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Month: January 2011

Quick hits: Adam Rader

Adam Rader sings straight-up pop music. There’s nothing indie about it, nor is there anything punk about it, or anything about it. It’s pop. There’s whistling, a jaunty piano line, peppy drums, a swooping melody and some nice guitar work in “Any Way I Can.” It’s a charming little tune. It does have a little bit of a adult contemporary bent in the chorus, but it’s forgivable, given the B-side here.

Rader’s take on the classic “In the Ghetto” is absolutely pitch-perfect; he nails the tune without getting deadpan or maudlin. Both sides are possible pitfalls – instead, Rader pulls out subtle nuances that I didn’t think existed in the almost comically didactic source material. Piano, unassuming acoustic guitar, gentle pedal steel and a brushed snare shuffle provide an easy canvas for Rader’s soft tenor to paint on. The results are surprising in the best way.

Rader either got super-lucky with “In the Ghetto,” or he’s studied how pop songs work. I’d bank on the latter. Still, judging from his above-average but not jaw-dropping A-side, he’s got some work to do before he writes his own iconic tunes. He’s definitely on his way, though.

Single: Osaka Popstar's "Where's the Cap'n?"

“Punk lifer” is an increasingly common phrase, as musicians from the first (’70s), second (’80s) and third waves (’90s) of punk keep putting out the music that they love in bands new and old. Osaka Popstar is composed of lifers Marky Ramone (The Ramones), Jerry Only (The Misfits), Dez Cadena (Black Flag) and relative young’un John Cafiero. Straight-ahead pop-punk, like a more sophisticated Ramones or a less self-absorbed early Green Day, is their bag, and they do it up right. Fans of Cadena’s Black Flag work may be confused, but fans of the other two previous bands will get the sound of on “Where’s the Cap’n?”, which is an ode to Captain Crunch cereal. Punk hasn’t meant anti-capitalist anarchism in a long time, I suppose. Grab the tune, and here’s the vid.

Single: Charlotte & Magon's 'Modern Times'

This stark, genreless tune from Charlotte & Magon will stick in your head, even without the sparse, haunting video. The clouds of breath that Charlotte makes only enhance the ghostly feel. It’s like Two Gallants without the drums and a female singer. I know that sounds like a stretch, but yeah. That’s what I’ve got. Comparisons aside, it’s a brilliant track, and it makes me look forward to their not-so-soon-forthcoming album.

The Fun Police’s folk/funk/reggae/punk/sea shanty/bluegrass tunes are arresting

When “Gringo Meringue” is the first song on your album, and it’s literally a joking-yet-talented meringue played by a bunch of white dudes, you know you’re in for something a little bit south of normal. Most times the fun police are the guys stopping everyone from having fun; the band The Fun Police is here to stop people from having bad moods. You have to have fun, or you’re going to jail.

Okay, probably not, because they hate going to jail too. At least, that’s what “Rather Be Dead” espouses; yes, they’d rather the title than be in jail. With a reggae drum beat, a scuzzed-out bass line, a funky wah-wah guitar, a sea-shanty accordion and and a pirate fiddle filling out the tune, the tune screams rebellion from about every possible angle. They even claim to rob an old lady. I’m not kidding.

But of course, this isn’t your regular rebellion. Because even though they appropriate bits of almost everything except metal and industrial music, they combine them all together in unusual and hilarous ways. “Spanish Mullet” es canta en espanol (partially). It’s also a punked-out folk song with a reggae upbeat guitar strum. Again, I’m not kidding.

“We Don’t Want No More” is straight-up reggae, albeit with accordion and fiddle. “Night Beat” starts off with a flute solo and proceeds to mock the theme music from cop procedurals. “Wish I Was Rich” is a harbor town barroom sea shanty stomp tune. “eBay” is a folk-rock song, but it’s about … I don’t even really need to say it.

The only reason all these shenanigans are tolerable is that The Fun Police are ridiculously good at what they do. They are talented musicians, excellent songwriters (you’ll be singing these songs for a long time) and enthusiastic salesmen. I bet they absolutely destroy the place live, too. The music already sounds like a cross between The Felice Brother’s humorous take on folk, Flogging Molly’s sea shanty punk rock and a reggae traditionalist band; I can only imagine they would be a mix of all those things live.

You Better Run is easily the funniest album I’ve heard so far this year, and it’s one of the most entertaining as well. The members of The Fun Police have a firm grasp on their shtick, and they’re wringing every last drop out of it. Cheers to that. And I’m not kidding.

Charlie Betts' unique, divisive voice carries his album

The alt-country/Americana songs that Charlie Betts presents on Under Construction all hinge on his unique voice. His tunes don’t traverse far from time-honored instrumental traditions in the country genre: snare shuffle, accordion, slide guitar, acoustic strum and stand-up bass. The rustic sound hits the ear very well; the performances are spot-on, and the production is tight and bright. The immaculate instrumentation and songwriting don’t allow for those elements to be the defining aspect of Betts’ sound, and thus that honor falls to his voice.

