Mourning itself is so personal that it is largely insulated from standard interpretation of people’s actions: unbeatable legends stumble and expectations falter. It is so hard to deal with that some people would rather call it a mental illness. Some people write albums in response. Grief albums are not common (at least, not near as common as breakup albums), but they do exist. The Collection’s Ars Moriendi is a revelatory example. However, grief albums are uncommonly hard to review. How do you explain the sound of someone’s ache, nevermind judge whether it’s good or not? Yet people who write about music are called upon to do this from time to time, and JPH‘s Songs of Lossis the latest call to somehow muddle through.
Songs of Loss would be hard to explain even if it weren’t so openly dealing with the loss of the artist’s father. The music itself draws a triangle between outsider atonality and erratic rhythm (“Song 7,” “Song 2”), ambient electro-acoustic music (“Song 8,” “Song 4”), and atypical but recognizable singer-songwriter work (“Song 1,” “Song 6”). Each individual song leans toward one point of the triangle, but the traces of each influence stamp themselves on every piece. Imagine if LCD Soundsystem had committed to only using acoustic instruments but still wanted to make the same sort of rhythms, or if Jandek had become dancier. These are strange things to try to imagine, I am aware.
There’s one other connection to LCD Soundsystem: “Someone Great” is the rare song that sees an artist obviously deep in the mourning process turning out complex, idiosyncratic work that fits within a pre-existing ouerve. (“I Hope You Die” by Wye Oak also falls in this category.) JPH’s work here is raw with grief: the lyrics of each tune, insofar as they exist, are specifically about questions of death and dying. But the work is also carefully developed within a specific vision. Jordan Hoban’s modus operandi on this release is to create a drone and manipulate what goes on atop it. However, the drones are unusual, as “Song 0” loops a hiccuping tom-and-snare-rim beat; “Song 3” puts a distant casio on repeat; “Song 6” uses a chanted lyric stream as the base for dissonant piano; and first part of “Song 8” builds a complicated ostinato from accordion, shaker, and palm-muted guitar. The 8 and a half minutes of “Song 8” are almost minimalist in a Reich-ian way, as the guitar noodling on top of the structure is almost more “variation” than riffing.
On top of those structures Hoban’s whispery voice alternates between talking, singing, and whispering. This is a very personal record, and so I am not going to talk about the lyrics at all beyond that. The overall effect of the instruments + lyrics is much different than a standard album. I am not much for the “art can create empathy with other people” argument, because not much art has ever made me feel like I was walking in other people’s shoes. However, the atypical musical environment and close proximity with the lyrics about death made me aware that I would definitely not have thought to create this. I am aware of being very near someone else’s experience of grief. But it’s not an overtly crushingly sad release; the sadness is omnipresent, but often in the spaces between the background and the frontmatter. There’s a palpable sense of absence that Hoban has carefully cultivated. Songs of Loss is an unique album that lets you enter into a grieving process both artistically and emotionally. That’s valuable time spent, regardless of whether you’ve been through a death recently.
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.
EPs are becoming more popular than ever, and I love the trend: there’s no room for filler on an EP. As a result, a lot of artists brought their A game to the smaller format this year. Here’s to them:
1. Thanks for All Your Patience – Brother Moses. (Review) I spun this one the most often because the easygoing, almost effortless indie-rock vibe gave rise to some seamless, indelible melodies. Clean, tight, clever, and earnest, I gravitated to this one early and often in 2015.
2. On Separation – David Wimbish. (Review) Wimbish, frontman of The Collection, stripped out some of the intricate arrangements of his day job for a more intimate set of portraits that focused in on the lyrics. Elegant, haunting, and beautiful.
3. Loca EP – Valley Shine. (Review) Folk-pop can be a formula these days, but Valley Shine is all about exploding the formula with raw enthusiasm, brash melodies, and surprising pathos.
6. Regards – We are the West. (Review) A wisp of an EP that barely has time to meet you before it’s gone, but oh does it deliver: this Low Anthem-style Americana sounds like a warm blanket around my ears.
7. Joe Kaplow EP – Joe Kaplow. (Review) One of my favorite debuts of the year, as Kaplow showed off his versatility in several different acoustic-based styles. Looking forward to more from Kaplow.
