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Independent Clauses Posts

Harrison Lemke’s Forever Only Idaho is a brilliant rumination on never getting out

Ever since Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois, I have had a fascination with albums about states. In the wake of Sufjan’s failure to complete the project, this fascination grew to the point that I write imagined track lists for state albums that don’t exist.  So I am not exaggerating when I say that the rare album that honors a state or region gives me great joy, such as the Mountain Goats’ All Hail West Texas, Gifts or Creatures’ Fair Mitten (New Songs of the Historic Great Lakes Basin), the oddball crowdsourcing of the Our Fifty States Project, and now Harrison Lemke‘s Forever Only Idaho. The concept of Lemke’s album makes the record one that I want to like, prima facie. Thankfully, Lemke’s songwriting and lyrics repay the desire, as this is an easy candidate for album of the year for me.

I am not the only one enamored with the Mountain Goats’ All Hail West Texas: sonically, Forever Only Idaho is an album that could slot neatly between the aggressively lo-fi All Hail West Texas and the scuzzy, brilliant Tallahassee in the Mountain Goats’ chronology. Lemke’s vocals are sweeter than John Darnielle’s nasal yawp, but the melodic structures and arrangement styles are spot-on for early ’00s tMG. Good news for me, a huge Mountain Goats fan!

The majority of the album is a chipper, mid-fi acoustic indie sound that would be a perfect fit in the early ’00s and in any revival of that sound thereupon. Brilliant opener “Only Idaho, Forever” fits a strummy, lightly jangly guitar line over a perky kit, then adorns it with Lemke’s impassioned vocals. Follow-up “Silverlake” slows the tempo into a croon of sorts and amps up the bass, but overall it’s the same vibe. There’s echoes of the casual indie-country of Clem Snide throughout, most prominently in the charming “Exonerated.” The horns in “Silverlake” are lovely and languid. The only low point in this vein is the overly-affected 2:13 of “Hayden Hello”; if the lyrics weren’t critical for the narrative of the record, the main melodic ideas probably could have been folded into one of the other 8-9 brilliant tunes here in the same sonic vein with little fuss.

Beyond the chipper indie-folk, some well-placed sonic outliers exist: the nostalgic ’80s no-wave of “The Old Band”; the ominous blues-shuffle of “Burn Down the Title Loan”; and the spartan, touching ballad “Missed Connection Blues.”

“Missed Connection Blues” is admirable not just because of its beauty, but because of the poignancy of its lyrics. Lemke is a keen observer and a direct reporter of facts, passing caring but unsparing judgment on the lives of the people who can never quite seem to leave their hometown of Couer D’Alene, Idaho. Lemke currently hails from Austin, but his sudden shift from third-person to first-person in the last line of opus “Your Hometown” strongly suggests that he is also from Kootenai County. A person from a small town can write about this feeling in “Missed Connection Blues” with ease: “This one’s for all our friends who never made it free / never bought a Thunderbird / never went to Italy / never made it free.”

I grew up in a suburb instead of a small town, but nevertheless the lyrics of Forever Only Idaho resonate deeply with me. All of Tulsa, Oklahoma is a giant suburb of nothing, but the southern part is a suburb of that suburb, before you hit the little towns that are literally suburbs: Bixby, Broken Arrow, Owasso, points farther on. To wit, I have lived this exact experience from “Local Business”:

In town for the weekend
wedding of a former friend
and everything has changed again
The stores and bars on Sherman
look just like Portland or Brooklyn;
it’s all been rearranged again.

Furthermore, I could quote you any line of “Visit Beautiful Couer D’Alene” as close to my personal experience. But it’s the epic at the end of the record, the seven-minute (!) “Your Hometown,” that sells this experience most boldly. At the high point, the main character who couldn’t escape town calls out, “”You want to be a city / and I want to be a star / but when you get down to it / that isn’t what we are.” Now that raised the hair on my arms. “Robbie moved to Arizona / Josiah tried out LA / Courtney got married to a Mormon guy / Michael ended in A.A.,” Lemke wistfully notes in “The Old Band.” I’m writing to you from Chandler, Phoenix, Arizona.

