Even though spring is officially today, it iced two days ago in Raleigh. It’s been a long winter, so it’s nice to start thinking about and hearing summer (even if I can’t see it yet). Here are some summery tunes for you, with occasional interjections from fall (everything folky sounds like fall, sorry bout that).
1. “The Sun” – Sleepers Bells. Jesse Alexander keeps busy: he’s in IC favorites Battle Ave. and The Miami, as well as releasing a solo project under the name Sleepers Bells. This track combines the Titus Andronicus punk fervor of BA with the wild vocals and mournful sadness of The Miami for a completely fascinating track.
2. “Ether” – Gentle Robot. Is night-time rock a thing? (Bloc Party says yes?) If so, that’s where Gentle Robot lives: dark but not angry, melancholy but not brooding, loud but not abrasive.
3. “Raise a Glass” – Monsenior. Bouncy indie-pop that evenly balances weight and effervescence. This one never loses its grounding as a bass-heavy tune, but it’s still a ton of fun.
4. “Beauty’s Bones” – Villa Kang. Combinines giant, thwomping ’80s electro-pop beats with some wistful ’00s indie-vibes in the vocals. The ghost of MGMT hangs low over this summer banger. [Editor’s note: This track is no longer available.]
5. “Concorde” – Incan Abraham. No better title for this Springsteen-meets-’80s electro cut than the sadly-no-more jet.
6. “Til Tomorrow” – DWNTWN. We have entered “summery pop” season. It couldn’t get here fast enough, for my money.
8. “Dare the Dream (Challenger Remix)” – Pure Bathing Culture. IC faves Challenger give the dreamy PBC cut an even dreamier take, turning it into an ethereal-yet-triumphant take on the tune.
9. “Towers” – Orphan Mothers. Smooth, delicate R&B-esque tune with some indie-rock flair in the guitar. Remember The Antlers? They’d be jamming to this.
10. “She’s Falling” – Breanna Kennedy. It seems like I’m including one adult alternative track per mix. This week’s AA track features a nicely understated chorus; it’s great to not hear a gigantic instrumental explosion every now and then.
11. “Flaws” – Vancouver Sleep Clinic. Falsetto over electro/acoustic jams is either going to invoke James Blake or Bon Iver until further notice. Still, this is a beautiful track.
12. “Burning Promises” – GreenHouse. Piano, synths, found sound, and dry percussion come together to make a relaxing tune. [Editor’s note: This track is no longer available.]
I absolutely love The Menzingers for their striking combination of tough vocals, melodic pop-punk chops, and intriguing lyrics. Whenever I find echoes of their work in bands, I jump on those releases. The Radio Reds’ Memory Loss hits all three of The Menzingers’ categories. Opener “Moloch” combines anthemic, soaring melodies with hard-hitting lyrics about the effects of war. The rest of the album traffics in more introspective, poetic material about interpersonal conflict, but “Moloch” is a blistering condemnation of the American treatment of veterans. Coming from a military family, it resonated hard.
Vocalist Stephen (no last name provided) keeps a tough edge on his vocals throughout the album, snarling a bit without turning the lines into yelling. (Don’t worry, there are some yelling sections for bros and girls in the pit: “Southern Belle,” “The Artist.”) This creates a nice tension that meshes neatly with the tension between the melodic sections of the tracks and the mash-those-chords breakdowns. The Radio Reds know how to balance the songwriting so that neither side of their songwriting style gets slighted. There are extremes, as “The Artist” is a furious street-punk endeavor that–enigmatically but excellently–includes horn in a third-wave ska fashion; “Let It Show” has the old-school pop-punk drumming style (always welcome in this corner), screamed vocals, and some metal overtones in the guitar work. On the other end, “Interlude” is just that, in fine, morose Brand New style. The horns reprise wonderfully, in a jazzier mode this time.
