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Accents writes folk and pop-punk–it works perfectly

talltales

Is folk a mindset or a sound or both? The answer Accents’ Tall Tales provides is a giant yes to all. The album is built out of fingerpicked guitar and emotive vocals, expanding from that foundation into genres like folk orchestra (jubilant opener “Hold Me Close”), indie rock (the pensive “Artist in Denial”), and even pop-punk (the impressive “I Wasn’t Looking for You”). Some tracks forsake the folk backdrop and just start out in other genres: the excellent, hopeful ’90s pop of “Reminders”; the anthemic Mumfordy folk of “England Awaits”; the noisy indie-rock-with-horns of “Heart in My Room.”

But even through all these genres, the album holds together excellently; it’s that folk mindset coming through. Accents decided that if you want everything, they can give it to you: guitar rock, orchestration, female vocals, male vocals, hushed songs, brash songs, catchy songs, thoughtful songs, big riffs, the whole nine yards. There’s a pipeline between pop-punk and folk-pop; Accents is the house band for that pipeline. This is a brilliant accomplishment that in lesser hands would be a disjointed mess. Tall Tales is very worth your time.

Community Records' huge pop-punk-based comp thrills

I have waxed rhapsodic over the joys of the compilation album before, but here’s a reminder: I love the idea of twenty or more bands all chilling on the same disc. SXSW is kind of like one giant compilation, if you conflate seeing music live and hearing it recorded.

But what’s even better than a great comp is a great comp from a high-quality label. If that label is a homegrown, upstart indie, all the better! And Community Records (no, really, that’s the awesome name) has released just such a disc with their Compilation Volume 3: Old Dog, New Tricks. The album showcases 26 (!) bands associated with the New Orleans-based label; a footnote states, “Download free music from all of these bands on our web-site.” (That’s prolific!)

Some well-known bands like A Billion Ernies, Marathon and Swear Jar are present here, alongside a slew of up-and-comers. The music falls into five general genres: pop-punk, ska, hardcore/post-hardcore, acoustic and reggae-ish stuff.

The pop-punk is the lion’s share of the material. Caddywhompus’ “The Weight” won my heart by incorporating prog-based rhythms and melodies into its pop-punk, giving the song a very Fang Island-esque feel. Safety’s “Alone Together” throws down great melodies and energy in an early-2000s pop-punk style; the action-packed 91 seconds of The Rooks’ “The Benefit of Fish Tacos” throws all sorts of things into an unconventional song structure. The off-kilter “I’m Not Done Yet” by All People is oddly catchy as well.

The highlights of the ska offerings are the wildly varied tune by A Billion Ernies, the rhythms-not-horns ska of “They Can’t Fix Me” by Matt Wixson’s Flying Circus, and the gruff ska-punk of Brunt of It’s “Bad Sign.”

I wasn’t too into the loud stuff or the reggae, but the acoustic offerings are worth note: my favorite tune on the whole comp is See You in Mexico’s “Human Race.” It starts off as a pensive, moody tune in the Deja Entendu vein, then kicks into acoustic-punk high gear for the satisfying conclusion. The vocal melodies and harmonies are especially notable. Closer “Live On” by Matt Wixson (minus the Flying Circus) is a charming, lo-fi acoustic pop song that could be sung around campfires forever. “Summer’s Slumber” by Dominique LeJeune is a poignant, female-fronted acoustic love song that made me swoon a bit.

There’s all sorts of things inbetween, from woozy, New Orleans-style jazz bombast (Stuck Lucky’s “Finland”) to the indie-rock haze of Sun Hotel’s “Talks.” I mean, with 27 tracks, there’s almost something for everyone who even remotely likes the idea of modern punk. That should be a strong motivator for you to check out Community Records’ Old Dog, New Tricks.