While these songs individually speak to my experience, the immaculate structure of the record further lands this record in my heart. “Only Idaho, Forever” opens the record as a perfect thesis statement of what’s going to happen: “Fools with dollar signs for eyes / have been selling you your life / one weekend at a time, saying you’ll go far / but you’re still nowhere, so far.” The 2:19 of the opener is about as tidy a 138 seconds as you can get: distinctive lyrics in the verses, clever chorus, earworm melody, and a clear sense of what the song (and the record) is trying to achieve. The rest of the album spools out various tales of small-town struggle, from a condemnation of materialism as personal meaning in “Silverlake” to a complex relationship with Christianity in “Wonderful Life” to the person still dreaming of getting out of there late in life on the devastatingly-titled “This Is Not the Year.” The songs speak to and improve each other, thematically: consider “Hayden Hello,” “Burn Down the Title Loan,” and “Exonerated,” in that order. After the bulk of the record, “Your Hometown” comes along and re-tells the album, like when Sufjan uses “Impossible Soul” to retell Age of Adz.

But instead of leaving it there, Lemke delivers the title track as the closer. He returns to the chorus structure from “Only Idaho, Forever,” but slows down the tempo so that the last line of the original chorus needs to be held out longer than Lemke can really even hold it. It sounds like his will losing a fight to the limitations of his body, which is pretty much how you end up staying in your hometown. The song becomes a rumination on the infinite loop of life in a small town: “Now Amy’s on the steps, watchful-eyed / seven months with child.”  And that loop is, for some, truly inescapable: “Any fool’s gonna tell you / this is no kind of life / but they don’t know where the echoes go / forever only Idaho.”

Harrison Lemke’s Forever Only Idaho is the culmination of years of “tape-hiss symphonies to God.” The work has paid off: this record is a top-shelf, best-of-the-year sort of album. Sonically, the writing and performance is almost uniformly fully-realized. Lyrically, it’s the rare concept record where each song is better because it is part of this particular record with its sibling songs. Even the album art is perfect. If you like any type of indie music, this is a must-listen for 2021. Highly recommended.

Quick Hit: Tommaso Varisco

All the Seasons of the Day from Venice, Italy’s Tommaso Varisco (available on Youtube Music and Spotify) is a uniquely delivered piece of art. The original eleven-track 2019 release received extensive coverage in Europe, leading to the addition of eight more more “bonus tracks” in 2021.

Analog simplicity graces each of the 19-track soundscape. Musically, the collection drifts from pure acoustic instrumentation with Varisco’s rich vocal tone to electrified shades of Italian rock and metal on various cuts. Admittedly, eighteen songs is an investment to connect with a new artist. Yet this is a complete composition, with each note and lyric fitting together seamlessly. My two favorite moments of the narrative are “Lake (Song of the Tower)” with its creepy, sultry lust in an edgy Eddie-Vedder-meets-Maynard-James-Keenan creation and “Blind to See.”

“Times” proves that strong lyricism with authentic vocal delivery will create nuanced style. The takeaway here is the limitlessness of Tommaso Varisco’s All the Seasons of the Day: an album that continues its own artistic evolution. — Lisa Whealy

June 2021 Singles 1

1. “No Road Without a Turn” – Mano Le Tough. This tropical instrumental cut is one long elastic groove accentuated by reverbed percussion trying to puncture the vibe. The punchy hits can’t damage it, though; the intrusions merely give the smooth energy an even more infinite feel. Nothing can bring this song down.

