I’m pretty worn out from divorce records this year, but Glen Phillips‘ Swallowed by the New is a divorce record so good that I’m breaking my moratorium on the form to tell you about it. Phillips is the former songwriter of Toad the Wet Sprocket who has turned himself into a songwriter approximately like Glen Hansard crossed with Alexi Murdoch while living in America. In other words, these are rich, fully-developed singer/songwriter songs that can be hushed or roaring with equal emotional impact.
The highlights of the record are the emotionally-wrung-out opener “Go,” the gospel-inflected major key of “Grief and Praise,” the Brill Building popcraft of “Reconstructing the Diary” and the stomping neo-blues rave-up that is “Held Up.” The rest of the tunes are strong as well, showing off Phillips’ oh-so-perfect vocal tone and smooth songwriting (“The Easy Ones,” “Baptistina,” “Leaving Oldtown”). The whole thing is about as warm and lovely as the thoroughly attractive album art. In other words, it doesn’t drag you through the dirt to get to the gold–at least, not too much.
My last review, of Jason van Wyk’s work, sounded like it could easily score a film about outer space. I Dreamt I Was an Astronautby Jeremy Tuplin one-ups that by actually including songs about outer space and the universe (“Astronaut,” “Albert Einstein Song,” “Robot Love”) and putting an astronaut right there in the title. Beyond the space elements, it is a strong singer/songwriter album that establishes Tuplin’s formidable songwriting and vocal skills.
The most compelling component of this music is Tuplin’s baritone voice. His round, compelling tone leads the way through almost every one of these songs. The performances can be heartbreaking (“In Front of Me All This Time”), heartbroken (“Robot Love”), inviting (“Kathleen”), or some of all of that (“Did We Lose the Fight”). He uses vibrato more than I’m used to, but he uses it well; it doesn’t get annoying. Instead, it feels honest and real, like he’s not trying to make his voice something it’s not.
The songs that his voice leads through are singer/songwriter tunes that draw on indie influences; “Did We Lose the Fight” reminds me of Once, “Oh Youth” feels like a stripped-down Funeral-era Arcade Fire tune, and “Modern Life / Modern Love” has the earnest pluckiness of a St. Even song. All throughout there’s a wide-open feel that will connect with fans of Gregory Alan Isakov, although the two artists are quite different.
But it’s “Albert Einstein Song” that is the highlight here. The thoughtful, probing lyrics are the most memorable of the lot, referencing the titular scientist, physics, the universe, and David Bowie. The carefully developed arrangement of toms, strings, tiny piano, and guitar is both grand and intimate, which is a unique statement. The rest of the songs here are good, but this one is great. It points to impressive things to come, on top of solid things already presented here. I Dreamt I Was An Astronaut is a strong debut album of a singer/songwriter who is clearly developing his own specific voice.
When I get burned out on breakup songs, it’s comforting to turn to music without lyrics. For all I know, the songs of Jason van Wyk‘s Attachment and Opacity spawned from a failed relationship—but there’s only piano and atmospherics to convey that. I can imagine that these are songs about exploring a distant area of space, if I so choose. The subtle emotion infused in the melodies of these piano-centric, minimalist instrumental albums allow for the first interpretation (should you so choose), while the careful use of negative space and the icy sheen provoke the second interpretation. Both albums are comforting, enveloping listening experiences.
Attachment is technically a re-release of a 2016 album, but it’s new enough for me. The album’s compositions focus on minimalist (but not abstract or structural/12-tone) piano work; there are pad synths and other background noises, but van Wyk’s piano playing is central (as in highlight “Before”). In other places the ambient mood shares time with delicate piano patterns (“Stay,” “Found”). Closer “Depart” signals a direction that he would follow on Opacity, as the strings and synths that compose the bulk of the tune create a misty, ethereal landscape for the listener to explore. The piano does (gently) reassert itself before the tune ends, because this is a piano-centric album. The focus on piano allows melodies to be developed, giving many of these songs individual character.
