Independent Clauses exists to cover things that don’t get much coverage, and kindie rock doesn’t get much play in the circles I run in. But it certainly is worth the effort, because modern kids’ music is a far cry from Raffi and Harry Chapin (as much as I love Tom Chapin). I put Justin Roberts’ music on mixtapes for people and no one ever guesses it’s a kid song. So here’s two kindie rock albums that have crossed my path recently.
The Not-Its! are a power-pop band that probably sound less like a kid’s band than The Apples in Stereo sometimes did (Remember this song?!). They also come off as more of an indie band than some indie bands, dressed out in White Stripes-ian pink/black/white. Kidquake! is primarily female-fronted, although some songs (“Let’s Skateboard”) are fronted by a guy who’s voice is actually not that far off from Robert Schneider’s. “Let’s Skateboard” is one of the best tracks on the album, fitting both the term “no comply” and some infectious indie-punk-pop melodies into a sub-2:00 package. Legit. Also legit: the punk-ska attack of “Busy.” Less legit: the kid monologue opening the Blink 182-esque “Temper Tantrum.” But on the whole, this is a solidly enjoyable piece of power-pop that can be enjoyed on its own merits–not just as “kid’s music that doesn’t suck!”
Cat Doorman sounds even more comfortable in the “grown up” world, as Songbook is a gorgeous chamber-folk album. This is made possible because songwriter Julianna Bright is a music veteran and Chris Funk of the Decemberists is on board. The balance between fanciful arrangements and tactful restraint is navigated easily, as a honking bass saxophone and a grumbling electric guitar are treated with equal care and taste (“Effervescing Elephant” and “So Many Words,” respectively). Bright’s vocal melodies sell the album perfectly, as they don’t pander to kids in that annoying way that kids’ albums can do. These are real songs, and they happen to have lyrics kids can sing along with. Given the current indie penchant for whimsy, and it’s not that hard to imagine these songs being sung by the next big thing. “Turn Around” is especially poignant and beautiful; when’s the last time you said that about a kid’s song? Yeah. Songbook is impressive by any standard.
Fusing the rhythms of The Tallest Man on Earth to the full arrangements of modern folk-style indie bands like The King is Dead-era Decemberists, Sukh’s “Kings” is an immediately comfortable and lovable folk gem.
Ra Ra Riot has me dancing like a fool to Prince-style falsetto in my office. Also, the phrase “robot hearts” appears. Yes. Yes, indeed.
Ugly Kids Club has been a bit of a chameleon, exploring mega-fuzzed out pop a la Sleigh Bells in as many ways as they can. “Get It All” gives their crunch a bit of new wave touch and a bit of AFI-style anthemic gloom.
Photons have got some serious talent, if Glory! EP is any indication. Even with only four songs, the album displays a depth of talent and songwriting that most bands never develop, and this is just their first effort. Their sound is entrancing, mixing dream-like instrumentals with punchy hits and wailing lyrics.
“Waves and Gamma Rays” starts off Glory! EP. The instrumentation isn’t that of your typical rock band; specifically, they don’t use any bass guitar. Paired with lots of color instrumentation, the Photons produce a very light-hearted, cheery sound. Though short, “Waves and Gamma Rays” is a fun little number, and piqued my curiosity for the remainder of the EP. In comparison to other bands, I drew a fairly strong correlation to The Polyphonic Spree’s sound, though lead vocals sound more like they’re from The Decemberists or Gogol Bordello.
The title track “Glory!” opens with rock and wailing lyrics that really come into their own, sounding plaintive and passionate. So far as I can tell, there wasn’t any post-processing done on the recording of this album, lending it something of a garage-rock sound. It isn’t what I was expecting, but the raw feel of the vocals and lack of bass are really working well here. Near the end of the track, backup vocals come in and really complete the song.
“Where Were You Last Night” brings in some of the most fascinating instrumentation of the album. It starts with some fun percussion – marimba, or maybe xylophone? Something like that. In an unexpected turn, bassoon enters at around forty-five seconds, and it works surprisingly well for them. It’s really making their sound unique and a pleasure to hear. The more I listen to Glory! EP, the more I’m getting a feel for the characteristic sounds of the Photons. You can expect those emotional vocals from their front man, periodic backup vocals, an unfinished and slightly raw sound, and unique instrumentation.
The album closes with “Witness Protection,” and gets back to the light-hearted feel it opened with, which seems to be an over-arching theme. The song features dual male and female lead vocals, as well as a backup ensemble. The tone and energy level wind down from the previous two songs, but still comes across as very fun, and very much reminiscent of The Polyphonic Spree. Really, I can’t wait to hear a full-length album from these guys, and I somewhat selfishly hope I get to review it. Do yourself a favor and give these guys a listen.
One of the most unique bands to find nearly-mainstream acceptance in the past few years is definitely the Decemberists. Between their bookish love of historical themes, their quirky instrumentation and Colin Meloy’s unforgettable vocals, they make intelligent indie-pop that often seems more suited to a history classroom than a dingy bar. And that’s awesome. Here’s some bands I found when I plugged The Decemberists into Pandora.
Toad the Wet Sprocket – Something’s Always Wrong
More similar to Counting Crows “August and Everything After” than the Decemberists, this is kind’ve an odd choice. I mean, I enjoy it and all, but I feel that I primarily enjoy this easy-going track because of my appreciation for Adam Duritz and co. and not because of the Decemberists. Regardless, this angsty song manages to stay on the melancholy side and not dip into the depressed mode, which I like. Nice jangly guitar work and a nice bit of 90’s-sounding soul-searching in the moaning background vocals. All in all, a nice track that I’d probably listen to again.
Portastatic – Registered Ghost
Well, Pandora targeted that those who like the Decemberists like guys with odd vocals who spin odd tales. Portastatic’s vocalist is a guy who does just that, telling tales about what he did with his registered ghost in a sorta-high pitched voice that does hearken a bit towards Colin Meloy’s. I really enjoyed this rollicking track, as it grows and builds in very pleasing ways. Very fun, very interesting, and worth checking out. I think I’ll be listening to more portastatic in the future.
Hurtin in My Right Side – Tony Furtado
Clicking with the Decemberists’ love of historical themes, Tony Furtado explores a dramatic tale here that draws from work chants, menacing country and bluegrass for inspiration. Extremely creative and interesting, this song had me wondering and anticipating what was about to come. The harmonies on top of the already interesting melodies add a nice touch. The fact that the band seems as excited as Tony Furtado himself does just makes the song that much better. Easily the best find of a station that I will be listening to much, much more.
Strangest Land – Tom McRae
Again drawing on group thought, the intro to this song introduces group hum. The murder-ballad feel to this evokes Tom Waits more than the Decemberists, but it’s still extremely enjoyable. The string contributions assist in creating the mood – definitely a good idea to add them. This song builds like a puzzle, and that’s a great thing. The intrusion of distortion on the song in the breakdown is really, really cool. Another great track, and just more proof that I’ll be listening to this station a lot more in the future. Great find.
Stephen Carradini writes far too many words about music you may or may not have heard of. Sometimes he takes pictures of aforementioned bands.