Quinn Erwin first came to my attention as a big part of Afterlife Parade, a top-shelf outfit equally comfortable making can’t-ignore-it pop-rock and textured post-rock. Erwin’s Soul EP builds on the pop-rock side of Afterlife Parade, getting crunchier and catchier simultaneously.
The titular track of Soul kicks off the four-song effort with hammering piano, crunchy guitar, handclaps, and Erwin wordlessly throwing his voice around in some great melodies. There’s a pop-rock chassis to the tune, but from the wheels up it’s all muscly soul attitude and yearning blues vocals. There’s a bit of dance-rock thrown in for spice at the end, but this is primarily an earthy, Southern (but not Southern rock) jam. “Heritage” builds on that earthy pop-rock blend, fusing a stomping backbeat to a scuzzed-out guitar line with some zinging synth on top of it. Erwin’s repeated plea (“Don’t let this be my heritage”) and anguished “la”s give the tune some extra punch (as if it needed any). Both of these tunes have a crunch that wasn’t often there in Afterlife Parade, but don’t sacrifice any of the melodic prowess. If anything, these are even catchier tunes.
“Reality” and “Soul (acoustic)” pull back from the unique vibe of the first two tracks and push the sound in different ways. The straightforward pop-rock of “Reality” does have thrumming bass and insistent snare, but the vibe here is less Southern attitude and more U2-style pop expansion. (You can hear Bono in the wordless, nearly a capella bridge, for sure.)
The acoustic version of “Soul” pulls the excellent arrangements out of the mix and shows that with or without a backing band, “Soul” is a torrential song. Just because there’s only an acoustic guitar accompanying Erwin doesn’t mean he sacrifices any of the attitude or intensity of the tune. The song reveals just how impressive a vocalist Erwin is by putting the focus squarely on his vocal performance.
Soul is one in a series of EPs Erwin is releasing, so we’re going to be treated to more work from him in the near future. And the work is a treat; Erwin’s clear vision for fusing his pop-rock background with other sounds creates distinctive, exciting work. Soul establishes (for some) and continues (for others) the need to carefully follow everything that Erwin is up to.
Soul drops tomorrow, April 29. If you’re in the South, you’ll have some chances to catch him soon on the #OYOUGOTSOUL Spring Tour:
04.29: Biloxi, MS
04.30: Mobile, AL
05.06: Baton Rouge, LA
06.10: Birmingham, AL
I’ve got a lot of singles to catch up on. All these that I’m posting over the next few days have been sent my way over the past two months.
Electro / pop
1. “it was gone” – Orchid Mantis. Somehow combines found sounds, heavily processed vocals, insistent synths and stuttering drums into great clouds of sound. It’s a gem.
2. “Iron & Wood” – Quinn Erwin. Erwin, of the brilliant Afterlife Parade, turns his impeccable songwriting talent toward synth-driven pop-rock. The results are just as dynamic and exciting as his band’s forays into anthemic guitar rock and artsy post-rock. The lyrics, the vocal melodies, and the arrangement just all work together like clockwork.
3. “Nothing Can Stop Us Now” – Summer Heart. The song title and band name are perfect for this tune that balances wiry energy and dreamy vocals to create the soundtrack to a carefree summer afternoon.
4. “Go” – Sunday Lane. Lane isolates the chorus and lets that hook live on its own, letting the rest of the song draw its energy from the perky declaration, “Where we gonna go?”
5. “Everything at Once” – Her Magic Wand. Sonic texture is something I don’t call out that often, but this electro-pop track has some really nice layering of disparate sounds that give the tune a compelling sonic consistency.
6. “We Are Golden” – Nova Heart. Burbling synths, LCD Soundsystem-esque bass riffs, a buttery smooth mood, and luscious vocals make this mesmerizing electro-rock jam an easy fit for the dancefloor or the rock club.
