Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

16 Years!

June 7, 2019

Independent Clauses has been around for 16 years. In many states, this blog would now be able to drive a car. That’s a pretty amazing thing to me. This is also the year where the blog has officially been in my life longer than it’s not been in my life: I’m 31, and the blog has been running for 16 years of my life and not running for 15 years of my life.

I decided that for the grand turning of 16, I would get responsible with the blog. 16 is a big age full of new responsibilities for many teenagers, and so it’s fitting. To that end, I link-checked the last 8 or so years of the blog, fixing broken Soundcloud links, lost album art, and other such tragedies for hundreds and hundreds of posts. I updated the back-end of the blog (woohoo latest PHP version!). I moved the blog to my own hosting off shared hosting (thanks for hosting us for years, Chris!).

In one of the bigger changes that I made, I’ve closed comments on the blog. I haven’t ever had that many comments on IC, and the vast majority of the comments we’ve received in the last few years have been spam. I’ve been paying for Akismet monthly to keep spam comments off the site (thanks, Akismet! You were great!), but the time has come to acknowledge that people who talk about IC do it on social media and not in comments. So I’ve turned off comments here, but I am still up and open for comments on Twitter, Facebook, and in email.

One of my goals for this year is to look into getting a new visual identity for Independent Clauses. We haven’t ever had a full, consistent visual identity; our logo was designed in the mid-’00s by a designer whose name I can only remember as Calvin. (Sorry, Calvin.) Chris Krycho designed this WordPress theme in the early ’10s. We’ve never had versions of the logo that were specifically designed for display on social media sites. I can’t remember when I invented our current slogan. So I’m looking to do a big refresh on everything visual for the blog. If you know someone who may be interested in this proposition, let me know. I don’t have a clue what this might cost but I’m happy to talk with people about it.

So that’s 16 years, y’all–getting responsible, doing important backend work, making the future of the blog more nice for people. I still love new music. I still want to write about it. Here’s to 16 more years.

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May Spotify Playlist Pt. 2: Single-worders

June 6, 2019

Through an unusual, unexpected quirk of my listening patterns, the back half of the May Spotify playlist is populated entirely by albums with one-word titles. How odd. Anyway, here’s the list:

Bioluminescence – Teen Daze. See my “highly recommended” review here.

Ambitions – Prins Thomas. Prins Thomas has the unluckiness of being in my listening habits at the same time as a Teen Daze record; in any other month this would have been my prize find. Ambitions is a diverse electronic record that has no shortage of its titular element. Opener “Foreplay” includes birdsong prominently, grounding the record in an unusual natural vein. The slow-moving opener gives way to the moody “XSB,” which includes a rattlesnake rattling in its opening salvo. That rattlesnake rattle turns into a consistent shaker over a groove-heavy beat and rubbery bass line, and then the record is off to the races. Thomas includes what sounds like electric bass and electric guitar in the track, giving the record an organic, easily-relatable feel. Single “Feel the Love” is a straight-up nu-disco cut, changing up the mood entirely.

However, it’s the 12-minute title track and nearly-11-minute “Fra Miami til Chicago” that are the real heart of the record (as they should be, given that they take up almost half the run-time of the record). “Ambitions” turns a loping, uncertain bass line into an ostinato groove–it seems like he was challenging himself to make something out of this odd bass work. To turn this weird rhythm and strange melodic pattern into something, he stretches the track way out, layering sounds slowly to get the listener’s ear accustomed to everything as it arrives. The careful construction allows the each individual part of the track to shine instead of introducing them all together and losing the clarity of each individual bit. The oddly titled “Fra Miami til Chicago” is one of the least complex and most heavily moody tracks here. It’s a low-slung, dusky, spartan techno jam that would be a perfect comedown or outro track in a club. These two and the rest of Ambitions show Prins Thomas working at a very high level. Highly recommended.

Mush – Nikitch & Kuna Maze. This EP is a solid work of jazzy, sample-laden, beat-heavy lo-fi progressive house. There’s a honest-to-God flute solo in “Bruk.” There’s a spoken word sample about truth at the beginning of “JPS.” It’s pretty rad.

