Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Some CMJ’ers: Brook Pridemore / Blake Brown

October 24, 2014

brookpridemore

I tell every band that will listen that the long press cycle is a real thing. You’ve gotta get content out there at periodic and consistent intervals so that press people remember that you’re there and then therefore tell their readers. This means dribbling out content in ways that don’t necessarily fit with the last 30 or so years of music history (but actually fit real nicely with methods of the 30 before that; truly nothing is new under the sun).

There is no one who is a champ at this more than Brook Pridemore (person and band). Between 11 videos, a teaser EP, and a live release that started all the way back in early 2013, I feel like I’ve been listening to Gory Details for years already because I have. At its worst this could produce burnout, but with Brook it basically just makes me love the album. I mean, who doesn’t like an album where you can sing along with half of the songs the first time you press play?

It helps that Brook Pridemore’s work perfectly matches my favorite styles of music. Gory Details starts with the energetic strum of folk-punk, layers on impressively thoughtful lyrics sung via infectious indie-pop vocal melodies, then arranges the whole thing with an excellent band and even some horns. It’s like Andrew Jackson Jihad mellowed out into The Mountain Goats with some Josh Ritter thrown in for good measure (“Damage Control”). The weird way I’ve heard this album kind of skews the review: my favorite tracks are the tracks that were already my favorites. “Oh, E!” is tons of hyperactive, travelogue fun with an earworm melody; “Listening to TPM” is awesome for its horns as well as its tight control of mood. “Celestial Heaven or Leap of Faith” has a great instrumental hook and an urgent vibe throughout; the intelligent set of lyrics make it seem somewhat like a super-powered version of a Johnny Flynn song. “Brother Comfort,” one of the more aggressive tracks here (and new to me), is also fun in its neat complexity.

Gory Details is, above all things, a ton of fun. Brook Pridemore has a lot of things going for them on this album, and all the complex pieces have come together to make an album that transcends them all. Great lyrics, mature vocal control, excellent production job, solid contributing rhythm section; all of it comes together to make tracks like “Oh, E!” seemingly obvious songs: when has this not existed? When was it not amazing? To steal a song title, no one belongs here more than you. Of course you’re one of my favorite songs. Of course you are. You always were, as soon as I knew you existed. You need more Brook Pridemore in your life.

You can get more Brook Pridemore by going to his CMJ set at Muchmore’s in Brooklyn on Saturday.

blakebrown

Maybe it’s the World Series, but there’s all sorts of baseball metaphors I can make about Blake Brown and the American Dust Choir‘s Three EP. The band’s straightahead alt-country could be called a fastball straight down the pipe, because you know exactly what you’re going to get and you can smash a home run off it. You could also call it a change-up, since the band prefers mid-tempo, Jayhawks-style work as opposed to the hectic Old ’97s style. If I were really reaching, I could point out there are only a few baseball teams left that use organ as prominently as Blake Brown’s outfit does.

The first two tracks of the three-song outing are the sort of pedal steel/harmonica/organ/acoustic guitar fare that is most recognizable as ’90s-era alt-country. The band doesn’t give in to Wilco-style minimalism or Drive-by Truckers’ rock-oriented guitar walls; they just stay in the pocket and do their work on vocal vehicle “Get Out.” The band is tight and clean throughout the track, notably so. The band gets a little funky on “White Rose” (check those Wurlitzers!). But the standout here is the subdued, late-night mope “Surrender (La Di Da),” which allows Brown to show off his melodic sensibilities and nuanced arrangements. Brown and co. manage to glue me to the track that never gets faster than a mosey and never raises louder than speaking voice through a beautiful electric guitar tone, distant droning organ, and thoughtful percussion.

If you’re in the market for some alt-country at CMJ, I’d look up Blake Brown on Saturday at Wicked Willy’s. (He’ll be there with M. Lockwood Porter, too!)

