Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Fall/Winter MP3 Mix

February 19, 2014

Bunches of MP3s have come my way recently, and I’m happy to share some with you. Come back on Friday for the Spring/Summer mix!

Fall/Winter

1. “Reno” – Shareef Ali. Anti-folk, acoustic-punk, and country converge on this memorable, attitude-filled breakup tune. (Ali’s CD release show is tonight, if you happen to find yourself in San Francisco.)

2. “Blankets” – Matthew Fowler. Fowler has a smooth, soothing voice that sounds far more mature than his 19 years. Fans of Josh Garrels and Ray LaMontagne should take notice.

3. “The Lampolier” – Grover Anderson. As fall moves toward winter, let’s move from pretty singer/songwriters to the haunting, backwoods Appalachian murder ballad tradition. The production here is particularly notable.

4. “Down to My Soul (The Music)” – Kate Vargas. When a woman says she’s influenced by Tom Waits, that gets my attention. Vargas delivers on that promise with raspy, soulful, inspired folk full of banjo and danger.

5. “Strugglin’” – I Am the Albatross. This one also starts out as a Tom Waits-ian folk ramble, but it transforms into a Gogol Bordello folk/punk/polka blaster complete with vengeful religious imagery. All aboard!

6. “All Walks of Life” – Mike Dillon. I’m used to Mike Dillon’s unclassifiable madness played at 3 zillion BPMs. This unclassifiable madness includes a significantly chiller body before a naturally madcap coda but is no less weird: it still includes vibraphone, trombone, drums, and Dillon’s crazy vocals.

7. “Alta / Waterfall” – Fear of Men. Jangly indie-rock urgency married to the rich, dusky landscapes of Bowerbirds and the like.

8. “Blight ft. FatRat Da Czar” – We Roll Like Madmen. Very smooth, dark, crisp electro here. FatRat Da Czar raps some really nice flow over it, really making this track.

9. “Ruin” – Vedas. The PR for this one calls it a “hollow depletion of hope,” which makes me want to try and cheer them up. Their James Blake-ian electro-pop/R&B/indie/whatever stuff is definitely attractive, though. All is not lost, yo!

10. “Reset” – Maggie McClure. Here’s a cathartic, female-fronted, piano-based pop tune for those who never stopped secretly loving The Fray and The Goo Goo Dolls.

11. “RaVe (feat. Kris English)” – Cloud Seeding. Is it folk? Is it electro? The lines keep getting fuzzier. Either way, this one is a lithe, easy-moving track.

12. “There Was a Time” – Corea Blue. Lo-fi can always get grittier, y’all. Props to this track for creating a zen-like mood and tone while using tape hiss as an instrument.

Brook Pridemore has a new live cassette, and he knows that Jack Kerouac once said, “The only truth is music.”

February 12, 2014

brookpridemore

I think we have a true folk voice here. I had never heard of Brook Pridemore, hailing from Brooklyn, New York. (By the way, the title of the live cassette I’m reviewing here is My Name Is Brook Pridemore, And I Live In Brooklyn, NY). I had the chance to talk with Brook, and I think the answers write this review. After sampling his music, I decided to get to know this artist.

Major influences?
Bill Callahan, Thee Headcoats, Tom Waits, The Mountain Goats…

I can see that Brook gravitates toward very real, natural artists. Brook once got to show Bill “Smog” Callahan his Bill Callahan tattoo! Similarly, Brook writes in a true folk tradition. He writes about the immediate,  foregoing the struggles of song construction and ambiguity that songwriters often labor over. I ask Brook about performing solo with the type of concrete material he has.

“I am not a ‘singer songwriter.’ Brook Pridemore is a band. It happens to have the same name as I do.  It has always been a band, there have just been long patches where I’m the only person playing.  I have learned, through thousands of solo shows, how to perform under any circumstances.  I could go on for days regarding the weird spots I’ve been in.  I got used to running out as soon as the band before me was done, and shout my name and where I was from, and start to play.  Fewer people left, if I did that.  It has still always been a tough slog.  But I wouldn’t trade it for the easier route.”

Brook says his home state of Michigan has nothing to do with his lyrics, but that where he is now does.

