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Month: August 2012

The Parmesans' porch-pickin' bluegrass transcends regionalism

I love complicated, in-depth, hugely orchestrated albums. (See here and here.) But I also love the simple purity of a bunch of guys in a room with instruments, singin’ and playin’. The ParmesansUncle Dad’s Cabin EP is the latter.

Since the Internet, regionalism is much less of a thing–which is why I’m comfortable telling you that The Parmesans are from San Francisco and play thoroughly credible bluegrass.The guitar/banjo/mandolin/bass/group vocals set-up is employed to great effect. They kick the short set off with “Blooming Rose,” which is pretty much a marker to establish their bluegrass bona fides. It’s got everything you need to know about their technical skill. Then it gets interesting, as highlights “The Riddle Song” and “Brahms Was a Satanist” (!) come next. The first has a jaunty mood, memorable melodies and harmonies, and a great feel. The second features the guitarist, and picks up the question of what, exactly, Johannes Brahms believed. Their, uh, unusual take on the idea is presented in a pretty hilarious way.

Two more solid tunes follow, and they cement the aesthetic and my enjoyment of it. If you’re into porch-pickin’ bluegrass, you should definitely check this out. Although I’m not sure how many porches exist in cramped San Francisco; whatever. The spirit stays the same: I mean, they have a song on their tumblr called “Heinous Pit of Death.” Yes.

Jared Lekites’ vintage pop brings out clapping and smiles

In the great Beatles vs. Beach Boys debate, I side firmly with the Beach Boys. There was a period in my life which was at least a month but could have been as many as three months that I only listened to the Beach Boys’ greatest hits, which did quite a bit for my critical aesthetics (as did a later obsession: a whole spring listening to every Cake album at that point written). While Jared Lekites would probably pick the Beach Boys between the two (he covers “Girl Don’t Tell Me”!), his songwriting is influenced strongly by both bands.

Since I’m a bigger fan of “409” than “Yesterday,” I immediately heard the sha-woop and sha-la-la harmonies so integral to the Beach Boys’ sound when I heard the Star Map opener “Too Far Gone.” The perky tune relies heavily on vocals, clapping and familiar start-stop rhythms, making its influences an easy peg. The title track, which follows, is a jubilant track about California. But then “For Lack of a Better Heart” apes all the best parts of the Beatles’ sound (which also includes clapping and vocal melodies, but in different harmonic structures). “Don’t Leave Me Now” has a Lennon/Harrison vibe going on. (Bonus: These songs are very nicely recorded, which allows all the parts to pop out.)

I could keep writing, but here’s the skinny: Star Map is a vintage, guileless pop album that will make you smile. The songs are strong, the melodies are catchy, and Lekites has clearly worked his tail off to make it so (just like the aforementioned bands did). If you’re into bands like Ladybug Transistor and The Redwalls, this will be right up your alley.

Adam Hill's shows his strengths and experiments a bit

Adam Hill‘s Two Hands, Tulips is the fourth folk release of Hill’s that has crossed my desk. Nate Williams raved about the first two (which Hill released under his own name), I put in a good word for the collaborative Magrane Hill release, and now I’m about to say great things about this one. That consistency should be as strong a selling point as the following words.

Even without that context, I would heartily recommend this album. Since Hill played every instrument and collected every bit of found sound, the album is an incredibly coherent statement. Hill weaves in radio clips, found performances and other noise throughout the album; some sounds are given their own interludes (“Sarabande I,” “For Me and My Gal,” “Sarabande II”) while others add context and emotive power to the bigger songs (“Dust Disease,” “Raleigh and Spencer,” “He Calls That Religion”). Josh Caress’ Letting Go of a Dream, my favorite album that I’ve ever discovered through Independent Clauses, uses this idea skillfully as well–so I’m totally excited about this idea. While Hill aims less for the romantic side of things with the tactic than Caress, the emotional impact of the interludes is similar between the two albums.

