Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Lullatone masters their craft, spreads their wings, and turns out a brilliant record

March 21, 2017

I’ve been listening to a lot of music of long duration over the last year, whether that be modern classical, mid-century minimalism, the Soundcloud of the last true chillwave hero, post-metal, or 8 straight hours of instrumental trance. (If we’ve got the term “longread” now, I think we should be able to have the term “longhear” for this phenomenon.)

Rarely have I had so much fun listening to a longhear than when listening to Lullatone‘s Thinking about Thursdays. The twee instrumental outfit, already an IC fave, recently compiled their “a song every Thursday in 2016” project into one big album of 52 songs. Their twee instrumentals are brilliant as ever, but their expanded sonic palette is what makes this album so wonderful.

Lullatone excels at making child-like music, turning toy pianos, music boxes, ukuleles, flutes and other small-sounding instruments into delicate and charming tunes (mostly in major keys). Their basic sound is something like The Album Leaf’s tender expansiveness mashed with Wes Anderson’s distinct, precise nostalgia. Openers “trying something again (again)” and “a photograph from the day you were born” stick to this script, creating memorable entries in the Lullatone oeuvre. This type of chipper, bright, clever song appears throughout the album; collectively, they are proof that Lullatone has mastered their craft and yet not exhausted it.

Things get even more exciting as they spread their wings. “how frost grows” signals a widening of their sonic scope, as a slurring, glacial, distorted guitar creates a desolate post-rock landscape. “cooped up at home with a fever and a tape loop” is just that: a hazy, tape hiss-laden fever dream that reminds me of a vocal-less version of The Microphones. “two turn tables and a casiotone” is a fun riff on the titular concept, while follow-on “how i broke my parents’ record player (when i was five)” is even more beat-heavy, landing somewhere between instrumental hip-hop and The Postal Service. “aboard Korean Air flight 742 to Seoul” continues what is ultimately a four-week beat fancy, adding stuttering snares and a melodic hook to a cherubic synth.

Things get even more exciting from there: “puddles full of petals (of Sakura)” combines harp, East Asian melodic ideas, and video game soundtrack drama (one of two back-to-back Asian sonic entries); “father-son adventures” has a jaunty, spry electric guitar line that will please any fan of major key post-rock a la Delicate Steve or Fang Island; “concrete waves” is filtered through a dense, stylish mesh of DJ Shadow. Other referents (real or imagined) include Matt and Kim, klezmer music, elevator music/vaporwave, and chillwave. I won’t spoil all the surprises (there are 52 songs!!), but suffice it to say that this is a great collection with almost no dead weight. Beyond the lovely individual songs, there’s a subtle joy in listening to a whole year of someone’s creation in what seems like chronological order, tracking through the seasons with the moods and titles of each song.

Thinking About Thursdays is that rare release that combines serious composition, thoughtful moods, intriguing instrumentation, quality sonic diversity, and out-and-out fun. It’s an incredible release, and it’s one of my early contenders for album of the year. Highly recommended.

The Shivers’ Charades: An early ’00s gem gets a vinyl re-release

October 27, 2014

theshivers

The early 2000s were a time of joy and splendor for independent music: people were putting Death Cab in TV shows! Modest Mouse was getting signed! Blogs were zooming bands to stardom in mere days! In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was slowly rumbling its way to cult stardom! Independent music culture, which had existed since the late ’70s, finally had some above-the-radar recognition. In this crucible appeared bands that were obvious pop successes, but also some band’s bands: shadowy, insider-baseball outfits that were revered and somehow kept secret from/didn’t resonate with the general populace. Jeff Mangum’s output is the example par excellence, but unassuming lo-fi bands like The Microphones and The Shivers also fell into that category. It is a vinyl re-release of The Shivers’ Charades I am here to praise today (even though I almost never cover re-releases).

If you haven’t heard of The Shivers and their cult classic Charades, don’t worry: until a 10-year anniversary vinyl was brought to my attention, I didn’t know about Keith Zarriello and co.’s gritty, lo-fi indie-pop. Zarriello fits in with The Microphones and other early ’00s bands that were trying (and largely succeeded) to make indie-pop into a dignified art form with aesthetic diversity and abilities. It was purposefully serious music, but it could be beautiful (and even a little funny, too). Charades is all of that: serious, diverse, artistic, beautiful, and even a bit humorous. It succeeds as a gorgeous album without sounding like it’s trying too hard (although we now know that certain level of disaffected attitude takes considerable effort).

“Beauty” is the highlight here: a gently strummed electric guitar, tape hiss, and a plunky bass guitar open the track and set the mood. Zarriello’s voice warbles confidently (no, I mean that) above the quiet backdrop, sounding every bit a bedroom track. But the lyrics open up from the concerns of one man’s head and encompass a general statement on love and life. It’s a statement that many artists try to make, and it’s not entirely clear why this one works so poignantly. Perhaps it’s the distinct combination of the elements. Perhaps it’s the wonderful chorus, sung by a multi-tracked vocal chorus. Maybe it’s none of those things. But it’s a gorgeous, memorable track that can’t be ignored. It has largely propelled Charades ongoing life.

But there are other songs going for it as well: “Sunshine” has a wistful lullaby feel about it. “The Shivers” and “Charades” are moody pieces that seek that artistic aesthetic. “I Could Care Less” and “L.I.E.” are a little more immediate in their take on things: the former by being loud and brash, the latter by tuning down the tape hiss and focusing right on the vocals and gentle guitars.

Charades gave me time machine joy: the passion and dreary excitement of the early ’00s are historical relics now, but Charades lets you relive what it was like to hear bands push those boundaries. The excitement of discovering songs in the way they would have been discovered a decade ago is an exquisite and rare joy. You get to have some nostalgia and get to hear some incredible new songs. I can’t think of much more to ask for in a re-release.

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

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