Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Quick Hits: Eric and Happie / The Soldier Story / M. Lockwood Porter

December 19, 2016

Eric and Happie‘s It’s Yours is a pristine example of a male/female duo folk-pop album in 2016. The eight songs of the album rarely feature more than guitar/bass/drums, which is just the way I like it. The subtle inclusions of ukulele, strings, and accordion provide great accent to the tracks. Eric and Happie are credited with vocals on every track. It’s an uncomplicated collection of tunes that works excellently.

The songs are not as high-drama as those of The Civil Wars, nor as perky as The Weepies’; it’s not as radio-curated as The Lumineers’ work (with the exception of “Falling For You,” which is a romp complete with “hey!”s). Instead, these are folk songs with pop melodies that you can sing along to with ease. There are romantic songs (the title track, “Falling for You,” “A Dream”), travel songs (“Louisiana,” “Oklahoma,” “Stranger”), and more poetic offerings (“They’ll Never Take Us Alive”).

The tunes often land in the realm of Jenny and Tyler’s early work, which was warm, friendly, and pop-oriented. It’s a pure, unadulterated sound that often doesn’t last past a few albums, as the lure of larger arrangements draws so many. (And those larger arrangements can be awesome too.) But there’s a special glow that shines off an intimate, simply-wrought album like this; that lightning in a bottle is rarely caught.

The Soldier Story‘s Flowers for Anonymous inhabits a dusky, complex space triangulated between the suave nighttime antics of Bloc Party, the howling reveries of The Walkmen, and the manic fever of MuteMath’s first record. The songs of this record absorb the best bits of each of those bands and synthesize them into something new and fresh. The trick here is that Colin Meyer has the chops to pull off frantic, mathy indie-rock, but he distills those melodic and rhythmic tendencies into tension-laden mid-tempo pieces that are just as ghostly as they are grounded.

Tunes like “Drifting Apart” have patterned guitar leads, syncopated drumbeats, whirling vocals, and more, but in the service of a subdued, push-and-pull mood. Follow-up “Talk With Our Eyes” barely contains the underlying power and passion, as it spikes up through the tension in the form of synths, drums, glitchy beats, and more. It’s a tune that carries the OK Computer torch, updating the “contemporary technological fears in sonic form” palette. (It’s not surprising that various eras of Radiohead are a touchstone for these pieces as well.)

But Meyer isn’t all chaotic rock filtered through massive restraint filters. Elsewhere Meyer turns his penchant for complex, burbling guitar lines into an indie-pop mold, creating beautiful, subtle tunes like “Life is Short” and “An Overdue Farewell.” These tunes balance Meyer’s complicated arrangements with his smooth, airy, at-times-feathery vocal melodies. He can soar with the best of them, but he can also disappear off into the distance. This tension between the chaotic and the delicate is a powerful element in making Flowers for Anonymous a big success. There aren’t many people making music like this; adventurous listeners will greatly enjoy hearing Meyer’s carefully constructed sonic landscapes.

I’m pretty far behind the bandwagon on reviewing M. Lockwood Porter‘s How to Dream Again, even though I have it on vinyl. It’s been getting a ton of accolades from people like Paste and No Depression, so it’s been doing pretty well without me chiming in. But as a person who’s reviewed both Judah’s Gone and 27, I did have a few thoughts that maybe haven’t been said before. (Probably not.)

The new lyrical direction of How to Dream Again has been getting a lot of play: it’s a protest record, save for three love songs at the beginning of the record, and it’s an incisive, thoughtful turn. It pushes on both on internal problems (“Sad/Satisfied”) and external issues (every other song) in a style that’s more Woody Guthrie than Bob Dylan; there aren’t a whole lot of stacked metaphors, but there is a whole lot of direct analysis. Porter also continues to grapple with religion, this time taking God to task over the question of God’s lack of direct intervention on issues of injustice. It’s a question that has resonated through the ages, and one that fits in a protest album. Even if Porter and I come to different conclusions on the matter, the question is real and remains.