Opacity is less piano-centric; songs named “Shimmer,” “Glow,” and “Weightless” give a sense of the vibe van Wyk is going for on this album. “Shimmer” holds up to its name, as the composition is a gauzy, slow-moving aura. “Glow” is a sad kind of luminescence, more like Gatsby’s light than a Christmas tree; “Beneath” is also a sad, slowly pulsing idea with little piano.
The focus on the rest of the composition outside the piano gives this particular album less forward motion than Attachment, but plays up the coherence of the whole work. As a result, Opacity is more moving to me when I listen to it all the way through; it is a brooding, icy, yet exploratory work. I can easily see it as the soundtrack to a lonely-space-exploration film.
These two albums work together to show off the impressive compositional skills of Jason van Wyk. If you’re interested in contemporary composition (a la Nils Frahm), minimalism, or just “relaxing music,” these two albums will do a lot for you. Highly recommended.
After a summer where I’ve been worn out by heavy breakup albums, it’s really nice to hear an album that is about something completely different. Gifts or Creatures’ Fair Mitten (New Songs of the Historic Great Lakes Basin) is exactly what the parenthetical announces: a bunch of songs about the history of Michigan and points surrounding. It’s a deep dive on a region for people who really hoped that Sufjan was going to do all 50 states, encased in unique indie-pop/indie-rock sounds.
It’s only appropriate to address the lyrics first. If you didn’t grow up in the Old Northwest, you’re going to have dig deep into whatever you remember of your high school American History course: Pontiac’s Rebellion! Fort Dearborn Massacre! Canadian Shield! Fur trapping! Thankfully, GoC gives a lot of context in these tunes without turning this into Schoolhouse Rock. The focus is on the emotions of these places and events (“Grand Rapids Brakeman,” “Pontiac’s Rebellion,” “Conquest of the Old Northwest”), but the duo knows enough to give their listeners a leg up on what’s going on in the otherwise-oddly-specific tunes of this concept album. As I mentioned at the beginning: if you’re looking for something fresh for your ears, this is real fresh.
Also fresh is the indie-pop/indie-rock songwriting. Three instruments are prominent: a specific dreamy keyboard, a lightly distorted electric guitar, and drums. With this unusual palette, the band wrings out all sorts of textures, from the pensive (“Trout of the Pines”) to the poppy (“Fort Dearborn Massacre”) to the icily expansive (“Manitou Passage”).
But it’s in tunes like “Canadian Shield” the true power of their duo comes to light: there, the electric guitar and keyboard are so tightly meshed together that it sounds like one instrument. This is both an impressive sonic trick and a satisfying experience, as the sounds generated are attempting to reach an ideal the likes of which I have never heard or imagined. Again, if you’re looking for something novel, Gifts or Creatures have come up with it.
Fair Mitten is an unusual experience at first, as Gifts or Creatures’ goals are hugely different than that of your run-of-the-mill indie band. In a way, they hearken back to the ideal of indie rock from the ‘80s: “sing your song, man. It doesn’t have to be about the same things as our songs, or sound like our songs; you’re part of us because it doesn’t sound like our stuff.” This isn’t stuff you’ll hear on the radio, and that’s great. It’s fantastic, unique, original work. Highly recommended.
The last time that Nathan Partain checked in, he was purveying crunchy Southern rock and worshipful ballads on Jaywalker. On his new record, Partain has stripped out a large amount of the crunch and embraced delicate acoustic folk almost entirely. The songs still meet the goal of being fit for congregational worship, but A Lovely Wait is a reverent, quietly-intense album much more reminiscent of Rich Mullins’ work or Sufjan’s Seven Swans than a contemporary worship album.
