Some bands stay the same. Better bands tweak their sound between albums. The best bands evolve, putting out a musical diary of a life in progress. We still listen to Wilco because no one knows what’s coming next- the same thing with Radiohead. We love bands that we can’t pin down.
That’s why Fairmont is so good. When I first heard their new release Hell is Other People, I was shocked. My critic flags went up, and epithets were soon scrawled out in big letters on imaginary walls: “Where’s the acoustic guitar?” “Why is there a bassist?” “Why is Fairmont rocking?” and most of all “What possessed them to tone down the vocals?”
Yes, Fairmont hasn’t just tweaked their sound. They have given it an extreme makeover, and while it hurt at first, I think that the wrinkles have smoothed out in my perception of this album. Yes, it is way different then Anomie, which is still my favorite indie rock CD of all-time, but it’s also very strong in its own right. It retains many of the qualities that I liked about Anomie, but with different focus. Anomie is about being bitter- the acoustic guitar jangled in an angry way, the vocals were a nasally sneer, absence of bass lent an urgency to the sound, and the fey way in which they pulled it all off made Anomie a near-perfect snapshot of the Neil Sabatino mind. It is a virtually flawless album in many ways.
Hell Is Other People, despite the more bitter-sounding title, actually focuses more on making cohesive music than just being bitter. The songs, now fleshed out with the talents of John McGuire on bass, feature two electric guitars instead of the old acoustic/electric configuration. And, sin of sins, they’ve pulled the vocals down in the mix to more coherently mesh with the music. The result is an album of indie-rock that retains much of the Fairmont songwriting style, but sounds much more polished and ‘normal’ than the Anomie-era Fairmont did.
Is that polish a bad thing? It’s up to the listener to decide. It’s like saying, “Is the switch from ‘voice of a generation’ OK Computer to the self-indulgent Kid A good or bad?” There’s people on both sides. Some people will point at “The Monster You’ve Become” and say that it’s the dark, harmonic rock sound that Fairmont seemed to be aspiring towards on Anomie– others will point to “Monday” and scream that Fairmont would have never made a stab at such a generic rock sound on their previous album.
There are songs here that showcase the brilliance of Fairmont- The dark, overbearing tones of “Hypochondriac” hearken towards bright things for the rocking side of Fairmont. “Twenty/Twenty” allows the unique vocals of Neil Sabatino to shine -complete with vibrato, snarl, and weird melodies- in the context of rock. That’s where Fairmont should be heading. And no matter what anyone says, Neil Sabatino’s voice is great. You will never forget it, and you’ll hum along with it. Therefore, it’s great.
So is the polish a good thing? I would say yes, because, all points considered, Hell is Other People is a good album. It’s a great album to drive to, you’ll get some of it stuck in your head, and you’ll be able to relate to a lot of the lyrics. They’re not all bitter- in fact, only “The Monster You’ve Become”, “Your Pictures on My Dartboard”, and “4th of July” even approach becoming caustic.
If the point of a review is to decide whether to buy a CD or not, I say buy this- no question. Fairmont will always be light-years ahead of the average indie band. But back to theoretical musing- could Hell is Other People be Fairmont’s The Bends before they accomplish their OK Computer? Only time will tell. Hopefully they’ll keep evolving and the next album will show us a completely different side of Fairmont.
Fairmont is a highly prolific indie band out of NJ. They soon will boast 2 full lengths and 4 Eps…all in under two years. This a prerelease/EP for the newest full length. They feature lead acoustic guitar, backup clean electric guitar, bass and drums. It’s a very fresh sounding mix, as we see here…
“Sometimes I’m Bitter” efficiently displays their acoustic-led melodic indie rock style. The vocal style is indescribable, and on some songs it works, and others it doesn’t. This is one where it works. Female backup vocals are a great touch, as they really make the song what it is: a rocking, pop influenced, catchy song. Introducing a higher, raw, and less focused vocal style is “True Love Waits”. This is one of the tracks where the vocals don’t work. The breakdown introduces a melodic percussion instrument, and shines as the best feature of this song. They twist the cliché very well. “Knock Me Out” features the acoustic sound most out of all these songs. All around, this is the best sounding song on the album, as the breakdown is satisfying, and the electric guitar work throughout is impressive. The vocals here are fantastic, and the backup vocals accompany perfectly. Every good emo band needs one, and “The Last Time…” is Fairmont’s classic breakup song. Midway through, it features a short but cool electric solo before lapsing into the lead riff, an electric melody with an acoustic fingerpicking. The vocals are medium here…not bad, but not great either. The lyrics have a nice tribute to SemiSonic in them, probably accidental, but I noticed it.
