Young Legs‘ Promise of Winter starts off in summer with the uber-perky “Resolution” but travels through the seasons to the depth of winter by the close of the album. During the journey, Steven Donahue shows off deft control of mood and impeccable melodic skill. These tunes circle the central node of Donahue’s confident, breathy voice: whether it’s employed in a frantic, minor-key indie-rock tune [“Ring of Salt (Youth Culture Dummy Version)”], a major-key jangle-rock tune (“The Apple Stem”), a banjo-led folk tune (“Book of the Lethe”) or a complex a capella venture (“Northfield”), Donahue’s voice shines. (Wiry, quirky, zooming synthesizers appear in several well-chosen spots, giving this a friendly, unusual texture.)
Even though there are a wide variety of styles here, the core of the album is composed of Donahue’s voice and a guitar. “Goodbye, John Ryle,” “Round the Root,” and “Seasons of Giving” fall firmly within the folk camps, ranging from Nick Drake-ian lightness (“Round the Root”) to Songs: Ohia gloominess (particularly as you go farther into the album). The melodies throughout each style are compelling, showing that Donahue isn’t a one-trick pony. From whispery folk to brash indie-rock, the songwriting here never falters. It’s a charming release, through and through. Anyone who’s into acoustic-led indie music will have a field day with Promise of Winter.
Battle Ave.‘s Year of Nod is the opposite of Young Legs’ wide-ranging genre fiesta: instead, it’s a laser-focused exploration of a particular sonic space. Jesse Alexander and co. have made an album that explores the whispery, sleepy, eerie spaces in-between dusk and dark, or between dark and dawn. This is the sort of thing that the phrase indie rock was built for: it’s got the underlying assumptions of rock, but it’s not taking them in a stereotypically riff-bound, v/c/v structure. Alexander’s weary, wailing voice fits perfectly with these tunes, from the perky “Summer Spear” to the intimate, quiet “Helen (This Isn’t Meant to Offend).”
Everything in between those sonic poles (“Zoa,” “In Evil Hour,” “Say Say Oh Enemy”) plays with the tension between hissing found sound, misty ambient noises, and traditional indie-rock vibes–the 7-minute “Zoa” includes both an upbeat clapping section and an arhythmic melancholy interlude that is best characterized by Alexander’s wordless sighs and vocal noises. Battle Ave. has both of these things inside themselves, and the resulting tunes are the tension between them. Year of Nod is a frequently elegant, occasionally dissonant, always interesting indie-rock album–those interested in thoughtful, careful sonic art would do well to check this out.
Ivan and Alyosha‘s It’s All Just Pretend is deeply American music. The songs here take cues from straight-ahead major-key rock (“All This Wandering Around”), country (“Drifting Away”), piano-hammering ’50s pop (“Let Me Go East”), and timeless balladeering (“Tears in Your Eyes,” “Don’t Lose Your Love”) to pull together an attractive, affecting collection. The diversity of song styles and structures is held together by Tim Wilson’s inviting voice and the familial lyrical themes.
Wilson’s tenor has a uniquely magnetic quality: vocalists that are both distinctive and attractive in their tone are rare. It’s tough to describe the X factor, but it’s all over the chorus of “Bury Me Deep,” the first single and most rocking tune of the album. Wilson’s excellent delivery is one of the things that draws me back to the album over and over. The lyrics also help: the album explores the thoughts, fears, and joys of having a family and growing older. The moving expression of familial love in “Come Rain, Come Shine” slots it right near Ben Folds’ “Still Fightin’ It,” while the tender acoustic ballad “Don’t Lose Your Love” reiterates that love in pleas/advice. The title track combines the sentiment of “Don’t Lose Your Love” with a sweet guitar riff and another stellar vocal performance from Wilson. In short, It’s All Just Pretend is an album that clicks on all cylinders. Knowing that their live show is excellent (I saw them in Chapel Hill in May–the songs sound just as great live, if not better in some cases), it leaves me very excited for Ivan and Alyosha’s future.
Canadian indie-pop band Groenland’s debut album The Chase sets this six-piece powerhouse on an island of their own. Every track delivers a different experience for the listener to take in. From deep contemplativeness to cheery exuberance and everything in between, The Chase is an emotional, instrumental, and vocal adventure.
The album does not have one consistent mood, and in that way it perhaps represents the array of emotions we all have. Take the moody, heavy “Immune”: the lyrics explore the inner back and forth occurring within the heart of someone in a passionate relationship. The line that most stands out everytime I press replay is, “I’ll shoot my brains out again if you come back around/ But I won’t suffer the blame to watch us go down.” Although the visceral image of shooting one’s brains out is very negative and dark, the lyric exposes that not only is this a pattern, but it is one that is painful to replay. So although it causes the person pain for the relationship to start up again, it causes equal pain to see it end. How many of us can relate to this masochistic/love-sick pattern that “Immune” explores?