Bvrth – Bvrth. This electro album has a lot of different things going on: woozy psych (“Oblivian”), grumbling near-industrial (“Eye Gouger”), sleek techno (personal favorite “Warden”), spacy ambient (the beginning of “Stonesend”) and more. The mix is always very good: the sounds have room to breathe, but it’s pulled together in a way that makes it feel very tight and cohesive. It’s a fun, interesting album that fits in well with Prins Thomas, Nikitch & Kuna Maze, and Teen Daze.

Fireflies – Laura Masotto. I love music that uses looping pedals; I don’t know what part of my brain loves ostinato patterns, but whichever section covers that is well developed. Masotto’s violin works here are solo pieces, but they have the complexity, pattern, and dense layering that a looping pedal can provide. Masotto’s pieces are romantic and mysterious, full of big emotions; the looping pedal gives her room to set a frame and then deliver big payoffs over it (“Lisboa” does this well).  If you’re interested in contemporary classical solo work, this is a great add to your collection.

Ströme – Martin Kohlstedt. Not to be confused with his earlier work Strom, Ströme is a work of high concept and execution. Writing primarily for choir (“SENIMB,” “TARLEH”) and piano (“AUHEJA”) with other instruments supporting, Kohlstedt has created a unique piece of composed music. The vocals are often used texturally, creating ambient drones and murmuring backdrops for the piano to pair with and proceed through (“SENIMB”, “NIODOM”). A few tracks break the mold: “TARLEH” is a beautiful, hectic chorale in a traditional vocal style; “JINGOL” is similar. Closer “AMSOMB” opens with a consistent digital beep before adding in elegant, rushing-water piano; the vocals whisper in before opening up into an adventurous bit of soaring. The whole work is fascinating, complex, and unqiue. Highly recommended.

Celeste – Lena Raine. Fans of NES/SNES games, chiptune, and video game soundtracks will find a treasure chest of sonic goodness in this instrumental video game soundtrack from 2018. It’s a high-drama affair that feels like it could support a game happening in outer space, a magical fantasy, or some weird far-future version of Castlevania. The soundtrack clocks in at 101 minutes, so there’s tons to explore here. The game itself is a Canadian/Brazilian platformer, so you may want to check that out as well.

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Bioluminescence shows Teen Daze at the height of its powers (so far)

June 3, 2019

I am a huge Teen Daze fan, which means that I’m incredibly picky and specific about any new Teen Daze work. (It is a tragedy that sometimes it is harder to please your biggest fans than it is the casual fans. Sorry, In League with Dragons.)  Yet even while being incredibly picky and specific, it’s hard to find anything to knock in BioluminescenceFrom the title to the last second of the album, Jamison Isaak shows that he understands exactly what he’s been building in Teen Daze and that he knows how to further the project’s vision.

Teen Daze emerged as an electronic music project that fit neatly into the zeitgeist of the blink-and-you-miss-it chillwave moment. Most of the first-era chillwave artists have moved on to other sounds (psych or motorik or techno or indie-rock or whathaveyou) or retired altogether. Teen Daze is no exception to the moving on, but the direction in which the project has moved has honed in on what made chillwave great.

Compare “Treten” (opener of TD’s excellent full-length debut All of Us, Together) to “Near” (opener of Bioluminescence). “Treten” has reverb-heavy synths floating in the background, click-whoosh percussion, bloop-bloop bass, and a perky melody. It’s a great piece of electro that shows restraint in relation to more club-ready electronic genres and far more motion than ambient works. It nails a pleasant, warm, summery feeling. It is ideal chillwave.

Now listen to “Near”: It opens with reverb-laden pad synths, then layers in a synthesizer that sounds much like a violin. There’s a subtle-but-steady marching beat that contrasts against the free-flowing reverb synths. (This rhythmic tension comes from the much more patterned A World Away.) Then piano delicately joins. More percussion layers in. A thumping beat comes in for roughly ten seconds, then the track fades out. By its conclusion, it’s a dense, satisfying track that could have been expanded for much more time. Instead, it gives you everything you need to know about the track, teases you with what it could be, and opens up into the sophisticated, complex arrangement of “Spring.” “Near” is not only an introduction to the album and “Spring” (that would sell the track short), but it’s a perfect opener to the album. It’s much more patient as a track than “Treten” and points toward the songwriting maturity that Jamison Isaak brings to Bioluminescence.