7. “Broken” – Featurette. The herky-jerky rhythms of this tune rub up against the silky synths to create that juxtaposition that plays so nicely in electro: the jagged smooth, the spiky soft.
8. “Shake It Loose” – Astronauts, etc. If you need any suave, svelte, seductive babymaking music, this tune has my vote.
9. “Beachside” – Heather Larose. This acoustic-pop song makes me want to dance in my computer chair. ‘Nuff said.
10. “Tied Up” – Level and Tyson. Scandinavians have the most eccentric lenses when it comes to pop music: we’ve got Surrounded-style distorted vocals, walking-speed acoustic-vibes, ’90s-esque drum beat and some humming background vocals. The results are unique, to say the least.
11. “Lovers Can Be Monsters” – Roger Harvey. Harvey bears the burden of having a voice and genre similar to Ben Gibbard’s, but it would be a shame to pass up this addictive, oddly tender indie-rock track due to unasked-for similarities. I want to listen to this over and over.
Afterlife Parade started out as an artsy, experimental indie-rock group. Death & Rebirth is a wild, scattered, and often-powerful debut released in two parts. The band turned right around and dropped A Million Miles Away, which contains some of the most spot-on, adrenaline-pumping, emotion-charged pop-rock I’ve heard in years, losing some of their sweeping arrangements but amping up their melodic bonafides. Where did the tumultuous, textured, enigmatic, dramatic work go? Well, it all made its way into AWE: Volumes 1-3.
AWE is a set of three impressive five-song instrumental post-rock albums. Each of the three holds to a different theme (the passing of a day, the cycle of seasons, the span of a life), and each of the 15 songs explores a different mood of post-rock song. I know that sounds ambitious, but it’s true. What’s more impressive is that they sound seasoned in every single style. They’ve listened to a lot of post-rock, and their tunes distill a lot of post-rock ideas into (often) short spaces.
Volume One (about the passing of a day) opens with “Dusk Whipers,” a glacially-paced but gentle tune that builds on soft keys and ambient space until it reaches its apex. It doesn’t get heavy, which leads neatly into the perky, Devotchka-esque melodies and quiet-but-insistent rhythms of “Stretching Sunlight.” Here and elsewhere, they layer individual sounds expertly to create moods.
“Mount Sol” relies heavily on pizzicato strings to give it a Balmorhea vibe, while “Day’s End” builds off tape hiss, melancholy finger-picked guitar, ephemeral keys, and ghostly voices. (It’s like a post-rock Bon Iver.) “Midnight Waltzes” closes the set with a regal, stately solo grand piano performance. It’s a gorgeous, remarkable set all on its own, and there’s still two more!
Volume Two is a much grander affair than Volume One; where the first one was done in under 20 minutes, the follow-up is near 40 minutes long. Their interpretation of the changing of seasons is much heavier in tone than their sound of a day; Volume Two opens with the bass-heavy, ominous “Solstice” anchored by an ostinato piano line that is transformed in tone via the layers added to it (like LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends”). “July’s” spends several minutes developing a complex Latin-jazz percussive beat created by electronic and human drummers before transforming the connotatively-celebratory mood into an eerie soundscape that feels like a forest closing in on you.
“Fall Euphoria” is still pretty pensive at the beginning, but it transforms the uncomfortable vibes and percussive dominance of the first two tracks into a tender, beautiful piece that’s reminiscent of the Album Leaf. It’s a remarkable, deft, expert turn to move directly from one to the other through the same piece. Its wistful overtones lead into the nine-minute “Slow Cold,” which is exactly what it says on the tin. (Post-rock fans are nodding their heads.) It closes with a dissonant solo piano piece that experiments with the way that humans hear and interpret dissonance, holding out notes that don’t necessarily go together for long periods of time before resolving them. It’s basically modern classical music, and it’s remarkable. It’s not one of my favorite pieces emotionally, but musically it’s one of the most impressive.