Hill stays lyrically in folk-singer mode for much of Two Hands, Tulips, protesting fake pastors (“He Calls That Religion”), poor working conditions for miners (“Dust Disease), and other doomed characters (“These Vignettes”). When he takes a break from that, it’s for a couple well-placed lovelorn songs (“French Films,” “The Train That Carried My Girl From Town”).

Musically, Hill primarily gives us folk and country; since he’s gotten good at it, why change it up? His confident, reedy tenor meshes naturally with his acoustic guitar. Tunes like “With Wistful Glances” and “Dust Disease” just work; everything comes together for a satisfying tune. It’s the sound of experience meeting hard work, and I love it.

When he does take risks, the results are mixed. The dramatic mood and arrangement of “These Vignettes” doesn’t make it the highlight of the album, but it’s still a good song. “CLQK” is a quiet fingerpicker cluttered by extraneous zooming found sound, while “She Heard a Sound” is a gypsy folk tune that doesn’t fit on the album at all (and since it’s second-to-last, it’s easy to ignore). Still, it’s nice to hear an artist clearly exercise the skills that have become a comfort zone (to the listener’s benefit!) as well as experiment a bit.

Adam Hill knows his way around a folk tune, and he knows it. Hearing him press his boundaries while exerting his strengths makes for a very enjoyable album of folk. Fans of troubadour strummers like Johnny Flynn and Justin Townes Earle should take note.

Fall, Slowly Mini-mix

I’ve got a bunch of singles to throw your way, so here’s a mini-mix. It kicks off on an upbeat note and then drops you right into the season with track two.

Fall, Slowly Mini-mix

1. “The Day” – The Tiny Elephants. Perspective knocks in the form of a jaunty pop tune.
2. “Believe” – World Tour. Maybe this is winter music? Definitely it’s chilled-out beauty.
3. “Wish” – Prints. Click-heavy beats, burbling synths and a night-on-the-highway electronic vibe make it feel all mid-’00s up in here.
4. “Caves” – Founds. Flowing instruments carry a swooning vocal line, and the whole thing grows into a pounding whirl before disappearing. Wow.
5. “How It Ends, How It Starts” – Big Dead. Dusky, jazzy, sultry beauty.
6. “How It Went Down” – Dark Dark Dark. I love that the title dovetails with the above track. More piano/patient cymbal instrumentation, but a woman on the jazzy vox here.
7. “Going” – Carl Hauck. Hauck’s voice is a warm blanket on a cold night, and his acoustic songwriting is that moment you put on a pair of shoes and immediately know you’ve always loved them.
8. “Not Knowing” – Clara Engel. The Jason Molina school of songwriting dictates ultra-slow tempos, sparse instrumentation, and an almost overwhelming gravitas. Engel is an A+ student with her incredibly moving songs.

Eight-minute releases: Awkward Age / Hectorina

Awkward Age‘s self-titled 7″ is four tunes of straightforward three-man pop-punk. It takes less than eight minutes of your time, because Vic Alvarez and co. don’t mess around. They throw down hooky guitar riffs, wicked bass lines, rapid-fire drumming and melodic vocals. But it’s not all chord-mashing; they find the time to kick in an unexpected breakdown during “In Montreal,” and there’s a tiny guitar solo in “You Can’t Deny This,” and … okay, the rest is chord mashing. And it’s great, because they know that you don’t have to pad the run-time to improve the quality. If you love pop-punk without girlishly high vocals, try out Awkward Age.

From Dick Dale and “Wipeout” to the Pixies and the San Francisco garage-rock explosion of late, surf-rock has been the ground zero of some wild, wild music in many eras. Charlotte’s Hectorina continues the tradition, mixing surf, prog, punk and garage rock into a zany amalgam. The band’s Hey Hey Safety Man EP crams all of that into three slices that (also) clock at just under eight minutes.