The Shoreline produces a stellar pop-punk cover … and some other songs

I used to hate covers, because I thought they showed a lack of originality on the part of a band. Now I see that in addition to paying homage to a respected band, a good cover can be just as creative (and just as satisfying, if not more so) than a good original.

That’s why The Shoreline‘s cover of “I Gotta Feelin'” is my favorite track on their EP Fake It Till You Make It. Their cover re-envisions the party anthem as a pop-rock anthem. They remain faithful to the lyrics, mood and song structure; they just infuse the tune with a lot of guitar strumming and a pop-punk high-pitched voice. And while some covers become cloying in their pandering (someone played me a copy of a “Tik Tok” pop-punk cover that I could barely make it through), The Shoreline’s version of the Black Eyed Peas tune doesn’t get repetitive, annoying or gratuitous. It makes the point, slams it home and gets on to the next thing. It’s great. I like this song just as much as I like the original version, for completely different reasons. That’s the mark of a great cover.

The rest of the EP doesn’t have anything that possesses that sort of clarity and focus. As a result, the tunes are difficult to remember and just don’t make a big impact. If you like current pop-punk (e.g. Boys Like Girls, Angels and Airwaves, We the Kings, Fall Out Boy – especially in “Let’s Make a Mess”), you’ll like The Shoreline. But they won’t be your favorite band off the strength of this EP. Perhaps they have more in the tank, and they’re just getting started from here.

For now, I highly recommend “I Gotta Feelin'” to anyone and Fake It ‘Til You Make It to fans of the genre.

Atrocity Solution drops old-school pop-punk songs with a modern fury

There’s not a lot of protest going on in music today. Atrocity Solution is, well, part of the solution. They’re a ferocious punk band that’s heavy on protest. From the title of their album Tomorrow’s Too Late to song titles like “The Protest Song” and “The Scales of Injustice,” they’re out to stick it to the problems of the world.

And while their music is snare-heavy pop-punk with tight hooks, they deliver vocals most often in a throat-shredding hardcore-esque snarl, with occasional whoa-ohs. While the strength of the songs would amp the band from in line with everyone else to way above the crowd, the delivery and attitude of the vocals shoots Atrocity Solution into the stratosphere.

There are some songs where the vocalist sings. But he sings in the same way that the band plays ska; yeah, there are some moments with the upstroke (“Down the Alleyway,” “Scales of Injustice”) and some moments with singing/spoken word (“Change the Channel, “Voices of the Underground”), but they are the exception.

This band rips through punk songs and rips through vocal chords. They do it with abandon, power and finesse. These are punk songs of the highest order, refugees from the ’80s era when punk was a meaningful lifestyle choice and not just a musical classification. Tomorrow’s Too Late is easily the best punk CD I’ve heard this year thus far.

A Road to Damascus' pop-punk is highly enjoyable

Even though it’s been raining for the last few days, summer is indeed coming. And that means it’s time for summer music. It’s just hard to rock the Bon Iver with the sun shining and the windows down. Then again, I wouldn’t really consider Last Tuesday, Relient K or The Bee Team during the doldrums of December. Everything in its right place.

A Road to DamascusSo Damn Close EP is an excellent slice of summer music. Pop-punk with enough pop to roll the windows down but enough punk to keep the energy high, the three tracks here sport a sheen that could be construed as annoying if you weren’t taking it at face value. Don’t try to read anything in to these songs; they’re not made for it.

But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t great tunes. The vocal melodies of “So Damn Close” are bright without being sugar-coated, perfect for singing along. The darker mood of “Sweetheart” evokes AFI in all the right ways, from the dour but catchy chorus to the breakdown in the bridge to the minor but not dissonant guitarwork. Equally as catchy as the first track, but in different ways. That’s what I want out of a band.

“Sang 3” yanks Yellowcard’s rhythmic and melodic shtick, but it does it with so much enthusiasm and candor that it’s entirely forgivable. While not the best track here, it’s certainly enjoyable and interesting. It features the only moment on this EP to give me shivers, at 2:40. I won’t ruin it for you.