Opener “You Were Not My People” is that rare opener whose instrumentation and lyrics set the stage perfectly for what’s to come in the rest of the album without stealing any of the thunder of the later tracks. The performances are crisp in their precision, but remain delicate: the mellow keys, acoustic guitar, drums, and vocal performances all contribute to this careful tight-rope act. Partain’s voice doesn’t strain or push—instead, he calmly lays out the engaging vocal melody with a female counterpart. The mood this and further pieces create is similar to the quiet awe of Seven Swans, a rare compliment from these parts.
That reverence carries over into the lyrics of “You Were Not My People.” Partain’s words reflect a depth and scope that is also rare in contemporary worship music since the death of Rich Mullins. Instead of focusing on a specific characteristic of God or on worshipers’ response to God, Partain takes listeners on a tour of the whole Bible from God’s perspective: the many ways that people have ignored, turned away from, attacked, and even killed God—and the astoundingly merciful and kind responses that God gives to people in response. The fact that this can happen in under 5 minutes is impressively concise writing. The idea of the song is one that comes from a unique voice in the world of Christian music.
The reverent arrangements and unique lyrical perspective shine throughout the rest of the album. The gentle pitter-patter of “One Thing I Have Asked (Psalm 27)” shows off the instrumental prowess in creating worshipful moods, while “In the Strength You Give” is a spartan tune that accentuates the clear-eyed confessional lyrics. “Deliverance Is a Song of Peace” is a fantastic, expertly-developed folk tune. The catchy “All You Do Is Good” and the folk-rock of “Your Ways” are two tunes that are clearly focused on congregational settings; still, they are both great songs in their own right that don’t fall outside the sonic scope of the album.
While those last two are clearly congregational, it’s a testament to the maturity of Partain’s songwriting that all of these songs work as folk tunes and could clearly work in worship. To then craft and sequence a top-shelf album out of songs that are already serving dual purposes is another challenge that Partain conquers. A Lovely Wait is an impressive acoustic folk album that transcends its place in the Christian music world while still creating music to serve the people of Christ. Highly recommended.
1. “JUNGLES” – Rina Mushonga. The sort of exciting, carefully-crafted electro-pop tune that always has one more trick up its sleeve, from Mushonga’s engrossing vocals to unexpected synth melodies to sudden stop-start mechanics and more.
2. “Eghass Malan” – Les Filles de Illighadad. An all-female trio from Niger, they create music in the tende genre: it’s desert music, shifting, sinuous guitar work over stripped-down percussion. The vocals are impressive as well. This will appeal to people who like West African sounds, sitar (the melodic structures bear a resemblance), and adventurous listening.
3.The Wave– Los Colognes. This is a 43-minute long continuous video for a whole album. It’s such a gutsy, unusual move that the sheer audacity alone is enough to get it on this list. The space-rock-meets-psych-flutes indie rock of the opening track is a convincing bit as well.
4. “Bombay – Nairobi – London (Repeater)” – Holy ’57. Alex Mankoo’s exuberant indie-pop project makes a left turn on this track, a groove-heavy fusion of worldbeat, funk, and electro-indie capped off by a horns-waving brass line. The lyrics are an interview with Mankoo’s grandmother about her immigration to London (as reflected in the title). You haven’t heard anything like this in a while.
5. “Scarlet Fever” – Skye Wallace. The lyrics are about long-distance love in the steamboat/gold rush era, but the music is 100% mid-to-late-’00s hyper-enthusiastic indie-rock. Anyone who still pines for Ida Maria will absolutely love this track. It’s a total blast.
6. “Big Boys Don’t Cry” – Melissa Bel. Fans of the ’50s pop revival that seems to have been percolating for years but never hitting critical mass will enjoy the Meghan Trainor-esque tune here. The handclaps, hammering piano and skronking bari sax all pitch-perfect, while Bel’s vocals are thoroughly modern.
