I am a huge Teen Daze fan, which means that I’m incredibly picky and specific about any new Teen Daze work. (It is a tragedy that sometimes it is harder to please your biggest fans than it is the casual fans. Sorry, In League with Dragons.) Yet even while being incredibly picky and specific, it’s hard to find anything to knock in Bioluminescence. From the title to the last second of the album, Jamison Isaak shows that he understands exactly what he’s been building in Teen Daze and that he knows how to further the project’s vision.
Teen Daze emerged as an electronic music project that fit neatly into the zeitgeist of the blink-and-you-miss-it chillwave moment. Most of the first-era chillwave artists have moved on to other sounds (psych or motorik or techno or indie-rock or whathaveyou) or retired altogether. Teen Daze is no exception to the moving on, but the direction in which the project has moved has honed in on what made chillwave great.
Compare “Treten” (opener of TD’s excellent full-length debut All of Us, Together) to “Near” (opener of Bioluminescence). “Treten” has reverb-heavy synths floating in the background, click-whoosh percussion, bloop-bloop bass, and a perky melody. It’s a great piece of electro that shows restraint in relation to more club-ready electronic genres and far more motion than ambient works. It nails a pleasant, warm, summery feeling. It is ideal chillwave.
Now listen to “Near”: It opens with reverb-laden pad synths, then layers in a synthesizer that sounds much like a violin. There’s a subtle-but-steady marching beat that contrasts against the free-flowing reverb synths. (This rhythmic tension comes from the much more patterned A World Away.) Then piano delicately joins. More percussion layers in. A thumping beat comes in for roughly ten seconds, then the track fades out. By its conclusion, it’s a dense, satisfying track that could have been expanded for much more time. Instead, it gives you everything you need to know about the track, teases you with what it could be, and opens up into the sophisticated, complex arrangement of “Spring.” “Near” is not only an introduction to the album and “Spring” (that would sell the track short), but it’s a perfect opener to the album. It’s much more patient as a track than “Treten” and points toward the songwriting maturity that Jamison Isaak brings to Bioluminescence.
The maturity is manifested in the attention to detail evident in “Near”. For the ten seconds that the beat is thumping, the track could fit in a lot of different albums of Teen Daze’s discography. But the way it gets there is unique to Bioluminescence. The track still offers all the joys of chillwave (warm sounds, a space between ambient and techno variants, easygoing vibes) but in a way that expresses sonic development in the track and previews the sonic development of the album.
And boy, is the album sonically developed. Far from being an upgrade on ambient, Bioluminescence is chock-full of complex, highly-coordinated arrangements. “Spring” is the chillwave song that everyone wanted to write, perfectly locked in to a space of relaxation while still including multiple melodic and percussive lines. The impressive bass work of “Hidden Worlds” can be called funky. The opening beat of “Ocean Floor” is either impressively sampled, intricately played on real percussion, or both; any 10-minute techno track would be jealous for that beat as the backbone of a club banger. The delicate, romantic, ballad-esque approach of “Longing” will woo old-school Teen Daze fans and send them on a trip back into the TD archives to find more like it.
Soincally, Teen Daze has long been about the connections and tensions between electronic and acoustic. Conceptually, Isaak has recently been focusing on the climate problems we have created for the world. In labeling this work Bioluminescence, Isaak points toward both of those ideas: bioluminescence itself is naturally-produced light (light that we usually assume comes from electricity). Bioluminescence also points obliquely to Jamison Isaak’s high regard for the luminosity and wonder of the biological world.
Isaak expresses that reverence for the natural via electronic music, and in particular electronic music that sounds very organic and acoustic. I mentioned the violin-like sounds and piano already; the piano in particular comes through on the record and provides the connection point between the natural and the electronic (“Drifts” and “Endless Light” in particular). The connection between the electronic and the acoustic, foregrounded in the title, is what makes this album so special. It’s not just a highly-sophisticated, beautiful collection of electronic music; it’s a collection that is written with a clearly-evident theme and purpose in mind. When the conceptual and sonic ideas of a record line up in beautifully-constructed tracks, there’s little to critique–this is a record that sets out with lofty goals and achieves them.
I started following Teen Daze because I liked chillwave then, and I love it now. Teen Daze is in touch with all of the elements that make chillwave so great, but has vastly expanded on them sonically and conceptually. Bioluminescence is a totally satisfying record that leaves nothing on the table: Jamison Isaak calls his shot and nails it with this one. This record is Teen Daze at the height of its powers so far. If you’re interested in any sort of electronic music, this is a must-hear that may well end up on your end-of-year-lists. I know it will be a strong contender for mine. Highly recommended.
So even though I’m working my way towards instrumental reviews (two coming this week!), there’s still all these bands that I’ve covered before sending me great music. Here’s some excellent work in that category (and one new artist sneaking in there).
