Even though Independent Clauses has been a website in transition for most of its 8.5 years, each iteration has brought it closer to stability. This latest reinvention of Independent Clauses as a daily blog has been so incredibly enjoyable that I feel comfortable naming 2011 as my favorite year of Independent Clauses’ existence.
I’m not going to mess with a good thing. For perhaps the first time in IC history, I’m not starting any initiatives in a new year. You can look forward to daily content about underappreciated music throughout 2012. I’m definitely looking forward to it.
4: Laura Stephenson and the Cans – Sit Resist. There’s not a single bad tune on this album, you can sing along to almost all of them, and they pull off the “multiple genres but overarching mood” thing perfectly.
3: Jenny and Tyler – Faint Not. Their cute pop turned into churning folk-rock overnight, and the effect is hair-raising and goosebump-inducing. There were few moments as dramatic as the full-band entry in “Song for You” this year; Faint Not was the only album that made me write the sentence “I forget to breathe.”
2: The Collection – The Collection EP. The melodies and instrumentation seem effortlessly perfect on this folk album. David Wimbish’s lyrics and deft and quick, delivered in a vastly adaptable voice that seals the deal. “Stones” is just a wonder.
I’m incredibly excited that I’ve finished my year-end lists actually correspond with the end of the year. Without further pontificating, here’s the first half of the year’s best.
Honorable Mention: LCD Soundsystem – Madison Square Garden Show. It’s not an official release, but it proves that the tightest live band in the world only got tighter with time. “Yeah” is an absolute powerhouse.
11. “Nights Like This” – Icona Pop. I love a chorus that I can belt at the top of my lungs in a moving vehicle, and this dance-pop gem provides. I get shivers just thinking about those euphoric “whoa-oh-oh-OH-oh”s.
5. “Song for You” – Jenny and Tyler. Jenny and Tyler transformed from a Weepies-esque duo to a powerful, churning folk-rock duo, and this song is the best example. I get shivers when the band crashes in.
4. “Norgaard” – The Vaccines. When I turned in my last paper, I put this pop-punk rave-up on repeat and danced all the way home. I’m sure people thought I was nuts. I don’t care – the song is that good.
3. “Kitchen Tile” – Typhoon. I’ve got a book on my stack to read about rock’n’roll and the desire for transcendence; Typhoon has already achieved it in folk with this song. Vocal melody, choirs, horns, strings, This is everything I want in a folk tune.
2. “Sticks & Stones” – Jonsi. The charging rhythm, unique textures and ethereal vocals made this the most infectious song I heard all year. I rocked this one all summer … and fall.
I’ve rarely been on-the-ball enough to get my year end lists done by December 31, but this year I made a concerted effort to have all my 2011 reviewing done early. As a result, I was able to put together not just a top 20 albums list, but a top 50 songs mixtape and a top 11 songs list. Here’s the mixtape, organized generally from fast’n’loud to slow’quiet. Hear all of the songs at their links, with one exception of a purchase link (#27). The other lists will come over the next few days.
Bison‘s orchestral folk-pop takes a bit different tack than The Collection, who I’ve gushed over repeatedly. Bison’s debut album Quill uses the seriousness of Fleet Foxes’ grounded sound as a framework, layering strings, bells and more on top. “Iscariot” and “The Woodcutter’s Son” have a darkly pastoral bent that recalls pre-The King is Dead Decemberists. But it’s not all heavy and bleak; the title track and “Switzerland” show off a deft balance of meaningfulness and instrumental levity. The former is especially buoyed by a perky, rumbling tom roll.
Vocalist Benjamin Hardesty has a less unusual but no less malleable tenor voice than Colin Meloy, and that lends considerable enjoyment to these tunes. While his voice is the focus in several tunes, the instrumental and near-choral arrangements take precedence in others. This focus is rare for folk, no matter how much instrumental virtuosity is praised in the related genre of bluegrass; instead of being about the individual performances (as in that genre), Bison’s folk is very concerned with mood through the writing of parts. There are many intros and outros, setting the stage for tunes: this took some getting used to for me, a fan of immediate folk tunes. It’s not bad, just unusual: this is an asset toward their originality, after I got used to it.
But every folk lover will breathe a sigh of contentment at “Autumn Snow,” which starts out with a gentle, poignant, fingerpicked guitar line before adding vocals and strings. It’s a fantastic tune that shows Hardesty’s vocals in full bloom, and showcases the band’s straight-up songwriting skill.
