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Month: May 2021

Premiere: “Last Night” by JPH

So the first thing you need to know is that, no matter how many email newsletters you are subscribed to, you need to subscribe to JPH’s newsletter. (Signup method: “Ask me about my newsletter.“) Instead of talking about his musical endeavors primarily, bandleader Jordan Hoban gives updates on his “mission to bring food to the hungry in rural America.” So far this has included a year at a monastery, and it is about to turn into an internship on a Catholic Worker farm in Iowa. Hoban’s attention to detail in describing the process and community surrounding the process is beautiful. (If that sounds too “literary novel” for you, just know that I don’t really like literary novels either. I just finished Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson and mostly it made me feel like I’m not very good at reading literary novels.) It is consistently one of the most interesting things I read each month.

You do also get updates on the experimental folk/drone/slowcore music JPH (the band) makes. And lo! The reason I am here (and, ostensibly, you are here) is that JPH has a new track that we are premiering. It is called “Last Night” and it is more straightforward than some of his recent experimental work.

It starts off with the staccato clanking of keys before abruptly transitioning into an elegant, mournful piano ballad. Hoban’s vocals–often not really the focus of JPH tunes–come to the fore here. The multi-tracked delivery is feathery and yet concrete, like a person trying to sing themself into confidence. It fits beautifully over the piano. The lyrics are “The last night of my life / why?”, which also fits with the mood of the piano performance.

Overall, it’s an intriguing, interesting track that keeps the listener off-kilter just enough to keep it JPH. Here’s to staying weird, even when writing a piano ballad about death.

Ben Cosgrove’s evocative Wilderness shows off a distinctive, composerly voice

Ben Cosgrove‘s The Trouble With Wilderness is a beautiful, incredible exposition of a distinct compositional viewpoint. Solo piano work is an incredibly difficult space to establish a unique voice in, but Cosgrove pulls it off in spades here. Anyone who loves piano should run to listen to this record.

Cosgrove makes speedy work sound peaceful, which is a surprising, lovely approach. The trick to it is making fast things seem slow and slow things seem fast. Opener “The Machine in the Garden” feels like a slow-paced piece due to underlying long bass notes, but Cosgrove is doing quite a lot of work on the keys. At the very least, the ambient piano-motion sounds make it seem that way. Over the bass notes and ambient sounds, elegant melodies that dance between slow and fast make their way subtly across a lovely plane.

“Overpass” is another one that makes swift piano playing seem gentle and calm; the delicate delivery makes the speed of the work sound like a gently burbling stream instead of a furious piano attack. Cosgrove knows how to work in this space: there’s a perfect amount of restraint and release in the ebb and flow of the melodies. The melodic payoffs throughout are deeply satisfying.

“Oklahoma Wind Speed Measurement Club” is a sibling to “Overpass,” but the effect is of gently blowing wind instead of water. The evocation of wind is partly due to the brilliant title, partly due to the tones and key chosen, partly due to more prominent bass notes in the foreground. Once again: fast work that sounds calm and expansive. “Arterial #1” is a chipper, sprightly, treble-heavy piece that yet feels meditative. The high notes cascade quickly, but the underlying long notes evoke peaceful thoughts. But even though it is peaceful, there’s still a lot of activity to be interested in: the balance of peace and motion is a unique, pleasant tension.

It’s not all quietude. The standout track is “This Rush of Beauty and This Sense of Order,” which races along so enthusiastically that Cosgrove starts stomping his feet and even yells at the high point of the song. You know a piece is good when the performer just can’t contain glee at playing it. It’s an evocative, exciting work full of big chords and staccato bursts that would be absolutely dynamite live.

Some works break the mold further. “Cairn” splits the difference between this frenetic glee of “Rush of Beauty” and the uniquely meditative works I mentioned earlier. It couches the same joyful resolutions of “Rush” in the unique space fast/quiet space that Cosgrove has developed. The album closes with “Templates for Limitless Fields of Grass,” which is a 10+ minute saga that rolls through many different moods, from the torrential to the pensive. It is highly dramatic throughout; it is fulfilling in a different type of way than the rest of the album.

