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Ithica's ambient music has a beating heart and emotion to spare

The problem I have with most ambient music is that it lacks a beating heart. For me to enjoy anything — whether it’s metal, indie rock, acoustic folk or jazz — there must be some emotion that I can tap into. And much ambient music, while pretty, lacks a human element.

Ithica fought against the coldness of ambient music when creating Bertrand Russell’s Ice Cream Truck and won. The thirty-one minute album, which appropriately starts off with a ten-minute track called “Ambiently,” takes all of the most emotive aspects of Ithica’s brilliant self-titled album and distills them into an vocal-free, downtempo mix.

It’s important to note that Ithica’s self-titled debut was neither ambient nor instrumental. The fact that this is not their only genre makes this album much better. They know that a boring song in the ambient world is no artsier than a boring song in the pop world. These songs aren’t fast-paced by any means, but there’s a thread that runs through them of immediate payoff. The melodies are well-placed and not belabored or repeated. The band says what it wants to say and then gets out of there, on to the next thing.

A reverent, highly emotional mood from their self-titled album also carries over. These excellent songs create serene, contemplative soundscapes. This is mind-blowing headphone music, but it also has the power to transform the feel of an entire room.  It’s not all synth washes and glacial tempos, either; there’s plenty of digital bleeps and boops (“How to Play Chess With Human Hands”), fast-paced percussion loops (“A Shiny Broken Toy”), and even some distortion going on in the title track (which I researched, but failed to discover the meaning behind).

But the best moments here are not just great, they’re revelatory. “Ambiently,” “August 5th” and “The Language of Children” tap into emotions and places in my mind that few other bands have the power to access. These are the sort of songs that I would want in the soundtrack of my life; perhaps a late-movie montage sequence where I look back on all the best thankfully but remorsefully while looking bravely to an uncertain future.

I doubt it will conjure up the same feelings in you, but I’m relatively sure it will conjure up something. These tunes are brilliant and beautiful, and I am thankful I got to hear them.

Ithica knocks their self-titled album out of the park

I’ve had Ithica‘s self-titled release for a while now. I didn’t neglect to review it because it’s bad, but because it’s so good.

I had a pretty wretched 2010 in many regards. Failures personal, professional and health-related cast a pallor over the year. I did not want to think about anything more than I absolutely had to, and that’s why Ithica’s brilliant self-titled album got shuffled to the side.

I have to think about Ithica because it is a truly genre-less piece of work. To say it’s indie-rock is a bit incorrect, because there are few guitars and even fewer directly rock-oriented moves. It’s got some pop melodies, but it’s not pop. It’s deeply electronic, but very human. It’s lushly orchestrated but never indulgent. It’s got high ideals, a cinematic scope, and immaculate production. It’s gorgeous, but never saccharine or maudlin.

Enough with the nots. It is a sort of extra-beautiful industrial music, in that it is electronic, rhythmic music for the sake of music. It’s a concept album about the breakdown of a family through the eyes of a child; a sort of The Suburbs meets OK Computer meets Mommy Dearest. It has similarities to TV on the Radio, although I can’t entirely put my finger on what it is about the two that are the same.

The songs are not structured in normal pop structures; they flow and morph as Ithica feels they should. The best example of their sound is “There Is Love In The Ceiling,” which starts off with distant atmospheric synths underlaid by a deep rumble. A mildly distorted breakbeat fades into another breakbeat, louder and less distorted. A child’s voice comes in, reverbed and repeated:

“They’re screening their phone calls
they’re locking their doors
they’re choking down silence
they’re sleeping on an empty floor
They say that God is a slogan
They say that truth is a children’s song
They claim that love has completely vanished
they claim that love is finally gone
there is love in the ceiling
there is love scribbled on the bathroom floor
there is love in the furniture
there is love in every secret drawer.”

It’s dark. It’s heavy, emotionally (see why I didn’t want to deal with this in my dark and heavy year?). The song builds as the lyrics go through, introducing a piano elegy into the rhythmic mix, as well as some faux strings that are clearly faux but beautiful because of their fakeness in the context of the tune.

Then a major chord appears; the tune shifts lyrically and melodically, although not entirely to a major key. “I believe those dead will live again/there is love in the ceiling,” the voice intones. Then the song ends.


Other places a male vocalist sings; his voice has a plaintive honesty that meshes perfectly with these deeply confessional and ruminative tracks. The melodic ideas from “There Is Love In The Ceiling” continue throughout the album: atmospheric synths, beautiful piano, heavy drumming and a very personal mood.

