Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Summer’s comin!

March 20, 2014

Even though spring is officially today, it iced two days ago in Raleigh. It’s been a long winter, so it’s nice to start thinking about and hearing summer (even if I can’t see it yet). Here are some summery tunes for you, with occasional interjections from fall (everything folky sounds like fall, sorry bout that).

Summer’s Comin’

1. “The Sun” – Sleepers Bells. Jesse Alexander keeps busy: he’s in IC favorites Battle Ave. and The Miami, as well as releasing a solo project under the name Sleepers Bells. This track combines the Titus Andronicus punk fervor of BA with the wild vocals and mournful sadness of The Miami for a completely fascinating track.

2. “Ether” – Gentle Robot. Is night-time rock a thing? (Bloc Party says yes?) If so, that’s where Gentle Robot lives: dark but not angry, melancholy but not brooding, loud but not abrasive.

3. “Raise a Glass” – Monsenior. Bouncy indie-pop that evenly balances weight and effervescence. This one never loses its grounding as a bass-heavy tune, but it’s still a ton of fun.

4. “Beauty’s Bones” – Villa Kang. Combinines giant, thwomping ’80s electro-pop beats with some wistful ’00s indie-vibes in the vocals. The ghost of MGMT hangs low over this summer banger.

5. “Concorde” – Incan Abraham. No better title for this Springsteen-meets-’80s electro cut than the sadly-no-more jet.

6. “Til Tomorrow” – DWNTWN. We have entered “summery pop” season. It couldn’t get here fast enough, for my money.

7. “Lucid Dream” – Glue Trip. #ChillwaveForever

8. “Dare the Dream (Challenger Remix)” – Pure Bathing Culture. IC faves Challenger give the dreamy PBC cut an even dreamier take, turning it into an ethereal-yet-triumphant take on the tune.

9. “Towers” – Orphan Mothers. Smooth, delicate R&B-esque tune with some indie-rock flair in the guitar. Remember The Antlers? They’d be jamming to this.

10. “She’s Falling” – Breanna Kennedy. It seems like I’m including one adult alternative track per mix. This week’s AA track features a nicely understated chorus; it’s great to not hear a gigantic instrumental explosion every now and then.

11. “Flaws” – Vancouver Sleep Clinic. Falsetto over electro/acoustic jams is either going to invoke James Blake or Bon Iver until further notice. Still, this is a beautiful track.

12. “Burning Promises” – GreenHouse. Piano, synths, found sound, and dry percussion come together to make a relaxing tune.

Top 11 Songs of the Year

December 28, 2012

The album isn’t dead, as you’ll see when my top albums of the year list rolls around tomorrow. But these songs stuck out over and above the albums that encompassed them–or not, as #4’s album has yet to be released. Viva la album, viva la single.

11. “Advice From People Who Shouldn’t Give It (Don’t Take It)” – Superstar Runner. There’s beatboxing and group vocals in this acoustic tune. Yeah, it’s awesome.

10. “Brother Don’t Wait” – Emily and the Complexes. The raw emotion tugs at my heartstrings.

9. “Kneebone” – The Miami. This call and response tune is profoundly fractured and odd, but I dare you to keep it out of your head.

8. “Virtues, Spices and Liquors” – 4H Royalty. The best lyrical outing of the whole year, backed up with strong melodies and great instrumentation.

7. “Rockingham Cindy” – Jonas Friddle. I could fill this slot with at least a dozen Friddle tunes, but this tune of longing is especially memorable.

6. “See the Conqueror” – Jenny and Tyler. Beauty and power wrapped up into one hymn-esque charge.

5. “Still Analog” – The March Divide. It’s a pop song about pop songs, and it involves clapping and snapping. ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?!

4. “All Creatures” – ElisaRay. Poignant and pounding in turns, this arrangement choked me up the first time I heard it.

3. “All I Have” – Young Readers. This is one of the most romantic tunes I’ve heard in a long time; it’s right up there with “Above All Men” by J. Tillman.

2. “This Love Won’t Break Your Heart” – Annalise Emerick. A gorgeous, evocative folk tune that perfectly captures the sadness that hope brings and the hope that sadness brings.

