The band has mad chops: they throw down rolling, fingerpicked banjo; swooping violin; upright bass; earnest vocals; and even some whistling. And instead of employing them in the service of exclusively serious tunes, they mix up their lovelorn ballads with goofy tunes. The relatively modern sounding “Angel in the Snow” calls up the Avett Brothers at their country-est both in sadsack lyric and melodic style, while “Hot Party Dads” is a million bpm hoedown tune about …. the title. “Pray for Me” and “Long Low Down” bring that old school Southern Baptist gospel sound into the mix, while opener “Free” doesn’t take itself too seriously in its rapidfire delivery. (They’re really fond of playing as fast as possible, which is fun all its own–even if it isn’t explicitly humorous.) These guys would get along with The Parmesans really, really well.
Old school country and western is due for a glance from indie music; here’s to hoping that Whiskey Shivers find their people and make rowdy, alcohol-fueled string band music for a long time.
I’ve been repping The Parmesans as hard as I can for as long as I’ve known about their music, as their bluegrassy/folk-poppy/traditional string band maelstrom is endlessly fun. Their new album Flat Baroque continues their streak (now three albums and two EPs long) of fun, clever, interesting, smile-inducing releases.
They lean heavily on guitar, mandolin, stand-up bass and three-voice harmonies, and it works perfectly. The Parmesans have a habit of recording their favorite songs multiple times (“Delirious Dream,” “JuJaJe” and “See For Yourself” reprise this time), and that gives their albums a feel of a backporch concert that just keeps rolling on. They didn’t record “Walls for the Wind” this time, but hey, they might go for a fourth round on the next album. It’s that sort of off-the-cuff attitude to track listing that’s infused in the tracks themselves. The Parms are clearly having fun, and that is hard to miss as a listener.
They’re developing a signature melodic and rhythmic style in the guitar, which is really cool. It’s fun to hear sounds develop over a long period of time. They’ve also figured out what type of song they’re really good at; consequently, there are no bad tracks on Flat Baroque. “Call Me When You’re There” and “Bad Idea” stand out among the new tracks, but all of them are worth repeating multiple times. They tracked this one live, as they have all their other albums; the difference is that they did so at Tiny Telephone in San Francisco. They’re moving up in the world! If you’re into fun, unique takes on traditional string music, then Flat Baroque is most definitely for you.
They’re on tour right now; they’re passing through Raleigh (Fuquay-Varina!) on Sunday. I’ll be there, hoping for “Walls for the Wind” and “Bad Idea.”
The Parmesans make folk/bluegrass with a musically traditional bent and a hilarious streak through the lyrics (see title: Nature’s Burrito). Every release of theirs I’ve had the privilege of reviewing has been charming, and this is something like the fifth one. Burrito shows them in fine form, with their “everyone around the mic” approach to recording showing off their instrumental and vocal chops.
The harmonies are particularly gorgeous in “Walls for the Wind,” an adaptation of an Irish blessing. “Sweet Moonlight” is the highlight here, as the verses feature vintage melodic structure and instrumentals before picking up into a fun, modern chorus. If you’re into English mythic folk, The Parms poke a little bit of fun at the genre with “The Wizard Song”; if you’re into traditional tunes, they do a trumpet-infused, peppy version of “Pallet on Your Floor.”
To sum up: The Parmesans are pretty great at every aspect of traditional music that they take on, and you just have to pick which version of their skills you like best. You can put their discography on as the soundtrack to your backyard summer bash, and you’re good to go for the whole party. Gosh, I love The Parmesans.
The album is not endangered, but it certainly hasn’t been as interesting to me as EPs this year. That’s not because people aren’t making good albums, but because people have been seriously upping their EP game. Still, there are a bunch of great albums that came out this year that rightly deserve praise.
10. Talker – Dear Blanca. Frantic alt-country with unusual instrumentation (saxophone!) and influences.
9. Third Generation Hymnal – Venna. Passionate, female-led modern folk that balances earnest performances and high-quality songwriting deftly.