2. “Even When it Rains” – Jeremy Fisher. Fisher’s opener from his latest album misfits. could be the perfect creep-back-into-life cut of our post-pandemic summer, with its perfectly irreverent strut matching its indie pop musicality. —Lisa Whealy

3. “I Know You Know” – Lore City. Portland, Oregon’s Lore City chose “I Know You Know”  as the lead single for its fourth album Participation Mystique. Songwriters Laura Mariposa Williams and Eric Angelo Bessel’s perfected hypnoticism emulates an aura of soul-shifting transformation. Visual simplicity demands deeper contemplation, as the male and female figures are shrouded in shades of saffron. Signifying abundance, this golden tone serves as the transport vehicle into the rose tone of Shakti. Hindu belief personifies these through a host of goddesses with universal virtues and archetypal energies we all share. For new and old fans, this track connects the primal to its spiritual source visually and sonically. As a taste of Participation Mystique, this one might be 2021’s coolest drumbeat to follow yet.–Lisa Whealy

4. “Roadkill” – Joe Hythe. A haunting, elegant alt-folk track about the fears inherent in the narrator’s experience of the gay hookup scene. The airy, flowing track reminds me of Sufjan’s Michigan in its arrangement.

5. “Drive the Cold Winter Away” – Agent Starling. The band has this to say about the excitable, Medieval-sounding romp: “This tune is taken from Playford’s Dancing Master published in 1651.” Agent Starling breathes a lot of life into this 370-year-old song.

6. “Vila dos Pássaros” – Ricardo Bacelar & Cainã Cavalcante. Speedy fingerpicking and a rush of piano keys introduce this jazzy piece that manages to be smooth and yet frenetic. Very intriguing.

7. “Bad Karma” – Paper Man. A delightfully off-kilter folk-rock tune that throws back to the raw production of days before pristine indie-folk. Brian Sousa’s voice sounds perfect amid ragged rhythms, whoo-oo-oos, and sprightly guitar lines.

8. “Kerouac Revisions” – Red Sammy. The band advertises itself as “honest, slow-burn Americana”; this track is honest but moves up a notch to medium-burn with a two-minute jam complete with jangly guitars that would make the Jayhawks happy. Adam Trice’s vocal melodies are catchy and fun.

9. “Soil” – Zement. I did not expect that combining motorik precision with high-drama post-rock guitar would create an outsider dance-rock tune, but lo, here we are. Manages to be fun and serious at the same time; pretty impressive.

10. “Where I Am” – Atto Seguente. A delicate, mysterious cascade of what sounds like nylon-string guitar notes is the gentle, elegant opening to this piece. By the end of the piece, lonely vocals keen “Where are you?” over a buzzing synth and that suddenly-relentless guitar pattern. The transformation doesn’t require much, but the shift from calm to desperate is distinctive and impressive.

11. “Dee Dee” – Nimrawd. Meshes ’90s big beat with smooth ’80s synthesizer action to create a playful future-past mashup.

Premiere: “Last Night” by JPH

So the first thing you need to know is that, no matter how many email newsletters you are subscribed to, you need to subscribe to JPH’s newsletter. (Signup method: “Ask me about my newsletter.“) Instead of talking about his musical endeavors primarily, bandleader Jordan Hoban gives updates on his “mission to bring food to the hungry in rural America.” So far this has included a year at a monastery, and it is about to turn into an internship on a Catholic Worker farm in Iowa. Hoban’s attention to detail in describing the process and community surrounding the process is beautiful. (If that sounds too “literary novel” for you, just know that I don’t really like literary novels either. I just finished Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson and mostly it made me feel like I’m not very good at reading literary novels.) It is consistently one of the most interesting things I read each month.

You do also get updates on the experimental folk/drone/slowcore music JPH (the band) makes. And lo! The reason I am here (and, ostensibly, you are here) is that JPH has a new track that we are premiering. It is called “Last Night” and it is more straightforward than some of his recent experimental work.

It starts off with the staccato clanking of keys before abruptly transitioning into an elegant, mournful piano ballad. Hoban’s vocals–often not really the focus of JPH tunes–come to the fore here. The multi-tracked delivery is feathery and yet concrete, like a person trying to sing themself into confidence. It fits beautifully over the piano. The lyrics are “The last night of my life / why?”, which also fits with the mood of the piano performance.

Overall, it’s an intriguing, interesting track that keeps the listener off-kilter just enough to keep it JPH. Here’s to staying weird, even when writing a piano ballad about death.