The musical direction is also different, albeit more slightly. The songs here are a synthesis of the folk of Porter’s first record and the American rock’n’roll of his second; the troubadour folk style that comes along with protest lyrics is present throughout as well. The three sounds come together to make a mature sound for Porter, one that may not be his last stop (who among us can claim to be in our final form?), but certainly indicates his direction. There are dashes of Dawes (“Sad/Satisfied”) in the rhythmic vocal delivery, rattling ’50s rock’n’roll throughout, and more things thrown in the pot. The title track, which closes the album, brings it all together into a very American amalgam. It’s Porter’s distinct voice that leads the way, adding the final element to make the sound unique. If you’re into protest music or American folk/rock/other, How to Dream Again should be on your to-hear list. It probably already is.

Kris Orlowski: Diversified, satisfying

May 19, 2016

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Kris Orlowski has come a long way since 2011, when his At the Fremont Abbey EP crossed my desk. Often in the Pause is his second LP of full-band indie rock tunes, and it is his most musically assured and confident work to date.

Opener “Something’s Missing” is a low-slung indie-rock tune with a bunch of reverb (a la The Walkmen) until it explodes satisfyingly into a Bloc Party-meets-Jimmy Eat World rocker. That interplay between the angular, dusky edges of Bloc Party and the mature, hummable pop-rock of Jimmy Eat World forms the basis of the album’s sonic palette–the acoustic guitars and pianos I love so much are thrown in for contrast and color, either within songs (“Walking In My Sleep,” “Stars and Thorns”) or as a whole song breather amid the noisier tunes (“Go,” “Lost,” “We Share the Moon”).  Lead single “Walking in My Sleep” develops the noisier sound well, showing off Orlowski’s talent for combining intriguing rhythms and textures with song structures and vocal melodies that are immediately recognizable to indie rock listeners.

“Electric Sheep” expands this dark, brooding palette with a set of lyrics that blurs the line between the androids of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and an emotionally cold human being. Orlowski’s lyrics aren’t all literary references, though; most of them are direct, affecting, and effective, working through the tensions of young adulthood in the 2010s: relationships, politics, career fears, meaning-seeking.

The standout song on the record is unity-seeking political anthem “Stars and Thorns.” Lyrically it strikes just the right balance between patriotism, criticism, and optimism; musically it features a towering chorus that gave me shivers the first time I heard it. Orlowski doesn’t try to holler above guitar-rock din–instead, he lets the stomping arrangement punctuate his enthusiasm. It’s one that I immediately pressed repeat on.

Often in the Pause is a surprisingly diverse, satisfying record of crunchy indie-rock songs, ballads, and even some folk-pop tunes. If you’re looking for a big hook and a melody that’s going to sound great in a huge group (the whoa-ohs of “Stars and Thorns” will sound awesome live), Kris Orlowski should be in your listening habits.

Ava Marie and the thoughtful guitar solo

July 13, 2015

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In my academic research, I study genre–the socially-grounded understanding of categorization that individuals or groups have. (I look at it in terms of business writing, but my personal interest overflows those strict bounds.) So I’m intrigued by how people describe the music they make and how it signifies to themselves and others. Ava Marie‘s Kettle Steam lists “folk” and “folk rock” as tags, which seem to be describing a process or a community of choice more than the sound itself. (I have no problem whatsoever with this: I am no purist, nor I am the folk police.) Kettle Steam is a thought-provoking, intriguing album with a lot of angles to consider.

The six-song, 26-minute release is characterized immediately by several elements: minor keys, distorted electric guitars, hypnotic baritone vocals, and guitar solos. The sonic comparisons skew closer to the fractured tensions of MeWithoutYou and Modest Mouse than Josh Ritter or Joe Pug. Again, this doesn’t mean that this isn’t folk–it just means that the term folk here does not signify “fingerpicked acoustic guitars.”

