Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Elephant Micah conjures up beautiful, elegant, weighty tunes

February 21, 2012

Songs:Ohia plays a critical role in my musical history, somewhat akin to the lack of respect Bob Welch gets for keeping Fleetwood Mac together until they could get around to recording awesome things.

In my transition from “Super Good Feeling” to “Get Lonely,” Songs:Ohia was one of two artists who would entice me to jump from the poppy precipice of Transatlanticism to the downtempo jeremiads of Damien Jurado and The Mountain Goats. Without the influence of those latter two bands, this blog would probably not still exist. So, indirectly, you and I both owe a debt to Jason Molina (and David J of Novi Split, who was the second guide).

The emotions that Elephant Micah‘s Louder Than Thou conjures up in me match almost exactly the ones I felt while listening to Songs:Ohia’s “The Lioness” as a teenager. This is an incredible statement: I had chalked up this intense connection with S:A’s slow, weighty songs up to “my first time.” For a band to repeat in me that sort of emotion amid my now-steady diet of folk and singer/songwriter is stunning.

Pre-Magnolia ELectric Co. Jason Molina originally intrigued me for several reasons. I am intrigued by Joseph O’Connell (the songwriter behind EM) for the same reasons:

1. He is very talented, although the simple musicianship bears no ostentatious markers of technical skill.
2. He imbues songs with honest, weighty emotion.
3. He is unafraid to play a slow, quiet song for a very long time.

I started to feel the old longing during the second track, “Won These Wings.” A slowly thumped tom and sparse yet terse notes on an acoustic guitar create the backdrop for O’Connell’s plaintive voice; far-off background vocals and some sort of woodwind form intermittent ghostly asides. The whole thing just feels heavy; but more than that, it feels compelling. Instead of being wallpaper music, this is gripping. You know those movies where the soundtrack is so integral and vital that it should be credited as a supporting actor? The 7:25 “Won These Wings” is that sort of tune.

The length here is notable in the context of everyone else’s work, but not so much in comparison to the rest of the album. The six songs on Louder Than Thou run just over 36 minutes, meaning that one EM song averages the span of two pop songs. The shambling, uplifting “My Cousin’s King,” the shortest song, clocks in at 4:29. It could have gone longer and been totally fine: these songs sprawl, and they’re all the better for it.

That’s the lesson to be learned from “If I Were a Surfer,” which is the song that caused me to think of Songs:Ohia for the first time in years. The strum pattern isn’t complicated, the drum part isn’t difficult, and the vocal line isn’t virtuosic. But the parts come together in such a heart-rending way that none of that matters. “Let it lie where it lands / I’ll start all over again,” O’Connell sings with female harmony over a graceful, whirring organ. It’s no lyric shooting for the heart of reality, nor is it a hugely orchestrated epic moment. It is, instead, a testament to patience, dignity and craft. It is beautiful.

The skill and hard work it takes to write songs of such seemingly effortless elegance is hard to overstate. Elephant Micah‘s Louder Than Thou is not louder than much, really. But it is far more resonant than most, and that’s why I can’t stop listening to it.

What it means to be a band

January 23, 2012

I grew from my pop-punk roots into a deep admiration of Sufjan Stevens’ intricate arrangements and Death Cab for Cutie’s use of all band members on Transatlanticism. Sufjan is self-explanatory, but the latter album’s careful maximization of every band member’s skills is now something I seek out in music. If you can apply both of these elements to pop-punk, well, that’s nigh on heroic.

Signals Midwest is that band. Latitudes and Longitudes is easily the most carefully crafted album of punk rock I have ever heard. I don’t even want to call it punk rock, because the audience for this band is far greater than guys and girls who love three-chord stomping (and trust me, there’s great love for that in my heart). Signals Midwest has put together a statement, and that’s impressive.

It starts toward the end of opener “In Tensions,” which is a perfectly-chosen descriptive title to set the tone. The band drops out, and vocalist Maxwell Stern is left alone over an finger-picked acoustic guitar: “I was counting the miles/You were counting the days/And it’s strange that the numbers we wanted/were moving in opposite ways.” The lyric and melody appears twice more in the album: once in the next track “Monarchs” and once in closer “The Weight and The Waiting.” So there’s an intro, then a re-statement of theme, then the body, then a reaffirmation of theme as the closer? Yes, this is that organized.