The British Betts has a voice that you will remember instantly, for good or for ill. Those on the ill side will say that his nasally warble is off-putting and irreconcilable with the otherwise standard tunes. Those on the pro- side of things will say that the instruments provide a vessel for Betts’ real instrument. Those who are drawn in by unusual voices will find much to love in Betts’ songwriting, as it is the centerpiece of each of these tunes. Even The Mountain Goats don’t stress the vocals as much as Betts does.

Again, there are some who will say that he’s leaning too hard on a bad thing. Others will celebrate his songwriting and punk-rock spirit (“Just ’cause you say I can’t doesn’t mean I can’t”). This is a call you’ll have to make yourself, because whether I like it or not will have no effect on how it hits your ear. As for me, I like his calmer songs (“The Meaning of Freedom,” “Remember the Sun”) better than his faster ones, as I feel his voice fits best in them. Fans of alt-country and Americana should check this out.

Merykid's concept album 'The Raccoon' pays off

The album as a piece of art has a long and twisty history. From long-form classical pieces with movements (which could be considered analogous to songs) to musicals in the first half of the twentieth century to proggy concept albums in the ’70s and now, there has always been some idea that individual pieces of music can compose a greater whole. Merykid‘s The Raccoon brought up these thoughts of history, as the album can’t be considered as anything but an album.

There are few to no verse/chorus/verse structures here. This is not an album surrounding a single; there is no single. This is an album for the sake of an album. The music only enhances this, as it is a mishmash of synth-driven downtempo/trip-hop, glitchy electronic beats, found sounds and acoustic guitar work.

Furthermore, it starts out with a stressful spoken word drama underscored by acoustic guitar, strings, a few electronics and the found sound of a train station. The boy is leaving the girl and getting on the train. The girl is dramatically hurt. The boy leaves anyway, making her promise that she won’t wait for him.

That’s the setup for the rest of the album. Yes, this an ambitious album.

Does it succeed? It’s very coherent musical piece of work, even with the mix of acoustic and electronic songs. There’s a solid balance of emotions and space to let them happen; Merykid never tries to pack too much into a song. His vocals are solid and interesting throughout, especially shining on the good-use-of-autotune “Two Wrongs.” The album flows excellently, as he knows how to use interludes and instrumental pieces to enhance the album’s atmosphere.

Lyrically, it’s a bit on the short end of the stick, as it took me scrounging through the press materials again to figure out exactly what was happening. Given the strong start to the narrative, it’s a bit disappointing that I couldn’t follow the path too closely. Thankfully, he does lay everything out in the final track.

Merykid’s The Raccoon is a very interesting, engaging piece of work that demands to be considered as a whole unit. If you’re willing to give it the attention it asks for and requires, you’ll find some unique and interesting moments within. It’s definitely a successful album, but I feel that the best is still yet to come from Merykid.

The Seldon Plan's mature songwriting creates an impressive listen

I’ve never wanted to be in a stadium-booking arena band. I’ve always wanted, had I my dream, to be in a band beloved by an enthusiastic local community, perhaps 150 people. That way they would be able to pack out a small venue and sing along at the top of their lungs. That’s all I really want.

I don’t know if that’s The Seldon Plan‘s goal or not, but they’re the type of band that I’d like to be when I accomplish that dream. They play solid, mature songs that straddle the line between pop-rock and indie-pop; just enough cohesive song structures and production values for the former, just enough wistful moods and slow-building melodies to appropriate the former. This band is full of guys who have tons of experience writing songs (as proven by their previous releases), and I wouldn’t be surprised if they had tons of previous bands to their names as well. They know what they’re doing, and they’re doing it well.

“Fool’s Gold” builds from a kick-snare-kick-kick-snare plod to a whirling, full tune. It’s complex without being complicated, tight without being sterile. The band knows when to let things space out. This discipline gives “Fool’s Gold” and the rest of the tunes here breathing room, which results in a very comfortable listening experience.

The tunes have the kind of cathartic melodies and lyrics that late ’90s “emo” bands like The Promise Ring and Sunny Day Real Estate were trying to capture, but without all the burdensome youthful drama. It has the strong emotive instrumentals that bands like American Football were trying to capture, but without repetitiveness driving the point home. The Seldon Plan trusts its listeners to be like they are: older, well-versed, appreciative of the little things without being told to be so.

That trust makes the background vocals in “Starlette Pendant” great; they appear briefly, quietly, but with meaning. The mix of “Our Time In Rockland County” favors the clanging rhythm guitar over the twinkly lead guitar and ba-ba-ba background vocals, but both hidden elements bring an extra level to the song. Closer “A Letter to Satie” buries a keyboard in the chorus that enhances the mood. Those touches show that these aren’t nice pop/rock tunes; they’re deeply thought-out, planned and organized tunes, which is something much better.