1. “Honeyguide” – Frances Luke Accord. I could listen to this beautiful slice of delicate, warm folk-pop all day. The dual vocals recall the Weepies, while the fingerpicking recalls Simon and Garfunkel. But the final product is all FLA–this duo knows what it’s doing, and you need to know what they’re doing too.
2. “Ain’t No Grave” – Zach Winters. I have always wanted to write a song that was just percussion and vocals, and I’m stoked whenever someone else does it well. Winters here trades his graceful folk efforts for a soulful gospel ballad backed by a big ‘ol group of stomping and singing friends. The melodies are chilling and encouraging all at once, while the lyrics are just encouraging. A winner from Winters.
3. “Rio Grande” – Sean Pawling. Any non-ska song that has a trombone play the hook melody has my attention. Pawling’s folk tune here has the trombone, yes, but also has commendable lyrics about immigration, funky Cake-like synth, and a catchy vocal melody in the chorus. Fun, but also meaningful!
4. “Bad Lover” – Jeremy Tuplin. Tuplin’s smooth, mellifluous baritone voice is in the lead on the track, and rightly so. The rest of the lightly chipper indie-pop tune keeps out of his way so that he can work magic with that lovely set of pipes.
5. “Often Seen Together” – The Hasslers. The Hasslers live in a world where no genres exist. This is ostensibly a country ballad in its lyrical content, but it’s got funky guitar and bass, got some major soul horns, some slick acoustic-pop vocal delivery, and a bunch more packed into it. If you like good music from the acoustic side of the musical spectrum, I dare you to dislike this song. Highly recommended.
6. “God Once Loved a Woman” – Frog. Frog is a wildly inventive guitar-rock/jangle-pop band and their latest effort Whatever We Probably Already Had It shows off their unique take on guitars and vocals. But it’s the lyrics in this one that are wild: this is an anachronistic update of the story of the virgin birth. I’m not sure whether this is irreverent or reverent in the ways that Frog know how to be reverent, but it’s thought-provoking nonetheless.
7. “Hidden Worlds” – Teen Daze. This newest Teen Daze song is amazing: it’s got funky bass vibes, compelling drumming, dreamy-but-not-washed-out synths, and a propulsive vibe. It sounds like a rejuvenated Teen Daze that’s calling back to his early chillwave days but incorporating the complexity of his most recent outings as Jamison Isaak into the mix. It’s an astonishingly good song. I am super excited for the new Teen Daze record coming out this year.
8. “Again Again” – Mon Draggor. A perfect fusion of burbling electro pop and downtempo acoustic work, Mon Draggor makes sadness sound super-danceable. Sure, maybe the dancing is by yourself in a fairly dark room, but it’s a beautiful fairly dark room made more beautiful by the excellent tune.
You can listen to many of the pieces and artists that I mention in this essay at a Spotify list of the same name. This essay comes as a product of a two-month sabbatical.
I love new music and writing. As a result, Independent Clauses has almost always been a blog that professionally covers the new music which I am listening to recreationally. When the music I’m listening to diverges from what I’m writing about at Independent Clauses, I shift the blog’s focus to draw my recreational listening and my writing back into line. This process is always happening at a micro level. When you’ve been running a blog for fifteen years, though, your micro changes can add up to quite a bit of change. This original scope of this blog included hardcore and emo bands prominently; our current iteration is focused mostly on indie-pop, folk, and neo-classical work. I have slowly, continually shaved off the louder edges of the reviewable range, while simultaneously pushing the quieter boundary of the reviewable range outwards.
Amid the ever-present micro changes, there has been one major topical change. The only hard departure in IC’s existence corresponds to the only major chronological disjuncture in the largely continuous flow of content over the past fifteen years. In 2008, I caught a massive case of burnout while trying to build out a physical zine for Independent Clauses. I took six months off from posting at IC and returned with a very different focus; I featured post-hardcore wizards The Felix Culpa as the cover band for the Spring 2008 second edition of the Independent Clauses zine, while the work I posted about in January 2009 included indie-pop, singer/songwriter, alt-country, and even jazz musicians. It was a big change.
I feel another large change coming on. I say “feel” because it snuck up on me. I was just living my life, and suddenly I had been listening to things way outside the normal bounds of Independent Clauses for months. Simultaneously, I was listening to folk-pop and indie-pop less. Because I had internalized that this blog was a folk and indie-pop blog, I slowly began to write less at Independent Clauses in proportion to the decreased amount of indie-pop/folk pop I was listening to. Longtime readers will note that there have not been nearly as many album reviews at Independent Clauses in 2018 as there have been in previous years; careful album reviews have been our calling card for many years. Longtime readers may have noticed this before I did, even. It snuck up on me.
