1. “Hopeful” – Bear Mountain. A little bit of Passion Pit, a little bit of Vampire Weekend, a little M83, and you’ve got one of the best dance-pop songs I’ve heard all year.
2. “Entomologist” – Luxxe. Shades of Jason Isbell’s evocative voice creep in here, placed in the context of a perky-yet-mature pop-rock tune. It all comes off with impressive cohesion.
3. “Buoy” – The Band and the Beat. If you wished that Mates of State used analog synths all the time, you’ll be way into TBxB’s gentle, warm, female-fronted synth-pop. The tune just wraps itself around my brain and comforts it.
4. “Understand” – Photoreal. It seems wrong to describe this pop-rock tune as “muscly,” but it feels like a streamlined, beefed-up version of Generationals’ catchy indie-pop work.
5. “Au Naturel” – Holy ’57. The frenetic blitz of a major-key sugar rush will never get old. This tune has everything I’m looking for in a pop tune.
6. “Lodestar” – Starlight Girls. The disco vibes are impeccably done and the vocals are tight, but–for my money–this song is 100% about that bass work. It’s melodic, funky, tight, and just plain irresistible. A knock-out.
7. “Storm” – Bright Whistles. Sometimes I’m concerned that I’ve abused the term “quirky,” because something always seems to come along that was quirkier than the last. Suffice it to say, “Storm” by Bright Whistles is like what The Flaming Lips could have been if they kept on the Yoshimi path, or what all genres of indie-rock sound like in a giant blender, or (stay with me on this one) what an OK GO music video would sound like if the video itself were transformed into audio that reflected the clever, enthusiastic, enigmatic visuals. In other words, it’s pretty rad.
8. “Summertime” – The High Divers. Bands are always making odes to that sunniest of seasons, but this one really nails it: a touch of Vampire Weekend, a splash of Hamilton Leithauser’s vocal gymnastics, and a whole lot of good-old-pop-music. Dare you to not smile.
9. “Two Weeks” – HIGH UP. File this powerhouse tune under “Muscle Shoals Soul/Funk,” right there next to Alabama Shakes, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, and St. Paul and the Broken Bones.
10. “Burning Candles” – Disaster Lover. It’s like I walked into a room where Disaster Lover’s vision was already fully employed: not so many songs capture and modify the aural space that they’re deployed in. The whirling/somewhat chaotic percussion and synths that are woven together to create this here/there/everywhere piece of work are wild and yet inviting.
11. “We All Decided No” – S.M. Wolf. This is, at its core, a pop-rock song. It is a very weird, arch, theatrical, blown-out take on the theme, but it’s in there. This is basically what I imagine we’re trying to capture with the idea of indie-pop: pop songs that just aren’t radio material in this universe, but only because it’s an unjust universe.
1. “Saturday” – SPORTS. This evanescent (1:13!), earnest, perky garage-rock track hits all the right notes and touches a chord in me. It’s the perfect mix of enthusiasm and grit. Father/Daughter Records is on a roll.
2. “Vultures” – Delta Mainline. Call it Spiritualized at its most arch or acoustic-based ’90s Britpop (Oasis, The Verve) at its most early-morning woozy–this track is a memorable one.
3. “Wall Ball” – Art Contest. Any band that can make math-rock accessible and hooky is greatly to be praised. Art Contest’s impressive technical chops are only overshadowed by their incredible songwriting ones. This song is an adventure.
4. “There’s No Love” – We Are Magnetic. It’s summer, so I need a continuous stream of brash, upbeat dance-rock tunes. This one plays out like a less yelpy Passion Pit, complete with a giant chorus anchored by a soaring melody and backed with a choir. Get your dance on.
5. “Pistoletta” – North by North. Imagine My Chemical Romance had a little more rock and a little less theatrics, or think of late ’60s/early ’70s rock, right as glam was breaking out and wasn’t really there yet. Soaring vocals, rock drama, and crunchy guitars sell it.