Bison’s debut Quillestablishes the band as one to watch in 2012. Their vision is slightly different than most folk bands, and that results in interesting, fun-to-hear tunes. I’m excited to see what Bison will be able to do with some refining and a few more tunes under the belt.
I review a lot of music that doesn’t yet have the critical acclaim it deserves. Wussy‘s Strawberry, on the other hand, is on the other end of the spectrum. The Cincinnatians have garnered tons of critical acclaim since they started kickin’ it in the early 2000s: Robert Christgau gave this album an A, and Village Voice has called them “one of the best bands in the world.” The band has a connection to the alt- sounds of the ’90s (both Pavement and Gin Blossoms, notably), while incorporating some ’80s jangle-pop and ’70s clang. The overall mood is one of enthusiastic slackerdom: the catchy sound never gets too wild, but it never drops into true emotive balladeering (despite flirtations with the genre). It’s remarkably consistent in mood; if you like the first track, you have a fair shot at liking every track. ’90s-style indie-rockers, rejoice!
It’s appropriate that Wild Domestic was introduced to me as a “post-jam band.” While their song moods on their five-song, 38-minute self-titled debut skew toward the dark/artsy vibe that post-rock bands have made a name of, the off-the-cuff melodies and tight instrumental interplay recall .moe. Wild Domestic tightropes the line between the two idioms incredibly well in several tunes: “Universally Known/Already Forgotten” features a brilliant guitar melody that builds into a full rock section before dropping into a jam-friendly structure, while “What Once Ran Wild” turns a gymnastic performance from the drummer (constant eighth-note toms for over four minutes) into a hypnotic foundation for yearning guitar and vocal melodies. (The band has vocalists available; they just often choose to not sing.)
When the members can keep both sides of their spectrum in full view, their sound is balanced and unique. When one side of the sound takes over, it’s at the expense of Wild Domestic’s songwriting clarity. “In a Well Lit Room” is nice, but there’s a bit too much guitar noodling and rhythm section vamping for my taste. “Cowboy Boots and Casual Suits” eschews the quick tempos and full sound that marked their first two winners for a slow-building, pensive post-rocker. The atmosphere created is quite pretty, but the track lacks the inspired momentum of their best work. Closer “Gusty Winds May Exist” is also in the latter vein, although things start to gel toward the five-minute mark of the seven-minute piece.
Wild Domestic‘s jammy post-rock vision is one that I would love to see developed more. They’ve established a sound they can build on and delivered two nuggets of excellence; that’s a job well done on a debut.
It’s amazing the amount of racket that can be made with a distorted bass guitar. Heavier Than Air Flying Machines‘ wild post-punk/post-hardcore attack has a wicked bite due to the thunderous lines laid down by bassist Jeremy Pyne. The guitars are still an integral part of debut album Siam, but vocalist/guitarist Jaymes Pyne has much more influence as the acrobatic throat of the group than a fretsman. His bombastic vocals stretch from the theatrical caterwaul of System of a Down’s work [“Follicle Gang (Green)”] to the shrieking falsetto of The Darkness (“Folio Verso”); The only constant is that they are forceful the entire time. (The group yells so often used are manically enthusiastic as well.)
That piece can be extrapolated: HTAFM is almost always forceful on Siam. The only exception is “Abacus Abacus,” which trades At the Drive-In/Death From Above 1979 comparisons for Bloc Party ones. It’s a nice break from the near-constant chaos of the album, and they connect it to their primary sound through a breakdown/chorus thing. They then slap listeners in the face with the banging sheet of distortion that is “Relativity,” just in case you were getting soft.
But while that’s the closest BP comparison, there are other dance-related elements peppered throughout. “Ascent of the Iron Talmud” throws down a nearly-funky bass groove, while “Malleable In So Far” has a staccato swagger that could pass as the dancy end of Spoon if the bass weren’t fuzzed out to the maximum.
But those are the outliers. The majority of this album is spazzy, energetic rocking, from the intimidating pacing of opener “Bedlam.Twain.Control.Towers” through the ratatat of “Vitiated/Continental” to the doomy crush of closer “Catastrophe I Castigation.” The totally sincere Heavier Than Air Flying Machines explode with a profoundly dangerous sound, and that makes Siam incredibly attractive. Rage against the machines, indeed.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.