Incredible instrumental post-hardcore with a strong emotive quality.
Quite often people ask me why I listen to hardcore or post-hardcore. Those who are questioning me say that there is no point in listening to music if there are no discernable lyrics. I’ve been told that hardcore isn’t even music because you can’t understand the lyrics. I often try to point to the fact that a song consists of far more than lyrics and that lyrics are often distracting from the art that is coming out of the amps and drum sets on stage. Säh’s 06/06 EP is proof of my theory: a five-track EP that lasts over an hour with almost no lyrics. Yes, Säh is the proof that lyrics in no way make a song.
Trying to describe Säh is somewhat akin to Lewis and Clark trying to describe the Rocky Mountains (this metaphor has nothing to do with the fact that I’m currently flying over the Rocky Mountains, or that the first time I listened to this album I was driving through the Rocky Mountains). The 06-06 EP is subtle, yet impossible to ignore. It’s gentle and brutal all at once and its recipe seems obvious only after you have listened to the EP.
The recipe? Three young men from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, two drum sets, two guitars and a desire to create music, not a record deal has produced an epic in a time when music has become a series of short stories. The music focuses on creating moods as it flows through mellow and heavy riffs. Säh never quite creates a steady melody, yet their sound never succumbs to the chaos that could be created by such a mixture. These guys sound like they want to be The Felix Culpa minus vocals – the wonderful thing is they are succeeding.
It is incredibly hard to justly describe an instrumental album that is as emotional as the 06-06 EP. The listener does not feel the same after listening to the EP and each experience is a different one. The EP is completely jarring and relaxing at the same time. While these guys will never be radio-friendly it will always be something you can put on to space out to.
For their fourth time out, Sahara Hotnights comes at us with an almost completely new sound. The single “Cheek To Cheek” promises a pop-minded, more dance-conscious side to the group. With its galloping beat and saxophone breakdown, it is the pinnacle of the band’s career so far. And nothing on their new album, What If Leaving Is A Loving Thing, can match it.
Far from the rockier sound the group has ridden with to success in the past, Leaving attempts to show a more mature side. Embracing elements of roots music, country and 80’s pop, most of the songs are interesting experiments for the girls. Opener “Visit To Vienna” is an unqualified success, a rollicking stomper that sounds like nothing they have ever done while retaining the simple catchiness of past material. Other tracks are a bit more subdued, which is surprising for a band that used to be so boisterous. And, while everything sounds technically great, there just aren’t enough melodies that really entrench themselves deeply enough to prove memorable. Of the new rootsy sound (which suits the band surprisingly well), “Salty Lips” is definitely the standout, a back porch sing-along perched somewhere between Pat Benatar and the Dixie Chicks. The record loses a lot of its punch in its final third, though. “Puppy” and “Static” are about as boring as their titles, while album closer “If Anyone Matters It’s You” is Leaving’s most ineffective ballad.
While What If Leaving Is A Loving Thing tries on a new sound for Sahara Hotnights, it also seems to have forgotten that new sounds still require great songs. They’ve got at least three here, “Cheek To Cheek” being an absolute classic, and the rest comes dangerously close to filler. One can hope that this is just a transitional album and they’ll kick it into high gear next time.
A breathy saxophone is one of the first and last sounds you hear on Unreal, James Irwin‘s ’80s-inspired chill-out album. Irwin is a laid-back cat: rubbery bass, feathery woodwinds and flutes, reverb-heavy guitars, Irwin’s relaxed vocals and easygoing tempos form the predominant framework for tunes that unfold at their own pace. The resulting amalgam sounds like if Matthew Squires and the Learning Disorders somehow time traveled into 1986 Miami.
Tunes like the title track, “Face Value,” and “Sahra” aren’t tropical or Caribbean in any large sense; instead, they capture the languid haze that was layered over seemingly all ’80s cop dramas. Tension here isn’t ominous; it’s simply a push and pull of instruments. Snappy high hat pushes the tempo while pad synths hold it back in “Face Value.” The warm synths that open “Sahra” give an almost chillwave vibe before gentle sleigh bells and plodding guitar flip the script entirely: “Sahra” is actually a slow ballad.
