The mix of an album can tell you a lot about the priorities of its creators. Dylan Dickerson’s frantic, fractured voice is cranked about as high in the mix of Dear Blanca‘s Pobrecito as possible, which tells me that they care about the raw, ragged, real aspects of performance. Look no farther than the wordless, anguished roar that is the chorus of “Showplace” for proof. The intense alt-country songwriting behind the pipes matches Dickerson’s careening, manic vocal quality. In other words, Conor Oberst and Dickerson would have plenty to talk about.
But like Bright Eyes, Dickerson and co. aren’t all raging fury. The (relatively) pensive “Noma” includes a musical saw that gives the tune a Neutral Milk Hotel feel (Mangum, of course, being another vocalist who celebrated the rough edges of his non-traditional voice). Dickerson can write a pop song, too: “Huff” has a great guitar riff and a (relatively) restrained vocal performance. But it’s loud, noisy alt-country rock that is his natural home, which is why even the rhythmically tight, acoustic-led “Priscilla” turns into a torrent of guitar distortion and a repeated hollering of the titular character’s name in the chorus. Closer “Cadmus” starts off quiet with acoustic guitar, organ, and female vocals before introducing pounding toms into the tune. Hey, if you’re good at a thing, do that thing.
You like the stomping work of the Drive-By Truckers? Dear Blanca is like the Drive-In-And-Stay-In-Your-Front-Yard-Yelling-Until-You-Come-Out Truckers. Pobrecito is a sweat-drenched, passionate, powerful set of noisy alt-country tunes that will occasionally give you shivers.
The mid-’00s were a good time for indie-pop music, with bands like Annuals, Decemberists, Grandaddy, and the Shins purveying a very particular type of giddy, instrument-stuffed pop music that wasn’t being well-represented on the radio. Koria Kitten Riot picks up that torch of shiny, acoustic-led, maximalist indie-pop on Rich Men Poor Men Good Men. It’s the sort of album that includes coconuts imitating horse clip-clops in a way that sounds totally natural (“The Lovers That You’ve Never Had”). It’s twee without being overly cute in the vocals, or serious vocals with a whimsical touch to the arrangements.
“A Last Waltz” stands out as one of the highlight tracks not because it’s particularly more charming that the rest of the tunes here, but because it’s a touch darker. The rest of the album can flow together as one wonderful experience, but track three points itself out as a great track by showing the diversity the band is able to deliver (while still not damaging the flow of the record). “Today’s Been a Beautiful Day” nicks not only the sound but the joyful irony of the era, pairing one of the most chipper melodies and arrangements on the record with a song about a person who gets hit by a car and dies. (Oops, spoilers.) Follow-up “Carpathia” sounds a bit like a brit-pop tune, what with the wistful reverb, processed strings, and discrete acoustic strumming; it’s a nice change of mood that stands out as a highlight.
If you’re into cheerful, instrument-stuffed indie-pop, you’ll find a ton to love in Koria Kitten Riot. You can listen to the whole album and let it wash over your mood, or you can listen to individual tunes; it matters not. It will make you smile either way.
Bishop Allen was also doing quirky indie-pop in the mid ’00s, and they’ve since gotten a bit noisier than their indie-pop masterpiece The Broken String. I think they still count as indie-pop on Lights Out, but they’re certainly creeping closer to power-pop.
They make it clear with opener “Start Again,” which is all buzzy synths, classy dance-rock guitars, and propulsive percussion. “Bread Crumbs” makes the dance-rock vibes even more explicit, putting together a wicked bass groove, a protoypical piano hook, and a minimum of lyrics. (And, because this is Bishop Allen, there’s also a bass-heavy horn section.) “Crows” involves some of their traditional quirky rhythms (Latin/island, a la “Like Castanets”), chill melodies, and pristine arrangements, but with a funky bass line. It’s way fun. “Skeleton Key” is another funky tune that’s worth remembering.
The overall sound of Lights Out is more matured, even with the dance-rock tendencies: it’s a poised, refined musicality that runs through the record. The lyrics reflect that aging as well; there are more references to hard times, the existential crises of adulthood (“No Conditions”), and that most adult of rituals: leaving the party early (“Why I Had To Go”). But they never get heavy-handed, morose, or grumpy. It’s a band that grew up, but kept their pop song skills with them. Mazel tov! Here’s to Bishop Allen: long may you write.