“A good bit of my lyrical inspiration comes from years of seeing Kerouac’s America, that is, big wide open spaces, taken through a windshield, the clack-clack of the interstate beneath the wheels, getting stranded atop mountains, making out with strangers, rocking out in Austin after spending the previous night in jail, never giving up, never surrendering, always on the go, always on the run, until you stop and breathe, and realize that the feeling that you’ve been running away from is in your own head.  And you stay home (Brooklyn) for a while, and you learn how to occupy the space you’re in.  So, yes, location matters a lot in my lyrics.”

Bill Callahan says in his song, “Seagull,” “A barroom may entice a seagull like me right off the sea, and into the barroom. How long have I been gone? How long have I been traveling?” I ask Brook if he is married, single, or happily involved. Also, if he meets a lot of hotties because he makes music… or because he’s at bars more than an average person (performing)… or after performing …after a sweaty rave-up (which are what songs like “Chocolate Cake City” and “The Year I Get It Right” from this new live release are: drenched roof-rockers).

“I’m not in a relationship at the moment.  I learned the hard way that I’m not going to meet my wife at a bar. I’m an odd duck. I need to get to know a girl.”

The reviewer interjects. “But, if you’re like (Brook) you run like hell and get to see the world, ‘til you find yourself in Brighton… missing a girl.” -directly from his own song “Oh, E!” – the reviewer’s pick from this release.

I guess we all want to know, then, why did Brook Pridemore start writing songs or, rather, start just putting his reality right on the line… an open book?
“I was drawn to music from an early age.  I was looking for a creative outlet, and I’d missed the boat on marching band. I got my hands on a guitar in 1993, and have never really looked back. Music is so much more immediate than poetry, or fiction, or acting. It’s also so much more personal.” One can pick any song on this live cassette and just know that you’re going to hear a great story, well-told. It’s really an exciting listen also, because you can hear the die-hards in the front rows near the recording device singing along. Brook finishes, “I didn’t realize until I was much older that the big reason for writing songs is so I could make people listen to what I had to say.  And because I wanted to make people dance.”

He gets them dancing around track four of the live cassette (recorded at the Sidewalk Café in Manhattan in 2011), and he only has to suggest it once.

Discover Brook Pridemore. Check out the new live cassette. I hope to see life in the very in-the-present way Brook does. It seems like a great way to exist, experience, and then move forward. -Gary Lee Barrett

Quick Hits: Devin James Fry / Mutual Benefit / Scott Fant

December 24, 2013

headwatersongs

Devin James Fry (Lord Buffalo, Salesman) is a busy man, but he’s taken a break from those two wild pursuits to drop the pensive, ruminative Headwater Songs. The 9-song album is a pleasantly stark affair–most tracks are just his smooth tenor voice and a fingerpicked instrument (guitar or banjo). The dual tragedies that inspired this album (the fire and floods that have happened this year near Canon City, Colorado) give the album a hushed sense of calm, as if Fry is surveying the damage to his beloved hometown. Some songs deal directly with the disasters (“After the Royal Gorge Fire,” “Headwaters (Song for Gatherer)”), while others deal with the incidents more indirectly (“Real Fire”). The whole album flows seamlessly, as if the songs flowed out of Fry like the waters they chronicle. Keening falsetto, intricate picking guitarwork, and a deep sense of patience characterize these tunes. If you’re up for some gorgeous, spartan acoustic songs, Headwater Songs should be on your to-hear list.

lovescrushingdiamond

On the far opposite end of the spectrum in acoustic music is Mutual Benefit’s Love’s Crushing Diamond, which is a full-on chamber-pop experience. Sure, there are banjos and guitars, but there are violins, electronic sounds, and intricate arrangements that create gorgeous pile-ups of sound. This is an album that washes over a room, transforming the tone from normal to slightly more warm and comforting. Jordan Lee’s gentle voice is the perfect foil for these tender tunes, bringing out all the sweetness that can be extracted from them. If Bon Iver turned his attention to love instead of its loss, or Sufjan Stevens was less idiosyncratically percussive, or if the Low Anthem indie’d up a bit more, you’d have Mutual Benefit. This is just an absolutely gorgeous record that deserves your attention. A year-end gem.

