Learning how to write in a genre can be a lifelong exploration, even for the most talented of musicians: Josh Ritter has made a whole career exploring the nooks and crannies of modern folk. The Mountain Goats spent a whole decade mastering the lo-fi recording before spending another 15 years doing indie-pop in tons of different styles. As a result of the difficulty and time required to be an expert in one genre, skepticism is warranted when an artist leaves their home genre for another.
This is an even more risky proposition when the target isn’t one new genre, but a multi-genre, broadly “pop” album. Yet despite these many cards stacked against Alex Dezen‘s second solo outing II, the former Damnwells frontman has created a fascinating, incredibly enjoyable album that dabbles in half-a-dozen pop genres. It’s proof of Dezen’s songwriting prowess that he’s not just great in one genre: he’s great in a bunch of them.
Dezen doesn’t try to hide that’s he indulging in any flight of fancy that comes his way: The album opens with “When You Give Up,” a Miami Vice-esque noir new wave tune. Dezen’s lithe voice shines here; not only could he sing the phone book and make it sound great, he could sing it in a wide variety of genres, as well. His knack for catchy melodies is on display everywhere, from the vocal melodies to acoustic guitar riffs to blocky synth blasts. “Holding on to You (Holding on to Me)” has more ’80s rock vibes–this time more Heart than Blondie (“Barracuda,” in particular). As ever, the chorus hook is polished till it glows–you’ll be mumbling “holdingontoyou / holdingontoME” for a long while afterwards.
From there on, Dezen goes in full-on world tour mode. “Randolph Tonight” is CCR-esque swamp rock; “I Am a Racist” is a straight-up doo-wop tune; “New York to Paradise” is a lost Billy Joel piano ballad; “Fuck or Fight” is an Eagles-style country-rock rambler. None of these songs feel insincere or mishandled; Dezen waltzes his way through each of them with a deft hand. It’s even more to his credit that he played almost every instrument on this album. It’s one thing to write a melody in a different genre, and it’s another thing entirely to have the chops on multiple instruments to pull off a whole arrangement in another genre.
My favorite tunes here are ones that pair excellent arrangements with incisive, carefully wrought lyrics. The REM jangle of “I Had a Band” relates anecdotes from a coming-of-age tale with the emotionally charged punch line “I never had much of a father / but I had a band / yeah, I had a band.” Anyone who’s been in a band will relate to the loving, wry tone that runs through the lyrics, whether or not your relationship with your father was great. IC had the distinct honor of premiering the Graceland-inspired “Everything’s Great (Everything’s Terrible),” which has a thoughtful set of lyrics about people in the contemporary moment just trying to make it through. The acoustic closer “The Boys of Bummer” is a lovely song about people who write sad songs by a person who writes sad songs. The dignity with which the characters meander through the tune makes me think of The Hold Steady.
Because of the herculean effort Dezen expends on every track, the album is only 9 songs. Yet in those nine songs he creates his own personal version of the radio, putting his imprint on pop music. It’s a rare album that manages to pull off all that Dezen does here: this is a fully-realized album on “extra difficulty” mode. If you like pop music in any way, shape, or form, you need to hear this album. Highly recommended.
1. “Keep It Coming” – Topher Mohr. It’s hard to write a timeless pop song, but Mohr has put together a wonder of a tune that feels like it could have come out of the ’70s AM Radio scene or the mid-’00s MGMT-esque pop stuff. It’s just a great track all around.
2. “Ice Fishing” – The Cairo Gang. The sort of guitar-rock tune that splits the difference between classic rock, Beatles pop, and San Fran garage rock with ease. Between God? and Burger (and its many offshoots) Records, it feels like we’re in a genuine moment for hooky garage rock.
3. “Sugar Coated” – Jessie Jones. It sounds like everyone, from the bassist to the drummer to the vocalist, is having fun on this hooky garage-rock track.
4. “Timepiece” – Ripple Green. Classic rock guitar and vocals meet a radio-ready modern pop chorus, putting a foot in each world.
