Jonah Parzen-Johnson‘s music may not have struck a chord with me if I hadn’t been introduced to Colin Stetson. Stetson makes whirring, blurring, mind-bending post-rock out of noises created entirely from a bass saxophone; Parzen-Johnson wrests similar noises out of a saxophone, but with more melodicism involved (and a lot less abject terror).
Parzen-Johnson’s two-song release Look Like You’re Not Looking includes the title A-side, which starts off in a loose, spacious rumination on something that sounds vaguely like “Amazing Grace.” The mid-section is full of modulated saxophone noise, turning it into a synthesizer of sorts. It’s very intriguing listening, if you’re like me and fascinated by the limits of analog sound. (This is exactly why I love Colin Stetson.) Then he pulls back suddenly, and finishes out the tune with some gentle, spacious notes. It’s a fascinating tune, one that’s really worth investigating for the sonically adventurous.
B-side “Stay There, I’ll Come To You” is less noticeably melodic and therefore less instantly engaging, but it takes the harmonic abilities of Parzen-Johnson’s songwriting style to levels that the a-side doesn’t attempt. This results in a hypnotic, enveloping sort of piece. If you’re into sonic experimentation, you should definitely check out what Jonah Parzen-Johnson is doing.
The emergence of Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago was an incredibly important event for folk. Although the water had been getting murky for years (decades?), that heavily stylized album broke the dam that separated indie-pop and folk. Now we have Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers and Phillip Phillips and we don’t even think twice about it. My thesis here is that we can’t have “Babel” hollered through your radio without Justin Vernon mournfully ruminating over Emma. What that means for indie-pop and folk as individual genres is complex and interesting. One tiny element is that trad-folk/Americana (which is what we now have to call the stuff that most people who aren’t ethnomusicologists used to call “folk”) has received a boost from the indie-folk scene. Sunny Jim Brown playing the traditional “Darling Corey” may not have been of any interest to people who liked Belle and Sebastian in the early 2000s. Now it seems like the two are near to kindred spirits.
Which is all to say that even if Sunny Jim Brown’s Sweet Virginia EP features primarily guitar and banjo in a very traditional idiom, it’s still a blast from the imagined past. Brown’s earthy baritone imbues passion equally over the aforementioned traditional, the gorgeous original “Black Gold,” and No Use For A Name cover “Pacific Standard Time.” It hardly matters that one was written in time immemorial, one in 2007/2008, and one probably in 2012/2013. This is a testament to Sunny Jim Brown’s vision: these tunes could be disparate and disjointed, but instead they’re coherent and wonderful. “Black Gold” is the sort of fingerpicked guitar line that I got into this business to hear more of, and the world-weary vocals give the song even more to love. “Lonesome” and “Sweet Virginia” are strummers that sway excellently. You want honest, raw, and beautiful? Here you go.
These tunes feel as real and raw as For Emma ever did, and maybe as real and raw as folk did before that. What does that mean for folk in general? Well, probably that what is good never dies, it just gets pushed to the top in different amounts at different times. Culture is weird like that. Maybe in 10 years the folk moment will be over and we’ll be on to something else. What does that mean for this particular EP? That you should go listen to it right now. Start with “Black Gold,” and impress your Tallest Man on Earth-loving self.
Two well-documented facts: healthcare is expensive, and being a professional musician is not often an incredibly lucrative position. Sadly, these two things often come together to cause problems, as they are currently doing for Brent Puls. But Puls has a posse of people who are on the case of those medical bills, assembling a compilation album to help raise funds. This collection of tunes includes local heroes, up-and-comers (the recently featured Rivals of the Peacemaker), established indie heroes (like IC fave Joe Pug), and Rachael Yamagata. The album, known as National Endowment for the Brents by Friends of Brent Puls Fund-Helper, is available on Bandcamp for $10.
It features a variety of genres, including the perky pop-rock of Any Kind, Leadfoot’s bluegrassy folk, the beautiful chamber-pop of Escape Tailor, and many more. You know you’ve got a couple bucks in your pocket to help out, and get some great tunes in the process.
