Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Come On Pilgrim vastly exceeds folk/indie expectations

October 12, 2012

Most of the things I choose to review at Independent Clauses are good, even if I don’t explicitly say the words “good” or “excellent” in the review. I try to reserve the words of high praise for works that truly go above and beyond the bounds that a genre has set for an artist. Come On Pilgrim‘s self-titled record clears the folk/indie bar by a long way.

Come On Pilgrim! is the sort of album that I and many others have cultivated a taste for over the past ten years. The folk-inspired acoustic songwriting, interesting arrangements, passionate performances, thoughtful lyrics and memorable melodies all come together to make something more than the sum of its parts. The album is also more than the sum of its predecessors. While the loudest moments are a continuation of the anthemic bent that lead songwriter Josh Caress struck on his last solo release Perestroika, Come On Pilgrim! is the work of a whole cast of musicians who push the best aspects of Caress’ previous LPs to new heights.

“Regenerator” elegantly displays Caress’ progression as a songwriter. The song starts off with a droning organ, reminiscent of the drone that marks the beautiful Letting Go of a Dream. It grows through a long, flowing, emotive section (The Rockford Files) before exploding into a howling finale that excellently incorporates some of the darker indie rock that characterized the back half of Perestroika. The result is a distinctive sound that Josh Caress has been working towards for years: beautiful, relatable, passionate, haunting.

But it’s not all Caress; as previously noted, there’s a whole band here that makes the sound. The keyboards, pedal steel and violin permeate every tune as fundamental elements. An acoustic version of “The Ashes and the Springtime (That Wild Feeling)” could be an outtake from the sparse, finger-picked Goes on an Adventure, but it is enhanced from the get-go with atmospheric pedal steel contributions. Piano carries the chorus; the violin brings in the motif that I can’t escape from this album. Caress later doubles the motif with his voice, but not before female vocals introduce the haunting lyrics: “Don’t you want that wild feeling?”

“The True New Fire” knows the wild feeling. The song takes its time to build into a soaring, wordless vocal line over rumbling toms, unfolding during five minutes. The unhurried songwriting allows each of the instrumental contributions to breathe. The results are breathtaking, like a city dweller seeing the stars in Kansas at midnight for the first time.

While those songs are impressive, the “best” tag goes to the 7 minutes and 40 seconds of “The Secret Songs,” which shows off Caress’s lyrical and vocal abilities in an absolutely gorgeous song. It’s about “That night you came over with your dress torn/and I held you while you cried”; Caress has been telling stories of emotional distress since (at least) Letting Go, but in this one everything comes together perfectly. Caress’s voice creaks in places, but it does so with confidence; the lyrics and tone of his voice sync up to deliver a powerful performance. If finding your voice in writing means coming to grips with your talents and embracing them, Caress has found his lyrical and melodic voices here.

The eight songs of Come On Pilgrim! sprawl over 40+ minutes, making this a listening experience as opposed to a quick hit. The songs are carefully, lovingly arranged, and it shows in the final product. Come On Pilgrim! is easily a highlight of the year, even in a year when Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers and Grizzly Bear released albums. I keep coming back to it over and over because it exceeds my expectations for folk/indie in almost every way.

Josh Caress vaults forward in his songwriting skill with Perestroika

October 20, 2010

My love of Josh Caress is extremely well documented on this site. Ever since Letting Go of a Dream, I have been in his musical thrall. I have liked some of his albums more than others, but I have eagerly awaited each of them.

Perestroika, his latest and maybe last solo album for a while (nooooo!), contains the seven best songs that Josh Caress has ever written. There is a slight issue with this (there are twelve songs on the disc), but that’s still an incredibly high percentage of powerful tunes.

While his rate of success is somewhat astonishing, his formula is not that surprising: Caress has taken the best parts out of each of his last four releases and made a cohesive sound. The dramatic, sweeping, romantic pop soundscapes of Letting Go of a Dream form the core of the tunes. The inventive, complicated, Sufjan-esque instrumentation of The Rockford Files layers on top of this, bringing a depth to Perestroika‘s songs not present anywhere else in his catalog. The distorted guitar oomph that first appeared on Wild Wild Love lends an Arcade Fire-esque bombast to the tunes. The insightful lyrics of Josh Caress Goes on an Adventure! cap off the entire experience, lending meaning to the moving musical proceedings.

Add in the mix the unique voice of Josh Caress, and you’ve got a distinct set of songs that ranks highly in my top albums of the year.

While Caress splits the album into two sides of six songs each, I find it easier to analyze the album is in three parts: tracks 1-4, 5-8, and 9-12.

Tracks 1-4 take the Jayhawks-style Alt-country of Wild Wild Love and replace the twang with an epic indie rock flair. Each tune is an anthem in their own right, and I mean that in the very best possible way.   In the opener and title track, he’s yelling “Perestroika! On! My! Mind!” as suitcases thump and bells ring. “Is That What You Want?” sees the pulsing guitar line making the song into an epic instead of the vocal line. “We Will Fight” features a choir yelling/singing its way through the whole song, culminating in the chorus: “We will fight! We will fight! But not with violence! We will fight! We will fight! We will fight to strengthen the things that we’ve made!”

The final song of the suite is “You Are the Light,” which sounds like a lost Joseph Arthur song on uppers. The chorus is a glorious singalong. It is a blissful cap to this set of tunes. There are literally no parts to complain about in these songs. They are nigh on perfect.

Tracks 5-8 are a bit of a headscratcher, as Caress takes a sharp turn into Radiohead sounds. There’s some Kid A electronic work (“Deconstruct”), some Hail to the Thief/In Rainbows-style rock (“Searching at the Edge of the Real Thing”), and more. They’re not bad at all; he appropriates their sound nicely. Even his vocals, which have always been a bit wavery and high, fit well in context.  They’re good tunes, but they make little sense in the context of the album, and they’re just not as good as tracks 9-12.

