Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Mid-June Singles: Happy (Mostly)

June 21, 2017

1. “Desultory” – Arthur in Colour. Jubilance seems always so difficult to singers with low voices (like Matt Berninger of the National and Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields), and Arthur Sharpe is no exception. You can tell he’s jubilant, though, because the multi-layered technicolor indie-pop that he’s fronting is hard to describe in terms other than “exuberant,” “bright,” and enthusiastic. It’s the sort of thing that has marimbas, synths, organs, jaunty guitars, and a constant male/female duet all somehow coming together into one beautiful synthesis.

2. “Outta Cash” – Bon Villain. There’s a subtle grit to the vocals here that remind me (ever so slightly) of bands like The Hold Steady. The music is a smart mix of bubbly MGMT electro and streamlined, slicked-back Cobra Starship electro. It feels very now and very on.

3. “Give Me Your Love” – Briana Marela. Chirpy synths, clicky beats, and stomping toms allow Marela’s smooth melodic lines to create a nice tension in this lush, expansive electro-pop tune.

4. “Fat Tuesday” – The AV Club. A funky, jazzy instrumental interpretation of the New Orleans Brass Band sound that’s so much fun. This retains all the spirit of the Big Easy with a slight twist, which is cool.

5. “Witches” – Good Kid. The frantic, youthful vocals of early Vampire Weekend meeting the stylized guitar-heavy indie rock of the early ’00s (The Strokes) results in a skittering, punchy, enthusiastically fun indie-rock track.

6. “Please” – Josiah and the Bonnevilles. Following up their impressive debut EP, Josiah and co. return with a song that’s equal parts ragged Dylan-esque folk song, clanging Americana rock (a la The Low Anthem), and Springsteen. The falsetto-laden chorus is just great. The conclusion of the video is intriguing, too.

7. “Dear Science” – Blimp Rock. Blimp Rock is a endearingly absurd band (they tried to sue the Toronto Blue Jays, their stated purpose is to raise money for a blimp), and this song is no different: a duet/discussion between the lead singer and “science” (as played by a theoretical physicist who is not taking any shit from the lead singer). The quirky indie-pop-rock fits the content to a T.

8. “Moonlight Dancing” – Vito. It’s like Dashboard Confessional’s romanticism, a pop-punk band’s vocal melodies, and indie-rock mid-tempo guitars fused into a perfect simulacra of my teenage experience. The first time I heard this song, I felt like I’d known it forever.

9. “Jimmy” – GREY \\ WATER. I’m not really into the disco revival, but indie rock song  is disco smashed to bits, mixed with modern dance rock and indie pop vocal melodies, stuck in a blender, and then baked into something new. This is how you do genre mixing right. Dang.

10. “Dreamin’” – bellwire. Back when country and rock’n’roll and Brill Building pop were all intermingled, some really lovely ballads emerged. This track follows in that vintage-drama vein, tapping into modern (but no less dramatic; vintage pop included a lot of death and debauchery, for real) concerns.

11. “Rich in Love” – Afterlife Revival. Pulls the Neil Young trick of feeling both rickety and solid in its folky/acoustic/pop-type arrangement. The vocal performance is evocative, but it’s the oh-so-perfect melodic instrumental bridge that really sells this tune.

12. “Change It All” – Harrison Storm. Smooth, lithe, stark, groove-laden, and yet high-drama, this song packs a lot into its shape. You may think you’ve heard this acoustic/adult alternative all before, but there are surprises up Storm’s sleeve for those who listen intently.

13. “Heart and Mind” – Courtney Marie Andrews. Andrew’s passionate alto and thoughtful lyrics ring clear as a bell here. This stripped-down performance feels like a breath of fresh air.

14. “Runner” – Jon and Roy. A humorous, Wes Anderson-inspired video accompanies a chipper acoustic pop tune that starts out in the pocket and never leaves. Jon and Roy have been plying the trade a long time, and it shows in their easy confidence, infectious melodies, and strong groove throughout.

15. “Cold (Trevor Ransom Remix)” – Bjéar. Ransom transforms the original “build from solo piano to giant pop conclusion” chassis and totally reinvents it as a spacious ambient track that takes the listener on a walk through a dark-yet-wondrous forest.

