Red Wanting Blue is the personification of the blue-collar road warrior band. Since 1996, the band has been cranking out melodic rock’n’roll/pop that fits neatly next to Counting Crows—which is a great thing in my book, as I know almost every word of August and Everything After. RWB’s newest, From the Vanishing Point, just broke into the Heatseekers chart at #10, which is a hard-earned spot for a band that’s worked diligently for so long. As my Dad quips, “One of these years I’ll be an overnight success.” Here’s their video for the ridiculously catchy “Audition.”
Charlotte & Magon have been charming me for a while (exhibits A, B, C and D), and “The Mining” is no different. The tense, sparse tune draws from trip-hop, electro-pop and post-punk before bursting into a wicked guitar solo. Yes, a guitar solo. They’re ratcheting up for the release later this year of their “magnum opus, rock novel” Life Factory, which is “the story of the working man in search of hope and truth.”
Jacob Furr, whose fingerpicked marvel FinchesI raved over last June, has a batch of new songs called Farther Shores coming on Tuesday. He kindly allowed us to share the first single “Voices on the Sea” in advance of the release.
The song features a chord-heavy version of folk that nods toward his debut album The Only Road. Keening pedal steel, sparse percussion, and accordion lend a high desert feel to the track. The lyrics deal with regrets and travel, which are two of Furr’s consistent themes. The arrangement, vocals and lyrics work together to create a deep sense of longing. If you’re into storytellers like Damien Jurado, Denison Witmer or the Calexico/Iron+Wine collaboration, you’ll be into this.
In the prologue to I’ll Take You There: Pop Music & The Urge for Transcendence, author Bill Friskics-Warren notes that he is interested in “those articulations of the urge for transcendence that have found their way into the popular zeitgeist without recourse to dogmatic or sectarian agendas.” He mentions both lyrics and music in his book, but I love the sound much more. And Chris North’s Lovedream, the first great album I’ve heard in 2012, offers up some incredibly transcendent sound.
Chris North, whose previous release under his own name I reviewed a few months ago, is not trying to fool anyone: there are a ton of people who will christen this dream-pop, nod at the name, and move on. But there’s more to Lovedream than just the back half of the name. The album fully encompasses its moniker: these aren’t coyly affectionate songs, these are jubilant hymns to the ecstatic, revelatory state of love. At its best, the modern conception of love feels like a utopian dream: this 11-track gem is the soundtrack to that delirious mutual infatuation. And if these songs appropriate sounds that are traditionally associated with heavenly arias, all the better.
North uses acoustic guitar as the base instrument for his dream-pop, using reverb, stacking and treble-boosting pedals/effects (I’m guessing on the last one) to turn these songs into soaring, jubilant paeans. The fact that he’s creating a musical interpretation of bliss while singing ostensibly sad things (“500 Miles,” “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean”) just confirms the transcendent power of the arrangements.
And these aren’t pristine pieces; that would take away from their effect. The strings and background vocals provide wonderful heft to the tunes, but are often wild and unkempt. There are instrumental parts that sound like mistakes. North’s low voice is captured as it is, not as some auto-tuner would make it. But these things only contribute to the sound: the album feels raw, ragged and real, even as it sounds completely otherworldly. “Indian Love Call” is a swirling instrumental piece, while “The Old Door” is a pop song with a melody that feels pulled from a hymnal. “The Road to Yesterday” is what bluegrass sounds like on the way up there, and “Stay Cool” features a great bass/drums groove. This is the sound of current “indie,” filtered through golden waves of light.
The major coup of Chris North’s Lovedream is not that it sounds dreamy; a lot of bands can do that. Instead, it sounds like more than a dream: this gives a form and a weight to the yearning for a greater, more beautiful plane of existence. Whether that’s a goal to be achieved in this life, the next or both, Lovedream is a reminder to those listening of what transcendence they seek. For me, it sounds like a high-up window letting in sounds from heaven which inspires reverence now.