8. Away, Away – B. Snipes. (Review) Another excellent debut that introduces Snipes’ low-slung troubadour singer/songwriter voice to the world, taking the lyrics of Rocky Votolato in a more Americana direction.
David Wimbish‘s lyrics are incredible, but with so much going on in his 7-to-18-piece indie-rock orchestra The Collection, the lyrics sometimes take a backseat to the enormous amount of things going on around them. His solo EP On Separation strips away some (some) of the musicians to put the focus squarely on his voice and lyrics. The tender, gentle acoustic tunes that result will please fans of the Collection and gather new fans of quiet music under his wing.
In a nod to the solo nature of the work, Wimbish takes the time to write out some explanatory liner notes in the first person. In explaining the title, he writes, “Each song on On Separation deals with different aspects of disconnection, whether it be marital divorce experienced by my friends lately, or self-imposed loss of close friendships from the past.” To whit, standout “Circles and Lines” begins with, “Today she dropped the glass and shattered many things / and you had not yet thought of where you’d set your ring.” Yet not all of the lyrics are so literal, as Wimbish prefers to plumb the interior spaces of the involved parties and observers of the events (“A Ghost and A Scale,” “Back and Forth”). They’re complex, multi-layered lyrics, full of personal musings, places, and religious allusions: Cain and Abel make appearances in their eponymous tune, and the prodigal son makes a reappearance (from the Collection’s “Broken Tether”) in “Lost and Found.” Wimbish’s ability to turn a phrase that both sounds great and has meaning is in top form here.
These lyrics are paired with some of the most beautiful music Wimbish has yet written. “Circles and Lines” pairs the heavy lyrics against a beautiful, fingerpicked, cascading acoustic guitar line. The song builds to the loudest moment on the EP with the inclusion of strings and slapped cello for percussion, but it returns to its delicate roots for the conclusion of the tune. That underscores the approach here: while these are songs that deal with dramatic events, the overall tone and timbre of this EP is quiet and even understated at times (at least in comparison to the weightiness of the lyrics). The rhythms and string arrangement of “Back and Forth” seem a little like a Collection song with the bombast removed–the chiming autoharp of “A Ghost and a Scale” recalls his band as well. But other than those occasional flourishes, these songs do feel like a statement by Wimbish instead of stripped-out versions of full-band work. They’re elegant, not empty.
Part of the understatedness of the release is realized in the sharp focus that Wimbish puts on his voice delivering the lyrics, to the exclusion of complexity elsewhere. This is particularly true in “Cain and Abel,” which uses Wimbish’s voice as both lead and background vocals. Gentle marimba and cello occasionally show up, but this one’s about the voice. Wimbish’s tenor, so often used for roaring in The Collection’s work, is gorgeous in this quieter setting, as his range, tone, and nuances of delivery stand out. (All those are present in The Collection’s work, but as previously noted, there’s a lot more elements going on there.) His voice is soft, clear, and comforting–if you didn’t listen to the lyrics, these tunes would be the sort of thing to lull you peacefully to sleep.
David Wimbish’s On Separation is a beautiful EP that showcases a singer/songwriter with a clear sonic and lyrical vision. Fans of Damien Jurado, Josh Ritter, or Gregory Alan Isakov will find much to love in the music, while fans of the dense, thoughtful lyrics of The Mountain Goats or Sufjan Stevens’ Michigan/Illinois work will celebrate this one. Highly recommended.
Two years ago I ran a Kickstarter so I could pay the fees associated with compiling an album of my favorite bands playing The Postal Service’s music. (You can’t get Never Give Up from the usual sources, but I’m informed it is still out there on the torrents.) The Collection’s version of “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” kicked off the album in grand, enthusiastic fashion–I was honored to have such a complex, beautiful rendition open the project.
I get to be honored twice by the same song, because today the Collection have graciously allowed IC to premiere their video for “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight.” The 6-minute video includes seven of the Collection’s members creating a huge, textured sound. Overall, I am always impressed by their expert clarinet arrangements, played by Hope Baker; working a single woodwind into the mix of a rock band in a way that is both audible and meaningful is more difficult than you might imagine. (That’s spoken from experience.) David Wimbish’s powerful vocals also live up to their great potential here.