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Mid-June: Acoustic

June 20, 2017

Acoustic

1. “Promise Land” – Sinners & Saints. Big-hearted, foot-stompin’, smile-inducing alt-country complete with stand-up bass, fiddle, and harmonica. The vocals are infused with a sweet, earnest quality that is not usually found in this type of music. Remember when the Avett Brothers were a ramshackle, upstart duo that could make you holler and cry? It’s like that. Great stuff.

2. “Let You Be” – Gian Luca & the Oak. Italy by way of London? You’d never know it from this thrilling slice of upbeat, major-key Americana. A vivid fiddle and enthusiastic stand-up bass create the frame for joyous harmonica and Luca’s low vocals. This is just a ton of fun.

3. “Evergreen” – Builder of the House. This warm, open, happy folk tune plays like an inversion of Fleet Foxes (all love to the FF): the harmonies expand the soaring reach of the song instead of getting close in, and the arrangement is spacious. There’s room to sit with this, to hear every instrument and to clap along. If you’re into Lord Huron, this will be immediately interesting.

4. “Bait My Soul” – James AM Downes. Somewhere between twinkly folk music and bouncy indie-pop lands this lovely, dreamy track. The arrangement here is tight and engaging, wrapping me in a mood instantly.

5. “Behold” – J. Alan Schneider. Resonant, bass-heavy acoustic guitar picking with more than a bit of Appalachian melodic influence opens this track in a powerful way. Schneider’s whispery voice is a high tenor that contrasts nicely against the low end of the guitar, and that tension drives this emotionally-charged song.

6. “Sundial” – Kazyak. Good-natured full-band folk that recalls Lord Huron in its commitments to be fully involved in acoustic folk music but also fully involved in being poppy and fun. The song passes by easily, leaving me with a grin and good vibe.

7. “Falling South” – Lee Watson. If you’re up for a slice of Laurel Canyon/West Coast Country, Lee Watson has a perfectly-turned tune in the style for you: creaky vocals, cooed background vox, weeping pedal steel, and a walking-speed acoustic guitar strum.

8. “Slow Sip of Whiskey” – Eric Barnett. A deep voice and a fingerpicked guitar layered with metaphors aplenty: fans of David Ramirez will rejoice over Barnett’s back-porch country-folk work here.

9. “The Birds and You” – Miles Horn. Fans of indie-soul like the Antlers will find much to love in this stripped-back, romantic, bluesy ballad. The vocal performance here is strong and clear.

10. “The Way to You” – Elliot Porter. Calls to mind Brett Dennen and Passenger, emotional acoustic songwriters who ride the line between folk and adult alternative. Porter’s chorus and big outro are both catchy and impeccably arranged for maximum effect.

11. “Comfortable” – The Washboard Abs. A perfect companion for a rainy day, this loping, downtempo acoustic pop tune has all of the hazy, slackery spirit of lo-fi recording without actually sounding fuzzed out (which I count as a total benefit in this case).

12. “Heartbeat” – Almond&Olive. It’s hard for me to get tired of fingerpicking and close harmonies. This beautiful, relaxing tune comes off like a more folk-oriented version of The Weepies, which is always a good thing. I love the horn inclusion at the end.

13. “If Heaven” – Mystery Loves Company. Ostensibly a song about what the songwriter doesn’t want to see in heaven, the song ends up being a statement of what the band believes is vital and good in the world. The acoustic pop song structure is accompanied by a lovely cello performance.

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Mid-June: Indie Pop and Indie Rock

June 19, 2017

Indie Pop and Indie Rock

1. “Schopenhauer in Berlin” – Emperor X. Those who are into singers who cram too many words and so many references into a song and yet somehow come out with indie-pop gold (read The Mountain Goats, the Weakerthans, the Rural Alberta Advantage) will find a huge amount to love in Emperor X. This track is fidgety, subtly chaotic, weirdly emotional, and overall a wild trip that has me absolutely stoked for this record.

2. “Wake Up with the Sun” – Little Lapin. A chipper, summery little ditty that calls to mind Lilith Fair, Counting Crows, and other cheery ’90s acoustic pop. I couldn’t help but clap along. Totally fun.

3. “Hey Leanne” – Frozen Houses. The reverb and rhythms of the guitar recall the ’80s, and specifically Graceland. The flute-esque pad synths are vintage too, but they’ve been so appropriated by Vampire Weekend that there’s a touch of them in here too. But it’s a less hectic song than both of those outfits are fond of, as the lead singer uses a gentle, calming voice to sing long, smooth vocal lines.