scottfant

Scott Fant‘s singer/songwriter tunes are rough-edged without getting gruff. Fant writes with just him and a guitar, giving the tunes on Goatweed Bouquet a raw, earnest feel. These tunes would feel at home at both a Tom Waits-ian bar (“Bottom of the Hole”) and a Budweiser-toting honky-tonk (“Don’t Touch That Dog,” “Walk in the Light”). There are also some ballads intermingled among the upbeat tunes, best exemplified by the pristine guitar work of “Adagio for the Lonely.” Shades of David Ramirez, Counting Crows, and old-school country come through in the short runtime, showing Fant a diverse and interesting songwriter. Very different than Headwater Songs in mood, these songs are meant to be heard live and maybe even sung along to–especially if you’ve got a cold beer in your hand.

Quick Hits: More Than Skies / Nonagon / The Woodrow Wilsons

May 7, 2012

I can’t believe it’s been almost two weeks since I posted. Crazy times. Here’s a bunch of quick hits to clear my slate and get back to lengthy reviews I am such a fan of writing.

The fractured melodies and herky-jerky energy of Good News-era Modest Mouse meet the moody ponderousness of Tom Waits’ work in More Than SkiesI Am Only Above The Ground. The lyrics are far more positive than either party is accustomed to writing, making the album a unique experience of positive-to-wistful lyrics led by a raspy singer and backed by an enthusiastic band that often breaks out into group vocals. Instrumental chops abound (“Introduction,” “The One Who Wanders Is Not Lost”) and the melodies shine (“Life Declines at Twenty-five,” the title track), but it’s the exuberant “We’re Getting Older” that will stick in your mind and heart. Highly recommended for fans of a full-bodied folk sound that’s still raw and real.

Nonagon‘s People Live Everywhere EP offers up technical post-hardcore that’s big on dissonant melodies, tempo changes, odd time signatures, and shouted vocals. The unusual juxtaposition of guitar lines in opener “Vikings” should tip you off that this is loud music to appreciate with your brain as much as your body. You can definitely mosh to it (the dissonant “Fresnel Lens,” the manic “The Swifts”), but it’s the atypical rhythms and melodic ideas in “Fadeout” and the aforementioned “Vikings” that get me. Nonagon’s working at a high level here.

The Woodrow WilsonsDevil Jonah focuses more on mood and arrangement than hummable melodies, making their acoustic amalgam much less of a traditional “folk” album and more of a chamber-pop album. “I Love the Atlantic” is a beautiful tune that experiments with tempo and arrangement for effect, while “Anthropomorphics” is a jubilant tune with a horn chorale in it. Songs like “The Ocean is Rising to Meet You” and “Heat” play with the conventions of songwriting to great effect. Male and female vocals lead the band in turns, only lending more variety to the album. The highlight is the tense, emotive “The Size of My Fist,” which calls up what Andrew Bird might sound like if he had an interest in conveying emotions. On the whole, fans of The Decemberists and old-school Sufjan Stevens will find much to love in The Woodrow Wilsons.

"This might be a mess." "Let's do it anyway."

March 8, 2012

“If there’s no grand cultural war left for you to wage, how are you supposed make friction? Indie rock responded by fanning out into a thousand sub-genre deltas, each with their own set of reference points. The best stuff, every year, is the stuff that somehow leaps across those gaps, like a firing synapse.” -Jayson Greene, Pitchfork, “Making Overtures: The Emergence of Indie Classical

I’ve been quoting this paragraph copiously in conversation and text since it was published, because it perfectly frames the situation in which indie rock currently sits. Should you be really, really good at one genre? The answer as an extension of this paragraph is “Probably not”: the genre already has a hero (or heroes), and you’re just going to be appropriating heroes if you aspire to greatness in a genre. You should mix and match, because that’s the stuff that gets applause these days: Bon Iver abandoning pure folk for a confluence of acoustic and ’80s synthscapes, Arcade Fire adopting a wiry ’80s touch for “Sprawl II: Mountains Beyond Mountains.” If we’ve heard it all before, we must repackage it in new ways. (This is why we have “new” lawyer dramas every year.)