In that span, they find time for three drum solos (one in “Beware of the Red Ape,” two in “K-Town Makes a Comeback”), frantic howling (“Beware”), a straight-forward rock bit (the opening of “Dirty Carl’s Majestic Barba”), and noodly experimental guitar bits (everywhere). By the time you wrap your head around everything that’s happening, it’s over. They say they’re writing a “double-album rock opera entitled Collywobble sometime later this summer.” I can’t even imagine what they’ll come up with to fill a canvas that large, but after this EP, I’m willing to stick around and see. If you’re up for something different, give this one a shot.

News: Hoodie Allen & G-Eazy / Soundsupply / RunHundred

Hoodie Allen and G-Eazy are going out on tour together! The indie-rock-flipping rappers will be traveling all over the East Coast and Midwest in September; I’ve already got tickets to the Atlanta date. I’m stoked to finally see Hoodie live; IC has been covering him for a long time.

Soundsupply, the music-discovery service whose creators I interviewed recently, is back with a new 10 albums for 15 bucks. This one includes IC faves I Used to Be a Sparrow, Mason Jennings, and Mansions; from the clips in the video below, I’m super-excited about La Dispute and Talons.

Soundsupply Drop 4 from Soundsupply on Vimeo.

I’m getting back into running (it’s always more fun to be a runner than to turn yourself into a runner), so I need music. And RunHundred is there for me, with its monthly Top 10. —Stephen Carradini

If you were working on a workout music time capsule—trying to show future generations what folks listened to in the gym in 2012—the highlights from August alone would nearly do the trick.

In this month’s top 10, running favorites LMFAO, Flo Rida, and Pink all made appearances. Pitbull turned up twice—once in a remix and once with Shakira. And, the year’s two biggest hits (“Call Me Maybe” and “Somebody That I Used to Know”) were both reinvented as club tracks.

Here’s the full list, according to votes placed at Run Hundred–the web’s most popular workout music blog.

Flo Rida – Whistle – 103 BPM

Pitbull & Shakira – Get It Started – 129 BPM

The Wanted – Chasing the Sun – 129 BPM

Calvin Harris & Ne-Yo – Let’s Go – 130 BPM

Pink – Blow Me (One Last Kiss) – 113 BPM

Owl City & Carly Rae Jepsen – Good Time – 126 BPM

Pitbull – Back in Time (Play-N-Skillz Remix) – 128 BPM

Carly Rae Jepsen – Call Me Maybe (Coyote Kisses Remix) – 124 BPM

LMFAO – Sorry for Party Rocking (Wolfgang Gartner Remix) – 130 BPM

Gotye & Kimbra – Somebody That I Used to Know (Tiesto Remix) – 129 BPM

To find more workout songs, folks can check out the free database at Visitors can browse the song selections there by genre, tempo, and era—to find the music that best fits with their particular workout routine. –Chris Lawhorn

Quick Hit: Lac La Belle

Lac La Belle is a folk/bluegrass duo from Michigan that sounds like they’re from Appalachia. Banjo, chop-strumming mandolin and guitar all feature in Bring on the Light, which mixes traditional instruments, sounds and rhythms with a vocal directness that comes from pop songs and modern folk bands like the Avett Brothers and Noah and the Whale.

But Lac La Belle is not so easily pinned down. Their female vocalist has an amazing set of pipes that got her crowned 2000 Hollerin’ Champion of Wise Co., Virginia and Letcher Co., Kentucky. You can hear her go for it in “A Fine Line” and “Autumn Song,” the latter of which may actually be too much of a good thing.

But that’s about the only element of the album for which that can be said, as Lac La Belle mixes up moods consistently. Cheery? Go for “Around the World.” Calm? Call up “New Memories of Oklahoma.” Feeling sinister? “Novocaine” has your back. Pensive? “A Fine Line.” Want more evidence? Those are the first four songs.

The album does have a few missteps (“I am a Hammer” is way repetitive), but on the whole, this is a really enjoyable album of bluegrass/folk. It isn’t a heavy album by any means (you can put it on and read just fine, as I have done!), but it does have subtle beauty (“To the Sun”: accordion!!!) to be uncovered if you give it attention. Bring on the Light, indeed.