4. “Bones” – Fairmont. The kickoff to their 9th (!) studio album, this indignant blast of sound distills what Fairmont does best into 4 minutes and 10 seconds: melodic-yet-somewhat-sinister guitar-driven indie rock with roughed-up vocals and an eye toward the theatrical.

5. “Dynamite Quartz” – Bass Lions. It’s not often that a song puts me at a loss, but this track is a blend of a lot of things that don’t usually go together and yet somehow work perfectly: traditional pipe organ playing, a harpsichord-esque / autoharp thing, ominous subterranean bass notes, strings, perky percussion, and expressive Arcade Fire-style vocals. Or maybe they just feel like Arcade Fire because there’s so much going on. Either way, this is a veritable maelstrom of stuff, and somehow it turns out into a snappy, inventive indie rock tune.

6. “First of May” – James Irwin. Heavily reverbed, distant guitars create a ghostly presence over a fuzzed-out bass chug while Irwin’s feathery vocals intersect the two. The results are a dreamy form of indie rock that is actually equal parts dreamy and rocking.

7. “Screen Time” – Banana Gun. Funk is not my usual stomping grounds, but Banana Gun fuse funky bass lines and a jazz-infused horn section with slick, tight rock music a la Cage the Elephant, et al. (which isn’t usually my province either). Sometimes a song comes out of nowhere and just gets everything right, and even people not in the genre can hear it.

8. “R.O.S.E.” – Brother O’ Brother. Imagine if the Black Keys had never gone stadium rock and instead got more and more furious in their vocal delivery. That’s basically what BOB is, give or take a Marshall stack or three. This track is a pretty great intro to their raw, super-charged garage blues on 11.

9. “Fruitfly” – Heavy Heart. This is a pitch-perfect ’90s female-fronted modern rock tune, which means that it’s low-slung, catchy, and nearly deadpan in its vocal and instrumental delivery. The video is a mishmash of drugs, junk food, pizza, kids, and static that also perfectly recalls the ’90s. It’s the sort of video that has to be done perfectly to not be derivative, and Heavy Heart pulls it off.

10. “Gentle Release” – New Tongues. It’s hard to keep me interested in post-hardcore these days, as I’ve gotten pickier and pickier with the heavy music I listen to. New Tongues are one outfit that I can count on to mix melodic elements, brittle distortion, brute force, hollered/screamed vocals, and long run times in intriguing ways. This latest track is spot-on: a 7.5-minute journey through different dynamic levels and arrangements that yet never feels like it’s overstayed its welcome. Anyone who can write almost eight minutes of post-hardcore work without getting repetitious is doing a great job. Mad props.

11. “Mississippi, Come and Take Me” – Syntax Club. Somewhere between the enthusiasm of Ra Ra Riot, the dreamy vocals of Death Cab for Cutie, and the beachy sound of The Drums is this charmingly layered indie pop song.

12. “STRESS” – Kylie Odetta. Odetta has been reinventing herself over the past few years and seems to have landed on jazzy, piano-led soul. This latest cut mines that vein with some breathy sax playing counterpoint to her hiccuping piano line and lithe vocals.

13. “Eclipsed” – Diamond Thug. This impressive electro song rides on an intriguing arpeggiator pattern and a smooth, flowing, head-bobbing mood (even though the arrangement gets pretty complex!).

14. “Where the Birds Nest” – Alex Tiuniaev. Tiunieav expands his stark solo piano oeuvre into a dreamy ambient electro/chillwave space with some snappy, beat-heavy plunks and blips. It’s a head-bobber, for sure.

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EP: Matt Record’s Black Swan

April 6, 2017

Those with a fondness for acoustic guitar work combined with simple, straightforward songwriting will find great satisfaction in singer, guitarist and songwriter Matt Record. Record has developed his craft over the last decade and a half, covering some of the most fertile musical regions in the United States. Originally from Plymouth, Indiana, he has been blowing on the wind of his music from there to Chicago, Indianapolis, Oregon, Los Angeles, and London. With the Black Swan EP, Record delivers a fresh take on life that settles firmly in the country and folk genres that many have grown to love.

The Black Swan EP is “a mixture of some songs I’ve written over the last 12-14 years that fit together very well and were more acoustic driven,” says Record. Not only did the songs take time, they were written in four states and two incredibly fertile music scenes. Once it was finally recorded, the release featured Record (Martin D-35 acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass, vocals), Andrew Madden (lap steel, keyboards, electric guitar), Paul Duda (bass), and Stephan Kohnke (drums and percussion).

