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Matt Shaw-Ghosts in the Concrete

mattshawBand Name: Matt Shaw
Album Name: Ghosts in the Concrete
Best element: Great flow throughout the entire album.
Genre: Indie electronica
Website: www.mattshaw.us
Label name: Burning Building Records www.bbrecords.com
Band e-mail: matt’mattshaw.us

Call it a wake-up call. Call it a check-up. Call it OK Computer, Pt. II. But most importantly, call your friends, because Matt Shaw’s debut full-length is not only musically entrancing, it’s lyrically enveloping.

The first thing that hits the ear when “Ghosts in the Concrete” hits your stereo is an electronic ditty that instantly caught my attention. Having been a fan of the Postal Service since I got their album about a year ago, I’ve been snapping up anything that has to do with electro-indie, or as my friends call it, mellow techno. Whatever, guys.

Anyway, of all these mellow electronic indie popsters, I’ve never found one as good as the Postal Service- no one seems to be able to carry the melody, the instrumentation, the beat, and the mood as well as Tamborello and Gibbard can. Until Matt Shaw, that is.

After that little introduction, “Constant Movement” cues up- a paced little song with a highly downtrodden, highly indie vocal line and a rather simple backdrop. It basically establishes who Matt Shaw is and what he does- Take the Postal Service’s ideas, drop the corporate sheen from them, rub some dirt in the cracks, and show up at a coffee shop full of beatniks and disaffected college students.

“Transition” comes next- a continuing the lyrical themes of “Constant Movement” while placing more emphasis on the beat, creating a hollowed out sound that fits the forlorn vocals perfectly. The lyrical theme that runs constant through the first two songs as well as the rest of the album is life in the 21st century- rushed back and forth, feeling paranoia (“Android”) and frustration (“The Argument”), all the while becoming slaves to money (“Currency”), medicines (“The Remedy”), and memories (“The Fields”).

The tough part about this album is that after the first two songs, there’s really nowhere to go in this review. The first two songs that I showered praise on? They’re the least rewarding tracks on the album. The rest are segued together from song to song- creating a solid string of music in the listener’s mind, and imprinting both the message and the melodies. The most resonant statement is the poignant “The Argument”, which stretches the limits of syncopation and spoken word to create a genuine tug between the vocals and the instruments, accenting the internal chaos of our age. The genuinely inspired song segues out with Matt Shaw repeating the ominous portent of “repetition”- then fades into what can only be classified as an electronic hymn. The stark, jittery, regal presence of the ditty that appears is nothing short of mind-blowing- and it’s just one little electronic instrument! It’s tough to come away from Matt Shaw not feeling inspired in some way, whether it’s out of happiness after hearing “The Fields”, or out of paranoia after hearing the grave “Android”, or out of sheer awe after hearing “Descartes”.

The gravity of the experiment that Matt Shaw has pulled off here is fantastic- he’s managed to craft a mellow electronic indie-pop concept album that never alienates the listener, never freaks out into self-indulgent tangents, never languishes by inserting filler songs, and never loses the hummable qualities that make good indie-pop. This album can’t come along at a better time- we need to remember what living is all about, and what good music is. Matt Shaw gives some insight on both here.

-Stephen Carradini

Matthew Shaw-Quick to the City

mattshawconvenBand Name: Matthew Shaw

Album Name: Quick to the City

Best Element: Strong organic-meets-synthetic songwriting
Genre: Electro-indie
Website: www.mattshaw.us

Label Name: Burning Building Recordings (www.bbrecordings.com)

Band E-mail: matt@mattshaw.us

Matthew Shaw is a very comfortable songwriter. No matter how many times I’ve heard a song of his, whether it be once or a hundred, I feel a connection with his songwriting. It could be his vulnerable lyrics, or his disarming melodies, or his organic-meets-synthetic songwriting- but whatever it is, it makes me want to rant and rave about Matthew Shaw.

