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Month: June 2011

The Boxing Lesson teaches me a thing or two about psych (and myself, and IC)

I’ve spent a lot of time and thought on what Independent Clauses should be. It’s gone through many iterations, and I’ve been realizing over the past two months that it’s about to go through another. I’ve always wanted to be the first line of defense for young bands: I’ll review your album if you have zero press, bad spelling and a 3-song demo. If it’s great, it’s great. If it’s not, I’ll tell you what I thought and hopefully you don’t think I’m a jerk. That’s been SOP for IC since day one.

But back in the day, I thought I could do that for every genre. That’s just entirely unfeasible. I can’t be knowledgeable at every style of music. I may like a couple hardcore and metal bands, but I have no idea what makes them good other than the fact that I enjoy it. Even if I heard a great unsigned metal band, I would have little idea how to describe it (and even less clue about RIYLs), because I don’t know the ins and outs of metal.

This is true for me of rap, metal, hardcore, modern rock/post-grunge, blues and jazz. I like a bit of each (K’Naan, Isis, Dillinger Escape Plan, Traindodge, The Flavor and John Coltrane, for starters), but I just feel unqualified to review it. So I’m pretty much going to stop reviewing those genres and focus in on folk, alt-country, indie-pop, indie-rock and post-rock. I’m taking a break from punk so that I can love it again in the near future.

The reason I bring this up is that The Boxing Lesson falls on the outskirts of my knowledge, just on this side of the border. I don’t listen to much psychedelic music, partially because I’ve never had the desire to be high. I say “much” because The Flaming Lips are Oklahoma’s rock heroes, and I listen to their music almost de facto.

The Boxing Lesson has the space-rock/psych thing going on its Muerta EP. “Darker Side of the Moog” features synths galore in a sweeping, atmospheric way. The song transforms into a slow-moving but cohesive bit of pop-influenced songwriting; it’s not exactly go-for-the-hook songcraft, but the melodies are recognizable to those who love a v/c/v setup (me). “Muerta” and “Cassiopeia” are much the same, calling up some Pink Floyd references in their expansive, slow-moving folds.

Closer “Drone to Sleep” is most like a pop song, in that fuzzed out guitar strum and a dominant vocal melody carry the song. It’s still got the synths and spaced-out vibe; its woozy self will definitely still to the core demographic of psych-heads. But people who enjoy meandering pop and folk will find much to love in the track. It really does make me want to go to sleep as the sound washes over me, in a Spiritualized sort of way. It’s kind of like Jonsi, honestly – and that’s really cool. It’s easily my favorite track on the EP.

So, I’m not the best guy to be evaluating The Boxing Lesson, and I’m not too proud to admit it. But it does have some elements that can be appreciated by all — and that’s the mark of great songwriting.

The Flavor starts to win me over to the blues

I don’t like the blues. I’ve tried many times to appreciate the genre, and I just find myself wanting to skip on to something else. Two of my cooler friends decided that someday I might like it if I keep listening to music. I felt this was sort of like them saying, “We’ll tell you when you’re older.” Sadz.

So I was naturally a bit apprehensive when I popped in the self-titled debut disc from The Flavor. I’ve reviewed other projects from musicians in this band, and I like to follow the musicians I cover. But my cringe was not necessary. The Flavor makes blues that are appealing to non-blues fans. I would guess that blues purists would have other comments, but from a pop music standpoint, The Flavor is way entertaining.

The members of the band make it clear from the very beginning of the album that they’re out to have a good time and ensure their listeners do too. The 14-song disc opens with off-the-cuff studio banter before launching into “Hot Sauce,” which is a rollicking blues-rock tune lead by an acoustic guitar and entendre-laden lyrics. It’s a bouncy, upbeat number that’s instantly appealing.

The band’s songwriting is tight; this definitely has to do with the multiple genres that the musicians have played in. You play long enough and you realize that no matter the genre, it’s about songs with hooks. And The Flavor’s got ’em. From “The Truth” to “Short-Haired Women,” the four-piece shows that it knows its way around a melody. It’s the strength of that melodic knowledge that makes the solo sections that appear throughout the album not feel tedious. It’s also the reason why the near-seven-minute tune “Closer to You” feels solid instead of overbearing.