The title track reminds me of M83’s “Midnight City” in its use of saxophone and its deep commitment to a particular style of sound, but the tunes couldn’t be more different and still be evoking the same era. (“Michigan Miami” is the one that actually appropriates a driving ’80s electro pop sound.) The synths that Irwin uses aren’t the sharp, whiny synths common to modern EDM or the twinkly ones common to stereotypical ’80s pop. The pad synths are diffused whispers that call up memories without being the lead element (most of the time). Given those synths as a base, the title track relies on an almost doo-wop bass line to bring a bit of motion to the straight-up-and-down drumming and gauzy backdrop. This causes the final product to come off seeming like a recently-unearthed mid-’80s predecessor of The Antlers’ work.
But Irwin isn’t doing a nostalgia reconstruction here: “Blood Going Back in Time” and “Siberia China” draw on modern indie-pop elements. The delicate fingerpicking, separated drumming and distant synths of “Siberia China” call Clem Snide to mind (as well as the aforementioned Squires). Standout “Blood Going Back in Time” fuses the ’80s sentiments to distinctly modern, quirky guitar production to really come into his own sound. The vocals, arrangement, and cryptic lyrics (including several prominent references to George Henry Wallace) make it a tune worth listening to multiple times.
Nostalgia is a dangerous game sometimes, because it can seem like there’s no creativity there. James Irwin’s Unreal is more than just a time-travelogue to a particular sound. It’s a re-envisioning of a certain mood and sonic space with modern developments included. If you’re into the ’80s, well and good–you’ll be all over this. However, if you’re into adventurous, thoughtful chill electro or indie-pop, you’ll be just an enamored with the album.
The deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and more have inspired the myth that 27 is the age past which no musical youth icon can live. M. Lockwood Porter, also aged 27 but definitely alive, thoughtfully grabbed the number for the title of his sophomore alt-country/country-rock/just plain rock album. His debut Judah’s Gone focused on the past (just look at that title); 27 is a coming-of-age rumination that turns his gaze from youthful aches to the troubles of living in the adult world.
27 does not contain fluffy or stereotypical lyrics: while there are a couple jilted-lover tunes, they fit into a larger paradigm of the difficult questions Porter is asking about life. Thoughts about mortality (“Chris Bell,” about another lost 27-year-old musician), the possibility of not achieving dreams (“Restless”), religion (“Couer D’Alene”), and leaving behind a legacy (“Mountains”) paint a picture of a person standing at the edge of adulthood and grappling with what he’s found so far. I may not agree with every conclusion, but I’m deeply glad that the sentiments are expressed with enough depth and clarity that I can actually agree or disagree with them. That’s a pretty rare accomplishment in the rock world.
The album’s centerpiece is the ballad “Mountains,” which pulls all of these thoughts about life together. It starts with tom hits that sound like a heartbeat before Porter wearily sings, “When I was young my father said / that faith could move a mountain / now there’s mountains as far as I can see.” Striking piano, tasteful percussion, and an earnest guitar line fill out the raw, earnest tune. I wish I could write out all the lyrics for you, but Porter distills it all into one sweeping statement to close the tune: “And as I stare across the vast expanse / I can hear my father shouting / but mountains are all that I can see.”
Porter serves up these musings in expertly crafted alt-country/country-rock tunes. Porter’s been in a bunch of bands of various genres over the past dozen years, and he’s learned things from all of them. Opener “I Know You’re Going to Leave Me” crescendoes to a pounding, ragged, desperate, shiver-inducing rock ending; he follows it up with “Chris Bell,” which is about as perfect an alt-country song as Gram Parsons could hope to hear. “You Only Talk About Your Band” is a rollicking, impassioned ’50s rock’n’roll tune that sounds like it fell out of a time machine somewhere, while Bruce Springsteen would approve of the insistent piano and urgent vocals in “Restless.” “Secrets” sounds like a San Francisco indie-pop mosey, an influence holdover from his time in The 21st Century. “Couer D’Alene” is a delicate acoustic-and-voice tune to close out the record. All of these songs are impressive in their own right, and yet none feel out of place on the record.