Thus, I was thrilled when I received a new EP by Mr. Shaw. I had high hopes for this disc, because I still spin his stellar debut Ghosts in the Concrete quite often, which is high praise from a guy who listens to about five new CDs a week. Those hopes were all fulfilled, and while I could ask for a few things different, Convenience is still quite a good release.

Not content to rest on the laurels of his last release, which was almost an entirely synthetic affair, Shaw has incorporated a full band into this EP. The basis of the sound is still electronic, for sure- but there’s a lot more real guitar (“Quicksand”), real bass (“The Drunk”), even some real drums (“These Lists are Tombstones”) included with the electronic beats. All of this new instrumentation naturally makes the sound much thicker and layered than it was in his debut EP, which is a very satisfying change- songs like “The Drunk” could not exist without this new-found density.

With this integration of more players comes a couple new moods into his arsenal- whereas Ghosts in the Concrete was an exercise in disenfranchised melancholia, musically this album takes some new directions without abandoning the old. The upbeat “These Lists are Tombstones” could almost be counted as an indie-dance number, while “The Drunk” feels more epic than any of his previous work. To balance out his new-found interests, there are some songs that are merely a tweaking of the original sound- the lead riff of “Deadlines and Days Off” sounds like something he would’ve produced earlier.

But the real showstopper here is the closer “Late Nights”- a song that actually sounds like late nights. This song includes real bass, real guitar, real drums, electronic noodling, and Matthew’s signature vocals. The song is mellow and brooding in the verses- pensive, restrained, and a little bit eerie. But the chorus! The chorus bursts into a striking indie-rock barnburner. It’s truly incredible. And he ends the EP on a beautiful note- a music box chorale that makes me want to drift peacefully off to sleep. It’s a statement from Shaw to us: “Yeah, I’m a little more rock now, but here’s the proof that I still have the pop in me.”

And while the songwriting of this album is fantastic, there are a couple negative issues that caught my ear. The lyrics of this EP are good, no doubt- “These Lists are Tombstones” is especially inspired in its deep truth about the busyness of life hidden behind a little ironic humor. The main problem lies in songs like “The Drunk” and “Deadlines and Days Off”- songs that touch on topics like transition, disillusionment, social nervousness, and other topics very similar to the ones that make up the debut album. I fear that if Matthew doesn’t find some new topics, he’ll become a one-trick pony in the lyrical vein.

The second quibble I have is that although the instrumentation is ratcheted up in quality, the vocals seem to have less punch to them. Shaw’s voice is one of the most accessible pieces of his sound, and it makes me sad to see that his melodies are not as strong as they could be in songs like “Quicksand” and the verses of “Late Nights”. They’re not bad- but from what he has shown in the past, he can do better.

Those two minor issues are not nearly enough to stop anyone from getting this EP- Convenience is, on the whole, a great EP that I will be playing alongside Ghosts In the Concrete for a long time to come. His sound is comfortable- there’s no way you can hear it and not fall in love with it. That’s the mark of a great songwriter, and that’s the real reason you should buy this disc: you’ll love it.

-Stephen Carradini

independentclauses@hotmail.com

City Light / DL Rossi

It blows my mind that Matt Shaw’s Ghosts in the Concrete came out in 2004. Matt Shaw created an electronic indie-pop world that was more lush and developed than The Postal Service’s take on the genre, and Ghosts has remained one of my favorite releases I’ve ever reviewed at Independent Clauses. Shaw’s band City Light just released its sophomore album Memory Guide, and it builds out his indie-pop sensibilities with hip-hop and electronica overtones to make a very engaging album.

Shaw has always used his melodic gifts to create tunes of foreboding or downright dread; even in the musically chipper Ghosts the main themes were urban malaise and future panic. City Light’s debut album fashioned a fitting musical sheath for these ideas, creating “moody, haunting, electronic indie-rock.” Memory Guide swings back toward the balance in his solo work: upbeat songs that deliver downbeat lyrics. The album does have some dark, haunting arrangements, like the excellent instrumental “Memory Loss,” but the overall tone is much brighter. “Sweet Death” is a buoyant dance song about getting old, while “Waste Away” is a stomping rock track with sparkly lead guitar. As you can see from the titles, however, Shaw hasn’t gotten any more optimistic in his musings.

