Elephant Micah‘s Where In Our Woods is the lovely sort of album that makes everything seem warmer and more intimate. Micah is prone to long, droning minimalist folk tunes, but on this album he dismisses a lot of the dreary connotations by throwing open the curtains and letting the light in.
This is clear from opener “By the Canal,” which is a 3-minute guitar, percussion, and voice tune in a major key and a hummable vocal line. It’s very pastoral and rolling, the sort of wide-open tune that might score a romp through a field or a lazy day by a river. Even when he stretches songs back out to his preferred length, tunes like the 5-minute “Albino Animals” and 7-minute “Slow Time Vultures” ditch the despondency for gentle considerations of things.
There are moments that sound like old-school Iron & Wine, which is greatly to be praised; other moments sound like the pristine moments of The Low Anthem (also very exciting). But the overall effect is strictly Elephant Micah: he has his own style, and it’s beautiful. If you’re a fan of acoustic music and you don’t know about Elephant Micah, you’re missing out–one of the best songwriters around is operating in peak form.
I’ve loved Teen Daze for a while now, because I have a deep and abiding affection for chillwave. Chillwave as a genre has splintered, with adherents linking up with genres they more fit with as their sounds mutate.
Teen Daze stayed firmly with the chillwave thing until A World Away, where he goes full electro on us. The six songs of A World Away draw heavily on arpeggiators, rhythmic patterns, reverb-heavy ’80s synth sounds, and clean lines to get the job done: the results are long tunes that place their lot with subtle change in repetitious themes. Opener “Sunburst” pairs some slow-moving chillwave bass against a neatly organized arpeggiator for a best-of-both-worlds mix; closer “I Feel God in the Water” drops the aggressive pulse and returns to the gently moving warm vibes that characterizes the earliest of chillwave tunes.
But in between, tracks like “Another Night” and “Than” smack listeners in the face with aggressive beats from the first second, assimilating them into a clubby mentality immediately; both tunes adjust and change over their 6 and nearly-9-minute runtimes, but the change in modus operandi is clear here. There’s still chillwave influences throughout, but Teen Daze is striking out in another direction on this release. Future work will let us know if this is the final form, or if the sound will keep changing.
Magic Giant‘s Free 3-Song EP is the catchiest, funniest, and most fun pop-folk EP I’ve heard in a long time. Not since Twin Forks’ debut has a band had such a laser-guided sense of how melodies catch an ear. But Magic Giant is much more than your average folk-pop outfit. This quartet combines influences from Jason Mraz, Mumford & Sons, Muse, and dubstep to create an irresistible brew.
Muse has long known that the strength of pop music is that the various genres can be infinitely combined, if you spend enough time making the sounds mesh together; Magic Giant is all in on that game. “Let’s Start Again” opens with a trad-style fiddle run, then segues into a Jason Mraz-style alt-pop verse and pre-chorus. The lyrics are both modern and timeless, talking about cell phones and the desire to start over with a lover. Then the chorus explodes in a stuttering sampled horn line, a blaring marching band line, a soaring fiddle, and wub-style synth bass. It seems like it shouldn’t work, but it works perfectly. It’s like Imagine Dragons, but folkier. It’s rave-folk, but it’s not even the best example of rave-folk on the EP. (The fact that there are so many disparate influences coming together is what makes this the “funniest” EP I’ve heard in a while.)
“The Dawn” starts off with Lumineers-style fingerpicking and group harmony vocals before bursting into a full folk-pop arrangement, pulling the arrangement back to pick up the tempo, then turning into full-on Mumford & Sons: banjo, roar vocals, thrashing drums. There are also some synths for atmosphere. It’s tough to explain how effective this song is, because it sounds fully derivative on paper and yet completely exciting in the ear. The last chorus has some more stomping, four-on-the-floor dance beats, but it’s still not the best rave-folk song on this EP.
Finally we get to “Glass Heart,” which is my early candidate (basically, my bar) for song of the year. It starts off with a slow-moving banjo line, doo-wop background vocals, and tape noise for effect. It suddenly transforms by adding a saxophone section (alto/tenor/bari, by the sounds of it) stabbing its way through the verse. The chorus drops a great vocal line, but it’s the next section that makes the song: a jubilant, exultant horn line combined with the techno beat, wub bass, and enthusiastic background vocals (you can guess what they are) that have me waving my hands in the air. Then they layer the chorus over the bridge and seriously I’m in a one-man headphones club.