Overall, I found this to be a very enjoyable CD. Everything was great except the vocals. They were good, but they didn’t work in some places, which lowered the overall experience. Still, a spectacular indie rock CD. 7.5 out of 10.
Best feature: Diversity, beauty, and originality all rolled into one.
Genre: Indie Rock
Label: Reinforcement Records
Fairmont is one ambitious indie rock band. They sport electric guitar, acoustic guitar, drums, and no bassist. Just to add to the challenge, their genre of choice is a highly stylized brand of indie rock, ala Elliot Smith and Joseph Arthur. With the odds stacked against them, it seems that Fairmont has given themselves an ultimatum: become indie rock gods along with Smith and Arthur, or fade off into oblivion.
I can, in good confidence, vouch for the former.
Anomie is basically divided into two sections: the first half a dose of high-strung rock, the second a brilliant session of low-key mellow songs. The first half of the album is solid, with their interesting, quirky rock taking the spotlight. The second half is where they really shine, as their mellow picking, tempo jumping, and strong command of melody and countermelody come to the focus.
Their rock is complex in various ways, from odd chord progressions to multiple vocal tracks to weaving guitar lines. It sounds cluttered, but they do a good job of pushing the most important elements to the front without diminishing the power of the backing elements. This makes it focused and extremely aurally pleasing.
The vocals here are another distinguishing feature. Equal parts pinched yelp, nasal whine, over-the-top vibrato, and slurry notes, it is the definition of unique. It takes a couple listens to get used to, but in the end, the vocals are irresistible. They are most unique when he’s convicted about what he’s singing, such as in “Sometimes I’m Bitter” or the emotionally charged “Burn the Churches”.
When he accompanies more mellow fare, his voice is lower and more pop-friendly, which makes for some truly beautiful songs (“Knock Me Out”, “2:37 a.m.”). In fact, “2:37 a.m.” is one of the most heart-wrenching songs I’ve heard in a long time, as the hopeless lyrics, the forlorn vocal delivery, and delicate arrangement work together in an eerie way.
There are many moments like that on this album, moments where you just stare in awe at nothing cause the sound is just so perfect. “The Last Time” has a stellar ending, “Artemis” has a riveting chorus, “Saved Me” has an excellent intro, the entire 48 seconds of “Hello Kitty” are fantastic, and the list of moments goes on and on.
This is an album that should be everywhere. It should be in every indie-rock fanatic’s player, and burned to every computer. This is an album that will have your head spinning. The members of Fairmont are on their way to becoming indie rock gods in the eyes of the public. I know they’re already immortalized in my mind.
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.
1. “Seven Hells” – Quiet Company. If English goes through other languages’ pockets looking for spare grammar, Quiet Company has gone through the pockets of various rock genres (’00s garage, southern rock, alt-country, mid-’00s indie-rock-pop) for components to this excellent tune.
2. “As You Fall” – Heil Hipster. Speaking of ’00s garage, this tune has a walloping dose of brittle guitar, danceable rhythms, and just the right amount of outrage and ominous overtones.
3. “Waves Erase” – Reservoir. Yo, it would be hard to get any more Mare Vitalis than this, which is a pretty heavy compliment from over here.
4. “Take Me to the River” – Dr!ve. You gotta love a slinky/sexy/fun dance track with a hook you can chant, a beat you know and love, and cheerful melodies.
5. “Another Night” – Teen Daze. My favorite started-as-chillwave outfit has gotten downright clubby with this track, as the arpeggiated ’80s synths over an insistent beat throw Daze in a whole new direction. Get it.
6. “Unmistakeable” – In Tall Buildings. Some songs are meant to rock, and some are meant to vibe. This one vibes so hard, with a funk-lite guitar line, delicate synth patterns, and breathy vocals.