My favorite moments apart from the surprisingly dance-able pessimism are “Wrecking Ball” and “You Know This Song,” which both strip away the bravado of a full band and operate much more like the small, cohesive, claustrophobic Shaw tunes I so adored on Ghosts. “Wrecking Ball” pairs a lazy, fingerpicked, clean guitar line with a trip-hop beat, some fuzzy organs and bgvs; it works beautifully. “You Know This Song” employs a similar strategy, letting the focus fall squarely on Shaw’s beautiful, evocative voice.

Shaw’s blurry, bleary tenor is one of the things that attracted me most to his work, and it is in fine form here. Comparisons to Ben Gibbard miss the gauzy/gritty edge that Shaw cultivates; references to pop-era Flaming Lips don’t give Shaw enough credit for hitting notes (which, as an avowed Flaming Lips fan, is something I can fully admit that Wayne Coyne does not often try to do). It is a distinct, passionate, memorable voice, and one that can suck me into any tune. It’s worth your price of admission just to hear it.

City Light’s indie-pop tunes have a complexity far beyond what I’ve described; the arrangements are strong, the songwriting is tight, and the performances are spot-on. There’s a lot going on and a lot to love. The most important things to note, though, are that these are fun, clever, and interesting tunes by some experienced hands. I highly recommend Memory Guide to any fan of indie-pop, electronic or no.

——–

Pedro the Lion’s work was raw and honest, musically and lyrically: David Bazan grappled with his faith, his insecurities, and his culture in an alt-rock-ish idiom that hadn’t generally been reserved for that sort of work. Bazan’s retirement of the moniker was a sad day for me. With PTL long since gone, there aren’t that many bands holding a torch for the sort of emotionally vulnerable rock that can range in volume from forlorn slowcore to cymbal-rush pounding.

DL Rossi aims for that space with his music. His self-titled record is composed of confessional alt-rock (“The Fool,” “12 Step Plan”) and instrospective acoustic work (“Worked Up,” “Be Alone”) that complement each other in tone. Rossi also takes after Bazan lyrically, covering religion, relationships, and culture in a cynical-yet-hopeful sort of way. “12 Step Plan” is bitingly critical of mega-church Christianity, while “The Fool” is possibly even more vitriolic on the subject. Both tunes are hooky, energetic pop-rockers with a low-end crunch and indie-pop melodies; while these tunes would fit in on rock radio, they have a different flair and feel to them than your average rock track.

Other tunes tackle relationships, including the bombastic single “Strange Thing” and the Parachutes-esque “Suckers and Chumps.” (You probably don’t need me to tell you what they’re about, based on the titles.) The quieter tunes, like the latter, land gently, showing ache and pain without getting (too) maudlin. As soon as the emotions start to get a bit much, Rossi lightens the mood with some rock. It’s a good balance throughout.

I don’t listen to too many rock albums straight through anymore, but I’ve heard this one from end to end several times because of its diversity in sound. Rossi simply churns out high-quality tunes. He may be the spiritual and melodic successor to Pedro the Lion, but he could be much more than that as he matures as an artist. Very worth watching.

Stephen’s Top 9

Stephen’s Top 9

While I’m fairly certain that there were other brilliant releases in 2006 that I raved, here are the few that I loved enough to remember.

Pontiak – Valley of Cats

Most creative thing I’ve heard genre-wise all year: hipster indie rock, as filtered through an Appalachian rural band. Not even kidding.

The Unbearables – Just One Bite: Selections from “Bitten!: A Zombie Rock Odyssey”

Zombies, power-pop, bizarre instrumentation, and a storyline – does it get much better?

Elijah Wyman – Why We Never Go Swimming and Other Stories

Singer/songwriter/storyteller plays quite possibly the most complex and convaluted guitar lines of any singer/songwriter I know of. And yet, it’s still wonderful.

Josh Caress – Josh Caress Goes on an Adventure!