6. “Get on the Boat” – Little Red Lung. This female-fronted outfit calls up Florence and the Machine comparisons through its adventurous arrangements (check that booming cello), minor-key vibes, and front-and-center vocals.
7. “Then Comes the Wonder” – The Landing. An ecstatic mishmash of handclaps, burbling synths, piano, and falsetto vocals creates a song that makes me think of a half-dozen disparate sonic influences (Foals, Prince, Fleet Foxes, and the Flaming Lips among them).
8. “Dust Silhouettes” – CFIT. Glitchy electro-pop noises give way to psych-influenced guitar and vocals, all stacked on top of an indie-rock backline. It’s a head-spinner in the best sort of way.
9. “Take Me Away” – Late Nite Cable. The chorus in this song is the electro-pop equivalent of the sun coming out from behind clouds after two days of rain.
10. “ONE” – Moving Panoramas. Sometimes I wonder what people are listening to when they’re walking down the street with headphones in. This feels like it could be one of those things: a walking-speed indie-pop-rock song with excellent bass work, down-to-earth vocals, and a little sense of wonder.
11. “Alien Youth” – The Albino Eyes. Calls back to the time when synth-rock meant The Cars: the zinging, charming synths over slightly-smoothed out garage-rock is nostalgic in the best of ways.
12. “Strangers” – Balaclade. Balancing guitar crunch with feathery vocals makes this an engaging post-’90s-indie-rock track.
13. “Falling” – Here We Go Magic. This warm, swirly, electronics-laden pop-rock tune calls to mind School of Seven Bells, if their sound was a little more tethered to acoustic instrumentation.
1. “Too Deep in Love” – Kylie Odetta. Post-modern pop that mashes hip-hop and torch song, electro jam and walking-speed diva pop tune. It’s an infectious blend.
2. “Tide Teeth” – Night Beds. So I didn’t expect Night Beds to go all electro-soul on us, but he’s cranking out the sensuous slow jamz here.
3. “Kindred” – Red Cosmos. Smeary synths, staccato percussion, perky treble melodies and dour vocals create a unique space somewhere between dream-pop and downtempo psych-rock.
4. “Khazé” – Mune. That moment where post-punk was turning into new wave (which would soon birth synth-pop) was a hazy phaze where energy and lackadaisical dreaming seemed to coexist. Mune gets that.
5. “Aftergold” – Big Wild. Electro doesn’t always have to feature big, walloping synths: “Aftergold” relies on strings, plunky marimba, uncomplicated beats, and burbling vocals to create an energizing, impressive track.
6. “ Ghost ft. Patrick Baker” – Lane 8. Artsy electro drawing off trance and funk instead of dubstep is a welcome thing in my book. This tune never has a major drop, and that’s 100% cool with me.
7. “Away – Reptile Youth. The Flaming Lips dabble in electronic music, but Reptile Youth puts the creaky, eccentric, cosmic vibes that the lips peddle firmly into the electro milieu. The vocals of the two outfits are particularly similar.
8. “Amalie” – Colornoise. This track has the sort of mystic, atmospheric vibes that Fleetwood Mac was able to conjure up, only with a bit more ominous, gritty vibe on one end and sweeter vocals on the other.
1. “Winter is for Kierkegaard” – Tyler Lyle. There are few things that get me more than a earnest tenor singing way too many words over a folky arrangement. Lyle plays somewhere between Josh Ritter, The Tallest Man on Earth, and Gregory Alan Isakov.
2. “Resolution” – Young Legs. The world always needs more quirky, delightful indie-pop on a strummed banjo.
3. “The Fall” – Reina del Cid. Warm, fingerpicked acoustic guitar; brushed snare; stand-up bass; contented alto vocals–it sounds like all the bits and bobs of a country song, but del Cid turns it into a charming folky ballad.
