Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Quick Hits: Don DiLego / The Damn Choir / Heyward Howkins

July 31, 2012

Back when I was a humongous pop-punk fan just getting into acoustic music, I never thought I’d be able to distinguish between alt-country and folk. At some point before I heard Don DiLego‘s music, I figured that distinction out–even if it’s still difficult for me to fully explain. It’s more than the occasional pedal steel and full-band instrumentation that sets DiLego’s music in this category or that; he approaches the whole Western & Atlantic EP with a mature, well-developed gravitas in the melodies and lyrics. “Chicago” is a song about love with a minimum of sap, while “Television Sun” is about “what’s worth fighting for.” “Lonely Couples” is a stark tune that reminds me of Chris Mills’ work, while closer “Carry On” is a powerful tune that impressively never goes for the big hook and remains dignified in its quiet existence.

These tunes are incredibly strong, especially when considering the impromptu sessions that predicated them (you can read the story here). This one unfolds more of its beauty with each subsequent listen. If you’re down for thoughtful lyrics and disarmingly poignant melodies that resist emotive pandering, then Western & Atlantic needs to be in your corner.

The Damn Choir‘s You’re My Secret Called Fire features almost everything I want from an indie-folk band: distinctive yet melodic vocals, full arrangements, confident songwriting, spot-on performances and powerful control of mood. The band strips its sound clear of Mumford and Sons’ grandiose veneer, the cinematic production values of Grizzly Bear, and slow’n’sad tendencies that many songwriters put forth to produce a raw, vital sound. It’s a beautiful, poignant, passionate album–musically. However, as you might expect from a band that doesn’t think twice about putting the word “Damn” in its name, the lyrics are incredibly raw. They’re not vulgar or profane, but “I wish I was Noah, I would watch the world drown” and “I watch the pain in your eyes before you finally drown” (from “Noah”) are representative samples. Let’s just say religion and ex-girlfriends are not high on the list of The Damn Choir’s favorite things. If you can get past that, there’s gold in these hills. (I’d go for “Grace” and “Ghost.”) If those sentiments rub you the wrong way, go for one of the other two albums in this post.

Heyward Howkins’ The Hale and the Hearty is something altogether different from the two albums above. Although it could be filed in a loose interpretation of “indie-folk,” Howkins’ songwriting vision is far outside the traditional folk style (i.e the You Can Play These Songs With Chords school, as the not-folkies in Death Cab for Cutie noted). Howkins’ complex, intricate songwriting is full of twists and turns. There are more sudden stops and starts here than in a math-rock album. The melodies are less structured and singalong, more stream-of-consciousness and meandering. This creates an album that is an experience not easily translated into mixtape fodder. Not that “Waist High and Dry” doesn’t have beautiful moments that could definitely fit between Fleet Foxes and Josh Ritter; it just also has unusual rhythms and arrangements that would make it a weird fit at the same time. The song is 2:55 long.

Again, Howkins’ album is just as beautiful as the other two on this post: it simply gets there in a vastly different way. If you’re into music that makes you think more than it makes you sing, this one’s for you. You’ll still hum the tunes; but they’ll be hums punctuated by unexpected drum riffs (“The Raucous Calls of Morning”), unusual horns (“Cocaine Bill”) and tempo changes (everywhere) that keep your brain on point. Great, great stuff.

SXSW bands, pt 2

February 19, 2012

Now my SXSW fervor has kicked into high gear: I sent out the “Who’s playing SXSW?” e-mail to all the bands that IC has covered in the last four years. With some luck and good planning, I’ll be able to see a large number of bands with which I’ve previously only had a computer-mediated relationship.

This includes (but is not limited to):

Oh Look Out
David Ramirez
Battle Ave.
Football, Etc.
Starlight Girls
The Damn Choir

I can’t wait to hear of more IC bands who will be kicking it at SXSW. If you’re going, hit me up with an e-mail (indieclauses[at] or a tweet (Scarradini). SXSW is crazy, and I don’t know who all I’ll be able to see, but I want to know who’s going to be there. Awesome.

Acoustic guitars warm hearts

September 21, 2011

“I’m having a week. Are any of you having a week?” And we all nodded yes, some more emphatically than others.

