1. “8:46 (Breathing Song)” – FROOS. This synthesizer-and-voice rumination is a protest song that calls out the amount of time that George Floyd was held with a knee over his throat before he died. The voice and breath that gently accent the washes of synthesizer point the song even further toward its protest goal. The delicate synths are disrupted throughout by grumbling, dissonant bursts of competing synth, evocative of the injustice in the situation breaking in.
2. “Let’s Leap” – Mesadorm. Here’s a different type of protest song: this is a call to action for people (including the singer) to get engaged in the work of making the world better. It’s framed in an enthusiastic, bouncy early-’00s indie-pop jam that will make old-school Of Montreal and Architecture in Helsinki fans do backflips. It’s not quite an anthem, but the quirky hook is solid and the arrangement is absolutely stellar.
3. “All American Singer” – Zephaniah OHora. Some things just fit together, like New York guitar-slinging troubadours with hauntingly familiar voices. Zephaniah OHora’s “All American Singer” is the first single of Listening To The Music, from Last Roundup Records August 28th. Recording in Brooklyn, the record also was the final project for producer Neal Casal prior to his tragic death. Rich yet restrained classic chord structures, slide guitar breaks, and perfectly mixed instrumentation suggest this could be a taste of brilliance to come on the upcoming twelve-song album. The iconic country sound brings to mind Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. Lyricically relevant, each word speaks to music’s role in calling out truth and chaos in society. Music is a place to connect us despite our differences. Closing my eyes, I hear Glen Campbell’s phrasing and smooth vocal tone, with Fred Neil’s “EveryBody’s Talkin” from Midnight Cowboy “ thrown in. Genius, folks. —Lisa Whealy
4. “Cambridge, MA” – Holy ’57. Holy ’57 will finally complete the H-O-L-Y sequence of EPs when “Y” drops later this summer. (As a completist, I am thrilled to hear it.) The lead track goes deep into the Brit-rock archives, fusing Blur’s guitars and hectic vocal approach to Manic Street Preachers’ politics and a very funky bassline. The parody of a hardcore breakdown at the end of the song is funny and also serves the point of the lyrics brilliantly. It’s a lot more rock than dance this time, and fans of the downstream Vampire Weekend vibes might miss the approach, but it’s a compelling new direction nonetheless.
5. “Ode to Youth” – Liam Mour. It’s not chillwave anymore, I suppose, but this is certainly whatever we’re calling “major key, trebly, burbly, low-percussion electro jams with a lot of reverb.” It does have a lot more forward motion than the relaxed pace of chillwave. It grows to a giant, room-filling, spaced-out finale, too–evocative of Ulrich Schnauss, Tycho, and similar. Whatever it is, it’s excellently done, a lot of fun, and overall really appealing.
6. “ity bity” – Otis Sandsjö. This tenor sax, synth, bass, and drums combo creates music that draws equally on electronic music and jazz for its themes and moods; the track opens up in a low-key electro groove with occasional bits of sax before opening into a sax feature. Then it morphs into a lounge-y track with cooing vocals and lay-all-the-way-back vibes. Very cool.
7. “Part VI – Into Eternity” – Carlos Niño & Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. This composition is the very definition of delicate, as it wafts along elegantly and carefully, without so much as a brittle tone anywhere. The gentle percussion is perfectly done, the violin sounds gorgeous, and the soundscapes that fill out the composition are just excellent. It’s the best of modern composition, new age, and ambient rolled into one. Highly recommended.
8. “Palms Up” – Ezra Feinberg. Manages to be meditative and tropical at the same time, which is no easy feat. The synth, guitar, bass, and percussion arrangement is light and lithe without losing its groundedness; it feels real and weighty, despite also feeling warm and light. That’s an impressive arranging job.
9. “Leave It Loading” – Dan Drohan. I’m a big fan of foreground-grabbing bass riffs, especially if they have a punk/metal aesthetic of fury and/or heft. Drohan’s experimental work here has a lot of foreground-grabbing bass amid frantic drums and staccato keys. It’s like those bass/drums punk duos from the early 2000s (Death From Above 1979, represent!) but with (slightly) more expansive ambiance.