The definition, perhaps, aligns more closely with a resistance to something else: even though “indie rock” and “alternative” have always been constructed in opposition to mainstream rock, indie rock currently is as close to a mainstream rock as we have (since the rarified pop-rock world that Nickelback and Lifehouse live in bears little resemblance to the rest of the music world at this point in time). Ava Marie is definitely not playing the same game as indie rock bands like Arctic Monkeys or Two Door Cinema Club–these are thoughtful tunes that reference specific time periods and places (WWII in the title track; Casco, Maine in “Motel Room in May”) and are more committed to lyrical beauty than sloganeering.

So one takeaway from this is that maybe folk is becoming what indie-rock used to be: a refuge from a particular type of music, a space where possibilities are opened back up. One piece of data does not a conclusion make, but the strength of the anecdote is compelling: tunes like “Kathleen Carter” and “Only Sea” combine instrumental melodies and arrangements, a refined vocal approach, and a deep sense of mood to come up with impressive sonic wholes. There’s a lot of reverb (but not too much to cloud the individual elements); space is respected and used carefully; the band knows how amp up so that a guitar solo has its full, incendiary effect. Hints of a more traditional folk past shine through in the fingerpicked moments of “Motel Room in May,” but the single-note work in “White Hides” is all wiry post-punk rock. There are tensions on both ends, as with most middle entries.

A note on the guitar solos: it’s fun to hear a band just let rip on an instrumental section, especially when pitched against thoughtful lyrics and unadorned vocals (as happens directly on “White Hides”). It’s entirely possible to construct a careful mood and then let roar against it, as bands like The Walkmen and occasionally The National have discovered. But they do it without getting gaudy or turning into a punk band: they have carefully framed their own idiom and let the lead guitar work from from and through it. The intro to “Kathleen Carter” is a perfect example of this.

This review has been a bit more oblique than my usual work, but I feel that it’s a fitting response to Kettle Steam. The work here is carefully crafted so as to be thoughtful but not ponderous, intriguing without being enigmatic, and melodic without becoming a pop-rock band. It’s an album that I wanted to return to repeatedly, to parse out the sounds and lyrics therein. It’s not something to be consumed and filed away; you can sit with this one a while. It will reward you.

May MP3s: Rock/pop

June 3, 2015

1. “Never Learn” – Young Romance. No matter what arrangement you set around a great pop melody, the song will succeed: Young Romance support a can’t-get-it-out-of-my-head vocal line with Sleigh Bells-esque guitars mixed with a pop-rock band’s sense of movement and punk’s sense of closure (it’s barely over two minutes). It’s a winner.

2. “The Right Way” – Cassorla. A mash-up of minimalist electro-pop and bright-eyed, enthusiastic guitar-pop results in an unavoidable, must-listen tune that bears more than a passing significance to the Steve Miller Band (I know, weird, but this is a totally a compliment).

3. “Drawing Space” – Grounders. Unassuming, flowing-yet-punchy guitar pop with a sufficient amount of reverb to call up late ’60s or late ’00s–take your pick.

4. “Feel Alright” – Lime Cordiale. At some point in the process, someone said, “You know what this needs? Some fat horns.” And so it was, and thus an excellent pop song was born.

5. “By the Highway” – The Gorgeous Chans. Can we get this band on tour with Lord Huron, stat? Their tropical/folk/indie mash-up is a perfect blend of aspiration and relaxation. They have an excellent horn line going on, as well. A band to watch.

6. “High and Low” – Bird Dog. Enthusiastic ’50s-inspired pop-rock with old-school back-up vocalists: is there anything more summery?

7. “I’m Not the One” – The Susan Constant. The cheery, poppy element of ’90s college rock is alive and well in this tune that’s lyrically reminiscent of  Death Cab’s “Someday You Will Be Loved”: big drums, big hooks, big fun.