This is not folk or indie-pop’s fault; I still love those genres and listen to them often. One of the first articles I’ll be writing after this one is a review of Jenny and Tyler’s new album; if there’s been a through-line in the last decade for IC, it’s J&T. Their new album is great, and it transcends my interest in genres. No, it’s not folk-pop’s fault. As the saying goes: It’s not you, it’s me. After nine years of focus on folk-pop and indie-pop, I’ve largely said what I want to say about those two genres. I can write fairly fine-grained descriptions of songs and albums with great rapidity, having hundreds of albums and thousands of songs’ worth of experience at the tasks. But this mastery is a double-edged sword: I’m not particularly intellectually stimulated by folk-pop, indie-pop and their relatives anymore. I have been intellectually stimulated by a wide range of new-to-me genres and sounds over the past year, though. So while I won’t be dropping folk, folk-pop, and indie-pop cold turkey, I am and will be focusing my musical attention on genres outside the IC norm that have been catching my ear and intellectual attention. With that concrete and specific shift in my recreational listening, a change in the topical content of Independent Clauses is a necessary response.
I didn’t wake up at the beginning of my recent two-month sabbatical or even January 1 of this year with a sudden musical change of heart. This change began at least four years ago when I discovered the fascinating Become Ocean by John Luther Adams. The discovery of mid-century modernist classic “Canto Ostinato” by Simeon ten Holt three years ago really kicked off a burst of interest in this type of work. Both of these works fall in the classical/neo-classical genre; they are works the aforementioned Chris Krycho would prefer that I (and you) call “composed music.” There’s a great deal of contemporary composed music (both of recent history, such as that of Simeon ten Holt, and true-contemporary, the things being released in the last five years) that I am very interested in.
I’ve also recently admitted to myself a fascination with ambient work, which will be no surprise to close readers of this blog: I’ve been a fan of Teen Daze for many years and seem to get more excited about the work of Jamison (the musician behind Teen Daze) the quieter it gets. His latest venture as Jamison Isaak is fascinating, although Spring Patterns 1 may be too minimalist even for me. The joining of ambient and synthesized music has led me in the last year to the excellent modular synthesizer work of ann annie and r beny. These types of sounds have made cameos–increasingly large cameos, but bit parts nonetheless–in Independent Clauses’ coverage over the past few years. I’m ready to make them the focus of what I’m writing.
My changed music listening habits have contributed to this change in musical styles. I have a commute on the shorter side now, and thus have less mandatory solo music-listening time. I’ve also taken up listening to the Bible on my morning commute, further cutting into my new-music-listening time. Instead, I listen to a lot of new music while I work, and music without words is much easier to listen to while working. I used to listen to, think about, and draft reviews of new music while on long runs; now I lift weights, which requires me to think and focus on the activity instead of letting my mind wander. I still listen to music though; I listen to pg.lost quite a bit, and I created a workout list for myself. It’s one of the few times I’ve ever made a workout list in my life. (h/t Chris Krycho again for the pg.lost recommendation.) I will hold a torch for the iPod–I love you forever, you were truly The Perfect Thing–but I have been swayed to streaming services. I tried Apple Music and found their playlist creation tools hard to use. That forced me over to Spotify, with which I’ve made an uneasy truce. Having an astonishing supply of music at my fingertips allows me to explore and investigate quirky corners of sound and rabbit trails of artists, and that’s been a lot of fun. I found Lymbyc System that way; they are fantastic.
With a change in the type of music I’m into and a change in my musical listening habits comes a nigh-on mandatory shift in the way I work here in creating IC content. For the greater part of the last decade, I’ve spent 10-45 minutes a day reading Independent Clauses emails and listening to the new music contained in those emails. Because I have a depth of experience with folk, folk-pop, and indie-pop, I can determine my interest level for many songs in under 30 seconds. This allows me to power through dozens and dozens of emails at massive speed; I can discard stuff I know I won’t like, quickly evaluate stuff I might like, and file stuff I know I’m going to like very quickly.
My new interest in longform music foils this expectation in multiple ways. The first is that longform music might not accomplish much of anything in 30 seconds, regardless of whether it’s mindblowingly amazing or completely derivative: the Pulitzer Prize-winning Become Ocean was the first touchstone in this major musical shift, and the first 30 seconds of the piece produce almost no sound at all. The second reason is that I have no mental shortcuts built up for this music; the cues that I look for in a folk song to let me know what’s going to happen in a minute or three or five aren’t built up yet for these new musical genres. The third reason is that with a few exceptions, I’m not currently on the email lists of people who would send me music like this. (Smalltown Supersound, Fluttery Records, and Home Normal Records are the major exceptions here.) These three concepts working together are a significant part of the reason that I haven’t been posting much at IC in the last few months before my two-month sabbatical; in the last few months I haven’t really known what I’d post about, how I’d post about it, or exactly how I’d find it. I hadn’t and haven’t figured out how to square this new stuff I’m really into with the old way of working. I need a new way of working, but I don’t have it yet.
