So, I don’t just write about music. I also take great joy in writing music. When American Musical Supply gave me the chance to combine these two loves by reviewing musical instruments, I immediately jumped at it. I’m not going to spam y’all, but about once a month I expect to throw a video up about an instrument (which I or some lucky accomplice gets to keep afterwards).
Adam told me that he had long wanted a size 34 guitar (which he called a three-quarters size guitar), because of their versatility and usefulness. “I can throw it on my back,” he said. “It’s like a sketchbook or a notepad.” It is almost the size of one, certainly; it was remarkably light and incredibly easy to play. Even I, with my stumpy fingers (hello, bass and piano), was able to reach frets easily. For someone with regular-sized fingers like Adam, it made playing chords that require distant frets positively easy. “When I play this chord on a dreadnaught size guitar, it’s incredibly difficult,” Adam said. “Here, it’s just easy.”
But the benefits of this Taylor extend beyond its playability. Adam had a high opinion of Taylor guitars before this review, and those expectations were fulfilled in the make and finish of the baby Taylor. Its sound quality was appealing to him as well. Small guitars have a bit of a looser sound to the notes because of the way they are strung, and Adam was pleased with their ring and resonance. The guitar sounded great when picking single notes or strumming full chords.
So I’ve been hammering away at semester’s end, preparing documents, administering papers and writing finals. It has sadly forced me to direct my writing attentions elsewhere as of late. But now I’m back!
Em Eff’s We Don’t Know is a collection of mostly-electronic tunes that span the distance between chiptune, ambient and IDM. The tunes skew toward the minimal side of things, trafficking more in mood and feel than in big beats, infectious melodies or heavy rhythms. This is best shown in the pensive, eerie “Ghosts Are Just T-Shirts Napping on Door Knobs,” which layers measured synths on top of a rattling wooden noise that serves as the “backbeat” for the song. “Hibernating Metropolis” and “okay, blue ether” further explore this vein of intricately constructed, highly structured tunes. Even farther toward the mood-based end of the spectrum is “Blue Ether,” a beautiful piano piece so soft and gentle that you can hear squeaking and rattling of the instrument.
There are upbeat tunes as well, like the chiptune-friendly, pulsing “1-Up Down” and the rhythm-heavy “Were We The Machine,” but even these have atmospheric elements throughout. We Don’t Know is an engaging, enveloping release that shows off Em Eff’s strengths as an arranger of atmospheric pieces for great effect. The album is out now on Cloud Collective Records.
Martha Redbone‘s take on things is old. Real, real old. Not only does she mine O Brother, Where Art Thou?-style Americana for the sounds on her latest release, she pulls the lyrics from English poet William Blake (1757-1827). Such an ambitious project as The Garden of Love – Songs of William Blake could fall flat, but Redbone sells the whole thing excellently by treating the lyrics reverently but not sacredly. She cares about the sentiments, but she doesn’t let that stop her from putting her own flair and spin on the delivery. This feels less like a reinvention of Blake and more like a celebration of his work from an admirer in a different field.
Tunes like “Hear the Voice of the Bard,” “On Anothers Sorrow” and “I Rose Up at the Dawn of the Day” benefit from the jaunty instrumental rhythms and soulful inflections of Redbone’s alto voice, creating instantly memorable tunes. Redbone is best when sticking in this vein, as experiments in spoken word (“Why Should I Care for the Men of Thames”), Carpenters-esque folk (“The Fly”), and a cappella (“The Ecchoing Green”) are less successful than the joyous, soulful Americana. The highest honors are reserved for the melodious and calming “I Heard an Angel Singing” and “Sleep Sleep Baby Bright,” which are simply gorgeous. If you’re into Americana, you should have this one in your collection.