7. “Is This Hotel Haunted?” – Wild Pink. Rumbling, grumbling, twitchy, herky-jerky power-pop from the purveyor of IC faves Challenger; the same melodic and rhythmic gifts that made Challenger so cool are on display here.
8. “Love & War” – Fairmont. Fairmont rocks out more than they have in a long while, delivering up a towering slice of indie-rock that’s still built off their most recent songwriting foundation of acoustic guitar, indie-pop ideals, and Neil Sabatino’s vocals.
I’ve covered digital label Mint 400 Records before, because I think they do great work in the lo-fi indie/lo-fi folk realm and because they have an interesting business model. The label’s latest compilation Patchwork shows off 17 of their bands, giving a pretty good snapshot of what they’re doing. (Disclosure: I’m the manager of The Duke of Norfolk, who is signed to Mint 400.)
The lo-fi work doesn’t disappoint: Sink Tapes, Fairmont, and The Maravines all have compelling offerings near the beginning of the album. The Multi-Purpose Solution and The Mai 68s hold down the end of the record, making sure you didn’t forget about the indie-rock. The acoustic-based work is also exciting, as newcomer Murzik adds an attention-grabbing piano-and-voice entry. Dave Charles sings a chill song that references Star Wars and sounds like some sort of early Jason Mraz tune. Cropduster provides another standout, with a gravelly, creaking voice over an acoustic guitar until it explodes into a grungy sort of thing for a bit.
Cropduster’s rock isn’t an isolated thing: the label has developed some loud leanings. Shallows’ “Always” is aggressive, dissonant guitar rock that borders on post-hardcore; Tri-State’s tune is straight-up guitar rock; and Jack Skuller contributes some rockabilly with ’50s vocal leanings. Mint 400 has grown from a small label with a specific niche to a widely diverse roster of bands, and Patchwork shows off the best of all of them. Check it out at iTunes or Spotify.
In the new music landscape, traditional models are modifying, morphing and changing. The record label is one of those pieces that is stretching. Neil Sabatino, owner of Mint 400 Records and songwriter in the band Fairmont, was kind enough to give Independent Clauses a long interview about the pros and cons of digital labels. (Mint 400 is the label of The Duke of Norfolk, whom I manage.)
How did you start Mint 400 Records?
Mint 400 Records was originally a joke. I would use it as my fake label that I said Fairmont was on when we were in between labels. I didn’t really intend to start a record label at the time when I first came up with the name. Then as I started working with a digital distributor he had told me he was signing me up to digital distribution as a label because Fairmont had so many releases at the time, and it got us around a loop hole that allowed us to control the digital distro for every record we had ever put out.
At first I planned on only releasing my own band’s material. I finally asked the question to our digital distro, “Can we help our friends put out their records through our digital distro deal?” The answer was yes, and the rest is history.
How does a digital label like Mint 400 differ from a traditional record label? What do you offer bands?
Mint 400 basically is focused on keeping the bands out of debt, hence releasing very little physical content and being about 95% digital. Occasionally the label has put out physical records for a select band or two and has helped other bands who have pressed their own material to get physical distribution but because of the way that the industry has changed it doesn’t benefit small bands anymore to press anything. One of the things I wanted to do when I first started out was to be able to sign a band, bring them to my home studio and engineer and produce their record for free. Then I wanted to be able to use my art background to design their album art, web page, and other media.
In addition Mint 400 tries to help here and there with PR and tour dates. So basically without costing myself any money only my time, I was able to give a band that had nothing a pretty good start. That was in the early days and now that we have grown we also started working with Pirate Radio Promotions who were nice enough to give us a very indie friendly rate to promote our records to college radio and specialty radio.
This in addition to licensing deals set up specifically for Mint 400 Records artists have been the things we offer bands that a lot of other labels can’t offer. Through a lot of trial and error I have found the most cost effective ways to spend on a band’s release without breaking the bank for them or for myself. I honestly believe that through being on a label like mine, prolific, talented bands are given a chance to grow exponentially and with my help can elevate themselves to the point where they can continue on as a band for many years. For some I will be the stepping stone for them to get to the next step bigger label.
Why should bands get involved with a digital label? What would they benefit? What types of bands would benefit?