Volume Three is quite different than the second; it barely covers 15 minutes. However, it’s the most emotionally evocative of the three for me. Covering the span of a life, it starts out with “Tippy Toes,” a 96-second tune with ukulele, toy piano, shaker and other small instruments that remind me of Lullatone’s twinkly, beautiful, but not pandering work. It’s a wonderfully charming start to the piece. “Hopscotch” is a perky tune built on guitars that is again reminiscent of Devotchka. It captures the freedom and uncomplicated joy of play in a surprisingly poignant way. A little growing up leads us to “Sixteen,” which combines confident ’80s-style electro beats and synths with some gently exploratory guitar work.
“Youngblood” is a more tentative work, scared even–showing the difficulties of growing up and getting out into the world. The sound is ambient, with bits of sound coming in and out at seemingly spontaneous times, but never sounding fully like a cohesive unit. The purposeful off-centering of the work tells a strong narrative, especially in the context of the pieces that came before it. A blaring organ starts off “Sage,” but it soon gets layers and layers of keys on top of it, turning it into a woozy, vaguely funereal dirge tinted with specks of joy. It’s a bold, risky conclusion to the release, and I like it.
The three releases in the AWE series are each incredibly beautiful. The fact that one band made music of this many varieties while also being able to throw down incredible pop-rock tunes points to an intimidating, towering talent. The songwriting is amazing; AWE is amazing; Afterlife Parade is amazing.
Here’s my recounting of the best EPs of the year that was.
1. Drift Wood Miracle – Between Three and Four. (Review) After a triumphant emo/punk debut, DWM built on their artsy sentiment and churned out a well-textured, complex, mature follow-up EP. Heavy and light intermingle in one consistent flow of music that honestly sounds like one really long track. The songwriting instincts are already incredibly well-developed, which makes me excited for their future work.
2. Afterlife Parade – A Million Miles Away. (Review) What can I say? It’s the best pop-rock EP I’ve heard all year: it’s basically Coldplay, U2, and Imagine Dragons in a blender. Haters gonna hate. Lovers gonna love.
3. Arctic Tern – Hopeful Heart. (Review) Romantic in both the literary and literal sense of the word, these lush, gorgeous tunes blew me away with their arrangement and production.
4. Morgan Mecaskey – Lover Less Wild. (Review) One of the most ambitious releases of the year, Mecaskey attempts to cram dozens of ideas into a very short space. The resulting adventure is a National-esque indie-rock base packed full of twists and turns.
5. Smoke Season – Hot Coals Cold Souls. (Review) Like Morgan Mecaskey, a whiplash bullet train ride through multiple genres. Smoke Season leans more toward the alt-rock end of things for their remarkable tunes, ending up like a folkier version of Muse.
Honorable Mention: Death and the Penguin – Accidents Happen. (Review) The first rush of listening to Death and the Penguin was an adrenaline jolt the likes of which I haven’t felt in a long time. Post-hardcore of the finest order.
The line between indie-rock and Imagine Dragons-style pop-rock is not so far, sometimes–and if you’re a band that has previously flown their “U2 FAN” flag, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to be compared to pop hitmakers. Afterlife Parade is a indie-rock/pop-rock band that writes emotionally-charged anthems with huge choruses, whoa-oh sections, and verses that just sound like they belong there. AP’s sound is tight, polished, and fun on the three-song A Million Miles Away EP–what more could you want?
Opener “Break Away” does everything right to be a big hit: there’s a perky, bubbly opening riff, a yearning vocal line in the verse (a la Coldplay), a soaring vocal chorus hook, really strong crescendo layering throughout the song, and a culminating whoa-oh section. It’s pretty close to a perfect pop song, which is not a term I dole out liberally. “Break Away” should be in your life.