Many of us also know the taste of desire and the hopefulness that comes with believing in something. “The Chase” encompasses the optimism that comes with believing in yourself. Whatever job, love-interest, life you’re chasing after, “The Chase” represents the playful self-assurance that comes along with the quest. The song provides a very different mood that “Immune,” with lyrics like, “You may think you are done with us/ But it’s only just begun” paired fittingly with playful, old-school Mario video game sounds playing in the background. Through lyrics and other aspects such as instrument pairing, each song on the album places the listener in a different emotional state.
The instrumentation of The Chase is an adventure in and of itself. There are piano-heavy tracks (“Our Last Shot,” “Our Hearts Like Gold”), ukulele-led songs (“Don’t Fix Me Yet,” “Superhero”), and appearances of full orchestra (“La Pieuvre,” “Immune”). The varied percussion, particularly in the drums and tambourine, add flavor to many of the songs. The instrumentation found in The Chase contains depth and scope similar to Arcade Fire’s Funeral-era thick instrumentation. It’s a tough standard to be graded against, but Groenland takes it on with this album.
Groenland’s lead singer Sabrina Halde has an uncanny ability to change the feel of the song, just by how she changes her voice. Halde’s voice has depth and soul akin to soulful artists like Adele and Amy Winehouse. “26 Septembre” and “Superhero” both show off this deep, powerful side of Halde’s voice: on the bridge of “26 Septembre,” she goes up and down the scale on just one syllable. “Our Hearts Like Gold” exposes the softer side of Halde’s voice, as she is a bit whisperier for much of the song. Halde allows her voice to sound strong at moments, but she quickly returns to the softer, more delicate side of her voice. As a result, the song ends sweetly and gently, unlike the more powerfully soulful endings found on the album.
Listening to Groenland’s The Chase is certainly an adventure. The lyrics explore many delicate human emotions that we often don’t give enough time to. The diverse instrumentation gives every track a different feel, and Halde’s vocals can bring your spirits to the highest of heights. I highly recommend purchasing Groenland’s The Chase: its diversity will be sure to give you a unique, exciting listening experience. —Krisann Janowitz
If Quentin Tarantino brewed his morning coffee while playing Last Transmission From Sector 7, I would not be surprised. The 12-track album from Houston native Arc Rev One blends psychedelic, experimental, lo-fi, and alternative electronic into a record that sounds like an acid trip in the Wild West.
To get an idea of opener “Silent Rage,” just imagine RHCP’s “Suck My Kiss” video. The track’s gritty defiance and anarchy-in-the-desert feel are complimented by muffled, southern-accented vocals. Bluesy tones reveal hot Houston influence on one of the more alternative electronic tracks on the album.
“Stage 3 Exp” and “Great Galactic Central Sun” also have alternative distinctions, but with a flair for the psychedelic. “Stage 3 Exp” melts right into the rock elements of “Great Galactic Central Sun,” whose atmospheric guitar riffs confirm this record has a vintage instrumental appeal to it, despite varying electronic soundscapes.
“DON’T TRIP (nothing is real)” is a perfect example of those soundscapes – it begins with laser beams zapping their way into syncopated dance beats. Then, bits of carnival ride synth drop in unexpectedly to prove that, were there ever a song that could deliver a sonic hallucinogen, this would be it. It dips and weaves into so many different energies that “chaotically colorful” is an understatement.
For balance, ambient tracks like “Drift,” “Event of the Orbit,” “Orbit of the Event,” and “Dissolve” give the record a lonesome quality. Despite the name, “Drift” has a stranded-in-the-desert vibe – there’s no beachy groove here. It seems lost in time through repetitive, somber guitar riffs and vocals that are mirages on the horizon, so light you’re not sure they’re present. On “Event of the Orbit,” piano offers a beautiful, classical side to the rather glitch-filled album; throughout its seven-minute duration, “Dissolve” hypnotizes you at each utterance of its repeated phrase (“You can dissolve”).
“Ecstatic Data” most intrigued me, though. It has chiptune elements that take you on a synthesized space odyssey and legitimately sound like R2D2 having a conversation with himself. It’s awesome.
Through its psychedelic compounds, galaxy-like glitch, and lo-fi electronic coated with a good ‘ole smokey grime to it, Last Transmission From Sector 7 puts a whole new meaning to Cowboys vs. Aliens. If rustic and trippy all at once is a category, Arc Rev One has nailed it. —Rachel Haney
I love sonic blankets: songs and records that encourage you to grab a quilt, find a comfy spot, and rest a while. We Are the West‘s Regards is a sonic blanket of the finest order: their relaxing folk tunes create soundscapes similar to those of The Low Anthem at their prettiest. The three songs of this all-too-short release don’t waste time, as opener “Hold On” gives the listener gentle fingerpicking, stand-up bass, a wistful accordion, and sounds of the rain outside the performer’s doors. By the time that distant back-up vocals come in, the idyllic scene has already been fully realized. Everything else is icing.