8. Forty Bells – Brave Baby. This is what indie-rock sounds like in 2013: chiming guitars, pushing rhythms, yawping vocals, and a great sense of atmosphere to cap it all off.
7. Ripely Pine – Lady Lamb the Beekeeper. In the best debut of the year, Aly Spaltro has crafts whole worlds in her songs. Her winding, unexpected, sensational arrangements are matched with her powerful, even shocking voice. Incredibly unique, incredibly strong.
6. Wolf Eggs – The Parmesans. Three guys in a room playing easygoing, charming bluegrass/folk. All the trapping you’d expect in bluegrass are here (harmonies, solos, riffing, goofy asides), and they bring poignant, romantic lyricism to the tunes as well.
5. The Weatherman – Gregory Alan Isakov. Gentleness that doesn’t fade away into blandness is rare, and Isakov has crafted a wonder of a quiet album here. These songs just make me smile.
3. Everything All at Once – Jonny Rodgers. Jonny Rodgers uses the ethereal tones of tuned wine glasses as the basis of his indie-pop sound, but the rest of the arrangements and Rodgers’ high, soaring voice complete the beautiful sound. I’ve not heard anything like this before. Throw in intimate, personal lyrics and you’ve got an impressive work.
2. The Beast in Its Tracks – Josh Ritter. Ritter is a master lyricist, and he turns his pen to the fine details of his divorce. But instead of weeping, he celebrates what life comes thereafter. It’s a rare look inside the life of an artist from an unusual perspective. The fact that he’s one of the best folk songwriters working today helps: the songs here are light but not insubstantial, upbeat but not flippant, and romantic without being maudlin. This is Ritter’s first must-own work since the amazing The Animal Years.
1. Chronographic – Filbert. As a reviewer, I have set expectations of genres. Filbert blew up my frameworks for folk, singer/songwriter, indie-pop, and hip-hop, which resulted in a breathless review that I still fully believe. “Modest Mouse + Jeffrey Lewis + backpack rap + Bon Iver = Filbert” is a reductive way to say it, but it’s still true. This was easily the most inventive album of the year.
Independent Clauses is a wide-ranging blog, but it still comes home at night to folk and indie-pop. So those genres are very well-represented in the Top 10.
10. “Song for Zula” – Phosphorescent. Yup, I’m thoroughly on board with all the love this is getting. Just beautiful.
9. “Home Sweet Home” – Russell Howard. The sound of loss and longing rarely sounds so sweet as in this singer/songwriter tune.
8. “The Mantis and the Moon” – Son of Laughter. Clever lyrics, sprightly arrangement, poignant performance: I hummed this a lot in 2013.
7. “Aaron” – JD Eicher and the Goodnights. Sweeping, widescreen folk-pop that leveled me with a great melody and this line: “I don’t write sad songs/they just seem to write me.”
6. “Judah’s Gone” – M. Lockwood Porter. It’s a tough thing to pack nostalgia, disillusion, and rage into one folky tune without any yelling, but Porter navigates the wildly varying emotions deftly.
5. “American Summer” – Jared Foldy. Gentle fingerpicking and reverb create a strong atmosphere, as Foldy offers the sound of beloved summers that sadly have to end.
4. “The Riddle Song” – The Parmesans. Poignant yet flirtatious, this bluegrassy love song is wonderful.
3. “For the Sky” – Wolfcryer. The opening riff of this folk tune, optimistic and yearning, sets the stage for an inescapable tune.
2. “Creeping Around Your Face” – Novi Split. The most tender, gentle love song I heard all year, steeped in the reality of hard times but the hope of good to come.
1. “Everything Is Yours” – Jonny Rodgers. Wine glasses cascade and swoop through the quiet indie-pop arrangement, giving Rodgers a fascinating canvas on which to paint lovely vocal melodies and descriptive lyrics. I couldn’t stop listening to this for weeks.
