Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Charles Ellsworth’s Cesaréa: A journey reflecting journeys

May 22, 2017

Cesaréa is a ten song journey, a blend of western influences and the tales of a true road dog told with a mature lyricism. From the scent of pine trees and small town life in the opening track “The Town Where I’m From” to the simple “In My Thoughts,” listeners are invited into authentic and vulnerable world of Charles Ellsworth via his third full-length release as a solo artist.

There are no mistakes in who crosses someone’s path in life. “Right around the time I turned 22, I was in Las Vegas with a group of some of my oldest friends. On one particularly hungover/still drunk afternoon, I was talking with a friend about how neither of us knew exactly what we wanted to do with our lives. He was about to head to the Peace Corps for a couple years, and I had just gone through a bad band breakup and had decided to go back to Utah to finish my Bachelor’s degree,” said Charles Ellsworth, when asked about the origins of his latest album set to drop May 26th, 2017. It was prior to his emotional musical breakup that this listener first crossed paths with Ellsworth and heard his story. Swearing off music to focus on film, this wandering man was was truly born, more open to the possibilities of life.

Ellsworth grew up in logging country of Arizona’s White Mountains where families are generationally embedded into the land. This simple life instilled in Ellsworth the value of hard work and sacrifice. These values show in songs like “California,” an uptempo Americana folk trip about moving on. Long a favorite at live shows, this mix has created a beast with soaring guitar work from Jon Rauhouse. The beautifully arranged waltz of “Hold On to Me” shows the trust that Ellsworth has in producer Bob Hoag at Flying Blanket Recording (Courtney Marie Andrews, The Format, Gin Blossoms) in Mesa, Arizona. Another song first heard live, this song has been brilliantly transformed into a lush ballad with an elegant tempo and instrumentation: a barn dance for two with the rest of the world listening.

Every path in life comes full circle, allowing the traveler opportunities to get lost along the way. Originally meeting and working with the producer Bob Hoag, the intentional life was born without any realization of the destination at that point. Ellsworth’s friend that joined the Peace Corps gave him a parting gift. “At some point I told him I just wanted to write, play music, and travel the world. I didn’t care about money, I cared about a life spent creating from outside my comfort zone. He suggested that I read The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño. I read it in the final week of the summer before starting school again. It immediately became one of my favorite books, and without realizing it at the time, influenced most of my decisions that have led me to now.”

Being on the road of life is the only way to find new experiences outside one’s comfort zone, in true Tom Waits fashion. “50 Cent Smile” is the first single off Cesaréa. The song is a connection to the man that was and the man that moved to Brooklyn, New York, after years of touring with a guitar. Ellsworth toured with and without his friend Tres Wilson (AKA Shadow Puppet), wandering from Salt Lake City north, west, east, and south to all parts in between. “50 Cent Smile” is a song mirroring the western freewheeling mentality that was inspired by John Steinbeck’s classic East of Eden. Lyrically the song taps into the questions that are posed in the classic American novel, exceptionally relevant in the world today.

“I re-read The Savage Detectives while in the studio last year and was blown away by the fact that I was still doing what I wanted to all those years ago. I decided to name the album Cesaréa after one of the characters in the book. While the album isn’t necessarily about the book, the album wouldn’t exist without it,” says Charles Ellsworth when asked recently about his upcoming album.

“Growing Up Ain’t Easy” and “Dyre Straitz” have a totally different feel for the singer. Giving voice to a more mature musician coming from a place outside of his comfort zone, it’s like the first time you ride the A Train from north Manhattan to south Brooklyn: the thirty-one mile stretch is a lifetime of change. Solid instrumentally, the resonance in Ellsworth’s vocal delivery has matured as well.

Some tracks on Cesaréa have been years in the making, having appeared in other incarnations on previous releases. “Always Looking Twice” is one of those uptempo moments of greatness that happens on this album. A new instrumentation that includes piano, movement and familiar images flickers like a crooked smile at long time fans. With its sprinkling of the road, this song sets up at the entrance to the American songbook.

Heading full circle and out of the album, “Sunday Shoes” is the connective tissue for the lyrics. The arrangement and vocal delivery gives a western strength to a song that has been evolving for years on the road, with roots in the logging country of the Arizona White Mountains where Ellsworth is from. Sprinkled with piano, the city is part of the landscape and the mountains part of the foundation in the music of Charles Ellsworth. There is a strength and confidence in his lyrical craftsmanship, an undeniable thing that cannot really be taught. Like Jason Isbell‘s highly anticipated The Nashville Sound and The American West’s The Soot Will Bring Us Back Again, this album comes out of experience that shape artistic sensibilities.