A Road to Damascus’ So Damn Close EP is loads of fun. The tracks are fun to listen to, beg to be sung along with, and would almost certainly inspire fist-pumping at a concert. There’s not much more that I want out of a pop-punk band, and I don’t think that’s much more than the band wants to be. Highly recommended.

FFHH tries to break from the pop-punk mold

I grew up listening to pop-punk, so I have a fondness for it that goes far beyond the marginal toleration most reviewers give it. I also grew up listening to local bands from faraway places like Baltimore. So, FFHH (which is now going by the abbreviation of their former title Faster Faster Harder Harder) has several legs up on the competition with their Baltimore-based pop-punk.

FFHH is much more AFI than Blink-182, though. The lead vocalist occasionally strikes an almost uncanny resemblance to Davey Havok, especially in “Calm Down,” “My Vision” and title track “All the Lights.” When he drops into his lower register, it’s not as apparent, as in “The Landing.” When his vocals don’t ding the RIYL meter in my head, the musical resemblances to A Fire Inside fall away as well; but the music is not strong enough to withstand the vocal tone similar to Davey Havok’s to stand out while that vocal tone is happening.

That’s one of the strengths and weaknesses of this album; it’s easily taggable within the dark punk zone. There are conscious steps outside it, as “Start Again” is a lumbering, epic-sweeping intro track that features female vocals prominently. “Accident Scene” features a different vocalist, an upbeat tone, and more female vocals. “Count Down” is a five-minute instrumental track that never gets boring. It fits perfectly in the flow and feel of the album. And it segues right into “The Landing,” which is one of the best tracks on the album. If they can put together more songs like this, they’ll be very successful. The melodies are solid, the bass work is tight, the drums are efficient, and the guitar work is mood-building and rocking in turns. This is how they should be composing all the time.

FFHH has a lot of promise. They are skilled musicians, and their ability to form melodies is undeniable. They have the skills necessary to be a great rock band, but they need to get over some blocks in their way. Several tracks on All the Lights are excellent, but they’re held down by a bunch of songs that are just okay. I would recommend that you go see a live show of theirs (because this stuff would have to translate excellently) and download “Count Down” and  “The Landing” from iTunes. If you like AFI, you should definitely invest in the full thing; you’ll love this. I’m interested to see where FFHH goes from here.

Singles Late April 2021: 1

1. “Amends” – Radiofix. “Amends” is the latest video from Phoenix-based band Radiofix off Meet Me At The End. Its soaring, stylish piano-driven alt-rock is a reminder that the desert (birthplace of bands like Less than Jake and Roger Clyne and The Peacemakers) breeds talent. This track reveals a new compositional depth to frontman Daniel Martin (guitar and lead vocals). He is joined on a surrealist vision quest by bandmates Benjamin Thurston on bass and Tim Schultz on drums. In this Mark Maryanovich and Carolyne Stossel production, aerialist Michelle Milan (@meeshmishka) remains an ethereal presence, lightness in the shadows thanks to Jake Billingsley at Copper State Production.

Music video narratives like this must have makeup like Micheal Hall’s (@michealhallbeauty), helping audiences to immerse in the story. The work brings to mind Matt C. White’s “Oath” party scenes. With Carolyne Stossel as director and editor, sustained mystery is key to this music video’s artistic success. Dropping classic cars into the mix fits perfectly here thanks to Arizona Classic CarSales. In the end, the sound of Nancy Livingston’s violin echoes Radiofix’s idea that in life we all make mistakes. “Amends, from Meet Me At The End, claims ownership of one of Arizona’s top power ballads of 2021. –Lisa Whealy

2. “Vibe Check” – Scattered Melodies. Wanna party? Undoubtedly, “Vibe Check” from Scattered Melodies could be 2021’s funk hip-hop song of the year. Producers Anthony Brant, Killa Maus, and Josh Montag took the band’s story into Highland Recording Studio and let it rip. Here, Esteban Obregon, Jake Johnston, and Josh Montag filmed, while Tony Brant and Killa Maus recorded and mixed. Johnston and Montag both directed and edited this collaborative masterpiece knowing that this is their funky family, so check-in and vibe!

