I’m going from loudest to softest during Phratry Week, so Mala In Se‘s self-titled release is the clear and easy choice for starting point.
The phrase means “wrongs in themselves,” “acts morally wrong,” and/or “offenses against conscience.” I immediately thought that the brutal thrash/noise/post-hardcore songs were the offenses, but it instead refers to animal cruelty and governmental excesses. I picked that up from the press release and song titles (“Time Lapse Photography of Decomposing Animals,” “Disease Auction,” “Lie On,” “Devil’s Dung”), because I’ve never been adept at picking up screamed/shrieked lyrics.
Lyrics aside, the songwriting is incredible. In the 3:46 of opener “Time Lapse Photography,” the band rips through thrash, hardcore, punk, post-hardcore and doom, never landing in one place for longer than thirty second. I’m a big fan of the punk section at 2:45-2:59.
“Devil’s Dung” has a supremely mathy opening section that drops into an eerie single-note guitar section (indie rock? what?), proving that this band can do more than just hammer out various loud genres. Then they throw in some Asian themes around 4:30, in a surprising and fascinating move. The band deconstructs the idea of genre to achieve the desired effect of totally blowing the minds of those who usually listen to heavy music. These guys are composers.
Mala In Se is an achievement that should not be overlooked by fans of heavy music.
Cincinatti’s Phratry Records (fray-tree reck-ords, or -erds, depending on where y’all live) is an old-school label. It has a roster, promotes tour dates, handles distribution, and sends me packages of releases. I do most of my work through online downloads — simply because it’s easier and costs artists/labels less — but Phratry still sends me the real releases. That’s awesome.
They also don’t follow trends. They release what they like, whether grinding noise or contemporary classical. This is why a week of Phratry releases isn’t going to be boring; instead, it will be more diverse than a usual week at IC, which is already a somewhat unusual mix. Phratry’s spring releases, which appeared on my desk only recently (mail/roommates/generic other junk) are worth a hear, so for the next 7 days you’ll hear more about this fascinating record label’s stuff.
Barry (three dudes, not one guy) is a folk trio that ate an indie-rock band whole and had a comedian for dessert. Still, their songs are more firmly entrenched in the folk tradition than most new folk artists, in that I can see “Drink One More” being covered to the point that no one remembers who actually wrote it.
Even though “For Your Own Good” has harmonica, acoustic guitar and tom-heavy drumming, the vocals contribute the twitchy energy of a Titus Andronicus or Replacements song. The bowed stand-up bass of “Carnival(e)” contributes to the dark, pulsing Modest Mouse feel. The aforementioned “Drink One More” has a lot ripped from the indie-pop camp: melodies, background vocals, synths (yes, airy synths).
And that comedian’s streak? The title track is a a cappella foot-stomper about how they are tired from not sleeping enough. Not even kidding. It’s hilarious, in that they not only thought it was a good idea, they made it the title track. Rock that.
In fact, it’s the straight folk/country tunes that fare worst, as “Three Years in Carolina” and “Love Something Too Much” don’t match up to the engaging, entertaining amalgam of the other tunes. They aren’t bad, they’re just totally faceless. “Great Unknown” barely avoids this fate due to a nice set of lyrics and a dramatic vocal performance, but it’s still a bit too long at five minutes.
That’s an argument that can be levied at all of the songs, actually; most hang out around the five-minute mark, with only the 48-second title track as an outlier. “For Your Own Good” is close to four, and it’s a solid length.
Is it any surprise that the tracks that seem least serious are the winners, or that they’re the ones that incorporate the extra-folk-ular influences? That comedian’s streak runs deep, and it’s important to the success of Barry’s Yawnin’ in the Dawnin’. Here’s to hoping they keep bein’ chilled out incorporators of good influences into folk structures. Can we get these guys on tour with O’Death? Or maybe Avett Brothers? Thanks, justice.
Scenes aside, Kris Orlowski has established a foundation for himself in the five-song At the Fremont Abbey EP. His voice is a slurry delight, somewhere between the low-pitched snark of Craig Finn (The Hold Steady) and the high-pitched emotionality of Scott Hutchison (Frightened Rabbit). He applies that voice to a batch of solid acoustic guitar-based songs augmented with strings; this particular group was recorded live at the titular space.