8. “Car Alarms” – Coma Girls. Here’s a skewed/re-appropriated ’50s-style ballad with Conor Oberstian vocal theatrics; somehow, the fusion seems meant to be.

9. “Lonely and Blue” – Black Vincent. If genres were placed on a map, Black Vincent would be hanging out on the interstate highway between country and ’50s rock while trying to find the exit to go visit The Walkmen. Dejected clanging of guitars and drums meet yowling vocals to turn out an impassioned performance.

10. “Black Snake” – The Down Home Band. Radio-ready Southern Rock with distinct classic rock vibes. Also, mad props to the mixer, who cranked that bass in the mix. This thing rocks in a long hair, flannel, old-school way.

 

 

 

Mon Draggor’s double album is worth every minute

March 23, 2015

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Double albums are a massive endeavor in every sense of the word. They take a long time to write, record, listen to, and review. All of these things are relative: it does not take as long to write a double album as it does to listen to one, but it does take much longer than average to review a double album than it does a single one.

So Mon Draggor is probably wondering why I keep saying “soon! soon!” in relation to this review, especially since I love the album so much–it should be easy to write about something you’re really into, right? But these things take time, even (especially?) when I’m reviewing a dense, textured, complex, beautiful album such as Pushing Buttons / Pulling Strings.

Further complicating the work of this double album is that there are two different genres: Pushing Buttons is a nine-track electro-rock album reminiscent of The Naked and the Famous, Passion Pit, and Bloc Party. Pulling Strings‘s nine tracks are more organically oriented, although the electronic elements spill over into the indie-rock more than the indie rock spills over into the electro.

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Take “Painted Wings,” which is most electro cut of Pushing Buttons. There’s a bit of Muse’s high-drama vocals, sweeping soundscapes made by layers of distant synths, and massively reverbed percussion booms. There’s a “whoa-oh” section. It’s a slow-jam club banger of the cosmic variety, instead of the sensual variety–it feels like outer space.

“Armageddon Baby” has many of the same elements, but with more straight-ahead EDM/trance beats and energy. Opener “Everyone Runs” fits Passion Pit stabs of synths over a wubby, pulsing bass for a tune that would make fans of the aforementioned and Imagine Dragons happy.

I know it’s not cool to invoke Imagine Dragons, but they know how to write an infectious pop song. So does Mon Draggor. The vocal melodies throughout both albums are the sort that stick in your mind. Richard Jankovich’s vocals have the high-pitched tone that can firm up into perfect pop melodies or get yelpy into ecstatic/aggrieved howls (see Bright Eyes). The ease with which the songs go through your ears and into your mind is a credit: it’s hard to write 18 songs that are all distinct enough that the listener remembers them. Sure, I can hum individual tracks like “On Your Own” because of the soaring vocals, but keeping a whole double album going is a rare skill. I don’t want to skip tracks here, and that is a rare thing in the double album.

I want to keep touting Pushing Buttons, because I could (“Secret Science”! “We Found the Limit”!)–but I have to get to Pulling Strings before I start writing a tome. (That double album problem again.) Pulling Strings is a more relaxed affair, but it’s not quite folk. It has more affinity with The National, a band that’s quiet in their own idiosyncratic way and has the ability to get loud. The best example of this is “It’s Quiet Now,” which could be lazily called folk but has a lot more moving parts that create a unique atmosphere. The trilling, keening guitar is reminiscent of The Walkmen’s work, but the thrumming bass, gentle fingerpicking and delicate piano create a unique atmosphere. It’s a standout in regard to either album.

“Recon by Candlelight” starts with a similarly spacious arrangement of fingerpicked guitar and delicate piano before expanding into a beautiful tune that grows by adding more and more parts on top of each other. (That’s an electro song structure and arrangement style peeking through.) “Curtains” starts off with looped violin notes before layering vocoder on top; the giddy experimentation and unusual juxtapositions call to mind Sufjan Stevens’ The Age of Adz, but in a darker sonic realm. The song eventually cranks up with drums and screaming guitar; it’s a moving, beautifully arranged tune. “Love is All Around” blurs the lines between the two albums, as electronic beats and fuzzy synths live in harmony with melancholy electric guitar. The eerie “Magic Shilo” does the same. They’re all excellent.