It’s not that I haven’t picked a new way of working, it’s that I don’t quite know what I mean yet by working differently. I know that the singles review form that I’ve come to enjoy so much as a constraint and a medium doesn’t seem like it’s going to work very well for this music. In exploring works that don’t conform to the traditional EP/album format, I’ve found that these works call for different types of writing than the album review format that I, again, have loved as a medium and constraint over the past 15 years.
One of the biggest changes is related to how I find things to listen to. I haven’t been checking Independent Clauses email for a month while I sorted some of this stuff out in my brain; I find that I miss the relationships I’ve built up with bands, record labels, and PR people over the years, but I don’t miss checking the email. I use the time for other things, like staying up on professional news or getting more work in or not checking emails in the evening. The complication is that the content of Independent Clauses has been tied to a never-ending font of new music via those emails for almost the entirety of its existence. In its stead, I’ve been roving through Spotify, listening to things that span the last 60 years in genres that I haven’t heard. So it’s new-to-me music, but it’s not chronologically new music. This change alone would be enough to tilt Independent Clauses on its axis; I’ve been a fairly staunchly consistent purveyor of music-that-has-been-released-in-this-current-calendar-year for the entirety of Independent Clauses’s existence.
The reputation, professional relationships, and readership of the blog (insofar as all those exist; I’ve never been a big fish in the music blogging world and, since 2009, I have had little desire to be one) are tied to the new music concept. If Independent Clauses continues to be a record of what I’m listening to, then this won’t be a strictly-new-music blog anymore. I would have to come up with a new way of writing that addresses that new exigence: if you’re not reading this post because it’s about something that’s brand new for you to be into, what are you reading it for? Not everyone is as addicted to chronologically new music as I was for many years; it may be that the same people who like chronologically new music like new-to-them music. The point of mentioning this is that I, by dint of long experience in the old way of working, really have no way of knowing if that statement is true or not. Maybe people like new-to-them music but not the new-to-them music IC would recommend, especially as I get up to speed in some genres by listening to stuff most people knowledgeable in the genres would already know about. (i.e. I now have opinions on Armin Van Buuren, you may have heard of him? all the trance fans groan) Who can say? Let’s find out.
By saying I need a new way of working, I mean it–this isn’t a little change. This is a change on par with the 2008-2009 change. We’re going somewhere new.
However, because I don’t quite know where it is we’re going and what it is we’re doing, we’re not going to start doing whatever that is 100% and dropping everything else cold turkey. I’m still going to write about Jenny and Tyler, no matter what form this blog takes–their music is intellectually stimulating to me, no matter what type of work I’m writing about consistently. So there’s going to be some folk and folk-pop and indie-pop in here over the next few months and maybe even years. But as I go along further into that great future, I expect those topics to appear less and less as I get more and more acquainted with the sounds I’m interested in now.
In some ways, it’s very exciting to be starting to focus on that which is for Independent Clauses uncharted territory. I’ve been getting really excited about Lymbyc Systym’s Split Stones and Jack de Quidt’s Marielda, so much so that I’ve been texting and chatting gushing recommendations to friends about them. This is a sure sign that I’ve caught on to something I like. It’s fun to be excited and naive about new sounds.
In other ways, it’s a bit disorienting; leaving behind mastery is leaving behind a source of personal pride, professional fulfillment, and social status. None of my quotes about the composed music that I am geeking out about these days are going to end up on PR emails anytime soon, and that’s a small joy that I will miss. I will know a ton about folk conceptually but will have increasingly little to say about individual acts that will be to me suddenly and unexpectedly popular. I’ll be out of that game, even if I have my head in another game. It’s a little like retiring from one sport and picking up another. (Is Usain Bolt a potentially good soccer player? I digress.)
As I’ve been kicking these thoughts around for the last few months before and during my sabbatical, I’ve wondered about the future of Independent Clauses. Since the great refocusing of 2008-2009, I’ve never really considered shutting down the blog. It has become a part of my life so deeply that it’s almost a part of me. Independent Clauses has been in my life longer than any friend I talk to on a regular basis, and all but two of my distant we-would-be-better-friends-if-we-lived-closer-to-each-other friends. It’s been around longer than my marriage, longer than any address I’ve ever lived at, longer than my current career path, longer than pretty much everything except my nuclear family relationships and my faith in Christianity. Even in the midst of this big upheaval, I still haven’t considered shutting it down. It’s a whole other essay’s worth of content to delineate what Independent Clauses brings to my life, but there are a lot of personal, practical, and professional benefits that I have seen from this blog. Even if those all change as this big re-direction occurs, I feel confident that those benefits will reappear in new ways.
I still don’t know exactly what format I’ll be posting in, or how often I’ll be posting, or exactly what I’ll be posting about. But I know this: I’m excited about it. I’m excited about the changes, more so than I was excited about reading through dozens of emails about folk-pop bands to find the one true gem. And that’s more than enough reason to go through with this big change: it’s going to be a lot of fun. I hope that you will come along for the ride. If this isn’t your cup of tea, maybe you have a friend who might be interested in it.