5. “Dusty Springfield” – The Fontaines. A little bit of indie-rock, a little bit of ’50s girl-pop, a whole lot of catchy.
6. “Long Way Down” – Vienna Ditto. Minor-key surf-punk? Why not? Vienna Ditto own it, complete with whirring organ, honking saxes, and frantic tom rolls.
7. “Big Bright World” – Jeremy Pinnell. This is about as authentic as country gets: western swing rhythms, weeping pedal still, deep-voiced sadness, and a narrator with a former(?) drug problem. Still, the sun shines through, just like the title suggests.
8. “The Night Before” – No Dry County. You don’t have to sound like Bob Wills to catch my ear with a country tune; this modern country tune has a great melody, a solid arrangement, and an evocative vocal performance. It’s like a country Jimmy Eat World, maybe.
9. “Soaring” -WindfallFound. Post-rock of the beauty-inclined variety, complete with distant, processed vocals, Appleseed Cast-style.
10. “She Knows It” – Shannen Nicole. Goes from “ooh” to “whoa” in no time flat: starts off as a dusky torch song, then amps up to a thunderous torcher by the end. A formidable performance.
11. “The Gold Standard” – Marrow. The Hold Steady’s wry, jubilant mantra “Gonna walk around and drink some more” drops the jubilant part here: this low-slung, slow-build indie-rock tune has a woozy calm that belies the sort of difficult, composed walking that comes of one too many drinks.
1. “Why” – Rathborne. Helter-skelter drums, bass that’s just trying to keep up, jagged guitar sprawling everywhere, aggrieved vocals leading the charge? And it’s done in 2 minutes? Sign me up for garage rock 101, Rathborne. Teach me.
2. “Jawbone” – Dogheart. Sometimes the melody and vocals are so good that it doesn’t really matter what genre the song is. Dogheart’s good-natured garage rock will have people of all sorts humming along.
3. “Suckcess” – Michael Rault. Lo-fi rock with just the right amount of fuzz to get your adrenaline, but not so much that you can’t tell what’s going on. A strong dose of pop ideals (and pop history) put this one over the top.
4. “Boomerang” – Ships Have Sailed. Big fat pop songs are great ways to get through wet, cold Tuesdays in February. Ones that have vibes like The Killers are even better.
5. “Six String to My Heart” – Purple Hill. If The Hold Steady were more alt-country instead of classic rock, they might have sounded like this organ-laden, vocal-driven mid-tempo rock tune.
6. “A Whole New Shape” – Happyness. Remember when Yuck and Smith Westerns were big because they were playing neo-grunge with an indie flair? Happyness is on that train too, and they deserve as much attention as the aforementioned.
3. “Picture Picture” – Tall Tall Trees. Kishi Bashi contributed strings to this giddy, major-key alt-hip-hop/singer-songwriter’s tune. It’s pretty amazing.
4. “Billions of Eyes” – Lady Lamb the Beekeeper. Lady Lamb opens her sophomore campaign with a tour de force grower that moves toward indie-rock, away from the Neutral Milk Hotel-ish psych, and maintains the inscrutable, impressionistic lyrics she’s known for.
5. “Laurel Trees/21 Guns” – Jet Plane. The opening moments of this 10-minute post-rock piece mix fragile strings and bagpipes with grumbling guitar noise to set the scene. The rest of the tune is a leisurely unfolding track that follows that same pattern, albeit with more clean guitar.
6. “New Year’s Retribution” – More Than Skies. What if Tom Waits had played in a punk band and adopted modern folk arrangements to go along with it? This sad, pensive 8-minute track has twists and turns galore.
7. “Lo and Behold” – Sarah Marie Young. More and more people are picking up vintage vocal styles and combining them with modern instrumental styles. Young has a crooner’s voice added to some funky R&B bass and keys, making for a smooth, head-bobbing track.
8. “Pores” – Hand Sand Hand. “Rumbling” is what I call things that sound ferocious but never get a sharp, brittle edge. This post-punk track presses forward with all the power of a much heavier band and keeps me glued to my seat.