The rain continues gently in the background of the two following tracks, creating a pleasant through-line that ties the work together. “The Thin Red Line” adds the sounds of frogs croaking in the distance and changes the focus a bit: Brett Hool’s velvety tenor is the central character, with guitar and stand-up bass providing the grounding. More BGVs and a fiddle come in toward the end, but nothing takes the spotlight from Hool. The lead in the closer and title track could be Hool’s voice or guitar, but in my mind it’s the pump organ: there are few instruments more heartbreaking when employed to their best effect, and the pump organ is treated expertly here. The fragile certainty of the pump organ echoes the tensions in Hool’s voice, as he offers up his most dramatic performance. It’s still not what one might consider theatrical, but he emotes.
Regards is just a bit under 15 minutes, but I could stand for much more. The careful construction of sounds here results in songs that hit all the right emotional chords in me. If you’ve got a summer storm headed your way, get Regards, a blanket, and a big window ready. (This is especially grand if you’re in some sort of countryside, but urban spaces work too.) Now that I mention it, I can’t think of much more I want to do right now. Here’s to We Are the West–check them out.
Billy Shaddox‘s I Melt, I Howl contains sounds as fresh-faced as a Generationals pop song, as gently quirky as a Backyard Tire Fire jam, and as easily evocative as an Iron & Wine tune. To put it another way: Shaddox’s work lives in space created by drawing a triangle with points at good-natured AM radio rock, unpretentious folk, and earnest indie pop. His songwriting prowess shows through not in complexity, but in making simplicity sound just the way I want it to sound.
It all starts with Shaddox’s effortless tenor voice, which is often so at home it seems like he opens his mouth and notes just tumble out. They land in a comfy bed of leaves: from road-friendly, ’70s folk-rock vibes of the title track opener to the gently grooving rock of “Golden Coast” to the resplendent melodic acoustic guitar work of “Who You Were,” the arrangements here can’t be ignored. “Who You Were” in particular points out the fusion between his comforting voice and unassuming arrangements, as he takes an old chord progression and presses it into service of a nostalgic, yearning tune. With his voice, gentle keys, and some color electric guitar chiming off in the distance, old pieces feel fresh and bright again.
It’s that sense of brightness that most marks I Melt, I Howl. Even on the more downtempo songs, Shaddox makes sure that there’s light coming in around the edges. It gets its street cred not from being edgy or heavily imperiled in turmoil, but by employing traditional pop songcraft in an impressive way. This has elements of tons of American songwriting genres, as I’ve mentioned already–but it’s not a grab bag. The overall mood ties these songs together into an elegant collection. If you’re looking for the soundtrack to a charming summer trip, or a tender summer romance, you need to look into Billy Shaddox’s I Melt, I Howl. It will stick with you.
Matt Carter has a beautiful low-tenor voice. He inflects the delivery of lines in “Weary Traveler” with deft grace, echoing the skills of calm-yet-passionate singers such as Alexi Murdoch. His careful delivery belies some weariness in himself, but doesn’t let that overcome the structured dignity of the track.
The tender, approachable alt-pop arrangement behind the gentle vocal melody consists of acoustic strum, grounding piano, burbling electric guitar and weightless strings that provide a big lift to the tune. It’s the sort of song whose excellence can pass easily by (maybe even totally unnoticed) if you’re not paying close attention; it’s pretty, melodic, and relaxing–but it’s a lot more than that. Carter brings a lot of nuances to the tune that make it a beautiful track.
It’s the first track off the Patterns EP that will be released later this fall. Listen here:
Here’s the lush, foliage-filled video for the song:
Independent Clauses is a wide-ranging blog, but my home base is gentle, tender, fingerpicked folk. That’s why I’m so jumping-up-and-down excited about Austin Basham, an artist that synthesizes the best elements of David Ramirez and The Tallest Man on Earth (two acts I already love).
Basham’s five-song Linton // Oslo EP shows off a nimble, fragile fingerpicking skill similar to Kristian Matsson’s and an intimate baritone similar to Ramirez’s (“Running“). The production that captures these central elements is immediate–it sounds as if Basham is sitting next to me playing. These three elements together make this EP worth buying, but there’s a wealth of reasons beyond the initial listen.
Basham’s not just a brilliant fingerpicker–eloquent without being gaudy, endearing without being overly simplistic–he’s a solid arranger. These songs feature banjo, horns, strings, whistling and background vocals that float and flutter through the background, providing lift to Basham’s already light songs (“https://soundcloud.com/austin-basham/on-the-hunt”>On the Hunt,” “Running“). He even incorporates flutes into “Find a Way” without stereotyping them. He can’t avoid a good whoa-oh every now and then, but even these biggest of moments seem to fold seamlessly into the vibe. It’s not like a massive riff coming in to take over the song (as in a rock anthem); instead it flows directly out of the things around it. (As it well should be, I think.)
