Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

The Roving Ear

November 3, 2018

You can listen to many of the pieces and artists that I mention in this essay at a Spotify list of the same nameThis essay comes as a product of a two-month sabbatical.

I love new music and writing. As a result, Independent Clauses has almost always been a blog that professionally covers the new music which I am listening to recreationally. When the music I’m listening to diverges from what I’m writing about at Independent Clauses, I shift the blog’s focus to draw my recreational listening and my writing back into line. This process is always happening at a micro level. When you’ve been running a blog for fifteen years, though, your micro changes can add up to quite a bit of change. This original scope of this blog included hardcore and emo bands prominently; our current iteration is focused mostly on indie-pop, folk, and neo-classical work. I have slowly, continually shaved off the louder edges of the reviewable range, while simultaneously pushing the quieter boundary of the reviewable range outwards.

Amid the ever-present micro changes, there has been one major topical change. The only hard departure in IC’s existence corresponds to the only major chronological disjuncture in the largely continuous flow of content over the past fifteen years. In 2008, I caught a massive case of burnout while trying to build out a physical zine for Independent Clauses. I took six months off from posting at IC and returned with a very different focus; I featured post-hardcore wizards The Felix Culpa as the cover band for the Spring 2008 second edition of the Independent Clauses zine, while the work I posted about in January 2009 included indie-pop, singer/songwriter, alt-country, and even jazz musicians. It was a big change.

I feel another large change coming on. I say “feel” because it snuck up on me. I was just living my life, and suddenly I had been listening to things way outside the normal bounds of Independent Clauses for months. Simultaneously, I was listening to folk-pop and indie-pop less. Because I had internalized that this blog was a folk and indie-pop blog, I slowly began to write less at Independent Clauses in proportion to the decreased amount of indie-pop/folk pop I was listening to. Longtime readers will note that there have not been nearly as many album reviews at Independent Clauses in 2018 as there have been in previous years; careful album reviews have been our calling card for many years. Longtime readers may have noticed this before I did, even. It snuck up on me.

This is not folk or indie-pop’s fault; I still love those genres and listen to them often. One of the first articles I’ll be writing after this one is a review of Jenny and Tyler’s new album; if there’s been a through-line in the last decade for IC, it’s J&T. Their new album is great, and it transcends my interest in genres. No, it’s not folk-pop’s fault. As the saying goes: It’s not you, it’s me. After nine years of focus on folk-pop and indie-pop, I’ve largely said what I want to say about those two genres. I can write fairly fine-grained descriptions of songs and albums with great rapidity, having hundreds of albums and thousands of songs’ worth of experience at the tasks. But this mastery is a double-edged sword: I’m not particularly intellectually stimulated by folk-pop, indie-pop and their relatives anymore. I have been intellectually stimulated by a wide range of new-to-me genres and sounds over the past year, though. So while I won’t be dropping folk, folk-pop, and indie-pop cold turkey, I am and will be focusing my musical attention on genres outside the IC norm that have been catching my ear and intellectual attention. With that concrete and specific shift in my recreational listening, a change in the topical content of Independent Clauses is a necessary response.

So what I have been listening to that I’m so captivated by? I’ve become taken with a fairly wide variety of longform instrumental music. The range is wide: mid-century minimalism, ambient, progressive house, instrumental trance, chillwave, instrumental acoustic work, acoustic post-rock, indie video game soundtracks, podcast soundtracks, and a post-metal track here and there. (I’ve also been really into Tshegue, but their African dance/garage rock/rap is an outlier in my current musical habits.) Some of my favorites this year have been Lucho Ripley’s discographyThe Album Leaf’s whole discography (minus the newest album, ironically), Split Stones by Lymbyc System (2015), Diminuito by Rolf Lislevand Ensemble (2018; h/t my good friend and collaborator Chris Krycho for this one), Oliver Davis’ discography (ditto), Jack de Quidt’s Marielda (2016; h/t my geek-out partner Jeff Hinton), and Spotify playlists of instrumental trance music. I work really well to playlists of instrumental trance music, incidentally.

I didn’t wake up at the beginning of my recent two-month sabbatical or even January 1 of this year with a sudden musical change of heart. This change began at least four years ago when I discovered the fascinating Become Ocean by John Luther Adams. The discovery of mid-century modernist classic “Canto Ostinato” by Simeon ten Holt three years ago really kicked off a burst of interest in this type of work. Both of these works fall in the classical/neo-classical genre; they are works the aforementioned Chris Krycho would prefer that I (and you) call “composed music.” There’s a great deal of contemporary composed music (both of recent history, such as that of Simeon ten Holt, and true-contemporary, the things being released in the last five years) that I am very interested in.