Some albums feel like a diary being read to you; this feels like sitting next to someone as their life is playing out before you. These tracks are difficult to forget because they are so powerful. The only track that isn’t incredibly appealing is “My Manic Mother Quietly Folding Clothes,” which has a very sterile feel, complete with whirring machine noises, sludgy bass and wailing siren-esque noise. It doesn’t feel good, but it’s not supposed to; it’s about not feeling anything. The sound perfectly matches the lyrical intent, making it excellent even it is (intentional) coldness.

“A Grace” is another heart-rending highlight, as the piano-heavy track depicts a scene where a child makes a crucifixion scene out of his toys, much to the horror of his mother. It drags in themes of childhood lost, regret, guilt, pain, family, religion, grace and more without ever preaching. If you don’t feel wrung out at the end of the tune, I would recommend you listen again with your ears turned on.

Albums like Ithica are why I don’t make my best-of list until February of the following year. This is one of the best releases of the year, because there’s no one else this year that even tried to do what Ithica excelled at. This is a singular vision completed excellently; it’s an achievement on par with The Postal Service’s Give Up, which was so good that they didn’t even try a follow-up. Let’s hope that Ithica has something else to say, because this concept album is beautiful and nearly perfect. I’ve never heard anything like it, and that’s amazing.

Top 20 albums of the year: 20-11

Independent Clauses is somewhat of an alternate universe when it comes to music reviewing. I rarely cover the hip bands, often love things no one else does, and generally attempt to be true to what I hear. If there’s a radar to be on or under, we’re hanging out on a different screen altogether. This is more by happenstance than choice: I never set out to be contrarian. And I don’t feel like a curmudgeonly naysayer of popular music, as you’ll see tomorrow. I just have a different lens than many people. Here’s the view from that lens.

20. Summer of Sam – A-Okay. Lo-fi acoustic goodness that rings honest and true.

19. Ithica – St. Anselm’s Choir. I’m consistently amazed at this band’s ability to wring heartbreaking beauty out of what is basically industrial music.

18. Chris North – Lovedream. Angelic reverie comes via a bunch of guitar pedals, acoustic guitars and arresting vocals.

17. Andrea Caccese’s collected output: Songs for the Sleepwalkers’ Our Rehearsed Spontaneous Reactions and I Used to Be a Sparrow’s Luke. One man’s vision, applied to an ambient project and a indie-rock project that countered the ambience with an anthemic, U2-esque bent.

16. Elijah Wyman/Jason Rozen’s collective output: Tiny Mtns/The Seer Group/Decent Lovers. What started out as the artsy electro-pop project Tiny Mtns split into a heavily artsy electro project (The Seer Group) and a heavily artsy pop project (Decent Lovers), with the two splitting the tracks between them. Except when both kept a track and reworked it to their likings. Did I mention that this one time, one of these guys gave the other a kidney? Now you see why they get one mention.

15. Superstar Runner – Heritage/Lineage/Hand-Me Downs/Scars (Your Birthmarks Do Not Bother Me). Songwriters that forge their own path get remembered by someone. The size of that group determines their popularity, and I hope that this incredibly titled record has gotten Superstar Runner remembered by a lot more people for his unusual arrangements and song structures.

14. 4H Royalty – Where UFOs Go To Die. Hands down, the best lyrics of the year are here in this country/rock album.

13. Autumn Owls – Between Buildings, Toward the Sea. Radiohead? Is that you? No? Hey, whoa, I meant it as a compliment! But seriously, this band is thoughtful in composition and lyric, for a head-spinning, enveloping release.

12. The Parmesans – Uncle Dad’s Cabin EP. One of my favorite new bands of the year, this bluegrass outfit has serious chops to go along with its goofy demeanor.

11. Young Readers – Family Trees EP. I haven’t been floored as hard by an opening track all year as I was by “All I Have.” Beautiful whisper-folk in the vein of old-school Iron and Wine.

A new definition of post-rock

There’s already a genre called post-rock, but I think that’s not thinking big enough about the term. Post-rock implies an ideology shift, a movement past whatever “rock” meant. While the genre that includes Explosions in the Sky, Godspeed! You Black Emperor, Tortoise, and Mogwai definitely was one of the earliest adapters of the “after rock” mindset, their cinematic music should not be allowed to lay claim to the whole of the term.

I hope we get to a day where every band is “post-rock,” and no band subscribes to the hollow myths of “rock” as they were once sold to us. The part of the rock mythos that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is the big rock move: the idea that a big guitar riff is its own explanation. (Think of “Immigrant Song” or “Thunderstruck” for the best examples of this, or any hair metal song for average to poor examples of this idea.)