The joy here is being brought into the studio experience with creatives whose energy feels contagious, the perfect way to step on the For the Funk Of It Festival stage. Scattered Melodies’ backline of founding members Jake Johnston (bass) and Josh Montag (drums) sets the groove. Killa Maus plays guitar and keyboard along with his distinct vocals. However, the standout vocal performances from Haley Green and Laura Hamlin bring to mind the women of Brooklyn funk geniuses Turkuaz.

Saxman Phelan Parker joins forces with guitarist Kazton Boone and Taylor Bracamonte on the keyboard. Human is Scattered Melodies’ superpower; his rapid-fire rap twists through the jazz-infused melody. In the end, “Vibe Check” from Scattered Melodies proves, in case you missed the memo, funk is NOT dead. It is in fact alive and well in the Arizona sunshine. –Lisa Whealy

3. “Everything Goes On” – Robert Jürjendal. Jürjendal’s guitar-and-synth composition unfolds like a light-dappled scene viewed by a weary traveler coming over the last hill into the valley. It’s gentle, immersive, and beautiful, like Sigur Ros at its most airy.

4. “Oscillate” – Mathieu Karsenti and Josh Doughty. A mysterious, elegant arrangement of kora and strings that puts the West African instrument in an interesting new light, almost like a European harp.

5. “Fin du Monde” – Rum Velvet. I have recently gotten very excited about gypsy brass, and Rum Velvet offers up a lovely slice here. The tuba is doin’ work, the trumpets have great melodies, and the whole piece has the swagger and flair that gypsy brass does so well. Highly recommended.

6. “The Only Living Boy in New York” – Racoon Racoon and The Duke of Norfolk. An IC fave (Racoon Racoon) and a longtime personal friend (The Duke, aka Adam Howard) link up for a moving cover of one of my favorite Simon and Garfunkel songs. This delicate, immaculately engineered indie-folk cut is an absolutely lovely piece. (Full disclosure: I managed The Duke of Norfolk from 2010-2014.)

7. “Seasonal Depression” – Pink Laundry. This track from Judah and the Lion frontman Judah Akers fuses .fun-style drama, cleverly arranged indie-pop, and the lyrical ambitions of maximalist pop-punk in a bracing track. The juxtaposition of the repeated refrain of “fucking with my mind” with a through-line of hopeful, perseverant spirituality is a surprising and moving choice.

8. “Agatha” – Autumn Owls. Autumn Owls is a long exercise in tension and juxtaposition. “Agatha” is no different: ominous, brooding arrangements contrast against bold vocals. There are traces of Radiohead, The National, and more “serious” music in this surprisingly punchy dark indie track.

9. “Venice 1” – Doug Thomas, Luca Longabordi. Thomas and Longabordi have found a midpoint between highly ornamented baroque fugues and mid-century minimalist that skips all the romantic stuff in the middle. This precise, speedy piece is formal and yet fun: an exercise that becomes fun along the way.

10. “Coronach” – Daniel Bachman. 9 minutes of engaging solo acoustic guitar that moves from spacious picking to dense, swirling, torrential layers and back. Commands the room in a way that is difficult for solo acoustic guitar to do.

11. “Gloomy Lights” – Orange and Mountains. Sometimes a title is really just spot on. This combination of acoustic guitar, strings, synths, and gentle percussion is a neat balance of light and dark, shine and gloom, upbeat and downbeat. There’s a lot going on, in the best of ways.