The five songs of the EP are masterfully sequenced to feel like a sit down around a campfire or a fireplace. Opening with an aptly-named song featuring a simple sound, “Beautiful” is a love song singing the praises of real life with an almost Neil Young falsetto. Flowing from one song to the next can be a challenge, but it’s not hard for Record. “Black Swan” has an authentic “home, home on the range” feel punctuated by sparingly-used electric guitar. The newest song of the EP serves as a perfect title track. Restraint in the mix is key here for sure.

Record then strolls into “Insomnia,” which is reminiscent of some of the best from Charles Ellsworth and the Dirty Thirty mixed by the great Bob Hoag. “Dear Lord” firmly embraces the sentimentality of roots Americana, as the song fits neatly within the story Record is telling. The five-song collection ends with “Saddle Up,” which features the most rock vibes of the EP. The song ties together everything into a concise picture.

Great music can take sometimes take a lifetime in its creation; sometimes there’s an instantaneous connection to something real. Like the real-life landscapes that inspired this musical picture that he paints, Matt Record is the real deal here. Matt Record’s Black Swan EP, the follow-up to the 2010 release Kickbush, is out April 7th 2017 on Captain Beardo Records.–Lisa Whealy

Lullatone masters their craft, spreads their wings, and turns out a brilliant record

March 21, 2017

I’ve been listening to a lot of music of long duration over the last year, whether that be modern classical, mid-century minimalism, the Soundcloud of the last true chillwave hero, post-metal, or 8 straight hours of instrumental trance. (If we’ve got the term “longread” now, I think we should be able to have the term “longhear” for this phenomenon.)

Rarely have I had so much fun listening to a longhear than when listening to Lullatone‘s Thinking about Thursdays. The twee instrumental outfit, already an IC fave, recently compiled their “a song every Thursday in 2016” project into one big album of 52 songs. Their twee instrumentals are brilliant as ever, but their expanded sonic palette is what makes this album so wonderful.

Lullatone excels at making child-like music, turning toy pianos, music boxes, ukuleles, flutes and other small-sounding instruments into delicate and charming tunes (mostly in major keys). Their basic sound is something like The Album Leaf’s tender expansiveness mashed with Wes Anderson’s distinct, precise nostalgia. Openers “trying something again (again)” and “a photograph from the day you were born” stick to this script, creating memorable entries in the Lullatone oeuvre. This type of chipper, bright, clever song appears throughout the album; collectively, they are proof that Lullatone has mastered their craft and yet not exhausted it.

Things get even more exciting as they spread their wings. “how frost grows” signals a widening of their sonic scope, as a slurring, glacial, distorted guitar creates a desolate post-rock landscape. “cooped up at home with a fever and a tape loop” is just that: a hazy, tape hiss-laden fever dream that reminds me of a vocal-less version of The Microphones. “two turn tables and a casiotone” is a fun riff on the titular concept, while follow-on “how i broke my parents’ record player (when i was five)” is even more beat-heavy, landing somewhere between instrumental hip-hop and The Postal Service. “aboard Korean Air flight 742 to Seoul” continues what is ultimately a four-week beat fancy, adding stuttering snares and a melodic hook to a cherubic synth.

Things get even more exciting from there: “puddles full of petals (of Sakura)” combines harp, East Asian melodic ideas, and video game soundtrack drama (one of two back-to-back Asian sonic entries); “father-son adventures” has a jaunty, spry electric guitar line that will please any fan of major key post-rock a la Delicate Steve or Fang Island; “concrete waves” is filtered through a dense, stylish mesh of DJ Shadow. Other referents (real or imagined) include Matt and Kim, klezmer music, elevator music/vaporwave, and chillwave. I won’t spoil all the surprises (there are 52 songs!!), but suffice it to say that this is a great collection with almost no dead weight. Beyond the lovely individual songs, there’s a subtle joy in listening to a whole year of someone’s creation in what seems like chronological order, tracking through the seasons with the moods and titles of each song.

Thinking About Thursdays is that rare release that combines serious composition, thoughtful moods, intriguing instrumentation, quality sonic diversity, and out-and-out fun. It’s an incredible release, and it’s one of my early contenders for album of the year. Highly recommended.