Pushing Buttons / Pulling Strings is that rare double album that’s worth every minute. Richard Jankovich is at the top of his game, delivering an astonishing amount of thoughtful, well-arranged work in two different (but subtly related) genres. If you’re into electronic pop or indie-rock with an electronic bent, Mon Draggor will scratch both itches in grand fashion.

EP: Brother Moses

March 12, 2015

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Brother MosesThanks For All Your Patience is the sound of slackers who listened to a lot of Beck and the chill parts of Modest Mouse growing up. I mean that literally and figuratively; the lyrics explain the foibles and fears of maturing (just check the titles “Older,” “Wake You Up,” “Eyes Open”), while the music is a refined take on minimalist indie rockers like Spoon.

The line “I’m tired of sleeping in” from “Wake You Up” pretty much sums up the EP lyrically, as Moses Gomez’s lyrics all have to do with that process (sometimes a single sudden moment, sometimes several years’ worth of stuff) where you realize that you’re an adult and you have responsibilities. It’s the soundtrack of the mid-to-late ’20s in 2015. The lyrics are tight and quotable; they’ll appeal to people in that process, as well as people looking back on it.

The music is a streamlined, bouncy, minimalist form of indie rock that relies heavily on the interplay of the easygoing baritone, wiry guitar, rubbery bass, and tasteful drums. Sometimes this takes the form of The Walkmen-esque towers of hollowed-out guitar sound (“Wake You Up”) and sometimes there’s a hectic mashup between all the parts (“Eyes Open”), but most often Brother Moses isolates one aspect of the sound and features it against a backdrop of space (“Older,” “Hopeless”). “Older” takes its cues from a warm-yet-staccato synth, rim-rapping percussion, and occasional guitar to build an infectious, enigmatically beautiful tune. The parts are all there (this isn’t totally minimalist work), but there aren’t a lot of overt rock moves here. There’s a lot more warm vibe and unique mood-building going on.

That’s the thing that sticks the most from Thanks for All Your Patience: the lyrics are memorable, the melodies are tight, and the instrumental work is solid, but the overall mood of the piece is its greatest takeaway. (Slackers trying to grow up don’t necessarily get 100% business-like, at least not all at once.) The work here is strong, high-quality work, yet it’s all read through an easygoing, relaxed perspective. You can get old and not grow up, but you can also grow up and not become stodgy. Brother Moses’ Thanks for All Your Patience is a remarkable debut EP that leaves a big impression.

Grab Bag 2: Morgan Mecaskey / James Robinson / Angelo De Augustine

December 15, 2014

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December is a tough month to release music: you’ve got orgs like Paste that have already released their year-end lists by the beginning of the month, blogs that are trying to clear out the files from November (or October, or September) to get all their 2014 commitments done, and listeners who are re-living the year instead of hearing new tunes. You should probably just wait till January. But if you don’t, and your release is really good, you might sneak one in under the radar. Morgan Mecaskey is 100% radar sneaking, because anyone who sounds like Sharon Van Etten fronting The National in an eclectic record store is going to get some good words from this camp.

Lover Less Wild is an adventurous, sultry, enigmatic EP that captured me on first listen. Mecaskey’s husky alto/tenor voice leads the charge on music that skirts boundary labels and ends up firmly in that catch-all camp of “indie rock.” Opener “White Horse” has soaring horns, female back-up vocals, churning guitars, push-tempo drums, and some royal fury in the vocals of Mecaskey herself. It sounds like she mentions the name “Jolene” in the chorus, which would hook her up to a long tradition of artists to find an admirable muse in that name. By the coda of the tune, Mecaskey is hollering “Sometimes I don’t feel like who I really am,” which is amazing, because she sounds completely like herself on that tune.