The best section of the video is the long instrumental bridge, where Hayden Cooke’s bass work really takes off. The forward motion of the energetic bass line gives a section that might get mired down in long instrumental crescendos a levity that takes the song from good to great. The bass and drums lock in perfectly, which grounds the work and allows the rest of the instruments to build. It’s an excellent arrangement of a wonderful song.
The Collection is headed out on tour later this April, hitting some of the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, and South. If they’re going to be in your area, you should really check them out: their live show is amazing.
I was watching Lonnie Walker open for the Collection (you may have heard me rave about them once or twice), and I noted to my wife that fuzzed-out guitar-based indie-rock has been immortal ever since its inception in the early ’80s. The Rutabega‘s new Shiny Destination 7″ provides more evidence for this claim: the duo make the sort of indie-rock that feels timeless and fresh at the same time.
The two songs here barely make it above five minutes collectively, but they pack a lot in to that small space. The title track opens with a fuzzy, warm, immediately relatable riff before kicking in the drums, which take up the bass and percussion roles in this outfit. The drums do their best to fill up the space with splashing cymbals, punk-inspired snare, and some surf-inspired vibes too. The drums and guitar can be described as surpassing “tight” and going straight on to fusion: it’s hard to imagine the tune without all the bits from each instrument. The vocals top it all off: hectic, nervous, jittery, but not abrasive or underconfident, they sell the track in tone and melody. It becomes the sort of indie anthem that you can feel in your bones, even if isn’t mixed so as to point out “YOU SHOULD RAISE YOUR FIST HERE!” Awkward pogoing should ensue.
“Ladder” continues the super-tight connection between guitar and drums in a slower, quieter vein. It’s not exactly a ballad, because of the guitar crunch, but it has some winsome, pensive, emotive qualities that make it more of a rainy-day guitar-rock tune than a party tune. The vocal melody shines here, as the vocalist put in some poignant melodic hooks that really hit me.
Guitar-rock needs to be in top form to catch my ear, because it’s everywhere. The Rutabega’s Shiny Destination 7″ is top-shelf guitar rock, deeply worthy of your attention–even if (especially if) you don’t believe there’s much good going on in the genre.
Without further adieu, numbers 1-10 in the best albums of the year.
Album of the Year: The Collection – Ars Moriendi. (Review) This album epitomizes the type of music I look for: intricate, complex arrangements of acoustic-led, folk-inspired indie-pop tunes with deeply thoughtful lyrics about life, death, and religion. The fact that you can shout along to half of the tunes only makes this more impressive. This was a no-contest winner for album of the year.
2. Kye Alfred Hillig – Real Snow. (Review) Temporarily shedding the acoustic singer/songwriter mantle, Hillig struck gold with a set of electro anthems cut through with his well-developed indie-pop songwriting techniques and evocative, thought-provoking lyrics. “None of Them Know Me Now” is the jaaaaaaam.
3. St. Even – Self-titled. (Review) I love concrete poetry that relies on images to portray meaning instead of adjectives. St. Even knocks that type of work out of the ballpark here, pairing it with playful, unexpected, herky-jerky, innovative arrangements of horns, piano, and strings. “Home Is Where You Hang Your Head” is a stand-out among stand-outs.
4. Brittany Jean and Will Copps – Places. (Review) Giant washes of sound meet indie-rock emotion over acoustic instruments to create something that’s not exactly electronica, indie-rock, or singer/songwriter. It hit me in unexpected ways, and always from unexpected angles.
5. The Fox and the Bird – Darkest Hours. (Review) The folk-pop boom is largely over, meaning that we can get back to people doing folk-pop because it’s their thing, not because it’s a trend. The Fox and the Bird produced the best straight folk-pop this year, both lyrically and musically. Challenging lyrics and breezy, easy-to-love music is a great combo for folk-pop, and Darkest Hours has both.
6. Cancellieri – Closet Songs. (Review) Welcome to Mount Pleasant was a gorgeous album, but this collection of demos, b-sides, and covers was the Cancellieri release that stole the most of my listening time this year. Ryan Hutchens’ delicate voice is beautifully juxtaposed against a single acoustic guitar, putting his songwriting, song re-envisionments, and impeccable taste in covers on display. A perfect chill-out album.