The maturity is manifested in the attention to detail evident in “Near”. For the ten seconds that the beat is thumping, the track could fit in a lot of different albums of Teen Daze’s discography. But the way it gets there is unique to Bioluminescence. The track still offers all the joys of chillwave (warm sounds, a space between ambient and techno variants, easygoing vibes) but in a way that expresses sonic development in the track and previews the sonic development of the album.

And boy, is the album sonically developed. Far from being an upgrade on ambient, Bioluminescence is chock-full of complex, highly-coordinated arrangements. “Spring” is the chillwave song that everyone wanted to write, perfectly locked in to a space of relaxation while still including multiple melodic and percussive lines. The impressive bass work of “Hidden Worlds” can be called funky. The opening beat of “Ocean Floor” is either impressively sampled, intricately played on real percussion, or both; any 10-minute techno track would be jealous for that beat as the backbone of a club banger. The delicate, romantic, ballad-esque approach of “Longing” will woo old-school Teen Daze fans and send them on a trip back into the TD archives to find more like it.

Soincally, Teen Daze has long been about the connections and tensions between electronic and acoustic. Conceptually, Isaak has recently been focusing on the climate problems we have created for the world. In labeling this work Bioluminescence, Isaak points toward both of those ideas: bioluminescence itself is naturally-produced light (light that we usually assume comes from electricity). Bioluminescence also points obliquely to Jamison Isaak’s high regard for the luminosity and wonder of the biological world.

Isaak expresses that reverence for the natural via electronic music, and in particular electronic music that sounds very organic and acoustic. I mentioned the violin-like sounds and piano already; the piano in particular comes through on the record and provides the connection point between the natural and the electronic (“Drifts” and “Endless Light” in particular). The connection between the electronic and the acoustic, foregrounded in the title, is what makes this album so special. It’s not just a highly-sophisticated, beautiful collection of electronic music; it’s a collection that is written with a clearly-evident theme and purpose in mind. When the conceptual and sonic ideas of a record line up in beautifully-constructed tracks, there’s little to critique–this is a record that sets out with lofty goals and achieves them.

I started following Teen Daze because I liked chillwave then, and I love it now. Teen Daze is in touch with all of the elements that make chillwave so great, but has vastly expanded on them sonically and conceptually. Bioluminescence is a totally satisfying record that leaves nothing on the table: Jamison Isaak calls his shot and nails it with this one. This record is Teen Daze at the height of its powers so far. If you’re interested in any sort of electronic music, this is a must-hear that may well end up on your end-of-year-lists. I know it will be a strong contender for mine. Highly recommended.

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Curtis Eller’s American Circus delivers A Poison Melody

May 28, 2019

James Dickey did not have Curtis Eller’s banjo in mind when he wrote his literary classic Deliverance, published in 1970. (In the 1972 film, the iconic use of “Dueling Banjos” might be more authentic with Bob Dylan irreverently looking over the scene playing the moonshiner-in-charge of the party, all before the adventure goes to hell.) Yet Poison Melody from the oft-banjo-led Curtis Eller’s American Circus has much in common with Dickey’s dark observations of humanity. Eller sets an aura of disgust to his music, unravelling societal perceptions note by note.

Rich with eleven songs that meander through an amalgamation of roots Americana, Eller delivers his signature banjo, lead vocals, and resophonic tenor guitar serving as a solid foundation for Dana Marks’ and Stacy Wolfson’s harmony vocals. A cacophony of instrumentation comes alive from Hugh Crumley (electric & upright bass), Jack Fleishman (drums, percussion), Steve Cowles (tenor saxophone, flute), Danny Grewen (trombone), Danny Abrams (baritone saxophone, clarinet), William Dawson (vibraphone), and Tom Merrigan (piano). Yeah, this is an instrumentation circus of the best kind; the band adds lush, precise sounds with Eller as a deft guide.

When I asked Eller what music turns him on, it’s no surprise that he mentioned Randy Newman’s name. Eller and Newman share an acerbic eye on society, as tone-setting opener “Radiation Poison” shows. Strutting out with sarcastic wit, this track demands that listeners pay attention. However, the celebratory arrangement induces listeners to start toe tapping, too. With the song beautifully punctuated by baritone sax, trombone, and vocal harmonies, it’s hard to remember the lyrical context is not pleasant. Jazzing up the catastrophe seems to make global warming feel less hellish, right?

