Listen to the River by The Collection opens with a midrash on 2 Samuel 6 that functions as a breakup letter to God: “I can no longer carry the ark / if it’s causing the death of my friends /
So I’ll trade that gold ballast for hand-laden altars / And baptize myself in the lake.” It’s a bold, thorny way to start a record, even if it is a fitting thesis statement for the following work that grapples with a seeming loss of faith amid a beautiful folk-orchestral suite.
For listeners tracking with Wimbish’s exploration of doubts in Christianity, this lyrical direction will not come as a surprise–but it might still hurt: lines like the aforementioned, the title “Siddhartha (My Light Was A Ghost),” and “I hope to break myself open / Drain this poison water / Let it flow back to its ocean / That I used to call, “Father”” (from “The Alchemy of Awe”) make no bones about the crumbling of faith. For those still in the faith, it’s always troubling to see people take their grievances and make for the doors; for those outside of the faith, this might read like someone coming to the light. For those who may be going through the same thing with Wimbish, this might be a vital touchpoint in the experience, along with David Bazan’s Curse Your Branches.
While Bazan has been very open with his atheism, Wimbish’s lyrics throughout still seem to be grappling. There are harsh words, yes, but there are also many moments where the harsh words seem to give way to resignation (“No Maps of the Past”) or disappointment (closer “The Listener”). The closer is sung directly at / to God, and Wimbish seems to be, yes, heading for the doors (“If I head south, will that be heresy? / No, I don’t think so”). But the fact that He’s still addressed leaves the door open enough to wonder where this will all go. That’s the thing with doubt: until it crystallizes into something else, it’s always a door that yet remains ajar.
In that opening salvo I mentioned earlier, it’s just Wimbish and a keyboard; the rest of the seven band members come crashing in afterwards. It’s indicative of the tensions encompassed in the record: the lyrics of this record are focused almost exclusively on Wimbish’s spiritual journey at the same time that the orchestral-folk unit sounds tighter than ever.
The Collection has really come into its own as a unit on this record, as Listen to the River replaces the fire and fury of predecessor Ars Moriendi with intricate, dense melodicism. Both are giant records stuffed full of instruments and vocals, this one is filled with subtle touches that play up the strengths of the band members.
Upbeat indie-pop tune “You Taste Like Wine” has a sweet (yet short) bass solo. Standout “Birds” has an astonishing clarinet melody–actually, anywhere Hope Baker’s clarinet appears is a great moment. The group vocals on “Sing Of The Moon” seem more like an actual choir singing than a giant group of people yelling. (Far be it from me, though, to knock group yelling: the shout-it-out conclusion of “Birds” is one of the most rousing moments on the record.) The electric guitar leads on “The Older One.” The songs are composed with a full outfit in mind, not just with the band as the finishing touch. As a result, the whole record is a touch calmer musically than former work.
There’s so much going on in a Collection record that there are nigh-on infinite angles to take in a review. I haven’t mentioned the lyrical themes of mysticism and divorce that run through this record, nor the sudden appearance of A Rush of Blood to the Head-era Coldplay piano work. There’s the consistent mention of rivers and water, of sleep and waking, of going somewhere. There’s vibraphone and synth. It’s just a ton of stuff happening.
If you’re into folk-orchestra work, challenging lyrics, religious themes, and/or music that requires your full attention, Listen to the River will give you plenty. It’s heavy. You may not want to go where it’s going. It is not dumbed-down. It is an honest chronicle of where they were and what they had to give, lyrically and musically. Wimbish and co. poured it all in. That’s worth noting.
1. “Old Hope” – Angelo de Augustine. It’s like Elliott Smith is alive. Maybe there’s some Joshua Radin and Nick Drake in there, but mostly the whispered vocals and style of acoustic guitar remind me of Smith.
2. “Amarillo” – Anna Vogelzang. Combine the charm of Ingrid Michaelson with the full arrangements of Laura Stevenson, and you’ve got a little bit of an idea of Vogelzang’s talent. She’s one to watch.
3. “Red River” – Tyler Sjöström. Fans of Mumford and Sons will love this theatrical, finger-picked folk-pop tune.
4. “Forever Gone” – Andrew Marica. The morose romanticism of Damien Rice + the distant reverb-heavy atmospherics of Bon Iver create this downtempo ballad.
5. “Delilah” – Tony Lucca. This one’s pretty boss: Wide-open, sneering, engaging full-band country-rock with an eye toward Coldplay-style, radio-friendly vocal melodies. Also, there’s some awesome saloon-style piano playing.
6. “Angel Tonight” – Peter Galperin. Musical adventurer Galperin moves from his bossa nova experiments towards ’80s country-flavored classic rock. There’s some Springsteen, some Paul Simon, and more all combined here.
