Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

La Strada makes energetic folk-infused indie rock with a small orchestra in tow

May 9, 2010

I came into an appreciation of folk music at about the same time the folk revival was beginning to gain prominence (roughly four or five years ago). I was finally lucky enough to catch a thing at its peak; it seems I always go back and discover the goodness of a thing after the fact (point: I saw Death Cab for Cutie on their Plans tour, the Mountain Goats on their Get Lonely tour, Coldplay on its X&Y tour, and Guster on its Ganging up on the Sun tour; all of which were one album after their best album). But this time, I’m on the edge with the rest of the people rocking out to Mumford and Sons, because folk finally reclaimed energy.

La Strada’s New Home does Mumford and Sons one better. Instead of just being a folk band on speed (which, as M+S’s immense popularity shows, is quite alright), they’re a folk band on speed eating an indie band. It’s like gentler Beirut with a guy who can sing; it’s like Arcade Fire with acoustic guitars. This album is so incredibly hip and current that I’m afraid I’m not cool enough to review it. But I reject that notion, because the songs are brilliant. These songs aren’t just for the cool; they’re for people who like anything related to pop music.

“The Traveler” features a bouncy drum line, a mini-orchestra and a jaunty vocal line. The smooth quality of the vocals is immensely reassuring from the beginning of the album; he has the best elements of many different vocalists. His ability to convey emotion without oversinging recalls Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard; his effortless delivery recalls people with gifted voices like Novi Split’s David Jerkovich. The fact that he meshes so well with the band makes me think of the National, even though their voices seem separated by (several?) octaves.

The ragged yet gentle rhythms of “The Traveler,” plus the immensely reverbed guitar solo, strings, trumpets, tubas, and keys make for a richly ornamented, impossible-to-dislike song. There’s tons going on here, but as in an Anathallo song, it all works together. Even when they kill the beat, punch up the accordion and turn the song into a Parisian street waltz (not kidding), it sounds amazing.

Then they kick into “Wash On By,” which brings a indie-rock surge of energy to their still-instrument-heavy mix. This song will make you move, as well as yell and cheer with the band. The rhythms, which are distinctly foreign but not exactly easy to pin down, simply bring the house down. I wish I could be in the audience for a performance of “Wash on By.”

Then there’s the title track, which for once is appropriately chosen. I hate it when bands don’t choose the right title track, but this one is far and away the most memorable track of the album (and you thought I’d lavished all the exuberant praise I had in me? naaa). The song is sparse, but it’s not sparse in the lack of instruments; they use the instruments sparingly, locking them in together to pull a distinct and certain mood out of the tune. The word masterful is not an exaggeration of this tune’s quality.

The whole thing is held together by the vocals, again, which are glorious and command several beautiful melodies. The brass band and strings contribute significantly to this tune. You will be singing “Hello strange familiar, you’re my new home; oh, wha-o, wha-o wha-o.” Trust me, it looks goofy there, but you’ll know exactly what I mean when it happens. You will be powerless to resist it.

My highest praise for an album is “I could write a small book about this album.” And it is very, very true of New Home by La Strada. I didn’t even get to talk about the lyrics, the art, the rest of the tunes (and seriously, that’s a tragedy to me, because “Baptism” and “Where You Want to Go” and “Go Forward” are all wonderful and worthy of covering). All I can say is, for your own good, buy this album. It will improve your mood for weeks.

Run Dan Run creates solid, meaningful acoustic pop

February 15, 2010

Coldplay is the rock band to beat in the world right now. They have consistently excellent songwriting, an adventurous bent that doesn’t allow them to write the same album twice, a fantastic live show, a rabid following, a non-pretentious attitude about most things, and what seems like a genuine love for making music. Although there are bands that have more of each thing (Radiohead fans are more rabid, The Flaming Lips have a top-notch live show, the Mountain Goats have been cranking out consistently excellent songs for almost twenty years, etc), the one category in which they stand out pushes them over the top as the rock band right now. X&Y is as different from Parachutes as they come, and same for A Rush of Blood to the Head and Viva La Vida. They consistently push themselves, and it shows.

I say all this because my first thought when I heard Run Dan Run’s 27 Coming St. EP was, “Whoa. This sounds like Parachutes-era Coldplay!” And then I was struck by how Coldplay is one of the few bands in the world that I would have to specify which album a band sounds like instead of just comparing band to band.

And Run Dan Run’s songs do bear strong resemblance to their Parachutes-era brethren. The songs are a bit more ragged and wild, like Turin Brakes or the most passionate moments of Damien Rice, but the moods between the two albums are very similar. Run Dan Run features piano and acoustic guitar prominently, always having tension between the two as to who is most important. It’s a good tension that provides a neat flair to RDR’s sound.

The only downfall here are the vocals, which are more toward the Bob Dylan/Neutral Milk Hotel ragged school of indie-rock singing rather than the Ben Folds-smooth voice. In several tracks the vocals are just too much, and they detract from the song. “Wasted Love” is a very nice song dragged down by a weak vocal performance. On the other hand, the wild passion invested in the end of closer “Points of Departure” makes the song into what it is, yelling and all. The vocals are a part of listening to RDR, and if you’re not going to be able to enjoy it through the cracks, breaks, and pauses, you should look elsewhere. But if you’re down with bands like Neutral Milk Hotel or newer artists The Tallest Man on Earth or The Rural Alberta Advantage, you’ll be down with Run Dan Run and their grounded acoustic pop in the vein of Parachutes by Coldplay.

Their Planes Will Block Out the Sun have more than just a cool band name

February 9, 2010

Confession: if you have a cool name, I will listen to your band. I listened to White Dancer by Their Planes Will Block Out the Sun because, well, that’s a heck of a lot planes.  Say it out loud. It just flows. See? Undeniably awesome.

Their music fits their name incredibly well, but not in the way I would expect. I expected some brooding, epic post-rock (perhaps only because the names Explosions in the Sky and Their Planes Will Block Out the Sun go together thematically). Instead, I found meticulously-crafted, calculated indie-rock.

The members of Planes have their sound down on this album. They start off with a mood cornerstone, like an arpeggiated guitar riff, a synthesizer, a piano line, or some combination of those. Then they build on it. A snappy, precise drummer adds the backbone of the sound. Buoyant bass lines bring a lot of energy to the otherwise very organized sound. The guitars add a layer of mood, not often strumming consistently. The vocals dispatch the lyrics with a disaffected, almost sinister intonation. When the band takes darker turns, the vocals truly get pointed, but throughout there’s an underlying disdain and sarcasm that comes through in the lyrics and/or the melodies.

The whole sound is incredibly tight. It’s hard to compare to, because none of the comparisons are exactly correct. “The Flood, The Dead, The Escape” brings to mind the Arcade Fire. “How I Learned to Love the Bomb” makes me think Muse. If Coldplay’s X&Y scrubbed the majority of its emotions, the synthesizer-laden interlocking parts would resemble White Dancer. If the epic aspirations and huge guitar washes of OK Computer were removed, the stark, cold sound left might be somewhat akin to Planes. Planes’ songwriting doesn’t match that of either Coldplay or Radiohead (because of the aforementioned parts that would have to be removed for the comparisons to work), but that’s the track that Planes is on. They aren’t making warm, fuzzy pop music; they’re making serious music. They mean it, and it shows.

So, if you’re a fan of any of the aforementioned bands, you will find things to like in Their Planes Will Block Out The Sun. It’s not the most joyous music in the world, but it’s a meticulously crafted, very well-done release. They know their idiom, they have their niche, and they’re churning out the tunes the way they want to. Unique and enjoyable indie-rock.

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of instrumental music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.

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