10. “Tightrope Tricks” – Redvers and Melissa. The duo branches out from twee-influenced acoustic-pop with new flourishes: autotune/vocoder, synthesizers, big ‘ol bass rumble, and percussion pushing the song along. There’s still an acoustic guitar in there, and the duo’s vocals are still sweet and lovely. But pretty much everything else is bigger and more technicolor. It’s a lot of fun!
11. “Eternal Turtle” – Joshua Van Tassel. A slow-moving ambient / classical piece featuring the rare but legendary ondes martenot. The lush yet dark textures make me think of a Christopher Nolan soundtrack (minus the bwaaaaa sound), as the piece has a dense, ominous, yet still inviting quality.
1. “Saw You Through the Trees” – Eerie Gaits. This combines folk, ambient, and indie-pop in a way that just thrills my soul. It shouldn’t be surprising to me that John Ross, who has fronted a synth-pop band, a punk rock band, and an ambient band, could somehow make a song that ties all of my interests together perfectly. Highly recommended.
2. “Leap of Faith” – Darius. This is instrumental post-hardcore; it falls somewhere between Russian Circles’ post-metal and GY!BE’s expansive post-rock. It’s got a ton of charge at the beginning, but the early aggression gives way to more atmospheric approaches as the song progresses (although the drummer gets increasingly ballistic as the song goes on–I’m fully here for it) until the big conclusion. This creates a nuanced, layered song that is aggressive but also delicate in its approach. (And, there’s even a mid-song breakdown!) It is impressive. Highly recommended.
3. “El Caracol” – Whale Fall. You’re telling me that this 18-minute piece was a mostly-improvised single take that’s part of a larger 38-minute piece? For real? This is an astonishing achievement. It’s great, sweeping, dense, textured music; the sort of piece that people who have been playing together for a long time can make by knowing not just what the other person is likely to do musically, but the sorts of music that is possible when working together. It’s post-rock, but beyond that describing it does it a disservice. Whale Fall do an amazing job here. Highly recommended.
4. “Farther Along (Instrumental Version)” – Josh Garrels. Garrels’ instrumental arrangements have always been underappreciated (and when you have a voice as smooth and mellifluous as Garrels’, that’s for good reason). Now they can be fully appreciated, as Garrels has released instrumental versions of five albums. He just literally took out all the vocals. The songs are still so good. My personal fave, “Farther Along,” is transformed from a vocal-centric pop song into a slow-burning folk jam anchored by organ drone. I’m gonna be spending a lot of time with these records.
5. “Displacement A” – JZ Replacement. Wow, this covers a lot of territory in 8:39. You’ve got some freakout jazz, some groove-heavy slow jazz, experimental flows, spacey stuff, and more. If you like experimental music and/or jazz, please inquire within.
6. “210” – Matt Karmil. This house track splits the difference between tough-as-nails, four-on-the-floor techno and atmospheric chillwave with admirable aplomb. This is moody and atmospheric without losing any of the drive or groove of club bangers. An excellent track.
7. “Testament” – Luo. I’ve never been much for prog, but up until recently I’d never been much for jazz either, so maybe we’re just turning over all those rocks. To be fair, this is a lot more than prog, as it’s got electronic bits, space-rock bits, jazz-inflected percussion drive, and lots more. A very, very cool piece.