The American West: Adding to the Great American Songbook

March 16, 2017

Life can be a stark gritty landscape dotted with hope and heartache, but dreams of another tomorrow will bring you back. The American West captures the bleak beauty of Steinbeck’s America with debut album The Soot Will Bring Us Back Again, allowing listeners to immerse themselves in a dust storm of roots Americana music.

The album had humble beginnings. Zeltzer immersed himself in his songwriting as caretaker at an organic farm in Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco. Living in an Airstream made these songs real, haunting, and alive. The Soot Will Bring Us Back Again was recorded live to two-inch tape in three days at The Hallowed Halls in Portland, with the help of engineer Jordan Richter (Band Of Horses, Legendary Shack Shakers, Plastic Ono Band). Not a bad way to start.

Matthew Zeltzer and Maria Maita-Keppeler create magic together in a harmonic mesh with guitarist Will Haas, bassist Lewi Longmire, drummer Erich Spielmann, and keyboardist Benjamin Nathan O’Brien. The group of musicians assembled here fit together like a wagon train scouting up ahead. No one element instrument stands alone except for Zeltzer’s voice, which leads the music with a graceful, light hand. Standout “Ghost Town” shows off another important element of the album: Maita-Keppeler and Zeltzer work really well together. (Both have supported each other with appearances on each other’s work.) The Soot would be an echo of something great without the pair.

The band delivers an authentic dustbowl vibe, bringing stark images to mind like a Dorothea Lange photograph. Pedal steel shines on “Ritalin” shifting gears into harmonies that tug at the soul. “Ritalin” embraces the folk roots feel brilliantly. “Heart of Stone” is solid country, as angst-filled listeners can feel the rain coming down. “Patience, Young Conquistador” shines a light on the simplistic finger picking from Zeltzer illuminating the challenges from a land that was raped and working to be reborn. The attention-grabbing “Voices” creates an uptempo country-rock ramble with an urgency that stands out to the ear. Lyrically, it hearkens back to the near-apocalyptic destruction of central California land.

The lyrical quality shines elsewhere as well: “Roadsick Blues” and “Westward Man” showcase the masterful lyricism on this release. The latter has a chorus that demands attention: “He’s a shipwreck/He’s a bounced check/He’ll cut you down in the muddy street/He’s a tin can/He’s a fake tan/If you can read his lie you know you’re halfway there.” It’s a stellar mash of Townes Van Zandt and a present-day warning, like smooth bourbon going down smooth at the end of a long night. In the land of longing, “Looking For You” encompasses the sweet indie vibe, like a bee that cannot find the blossom on which to land. The language of longing and love take on different objects of affection with a cool lounge singer feel. Intimacy is the prize here.

Sometimes a listener just does not want a story to end. Such is the case here on the debut album from The American West. Coming to the end, “Let Me Love You Like A Pauper Does” pleads for a love that certainly suggests that fans will tire of the troubadour and his saga of life. The thing is: that’s not true. The Soot Will Bring Us Back Again is adding to the Great American Songbook, and we can only patiently wait for the next volume. Get yours March 17th, 2017.–Lisa Whealy

Jenny Scheinman: A trip through American history

March 8, 2017

Maybe having an arsenal of Tennyson and Yeats really was the key to survival for songwriter, composer, and fiddle player Jenny Scheinman. “Okay, Jenny,” I imagine her mother telling her, “One more time, repeat after me…‘He clasps the crag with crooked hands.’” “What does any of that have to do with an album of fiddle tunes?” Scheinman asks. “The fiddle has that same raw, outlaw, dirt-on-your-knees spirit of prison poetry. The fiddle can be played by anyone with rudimentary musical skill,” her mother says. “It can entertain a crowd. Its songs are the people’s music. And honestly, if I ever end up in prison, I’d much rather have a fiddle on me than a poem,” retorts Scheinman. Her instrumental album Here on Earth is a reflection of that storytelling through the voice of the instrument Scheinman knows best.

The fifteen-song album has seen many of its songs find a home in Kannapolis: A Moving Portrait, a collaboration with filmmaker Finn Taylor that was commissioned by Aaron Greenwald at Duke Performances. The music completes the picture, which collects archival footage taken between 1936-42 by H. Lee Waters (1902-1997). Waters was a North Carolina photographer who traveled across the Piedmont, a region spanning much of central North Carolina that includes parts of Appalachia. During his travels, he made short movies of people living ordinary lives during the Great Depression. This backdrop for the music makes the album extraordinary.

