.
6. “I Still Think of You From Time to Time” – Louville. Trombones, pulsing beats, and wiry synths come together to form … euphoric electronica? Whatever, just roll with its beauty.
7. “Nothing Left to Say” – Poldoore. Super cool heist movies, take notice: here’s a candidate for your next soundtrack inclusion.
8. “Staying In” – Ola Podrida. Mysterious tune that kinda sounds like a dungeon level soundtrack, until the beautiful chorus kicks in.
9. “Chinese Paper Cuts” – Own Goal. The sparse instrumentation creates a unique indie-soul atmosphere that will appeal to fans of The Antlers.
10. “Blue Elvis” – Peals. It sounds like two guys sitting on the porch making beautiful, low-key, beautiful instrumental music because they can. I dig it.
11. “Seven” – Qualia. Loose, chill, moving post-rock that evokes The Album Leaf, lazy Saturday afternoons and/or epic realizations. Wonderful stuff.
Indie rock is not a very good term. As I have noted before, it doesn’t really delineate anything very effectively when used as a blanket term. But there is a sense in which “indie rock” means something: it’s that type of music which The Walkmen, The Arcade Fire, and Brave Baby play. I mean, how else can you explain those first two bands? And Brave Baby is in the same mold.
Brave Baby‘s debut Forty Bells is not just good: it sets the bar for the rest of the year’s releases. With crashing, glorious tunes like “Foxes and Dogs,” “Cooper River Night,” and “Lakeside Trust,” the trio has made a huge mark on my mind to start off the year.
“Lakeside Trust” is the most immediate of the tunes, as it meshes jangling electric guitar, steady acoustic guitar, impressively spry bass lines, driving drums and a horns-like synth into a tune that feels like the Arcade Fire and Fleetwood Mac got together with Springsteen to make a tune for your American convertible to blare with the top down. Special notice needs to be given to the bassist, who really makes the song with his swagger. At track four, it’s the first real sign that Brave Baby has something special going on.
“Cooper River Night” incorporates some Walkmen yowl and ominous-or-is-it? guitar jangle into their sound, foregrounding the excellent vocal contributions. (I hummed this one for a while.) But it’s “Foxes and Dogs” that leaves the deepest impression. The mid-tempo tune starts off with a choir, clapping and world-weary lead vocals before exploding into a tune that gives “Lakeside Trust” a run for its money in epic scope and sprawl. The synths (or are they horns this time?) play a huge role here, pushing the tune over the top. It’s the sort of song that makes the world seem a bit brighter than it was before you were listening to the tune.
Other tunes have memorable turns as well: “Last Gold Rush” has a really nice bass and drums groove, while title track “Forty Bells” has a powerful vocal hook. “Grandad” has a lackadaisical vibe that is vaguely reminiscent of the band Grandaddy, which is a cool coincidence.
Forty Bells is a sweeping, moving album that feels like a complete statement. I review a lot of albums that are trying to get there, but Forty Bells is a fully-realized album that does what it wants to do. Love it or hate it, but this is Brave Baby. I love it, and I think a lot of other people will like this too. Do yourself a favor and meet up with “Lakeside Trust.”
We all knew it would come to this someday. If a guy starts out his band by announcing, “I’m losing my edge,” there must come a point where he feels he’s lost it. If he’s smart, he feels the final slide before everyone else and gets out early. James Murphy is a very smart man.
I mean, how many people go out by playing a showthrowing a party in Madison Square Garden? No one does that. I couldn’t steel myself to quit while the number of people necessary to fill MSG still cared deeply about my band. People flew in from other continents to see this spectacle, because James Murphy is an incredibly brilliant musician.
And if that musicianship isn’t necessarily the point of the Madison Square Garden show, it’s at least on display by proxy. Other than an adrenaline-spiking drum solo in the amazing version of “Yeah,” Murphy’s contribution to the music during the show consists of vocals* – except that he wrote or arranged everything in the nearly three-hour set.