Metal and post-rock have long been related, as some of metal band Isis’ work sounds remarkably chill and some of Sigur Ros’ stuff is incredibly loud. Red Swingline continues this tradition in Cloud, creating dreamy post-rock and straightforward metal riffs. Erich Dylus, the sole musician behind the project, sets the two genres apart much of the time, as dreamy tunes like “Virtue” and “Spaceman Spiff” never ratchet up to heavy distorted guitar mashing. Instead, he relies on jazzy melodies and chords to do the heavy lifting. “Spaceman Spiff” gets a bit overly jazzy for me, but “Virtue” is quite a beautiful tune. Tunes like “Spiral” focus on his metal inclinations, throwing down some chugging guitar. Title track “Cloud” is the only track that really tries to integrate the two sounds, resulting in the most interesting and unique track of the set. I’d like to hear more of this angle in the future. If you’re interested in metal and post-rock, Red Swingline is one to keep your eye on.
There’s already a genre called post-rock, but I think that’s not thinking big enough about the term. Post-rock implies an ideology shift, a movement past whatever “rock” meant. While the genre that includes Explosions in the Sky, Godspeed! You Black Emperor, Tortoise, and Mogwai definitely was one of the earliest adapters of the “after rock” mindset, their cinematic music should not be allowed to lay claim to the whole of the term.
I hope we get to a day where every band is “post-rock,” and no band subscribes to the hollow myths of “rock” as they were once sold to us. The part of the rock mythos that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is the big rock move: the idea that a big guitar riff is its own explanation. (Think of “Immigrant Song” or “Thunderstruck” for the best examples of this, or any hair metal song for average to poor examples of this idea.)
The antithesis of the big rock move is thoughtful consideration of how riffs work together with other things as part of songwriting, not necessarily to rock less, but to mean things. In a sense, thoughtful consideration of riffs may even cause them to rock more, because “meaning something” often produces a more real emotional connection with listeners than a big rock move and thereby heightens the pleasure of experiencing the riff.
Here are three bands that are thinking about how riffs combine with other things to make meaning, even though none of the three would be in the “post-rock” genre. (There are also a whole boatload of sociological ideas associated with the “rock star” that I’m thrilled to see go the way of the buffalo, but they are for another day.)
Autumn Owls‘ Between Buildings, Toward the Sea is a spiritual descendant of Radiohead’s OK Computer. Radiohead’s masterpiece subverted big riff rock by making the monster guitar licks serve the moods they wanted (mindless and frantic in “Paranoid Android,” grating and brittle in “Electioneering”), and Autumn Owls do the same thing. The angular, slightly dissonant guitarwork in opener “Semaphores” fluctuates between nervous uncertainty and frightened certainty, situating the listener right in the middle of Autumn Owls’ ideas. Autumn Owls’ instrumentals and vocals have a symbiotic relationship, with the oft-deadpan vocalist coming off like Cake frontman John McCrea fronting an apocalyptic art band instead of sardonic pop one.
The music, vocals and lyrics can’t be separated: the album is full of frightened surprise (see the lyrics and heavy guitar entrance in “Unconvinced”), malaise (note the gently rolling sounds and “ignore the tension” line in standout “Kiss the Wine”), and ominous confusion (the spiky, tense “Quarantine”). When they let the guitars go, they do so for a reason; when the drums rattle, there’s a reason for that. They don’t do things simply because that’s what rock does; they’ve put thought into every last bit of this album.
Between Buildings, Toward the Sea is an incredibly constructed record, full of intricate patterns and delicate touches. Whether it’s a guitar glitching (and there’s a lot of that), a voice being modified, or deceptively pretty melodies being eerily contrasted (“The Arched Pines”), Autumn Owls know what they’re doing. This is easily one of the best albums of the year.
I was searching for this application of the term post-rock when I reviewed both of Ithica‘s previous releases. Ithica creates beautiful tunes that float amorphously between genres: industrial beats, pretty synths, and deeply emotional vocal melodies create an unnameable amalgam. It results in beautiful, haunting music with real depth. St. Anselm’s Choir comes together flawlessly, as incisive lyrics are delivered by a vocalist with astonishing control of emotive tone and inflection over a brilliant soup of vocal samples, synthesizers, and drums. The songs are set up to have impact similar to rock songs, as “riffs” come in and then leave, giving way to verses and choruses. But the sounds that compose these structures are atypical, giving the tunes the unique quality of feeling altogether new and intimately familiar at the same time. I can’t speak highly enough about these six songs. Rare is the fully-realized vision that crosses my desk, but St. Anselm’s Choir is that unusual EP.