Dan Hubbard‘s fingerpicked folk/country resonates with me melodically and lyrically. The sound of Livin’ in the Heartland is earthy, comfortable, and intimate without acquiring the hushed tone that dominates much of the personal music I cover here. The lyrics are a bit more brash than I’m used to as well, celebrating domestic life in a tone that’s much more Zac Brown Band than Bon Iver.
The vocals and guitar are so perfectly meshed on tunes like “The List” and “I Will Not Forget This Place” that it called up thoughts of Justin Townes Earle and Johnny Flynn. Those songwriters have a much more modern-folk flair to their sound, but their clarity and tightness of songwriting is echoed in Hubbard’s tunes. Hubbard’s tunes are beautiful, powerful and often seemingly effortless: the sparse “I Will Not Forget This Place” moves with a sprightly ease while still carrying dramatic heft. It’s a rare songwriter that can pull off that trick. If you’re a fan of strong, emotional songwriting that doesn’t call attention to itself, you should check out Hubbard’s Living in the Heartland.
I love a good pop song. I know it makes me uncool that I’m a big fan of Train’s “Hey Soul Sister,” BUT WHATEVER Y’ALL. UKULELE POWER. JD Eicher and the Goodnights know the value of pop songs. Eicher and his crew fit squarely in the adult alternative pop genre (which I shorthand as the Matt Nathanson/John Mayer sound). And they’re awesome at it on Into Place. Tunes like “You’ve Got a Lot of Growing Up To Do” and “I’d Like To Get To Know You” are perky, poppy tunes with excellent melodies, memorable lyrics, and fun choruses that you can’t help but sing along with. It’s perfect summer music.
There are some heavier moments: “People” pulls the heartstrings in a Goo Goo Dolls sort of way, “Oh My God” is a pensive piano rumination, and “Edgar Greene’s Time Machines” tells a long story to make a point about the way history and us intersect. The best tune on the album, though, combines the excellent pop songwriting chops with the heavier musings. “Aaron” brings in some banjo and clapping, moving the melodic center a little more toward Mumford/Lumineers territory. The tune is basically an audio version of Nick Hornsby’s High Fidelity: it looks at our relationship to sad songs through the lens of one musician. “I don’t like sad songs, they just seem to write me,” the narrator shrugs before blasting off into a monster that should be all over radio right now. It’s far and away the best display of songwriting on the album, and I’ve had “Aaron” on repeat for several weeks. It’s just excellent.
If you’re into a good pop song, Into Place by JD Eicher and the Goodnights should be on your iPod. That’s all there is to it.
Sink Tapes’ lo-fi tunes span the spectrum from Pavement-style rockers to Elliot Smith-style acoustic musings, but their best work on How You Mean falls squarely in the lo-fi indie-pop realm. “Famous Glitching Clan” and “Pornographic Railroad Station” focus squarely on vocals instead of the arrangements, letting the instrumentals fall in step behind the morose, low-tenor declarations. The former is emotionally arresting in an unexpected sort of way, while the wistful latter is downright catchy for a chorus-less tune that doesn’t break 1:40. Other highlights include the REM jangle of “Your Mouth is On My Mind” and the plodding slackerness of “Super Happy.” Fans of the earnest, lo-fi ’90s or modern-day musicians that own a lot of stock in reverb pedal companies will have a field day with Sink Tapes’ near-perfect recreation of the “jangle-pop meets rock” moment of 1993-ish indie rock.
1. “If There’s Time” – Odesza. Chilled-out post-dub with some trip-hop vibes. In other words, let’s jump in the car and be real cinematic about this.
2. “Parade of Youth” – Ponychase. The art for this track is a cassette tape, because this dreamy new wave/synth-pop jam is the sort of thing we were putting on plastic love notes to each other in the mid-’80s.
3. “Goldleaf” – RCRDS. Once existential dread hit the ’80s, then RCRDS’ ears perked up. Check out that analog bass magic.