7. “We’re Alive” – Rivera. The chorus of this tune features the sort of well-written hook that I find myself humming absent-mindedly days later. It’s a pop song, but it doesn’t go for the “big anthemic explosion” type of chorus–there’s some subtlety involved, which I like. h
8. “No More Stones” – Oh Geronimo. Sort of like a cross between Manchester Orchestra and Frightened Rabbit, this song dances back and forth over the minor/major key line. The alternating moods of jubilance and melancholy create a fascinating blend.
9. “Americo” – Americo. A poem about WWII spoken against a solemn, pensive, keys-led post-rock backdrop. Americo is mostly a distortion-laden rock band, which only makes this atypical, impressive track stand out even more.
10. “Song of the Highest Tower” – Cut Worms. Sounds like the lost link between Simon & Garfunkel/America-era folk and mid-nineties lo-fi indie-rock, which is pretty rad.
11. “Never Be” – Meg McRee. Close harmonies in an almost rap-sung style over a turbulent adult-alternative arrangement create a tune that’s close to an alternate-universe Jason Mraz song.
12. “Bus” – Woochia. Starts off with a hypnotic acoustic guitar line and slowly turns into a smooth, bass-heavy instrumental electro track. The marriage between the electronic and acoustic is impressive here.
1. “Anywhere, Everywhere” – The Singer and the Songwriter. This is top-shelf folk-pop that draws on all the tropes that make folk-pop so good but puts the band’s own spin on it. (Those vocals! Those stuttering horns!) Highly recommended.
2. “My God Has a Telephone” – The Flying Stars of Brooklyn NY. Impressively enveloping low-key indie-soul, like a slowed-down Alabama Shakes or an acoustified Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats. Fans of Otis Redding and all that went on around him will love this track.
3. “Restless” – Common Jack. The confident folk swagger of Josh Ritter, the punchy melodies of the Lumineers, and a large dose of indie-pop enthusiasm create this fantastically fun song.
4. “Over There” – Dori Freeman. Trad-folk can sound a bit too dedicated to the past, but Freeman manages to evoke old-timey sounds and yet stay modern. Her clear vocals help, as does the immediate, bright recording style. If you like contemporary folk but can’t stand washboard, Freeman is a bridge between the two worlds.
5. “Wailing Wall” – Cameron Blake. A swirling pool of strings forms the backdrop for this emotional, dramatic singer/songwriter tune. Blake’s skills as an arranger and lyricist are on display here, as neither the standard piano or guitar lead the way; instead it’s just his voice, a small choir, and strings that lead the listener through.
6. “Get On” – The Northern Folk. Less satire and more bitter commentary, this folk tune swings punches left and right. Between the acid delivery of the lead vocals, the angry lyrics, a roaring vocalization section, and the unusual addition of saxophone into the horn section, this song has bite to spare. The horns do smooth it out a bit, in a jazzy way, but this one’s about being punchy.
7. “Gaudy Frame” – Monk Parker. More lazy, hazy, easygoing country for people who deeply miss Clem Snide.
8. “I Root (Trio Version)” – Michael Nau. The arrangement of a folk tune filtered through the melodic lines and recording style of a Beatles song results in a dignified, melancholy piece.
9. “Here We Are Again” – Ella Grace. This walking-speed alt-folk tune makes hand percussion sound intimate and personal instead of all of its other connotations. It also includes bird noises, gentle guitar, and Denton’s careful, almost speak-singing vocal performance. This will calm you down if you need it.
10. “Broken Bow, OK” – Aaron Rester. Fun fact: My home state of Oklahoma has a town called Broken Arrow and a town called Broken Bow, and they’re not next to each other. This alt-country/folk tune references the smaller of the two amid gravelly vocals, swooping fiddle, and plunking piano. The compelling tune lives in Americayana, an “alt-country/Americana retelling of the ancient Hindu epic, the Ramayana.” Whoa.
11. “Sorry” – M.R. Bennett. Fragile, delicate, and yet ruggedly determined, this spartan apology (just occasionally plucked guitar notes, Antony and the Johnsons-esque vocals, and yearning strings for the majority) is on a sonic plane all its own.