Porter keeps these disparate sounds and ideas held together through a consistent vocal presence on the record. No matter what genre Porter writes, he works to make his voice inhabit the song. There are no bad vehicles here: Porter sounds completely at home in each of these tunes. Instead of sounding pristine, the opposite is true: by feeling comfortable throughout, he’s able to allow his voice some fluctuations and character without needing to edit it out. It gives the whole album a careworn, comfortable feel, similar to a Justin Townes Earle song or Josh Ritter’s The Beast In Its Tracks.
27 has the sort of musical and lyrical depth that causes me to come up with more things to say than I have space for. (Two things that got cut: 1. comparing the lyrics of “Mountains” with my favorite Ryan Adams track “Rock and Roll,” which you should do on your own time; 2. The production job is excellent.) Personally Porter is in transition, but lyrically Porter is hitting his stride to be able to describe the struggles so compellingly. Musically he’s creating work that shines as a whole and as individual tracks, which shows a rare maturity. You need to hear this one.
Fri, 10/10 – San Francisco, CA @ Brick and Mortar w/ Victor Krummenacher
Fri, 10/17 – Oklahoma City, OK @ The Blue Note
Sat, 10/18 – Tulsa, OK @ Mercury Lounge
Sun, 10/19 – Lawrence, KS @ Jackpot Music Hall
Mon, 10/20 – Iowa City, IA @ Gabe’s
Tues, 10/21 – Chicago, IL @ Reggie’s
Wed, 10/22 – Eaton, OH @ Taffy’s
Thurs, 10/23 – Philadelphia @ The Grape Room
Sat, 10/25 – NYC @ Wicked Willy’s at 6:30 pm (Official CMJ Showcase)
Sun, 10/26 – NYC @ Rockwood Music Hall Stage 1
Mon, 10/27 – Charlotte @ Thomas Street Tavern
Tues, 10/28 – Chapel Hill @ The Cave (I’ll be at this one)
Wed, 10/29 – Nashville, TN @ The 5 Spot
Thurs, 10/30 – Huntsville, AL @ Maggie Meyer’s Irish Pub
Fri, 10/31 – Clarksdale, MS @ Shack Up Inn
Sat, 11/1 – Lafayette, LA @ Artmosphere
Sun, 11/2 – Austin, TX @ Sahara Lounge
Mon, 11/3 – Dallas @ Opening Bell
That’s a new tag up there. “Horizon” is the label that I’m going to be putting in front of artists that have both promise and a lot of work yet to do. These are bands to keep in the back of your mind; not recommendations or raves, but bands that could be great with some more time and sweat invested. Some people may be uninterested in reading about works in progress, which is why I’ve decided to tag them appropriately. But new, young artists matter to Independent Clauses, so I’m allotting space for them in this new feature.
Not every band that submits to Independent Clauses will get featured in Horizon; I am but one man with time constraints, and I have to hear some promise in a work. Nor will Horizon articles be on any type of schedule; they’ll just be in the mix of things.
Quick Hits, stuff I’m interested in but don’t have that much to say about, will still exist. That has nothing to do with Horizon.
Jane Hunt is an apt first Horizon artist because she’s about as immensely talented as she is confusing. Her four-song EP Violin Venus features an orchestral piece (“Melia Dream”), a Portishead-style trip-hop piece with vocals (“Vasene”), a gorgeous acoustic guitar/piano instrumental (“Flying High”) and what sounds like a film score (“Sahara”). Her desire is to merge the classical and pop worlds together.
Her violin skills can’t be knocked; she can definitely play. But this EP has little to nothing in the way of cohesiveness. “Flying High” is absolutely gorgeous; “Vasene” sounds kitschy, especially without more songs in the same style around it to sell the idea that she’s not just appropriating the style. “Melia Dream” is pretty, but not near as polished as Olafur Arnalds’ work; “Sahara” is a great concept marred by odd percussion and unnecessary electric guitar.