Technically speaking, I’ll still accept submissions at firstname.lastname@example.org. However, I expect to check the account with much less frequency–maybe once or twice a week, as opposed to every morning first thing in the morning and last thing before leaving work. I’ll be sourcing a lot more from my own adventures in music searching, but I won’t be abandoning my knowledge that the easiest way to find something really amazing and new is to maintain an open inbox and strong relationships with people in the know. I’ll probably be a pretty bad premiere partner for the near future, as I don’t quite know how to talk about the stuff I’m geeking out on yet. (But I’d be willing to experiment, if you’d be willing to live with the results!) I’d be thrilled to have people who are interested in this type of longform instrumental music write with me–that’s another way for me to learn. While everything else about IC up to and including my relationship to the former lifeblood of this blog (email) may change in this shift, my enthusiasm for working with other writers shows little sign of diminishing. Let me know if you’re interested.
Thank you to everyone who has supported Independent Clauses in the last 15 years; if this is the last time you read Independent Clauses, I thank you deeply for your attention and your interest. If this is the first time you’ve read Independent Clauses, welcome: we’re a 15-year-old blog about under-appreciated music that’s under new management despite the same manager.
Opener “Sharalee” sets the tone for the whole EP, as piano keys tumbling gently over each other are met by a delicate, soaring, barely-even-feels-like-pedal-steel guitar. The fusion is deeply calming while still maintaining a sense of melodic motion. This is a particularly impressive feat because none of the lush arranging that marks his other work is present–it’s just piano and occasional distant guitar. This means that Isaak has to rely entirely on his ability to create indelible melodies and his well-tuned sense of space. In relying on those things, he succeeds admirably. “Sharalee” is a fantastic track that offers a wealth of re-listening value.
“Upstairs” is a quiet rumination, a sort of rainy-day-bedroom-pop version of neo-classical music. The mood is very well-suited to the pitter patter of rain that you can imagine just offscreen. It’s short and sweet and it works. In contrast, “Wind” shows off some of his compositional complexity. Isaak layers multiple piano lines together in a somewhat polyrhythmic way to create an overlapping tension that he gracefully resolves by the end of the piece.
Closer “More” is a tune that most resembles a Teen Daze song in its melodic approach. There’s a subtle tension between major and minor that is common in Jamison’s electronic work. It’s also the song that most resembles a mid-century minimalist piece, as Isaak repeats an elegant phrase many times with subtle variations in keying and pedal steel performance. It is not one of the most relaxing pieces, but it is one of the most interesting for someone who is interested in mid-century minimalism.
Ultimately, EP1 one is a welcome entrée into the world of neo-classical music from Jamison Isaak. I look forward to hearing more of his piano work, perhaps with even more orchestration, in the future. This EP is lovely, and makes me excited to see where he goes as a composer, as well as a creator of electronic music. Highly recommended.
Adam Stafford‘s Fire Behind the Curtain is a highly eclectic instrumental work, combining elements of mid-century minimalist melodic patterning, contemporary ambient work, soundtrack scoring, and whimsy into one kaleidoscopic neo-classical work. I like all of those elements individually, so it’s no shock that I really like this album as a unit.
I mention a kaleidoscope because while Stafford does have a few pieces that show his whole composing vision (standouts “An Abacus Designed to Calculate Infinity,” “The Witch Hunt”), the majority of the works here show off one aspect of his ideas each. The delicate-yet-frenetic, patterned melodies and counter-melodies of “Zero Disruption” point to his affinity for mid-century minimalism. “Sails Cutting Through an Autumn Night” is as narrative and soundtrack-oriented as you would expect from the title. “Holographic Tulsa Mezzanine” is an sort-of ambient/chillwave/undefinable track built off churning, chopped synths.
There are moments where his ideas crash into each other: the amazing “Penshaw Monument” is a dense, minimalist, nearly-11-minute composition created almost entirely of beatboxing, singing, and yelling. The tone of the song is not as whimsical as the whistling over the thickly layered composition of “An Abacus Designed to Calculate Infinity”, but conceptually the song is highly whimsical (“What if I had 11 minutes of beatboxing?”). 10-minute closer “I Dreamed I Was a Murderer” fuses a highly ambient, textural opening with long woodwind notes for an experimental neo-classical experience. (If you’re into Michael Gordon’s work, you’ll be into this piece.)
Fire Behind the Curtain is its strength. This album has ideas just exploding from everywhere. Fans of adventurous, gleefully genre-mashing instrumental music will find much to love in this wild experience.
1. “Growing Up” – Moon Hooch. I am a big fan of sci-fi in addition to being a big indie music fan, and so I was thoroughly interested in the high-concept animated video that Moon Hooch put together for their latest single. It’s got a lot of concepts that I love: the possibility of time repeating itself, unusual alien/fantasy beings (or humans dressed as them), magic/superpowers, and more. Totally rad. The song itself is classic Moon Hooch: two saxophones dueling it out over dance-rock-oriented drums. The melodies are clever, thoughtful, and fun. It’s hard for me to listen to Moon Hooch without getting totally amped up, because these guys are distilled adrenaline.