The other two tracks are similarly moving pop tunes. “Conquer It All” has a bit more of a confrontational vibe reminiscent of Needtobreathe and vocal melodies again reminiscent of Coldplay. The slow build of “A Million Miles Away” brings a more pensive, quiet side of the band to the forefront. They’re both really engaging tunes, but it’s hard to top the A+ that is “Break Away.”
Are you an unabashed fan of pop music? By all means, run/don’t walk to Afterlife Parade. If you’re a more undercover fan of the brasher charms, sidle your way on over. Just get there, because this is how it’s done, folks.
SXSW is currently taking over the North American music world, but I’m not there this year. To deal with this sadness, I have largely ignored what’s going on out there in Austin. So here are a bunch of tracks by bands that may or may not be showcasing at SXSW.
1. “It Takes Over” – Dream Curtain. I like chillwave so much that I wrote an academic paper about it. Dream Curtain loves chillwave so much that the project keeps making hazy, woozy, reverb-heavy, summery slices of wonder.
2. “Strange Feeling” – Panama. The ’80s influence is strong with this one. Piano, synths, a move-your-feet beat? It’s all happening on this yacht, y’all.
3. “Mountain (Alternate Version)” – Driftwood Miracle. What was a churning, heavy emo track is transformed into a lounge-y, chilled-out track with wah guitar and silky keys. It’s suprisingly fun and only a bit cheesy.
4. “Conquer It All” – Afterlife Parade. U2 and Coldplay influences abound in this upbeat indie-rock track, but it’s far more enjoyable than Coldplay’s “Magic.”
5. “Clearhead Real” – Plateau Below. Starts out a chill, spare guitar-pop track, turns into a big ‘ol guitar-rock stomper. (Bonus: The album art is a striking representation of the sound.)
6. “Bad News” – Slinger Francisco. I listened to a lot of Tooth & Nail Records pop-rock in the early 2000s, and Slinger Francisco takes me back to those heady days of MAE and Watashi Wa. Pop-rock arrangements with an emo heart and pop-punk vocal melodies.
7. “Cruel to Be Kind” – The Worriers. Alternately sneering and jubilant, hyperkinetic Aussies The Worriers come off like a Southern Hemispheric answer to The Vaccines.
1. “It’s All Over Now” – Blair Crimmins and the Hookers. Vintage-style New Orleans jazz/rag doesn’t get much more fun that this. I mean, spoons!! You know you love this already.
2. “Break Away” – Afterlife Parade. AP’s triumphant indie-rock is sounding more and more like U2 by way of The Killers with every release, and I’m totally down with that. You hit those soaring group vocal lines, and I don’t care who you sound like. Sing it.
3. “Silver Boys” – Holyoak. Do you wish that Grizzly Bear was a little less obtuse? Maybe that Fleet Foxes was a little more direct? Holyoak delivers the goods.
4. “White Noise” – The Hand in the Ocean. Heavy on the folk, lite on the indie; heavy on the warbling vocals, lite on Bon Iver beauty-croon; heavy on the banjo, lite on the kick drum.
5. “Ghostflake” – Owls of the Swamp. This piano-led, indie-folk take is as delicate and gentle as the title would suggest.
6. “Vermona” – Take Berlin. Formal pop songcraft and singer/songwriter fare are coming closer and closer together, as the rambling Bob Dylan impulses of yore are turning more toward Paul Simon’s beautiful structuralism. This track’s guitar and analog synthesizer show off that shift.
7. “Broken Arrows” – Tracy Shedd also shows off her formal songcraft skills, adding in a touch of ’50s pop vocal flair to the precise acoustic strumming and melodicism.
8. “The Kids and the Rain” – Alex Tiuniaev. New classical piano composer Tiuniaev opens his album Blurred with this moody, atmospheric, scene-setting solo keys piece.
I’ve rarely been on-the-ball enough to get my year end lists done by December 31, but this year I made a concerted effort to have all my 2011 reviewing done early. As a result, I was able to put together not just a top 20 albums list, but a top 50 songs mixtape and a top 11 songs list. Here’s the mixtape, organized generally from fast’n’loud to slow’quiet. Hear all of the songs at their links, with one exception of a purchase link (#27). The other lists will come over the next few days.