Scheinman based her band for these recordings on a specific scene from the movie, where three musicians (fiddle, banjo and guitar) are playing at a dance party. Danny Barnes (banjo, guitar, tuba), Robbie Fulks (guitar, banjo), Bill Frisell (guitar) and Robbie Gjersoe (resonator guitar) were brought in not just for their brilliant skills and deep-rooted understanding of fiddle music, but because they brought the barn-stomping, slightly unhinged energy she was trying to conjure.

By collecting this authenticity in the studio, the magic of a specific period in time is captured in Here On Earth. From the opening song “A Kid Named Lily” to “Broken Pipeline” and all those in between, each sings Americana in the purest form. It’s a treat for the ears to listen to American history. Scheinman makes the fiddle sing, delivering elegant beauty in the time capsule. The songs here are diverse: listeners will hear a jig (“Up On Shenanigan”) coupled with mournful work from Robbie Faulks (“Pent Up Boy”). It seems pointless to single out an individual track when they are part of a whole evoking deep emotion. The best suggestion is close your eyes and listen. Listening to Here on Earth by Jenny Scheinman is a joyful, haunting, hopeful journey that is not to be missed. For those lucky enough to be on the east coast, there are two upcoming opportunities to see this piece live in Maine or New York. Don’t miss out. —Lisa Whealy

Mar 10 – Portland, Maine – USM Hannaford Hall
Mar 17 – New York City – The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Late February Singles 2

March 3, 2017

1. “Friends” – Marsicans. Marsicans appeared fully-formed writing masterful indie-pop-rock songs. I have no idea how that happened, but we’re all beneficiaries. This one manages to get heavy on the lyrical content and yet still manages to be one of the catchiest songs I’ve heard since … uh … “Swimming” by Marsicans.

2. “My Roommate Is a Snake and the Landlord’s a Bat” – Gregory Pepper and His Problems. If the conceit of Sleigh Bells is “hardcore guitars tamed by pop melodies,” the conceit of Pepper’s new album Black Metal Demo Tape is “sludge metal guitar and indie pop melodies.” This particular track starts off as a doomy dirge before transitioning into a early-Weezer power-pop tribute to metal. It’s a fun ride the whole way through the track. The rest of the album is equally inventive, charming, and gloomy (sometimes in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way, but also sometimes not).

3. “Weathering” – moonweather. Fans of the acoustic work on Modest Mouse’s Good News album will love the unique vocal style and swaying, shambling, enthusiastic folk arrangement of this tune. The lilting, floating horns/string arrangement is excellent.

4. “€30,000” – Emperor X. If John Darnielle had collaborated with Pedro the Lion in between his All Hail West Texas and Tallahassee days, the results would have sounded as enigmatic and engaging as this incredible track. It’s almost pointless to tag this with genres–it’s a thoughtful, passionate, wild indie-pop (okay, I did it anyway) track.

5. “Unbroken Chains” – WolfCryer. If you’re not listening to WolfCryer yet, you’re missing out on some of the most vital, important folk songs being sung today. Baumann’s vocal delivery, vocal melodies, and lyrics are all top-shelf in this weary, burdened protest tune.

6. “Windmill Tilting (Live)” – Cameron DeGurski. Some vocal gruffness of the grunge-singer-gone-acoustic meets up with solid guitar work to create an earnest, tight tune.*

7. “I Won’t Rest Until” – Brianna Gaither. Following in the vein of Moda Spira, this tune seamlessly blends electro-pop synths, instrospective singer/songwriter piano, soulful vocals, and indie-rock drums for a thoroughly modern-sounding take on serious pop.

8. “We Notice Homes When They Break” – Loyal Wife. An earnest, charming love song that’s part alt-country (via the blaring organ), part indie-pop (through the vocal tone and vocal melodies), and part singer/songwriter (through the lyrics).

9. “Hold On” – Midnight Pilot. The title track to Midnight Pilot’s latest EP is a distillation of their Paul Simon-meets-Americana sound, a yearning piano-driven ballad augmented by lovely fluttering strings and capped off by a beautiful male vocal performance. The vocal melodies in the chorus are catchy and sophisticated, a balance rarely struck well.

10. “Alone with the Stars” – Ofeliadorme. Portishead-style trip-hop with a heavy dose of spacey/ambient synths for atmosphere. The video is in black and white because the song sounds like it is in noir tones.