The antithesis of the big rock move is thoughtful consideration of how riffs work together with other things as part of songwriting, not necessarily to rock less, but to mean things. In a sense, thoughtful consideration of riffs may even cause them to rock more, because “meaning something” often produces a more real emotional connection with listeners than a big rock move and thereby heightens the pleasure of experiencing the riff.

Here are three bands that are thinking about how riffs combine with other things to make meaning, even though none of the three would be in the “post-rock” genre. (There are also a whole boatload of sociological ideas associated with the “rock star” that I’m thrilled to see go the way of the buffalo, but they are for another day.)

Autumn Owls’ Between Buildings, Toward the Sea is a spiritual descendant of Radiohead’s OK Computer. Radiohead’s masterpiece subverted big riff rock by making the monster guitar licks serve the moods they wanted (mindless and frantic in “Paranoid Android,” grating and brittle in “Electioneering”), and Autumn Owls do the same thing. The angular, slightly dissonant guitarwork in opener “Semaphores” fluctuates between nervous uncertainty and frightened certainty, situating the listener right in the middle of Autumn Owls’ ideas. Autumn Owls’ instrumentals and vocals have a symbiotic relationship, with the oft-deadpan vocalist coming off like Cake frontman John McCrea fronting an apocalyptic art band instead of sardonic pop one.

The music, vocals and lyrics can’t be separated: the album is full of frightened surprise (see the lyrics and heavy guitar entrance in “Unconvinced”), malaise (note the gently rolling sounds and “ignore the tension” line in standout “Kiss the Wine”), and ominous confusion (the spiky, tense “Quarantine”). When they let the guitars go, they do so for a reason; when the drums rattle, there’s a reason for that. They don’t do things simply because that’s what rock does; they’ve put thought into every last bit of this album.

Between Buildings, Toward the Sea is an incredibly constructed record, full of intricate patterns and delicate touches. Whether it’s a guitar glitching (and there’s a lot of that), a voice being modified, or deceptively pretty melodies being eerily contrasted (“The Arched Pines”), Autumn Owls know what they’re doing. This is easily one of the best albums of the year.

I was searching for this application of the term post-rock when I reviewed both of Ithica‘s previous releases. Ithica creates beautiful tunes that float amorphously between genres: industrial beats, pretty synths, and deeply emotional vocal melodies create an unnameable amalgam. It results in beautiful, haunting music with real depth. St. Anselm’s Choir comes together flawlessly, as incisive lyrics are delivered by a vocalist with astonishing control of emotive tone and inflection over a brilliant soup of vocal samples, synthesizers, and drums. The songs are set up to have impact similar to rock songs, as “riffs” come in and then leave, giving way to verses and choruses. But the sounds that compose these structures are atypical, giving the tunes the unique quality of feeling altogether new and intimately familiar at the same time. I can’t speak highly enough about these six songs. Rare is the fully-realized vision that crosses my desk, but St. Anselm’s Choir is that unusual EP.

On first glance, The Foreign Resort‘s Scattered and Buried might seem an odd place to talk about the post-rock ethos: distorted bass and dark guitars abound. On the other hand, their sound is a Joy Division-esque new wave/post-punk one; both genres have a history of sticking it to the man.

But the thing that pointed out their diffidence toward the big rock move was how closely tied the vocal tone was to the timbre of the instruments. When the arrangement surges, so do the vocals; when the vocals tremble in uncertainty during “Lost My Way (2012),” so do the instruments. The frantic tempo and tough bass rhythms of “Buried” are mimicked by the vocals–or is it the opposite? That inability to determine which element is the most important is what makes this distinctly post-rock to me; the vocals aren’t serving the guitars, and the guitars aren’t serving the vocals. The song is all, and each of the elements contributes to that. This creates a wildly enjoyable set of tunes, from the fragile beauty of “Rocky Mountains” to the club-friendly synths of “Tide.” The remixes make the release even better. Highly recommended.

The Lovely Few release beautiful, fully-realized music that eschews pop moves

The best stuff I hear always takes the longest to review. When something is good, I can quickly explain why it’s good, compare to similar bands, edit for commas, then send some positive vibes out into the world. When something is great, it’s harder than that. There aren’t as many things to compare it to, for one thing; it’s also harder to explain why they songs are great because the songs often excel because they aren’t doing what other tunes do, lyrically and/or musically.