7. Little Chief – Lion’s Den. (Review) Arkansas folk-pop outfit Little Chief took the path trod by The Head and the Heart in creating chamber-pop arrangements to fit on their pastoral, rolling songwriting ways. The subtlety and maturity in the songwriting is astonishing from such a young outfit. If you need an album to drive around to in fall or winter, here’s your disc.
8. Novi Split – If Not This, Then What / Keep Moving Disc 2 / Spare Songs / Split. (Reviews) My favorite hyper-personal, intimate songwriting project got a massive bump in exposure this year. David J took the recordings of a decade that were spread about the internet and finally compiled them in one place. I’ve heard almost all of them before, but the fact that they’re official and can be easily accessed caused me to listen through them again. They’re all still amazing examples of painfully poignant bedroom singer/songwriter work. Do yourself a favor and get acquainted with Novi Split.
9. M. Lockwood Porter – 27. (Review) Porter’s second full-length expanded his alt-country sound in dynamic ways while developing his lyrical bent. The results are memorable rock tracks (“I Know You’re Gonna Leave Me”) and memorable ballads (“Mountains”), a rare thing indeed.
10. Jacob Furr – Trails and Traces. (Review) The subject matter of Trails and Traces is even heavier than Ars Moriendi, but Furr takes a nimble, light approach to his alt-country. Instead of wallowing in despair, Furr’s heartbreaking lyrics are backed up with hopeful, searching melodies. I’d usually say “not for the faint of heart” on matters like these, but Furr has truly put together one that speaks hope for the hurting and hopeless. Search on, friends.
Jacob Furr’s Trails and Traces is going to a heavy album, as he wrote it after losing his young wife to cancer. The mournful folk opening of “Falling Stars” turns into a raging alt-country stomper by the end of the track. To cap it off, the wide-open, Western videography is gorgeous.
I can’t get The Collection off my mind, and this exuberant video for “The Gown of Green” is one of the reasons why. I’m particularly a fan of the bassist in this clip, who is going hard in the paint 100%. The cellist, clarinetist, and trombonist all are stoked to be there, but for real. The bassist. He knows what is up.
Gosh, Brother O Brother make such desperate-sounding songs. From the raucous guitars to the thrashing drums to outraged vocal delivery, it sounds like “Without Love” is about to come crashing down on you at all times. In times like these, though, perhaps we need desperate outrage at the lack of love in the world.
In addition to being able to sing and shred wicked guitar riffs, Megafauna’s Dani Neff can dance. She puts all three of those skills on display for the “Haunted Factory” clip.
It appears that someone in Ukraine shot down a Malaysian jet liner, killing all 295 people on board. If this seems random, garish, and apropos of nothing, that’s because it is. Malaysia and Ukraine were not at war with each other. This serves no obvious purpose. Death appears, and it is absurd; we rage against it. It is this sense of outrage that powers The Collection‘s Ars Moriendi.
It must be said straight away: Ars Moriendi is unapologetically weighty. It tackles questions of death, life, and religion unflinchingly. Some people in this album don’t believe in God; others do. Narrators live. Narrators die. There are straight people, gay people, married people, lonely people, depressed people, and recovering people. The one thing that unites them all is that they’re all gonna die, and they’re all concerned about what this means for their lives. There are songs here that hit me hard in my particular current life experience–I’m willing to bet that there are different ones for other people. The Collection isn’t shying away from what they’ve got to say about life in the context of death, which is a rare thing. But don’t worry–there’s a great amount of hope and exultation in the tunes that accompany these thoughts.
The music here is by turns jubilant, pensive, and energetic, but it’s always passionate. This diverse sound is created by the Collection’s 16-piece folk orchestra–and when I say “orchestra,” I don’t mean there’s a string player and a horn player. The credits on this album are humongous, including 27 people. Lead songwriter David Wimbish takes the giant ensemble that he has and leads them to create some of the most incredible folk-inspired tunes I’ve ever heard.