The unusual title of Where UFOs Go To Die did not prepare me for 4H Royalty‘s music. I had reasonably expected some country music from the band name, but the album title threw me for a loop. Was it going to be goofy? Was it all going to be tongue-in-cheek like opener “Accordion Bus”? This band contains the guitarist of post-rock duo Lafayette (one of my favorite IC bands ever), so how does that work out?
But then “Statutes of Limitation” hits, and all the fears clear up quickly. 4H Royalty is a gritty, workingman’s rock’n’roll/country band, creating timeless, powerful tunes that would appeal to fans of The Hold Steady as well as Ryan Adams. 9Bullets once described Glossary as a “no-frills, unabashed rock n’ roll records with just enough elements of classic pop and country to keep me honest.” If you flip the rock’n’roll and country references in that sentence, it’s a perfect description of 4H Royalty. Those guitars don’t twang that often, but the voices kinda do, and all these songs are about ending up back in your rural hometown unexpectedly (that hometown being the titular location).
These aren’t woe-is-me ballads, though: the lyrics here are top-shelf storytelling. I don’t often mention lyrics in an album, because 75% of the time they’re inessential (la’s would suffice) and 15% of the time they’re slightly above average. But that other ten percent is money, and bands with meaningful lyrics are usually tagged as very important music. So be it for 4H Royalty. Here’s a clip conflating women and their namesakes that knocked me out: “Mercy, Sherry, Sage, and Rosemary/Jasmine, Brandy, and Hope/return me to sender when I start to remember/all the virtues, spices and liquors of home.” Or this one: “Brilliant social climbers know to take elevators, and I am neither for taking the stairs.” Both of those come from highlight track “Virtues, Spices and Liquors,” which is going on all my summer mixtapes in that spot where you’re trying to get the mood from “driving songs” to “chill out tunes.” It fits right in there.
It’s hard to explain the scruffy, gritty music that 4H Royalty makes. “Gritty” and “scruffy” in this case don’t mean junky garage rock, but still: their tunes have some dirt and use on them. It’s the difference between a gleaming new truck (a large number of country bands) and one that’s been used, loved and wouldn’t be traded for the world (4H Royalty). “The Black Hornet Rides Again” is a rock instrumental that sounds like the Southern Rock equivalent of a surf jam like “Wipeout!” “Fall Off the Face of the Earth with Me” is a weary love song that starts off with the phrase, “It’s times like this you really the effects the brain drain has had on this town…” “Soon Enough” is a jaded, mid-tempo kiss-off tune; depending on your point of view, “Itchy Blood” is an guardedly optimistic or kinda desperate “I still love you” note to a woman who may or may not still remember the narrator.
And it’s that ambiguity that makes Where UFOs Go to Die such a compelling listen. The band nails everything they go for (with the exception of the aforementioned confusing opener), leaving tons of space for the vocals and lyrics to take over and do their thing. The result is an album that showcases both a brilliant lyricist and veteran musicians (Lafayette’s Andrew Porter plays bass and organ, while Zach Boddicker was in the late great Drag the River). These songs are so tight that they’re past the “we got this” phase and into “how do we confidently show musically that we don’t got this in our lives?” And they do that here; it’s one thing to tell passion, but it’s another thing to tell overly optimistic, confused, underconfident, overcompensating, real passion. If that’s not an album you want to hear, this blog can’t help you much. This is easily a contender for album of the year.
Portland seems to be the new Seattle (except for this downer), so I was surprised when I heard Kris Orlowski & the Passenger String Quartet out of Seattle. Seattle is the new Portland, which was the new Seattle?
Scenes aside, Kris Orlowski has established a foundation for himself in the five-song At the Fremont Abbey EP. His voice is a slurry delight, somewhere between the low-pitched snark of Craig Finn (The Hold Steady) and the high-pitched emotionality of Scott Hutchison (Frightened Rabbit). He applies that voice to a batch of solid acoustic guitar-based songs augmented with strings; this particular group was recorded live at the titular space.