I’ve also recently admitted to myself a fascination with ambient work, which will be no surprise to close readers of this blog: I’ve been a fan of Teen Daze for many years and seem to get more excited about the work of Jamison (the musician behind Teen Daze) the quieter it gets. His latest venture as Jamison Isaak is fascinating, although Spring Patterns 1 may be too minimalist even for me. The joining of ambient and synthesized music has led me in the last year to the excellent modular synthesizer work of ann annie and r beny. These types of sounds have made cameos–increasingly large cameos, but bit parts nonetheless–in Independent Clauses’ coverage over the past few years. I’m ready to make them the focus of what I’m writing.

My changed music listening habits have contributed to this change in musical styles. I have a commute on the shorter side now, and thus have less mandatory solo music-listening time. I’ve also taken up listening to the Bible on my morning commute, further cutting into my new-music-listening time. Instead, I listen to a lot of new music while I work, and music without words is much easier to listen to while working. I used to listen to, think about, and draft reviews of new music while on long runs; now I lift weights, which requires me to think and focus on the activity instead of letting my mind wander. I still listen to music though; I listen to pg.lost quite a bit, and I created a workout list for myself. It’s one of the few times I’ve ever made a workout list in my life. (h/t Chris Krycho again for the pg.lost recommendation.) I will hold a torch for the iPod–I love you forever, you were truly The Perfect Thing–but I have been swayed to streaming services. I tried Apple Music and found their playlist creation tools hard to use. That forced me over to Spotify, with which I’ve made an uneasy truce. Having an astonishing supply of music at my fingertips allows me to explore and investigate quirky corners of sound and rabbit trails of artists, and that’s been a lot of fun. I found Lymbyc System that way; they are fantastic.

With a change in the type of music I’m into and a change in my musical listening habits comes a nigh-on mandatory shift in the way I work here in creating IC content. For the greater part of the last decade, I’ve spent 10-45 minutes a day reading Independent Clauses emails and listening to the new music contained in those emails. Because I have a depth of experience with folk, folk-pop, and indie-pop, I can determine my interest level for many songs in under 30 seconds. This allows me to power through dozens and dozens of emails at massive speed; I can discard stuff I know I won’t like, quickly evaluate stuff I might like, and file stuff I know I’m going to like very quickly.

My new interest in longform music foils this expectation in multiple ways. The first is that longform music might not accomplish much of anything in 30 seconds, regardless of whether it’s mindblowingly amazing or completely derivative: the Pulitzer Prize-winning Become Ocean was the first touchstone in this major musical shift, and the first 30 seconds of the piece produce almost no sound at all. The second reason is that I have no mental shortcuts built up for this music; the cues that I look for in a folk song to let me know what’s going to happen in a minute or three or five aren’t built up yet for these new musical genres. The third reason is that with a few exceptions, I’m not currently on the email lists of people who would send me music like this. (Smalltown Supersound, Fluttery Records, and Home Normal Records are the major exceptions here.) These three concepts working together are a significant part of the reason that I haven’t been posting much at IC in the last few months before my two-month sabbatical; in the last few months I haven’t really known what I’d post about, how I’d post about it, or exactly how I’d find it. I hadn’t and haven’t figured out how to square this new stuff I’m really into with the old way of working. I need a new way of working, but I don’t have it yet.

It’s not that I haven’t picked a new way of working, it’s that I don’t quite know what I mean yet by working differently. I know that the singles review form that I’ve come to enjoy so much as a constraint and a medium doesn’t seem like it’s going to work very well for this music. In exploring works that don’t conform to the traditional EP/album format, I’ve found that these works call for different types of writing than the album review format that I, again, have loved as a medium and constraint over the past 15 years.

One of the biggest changes is related to how I find things to listen to. I haven’t been checking Independent Clauses email for a month while I sorted some of this stuff out in my brain; I find that I miss the relationships I’ve built up with bands, record labels, and PR people over the years, but I don’t miss checking the email. I use the time for other things, like staying up on professional news or getting more work in or not checking emails in the evening. The complication is that the content of Independent Clauses has been tied to a never-ending font of new music via those emails for almost the entirety of its existence. In its stead, I’ve been roving through Spotify, listening to things that span the last 60 years in genres that I haven’t heard. So it’s new-to-me music, but it’s not chronologically new music. This change alone would be enough to tilt Independent Clauses on its axis; I’ve been a fairly staunchly consistent purveyor of music-that-has-been-released-in-this-current-calendar-year for the entirety of Independent Clauses’s existence.