I disagree that there is no room for purists; folksters The Low Anthem immediately come to mind as a great example of forging forward in a historically-established sound, as well as singer/songwriters like Brianna Gaither. Still, it’s true that the hip and cool stuff right now is interdisciplinary. (The technically appropriate term would intergenrenary, but that’s a clunky, made-up word.) Everything in the world is becoming interconnected; why not music?

Gabriel and the HoundsKiss Full of Teeth is the sound of a band working hard on its interdisciplinary mix. The basic elements of the sound are stark folk in the For Emma vein, The National-style gloomy indie rock, and a composer’s sense of symphonic instrumentation (more Firebird Suite, less “Eleanor Rigby”). Like my late grandfather’s attempts to recreate Bailey’s Irish Cream from his own personal brewing and mixing, the results aren’t perfect—but they still taste great.

“Lovely Thief” is the most memorable track of the album, both for its successes and head-scratching excesses. The first minute consists of a grooving, lightly distorted guitar rhythm and comfortable tenor vocals. Trumpets, horns and oboes arrive without warning, colliding with the rhythmically solid guitar in erratic foxhunt calls. The guitar and foxhunt end simultaneously, giving way to an elegant symphonic break. Drums and guitar are then introduced on top of the continued symphonic elements. It’s a beautiful tune, especially in its final, fully-realized minute.

However, its abrupt switches show either a desire to rupture normative ideas of modern songwriting or an unfamiliarity with the delicate balance between all the song’s moving parts (or both!). The first is admirable, the second understandable; both show that they’re trying stuff. When the band sticks to one genre, they make very consistent songs that are less dynamic and interesting that their experiments: “The World Unfolds” uses strings as a support element to a straight-forward indie-rock tune; “What Good Would That Do” is Tom Waits for electric guitar.

So it’s pleasing that Gabriel and the Hounds try more ambitious tunes than standard ones: the very pretty “When We Die in South America” uses an unexpected entry point of strings to disrupt usual songwriting structure, while “Wire and Stone” sets an orchestra as the grounding point instead of traditional rock instruments. The swelling, building “An In-Between (Full Where You Are)” provides even more emphasis on symphonic composition—Colin Stetson listeners will nod and smile. “Who Will Fall on Knees” sets the symphonic arrangement against a pensive folk piece, using the strings as the forceful element in the piece.

Gabriel and the Hounds’ Kiss Full of Teeth is a wildly interesting piece of work packed with vitality and thought. The unique ideas shine, even if the pieces don’t come together in a completely unified way. It’s like listening to Regina Spektor’s Soviet Kitsch: It’s clear that she is either purposefully ignoring conventions of songwriting or isn’t yet skilled enough to write proper songs she hears in her head—regardless, Soviet Kitsch is wonderful. (Based on the markedly less erratic quality of her later output, I’d bank the latter idea.) Put another way: formal success does not ensure quality. Sometimes the half-baked mistakes are far more interesting and vital than the fully-formed, conventionally-sound work, and that’s the case for Gabriel and the Hounds. Hopefully more bands follow their lead and risk putting out this sort of genre-bending, might-be-a-mess-but-who-cares work.

Colin Stetson's Ten Influential Records

February 1, 2012

Bass saxophonist extraordinaire Colin Stetson’s New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges was IC’s 2011 Album of the Year. When I informed Colin’s camp about this, they sent back an e-mail with the following list and no other explanation. (I added the links and album art.) Colin Stetson, everybody:

TEN INFLUENTIAL RECORDS in no particular order

1. Glenn Gould: Goldberg Variations (’55 and ’81)

Never in my knowledge has there been a lasting example of a single piece of music framing the entirety of one’s life and career so completely as these recordings. They are perfect snapshots of a man and his vision, heart, and mind, both at the beginning and end of his all too short life and have always been precious to me.

2. Jimi Hendrix: Band Of Gypsys

When I was growing up, my father had only a few records in the house and most of them were Jimi Hendrix. It was no mystery that I found myself years later learning his solos, attempting to mimic them in every way, but on the saxophone. The translation of sound and technique across instruments is something that has always been exciting to me and in this case was absolutely formative to almost every aspect of my sound and musical approach.