Jane Hunt needs to better integrate her ideas so that listeners can understand what she’s going for. She has the technical chops and the songwriting skill, but her Violin Venus is a confusing, unfocused release. But man, “Flying High” is gorgeous.
And once again we’ve made it through to produce yet another set of Top (fill in your number of choice) Albums of the Year list. Yet this year it’s a little different. If you look back to the July edition you’ll see my top 5 of the first half of 2007. Surprisingly, three of those five albums made it into my top ten of 2007. Now here’s the list.
1. Magnetic North – Hopesfall
This has nothing to do with the fact that they just broke up. It has everything to do with the fact that this was possibly the most listenable album I have heard since…well, since A Types was released in 2004. Despite line-up change after line-up change after line-up change, the Hopesfall name has managed to consistently promise high quality music. If you don’t have this album, go out and get it.
2. In Rainbows – Radiohead
It seems cliché, but this is a great album. While I was a huge fan of Pablo Honey and The Bends, Kid A and Hail to the Thief were a bit too spacey for me. In Rainbows picked up where The Bends left off. I only bought the album on a whim and it turned out to be an album that I could listen to over and over again.
3. Colors – Between the Buried and Me
I’ve always kind of been “kind of” a fan of BTBAM. If they were in town for a show, I would go see them, but they had never blown me away. Colors changed that. While everyone knows that BTBAM is an incredibly hard-hitting metal band, no one had been exposed to their ability to produce more than metal. Songs like “Sun of Nothing” and “Informal Gluttony” showcase an instrumental and creative side that I did not expect. Oh, and did I mention that this is a metal album that you can actually listen to straight through? And that it’s an eight-track album that clocks in at an hour and four minutes?
4. Dancing Down a Fine Line EP – The Brakemen
Ah, there is nothing like a top ten list that goes from brutal metal to alternative country. The Brakemen have managed to keep my attention since I received their album last summer. Their brand of alternative country mixed with a Bruce Springsteen sensibility makes for a great EP.
5. m(US)ic – Dameira
I really have to credit the discovery of this album to ADD. If I had not stopped studying at Borders last spring I would not have found this album sitting on a listening station. There is nothing better than a band that combines a listenable sound with interesting music. Dameira is a band that does exactly that and it makes for an album that is completely worth taking a listen to.
6. Versions – Poison the Well
What happens when a band takes almost three years to write an album, drops from a five-piece to a three-piece and jumps from a major label to an indie powerhouse? Magic. Versions, while a slight step away from the brutal hardcore of their past, is a melodically brutal album that was well worth the long wait. With great albums like this coming from Ferret I can promise you that they won’t be the relegated to minor player status for long.
7. The Big Dirty – Every Time I Die
Speaking of great music coming from Ferret, Every Time I Die’s fourth full-length release did anything but disappoint. After 2005’s lackluster release Gutter Phenomenon the guys of ETID knew they needed to bring the heat with their next album. They certainly delivered the heat needed to beat back anyone who said ETID was down for the count.
8. 06/06 – Säh
This is possibly the best hour of instrumental music I have ever heard. The band, based out of Marquette, Michigan, features a guitarist, a drummer and a drummer/ guitarist and almost no lyrics. The EP is spectacular for driving or relaxing or just really any time.
9. The Alchemy Index Volumes 1&2 – Thrice
Since Vheissu, all Thrice fans have wondered if the band would embrace their heavy side that they became so well known for or if the darker, more melodic sounds of Vheissu would become the sound of Thrice. Then the Alchemy Index was released and Thrice fans found that both sounds would be the new sound of Thrice.
10. Kill the House Lights – Thursday
Yes, I know there were only seven new songs on it. And I know I’m a little biased since they’re my favorite band. But…they were seven good songs. Also, the DVD is an awesome documentary of one of the greatest examples of the rise from basement band to selling out the Starlight Ballroom.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.