It’s followed up by three tunes that are a few notches down on the tour-de-force scale (but only a few; they all register). “Fighting Extinction” starts out as a distant, questioning mix between The Walkmen and Radiohead before erupting into some funky bass (?!), calling out some Motown horns, and bringing in a male vocalist for a contentious, exciting duet. It also includes the best saxophone solo this side of M83. Because it’s hard for Morgan Mecaskey to do anything twice, the title track opens with Wurlitzer and distant vocals before unfolding into a jazzy, hip-hop/R&B groove. Right about the time that I start to feel we should call up the Antlers and get them on the same tour, the song explodes into towering guitar walls and distorted bass. “Crushed” starts with nylon-string guitar in Spanish rhythms and ends with a full choir (a real one, not just a gang-vocal offering). In short, there is about as much happening in four songs as you can possibly imagine.

Mecaskey holds this whirlwind tour of music genres and styles together with her voice, which is a versatile, powerful, emotive engine. No matter what arrangement she’s leading, she’s in firm control of what’s happening. Her voice is at home wherever she lands it, which is as much a testament to her attitude and confidence as it is her immense songwriting chops. I don’t care if you’re listening to your favorite album of the year again (I know I am, no hate), you’ve got to check out Morgan Mecaskey’s Lover Less Wild. It will keep you spinning.

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James Robinson‘s Start a Fire EP is a charming four-song release. Robinson’s acoustic-centric style fits somewhere between singer/songwriter confessionals and adult-alternative pop sheen, like a more mystical Matt Nathanson or a more polished Damien Rice. This mash-up results in the best of both worlds (instead of the dreaded inverse), with Robinson’s smooth vocals getting all silky around arrangements that have some indie mystery and ambiguity in them. Think less Ed Sheeran crooning and more of that feeling you felt the first time you heard Coldplay’s Parachutes.

The quartet of tunes works nicely together, moving along a high-quality clip without drawing attention to any song in particular. “Demons” has some great bass work and a nice, memorable vocal line; “Holes in the Sky” opens with some nice guitar and vocals that evoke Jason Mraz; “Smoke & Ashes” is the most tender of the collection. But it’s the title track that takes high marks here: its polished arrangement frames Robinson’s voice perfectly, making this an impeccably done song that you’ll be humming for a while. If you’re looking for some gentle singer/songwriter fare with some mystery in it, go for James Robinson.

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Any discussion of Angelo De Augustine‘s Spirals of Silence must be prefaced by this information: de Augustine sounds, musically, vocally, and even lyrically, like Elliott Smith mashed up with Nick Drake. For many people, this is enough to send them running in its direction. I forwarded this to the resident Smith fan in my life and was promptly given compliments on my character after his first listen. It’s a hit.

But it’s not just that it sounds like Smith: the songs are incredibly well-done. de Augustine has the fingerpicking/breathy vocals/tape hiss thing down, but the things he chooses to fingerpick are beautiful, contemplative, melodic works that move sprightly along. Lead single “Old Hope” is a perfect example of this, as de Augustine whispers his way across a traveling, bouncy-yet-not-cheesy guitar line. (Side note: because this song sounds like Josh Radin, I realized that I’d never noticed how much Elliott Smith influenced Josh Radin.) Other highlights include the oddly heartbreaking “Married Mother,” the tender “I Spend Days,” and the intriguing “You Open to the Idea.”

I could say more about Spirals of Silence, but I think I’ve said all I need to in order to get you to listen to this or not. Viva Angelo de Augustine, please and thank you.

Jacob Furr: Life and death without despair

October 1, 2014

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Breakups are tough, no way around it–but there are things that are harder. When Jacob Furr sings “Does love still sit on our front porch / although your chair is empty?” in “Drift Away,” he’s not referencing some girl who ran off (or that he chased off with bad behavior); he’s talking about his wife, who died of cancer suddenly. I’m not a man to spill other people’s news, so here’s a long article about the album’s backstory from the Dallas Observer. But I mention it because it gives an accurate perspective on Trails and Traces.