Rave-folk isn’t a thing yet, but Magic Giant is seriously trying to make it happen. They’re a shoo-in to go on tour with Imagine Dragons, but I daresay they’re more exciting to me than Imagine Dragons. They’re not going to be winning any traditional Americana awards, but I kinda doubt that’s the audience they’re shooting for. If you’re into huge, shoot-for-the-charts pop songs, then Magic Giant should be in your ears. You can get the free EP by signing up for their e-mail list.
Atlanta folk-rock/folk-punk/folk-pop outfit Mountain Party are dropping their sophomore album Love and Money on March 10th, and the versatile outfit has given IC the pleasure of debuting the second single (and sort of title track) “All You Need Is Love and Money.”
The track closes the album on a wistful note, as a warm, hollow synth line is placed gently over walking-tempo banjo and guitar. The vocals fit the quiet mood, and the glockenspiel and flutes nestle in perfectly to the hushed atmosphere when they arrive. It’s a loose, gentle, unassuming sort of song that doesn’t really build or fall dynamically: it meanders on straight ahead, becoming a perfect analogue to the lyrics.
The wry take on the hippie anthem’s title is sustained in the content, as mortality, security, and nostalgia are positioned as the concerns of hippies-turned-boomers who would have sung the song. However, the lyrics don’t go for the jugular–this isn’t a critical screed. Instead, Mountain Party takes the filmmaker’s approach, presenting a subject for our consideration. The lyrics aren’t played for drama, just as the music isn’t positioned for theatrics. Instead, it’s a calm, gentle song that you can enjoy on multiple levels. In other words, it’s quite a track.
The vision of indie rock that Neutral Milk Hotel put forward is alive and well in Matthew Squires. Where the Music Goes to Die is a mindbending mix of melodic sophistication, off-kilter arrangements, highly literate and oft-enigmatic lyrics, idiosyncratic vocals, and an uncompromising attitude toward the creation of the work. Heidegger, Plato, and copious Biblical references weave their way through the album, as Squires spins indirect (“When Moses Sighed”) and direct eulogies (“American Trash”) of American society.
The songs that bear the lyrics are at turns jaunty indie-rock tunes [the excellent “Echo,” “Some Corny Love Song (Devotional #1)”], major-key alt-folk (the title track, “Plato’s Cave”), and doomy folk (“When Moses Sighed,” “A Strange Piece”). Squires’ high-pitched voice keeps the whole ship sailing, as he brings the listener through the collection with ease. The ultimate result of the collection is similar to that of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea: Where the Music Goes to Die delivers an almost-overwhelming amount of ideas to take in, but all those pieces unfold through repeated enjoyment of the impressively refined melodic surface level. If nothing else, you’ll love singing along to “Echo”–maybe the Heidegger reference will hit later.
The Maravines – Distelfink. It’s always a joy to hear a band build and grow from one release to another. The Maravines’ Distelfink follows their self-titled 2013 release by almost exactly 12 months. Their previous offering was a jangly, reverb-heavy indie-pop work; their new one takes those elements and crafts them into a pitch-perfect rainy-day indie-rock album.
From the album art, it’s clear that The Maravines know what they’ve got here: the gray skies and rain over a lush field and a colorful, nostalgic local business sign are a neat analog of the sound. The duo craft elegant, lush tunes that never turn into spectacles: the songwriting, arrangement, and recording are all purposefully tailored to create a consistent sound throughout the record. You can listen to the individual tunes like “Third Floor Statue,” “Maryland,” and “Flowers on Tonnelle” for their standalone beauty, or you can just let the whole album accompany you through (or transport you to) a dreary, relaxing day. That’s the secret weapon of the album: the green fields of the album art. This album ultimately plays not off the stark, forlorn beauty of Bon Iver or Michigan, but the lush beauty of Nightlands, Holy Fiction, and Sleeping at Last. Distelfink is a beautiful, evocative, wonderful album.