2. “Dubai” – Royal. This slice of instrumental hip-hop employs distant spoken and sung vocals to great effect, helping set the mood effectively. The manipulation of the synths and the inclusion of the beats is also ace, as I find myself head-bobbing without thinking about it. Solid.
3. “Sharalee” – Jamison Isaak. Being a huge Teen Daze fan and a person-with-strongly-growing-interest-in-neoclassical-work, I am totally thrilled that Jamison did me a favor and combined the two. This Teen Daze side project takes all of the slowly unfolding melodies and carefully-curated atmosphere that makes his chillwave so great and applies it to classical work. The method is piano, pedal steel guitar, and pad synth–sounds very weird, but it makes perfect sonic sense when you hear it. (As you might expect, from someone who has a ton of experience with melody, arrangement and mood.) It’s pensive, winsome, and elegant. Highly recommended.
4. “Airlocks” – Floating in Space. Rarely does a band name so well describe the experience of listening to a band. Floating in Space creates major-key, wide-screen post-rock that’s reminiscent of Sigur Ros’ work in its sweep and in the vocalist’s tone. The lack of percussion and the glittering pad synths in this piece creates the truly floating feel.
5. “Disenchantment for Truth” – Sleeping Horses. Anyone tracking IC over a long period of time has seen more and more ambient work creep in around the edges of our coverage. I’ve been really enjoying the peacefulness of much ambient work, as well as the generally extended scale on which the sounds can develop. This is a perfect example of the type of thing I’ve been digging: Sleeping Horses creates a slowly-developing piece out of manipulated guitar sound, deliberate fluttering strings and lots of space. The small changes to the arrangement build up over the course of the piece to create a beautiful, emotive landscape.
1. “Schopenhauer in Berlin” – Emperor X. Those who are into singers who cram too many words and so many references into a song and yet somehow come out with indie-pop gold (read The Mountain Goats, the Weakerthans, the Rural Alberta Advantage) will find a huge amount to love in Emperor X. This track is fidgety, subtly chaotic, weirdly emotional, and overall a wild trip that has me absolutely stoked for this record.
2. “Wake Up with the Sun” – Little Lapin. A chipper, summery little ditty that calls to mind Lilith Fair, Counting Crows, and other cheery ’90s acoustic pop. I couldn’t help but clap along. Totally fun.
3. “Hey Leanne” – Frozen Houses. The reverb and rhythms of the guitar recall the ’80s, and specifically Graceland. The flute-esque pad synths are vintage too, but they’ve been so appropriated by Vampire Weekend that there’s a touch of them in here too. But it’s a less hectic song than both of those outfits are fond of, as the lead singer uses a gentle, calming voice to sing long, smooth vocal lines.
4. “Bones” – Fairmont. The kickoff to their 9th (!) studio album, this indignant blast of sound distills what Fairmont does best into 4 minutes and 10 seconds: melodic-yet-somewhat-sinister guitar-driven indie rock with roughed-up vocals and an eye toward the theatrical.
5. “Dynamite Quartz” – Bass Lions. It’s not often that a song puts me at a loss, but this track is a blend of a lot of things that don’t usually go together and yet somehow work perfectly: traditional pipe organ playing, a harpsichord-esque / autoharp thing, ominous subterranean bass notes, strings, perky percussion, and expressive Arcade Fire-style vocals. Or maybe they just feel like Arcade Fire because there’s so much going on. Either way, this is a veritable maelstrom of stuff, and somehow it turns out into a snappy, inventive indie rock tune.
6. “First of May” – James Irwin. Heavily reverbed, distant guitars create a ghostly presence over a fuzzed-out bass chug while Irwin’s feathery vocals intersect the two. The results are a dreamy form of indie rock that is actually equal parts dreamy and rocking.
7. “Screen Time” – Banana Gun. Funk is not my usual stomping grounds, but Banana Gun fuse funky bass lines and a jazz-infused horn section with slick, tight rock music a la Cage the Elephant, et al. (which isn’t usually my province either). Sometimes a song comes out of nowhere and just gets everything right, and even people not in the genre can hear it.
8. “R.O.S.E.” – Brother O’ Brother. Imagine if the Black Keys had never gone stadium rock and instead got more and more furious in their vocal delivery. That’s basically what BOB is, give or take a Marshall stack or three. This track is a pretty great intro to their raw, super-charged garage blues on 11.
9. “Fruitfly” – Heavy Heart. This is a pitch-perfect ’90s female-fronted modern rock tune, which means that it’s low-slung, catchy, and nearly deadpan in its vocal and instrumental delivery. The video is a mishmash of drugs, junk food, pizza, kids, and static that also perfectly recalls the ’90s. It’s the sort of video that has to be done perfectly to not be derivative, and Heavy Heart pulls it off.
