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Month: September 2012

Sfumato’s folk album offers brain-expanding arrangements

When you know the rules, even the decisions you make to break them are made in relation to the rules. Sometimes this results in Jackson Pollock, but mostly it results in field homogenization that takes the mysterious x factor called “genius” to transcend. But if you never knew the rules to begin with, all bets are off–anything can happen.

Sfumato‘s These Things Between… is the folky embodiment of the latter phenomenon. Singer/songwriter Daithí Ó hÉignigh is “essentially a drummer” who decided to write and arrange a complex folk album. As a result, these 11 songs feature all sorts of sounds, rhythms and arrangements that I didn’t expect. I listened to this album for far longer than I usually do when writing a review, because it took a long time for me to figure out what was happening.

Because the homogenization of a field doesn’t just affect what musicians write, it affects how listeners hear. People are in love with Babel because it pulls off all the pop-folk moves perfectly; These Things Between… is a difficult listen for someone conditioned to hear music in that way. Even though the signifiers of folk are present (strummed acoustic guitar, pensive moods, emotive voice), what is a gospel choir doing in “Ostia”? “Mo ghrá” is in Gaelic? “Fly to Me” features a calliope-style organ; “Pound” accentuates unusual rhythms. This is a brain-expander, and goodness knows I need it after the musical candy that is Mumford and Sons, Avett Brothers and The Mountain Goats all releasing albums within weeks of each other.

After an eclectic start, the center of the album is a bit more standard. “The Past” incorporates bass guitar and organ drone in familiar patterns (Decemberists!), while “Song to Myself” shows off a wheezing saxophone in a style similar to Bon Iver’s Colin Stetson. By the end of the album, the unusual arrangements have returned: the title track is a heavily rhythmic tune that relies on conga drums, an unrecognizable instrument and Celtic-inspired strings. Still, the closer is solo acoustic track “I Was Hoping You Might…,” which reminded me of Damien Jurado in its starkness.

These Things Between… is perfectly titled, as its songs walk down the line between familiarity and otherness. There are detours to both sides, but overall it exists in a space that will challenge your conventional listening habits. If you’re into something a little outside your (and my) Mumfordy comfort zone, Sfumato should be one place to check out.

Song jam!

1. “Walrus Meat” – The Parmesans. Nothing like a fun-lovin’ bluegrass tune whose only lyrics are the title. Bonus points for the surprise halfway through and for recording to cassette.
2. “Heard It All Before” – The Switch. This garage-rockin’ trio has audible and physical connections to The Vaccines. Check that awesome bass work.
3. “Knot in My Heart” – The Zolas. This song sounds like every hip indie-pop song I’ve ever heard, but I can’t stop listening to it. Or should that be, “so I can’t…”? RECURSIVE LOOP
4. “Heart of a Lion (Purple Sneakers Remix)” – The Griswolds. The Strokes-ian rocker gets a spaced-out, airy, dubby remix.
5. “Ready for the Weekend” – Icona Pop. Easily the most aggressive and club-oriented offering by the Swedish electro-pop duo yet. This one will enthrall some and alienate others; haven’t figured out which camp I’m in yet.
6. “Pique” – Menomena. Horns!
7. “All Is Lost In The Light” – Electrician. Gentle, contemplative, quiet songwriting reminiscent of The Eels’ down moments.

Video jam, pt 2

This is the always-excellent Elijah Wyman of Decent Lovers performing “Bad Thoughts Out” in an active bathroom.

A. The song is wonderful, whetting my desire for more DecLuv tunes.
B. That’s a cloth bird attached to his guitar strap.
C. “Lag?” Whose graffiti tag is “Lag?”

Here We Go Magic, purveyors of my favorite summer song (“How Do I Know”), have now followed that with one of my favorite videos of the year. “Hard to Be Close” is the surreal, quirky, and funny of three guys stuck in an elevator. The song’s pretty great too.

Hotel Eden’s smooth-groovin’ “I Saw You at the Laundromat” turns the titular location into a discotheque. This has never happened to me, but I sure wish it had.