The Radio Reds have a lot going on in Memory Loss. They’re refining their own voice in the punk community, as well as tinkering with horns and quieter tunes (“Knife”) for variation. I look forward to seeing where The Radio Reds go from here, as Memory Loss is an engaging, intriguing listen for fans of The Menzingers, Titus Andronicus, The Gaslight Anthem, and the like.
Post-rock is about as avant-garde as I get, with rare exceptions. But ARP caught my attention with music that stretches the boundaries of pop music to the point that “Gravity (For Charlemagne Palestine)” sounds very much like strings-fronted post-rock. MORE is a weird trip through perky, charming music as thought through by a musician very interested in the deconstruction and reconstruction of sounds. “Invisible Signals,” the interlude following “Gravity,” is a spun-dial clip of radio found sounds: it leads directly into “More (Blues),” which is an Otis Redding-style blues/Motown/soul song complete with horns. ARP’s low tenor/high baritone voice fit nicely in the unexpected genre, and both arrangement and melody sound great.
It’s that sort of weird back alley that ARP is interested in on MORE, leading to the spaced-out intro of the harpsichord-driven “A Tiger in the Hall at Versailles” and a two-minute clip of nature sounds called “17th Daydream.” “V2 Slight Return” is a minute-long guitar experiment. “Persuasion” is a six-minute straight-ahead instrumental rock song. The sharp, clear production holds things together as well as it can, but your willingness to follow an experimenter where his trails and trials lead him is going to be the main feature in your enjoyment (or lack thereof) of ARP’s MORE. That, and whether you like optmistic post-rock. I enjoyed the album for its unique perspective, but this is certainly a “maybe not for everyone” release.
So I went running this morning, and it was actually hot. Summer is creeping in, y’all!
Interstitial Summer mix
1. “Confidence” – The Dodos. Here’s a jaw-dropping fusion of intricate guitarwork, indie-rock bombast, and pop sensibility. Thrilled to hear this album.
2. “Southern Belle” – The Radio Reds. Pop-punk is where I’m from, and it’s where I go in summer. This bass-heavy tune reminds me of Titus Andronicus due to the atypical vocal rhythms of the vocalist. Great stuff.
3. “Baton” – Pan. My favorite gleeful post-rockers are back, emphasis on the rock … and the violin.
4. “Back to Bellevue” – Challenger. Summer mixes can always use more ’80s-inspired electro-pop, especially when it’s as bouncy and charming as Challenger’s.
5. “If It Speaks” – Hospital Ships. Hospital Ships plays indie-rock that I immediately recognize but can’t place. Their tunes come from a deep understanding of how indie-rock works, circa 2013. Mighty.
6. “Make It Home” – Hoodie Allen feat. Kina Grannis. Hoodie drops the studio version of the track he and Kina Grannis wrote for Fuze. It starts out with voice and acoustic guitar, but it’s a block party by the halfway point (complete with huge horn sample). The Mets still get a shout-out. It’s still awesome.
7. “You’re Turning From” – Fiery Crash. No summer mix is complete without a lazy, hazy poolside jam.
8. “The Hypnotist” – Owls of the Swamp. And no self-respecting summer mix wouldn’t include a midnight makeout track either, and this Australian indie-folk gem fits the bill perfectly. Swirling, mysterious, and beautiful.
I’ve been getting into electronic music a little bit more recently, but I still have the deepest part of my musical heart reserved for singer/songwriters armed with nothing but an acoustic guitar. Scott Fant fits that description perfectly, as he employs his careworn tenor over a six-string for the five tunes of Pig Iron. Fant balances precise, melodic guitarwork with a careworn voice that includes weariness but isn’t defined by it. It’s not a gruff or rough tone, but one that has nicks around the edges, as in the excellent “Worse for the Wear.” The memorable vocals are framed well by both chord strumming and fingerpicking. Fant likes to remain in folk-singer mode, but there are some worthy blues inclusions (“8 Lb. Sledge”) and even a bit of classical influence (“Restless Wind”). Fans of Joe Pug, Joe Purdy and maybe even Ray LaMontagne (although without the romantic overtones) will eat this up. Fant is a strong songwriter that should be watched closely: as they say in the draft, he’s got a lot of upside and a really high ceiling.