11. “Eternally” – Julia Lucille. Fans of the complex emotional states of Julianna Barwick will find much to love in this track, which has similar focus on wordless vocals (although not looped and layered ones) to convey the dramatic, almost mystical mood. This track does have a full band supporting Lucille’s voice, and the band’s patient, thoughtful accompaniment creates a dusky evening for her voice to wander through.

12. “Islands III” – Svarta Stugan. Instead of releasing a video, this Swedish post-rock outfit released a video game. Set in a gray, bleak warzone environment, the game has elements of Helicopter Game and a side-scrolling space shooter. (It’s fun!) The song itself is a slowly-moving, minor-key, guitar-heavy post-rock piece of the Godspeed You Black Emperor! school. The game and the song really mesh well–it was a great idea.

Brother Paul: A New Lease on Life in the Blues

February 27, 2017

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

Late February Singles

1. “Ich Cetera” – Austin Stahl. There’s not as much instrumental indie-rock in the world as I would like. This entry in the genre is a road-tripping song, a friendly and adventurous little tune underpinned by a stable drumline and guitar strum pattern. The Nick Drake-esque piano line is lovely as well.

2. “Retro Kid” – Retro Kid. “It comes into my head / the need to dance” is the refrain on this sleek, low-slung electro-pop gem. If all electro-dance were as slinky and winding, I might be out at the club more often. (And by the club, I mean “me in my living room, playing electro-pop at full blast”.)

3. “Stuck Between” – Klara Zubonja. An almost overwhelmingly twee introduction opens into an exuberant indie-pop track that’s a cross between the sass of Lily Allen, the coy subtlety of Regina Spektor, and the punchy arrangements of Ingrid Michaelson.

4. “Be Here Now” – Annabelle’s Curse. Genre-busting indie outfit Annabelle’s Curse returns with a song that, well, busts genres. There’s some alt-country, some indie-pop, some grungy indie-rock, and more crammed into this flowing, atypical song structure. Viva la invention.

5. “Pocketknife” – The Anchor Collective. The vocal melodies are front and center in this indie rock track, as not even a crunchy guitar section can take my ear away from the comforting, comfortable melodies that play out over the mostly-dreamy arrangement.

6. “Beth” – Paul Whitacre. Every now and then a song comes along that jumps out of the pack and says, “Listen to me!” This folk-pop tune with country guitar leads is a breath of fresh air in a crowded field, from the lovely melodies to the deft arrangement to the carefully organized lyrics to the immaculate production job. This is top-shelf work, people. Jump on it.

7. “Memorial Day” – Palm Ghosts. Dawes-esque Americana meets REM-style ’90s guitar-rock jangle in the sonic equivalent of a well-worn, trusty jacket. You may not have heard this song before, but it will feel familiar and great as soon as you do.

8. “Rosanna” – Mike Llerena. This song has punk rock vocal tone and melodies, doo-wop rhythms, and alt-country guitar tone. All three of those genres have heart-on-sleeve tendencies, and they’re on full display here in this “sad, spurned lover” lyric set. If you’re into 500 Miles to Memphis, you’ll be all up on this.

9. “Savior’s Hand” – Colin Onderdonk. Powerful vocals and a spartan arrangement consisting almost entirely of rumbling toms and wiry string bass creates a sonic environment that mirrors the lyrics that describe a weary traveler in an ominous, dangerous land.

10. “The Conversation of the Street Lights Will Pass as Quickly as Our Words” – The Bowling Alley Sound. This stuttering, wide-eyed, major-key post rock tune includes burbling guitars, soaring bass work, evocative (and high quality) found sound / spoken word clips, and a delightful sense of motion through the whole piece. Fans of The Album Leaf, Delicate Steve, Adebisi Shank, and other major-key post-rock will find much to love in this.

11. “The Naked Mind” – Ryan Svendsen. I’ve never heard a piece composed entirely of looped, layered trumpet lines and percussion. The trumpet is naturally an instrument prone to brash melodies, long melodic runs, and alternation between mellow and sharp tones, and all of that is on display here. There’s a hypnotic groove to the piece through the repetition of the theme that is only increased by the eruption of the percussion partway through. Adventurous listeners: rejoice!

12. “Himalaya” – Klangriket. By including lots of atmospheric, foley-type sounds, this song becomes both a minimalist soundtrack and the movie it is scoring. It’s a distinct, unique, very adventurous sonic experience that blends classical, post-rock, found sound, and soundtracks together.

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.

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