7. “Time” – Night Windows. Acoustic-based indie-pop a la David Bazan that teeters on the edge between twee and melancholy.
8. “I Got Creepy When Lou Reed Died” – Red Sammy. The husky, gravel-throated country of Red Sammy gets an electric makeover for this tribute tune. The title a weird thing to chant, but you’ll probably want to sing along repeatedly to the mantra-esque chorus.
There’s an emo revival on, which is cool, because I loved emo in the early 2000s. (My copy of Andy Greenwald’s Nothing Feels Good is permanently within arms’ reach on my desk.) I loved that emotional vulnerability, adrenaline, and beauty could all be appreciated in the same band. It became uncool there for a while to be earnest, but I’m glad that irony is at least allowing enough space in the culture to let earnest thought to regroup a little bit.
Sinai Vessel doesn’t call their music emo, but they do call it “punk for sissies.” Both descriptors are thick with positive, negative, and re-appropriated positive connotations, which is a perfect situation for Sinai Vessel’s complex music. Songwriter Caleb Cordes does instill his brand of pop-punk with thoughtful lyrics and twinkly guitar reveries common of emo, but neither of these feel self-indulgent or trend-following. The songs on profanity [ep] are very catchy while being thoughtful, retaining that adrenaline that I so treasure in emo. I love Damien Jurado, but sometimes I want to scream about my introspection. Sinai Vessel offers that.
The majority of opener “cats” is actually not very punk-rock in its songwriting style; the mid-tempo tension is much more reminiscent of Dashboard Confessional or Death Cab for Cutie than The Wonder Years or Blink-182. The unassuming beginning allows for a shiver-inducing moment when the ratchet up to a pounding, hollering conclusion. “You mean everything to me,” indeed.
“Cuckold” reminds me of Say Anything in the vocal delivery and rhythmic style, while “Drown Around” makes good on the Pedro the Lion RIYL they sent me. (Longtime David Bazan collaborator TW Walsh mastered profanity.) “Flannery” invokes the Catholic author’s work and words to continue her conflicted feelings about the evil in the world and ourselves. It’s one of the most interesting lyrically and most enjoyable musically.
I’ve gotten this far without noting that David Wimbish of IC faves The Collection played brass, recorded, and mixed the record, but he totally did, and that’s awesome. Thoughtful lyrics, punk-rock adrenaline, David Wimbish, TW Walsh, and free? How can you pass this up? You shouldn’t. Sinai Vessel is an impressive outfit that I look forward to hearing more from. Highly recommended.
I’ve sung the praises of Pedro the Lion throughout this blog. Given The Soldier Story’s moody indie-rock with clanging guitars, I’m going to take it as serendipitous that the second song on Rooms of the Indoors is named “A Lion.” Songwriter Colin Meyer’s voice echoes Bazan’s in tone, and the arrangement shifts from delicate thoughts to towering electric guitars at whim. The overall effect is striking, as Meyer knows how to play with tension, using layering and juxtaposition excellently.
He also knows how to make individual instrumental parts complement each other without competing: The complex, beautiful “When the Thieves Came” is constructed as if it were half clockwork and half Rube Goldberg Machine. Halfway through the tune, Meyer’s playing a spiky ditty on a clean guitar with a kick-drum stomp; the next second, the guitars and bass have distorted, the drums amp up to full-set freakout, and it sounds like a post-hardcore jam a la The Felix Culpa. Then it goes directly back to the spiky little ditty, without feeling disjointed at all. (Meyer got some songwriting help on this track from Jonny Rodgers, no stranger to intricate construction himself.)
Those skills transfer over to the rest of the tunes, whether it’s the fragile, William Fitzsimmons-esque folk of “Gray Clean Suit”; the experimental intro of “Through the Trees”; or the vast, expansive title track, which grows from a forlorn acoustic strum to a rapturous, wild conclusion. Rooms of the Indoors is an album that unfolds its intricacies over multiple listens. I found it interesting the first time, but I see it as much more than that now. Meyer has moving songwriting skills that will grip you, if you give him your attention. Recommended.
It blows my mind that Matt Shaw’s Ghosts in the Concrete came out in 2004. Matt Shaw created an electronic indie-pop world that was more lush and developed than The Postal Service’s take on the genre, and Ghosts has remained one of my favorite releases I’ve ever reviewed at Independent Clauses. Shaw’s band City Light just released its sophomore album Memory Guide, and it builds out his indie-pop sensibilities with hip-hop and electronica overtones to make a very engaging album.