I listen to so much pop music that I’m impervious to humming all but the catchiest of tunes. But even my melodically jaded self can’t stop from singing along with “When I Write My Master’s Thesis” by John K. Samson. The leader of the Weakerthans’ new solo album is called Provincial, and it includes the aforementioned power-pop gem. Samson’s excellent vocals carry a thoughtful, wry set of lyrics about the difficulty of monumental tasks which will appeal to an audience far larger than just graduate students. Add to that a perky Weezer/Fountains of Wayne guitar line, and you’ve got gold.
Rebecca Zapen’s delicate “Swamp Pit” sways with a charm reminiscent of a stately, classy woman leaning over to you and unexpectedly revealing her affections. There’s no big move or huge shift; it’s just a lovely little waltz. The lyrics are wonderful and perfectly matched to the melodies, as well.
Torn Shoe Records, which is run by quirky acoustic dudes The Mothafolkin’ Soul, will soon release a comp called Torn Shoe Vol. 1. The release includes TMS, The Cimarron Music Show, Timmy Lane, Arthur Elias, and Josh Hathcock. You can check out two tracks from it at the label’s Bandcamp. Both are really earnest, melodic acoustic tunes without the polished sheen of John Mayer or Matt Nathanson. [Editor’s note: This label is inactive and this release is unavailable.]
It seems that I am obsessed with the indie music of Australia. The number of bands from down under that I’ve been repping is now close to ten with the addition of Smith & Frank. Their gentle ambient/acoustic tune “Charlie” is more concrete than most ambient tracks, but less structured than most acoustic-pop. The well-handled balance of spacious vibe and layered arrangement results in a unique and interesting experience. I’m definitely looking forward to more tunes from this duo.
You may have heard that Sleigh Bells is releasing a new album. If it can’t get here fast enough for you, some Sleigh Bells-esque noise-pop action is available in Ugly Kids Club‘s “Diamond in Your Fire.” You’ll hear SB’s influence all over it, but when the melodies are this infectious, who cares? The video itself is really weird; just go with it.
While we’re on the subject of strange videos, here’s TimPermanent’s “Busy” clip. The song itself is a burbling indie-electro tune that owes The Postal Service a debt of gratitude. The video is something else entirely.
I’m reviewing fewer and fewer bands with the word “hardcore” in their genre name, but I don’t abandon friends. A Road to Damascus‘s video to “What a Waste of Breath” shows off their pop-punk/hardcore in a tour video: if you’re not down with the genre, it’s worth jumping to 1:45 to see a five-second clip of the bassist pulling off a one-handed cartwheel on stage while holding his bass. I don’t see that every day.
SoundCloud has reached 10,000,000 sound creators, which is a pretty impressive number. The guys behind the project have created a Story Wheel to tell the history of SoundCloud. It’s a pretty fun little slide-show and presentation, and it’s only a few minutes long. Story Wheel is a pretty cool little app/program as well – I hadn’t heard of it until this came in over the wire.
I grew from my pop-punk roots into a deep admiration of Sufjan Stevens’ intricate arrangements and Death Cab for Cutie’s use of all band members on Transatlanticism. Sufjan is self-explanatory, but the latter album’s careful maximization of every band member’s skills is now something I seek out in music. If you can apply both of these elements to pop-punk, well, that’s nigh on heroic.
Signals Midwest is that band. Latitudes and Longitudes is easily the most carefully crafted album of punk rock I have ever heard. I don’t even want to call it punk rock, because the audience for this band is far greater than guys and girls who love three-chord stomping (and trust me, there’s great love for that in my heart). Signals Midwest has put together a statement, and that’s impressive.
It starts toward the end of opener “In Tensions,” which is a perfectly-chosen descriptive title to set the tone. The band drops out, and vocalist Maxwell Stern is left alone over an finger-picked acoustic guitar: “I was counting the miles/You were counting the days/And it’s strange that the numbers we wanted/were moving in opposite ways.” The lyric and melody appears twice more in the album: once in the next track “Monarchs” and once in closer “The Weight and The Waiting.” So there’s an intro, then a re-statement of theme, then the body, then a reaffirmation of theme as the closer? Yes, this is that organized.