If you make art about brothers, you’ve pretty much got me. The Darjeeling Limited, “Murder in the City” by The Avett Brothers, and “Brother” by Annuals are all way up in my list because of my own two brothers. (I just finished talking to one of my two brothers before I wrote this.) So when I found that the opening track of Emily and the Complexes‘ Styrofoam Plate Blues is named “Brother Don’t Wait,” I was hooked.
It helps that “Brother Don’t Wait” is a beautiful tune, strummed quietly on a solo electric guitar. Tyler Verhagen’s evocative tenor can barely contain his emotions as he encourages his brother to move on with his life after a difficult breakup. Its simple, but it’s powerful. This highly emotional, spartan sound doesn’t appear again until the album closer “Andy.” “Andy” is even more raw lyrically and musically, closing the album on a beautiful, wrenching note. If Verhagen’s got a solo project kicking around, I really want to hear it.
I like the sound of the rest of the album too, just not as much. The majority of this album is Verhagen and his bandmates throwing down rock’n’roll that sounds like a cross between Bright Eyes and a ’90s slacker-rock band. Verhagen inhabits the no-motivation, nothing-to-do stance in most of these lyrics, seeing travel as a way to escape all the ills that befall him. From “Social Skills” to “I Don’t Wanna Brush My Teeth” to “Would You,” Verhagen writes the slacker effectively.
The music fits in a loud, grungy mode, with lots of distortion. But this isn’t really riff-driven rock; it’s powered primarily by Verhagen’s voice, just as with much of Bright Eyes’ work. There’s even a hint of country in the way the lead guitar plays. This leads to dramatic soft/loud juxtapositions (“Would You,” “Styrofoam Plate Blues”) as well as more straightforward tunes (“Pillar of Salt,” “Two States Away”). Still, at no point does the band lose the vocal line in the instrumentals. This is a rock band that wants you to know what they’re saying.
The album is named after its most memorable rock track. The band starts off the tune with a dreary, dreamy, slow-paced section before snapping to attention with some rigid, sharp rhythms. The guitars and drums work together to accentuate the heavy rhythmic qualities of the song, creating a powerful tune that is more than the sum of its parts.
Styrofoam Plate Blues features some incredibly memorable tunes in two different styles. It never strays far from its singer/songwriter roots, even when rocking out; this makes for a unique, fun listening experience. Recommended for fans of emotive, vocals-centric rock’n’roll.
Do you like happiness? Good. Do you like exuberance? Good. Do you like giddiness? Great, because that’s the level of enthusiasm you’ll need to take in Jacob’s List. Their EP Corks and Screws is as optimistic as Anathallo, as exuberant as The Format and as frenetic as Jack’s Mannequin.
It’s piano-based indie pop, that much is sure. And they’re ecstatic about something, that much is also true. There are handclaps, group singalongs, woo!s and guitar solos. The best example of this is “Claire,” which even manages to pack in some Hold Steady-esque story-song lyrics delivered in a distinctly Craig Finn-ian drawl (albeit more melodic). I swear, if it’s not on your next mixtape, a unicorn will explode into a dozen little rainbows.
But right after they establish that they’re the second coming of The Unicorns (with a piano), they toss in a stomping rock aside. Did I mention it’s the title track? Yes, Jacob’s List knows how to keep a listener riveted. The acoustic-heavy “Tall Tall Grass” sounds like the best things that Annuals have been able to pull off, and “Bloodlines” is eight frickin minutes long. Needless to say, it is awesome.
Jacob’s List know how to throw down an EP. Corks and Screws establishes them very firmly in my mind as a band to watch. No one can make music this exuberant and technically proficient only to stay in a garage. Someone get this band to SXSW! Stat! Until then, I’ll be over here, smiling giddily, listening intently and petting the unicorn.
It constantly amazes me what can be done with music. There is a finite number of notes and chords in the world, but hundreds of thousands of bands keep churning them out in different ways. Just when I think that I’ve got a handle on all that is in the indie rock world, I get knocked for a loop. Western Giants‘ Long Live the Live Long Day is that latest loop.