Nothing but acoustic guitar and voice, this entrancing travelogue will lull you to sleep in the best way.

Free Diamonds – There Should Be More Dancing

There should be more dancing, and especially to this herky-jerky, spastic, bass-fantastic mess of an album.

SleepBellumSonno – Ascertain

These guys are going to make it. I truly believe that. Their artsy post-hardcore is astounding.

7. The Mountain Goats – Get Lonely

Feels like all the songs were written in one day – that’s how wonderfully interconnected this album is, both lyrically and musically

8. Matt Shaw – Convenience EP

The only EP here, this showed that Shaw has more than just a purely digital side.

Mon Frere – Blood, Sweat and Swords

Would’ve been higher, but they went and broke up. Why, why, why couldn’t you work it out so that you could keep churning out heavy, dancy, quirky, charming, danceable manifestos?

-Stephen Carradini

independentclauses@hotmail.com

Tough.

Tough.

This year was a tough year for mainstream music- no one came out the clear-cut winner, except for Modest Mouse, because everyone wanted to celebrate the indie hero. Yay. For actual indie music, however, it was a banner year- the music came out of the woodwork to blow me away. Four of my top five releases were highly unexpected, unhyped, and unheard of when I received the packages- after hearing their contributions to the music world, I thoroughly believe that independent music will never die.

5. Actionslacks – “Full Upright Position” – Quite possibly the best straight-up pop album I’ve ever heard. It has depth to the lyrics, diversity in the song styles, clarity in the performances, and aesthetics to blow you away. There’s none better than Actionslacks in the world of pop/rock music.

4. Matt Shaw- Matt Shaw and Devices in Shift fought hard for this spot in my head. In the end, Matt Shaw won because I love the dual punch of “The Argument” and “The Fields” so much. Indie electronica doesn’t get better than this. The arrangements keep you guessing, the beats keep your head bobbing, the melodies keep you humming, and the overall product leaves you stunned. A vicious diatribe against technology is dramatically set against technologically created beats- the irony isn’t lost, and neither is the message. You can take this album simply musically (without views) or lyrics and all (with views), and either way you will love it.

3. The Felix Culpa – “Commitment” – Now this is a band that knows what it’s doing. I caught the Felix Culpa bug after simply one listen to this album- and who wouldn’t, after hearing an artistically minded indie/emo band that bends and breaks the rules of ‘emo’ to form something actually emotional? This is a whirlwind trip through the best ways to be passionate about something.

2. Novi Split/The Adrian Fortress Split CD “The Split Series, Volume Two: The Lost Volume”. Anything the Novi Split commits to tape is simply astonishing in the fact that it doesn’t feel like it’s on tape. Every time I hear a Novi Split song, it feels like lead man David J is sitting in my room with a guitar, peacefully singing himself and I to sleep. This man is a genius, and I will continue to laud him at every chance I get. This split is just a continuation of Novi Split’s saga- lovely, stark, haunting acoustic songs. The Adrian Fortress also puts up some deliciously messed up post-rock, only adding more goodness to this split.

1. Hotel Lights – S/t There’s something truly stunning in Hotel Lights: wisdom. That’s a lofty statement, but after thoroughly picking apart this album, I feel that it is justified. These pop/folk/mellow songs are all quite morose in their musings, but they’re also heavily weighted with a sense of ‘been there, done that’ remorse. The fact that the piano, guitar, and vocals work together to craft simply jaw-dropping landscapes helps the delivery of these lyrics, and voila- you’ve got the best album I’ve heard all year. Song of the year: “Stumblin’ Home Winter Blues”.