Kate Martin reminds me of fellow Aussie Brooke Fraser, and that’s nothing but good. An “Apples” a day keeps the blues firmly entrenched in your soul in that most warming of ways.

The Damn Choir, who seem to always be having a week, have a new album (You’re My Secret Called Fire) coming out soon. The song here is the draw, because Gordon Robertson is that guy who could sing the menu at the corner deli and still move me.

Independent Clauses' Top 10 of 2010

February 13, 2011

Because I’m perpetually behind on CDs, I only get done with a previous year’s music in February.

10. Fort Orange — After the Fall. Basically, this is what I want all punk albums to sound like: furious, aggressive, short diatribes that make use of melody, rhythm and rage.

9. We’ve Built Up to NOTHING — 500 Miles to Memphis. Takes country-punk and pushes its boundaries out in all directions.

8. This Cage Has No Bottom — The Ascetic Junkies. Folk and indie-pop get mashed up in the most delightful way.

7. Ithica — Ithica. This genreless amazement is the second-most emotionally powerful album of the year and the best concept album.

6. Faithful Fools — The Damn Choir. Best lovelorn acoustic tunes of the year; it’s hard to beat a broken heart, an acoustic guitar and a cello.

5. Best of the Bees — Mansions. A jawdropping set of cast-off tunes that set up Mansions as the next Bright Eyes in terms of prolific nature and brilliant tunes.

4. Lost and Found — The Fools. Stark, beautiful acoustic tunes from two girls.

3. New Home — La Strada. Takes folk and bends it all around through world music and indie rock, producing jubilant, complex tracks that never bore.

2. Our New Life Above the Ground — Avalanche City. These are the acoustic-laden pop songs I wish I could write. Stomping, clapping, mandolin, melodies, harmonies, toms, just everything good is in these songs.

1. Sever Your Roots — The Felix Culpa. Hands down the best album of the year; nothing else even came close to approaching its masterful take on post-hardcore. The brilliant lyrics pushed it over the top.

The Damn Choir's depressed pop-folk is gorgeous and comforting

March 5, 2010

The Damn ChoirThere is absolutely no reason that I can discern to explain the unsigned status of The Damn Choir. Their album Faithful Fools is a confident, emotive, beautiful folk break-up album that showcases both the songwriting and performance chops of the members. There’s a maturity and clarity to the lyrics that propels this album far beyond the standard “I want you back” and “I miss you” themes of most break-up albums. The album is recorded incredibly well, and the overall effect of the album on me was devastating. The Damn Choir’s songs are powerful, even if they are about being depressed.

The Damn Choir used to be called Gordon and Katy, after the principal songwriters: Gordon Robertson (vocals/guitar) and Katy Myers (cello). Their interplay makes the album work; Robertson’s gentle picking and strumming is perfectly accompanied by Myers’ legato bowing. There are rarely times when the two are apart, and several of the best tracks here feature nothing but Robertson’s voice, Robinson’s guitar and Myers’ cello. “Love is a Trap” is one of these tracks, as a fingerpicking guitar line reminescent of Iron and Wine is given emotional weight by a sonorous cello line. Robertson’s unadorned vocals seem to emerge from his mouth without effort here and on the rest of the album; his voice sounds absolutely comfortable within the twelve songs of Faithful Fools.

It’s this comfort and ease that makes this album work. These songs don’t feel forced, and none of the arrangements feel like overkill. There is no filler, nor is there any overage. These songs are pared down to the essentials. On standout “Black,” that means that there’s a piano involved as well. On “Bricks,” there’s some spare drumming in addition to the piano.  “What Lovers Do” is a duet with a female vocalist, highly reminiscent of the Damien Rice/Lisa Hannigan collaborations.

Another comparison can be drawn to Rice in that both Rice and TDC treat their music with an almost reverent seriousness. Rice hollers his emotions much more abrasively than the easy-on-the-ears TDC, but the way they treat their songs and their subject matter is similar. This is not fun music; it’s important music. It means something.

Faithful Fools is a depressing ride, no doubt about it. But it’s also an incredibly gorgeous album with lyrical weight. Though morose, it is a comforting album, as the songs breathe with a confident gleam. The Damn Choir might not be happy, but they are really good.

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.

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