The Trouble With Wilderness is a deeply impressive album; I have listened to it many times in the course of reviewing it, and I am not nearly done exploring it yet. It is emotionally and intellectually satisfying in a space where it is hard to do either thing, due to the high level of mastery required to break through the sea of pianists. Cosgrove has a rare talent. Wilderness will definitely be on my top-ten best of the year. Highly recommended.

Nashville Ambient Ensemble makes it look easy

Nashville Ambient Ensemble makes contradictions look easy. The first contradiction is Nashville and Ambient, as most people don’t think of peaceful, Eno-inspired music coming from the home of the Grand Ole Opry. Yet Cerulean is top-shelf ambient work that could have come out of any hotbed of experimental electro-acoustic music. Given that NAE claims being part of a scene called New Weird South, perhaps Nashville is going to be a hotbed of experimental electro-acoustic music faster than I thought.

The second contradiction is what gives Nashville Ambient Ensemble its unique x factor: the terms “ambient” and “ensemble” aren’t usually paired together. Ambient is usually a solo or duo effort, the work of small numbers of people with specific visions. Nashville Ambient Ensemble does it different, as their Bandcamp credits seven musicians on this record. Composer Michael Hix leads the charge, but there are many contributions.

The songs do feel like the work of an ensemble, as there are unique visions that mesh into a whole. The guitar noodling on “Inga” contrasts beautifully with the stylized percussion and the gentle female vocals. The mysterious synths and provocative guitar melodies of “Elegy” make it feel like Andreas Vollenweider is about to show up at any moment. The reverb-laden ’80s keys and hazy vibes from what sounds like a pedal steel in “Conversion” do nothing to dispel this lovely notion.

The 10-minute “Conversion” is the centerpiece of the record. It’s an elegant song that most sounds like an ensemble: the cooing vocals sway over interlocking piano and pedal steel, while the distorted electric guitar adds heft to the track. The pieces of this song all connect in a flowing, easygoing way that obscures how hard it is to make seven people sound like one thing in a relaxing, ambient zone. This is impressive work, from beginning to end.

Much ambient can turn into what I call “puffy clouds music”; grand, slow-moving, major key synth stacks that subtly shift and seem to float above the ground. This is the opposite of that: this is grounded, soulful, human music that is also yet peaceful. I like both types of ambient equally, but there’s not much of the type that Nashville Ambient Ensemble is putting out. If you’re into quiet music, you need to check out Cerulean. Highly recommended.

May 2021 Singles 3

1. “Rabindra” – E.VAX. Evan Mast (half of Ratatat) offers up some laid-back electronica that meshes ambient synths, squiqqly lead lines, and big (BIG) drums. It’s a very carefully developed piece, even though it doesn’t have a lot of constituent elements; the ideas are fully and patiently fleshed out. Fans of Teen Daze will find much to love here.

2. “Export for Screens” – Xander Naylor. This piece is something between jazz and post-rock, full of percussion-driven groove, guitar mystery, and bold horns.

3. “Arcto 2” – Matt Evans. It’s hard to tell that this peaceful, grounded, ambient meditation is a product of grief (until the conflicted end), but it is: this song is part of a cycle mourning the loss of Evans‘ late partner, Devra Freelander. The video for this piano-led clip is composed of video work by Freelander.

4. “Puerto Suelo” – Cameron Knowler. Intends to evoke the Wild West, and succeeds mightily: this spartan, walking-pace, two-guitar effort gives the feel of the good guy wandering through a sleepy (or perhaps deserted?) old West Town, trying to figure out what’s going on. Elegant, in a distinctive sort of way.

5. “And We Collide Into Nothingness” – Christopher Franzen. A slow-moving crescendo of strings and keys that evokes feelings of loss, grief, and yet (the only way out is through) hope.

6. “What Else I Gotta Show” – Furniture From the Fifties. A delicate, pensive, thoughtful acoustic track with a brilliant, subtle vocal performance.

7. “Part 1” – Winterwood. Picking up where Eno left off, this is ambient that is supposed to be truly ambient: not really listened to, but played in the background, cultivating the vibe.

8. “Awash” – runnner. Makes sadness sound celebratory, makes folk songs sound indie pop, makes one voice sound like bunches, makes me smile.

9. “Blue Sky Bound” – Travis Linville. This lovely little country/folk love song about getting out of a nowhere town is accompanied by a 360 video of Travis and crew in various places around my hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. I had a great time looking for local landmarks in the video.