Christian martyrs Quirinus, Sadoth, and Ri may not be household names, but Martyr’s Prayers by The Project moves them out of the Fox’s Book of Martyrs and into the musical sphere. The album’s best moments come when the band focuses on acoustic folk treatments like lead single “Romero,” the cello-led “Becket,” and the melodically memorable “Clement.” Most of the album leans this way, but there are some louder moments in the stories of the martyrs. The dramatic “Carpus” opens with arch piano arrangement before unveiling some wailing guitar work over the despondent chords. While “Bonhoeffer” has unexpected alt-rock guitar that disrupts the flow of the album, “Sadoth” is a straight-up classic rocker that fits the character of the album much more. It fits because the “classic” tag leans into some of the folk work too, as “Ignatius” and “Ravensbruck” recall the arrangements of older folk heroes like America and Simon & Garfunkel. Martyr’s Prayers is a unique album that’s worth a listen for fans of folk and/or church history, as long as some unexpected turns don’t bother you.
Killing Kuddles was introduced to me as a rockabilly band, but some of the “abilly” edges have worn off between then and now. Odd Man Out is a five-song release that leans heavily on old-school rock’n’roll sounds for its sonic and lyrical material (“Rock & Roll Is Dead”). The guitars clang admirably, the cymbals thrash mightily, and the bass wallops. The element that most signifies any sort of country-ish vibe is Elwood Kuddles’ raspy throat, which lands between a punk sneer and a Tom Waits growl. It leans toward the former on the rapid-fire opener “Not Coming Back” and more toward the latter in the folk-punk “Dropped the Pop.”
Killing Kuddles’ old-school rock sound has some connection to modern punk rock bands like The Gaslight Anthem and Titus Andronicus: bands that adhere to an old-school idea that rock should be loud and fast and unadorned by labels. Those bands might be right; it could be that I’m doing these songs a disservice trying to categorize them. If you like rock with the amps turned up and a rebellious sneer, Odd Man Out is going to be in your wheelhouse.
As a music journalist, it’s impossible to cover any particular genre in its entirety–and that galls me. I want to know everything. One way that critics get around this is by having refined and efficient means of finding that stuff which will blow our (and your) minds. Another is by dedicating no more than a week or two to the note-gathering section of review writing. But an album as richly expansive as Lady Lamb the Beekeeper‘s Ripely Pine demands more than the average amount of time to parse its depths. Without getting hyperbolic (“You don’t just listen to this album, it listens to you,” etc.), this album is wildly engaging both musically and lyrically, shining a light on an idiosyncratic, fearless musician who could have an incredibly bright future.
The first thing to note about Lady Lamb the Beekeeper is that she has a commanding, distinct presence. Aly Spaltro writes with a powerfully feminine voice: she describes things in ways that men would not. This is the sort of absolutely fascinating work that we need to celebrate: these’s aren’t just men’s songs from a woman’s perspective; these are a woman’s songs. Too often we are treated to “the other side of the story” when really I just want to hear a woman’s story. Well, here it is: a 12-song album full of food language and body metaphors to tell intimate tales of interpersonal relationships as a woman sees them. I’m not saying that no one else is doing this; I’m just trying to celebrate the incredible example in front of me.
The lyrics are by turns elegant and powerful, but consistently raw. When Spaltro hollers out, “I need your teeth around my organs,” in “You Are the Apple,” it’s far more sexual and jarringly personal than the explicit come-ons that pop music has routinely produced over the past twenty years. These lyrics cause me to pause and think. These lyrics shake me. It is rare that I can say that.
There are plenty of lyricists who can’t write a song to deliver the words, but never fear: Spaltro applies her unconventional lyrical angle to the music, creating a whirling, roaring album that includes more shifts and turns than I can keep track of. It should be noted that “Rooftop” was chosen as the single almost by default: it’s the track that most closely resembles recognizably normal indie rock. Guitars that alternate between single-note intricacy and chord mashing lock into a rhythm section that largely stays true to a consistent tempo and four/four time. This stability is notable because it almost never happens again.