12. “Motion in Field” – Tom Rogerson with Brian Eno. Rogerson contributes the delicate, exploratory piano elegance; Eno contributes the pulsing, sweeping arpeggiator work. The marriage of the two is luscious. (Fun fact: I’ve only used the word “luscious” two previous times in Independent Clauses’ 14 years.)
Diamonds are born from vast amounts of pressure. The pressure of being a talent from the Pacific Northwest may be the explosive element for many bands trying to find a form. “A caldera is the term for what’s left after a volcano erupts,” explains Polyrhythmics guitarist Ben Bloom. This is a precursor to the music found on Caldera, whichis easily described as mind blowing. The band combines the talents of Ben Bloom (guitars), Grant Schroff (drums), Nathan Spicer (Keys), Lalo Bello (Percussion), Jason Gray (Bass), Scott Morning (Trumpet), Elijah Clark (Trombone), and Art Brown (Sax and Flute).
Polyrhythmics’ fourth release, Caldera, follows the success of Octagon. Here listeners are invited to take a trip musically around the world all at once, and to find substance from the unusual fluidity that is their music. Melding stylistic elements from jazz, blues, afrobeat, and funk with some rock flavor, the music from the Seattle-based band is an evolution. This album, written at the base of Mount Hood in rural Oregon, shows that the combination of all elements can create a unique form.
Fighting busy schedules, the band chose to get together and write at Stargazer Farms outside of Portland, Oregon. The result was being trapped in two feet of snow after the coldest winter snap in a while. Following the Stargazer writing sessions, the band headed into Gray’s Seattle studio and recorded nearly everything live as a band, just the way they’d been writing and experimenting out on the farm. The consensus that there was no way to capture the dynamic magic of live sound of a band of this size any other way than by doing it live.
An origami of musical beauty unfolds with each track of this twelve track masterpiece. It is an emotional journey from start to finish. It seems unfair to say one performance stands out or to focus on any one artist in the collective. Caldera is a multifaceted gem of a record that glimmers and shines with layers of musical beauty from all directions. The high-energy Polyrhythmics performance is a collection of world influences that each musician brings to the table.
Leading with the the smooth vibe of “Goldie’s Road,” a visceral connection is made. The easy flow is augmented by Brown’s flute coupling with Lalo Bello’s percussion. It is solidly followed by the sixties vibe of “Spider Wolf.” This song is a moment for Bloom’s guitar to start the conversation back and forth between the horns. “Marshmallow Man” is beautifully funky, starting off with an ethereal keyboard and grounded in solid horns that soar in, bringing a new shape to the song. Tight and precise, the song is magnificent in its formlessness. Capped off with a solo from the trumpet of Scott Morning that would make Louis Armstrong stop and listen, the tune is wrapped up with a stellar keys solo, thanks to Spicer.
The strange thing about Caldera is that many of the songs feel as if they are a reincarnation of something else. This most notably happens on “Au Jus” about half way through the album. With the solid framework and interconnection that has been built, the freedom to flow really takes place here. It creates a beast that defies containment. That animal who is Art Brown, and his saxophone rips into the heavens like Coleman Hawkins. Taking the horn section to that same place is “Lord Of The Fries” with its calypso beat of beauty. This is music of life, passionate and real with hips swaying in rhythm.
“Bowling Green” feels like laid back jazz, as alternating horns create a formless spiral of sound. “Dragon Lotion” finds true dance, blending afrobeat and Brazilian funk to push the limits on any expectations of what the music could be. The band pulls in some stellar keyboards from Spicer and is enveloped in guitar work from Bloom. Finding a piece of the heart of this album, “Journey To Caldera” is one of the best examples of the band’s songwriting collaboration. Each musician shines in their own moment, soaring into a moment that is classically understated brilliance.