Don’t fear the country: Zachary Lucky’s ballads will appeal to any fan of acoustic music

March 18, 2014

zacharylucky

Some people are allergic to the term “country”–I admit that I used to be one of these people when I started Independent Clauses. But in the decade since, I’ve come to love the crisp, poignant sincerity of a barebones country track. Zachary Lucky’s The Ballad of Losing You is about as perfect a recreation of that old-school, lonesome country sound as you’re going to find. (Although–It’s entirely possible that this wasn’t what country sounded like, and this is merely what we imagined country sounded like, but I digress.)

Yes, Lucky is as country as they come, even as he tries to apply an asterisk: cowboy hat, the word “ballad” in the title, and pedal steel applied liberally. He even lists his Bandcamp bio as “the laureate of the lonesome song.” Yet he stops short of calling it country–maybe because he doesn’t like the term, but maybe because this will appeal to tons more people if they don’t have to feel like they’re listening to country. Lucky’s smooth voice, delicate arrangements, and calm moods were recorded directly to tape (!), which means that this has all sorts of atmosphere and heart in it. Fans of music as disparate as Damien Jurado, Wilco, Once, and Death Cab for Cutie will all find Lucky’s songwriting to be absolutely irresistible.

Each one of these songs are breathtaking in their stark beauty, but “Merry Month of May,” “Ramblin Man’s Lament,” and “After All the Months We’ve Shared” are memorable in their vocal performances. Lucky’s dusky baritone can carry several hatfuls of emotion in its impressive range; Lucky is an experienced hand, and never pushes his voice to where it can’t go. These songs just seem to spill out of him fully formed, as if he doesn’t have to try to make this happen. The performances are so comfortable as to seem effortless; that’s a rare feat.

If you’re into acoustic music of any stripe, Zachary Lucky’s The Ballad of Losing You is an album you need to hear. It’s a calming album, impressive in its impeccable songwriting and spot-on arrangements. You can sit back with a beer and listen to this all the way through with ease. Highly recommended.

The Brixton Riot pays attention, and it pays dividends

June 13, 2012

I don’t listen to a lot of guitar rock. I liked the singles when guitar rock was big in the early ‘00s, but when the crop of “The” bands died down, I was left with a lot of second-rate stuff that didn’t do it for me. So it was much to my surprise when Palace Amusements by The Brixton Riot (check the “the”!) fell into my lap. It’s straight-up guitar rock, but I couldn’t get the songs out of my head. From the catchy opener “Signal to Noise” to the slow-burning “Pinwheel” to the crunchy “Losing Streak,” I just loved it and I couldn’t really explain why. So I went to the source: Jerry Lardieri, vocalist and a guitarist for the band.

I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that the band is composed of long-time friends who just fell into a rhythm after playing together for a while. “When we started out, it was a lot more jangly. When Matt joined the band–he’s a big Husker Du fan–he brought a much louder drum style,” Lardieri said. There is still some jangle to be had, as “Hipster Turns 30” dials back the distorted charge for a mid-tempo tune. But on the whole, the drums and guitars go hard: their attack on “Canvas Shoes” is matched by a passionate vocal performance, while rambunctious performances are posted for both in the country-flavored “Carmelita.”

“ We’re big Wilco fans, from before Wilco got into the experimental stuff. We’re big fans of A.M. and Summerteeth,” explained Lardieri. But through the course of our talk, Lardieri mentioned The Jam, The Buzzcocks, Curtis Mayfield, The Afghan Whigs, Dinosaur Jr. and even Oasis—which gets a humorous shout-out in “Carmelita.”

That track plays a pretty pivotal role in Palace Amusements. The song numerically kicks off the second half of the album, and it’s a big connector track.The powerful “Pinwheel” and wry “Hipster Turns 30” don’t flow neatly into the upbeat rockers “Ocean Avenue” and “Strange Matter,” so “Carmelita” fills the gap. “There was a lot of argument about how to organize the record,” Lardieri said, noting that the band went back and forth with a number of configurations. They each made changes to the order before settling on a “definitive mix,” and it shows: the album flows neatly through moods while keeping an earnest, passionate feel throughout.