4. “Forever for Sure” – Laura & Greg. The gentle, easy-going guitar and male/female vocals create an intimate vibe, while a mournful instrument in the distance creates a sense of spaciousness. The strings glue them together–the whole thing comes off beautifully. I’ve likened them to the Weepies before, but this one also has a Mates of State vibe.
5. “Touch the Ground” – The Chordaes. Dour Brit-pop verses, sky-high falsetto in the sunshiny, hooky chorus–the band’s covering all their bases on the pop spectrum. That chorus is one to hum.
6. “Inside Out” – Avalanche City. My favorite Kiwis return not with an Antlers-esque, downtempo, white-boy-soul song. It’s not exactly the chipper acoustic pop of previous, but it’s still infectiously catchy.
7. “Bad Timing” – The Phatapillars. If Jack Johnson’s muse was outdoor camping and music festivals instead of surfing, he could have ended up like this. For fans of Dispatch and old-school Guster.
8. “Tapes” – The Weather Station. Sometimes trying to describe beauty diminishes it. Let this song just drift you away.
9. “ Forest of Dreams” – Crystal Bright and the Silver Hands. The Decemberists have largely gone standard with their arrangements, but there are still people holding it down for klezmer arrangements of gypsy-influenced melodies mashed up with the occasional operatic vocal performance. It’s like a madcap Beirut or a female-fronted Gogol Bordello.
10. “Heavy Star Movin’ – The Silver Lake Chorus. Written by the Flaming Lips for the choir (which operates in a very Polyphonic Spree-like manner), it’s appropriately cosmic and trippy. Strings accompany, but nothing else–the vocals are the focus here.
11. “Emma Jean” – WolfCryer. Here’s Matt Baumann doing what he’s great at: playing the storytelling troubadour with an acoustic guitar and a world-weary baritone.
There was a point in the mid-’00s when people knew almost exactly what you meant when you said, “We’re an indie-rock band.” With Death Cab for Cutie, Modest Mouse, The Shins, and dozens more running around, “indie rock” meant melodic rock songs with quirky affectations in one or more categories of lyrics, arrangements, song structures, and public persona (Flaming Lips were totally an indie-rock band for a minute, even though they were on a major label–whatever).
Quiet Company‘s Transgressor is an indie rock album in that fine tradition, drawing off all the influences that were impressing themselves on that wave of bands. It’s a melodic, enthusiastic, thoughtful, impressive record that creates surprises where I thought there could be no more surprises.
The first clue is lead single and opener “Seven Hells,” which is a frantic, manic tune in a major key. (Almost all the tunes here are in a major key.) The tune shows the versatility of Taylor Muse’s voice, going from smooth, friendly melodist to freaked-out rager in a span of seconds. It’s the sort of subversive moment that appeared in the mid-’00s and made you think that maybe these buttoned-up kids weren’t as okay as they looked on the cover of the album. Maybe it’s okay to not be totally okay. Maybe we should keep spinning this album for a few more aimless car rides around the city.
“Mother of a Deal” also packs personality and punch into spaces you wouldn’t expect. The casual, lackadaisical refrain of “this is how we play the game” contrasts to the passionate guitars, stomping drums and wailing organ, making another of the whiplash moments that are so cathartic and exciting. It’s that sort of giddy play with expectations that makes most of the tunes here so engaging. You might think, “Wait, didn’t we play that out in like 2009?” Well, maybe you did, but Quiet Company totally didn’t. The Shins could have written the excellent standout “The Road to Perdition,” but they didn’t, and now I’ve got plunking piano, ba-da-das, syncopated vocals, whizzing synths, stomps and handclaps trapped in my mind on loop. “I can’t get you off my mind,” indeed. If you can stop your feet from tapping in “The Road to Perdition,” then the emo revival has hit you a bit too hard, friend.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t some really sad things going on in Transgressor (“A Year in Decline,” “Wherever You Take Me”). It’s just that Quiet Company attacks difficult songs like “I Heard the Devil Say My Name” with almost pop-punk enthusiasm: blaring, wiry synths; galloping drums; big choruses; jubilant horns. There are some nuanced guitar lines, and there’s some heaviness in the lyrics, but if you left the lyrics out, you could dance gleefully to it. You can dance gleefully to basically any track on Transgressor, which is an irony inherent in the title.