I more often feel that songwriters need to loosen up than get more serious, but Orlowski flips the script. He bookends his set standouts “Your Move” and “Jessi,” both weight, impassioned tunes that a man could make a career out of purveying. But in between there are various levels of frivolity, from charming (the inspired “Waltz at Petunia”) to out-of-character (the Mraz-esque pseudo-scatting of “Steady and Slow”). Orlowski attempts to save the latter with a good chorus, but it’s perky and weird. Orlowski does best when he sounds like a non-roaring Damien Rice or Joseph Arthur.
The string quartet makes a surprisingly limited stamp on the lesser tracks (especially “Postcard Man,” which sounds like a Parachutes reject). But they absolutely make the chorus of the beautiful, mournful “Jessi.” “Your Move” is given life by the strings, but it’s the mixed chorus that takes the song home and onto mixes.
Orlowski has shown a lot of variation throughout this EP, but there’s no defining feature. The strings are an integral part of his sound, but they aren’t the x factor. Orlowski needs to work on what his thing is: whether that’s melodies, tight lyrics, songwriting style (sparse/full), unique rhythms (all straightforward here) or whatever else. There’s a lot of raw potential in Orlowski, but he’s got to capture the best parts of “Jessi” and “Your Move” and make them work for him – or, the other songs, if that’s the way he’s gonna roll.
First things first: IC fave Josh Caress‘s new project Come On Pilgrim! has released its first single. “The Region of the Summer Stars” is a growth and continuation of the path toward Arcade Fire-style indie rock that he’s been following since rebooting his sound for Josh Caress Goes On An Adventure! I was incredibly excited for the album, and now I’m even more stoked. Caress’ vocals have a confidence that comes from being comfortable with your backing band, which is a big step forward.
The Appleseed Cast, another IC favorite, released Middle States EP last month. It is a true EP, in that is marking time between two major releases: 2009’s Sagarmatha and 2012’s promised album. The 28-minute EP contains only four tracks and three real songs, as “Interlude” is exactly that. Of the three realized songs, “Three Rivers” is a 14-minute, simplistic post-rock tune that stretches out too far even for a fan of post-rock, minimalism and Appleseed Cast, leaving “End Frigate Constellation” and “Middle States” as the treasures here. The former shows off the band’s churning composition skills and incredible drumming, while the latter sounds vital and oceanic. The first is Peregrine, while the second is Mare Vitalis. It’s not really a full release, nor is it supposed to be. But man, am I ever excited for the next Appleseed album.
The idiosyncratic horns and strings of these nine songs make them better described as compositions. The odd dissonances and polyrhythms are strongly related to improvisational groups like Fight the Big Bull and vaguely reminiscent of highly orchestrated songwriters Sufjan Stevens (the fluttery saxes on “Honeychild”) and Dirty Projectors. But Stamper isn’t freestyling. The songs may sound completely random at times, but they were forethought by a human. (Read also: Not a robot.)
While Stamper sounds rather unplanned at times, these tunes reside in (an unusual corner of) the songwriter ballpark. While “Wake, Worried Sleeper, Wake” will overflow the boundaries of the average listener’s musical tastes, it still has a tender heart beating at its center. Stamper’s gentle voice, never completely given fully to melody, strikes a nice balance between the halves of his speak/sing delivery. His horns and strings never sound rough or gruff.
The title track is anchored by a repeated acoustic guitar bit, while the vocal melody of “Well” is almost catchy. “Arbor” sounds like a meandering cross between Jack Johnson strum and sonorous Low Anthem horns. But there, and especially in “Incredible People,” the difficult balance of pop sentiments (Stamper played bass on Danielson’s latest album) and composer’s moves creates a tension that sometimes feels like a man with a particularly dry humor trying to write playful, fun music.
That’s why the two best pieces almost entirely give over to classical music. The acoustic guitar and voice of “Press” prove that Stamper’s off-kilter rhythmic and melodic ideas don’t apply just to horns, while the instrumental “Away My Sin,” with its beautiful french horns, is the most transcendent piece here.
Interstitials is an oddly compelling release that introduced me to a creative, thoughtful composer. Whether Stamper will focus his attentions on pop, “classical” or refining his current vision of a place somewhere in between is yet to be seen, but that decision will need to take place before the next album. Stamper’s album is good, but it’s a point on the road and not a stopping point.
I Build Collapsible Mountains is on the shortlist of favorite band names I’ve heard this year. While I was expecting some sort of post-rock (a la Godspeed! You Black Emperor, Explosions in the Sky and Moving Mountains), I was pleasantly surprised to find a chill collection of acoustic tunes in this self-titled EP.