It takes guts to cover Bon Iver; Justin Vernon has created such a hermetic world with his tunes that other covers seem to be trespassing on the real version’s turf. But Sunday Lane and Max Helmerich add in a female vocal counterpoint to “Skinny Love,” giving this version a great reason to exist. It also has a bit of a country air to it, which is interesting.

Video jam, pt 1

So I’m a sucker for a big-chorus pop song. Here’s Belmont Lights’ “Halfway,” which throws down piano, strings and whoa-ohs in the vein of The Fray, OneRepublic, et al. Yes, you know who you are. No shame.

“Undertow” is one of the most moving songs on Robert Deeble’s Heart Like Feathers, so I’m glad to see that it earned itself a video.

Hoodie Allen throws down a non-album single called “Feel the Love,” and it’s a throwback to his indie-rock flippin’, name-checkin’ first works. I love it.

Seven Handle Circus takes on the sense of place with its bluegrass

It is hard to understand the concept of place without leaving. Even when visiting a place other than your own, it doesn’t have the same impact as when you actively sever the connection with where you’re from. It’s then, when you don’t have a place to call your own, that place becomes so obvious and vital. I’ve been writing and thinking about place recently, so it’s fitting that the bluegrass of Seven Handle CircusWhiskey Stills & Sleeping Pills fell into my lap right now.

“I’ve been around the world just once before/and no one quite knows what we’re fighting for/not anymore,” sings the band on the opener. The conflicted relationship to place permeates the titles of this five-song EP: “I’ve Been Around The World,” “Walking Through the Wilderness,” “Alabama Line,” “Georgia Man,” and “Cruel World” each mention some aspect of travel. “Alabama Line” is my personal favorite, as I’m currently living in the Yellowhammer State. The traditional bluegrass instrumentation (acoustic guitar, mandolin, banjo, string bass) and group vocals give rise to a jubilant chorus: “Boys, we’re headed south down the Chattahoochee River/ to the Alabama Line!” Rumbling toms and a lively fiddle add extra punch to the tune, turning this from a nice song into a memorable highlight.

“Georgia Man” leans heavily on the fiddle, matching the melancholy lyrics about permanent travel with a buoyant melody and some flashy soloing. “Maybe I’d be fine / working 9 to 5 / but then I’d never find / what it means to be alive,” the vocalist notes; and that’s a tension that goes through every conception of place. If the only way to recognize that we’re in a place is to see it leaving in the rear view mirror, we have few to blame but ourselves: in this late-modern era, rare is it that we are forced to leave our home by someone else. We choose to leave, for adventure or profit or education; our feelings after that are our own responsibility. “Georgia Man” knows this, and that dual focus makes the tune incredible on a lyrical level.

The music itself is worth acclaim; the band can sing and play with the best of them. But in a crowded bluegrass field, it’s not virtuosic playing that wows me (okay, Chris Thile, you still wow me); it’s investing that musical ability with heart, soul and meaning. Seven Handle Circus does this excellently, and that’s what makes this five-song EP worth your time. You’ll sing along too, of course.

NEW CHALLENGER: Mule Variations

So I spend a lot of time doing reviews here, but I only occasionally throw down a thinkpiece. Independent Clauses is not really the place for long ruminations. So that’s why I’m thrilled that I’m now contributing pieces to online music magazine Mule Variations. The magazine is co-edited by Adam Caress, whose band T/The Troubadours I reviewed 7 years ago. And yes, he’s the brother of Josh Caress, who I write about all the time.

My first piece is up now at MV: “The Flattening of Professional and Amateur” is about the strangely small distance in sound quality between the pros and the up-and-comers at the moment, and what that means for music. Check it out!

Quick Hit: Eric Schackne

Even though piano-centric singer/songwriters never seem to go out of style, piano-rock has had much less sustained success. Over the past two decades, the genre has flashes of critical and popular acclaim (Ben Folds Five! Something Corporate! Jack’s Mannequin! Relient K!) before diving back under the covers. Eric Schackne is the latest in a long line of musicians combining the melodious strains of piano with the pounding enthusiasm of pop/rock, and I greatly enjoy his tunes on the Hammers and Strings EP.