With such heavy subject matter, it’s particularly impressive that these alt-country songs are so nimble, light, and upbeat. I don’t mean that we’ve got party rock going on here, but that songs like “Mockingbird,” “One More Round” and “Blakes Song” all rely on swift fingerpicking, major keys, gentle moods, and an overall melodic feeling of wistful calm. To have gone through the wringer and come out alive and intact is one thing; to be able to sing calmly, even hopefully, about it is another thing altogether.

There are some louder country-rock tunes here: opener “Branches” and follow-up “Lines” both get that Texas feel into the full-band arrangements. “Branches” has a wide-open rock feel, while “Lines” gets some honky-tonk vibe going on. Single “Falling Stars” is led by a squalling, reverb-heavy guitar line that evokes The Walkmen (a cross-genre reference, but an apt one). The end of the wrenching “I Remember You,” one of the few times that the depths of sorrow and angst emerge, is a crushing stomp populated by towering distorted guitars, staccato drums, and howling vocals. So there’s definitely some oomph and crunch here, if you’re into that.

But I’m most excited about the calmer tracks: “Drift Away,” “Sunrise Slow” and the three I mentioned earlier, where Furr’s wandering troubadour spirit shines. When Furr lets his voice and guitar do the heavy lifting, the songs push past their rock counterparts in moving quality. “Drift Away” is not the saddest sounding song on the record, nor is it the most devastating in lyric (although it’s pretty close). It does have a expertly nuanced vocal performance that grabs me and vaults the song above its counterparts into a highlight. “Blakes Song” pairs a beautiful guitar line with a mournful vocal line. These are gorgeous songs that are so neatly constructed that you can miss the depth if you don’t pay attention. Listen close.

“Mockingbird” closes the record on an upbeat note. It’s particularly telling of Furr’s intention with the album that he didn’t close with “I Remember You” or “Blakes Song”; he could have sent the listener away with a brutal reminder of loss and the difficulties of this world. Instead, he closes the whole album with a proclamation: “I sing to break the dying calm.” There is a darkness and a heaviness to death, and it affects the living. But it doesn’t have to define the living, as Furr knows. It’s a wonderful thing to discover; it’s an amazing thing to leave a listener with.

Furr labels Trails and Traces as Americana, as many people have been doing these days. He does bring in elements of folk-rock, country-rock, and folk fingerpicking; maybe that sound is what Americana means these days. Regardless of the genre labels, Trails and Traces is a powerful record about life and death that doesn’t get bogged down in morose musings–a rare and remarkable release, indeed.

Quick Hits: Justin Klaas / The Maravines / Clara Engel

March 6, 2014

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It’s always a joy when a band from IC’s history reappears with new music. I first reviewed Justin Klaas‘ work in 2006, and 8 years later I’m writing about more music from him. What Changed? is a thoughtful, atmospheric album that challenges the boundaries between indie-rock and indie-pop. Klaas’ voice calls up comparisons to the howl of The Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser, which brings passion to the work no matter what the genre.

Instead of fighting for balance between loud and soft, Klaas holds the album together with those dueling ends of his sound. The yearning “Sunlight or Moonlight?” allows tension to manifest in the arrangement, giving the reins to the vocals to complete the mood. The walking-speed indie-pop songwriting of “Wait Here” lets the vocals take the forefront, giving a different feel to the song. The delicate instrumental “Moonlight” casts a Bon Iver-esque tranquility over the record, calming the tension momentarily. The whole album holds together beautifully, drawing on imagery of evening as a guide for the listener. What Changed? is a short film shot in the dusky woods, perhaps, or maybe a night spent on the street corner under the streetlight. If you’re into low-key, personal indie-rock, you should check out Justin Klaas’ work.

