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 Skies‘ I 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 Wilsons‘ Devil 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.
“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 Hounds‘ Kiss 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 last album Vesperwas 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.
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.
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