Spaltro’s best tracks slow down, speed up, pause unexpectedly, and generally wind all over the map (“Crane Your Neck,” “Mezzanine”). This is almost always in service of the lyrics, creating a synthesis of sound and word that allows for maximum tension. Spaltro knows how to keep you hanging, and then how to pay off that tension; if you’re not breathless at the end of “You Are the Apple,” you’re probably doing too many things at once and not paying attention to Lady Lamb.
I don’t know how you could not pay attention, because Spaltro’s alto voice is mesmerizing: she uses her range to its fullest power, able to create a storm where a whisper was prevailing mere seconds before. Her voice inhabits the lyrics, muscling her way through angry tunes and gracefully gliding through quieter ones. In her voice, as with her songwriting and lyric-writing, she exercises an incredible level of control. She leverages what she has to its best ends, and the results are astonishing.
It is rare that an album comes along that absolutely captivates me. Ripely Pine, with its descriptive imagery, devastating vocals, and arresting tunes, is one of a rare few albums per year that make an indelible mark in my brain, like Colin Stetson’s New History Warfare Vol II: Judges and Titus Andronicus’ The Monitor. The same almost-outlandish ambition that powered those two achievements powers Ripely Pine. It’s not that Lady Lamb the Beekeeper is simply doing something different: it’s that she’s doing something so singularly different that she transcends the label for whatever it is she started out as. That is what an artist should do, and that is what Lady Lamb the Beekeeper has done here. Did I mention this tour de force is a debut?
I’m incredibly excited that I’ve finished my year-end lists actually correspond with the end of the year. Without further pontificating, here’s the first half of the year’s best.
Honorable Mention: LCD Soundsystem – Madison Square Garden Show. It’s not an official release, but it proves that the tightest live band in the world only got tighter with time. “Yeah” is an absolute powerhouse.
Bright Eyes is not a punk band and never will be. However, if Conor Oberst had made his name playing punk, he may have sounded like either Run, Forever or The Wild. The two bands got together on a split 7″, and it’s a two-punch knockout.
The Wild’s contribution is a harmonica-laced, rattling punk tune complete with Oberst-esque raging vocals. You know, when he gets really amped up, like on that killer moment in “Old Soul Song (for the New World Order)” — you know the one. “Street Names” is that kind of moment, the whole way through.
Run, Forever’s “Silver Screens” sounds like what would have happened if “Another Traveling Song” were way louder and faster. Instead of the desperate Oberst vocals, these are the sung/spoke, didactic version. The vocal rhythms and songwriting moves are very similar to both Bright Eyes and Titus Andronicus, so that’s good for everyone involved.
Both these songs are incredibly entertaining. If you’re interested in vaguely country-esque punk, this one is worth your time. And you’ll be able to decide how much it means to you, as If You Make It is hosting the release as a pay-what-you-want download. Awesome!
*Postscript 8/15/2012: As was pointed out in the comments, I forgot that Conor Oberst was/is in rock/punk band Desaparecidos. And it does sound kind of like these two bands!
It’s very telling that Kevin McMahon produced Battle Ave.‘s War Paint, as McMahon had a hand in both Titus Andronicus releases, work by The Walkmen and Frightened Rabbit’s The Midnight Organ Fight. Each of these bands feature an extremely emotional singer going nuts in an atypical musical setting, and War Paint is not outside McMahon’s oeuvre in that regard.
Battle Ave’s unhinged frontman is Jesse Alexander, whose anguished voice ranges from indignant slurring to full-on roar. It’s highly reminescent of Patrick Stickles’ voice (Titus Andronicus). But instead of couching it in a workingman’s punk ethos, Battle Ave. sets Alexander in the midst of an indie-rock maelstrom.