Honorable Mentions: Devices In Shift, “Velas Para La Enferma”, Relient K “Mmhmm”, Ghosting “October EP” (if they ever release a real album, I’ll rejoice), Page France “Come! I’m a Lion!”, Ember Days S/t EP

Stephen’s Songs of the Year

This year was an expansive one for me, as I spent a lot of time expanding my musical boundaries but also circled back to some genres that are old friends. This playlist of songs of the year is set up like a mixtape: calm and warm at the beginning, a short upbeat period, dark and stormy in the middle, then cheery and upbeat at the end. These are thus not in a “best to least” order. Without further adieu:

  1. “The Becalming” – Veldhans.
  2. “Already Am” – Will Samson & Message to Bears
  3. “This Land Is Your Land” – Kris Orlowski
  4. “The Seminar” – Stables
  5. “The Earth Is Flat” – Alexander Wren
  6. “Song for Nick Drake” – Grace Gillespie
  7. “San Francisco” – Racoon Racoon
  8. “Book of Witches” – Jake Aaron
  9. “Give Thanks” – Black Violin
  10. “Roger Ebert” – Clem Snide
  11. “Of a Million” – Thunder Dreamer
  12. “Heliotrope” – Runnner
  13. “Cribbage Champs” – Jake McKelvie and the Countertops
  14. “Pull Apart” – Summerooms & Samantha Eason
  15. “Nobody Knows” – Ellen Andrea Wang
  16. “All Will Be Well” – Blue Water Highway
  17. “Getaway Car” – Ezekiel Songs
  18. “Rest” – The Gray Havens
  19. “Let’s Leap” – Mesadorm
  20. “Inhale Exhale” – Anna Meredith
  21. “How Dare You” – Cameron Blake
  22. “Vista” – Escaper
  23. “First to the Feast” – Stagbriar
  24. “Mile” – Wisdom Water
  25. “210” – Matt Karmil
  26. “Tony Sendo” – Underground Canopy
  27. “Black Sorbet” – Closet Disco Queen
  28. “Kora” – GoGo Penguin
  29. “For Victor” – Joshua Crumbly
  30. “Palms Up” – Ezra Feinberg
  31. “QUO” – Martin Kohlstedt
  32. “The Actor” – Brief Candle
  33. “Crow” – Sam Carand
  34. “Saw You Through the Trees” – Eerie Gaits
  35. “Another One for Slug” – Dougie Stu
  36. “Mission Plan” – Matthew Shaw
  37. “Dis kô Dis kô” -YĪN YĪN
  38. “Nap” – Standards

Second August Singles, 2020

1 “Soul of This Town” – Oliver Wood. Can it be possible that Oliver Wood’s “Soul of This Town” is the first music released under his own name? The collaboration with Raleigh, North Carolina-based songwriter Phil Cook (Megafaun, Gayngs, Hiss Golden Messenger) is available on Thirty Tigers. The song also marks the first time Oliver’s son Kieran Wood has joined the collaborative effort, on horns. The gospel feel of this co-write with Cook brings to mind the plaintive blues or roots Americana story. We have all watched as “progress” has reshaped our world: in this moment, we’re wondering where the drive-in theaters went, now that they could be repurposed for music venues. Bringing home a simple, New Orleans soul-jazz groove, Wood’s familiar vocal wraps around each image-rich note. Lyrically hitting on gentrification and a city’s growth as the stripping of a community’s soul, the song is a hard look at the loss of community, connection, and soul in the face of progress, set to a blend of a funeral march and celebratory farewell. I’d be remiss failing to mention this song’s pandemic evolution, yet its birth is also part of The Wood Brothers’ Kingdom In My Mind, released in January 2020. Taking us all to task in this time of recreation, Oliver Wood’s “Soul of This Town” asks what part of “we the people” is the most important piece of a town’s soul.–Lisa Whealy

2. “Every Exit Is an Entrance” – Luca Draccar. This sleek, streamlined techno cut has everything you need in a banger and nothing else: solid backbeat, thrumming bass, memorable top-end melodies, and enough effects to create a mood without cluttering the room. The coda melodies are particularly excellent. This is my jam. Highly recommended.

3. “Into Your Blue” – Lore City. An enigmatic, mystical, sensuous piece driven by staccato, tom-heavy drumming. Layered above the beat are carefully layered ambient textures and powerful female vocals. I’ve listened to this tune half-a-dozen times already and I still can’t articulate specifically what is so engaging about it. The whole thing, I suppose–the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Great work.