The tale is about the courtship, consummation, and subsequent difficulties of marriage, and the title points out the narrator as the transgressor. But it’s still transgressive to dance at sadness and pain, no matter how many times we do it. “I’m begging you to know me / I’m begging you to figure me out / Are you brave enough to love me? / Are you smart enough to have your doubts?” Doesn’t get much rawer than that, even though that section is bookended by perky ba-da-da-da horns.
I could go on, but it would just diminish the beauty and power and excitement of Transgressor. There are alleys and paths and fields and caves to find for your own here. If you’re into mid-’00s indie-rock, late ’00s pop-punk like Relient K, or Death Cab for Cutie at any point in their career, you’ll be into Quiet Company’s impressive Transgressor.
I got married in November, which means I’ve been celebrating my way through the last few weeks instead of listening to new Christmas music. This means that instead of meaningful reviews, I have a large list of things that you and I should both listen to. I regret nothing. ONWARD!
The Good Shepherd Band, which released a beautiful Christmas album in 2011, are back with a new one entitled All the Bells Shall Ring. If it’s anything like the opener “O Come Let Us Adore Him” (starting off with an Advent hymn; I approve) and the last album, we’re in for big, church-style hymns in oft-triumphant arrangements. Wonderful!
Quirky, reverb-heavy indie-pop band SUNBEARS! offer up a 10-minute EP of Christmas music. It’s sure to be as thoroughly enthusiastic as its name: SUNBEARS! Do CHRISTMAS!
Vintage-style acoustic duo The Singer and the Songwriter are dropping 12 songs (in video form!) for the 12 Days of Christmas. Sounds lovely! Check it at their YouTube.
Afternoons‘ Say Yes is a fun, nostalgic indie-pop album that knows how to hit pop high notes with indie nuance. The album seems plucked out of the mid ’00s, when the populous-friendly psych of The Flaming Lips’ At War with The Mystics and the dance-heavy electro of MGMT were having their moments. (For good reason: If you check their convoluted history, it sort of was.)
The album has that sort of gentle production wash over it that softens every edge and warms (almost) every mood. Opener “Graffiti Artist” has a chant-able vocal hook (one of many) and a propulsive but not too aggressive synth hook (also one of many). The killer cut is the stomping, boisterous, utterly infectious title track, which drops second–the vocal melodies are magnetic, the rhythm is just-right, the chorus has people hollering “say yes!”, and the whole thing comes off as a pro-adventure anthem. Yup, sign me up for that.
“Saturday Morning” and “Bored Teenagers” bring in softer vibes that recall Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.’s work, while touches of the high-brow work Grandaddy did appear throughout. “Gloria” and “Love is a Western Word” are two more upbeat tracks worth noting. The back part of the album gets darker and creepier in both lyric and sound, making it less interesting to me, but the first part of the album is so infectious and joyful that it’s worth checking out just for that. Say yes, indeed. Stream the album here.
1. “Great White Shark” – Hollands. Maximalist indie-rock/pop music with groove, noise, melodic clarity, effusive enthusiasm, strings, harp, and just about everything else you can ask for. If the Flaming Lips hadn’t got so paranoid after At War with the Mystics…
2. “Coyote Choir” – Pepa Knight. Still batting 1.000, Pepa Knight brings his exuberant, India-inspired indie-pop to more mellow environs. It’s still amazing. I’m totally on that Pepa Knight train, y’all. (Hopefully it’s The Darjeeling Limited.)
3. “Peaks of Yew” – Mattson 2. I love adventurous instrumental music, and Mattson 2 cover a wide range of sonic territory in this 10-minute track. We’ve got some surf-rock sounds, some post-rock meandering, some poppy melodies, some ambient synths, and a whole lot of ideas. I’m big on this.