Ben Cosgrove’s evocative Wilderness shows off a distinctive, composerly voice

Ben Cosgrove‘s The Trouble With Wilderness is a beautiful, incredible exposition of a distinct compositional viewpoint. Solo piano work is an incredibly difficult space to establish a unique voice in, but Cosgrove pulls it off in spades here. Anyone who loves piano should run to listen to this record.

Cosgrove makes speedy work sound peaceful, which is a surprising, lovely approach. The trick to it is making fast things seem slow and slow things seem fast. Opener “The Machine in the Garden” feels like a slow-paced piece due to underlying long bass notes, but Cosgrove is doing quite a lot of work on the keys. At the very least, the ambient piano-motion sounds make it seem that way. Over the bass notes and ambient sounds, elegant melodies that dance between slow and fast make their way subtly across a lovely plane.

“Overpass” is another one that makes swift piano playing seem gentle and calm; the delicate delivery makes the speed of the work sound like a gently burbling stream instead of a furious piano attack. Cosgrove knows how to work in this space: there’s a perfect amount of restraint and release in the ebb and flow of the melodies. The melodic payoffs throughout are deeply satisfying.

“Oklahoma Wind Speed Measurement Club” is a sibling to “Overpass,” but the effect is of gently blowing wind instead of water. The evocation of wind is partly due to the brilliant title, partly due to the tones and key chosen, partly due to more prominent bass notes in the foreground. Once again: fast work that sounds calm and expansive. “Arterial #1” is a chipper, sprightly, treble-heavy piece that yet feels meditative. The high notes cascade quickly, but the underlying long notes evoke peaceful thoughts. But even though it is peaceful, there’s still a lot of activity to be interested in: the balance of peace and motion is a unique, pleasant tension.

It’s not all quietude. The standout track is “This Rush of Beauty and This Sense of Order,” which races along so enthusiastically that Cosgrove starts stomping his feet and even yells at the high point of the song. You know a piece is good when the performer just can’t contain glee at playing it. It’s an evocative, exciting work full of big chords and staccato bursts that would be absolutely dynamite live.

Some works break the mold further. “Cairn” splits the difference between this frenetic glee of “Rush of Beauty” and the uniquely meditative works I mentioned earlier. It couches the same joyful resolutions of “Rush” in the unique space fast/quiet space that Cosgrove has developed. The album closes with “Templates for Limitless Fields of Grass,” which is a 10+ minute saga that rolls through many different moods, from the torrential to the pensive. It is highly dramatic throughout; it is fulfilling in a different type of way than the rest of the album.

The Trouble With Wilderness is a deeply impressive album; I have listened to it many times in the course of reviewing it, and I am not nearly done exploring it yet. It is emotionally and intellectually satisfying in a space where it is hard to do either thing, due to the high level of mastery required to break through the sea of pianists. Cosgrove has a rare talent. Wilderness will definitely be on my top-ten best of the year. Highly recommended.

Nashville Ambient Ensemble makes it look easy

Nashville Ambient Ensemble makes contradictions look easy. The first contradiction is Nashville and Ambient, as most people don’t think of peaceful, Eno-inspired music coming from the home of the Grand Ole Opry. Yet Cerulean is top-shelf ambient work that could have come out of any hotbed of experimental electro-acoustic music. Given that NAE claims being part of a scene called New Weird South, perhaps Nashville is going to be a hotbed of experimental electro-acoustic music faster than I thought.

The second contradiction is what gives Nashville Ambient Ensemble its unique x factor: the terms “ambient” and “ensemble” aren’t usually paired together. Ambient is usually a solo or duo effort, the work of small numbers of people with specific visions. Nashville Ambient Ensemble does it different, as their Bandcamp credits seven musicians on this record. Composer Michael Hix leads the charge, but there are many contributions.

The songs do feel like the work of an ensemble, as there are unique visions that mesh into a whole. The guitar noodling on “Inga” contrasts beautifully with the stylized percussion and the gentle female vocals. The mysterious synths and provocative guitar melodies of “Elegy” make it feel like Andreas Vollenweider is about to show up at any moment. The reverb-laden ’80s keys and hazy vibes from what sounds like a pedal steel in “Conversion” do nothing to dispel this lovely notion.