It’s detailed touches like that one which ultimately draw me to Palace Amusements: from easter egg lyrics to song order to repeated revisions of the songs (including cutting a whole intro to a tune because it didn’t work in the context of the album), the band put an unusual amount of effort into making the album work. It’s one thing to have great songs, like Brixton Riot does; it’s quite another in this fast-paced media age to thoughtfully, painstakingly, carefully perfect an album.

There’s plenty of great hooks and guitar riffs to be had within the twelve tracks of Palace Amusements, and that was what hooked me. But the members of The Brixton Riot appreciate the album experience, and that’s what keeps me coming back to this satisfying experience.

The Typist's Midwestern rock and lyrics resonate

January 11, 2012

With that big ‘ol space in my heart for pop-punk, I am drawn by charging guitars and restless youth sounding Whitman’s “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” It’s not pop-punk, but The Typist‘s Midwestern High Life has both in spades.

The Oklahoma four-piece’s debut has a lot of promise in it, as well as a lot of homages to their influences (hello, cover art). And although they also mention “the taxman” in the almost-title track “Midwest,” their love of the Beatles is more in connection with their dedication to the hard work of songwriting than any particular musical inferences. Their songs temper the pop-punk tropes of uncontrollable enthusiasm and huge guitar sound with a dose of determined populism that lands the band close to both the wide-open Midwestern rock sound (old-school Wilco, Mellencamp, Horse Thief) and Midwestern folk lyrical tradition (Woody Guthrie, Bob “People forget I’m from rural Minnesota” Dylan, etc.).

The melodies are appropriately huge; it sounds like the members know how to rile up a crowd. “Gone Gone Gone” features rumbling toms, blaring organ and group vocals, while opener “Let Me Live” employs the same basic elements but with a bell kit on top of it for charm. The verses of the latter cut to tom rolls, sleigh bells and nakedly honest vocals, and I am not kidding when I say they make me miss Oklahoma something fierce. It’s a dangerous move for a band to put its best track first, but man, “Let Me Live” absolutely knocks it out from the get go.

Their aforementioned populist strain is on full display: “All I know is the American Dream / All I know is what I see on TV / All I know is the American Dream / All I know is what I can’t reach” in “Connecticut to Paris (I Don’t Know)”; “The taxman came to my home / Said we might have to foreclose / But I said this is where I’ve spent my whole life” in “Midwest”; and “My God I’ve got to find a better way / Before I suffer Gatsby’s fate” in “Gone Gone Gone.” If you dig it, you dig it – that’s all there is to it.

The Typist is a young band composed of seasoned vets, and it shows: their careful attention to detail in the arrangements allows the entire album to flow in one consistent mood. This is a double-edged sword: it’s easy to hear in one sitting, but it’s a bit tough to distinguish between songs toward the end of the album. As individual tracks, nearly every song works, but they all work for the same exact reason. As the band grows over time and gets more comfortable with its chemistry, I expect some more melodic and rhythmic variation. This will greatly improve the overall experience and produce some even more interesting tunes.

Midwestern High Life is quite a rocking start for The Typist. I thoroughly expect to hear more from this outfit, as their energy, passion, and understanding of both historical lyrics and songwriting have me excited.

Colorfeels' lush indie-rock wears many masks

July 8, 2011

ColorfeelsSyzygy is pretty much a primer of indie rock circa 2011: Grizzly Bear’s rustic qualities (“Pretty Walk,” “Be There”), Fleet Foxes’ harmonies (“Mirrored Walls”), Vampire Weekend’s triumphant afro-beat rhythms and textures (“Unplanned Holiday”), alt-country (“Fun Machine”), Bishop Allen’s quirky enthusiasm (the clarinet in “Fun Machine”), Generationals’ perky bass contributions (everywhere) and The Dirty Projectors’ free-flowing song styles (everywhere again). Thankfully, the band eschewed the currently en vogue garage rock recording style for an immaculately clear one.