Stark, expansive imagery has the space to breathe like in works of Bob Dylan, another songwriter known to inspire Eller. Halfway through, “Pay the Band” starts into a laid-back, piano-focused track elevating a jazzy speakeasy to a mob club with a killer trombone solo. Fun and disturbing in that prohibition style, this is a masterclass showcase.

Often, a minimal touch is the best a songwriter can give to a great song to make it soar out of this world. The subtle title track bears it out: the track is perfect. Uncluttered imagery embraces simple instrumentation supported by restrained production choices. Dave Tilley recorded and engineered the record with stylistic restraint at Bogue Sound Studios & Studio M. Mixing by Joseph Dejarnette at Studio 808A and Mike Monseur’s subtle mastering leave a raw, authentic soul to each note of instrumentation.

Cuts that contrast these minimal takes–like the upbeat “Union Hall” (praising fanaticism as patriotism like marching orders) and “These Birds”–are sequencing genius for listeners who prefer an immersive experience in a musician’s art. “No Soap Radio” pulls in that speakeasy grind, and the track climbs to near-perfection; Eller, Wolfson, and Marks deliver clean, authentic vocal deliveries here.

“Lenny Bruce” stands out on an album loaded with social commentary with smart restraint. The subtle, smart imagery of this lyrical powerhouse does not need distractions. Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” is a dark, dank trip through hell that brings listeners back to a place where images of survival easily find footing in the soul. Raw and real, each trudge through Deliverance with flute and banjo accompaniment make the jungles of life endurable.

Wandering into the sunlight with a snarky, sardonic celebration, Curtis Eller’s bookends “Before the Riot” and “After the Riot” are lovely, enough said! Closing out Poison Melody with “No Words to Choose” seems a fitting departure point. Achingly sweet, this simple homage to truth seems to be channeling the influences of artists like Newman. A haunting crescendo of closing distortion makes the anger feel tangible beyond the closing crashing chords and vocals clipped into silence of this latest American Circus chapter.–Lisa Whealy

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Premiere: Kelley McLachlan’s “Only Thing We Share”

May 23, 2019

Spartan, desperate-sounding ballads can be low on dignity, but Kelley McLachlan‘s “Only Thing We Share” falls on the elegant side of the tally.

Credit: Perrin Skinner

The tune features nothing but rich piano, subtle guitar, and an engaging duet between McLachlan and male vocalist Mario McClean; out of that minimalist palette, McLachlan weaves a reverb-heavy tune of maximum gravitas.

Both the vocalists have beautiful tones with which to sing beautiful melodies; McLachlan’s voice uses a big range and dramatic nuance on the delivery to great success. McClean’s round, sonorous voice counterpoints beautifully with McLachlan’s more direct tone. The two intertwine to create an excellent duet over the simple, satisfying arrangement.

Ultimately, the piece is carefully arranged and performed so as to avoid a maudlin touch; this is delicate, elegant sadness. Fans of The Civil Wars will jump up and take notice, while fans of sad folk songs everywhere will hear the requisite sadness to draw them in.

“Only Thing We Share” comes from the forthcoming Misty Valley, which comes out May 31. Misty Valley was recorded in Columbia, SC at Slow Radio. On the record, McLachlan is joined by Idris Chandler, Ethan Fogus, Kristen Harris (The Boomtown Waifs), Steven Harrod & Branhan Lowther (both of Slim Pickens), Mario McLean, Steve Nuzum, Brodie Porterfield, and Sean Thomson. If you’re near West Columbia, South Carolina on Saturday June 1, you can (probably) hear this track live at Kelley McLachlan’s Album Release Party with The Restoration and midimarc at Blue Moon Ballroom (doors at 7:30pm, $10).

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May Spotify Playlist Part 1

May 15, 2019

My May Spotify Playlist has a lot going on, so it’s going to take a few posts to unravel. Here’s the first installation.

Music for Museum Gift Shops – Lullatone. I love Lullatone’s twee instrumental work for its carefully stylized approach to delicate, childlike wonder. There are so many different charming sounds in a Lullatone track that it’s hard for me to guess how the tracks were made. That is, until this release. This very long album takes many, many Lullatone songs, including some of my favorites, and delivers solo piano versions. I can’t say whether these were written on solo piano or translated into the style for this record, but it’s surprising and interesting to hear the work stripped down to its basics. Those who love the flourishes and garnishes may find this work to be a bit spartan, but it definitely shows off that Lullatone’s strength isn’t just in arrangements–they have some strong melodies and chord structures to go along with it. Fans of solo piano will find this very interesting, while fans of Lullatone should also take note.