The sound is incredible as well. Two guitarists, a bassist and a drummer give all they’ve got on these ten tracks: Rarely does the band drop into four-on-the-floor, pound-it-out mode. The songs all feature a rhythmically and melodically unique lead guitar line, backed up by rapidfire bass and heavily patterned drums. “Family Crest” is mind-boggling in its construction, as each member seems to be maxing out his capabilities. And it’s not even the best song, because technical proficiency is only one of the things that makes this band. Oh, and just to overawe you some more: they recorded most of this thing live.

But the melodic capability and corresponding vocal fury really set this apart from other bands. Single “The Quiet Persuader” opens up with a neat guitar line that recalls early 2000s pop-punk before snapping into martial rhythms and delivering the lead to Stern, who just rips the song apart with his passionate vocal performance. His voice is permanently halfway between singing and yelling, in that zone that seems exclusively the domain of punk rock. He may persuade quietly, but that’s the only thing he does without volume. “I Was Lost” has a wiry groove to it; “Memo” is crushing in its tension and release. “Limnology” is a how-to on mid-tempo rock.

But Latitudes and Longitudes isn’t all throwdowns: “January and Seven” is a poignant, acoustic ballad that doesn’t go maudlin or sterile, as is the sin of many punk acoustic tracks. It’s a clear-eyed acknowledgment of the toughness of being. Turns around every corner: closer “The Weight and The Waiting” casually throws in a horn section to cap off the album. It’s a perfect way to sum up the message of the album: it’s a tough life, especially when your friends are far away. But when those friends are all in one place, it’s a celebration of life. And with the hope of those future meetings in place, we press on.

Latitudes and Longitudes is what happens when four men at the top of their game get together and think hard about how to best use their skills. This is easily one of the best of ’11 in any genre, and I’ll be listening to this long into ’12. Do yourself a favor and check it out.

Quick Hits: Nathan Leigh

December 2, 2010

Nathan Leigh’s glitch ep features “Let’s Get Lost (Alternate Mix),” whose soaring melody and piano-led pensiveness stuck in my head for several weeks. If Owl City absorbed some Transatlanticism-era Death Cab moods, he’d be making moving tunes like “Let’s Get Lost,” as Nathan Leigh operates in a similar electronic pop idiom (but without much of the kitsch and bubblegum).

The rest of the tunes fare decently, but none stand out in the long run. Many of them are heavy on the glitchy production of the name, and the heavy static hits hurt my enjoyment of them. “Breathing in Fast” is an exception, an upbeat pop song that evokes Cobra Starship or Like Clockwork. Overall, it’s decent, with a shining star among the rest.

Papermoons steal a shtick but make it tick

April 21, 2010

Death Cab for Cutie did not write an album between The Photo Album and Transatlanticism that spanned the gap between the dreamy, distorted qualities of the former and the humble, direct pop of the latter. They just pretty much abandoned one for the other. It’s not an issue any more, though; Papermoons’ New Tales fills the gap with eerie precision.

Matt Clark’s voice is exactly the same as Ben Gibbard’s in pitch, tone, and inflection. His songs fluctuate between fuzzed-out indie bliss and knocked-out indie sadness, much in the DCFC way. I am not kidding or exaggerating: this sounds like a lost Death Cab record.

And I think it’s awesome. There are people who will hate it because of that, but I am glad this record exists.

“Bad Notes” features a calmly picked acoustic guitar, far-off harmonica, high-pitched pad synths and hushed vocals for an incredibly intimate listening experience. The lazy stops and starts of “Holy Cow” make me feel as if I’ve stumbled into Clark’s bedroom after he just woke up. “Car Lights” slows it down even farther, making each chord into a gift. It’s gorgeous. There’s no other real term for it.

The ten songs of New Tales are completely and totally devoid of bravado, irony, posturing, anger, grittiness, psychedelic tendencies, or noise. They are full of lush orchestrations, honest performances, beautiful melodies and a sense of wonder. This album doesn’t break new ground, but it does claim the ground it’s on for its own. Whether or not you’re excited about these particular claimgrabbers depends on your feelings toward Death Cab. I like it a lot.

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