It’s this pristine engineering that saves this from being a pastiche; even if you’ve heard all of these sounds before, they sound incredibly gorgeous coming from Colorfeels. The clarinet and piano on “Be There” may call up notions of everyone from Wilco to the Beatles, but the sound is so striking that you may not care (or even really notice). This is true of almost every tune — with the exception of “Zenzizenzizenzic,” whose shameless Muse appropriation feels totally out of place. I really enjoyed Syzygy on my first listen, but several minutes later I couldn’t remember anything about it except that I wanted to hear those pretty songs again. And they are very pretty.

After a half-dozen listens with the same ending thoughts (which is saying something — this debut is an hour long), I realized that Colorfeels has no signature. This album is gorgeous and almost infinitely malleable, but there’s not a single thing that screams COLORFEELS WAS HERE!

It should be noted that there aren’t any gimmicks to make it look like the band has a stamp (see aforementioned garage rock). For this they should be lauded; they are not hiding anything. They are what they are, and they let you hear that. That is admirable.

Syzygy is a mesmerizing indie-rock album that wears a lot of masks. Whether or not this was the intent is something only the members of Colorfeels can say. But I would love to see a group of instrumentalists and songwriters this talented explore one area of songwriting more thoroughly and place their stamp on music. It’s comforting and familiar, but there’s more to music than that.

Country with an indie spin creates a stir

September 14, 2009

I like country music, and I’m glad that the number of indie-rockers in country bands (which, really, is what an alt-country band is) is growing. In addition to the obligatories (Wilco, Jayhawks, Old 97s; you can’t really say the phrase alt-country without mentioning them), the late Drag the River (and the rest of Suburban Home Records’ artists), Clem Snide, 500 Miles to Memphis, and now Any Day Parade have crossed my path and made it okay for me to say “I like country music.”

Yes, Any Day Parade is undeniably country. They have the walking bass, the distinctly country guitar tone, and the shuffling drums. There’s harmonies galore: males harmonizing male leads, females harmonizing male leads, males harmonizing female leads, and duets where both are equally important. In fact, if this weren’t all delivered with sneer, grit and adrenaline, this album would be a straight-up country record.

But the sneer, grit and adrenaline take what could be a flat country palate and transform it. It’s not even a heavy edge of adrenaline (not like 500 Miles to Memphis’ liberal application of the double pedal), sneer (Clem Snide has them way beat), or grit (there’s plenty of bands that have them covered on the gritty front), but their combination is just the right mix. It’s the desperation in the female lead’s voice in “Where We Fall” and “Water Bucket”; it’s the ominous overtones to “Water Bucket.” It’s the almost-too-honest lyrics of “A Couple Hours.” It’s all these little moments and parts that take Any Day Parade from just your average country band to one that you want to blast with your windows down on a lonely highway.

So, it’s hard to explain exactly why Where We Fall EP is so good. It just is. There’s nothing innovative here; they’re just great songwriters and passionate performers. This is good music, without any gimmicks. It’s worth your time, if you’re the least bit interested in country (or expanding your musical tastes).

Tom Brosseau will live well with Posthumous Success

August 14, 2009

Listening to  Tom Brosseau‘s Posthumous Success was definitely something of a surprise for me. A singer-songwriter folk artist hailing from North Dakota, Brosseau has been releasing albums since 2002, this one being his eighth. What surprised me is how someone with such talent has flown under the radar for so long.

Posthumous Success is a winding odyssey of an album, with music that sounds like it should be accompanying road trips or, as it was for me the first time I listened to it, gloriously long walks on a pleasant evening. Brosseau’s sound is best described like a mix of Pete Yorn, Bright Eyes’ Connor Oberst and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. However, the music just feels hard to nail down and describe. It comes at you with a sort of joyful sorrow, as the songs can sound both ecstatic and melancholy at the same time.

While the album sticks very much in a folk/indie-rock style, there’s a remarkable amount of diversity with variances in instrumentation and mood. From the opening, “My Favorite Color Blue” with its simple vocals and acoustic guitar, to the distortion and synth of  “You Don’t Know My Friends,” Brosseau avoids the monotony that can often overtake artists that perform in a similar genre. These songs are all individually noticeable and manage to avoid blending together, a failing that regular readers will know that I particularly dislike.