While it is somewhat disappointing that the middle of the album turns away from the formula he spends two-thirds of the album perfecting, there is an upside. Josh Caress has gotten better by testing out sounds before incorporating them fully into his songwriting. If considering the melancholy electronica and rock as a potential future inclusion to Caress’ sound, this becomes a less frustrating suite of songs. Imagining his current powerful sound with electronic underpinnings helps me get over the fact Perestroika would be an incredibly cohesive album if not for the middle.

The last third of the album returns to the sound that Caress established in the first third. While “Everything I Wasn’t Meant To Be” is probably the least engaging of the eight folk/indie tracks, “Pulling the Curtain Back” is one of my favorites. It grooves hard, has a great melody and includes a stylistic throwback to Letting Go of a Dream. But the cascading guitar riff doesn’t revisit the style near as much as “Prodigal Son,” which uses the heavy reverb that was the trademark of Letting Go. The very specific mood it creates (and recalls) makes the track one of my favorites.

The closer, “By the Light of the Lantern We Go,” is true to its name, as the track is a nearly eight-minute-long journey. From the glockenspiel at the beginning to the full-on roar that occurs at the end of the tune, Caress takes the listener through all of his styles, motifs and ideas in one symphonic burst. It is a fantastic way to cap off a brilliant album.

The lyrics of Perestroika are relentlessly optimistic in the first and third acts, which matches the sound neatly. They include some of the most poignant that Caress has penned, especially in  “Perestroika On My Mind” and “You Are The Light.” The middle third’s melancholy and conflicted verses match the sound. Again, the middle isn’t bad; it’s just not near as good as the rest.

If this review seems disjointed, it’s because I feel that way about Perestroika. If this had been an eight-song album, or if something else had happened in the middle, I would be hailing this as the album of the year. It’s still going to be in my top ten for sure: the songs are just that good. Heck, the first four tunes alone constitute the best EP of the year. It’s my favorite JC release since Josh Caress Goes on an Adventure, certainly.

Josh Caress is edging ever closer to his masterpiece, and Perestroika is an enormous step in that direction. Do yourself a favor and get this CD.

Josh Caress explores alt-country on Wild Wild Love

March 4, 2009

Country has long been a component of Josh Caress’ singer/songwriter sound, so it’s not surprising that he’s dedicated Wild Wild Love to exploring that element of his style. While he plays within the conventions for most of his first foray into Ryan Adams-esque alt-country,  he does create a handful of beautiful, adventurous tracks that make this album worth it.

Josh Caress Goes on an Adventure! was the first real display of Caress’ country leanings, and it is still one of my favorite Caress albums. Adventure! worked because Caress displayed what he was made of. There wasn’t any Sufjan-esque instrumentation (The Rockford Files) or fuzzy drone underneath (Letting Go of a Dream). It displayed Caress as an introspective troubadour with complex arrangements, catchy melodies, folk/country leanings, and a cinematic bent. There’s nowhere to hide in Adventure!, and it is all the better for it.

The ability to hide the songwriting within the surrounding instruments is part of what makes Wild Wild Love a decent but not astounding release. The title track opens with a forlorn harmonica and some weary guitarwork.  It had my attention immediately; it’s great. Then, at around forty seconds, pedal steel, electric guitar, bass, drums and old timey violins come in. There’s nothing wrong with any of these things, but collectively they feel like overkill. The message could be sent that this is a country album without several of these markers.

Josh Caress knows this, too; the chorus of “Wild Wild Love” drops out the violins and bass, leaving only pedal steel, acoustic, gentle electric guitar and voice. It’s  still a lot, but it sounds like not much (in context) and it’s beautiful. It’s a problem that was present on Rockford Files as well; just because Caress can do something doesn’t mean he should.

But it’s not just massive instrumentation that allows his to hide. Caress busts out his electric guitar for several songs, dropping into honky-tonk mode (“Be My Baby Tonight”), righteous anger mode (“I Won’t Let You Strip Me of My Soul”) and even straight-up American rock and roll (“Don’t Believe the Rock and Roll”). It’s not that these songs are bad (although “Be My Baby Tonight” does stretch the limits of credibility); it’s just that they don’t seem fully honest. Perhaps it’s the initial learner’s curve of writing rock, I don’t know; but these songs don’t connect as well as his quieter work.

There are moments of intense clarity, though: “Lake Michigan” takes motifs from Adventure and ideas of instrumentation from Rockford Files to create one of the best tracks he’s ever created. It’s beautiful because the pedal steel, mandolin, drums,organ, secondary guitar and background vocals are used perfectly. I could listen to “Lake Michigan” over and over; if I had to put together a Josh Caress greatest hits album, this would be on it. “Everybody’s Got Something to Prove” provides heart-crushing lyrics and one of the most steady vocal performances Caress has ever produced; it’s another stand-out. The control that Caress exercises over his voice on this track is impressive; this track alone is a major step forward in his songwriting style.

“I Wanna Be Your Man” is one of the better louder tracks here, as the vocals are memorable. The blue-collar, Joe Anybody feel of “A Path, Through Suffering” channels Springsteen (sorta). They’re louder and enjoyable; so it’s not like Caress can’t write a good loud song. It’s just that his quieter, more introspective stuff (at this point) works better.

There are lots of tracks here that are enjoyable, but the sum definitely feels like the experiment it is. “Lake Michigan” and “Everybody’s Got Something to Prove” are almost worth the price of admission on their own, so the recommendation here is definitely “buy.” But there are definitely some things that Josh Caress needs to get adjusted to in the alt-country genre if he’s going to keep chillin’ there for a while.

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

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