The 10-minute “Conversion” is the centerpiece of the record. It’s an elegant song that most sounds like an ensemble: the cooing vocals sway over interlocking piano and pedal steel, while the distorted electric guitar adds heft to the track. The pieces of this song all connect in a flowing, easygoing way that obscures how hard it is to make seven people sound like one thing in a relaxing, ambient zone. This is impressive work, from beginning to end.

Much ambient can turn into what I call “puffy clouds music”; grand, slow-moving, major key synth stacks that subtly shift and seem to float above the ground. This is the opposite of that: this is grounded, soulful, human music that is also yet peaceful. I like both types of ambient equally, but there’s not much of the type that Nashville Ambient Ensemble is putting out. If you’re into quiet music, you need to check out Cerulean. Highly recommended.

May 2021 Singles 3

1. “Rabindra” – E.VAX. Evan Mast (half of Ratatat) offers up some laid-back electronica that meshes ambient synths, squiqqly lead lines, and big (BIG) drums. It’s a very carefully developed piece, even though it doesn’t have a lot of constituent elements; the ideas are fully and patiently fleshed out. Fans of Teen Daze will find much to love here.

2. “Export for Screens” – Xander Naylor. This piece is something between jazz and post-rock, full of percussion-driven groove, guitar mystery, and bold horns.

3. “Arcto 2” – Matt Evans. It’s hard to tell that this peaceful, grounded, ambient meditation is a product of grief (until the conflicted end), but it is: this song is part of a cycle mourning the loss of Evans‘ late partner, Devra Freelander. The video for this piano-led clip is composed of video work by Freelander.

4. “Puerto Suelo” – Cameron Knowler. Intends to evoke the Wild West, and succeeds mightily: this spartan, walking-pace, two-guitar effort gives the feel of the good guy wandering through a sleepy (or perhaps deserted?) old West Town, trying to figure out what’s going on. Elegant, in a distinctive sort of way.

5. “And We Collide Into Nothingness” – Christopher Franzen. A slow-moving crescendo of strings and keys that evokes feelings of loss, grief, and yet (the only way out is through) hope.

6. “What Else I Gotta Show” – Furniture From the Fifties. A delicate, pensive, thoughtful acoustic track with a brilliant, subtle vocal performance.

7. “Part 1” – Winterwood. Picking up where Eno left off, this is ambient that is supposed to be truly ambient: not really listened to, but played in the background, cultivating the vibe.

8. “Awash” – runnner. Makes sadness sound celebratory, makes folk songs sound indie pop, makes one voice sound like bunches, makes me smile.

9. “Blue Sky Bound” – Travis Linville. This lovely little country/folk love song about getting out of a nowhere town is accompanied by a 360 video of Travis and crew in various places around my hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. I had a great time looking for local landmarks in the video.

10. “The Algorithm” – The Irrational Library. Both the song and video are humorous, biting satire over shuffling blues rock about contemporary life as instantiated by the algorithm.

Lights A.M. builds monuments of sound

Lights A.M. builds magnificent, vast landscapes of sound on Stories Without WordsIcy castles, wind-swept expanses, mysterious buildings with endless rooms and high ceilings; these are all images that come to mind when listening to the towering, structured layers of synth that Lights A.M. constructs.

This is like Tron but with all the campiness replaced: instead of manic glee, “Your Secret Place” conjures up a near-mystical awe via the same big synth sounds that are so iconically ’80s. In fact, it’s the grandeur of these synths combined with the sophisticated composition that results in such evocative moments; these tools aren’t meant to make one consider the heavens in their fullness, but lo: here they can.

Some might not be able to get past the sounds to the wonder inside them, and that’s fair. But for those who can hear the beating heart of these tracks, there are wonders to hear. Highlight “The Magic Forest” captures the anticipation of discovering something wonderful beautifully. “Sense of Relief” pairs a warm lead melody with big gated sounds to produce more of that soaring, floating expanse that defines this record. Closer “Goodbye for Now” is equally beautiful. Stories Without Words is a compelling, unique work that mines a specific vein deeply and well.