The Lovely Few has put out two great releases in a row: their full-length The Perseids and a follow-up EP The Orionids. (The namesakes are both meteor showers.) I’ve listened to them largely back-to-back, but they do have individual goals: Orionoids was intended to be the more user-friendly version of the Lovely Few sound that is fleshed out in Perseids. The former was necessary because the latter is a full and complete artistic vision that has few compromises or easy comparisons.

The only things I could think of as touchstones were sadly underappreciated Ithica and a way more artistic Postal Service. What The Lovely Few does could lazily be called electronic indie-pop, but that term also encompasses hyperactive stuff like Matt & Kim and Math the Band that have literally nothing in common with The Lovely Few. But the ideas that fall under the indie-pop umbrella are there: soft digital loops, moving vocal melodies, layers of electronic and organic instruments, strong control of space. The things that differentiate the album from indie-pop: an unusual optimism in minor keys that invokes the wonder of staring into space, flowing instrumentals, chorus-less tunes, liberal use of theremin.

Those instrumentals are important because they signal that the The Perseids is more than just a collection of songs: it’s a full-album experience, meant to be heard as a thing. There are highlight tracks, like gentle opener “Smoke in the Field” and the beautiful “Gorgon,” but those two songs are even better when heard in context. The placement of the ominous, mournful “Intrepid” directly before “Gorgon” accentuate’s the latter’s fluidity and reveals a corner of the tune that could be missed or underappreciated in a standalone listening.

The 11 songs of The Perseids create an elegant yet weighty whole. Even though the songs have a lot of space to let sounds echo in (sometimes literally), they never feel empty or undercooked. The tunes gel, and the mood holds. “Swift-Tuttle” is a glacially slow tune built on pad synths that would be rarely heard if considered on its own (except perhaps by ambient enthusiasts), but in the context of the album it makes perfect sense and pulls its own weight. No track here falters when the whole album is listened to at once.

The Orionids EP is not that much different than The Perseids, but it is different enough that I can see how it would achieve the goal of socializing and contextualizing The Lovely Few’s sound. “Orion” sounds just a nudge removed from the mood of Postal Service’s “This Place is a Prison,” what with the distant drumming and electronic loops. The song is more linear, in somewhat of a verse/chorus/verse structure. “Sci Fi Novels” features an electric guitar with its bass knob turned way up as the basis of the song, while reverent “Hunter” is the tune that can segue perfectly into enjoying The Perseids. (Aside from the :24 closer “Celestial Chord,” which is exactly that; you can run it straight into Perseids opener “Smoke in the Field,” and hardly know the albums have switched.) The one exception to the “knocking the pointy edges off” strategy is the glitchy “Try Again,” which is a weird outlier in many ways.

The Lovely Few’s beautiful music is some of the most enveloping that I’ve heard this year. I get lost inside The Perseids, checking out all the nooks and crannies and little sounds that have been lovingly placed inside it. It’s a fully-realized musical vision that often eschews the sure pop moves for the album consistency ones. I love the sound, I love the albums, and I fully recommend these releases to adventurous listeners who still love full albums.

Independent Clauses' Top 10 of 2010

Because I’m perpetually behind on CDs, I only get done with a previous year’s music in February.

10. Fort Orange — After the Fall. Basically, this is what I want all punk albums to sound like: furious, aggressive, short diatribes that make use of melody, rhythm and rage.

9. We’ve Built Up to NOTHING — 500 Miles to Memphis. Takes country-punk and pushes its boundaries out in all directions.

8. This Cage Has No Bottom — The Ascetic Junkies. Folk and indie-pop get mashed up in the most delightful way.

7. Ithica — Ithica. This genreless amazement is the second-most emotionally powerful album of the year and the best concept album.

6. Faithful Fools — The Damn Choir. Best lovelorn acoustic tunes of the year; it’s hard to beat a broken heart, an acoustic guitar and a cello.

5. Best of the Bees — Mansions. A jawdropping set of cast-off tunes that set up Mansions as the next Bright Eyes in terms of prolific nature and brilliant tunes.

4. Lost and Found — The Fools. Stark, beautiful acoustic tunes from two girls.

3. New Home — La Strada. Takes folk and bends it all around through world music and indie rock, producing jubilant, complex tracks that never bore.

2. Our New Life Above the Ground — Avalanche City. These are the acoustic-laden pop songs I wish I could write. Stomping, clapping, mandolin, melodies, harmonies, toms, just everything good is in these songs.

1. Sever Your Roots — The Felix Culpa. Hands down the best album of the year; nothing else even came close to approaching its masterful take on post-hardcore. The brilliant lyrics pushed it over the top.

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