10. “The Algorithm” – The Irrational Library. Both the song and video are humorous, biting satire over shuffling blues rock about contemporary life as instantiated by the algorithm.

Lights A.M. builds monuments of sound

Lights A.M. builds magnificent, vast landscapes of sound on Stories Without WordsIcy castles, wind-swept expanses, mysterious buildings with endless rooms and high ceilings; these are all images that come to mind when listening to the towering, structured layers of synth that Lights A.M. constructs.

This is like Tron but with all the campiness replaced: instead of manic glee, “Your Secret Place” conjures up a near-mystical awe via the same big synth sounds that are so iconically ’80s. In fact, it’s the grandeur of these synths combined with the sophisticated composition that results in such evocative moments; these tools aren’t meant to make one consider the heavens in their fullness, but lo: here they can.

Some might not be able to get past the sounds to the wonder inside them, and that’s fair. But for those who can hear the beating heart of these tracks, there are wonders to hear. Highlight “The Magic Forest” captures the anticipation of discovering something wonderful beautifully. “Sense of Relief” pairs a warm lead melody with big gated sounds to produce more of that soaring, floating expanse that defines this record. Closer “Goodbye for Now” is equally beautiful. Stories Without Words is a compelling, unique work that mines a specific vein deeply and well.

Premiere: “Hildegard” by Soda Sun

Tucson, Arizona’s Soda Sun finds a way into our emotions with this visual gem for the single “Hildegaard” off of Stay Here. This latest, via Fort Lowell Records, marks a new start for Los Angeles transplant John Goraj.

Hopeful, searching, authentic, guitar-driven simplicity best describes this cut. This subtle bit of brilliance offers a taste of what’s to come, while longing for the past. Mixing by Larry Crane (Sleater-Kinney, She & Him, Elliott Smith) helps shape nuanced, sonically restrained excellence here. Soda Sun’s lilting acoustic rock melody is the perfect accompaniment for visuals from an early 1960’s Miss Polish America, sourced from the Prelinger Archives. Both the audio and visual art has the opportunity to shine. 

After this long, strange year, bands like Soda Sun remind us of all the talent that has been laying in wait. Check out more from Soda Sun on social media at Bandcamp, Facebook, Instagram, SoundCloud, and Spotify. —Lisa Whealy

Quick Hits: Asta Hiroki / Frances Luke Accord / Avalon Skies

Asta Hiroki‘s Entropy is a brilliant collection of jazz-inflected, mellow hip-hop beats that plays out like a less chaotic Flying Lotus. Most of the tracks here are pensive, take-your-time instrumentals. Tracks like “Cherry Blossom” and “These Hands, Pt. 2” have a mysterious, Radiohead-esque mood, while the title track and “Apparition” are more upbeat and warm. “Rose-tint” is somewhere in-between; dreamy and lush in its disposition while still being spartan in the number of elements need to create the mood.

The few vocal inclusions here range from Muhsinah’s soulful vibes on “Between Love and Happiness” to the whispery declarations of Dontmesswithjuan that give “Slumber” a big trip-hop vibe. The album is solid and a great inclusion in the rotation of fans of the genre.

Frances Luke Accord makes beautiful, pristine folk-pop that sounds like equal parts Simon and Garfunkel, Joshua Radin, and Blind Pilot. Their vocals are gentle and yet excellently harmonized; their Radin-esque arrangements are so bright and delicate as to mandate smiling; their melodies are as infectious as a Blind Pilot jam. “Maria” is as close to a perfect folk-pop song as one can get in the year 2021. It’s an earnest, fingerpicked love song that is completely without guile. I can hear its lilting melodies being sung decades from now.

“Sunnyside” is more pop-oriented in its melodic structure and strums, leaning in on the Blind Pilot style. “Dust to Dust” combines the bright, pristine fingerpicking with a more pop-oriented vocal performance to blend the two styles. “The Clearing” closes out the short EP with an instrumental track of slow-moving tones juxtaposed against found sounds of nature. It’s a lovely little ender. Overall, the Sunnyside EP is just a gorgeous collection that you need to hear. Highly recommended.