I think bands who are prolific are the bands who will benefit the most from a label like mine. A normal label wouldn’t dream of letting you release more then one thing a year because they like to be paid back before moving onto the next thing. Through Mint 400 because we try to handle everything in house we encourage bands to release as many things as possible and they reap the rewards by having that material available for licensing and for radio. For this reason we have a lot of amazing songwriters that have the ability to record their own material and this limits them only to how much material they can write in a year. The bands who won’t benefit from my label are the ones who think they are the next big thing, we don’t buy into any aspect of the major label or even major indie label way of doing things. I would say my label is the most punk rock label that releases almost no punk rock music.
Digital labels get maligned as not as good as traditional labels. What would you say the biggest misconception about digital labels is? I have been in my current band for 13 years now and have released something in every year of our existence, some years we even did two releases. My concern has always been to hone my craft and release as many great records as possible. That is all I really care about and is what I want the artists on my label to care about. The point for me is I have been able to have my records heard by people for over a decade and most bands can’t say that. I want to offer that gift to like minded songwriters who know that their humble songs deserve to be heard.
We are willing to get involved with an artist even if they only have recorded in the bedroom and never done anything else. Amazing songwriting is our concern, and I feel at some point there will be a backlash against the bands who spend millions on records to sound like a perfect robotic auto tuned version of themselves. It will always come back to tremendous musicians who write tremendous songs. I would never hold it against an artist who wants to work the stable 9 to 5 job, have a family and a house but still write records. Just because an artist is stable and doesn’t want to tour and be away from his loved ones for months on end doesn’t mean his work holds any less merit then a major label act.
If someone wanted to start a digital label, what would it take? What goes into creating a digital label?
If someone was looking to just start a digital label I would say all that matters is you have bands that you believe in. For me it helps that I have a background in art which translates to the ability to be able to help bands with everything from videos to web & album design. The other things like producing and engineering records took a lot of hard work to get good at and if you are hoping to do what I do and produce and engineer your label’s releases then I suggest putting in ten plus years in an indie band where you learn from seasoned veterans.
It doesn’t hurt that being in a band you get to learn what kinds of things get you heard more, like radio campaigns, and which things are wastes of time and money. However I would never discourage someone who has drive from attempting to start a digital record label. The only thing that really matters is how good your ear is and will you know an amazing songwriter when you hear one? I pretty much started the label with no cash up front, I mean it did help though that I had already spent thousands on the Fairmont records that became the initial first batch of what Mint 400 released. For the entrepreneur, I would say get good at everything so you can do it in house and cheaply and then you are ready to start your own label. The distro, the radio, the licensing will all come later if you have quality bands.
I don’t want to misrepresent the label at all, so I will disclose that you are going to need to pretty much spend all of your extra cash for a very long time on things for the label. However if you are smart about it and don’t exceed your limitations, then you can pretty much spend what you make to keep upgrading the label. I would say the label has grown tenfold with respects to earnings over our 8-year history and we try to then grow that money by putting back into the label.
A ton of great singles have come my way in January, so I thought I’d put them all in one big post arranged quiet to loud. Enjoy!
1. “Pacific (Acoustic)” – Indigo Wild. Were you looking for a rolling, intricate, acoustic mountain jam? Like Fleet Foxes if they were less hazy, this will make you long for the pines.
2. “Anna” – Daniel G. Harmann. After graduating his solo project The Trouble Starts up to a full-on rock outfit, Harmann gives old-school fans a few tracks that hearken back to his early, dreamy days. His trembling, soaring voice over spare guitar chords is just wonderful to these ears.
4. “Slow & Easy” – Scott H. Biram. Less gospel and more ominous vibes mark the second Biram single off Nothin’ But Blood. It’s still incredibly engaging, what with the crisp production and Biram’s voice.
5. “Celeste” – Ezra Vine. If you’re of the opinion that you can never have enough hand claps, whoa-ohs, and happy melodies, raise your hand. Then lower that hand and click on this peppy, wonderful tune.
6. “Girl Don’t Fight It” – Phone Home. Optimistic, keys-heavy, proggy indie-rock in the vein of Fang Island, And So I Watch You From Afar, and others. It’s giddy and heavy and intelligent!
7. “Planets” – Little Earthquake. Peppy acoustic-pop + massive MGMT synth melodies = this unique song.