Even that seems ambiguous to me. How much does a gajillion-piece band contribute to a sound? How much do they bring to the table? How does the indie-rockin’ “Daft Punk is Playing at My House” turn into the dance-punk fiesta that it was at that show? I know The London Sessions significantly transformed it, but this is something else again. I never saw James Murphy live, so I’ll never know how the transition happened – because not enough people in Oklahoma like LCD Soundsystem for the band to have ever stepped foot in this state.
Transformation aside, the songs here are transcendent. These songs are the epitome of a band on top of its game: from “Home” to “Someone Great” to “Dance Yrself Clean” to even “45:33,” every era of LCD sounds more vital than it ever has. I would say the band was killing it, but they’re not: they’re bringing life to all of it. “Tribulations” appropriates the most timeless elements of the early 2000s dance-rock movement (catchy bass lines, perky drumming, squelching synths) and discards the pretension and mock aggression for a sober look at a relationship and a nation. How do you do that, James Murphy?
But if you’re a LCD fan, you already know the brilliance of his lyrics and songwriting; you’d like to know about this time, this way, this show. And rightfully so. If you haven’t heard LCD yet, here’s a recommendation: this was one of the best dance bands that ever existed. And I’m not saying that ’cause they’re gone. I was saying that while they were happening. I was there.
(Somewhere, Murphy is laughing that all we can say about his band now is what he already said about his band. There’s another clear indicator that he was the cleverest songwriter of our generation – and I am obsessed with The Mountain Goats.)
So, this time, this way, this show: the band sounds laser-guided. The bootleg is of astonishingly good quality, which could be a tribute to the taper (Pitchfork, in some way or fashion), the massive MSG sound system or both. Murphy doesn’t lose an ounce of energy or voice quality in 25+ songs (depending on how you count the massive “45:33”). This sounds like a band doing a victory lap on a huge tour, not a final gig. Just check the swagger of “Us vs. Them,” which was not really there in the original recording, or that of “All My Friends,” which is once again a revelation. And that’s because Murphy is victory lappin’. Right off into the sunset of performing.
Because no matter how much the band makes the Madison Square Garden show just rip, the last LCD Soundsystem gig will always be about Murphy. He does all the talking and almost all the freaking out, except when Arcade Fire gets in on “North American Scum,” and when the band sings magnificently on the high point of “Losing My Edge.”
And that’s the moment: as the band members sing “LA!!” at the top of their lungs, Murphy starts the signature move of screaming out band names. At first, you can’t even really hear him due to the volume of the “background” singers. The kids are coming up from behind, indeed.
The crazy thing about this show is that it does an end-run on mortality: we are always losing our edge. We are always rushing toward our end. We have our bright, shining moments, and then our edge is dulled until we are gone. Murphy is severing the fall; before he can dull, he disappears. That’s what is being documented here. There will never be a regrettable LCD Soundsystem cash grab release, as others have noted. That’s an incredible legacy to leave on a musical front.
But the legacy to leave on a lyrical front is an even more lasting and impressive one. Not only did James Murphy observe culture well, he observed himself well. He knew when the gig was up. He invested what we thought was everything in LCD Soundsystem. But he apparently didn’t; LCD is gone, and Murphy’s still kicking. There was something else that drove him, something deeper than LCD that made LCD tick. Perhaps is just purely a love of music. (Given his decision to keep DJing and rumors of him producing records, this is a fair guess.) Perhaps it’s something else.
But I know that as I head toward my mid-twenties, the concept of “Losing My Edge” will dawn on me. And I’ll have to deal with it. Maybe not for xx more years at that point, but I’ll have to start thinking. I pray that I’ll keep a firm grasp on that which grounds me outside of music. Because we are all losing our edge, and we need to deal with it. We can’t stay sharp forever, but James Murphy quit trying to be sharp while he is known for it. There’s proof of it now; when mortality comes for him, no one will be able to knock how sharp his edge was.
*and I think cowbell, but I wasn’t there, so I can’t see who’s doing it; and there’s no way I’m torturing myself with video of this event.
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 dearly departed 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.