On first glance, The Foreign Resort‘s Scattered and Buried might seem an odd place to talk about the post-rock ethos: distorted bass and dark guitars abound. On the other hand, their sound is a Joy Division-esque new wave/post-punk one; both genres have a history of sticking it to the man.
But the thing that pointed out their diffidence toward the big rock move was how closely tied the vocal tone was to the timbre of the instruments. When the arrangement surges, so do the vocals; when the vocals tremble in uncertainty during “Lost My Way (2012),” so do the instruments. The frantic tempo and tough bass rhythms of “Buried” are mimicked by the vocals–or is it the opposite? That inability to determine which element is the most important is what makes this distinctly post-rock to me; the vocals aren’t serving the guitars, and the guitars aren’t serving the vocals. The song is all, and each of the elements contributes to that. This creates a wildly enjoyable set of tunes, from the fragile beauty of “Rocky Mountains” to the club-friendly synths of “Tide.” The remixes make the release even better. Highly recommended.
The Local Strangers cover a lot of ground with their acoustic amalgam on Left for Better: “Easy” is a stately, Josh Ritter-esque tune with a booming weight; “Mr. Blackberry” is a swampy, bluesy stomp; “Chase the Battle” has a bit of a Fleetwood Mac vibe to its gently pressing tension. These things are all possible on the same album because vocalist Aubrey Zoli, vocalist/guitarist Matt Hart and the rest of the quintet are comfortable using their skills in multiple ways. Lock in on a groove? “Devil and a Stiff Drink.” Blend into a textured whole? “I Will Let You Down.” Create a tense, spartan environment? “Beneath the Weight.” This is a confident outfit, and it shows. The highlight for me is “Easy,” as it pushes the folky buttons I like. But with songs this confident in many different sounds, you’ll probably have a different favorite. More power to ’em. Can’t wait to hear more from this Seattle group.
The Marvins‘ Waves of Strange also has a wide array of sounds, going from the harmony-heavy country-rock of “Two Joints on the Table” to the surf-esque space rock of “Girls Go to Venus” to the unclassifiable sludge/folk of “Still is the Light.” Still, they keep a firm sense of melody about them, no matter what they’re writing. That element ties the whole album together, from its farthest weird edges to the most traditional tunes. And it’s all worth celebrating: “Still is the Light” is a powerful, pounding tune that works because of its disparate elements, not despite them. You’ll be humming the chorus for sure. If you’re really into cohesive sounds, you may get frustrated around the time the power-pop of “People Like You” comes around, but if you’re up for a fun ride through a bunch of genres, Waves of Strange is definitely for you.
The Roseline‘s Vast as Sky, on the other hand, delivers a heaping helping of a specific sound. The band is in debt to the country-rock of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young for its ominous, dense sound. Weeping steel guitar, droning organ, saloon-style piano and more play in. You’ve heard this, but you haven’t heard Colin Halliburton sing it. There’s a fine line between revivalism and building on a foundational genre, and that line is crossed about the time that you don’t care which one it is–you just enjoy the tunes.
Vast as Sky passes that mark by the first chorus of “Back of My Mind,” a poignant tune about a distracting woman. Halliburton can also channel harrowing moods, as “You’ll Be Fine” details the fear of a possible cancer diagnosis. The band stays firmly in “band” mode, never letting Halliburton drop too much into the singer/songwriter zone, with the exception of the pristine, stripped-down “All Me.” The Old 97s’-esque shuffle of “A Necessary Distinction” is another highlight. If you’re up for some alt-country that knows its forefathers but has its own joys, The Roseline is your band.
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.