Brosseau’s voice can take a little getting used to, and some might be turned off from it. His voice is full of tremolo and wavering, as if he could just stop and cry at any moment. The best comparison I can think of to this is Connor Oberst.

Musically, Brosseau shows off his talents well, as he is an accomplished guitarist. The acoustic work on “My Favorite Color Blue” is excellent, and I never felt that the song could use more instrumentation. Likewise, “Youth Decay,” an instrumental track that features only one electric guitar, is oddly moving in its use of minor chords.  Brosseau also smartly uses instrumental tracks like “Youth Decay” and “Miss Lucy” to transition one song from another, using similar instrumentation to make them flow better into one another. “Miss Lucy,” in fact, sounds like an extended outro for “Give Me A Drumroll,” yet doesn’t sound out of place right before “Axe & Stump.”

Anyone who appreciates smart songwriting or indie-folk would probably enjoy Posthumous Success greatly. Brosseau has a great amount of talent and the album displays it well. Standouts include “My Favorite Color Blue,” “Give Me a Drumroll,” “Axe & Stump,” and “Wishbone Medallion.” The track “Been True” is actually available right now via iTunes’ Facebook page in its “Indie Spotlight Sampler.” I’d recommend checking it out.

Ringer T refines their Midwestern sound to a T

April 20, 2009

For those of you who have never heard Ringer T, Hello, Goodbye is the perfect introduction to their folk-laden, Americana rock sound. Unfortunately, the things that make this album such a good primer also bring up some potential problems for the future.

There are few bands that sound more genuinely American than Ringer T. Their deeply Midwestern sound incorporates a heavy dose of Paul Simon-esque pop songwriting, folksy drumming and strumming, old school rock n’ roll, some country twang, and a large amount of earnestness in the vocals. It may sound like a lot going on, but it never is. In fact, these songs are very easy to listen to. The first time I listened to this album, I felt like I had known these songs forever. They are comfortable to the ear; the songwriters have crafted songs with structures that never feel cliche but still  make pleasant use of resolution and familiar chords.

One of the reasons that the songs sound so familiar is that at least four out of the ten tracks have been previously recorded on Ringer T albums or EPs. While this is mildly frustrating for veteran listeners, it brings no hindrance to those who are listening for the first time. They get to hear the best tracks of Ringer T, without any of the filler or weaker tracks.

The problem lies in that even though the four old tracks are re-recorded, they still fit perfectly into Hello, Goodbye. Ringer T is not growing. While they have refined their craft to a razor-sharp edge (the new version of “Cut the Cords” makes mincemeat of the old version in terms of precision, clarity and power), they haven’t pushed the musical envelope at all with Hello, Goodbye. The songs are great; any first time listener that gets past Grant Geertsma’s voice is going to be enamored with Ringer T. But if Ringer T puts out many more albums in this distinct motif, they’re going to run into problems.

One thing they can do is stop writing about breakups; it seems that every Ringer T song is based on the same traumatic breakup. There is a long-standing American pop music tradition of writing about breakups, but Ringer T practices this tradition without respite (except for the still-mildly-depressing “Where I Long to Go”). Even Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen, We are Floating in Space (one of the most despondent breakup albums ever) has upbeat moments in it that have nothing to do with the relationship. Ringer T needs to break out of their funk and move on to new things in their lives, musically and lyrically.

There is strong evidence that Hello, Goodbye will be the culmination of this era of Ringer T’s musical life. They have refined their deeply affecting and superbly crafted folk/pop/rock to a T. If they use this album as a springboard to better and bigger things, they have a bright future ahead of them. If they keep rehashing their formula, they will only get so far. I hope that they have some tricks up their sleeve for the next release. In the meantime, Hello, Goodbye is highly recommended for fans of Wilco, Ryan Adams, the Jayhawks, Damien Jurado, The Elected and Neil Young.

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.

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