Wimbish can write a mournful dirge (“The Doubtful One”), but he can also write a jubilant tune of celebration (lead single “The Gown of Green”). He can use every single instrument at once (“Garden”) or lead the orchestra to beautifully frame a trumpet solo (the Beirut-esque coda of “The Borrowers”). He knows how to write indelible vocal melodies–“Scala Naturae” and “Broken Tether” in particular, although you can sing along to almost every single tune here. Some of the crescendoes they hit are downright shiver-inducing; then again, it’s emotionally devastating when he drops out the orchestra and just sings against an acoustic guitar. The songs are about as varied as a cohesive album can get, moving from thrashy galloping drums backed by a full orchestra (“The Art of Dying”) to Wimbish barely holding his voice together in sadness over a solo piano (“Some Days I Don’t Want to Sing”). Ars Moriendi wrings me out emotionally as a listener. I can’t imagine writing and performing it.
It does sound like it wrings out Wimbish, though–as the primary voice of The Collection, he’s the one tasked with delivering the words that accompany all these tunes. His vocal styles are as diverse as the songs ask for: he whispers, sings, hollers, shouts and roars his way through the album. There are few vocalists as engaging as Wimbish: I don’t know if he’s going to break into falsetto or a terrifying roar at any given moment. It makes sense that Wimbish would collect an enormous number of instruments, because that seems like the only thing that could match the depth, disparity, and ferocity of his vocal stylings. My personal favorite line to yell along with is “and though my feet walk very slow, and there is death between my bones, I’ll make it home!” from “Broken Tether.”
I can remember individual lines, but keeping the incredible number of lyrics straight is challenge. Wimbish has written extremely detailed, thoughtful, and meaningful lyrics that don’t just skate the surface. There is hard-won experience documented here, and it’s difficult to look past it to just hear the beautiful, energetic music. Instead, the album is a whole experience. I very often listen to music while I work–this album does not allow that. This is an album that demands attention musically, lyrically, and emotionally. I can’t just hum a lyric here and there and not be moved. I mean, just go read his lyrics listed on the Bandcamp and see. This is not background music in any way, shape, or form. Again: Ars Moriendi is a whole experience.
I could go on about this album for 700 more words, but I’ll try to close here. Ars Moriendi is the sort of album that sucks you in with every song; there’s not a bad one in the bunch. That’s impressive in a 13-song album that’s nearly an hour long. Each song has an astonishing amount of carefully crafted lyrics, painstaking arrangements, moving performances, and brilliant production work. There are six or seven songs that would qualify as the best track on anyone else’s album. It is an album that challenges me emotionally, spiritually, and musically. It’s in the lead for my album of the year.
The last time someone seriously considered death and its consequences, it started The Arcade Fire on a course that resulted in the heights of musical success. Here’s to hoping the Collection sees that level of success–their work here merits it.
1. “Capernaum” – The Collection. The Collection always blows me away with the intricate complexity of their arrangements. It sounds as if David Wimbish has found an entire orchestra to pour his heart into here; whatever’s left over is spilled out in his deeply mournful and affected vocals. The tension between chipper music and deep sadness in the lyrics is beautiful, calling up sentiments similar to Page France and Sufjan Stevens (but way more orchestral–I know, what could be more arranged than Sufjan’s work? Just listen.)
2. “I Know You Know” – Andrew Judah. Judah is one of the most inventive arrangers I’ve come across in a long time. His songs genuinely defy notions of genre.
3. “The Dusty Air I Breathe” – Clockwork Kids. Confident performances and strong production kick this riff-driven indie-rock track up a notch. The powerful vocals here are particularly surprising.
4. “Two Ships” – Field Mouse. Every time I hear palm muting and pad synths, I think Fleetwood Mac. That comparison isn’t too far off in this mystic, dark indie-pop track.
5. “Kaleidocycle II” – Cloud Seeding. Powerful, beautiful instrumental indie-rock that doesn’t turn into post-rock or electro jams is a rare animal, so get out your safari cameras now.
6. “Banks” – Red Swingline. This complex acoustic picking and arrangement by a project that generally does progressive metal basically becomes a rolling, beautiful post-rock tune with some jazzy moments. Pretty cool.
7. “Room and Pillar” – Knife the Symphony. Cincinnati’s finest, most furious punk band is at it again, serving up brutal, dissonant punk that makes me marvel at how three people make this much noise.
8. “Song 32” – The Austerity Program. I don’t need a reader survey to know the readers here aren’t usually metalheads. BUT IF YOU ARE, The Austerity Program is pretty friggin’ impressive with the riffs here.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.