It’s not all perfect: “My Guitar,” even if it’s parodying songs about men who love their guitars more than their women, is too jokey. The songwriting of “Bleedin’ Soul” relies too much on vocals, and the vocalist oversings as a result.  Some of the jokes are a little on the silly side, but with how fun the music is, it can be ignored. I’d probably be drinking and dancing while listening to The Flavor, so i wouldn’t hear those bits live anyway.

But with only two real clunkers on a 14-song disc, they’ve done a great job. The recording job is to be commended, as well as the beautiful solo acoustic outro “End,” which made this folk fan’s ears perk up. (More of that, please?)

I’m really excited that I heard and enjoyed The Flavor. Maybe this release marks my entry into the world of blues. Maybe it will be yours?

Attica! Attica!’s energizing folk punk encourages listeners to stay thoughtful

My first musical love, as I’ve professed before, was pop-punk. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve developed a passion for acoustic music. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that, in my book, acoustic punk is one of the best ideas ever. Violent Femmes ftw. Also Andrew Jackson Jihad.

Attica! Attica! knows acoustic punk/folk punk. This makes sense once you know that the only member is punk lifer Aaron Scott, who (amongst other credentials) sang for De La Hoya and Marathon, runs a blog about house shows and other DIY life, wrote this great piece about sexism in punk and is the type of guy who posts his correctly-punctuated lyrics prominently on his website. It’s safe to say that Scott’s spent a lot of time writing songs and thinking about stuff. It’s not surprising that Napalm & Nitrogen is awesome.

If AJJ has the hyperactive “We Didn’t Come Here to Rock” as its shout-it-out winner, this album has “Hobo Chili.” It’s unsurprisingly about lovely house shows and celebrating local culture. (Proposed alternate title: “Keep Everywhere Weird.”) The lyrics are incredibly literate, eschewing a repeated chorus slogan and instead using the same meter and melody with new lyrics each time. Don’t worry, there’s a huge “whoa-oh” section so you can sing along, even if it’s the first time you’ve heard the tune. It won’t take you long to remember the fascinating lyrics, but Scott is the type of guy who knows his strengths are also limitations and throws noobs a bone. I appreciated it.

Oh, and it’s hyperactive as anything.

As with the best punk (and this is some of the very best), the album is immediately lovable for its energy, melodies, attitude and random slogans you catch on the first listen (“THERE’S A WAREHOUSE SHOW! OUT IN NEW MEXICOOOO!”), but it’s even more enjoyable once you catch all the lyrics and think about what he’s saying. Lots of bands have the first half, but not many get to the second part.

That’s why you should purchase Napalm & Nitrogen instead of something else: “I Knew I Shoulda Taken That Left Turn at Albuquerque” is brave enough to acknowledge the truth that sometimes life on the road (which is rightly celebrated elsewhere) just sucks. “The Children of the Broken Glass” is the honest-but-yet-hopeful story of the Millenials; lots of people want to be the voice of a generation, but they haven’t written “The Children,” have they? “The End of Art” is too brilliant for me to try to fit it into a sentence. It also is a great vehicle for more whoa-ohs (I’ll never get enough) and Scott’s intense, impassioned voice. His distinct pipes are yet another reason this album is great.

I could keep listing great things about this incredible album for a long time: DIY attitude, mellow piano tunes, an accordion in “The Good Ones Go First” … but if you aren’t sold by now, you won’t be. That’s your loss.

This release was originally put out in 2009, and recently received the vinyl treatment from Black Numbers. You can also get it as a pay-what-you-want on Bandcamp.

Midway Fair's folk inspiration spans centuries and continents

Midway Fair combines a unique set of sounds to create their folky amalgam. Equally at home churning out Bruce Springsteen-style rockers and English folk tunes, the band keeps listeners on their toes during its debut album The Distance of the Moon at Daybreak. Despite the deep well of influences that the members pull from (or unwittingly appropriate), they keep the songwriting straightforward and the instrumentation simple.