4. “LUCKY” – Matthew Shaw and Unlearn. Shaw’s impassioned-yet-restrained vocals are in full form here, flowing and hesitating over squelchy bass synth, rattling clicks, and twee melodic blips.

5. Toshio Matsuura Presents HEX “Hello to the Wind (Z’s Groove Dub)” featuring Grey Reverend. Now that’s a mouthful of a title. Beyond the moniker, the evocative tune has an ostinato acoustic guitar base with powerful string bass contributions on top of it. At 2:30, the beat and piano kick in, turning this from a Ezra Feinberg-esque new-age/deep listening track into a jazz/electro track that is akin to GoGoPenguin. It’s an enveloping, inviting atmosphere to spend nine minutes in. The full release is only on vinyl, so pre-order that now if this grabs your attention.

6. “Hope is a Traitor” – Orly Bendavid and the Mona Dahls. Art and music are definitely a sign of the times, as Brooklyn-based Orly Bendavid & the Mona Dahls can attest. “Hope is A Traitor” is the stylistic jazz noir title track from their upcoming release due later this year. This collection of seasoned tunesmiths brings to mind Brian Setzer’s Orchestra after the Stray Cats stopped their strut. Oh, what musical joy these dark times can bring to light! —Lisa Whealy

7. “As If the Sea Should Part” – Jason Keisling. Put neo-classical composition and electronic beats together, and you’ll have my ear. Keisling’s latest tune opens as a delicate set of piano touches and synth/string swoons before opening into a slick beat buoyed by slinky bass. The tension of the delicate and the punchy is strong, and the vibe is fully operational. The strings are a touch emotional for the streamlined electro-jam this becomes once the ’80s-tone guitar lands, but the overall concept is still very impressive. A very cool track.

8. “856” – Josh Johnson. I’ve always liked work that operates at the spaces between genres. This track is a perfect example of the concept, as it fluctuates somewhere between neo-classical composition, ambient, jazz and electronic. This breathy, enthusiastic track runs, jumps, and kicks its way through 2:09. It evokes rushing water and overenthusiastic relationships. It’s a fascinating piece.

9. “California Sun” – The Lighthouse and the Whaler. A sort of post-Vampire Weekend tune that includes all the precision and twee/tough contrast you could want, but turned toward the darker end of the VW spectrum. The vocals here are particularly fun, as the high-drama lead melody pays off in spades. It takes a lot to cut through the noise of infinite guitar bands, but TLATW continue to do it.

10. “Phosphorescence” – Speaker Face. Low-slung, confident, and cool, this subtle electro-pop track relies on a tight fusion of electronic and acoustic elements to create a strong vibe. The vocals are perfectly executed, giving off a dreamy, early ’00s indie vibe (a la early Sufjan).

11. “The Black Dot” – elliot. This composer fuses contemporary composition, synths, electronic textures, and acoustic guitar into a compelling sonic landscape. His is a windswept, stark, yet beautiful space, dotted with occasional bits of life.

12. “Blossom” – Sleepersound. I love Sleepersound’s early ’00s indie-rock vibe, and this recording of a performance pairs their dark/dreamy sound with superimposed landscape/weather shots to create a cool experience. The song starts at 1:03:50. (It’s part of a multi-artist event supporting a nonprofit bikeshare in Milwaukee. Rad. Sleepersound does three other tracks too. Also, I deeply envy their performance space: that is an absolutely wonderful-looking space.)

May Singles, but make it June

1. “Mission Plan” – Matthew Shaw. Shaw’s electro-pop is in fine form here, relying on distorted bleeps and bloops to convey his evocative, emotive vocals. There’s a new sense of forward motion in this track, despite lyrics as frustrated with modern life as ever. There’s even a “doo-doo-dooooo” outro vocal line. Getting positively thrilled there, Matt! Highly recommended.

(Ed. note: I can think of few ways to better celebrate the 17th birthday of this humble little blog than to feature an artist that I first covered in 2004, only 18 months into the life of Independent Clauses. Thank you to everyone for the last 17 years.)

