Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

The Ascetic Junkies pack their indie-folk full of instruments and ideas

January 21, 2011

There are many reasons that people love Neutral Milk Hotel: great songs, brilliant lyrics, perfected moods, indie mainstay, etc. But one thing that people don’t think about as often is how many ideas are jam-packed into its songs. Every moment bursts with riffs, melodies, rhythm and instruments. It’s just entirely unexpected the first (and 40th) time you hear their work.

The Ascetic JunkiesThis Cage Has No Bottom is much the same way. These twelve songs jam more ideas into 40 minutes than some bands have in a discography. Instruments appear and disappear unexpectedly. Tempos suddenly drop, then raise just as quickly. Songs lead you in one direction, only to jerk you in another. This album is an experience, and it only helps its case (at least, here at Independent Clauses) that This Cage Has No Bottom is a post-folk indie-rock album much in the same way that In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is.

It also reminds me of O Fidelis, as the vocal duties are shared between Matt Harmon and Kali Giaritta. They both have voices strong enough to carry a band, so having both of them only makes the album that much stronger. The wildly varied instrumentation only backs up their solid voices, not just including but often pairing banjos, synthesizers, bell kits and mandolin in addition to bass, guitar and drums. It’s an enthusiastic party inside a hip music store.

How hip? “(Don’t) Panic” is a folk/funk song, as they create a supremely get-down dance-floor groove with nothing but acoustic instruments and a clean electric guitar. I mean, there’s a ukulele in it. It doesn’t get cooler than that.

“Get What You Want, Get What You Need” opens as an old-timey bluegrass tune, which sounds great with the guy/girl harmonies. But that’s not enough to be an Ascetic Junkies song. They throw in some celebratory horns, bombastic drums, a laughing section (!) and bluegrass fiddle for good measure. “Crybaby” is a straightforward country-rock stomper that was apparently recorded totally live. You’d never be able to tell – it’s that tight. This band must kill it live.

“God/Devil/Gov’t” is amazing as well. It’s the most intricately constructed tune here, lyrically and musically. The lyrics sing of looking for help wherever it will come from, and rejecting those sources of help if they fail. The satirical tune punctuates the proceedings with a refrain of “Hallelujah!”, which making various points about the organizations mentioned through different instrument and mood choices in the particular verses. I’m telling you, it’s amazing.

I could go on for much longer about this album, but it would be overkill. If you like indie-rock with acoustic guitars and horns featured prominently in the mix, you’re gonna love the Ascetic Junkies’ This Cage Has No Bottom. It’s one of my top ten of 2010, for sure. There’s just nothing as well written, performed and produced in indie-folk this year. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.

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

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