Shaw has always used his melodic gifts to create tunes of foreboding or downright dread; even in the musically chipper Ghosts the main themes were urban malaise and future panic. City Light’s debut album fashioned a fitting musical sheath for these ideas, creating “moody, haunting, electronic indie-rock.” Memory Guide swings back toward the balance in his solo work: upbeat songs that deliver downbeat lyrics. The album does have some dark, haunting arrangements, like the excellent instrumental “Memory Loss,” but the overall tone is much brighter. “Sweet Death” is a buoyant dance song about getting old, while “Waste Away” is a stomping rock track with sparkly lead guitar. As you can see from the titles, however, Shaw hasn’t gotten any more optimistic in his musings.
My favorite moments apart from the surprisingly dance-able pessimism are “Wrecking Ball” and “You Know This Song,” which both strip away the bravado of a full band and operate much more like the small, cohesive, claustrophobic Shaw tunes I so adored on Ghosts. “Wrecking Ball” pairs a lazy, fingerpicked, clean guitar line with a trip-hop beat, some fuzzy organs and bgvs; it works beautifully. “You Know This Song” employs a similar strategy, letting the focus fall squarely on Shaw’s beautiful, evocative voice.
Shaw’s blurry, bleary tenor is one of the things that attracted me most to his work, and it is in fine form here. Comparisons to Ben Gibbard miss the gauzy/gritty edge that Shaw cultivates; references to pop-era Flaming Lips don’t give Shaw enough credit for hitting notes (which, as an avowed Flaming Lips fan, is something I can fully admit that Wayne Coyne does not often try to do). It is a distinct, passionate, memorable voice, and one that can suck me into any tune. It’s worth your price of admission just to hear it.
City Light’s indie-pop tunes have a complexity far beyond what I’ve described; the arrangements are strong, the songwriting is tight, and the performances are spot-on. There’s a lot going on and a lot to love. The most important things to note, though, are that these are fun, clever, and interesting tunes by some experienced hands. I highly recommend Memory Guide to any fan of indie-pop, electronic or no.
Pedro the Lion’s work was raw and honest, musically and lyrically: David Bazan grappled with his faith, his insecurities, and his culture in an alt-rock-ish idiom that hadn’t generally been reserved for that sort of work. Bazan’s retirement of the moniker was a sad day for me. With PTL long since gone, there aren’t that many bands holding a torch for the sort of emotionally vulnerable rock that can range in volume from forlorn slowcore to cymbal-rush pounding.
DL Rossi aims for that space with his music. His self-titled record is composed of confessional alt-rock (“The Fool,” “12 Step Plan”) and instrospective acoustic work (“Worked Up,” “Be Alone”) that complement each other in tone. Rossi also takes after Bazan lyrically, covering religion, relationships, and culture in a cynical-yet-hopeful sort of way. “12 Step Plan” is bitingly critical of mega-church Christianity, while “The Fool” is possibly even more vitriolic on the subject. Both tunes are hooky, energetic pop-rockers with a low-end crunch and indie-pop melodies; while these tunes would fit in on rock radio, they have a different flair and feel to them than your average rock track.
Other tunes tackle relationships, including the bombastic single “Strange Thing” and the Parachutes-esque “Suckers and Chumps.” (You probably don’t need me to tell you what they’re about, based on the titles.) The quieter tunes, like the latter, land gently, showing ache and pain without getting (too) maudlin. As soon as the emotions start to get a bit much, Rossi lightens the mood with some rock. It’s a good balance throughout.
I don’t listen to too many rock albums straight through anymore, but I’ve heard this one from end to end several times because of its diversity in sound. Rossi simply churns out high-quality tunes. He may be the spiritual and melodic successor to Pedro the Lion, but he could be much more than that as he matures as an artist. Very worth watching.
The ever-prolific Fiery Crash has ditched the fuzzed-out dream pop for a much more straightforward acoustic guitar album on Practice Shots. The results sound something like an early M. Ward album on downers: Josh Jackson’s acoustic guitar sound is warm and gentle even while being played in precise rhythms, and his rambling/mumbling/singing vocal style calls up great memories of “Chinese Translation“–although Jackson’s voice is lower than Ward’s. Working with not much more than that throughout the album, Jackson constructs tunes that float the entire way through.
Jackson’s baritone voice could be a dominant feature, a la the National, but he balances it perfectly against the other elements. The result are tunes that flow smoothly on their own and as a cohesive whole. “Equinox” layers three guitar parts, a vocal line, and simple percussion without ever feeling cluttered; opener “Cada Ano” pulls a similar feat while featuring an arresting vocal melody. “For the Canopy” is a little duskier in its mood, allowing for a pleasant variety. Even the louder tracks fit with the lazy, slowly rolling mood: “Volleybeachball!” uses an electric guitar and a speedy drum machine but is dragged back into the mood with a lackadaisical vocal line.