J. Quinn Erwin is the first Horizon artist to drop the tag, and he’s done so with impressive speed. It was just July that I was wondering where Afterlife Parade would go from its impressive but scattered debut, and three months later he’s clarified his position — with an exclamation point.
Erwin has gone the anthemic route over the subtle track on Rebirth, and it’s a bit of a revelation. There are strong suggestions of U2, Kings of Leon and Springsteen here, but Erwin makes the markers point to his tunes instead of away to those other guys’ works by meshing the easily categorizable elements with unusual, complex arrangements. That is exactly how you play those cards. High five.
The title track appropriates new-millennium U2 excellently, underlying the “woah-ohs” and terse melodic action with a rumbling energy that connects it to the other seven tunes here. “Black Woods, White Beach” is where Erwin really gets going, however. He deftly meshes raw emotional power via the vocal tone and melody with triumphant, Funeral-era Arcade Fire crescendos in a way that was missing from Death.
Erwin shows shades of his exuberant songwriting ethos throughout, whether in the giddy “Sequoia,” the clever minor/major pull of “Devil’s Dirt” and the fitting closer “Maypole.” These songs are bursting with interesting things to talk about, but that would strip the joy of discovery from you. Yes, it is that good.
Rebirth truly lives up to its title. Afterlife Parade now has a recognizable sound and the makings of a distinct songwriting vision that’s more than a gimmick. There are no clunkers on Rebirth; furthermore, there are no easy picks for “best tune.” They all have their own treasures. I expect big, big things from Afterlife Parade. I also expect you to go check out this album.
Subtlety is not an prized element in Afterlife Parade‘s Death. Still, Quinn Erwin is a surprisingly versatile songwriter for a guy who gives us two title tracks and labels his introduction “Fate: An Introduction.”
After the 41-second intro (“Can’t run, can’t hide, the light is gonna come for you!”), “Death” arrives. The first title track is a complex, affair that unfolds in multiple parts, as the song builds from an ominous acoustic riff to a full-band roar in its four minutes. While it gives a good feature to his emotive tenor, it’s not the most memorable of his tunes.
“Nothing But Love Can Stay” is his best, however, because he eschews subtlety and build for an excellent hook against a stark piano line. It may be uncool to be earnest, but Erwin sounds his best when he’s matching Chris Mills blow for blow in evocative imagery and downtrodden melodies. It’s far more memorable than the opener. It builds to a huge crescendo as well, and I wish it didn’t.
“Arrows Fly” is another eerie track, but this one doesn’t crescendo as much, letting Erwin’s voice do the heavy lifting. The starker Afterlife Parade’s material is, the easier it is to connect with; I’m sure it’s fun to rock (and he’s not bad at it), but the rock pales to faceless when compared to the strength of his weary voice and sweeping melodies. Still, 7-minute mellow songs are tough to pull off, which is why “Simple” gets a bit tedious.
The left hook, however, is the other title track, “Afterlife Parade.” It’s a Springsteen-esque rocker that sounds quite fresh with Erwin’s vocals fronting it. Then the “whoa-oh” chorus hits, and you’d be forgiven for forgetting what the rest of the EP sounds like — just like when the mellow work outpaced the complex opener nigh on 15 minutes earlier. The horns, stomping and clapping only solidify it.
Afterlife Parade’s Deathis an extremely intriguing introduction to a songwriter, but it leaves a lot of questions hanging out there. Where will he go from here? Will we get more of this variety? Will he stick to one path and cultivate it, perhaps making more beautiful “Nothing But Love Can Stay”-style tracks or rousing “Afterlife Parade”s? Who knows. There’s a lot of puzzle pieces in this release, but the picture can’t be put together yet.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.