It’s a disarming record in that regard; the band pulls off American folk, English folk, American roots-rock with aplomb, not letting the listener settle in to any one listening experience. There isn’t, however, much mixing of the genres, as the band is content to jump around into different idioms instead of meshing them into something new. This results in some tunes that feel more comfortable for the band than others.

Rockin’ “(It’s Not) 1962” is the most assured performance of the album, led by the lead vocalist’s swagger. In other tunes he can lean too much on vibrato, making him sound warbly and underconfident, whether or not he actually is. But he locks into the band here, and it’s a highlight. The very British-sounding  “Edward Cain” is a memorable tune despite the vibrato, and “Two Crows” is the closest the band comes to merging their influences into one tune.

The most encouraging thing about The Distance of the Moon at Daybreak is that there are no total bombs. “Fairest of Them All” feels a bit staid, but the chorus is one of the best on the album. “Put On The Brake” feels a bit overblown, but the instrumental solo section is solid.

Midway Fair has a good thing going – they’re on the same path as The Low Anthem, only with more muses and more rock drumming. If they can combine their inspirations more fully into a coherent sound, Midway Fair could be something really great.

The Ridges' debut is an exhibit of confident orchestral folk

One of the reasons I love working with Independent Clauses is that I like seeing things improve. Tracking a band from its very beginnings to success is a gratifying process, especially when I can hear bands improving on things I (and others) have pointed out in previous releases.

This is probably why The Ridges‘ self-titled EP is a bit baffling to me: there’s almost nothing I can recommend. The band has appeared fully-formed. The members have their orchestral folk rock down. People are going to like this or hate this not because it has to grow, but because people just do that with bands.

The EP fits the formula of what a great short-player should be almost to a T. There’s an establishment of the sound (“The Insomniac’s Song”), complete with pensive string intro. “Overboard” tweaks the formula by introducing sea shanty elements. “Not a Ghost” is their “single” – it’s an easily memorable, jaunty, interesting song with a good melody.

“Invented Love” is almost a perfect example of a third act turn, to prove the band isn’t a one-trick pony: it’s upbeat and enthusiastic without abandoning the core sound. “War Bonds” brings the sound back home to the beginnings with a killer closer. In short, they tick off everything I want to hear in an album/EP except a pensive acoustic track.

So as an Independent Clauses review, this is pretty unusual: I have no suggestions, really. It’s just plain good. I’d like to hear more of this, especially as their melodic strengths are honed to a fine point. As a statement of what this band can do, The Ridges’ EP is one of the strongest and most assured debut I’ve heard all year. Now they just need to dig world-conquering songs out of the vein they’ve already started to mine.

Single: "Holograms" — Founds

So I somehow ended up on this incredible Australian PR list, and I’ve been receiving all sorts of crazy music from our friends down under: Teleprompter, New Manic Spree, and now Founds.

Founds’ latest single “Holograms” is the sort of lush indie-pop/rock that I’m coming to covet. Rave Magazine already beat me to the Jonsi comparisons, but they’re accurate: breathy, wide-eyed wonder is set atop (and contrasted against) jaunty rhythms and a immaculately recorded instruments in “Holograms.”

It starts off with a gentle guitar and cooed female vocals, then ratchets the intensity from there all the way up. In that way it’s a sort of optimistic post-rock, only crammed full of pop touches. That combination causes the song to exude a unique vibe, drawing me to it repeatedly; it’s not anything I’ve heard before in exactly this way. There’s no “chorus,” per se, but it doesn’t need one, based on the way the song flows.

This makes me want more Founds as quickly as possible. Let’s make this happen, people. Get the track for free here.

The Lonely Wild’s Spaghetti Western indie rock has vast potential to be realized

Ennio Morricone’s soundtracks to Spaghetti Westerns are iconic and oft-parodied.  But the theme to “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” isn’t itself the butt of jokes; it is more often the punchline.

Morricone’s works are majestic examples of structural music: you can’t appreciate them by themselves. They are incredible soundtracks, but they are simply that — something must be happening for them to make sense. You can put anything in the frame that the Italian’s scores create; just think of all the different places you’ve heard the classic “wee-ooo-wee-ooo-woo” opening. The humor comes when the situation in the frame doesn’t live up to the (exaggeratedly) high tension associated with the original scenes. It’s an easy and endless joke. It’s also why The Lonely Wild is great.