A Whale of a Split: Make Sure and Ezekiel Songs

Today I am absolutely thrilled to bring you news of an EP split between Make Sure and Ezekiel Songs. Longtime followers of this blog will certainly know Make Sure (and its predecessor band Fiery Crash, and its side project Summerooms), whom I cover often. This is the first time I’ve covered Ezekiel Songs, but not the first time I’ve covered the musicians behind the project: Kevin and Chris Skillern (Scales of Motion). But my reIationship with the Skillerns goes back even farther than covering Scales. I don’t get personal on this blog too often, but some things require a bit of backstory.

Back in 2002, my friend Brent said “I am starting a band and I play guitar.” I said, “Well, I can learn to play bass.” We recruited a drummer and called ourselves Tragic Landscape. (Throughout the history of this band, I kept trying to change the name, but to no avail.) After a brief Coldplay/The Fray period, we settled into an art-rock/post-rock/post-metal amalgam that was extremely out of step with everything else in the Tulsa scene. The band consisted of an emo singer who played bass riffs out of Ben Folds songs, an art-school guitarist, and a metalhead drummer. We also later recruited a jazz keyboardist/clarinetist. The guitarist was also a saxophone player and would sometimes swap the guitar for the sax and duet with the clarinet. Over metal drums. We were weird.

Around this time, emo was cool. Very cool. Lots of good emo bands running around (and one good post-rock band called the Programme, who were way out of our league). One of those good emo bands was Scales of Motion. I admired Scales of Motion because among all our peers, they seemed the most like they would actually like our music. They were also Christians and that meant a lot to me, as a Christian playing music. So, I put on my best music networking face and asked Scales of Motion if we could play a show together.

They said yes.

I was delighted out of my mind. We did the show and had a blast. Scales even did at least one more show with us where we were separately put on the same bill. It was awesome. I have always had a spot in my heart for Scales because they, among pretty much everyone else in the Tulsa music scene, kinda took a flyer on us. And Scales, as I mentioned above, was the brainchild of Kevin and Chris Skillern.

And now, all-time IC fave Make Sure is doing a split with the Skillerns under their Ezekiel Songs moniker. Where Scales of Motion was a noisy-but-thoughtful rock band, Ezekiel Songs is quiet-and-thoughtful indie-pop outfit. The patterned distorted electric guitar riffs have been traded for patterned acoustic guitar work. The backdrop has shifted to a peaceful, comforting frame: “Author of Love” is a bright, autumnal piece featuring snare rim-hits, shaker, sleigh bells, muted kick, and gently thrumming bass guitar work below the acoustic guitar and delicate electric guitar work. Kevin Skillern’s high tenor vocals gently soar over the mix, capping off the track in a delightful way. The lyrics are a plea for help, healing, and justice in a troubled time; what could be more beautiful?

Skillern then covers Make Sure’s “Getaway Car,” amping up the dreamy qualities of the track. The track shows how excellently matched these two artists are: the autumnal, acoustic-and-banjo approach is a highly complementary as well as complimentary fit with the original. There are also subtle differences: there’s some more staccato elements interspersed and accentuated in this track than in Make Sure’s (the banjo will do that to you, no matter how kindly you tap the strings). Yet the overall vibe feels dreamy due to inclusion of melodic percussion (marimba?), the vocal choices, and subtle arpeggiator work. It’s a great track.

Make Sure’s new contribution to the EP is “Hearing Yourself,” which is a very punchy track that is on the louder side of the Make Sure oeuvre. It’s not quite pop-punk, what with the twinkly top lines, but there’s a good amount of charging guitars that give this heft. The bridge is quiet and relaxed, giving a good break from the loud proceedings. The track seems to be an “outgrowing this town” song, which is a good fit in a pop-punk-esque frame. (The ka-chunk at the end of the track is very pop-punk.)

Make Sure’s cover of Ezekiel Songs’ “Coming Home” has a solid groove to it, as Josh Jackson ties stomping percussion and winding acoustic guitar together into a fun line. It has some ’90s-era chill Switchfoot vibes: rock approaches without actually going all the way to rocking.

