The toughest part of writing about Andrew Judah‘s Monster is trying to figure out how to explain the thing in genre terms. Is it OK Computer-era rock without the guitars? The Decemberists’ indie-pop having a nightmare? Lushly orchestrated trip-hop? Genre labels aside, it’s a whirlwind ride of unusually-juxtaposed instruments that knit together perfectly under Judah’s careful composer’s ear.
Judah is a highly sought-after commercial composer; you’ve probably heard his work without knowing it. His third album of artistic compositions sets wild, intricate foreground elements on top of cinematic backdrops for maximum immersion. Judah works mostly in minor keys here, building brooding, intense landscapes that build to bursting. “I Know You Know” turns a smooth, cascading guitar line into a stuttering, bewildering footrace; the song culminates in a furious maze of arpeggios surrounded by glitching keys, layered vocals, and complex drumming. It has a visceral, physical quality to it; I can almost feel the sounds happening to me.
“Better and Better” amps up the ominous qualities of the record, starting out with heavy pad synths (although he notes in the liner notes that this might be a banjo played with a violin bow), muted piano, and gurgling bass. This is an album where sounds take preeminence over the instruments that make them: it could be a banjo or steel drums, keys or guitar, bass or keys, electronic or live drums. The performer isn’t important: the fact that the sounds mesh perfectly takes precedence.
Back to “Better and Better”: Judah’s voice is digitally manipulated to sound alien and yet comforting, which is the same sort of tension that Radiohead perfectly captured in OK Computer. But Yorke and co. didn’t try to make that into the eerily joyful soundtrack for a dark carnival, as Judah does here. It’s a profoundly unexpected turn. The title track draws some musical composing tricks straight out of old horror films, with wavering theremin sounds floating uncomfortably above the acoustic guitar before unveiling some of the most delicate, tender work that Monster has to offer.
Judah revels in the abrupt shift; many of the tunes here move from this to that unexpectedly. Sometimes it’s quiet/loud/quiet; other times the tone or mood shifts. Sometimes the time signatures change. “What Now?” draws on a relatively disorienting use of syncopation to throw you off. Yes, he employs a variety of tricks to keep you interested, and it works really well. The biggest element that draws me, however, is how it all hangs together. You can listen to Monster beginning to end without necessarily marking the titles of songs. You’ll definitely look back to see what the names of “Morning Light” and “I Know You Know” are, but you may find yourself feeling that the ballad “Willis” just kinda runs along with “Twitch & Shake” and “Better & Better.” You can enjoy it that way if you’d like–more power to you.
Monster is a dark record, but it’s not a grim or hopeless one. It explores brooding territory without getting overwrought, which is a tough balance to strike. Some albums feel like the songwriter is talking to you; this one feels like watching a movie by a director friend of yours. It’s not impenetrable, and you can see flashes of your friend’s hand, but it’s more about the unique experience of that particular media than the person behind the curtain. Andrew Judah gets out of his own way here, letting the intricate, complex, fascinating songs tell their tales. It pays off in spades.
The mix of an album can tell you a lot about the priorities of its creators. Dylan Dickerson’s frantic, fractured voice is cranked about as high in the mix of Dear Blanca‘s Pobrecito as possible, which tells me that they care about the raw, ragged, real aspects of performance. Look no farther than the wordless, anguished roar that is the chorus of “Showplace” for proof. The intense alt-country songwriting behind the pipes matches Dickerson’s careening, manic vocal quality. In other words, Conor Oberst and Dickerson would have plenty to talk about.
But like Bright Eyes, Dickerson and co. aren’t all raging fury. The (relatively) pensive “Noma” includes a musical saw that gives the tune a Neutral Milk Hotel feel (Mangum, of course, being another vocalist who celebrated the rough edges of his non-traditional voice). Dickerson can write a pop song, too: “Huff” has a great guitar riff and a (relatively) restrained vocal performance. But it’s loud, noisy alt-country rock that is his natural home, which is why even the rhythmically tight, acoustic-led “Priscilla” turns into a torrent of guitar distortion and a repeated hollering of the titular character’s name in the chorus. Closer “Cadmus” starts off quiet with acoustic guitar, organ, and female vocals before introducing pounding toms into the tune. Hey, if you’re good at a thing, do that thing.