1. “When I Write My Master’s Thesis” – John K. Samson. There is no song I spun more this year. You could often find me dancing and singing along with manic glee to this power-pop jewel.

Top 36 songs of the year

December 27, 2012

I usually like to get this post to a nice round number, but I didn’t get it there this year. Here’s what my year sounded like, y’all! This post isn’t ranked; instead, it’s a playlist of sorts. My ranked post will come tomorrow.

1. “Canvas Shoes” – The Brixton Riot
2. “Never Heard of Dylan” – The Finest Hour
3. “Heard It All Before” – The Switch
4. “How Do I Know” – Here We Go Magic
5. “Lady Percy” – King Charles
6. “You Left Your Sweater…” – Cobalt and the Hired Guns
7. “Monster Fiction” – Oh Look Out!
8. “When I Write My Master’s Thesis” – John K. Samson
9. “Lightshow” – Plants and Animals
10. “Believer” – Ponychase
11. “Day is Gone” – Phoebe Jean and the Air Force (My runner-up favorite music video!)
12. “Still Analog” – The March Divide
13. “Hap Hej” – Dva
14. “Love Changes Everything” – Amy Correia
15. “The Road” – Nicollette Good
16. “Kneebone” – The Miami
17. “I Rose Up At the Dawn of the Day” – Martha Redbone
18. “Virtues, Spices and Liquors” – 4H Royalty
19. “I’m Happy All the Time (Sad Hawaii Version)” – Decent Lovers
20. “When I Hit My Stride” – Jonas Friddle
21. “Mom and Me Versus You and Dad” – Pan
22. “Walrus Meat” – The Parmesans
23. “See the Conqueror” – Jenny and Tyler
24. “Advice From People Who Shouldn’t Give It (Don’t Take It)” – Superstar Runner
25. “All Creatures” – ElisaRay
26. “This Love Won’t Break Your Heart” – Annalise Emerick
27. “The Secret Songs” – Come On Pilgrim!
28. “All My People Go” – Kris Orlowski and Andrew Joslyn
29. “Tuck the Darkness In” – Bowerbirds (My favorite video of the year!)
30. “Brother Don’t Wait” – Emily and the Complexes
31. “Survivor Blues” – Cory Branan
32. “A-Okay” – Summer of Sam
33. “Farewell Old Friends” – Jacob Furr
34. “If I Were A Surfer” – Elephant Micah
35. “All I Have” – Young Readers
36. “Shenandoah” – Goldmund

Oh Three, Experimentalists

December 13, 2012

Avant-garde music generally doesn’t agree with me, so I don’t cover it much on IC. But there are exceptions, such as Kai Straw‘s To Pearl Whitney, From Howland Grouse In Loathing. The album was pitched to me as “experimental poetry”; that might make you think of rap, but lead track “sexlovesoul” is an intense a capella piece that blurs the lines between rap and spoken word. The story it tells is one of a relationship found and lost and found, spread over an entire life. It was deeply moving, inspiring me to check out the rest of the 21-song album. What proceeds is a highly idiosyncratic mix of poetry, rapping, electronica, jazz and even some acoustic guitar. The lead is always Straw’s voice, which he has fine-tuned to be precise and highly tonal (even when speaking). The lyrics he sings and speaks are varied, from songs of death and destruction (“The Champion,” “2,000”) to elaborate daydreams (the near-parody “Vanity Fair,” “Boogie Nights”) to relationship troubles (“Drunk,” “sexlovesoul”).

The best tunes are the ones that don’t invest the most in the arrangement; while tunes like “Yakuza 21” and “Dionysius” have well-developed backing beats (squelching electronica and traditional R&B, respectively), taking the focus off the vocals is not the best move for Straw. That’s not because the beats aren’t strong; it’s that his voice is so engaging and intriguing that I want to hear it unfiltered. If you’re into hip-hop for the lyrical prowess, you should check out Kai Straw’s work. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

Me and My Ribcage by The Widest Smiling Faces doesn’t sound that experimental on first blush. The wistful title track opens the album and introduces the listener to a sound somewhere between the moving soundscapes of The Album Leaf and the minimalist slowcore of Jason Molina and Red House Painters. The high, tentative, child-like vocals tip this off as slightly out of the ordinary, however. The album unfolds as a collection of beautiful, relaxing tunes, not so far off from bands like Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate) or Pedro the Lion at its quietest. None of the elements in the album are particularly virtuosic in their performance, but the arrangements of piano, guitar and voice are arresting. If you’re looking for a quiet, melodic, gorgeous album, you should look the way of The Widest Smiling Faces.