All four of these tracks are highly entertaining, excellently developed pieces of autumnal indie-pop. You’ve got quiet and loud versions of the form here, so there’s diversity throughout. But overall, the quartet is highly consistent and much more cohesive than most splits are. As a bonus: you’re getting to support the Skillerns, whom I highly respect as people and musicians. Highly recommended.

This split comes supported by Renew the Arts and officially drops on December 4.

17 years: Ten Seminal Records

Facebook tropes are usually just fodder for scam artists trying to steal personal question answers, but the “10 albums no explanation” trope is charming to me. I loved seeing my newsfeed populated by pictures of album art, before the trope got stopped cold by the George Floyd protests. (Who knew so many of my friends were influenced by Based on a True Story by Fat Freddy’s Drop?) My modus operandi is talking about music at length, so I was always going to fail at just posting album art. Instead, I’m making an essay out of it. Intriguingly, no one tagged me in to the chain for music, although one person did for books. I’m tagging myself in. Here’s 10 albums that cover my formative years of 1988-2008.

  1. The Lord Reigns – Bob Fitts. One of my earliest memories of recorded music is me pulling out the drawer on a CD cabinet and seeing this right at the front of the line. My family listened to this live-recorded worship record all the time. Pretty much everything about this album is indelibly printed on my brain, from the sonics to the melodies to the lyrics to the artwork to the included lyric sheets. This album is so bedrock in my listening experience that I can’t explain what parts of it specifically went forward with me. (I would guess not the high-’80s trumpet synths.) I can say without shame that I still jam out to this record.
  2. Songs – Rich Mullins. Everything I know about Christian songwriting (non-corporate-worship division) and many things I know about music in general I learned from Rich Mullins. Christians can doubt in song (“Jacob and 2 Women”), write about things other than God (“The River”), write perfect albums (A Liturgy, A Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band), excel musically (“Creed”), expand the universe (“Calling Out Your Name”), be funny (“Screen Door”), write demos (The Jesus Album), I could go on. His hit-to-filler ratio was so high that it was unfair. (I’m not going to defend “Higher Education and the Book of Love,” though, that one is just a straight-up clunker.) While I think that Liturgy is perfect and The World as Best as I Remember It, Vol. 1 is his desert-island record for me (I just love “The River” and “I See You” so much), Songs is the one that I remember listening to the most as a kid.
  3. The Anatomy of the Tongue in Cheek – Relient K. Christmas, 2001. My grandmother gifts me a lime green Discman with three CDs: Relient K’s Anatomy, The OC Supertones Strike Back and a third album lost to time. (It’s fully possible that it was Superchic[k]’s Karaoke Superstars, but I cannot confirm.) I went upstairs after opening my gifts, sat on my bottom bed of my red metal bunkbed, picked Relient K’s record to try first, put it on, and was blasted by the opening snare hits and charging pop-punk guitars of “Kick-off.” At the end of the 0:39 song, I remember distinctly thinking, “I don’t know what this is, but I want to do it for the rest of my life.” 17 months later, I was running Independent Clauses. I was 15 years old.
  4. Philmore – Philmore. This obscure, bizarre punk rock record is notable because Philmore lived next to my friend William in a neighborhood a mile down the road from my house. This was my introduction to local music, and I’ve done my best to be a fan of and friend to local music ever since. (The record is so way out of print and the band so long gone that I am shocked that they still have a Wikipedia page.) There is a cover of Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer” on this record, as well as a remarkably audacious, not-a-joke song extending the “more fish in the sea” metaphor to absurd levels. (It was the single!!)