You like the stomping work of the Drive-By Truckers? Dear Blanca is like the Drive-In-And-Stay-In-Your-Front-Yard-Yelling-Until-You-Come-Out Truckers. Pobrecito is a sweat-drenched, passionate, powerful set of noisy alt-country tunes that will occasionally give you shivers.
The mid-’00s were a good time for indie-pop music, with bands like Annuals, Decemberists, Grandaddy, and the Shins purveying a very particular type of giddy, instrument-stuffed pop music that wasn’t being well-represented on the radio. Koria Kitten Riot picks up that torch of shiny, acoustic-led, maximalist indie-pop on Rich Men Poor Men Good Men. It’s the sort of album that includes coconuts imitating horse clip-clops in a way that sounds totally natural (“The Lovers That You’ve Never Had”). It’s twee without being overly cute in the vocals, or serious vocals with a whimsical touch to the arrangements.
“A Last Waltz” stands out as one of the highlight tracks not because it’s particularly more charming that the rest of the tunes here, but because it’s a touch darker. The rest of the album can flow together as one wonderful experience, but track three points itself out as a great track by showing the diversity the band is able to deliver (while still not damaging the flow of the record). “Today’s Been a Beautiful Day” nicks not only the sound but the joyful irony of the era, pairing one of the most chipper melodies and arrangements on the record with a song about a person who gets hit by a car and dies. (Oops, spoilers.) Follow-up “Carpathia” sounds a bit like a brit-pop tune, what with the wistful reverb, processed strings, and discrete acoustic strumming; it’s a nice change of mood that stands out as a highlight.
If you’re into cheerful, instrument-stuffed indie-pop, you’ll find a ton to love in Koria Kitten Riot. You can listen to the whole album and let it wash over your mood, or you can listen to individual tunes; it matters not. It will make you smile either way.
Bishop Allen was also doing quirky indie-pop in the mid ’00s, and they’ve since gotten a bit noisier than their indie-pop masterpiece The Broken String. I think they still count as indie-pop on Lights Out, but they’re certainly creeping closer to power-pop.
They make it clear with opener “Start Again,” which is all buzzy synths, classy dance-rock guitars, and propulsive percussion. “Bread Crumbs” makes the dance-rock vibes even more explicit, putting together a wicked bass groove, a protoypical piano hook, and a minimum of lyrics. (And, because this is Bishop Allen, there’s also a bass-heavy horn section.) “Crows” involves some of their traditional quirky rhythms (Latin/island, a la “Like Castanets”), chill melodies, and pristine arrangements, but with a funky bass line. It’s way fun. “Skeleton Key” is another funky tune that’s worth remembering.
The overall sound of Lights Out is more matured, even with the dance-rock tendencies: it’s a poised, refined musicality that runs through the record. The lyrics reflect that aging as well; there are more references to hard times, the existential crises of adulthood (“No Conditions”), and that most adult of rituals: leaving the party early (“Why I Had To Go”). But they never get heavy-handed, morose, or grumpy. It’s a band that grew up, but kept their pop song skills with them. Mazel tov! Here’s to Bishop Allen: long may you write.
I just finished reading The Night Circus, which is a tale of magic and circus set in Victorian England. The best part of the novel is the perfect mood it captures, with curiosity being the only guide in a world that fluctuates between joy, terror, and confusion. Curtis Eller’s American Circus‘s How to Make It In Hollywood draws off that same time period for musical, lyrical and visual inspiration, resulting in an album that is as mysterious, dirty, magical, scruffy, distinctive, oft foreboding, and occasionally whimsical as the circus itself.
Eller plays the banjo, and so the songs all have a plucky, jaunty feel that only a banjo can give. On top of that base, there’s everything from mournful ballads to proto-rock’n’roll jaunts to old-timey folk tunes to things that sound like they fell right off the back of a circus. The sense of theatricality that is so prevalent in the circus holds together songs as disparate as the New Orleans-esque “Butcherman” and the forlorn “Three More Minutes with Elvis”; the impressive arrangements make both of those tunes sound excellent. The ominous backwater stomp of “The Heart That Forgave Richard Nixon” is wholly different again; it’s just as impressive musically.