Weightless / Divisions – Anthene. Slow-moving, heavily atmospheric ambient music with a gentle bent. I like working to this quite a bit, as it fills the air with gentle moods but doesn’t invade my thinking. It facilitates, which is what great ambient does.

Fragments – Altars Altars. Appropriately titled, this ambient album is chock full of subtly woozy sections and little bits of ideas that are not strung out to traditionally ambient lengths (many of the tracks here are under two minutes). There’s not a lot in the way of melody here, as the subtly varied textures of the work are more important than traditional melodies. There’s a lot of tape hiss used as a backdrop, which evokes ideas of memory and history. The elegant album art furthers the concept. Overall the work is a careful, delicate, intimate, organic piece of work.

If You Are Who You Say – The Jonah Project. Bryan Diver from Drift Wood Miracle is back with a new album as The Jonah Project, and it is an incredible album. One minute I was mowing my lawn and the next I was crying in the middle of a Christian emo record. The Jonah Project’s If You Are Who You Say is the best Christian music I’ve heard since Ars Moriendi. The lyrics are Jesus-oriented but don’t cross out the difficulty of life; each song is a first-person narrative of a biblical character with a coda that explains artfully how the story points toward Jesus. The emo-rock is really good; the guitar work is excellent and Diver’s vocals are excellent in the context. There’s also some acoustic tracks thrown in there (“David,” “Abraham”). It made me shiver, made me cry, and made me want to pray.”Esther,” “Elijah,” “Adam,” and “Mary” gave me serious feels. He’s just so good lyrically–he took a huge leap on this record. It’s a fantastic record in a genre that I got tired of because everything sounded rote to me. Well, this one is not rote.

Sources – Eric Wollo. I’m astonished that these tracks were all created in the mid-’80s and early ’90s; these exploratory ambient pieces sound vital and contemporary. There’s a lot of pointillist, precise synthesizer here, which is unique (“Soft Journey,” “Under Water”), but the main appeal are the laconic, dreamy, lush layers of sound on tracks like “The Near Future” and “Ody at Sea”. Some of these latter type of tracks are so smooth as to feel almost beat-less; simply tapestries instead of tunes. Because this is a collection of tunes instead of a proper album, there are a few pieces that show off the same concepts or ideas in mildly tweaked form; however, that’s the only mark on this record. Otherwise, it’s a remarkably beautiful record.

Upcoming Releases!

May 13, 2019

Conclusion – Takénobu. Nick Ogawa’s latest outing as Takénobu is a relaxing, peaceful experience. The layers of looped cello and delicate vocal performances from Ogawa mesh together perfectly into a hushed-but-powerful collection of tunes. That Ogawa can make a whole album out of (primarily) a single instrument and voices that doesn’t feel repetitive or aimless is a testament to Ogawa’s compositional prowess. The tunes here move through many different moods and styles; staccato pizzicato, legato bowing, and staccato bowing all intersect and meld throughout the record.

The performances of the compositions are equally stunning: in turns moving (“Conclusive”), energetic (“Fight to Make It Up”), charming (“Glorious Harmonious”) and impressive (“Dark in the City”), Ogawa and collaborators pour their emotions into the individual takes that compose the recorded product. Conclusion is a warm, comforting, compelling release, driven by the deep compositional expertise of Ogawa. It’s the rare time when Neo-classical composition, experimental ideas, and indie-pop music come together into something that fans of all three types of music can appreciate. Conclusion releases May 24.

Spiritual 2 Tengger. Tengger describes their work as “new age drone magic.” I can definitely get behind the “drone magic” part of the description. Spiritual 2 is indeed at its heart a collection of drones, but there’s an almost kraut-rock-ian sense of motorik drive and synth sweep that make this a very magical set of drones. This isn’t a set of glacially-paced tones, nor is it a “big clouds of synths” ambient release. Instead, there are arpeggiators, vocal melody fragments, big swoops of synths, and even percussion (of a sort) creating the soundscapes. These are drones, and perhaps even good to meditate to. But you can also drive to tunes like “High,” “Middle” and the 16-minute conclusion (and highlight track) “Wasserwellen.”