4. “Firing Squad” – Jordan Klassen. Sometimes a pop-rock song comes along that just works perfectly. Vaguely dancy, chipper, fun, and not too aggressive (while still allowing listeners to sing it loudly), “Firing Squad” is just excellent.
5. “Droplet” – Tessera Skies. There’s a tough juggling act going on in this breathtaking indie-pop tune: flowing instruments, flailing percussion, cooing vocals, and an urgent sense of energy. It’s like if Jonsi’s work got cluttered up with parts and then organized neatly.
6. “Available Light” – David Corley. If Alexi Murdoch, Tom Waits, and Joseph Arthur all got together and jammed, it might sound something like this gruff yet accessible, vaguely alt-country track.
7. “Blue Eyed Girl” – Sam Joole. I’d like to make a joke about blue-eyed soul here, but it’s actually closer to Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” than that. Lots of laidback guitars, good vibes, but not Jack Johnson twee, if you know what I mean.
8. “By the Canal” – Elephant Micah. I’m a big fan of people who aren’t afraid to let an acoustic guitar and voice splay out wherever they want and however long they want. Here, EM acts as an upbeat Jason Molina, putting the focus on his voice instead of the spartan-yet-interesting arrangements. Totally stoked for this new album.
9. “If It Does” – Robin Bacior. In this loose, smooth, walking-speed singer-songwriter tune with maximum atmosphere, shades of early ’00s Coldplay appear. That’s a compliment, people.
10. “Storm” – Dear Criminals. Not that often do I hear trip-hop, even in an updated melodic form. Way to go, DC–you pick up that torch that Portishead put down.
11. “You Open to the Idea” – Angelo De Augustine. Beautiful, delicate, wispy, earnest whisper-folk. They don’t make ’em like this very often anymore.
12. “Billowing Clouds” – Electrician. The mournful, affected spoken word over melancholy, trumpet-like synths makes me think of an electro version of the isolated, desolate Get Lonely by The Mountain Goats.
13. “Blue Chicago Moon (demo)” – Songs: Ohia. Until Jason Molina, I’ve never had a personal connection to the art of a troubled artist who died too early–Elliott Smith was gone before I knew of his work. Now with unreleased demos coming out consistently after Mr. Molina’s death, I feel the sadness of his passing over and over. Each new track is a reminder that there was work still to be made; it also feels like a new song from him, even though it’s objectively not.
Is this how a legacy gets made in the digital era? How long will we keep releasing new Molina songs, to remind us that he was there, and now he is not? (Please keep releasing them.) Will the new songs push people back to “The Lioness”? Will we keep these candles burning to light our own rooms, or will we bring them to other people? “Endless, endless, endless / endless depression,” Molina sings here. Is it truly endless? Are you still depressed? Does your permanent recording of the phrase make it truly “unchanging darkness”? “Try to beat it,” he intones, finally. Try to beat it, indeed. Keep trying until you can’t anymore. And then let your work stand forever. I guess this is how I mourn.
Lotta good stuff trying to cram its way into 2013! Here’s a varied mix.
1. “No Sleep Tonight” – Family Cave. The precision of indie-pop, the aesthetics of indie-rock, and the mood of indie-folk create an incredibly intriguing tune. Watch for Family Cave in 2014.
2. “Keep It Together” – Decent Lovers. Not a cover of a Guster tune, this DL jam is ironically pretty separated and hectic. It’s held together by a strong mood and a deep internal rhythm. Elijah Wyman is getting better and better at this really unique style of pop.
4. “Don’t Shoot the Messenger” – Miles Hewitt. Reminiscent of ’60s and ’70s protest rock, Hewitt combines old and new into a hypnotic mix.
5. “Belfast” – William Steffey. Takes cues from Oasis with dashes of Portishead and Blur, this tune sounds completely British but is totally from Chicago.