The Seldon Plan’s latest set is easily the best that I’ve heard from them. They’ve grown into a sound and a style that makes the best of their skills and talents. This album is a gem that should not be overlooked by anyone listening for true musicianship and song craftsmanship. I don’t know what their ambitions are, but if they were in my hometown, I’d go see them whenever I could. And I’d sing along.

Contribute to their Kickstarter campaign to make a vinyl of the album here.

Hot Bodies in Motion finds perfect blend of blues, funk, rock on debut EP 'Old Habits'

Since I wrote my first piece for IC back in June, I’ve been anxiously awaiting following it up with a Seattle sequel. I was introduced to the band I’ve been itching to feature while living there, and I was fortunate enough to see the band perform on three separate occasions before my summer tenure ended. After their live performances proved to be addictive, I knew that their upcoming album was bound to provide its own share of “motion” activating groovability.

The band is Hot Bodies in Motion, and their debut EP Old Habits should satisfy anyone with an unstoppable funk rock fetish as well as anyone who fears that Seattle might ever lose its touch at producing the sort of quality musicians that everyone expects from them. (Don’t worry, the answer to that query is “No, they won’t.”) Fear not, indie music devotees: HBIM (as they’re affectionately called by their loyal fans) delivers the kind of groove-infused magnetism that most record labels can only dream of getting their hands on this early in a band’s career.

HBIM features Ben Carson as its lead vocalist, who manages the band’s infectious sound with his one-of-a-kind, soulful, blues-influenced voice and guitar. While Tim LoPresto provides the heart-throbbing beat that drives the band’s rhythmic pulse, Zach Fleury brings out the bass groove in full force to round out the low end. That leaves Scott Johnson free to wail out the spine-tingling guitar riffs that keep people coming back for more. Did I mention that Scott builds his own guitars by hand? An all-star cast, without a doubt.

Their self-described “baby-making mammal funk” is palpable from the beginning. The album’s title track “Old Habits” works its way into your head with the help of some haunting harmonies. A heavy kick drum introduces the full band jam that carries the tune’s powerfully crafted lyrics and drives Carson’s soulful melody. The following track, “Physics,” continues this pattern of funk rock perfection, while highlighting Johnson’s flawless guitar riffs throughout and introducing more of the blues style that weaves its way into these tunes and makes it the kind of music you can’t get enough of.

My personal favorite from the band’s live performances was the heavy blues tune “Gout,” which appears as the album’s third track. It provides the listener with a hunger in the lyrics that the groove works to satisfy. The following track, “Whiskey Drive,” brings the tempo down a few notches. It features a bass groove that perfects the steamy ambiance created by the smooth guitar, and the vocal melodies are sexy in all the ways the blues should be.

The band moves away from the intensity of its first four tracks with the gentle acoustic love song, “15-8.” This simple but charming tune contributes to the album’s overall showcase of talent and demonstrates the band’s ability to perform a diverse blend of music while making each style its own.

The band’s familiar funky blues blend returns on the album’s sixth track, “Pleasure Buffet,” which proves to be appropriately titled. It provides a buffet of instrumental solos that could singlehandedly convince me to buy six more copies of the album. Just when you are sure that HBIM has exhausted their creativity and balance, the band closes the album with “Wanchu.” A song with an experimental sound complete with auto-tuned vocals and funky electric jams, it leaves no doubt that this band knows how to bring the party.

Whether you’re tapping your foot or swinging your hips, this is an album that won’t fail to put your body in motion.

DBG releases acoustic music with a brain on "Free Burma"

DBG has listened to a lot of music, or has re-invented a whole lot of wheels on Free Burma. Within the construct of a mellow acoustic pop album, he has kept the interest level high by dabbling in many different styles.

“Apples” has a distinctly British acoustic pop feel to it; think Parachutes-era Coldplay or Ether Song-era Turin Brakes. Its spacious, uncluttered sound leaves a lot of room for mood to creep in. The charming “Green” could have been written by any number of lovelorn upbeat acoustic popsters (Jason Mraz, Matt Nathanson, et al). Snare shuffle, banjo and organ anchor the American folk of “Goosey Fayre.” The title track feels a bit like a Cat Stevens tune, which fits its protest themes perfectly. “Wings” feels hearkens to upbeat moments of Simon and Garfunkel’s work. The vocal lines and harmonies throughout call to mind their work, and that’s a very good thing.

The lyrics aren’t all protest songs, although “Free Burma” is a solid protest tune. Much of the album’s content is a personal affair, espousing closely-held ideas on freedom, truth and religious concepts. They are well-written and rarely delivered with a didactic tone. These are DBG’s songs to share, not so much to preach from. This does produce a few saccharine moments (“Thank You”), but overall the lyrics and music are admirably meshed.

DBG’s Free Burma has some great tunes on it. Despite the many genres represented, the whole thing hangs together for a cohesive set of songs. Check it out if you like acoustic music with a brain.

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

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.