8. “The Pheasant” – Realizer and A.B. Chediski. Acoustic guitar collaborations can be a nuanced journey, dancing through imagination. Following their debut EP Rose Door, Matt C. White (through his moniker Realizer) and Charles Ellsworth (introducing his instrumental alias A. B. Chediski) capture resplendent beauty for listeners when their two guitars meet in composition. Diverse starting points from the two artists create an intricate conversation of folk-rock in “The Pheasant,” rising and falling like undulating explorations into another time and place. Subtle and restrained, each moment of every note has room to breathe. Stunning! Check out all of the socials for these two artists and their various projects. –Lisa Whealy
9. “Little Bit Sweet” – The Wood Brothers. The Wood Brothers’ recent album Kingdom in My Mind feels like a retro throwback that wanders through their sonic imagination. Stylistically enchanting animation artwork from Texas-based Gary Dorsey glimmers with brilliance in this video for “Little Bit Sweet.” A dreamscape storyboard of cutout art, whose style mirrors Belgian surrealist René Magritte, is vividly alive. It’s also reminiscent of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, with expressive muted colors bringing to mind simple times. Aligned with the lyrical contradictions, a longing for simpler times is realized visually with Chris Wood’s vocals as the perfect soundtrack. Fingerpicking is not the star here, just the ideal accompaniment to imagination’s wandering. Mirroring the essence of the album and its title track, this video creates an animation playground that is never fixed in reality, allowing an ever-changing relationship to evolve with each person’s interpretation. As a thread connecting us all, “Little Bit Sweet” has a video that is truly a work of art. —Lisa Whealy
10. “Special Berry” – Standards. This math-rock tune takes all of the sophisticated guitar patterning and complex percussion syncopation of traditional math-rock and infuses a pop-inspired sense of joie de vivre. The melodies are beautiful and technical and magical. It’s just a joy to listen to.
11. “New Rock Thingy” – Joshua Crumbly. There’s a whole burgeoning school of artists with jazz backgrounds who seem to have developed into a space where they’ve completely obliterated normal genres: Kamasi Washington, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Mark Guiliana, loads more. Add Joshua Crumbly to that list. This starts off as a bass guitar reverie, transforms into a space-funk jam, goes ambient, and then dissolves in enthusiastic rock-drumming theatrics with a frantic saxophone run over the top. In 2:28. It’s a head-spinner in the best of ways.
1. “Rollercoaster Pts. 1 & 2” – Chassol. Starts off as a fidgety, Pogo-esque ambient track and then morphs into a hectic instrumental ELO track that just gets more and more enthusiastic as it goes. I am very here for both things. Highly recommended.
2. “Activate” – Theon Cross. If I had to write my music memoir right now, it would be called Free Jazz is Just Hardcore Music for Saxophone Players, or, How I Went from The Number 12 Looks Like You to Tuba Soloists. This isn’t actually free jazz in the truest sense; it’s more like a tuba-led version of the jazz/dance stuff that Moon Hooch or Too Many Zooz make. Cross is a boss tuba player, and he really gets after it in this piece. His drummer is also legit. This is just rad all around.
3. “Eluvium – Dusk Tempi” – Field Works. First, take bat echolocations. Then take low-key Devotchka instrumental work. Add in glitchy bits. Top with orchestra. Enjoy in a large open field looking out at the night sky and imagining the infinite.
4. “Amelia” – Message to Bears & Will Samson. Acoustic guitars, harmonium, chill arpeggiator, and low-key beats result in beautiful work somewhere between ambient, slow-core, and chillwave. Fans of The Album Leaf will be absolutely thrilled.
5. “The Return” – Deep Energy Orchestra. DEO throws jazz, funk, Indian music, and more into a blender; the results are satisfying. If you’re into bass guitar, it’s especially satisfying.
6. “Dee Dee” – Leah Kardos. This is electronic composition that is elegant, confident, and bold. It moves with grace and power. The melodies are unfolded carefully, while the beats that accompany them are punchy and present. It’s smooth yet strong. A very cool piece for driving.
7. “PB” – Mark Karmil. Driving and punchy techno that doesn’t sacrifice mood or go for the big synth. Instead, there’s some dense layering, patience, and vibes on vibes on vibes.
8. “Melodies” – Cubicolor. An upbeat, perky, bouncy electro track with a steady beat, lovely weird arpeggiator stuff, and just enough movement/variation to keep the head bobbing and the ears interested. A very good track.
9. “What’s Eating You” – Eerie Gaits. John Ross has been prolific over the last few years as the synth-pop outfit Challenger, the punk-indie band Wild Pink, and the ambient project Eerie Gaits. This latest EG track splits the difference between indie-rock and ambient and falls a little near Challenger, creating a loping sort of pseudo-pop that doesn’t ever produce vocals but does produce lots of good feelings. It’s ambient for people who can’t stand drone.