Pop-folk has started to take over the radio. I never would have guessed that I’d write that sentence, but there it is. We’ll know that the domination has become total when The Parmesans make it to the radio: they take pop-folk one step farther down the line, playing a very pop-friendly form of bluegrass. Debut album Wolf Eggs is 15 (!) songs of melody-heavy folk/bluegrass that will make you want to tap your foot, clap, and sing along. Opener “Spicy Cigarette” sets the mood for the rest of the album by introducing a guitar/mandolin/stand-up bass trio tracked live, with each of the members contributing harmonized vocals. They even shout “hey!” in the middle of the mandolin solo. How can you not love that sound? “Load Up on Eggs” features a trumpet to great effect; “JuJaJe” recalls the Avett Brothers in blocky, chord-based style; “The Riddle Song” will steal your heart away (or the heart of whatever significant other you play it for).
While “The Riddle Song” is beautiful musically, its title implies that the lyrics are the main point, and so they are. The Parmesans are not slouches in that department, which makes this album even more enjoyable. There are plenty of standard references to alcohol (“Spicy Cigarette,” “Wine in My Mustache”), food (“Load Up On Eggs”), and various agricultural things (“Hay,” “Chicken Yard”), but there’s also a knowing wit in these tunes. The tropes may be a beard, but they’re not fake: the lyrics use the goofy top layer to speak to real emotions and situations. It’s fun and real. How often do you get that?
The Parmesans know what’s up on Wolf Eggs: they give you a large set of tunes that are memorable melodically and lyrically. It’s fun, funny, and even sentimental. What else do you want out of a folk album? Wolf Eggs is one of the best releases I’ve heard all year, and I expect to see it in my end of year lists.
I love chiptune. As I write this sentence, I’m listening to chiptune version of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” because seriously, I’m committed to this genre. Anamanaguchi is also wholly invested in the genre, as their Endless Fantasy shows. They’ve thrown down 22 songs on the album, and all of them are chock full of mostly-instrumental warp-speed pop-punk shot through with enough jubilant chiptune melodies to make 1988 Nintendo jealous. If you can’t get happy while listening to this music, I don’t know what can help you. This is the aural equivalent of drinking a Red Bull. It’s the most fun music I’ve heard all year. The members are sneakily talented at arranging these songs so that it doesn’t get boring, but that’s not the point. Bouncing off the flippin’ walls is the point. And you should do that. Heartily. With gusto.
I’m not going to lie: I loved Dashboard Confessional. I was the right exact age for that to be my jam in high school, and there’s just no way I can sit here and say that I didn’t holler along with those songs unabashedly. I pulled out The Swiss Army Romance when I heard that the Chris Carrabba-fronted pop-folk band Twin Forks was among us, and it was one of the most nostalgic things I have ever experienced. I felt like I was 16 again, really and truly.
So it should not surprise you that I’m about to say that Twin Forks is awesome. I mean, how could it not be? This guy has tons of experience writing songs on an acoustic guitar, and now he gets to put banjos and mandolins around it. He sings like he sings. If you hate his voice, well, you’re probably not reading this sentence, because you already left. This is exactly what you think it would be, and that’s great. The more critical quandary goes something like this, a la Phillip Phillips: is this a shameless play on what is popular? Is it a “right time at the right place” thing? Is it simply boredom on Carrabba’s part? The populist in me has an answer: I DON’T CARE ONE BIT. If you need more Dashboard Confessional, or more pop-folk, jump on Twin Forks’ self-titled EP. You will sing and stomp and dance and I’m going to stop before I go all caps on this. I’m just all about it. Yes.
This project has been a microcosm of my whole 10 years running this blog: a little idea that got bigger and bigger with help from all sorts of people who pitched in. Massive thanks go out to The Carradini Family, Uncle David and Aunt Rose, the Lubbers Family, Neil Sabatino & Mint 400 Records, Albert & Katy, Drew Shahan, Odysseus, Joseph Carradini, Jeffrey M. Hinton, Esq., @codybrom a.k.a Xpress-O, Conner ‘Raconteur’ Ferguson, Janelle Ghana Whitehead, Tyler “sk” Robinson, Jake Grant, Anat Earon, Zack Lapinski, Mila, Tom & April Graney, Stephen Carradini, Theo Webb, Jesse C, D. G. Ross, Martin & Skadi, Jacob Presson, Michelle Bui, and Elle Knop.