3. Various Artists: Goodbye Babylon

Goodbye Babylon is a six cd set of american pre-war gospel music, transferred from the original vinyl, and it is a priceless archive of a singular time in history. The music captured in these recordings embodies all of the suffering and hope that has defined humanity for all our history and I feel is essential listening for understanding who we are,where we come from, and what we could do to make a better world for eachother.

4. Liturgy: Aesthetica

This record absolutely destroyed me. On first listen, it was simultaneously a thrilling surprise and a familiar comfort, feeling like some sort of inevitable epiphany. Liturgy’s is the most exciting music I’ve heard in recent years and you can hear it’s influence already in my last EP, Those Who Didn’t Run.

5. Tom Waits: Bone Machine

Tom Waits’ music came over me like a conquering army, populating every inch of my mind. From first hearing Bone Machine I was in a fever for everything he had made and I didn’t come up for air until I had experienced it all.

6. Mobb Deep: The Infamous

Not just a scene from 8 Mile, hanging out in Detroit, driving a long, brown oldsmobile and listening to this record was how I used to roll back in the mid-90′s. There was something limitless to that town back then, like some vast old ruins. Like this record, It was hard and unapologetic and is forever etched in my memory.

7. Nobukazu Takemura: Scope

When I first heard the song Icefall I was about 19 and had just started to scratch the surface of what the saxophone was capable of. Immediately, the sounds that comprise this song translated effortlessly onto the saxophone. The cd skipping clicks turning into key noise in my head, the frenetic post minimalist cascade of melody and repetition fell idiomatically perfect onto the instrument. It is perhaps still the single track that has had the most influence on my music.

8. Henryk Gorecki: 3rd Symphony

This is a rare and patient beauty that has no equal in my mind. It is music that stops the machinations of the world and inhabits you so fully that if there is such a thing as “what it means to be human”, your understanding of it is deepened.

9. Metallica: Master of Puppets

In my earlier days I had strong mullet and I listened to a lot of metal. I’ve since lost the backflap but kept the metal and this album has always stayed in heavy rotation throughout the years.

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10. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: The Day, the Night, the Dawn, the Dusk

Nusrat throws the best parties out there. He’s put out what seems like hundreds of records, but this one was my first and maybe for that reason or maybe just because it’s awesome, it has always been my favorite.—Colin Stetson

Red Sammy's gravelly rasp leads into Tom Waits country

August 17, 2011

Red Sammy vocalist and songwriter Adam Trice describes his music as “graveyard country,” and it’s not hard to see why. A Cheaper Kind of Love Song‘s country/folk has one very noticeable distinguishing feature: a gravelly, broken, Tom Waits-ian voice leading the way.

The voice is the band; other than the sung notes, the songs are very nice, unimpeachable country/folk tunes. A vintage National guitar plays the leads, but without prior knowledge of the National sound (of which I don’t have much; I discovered this tidbit in the press release) it will sound like any other steel guitar (even though it is most assuredly not). An acoustic guitar provides the rhythm, and the drums and bass fall in behind.

So, for all intents and purposes, listeners’ appreciation of Red Sammy depends on your feelings for vocalists in the Tom Waits arena. If you love a mangled instrument (as I seem to remember a writer describing Waits’ voice), you’re going to eat up Red Sammy, regardless of your genre affinity. If the phrase “permanent damage” floats ominously through your mind each time you hear Waits’ music, you will want to pass on Red Sammy.

For those taking things on a case-by-case basis, it’s less simple. You can’t count the whole album as a simple “take it or leave it” endeavor, as the band has an upbeat side and a mellow side. “Come Back Home” turns Trice’s rasp into a roar that gives the shambling tune power; “It Ain’t You (Carolina Road Anthem)” doesn’t electrify the song in the same way as the previous, but it certainly fits in authentically.

The slower work, which is most of the other six songs on the album, leans on the contrast between Trice’s low, gruff croak and the smooth, folky instrumental performances. Trice summons a surprising amount of pathos on the downtrodden “Baltimore,” making it a standout on the album. “Cactus Flower” is less empathetic, but still memorable.

A Cheaper Kind of Love Song is divisive, but a recognition that Tom Waits has been rocking his shtick for over 40 years proves that there’s an audience for sounds like these. If you’re in the market, this is an album you’ll want to pick up. Adventurous types are also recommended to check it out.