“Vodka For My Goat” offers a taste of bass blended with guitar and sax into a drum-wrapped delight. Jason Gray’s bass stands out here. “Stargazer” is ethereal and all-encompassing; each piece of this musicianship is beyond description. To say that songwriting for Polyrhythmics has not always been a collaborative effort is hard to imagine. What makes Caldera pop for listeners is that it has been written collaboratively. Polyrhythmics limit the indefinable, connecting mind, body, and soul.–Lisa Whealy
The downtempo indie-pop/folk of Little Shrine‘s “Stone” sounds way too polished and mature to come out of a debut. But what seems incredible is true, much to the listener’s benefit. The tune opens with a stark, staccato acoustic guitar that hooked my attention immediately; instead of filling the song with strums, the band lets space ring out. The feel is almost of a mournful stutter or hesitance.
That guitar announces the tune’s solemnity right from the get-go, creating a fitting mood for the lyrics of loss and redemption to further accentuate. When the song expands to include a second guitar, a wavering violin picks up the staccato motif to tie the song together. It’s not just a sign of impressive arrangement, it’s a clear marker of strong chemistry between the players.
It’s not all instrumental synchrony, though. Songwriter/vocalist Jade Shipman’s confident alto resonates with calm-yet-emotional melodic lines. Her voice, the lyrics, and the tight instrumental arrangement result in a song that sounds like a lot less work than it certainly was: it rolls out of the speakers with ease, despite the heavy subject matter. Fans of Laura Marling, Laura Gibson, and Cat Power will find much to love in this track.
“Stone” comes from the band’s Wilderness mini-LP, whichdrops 10/20/2017. Check out the latest news on their Facebook.
The brothers Mark and Paul Hinks have something going with their musical partnership. Starting in 2015, the men became more than siblings growing up in Earnworth, United Kingdom. They have honed their skills and sound with live performances all across the United Kingdom. Listeners might find Some Kind of Illness’ sound as a place somewhere between a surrealist painting and a landscape by Van Gogh–this release, fittingly, features surreal artwork by Rhiannon Clark.
Following up 2015’s self titled album and the 2016 release Souls, the June release of Awakening brings to the present a retro sound that fits a vibe for today’s listeners. Utilizing retro Roland D-50 synthesizer and an 808 Drum machine, the album was recorded at recorded in Farnworth, UK; Stoneclough, UK; Birmingham, UK; and Ferrara, Italy. The ten-song album is a trip into the past and the future all all at once.
With an opening track that feels like submerging into an ocean of synthesizers, there is no mistake: this album is something special for the indie alternative band. A fusion of genres makes this album all the more satisfying. After the peace of the title track, “Neon Glass” creeps in with its haunting techno rhythms, forming a frame for some stellar lyricism. In a blink, it is done, leaving the rave behind.
One of the strongest elements on this album may be the sequencing, which takes a stance of challenging listeners rather than taking the safe path in and out. The techno beat assault of “Neon Glass” flows right into “No More Waiting”; this music is deliberate in its pace, but with rapid fire thoughts and emotions. Like the the Dutch painter and designer Bart van der Leck, all the abstract thoughts of simplistic forms fit together here. It’s smooth and insightful, requiring a deeper thought.
The transition from “Violet Dream (ft. Hara Su)” to “Memories In a Window” is genius sequencing, making this often-overlooked element in composition a strength along with the music. For instance, “Ledana” is a bit too artificial sonically to my personal taste, but it is a brilliant transition to “Cyclone (ft. Daisy Davies).” Gears shift down to “Icarus,” heading out of the ten song album, returning to the haunting vocals and ethereal music. On this third album from Some Kind of Illness, possibly the best track is the final notes heard. “Crystal Light” is that fade out into the night, blurry and clear all at once.
Track to track there may seem to be a lack of focus, much like a Jackson Pollock painting–colors, splattered colors in a chaos of contrasts. Suspend judgement of preconceived ideas of what is good or great music and listen via Bandcamp. This album is definitely a work of art.–Lisa Whealy
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.