The first 200 downloads of the album are free, so go get ’em while they’re available! (The price is $4 a side once the freebies are gone.) The streaming will always be free, so if nothing else you can go listen to some sweet tunes from some of Independent Clauses’ favorite bands. Once again, thanks to all who contributed in any way, both to the project and to Independent Clauses’ last 10 years. It’s been a thrilling, wild ride.
Never Give Up: Celebrating 10 Years of the Postal Service
The Parmesans were one of my favorite discoveries in 2012, which makes me thrilled to hear a new batch of their quirky, Californian bluegrass tunes so quickly. The Smell of Silence is a worthy successor, delivering both a light atmosphere and serious musicianship. If the five-song EP’s title didn’t tip you off, the moniker of “Heinous Pit of Death” and the wolf howls in “Delirious Dream” should alert you: this isn’t self-serious revivalism. They are serious musicians, however, showing off their vocal and instrumental chops in melodic and interesting ways (“Spicy Cigarette,” “See For Yourself”). Their vocal harmonies are especially top-notch in the beautiful “Walls for the Wind,” a setting of a traditional Irish blessing. The Parmesans’ uncluttered, earnest approach fits the sentiments perfectly, resulting in a perfect closer for the EP. The Smell of Silence is a joy to hear.
Radio-friendly pop-punk has so dominated the high-tenor vocal range that it’s a tough fight to make that style vocals sound good in any other genre. But The Sun and the Sea make it work excellently in the indie-pop-rock of Vega. TSAS’s sound is much closer to the spacious, moody pop of Mae’s Destination: Beautiful, a personal favorite. There are crunchy electric guitars, tasteful electronic inclusions and soaring vocal melodies, but a more ambiguous, mature mood is the focus here. “Waves” and “One by One” employ towering crescendoes, while “Valiant” and “We Deal in Illusions” strike a more contemplative tone to get their message across. Some may hear this merely as pop-punk, but I think it’s got too much nuance to be lumped pejoratively in that category. If you’re interested in the work of indie-pop-rock like John K. Samson, I think you’ll like Vega very much.
I heard that The Mars Volta broke up the other day, and I had a moment of silence for the loss of a spazzy, idiosyncratic band willing to follow its own vision. Cyan Marble has a better plan to celebrate TMV’s disappearance than silence: a three-song EP that follows in Omar Rodríguez-López and Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s very large footsteps. Mirror EP has everything you could want: crazy breakdowns, astonishing bass work, drastic mood changes, wild juxtapositions, even sky-high male vocals. Cyan Marble has its chops on display, but it also shows that it can write a compelling tune: “Monoceros” strikes a solid rhythmic and melodic groove and is easily identifiable as its own tune. The parenthetical after Mirror EP is (Demo), so this is only the beginning for this math/post/whatever-rock band, and I’d say they’re very worth keeping tabs on.
Independent Clauses is somewhat of an alternate universe when it comes to music reviewing. I rarely cover the hip bands, often love things no one else does, and generally attempt to be true to what I hear. If there’s a radar to be on or under, we’re hanging out on a different screen altogether. This is more by happenstance than choice: I never set out to be contrarian. And I don’t feel like a curmudgeonly naysayer of popular music, as you’ll see tomorrow. I just have a different lens than many people. Here’s the view from that lens.
16. Elijah Wyman/Jason Rozen’s collective output: Tiny Mtns/The Seer Group/Decent Lovers. What started out as the artsy electro-pop project Tiny Mtns split into a heavily artsy electro project (The Seer Group) and a heavily artsy pop project (Decent Lovers), with the two splitting the tracks between them. Except when both kept a track and reworked it to their likings. Did I mention that this one time, one of these guys gave the other a kidney? Now you see why they get one mention.
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.