Fiery Crash has kept the quality level incredibly high over this latest dispatch of prolific production. This is the second full album and fourth release in this calendar year, and Practice Shots is the best of the bunch so far. I don’t know when Jackson will let up, but at this point he’s clicking on all cylinders. Fans of cheery, breezy acoustic songwriting like (early) Shins, She & Him, and more will love this. I look forward to his next move.
The title track for Together Through It All must have been an incredibly easy choice for Kye Alfred Hillig: in a 14-song album with few clunkers, “Together Through It All” stands head and shoulders above everything else on the record. Hillig’s forte is creating almost uncomfortably intense tunes, as if Ray LaMontagne’s vocal chords, Josh Garrels’ lyrical depth, latter-day Sam Beam’s arrangements, and David Bazan’s general passion were all crammed into one artist. “Together Through The Years” tracks the downward progression of a troubled son through the eyes of his loving, committed father: by the last verse, Hillig is roaring out over pounding drums and blasting horns that “the tombstone don’t make the man/And that’s not how I choose to remember him.” Hillig then returns to the devastating chorus: “I’m still his father/he’s still my son.” If you don’t get shivers or goosebumps or something during this tune, I don’t think this blog can help you much.
Hillig doesn’t just focus on heavy topics; there are some excellent love tunes here as well. “An Unedited Presentation of Souls,” “You and Me and Time,” and “Trampled/Triumphant” all take the average love ballad and crank up the intensity a few notches. The lyrics themselves are far more intimate and emotionally raw than I expect to hear, and the passionate vocal delivery is jaw-dropping at times. Hillig is a focused, powerful vocalist, but he can also deliver songs sweetly. It’s a rare thing to find.
It’s also rare to hear so much diversity fit so neatly on a record. The dense arrangement of opener “Breaking Lungs” makes it feel like a lost track from Iron and Wine’s Kiss Each Other Clean, while “War in Spring” is a perky piano-pop tune anchored by a Postal Service-esque beat. Closer “Does My Soul Still Sing?” is a majestic, reverential, synth-laden elegy, while “Free the Birds” is a garage-rock track anchored by campy organ. (Okay, “Free the Birds” does stick out a bit.) But other than that one, Hillig makes all of the tracks work by investing each of them with an equal amount of passion and care. No track here feels cast off on a whim: Together Through It All is completely and carefully organized.
If listening through the whole 45+ minutes is a bit of an exhausting experience, it’s a thrillingly exhausting one. There’s more charm and care crammed into this album than most bands can get into three albums. If you love singer/songwriters who aren’t necessarily out to make you happy, but are definitely out to make you feel, you need to know Kye Alfred Hillig. Trust me on this one. Kye Alfred Hillig will make you smile, laugh, and cry.
So I didn’t post much in June, so all of the June singles are getting posted now. This means that instead of one mix, there are two: a loud one and a quiet one. I’ll start today with the loud one.
1. “Strange Thing” – DL Rossi. Pedro the Lion has left few followers in the emotive alt-rock space, but DL Rossi is a welcome addition to the space. He also brings in Bazan’s qualms with Christianity, although Rossi seems to hold fast to the tenets of the faith while contending with some practices of Christianity. Also, he has a Mumford-ian penchant for dramatic f-bombing.
2. “Glaciers” – The Trouble Starts. Daniel G. Harmann has completed his transition from bedroom indie-pop hero to rock band by dropping his name off the front of the group. Here’s a roiling, churning example of the newly-christened group’s output. Foo Fighters’ fans will approve.
3. “All the Lights in New York” – Autumn Owls. The fractured folk of Autumn Owls casts its foggy, urban, streetlight glow on you. You smile uncertainly, and step forward into the gloom.
4. “We Are the Dreamers” – The Stargazer Lilies. Shoegazer Lilies, maybe, plus some Portishead dread and staccato stomp. Overall, a very different dream than Teen Daze’s chillwave dreaming. But still quite engaging!
5. “Be Someone” – Post War Years. The Postal Service + Passion Pit = Post War Years. Clicky, hooky, fun, and now with 100% more xylophone!
6. “Cut Free” – The Alibis. Yo, this ’90s-style Brit-pop track is all about the excellent bass player. I look forward to more fascinating work from this band.
7. “Bystander” – Shotgun No Blitz. Shotgun No Blitz might be the best possible pop-punk name, calling up youthful games, playful but aggressive contact, friendly agreement, and speed. And the spread offense, which I just like.
8. “We’re the Kids” – Parade of Lights. New formula for massive single: use the word kids, employ that specific synth noise, and crank the bass. MONEY.
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.