10. “Gentle Release” – New Tongues. It’s hard to keep me interested in post-hardcore these days, as I’ve gotten pickier and pickier with the heavy music I listen to. New Tongues are one outfit that I can count on to mix melodic elements, brittle distortion, brute force, hollered/screamed vocals, and long run times in intriguing ways. This latest track is spot-on: a 7.5-minute journey through different dynamic levels and arrangements that yet never feels like it’s overstayed its welcome. Anyone who can write almost eight minutes of post-hardcore work without getting repetitious is doing a great job. Mad props.
11. “Mississippi, Come and Take Me” – Syntax Club. Somewhere between the enthusiasm of Ra Ra Riot, the dreamy vocals of Death Cab for Cutie, and the beachy sound of The Drums is this charmingly layered indie pop song.
12. “STRESS” – Kylie Odetta. Odetta has been reinventing herself over the past few years and seems to have landed on jazzy, piano-led soul. This latest cut mines that vein with some breathy sax playing counterpoint to her hiccuping piano line and lithe vocals.
13. “Eclipsed” – Diamond Thug. This impressive electro song rides on an intriguing arpeggiator pattern and a smooth, flowing, head-bobbing mood (even though the arrangement gets pretty complex!).
14. “Where the Birds Nest” – Alex Tiuniaev. Tiunieav expands his stark solo piano oeuvre into a dreamy ambient electro/chillwave space with some snappy, beat-heavy plunks and blips. It’s a head-bobber, for sure.
Rarely have I had so much fun listening to a longhear than when listening to Lullatone‘s Thinking about Thursdays. The twee instrumental outfit, already an IC fave, recently compiled their “a song every Thursday in 2016” project into one big album of 52 songs. Their twee instrumentals are brilliant as ever, but their expanded sonic palette is what makes this album so wonderful.
Lullatone excels at making child-like music, turning toy pianos, music boxes, ukuleles, flutes and other small-sounding instruments into delicate and charming tunes (mostly in major keys). Their basic sound is something like The Album Leaf’s tender expansiveness mashed with Wes Anderson’s distinct, precise nostalgia. Openers “trying something again (again)” and “a photograph from the day you were born” stick to this script, creating memorable entries in the Lullatone oeuvre. This type of chipper, bright, clever song appears throughout the album; collectively, they are proof that Lullatone has mastered their craft and yet not exhausted it.
Things get even more exciting as they spread their wings. “how frost grows” signals a widening of their sonic scope, as a slurring, glacial, distorted guitar creates a desolate post-rock landscape. “cooped up at home with a fever and a tape loop” is just that: a hazy, tape hiss-laden fever dream that reminds me of a vocal-less version of The Microphones. “two turn tables and a casiotone” is a fun riff on the titular concept, while follow-on “how i broke my parents’ record player (when i was five)” is even more beat-heavy, landing somewhere between instrumental hip-hop and The Postal Service. “aboard Korean Air flight 742 to Seoul” continues what is ultimately a four-week beat fancy, adding stuttering snares and a melodic hook to a cherubic synth.
Things get even more exciting from there: “puddles full of petals (of Sakura)” combines harp, East Asian melodic ideas, and video game soundtrack drama (one of two back-to-back Asian sonic entries); “father-son adventures” has a jaunty, spry electric guitar line that will please any fan of major key post-rock a la Delicate Steve or Fang Island; “concrete waves” is filtered through a dense, stylish mesh of DJ Shadow. Other referents (real or imagined) include Matt and Kim, klezmer music, elevator music/vaporwave, and chillwave. I won’t spoil all the surprises (there are 52 songs!!), but suffice it to say that this is a great collection with almost no dead weight. Beyond the lovely individual songs, there’s a subtle joy in listening to a whole year of someone’s creation in what seems like chronological order, tracking through the seasons with the moods and titles of each song.
Thinking About Thursdays is that rare release that combines serious composition, thoughtful moods, intriguing instrumentation, quality sonic diversity, and out-and-out fun. It’s an incredible release, and it’s one of my early contenders for album of the year. Highly recommended.
1. “Jessie” – Morricone Youth. This inventive track blends lounge-y jazz saxophone with a Spaghetti western percussion backdrop and an Album Leaf-esque, dreamy digital/analog arrangement. Definitely not something you’ve heard before.
2. “Weather Spirits – Yellowhead. Zinging, ping-ponging synth bonks rattle around over a staccato percussion line and neat samples (static, as well as what sounds like someone breathing) in this instrumental hip-hop track. It’s a way fun ride.
3. “Yamakuza Sunrise” – Sky Vettel. Breakbeats percussion, dj scratching, UFO noises, and funky vocal samples: sign me up for that instrumental hip-hop throwdown.
4. “Post Mortem Muscle Memory” – London Missile. This instrumental hip-hop track skews closer to a chillwave or twee tune, as subtle beats give frame to hushed fuzz, light glitching, a mini-breakbeat section, and sun-dappled moods. Pogo would love this.