Those who like their drones pure, slow, and minimalist need not apply: if such a thing is possible, this is maximalist drone. Coincidentally, those who are not convinced that drone is for them should find Tengger’s work an appealing place to start; there are melodies, moods, and bits to hang your hat on throughout the record. A novel, intriguing record. Highly recommended. Spiritual 2 comes out June 7 on Beyond Beyond is Beyond.

In This Pilgrim WayWilder Adkins. Adkins has a phone-book voice: I love the sound of his heartfelt, evocative tenor so much that he could sing the phone book and I would listen. In his last release (my 2016 album of the year), he used his gorgeous voice on deeply personal thoughts of religion and romance. On his latest, he turns his attention to the Baptist Hymnal. Some of you, religious or no, may be headed for the hills at this point, but bear with Adkins; even if JPH’s hell verses is more your acoustic cup of tea, the sheer loveliness of Adkins’ voice is enough to transform some of these (very) well-worn standards into new experiences.

The arrangements help. Instead of diving into blocky piano chords, Adkins translates the hymns into his folky, dreamy oeuvre. The resulting tunes are loose, open, spacious, flowing, organic arrangements that nod to the source material (few of the melodies have been altered) but also fit this into a contemporary intimate folk space.

However, Adkins’ bona fides are not in question here. He doesn’t shirk the hardest songs, the Baptist staples that any collection of Baptist hymns is going to include: “Just As I Am,” “In the Garden,” “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” and “Softly and Tenderly” are all here. (The only one missing here is “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus,” basically.) There are some deeper cuts, a setting of the Lord’s Prayer, and an instrumental, but the core of this record is Wilder Sings the Baptist Hits. It proves his immense vocal and arranging talent that a record of that is such a lovely and endearing listen. In This Pilgrim Way releases July 26.

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Premiere: JPH’s hell verses

May 10, 2019

I have a deep respect for people who blaze their own paths. It’s one thing to excel at a skill that falls in a long line of artists, to carry that torch valiantly off into the future. It’s admirable, and you can often find a lot of people who liked the Beatles who will like your Beatles-inspired psych.

On the other hand, there’s outsider music, music by trailblazers for whomever comes across it and connects with it. Outsider music can range from inoffensively strange (like Half-handed Cloud) to totally inscrutable (Jandek); sometimes it’s the lyrics that are arcane, sometimes it’s the arrangement that’s inexplicable. Sometimes it’s both.

JPH’s hell verses taps an outsider vein for the lyrical content of the three-song EP: it’s exclusively the words of Jesus Christ (ok, what’s so weird?) about hell (ok, there we are). Picking the words that Jesus said about hell is ambitious (even in a three-song EP). There’s the question of why, for starters. Why would you want to put those words to song? Are you saying something? Making a point? Is the point that Jesus said only three things about hell, here they are, let’s stop making a big deal out of hell when he said so many other words about so many other things? Or maybe it’s literal: here is the word on what hell is like. Maybe it’s a socio-political commentary: now feels like the right time to remind people what hell is like, either to draw comparisons or contrasts to our contemporary moment. Helpfully, JPH gave me a statement on the EP:

“As for a comment on the album, Jesus’ words, especially in King James English, give hell a tarot-like mystery, one that feels close to my experience with the barren parts of life.”

So there’s at least an element of personal allegory/metaphor here, but I feel more. There’s the element of mystery, tarot-like mystery; mysterious is one thing when describing Jesus, but dropping in the tarot right next to Jesus is bold and fascinating. And the King James, of all translations–the King James has such cultural weight, much more than a contemporary translation like the ESV might. Even in the statement about why such an unusual concept exists, the questions abound.

But writing an EP about hell is not just complicated in the choice of lyrics. How should one put a backdrop to the words of Jesus about hell? Josh Ritter major-key folk tunes maybe aren’t right. The doom metallers and death metallers have the fire-and-brimstone market well-cornered. But then there’s JPH’s statement itself: mystery. And lo, mystery it is. These three tracks are ostensibly acoustic folk songs, but there is no stomping or clapping here. These are intimate, delicate, stark, minor-key songs that draw as much from slowcore like Jason Molina as they do Simon and Garfunkel (and there is some S&G in the vocal performances, which is basically the lot of anyone doing two male vocals in the same song, thanks for playing, everyone).