Lord Buffalo — Castle Tapes EP. Lord Buffalo is given to long, gritty, Southwestern, wide-open folk-esque landscapes that burn acoustic guitars into ashes and scatter them to the violent Santa Ana Wind. On the other end of the spectrum, they play terrifying post-rock with spoken/chanted/shouted vocals that sounds like the soundtrack to the apocalypse.
On this short EP, they focus more on their expansive, slow-burn sound than their fully-ramped-up version. A cover of Roky Erickson’s “Two-Headed Dog” sets the pace for the EP: it’s a pensive sort of jam with surreal lyrical imagery and a long wind-up that quits before the seemingly-inevitable explosion. The manipulated violins and ominous spoken word of “Valle De Luna” turn into a more abstract tune that’s a little harder to get into, but it still never gets near Armageddon. The final two tracks are essentially parts one and two of the same long song: the pounding, grumbling, low-grade roar of “Mineral Wells” leads directly into the instrumental “Form of the Sword,” which is a long tension release; it’s the sound of the metaphorical tide going out.
Even though Castle Tapes shows off the “lighter” side of Lord Buffalo, this is still a heavy, serious, thought-provoking release. Lord Buffalo says they’re building up to a full-length in 2015, which I can only expect will have more sweeping, booming, indignant folk/post-rock dispatches for us.
Until John Calvin Abney reappeared with Better Luck, he’d been a fixture in one particular corner of my mind. The last three semesters of my college experience were a difficult time for IC, as they include a 6-month shutdown of IC: the only substantial break I’ve taken in 11.5 years of writing here. I restarted tentatively in January 2009, trying to wrap my head around the impending end of college and the seemingly-unanswerable question of “what am I doing with Independent Clauses?”
That’s when I got to know John Calvin Abney: I went to his concerts, listened to his music, and even got him to help me record my debut indie-pop album. The working relationship helped get me back into music when I had been stalled for a while. But all things go; I left college, he left college, and we lost touch. So it’s with much amazement that I note several incredible things: 1. I get to debut John Calvin Abney’s Better Luck here on Independent Clauses and 2. John Calvin Abney is touring right now with M. Lockwood Porter, whom I met in high school and premiered an album for in 2014. It’s mind-bending, the smallness of worlds.
Yes, yes, that’s very nice disclosure-cum-nostalgia, Stephen, but how does the record sound? Better Luck is a confident collection of tunes that draws off troubadour fingerpicking, alt-country arrangements, and a history of woodshedding. If you can imagine what Jason Isbell’s alt-country might sound like if he was a little more influenced by freak-folk and indie-pop, then you can imagine Abney’s sound. Fingerpicking ballads like “Scarecrow” and “James and Julie” are evocative, catchy, and beautifully arranged, while noisier tunes like “Stepladder” and “Dallas City Lights” include some of the guitar solos that made Calvin such an impressive musician to watch live a half-decade ago.
But where earlier versions of Abney wanted to be a indie-pop songwriter and a guitar god simultaneously, Better Luck shows him in tasteful, refined form. I’d bet Abney can still wail live, but on record he’s developed a cool, confident persona that translates to easily-relatable songs instead of towering walls of guitar heroics. There are moments that call for some guitar thunder, but they’re set in service of the overall song instead of vice versa. His voice has also tightened up: the melodies and delivery are easy, smooth, and inflected with subtleties that turn songs like “James and Julie” and “Scarecrow” from good songs to great ones. (He can also still wail a harmonica with the best of them, which is a bonus wherever you can get it.)
Abney’s songs have a home base in the space between alt-country (“I Can’t Choose,” “Stepladder,” “Cut the Rope”) and folk (“Sirens,” “Scarecrow”), with some outliers in related genres: the ominous, bluesy slant of “Gold Silver”; the Coldplay-esque piano balladry of “Museums”; and the perky, indie-pop-influenced title track, which would have fit neatly as the best track on an early EP of his. Throughout it all, Abney delivers memorable vocal performances, strong songwriting, and tight arrangements.
Just as I noted for tourmate M. Lockwood Porter, John Calvin Abney inhabits these songs thoroughly: nothing feels out of place, nothing feels forced. Porter uses that ease to shuffle through genres like a deck of cards; despite the distinct genre influences that can be noted throughout, Abney seems to be honing down into a definable style. What I can only assume was ruthless editing throughout the process has delivered these songs to their final form in top shape. Better Luck is the product of hard work in developing a sound; that work results in a tight, crisp, earnest album of alt-country/folk songs that resonate easily and deeply.