10. “Sadr” – Tom Hades. As I discovered last year, I love deep-cuts, tough-as-nails techno. Give me the punchiest bass synths. Give me long run times. Give me big beats. Give me minor variations. I want it all. Tom Hades, folks, delivers it all.
1. “Monolith 1” – The Kompressor Experiment. Here’s 15 minutes and 43 seconds of gloriously thunderous post-rock/post-metal that draws its inspiration from Kubrick’s 2001. Need I say more?
2. “Ocean in a Drop” – GoGo Penguin. This churning, dense piece resists classification. Is it a post-rock piece being played by a jazz trio? Is it experimental jazz? Is it something entirely different? Whatever it is, it is wildly engrossing and deeply interesting. The bass gets a lot to do, which I very much enjoy.
3. “White” – Liam Pitcher. This is the first track of the first album of an eleven-album synchronous release. Ambition much? The solo piano work is delicate and lovely; it’s very sweet but with notes of dissonance throughout. It is evocative of the Japanese video game soundtracks (FFVIII in particular) that Pitcher grew up on. (Full Disclosure: IC writer Lisa Whealy is doing the PR for this.)
4. “Blackberry Wine” – Jon Bennett. If you think that they don’t make folk singers like they used to, then you’ll love the early ’60s finger-pickin’ folk of Jon Bennett. It’s evocative of a singer whose name rhymes with Rob Millen.
5. “His Name Was the Color That I Loved” – the Good Graces. A sentimental, touching ode to a male family figure (grandfather? father?) in the tried-and-true alt-country vein: train-track drums, crunchy lead guitar, and acoustic guitar. The Good Graces are always a safe bet, and this one pays off in spades.
6. “Rush to Spark” – Foxes in Fiction. The former chillwaver has settled neatly into a dream-pop vein, taking some (some) of the big synth washes away in lieu of more intricate, delicate arrangements here. The feathery vocals are a great touch over the keys and gently insistent percussion beat.
7. “Bruises on Your Shoulders” – Thirsty Curses. A piano-driven folk-pop jam that’s a cross between the Lumineers’s pop chops and The (old-school) Avett Brothers’ vocal enthusiasms. The tune is about suddenly realizing you’ve become an adult out of nowhere, which I certainly have experienced more than once.
8. “Holding On” – Tracy Shedd. Shedd is moving in the opposite direction from Foxes in Fiction, going from an introspective singer-songwriter space into a dancy, electro-pop-inspired vein. It’s not quite the big dance-pop of her other project The Band and the Beat, but it’s got stacked big synths and a lot of forward motion accompanying Shedd’s intimate vocals and lyrics. It’s a head-bobber.
9. “At Night They Race Through the Stars” – Clara Engel. If you’re down for some vocal-centric slowcore acoustic work, Clara Engel has you covered. The slow-paced, slow-motion-fingerpicking tune has atmosphere to spare from solid supporting cello work.
10. “Johnny Went Off to War” – The Long Farewells. Here’s a historically-inspired (although it could be about any war at any time, the mark of a true folk song) folk song with a tragic ending. The arrangement is spartan but effective, and the female vocals are strong.
11. “Something in the Background” – Samuel. Funky, soulful, downtempo instrumental work with a sax as the lead voice. I’m sure someone somewhere is claiming this as some variant of jazz, too. Whatever you call it, it’s chill and would work great in the chill-out section of your next party playlist.
12. “O World! I Remain No Longer Here” – Glacier. I’m far from the first person to note this, but the fact that crushing post-rock band Glacier named their latest release No Light Ever is basically all you need to know about this release. There’s so much heavy guitar distortion here on this track that you’d be forgiven for thinking Glacier is a metal or doom band. This stuff is sludged-out to the max–until it goes almost silent. This is quiet/loud/quiet taken to its utter extreme. Oh, and it’s 14 minutes long.