The Lonely Wild is a band that appropriates the sound of Spaghetti Westerns and puts indie rock in the frame. The band creates pieces with incredibly high drama by taking social cues (clip-clop rhythms, distant reverb) for Spaghetti Westerns and stapling indie rock to them. The songs on their five-song EP Dead End naturally acquire the sort of odd tension that Spaghetti Westerns themselves have. If you buy into the whole piece of art, the drama has reached a breaking point; if you haven’t, it just seems a bit overblown.

I’ve always bit on white hats vs. black hats, much to my sophisticated self’s chagrin. (Not every movie can be an ethical dilemma like Crash or Do the Right Thing.) Similarly, I’ve fallen for The Lonely Wild’s crazy idea. That’s why “Hail” (trumpets, guitar tone) and “Right Side of the Road” (Whistling, faux horsebeats, plodding rhythms) are my favorite tunes here. The members sell the shtick hook, line and sinker. It’s so completely melded together that “Dead End,” which features almost no distinctly Spaghetti markers, feels like it should be from some other band. The swooning pedal steel doesn’t count.

On the other hand, it could just be that it’s a lesser tune. “Out of My Mind” doesn’t have a whole lot of Morricone influence either, but the wry melody is so infectious that you’ll remember it regardless (again, the pedal steel doesn’t count towards its Italian-ness). The shared male/female vocals are another element that make “Out of My Mind” (and the whole EP) stand out.

There’s still room to grow here; none of these songs are the total knockout that this band is capable of. The songs are well-thought-out, the performances are tight, and the recordings are immaculate — but there’s no Arcade Fire “Wake Up” here. This is a band that I feel is capable of a “Wake Up”-type smash, so I’m holding it to nothing less than that.

Definitely check The Lonely Wild’s Dead End out. They’ve been relentlessly self-promoting their DIY ways, and that’s always to be lauded. But in addition to that, they’re vastly creative and entertaining.

Horizon: Drew Martin and the Limelights

It’s interesting to me that I came across a band named Drew Martin and the Limelights at almost the same time as JD Eicher and the Goodnights. It’s not just their names that are similar, either: Both play modern pop with the Goo Goo Dolls firmly in the RIYLs. Eicher relies on a tempered melodic bent for his differentiating factor; Martin just goes for the pop throat. He doesn’t connect every time, but you can’t say that he held back.

“Calling Your Bluff” has the anthemic chorus to make stadiums sing (“Days here are beautiful/and sometimes cold/just like you-ou!”) with just the right amount of emotive resonance to sell it. It’s a windows-down summer song, for sure. “Hit and Run” scales it back, showcasing Martin’s emotive vocal tone and lyrical abilities to great effect. “Once Was” is a white doo-wop tune with a standout chorus.

It’s not a perfect release: “Bring the Light” conflates “motion” with “melody” as the main draw, while the verses of “Once Was” can be tedious. “Just Call Me” is the sort of overblown sentiment that made “modern pop” a pariah in the first place. Only one of these songs drops below four minutes; Martin could stand to tighten things up a bit. But as a glove tossed in the ring, there have been far, far worse.

Eicher’s been kickin’ it longer than Martin, and it shows. Martin and his band have some work to do. But “Calling Your Bluff” is the sort of song that makes me sign up for more releases by a band: it’s a polished diamond hanging out in the midst of lesser gems. One to watch.

Teleprompter's enthusiastic post-punk/post-hardcore calls up great references

Two of my all-time faves are Bloc Party and LCD Soundsystem. Both are currently not in existence (although BP is supposedly coming back!), which is a depressing state of affairs. But Teleprompter made my day as soon as I pulled up their self-titled EP, as the band sounds almost exactly like Silent Alarm-era Bloc Party. And I love them for it.

When I say exactly, I mean down to the guitar tone. The vocals are higher in pitch than Kele Okereke’s, but other than that, these songs could be outtakes from BP’s masterful debut. Again, this is nothing but a compliment: the reason these could be outtakes is because the songs are the same quality as the A-sides these are aping. And if you cry foul, I dare you to listen and discredit. These songs are legit.