  5. August and Everything After – Counting Crows. In early 2003, my friend Annie was incredulous that I had never heard of Coldplay. (I did not listen to the radio.) She burned my A Rush of Blood to the Head (which is barely missed making the cut itself, being a force in its own right on my musical thinking; I would later form a band that went through a serious Coldplay phase) and August. August is a tour de force of perhaps-too-vulnerable lyrics and impassioned, idiosyncratic, non-standard pop songwriting; my deep affection for both of these things is directly related to hearing this record. “Raining in Baltimore” blew the top off my brain and pretty much still does every time I listen to it.
  6. Give Up – The Postal Service. Ben Gibbard’s 2003 output was so formative to me that I have both of his ’03 records on this list. The Postal Service’s lone record has been one of the deepest wells of delight a single record has ever produced for me. Longtime readers of this blog will remember that when it came time to celebrate the 10th anniversary of IC, I chose Give Up as the album to cover. The fusion of indie-pop melodies with subtle electro-pop backdrops influences how I think about both of those things, even now.
  7. Transatlanticism – Death Cab for Cutie. The second Ben Gibbard record of ’03 to grace the list. It is not an exaggeration to say that every indie-pop record I have ever listened to has been filtered through the lens of Transatlanticism. Even more specifically, the ineffable, inexplicable beauty of “Title and Registration” and the slightly cracked enthusiasm of the ode to anxiety “The Sound of Settling” have shaped my reviewing to an extensive degree. This album is, to me, perfect–anything you dislike about this record is an area of disagreement on our aesthetic values. Where Give Up expanded my horizons (electro-pop was new to me), this cemented an undying love of indie-pop that Counting Crows had begun in me.
  8. Thought Control EP – The Felix Culpa. At almost the same time as I was looking out from pop-punk to the milder climes of indie-pop via Ben Gibbard, I was exploring darker, harsher sounds as well. I grew to love post-hardcore before I discovered The Felix Culpa, but “Good Business Moves” and “Commitment” (which, humorously, does not appear on the album Commitment) are basically the apex of my interest in two types of post-hardcore. “Good Business Moves” is a socio-critical rager with one of the most monster riffs I had ever heard at that point (it’s still a top-10 riff), while “Commitment” is headier, more personal, dealing with the mature troubles of marriage (which were a foreign country to me at that point in 2005). When I think of post-hardcore, I think of the Felix Culpa, period.
  9. Rehearsals for Departure – Damien Jurado. I can’t pin down when I first heard Jurado, but I know that I saw him live somewhere in 2007-2008, so it had to be before then. Rehearsals opened up a whole new world for me. I had heard and enjoyed acoustic music from pop-punk bands who were doing acoustic ballads, gimmicky larks or genuine side projects like The New Amsterdams. But Jurado’s fully-developed world of gentle acoustic sounds, tightly detailed lyrics, and almost timeless angst plunked me straight down in a place I’d never been. The 2009-2018 iteration of this blog focused on folk-pop was almost entirely due to my obsession with Jurado that was rekindled by Mumford & Son’s Sigh No More. 
  10. The Sunset Tree – The Mountain Goats. While I first heard “It Froze Me” on Pandora, then heard most of Get Lonely live, it’s The Sunset Tree that turned me into a hardcore tMG fan. The combustible combination of even-more-detailed-than-Damien-Jurado lyrics, impeccably arranged indie-pop songwriting, howling vocals, and dense worldbuilding sucked me in. Beyond this record, I found worlds upon worlds built by John Darnielle, and they are all what keep me going farther in. But I could have stopped at Get Lonely, despite how great a record it is–I could not stop after The Sunset Tree. Even as I move away from covering indie-pop, if anyone mentions the Mountain Goats in their PR, I will listen. I will always listen.

There’s a whole other list I could put together for touchstones from 2009-2019; perhaps in another decade I’ll put together that list. Happy 17th anniversary to Independent Clauses, by the way–we keep on truckin’.

