1. “War and Opera” – Montoya. The careful, restrained arranging that Montoya deploys in this melodic indie-pop tune gives it a maturity and dignity that separate it from other tunes. The delicate guitar and alto vocals still create thoroughly enough interest to power this intriguing song.
2. “ALIEN” – Laura and Greg. The duo has transformed from a pristine acoustic duo into a punchy, noisy indie-pop-rock outfit. It’s not exactly Sleigh Bells, but they’re heading in that direction–but Laura’s charming vocals and fun keys keep the song on this side of full-on-indie-rock assault.
3. “Call Me Out” – Jesse Alexander. A former member of Cobalt and the Hired Guns keeps the ska / indie-pop fusion tunes coming: this one has horns and organ to keep the good vibes flowing.
4. “Fire Up the Bilateral Brain and Draw” – Word to Flesh. Here’s a quirky tune that employs the keys-focused sound structures of formal pop, but has no real formal structure: the only phrase in the two minute tune is the titular mantra, surrounded by guitar noodling. It’s remarkably engaging, and then it’s over–sort of like a less manic They Might Be Giants.
5. “Rainer” – Lull. A hammering rock intro flips on its head and unveils a delicate, early ’00s emo sound. They get back to the rock, but they take their sweet time getting there and make it worth your while when they do.
6. “A Moment to Return” – Why We Run. Moody bass/drums meets The National vocals with some U2 ambient/anthemic guitars on top. The results are a surprisingly uplifting post-punk tune–post-punk generally doesn’t make me want to dance or smile, and there’s some of both to be had here.
7. “When We’re Clouds” – Slow Runner. So indie-rock used to be shorthand for “rock songs that are definitely rock but kinda don’t play by the same rules.” Slow Runner’s tune is a song of (government?) scientific experimentation on human subjects (I think?). The music itself is slightly off-kilter rock, like a louder Grandaddy, a chillaxed Flaming Lips, or something altogether different. Here’s to Slow Runner.
8. “Dance Baby” – Luxley. That rare electro-rock song which doesn’t hammer listeners over the head with massive synth blasts–instead, there’s a bit of Cobra Starship restraint in the vocal-heavy arrangement. There is a bit of punk-pop attitude in the vocals (Good Charlotte came to mind), giving this a bit of a unique flair.
9. “Maria, Mine” – Don Tigra. Former folkie Stephen Gordon has slickly and impressively reinvented himself as an indie-rocker with post-punk vibes, coming off as a cross between Interpol, Cold War Kids, and Leagues. (Full disclosure: I’ve given some professional advice to Gordon over the years.)
10. “Psychopaths and Sycophants” – Keith Morris & the Crooked Numbers. Bluesy, swampy roots rock with whiskey-sodden, raspy vocals and all sorts of swagger. The great backup vocal arrangement and performances put the song over the top.
11. “Polaris” – Shiners. Minimalist electro-pop usually doesn’t have enough structure and melody to keep me interested, but Shiners do a great job of creating a cohesive, immersive whole out of small parts. [Editor’s note: This song is no longer available.]
Dr. Pants often gets compared to Weezer, but The Trip, Side 2: Breaking the Feel should do a great deal to get some other RIYLs on the list. The second of four EPs in a release cycle features nuanced songs that sound a great deal more like They Might Be Giants and Fountains of Wayne than Rivers Cuomo and co.
Songwriter David Broyles’ clever, geeky sense of humor is still thankfully intact. “Calling Chewbacca” is literally about the Wookiee leaving messages on his cell phone, which I thought was mildly quirky until I remembered that Chewbacca speaks in unintelligible howls. The only conclusion? David Broyles is Han Solo.
But for all the gleeful ridiculousness of the opener (the band even throws in the Star Wars theme as a guitar solo), Breaking The Feel has more serious topics than outlandish ones. “The Live and the Lecherous” is a critical look at our culture’s obsession with social media: “Like me now please!” begs the chorus. “The Cassette Song” is about the titular item on the surface, but it’s really about abusive relationships. (Gulp.) “This is What It Looks Like” is an incredibly tender, mature love song to his wife. The only clunker is “Magic Airplane,” which gets lost in its own metaphors.
Broyles’ lyrics take the front seat here, but the music hasn’t suffered. His ’90s-leaning vocal melodies are top-notch. The music, while dialed back in volume from the power-pop that garnered them so many Blue Album comparisons, hasn’t lost any vitality. “This is What It Looks Like” and “The Live and The Lecherous” are actually more dialed-in because they take the focus off the chord mashing: the former is a subdued acoustic vehicle, while the latter noticeably mixes the rock so that Broyles can be front and center.
Breaking the Feel is not as goofy as Dr. Pants’ past work, but we get older and our goofiness is tempered by wisdom. I’m teaching a unit on musical authenticity right now in my day job, and Broyles’ balance of geekery, music knowledge, and life observations is much more true to Broyles’ life than most Great Depression-appropriating alt-country. If we care about authenticity—if it matters at all—then we should celebrate it when it appears. It’s definitely on display here.
Does that make the songs better? In this case, it does: you can tell that Broyles (and Dr. Pants as a whole) care about these tunes, and that makes me want to care. And I do, both in “Calling Chewbacca” and “This Is What It Looks Like.” That’s impressive. I am eagerly anticipating the third volume.
I like to give everything a fair shot. I’ve heard some pretty terrible things in my day because of this policy, but I have also found some treasures in things that other reviewers may have instantly passed for one reason or another.
The Bramble Jam‘s Move Your Boots is a kid’s album. Don’t be frightened: the tunes play out like a smoother version of They Might Be Giants’ work (a band that has also composed some kids’ music). The songs are primarily acoustic folk and pop tunes, as that seems to be the only genre that people think kids like (although Fang Island and the Sugar Free Allstars are striving to change this). The assured male and female vocals set this apart from other kids’ albums. There is the obligatory wink at the audience every now and then, but the band members mostly play the songs straight, not laughing at their own jokes.
This sounds like not a big deal, but anyone who has suffered through a self-congratulating children’s album knows how far an ounce of sincerity goes in this genre. “Pancakes” is the runaway favorite here, as the lyrics are genuinely funny (“Don’t you know that your mommy is the better milk and cornflake maker? Don’t you know that your mommy is the better low-fat yogurt scooper?”), the melody is dry and infectious, and the band locks on a loose, Jack Johnson-esque groove. It’s a lot of fun.
“Hey Crazy Kid” features a propulsive groove and a more dry melodies that would make it perfect to be a cover by any indie band. The lyrics wouldn’t even have to be altered. It’s that good. “Mommy’s Lost Her Marbles” hangs on a great organ riff. “Piggies (acoustic)” does sentimental in a way that actually makes me want to sigh instead of gag. I won’t ruin why it does.
Yes, there are a couple of stinkers, like the regrettable opener “Going to a Party” and the oddball surf-punk of “Chicken Soccer.” Things do get a bit too saccharine on “I Am Not Gone,” as well. But they are easily passed over for the other treasures within.
Move Your Boots by the Bramble Jam is unabashedly a kids’ album. But it has the musical quality to be enjoyed by their parents (and, apparently, at least one single-as-can-be music critic). If you’re adventurous, have kids, or really want to try something outside of your normal listening, hit this up.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.