5. “Corfu Town” – Hauture. Some chillwave tunes are reverb-heavy fuzz-taculars, but Hauture takes the opposite approach here in creating a precise, pristine electro tune with dreamy atmospheres created through the tones of the synths instead of giant clouds of reverb. The results are a tight, snappy tune that will appeal to fans of Teen Daze.
6. “Lumière” – Noel. There’s so much gravitas packed into this little piano-led instrumental piece that it feels like it could suck the air right out of a room. Made me think of the visual and emotional tension of Inception (but thankfully, the giant foghorns of the soundtrack are not present).
7. “Suddenly Overcome” – Theo Alexander. Like casting stones in swiftly moving water, this piece features left hand chords dropped into a rushing, tumbling right-hand pattern that slowly fades into the background. It’s like a classical piano version of the trick LCD Soundsystem pulls in “All My Friends,” put to very different ends. It’s an emotionally satisfying piece.
8. “INSTYNKT V” – Wojtek Szczepanik. This solo piano piece manages to balance the tensions of soothing and driving, chords and individual melodies, high drama and serene emotions.
9. “Why Go To Paris?” – Alex Tiunaev. A delicate, tender, atmospheric solo piano piece that evokes romantic, mysterious, and melancholy images of the dusky urban cafes in the titular city.
10. “Stairs” – Elgin Thrower Jr. Gentle reverb and hands shifted to the right of the keyboard create an ethereal, soft, pretty piano piece that gracefully moves through space.
11. “Edinburgh” – Nick Watson. Having visited the titular city in 2016, I appreciated the subtle themes that run through this piano-and-strings composition. There’s some city noise in the background, but a gentle set of chords and melodies from the piano take the forefront. (Edinburgh is a bustling place, but there’s also quite a bit of serenity there.) When the strings come in, there’s a sense of arch elegance in the tone contrasting with some severe, serious bowing and rhythms. The city is beautiful but also Scottish: grey, wet, dark, and gloomy. My visitor’s impression of the city is well-captured in this piece.
1. “New Moon” – Namesayers. The lead guitar here is angular, cranky, and brittle, contrasting against the swirling, low-key psychedelia laid down by the rest of instruments and Devin James Fry’s mystical croon. It makes for an intriguing rock that sounds like midnight in the desert with a big bonfire going. (Which is pretty much what the title and the album art convey, so this one has its imagery and soundscapes really tight in line.)
2. “O Zephyr” – Ptarmigan. It’s tough to be a serious alt-folk band without sounding over-earnest or overly ironic. Ptarmigan finds the perfect center, where it sounds like a bunch of people who love folk and have something to say are making their noise how they want. Fans of River Whyless, Fleet Foxes (often violators of the over-earnest, but nonetheless), and Barr Brothers will enjoy this.
3. “Axolotl” – Lord Buffalo. Lord Buffalo specializes in primal, pounding, apocalyptic pieces that build from small beginnings to terrifying heights. This is an A+ example of the form.
4. “A Miracle Mile” – St. Anthony and the Mystery Train. Equally apocalyptic as above, but in a more Southern Gothic, Nick Cave, howl-and-clatter style of indie-rock than the all-out-sonic assault. A wild ride.
5. “Spring” – Trevor Ransom. A tone-poem of a piece, illustrating the arrival of spring with found sounds, distant vocals, and confident piano.
6. “Not Enough” – Sunjacket. This inventive indie-rock song draws sounds and moods from all over the place, creating a distinct, unique vibe. There’s some Age of Adz weirdness, some Grizzly Bear denseness, some giant synth clouds, and more.
7. “Bushwick Girl” – CHUCK. A goofy, loving parody of NYC’s hippest hipsters in appropriately creaky, nasally, quirky indie-pop style.
8. “Ghost” – Mood Robot. Chillwave meets ODESZA-style post-dub with some pop v/c/v work for good measure. It’s a great little electro-pop tune.
9. “Da Vinci” – Jaw Gems. All the swagger, strut, stutter, and stomp of hip-hop and none of the vocals. Impressive.
10. “Disappearing Love” – Night Drifting. If the National’s high drama met the Boss’s roots rock, you’d end up with something like this charging tune with a huge conclusion.
11. “Black and White Space” – Delamere. Britpop from Manchester with a catchy vocal hook and subtle instrumentation that comes together really nicely.
12. “Plastic Flowers” – Poomse. Predictions of human doom over crunchy guitars give way to a densely-layered indie-rock track with claustrophobia-inducing horns. If you’re into Mutemath or early ’00s emo (non-twinkly variety), you’ll find some footholds here.
13. “Lake, Steel, Oil” – Basement Revolver. There’s something hypnotic about Chrisy Hurn plaintively singing her heart out as if there isn’t a howling wall of distortion raging around her.
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.