David Ramirez's impeccably written tunes add to the singer/songwriter craft

In an age of disruption, it is profoundly comforting to see someone doggedly carrying on a torch that so many want to decry, digitize or destroy altogether. Everything from digital streaming to high gas prices makes it hard to be a craftsman of song right now, but David Ramirez doesn’t care. He’s a rambling troubadour who has looked for redemption in a bar stool, but instead found it in God and women. He loves traveling the country, until he misses family, friends and women. These are timeworn, careworn themes, and Ramirez treats them with dignity by falling right into the stream and carving his own niche in the flow.

Ramirez undeniably has heard, learned from and played with a ton of other singer/songwriters, and he shows no intentions of being experimental in any regard. But that’s what it means to be a part of a craft: Ramirez saw and heard, and now says so that others can hear. Are these songs beautiful? Undeniably, incredibly so. They come invested with a depth of history that resonates through Ramirez’s weary yet confident voice. You can hear it in the steady strum, and in the turns of phrase. Many have been here, and many will come after. And the mark in time that is Apologies will add into the chorus of songs and albums that someone (hopefully someones) in the next generation of songwriters will be influenced by. Ramirez himself muses on learning in the opening lines of the album:

“Well I never paid attention when I was a young boy
To the great instructions from the ones that came before me
Now that I’m older I long to pay attention
But it doesn’t seem like anyone is saying much of anything”

Opener “Chapter II” is one of the highlights of the album; a self-aware rumination that culminates in the poignant claim, “Well I’ve been holding on so long it seems, That what I’m holding has been holding me.” Voice and earthy acoustic guitar form the basis of the tune, just as they form the basis of the rest of the songs on the album. Contributions from a full band fill out some tunes (“An Introduction,” “Dancing and Vodka,” “Mighty Fine”), while banjo, piano, and harmonica make occasional solo appearances. But the heart of this album is Ramirez’s baritone and six-string, which is why standout tracks “Goodbye” and “Find the Light” rely on those two elements.

All eleven tracks on Apologies are keepers; there’s not a clunker in the batch. The highs are very high, and the lows are pretty high too. It’s definitely on the consideration list for Top Ten of the year, because the songs just resonate with a deep part of me that wants traditions to live on. We can have new traditions (I’m stoked for M&S’ and the Avetts’ new albums, just like everyone else), but there’s a rare joy in hearing something that could have been written 50 years ago being turned out now. I hope that we will be able to hear some fantastic songwriter 50 years from now who knows the value of considering the past in the process of creating weighty tunes. Because that’s what David Ramirez has done here: written strong tunes that could go on to be learned, loved and covered. Bravo.

Quick Hit: Ormonde

Ormonde‘s Machine is the soundtrack to a pensive, perhaps gloomy, evening stroll. The tempos in this singer-songwriter/indie album rarely top walking speed, and the individual instrumental parts don’t try to dazzle with virtuosity: the “guitar solo” in opener “Can’t Imagine” covers nine notes in 25 seconds. But the parts here are subsumed in the whole experience: the enveloping atmosphere of Machine is its main draw. This is tightly defined, meticulously crafted music.

The fact that two songwriters got together in Marfa, Texas (read: way out in the desert) to write this is interesting, because tunes like “Cherry Blossom” and “Lemon Incest” have a distinctly forested, European feel to me. I know I’m starting to get into quite abstract terms, but that’s what comes to mind when I hear Ormonde’s music.

A couple concrete things: When Anna-Lynne Williams and Robert Gomez sing together, the songs soar; Gomez’s gruff grumble plays beautifully against Williams’ trilling high notes. The back half isn’t nearly as memorable as the front half, which includes the evocative title track, the piano-heavy “Secret” and all other songs I’ve mentioned so far.

If you’re into Tom Waits, Damien Rice, or other highly idiosyncratic crooners, you should check this out.