Premiere: “Hildegard” by Soda Sun

Tucson, Arizona’s Soda Sun finds a way into our emotions with this visual gem for the single “Hildegaard” off of Stay Here. This latest, via Fort Lowell Records, marks a new start for Los Angeles transplant John Goraj.

Hopeful, searching, authentic, guitar-driven simplicity best describes this cut. This subtle bit of brilliance offers a taste of what’s to come, while longing for the past. Mixing by Larry Crane (Sleater-Kinney, She & Him, Elliott Smith) helps shape nuanced, sonically restrained excellence here. Soda Sun’s lilting acoustic rock melody is the perfect accompaniment for visuals from an early 1960’s Miss Polish America, sourced from the Prelinger Archives. Both the audio and visual art has the opportunity to shine. 

After this long, strange year, bands like Soda Sun remind us of all the talent that has been laying in wait. Check out more from Soda Sun on social media at Bandcamp, Facebook, Instagram, SoundCloud, and Spotify. —Lisa Whealy

Quick Hits: Asta Hiroki / Frances Luke Accord / Avalon Skies

Asta Hiroki‘s Entropy is a brilliant collection of jazz-inflected, mellow hip-hop beats that plays out like a less chaotic Flying Lotus. Most of the tracks here are pensive, take-your-time instrumentals. Tracks like “Cherry Blossom” and “These Hands, Pt. 2” have a mysterious, Radiohead-esque mood, while the title track and “Apparition” are more upbeat and warm. “Rose-tint” is somewhere in-between; dreamy and lush in its disposition while still being spartan in the number of elements need to create the mood.

The few vocal inclusions here range from Muhsinah’s soulful vibes on “Between Love and Happiness” to the whispery declarations of Dontmesswithjuan that give “Slumber” a big trip-hop vibe. The album is solid and a great inclusion in the rotation of fans of the genre.

Frances Luke Accord makes beautiful, pristine folk-pop that sounds like equal parts Simon and Garfunkel, Joshua Radin, and Blind Pilot. Their vocals are gentle and yet excellently harmonized; their Radin-esque arrangements are so bright and delicate as to mandate smiling; their melodies are as infectious as a Blind Pilot jam. “Maria” is as close to a perfect folk-pop song as one can get in the year 2021. It’s an earnest, fingerpicked love song that is completely without guile. I can hear its lilting melodies being sung decades from now.

“Sunnyside” is more pop-oriented in its melodic structure and strums, leaning in on the Blind Pilot style. “Dust to Dust” combines the bright, pristine fingerpicking with a more pop-oriented vocal performance to blend the two styles. “The Clearing” closes out the short EP with an instrumental track of slow-moving tones juxtaposed against found sounds of nature. It’s a lovely little ender. Overall, the Sunnyside EP is just a gorgeous collection that you need to hear. Highly recommended.

Avalon Skies‘ Season Unending is a dense, intense group of four cinematic, instrumental pieces. The titular opening track is one long crescendo of dread; delicate keys are given ominous tidings by dark strings and foreboding bass synths. A wordless choir adds even more grandeur to the proceedings, before a single massive tom hit signals the end of the piece. It’s surprising and interesting. “In Search of Forever” has a similarly gloomy mood but is pushed along steadily by a kick-clap electronic beat and the headbobbing pulse of a synth. “Catalysis” amps up these two beats even further, creating a composition that is nearly dancy at times. To balance this out, the central section is a minimalist moment of a nearly a capella choir.

Closer “The Road to Awe” maxes out the tendencies of the collection, employing soaring horns (or horn-like synths), insistent beats, and booming bass synths as a foil to tender string-driven sections. It feels like it could very easily be included as part of the Inception soundtrack. Overall, the collection is an impressive display of composition that stuck with me long after its runtime. It’s not cheery, but it is beautiful in its own gloom-filled way.