Chelidon Frame‘s NowHere Nowhere NoWhereis one of the most interesting albums I’ve ever heard. It’s a brilliant instrumental piece of art that sonically depicts (not evokes, or suggests, but straight-up maps out) various landscapes, people, events, and stories. It’s no good as working music or ambient music because it demands to be listened to. It is a fully conceived piece of art in the way that films are fully conceived pieces of art. It’s hard for me to explain it, and I don’t really want to explain it, because trying to describe it would not do it justice. This album is a totally unique experience to everything I’ve ever heard before, and it’s massively impressive. Do yourself a sonic favor and check it out.
Olof Cornéer‘s Waves, Breaths & Dead Cities is a fascinating and difficult-to-explain work. Part of this is that I’m new at contemporary classical reviewing, but another part is that this is that I’ve rarely ever heard anything like this. The three parts of Waves, Breaths & Dead Cities are (de-)constructed so as to have only one note of one instrument of the wind quintet enter at a time, rarely relying on layering so much as leaning on the impact of each note entering.
It’s not experimental tonally (there are melodies! the scale seems like a regular scale!), but it’s highly experimental structurally. The structure, insofar as it exists, is highly obscured: on first listen this sounds like a large collection of notes one after another. With no through-played accompaniment or background elements, this can feel somewhat like points of light hitting a screen. But with repeated listens the whole of it comes together and starts to build a mood. It’s hopeful, of sorts–not gleeful or even happy (per se), but there’s a persistent underlying uplift that carries through.
The second set of three tracks are the “Night Gestalt” reworks that build in a little more of the backdrop of the notes with some electronic hum/hush/roar. It’s a nice companion piece to the stark versions that proceed it. This collection is fascinating and unlike any I’ve ever heard before; it’s worth a try if you’re into experimental, evocative work. The record drops July 4th.
Monomotion‘s Fujisanis a cross between the dignified chillwave of Teen Daze and the maximalist post-dub of Odesza. The 7-song record is essentially one 24-minute song split into parts; the pace shifts, the ideas change, but the overall mood remains the same throughout. Because Monomotion spends so much time carefully developing the mood, it’s a pleasant experience instead of a monotonous one.
Opener “North Cascades” introduces the friendly, relaxed mood through piano, airy synths and staccato beats; “Mango (with FEYNMAN)” cranks up the secluded-glen vibes in the synths and throws a four-on-the-floor bass thump into the mix for a more club-ready downtempo track. “Seed” is the chillout moment, largely eschewing percussion and bass for a 158-second ambient float. There’s some minimal rhythmic work thrown in, but this is a lovely ambient track at its core.
Lead single “Ecocline Patterns” is the core of the record, the place where high drama and chill tendencies come together in a unique way. Monomotion has minimalist tendencies and maximalist urges; despite these contrasting concerns (or maybe because of them), the song and the record feel perfectly balanced between both–the maximalist highs are satisfying, while the minimalist lows aren’t just throwaway moments to provide a lead-up to the payoff. Monomotion has attended to both with equal care, and this provides a satisfying experience in Fujisan. Highly recommended for fans of Teen Daze, Com Truise, and Odesza. Fujisan comes out 7/26, but you can pre-order it now.
Carried– Cenes. Beautiful, ethereal, weightless, floating classical pieces that feature no percussion and very little form; they come, create an atmosphere of gentle hush, and then fade away.
Sauropoda– L’eclair. Funky nu-disco but not kitschy. I’m just as surprised as you are.
d / on the night when the moon sheds dew – TAKAO MINAMOTO. Hang drum compositions that include a wide variety of other instruments to create dense, layered, moody compositions. These diverse works transcend the mystical sound of the hang drum and show that it is more than a one-trick pony.
Persuasion System / Iteration– Com Truise. Teen Daze-style instrumental chillwave, but more heavily indebted to ’80s nostalgia, vaporware and synth-pop. It’s perfect working music: sonically interesting but not disruptive, forward-moving but not chaotic, melodic but not insistently attention-grabbing. It’s mixed and mastered excellently, too.
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 email@example.com. 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.
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