Schackne does include guitar in his tunes, unlike some piano-centric bands, but the keys take precedence. The pounding “This Classic Romance” takes it power from the clanging chords of the piano, while “Loud and Clear” pulls its energy from a frantic piano melody. Schackne’s smooth vocals offer a lot to the latter tune as well: the rapid-fire delivery and clever lyrics are reminiscent of Relient K’s Matt Thiessen. Schackne has a lower voice than Thiessen, and it fits with the bass-heavy mix that Schackne put together on most of the EP.

“The sound of my dreams coming true / is when I can leave the singing up to you,” belts Schackne, and it’s a sentiment than any pop musician can agree with wholeheartedly. A pop musician is what Schackne unabashedly is, as he throws down hummable melodies, crescendo-heavy choruses, and sweeping arrangements. He’s aiming high, and not just in musical quality; just from the titles of “Well Dressed Future” and “Art Can Change the World,” it’s clear that Shackne has aligned himself in the idealist optimist camp. And why not? Happy sounds, positive lyrics, great melodies; there’s a lot to be enthusiastic about in Hammers and Strings, both for Schackne and lovers of good piano-pop.

SubFamily Alliance’s first folk/garage rock compilation is a success

Most bands find Independent Clauses through word of mouth: a musician talks about a review I ran, and that musician’s friends send in their stuff to me. This is, I assume, how SubFamily Alliance’s first compilation features at least three bands that have submitted work to Independent Clauses.

The 10-track S/F/A Summer Sampler is heavy on garage rock and folk, with a few other things scattered in. I’m currently high on folk and low on garage rock, so I was big on Elijah and the Moon’s “Map and Compass” and The Miami’s “Kneebone.” Elijah and the Moon’s contribution had a Josh Ritter-esque arrangement and aura, but the lead vocals were far more brazen and raw than Ritter usually uses. It’s a passionate, beautiful song that will resonate with fans of Mumford and Sons. The Miami’s “Kneebone” is an atypical folk song, starting off with a martial intro that breaks off suddenly and reveals a mumbling, feverish lead vocalist leading a call and response. The group responds “Oh, oh, Kneebone man,” to all of the lead vocalist’s entreaties, creating an entrancing tune that’s the standout of the group. Hiding Behind Sound’s “Winter 2011” is a folky sort of post-rock that calls up Devotchka, Balmorhea and Seryn, but it doesn’t belabor the point. It clocks in just under 2:00.

On the rock side, Battle Ave. contributes “Whose Hands Are These?” from their excellent album art-rock album War Paint. The Coasts and Regular Fucked Up People contribute garage rock that doesn’t stray too far from the tenets of the genre. The New Diet plays some sludgy, heavy rock, while Time Travels contributes its pop-rock inverse in sound and mood.

I’m excited to see what SubFamily Alliance puts out in the future; their diverse membership is going in some quite interesting directions. I’d be sure to check out Elijah and the Moon, Battle Ave., and The Miami. [Editor’s note: This album is no longer available.]

Horizon: Sebastian Brkic / Pyne / Dead Sea Sparrow

It’s been a while since I did a horizon column, but this is where I put all the bands that are just a few steps away from being great. These bands have potential, and I’m looking forward to seeing them recognize it.

Pyne’s Songs that Start With ‘C’ came to my attention because Jaymes Pyne is also the lead singer in the chaotic post-hardcore band Heavier Than Air Flying Machines, which I enjoy. Pyne’s solo work is acoustic-based, sort of in the folk genre, so it’s a departure from what I first heard from him. The biggest strength and pitfall is the vast number of things going on in the album: opener “Corpus Luteum” has a ominous mood and acoustic riff that calls up Tom Waits or The Black Heart Procession, while following track “Right Time” is an upbeat folk strummer with a shuffle snare and airy sung vocals. Third track “Life” is country-esque fingerpicked tune. Several songs are piano-based, to great effect.

“Resolve” has an anthemic cast to it that is exaggerated by Pyne’s best falsetto impression of Antony Hegarty (Antony and the Johnsons). It’s the falsetto that he sticks with most throughout the album, and that makes this a divisive listen. If you’re on the side of theatrical falsettos, you’ll love the tunes where it happens. If not, you’ll be more on the side of tunes like “Holden’s Song” or “Indentured Together,” where Pyne sings full out against forceful strums. (I find the latter style far more appealing, but that’s a personal aesthetic preference.) But the experimentation is always interesting, so I’m looking forward to where he goes next.