“Matthew 13:49-50” (more famously known as one of the places where we get the English idiom “weeping and gnashing of teeth”) is just as I described above: a single acoustic guitar and two male vocal lines harmonizing. The two vocal lines are almost both lead lines, as both contribute meaningfully to the sound of the song. Neither are “supporting” each other, per se. The music is not discomforting, but neither is it comforting: it is a piece of art that makes a statement. It is oddly beautiful.

“Luke 16:19-31” is much more experimental: it’s a big stack of a cappella lines repeated ostinato-style for almost two and a half minutes. JPH is a fan of mid-century modern composing styles, and this composition shows that off. To do this entirely with vocals is a unique and interesting turn. The “melody” appears around 1:30, and it’s a wailing, anguished thing that sets raw emotion against the hypnotic obstinate pastiche that the vocal lines have created. This sounds more like Napoleon’s hell in C.S. Lewis’ the Great Divorce instead of the pit that is described in the lyrics; Napoleon endlessly considering how he could have won at Waterloo, pacing, pacing, pacing.

“Mark 9:48-49” is a return to interleaved vocal lines over a moderately minor key acoustic performance. The vocal performances here have an almost medieval quality to the tone and melody; the work here is more overtly ominous than the previous two tracks. This is the “salted with fire” idiom that you may be familiar with; so there’s good reason to be a bit more overtly scary.

Most people read reviews to determine if they should listen to something or not. I think that if the overall concept of hell verses left any doubt, then a short summary like “three songs about hell in an acoustic-folk style with engaging vocal performances” probably would have covered that particular concern. But I’m more interested in this work as a piece of art; not as something to listen to on the commute, but something to commune with. How do you sit with this? What does it say to you? I think it could say something to a lot more people than will sit and listen to it. But for those of you who do seek out adventurous musical experiences and don’t fret about ambiguity, complexity, and unusual approaches, there is a lot here to understand and think about.

For me it raises all sorts of questions about how artists can say what they want to say without saying it outright. Whether this is a commentary on a dark period in JPH’s life, a commentary on our American political situation, or the climate-changing world, or somehow all of that, none of that is explicitly noted. But it comes up in my mind as I listen. The concept, music, and lyrics are highly evocative. I’m particularly interested in music that says things I haven’t heard before and puts sounds in front of me that I’m not used to. Both of these boxes are checked with hell verses, and that makes this a very interesting release. Highly recommended.

JPH’s hell verses drops May 27 at Bandcamp. You can download the release there or pick up one of a cassette run that includes a physical-only bonus track! If you’re looking for even more JPH, he’ll be touring in the fall and releasing music videos here and there until then.

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Premiere: Lucy Isabel

May 7, 2019

I love a good wide-open, rollicking, soaring folk-rock song. It’s why I loved early Dawes and why later Dawes is less interesting to me. It’s why the organ is one of my favorite instruments in a folk tune. It’s why I love Lucy Isabel‘s “How It Goes.” This song is a long series of high moments, pregnant pauses, and exultant refrains, led by Isabel’s powerful voice and underscored by a blazing organ. It’s the sort of song where you hope the final chorus is just everybody going for it at once, and lo, so it is.

(Photo credit: Andrea Morgan)

The structure of the song is a standard one, which in this case makes the song feel like a warm, comfy shirt. You kind of know what’s going to happen here as soon as that first chorus hits, but it’s the satisfying sort of knowing. This song gives you the map and delivers on that promise in a big, powerful blast of folk-rock glee.

As you might expect for something so triumphant-sounding, it’s a breakup song.

But it’s more than that, Lucy explains in this short Q&A:

What is the story behind this song? What prompted you to write it?
I first started writing “How It Goes” while on tour in the summer of 2018. I was playing a run of shows in the West, and I was surrounded by mountains for a pretty lengthy stretch of time. I grew up at the beach and, while I’ve been around mountains before, something about this trip was hitting me differently. I started thinking about how amazing it was to be surrounded by something so monumental. But I kept coming back to the feeling that I would never feel at home so far from the ocean. The chorus came from that thought process and the rest just sort of followed.

What do you hope this song’s message is to listeners who hear it?
I wrote the majority of the song pretty quickly, but I got hung up on the final verse for a little while. My husband would hear me playing what I had so far over and over, and one day he offered to try to help me finish it. He’s not a musician and I didn’t end up using any of his ideas, but it was actually helpful to me because he thought the song was meant to be a sad/breakup song just based on reading the lyrics. And that’s not what I meant for it at all. For me, it’s a triumph. It’s about standing by someone and doing your best to understand them. It’s about the hope that they’ll do the same for you.