1. “Seven Hells” – Quiet Company. If English goes through other languages’ pockets looking for spare grammar, Quiet Company has gone through the pockets of various rock genres (’00s garage, southern rock, alt-country, mid-’00s indie-rock-pop) for components to this excellent tune.
2. “As You Fall” – Heil Hipster. Speaking of ’00s garage, this tune has a walloping dose of brittle guitar, danceable rhythms, and just the right amount of outrage and ominous overtones.
3. “Waves Erase” – Reservoir. Yo, it would be hard to get any more Mare Vitalis than this, which is a pretty heavy compliment from over here.
4. “Take Me to the River” – Dr!ve. You gotta love a slinky/sexy/fun dance track with a hook you can chant, a beat you know and love, and cheerful melodies.
5. “Another Night” – Teen Daze. My favorite started-as-chillwave outfit has gotten downright clubby with this track, as the arpeggiated ’80s synths over an insistent beat throw Daze in a whole new direction. Get it.
6. “Unmistakeable” – In Tall Buildings. Some songs are meant to rock, and some are meant to vibe. This one vibes so hard, with a funk-lite guitar line, delicate synth patterns, and breathy vocals.
7. “Is This Hotel Haunted?” – Wild Pink. Rumbling, grumbling, twitchy, herky-jerky power-pop from the purveyor of IC faves Challenger; the same melodic and rhythmic gifts that made Challenger so cool are on display here.
8. “Love & War” – Fairmont. Fairmont rocks out more than they have in a long while, delivering up a towering slice of indie-rock that’s still built off their most recent songwriting foundation of acoustic guitar, indie-pop ideals, and Neil Sabatino’s vocals.
IC knows Jared Foldy as an acoustic singer/songwriter, so I was a bit surprised when he sent over his new single “Everglow.” Instead of dreamy, gentle acoustic picking, his new single has gently rolling electronic beats and a warm, lush arrangement. It’s a beautiful, pastoral piece that doubles as a chill dance anthem (refrain: “Take me back to summer”).
It perfectly balances its indie-pop and electronic commitments, resulting in a song that could fit as the last track on a chill indie-pop mixtape or get remixed with some sick drops and fit straight into a club mix. Get versatile, Jared! Above all that genre nonsense, it’s a fun, nostalgic, memorable track that IC is pleased to premiere today. You can also check it at his Soundcloud.
1. “Back, Baby” – Jessica Pratt. Mystical folk in a husky voice, reminiscent in mood of Carole King.
2. “Victoria” – Tamara Williamson. A haunting, eerie track that incorporates elements of folk, Argentine history (including the death flights), and enigmatic pop sounds (a la Bjork).
3. “I See You, Tiger” – Via Tania. Combines the slow-paced mystery of trip-hop with a ’30s torch song and a ’60s Burt Bacharach arrangement for an enigmatic, enveloping tune.
4. “Portland Square” – Martin Callingham. You’re walking through a dark forest for fun and this music comes on. Instantly you know that you are starting an epic fantasy quest that may cost you your life, but you’re going to be a hero. You start looking for gear and feel no compulsion if you steal it out of empty houses. They have like ten swords there anyway.
5. “Primrose Green” – Ryley Walker. If you’re into rolling, pastoral ’70s folk a la John Denver, you’ll be all over this.
6. “Howl” – The Lowest Pair. I don’t know how a duo can sound so forlorn, but this guy/girl outfit manage to sound more morose than The Civil Wars (in the most endearing of ways, of course).
7. “Gold” – Dorthia Cottrell. If it ain’t a murder ballad, it sure sounds like one. If you like your country with great vocals, unadorned performances, and a side of slightly terrifying, jump on this one.
8. “Slow Time Vultures” – Elephant Micah. As far as I’m concerned, Jason Molina passed his Songs: Ohia baton directly to Elephant Micah. That’s all you need to know about this wonderful track.
9. “Everyone’s Summer of ’95” – Iron & Wine. Remember when it was just Sam Beam, a guitar, and romanticism? Here’s a new song from that era. It’s everything I could possibly want it to be.
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.