Gabriel Birnbaum reads my past back to me

A significant reason I stopped covering folk-pop was my inability to take any more breakup songs. After a decade of folk-pop mope and almost a decade of pop-punk / emo in the same vein before that, I was full up. (the Good Graces’ devastating Set Your Sights is pretty much all I need at this point, although sharp-eyed readers will note that I just recently covered Summerooms’ breakup album–some things can’t be avoided.) Looking into instrumental music means that I am opening myself into a vast new room of tropes. I’m sure I’ll get sick of the tropes of instrumental music at some point, but there’s always new genres to discover when that happens.

I mention all this because I’ve never heard an album quite like Gabriel Birnbaum‘s NightwaterIt is the opposite of a breakup album: instead of being heavily invested in personal grief, reckoning, and catharsis, Nightwater is almost aggressively focused on items and their surroundings. The titles here are their own art, setting aside the music for a moment; it’s as if William Carlos Williams wrote a track listing. “Half an Orange Crush on a Blue Recycling Bin,” “Ashtray, I <3 NY,” “Yellow Sign, Discount Liquor, Seen Through the Window,” and “Sun Bleached Bbq Grill, Red to Pink” are all so lusciously specific in their iconography and representative details that I barely have to describe the music to you. All four of those songs sound exactly like those situations. I don’t know if Birnbaum wrote the titles and then set out to evoke those images or is simply a savant at understanding which slices of low-key everyplace ephemera his instrumental compositions sound like. Either way, I heard this record, saw those titles, and fell in love with it. I fell in love with it so hard that I wanted to make something like it. That’s my highest honor.

Okay, but what does “Half an Orange Crush on a Blue Recycling Bin” sound like, if you’ve never had the experience of seeing that exact thing? Well, there’s a vintage keyboard sound that lazily and contentedly creeps its way along, a bass that plods along with it, and a Casio-style backbeat. The lead melody sounds like it came out of a toy instrument somewhere. The whole thing is the best sort of humid languor–the nowhere-to-be, nothing-to-do sort of space that is so constricting to teens but so nostalgic and desirable to adults who are forgetting how much it sucked the first time around. I have that nostalgia when I hear this track, and affirm that I didn’t really like this sort of feeling when I was a teenager–that’s the level of evocativeness that Birnbaum has conjured up from this track. Also there’s a saxophone or something, of course there is, there always was.

“Three Cacti: Felt, Rubber, Neon” is an unimpeachable ode to kitschy Arizona stuff (yo! I live here now! I know this feeling!). “Candle in Shower, Fear Be Gone” takes the swirling guitars of Damien Jurado’s untethered “Saturday” and gives them a home in my memory of saint candles in odd places. “Kitchen Wall, a Cold Cup of Cosmos” relies on an almost soulful keys-and-bass interplay to turn a ditty with Casio into a reverie on early mornings and late night conversations, sitting in the kitchen, pondering the universe. “Stack of Unread Books Next to the Bed” (yes, I feel very seen) is an intimate, affectionate piece that breaks everything down to its most minimal elements–the percussion is a distant click of spoons, the guitar is minimal, the synths are fragmentary, and the whole thing is homey and lived-in. Your mileage may vary, but tracks like this could just live in the background of my life, and it would be an appropriate estimation of my way of life.

Birnbaum’s four-track approach here does the trick that the best art does: it turns its limitations into its strengths. (See Regina Spektor’s Soviet Kitsch for the highest form of this position.) Birnbaum revels in the space that the limited number of instruments allows; tracks like “Old Family Chair, Claimed by Cat” use little details like amplifier buzz as part of the way the songs develop and feel. That track, by the way, is a beautiful, lightly herky-jerky offering that is basically the sound of your cat’s leg moving in its sleep.

I could go on for a while. This album is 45 minutes of minimalist reveries that are laser-focused to my sonic and topical concerns. If you like minimalist music but can’t stand cold formality, if you like composition but have an indie rock soul instead of a orchestral soul, if you have an emotional response to the title “Two Small Chipped Mugs, Turquoise,” then this record is for you. Highly recommended.

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