6. “Heartbreakers” – Tomorrows. The Jim Ivins Band rebrands and revamps, moving from an adult-pop template to sounds more akin to Anberlin’s early modern rock. The prominence of vocal melodies has not changed, which is good.
7. “Love Is Not Allowed” – Gap Dream. Obligatory Eno namecheck. Aside from that, this is a gorgeous, swirling mass of analog-sounding synths, modulated vocals, and electronic drums that makes me swoon.
8. “Get In It” – Nyteowl. Funky, spacey, mostly-instrumental R&B. “Do you want to get in it?” Yes. Yes, I do.
9. “Get Down Baby” – Blacktop Daisy. You’ve got to hand it to a band which unabashedly labels its music disco. No violins here, but those harmonies!
10. “Can’t Let Go” – Black Checker. This pop-rock-punk tune comes from an EP called Fast. Yup, that’s pretty much all you need to know.
11. “The Ah Ah Song” – Stand Up and Say No. I miss the days when The Flaming Lips made jubilant, illogical, bright pop tunes. This joyful, exuberant pop-rock tune is exactly that.
12. “Ain’t No Sunshine” – Magi. This Bill Withers cover is minimalist lo-fi glory: the distant recording, the raw passion in the imperfect vocals, the deep sense of mood.
I’ve spent a lot of time and thought on what Independent Clauses should be. It’s gone through many iterations, and I’ve been realizing over the past two months that it’s about to go through another. I’ve always wanted to be the first line of defense for young bands: I’ll review your album if you have zero press, bad spelling and a 3-song demo. If it’s great, it’s great. If it’s not, I’ll tell you what I thought and hopefully you don’t think I’m a jerk. That’s been SOP for IC since day one.
But back in the day, I thought I could do that for every genre. That’s just entirely unfeasible. I can’t be knowledgeable at every style of music. I may like a couple hardcore and metal bands, but I have no idea what makes them good other than the fact that I enjoy it. Even if I heard a great unsigned metal band, I would have little idea how to describe it (and even less clue about RIYLs), because I don’t know the ins and outs of metal.
This is true for me of rap, metal, hardcore, modern rock/post-grunge, blues and jazz. I like a bit of each (K’Naan, Isis, Dillinger Escape Plan, Traindodge, The Flavor and John Coltrane, for starters), but I just feel unqualified to review it. So I’m pretty much going to stop reviewing those genres and focus in on folk, alt-country, indie-pop, indie-rock and post-rock. I’m taking a break from punk so that I can love it again in the near future.
The reason I bring this up is that The Boxing Lesson falls on the outskirts of my knowledge, just on this side of the border. I don’t listen to much psychedelic music, partially because I’ve never had the desire to be high. I say “much” because The Flaming Lips are Oklahoma’s rock heroes, and I listen to their music almost de facto.
The Boxing Lesson has the space-rock/psych thing going on its Muerta EP. “Darker Side of the Moog” features synths galore in a sweeping, atmospheric way. The song transforms into a slow-moving but cohesive bit of pop-influenced songwriting; it’s not exactly go-for-the-hook songcraft, but the melodies are recognizable to those who love a v/c/v setup (me). “Muerta” and “Cassiopeia” are much the same, calling up some Pink Floyd references in their expansive, slow-moving folds.
Closer “Drone to Sleep” is most like a pop song, in that fuzzed out guitar strum and a dominant vocal melody carry the song. It’s still got the synths and spaced-out vibe; its woozy self will definitely still to the core demographic of psych-heads. But people who enjoy meandering pop and folk will find much to love in the track. It really does make me want to go to sleep as the sound washes over me, in a Spiritualized sort of way. It’s kind of like Jonsi, honestly – and that’s really cool. It’s easily my favorite track on the EP.
So, I’m not the best guy to be evaluating The Boxing Lesson, and I’m not too proud to admit it. But it does have some elements that can be appreciated by all — and that’s the mark of great songwriting.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.