2. “Blown Up” – tg. When I learned that tg was in Harlem Shakes and helped create one of my favorite indie-rock songs of 2009, I was intrigued. When I found that tg (aka Todd Goldstein) is now purveying Steve Reich-ian electronic dance music (which is now pretty much what I want to listen to all the time), I was absolutely thrilled. “Blown Up” is a mesmerizing track full of round sounds and pitter-patter arpeggios. The bass is low in the mix, almost hidden, as the hypnotic treble lines take full focus. It’s a brilliant, immediately-charming first impression from Goldstein. I’m in love. Highly recommended.

3. “All Power for Women” – ^L_. The title is affirming and supportive. Everything else about this heavy, harsh techno cut is not. This falls in the vein of Adam X’s work with Traversable Wormhole: thumping bass hits, lots of forward motion, very little melody, very little atmosphere, lots and lots of attitude. It rips.

4. “A Sunset But Farther Away” – Yesterday and the Undoing. An acoustic guitar and wordless vocals form the entirety of this piece; the wordless vocals accentuate the yearning feel of the chord-based guitar work. In these times where so much is happening and yet I feel I have so little to helpfully say, a wordless piece expresses a great deal for me.

5. “I Drink Too Much Vermouth” – Chaperone Picks. If we’re going to be doing quarantine albums, of course there will be one from Chaperone Picks. The lo-fi wizard of Minnesota has 10 more lo-fi, four-track candies for fans of the form. The upbeat “I Drink Too Much Vermouth” opens up the record with a confident statement of CP’s style: an expert’s touch at off-the-cuff instrumental performances and tossed-off lyrics that stick, in and out of context.

6. “Distantimacy” – JPH. This 21-minute piece is somewhere between ambient, found-sound, and outsider composition. It relies heavily on loops of vocal, textural, and instrumental elements, creating a space that’s not quite as all-encompassing as a drone, more spiky and gappy than an ambient piece, and heavily ostinato (like Steve Reich, an influence of JPH’s). A true experience.

7. “Diamonds and Gold (Instrumental)” – The Gray Havens. Just like Josh Garrels went and released instrumental versions of all his records, TGH has given their catalogue the vocal-less treatment. This wordless version of my favorite TGH electro-pop jam accentuates aspects of the arrangement that are lost in the euphoric vocal performances: some intriguing guitar lines, lovely accent synth lines, and more. Way fun. Can’t wait to listen to the rest of their discography like this.

8. “Yugen” – Home Brewed Universe. Prolific musician Arka Sengupta (Home Brewed Universe, Mixtaped Monk) has made a giant leap on this track. His guitar-led post-rock meshes its many parts brilliantly here: lead guitar lines fit with drums, piano, and synths to create a dense track with a strong mood. Sengupta is growing into a strong, evocative songwriter right before our ears.

9. “Strength” – Dan Drohan. Zipping, zooming, booming, crashing sounds all merge into a semblance of a groove by the end of this experimental track from percussionist Drohan.

10. “Manhorse” – Husbands. The peppy, garage-y indie-rock here is great, but the video from Lamar+Nik is particularly cool and noteworthy. Using an old-school technique called “scanimation”, they put a unique twist on a video. It culminates in one of my favorite approaches/images: light/images being superimposed on people’s faces. Just a good all-around piece of work.

Brother Paul: A New Lease on Life in the Blues

Sometimes life gets in the way. Inspired by family, life, and death, Cadillac Pickup Truck (Slept On Records) was ten years in the making from Brother Paul, out of Stockton, California. Paul Hermann, a fixture in the local delta blues scene of the central valley, hammered out the authentic vibe that oozes out of this nine-song album while gigging in bars and nightclubs all over the Bay area. Though the city and scene have fallen on hard times, Brother Paul has found a new outlet for his music in Cadillac Pickup Truck, featuring Matthew Shaw (Her Space Holiday, City Light, Conrad the Band).