Avalon Skies‘ Season Unending is a dense, intense group of four cinematic, instrumental pieces. The titular opening track is one long crescendo of dread; delicate keys are given ominous tidings by dark strings and foreboding bass synths. A wordless choir adds even more grandeur to the proceedings, before a single massive tom hit signals the end of the piece. It’s surprising and interesting. “In Search of Forever” has a similarly gloomy mood but is pushed along steadily by a kick-clap electronic beat and the headbobbing pulse of a synth. “Catalysis” amps up these two beats even further, creating a composition that is nearly dancy at times. To balance this out, the central section is a minimalist moment of a nearly a capella choir.

Closer “The Road to Awe” maxes out the tendencies of the collection, employing soaring horns (or horn-like synths), insistent beats, and booming bass synths as a foil to tender string-driven sections. It feels like it could very easily be included as part of the Inception soundtrack. Overall, the collection is an impressive display of composition that stuck with me long after its runtime. It’s not cheery, but it is beautiful in its own gloom-filled way.

May 2021 Singles 2

1. “B-Flat Ontology” – Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog. This Tom Waits-ian rambler is a philosophical musing on “flat ontology”, where everyone (and everything, if you get really intense) is equal. Ribot’s response is a weary “isn’t it amazing / I’m just amazed” to everything; the satire is grim but very informed (Zizek makes an appearance!). This probably isn’t for everyone (there are some brutal, distasteful elements satirizing social media around 4:00), but I’m fascinated by the intersections of philosophy, internet, and art. This falls directly at that nexus.

2. “Skinny Legs” – Dana Sipos. An intimate, clear-eyed alt-folk cut that celebrates the life of a grandmother at the edge of death. Sipos’ expert command of her voice and of the atmosphere of a song are in full flower here–especially in the elegant, moving video that is rich with imagery (including flowers, feasts, pomegranate seeds, needlepoint, and more).

3. “Theme from Lonely Cinema” – HILOTRONS. Combines Spaghetti Western, surf punk, and even some classic sci-fi/horror soundtrack influences into a nostalgic, evocative instrumental.

4. “Cold as Weiss” – Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio. Hot off releasing one of my favorite records of the year so far, Delvon Lamarr’s trio is back with a leaned-back, in-the-pocket cut that will make fans of Khruangbin excited. This is still feel-good music (as is their modus operandi), but it’s got a lot more chill in the organ-driven funk.

5. “Printer” – Big Liquid. I am most enthused by people who take as many genres as possible and blend them into something new but also recognizable. This track is a mashup of drones, twee notes, subtle staccato beats, cascading funk bass, and other random sounds that come together into something that’s way more frenetic than ambient but not nearly straightforward enough for club music. And it’s gorgeous, on top of that. It’s just way out there, in the best way.

6. “Indentations” – Passepartout Duo. This unclassifiable synths/percussion composition sounds influenced by 8-bit RPG soundtracks, quirky post-rock, and insistent rhythms. This is a unique, clever, intriguing work that seems to be going several different places at once without clashing.

7. “Au Commencement” – Oppenheimer’s Elevators. I’m not the first person to point out that the post-rock which was supposed to rail against the formulaic nature of rock music became itself formulaic very quickly. However, this long, meandering, engaging post-rock piece from Oppenheimer’s Elevators pushes back against that stereotypical pattern; the dreamy, guitar-driven piece stretches out to great length without seeming to have any agenda or following any rules but its own. It’s always exciting to hear a piece that doesn’t do what I expect it to do, and that’s true here.

8. “Well Done” – Typical Sisters. This is song is essentially a very brightly-colored mechanical object full of glowy LEDs that is clearly doing something awesome and looking amazing while doing it. After the lovely intro, this is a bunch of performances going in all different directions, being held together by an acrobatic drum kit workout. I love it. Highly recommended.

9. “Real de 14” – Todd Clouser, Bram Weijters, Sebastien Boisseau, Teun Verbruggen. You want moving, beautiful, mellow jazz? Look no further for an exemplar of the style.

20. “Goa” – Zement. Combines motorik prog with droning new wave synths and glittery arpeggiator for a uniquely zen experience.