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I’m not sure there’s a better way to start an album of jangly guitar-pop than with a song called “The Smiths.” You should thank The Maravines for figuring this out on their self-titled record. It’s not just jangle-pop here; the sound also draws on both the lush melancholy and occasionally the rough aggression (“I Say Go”) of early ’00s emo. Still, the primary mood throughout the album is a leisurely stroll through reverb-heavy indie-pop.

The album is purposefully cohesive; the band posted the whole release as a YouTube video so listeners could experience it as a free-flowing unit. If you’re pressed for time though, you can start at “Train Ride” (20:09) and let the dreamy feel both lull you into serenity and sell you on the album. Mint 400 Records seems to be specializing in acoustic-folk and guitar-based indie-pop albums as of late, and The Maravines are a worthy inclusion in the latter camp.

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I’ve mentioned before how “The Lioness” by Songs:Ohia is one of my enduring favorites. Its raw, minimalist power is simply unimpeachable. Many have tried to appropriate that barely-contained energy, but it’s hard to emulate Jason Molina. Clara EngelsAshes & Tangerines has moments that take on that hushed intensity–but in contrast to Molina, she often explodes these moments into their full potential for wrenching, dramatic conclusions.

The album is minimalist, but by no means ignorable. “Raven” begins the album with a simple plodding bass guitar strum and furious vocal performance, letting you know exactly what type of album this will be from moment one. “Heaven and Hell” introduces a delicate, forlorn piano line before opening up her voice to its full dramatic potential. The palm-muted guitar and rumbling toms of “X-Ray” go in an ominous lyrical and tonal direction, as opposed to a sad one. That’s the biggest marker of Engels’ sound: she has a lot of ominous (“Harvest”), eerie (“Decomposition”), even menacing (“X-Ray”) work on Ashes & Tangerines. By setting that tone, Engels puts herself outside the category of casual listening: this demands focus and attention. If that’s what you’re looking for in a musical experience, Clara Engels will give you a fascinating listen.

Brighter … Now! (Welcome back to the show)

April 2, 2013

I have now officially recovered from SXSW. It’s time to get back to that inbox and cover those bands you will soon love. Here’s an indie-pop/indie-rock mix for y’all; this should brighten your day.

Brighter … Now!

1. “Come Back to Life” – Hospital Ships. Sometimes I hear a song and think, “Wow, I want to write songs like that.” Stunning quiet/loud indie-rock here.
2. “Roosevelt Hotel” – Cocovan. That chorus. I’ve been singing and dancing for a week solid. This woman knows her way around a thoughtful pop song.
3. “Way Yes” – Colerain. Can you have dance-friendly energy while being deeply pensive, even sad? And make all that beautiful? Colerain says yes, yes, we can.
4. “California Analog Dream” – Vondelpark. Remember the first time you heard Grizzly Bear? Or Bon Iver? My first listen of Vondelpark was like that: instrumental simplicity that somehow overwhelmed my ears like an enlightenment experience.
5. “Monday Morning” – Charles Mansfeld. Acoustic indie-pop with idiosyncratic vocals and a unique gravitas? The more the better.
6. “Jive Babe” – Mikhael Paskalev. Squash together the frenetic vocal fervor of King Charles with the buzzy guitars of the Vaccines and you’ve got a scrumptious recipe.
7. “Monday Morning” – Younger James. (Not a typo, this one is also called “Monday Morning.”) I heard the Strokes have a new coming out. I can almost guarantee that this tune will be better than whatever that foursome is putting out.
8. “Ode to the Summer (Radio Edit)” – Syd Arthur. Someone called this prog? I thought this intricate, melodic work was what indie rock sounded like in 2013? Things just got weird.
9. “Young Men of Promise” – Yellowbirds. What a great song title. The mid-tempo, vaguely garage-y indie-pop is strong, too.
10. “Open Arms” – Fletcher. Q: What if The Walkmen were happy? A: FLETCHER. Next question.

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

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