Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Xoë Wise / Scout Niblett

July 16, 2013

breakfast

I have several friends and relatives who are seriously into Ke$ha. Like, not just “bought the album” into it, but “this album is the soundtrack to my life” and/or “Seriously, listen to all of the songwriting moves on this track” into it. I have listened to Warrior in its entirety, and I like some of it, but it just doesn’t connect with me. I never thought I would find anything that bridged the gap between earnest, up-front electro-pop and singer/songwriter. Then Xoë Wise‘s Breakfast EP happened to me.

I say “happened to me” because it’s not very often that a release broadsides my expectations. I first heard Wise as a pensive acoustic singer/songwriter in 2012. Her new EP Breakfast still has a strong acoustic element, but it’s mashed up with some very svelte electro elements. And that’s real cool. Opener “Too Young” features rapper Nikki Lynette for a few bars amid a clicking beat, grumbling bass synths, and Wise’s calm alto speak/sing. It’s highly unexpected and really fun to listen to. Follow-up “Brunch” is an R&B jam that keeps with the intriguing minimalist production and introduces a clean electric guitar, bringing back a rooted sound I’m familiar with from Wise.

The title track brings Breakfast even closer to the singer/songwriter sound I know, but places it in the context of the clever production that underlines this EP. It’s a brilliant move, turning what could be an average female-fronted acoustic tune into a fascinating part of a continued melodic statement. People only try this sort of prolonged consistency on an album, when they have the time to expound on themes and sounds; Xoë Wise knocks the artistic statement out of the park on a five-track EP. The songwriting and Ethan Stoller‘s production work together seamlessly to really create something unique. By the time that album highlight “Toyota” rolls around, the no-frills acoustic tune fits perfectly into the mood, even without electronic elements. It’s the heart of the EP, showing that Wise and Stoller know how to craft consistency with or without a dominant musical palette. That’s a surprising versatility.

The EP concludes with a sad little jam called “Cigarette Break” that gives closure to the EP in the same way that a rough morning is a fitting end to the crazy night before. The whole EP shines, pointing out different facets of Wise’s sound in exciting and interesting ways. It took me a little bit to adjust my expectations for Breakfast, but after I did, what I found was delicious and highly recommended. (Couldn’t get out without a food pun.)

itsuptoemma

I’m new to Scout Niblett‘s work, so I don’t have anything to say about how this work fits into her decade-plus of previous releases. I can note, however, that the ghost of Jason Molina hovers lightly over It’s Up to Emma. The solitary, forlorn guitar crunch that so endeared me to Songs: Ohia is the main weapon in Niblett’s arsenal, from opener “Gun” to the is-that-Molina-in-the-strings heaviness of “My Man” to the eerie, haunting cover of “No Scrubs.” Niblett’s voice is wrenching and occasionally howling, drawing out every ounce of emotion from the pipes that she’s working with. This is intense stuff, pulled from quiet, sparse elements that hardly seem able to create such an atmosphere. It’s not a surprise to me that a split 7″ with Songs:Ohia from 2001 is the first thing in her discography.

The same disclaimer I gave to all those trying out Molina’s work applies here: the songs are long, melancholy, and unaccommodating. (Although, some quick research shows that this may be her most approachable work in a while, which is kind of impressive and makes me wonder what the other stuff was like). New listeners are about to submerge in a fully realized world where gut-wrenching minimalism is not something come by accidentally. These songs are supposed to sound like that, and if you’re not down with that, then there are other things to listen to. As it stands, Niblett’s highly specialized brand of sadness is honed to a fine point on It’s Up to Emma. Some will rejoice (while being sad, in keeping with the album’s theme); some will be sad, because they’d rather rejoice. Both are acceptable responses to an uncompromising, fully-realized record.

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

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