In part two of my “Oh snap, I haven’t reviewed this?!” find, I have a comp from Bright as Night Records called The Bright Side…/The Night Side… It got sent to me as the same time as Hot Victory‘s Vol. 1, which is why Hot Victory’s “Beach…That’s Too Bad” appears on this comp (side note: that’s not the track’s name on the iTunes page for Vol. 1, but it is the name listed on the press sheet here).
As the title would suggest, the A side is The Bright Side, consisting of pop and upbeat rock tunes. The Night Side (side B) consists of darker punk and hardcore tracks. The whole comp is decidedly lo-fi, which is great for The Bright Side but kinda terrible for the Night Side.
Vanishing Kids contribute the opener, which is really a bridge between the Bright and the Night. “Heathen Heart” is a chaotic, jagged indie-rock nightmare that counts as one of the best tracks here. It’s crazy. Street Pyramids’ “World’s Apart” is another of the Bright Side highlights, as the dreamy, fuzz-heavy track is a great chill-out tune. The female vocals drift in and out, making a great song even better. Enough Static’s buzzing electro-pop “Our Addiction” sounds like German electro-pop fronted by the lead singer of the Arcade Fire. It’s a bit odd, but it’s a good track.
Smithsick‘s woozy “My Last Stand” provides a nice segue as The Night Side kicks off. It’s not as ominous as it wants to be, but it’s a good tune. Right after that is the best track on this side: Tornado Attack‘s “Cowardly Conformist.” The thrashy, snare-heavy punk features growly hardcore vocals and moves at two speeds: fast and faster. The dark, fast, mid-to-lo-fi aggressive punk tune sets the tone for the rest of the songs on the Night Side, although none match up to the quality of Tornado Attack. Omega Weapon’s appropriately-titled “The Dance Song” pulls off dance-punk with a snotty, abrasive attitude. It’s a highlight as well. The rest of the tunes don’t fare as well, suffering from disjointed songwriting to annoying found sounds to just plain weird ideas.
Confession: if you have a cool name, I will listen to your band. I listened to White Dancer by Their Planes Will Block Out the Sun because, well, that’s a heck of a lot planes. Say it out loud. It just flows. See? Undeniably awesome.
Their music fits their name incredibly well, but not in the way I would expect. I expected some brooding, epic post-rock (perhaps only because the names Explosions in the Sky and Their Planes Will Block Out the Sun go together thematically). Instead, I found meticulously-crafted, calculated indie-rock.
The members of Planes have their sound down on this album. They start off with a mood cornerstone, like an arpeggiated guitar riff, a synthesizer, a piano line, or some combination of those. Then they build on it. A snappy, precise drummer adds the backbone of the sound. Buoyant bass lines bring a lot of energy to the otherwise very organized sound. The guitars add a layer of mood, not often strumming consistently. The vocals dispatch the lyrics with a disaffected, almost sinister intonation. When the band takes darker turns, the vocals truly get pointed, but throughout there’s an underlying disdain and sarcasm that comes through in the lyrics and/or the melodies.
The whole sound is incredibly tight. It’s hard to compare to, because none of the comparisons are exactly correct. “The Flood, The Dead, The Escape” brings to mind the Arcade Fire. “How I Learned to Love the Bomb” makes me think Muse. If Coldplay’s X&Y scrubbed the majority of its emotions, the synthesizer-laden interlocking parts would resemble White Dancer. If the epic aspirations and huge guitar washes of OK Computer were removed, the stark, cold sound left might be somewhat akin to Planes. Planes’ songwriting doesn’t match that of either Coldplay or Radiohead (because of the aforementioned parts that would have to be removed for the comparisons to work), but that’s the track that Planes is on. They aren’t making warm, fuzzy pop music; they’re making serious music. They mean it, and it shows.
So, if you’re a fan of any of the aforementioned bands, you will find things to like in Their Planes Will Block Out The Sun. It’s not the most joyous music in the world, but it’s a meticulously crafted, very well-done release. They know their idiom, they have their niche, and they’re churning out the tunes the way they want to. Unique and enjoyable indie-rock.
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.