May 2021 Singles 1

  1. “Mondial” – Rêves sonores. Floating saxophone melodies, trebly piano taps, gentle electronic pads, sharp-as-in-pointy and sharp-as-in-on-point strings, and experimental dance come together in an entrancing, engaging piece. What more do you want out of contemporary composition? Highly recommended.
  2. Spiritual Wars” – Ariel Bart. This jazz piece begins as mournful, enigmatic elegy before ramping up into a striking jazz combo jam. The work is even more interesting than that description because Israel-based bandleader Ariel Bart is a harmonica player. She makes the harmonica sing as a lead instrument, just like a saxophone, clarinet, or flute would. The tone of the harmonica here falls between “expressive accordion” and “soulful saxophone.” The title and theme of the composition are all the more pressing due to the current events in Israel and Palestine.
  3. Cat on a Chain” – Jeremy James Meyer. Put honky tonk, Laurel Canyon, and road troubadour folk into a blender, and you’ll get this deeply enjoyable cut.
  4. “Hey Gringo” – KALEO. This track off their highly anticipated, eleven-song sophomore release Surface Sounds shines. Co-producers frontman Jökull Júlíusson and Dave Cobb capture the essence of the Icelandic blues rockers’ debut release. The track mirrors the vibe that oozes through “Miss You” off 1978’s Some Girls from The Rolling Stones. With its gritty songwriting style, song structure, and connection to classic blues narratives, “Hey Gringo” reframes Surface Sounds as more than just another victim of Covid-19 delays.–Lisa Whealy
  5. The Hoopoe” – Ceridwen McCooey. Cellist McCooey delivers a brilliant, singular, seemingly effortless 72-second composition here. McCooey builds the piece off of the solo cello mimicking the sound of a hoopoe call and gets creative from there. A fascinating, fully-realized piece.
  6. Avon-by-the-Sea” – The Maravines. The slinky, cloudy longing of The Antlers’ Burst Apart is a rare mood: sensual and yet grieved, lonely and yet spacious. The title track from the Maravines’ latest has a similar vibe (minus some of the sensuality): the guitars smolder and yearn but don’t explode, while the vocals are earnestly sad without becoming maudlin. The results are unique: not tense, but not calm; not overly energetic, but not sleepy. It’s unique and beautiful.
  7. Early Dark (w/Richard Curran)” – Myles Cochran. A moody piece for strings and acoustic guitar that’s equal parts elegant, swampy, and mysterious. An inviting, interesting composition.
  8. Find Your Ore (feat. Silent Titan)” – Hedge Hop, Takahiro Izumikawa. Feathery yet grounded, this lo-fi hip-hop jam balances levity and seriousness well. It leans toward serious ideas, but never so much that the charm of a quirky treble line is lost.
  9. We Need a Bigger Dumpster” – Cheekface. The calm, bitter satire of contemporary life amid  eclectic, punchy indie-rock makes me think that this is what Cake would produce if they formed today. There’s traces of Guided by Voices and early Strokes in there too; it’s a more-than-the-sum-of-its-influences triumph.
  10. Wasteland” – Tim Kile. Kile was frontman of the short-lived Wild Light, which produced an all-time-favorites-list song for me (“My Father Was a Horse“), so I’m thrilled to catch up with new work from him. This track has all the arch, urgent intertwined neurosis and enthusiasm that I could hope for in an indie-rock track from Kile. There’s some lovely quiet/loud action here in the heartland-rock-meets-indie-ennui.

Premiere: “Backseat Chorus” by Grover Anderson & the Lampoliers

Independent Clauses is proud to premiere Grover Anderson’s “Backseat Chorus” off his upcoming All the Lies That I Have Told out this July.

Anderson’s skill as a narrative songwriter weaves together feelings that are certainties in our post-pandemic world. Circumstances beyond our control–scary as hell–can stretch us, making us better through the struggle. The benefits of our solitary journey this past year have brought many of us home spiritually. Somehow, we have individually forged bonds we never knew existed, as loving and living is now more important because of so much loss. 

Anderson crafts a clearly relatable story here, like an open-air road trip back out into the world after dark times. His authentic vocal delivery resonates with a likability reminiscent of the great Glen Campbell. Grover Anderson & the Lampoliers’ guitar-driven connection to the human condition soars here in its subtle sonic brilliance.

Pre-order All the Lies That I Have Told here.–Lisa Whealy