I was aware that The Miami had some experimental in them when I reviewed their album “I’ll Be Who You Want Me to Be”, but they ratchet that mode up in their exciting EP “Ring Shouts”. The Miami is a duo that recreates old spirituals, hymns and folk tunes in often-mournful style, stretching the source material in unusual and unexpected ways. “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” has a grating noise butting up against the plain, acoustic accompaniment; this juxtaposition seems to inspire fear in the vocalist/narrator and uneasiness in this listener. The 78 seconds of “Barbed Wire” are an a capella tune with only one person clapping and stomping to back it up, while the swirling, mysterious synths of “Motherless Child” combine with the acoustic guitar and vocals for a heartwrenchingly sad piece.

Then, they throw all that sad stuff overboard and close out the EP with “Kneebone,” a call-and-response tune that is easily the catchiest and happiest tune they’ve ever put out. It’s still got a long introduction that abruptly quits before the vocals come in and a drowsy coda to connect it with the rest of the tunes, but it’s a fun song to hear and to sing along with. Because even the most experimental of us enjoy a good singalong every now and then.

The Miami's reinvented songs strike a modern chord

September 20, 2011

Slave songs developed to encode the experience of temporal suffering and the longing for Earthly emancipation into the language of religious suffering and heavenly freedom. The hopes and fears of slaves are memorialized in those oft-mournful songs.

The Miami‘s “I’ll Be Who You Want Me To Be” is a translation of eight traditional African-American, but not exclusively slave, lyrics into a very modern indie genre that emphasizes the world-weary, beaten down aspects. The Miami, a duo of self-proclaimed “middle-class, secular, well-educated college kids,” sounds a lot like the most downtrodden moments of Pedro the Lion and Damien Jurado. In fact, my favorite Pedro the Lion song (a heartbreaking version of traditional hymn “Be Thou My Vision”) is similar to The Miami’s reinvention techniques. The Miami, however, eschews all familiar markers from the songs — you’ll never recognize “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” — to bring the tragedy of the words to the forefront.

It’s interesting that The Miami wears its secular background on its sleeve. Some lyrical meaning dissipates if the songs are being understood outside of an eternal hope – the afterlife wasn’t the only meaning of the words, but it was certainly a part of it. However, in translating not only the lyrics of the songs but the meaning of the tunes into a world-weary (“Keep Your Eyes on the Prize”), “lo-fi,” occasionally avant garde (“If He Changed My Name”) genre, The Miami is free to make reference to the modern music world’s redemption stories.

And lo-fi (which at this point in history is an aesthetic choice, not an actual fidelity level) is about as redemptive as the current story runs. There are stops and starts in performance throughout the album; the album isn’t perfect, nor is it intended to be. There are intentionally unfixed “mistakes” (what a modern radio-listener would call mistakes, at least).

This, I believe, points out that The Miami is not broadcasting from some high tower: they are normal people, just like the listener. The acknowledgment of human collective (which is what the original slave songs produced) is here as well: the erratic, idiosyncratic aspects of the album were chosen to show that this is how we do mourning these days – and we can all tap in to that.

At least, “all” of those who ascribe to a Pitchforkian ideal of lo-fi recording as ideological purity. The vocal performance of “I Shall Not Be Moved” can be described as hysterical, strangled and occasionally atonal; it sounds glorious as juxtaposed against a beautiful, stately keys backdrop. There are large swaths of people who would only hear the vocals and hate it. The atypically loud and distorted ending to “I Danced in the Morning” will call up all sorts of garage-rock comparisons, which will turn off other people. Just the fact that I invoked Pedro the Lion will turn away some.

“I’ll Go Where You Want Me To Go” is not for everyone. It’s as much (if not more) fun to think about than to actually listen to, especially in the more difficult songs. But it does possess a beauty for those willing to look and listen deeply (“Ring Out, Wild Bells,” especially). It’s an unusual album, but it has distinct worth and merit that I enjoy.

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

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