Luke Joyce, the Scot behind IBCM, has a pleasant, calming voice that matches the gentle, acoustic backdrops he sets. Even when he ropes in a full band arrangement for “To the Dark,” the sound still feels intimate. Still, the best moments come when it’s strictly guitar and voice. Joyce’s songwriting stands up impressively on its own.
Joyce prefers fingerpicking to strumming, and that makes a big difference in how his songs come across. The movement in the melody lines provides the bit of compelling interest that isn’t supplied by his aforementioned voice; a bit of auxiliary melody via bells (“Rails”) or atmospheric synth (“Where We Go Tomorrow”) is the icing on the cake. “Switches” uses reverb as almost its own instrument, and the forlorn feel he conjures up is the darkest on the EP, which deals in pleasant shades of grey.
Fans of Damien Jurado will find many similar traits in I Build Collapsible Mountains, especially in the cultivation of emotional atmosphere through use of space in the sparse arrangements. If there’s more in this vein (i.e. he doesn’t go all rock band on us), things look very bright appropriately moody for IBCM. One to watch.
Colorfeels‘ Syzygy is pretty much a primer of indie rock circa 2011: Grizzly Bear’s rustic qualities (“Pretty Walk,” “Be There”), Fleet Foxes’ harmonies (“Mirrored Walls”), Vampire Weekend’s triumphant afro-beat rhythms and textures (“Unplanned Holiday”), alt-country (“Fun Machine”), Bishop Allen’s quirky enthusiasm (the clarinet in “Fun Machine”), Generationals’ perky bass contributions (everywhere) and The Dirty Projectors’ free-flowing song styles (everywhere again). Thankfully, the band eschewed the currently en vogue garage rock recording style for an immaculately clear one.
It’s this pristine engineering that saves this from being a pastiche; even if you’ve heard all of these sounds before, they sound incredibly gorgeous coming from Colorfeels. The clarinet and piano on “Be There” may call up notions of everyone from Wilco to the Beatles, but the sound is so striking that you may not care (or even really notice). This is true of almost every tune — with the exception of “Zenzizenzizenzic,” whose shameless Muse appropriation feels totally out of place. I really enjoyed Syzygy on my first listen, but several minutes later I couldn’t remember anything about it except that I wanted to hear those pretty songs again. And they are very pretty.
After a half-dozen listens with the same ending thoughts (which is saying something — this debut is an hour long), I realized that Colorfeels has no signature. This album is gorgeous and almost infinitely malleable, but there’s not a single thing that screams COLORFEELS WAS HERE!
It should be noted that there aren’t any gimmicks to make it look like the band has a stamp (see aforementioned garage rock). For this they should be lauded; they are not hiding anything. They are what they are, and they let you hear that. That is admirable.
Syzygy is a mesmerizing indie-rock album that wears a lot of masks. Whether or not this was the intent is something only the members of Colorfeels can say. But I would love to see a group of instrumentalists and songwriters this talented explore one area of songwriting more thoroughly and place their stamp on music. It’s comforting and familiar, but there’s more to music than that.
Matthew Solberg‘s high, breathy voice sounds like Elliott Smith’s. This immediately invokes unfair Smith comparisons and throws any little flaw into a distinct light (also unfair). Smith’s control of his voice was part of what made him king of sad, so it’s a tall order for Solberg to be compared.
That doesn’t mean that Solberg couldn’t learn from Smith. Solberg’s album has tunes in three distinct categories: fleet instrumentals, fingerpicked folk and strummed pop. The instrumentals are the most assured of the bunch; both “Petrified” and “Time Runs Out” are melodic, confident and memorable. “Moonlit Walk” is only a little less confident.
The fingerpicked folk, when relying on guitar, is solid. When Solberg pushes his voice to the extremes of range or volume, it starts to get stressed (the otherwise brilliant “Silent Wooden Memories,” “New Delight”). However, Solberg definitely has instrumental and songwriting skill, and he has a perfectly fine voice when he stays in a comfortable range: “Lullaby” is a gentle tune that shows off both his guitar skill and vocal abilities. But when he goes loud or hard, as he often does in his strummed pop (the chorus of “Whatever You Say,” “The Grotto”), things get a bit off-kilter.
Matthew Solberg’s songwriting is solid. With more control of his voice, he could become a big hit with Elliott Smith fans.
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.