Now on the third section of his quest, like The Savage Detectives, musician and songwriter Charles Ellsworth is narrator of this story. He combines solo, acoustic, live, and collaborative releases that have culminated in the masterwork of Cesaréa. Ellsworth is destined to join the collection of folk country troubadours that are part of the American songbook.–Lisa Whealy

fun. makes difficult but interesting music on Some Nights

April 2, 2012

You don’t have to listen too hard or too long to fun.‘s Some Nights before two things are very clear:

1. Nate Ruess is documenting an existential crisis in his lyrics.
2. This is an (almost absurdly) enthusiastic musical foil for it.

I don’t often mention lyrics at Independent Clauses unless their significance is tremendously foregrounded, as is the case here. Ruess is not obscuring anything in poetics: he attacks religion in “One Foot,” appropriates the now-iconic line “It Gets Better” in the song of the same name, references his parents a lot, and gets a children’s choir to sing “I’ve got nothing left inside of my chest, but it’s all alright” with him (“All Alright”).

Does that sound like an album that would extensively use vocoder, hang a whole tune on a hip-hop style big brass sample (“One Foot,” again), record the majority of the catchiest song with drums and multi-tracked vocals as the focus, or get a #1 chart slot with a hooky radio single? No. But it’s both things, and that’s why this album is so beguiling.

The easy-to-spot high point of the album is the title track, where the multi-tracked vocals, rumbling toms and clapping produce an exuberance that is unrivaled on the album or in any other song I’ve heard this year. I can barely suppress dancing when I hear it (and most times I don’t try to). There are woah-ohs throughout. There’s a an autotune/vocoder breakdown. There’s a guitar solo ending the song. There’s so much singing along. It’s just absolutely wonderful. The accompanying lyrics are some of the most hopeful on the album, as Ruess sings, “Man you wouldn’t believe/the most amazing things/they can come from some terrible nights.” It’s an early contender for song of the year.

“We Are Young,” their hit, is next, and it’s great. You’ve probably heard it. I like it. You like it. Next!

After that is where things start to get more difficult for me to grasp. The acoustic instrumentation of “Carry On” is strongly reminiscent of Ruess’ former outfit, The Format—except for the weird ’80s percussion. “It Gets Better” starts off with a grating rhythmic break, but segues into an intriguing electro-punk tune. “Why Am I the One” has an excellent vocal contribution from Ruess and beautiful arrangement, but has frustratingly contradictory lyrics in the chorus (“For once, for once, for once, I got the feeling that I’m right where I belong / so why am I the one always packing up my stuff?”).

The whole album goes like that, with elements of the songs pulling at each other. It neatly mirrors the conflict that Ruess is singing about, but it doesn’t make for easy listening. It’s really weird to hum “And I feel so all alone!” triumphantly, but listening to this album will cause that to happen.

I can unreservedly recommend both the music and lyrics of “Some Nights,” as I’ve been looping it consistently for several weeks now. The rest of the album is a challenging but interesting listen, as Ruess and co. are talented songwriters and arrangers. I suspect this will resonate deeply with some who prize emotional rawness in lyrics and fall completely flat with others who go in expecting 9 variations on the lyrical theme of “We Are Young.” If you’re in it for music you can’t hear anywhere else, then you’re certainly in for a treat.

Quick Hits: Jacob's List

January 10, 2011

Do you like happiness? Good. Do you like exuberance? Good. Do you like giddiness? Great, because that’s the level of enthusiasm you’ll need to take in Jacob’s List. Their EP Corks and Screws is as optimistic as Anathallo, as exuberant as The Format and as frenetic as Jack’s Mannequin.

It’s piano-based indie pop, that much is sure. And they’re ecstatic about something, that much is also true. There are handclaps, group singalongs, woo!s and guitar solos. The best example of this is “Claire,” which even manages to pack in some Hold Steady-esque story-song lyrics delivered in a distinctly Craig Finn-ian drawl (albeit more melodic). I swear, if it’s not on your next mixtape, a unicorn will explode into a dozen little rainbows.

But right after they establish that they’re the second coming of The Unicorns (with a piano), they toss in a stomping rock aside. Did I mention it’s the title track? Yes, Jacob’s List knows how to keep a listener riveted. The acoustic-heavy “Tall Tall Grass” sounds like the best things that Annuals have been able to pull off, and “Bloodlines” is eight frickin minutes long. Needless to say, it is awesome.

Jacob’s List know how to throw down an EP. Corks and Screws establishes them very firmly in my mind as a band to watch. No one can make music this exuberant and technically proficient only to stay in a garage. Someone get this band to SXSW! Stat! Until then, I’ll be over here, smiling giddily, listening intently and petting the unicorn.

Shorthand Phonetics release talented pop with difficult vocals

February 24, 2010

My relationship with Shorthand Phonetics is somewhat complicated. That’s all right, though; almost all of Shorthand Phonetics’ lo-fi rock’n’roll proclaims the ins and outs of complicated relationships (or lack thereof).