As a teenager, Shaw’s father passed away, and Hermann became his surrogate father. Shaw had always wanted to record songs with his uncle, and after sharing his early recordings with bandmate Nick Andre (Her Space Holiday, City Light, Dirty Ghosts) Brother Paul got real. Foundational musical influences–like Elvis Costello, Billy Bragg, and Wilco–and a thriving scene in the area gave this project’s music life. “Cadillac Pickup” sets the tone of the album, opening with an easy laugh and delta groove. The song gives a tease to the journey that life is compromise and change. The Wilco influence on this stroll of a story song is evident. “Telling Everybody” is the classic blues song of the record, dirty and down with that barroom feel.

It is difficult to tell where the story took a turn, but Hermann became ill at some point during early recording and was unable to continue. “Dream On” has that 1960’s quality of innocence, slow and simple. This song reflects some of the miracle of this album: After it was put on hold due to Hermann’s illness, he was granted a last-minute liver transplant that eventually saved his life.

After a full recovery and new lease on life the project found fresh traction, with “Lil To Late” a musical comment on the costly lifestyle that he loved. Nick Andre’s shuffling drums are the perfect accent here. “Burn That Sucker Down” continues the theme, documenting a day in the life of someone born and raised in the infamous Stockton who got seriously into playing music in the 1960’s. With an easy Grateful Dead feel, it is California dreaming with nice guitar punctuation.

“Student Blues” goes back to timeless dirty blues. Plucking out the qualities of a great party girl, it glides across the ears like a beauty swaggering across the room at the local tavern. Slowing it down with “She Left Alone,” the throwback to a different time is fitting with the lyrics of the song. Finding its voice in the past, the refreshing song has a Freddie King style. “Let the Ribbon Flow” keeps moving through rock and roll history, firmly into the traveling Eric Clapton slide. Slick and cool, the song is a fitting celebration of a life that almost came to an end too soon.

Putting a final note on Cadillac Pickup Truck, “Heroin Heart” tells the story of the blues, real and imagined. A seasoned musician sees different things from a different perspective, as a lifetime of experience can be heard in the vocal delivery. Leaving the live comments from the studio session here brings it back to life. The power of music is the restorative glue for Brother Paul. — Lisa Whealy

A new star begins to shine in City Light

City Light is made up of four guys, but  it’s headed up by Matthew Shaw, a Seattle-based singer/songwriter that makes use of fuzzy synths and electronic beats as the main instruments in his solo work. Shaw is fascinated with the pros and cons of modern life, and his music and lyrics display this motif very effectively. Technology and its positive and negative effects on daily life merits special attention, seeing as up until now, Shaw’s work has been mostly created with the very technology that he can’t make up his mind about. He knows this; it’s an irony that he gently acknowledges within his work.

The lyrics this time around do not stray far from his formula: two parts modern angst, one part women trouble, one part description. It is a solid formula, and it works within the surprisingly full-bodied sound.

That full-bodied sound in City Light’s Down the Pacific is a dramatic step forward from Shaw’s solo work. Although the general mood is similar, thanks to Shaw’s careening, dramatic vocals, the method of getting there is much different. Instead of electronic beats dominating the time-keeping, the drummer spends a fair amount of time producing down-tempo breakbeats, similar to stuff Portishead would turn out.

This is especially true on stand-out track “Hwy 99.” There are still twinkling keys and buzzing electronic bass notes, but the strong presence of insistent drums and chiming guitar creates a song that Shaw could not have produced on his own. “Hang On” similarly makes great use of multiple vocalists to produce a full sound.

The band shines most when it acts like a band: “Cityscape,” which is heavy on the music and light on the amount of vocals, is a perfect example. The moments that Down the Pacific falters a bit are the moments that are heavy on the electronics and light on band interplay; the songs that take this track seem to be merely Matthew Shaw vehicles, and that’s not what this album is for. These songs don’t have the depth of feeling and creativity that other songs that show the band fully portray.

If you’re into moody, haunting, electronic indie-rock, you would do well to check out City Light. Their debut effort is a little uneven as a result of still getting to know each other as a band, but the moments that shine do so very brightly.

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