The band can get just as furious and frantic as TA (“Whose Hands Are These?”, every other song on the album), but the bands start at different ends of the spectrum. Andronicus’ pathos comes after a calming down of rage, while Battle Ave ratchets up to a cacophony.
Battle Ave. strangely calls to mind the band that Patrick Stickles least likes to be compared to: Bright Eyes. Those who love the catharsis of “Road to Joy” and the conviction of tunes like “Train Underwater” and “Another Traveling Song” will find emotional analogues here, especially in the gorgeous, horn-filled “Complications w/The Home (Hernia)”. Most of BA’s tunes blow up past the heavy end of “Road to Joy” at their apex, but you’ll feel a similar emotional connection.
In stark contrast to I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, however, the songs sprawl all over the place. Their length and seeming formlessness (exactly zero choruses) call to mind Braids’ Native Speaker, although these guitars definitely go to 11 (“Puke Lust”). Because of that, it’s a tough album to grab onto. It’s not designed to be catchy, nor is it organized in easily digestible bits. This is art. The band is saying something, and if that’s not your thing, then this isn’t your thing.
Thanks to the vocal delivery, however, it’s difficult to make out what the point is. Track titles, album art and snatches of lyrics here and there make out the beginnings of a picture, but this (like The Monitor) is an album to which listeners should dedicate time. That’s an incredible artistic risk in this day and age, but I believe music is worth that, so time it will get (from me, at least).
I realize that I’ve spent less time describing songs and sounds than I usually do. I can explain that “Complications w/Traveling” is a noise-laden dream dirge, but that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Battle Ave.’s compositions are pretty unique, so I don’t want to waste time explaining every detail. I do, however, want to convince the people who might listen to it that they should – and the import of the album is the best way to discuss that.
The album really does have weight. The guitar tones and styles lend the album a cohesive feel, even when the band incorporates carnivalesque rhythms (as in the standout, 10-minute “”K. Divorce” (For Mildred)”). This was painstakingly written, crafted and ordered, and as a result War Paint is one of the most interesting indie-rock albums I’ve heard all year. If you’re into noisy indie-rock as art, then you should do yourself a favor and pick up Battle Ave.’s latest – you’ll find many moments of bliss.
Barry (three dudes, not one guy) is a folk trio that ate an indie-rock band whole and had a comedian for dessert. Still, their songs are more firmly entrenched in the folk tradition than most new folk artists, in that I can see “Drink One More” being covered to the point that no one remembers who actually wrote it.
Even though “For Your Own Good” has harmonica, acoustic guitar and tom-heavy drumming, the vocals contribute the twitchy energy of a Titus Andronicus or Replacements song. The bowed stand-up bass of “Carnival(e)” contributes to the dark, pulsing Modest Mouse feel. The aforementioned “Drink One More” has a lot ripped from the indie-pop camp: melodies, background vocals, synths (yes, airy synths).
And that comedian’s streak? The title track is a a cappella foot-stomper about how they are tired from not sleeping enough. Not even kidding. It’s hilarious, in that they not only thought it was a good idea, they made it the title track. Rock that.
In fact, it’s the straight folk/country tunes that fare worst, as “Three Years in Carolina” and “Love Something Too Much” don’t match up to the engaging, entertaining amalgam of the other tunes. They aren’t bad, they’re just totally faceless. “Great Unknown” barely avoids this fate due to a nice set of lyrics and a dramatic vocal performance, but it’s still a bit too long at five minutes.
That’s an argument that can be levied at all of the songs, actually; most hang out around the five-minute mark, with only the 48-second title track as an outlier. “For Your Own Good” is close to four, and it’s a solid length.
Is it any surprise that the tracks that seem least serious are the winners, or that they’re the ones that incorporate the extra-folk-ular influences? That comedian’s streak runs deep, and it’s important to the success of Barry’s Yawnin’ in the Dawnin’. Here’s to hoping they keep bein’ chilled out incorporators of good influences into folk structures. Can we get these guys on tour with O’Death? Or maybe Avett Brothers? Thanks, justice.
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.