9. “Violent Shooting Stars” – Robot Princess. Mostly RP is a heavy, exuberant, video-game-infused garage-pop band (WEEZER FOREVER!!). This track puts them more in a pensive mood (at least for them) before ratcheting up to some stomping guitars. Get your power-pop on, dudes.
10. “Bird in the Water” – The Trouble Starts. Harmann’s band, throwing down pop-rock a la Snow Patrol. This would be fun to hear live.
11. “Tangle” – Acid Fast. Starts out with a nostalgic, emo-esque half-time section, then blasts off into a punk rock second half. The melodies bounce off those basement walls with almost more cymbals and passion than you can handle.
I was having lunch with a friend my age (mid-20s) a few weeks ago. He got a bachelor’s degree in music and now works as the music director at the church I go to. The topic veered toward orchestral music, which my friend lamented as dying. “I go to the symphony, and I’m the youngest person there by 30 years!” he said with frustration. And it’s true; composers aren’t the sexy, rebellious Liszts of old; hipsters don’t flock to traditional classical works. Still, there are people working in the idiom, and I don’t think we’ll sound the last playing of Mozart any time soon.
The Noise Revival’s Nathan Felix is the latest in this movement of young composers working to create full orchestral work, releasing his debut symphony The Curse The Cross & The Lion today. It is indeed a full symphony of almost a half-hour’s length. This isn’t pseudo-soundtrack music, although there are some moments reminiscent of good film scores. No, this is a consistent piece of music that takes full attention and full energy to enjoy. There are nuances. In some ways, I had to listen with a different set of ears than my usual “indie-pop” ones; there are different goals, different textures, different ways of being. There’s a heartbreaking oboe solo that stands out amid “V. Don’t Give It Up,” which is one of the most beautiful and powerful sections in the piece; that’s not going to happen in indie-pop all that often.
I’m not qualified to assess this symphony against other classical music, but I can say that it’s incredibly rewarding to listen to for those who don’t listen to a ton of classical music. If you’re into orchestral music, have an adventurous ear, or just like beautiful things, then The Curse The Cross & The Lion should be on your to-hear list.
I idolized the Beach Boys instead of The Beatles growing up, so Pet Sounds is a monument in my musical development. Even as a teenager, I was able to grasp how incredibly difficult everything was on that album. So it’s fairly ambitious to cover the whole album in an indie-pop/indie-folk idiom, as the bands on Mint 400 Records set out to do. (That’s a direct download link, btw.)
The Duke of Norfolk (whom I manage) kicks off the album with a singer/songwriter-esque take on “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” setting the mood for the rest of the album. The One & Nines conform their Motown soul bent into a passionate version of “I’m Waiting for the Day,” while Fairmont’s stand-out rendition of “God Only Knows” is probably very close to what Brian Wilson would have done in the power-pop idiom. A few of the tracks delve heavily into lo-fi arrangements and performances, so fans of that genre have plenty to love as well. It’s free, too! Enjoy Mint 400’s Pet Sounds.
This project has been a microcosm of my whole 10 years running this blog: a little idea that got bigger and bigger with help from all sorts of people who pitched in. Massive thanks go out to The Carradini Family, Uncle David and Aunt Rose, the Lubbers Family, Neil Sabatino & Mint 400 Records, Albert & Katy, Drew Shahan, Odysseus, Joseph Carradini, Jeffrey M. Hinton, Esq., @codybrom a.k.a Xpress-O, Conner ‘Raconteur’ Ferguson, Janelle Ghana Whitehead, Tyler “sk” Robinson, Jake Grant, Anat Earon, Zack Lapinski, Mila, Tom & April Graney, Stephen Carradini, Theo Webb, Jesse C, D. G. Ross, Martin & Skadi, Jacob Presson, Michelle Bui, and Elle Knop.
The first 200 downloads of the album are free, so go get ’em while they’re available! (The price is $4 a side once the freebies are gone.) The streaming will always be free, so if nothing else you can go listen to some sweet tunes from some of Independent Clauses’ favorite bands. Once again, thanks to all who contributed in any way, both to the project and to Independent Clauses’ last 10 years. It’s been a thrilling, wild ride.
Never Give Up: Celebrating 10 Years of the Postal Service