Leonard Mynx's morose vocal mastery takes a trip through roots rock

May 30, 2011

Leonard Mynx‘s last album Vesper was a stately wonder, composed of hopelessly depressing folk songs that hung on every note he let fall from his mouth. It was an absolutely riveting album, if an unsettling one. Son of the Famous So and So finds him in a more upbeat idiom, and while it’s less discomforting, it’s less attention-grabbing as well.

Like Dylan went, so goes Mynx; there’s a lot more instrumentation here, and if it can’t exactly be called rock, it’s something close. There’s intimations of everyone from Tom Waits to Bob Seger here (On “Sing Radio,” Mynx calls up both), making for a mini-tour of American roots rock. Son has its own charms and joys, but it inches a little closer toward what the rest of the folk world is doing right now.

Mynx has shifted his focus from vocal melodies to overall songwriting. It doesn’t seem like a big deal until you hear how different “Stolen” and “Last Time” sound. The forlorn horns of “Stolen” accent the vocal performance; the horns of “Last Time” are part of the structure (along with bass/acoustic guitar/electric guitar/drums/piano/organ) that rope in Mynx’s vocals.

Even the gorgeous, relatively stark “My Old Friend” fits Mynx’s vocals into a song, a departure from his former idea of letting the vocals dominate the proceedings. The result is a collection of tunes that mid-to-late-era Dylan fans will love, both for vocal and instrumental reasons.

“Stolen” and “Sail On” best reference his last album with haunting moods created by letting his voice and lyrics paint the whole scene. The lyrical structure on Son is modified to fit the new songwriting style, meaning that he’s less a literal storyteller than a scene painter on much of the album. “Sail On” dispels that, returning to his wordy, lengthy lyrical style that I love.  He sticks a beautiful acoustic coda there, too; major props to that.

“Miss You” best matches his morose mastery of drawn-out, creaky vocal performances with his new songwriting idiom. It is easily the best song on the album, hinting that the best is yet to come from Leonard Mynx.

Son of the Famous So and So never drops below “solid.”  “Stolen,” “Sail On” and “Miss You” are next-level pieces that stand up next to tracks by Iron and Wine, Bon Iver and Damien Jurado; the rest are average-to-good pieces that show a (hopefully) transitional stage in Mynx’s songwriting. Leonard Mynx is an artist you need to watch closely; he’s right on the verge of breaking through.

The Black Heart Procession creates a masterpiece

October 22, 2009

I should have known that a band which calls itself “The Black Heart Procession” would be more than a little bit morbid. Somehow, I was still surprised at the amount of death that crowds into the proceedings of their latest album Six. Even more surprising, though, is how incredibly gorgeous this album is, totally in spite of its subject matter.

Yes, from “Suicide” to “Heaven and Hell” to “When You Finish Me” to “Wasteland,” this is a pretty dark album. If you’re not a fan of Nick Cave, Tom Waits or other macabre artists, this is not going to be your cup of tea. Even with piano and strings leading the way through this lush album, it’s tough to get through if you’re affected by such gloomy notes.

Now, if you enjoy or tolerate moribund musings, this album is absolutely necessary for your collection. This is easily one of the most beautiful and engrossing albums I have heard this year. It’s nearly an hour long, and it holds attention for every second. The low male vocals are smooth and powerful, sucking the listener in. It’s like Tom Waits but without the warbling pitch issues, or Johnny Cash without the bite. It’s enticing. There’s a contrasting high male vocal as well, and that works perfectly in the context of the music.

And in that music, The Black Heart Procession has created a perfect backdrop to the engaging vocals. From the plucky strings and shakers of “All My Steps” to the dark guitar pop of “Witching Stone” to the weeping piano of “When You Finish Me,” the members have created a perfectly flowing album. None of these songs are the same; some have distorted guitar, some replace the guitar with an organ. Acoustic guitar plays lead occasionally. But the mood that Six has stays the same throughout. It is the soundtrack to a pondering walk through a cave of poignant, sad memories. The mourning here is genuine; there is not a drop of saccharine anywhere in this album.