See, Shorthand Phonetics always has and probably will always have an aesthetic that challenges listeners. Ababil Ashari, mastermind of Shorthand Phonetics, writes and plays with Jeff Mangum-esque disregard for other people’s conventions of what is good and not good. Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is Jeff Mangum’s masterpiece because it is a total, singular vision that no one else could possibly have put together. While Ashari’s works haven’t reached that level of mastery yet, each release of hyper-distorted, giddy, super-emotional, crazy-long-titled pop and rock’n’roll songs comes closer and closer to reaching perfect idiomatic success (perfect idiomatic success: in which it doesn’t really matter what everyone else is doing, because what the band is doing is so awesome. See also: The Format’s Dog Problems).

Errors in Calculating Odds, Errors in Calculating Value is by far the most unique release that Shorthand Phonetics has revealed yet. From songs whose full titles are 50 words long to ten-minute songs to Firefly and anime references, this album is a distinct vision from Ababil Ashari’s mind. The whole low-to-mid-fi thing is over an hour long, as no song drops below four minutes in length. Several run for more than six minutes.

The length is the ultimate problem with Errors. It’s not the length of any particular track that does it in, but this much Shorthand Phonetics is hard to take in one sitting. The songwriting is consistently good, although a bit abrasively recorded. It’s the high, occasionally grating vocals that get in the way. For a few songs, the unique and exciting epic power-pop covers the problem. But tracks like “To the Girl I Think Might be Similar to the Girl Flight of the Conchords Were Thinking About When They Were Writing “The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room)”” just have grating, screechy vocal efforts that cannot be redeemed. It’s just too much to ask of listeners.

That being said, there are moments here that shine when pulled from the hour-plus context. “Fear and Loathing in Jikyoku-to” is one of the best songs that I’ve heard by SP (although I have by no means heard them all, as SP is quite prolific). Its riff and melodies are engaging, resulting in head-bobbing and much approval. That’s the primary thing that’s different about Errors: there’s a lot more headbobbing than rocking out. And that’s just fine, as tunes like “The Hardest Achievement” and “Fear and Loathing…” are excellent. The melodic solo intro to “Natalies for Glasses IV…” (which is the song with the fifty-word title that I’m not reproducing here) also is excellent, except for the untuned bass guitar in the back guitar (remember kids: lo-fi doesn’t have to mean sloppy).

To sum up this review: Ababil Ashari of Shorthand Phonetics is an incredibly talented pop songwriter recording in a low-fi manner with a voice that’s hard to take in large doses. In 1998, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats was an incredibly talented pop songwriter recording in a low-fi manner with a voice that was hard to take in large doses. Then he grew up some and became amazing. Not saying that’s the road that Shorthand Phonetics is going to take, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the next ten years produce some great stuff from Shorthand Phonetics. If you have a high tolerance for unusual vocals, then Errors is in your department.  If you don’t, then tune in to tomorrow’s review, in which you will receive a treat.

Said the Whale gets an A, said the reviewer

October 19, 2009

From what I’ve heard that’s come out of Canada, I have yet to be disappointed. Well, except for maybe Avril Lavigne. I’ll narrow the category: folk-influenced indie from Canada can’t seem to go wrong. And Said the Whale from Vancouver doesn’t break this reputation.

Islands Disappear is the quintet’s second full-length album, released October 14. It ranges from gorgeous, picturesque acoustic ballads to more up-tempo, danceable electric numbers, but all have a certain (Canadian?) quaintness that keeps the album cohesive. Even the harder, grittier songs still have a bounciness to them. Part of this charm can be attributed to the harmonies, sometimes inter-gender, that saturate Islands Disappear. Somehow they capture the essence of cute without crossing the line into cutesy, a fine line that’s easy to cross.

These harmonies are instantly wooing in the lovely opener “Dear Elkhorn,” a song about getting lost that is easy to get lost in. (See? I just crossed that fine line into cutesy.) Another gem is the album’s single, the high-spirited, fun, and absurdly catchy “Camilo (The Magician).”

Throughout Islands Disappear, I’m reminded of the vocal lines of The Format, the sunniness of The Shins, and the quirkiness of The Decemberists (a compliment). But Said the Whale doesn’t sound too much like any of them, incorporating their own special sound in each song. For example, the guitar sound in the electric songs is distinctly different in each. And they’ve also incorporated ukulele in several songs, a move I love for several reasons. Personally, as a very amateur ukulele player, I love to hear it being used well in good music that’s not from Hawaii. And this aside, the instrument has a lovely and unique timbre that doesn’t get taken advantage of often. Listen to Said the Whale’s “Goodnight Moon” if you don’t believe me.

Really the only downside of this album is that some of the songs can get repetitive, but this is always due to lyrics and not the music itself. In the grand scheme of Islands Disappear, this factor hardly makes a decisive impact. This album is still very much recommended for adding a youthful diversity to anyone’s music collection.

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.

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