Do you have a favorite lyric line from the song?
I think my favorite lyric from the song is the beginning of the final verse: “I wish for you patience. And I wish for you peace.” It may be partly because it took me so long to get that verse out, and it was such a relief when I finally did. But I think it also goes beyond that. When I think about the things that I want for the people I love, it’s that they’re able to live their lives peacefully. Happiness is great, but I think you’ll get a lot farther in life when you find a way to be okay with the things that are out of your control.

“How It Goes” drops May 10, while its full album Rambling Stranger arrives June 14. You can catch Lucy Isabel on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Spotify.

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Andrew Bird’s My Finest Work Yet

May 6, 2019

My Finest Work Yet, Andrew Bird’s latest on Loma Vista, follows up 2017’s Echolocation River with a much different tone. He’s much more direct as a songwriter here, with each word a direct message toward society’s ills.

Producer Paul Butler captured each note on tape, recording the multi-instrumentalist composer at Bareroot Studios in Los Angeles. Guests in addition to producer Butler include Tyler Chester on piano and organs (playing a prominent role on the album), Alan Hampton on bass, Blake Mills on guitar (with Mike Viola contributing guitar on “Archipelago”), Ted Poor materfully delivering lush instrumentation, and Abraham Rounds on drums. Madison Cunningham adds subtle vocal performances throughout the record, adding to the lyrical power.

Andrew Bird is not wasting any time. He opens with “Sisyphus,” a reference to the cruel Greek king punished and forced to push a rock uphill, only to find it rolling back down. “Sisyphus” may not have been the song I would have chosen to set the tone for the record, but the message seems clear. The heavy-handed mix juxtaposed against light whistling suggests the contradictions and  juxtapositions that are to come musically in My Finest Work Yet. Listeners are first introduced to Chester’s stunning, joyful piano work here, and rightly so.

The caustic “Bloodless” cuts as the lead single, truly throwing down the gauntlet. Bird’s anthemic vocal take here contrasts with restraint as the building block for the rest of record. References to 1936 drive the smokey club groove, as some of the best violin composition in rock music weaves through the measures of a jazz-infused vibe. Opening with piano and pizzicato violin weaving through a call to arms for humanity’s soul, an uncivil war is really what we face in the world today. Historically, art and music scream out the horrors in our culture long before institutions break down in chaos. Who’s listening?

“Olympians” soars with hope musically, an upbeat tempo driving an almost frenetic pace that eventually drops into an abyss. Is this our society’s war on anything that changes how we feel? Contrasting this with “Cracking Codes” suggests a feeling of hope. Back to lighthearted pizzicato halfway through the album, this is a warm embrace. Orchestral beauty reassures each contradiction within the lyrics, suggesting Bird knows how different this blatant authenticity may be for his fans.

“Fallorun” weaves lush string textures punctuated with a masterclass in piano. Every album has a song that settles in and calls to me, and “Archipelago” is that one track. Poetry set to music, this is perfection in so many ways. History, metaphor and literature all combine to become an art piece that haunts the soul. To be better than we thought we could be, rather than succumb. Sheer brilliance I say!

Sequencing is an important aspect of any great record and “Proxy War” has its place towards the back end of the album. Virtual cloud-based reality: hey, we’re living it, right–but is it real? Packing a punch heading out of this collection, Bird shines the spotlight in “Manifest,” continuing an analysis of our world, virtual or not. He’s calling us all out with lyrics that suggest that the truth is out there.

An orchestral marching band trudges on urging “Don the Struggle” with heavy, purposeful encouragement. Somehow, Bird’s vocals seem almost loving with his Christ-like forgiveness. Fighting his way to the finish musically, piano, violin, and warm cello create a celebratory soundtrack to his message. Recognizing the power of his art, “Bellevue Bridge Club” is a thinking man’s closing remarks on a seemingly insane world. His world held hostage, the songwriter suggests the Stockholm Syndrome is to blame for a blindness to each other’s suffering. Soft and sweet, this lullaby offers a solution to the chaos of the world that he so directly tackles on this record. —Lisa Whealy. 

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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.

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