The sound is incredible as well. Two guitarists, a bassist and a drummer give all they’ve got on these ten tracks: Rarely does the band drop into four-on-the-floor, pound-it-out mode. The songs all feature a rhythmically and melodically unique lead guitar line, backed up by rapidfire bass and heavily patterned drums. “Family Crest” is mind-boggling in its construction, as each member seems to be maxing out his capabilities. And it’s not even the best song, because technical proficiency is only one of the things that makes this band. Oh, and just to overawe you some more: they recorded most of this thing live.
But the melodic capability and corresponding vocal fury really set this apart from other bands. Single “The Quiet Persuader” opens up with a neat guitar line that recalls early 2000s pop-punk before snapping into martial rhythms and delivering the lead to Stern, who just rips the song apart with his passionate vocal performance. His voice is permanently halfway between singing and yelling, in that zone that seems exclusively the domain of punk rock. He may persuade quietly, but that’s the only thing he does without volume. “I Was Lost” has a wiry groove to it; “Memo” is crushing in its tension and release. “Limnology” is a how-to on mid-tempo rock.
But Latitudes and Longitudes isn’t all throwdowns: “January and Seven” is a poignant, acoustic ballad that doesn’t go maudlin or sterile, as is the sin of many punk acoustic tracks. It’s a clear-eyed acknowledgment of the toughness of being. Turns around every corner: closer “The Weight and The Waiting” casually throws in a horn section to cap off the album. It’s a perfect way to sum up the message of the album: it’s a tough life, especially when your friends are far away. But when those friends are all in one place, it’s a celebration of life. And with the hope of those future meetings in place, we press on.
Latitudes and Longitudes is what happens when four men at the top of their game get together and think hard about how to best use their skills. This is easily one of the best of ’11 in any genre, and I’ll be listening to this long into ’12. Do yourself a favor and check it out.
Two Suns, the ambient/dark/dreamy/electronic project of Jake Davidson, is releasing Dream Familiar one song at a time. The third of these tracks off the 10-song album is “Nostalgic.” The tender acoustic piece is appropriately named.
Mombi‘s “The Misunderstanding” is the second ambient piece of the day, although this one builds synths on top of synths for a drifting, free-floating feeling.
I’ve featured maybe five reggae bands in the almost nine years of Independent Clauses, so I was as shocked as anyone to find myself drawn to the white-girl reggae of Wild Belle‘s “Keep You.” I mean, those coy vocals! And that honking bass sax! This is so great!
In ESPN’s 30 for 30 film “Jordan Rides the Bus,” Michael Jordan is noted as being relieved that his first professional baseball spring game experiences were terrible. He wanted to get the initial mistakes out of the way and get on to playing. Artists’ debuts are often like that: “let’s get it done and learn from it.” In an age where “release” is a shifting concept, this sometimes means as much as a whole album of uneven content or as little as sporadic singles released on unheralded Soundcloud accounts. But the mantra stands: you have to start somewhere.
The Phusion starts with In the Shadows of Giants, which does the neat side-step of acknowledging in the title that there are a lot of influences on display. And there are: the jazz/funk/indie group throws down chord progressions generally associated with jazz (“Moving Fast,” “Birdbrain”), ripping bass lines (“All That You Are,” “Comfortable Prison”), and a liberal dose of Ladies and Gentlemen-era Spiritualized synth wash (“Where Did They Go?”). The ph/fusion is the thing on display here. The band does a pretty good job of synthesizing, yet it’s still clear that these are disparate influences mashed together with a great deal of rehearsal. The evidence of thought and practice show up all over, however, in the precision with which the instrumentalists interact. If they keep this work ethic together (or even work harder), then they will be on their way to building their own little corner of the indie-verse.
The Phusion hasn’t found its unique voice yet, and that’s totally fine. Radiohead didn’t figure out who they were on Pablo Honey, either. But they throw down some intriguing ideas on In The Shadow of Giants, and that’s what a debut should do.
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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.