This is not an album of singles; this is a fully-realized album project. The Black Heart Procession has created a masterpiece with this album – there’s just nothing to knock in it. If you are a fan of depressing music, this is a must-buy. You will not regret the purchase, although you may encounter some of your regrets as you listen to this album. It’s the type of album that will cause introspection. Simply astounding.

Library Voices create bookish indie-pop

September 9, 2009

What is it that makes pop music such a fitting background for philosophical and hyper-literary lyrics? This question comes up regularly for listeners of The Decemberists, Modest Mouse, Andrew Bird, Sufjan Stevens and the like. And the question has come up again while listening to Library Voices.

This ten-piece pop collective hails from Saskatchewan, Canada. Their Hunting Ghosts and Other Collected Shorts EP stays true to its bookish name, combining pop culture references, narrative structure, philosophical musings, and existential confusion with musical styles from uptempo, guitar-driven pop to ethereal pieces with delicate instrumental textures. Their Myspace says they sound like “drunk kids talking too openly and too honestly.” I’d have to agree, except these drunk kids are hip, have read lots of books and are probably drunk on craft beers and red wine. (After all, they have appeared in The New Yorker.)

The opening track “Step off the Map and Float” begins with some Nintendo-like sounds, a lighthearted group count-off to twelve, and then jumps into an up-tempo pop song whose chorus–“Your existence is a pinprick/On a paper continent/The patron saints all patronize me”–is tinged with just enough resignation and anguish. But, it is ultimately ebullient: “So step off the map and float.” This track is a balanced showing of their sound, which features clean guitar, multi-part vocals, and an array of quirky elements that at the same time both thicken the song and lighten the sound.

“Kundera on the Dance Floor” features a syncopated rhythm section (including a saxophone) and a sort of character vignette of the “golden girl.” She wears a Tom Waits t-shirt, is “piss drunk on red wine and melody,” and quotes Dando and Kafka. Library Voices’ sharp lyrics and the catchy melodies do exactly what pop lyrics and melodies should do: get stuck in your head and make you thankful for it. Oh, and as a consequence of singing the educated lyrics to yourself as you walk down the street, you get to be introspective and consider, among other ironies and tragedies of life, “the unbearable lightness of being.”

Yet at times Library Voices’ literary leanings can come off as too overt. The somewhat underwhelming “Things We Stole From Vonnegut’s Grave” is just as list-like as it sounds. Abstract items of contraband such as “consciousness of the human condition” and “a taste for science fiction” provide the list with some intrigue. Either way, it is impressive and humorous to listen to the band reel off obscure Vonnegut references, and they certainly leave no doubt that they read a lot of the man’s works. Musically it is one of their more unusual pieces in that its harmonic structure lies outside of the realm of traditional pop. It is only striking in contrast to their other songs. The factual lyrics are impersonal at worst, but the song works within the overall aesthetic of Library Voices in that themes often found in Vonnegut stories regularly show up in the band’s original lyrics. For instance, in “Love in the Age of Absurdity,” the band takes a somewhat prophetic tack, questioning the seeming normality of pop culture givens such as social networking and reality television and stirring the listener to examine his or her place.

“Hunting Ghosts” and “The Lonely Projectionist” are easily the most in keeping with the title of the EP. Both are extensive narratives, and “Hunting Ghosts” is unique in that it features soft, female lead vocals. This quiet, ethereal song contains tighter backing harmonies, more reverb, and a deftly-written string section to create the more intimate texture of this song. The narrative-confessional lyrics add to such a texture. Instrumentally, “The Lonely Projectionist” shares similarities with the other pieces, such as an extensive use of organs and synths, with the bass and drums driving the song forward. However, this song is their best-arranged piece; the instrumental elements of the song move seamlessly together through a larger range of dynamics and moods. About two-thirds of the way through the song they take a chance on a bridge that veers away from the earlier part of the song, and it is a most pleasant surprise. The lyrics narrate two parallel existences of loneliness, and this more oblique approach to existential questions sounds less cathartic.

Library Voices pull off their sound and the pop collective aesthetic with just the right amount of ease. It isn’t polished, but it isn’t chaotic, and doesn’t seem forced. Hunting Ghosts and Other Collected Shorts EP makes me eager for a full-length album. -Max Thorn

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