From the guitar storm at the end of “Dinobot” to the herky-jerky riffs and dance-rock drums of “Banshee” to the chiming melodic patterns of “Lung-Tied,” these songs evoke all the best parts of early ’00s indie-rock. But then there’s a hard right midway through “Lung-tied” and into “Lambda”; the band starts showing off its post-hardcore elements as opposed to its post-punk forebears. MeWithoutYou fans, eat your heart out: the vocalist starts hollering like Aaron Weiss, and the band drops into a groove that wouldn’t be out of place on Catch For Us the Foxes. Did I mention that one of the first bands that got me into serious music was MeWithoutYou?

Is Teleprompter’s self-titled EP stuff you’ve heard before? Yes. But it’s stuff that you can’t get anymore; MeWithoutYou and Bloc Party have long since shed these personas. Teleprompter shows a lot of promise to grow into something fantastic; they’re definitely on my top newcomers of the year based on the strength of this five-song EP (There’s a clubtastic remix of an old tune tacked on the end; it’s fun but not indicative of their future).

And if they don’t change at all? I’ll still love ’em.

The dignity of mellow music in defiance of history-mongering

The reason that the world hates LeBron James right now is he is letting down the cult of now. We individually want want to be the best; by extension, we want our specific point in history to best all others. This is why we have invented the term “instant classic.” We demand that our recent history beat all that old stuff. LeBron James is currently the only candidate for “Best Basketball Player of All Time,” and he’s not up to snuff. He even stabbed people in the back to go “prove” it, and he failed. We’re mad that we don’t have the best of all time in our time.

The same syndrome goes for music. We want to have the greatest achievements, the best songs, and the most fertile creative period attributed to us. If something isn’t a genre-changing, goal-post-moving, 500-yard home run, it’s average (and, therefore, not worth the time).

This is tragic, as it sells short history and overhypes the now. It’s especially a bummer for two very good (but not earth-shattering, not even “top 10 of the year”) albums: The Wooden Birds’ “Two Matchsticks” and Jon Middleton’s self-titled effort. Both albums have an easygoing vibe that eschews huge, sweeping moods for a quiet dignity. This is not a quality that is appreciated enough in our time: note the belabored schoolteacher/superstar athlete pay dichotomy.

But “Two Matchsticks” is certainly composed and performed without a concern for pretense. The band is composed mainly of members from Matt Pond PA and American Analog Set, two groups that are almost chronically under-radar because of their resistance to sweeping, epic tactics. It makes sense that the two would create a calming album of solid, quiet indie rock.

The thing with stability is that it’s mostly the same all the time; that’s why it’s stability. “Too Pretty To Say Please” has the best melodies and harmonies of the set, sung in a calm, mildly breathy tenor. “Company Time” is also memorable for its easy groove, added by the hand percussion and gently woozy lead guitar.  The overall beauty of “Two Matchsticks” makes it much more than the sum of its parts; “Folly Cub” is beautiful, but the fact that there are eleven more in the same vein makes the song even stronger in my mind.

Jon Middleton, half of the excellent Jon & Roy, has crafted a release even mellower than “Two Matchsticks,” but possessing the same confident strength. The only instruments on his self-titled album are a lightly strummed acoustic guitar and vocals. There are occasional other contributions, but they are so light — shakers, bass guitar — that they hardly count.

But from beginning to end, the album is a perfectly beach companion or lazy Sunday soundtrack. It’s pleasant in the best way; it immediately pleases the ear and requires not much more than that of the listener. Middleton’s mid-range voice has no rough edges, making the release even more calm. “Vibrant Scene” shows off his guitar chops a bit, speeding up the tempo and letting him drop in some nice melodic flourishes. “Long and Tall,” the standout, shows him fingerpicking his way through a tune and singing the best melody of the batch. It’s the mixtape keeper. I like to have a takeaway track from each album.

Both of these albums could be maligned as boring to the listener who’s looking for the next big thing. I disagree. I think they are proud keepers of a dignified tradition. These albums aren’t going to top the charts, but they have a space in my heart. That’s success to me.