4. “Start Something New” – Drawl. Then along came shoegaze, which was the other thing that the ’80s spit out besides grunge. The vibe here is golden.
5. “Flowers” – Humfree Bug Art. Killers + Funeral-era Arcade Fire = wonderful.
6. “The Photo Line” – Pale Houses. Remember the first time you heard “Transatlanticism” by Death Cab for Cutie and it was the most important thing that had happened in the whole day? “The Photo Line” is like that.
When life throws that old right hook (as it is wont to do), I retreat to Mountain Goats albums (All Hail West Texas! Forever!) and reading fiction. You’ll note that “writing Independent Clauses posts” isn’t one of those two things. However, having recovered from a cross-country move, website issues, an illness, and various other adventures in the month of September, I am back on the reviewing horse.
Zulu Wave‘s Nyami Nyami EP is easy to love but difficult to parse, because it combines so many disparate genres into one cohesive sound. Their starting point is an ominous, Radiohead-esque, thoughtful rock vibe: check the guitar tone on the title track and the wicked mood on closer “Skataful Lies.” Built on top of that base are some seriously grooving bass lines, jazzy asides, and an easy confidence from the male vocalist. Oh, and you can sing along to the group vocals in “Skataful Lies”–that is, before the Rage Against the Machine-esque guitars and bass come hammering in.
The end result is a tightly-knit collection of sounds that does its best to defy genre analysis. If you like people with brains making music for people with brains and dancing shoes, you’ll find much to love in Zulu Wave’s Nyami Nyami EP. The title track and “Skataful Lies” are the best places to start. I expect much out of Zulu Wave in the future, as their songwriting aesthetic is highly developed and ready to produce some incredible work.
Things are still a mess, here and elsewhere, but I’m starting to get back on my game. Here’s a video from Electrician about their new IndieGoGo campaign. I am not afraid to say that this is pretty much what all crowdfunding videos should be.
Here’s 11 tracks of indie-rock, indie-pop and folk that I’ve been loving recently.
Keep That Summer Alive
1. “Little Lucy” – The Worriers. Somewhere between early 2000s garage rock and highly stylized Vaccines pop-rock sits The Worriers’ excellent track. Viva la indie rock.
2. “Lazer Gun Show” – Hey Geronimo. If you aren’t screaming out “LA! ZER! GUN! SHOW!” by the end of this tune, you’re doing it wrong. You may also be dead. Thank you, Hey Geronimo. Thank you so much.
3. “Who You Are” – Natural Animal. In a perfect world, this song dominates radio, wins VMAs, and is crowned song of the summer.
4. “Science of a Seizure” – Challenger. Ratatat percussion eventually gives way to the best sort of ’80s revival pop. Challenger can make even brittle beats warm and enveloping.
5. “Tell Teri On Me” – Sir Wes Al Gress. Wobbly dub plus bubblegum vocals, shimmering synths, and a walking-pace beat. It’s completely bizarre, but infectious in a strange way.
6. “Once a Servant” – Psychic Teen. In a perfect world, this song dominates… wait. (Generationals, meet your new opening band!)
7. “When He’s Down” – The Lonesome South Comfort Company. Folky, Southern, psychedelic: this band knows how to hit you hard and early. One of the best singles I’ve heard all year.
8. “Robber Barons” – Cloud Person. Celtic vibes from a big string section give this full-band folk assault an anthemic, epic quality. If you think indie-rock is a little too American-sounding.
9. “Ramble” – Rivals of the Peacemaker. The Civil Wars get a little more outlaw (as you’d expect with that excellent name). Try to get this one out of your head, I dare you.
10. “Silent Film Reel” – Breathe Owl Breathe. The orchestral folk-pop of BOB is always earnest, infectious, and delightfully off-kilter.
11. “Happiness Is a Sad Song” – Owls of the Swamp. There are a certain group of people who agree innately with this song title and therefore will be in love with this smooth, mellow tune.
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.