Eller isn’t a chameleon so much as he is an expert storyteller, matching moods and lyrics impeccably. If “Busby Berkeley Funeral” needs to sound like a jubilation after a slight into pondering death, the music can fit that. Eller’s strong voice is the guide through this wildly diverse album, the ringmaster in a circus of sounds that are here one minute and gone the next. Whether it’s 1950s pop or 1850s folk lament, Eller knows how to fit it into the amalgam. If you’re interested in upbeat folk like Jonas Friddle’s, or theatrical work like The Decemberists (but way more fun than they ever were), you’ll be thrilled to hear Curtis Eller’s How to Make It In Hollywood.
Wherein I Remember That I Mostly Listen to Music With Acoustic Guitars In It
1. “So, what exactly does it say?” – The Weather Machine. I loved Joe Pug’s first record lyrically, and I love Passenger’s vocal stylings now. Mash them together, and my heart melts. Add in steel drums, and you end up as the lead track on an MP3 mix. Super excited to hear more of this album.
2. “Passing Ships” – The Travelling Band. If you wish the Decemberists would go back to being flamboyant and triumphant musically, The Travelling Band might be your solution. Cello, piano, speedy drums and group vocals swirl around in a wonderfully theatrical way.
3. “Walk Away” – The Bone Chimes. There’s a lot of musical theater going on in this interesting indie-pop track, from the vocal stylings to high-drama arrangements to even a carnival music section.
4. “Sour” – Tim Fitz. There’s downers psych, uppers psych, and giddy psych. This shimmery track fits that latter category. Its favorite color is probably neon green and neon pink, because it can’t pick just one.
5. “Doin’ It to You” – Luke Sweeney. Everybody needs a slice of happy-go-lucky, charming, perky SanFran indie-pop every now and then.
6. “Way Out Weather” – Steve Gunn. Gunn opens up a classic space with this rolling arrangement, as if Joe Walsh got a little folkier.
7. “Roll the Dice” – Charles Mansfield. If The Mountain Goats had a bit more ’50s-pop nostalgia, they might turn out charming, perky, intelligent songs like this one.
8. “Noma” – Dear Blanca. With outrage in the left hand, depression in the right, and a singing saw in the third hand, “Noma” manages to be brash and raucous without being fast or particularly noisy. Impressive tune!
9. “Get Your Fill of Feelin’ Hungry” – Jay Brown. James Taylor is underappreciated in indie circles for his pristine melodies, tight guitarwork, and general great songsmithing. Jay Brown appreciates those qualities; “Get Your Fill” is smooth, tight, and melodically memorable. Whatever you call it (pop, folk, singer/songwriter, etc.), this is great songwriting.
10. “Under the Weather” – The Good Graces. Alt-country and indie-pop haven’t had enough crossover, I think. The Good Graces are making that happen, with the swaying arrangements of the former and the quirky vocal melodies of the latter in this fun tune. Also, horns!!
11. “Seasons” – Palm Ghosts. Folk loves its sadness, but this beautiful song is warm nostalgia in song form.
12. “Childhood Home” – The Healing. This pensive alt-country tune has that rare, magical male/female duet connection. The chorus is haunting and yet comforting; it’s a powerful tune.
13. “Lion’s Lair” – Red Sammy. “I like Megadeth / I don’t like Slayer,” relates the narrator in this quiet, lovely, lonely alt-country track reminiscent of Mojave 3. Caught my attention for sure.
I’ve been listening to Roy Dahan‘s The Man in My Head for several weeks, and I’m still struggling to pin it down to words. It’s a solo project that feels like a full-band effort, as the overall mood of the tracks is more important than any single musician. David Gray would enjoy the seriousness and gravity of these tunes, but the album still has upbeat, inviting moments like “Crush.” It’s chill and relaxing, but with a sense of tension running throughout each tune.
I guess the best descriptor is adult alternative singer/songwriter, but that sells it short in so many ways. “Nothing But Miracles” starts out with a gentle, burbling fingerpicking guitar line before expanding into a wide-open chorus: “You’ll see / there’s a beautiful place to be / and I wonder if you’ll see at all.” The subtly urgent “Farewell” pulses with restrained energy, while “Maze” has a cascading, U2 sort of vibe. The album hangs together beautifully, but doesn’t obscure the high points within it. You can play this one as a full album or pick songs out of it for your playlists. That’s rare.
Dahan’s beautiful music is tough to explain but easy to love. If you’re into things as diverse as Counting Crows, Bright Eyes, Matt Nathanson, Ray LaMontagne, or The Decemberists, you’ll love Roy Dahan’s The Man in My Head.
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 and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.