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.
Coldplay is the rock band to beat in the world right now. They have consistently excellent songwriting, an adventurous bent that doesn’t allow them to write the same album twice, a fantastic live show, a rabid following, a non-pretentious attitude about most things, and what seems like a genuine love for making music. Although there are bands that have more of each thing (Radiohead fans are more rabid, The Flaming Lips have a top-notch live show, the Mountain Goats have been cranking out consistently excellent songs for almost twenty years, etc), the one category in which they stand out pushes them over the top as the rock band right now. X&Y is as different from Parachutes as they come, and same for A Rush of Blood to the Head and Viva La Vida. They consistently push themselves, and it shows.
I say all this because my first thought when I heard Run Dan Run’s 27 Coming St. EP was, “Whoa. This sounds like Parachutes-era Coldplay!” And then I was struck by how Coldplay is one of the few bands in the world that I would have to specify which album a band sounds like instead of just comparing band to band.
And Run Dan Run’s songs do bear strong resemblance to their Parachutes-era brethren. The songs are a bit more ragged and wild, like Turin Brakes or the most passionate moments of Damien Rice, but the moods between the two albums are very similar. Run Dan Run features piano and acoustic guitar prominently, always having tension between the two as to who is most important. It’s a good tension that provides a neat flair to RDR’s sound.
The only downfall here are the vocals, which are more toward the Bob Dylan/Neutral Milk Hotel ragged school of indie-rock singing rather than the Ben Folds-smooth voice. In several tracks the vocals are just too much, and they detract from the song. “Wasted Love” is a very nice song dragged down by a weak vocal performance. On the other hand, the wild passion invested in the end of closer “Points of Departure” makes the song into what it is, yelling and all. The vocals are a part of listening to RDR, and if you’re not going to be able to enjoy it through the cracks, breaks, and pauses, you should look elsewhere. But if you’re down with bands like Neutral Milk Hotel or newer artists The Tallest Man on Earth or The Rural Alberta Advantage, you’ll be down with Run Dan Run and their grounded acoustic pop in the vein of Parachutes by Coldplay.
Dennis Coyne, singer and guitarist of Stardeath and the White Dwarfs, describes the group’s live shows as having “a lot of lights, a lot of loud music, and a lot of fog.”
“It’s absolutely psychedelic,” Coyne says.
The group’s musical style fits with these aspects of their live performances.
“It’s loud and bright in every sense of the word – loud and bright in sound and in color,” Coyne says of the band’s sound.
Stardeath and the White Dwarfs formed about four years ago, and its members hail from Oklahoma City and Norman. Coyne says he got started playing music by being around it a lot as a kid – he’s Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips’ nephew!
“I grew up around music my whole life, and by being close with the Lips,” Coyne says. “Growing up, it was always around, so that really had to give me some interest in it.”
Coyne says that Wayne helps the group “in a way that any good uncle would,” but that he also helps and influences Stardeath and the White Dwarfs musically.
“It’s awesome,” Coyne says of having Wayne as an uncle. “There’s nothing to complain about except that he’s hard to keep up with because he’s such a hard worker.”
As a band coming out of Oklahoma, Coyne says that he has always liked the Oklahoma City and Norman music scenes. And, in addition to this, he says that it’s nice having just enough bands in the area without having an overload of competition. Oklahoma’s low cost of living is also a benefit.
“Being a band from Oklahoma is great because everything is cheap,” adds Coyne.
About seven months ago, Stardeath and the White Dwarfs was signed to Warner Bros. Records, but when they first found out, the group was working as a road crew for the Flaming Lips. They were so busy that Coyne says the group didn’t have a lot of time to consider the news.
“It was weird because we didn’t have time to digest anything,” Coyne says. “We didn’t get the news until we had arrived in England and were setting up for the Lips.”
The band recently finished their full-length album with Warner Bros., and it will be released in May. Also for the label, Stardeath and the White Dwarfs collaborated with the Flaming Lips on a cover of Madonna’s “Borderline.” The song is included on a compilation of Warner Bros. Records covers, released for the company’s 50th anniversary. Coyne says that “Borderline” was chosen carefully.
“Well, you wanna do something absurd, but not too absurd, but also not so serious that it’s boring,” he says.
The recording was completed long-distance – at the time, Stardeath and the White Dwarfs were recording in Oklahoma, and the Flaming Lips were working on Christmas on Mars in New York. They worked on the track in their two separate studios, emailing pieces back and forth, and working out issues by talking on the phone.
Currently, Stardeath and the White Dwarfs are running a very busy tour, playing a show in a different state almost every night.
“The schedule sounds brutal, but once you get rolling, it goes by so fast,” Coyne says. “There’s no sleep, and you’re driving a lot, but doing a lot in a little period is better because it keeps you on track.”
The band stops in Tulsa, in their home state, this Monday, March 16. The show is scheduled for 9 p.m. at Bob’s, inside Cain’s Ballroom. Be sure to check out Stardeath and the White Dwarfs for an energetic, psychedelic spectacle, and to support an Oklahoma-bred group!
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.