I more often feel that songwriters need to loosen up than get more serious, but Orlowski flips the script. He bookends his set standouts “Your Move” and “Jessi,” both weight, impassioned tunes that a man could make a career out of purveying. But in between there are various levels of frivolity, from charming (the inspired “Waltz at Petunia”) to out-of-character (the Mraz-esque pseudo-scatting of “Steady and Slow”). Orlowski attempts to save the latter with a good chorus, but it’s perky and weird. Orlowski does best when he sounds like a non-roaring Damien Rice or Joseph Arthur.
The string quartet makes a surprisingly limited stamp on the lesser tracks (especially “Postcard Man,” which sounds like a Parachutes reject). But they absolutely make the chorus of the beautiful, mournful “Jessi.” “Your Move” is given life by the strings, but it’s the mixed chorus that takes the song home and onto mixes.
Orlowski has shown a lot of variation throughout this EP, but there’s no defining feature. The strings are an integral part of his sound, but they aren’t the x factor. Orlowski needs to work on what his thing is: whether that’s melodies, tight lyrics, songwriting style (sparse/full), unique rhythms (all straightforward here) or whatever else. There’s a lot of raw potential in Orlowski, but he’s got to capture the best parts of “Jessi” and “Your Move” and make them work for him – or, the other songs, if that’s the way he’s gonna roll.
Either way, I’ll be watching Kris Orlowski as an up-and-comer.
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.
At its forefront you’ll find a good deal of iniquity in the world of rock n’ roll. But, hiding in the alcoves of northern Illinois, you’ll find the ever-virtuous Kid, You’ll Move Mountains. They’ve got it all: that honesty and humbleness that when you hear it, you know even before you check their Myspace page that they’re from the Midwest; the patience that, after a year of recording, put a well-thought-out full-length album under their belts despite geographical complications and the numerous bands they began as a side-project to; and the simplicity and simultaneous bravery that offer something easy to latch on to while also challenging the band to explore the reaches of its own lengths and depths. These guys (and gal) aren’t just in it for the free beer, that’s for sure.
If you’ve heard any of the bands (El Oso, Troubled Hubble, Inspector Owl, etc.) that are parents to the lovechild that is Kid, You’ll Move Mountains, you might have a guess as to what their debut, Loomings, holds in store – but you couldn’t guess how well they pull it off. The brothers Lanthrum provide a fierce rhythm section and a sturdy spine without being afraid to throw a wrench into things with unusual bass effects and captivatingly intense beats. Corey Wills’ fancy effect-laden guitar work does an exemplary job filling out the band’s sound with spacey riffs and all the right noise in all the right places, weaving in and out with Nina Lanthrum’s often Hold Steady-esque piano work. The occasional chiming of Nina’s sweet and un-straying vocals blend seamlessly with Jim Hanke’s almost effortlessly sincere lyricism and strategically placed peaks and valleys of intensity and serenity.
“I guess it all depends how you want this to taste,” Hanke calmly sings to open up the album before riling himself up with loads of clever wordplay and brutal honesty. But I like to think of this line as a disclaimer, explaining the thought that just as our peers or anyone else can convince us of something, we can just as easily convince ourselves of the same, or otherwise– and to acknowledge this is to acknowledge that the band is well aware of our predisposal, thus allowing us to relinquish our biases and listen with an entirely open mind. From there the album only picks up.
With a mere nine tracks, Loomings is damn near impossible to get bored with. Even when the tempo isn’t at its highest, they put enough candy in your ears to keep you on a sugar high until well after the album’s end. If “I’m a Song From the Sixties” doesn’t have you on your feet dancing or “An Open Letter to Wherever You’re From” doesn’t have you singing “Midnight, my house – the last one out of the city, burn it down…” non-stop, then you probably need your ears cleaned out.
Kid, You’ll Move Mountains’ debut full-length(ish) may have come out in the middle of a harsh Midwest winter, but I think Loomings will become an instant classic filed under ‘indie rock road trip’ music, and it leaves us hopeful for a summer just as long, so that we can listen to this with the windows down and feet on the dash for just a while longer. For fans of bands like Maritime, Annuals, and Mock Orange, I strongly suggest you get your hands on this release.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.