Basham’s vocal performances are another selling point; his voice has a rich quality to it, but he doesn’t just lean on the sound of his voice. He knows how to use it to best emotional effect. He jumps up to a slightly higher range to make a big point; he accents particular lyrics with clipped or drawn-out delivery. The lyrics here are kindhearted love songs, wishing well to a lover (“Lord knows I want you to be whole again,” from “On the Hunt“) and offering affection (“I put my heart in my love, my love for you,” from “Running“). The arrangements and clear-eyed recording style keep the songs from being saccharine, and instead come off as earnest.
I’m frankly blown away by Austin Basham’s Linton // Oslo EP. It’s beautifully written, thoughtfully composed, and excellently recorded. It’s the sort of release that I sort through the hundreds of releases I get yearly to find. If you like acoustic music of any variety (those of the Alexei Murdoch persuasion will be particularly thrilled), Austin Basham should be blasting onto your radar soon–if he hasn’t already. An absolutely gorgeous, knock-out release.
I’ve been reading Amanda Petrusich’s excellent book Do Not Sell At Any Price, about collectors of vintage ’78s. It’s a vastly entertaining piece of non-fiction about people who are obsessed with searching for, saving, collecting, and listening to blues, country blues, country, and world records from the early 1900s. It has me thinking about old school sounds, which is perfect for a review of The New Switcheroo‘s Heartless Sky EP. The Chicago four-piece starts with an old-timey, vocal-heavy folk style–a style which isn’t purveyed nearly as often in the 21st century as it was in the early- to mid-twentieth. From there they layer on unhinged country (“I Remember Clifford”), honky-tonk (“NMR”), and some more modern folk (“Lightning”) accompaniments.
It’s hard to stress enough how much this is a vocals-centric work. The three female vocalists take center stage, putting the spotlight firmly on the theatrical (even operatic) vocal melodies and performances. This may throw some people off-kilter. But for those who are into the style, there’s a lot of strong work here: “Lightning” culminates in a variety of vocal lines weaving and intertwining; it’s an impressive accomplishment. “I Remember Clifford” pulls the same feat, but with some impressive belting (“Pixelated, NM” also features some remarkable vocal roars). These vocalists can really holler when they want to. If you’re into old-school Americana sounds or vocal-heavy outfits, The New Switcheroo may be for you.
Harmonic – Absorbed – Ethereal – Longing – Otherwordly – Sexy – is what I hope HÆLOS stands for, because those six words describe their debut EP Earth Not Abovespot-on. The electro-pop trio has crafted four tracks that glide along a tightrope separating beautifully euphoric and tragically sad moods.
The title track sways with sensual rhythm, careful not to give too much away at the start. “Some of us need kindness,” sing male and female vocalists, their delicious, natural harmony similar to The XX’s, but fuller, more wholesome. The use of drums, like a thumping heart palpitation, creates a beautiful build of suspense as we hang on to every beat. The repeated lyric (“Ohhh, is this what we have become?”) is gripping – you want to know their story.
Things get more atmospheric on “Cloud Nine” where subtle sounds, such as running a fingertip along the wet rim of a wine glass, warp in the background. The silver, sopranic female voice contrasts exquisitely with the warm, golden male voice. The vocals overall are choppy, paralleling the concept of the song. “Why did you leave me here?” – This question they mull over…and over again while a hesitant stop-and-go pace captures vulnerability.
Pensiveness fades into desperation on “Breathe,” where lyrics like “How long will you still hold me? How long will you breathe for me?” are intermingled with techno texturing and sharp, metallic clanging. The pace gradually picks up, as the instrumentation twirls around a tornado of overlapping lyrical questions.
And finally, the tornado comes to a peaceful cessation by the fourth track, “Ethyr.” It starts with a gentle, pulling sound I can only describe as denser than listening to the inside of a seashell–you’re actually standing inside it. The final track is a strange delivery of electronic orchestra. It’s space-like, full of radar-detecting glitch and static sounds, like a TV attempting to pick up a channel. It’s so breathtaking you forget the only vocals are muffled, singing underwater. There’s nothing left to be said. It’s this presence of pure sound that brings us to the serene end of a delicate journey.
What begins as a vibe marked by desperation and constant questioning morphs into graceful acceptance. On Earth Not Above, HÆLOS uses those unsure-of gray areas to create a beautiful landscape and tender atmosphere for contemplation. Next time you’re still awake during those precious hours before sun rise, Earth Not Above could be the perfect sonic soother.–Rachel Haney
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.