I gave Dead Sea Sparrow‘s Hymns EP its own post because I was intrigued by its ambient elements. For the three-song Love and Lovers EP, the duo turns toward more traditional folk/pop song structures. This is a turn I like, since I cover mostly folk. “The Amateur” is a vocals-heavy tune that has the melodic structure and sway almost of a lullaby; “On Your Way” has an emotional desperation despite its calm sound that recalls Damien Jurado. Opener “The Gun” is the most complex track here, but it’s also the least engaging, as it obscures the simple joys that make the next two tracks so memorable in a morose mood. But Dead Sea Sparrow is definitely working with a good set of ideas here, and I look forward to see what they do with a little more than three songs in seven minutes–if this is the genre they stay in for a while.

Swedish songwriter Sebastian Brkic is a prolific artist, recording 38 songs over 7 releases in under a year. I came across his latest three-song EP 3, which features tunes that are all exactly three minutes long. The tightly constructed tunes fall into a genre that’s tough to peg: the high drama and soaring vocals of pop punk take center stage, but the soundscapes are darker and far more lush than those of three-chord mashers. He also throws in some synths and electronic work for good measure. That leaves Brkic’s songs somewhere between Coheed & Cambria, The Decemberists, and Dntel, which is indeed an odd mix. If that’s an intriguing idea, you should check out Brkic’s work.

Everyone who listens to Cobalt and the Hired Guns will indeed win

I don’t usually promote bands before I post about them, but my enthusiasm for some bands can’t wait the several weeks it takes for things to appear in the queue. Avalanche City was one notable exception to this, and Cobalt and the Hired Guns is another. Everyone Wins is just what it sounds like: a rollicking, optimistic blast of rock music by a band that has it all clicking perfectly.

It’s somewhat intriguing that this a X and the Ys band name, because I hear two distinct lead singers in the band. Opener “Like You Like Me Like Me” has a direct, snarky voice that wouldn’t be out of place in sneering ’00s indie rock. Follow-up “Leaving” features a vocalist with a more melodic, sing-song style that invokes comparisons to Ben Gibbard in tone and melodic line structure. Both singers contribute memorable turns in the album, with neither really taking the front seat in my mind and becoming the titular Cobalt.

It’s all to the better of the album, however. Both vocalists are adept at matching their voice to the instruments, leading the song without dominating it. The horn section and the traditional band set-up (guitar/bass/drums) are equal players in creating the sound of this album, and that’s why two vocalists works out. This fluid approach to the sound allows The Hired Guns to whip through early ’00s pop-punk (“Leaving”), hand-clapping country-punk (“You Left Your Sweater…”), the wide-eyed indie-pop of “Of Summer,” and ooh-la-la-la surf-punk (“Ghost of the Road”) with ease, without turning the album into a herky-jerky trainwreck. Instead of a weakness, the album’s diversity is its greatest strength: there’s not a boring second on the first listen – or the second, or the third.

“Tailgunner of the Flying Fortress” is a historical character study crammed into a country-punk tune, “Lazarus” is a saloon-piano theatrical ballad, and “Last August” is a scream-it-out jam. It would be the jam of this album, if “The Argument” didn’t take that honor. As it stands, it’s the best piece of storytelling the band throws down, narrowly edging the more linear but less visceral “You Left Your Sweater…” in sheer memorable factor: “It’s not batting your lashes/you swing for the fences/You were hitting 1.000/it was almost offensive/in Boston.” (Also, it’s got some sweet “whoa-ohs” to shout out.) But, “The Argument”! The blatant kiss-off track, it’s also the only one where they yell “one-two-three-four” and bring in what sounds like an accordion. They also have a really fun double-time section, which I absolutely adore.

Cobalt and the Hired Guns mash the best parts of rock’n’roll, pop-punk, indie-pop and pop into one gigantic exclamation point of an album. Everyone Wins has half a dozen amazing tracks and and a handful more great ones in a 13-song album, and all but one or two are specifically created to make you smile. How could you avoid this album? I couldn’t. Get on it, blast it out your car windows, and enjoy those fading days of summer meshing into fall.