The reputation, professional relationships, and readership of the blog (insofar as all those exist; I’ve never been a big fish in the music blogging world and, since 2009, I have had little desire to be one) are tied to the new music concept. If Independent Clauses continues to be a record of what I’m listening to, then this won’t be a strictly-new-music blog anymore. I would have to come up with a new way of writing that addresses that new exigence: if you’re not reading this post because it’s about something that’s brand new for you to be into, what are you reading it for? Not everyone is as addicted to chronologically new music as I was for many years; it may be that the same people who like chronologically new music like new-to-them music. The point of mentioning this is that I, by dint of long experience in the old way of working, really have no way of knowing if that statement is true or not. Maybe people like new-to-them music but not the new-to-them music IC would recommend, especially as I get up to speed in some genres by listening to stuff most people knowledgeable in the genres would already know about. (i.e. I now have opinions on Armin Van Buuren, you may have heard of him? all the trance fans groan) Who can say? Let’s find out.

By saying I need a new way of working, I mean it–this isn’t a little change. This is a change on par with the 2008-2009 change. We’re going somewhere new.

However, because I don’t quite know where it is we’re going and what it is we’re doing, we’re not going to start doing whatever that is 100% and dropping everything else cold turkey. I’m still going to write about Jenny and Tyler, no matter what form this blog takes–their music is intellectually stimulating to me, no matter what type of work I’m writing about consistently. So there’s going to be some folk and folk-pop and indie-pop in here over the next few months and maybe even years. But as I go along further into that great future, I expect those topics to appear less and less as I get more and more acquainted with the sounds I’m interested in now.

In some ways, it’s very exciting to be starting to focus on that which is for Independent Clauses uncharted territory. I’ve been getting really excited about Lymbyc Systym’s Split Stones and Jack de Quidt’s Marielda, so much so that I’ve been texting and chatting gushing recommendations to friends about them. This is a sure sign that I’ve caught on to something I like. It’s fun to be excited and naive about new sounds.

In other ways, it’s a bit disorienting; leaving behind mastery is leaving behind a source of personal pride, professional fulfillment, and social status. None of my quotes about the composed music that I am geeking out about these days are going to end up on PR emails anytime soon, and that’s a small joy that I will miss. I will know a ton about folk conceptually but will have increasingly little to say about individual acts that will be to me suddenly and unexpectedly popular. I’ll be out of that game, even if I have my head in another game. It’s a little like retiring from one sport and picking up another. (Is Usain Bolt a potentially good soccer player? I digress.)

As I’ve been kicking these thoughts around for the last few months before and during my sabbatical, I’ve wondered about the future of Independent Clauses. Since the great refocusing of 2008-2009, I’ve never really considered shutting down the blog. It has become a part of my life so deeply that it’s almost a part of me. Independent Clauses has been in my life longer than any friend I talk to on a regular basis, and all but two of my distant we-would-be-better-friends-if-we-lived-closer-to-each-other friends. It’s been around longer than my marriage, longer than any address I’ve ever lived at, longer than my current career path, longer than pretty much everything except my nuclear family relationships and my faith in Christianity. Even in the midst of this big upheaval, I still haven’t considered shutting it down. It’s a whole other essay’s worth of content to delineate what Independent Clauses brings to my life, but there are a lot of personal, practical, and professional benefits that I have seen from this blog. Even if those all change as this big re-direction occurs, I feel confident that those benefits will reappear in new ways.

I still don’t know exactly what format I’ll be posting in, or how often I’ll be posting, or exactly what I’ll be posting about. But I know this: I’m excited about it. I’m excited about the changes, more so than I was excited about reading through dozens of emails about folk-pop bands to find the one true gem. And that’s more than enough reason to go through with this big change: it’s going to be a lot of fun. I hope that you will come along for the ride. If this isn’t your cup of tea, maybe you have a friend who might be interested in it.

Technically speaking, I’ll still accept submissions at indieclauses@gmail.com. However, I expect to check the account with much less frequency–maybe once or twice a week, as opposed to every morning first thing in the morning and last thing before leaving work. I’ll be sourcing a lot more from my own adventures in music searching, but I won’t be abandoning my knowledge that the easiest way to find something really amazing and new is to maintain an open inbox and strong relationships with people in the know. I’ll probably be a pretty bad premiere partner for the near future, as I don’t quite know how to talk about the stuff I’m geeking out on yet. (But I’d be willing to experiment, if you’d be willing to live with the results!) I’d be thrilled to have people who are interested in this type of longform instrumental music write with me–that’s another way for me to learn. While everything else about IC up to and including my relationship to the former lifeblood of this blog (email) may change in this shift, my enthusiasm for working with other writers shows little sign of diminishing. Let me know if you’re interested.

Thank you to everyone who has supported Independent Clauses in the last 15 years; if this is the last time you read Independent Clauses, I thank you deeply for your attention and your interest. If this is the first time you’ve read Independent Clauses, welcome: we’re a 15-year-old blog about under-appreciated music that’s under new management despite the same manager.

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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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