Western Giants is a band from Texas, and as such they incorporate country music into their amalgam (it’s really almost impossible not to if you’re from Texas; even the metal there has a country swagger). But they also include a strain of energetic, easy-going indie rock that’s been popping up in Oklahoma in bands like The Uglysuit, The Non, and more. These two elements together create a dreamy, lazy, warm sound that I’ve never heard before. It’s like what would happen if country artists started listening to the majestic Margot and the Nuclear So & Sos or the wide-eyed Annuals. Or maybe it’s the sound of indie hipsters not just rocking cowboy boots but actually getting on the horse for a weekend of work. Either way, it’s glorious.
There’s only four songs on this EP, and that distresses me. I wish there were a full album of this, because it’s simply fantastic. From the supremely indie chilled out keys of “Long Live the Live Long Day” to the spare, folksy drumming and accordion of “Once We Reach the Other Side” to the pressing indie beauty of “As Hard as the Road Ahead” back to the charming country strum of “Park,” there are moments in each of these songs that make it hard for me to declare a stand-out track. They’re all highlights.
I could dedicate more words to Long Live the Live Long Day, but I don’t need more than this: Western Giants plays a mix of mellow country and dreamy, lazy indie that will leave you speechless. It’s the best EP of the year so far. You need this EP, and you need to follow this band. Up-and-comers in the indie scene for sure.
At its forefront you’ll find a good deal of iniquity in the world of rock n’ roll. But, hiding in the alcoves of northern Illinois, you’ll find the ever-virtuous Kid, You’ll Move Mountains. They’ve got it all: that honesty and humbleness that when you hear it, you know even before you check their Myspace page that they’re from the Midwest; the patience that, after a year of recording, put a well-thought-out full-length album under their belts despite geographical complications and the numerous bands they began as a side-project to; and the simplicity and simultaneous bravery that offer something easy to latch on to while also challenging the band to explore the reaches of its own lengths and depths. These guys (and gal) aren’t just in it for the free beer, that’s for sure.
If you’ve heard any of the bands (El Oso, Troubled Hubble, Inspector Owl, etc.) that are parents to the lovechild that is Kid, You’ll Move Mountains, you might have a guess as to what their debut, Loomings, holds in store – but you couldn’t guess how well they pull it off. The brothers Lanthrum provide a fierce rhythm section and a sturdy spine without being afraid to throw a wrench into things with unusual bass effects and captivatingly intense beats. Corey Wills’ fancy effect-laden guitar work does an exemplary job filling out the band’s sound with spacey riffs and all the right noise in all the right places, weaving in and out with Nina Lanthrum’s often Hold Steady-esque piano work. The occasional chiming of Nina’s sweet and un-straying vocals blend seamlessly with Jim Hanke’s almost effortlessly sincere lyricism and strategically placed peaks and valleys of intensity and serenity.
“I guess it all depends how you want this to taste,” Hanke calmly sings to open up the album before riling himself up with loads of clever wordplay and brutal honesty. But I like to think of this line as a disclaimer, explaining the thought that just as our peers or anyone else can convince us of something, we can just as easily convince ourselves of the same, or otherwise– and to acknowledge this is to acknowledge that the band is well aware of our predisposal, thus allowing us to relinquish our biases and listen with an entirely open mind. From there the album only picks up.
With a mere nine tracks, Loomings is damn near impossible to get bored with. Even when the tempo isn’t at its highest, they put enough candy in your ears to keep you on a sugar high until well after the album’s end. If “I’m a Song From the Sixties” doesn’t have you on your feet dancing or “An Open Letter to Wherever You’re From” doesn’t have you singing “Midnight, my house – the last one out of the city, burn it down…” non-stop, then you probably need your ears cleaned out.
Kid, You’ll Move Mountains’ debut full-length(ish) may have come out in the middle of a harsh Midwest winter, but I think Loomings will become an instant classic filed under ‘indie rock road trip’ music, and it leaves us hopeful for a summer just as long, so that we can listen to this with the windows down and feet on the dash for just a while longer. For fans of bands like Maritime, Annuals, and Mock Orange, I strongly suggest you get your hands on this release.
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.